Magazine for Sexuality and Politics

Pleasure at work – A Contradiction?

Otto Fenichel’s Functional Pleasure

Susanne Schade

If, as is the case, critical theory talks about there being nothing right in the wrong, how can it then be that people feel pleasure while working? Yes, it is indeed true: wage labour can be fun. As early as the end of the 1930s, the leftist psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel wrote about the principle of functional pleasure in his circular letters, which he sent out to fellow comrades-in-arms on the left, including Wilhelm Reich. In them, among other things, he asserts that when a person has acquired the ability to anticipate the future and "convinces himself that he can survive without fear a situation that would previously have overwhelmed him/her with such a quantity of stimuli that he/she experienced fear, he/she then experiences this with a special kind of pleasure" (Fenichel, 1938: 1021). This functional pleasure is in the service of drive satisfaction and playfully anticipates the fear he would have had in the drive action (ibid.). Fenichel draws parallels here above all with play, in which danger can be approached in an experimental manner and in small doses, which permits the anticipation of the traumatic state (Fenichel, 1938: 1021).

Functional pleasure represents a kind of triumph over external reality, in the sense of being able to control it. It is worth noting that he goes against leftist theories that understand wage labour as being an essential field of critique. How can work that serves an alien purpose also be fun? That itself is already generally considered to be a contradiction. However, for Fenichel, there is a transition from play to the reality principle, through which the ego becomes aware of reality (ibid.). In this better understanding of the environment, the ego is better able to control its drives and to measure them against reality. One could even say that this is a pure act of adaptation: a desire against fear. Perhaps this is often the only survival strategy in a world that is characterized by many contradictions and is hostile to human beings.

People derive positive benefits from wage labour in many ways: it gives them structure, enables social contacts, an opportunity for learning, an experience of meaningfulness and also functional pleasure. In this way, people can develop personally in their work and expand their skills. And perhaps it is precisely because of the desire to function that so far few people have come up with the idea of criticizing wage labour. Perhaps the pleasure of being active plays such a predominate role that a society without wage labour does not even seem worth thinking about. Perhaps the key to criticism lies in the release of drive tension and the mastering of fearful situations and the pleasure that goes along with all this.

When Paul Lafargue wrote in 1883 about the right to be lazy and attacked capitalist morality, which he considered as being "a miserable copy of Christian morality, whose ideal consists in reducing the needs of the producer to the barest minimum, stifling his joy and his passions, and condemning him to the role of a machine out of which work is mercilessly and ceaselessly extracted," then at least the purpose of work in capitalism is assumed to be worthy of criticism. But if many people have become these machines, then it would be obsolete to speak of functional pleasure. Both the image of humans being machines and the idea of workers having fun while hard at work ultimately require a closer look at what kind of adaptation has been made: because possessing a guilty conscience while having fun is a conflict that calls for resolution, just like pure functioning in the context of wage labour.


Fenichel, O. (1938, 30. Dezember). 53. Rundbrief. In Reichmayer, J. & Mühlleitner, El (Hrsg.). 119 Rundbriefe (119 Circular Letters), Vol. II. Stroemfeld Verlag.

Lafargue, P. (1883). Das Recht auf Faulheit - Widerlegung des »Rechts auf Arbeit« von 1848. (accessed 27.10.2017).

Photos: front page + header: pexels ketut_subiyanto

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