Date of Award

5-2014

Level of Access

Campus-Only Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department

History

Advisor

Michael Lang

Second Committee Member

Richard Blanke

Third Committee Member

Howard Segal

Abstract

Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) was a radical Austrian psychoanalyst who belonged to the second generation of psychoanalysts under the direction of Sigmund Freud. Reich’s early work in the 1920s argued that mental neuroses were caused by physical (particularly sexual) health problems. Thus, a certain level of sexual freedom should be encouraged in order to reduce such mental disorders. He attempted to reconcile this idea with Marxism by stating that socio-economic factors determined healthy sexual functioning (or “orgastic potency"). Not surprisingly, Reich was a rather controversial figure; and in the 1930s, he became, further radicalized by promoting a “sex-positive" political party in Berlin, originally in coordination with the Communist Party of Germany. In 1933, the Communist Party expelled Reich as a “sexual determinist." The following year, the International Psychoanalytic Association also removed him from their ranks for fear of his political associations. Facing “philosophical homelessness,” as well as a lack of tangible support, Reich moved to Scandinavia and began to conduct experiments in bio-electricity. These experiments led to Reich’s discovery of what he called “orgone,” an omnipresent energy that supposedly served as the foundation for life. In 1939, Reich moved to New York in order to find greater intellectual freedom. It was there, in the United States, that Reich fully established his “orgone theory.” He built orgone accumulators, which attempted to harness orgone energy in order to excite the energy field of anything, or anyone, within them. The orgone became the primary scientific concern for Reich; in combination with psychoanalytic treatment aimed at releasing physical tension, the orgone could be the salvation of mankind.

Wilhelm Reich’s orgonomic work in the United States was marked by aggrandizement, paranoia, and questionable scientific practices. Understandably, the common narrative of Reich’s life and work focuses on the outrageous. In 1939, with the discovery of the orgone, Reich’s thought entered what is often considered a uniquely American phase that became a major influence on the 1960s counterculture and various New Age movements. Most historians and biographers in the early 1970s presented this periodic version of Reich’s work, as the New Age movement, and American popular culture in general, fed on this story.

However, a return to Reich’s European origins is necessary to better understand his life and work as a unified whole. Reich’s bion experiments and studies in orgonomy represent the attempted synthesis between two competing strains of thought, broadly defined as continental European mechanism and vitalism, which is also present in his earlier psychoanalytic work. Reich’s unrelenting desire to merge these opposing ideas in his work served as a representation of one of the major contestations in early 20th century Viennese modernism between rational science and romantic idealism. His later work developed out of a European cultural milieu that continually undertook this project in various academic and cultural fields, and it mirrors the ultimate inability of the modernist project to unite the human spirit and scientific laws. Therefore, Reich’s orgone theory illuminates key trends and problems in European society and thought.

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