American Cultural Traits

By Tilden, William F. | The Journal of Psychohistory, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

American Cultural Traits

Tilden, William F., The Journal of Psychohistory

Adams gave up the attempt to begin at the beginning, and tried starting at the end - himself.

- Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams

America has been described as "a culture of contradictions,"1 and the Freudian paradigm is offered here as an attempt to resolve a series of those contradictions - individualism and conformity, abundance and scarcity, idealism and materialism, perfectionism and skepticism, the "habit of introspection" and the "longing for community"2 - and to provide some insights into the web of personality traits and cultural values associated with a particular cultural phenotype.3 The objective is to demonstrate a simple, linear correspondence between Freud's theory of anal characterology, as defined by Freud and his students and colleagues, and a wide range of American historical and cultural evidence offered by a number of historians and cultural representatives, using an interlinear pattern of juxtaposing Freudian with American cultural texts.


According to Sigmund Freud,4 anal training, which is derived from the need to regulate the time and place of defecation, presents a child with a situation in which it must choose, often for the first time in its life, whether to "postpone or renounce a direct instinctual gratification out of consideration for the environment:"5

The contents of the bowels .... are clearly treated as a part of the infant's own body and represent his first "gift": by producing them he can express his active compliance with his environment and, by withholding them, his disobedience.6

It was from the conjunction of these two intersecting forces - the cultural need and the biological urge - that Freud derived his series of three character-traits which are based on the transformation of the "libidinal cathexis which originally attached to the contents of the bowel": namely, (1) orderliness/ cleanliness, 2) parsimony (frugality), and (3) obstinacy.7

As further defined and elaborated by Freud's students and colleagues, notably Lou Andreas-Salomé, Sandor Ferenczi, Karl Abraham, Ernest Jones and Otto Fenichel,8 these three character-traits are formations which emerge in various degrees from the three choices open the child as it responds to the culturally-imposed imperative to regulate the time and place of defecation:

The trait of Orderliness/ Cleanliness, in the first instance, reflects the decision to comply and conform to the demands made by the environment. Rebellion and resistance to the cultural imperative is a second response, from which is derived the character-trait of Obstinacy. Parsimony represents a compromise-formation between the two conflicting demands, since retention allows a child to retain individual control over its own bodily contents while, at the same time, by not producing them, allows the child to express a measure of "active compliance" with the environment's need for order and cleanliness.

Although his earlier works reflect a strong bias in favor of biological (or "dispositional") forces, Freud, especially in his later writings,9 acknowledges the significance of cultural factors in shaping character and seems to imply that bowel training is the causal agent in the transformation and transmission, if not the origin, of anal characterology. If so, resistance to the cultural imperative (presumably, because it is too harshly or prematurely imposed) would appear to be doubly important. As a later student of Freud observed:

It appears that the child who has been trained in continence of urine and faeces slowly and without pressure or punishment will yield control over his eliminations without anxiety or resentment, learning to release without conflict; but a precocious or harshly coercive training that forces the child, before physiologically ready, to release to the outside demands, will set up resistance, accentuate retention as a defensive response and focus the child's behaviour upon acquisitive or compensatory outlets for the denial of possession of his own eliminations. …

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