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The Monday morning, almost ten years ago, I rose to make myself a cup of coffee. I went to the kitchen to grab a mug from the drying rack when I propitiously dropped a Chinese cleaver on my big toe. Sidelined from my job as a canvasser for a community organizing group, I spent a week off my feet reading the Situationist International Anthology. Fantastic. Here, I finally found a voice for my own frustrations with bullshit reformism, and a new vocabulary to insult people with. They appealed to me with their unitary critique, their attack on specialization, and their ruthless rhetoric against traditional leftist politics. Yet when I tried to apply these doctrines in my practical life, I was led down a path of futility.
I soon learned that the Situationists were very hip at that time, especially in San Francisco. There were lots of people incorporating their ideas into detourned progressive politics. There is not enough space (and I do not have the patience) to give a complete history of the situationists here, but I highly recommend the anthology, as well as Vague #16-17 for its Boy Scout's Guide to the Situationist International. I will also discuss other left-libertarians who wrote about Reich, as they bear on the general discussion of Reich's ideas.
Briefly, Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) was one of the shining young stars of Sigmund Freud's inner circle, until he strained the tolerance of older psychoanalysts with his insistence that orgastic potency was essential for health. He further strained the connection by pointing to the futility of individuated therapy while the larger society was a veritable factory of neurosis. As a member of the socialist and communist parties in Germany, he advocated an uncompromising political platform based on larger sexual issues including the sexual rights of young people, legalized birth control, and an end to compulsory sex and marriage laws. This, in turn, upset party functionaries, forcing Reich to reevaluate his position on Marxist politics
I write neither as a genital character nor as a revolutionary. I am limping along, blindly groping a path littered by casualties. I will not reiterate Reich's writing here for two reasons. First, he ably expresses himself in his books and any attempts to paraphrase his work inevitably collapses into parody (see Vaneigem). Second, the current trustee of his estate, Mary Boyd Higgins, has been wary in giving such permission. Although frustrating for researchers, in many ways this works in Reich's favor, as he is an excellent writer. His prose has a rhythm all his own. He was often perturbed that his translator, Theodore Wolfe, tried to smooth out the crashing climaxes, as Reich termed them. To excerpt Reich's work is to take it completely out of context. Situationists, on the other hand, never copyrighted anything, consistent with their "property is theft" attitude. This has worked in their favor as a stunning advertising coup. Quotations, excerpts and translations are appearing everywhere. Unlike Reich, situationism is easy to excerpt. Discrete sentences and phrases maybe lifted out almost anywhere, retaining that hammer-on-the-head ambience. Of all the situationists, only Vaneigem had any nair as a prose stylist.
Paul Goodman: The Anarchist
In 1944, Paul Goodman, author of Growing Up Absurd, The Empire City, and co-author of Gestalt Therapy, began to discover the work of Wilhelm Reich for his American audience in the tiny libertarian socialist and anarchist milieu. The first article that broached the separation of politics and sexuality was The Political Meaning of Some Recent Revisions of Freud. After criticizing Freud for his obvious placement of psychoanalysis at the service of civilization and culture, he turns to Erich Fromm and Karen Horney. In contrast to their Stakhanovism, Goodman declares "there is only one kind of matter that the frank and fearless gaze of a child or of a sane man can infallibly penetrate: his strong desires and daily acts." Sounds like a pro-situ pronouncement, doesn't it? Yet it predates the situs by more than a decade, directly inspired by the findings of Reich. Finally, "what a pleasure it is to turn from this philistine ethical culture to a Freudian deviation to the left! I am referring to the work of Wilhelm Reich. " Goodman discusses Reich's conception of orgastic potency, and the formation of mass psychological society. "It is the psychology of revolution . "
Immediately upon the publication of this essay in an obscure publication, the sacred cause for sublimating workers' desire into activities aimed at social forces and institutions was taken up by C. Wright Mills and Patricia J. Slater in their hilarious essay The Barricade and the Bedroom. Evidently Goodman aroused extreme emotional turbulence among Marxist theorists. "This gonad revolution" is what Mills and Slater called Reich's findings. What contempt! "The 'circle of orgastic potency' is much more likely to be from bedroom to bedroom, than from bedroom to barricade." Right, onward comrades, to the circle jerk at the barricades! "If we accept Goodman's concept of the cultivation of biological release, freedom becomes identified with the fixed irrationalities of the leisured and private life." Amen. "Freedom, as well as other values for which we should strive, must be viewed in terms of institutional structures and the opportunity for social planning." Zzzzzzzzzz.
It is against this brain-dead backdrop that the Situationists found their stage. Formed from the remnants of The Lettriste International and the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus in July of 1957, the Situationists began a propaganda campaign for precisely this kind of 'good revolution.'
Stewart Home, in his excellent book The Assault on Culture Utopian Currents From Lettrisme to Class War, connects the lineage from Futurism and Dada to Surrealism, Lettrisme, the Situationists, Mail Art, Punk Rock and Neoism. In this introduction he states: "Since 'art' as a category has been projected back onto the religious icons of the middle ages, it is not surprising that those who oppose it should situate themselves within a 'utopian current' that they, in turn, trace back to medieval heresies."
Although the Situationists had been formed in 1957 (the very year Reich died in prison) they did not gain notoriety until the onset of the student occupations movement during the mid-sixties in France. Suddenly a generation of youth milk-fed on liberal expectation was ready to blow its lunch. In places like Nanterre, Strasbourg and Paris, students began to question the entire terrain of modern living, to develop a unitary critique, as the Situationists put it, of their own subjective alienation. (Reich would call it contactlessness and place the responsibility with the individual, rather than abstract social forces).
"In France, Marxist thought had been dominated by the Communist Party, and it was not until after the liberation that there was any attempt at philosophic revision. In many ways the debate was similar to that carried out in Germany in the 20s," (Home). In fact, Wilhelm Reich had been a part of those debates in German Marxist circles during the 20s, and I believe he carried his ideas further than the Situationists did 40 years later.
The leading light of the May 22nd Movement at Nanterre University in France was Daniel Cohn-Bendit, or "Danny The Red." He was infused with the pro-situ spirit. The SI openly criticized him for his spectacular approach in becoming a media star. Perhaps they were jealous of his ability lo exploit the media more successfully than they had. How did Danny the Red grab the limelight? Here's how Tom Vague described it in the periodical Vague(#16-17):
The first major incident occurred when the Minister of Sport came to open a new swimming pool. A vandal orgy had been planned for the opening ceremony and the minister's route was sprayed with grafitti. But nothing happened until the minister was about to leave. Then, so the story goes, a redhaired youth stepped out from the crowd and shouted:
"Minister, you've drawn up a report on french youth 600 pages long but there isn't a word in it about our sexual problems. Why not?"
The minister replied, "I'm quite willing to discuss this matter with responsible people, but you are certainly not one of them. I myself prefer sport to sexual education. If you have sexual problems, I suggest you jump in the pool."
To which Danny Cohn-Bendit countered, "that's what the Hitler Youth used to say!" and immediately shot into the headlines and secret police files (if he wasn't in the latter already.)
Direct references to Reich in Situationist writings are few and far between although numerous parallels between their political philosophies exist. It's worthwhile examining the finest situationist writer, Raoul Vaneigem, and his references to Reich in the classic, The Revolution of Everyday Life.
"The search for real nature, for a natural life that has nothing to do with the lie of social ideology, is one of the most touching naivetes of a good part of the revolutionary proletariat, not to mention the anarchists and such notable figures as the young Wilhelm Reich.
Note the emphasis on the young Reich. Europeans have never understood the later work of Reich, in particular his anti-collectivism and his orgonomy, and may have only been exposed to it through secondhand sources.
"The order of things is sick: this is what our leaders would conceal at all costs. In a fine passage of The Function of the Orgasm, Wilhelm Reich relates how after long months of psychoanalytic treatment he managed to cure a young Viennese working woman. She was suffering from depression brought on by the conditions of her life and work. When she recovered Reich sent her back home. A fortnight later she killed herself. Reich's intransigent honesty condemned him, as everyone knows, to exclusion from the psychoanalytic establishment, to isolation, delusion and death in prison: the duplicity of our neodemonologists cannot be exposed with impunity."
As best as I can determine, from the American edition at least, no such passage appears in The Function of the Orgasm. As Home has pointed out, the Situationists were fond of projecting their own views onto other parties.
"There is no pleasure that does not seek its own coherence. Its interruption, its lack of satisfaction, causes a disturbance analogous to Reichian "stasis." Oppression by power keeps human beings in a state of permanent crisis. Thus the function of pleasure, as of the anxiety born of its absence, is essentially a social function. The erotic is the development of the passions as they become unitary, a game of unity and variety without which revolutionary coherence cannot exist (Boredom is always counterrevolutionary)."
Boredom may be counterrevolutionary, but it is a function of the level of psychic contact possessed by each individual. Perhaps it was my own lack of psychic contact that first drew me to the Situationists?
To examine the roots of the Situationist project, understand that it represented the tendency to bind psychoanalytic ideas with dialectical materialism. As the surrealists had brought Freudian dream analysis into a bolshevik artistic putsch, the situs had their psychogeography and their conception of alienation from the subjective standpoint of desire.
"Wilhelm Reich attributes most neurotic behavior to disturbances of the orgasm, to what he called "orgastic impotence." He maintains that anxiety is created by inability to experience a complete orgasm, by a sexual discharge which fails to liquidate all the excitation mobilized by preliminary sexual activity. The accumulated and unspent energy becomes free-floating and is converted into anxiety. Anxiety in its turn still further impedes orgastic potency.
But the problem of tensions and their liquidation does not exist solely on the level of sexuality. It characterizes all human relationships. And Reich, although he sensed that this was so,failed to emphasize strongly enough that the present social crisis is also a crisis of an orgastic kind. If it is true that "The energy source of neurosis lies in the disparity between the accumulation and discharge of sexual energy," it seems to me that such neurotic energy also derives from the accumulation and discharge of the energy set in motion by human relationships. Total enjoyment is still possible in the moment of love, but as soon as one tries to prolong this moment, to extend it into social life itself, one cannot avoid what Reich called 'stasis.' The world of dissatisfaction and non-consummation is a world of permanent crisis. What would a society without neurosis be like? An endless banquet, with pleasure as the only yardstick."
(Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, pp 196-197)
Here, Vaneigem admires Reich's theory of orgastic potency the primary biological impulse is a yearning for pleasure and health and is regulated by the capacity of an organism to discharge accumulated tension completely through orgasm. Reich disappoints Vaneigem in his failure to politicize orgastic pleasure. It is unlikely that Vaneigem had read Reich's book People in Trouble, since it was not published in English until 1953. Reich describes his participation in the "social irrationalism of Central Europe" and makes precisely the kind of analogy Vaneigem found missing, that between individual and collective intercourse. In a remarkably intense and personal account, Reich conveys his deep conviction that politics is bankrupt. He convicts right-wing mysticism alongside left-wing mechanism with the same gavel. He seems personally hurt by the left's immobilization of healthy aggression, it's hiding from life, its emotional stasis. To him, the Nazis seemed more direct.
Later, pamphlets appeared in the United States which attempted to rehabilitate Reich from a situationist standpoint. Ken Knabb, in a touching pamphlet published in 1973, titled Remarks on Contradiction and its Failure, evaluated his own participation in an American pro-situ group ("Contradiction") from the standpoint of Reich's character analysis. This was Reich's novel technique of therapy which identified the petrified role played by the neurotic, at the service of defending him or her from total contact with life. It focuses specifically on the resistance to analysis, and uses deep breathing along with the physical release of muscular holding (character armor) to restore health.
"The members of Contradiction might well have confronted their dilemma by enlisting that fundamental tactic of breaking the impasse by concentrating precisely on the resistance to analysis. This would have pointed not only to the basic collective organizational errors I have outlined in "Remarks," but also to our individual resistances, that is to say, our characters...Suffice it to say, for now, that if it is indisputable that the practice of theory is individually therapeutic, it seems to me equally true that an assault on one's own character is socially strategic, a practical contribution to the international revolutionary movement. The character of the pro-situ is objectively reinforced by the spectacle (which character, of course is most evidenced by his inability to recognize its existence, other than as a "banality," until excessive symptoms, perhaps visibly inhibiting his social practice, force his attention there). At the opposite pole, all the lucidity of an Artaud, who attacks his character in isolation, does not prevent the "external" commodity-spectacle he disdainfully brushes aside from reappearing in his internal world as the fantasy of being possessed by alien, malignant beings. Like a revolution in a small country, the person who breaks a block, a routine, or a fetish must advance aggressively to discover or incite radical allies outside, or lose what he gained and fall victim to his own internal Thermidor. The dissolution of character and the dissolution of the spectacle are two movements which imply and require each other."
Here Knabb puts his finger on the heart of the matter. He restates Reich's critique of the character rebel. He surpasses anything the Situationists ever wrote about pro-situs by this self-referential analysis. Unlike the french philosophers, he has been able to understand Reich's work.
That same year Knabb published a broadside, Jean-Pierre Voyer's Reich: How to Use. Voyer discusses the dissolution of character and its role in the dissolution of the spectacle.
"In all of the societies in which modern conditions of production prevail, the impossibility of living takes individually the form of death, of madness, or of character. With the intrepid Dr. Reich, and against his horrified recuperators and vilifiers, we postulate the pathological nature of all character traits, that is to say of all chronicity in human behavior. What is important to us is not the individual structure of our character, nor the explanation of it's formulation, but the impossibility of its application in the construction of situations. Character is therefore not simply an unhealthy excrescence which could be treated separately, but at the same time an individual remedy in a globally ill society, a remedy which enables us to bear the illness while aggravating it. We hold that people can only dissolve their character in contesting the entire society (this is in opposition to Reich insofar as he envisages character analysis from a specialized point of view); where, on the other hand, the function of character being accommodation to the state of things, its dissolution is preliminary to the global critique of society. We must destroy this vicious cycle."
In 1975 Black and Red of Detroit republished a Solidarity (UK) pamphlet by Maurice Brinton called "Authoritarian Conditioning, Sexual Repression and the Irrational in Politics." It contains a worthy recount of three of Reich's books: The Invasion of Compulsory Sex-Morality, The Sexual Revolution and The Mass Psychology of Fascism. The first of these three was a study of the relevance of the work of anthropologist Stanislaw Malinowski in uncovering the cultural-specific nature of the oedipal complex, pathology and sexual repression. The Sexual Revolution is mainly a report of Reich's visit to the Soviet Union which led toward his disillusionment with the Bolshevik revolution, having retreated from its initial removal of all moralistic marriage and sex laws. From The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Brinton draws on Reich's analysis of "the various methods whereby modern society manipulates its slaves into accepting their slavery." Although Brinton seems to have done quite a bit of research into the anthropology of Malinowski, he seems to have missed one of the main features of his work: the study of primitive economies in the light of industrial capitalism. One of the most fascinating aspects of Malinowski's work is his discussion of gift-exchange, an economy which was reciprocal, wageless, and pervaded all aspects of cultural life (unitary). All production was geared toward the free exchange of gifts on holidays with neighboring clans. Competition was based not on who could get the most, but who could give the most. This form of economy was given little serious consideration, although one presituationist journal was significantly entitled Potlatch (referring to tribal gifts).
The basic problem for Brinton is that he would have rather Reich died in 1936. From Brinton we will search in vain for any mention of the concept of red fascism, the emotional plague or orgone.
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