At one time, Erik Erikson was a pop-culture intellectual hero of American culture today, in the same vein accorded “import” brains like Herbert Marcuse, Adorno and Arendt who dabbled in selective slices of Americana in the name of humanism. He contributed new phrases to the American lexicon, buzz-words that actually meant very little such as “life cycle,” “identity crisis,” “inner space,” “psychohistory” as catchwords, signifiers, of novel ways analyze and engage in play acting dramas as a means of confronting our lives and reaching for the alleged core of identity. In his work on case histories, Erikson was able to emancipate the overlooked and nobilize the subject through an actualization process that pierced stereotypes of the demonized, profane and mythological making the whole vivid and sympathetic within what could be called the Freud drama of family dynamics in the full glory of its dysfunction as well as compelling aspects as a credible marvellous whole with the same theory showing similar patterns whether on an Indian reservation, wealthy Western suburb, or isolated European mountain village.
…To fathom the genius of a culture, it goes back to tracing the implanting of the dominant value system into each newborn member of a primitive community; a culture establishes in the young a basic social grammar that is rooted in early bodily experience. For Erikson, the Sioux child’s preverbial conditioningis seen as as an ingenious arrangement that would first secure in him a safe combination of undiminished self-confidence and trust in the availability of food supply, and then an ever ready anger in the face of interference, for both trust and aggression as both necessary for the functioning of a hunter democracy. Childbearing was partly based on the assumption that rage makes a child strong so a certain level of child abuse while the infant is strapped in his cradelboard inhibiting muscular expression was thought to provoke rage and help establish a lasting reservoir of aggression that contributed to the much described “trait” of anger and cruelty in the Sioux character.
Universally, in studying the Sioux, Erikson was touching upon he extreme masculine ideal, misogyny, at the basis of almost all cultures. From the age of six, the daily patterns of boy and girl differed radically. The boy was to become restless, brave and reckless; the girl reticent, industrious and chaste. While intrusive and sadistic tendencies were cultivated as masculine, corresponding inhibitions were invoked in the girl, as is typical of what to Erikson was likely the “primitive” society, where girls who overstepped their restrictions might be raped by boys with impunity.
The assertion is that functioning cultures, cannot afford to distort the self-image of women and to take chances with their capacity to integrate their social and personal lives, if for no other reason than that they must continue to support fully and effectively the development of well-functioning boys and girls. The women’s task of laying the foundation for the Sioux,s basic attitude toward the world as a whole, may have given female functions and modes equality in cultural and economic importance with those of men, and may, according to rikson, have prevented the vast majority of women from resentment and rebellion in the light of their restricted participation in the more spectacular male activities.
At certain cermenonies such as the Sun Dance, the women would assist the males during prescribed self-torture; an example in which homogenous cultures, here a culture with an extreme elaboration of male fortitude and female solicitude attempt to pay in the currency of prestige for whatever exploitation they have come to impose.
I suppose when the Erikson theories first appeared in these new contexts, they looked like a gale force of fresh air on a subject as sad as genocide and displacement. But, in an odd way, there is something also a bit perverse in searching for a unified field theory of psychology in this “we are all the same approach” in a kind of anonymity, even insidiously, a sort of moving the goalposts on the way to cultural academic-washing where the subjects actually end up being more dehumanized in forced effort to empathize with their fears and concerns and giving acceptance to stains of depression and barbarism as if this “other” the necessary defective human being on the pecking order is needed in a defective society that shows we are all somehow peculiarly unfit or lack the vitality of being organically alive human beings.