- Dates: 1940-1957
- Description: A box for accumulating your orgone energy
- Significant Figure: Wilhelm Reich
In the introduction to this series, I gave a set of criteria for exhibits to be included in the museum. I also cited that I would make exemptions on each of them. So, for example, we’ve had intangible inventions such as Exhibit 11: EMAIL and we’ve had huge objects that are far too big to be called a gadget such as Exhibit 4: The Bristol Brabazon. However, we have always maintained a clear connection to the right of politics in curating these devices. Today’s exhibit is a (partial) exception.
Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) rose to fame as a psychiatrist, expanding on the ideas of Sigmund Freud he was one of a multitude of brilliant minds that came out of inter-war Vienna. A stereotype of Freud’s approach to psychology was an obsession with sex but for Reich, that stereotype is less unfair. The role of sexual repression not just in individual mental health but as a broader malaise within society became a key aspect of Reich’s research and writing. Reich’s 1933 book The Mass Psychology of Fascism sought to explain the rising problem of Fascism across Europe in terms of the role of sexual repression within society. Reich saw this sexual dimension in society not as a single reductive theory of everything but as a missing piece within broader Marxist theories of political economy:
“Sex-economic sociology was born out of the attempts to harmonize the depth psychology of Freud with the economic theory of Marx. 1 Human existence is determined by instinctual and socio-economic processes. But we must refute any eclectic attempts at an arbitrary combination of “instinct” and “economy.” Sex-economic sociology dissolves that fateful contradiction which made psychoanalysis forget the social factor and made Marxism forget the animal origin of man. As I once put it, psychoanalysis is the father and sociology the mother of sex-economy. But a child is more than the sum of its parents. It is a new, independent being with a future of its own.”Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology Of Fascism (Preface to the Third Edition)
Modern psychology sees the work of Freud and his successors such as Jung or Reich as essentially pseudo-scientific. However, even the pseudo-scientific can provide insights and in the necessarily subjective self-examination of the mind, these ideas remain culturally influential and play a significant role in fiction. In George Orwell’s 1984, for example, the Party uses repression of sex as a key instrument of maintaining control and Winston Smith’s rebellion against the Party is an illicit sexual affair. Also, the obsession of the modern right with sex, sexuality and gender and the use of legal controls on these issues to control individuals’ lives is an issue ever-present in the news headlines.
For Reich, sexual advice and therapy were not just a route toward better mental health but a route toward a better and less authoritarian society. However, that idea took him down a very weird path.
Reich was not the first nor the last student of the human mind to confuse psychological experiences with a physical manifestation but he is perhaps the most colourful. In the 1920’s he developed the concept of “orgiastic potency” as an underlying trait in people whose dysfunction could lead to neurosis. As his ideas expanded, he began to see this capacity to orgasm not just as a complex feature of human physiology but as something connected to an external, natural source of energy known as orgone energy.
Reich’s orgone energy was a variation on a common idea that has run through human thinking i.e. that life (or in some cases intelligence or sentience or soul) is a distinct form of energy or force. The idea of a life-force is an old one with multiple variations, however, Reich felt that he had a basis on which he could engage with this force on a physical level.
Having fled the rising danger of Fascism in Europe, Reich established a new life in the USA in 1939 and began expounding on his idea of orgone energy as a kind of cosmic presence.
“Reich said he had seen orgone when he injected his mice with bions and in the sky at night through an “organoscope”, a special telescope. He argued that it is in the soil and air (indeed, is omnipresent), is blue or blue-grey, and that humanity had divided its knowledge of it in two: aether for the physical aspect and God for the spiritual. The colour of the sky, the northern lights, St Elmo’s Fire, and the blue of sexually excited frogs are manifestations of orgone, he wrote. He also argued that protozoa, red corpuscles, cancer cells and the chlorophyll of plants are charged with it.”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_Reich#Orgonomy
The orgone accumulator was intended to be a practical application of his theories. The accumulator was a box made of multiple layered materials that was functionally a Faraday cage. The boxes came in various sizes, initially made for conducting experiments on animals or plants but later versions (as shown above) were built to accommodate a seated person.
Inside the box, the orgone energy would be partially trapped and hence would allow the person (or animal or plant) to experience higher than normal levels of orgone energy. This would (according to Reich) lead to both mental and physical health benefits. Reich conducted experiments to support these claims and even attempted to involve Albert Einstein to validate the results.
It isn’t unfair to describe this all as pseudo-scientific quackery but in the annals of American quackery, Reich’s work and claims weren’t unusual in substance. The official reaction to them, though, was. If Reich had simply been claiming miracle cures from some vague cosmic energy, he’d probably have had a profitable career in the US. However, mixing in both orgasms and Marxism made a cocktail that would not be tolerated in post-war America.
Reich had run afoul of the FBI during the war but this was mainly due to being a German speaker with outspoken politics. Post-war, his medical claims brought him increasing attention from the Federal Trade Commission and the FDA. Reich’s establishment of the Orgonomic Infant Research Center in 1950 would also raise more substantial concerns about Reich’s attempts to treat children. Yet, it was not the allegations of abuse at this facility that led to Reich’s undoing but rather growing health regulation and the need for a politically acceptable target to use as an example.
Eventually, with his own mental health declining, Reich would find himself at odds with federal agencies seeking to limit his work. In 1956 FDA agents seized and destroyed several orgone accumulators at Reich’s home and later would burn seized promotional literature and books. The symmetry between these acts and Reich’s 1930’s claims about authoritarian suppression of sexuality is clear. Reich himself was imprisoned for contempt of court. In 1957, still in prison, Reich died of heart failure in his sleep.
Reich’s death only cemented him further into a current of popular imagination. Radical, sexual, disturbed and as a gateway to esoteric ideas, Reich would appear in strange places long after his death, most famously with a version of him being played by Donald Sutherland in the video to Kate Bush’s song Cloudbusting.
The Right-Wing connection: Yeah, yeah but why do we have an orgone accumulator in a museum of RIGHT WING gadgets? Putting Reich’s personal politics aside, the legacy of orgone theory took on a life of its own.
Firstly, the systematic suppression of Reich’s work by the Federal government became something of a counter-culture cause. Illuminatus! author Robert Anton Wilson included references to Reich in the trilogy and would later write a play William Reich in Hell that connected him with the same counter-culture anti-authoritarian themes. The ironic and anti-dogmatic aspects of Illuminatus! did not always carry through to many of its fans. On the broad spectrum of libertarian culture, the story of the Federal government suppressing Reich’s work became adopted as part of the body of evidence in right-wing conspiratorial thinking.
It is really only in recent decades that these elements of counter-culture views of science have been filtered into a growing partisan divide. However, that divide continues to intensify and the mythologising of Reich continues in two strands of anti-science belief that have become increasingly right-orientated in recent years.
The more direct of the two is in the space of free energy. Closely related to perpetual motion machines in reality, this is a field of (largely) pseudo-physics that aims to tap into cosmic fields of energy to power machinery. Connected to this is a series of conspiracy theories that contend that the US government (or more powerful world forces) are actively suppressing the “truth” about free energy. (And for a fractal example, the 2004 murder of Eugene Mallove — an advocate of both Reich’s views and cold fusion — spurred even more theories https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugene_Mallove )
More indirectly, is the use of Reich’s history as evidence that the US government (or again, shadowy world powers etc) are actively suppressing the truth about miracle cures. The heavy-handed treatment of Reich is cited as evidence that governments are actively hiding the truth about medical discoveries.
The idea that the government is out to get you, has, in the topsy-turvy 2020’s, evolved into a central idea of the very fascists that Reich had steadfastly opposed. Reich’s legacy, like his life, is weird, strange and full of contradictions.
- Gadgetyness: 8/10 – A human sized orgone accumulator is a bit on the big size for true gadgetyness but close enough
- Ideologicalness: i/10 We are using the imaginary number i (aka the square root of minus 1) here. Reich believed he was acting for the good of all humanity but Reich’s orgone legacy became a font of conspiratorialism and science denial [plus, on the good side, a great Kate Bush video]
- Actualness: 1/10 he really did make these things but they really were just fancy boxes