An Interview with Jennifer van der Grinten

Could you describe your work?

I have worked with SRC on several projects. Most recently I assisted with the planning and catering for the 2015 Ways of Knowing conference. I organized a panel for the 2014 WOK conference on “The Religious Meaning of the Skin,” and it was an honor to help with the preparations in 2015.

What led you to work on your topic?

I have always been interested the intersection of religion and medicine, and SRC is a great place to meet people who are working on this topic. Prior to entering the PhD program, my focus was on new religious movements in East Asia. I conducted ethnographic research, and I was primarily interested in healing narratives. Currently, my focus is on the development of Wilhelm Reich’s (1897-1957) theory of “orgastic potency,” and his attempts to discover the function of the orgasm through experimental physiology. I read Reich’s Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety as a young girl, and it holds deep meaning for me. Reich’s archives are housed at the Countway Library, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity to branch out academically.

How does your work address the interaction between science and religion?

Reich has a significant cult following, and until recently his work has primarily been received as pseudo-science. Although my dissertation does not directly address the religious aspects of Reich’s career, this is a fertile area for future study and it is always on my mind. It is also a point of constant tension, as there is still very much at stake for the pro-Reichians. They desire to see Reich validated as a “real” scientist, and this is something that my dissertation cannot do. I avoid hagiography; instead, I contextualize Reich’s work and focus on the genesis and evolution of his theory of "orgastic potency," following its trajectory into the laboratory, and exploring how the bioelectrical experiments measured up to the epistemic standards in interwar Europe.

What does the historiography on your field have to say about your topic and what do you think is the main contribution of your work to the field?

As I mentioned above, Reich is primarily understood to be a huckster. He was imprisoned and his books and his scientific apparatuses were burned by the FDA. I think we are in the midst of a sea change in the history of science, and the time is finally ripe for a reappraisal of Reich’s work. This is evident by the recent publication of James Strick’s, Wilhelm Reich: Biologist. However, to validate Reich’s work from a historical perspective is not the same as saying his discoveries have contemporary scientific merit, or, in my case, to claim he is a physiologist. Reich is an excellent case study in interwar medical philosophy, and I use his work to explore larger themes relevant to this period. My dissertation also makes an important contribution to the history of sexuality. Reich’s experiments are some of the first known attempts to measure human sexual arousal in a laboratory setting. They deserve attention for their precedence, and an analysis of Reich’s work grounded in archival sources can help illuminate how orgasm came to be understood as an object of scientific investigation amenable to experimental intervention.

What lessons does your work provide for scientists, historians, and religious scholars today?

For scientists, I think the main take-away will be an enriched understanding of how scientific understandings of the orgasm have evolved over time. For historians and religious scholars, perhaps my dissertation will serve as one example of how to write about highly controversial, cultic figures with academic integrity. For historians of science, specifically, my work contributes to our understanding of interwar European medical philosophy and dialectical-materialist science.

What else would you like others to know about your work?

During the course of writing, I have frequently bemoaned my decision to, at least temporarily, turn away from Japanese studies. It was an unwise move from a career standpoint. Curiosity can be an incredibly powerful force, and I was unable to resist its pull. It has taken years of hard work and commitment to transform passionate curiosity into something that conforms to the accepted standards of my discipline. Although painful at times, this process has given me discipline, enriching my work as a scholar and ultimately producing a dissertation that I hope will be a real contribution to the field.  

Published in the SRC Newsletter, April 11, 2016; updated May 3, 2016

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