In his work, Erik Erikson surpassed the Freudian focus on dysfunctional behaviour to evaluate the ways that the normal self is able to function successfully, through an integration of the effects of society and culture on psychological development which he designated as the psychosocial perspective which first manifested itself on the study of American indian children of the Sioux and Yurok tribes which centered on tribal history and economic contexts; a true first hand esthetic experience compared to modern society where concept and ideology forms the basis for credibility. The difference being that our own dependence on technology is deified as being superior to the techniques that informed the culture of communal and homogeneous cultures. What was universal was and has been humankind’s capacity to rise above untenable situations and forge new identities.
In education and psychology, Erikson is best known for his education-psychology theory of the eight-stage model of the human life cycle, which seems like sophisticated pop psychology in the light of the contemporary understanding, yet he went beyond Freud’s fixation on early childhood by emphasizing adolescence and adult life stages. moving guilt, despair, shame and isolation among other ideas around the chessboard of a game called who am I? in a balance of positive factors and unresolved conflicts that makes for compelling reading. With regard to the native American tribes…
The question of why the logic of primitive ideation and behaviour so often seems to resemble the hidden logic of neurotic behaviour in our own culture is tempting to attach itself to some sort of Freudian template. The assertion of Erikson was that it was not the “savage” in his unified and communal world who resembled our neurotics, but rather modern neurotics who, in their failure to master discrepancies in their environment and in their values, become lonely caricatures of our primitive ancestors. That is, neurotic symptoms are not only partial regressions to infantile stages, they are also diffuse retrogressions to mental and emotional mechanisms belonging to humankind’s more magic and more homogeneous past.
There is a tendency to consciously romanticize or abhor primitive ways. Men and women in those early cultures had a direct, innocent and physical relation to the sources of food, their tools and weapons being extensions of the human body, their magic a projection of the logic of the body. In contrast, the expansiveness of our civilization and its social stratification and technical specialization make it almost impossible to base any personal synthesis on more than a section of society. Machines, as Erikson said, or rather technology in general, far from remaining an extension of the body, destine whole classes to become extensions of machinery, and the cold, rational arbitrariness of man-made systems, rather than the will of moody yet comprehensible gods, detemines the human “environment.”
The idea is that on a collective level, there is an attraction for the magic solution t master a technological society by becoming more like machines in the same way the Sioux identified with the buffalo and his hunting grounds, a kind of cult of the buffalo and game or the Yurok indians also studied by Erikson and their efforts at synthesis with the river and salmon. Erikson was saying that wee, too, carry ancient forms of magic adaptation into our technological present.
Ultimately, a major problem in comparing the traditional Sioux and a post-modern society is our dependence on image reproduction, cultural “noise” that appropriates experience and digests it, transforming it into a second-hand experience that weakens the emotional impact and subverts its powers of evocation; our ideas of serving memory is too often based on appearance where the real nitty-gritty is superceded by a kind of cannibalization in reproduction, a dumbing down of its transformative potential, losing what Walter Benjamin thought would be its “emancipatory” capacities.