Illustration: Luisa Roa

Illustration: Luisa Roa

Pictures Of You: Remembering Collaps

Von Guy Middleton
When we try to understand our own times, it happens in the way of telling stories. These narratives often draw on cultural memories, which provide the familiar imagery that lend plausibility to our perceptions of current events like ecological crisis and climate change.

As a perennial student of collapse, a number of headlines caught my eye in 2017: ‘6 ways climate change and disease helped topple the Roman Empire’ (Vox, 4th November 2017); ‘Did climate change kill the Mayans?’ (New York Post, 5th April 2017); and ‘Society to collapse by 2020: Scientist predicts ‘peak turmoil’ in three years’ (Daily Express, 6th January 2017). Collapse is often in the news – past collapses and potential collapse that threatens today’s global society. The collapse of ancient societies such as the Roman Empire, the Maya, or Easter Island remain puzzles debated by archaeologists, historians, and others. Yet even as these episodes remain mysterious, collapse is something many of us have visions of and opinions about – which are often ultimately founded on shared cultural memories.

    People conceive of collapse in quite different ways. For some it is a rather abstract process of simplification that happens when a society meets a challenge that it is unable to deal with – when adding another layer of complexity would yield no benefit. For others it is primarily an environmental and human disaster, often involving drought, famine, chaos and death. Some see collapse as a fairly complex process, with many variables acting on one another, with many contingencies and historically specific events. Others paint it as a rather more straightforward apocalyptic event, circumstances forced on a community, which they had little chance of resisting or surviving. The headlines we see often tend towards the apocalyptic, as does future-looking environmental literature, and many TV documentaries and movies that touch on collapse. We might conclude that apocalyptic visions of collapse chime with the public’s preconceptions. But where do these come from?
Arguably, we have, over time, accrued a set of images and principles for describing and understanding how societies disappear – collapse is part of our shared memory. Embedded in western culture are stories from both biblical and classical heritage that set up vivid impressions of what an apocalyptic collapse might look like. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God for the sinful activities of their inhabitants. Plato’s myth of Atlantis explained how the continent disappeared under the sea amidst terrible earthquakes. The point is not that these stories are in any sense historically true, but that as stories they provide a way of picturing and a way of imagining the end of a society – they are dramatic and destructive. These stories, as individual and shared memories, may be consciously or unconsciously mapped on to other examples of collapse.

    There are true stories, of course, such as the destruction of Pompeii, which has captured the imagination since its eighteenth century rediscovery, not least when it was transformed into a very popular novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (The Last Days of Pompeii, 1834) – and more recently into a Hollywood film (Pompeii, 2014). The modern western ‘discovery’ of the ruins of other past societies, the Maya, Zimbabwe, Easter Island, for example, also promoted the notion that ancient societies experience an apocalyptic disjuncture that separated primitive modern populations from their ancient ‘civilised’ forebears. Many of us will also recall vivid images of droughts and famines in Africa, the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, which killed almost a quarter of a million people and left many more homeless, and the 2011
Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which left ships stranded on top of buildings and caused the failure of the Fukushima nuclear power plant. While not causing any collapses, the latter, through news media, picture destructive forces at work, forces of nature which threaten society and civilisation.

    In one bestselling book on collapse, by ecologist Jared Diamond, there are apocalyptic visions of population crashes, often with a community spiralling into environmental disaster, violence, and even cannibalism. He likens the fate of the medieval Viking communities on Greenland to the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles,
rampaging mobs looting; Easter Island’s collapse too was marked by chaos and violence. Diamond’s vivid visions of collapse may have greater appeal than more sober discussions of collapse found in the archaeology and history literature because they fit in with our expectations of what a collapse should look like. This tendency is reinforced by the way the news media report dramatic stories with striking headlines – new discoveries that solve historical mysteries in which thousands died.


„Apocalyptic stories are used as exhortations to change our sinful behaviour —
similar to the biblical disaster stories“


Important is that Diamond and the news media tell stories. Jonathan Gottschall has called humans ‘creatures of story’. Stories and narratives are everywhere in our lives; as Michel de Certeau wrote, ‘they articulate our existences’. Not only do they enable the retelling of events, they construct our realities. Where would our sense of self be without story, a narrative of our life, to make sense of our experiences and our place in the world? The past too is constructed into histories that take on, Hayden White reasoned, ‘the authority of reality’ through the use of narrative.

    Walter Fisher has also written of the importance of stories and narratives for humans; he developed a theory he called ‘the narrative paradigm’. Fisher argues that narrative plays a key role in human decision-making. People are rational but ‘rationality is determined by the nature of persons as narrative beings—their inherent awareness of narrative probability, what constitutes a coherent story, and their constant habit of testing narrative fidelity, whether the stories they experience ring true with the stories they know to be true in their lives’. In our understanding of the world, we might prefer stories that make sense to us to a cold logical argument or an admission of ignorance in the face of lack of evidence.

    Apocalyptic collapse narratives, especially in popular culture, allow us, like ancient tragedy, to tell big stories, to picture big change and confront big issues; they have a social function beyond simple entertainment. They are also appealing because we can also use them as background to stories on a human scale, of family, friendship, love and morality. They are dramatic and vivid, and vividness has long been recognised as a key feature of successful and persuasive rhetoric.
In the realm of non-fiction, apocalyptic stories are used as exhortations to change our sinful behaviour – they take on a moralising function similar to the biblical disaster stories. Stories of disaster and human folly ‘ring true’ more than any abstract economic theory which results in an opaque process of social simplification and are more digestible and satisfying than historical narratives full of caveats and hedging. They also sell better.

    Conceptions of collapse as apocalyptic are natural, given our shared cultural memory, and simple deus ex machina explanations of past collapse, especially now involving climate change or environmental degradation, are popular because they fit our preconceptions. Most archaeologists and historians, however, tell other stories. We should all beware the attraction of these apocalyptic visions of collapse—lest we end up substituting myth for history and fail to appreciate fully the complexities of historical change and the role that ancient people played in actively transforming their worlds.


Jonathan Gottschall The Storytelling Animal, 2013.
Michel de Certeau The Practice of Everyday Life, 1984.
Hayden White The value of narrativity in the representation of reality, Critical Enquiry 7(1): 5–27 (1980).
Walter Fisher Narration as a human communication paradigm: The case of public moral argument, Communication Monographs 51(1): 1–22 (1984).

Guy D. Middleton ist Visiting Fellow an der Newcastle University in der School of History, Classics and Archaeology. Er hat verschiedene Beiträge zum Thema Untergang geschrieben, unter anderem für den Sammelband The Discourses of Environmental Collapse: Imagining the End, erschienen 2018 bei Routledge. Sein jüngstes Buch ist 2017 unter dem Titel Understanding Collapse: Ancient History and Modern Myths im Verlag Cambridge University Press erschienen.

Luisa Roa wurde in Bogotá geboren, wo sie heute lebt und arbeitet. Sie hat einen
BA in Bildender Kunst der Superior Academy of Arts in Bogotá sowie einen MFA in Public Art and New Strategies der Bauhaus Universität Weimar. Sie war an verschiedenen Projekten in Kolumbien, Bosnien, Brasilien, Deutschland, den Vereinigten Staaten, Großbritannien, Argentinien, Italien und Kuba beteiligt.