By Kenneth White
This statement and its accompanying photographic documentation are excerpts from my ongoing investigation into the matter, so to speak, of the psychoanalytic-materialism of Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957). Reich strived to merge Freudian analysis and Marxist political science. In the 1920s, this merger took the form of free health clinics for factory workers in Austria. Reich and his colleagues provided medical assistance and psychiatric services to tens of thousands of men and women. He published his theories in books such as The Function of the Orgasm (1927), The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933), and The Sexual Revolution (1936).
In the early 1940s, Reich settled in Rangeley, Maine, where he founded the research center Orgonon (now the wonderful Wilhelm Reich Museum). In 1956, Judge John Clifford of the United States District Court in Portland ordered, following the direction of the Food & Drug Administration, the incineration of all books pertaining to Reich’s orgone energy accumulator — effectively all Reich’s writings. The FDA also ordered the destruction of all accumulators. However, by the 1960s Reich’s books were widely circulating in reprint.
The following text and images set forth two methods of my research: historiography and sculpture. These modes of production are, to my mind, mutually constitutive. I built the pictured accumulator, following Reich’s original design, in the summer of 2008. Its construction was made possible by generous support from Andy Graham and Portland Color.
Toward the rear wall of the laboratory, there is an object comprised of six nondescript sides. Each side is comprised of alternating layers of common plywood, steel wool, and conventional household insulation. Six layers in all. These materials display their characteristic appearances; no foreign marks appear on their surfaces. Their manipulation is plainly limited to the ends of producing six fat planes, bound by nails pounded in a regular, economical disbursement.
The object’s interior is lined with galvanized sheet metal. This interior is accessible through a hinged door fashioned from one of its four vertical sides. Much less than a hermetic seal, the door was deliberately constructed two inches short of reaching the base layer of the object. Further, a crude open window measuring six by six inches square, the only source of illumination into the chamber, has been cut in the door.
Inside, the object is empty except for a simple stool. To enter, one is compelled to close the door upon oneself, and is thus resigned to sit on the stool, in bare darkness. The object is something like a small telephone booth, but without interface, wires, or any kind of device that might suggest some technological relation with the environment beyond its walls. And yet this object is precisely an instrument. Its form has been determined by specific intentions, intentions of a finely scientific rhetoric.
The object under consideration, dating to 1940, was named by its inventor, Wilhelm Reich, in the perfunctory, descriptive mode that was customary of the scientific aspirations he held for his inventions: the orgone energy accumulator. Orgone may be defined as static electricity, but for Reich it was an omnipresent force of cosmic proportions. Essentially, he transformed Freud’s notion of the libido into a material substance. Reich pursued a definition of sexual drive not as a metaphor, but as quantifiable matter. In a more theoretical sense, orgone is a term for an idiosyncratic belief in the revolutionary power of merging psychoanalysis and socialism. That this merger took form most intensely in sexual excitation spelled the terms of the FDA’s anxiety.
Reich believed that orgone energy, accumulated in his instrument, would instigate intense recuperative potentiality for whomever may choose to enter. Such a person increases the circulation of his or her own naturally produced bioelectrical radiation and is simultaneously immersed in a concentration of atmospheric radiation that is attracted by the materials of the accumulator. The orgone in the body of the participating subject is in dynamic exchange with that of the accumulator and their shared environment.
For Reich, his instrument was a self-sufficient system of transformation. A constant higher temperature, slower electroscopic discharge, and higher rate of electrical impulses in the accumulator proffered adequate registration of orgone’s presence. He determined that orgone is “capable of developing a motor force.”1 Thus, Reich believed that he, through the orgone energy accumulator, had summarily invalidated the Second Law of Thermodynamics.2
The accumulator originated, in a way, when Reich began his studies as a prized pupil of Sigmund Freud in interwar Vienna. However, in 1929, Reich wrote, to the great discomfort of his colleagues of both psychoanalytic and Marxist stripes, that, “Because psychoanalysis, unless it is watered down, undermines bourgeois ideology, and because, furthermore, only a socialist economy can provide a basis for the free development of intellect and sexuality alike, psychoanalysis has a future only under socialism.”3 Both groups would promptly excommunicate Reich. Later, the accumulator stood as the central grievance in the Food and Drug Administration’s injunction against Reich; the instrument would, in effect, catalyze its inventor’s death in an American prison.
Reich stipulated in his will that his documents were to remain sealed, against “anyone interested in the falsification and destruction of historical truth,” until 50 years following his death. November 3, 2007 delivered this occasion. The accumulator accumulates, so to speak, a curious life — or, rather, after-life — as an instrument and a monument rejected by both discursive and institutional regimes.
This laboratory in which our object of consideration now stands, like an agitated monolith, is itself lined with alternating layers of common plywood, steel wool, and conventional household insulation. Six layers in all. Galvanized sheet metal lines its interior space.
I have been describing one of Reich’s original accumulators, now housed, among others of its kind, in the Orgone Room at the Wilhelm Reich Museum. In short, we are in a mise-en-abyme: our part-instrument, part-monument is within a site reproducing the structure of the object itself, like the dynamic exchange between the perceiving and perceived subject, the accumulator and its expanded field. “Nothing, it would seem, could possibly give this object the right to lay claim to whatever one might mean by the category sculpture. Unless, that is, the category can be made to become almost infinitely malleable.”4
* Originally published in ALMANAC Number 1 (Stanford University Department of Art & Art History, Stanford, CA), 88-91.
1 Wilhelm Reich, Discovery of the Orgone, Volume Two: The Cancer Biopathy (New York: Orgone Institute Press, 1948), pp. 150.
2 Ibid., pp. 106.
3 Wilhelm Reich, “Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis” in Sex-Pol: Essays, 1929-1934, edited by Lee Baxandall, Introduction by Bertell Ollman (New York: Vintage, 1972) pp. 56.
4 Rosalind E. Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” (1978) from The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1985) pp. 277.