In the psychoanalytic movement there were a number of dark horses, but none are darker than Wilhelm Reich. At one time he was Freud’s favourite and headed the Vienna seminar group which dealt with therapeutic practice. By the time he died he had been imprisoned for selling sheds that promised to cure cancer, had burned his books and therapy centre, and spent a number of years travelling around the desert shooting his sex-energy through sky-trumpets to make clouds. His works have had occasional influence – his Mass Psychology of Fascism was apparently hurled at police during May ’68 and his “orgone” theory of energy was incorporated into Scientology – although he has yet to be reintroduced to academic circles. To be honest, I don’t personally have any desire to see him return. I do, however, highly recommend his book, The Function of the Orgasm.
The Reverend Cornelius Blow once said that great men do not write their own books but have books written about them. Indeed, as academics write “intellectual biographies” that explain great thinkers’ ideas by plotting their development against important moments in the subject’s life, so particularly egotistical and/or marginalised figures attempt to do the same thing for themselves. The result in a case like Reich’s is a fascinating inversion of the “great genius” narrative. All along the world was calling him crazy… and it turns out they were right. Although reading The Function of the Orgasm, you’d never know it. In fact, the act of reading the book is a great practice in practical scepticism. The thing with Reich, it turns out, is that he had a tendency to be way ahead of his time on a regular basis and in a number of things has been proved in the right. The question for the reader is where to draw the line. What is radical / possible / questionable / total bollocks? We’ll return to the bollocks momentarily…
The psychoanalysts whose names are still remembered all worked together when it came to the central theory but are today better identified by their individual “heresies” from Freud’s initial concepts of the Oedipus complex, sexuality and the unconscious. Adler dropped sexuality and replaced it with a desire for power. Jung made the unconscious a “collective” entity within cultures rather than individuals and replaced sexuality with spiritual energy. Otto Rank fixated on returns to the womb and Freud did the opposite, positing a “death drive” to account for the things “sexuality” couldn’t seem to explain. Reich, however, pretty much tows Freud’s original line throughout his dealings with the psychoanalytical movement – even after Freud himself has given it up. His research specialised on the orgasm. If neurosis was based on sexual traumas and inhibitions then unhealthy minds would be unable to achieve “orgastic satisfaction” and will adapt “repressed/repressive” character traits based on their sexual hang-ups.
Interestingly, it is Reich’s “orthodoxy” that appears to hold him back as psychoanalysis moves on. Where most analysts were starting to consider the “genital” bit of sexuality metaphorical and the “unconscious” a scientifically mappable, empirically verifiable entity, Reich believed the unconscious to be a working metaphor for the inconsistencies between people’s thought patterns and their physical sexual desires. Stop me if I’m wrong here, but on this part of the argument I think I’m taking Reich’s side. In fact, it’s almost trite these days to point out that the people’s attitudes to sex tend to get increasingly weirder the less of it they have; just look at the church.
Another place where Reich was on the right side of history was in his social concerns. Being more interested in the practical side of psychoanalysis than the theory he set up a number of clinics to help develop new types of therapy – some of which were free. As the result of doing so he found that mentally ill people living in crippling poverty or wageslavery tended to have illnesses rooted in their living conditions, as did women in oppressive marriages or from violently patriarchal families. Where the conservative Freud talked about the “reality principle” and aimed at bringing people back into line with “civilisation” as it was, Reich wanted to overhaul society by improving housing, increasing worker’s pay (ideally through socialist revolution), liberating women, and legalising homosexuality. During Hitler’s rise to power, Reich even took to pamphleteering against “fascist repression”. In a rather tragic touch of desperate naiveté, part of his plan to end the “nationwide neurosis” involved providing free contraception to all that wanted it.
In a way, it’s this kind of desperate longing to free the world from oppression that can be seen to lead to his “madness”. The book carries you through his clinical experiences into his anti-fascist experiences and out the other side having acquired a lot of social theorising on the way through that is too sympathetic to his point at the time for the reader to properly consider. However, it’s this subtle change that spell’s the doom for Reich as a thinker: he goes from having a theory, testing it and adjusting it to having a theory and then just going out and looking for evidence that proves it.
Pretty soon after this point Reich decides that nervous ticks “prove” that the body is a “bladder” of sexual energy that needs to be regularly released through orgasm. The character of a repressed person is “armour” made of past experiences that stops the bladder emptying as “proved” by the movements of particular types of amoebas. Reading some very early papers on the workings of nerves, the “orgone energy” that fills the bladder is “proved” to be electrical. (“Orgone energy” is blue by the way, and fills the cosmos – and you know what else is blue? The sky. Yeah. I know. Mind = blown.)The book also begins to fill with jargon-terms for barely explicable things and endless diagrams and lists that, when they do make sense, seem wildly arbitrary – as if someone asked you to separate animal noises according to whether they are red or blue. Some of the little asides that are thrown in are fascinating just because you begin to wonder whether there’s an element of truth to them in their pure obscurity. One of my favourites is his passing comment that Chinese people can’t breathe very deeply. Why would anyone think that? Well, Buddhism celebrates calmness which represses orgone energy and deep breathing is necessary for orgasms… this aside was casually brought in as if to cite some widely held bit of common knowledge.
But the fully developed madness isn’t what makes Reich’s book a good read. It actually gets a bit depressing, especially when he gets on to his plan to cure cancer. It’s rather the parts immediately following his expulsion from the Psychoanalytical Society due to his anti-fascist publications. Filled with a revolutionary zeal, Reich begins to make logical jumps in the interests of his Big Idea. They’re the kind of jumps that every academic has made at some point but, without his peers to check his excesses, Reich never returns to check his workings and so spirals off into fantasy. The error that stood out most for me comes as part of his work on whether the “libidinal fluid” hypothesised by Freud is at work in the genitals during sexual arousal. A laudably empirical study. However, for the interests of finding a balance on his table of results for “smooth-muscular softening” in a certain part of the vagina (I couldn’t quite work out which part he was referring to myself) he opposes it to a “smooth-muscular softening” of the testes during arousal. Reich - a human male in possession of a pair of testicles that have been on his person every day of his life – believes that the movement of the scrotum is solely related to arousal. Even the most genitally unaware male in the world can disprove this scientifically simply by taking a hot bath on a cold day. I may not be an expert on “orgone energy” or “smooth-muscular softening”, but I know bollocks and, dear sir, that is bollocks.
Nevertheless, it’s that kind of credulity testing that makes Reich’s The Function of the Orgasm a great experiment in reading. In fact, if it wasn’t for his attempt to be scientific I doubt whether the weaknesses in Reich’s argument would have been enough to keep him out of academia. One needs only to look at the return of Lacan in theorists like Zizek to see the value placed on “social psychoanalysis”. Considering some of the conservative places that psychoanalysis leads today, an alternative-timeline Wilhelm Reich that gave up seeing his work as a hard science and switched to writing social theory would at least offer a radical alternative. But maybe that’s why I could enjoy reading Reich’s book? Reich was mad and Reich is dead. Now he only matters to mad people or dead people. (And I don’t mean the mentally ill here – they’ve luckily been kept well away from psychoanalysts for a long while now). It’s now possible to read Reich knowing that his opinions have no influence and whatever you think about them doesn’t matter that much. It’s a perfect, frustration-free environment to test your critical skills so that, come the next Big Idea, you’ll be sharp enough to point out the bollocks but (perhaps more importantly nowadays) also be able to judge the merits too. With contemporary thought in the state it’s in, I foresee wading through a lot of bollocks before any solutions present themselves.
Standing on the edge of a liberal government, we find ourselves within range of a terrible danger: thought. Clegg’s political policy is that of my literature, a politened and tightened “transcendence of the fuckers”. Winning arguments by approaching them from unworkable positions, exploding dualistic debates with well-placed erroneousness, in short, all the imagination that makes literary theory both thoroughly enjoyable and generally irrelevant. In such a spirit I would approach the legalisation of drugs.
Yes, I refuse to stoop to facts. Drugs like marijuana and ecstasy are obviously less damaging than alcohol or tobacco. It’s obviously better to treat drug addicts and give them access to healthcare than it is to arrest them. All the scientists that quit government drug think-tanks are reduced to curiosity pieces by the media, and why? Because everybody who’s put any thought into it at all knows that legalisation of all narcotics, and their resulting regulation, is the safest, simplest and most economically sound option available if we really are fighting a “war on drugs”. They’ve tried social experiments of the sort in Portugal that prove it – similarly proving that proof isn’t what’s needed.
The cultural influence of drugs is perhaps where the paranoia of legislation begins. The fear of perceived madness terrifies the traditionalists away from ever taking drugs, whilst the drug experiences of others become influenced by such fears in response. Sex and drugs and rock and roll – physical, chemical releases channelled through morality and vague notions of freedom and liberty. Boiled down to its purest, the historical cultural aversion to legalisation is simply habit. The “fabric of society” that Cameron is unwisely centring his campaign on is essentially this notion of habit in extremis where a change in something like drug law, or anything else really, would pull society apart in a fury of mangled associations and confused anarchy.
There is much philosophical discussion about a possible “fabric of society”. Bion’s pioneering work on group psychology revolves around the certain intra-personal “atmosphere” that group experiences create. However, once the object and the subject become secondary, we find ourselves in the Dionysian field, the Birth of Tragedy that Nietzsche so mystically describes. Indeed, Reich’s three levels of social being and Jung’s theory of archetypes and the collective unconscious, to name some other attempts at dealing with intra-personal atmosphere, are equally mystical in tone. Perhaps this is why Deleuze’s “field of immanence”, which unites this psychological interest with transcendental philosophies from Kant to Spinoza, could never fully work itself out without the aid of academic interpreters.
Yet to stick with Deleuze, the “fabric of society” that exists outside hysterical conservative patriotism could only be described as a socio-economic rhizome. “You have messed with the fabric of the universe!” the main character of Network is told after disrupting a business deal. Indeed, I was hoping, if only out of a nihilistic drive towards interesting narratives, that Cameron would sell himself on a “new conservatism”, an Ayn Rand commodity-fetishism that was dreamed in the 80s but never actualised to the level that it has the potential to become now. “The world is a floating net of change, lines shifting parallels, crackling and bubbling waves of ideas and power that we surf across, devoid of reality…” Was it too much to ask of him?
Either way, at the bottom of all politics is a wilful neglect for the Lacanian notion of phantasy. No politician could admit their ignorance as to what “society” is – that’s why we get Cameron meeting black homosexual firemen in Scotland whose values are mysteriously similar to his own, it is why Brown feels the need to “get real” about spurring on a nuclear apocalypse, it’s why Clegg ends each speech by promising change and hope and all the rest of those meaningless terms. The general election is the panic-buying of politics: everyone knows that there’s no reason to panic, but suspects that others will panic, creating an actual need for you to panic, so you panic secure in the notion that you aren’t really panicking, just being rational about other’s irrationality. Nobody really believes what’s written in the papers, those mindless hordes that do are just your own insecurities projected onto a national scale.
But then what would I know? I certainly couldn’t stop this unfocused rant from careering out of control. I who believe in socialist state support socially with anarchistic libertarianism in law, liberal toleration for beliefs mixed with the atheistic desire to destroy all organised religion, psychogeography and the nonexistence of the Self… at heart I believe in nothing. The world is 10% science, 10% art and 90% joke. So of course I’d support legalisation of drugs, from where I’m sitting it makes perfect sense.
An apple fell on Newton’s head, now we have a theory of gravity. Edison flew a kite in a storm, now we have the light bulb. Darwin went to the Galapagos Islands and now we understand evolution. These sentences say a lot about how we view scientific progress. You’ll notice that in none of these sentences does the first clause claim to cause the second clause (through use of “therefore”, for example) yet immediately the two things are linked. The fact that the Newton-apple story was a myth made famous through Voltaire, electricity was well known long before people like Edison utilised it, and that Darwin’s books came out many years after his Galapagos trip don’t really matter; what’s important is how we automatically search for individualistic narrative to explain scientific discoveries.
But then who would want to be a scientist if they realised that the myth of the great inventor was just that, a myth? The recent film about Darwin wouldn’t have been half as interesting if it had shown him cutting up worms for twenty years with all the methodical precision of true experiment. No, the film makes him into some renegade scientist with 24 hours to save the world and, most importantly, use his super-evolutionary-theorising-powers to combat racism. It’s a lovely twist, especially for anyone that’s read The Descent of Man.
Problem is - people need reasons for things. Newton was recognised as a genius and so was his good friend Locke, but the real hero of eighteenth century development was the Royal Institute and the growing ideology of liberalism that permitted it. Yet even that reading plays along with the humanistic idea of “progress” that meets almost universal approval these days. Indeed, the idea that “more science = more good therefore history = progression” enjoys an unquestioned status nowadays similar to the existence of God in the middle ages. Ironic really, since ‘humanism’ has somehow become synonymous with atheism…
Although, as I’ve written about before (maybe last week even) people need to believe in something – especially if we take “belief” in Hume’s sense as meaning the concept of “meaning”. Humanistic progression is a handy narrative for injecting meaning into all things material. Reading this blog right now you’re probably thinking that the very blog form itself is a totally new medium (public diary) dependent upon new technologies (internet) and is thus a result of progression. But it’s not a product of progression; it’s a product of development. ‘Progression’ suggests a forward movement towards meaning and, dialectically, a phenomenology of increasing “goodness”, in the most theologically loaded way possible. ‘Development’ is self-contained and therefore references each separate ‘development’ as an individual completion of a self-imposed task. You develop a new type of sandal, you succeed and sandal design has become ‘more developed’ through diversification, sandals have not become more progressed for this would insinuate a perfect sandal.
The narratives that are drawn from materiality (the sort that call themselves ‘science’ and by doing so give it a bad name) extend even to the most subjective of enigmas – the mind. Of course, it’s easy to dismiss the weekly Telegraph article that tells all the middle-class parents how their children are superior to the poor kids ‘genetically’ and how greed is good according to ‘evolution’, but it goes even further than that. The IQ test, for example, is the equivalent of judging someone’s overall athletic ability by measuring every aspect of how they play table tennis, and then inferring that if they aren’t very good at table tennis then they should go work at McDonalds like the rest of the wrist-thickies. I’ve never taken an IQ test and never will… the project defeats itself. The greatest irony being that Einstein, someone who all high-IQ kids have to worship as a product of the individual worship I mentioned previously, was yes, indeed, rather poor at academia early in life.
Basically, at heart, the entire premise is designed to return privilege into the social hierarchy in an age where the traditional aristocratic bollocks has gone from tragedy to farce. Browsing the television the other night I found a programme about a “boy genius” with a billion-point IQ who had read War and Peace at the age of ten. The genius deigned to read us some of a novel he himself was working on… obviously I was on tenterhooks to find out what this superior being had to offer to a mere mortal like me. So he read it, and guess what, yes, it was shit. The kid couldn’t write for toffee and the way he spoke showed he was obviously thick too. But then he was ten and that’s how ten-year-olds are supposed to be. He had clearly only read War and Peace because it sounded like something that a ‘smart’ person would do and his parents had been told he was ‘smart’. Interestingly though, it did almost prove a theory that William Godwin advanced in his revolutionary Eighteenth-Century tract An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice when he was talking of aristocratic privilege – he said, if I see in a child the ability to become an epic poet, do I teach him how to write or do I award him all the prizes he may one day attain and then await the masterpiece? Indeed, if a child is told that they are a genius will they be likely to continue as they did before they knew or, more likely, will they become a mix of pompous arrogance and overwhelmed terror at their new found responsibility.
In conclusion then, life is meaningless and if you are ever under any impression at all that you are special then not only are you certainly not, but you’re also a dick. Of course, if it turned out I actually had a high IQ then I’d be trapped inside my own theorising and this would have been a hopeless attempt at educating the brainless cattle that make up mankind. Within weeks I’d no doubt be part of a Plato-esque meritocracy in which the high IQers write endless awful poetry whilst the low-IQers slave away in the acid mines until they grow plump enough to be processed into soylent green… Good thing I’m thick then.
If we follow the logic that asexuality is the ability to reproduce with yourself then atheists are indeed aptly named, for the majority that I have met share the same belief that they themselves are Gods. The desire that atheists have to be taken seriously reaches levels of hysteria that surpass even political or academic debate (possibly because all these debates are humanity’s attempt to shout itself into existence). I mean, I don’t believe in sport, I think its just a lot of people running around whilst other people invest both their money and their vain hopes in the movements of round objects through space… but I don’t think anyone is stupid for believing in it. On the contrary, I’m often envious of their capacity for faith.
I think that where the misunderstanding lies in the big Godgate scandal boils down to a lack of agnostic theologising. When Jung looks at religion and spiritualism as a process of the human psyche he loses none of the sublimity of religious debate, possibly as he was a Christian, whereas science goes the other way with its recent hunt for the God gene. Yet neither of these things will change the debate in any significant way. Atheists will see a God gene as proof that a God is a result of evolutionary needs (using the word “meme” over and over as if it’s some great achievement rather than gross oversimplification) whereas Christians will see it as proof that God built us to worship Him. Like all materialist/behaviourist attempts to outflank philosophy/psychology it follows the same redundant lines as Descartes’ belief that the soul was attached to the body via the pineal gland.
In short, God exists as an idea. The interesting question from this perspective is what this idea is. Surveys (therefore questionable) have recently shown that half of Americans believe in the actual Devil with the big red horns and the actual God with the beard, as seen in Hollywood films after the invention of colour sparked a mass of “epics”. It goes without saying that this couldn’t possibly have been the God and Satan of Paradise Lost, for example. Perhaps Freud’s none-too-credible Moses and Monotheism would help to describe this monotheist trend in a Daddy God as the ruthless familial lawmaker. The extent to which this idea has now expanded is why we see people referring to God as a She, thus pointing out that God as a He would make just as little sense.
Monotheism, in the Christian-Jewish-Muslim variety, comes with a whole set of presuppositions that aren’t at first obvious to those living in monotheist cultures from birth. The ancient’s Gods had little to do with morality, authority, infinity or even caring about humans at all. That God = infinity and God = existence of Heaven and therefore must be worshipped is not what it has always been assumed to be: an innate idea. As Bart Simpson asks, “Could God microwave a burrito so hot that God Himself couldn’t eat it?” he is essentially saying the same thing as Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason, that God cannot make 1+1=1; God, if it is a being, must be limited by a priori logic just as we are. Of course, this problem would never arise with Jupiter or Mars.
The relationship that the ancients had with their deities is an interesting one when considering the nature of the divine. The role of Aphrodite was initially that of a self-created deity formed by a drop of sperm into the sea after Chronos had his balls cut off (or cock depending on where you are in Greece) and as such she was a chaste mother figure reminiscent of the Catholic’s Holy Mary. Eventually she became the goddess of insane love, Venus, possibly thanks to the increased heterosexuality of the Romans. Yet finally, she became the goddess of motherhood once again, and forsaken as “beastly” in favour of Artemis, the virgin huntress. The logic here, following Petronius, seems to be that sex can only be beautiful, and therefore enjoyable, once separated from the animalistic act of reproduction. Sexual attitudes and the nature of Gods are thus clearly linked, as are other attitudes if other examples are looked into.
Yet, rather than follow of quasi-Reichian mode of viewing Gods as mechanisms of repression, I always prefer to return to Jung. His “archetypes and the collective unconscious” form a clear outline of the operations of libido/psyche and its effect on theology. The stereotypical atheist who believes in the pseudo-sciences of chiropractics or nutritionists is a clear, if comical, representation of how the “drive to faith” exerts itself. This would perhaps explain the atheist’s hysteria I mentioned earlier…
Following this Jungian notion of “psychic energy”, I’ve recently been pondering the rise of alchemy and astrology in the dark/middle ages. Perhaps it would be fair to see in it the development of polytheistic tendencies in a newly monotheised Europe? The special resonance such practices had in the pagan Germanic areas and polytheistic Roman empire compared to the monotheistically two–thousand-year-ahead middle east would demonstrate such an overflowing of “psyche” from the trinity-model. That alchemy is now seen as a forerunner to modern sciences like chemistry would point to the continuing homogenification of psyche into the monotheist model and the emotive connotations now connected to “scientific fact” (watch QI for example) may thus result from this “overflow of psyche”. Psyche is then synonymous with “meaning”; meaning as the emotive trigger of certainty that we all experience when 1+1=2 but no longer necessarily when we talk about the existence of a God.
Like all of these blogs, I undertake it without hope of being in any way correct. It is in the nature of theories to exist always as theory, never as fact, and that is why we’re so much more willing to believe them. I believe the spirit of knowledge should always be towards entertainment, for when the day comes that gravity stops working and no-one has any clue as to why then at the very least, all previous theorising would have been worth doing for itself. In fact, do yourself a favour and worship a God that no-one has believed in for a couple of millennia, I’m sure They’ll appreciate it, and if Grace does exist I’m sure they’ll be far more ready to help you out than Jesus. That guy must be swamped.
I find myself reading some very odd things on occasion. I’m afraid this week’s blog is a bit late as I was finalising a proposal for PhD funding; here’s hoping that one day these odd things I read will lead to some form of monetary reward. Nevertheless, it’s in the spirit of oddity that I endeavour to write this week on a favourite of mine, Spinoza, and how he suddenly makes a lot more sense thanks to quantum physics.
There’s a great saying (I forget now who I steal it from) that “it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a scientist to walk through a door”. The idea behind it being that, on a quantum level, all existence is in such a state of flux that it simply cannot be understood in the way that we understand the world around us. An example that always baffled me in A Brief History of Time was a shape that needed to rotate 720 degrees to appear the shape as before it was rotated; at 360 degrees it only have rotated half way around. The fact that up to 90% of the universe is unaccounted for is not really surprising considering how matter seemingly becomes non-existent at quantum level.
Now, Spinoza believed that God was in fact the essence, or ‘substance’, of everything in existence and thus everyone is a part of an infinite God. It’s an interesting theory, and one without which we wouldn’t have had Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. In fact, I’d say that this theory is at the heart of the majority of the ‘spiritual’ beliefs existing amongst the post-Christian, quasi-Buddhist vegetarian types in their ill-defined deism. Yet, rather than concentrate as most Spinozans do on this emotive-intuitive spiritualism that smells to me of the Lacanian symptom, I believe the rationalist method of Spinoza should be read more along this same quantum level.
Leibniz’s Monadology comes close to Spinoza, essentially positing atom-like quantum essences, or ‘monads’, as pieces of God acting within a “pre-established harmony” in perfect “parallelism” controlled by God. Although Leibniz takes this into epistemology, the theory is useful for Spinoza as it can be read as a demonstration of how ‘God’ is, in essence, the laws of science. Science being an empirical system explaining existence, it accounts for the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of the universe, but never the ‘why’. But if nature’s being, constituted in scientific laws, was the essence of God then the continuation of nature’s being would be explained, if only by it being God’s whim (if whims may be attributed to the entire universe).
That Spinoza saw this premise as sound foundation for his Ethics goes to show the link between such an ontology and theology. If God is nature then the ‘best’ life would be Plato’s eudemonia (good life) that would leave truth and beauty as “all you need to know”; dismissing any suggestions of external ‘moral systems’, ‘higher causes’ and the elusive dreams of utopia. Indeed, if we take string theory seriously and life is nothing but a series of vibrations constituting an abomination in the eyes of eternity then this train of thought leads right up to philosophers like Deleuze. Being as a Virtual state from which the Actuality of reality is derived, the present existing only as a past within the future, identity as an ongoing “becoming” never to become: all equally good reasons for a Platonic/Renaissance-style concept of self-creating.
Or is it? Well, not really if you consider Plato’s Republic. I’d rather not live in a world of women-farms, thankyou very much. Nevertheless, I feel like this sort of quantum-physics-meets-substancism approach is an interesting way of viewing the universe. How ontology effects epistemology I’ll hopefully be able to write about next week.