Briefly on Medusa and why societies collapse

15.45, Wednesday 27 Jan 2021

I find Freud’s insistence on individual agency fascinating and refreshing. See: Medusa turning men to stone.

First, Freud’s interpretation of Medusa’s appearance. The hair upon Medusa’s head is frequently represented in works of art in the form of snakes and this triggers a “castration complex” as the head with the snakes resembles the spectator’s mother’s genitals, with its terrifying lack of penis.

This is from the very short essay Medusa’s Head (volume XVIII of the Standard Edition complete works).

And then, putting aside your feelings about this setup, look at where Freud takes it:

The sight of Medusa’s head makes the spectator stiff with terror, turns him to stone. … For becoming stiff means an erection. Thus in the original situation it offers consolation to the spectator: he is still in possession of a penis, and the stiffening reassures him of the fact.

So Medusa does not turn men to stone.

Instead, the men choose to turn to stone, as comfort from their own terror.

It’s a flip of where cause is located.

(I say “men” in particular because Freud is consciously or unconsciously specific on that point, and I’m not deft enough to be able to unravel it.)

Strangely I’m reminded of The Collapse of Complex Societies (1990) by Joseph Tainter (previously read in 2005).

Tainter’s argument is that, eventually, the cost of increasing complexity hits declining marginal returns. For every dollar you put into improving society, it only makes you 50 cents better off. At which point it is not worth the society, as a problem-solving entity, further investing in ever-more-complex sociopolitical systems. Here’s a good summary of the book.

In particular, the elites might continue to do better, but society at large does not.

And therefore:

From the Summary and Implications: under a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response.

Put another way:

What may be a catastrophe to administrators (and later observers) need not be to the bulk of the population … It may only be among those members of a society who have neither the opportunity nor the ability to produce primary food resources that the collapse of administrative complexities is a clear disaster. … Collapse then is not intrinsically a collapse. It is a rational, economizing process that may well benefit much of the population.

That’s the same causal flip that Freud does. Collapse isn’t something that happens to society; it’s something society chooses to do.

It is always worth asking where cause is located. What appears like an accident or an imposition or a forceful act may have a more significant internal component than previously supposed.

Or it may not.


Here are the societies discussed in the introduction to Collapse. A litany:

  • The Western Chou Empire
  • The Harappan Civilization
  • Mesopotamia
  • The Egyptian Old Kingdom
  • The Hittite Empire
  • Minoan Civilization
  • Mycenaean Civilization
  • The Western Roman Empire
  • The Olmec
  • The Lowland Classic Maya
  • The Mesoamerican Highlands
  • Casas Grandes
  • The Chacoans
  • The Hohokam
  • The Eastern Woodlands
  • The Huari and Tiahuanao Empires
  • The Kachin
  • The Ik

Reading this list gives me the heebie jeebies.

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