Clay Shirky turned me on to “The Collapse of Complex Societies” by Joseph Tainter. I’ve been reading it for a number of weeks, whenever I feel in the mood to mentally tackle the subject matter.
In a nutshell, the book’s thesis is basically this: In order to solve problems, societies must add complexity. Complexity is a valid method for solving problems, but increasing complexity comes with increasing energy needs.
Once a society is no longer able to sustain the energy costs of its level of complexity (i.e. when it reaches the unsustainable end of an unsustainable model) the society collapses. Tainter provides many examples of this model in previous societies including the Roman Empire. Specifically, he claims Rome collapsed because the level of energy and capital needed to maintain the empire was solved by the continual conquering of external societies. Once there was nothing close to conquer to acquire easy resources, the society became unsustainable and collapsed.
The idea the book presents fascinates me for several reasons, because the idea seems to easily extend itself into all complexities that could aptly named societies: personalities, gadgets, markets, businesses, and even our own current struggle with oil and energy in America. But the aspect that fascinates me most, as a writer, is narrative.
In this post I’d like to talk about the narrative as a society and see if it’s possible to apply Tainter’s ideas to building a functional narrative. I’d like to examine the idea of writerly resources, and also see if there are any lessons we can glean.
Why You Should Bother Reading This
But first, I’d like to get the “why” out of the way. (Feel free to skip to the next heading if the overzealous “why” doesn’t interest you.) Why apply Tainter’s ideas to an aspect of human creation that he did not intend? I absolutely loathe the tendency in literary theory to apply, with seeming random chance, the ideas of one thinker to a system of ideas for which those ideas were not intended.
There are so many dreadful examples of this type of thing in literary theory that I can’t even begin to address them all, but, in case you don’t know what I mean, the most egregious have titles like “A Marxist Application of Capital in Examination of Dr. Suess’ The Snetches” and “Horton Hears a Who: An Neo-ecological Critique in Seventeen Parts” and “The Lorax Versus Gwendolyn Brooks: A Jungian Microbattle” and so on. Obviously, these are all fictitious examples, but you surely understand the concept.
The problem with these types of analyses is twofold: one – these types of articles are based on the understood premise that one must publish to gain and retain university tenure and one of the easiest ways to do this is by applying whatever thinker’s ideas happen to be in vogue at the moment to whatever fiction or nonfiction also happens to be in vogue at the moment, with the understanding that the combination of the two must not have been broached before. Of course, since the spread of the vogue is tumultuous, one is never short of topics. Whether this is a valid juxtaposition (aside from its use to build a career out of gibberish) is never considered.
Two, as an extension of one: these types of articles do nothing to extend human understanding of epistemology, literature, or anything else useful – they only do what they are intended to do, which it is to create a vortex of verbose verbiage so devastatingly complex so as to shame university colleagues to admit they had neither the time, interest, or capacity to delve into its dark, demonic depths to attempt to understand it, and will be happy thus far, to extend tenure if only, please, would the Professor kindly leave the room and never speak of the broken artifice of the system again. Or, at the very least, if it must be spoken of, maintain that the system is both a healthy and valid method for determining suitability for a teaching position at a place of higher learning and the apt self-aggrandizing pat on the backside in front of lesser-published colleagues.
So, why, then, knowing all that, must I persist in this seemingly random application of Tainter’s ideas to narrative structure if I’m not pursuing tenure and know that this post will be overlooked by 99.7% of the reader’s of this site because it also seems a dark, demonic vortex of verbose verbiage? To that I answer, with a bipartite bellow: “Screw you, you dissenting curmudgeons!” and “Well, I’m interested – please feel free to regard this as a type of mental masturbation in the worst possible way.”
But in all seriousness, I’m writing this because I believe there is actual gold to be mined here. There are lessons to learn and time to be stolen from writing fiction. And I am no one if I am not a writer who enjoys analysis, lesson learning, patronizing talk, and procrastination. So onward and upwards!
Narrative as a Society