Adventures in the Orgasmatron

This past Sunday The San Francisco Chronicle ran my review of Christopher Turner’s Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America.

Here’s a bit from the review:

Mistakes were made. This is both a universal epitaph and the realist’s philosophy of history. Error is as much the motivation as the outcome of human action – we innovate mistake to mistake, refining our theories as we trot along, usually for the better. This is certainly true with medicine, where we so willingly seem to forget that science is something people make up. You’ve got cancer? Well, if we’re seeking remedies in order of their creation, we could burn a witch, transfuse lamb’s blood into your body, or expose you to toxic chemicals. Thus oncology has progressed. If only the same could be said of all the medical arts.

Take, for instance, the orgone energy accumulator, the most notable creation of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, the fascinating, unhinged focus of Christopher Turner’s “Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America.” By any legitimate measure, Reich was a maestro of crackpot science, a schizophrenic prophet for pleasure seekers. But as Turner deftly shows through Reich’s sad life, sometimes the times are ripe for certain mistakes.

Now that I’ve got some distance on the review, I wish I’d spent more of my precious 800 words contextualizing Reich  alongside his contemporaries. As Peter D. Kramer wrote recently in Slate, “Today when sex combines with politics, the likely result is humiliation….It’s hard, perhaps, to recall that once sex was—in the ideal—radical politics conducted by other means.” Given the limitations of my word count, I elected not to dig into the Reich’s legitimate legacy. Herbert Marcuse, in particular, was indebted to Reich’s early work, and though he later disavowed much of his Reich-influenced writings, Marcuse’s critique of contemporary society remains commanding.  Turner explores Reich’s relation to Marcuse, among many other things.

From the rise and fall of psychoanalysis and fascism, to dismal periods such as McCarthyism to the rise of psychologically informed advertising,  Turner’s exhaustively researched, masterfully told book uses the Orgone box as a lens through which to view much 20th century intellectual history, particulary the left’s advocacy of utopian projects and the attedant reaction to such projects, most notably in the form of McCartyisn. As Turner writes contextualizing Reich’s intellectual scene, “After the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the Moscow trials, Reich’s updated theory of sexual repression seemed to offer the disenchanted left a convincing explanation for larger number of people having submitted to fascism and for Communism’s faulure to be a viable alternatitve to it.”

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3 Responses to Adventures in the Orgasmatron

  1. Jeff McMahon says:

    I imagine the dumpsters will be full of Orgasmatrons after people read this. But how nice to be able to blog on your own stories. You can supplement and revise yourself. Maybe that’s what Reich had in mind all along.

    • mwashburn says:

      true, true. it was the reason i started the blog. sad fact of the matter is that i tend to frame everything with “this isn’t quite what it should’ve been.” fuck and alas. anyway, ambivalent about this one for the reasons listed + some others.

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