…brought down from some ziggurat on high / by Bryce Hidysmith


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Jaynes’ explanation to the Bronze Age Collapse is more than kind of silly. But, like all contentful paranoid fantasies, it has a grain of truth to it. Take the literal statements of Jaynes: the whole of humanity possessed a schizophrenic bicameral consciousness, that one component of the mind reacted and that the other commanded, and that the commander module was narratized as a god in the culture of the era from the perspective of the reactive mind. Cultures were sufficiently homogenous that pantheons of gods were capable of manifesting with relative invariance in the minds of the nation’s citizenry. The behavior of Marduk in one man’s mind may be sufficiently similar to the Marduk of his neighbor that both of them may say—though not ‘understand’ in the modern conscious sense—that an action was commanded by Marduk, and that they may agree that such an action was commanded by the same intersubjective Marduk, which they would experience as objective insofar as they experienced anything at all.

Jaynes’ is a psychological explanation, but I am convinced that this psychological explanation is less compelling and far less likely than an equivalent sociological explanation. The mental life of the bronze age may only be conjectured. We cannot prove anything about the experiences of our neighbors at present, much less the experiences of men and women thousands of years previous to ourselves. If one throws out explanations that depend on a specific psychological experience, one is left with a description of the communicative relationships between that comprise the society. This allows one to evaluate Janyes’ conjecture on the structure of its evidence, rather than the interpretation that the evidence partially reveals a greater truth than could meet the eye, the content of which was likely fabricated by Jaynes, whether he realized he was doing it or not.

If one strips away the parts of the claim that rely on the interior state of Bronze Age persons, what is one left with? I’ll be ignoring sources other than Jaynes for simplicity, as this post is an exercise in generating a hypothesis rather than an attempt to gather evidence in support or refutation of said hypothesis. If the population of the Bronze Age experienced a dominant part of their sense of causality as coming from forces outside of their own person, then it would have been impossible to act from their own justifications. They would not see their own aesthetic discernments—a more precise way of saying “value judgements”—as legitimate. Rather, they would be acting from their interpretation of how their actions were to be interpreted by an outside observer. Values would be something that was brought down from some ziggurat on high. Provided that the authority of the value-giver is meritocratically allocated commensurate to its aesthetic discernment, this is not a problem. The population, rather than the individual, is bicameral. One part perceives, analyzes, and commands, while the other actuates the content of those commands. Such a strict caste structure is likely not efficient, but it is sufficient to produce the civilizations that we have come to see. Something relatively similar seems to be instituted in post-New Deal America through a sophisticated mass media apparatus, and that was hardly the first time that such a plan was instituted in the current Western continuity. So, how does this more conservative model of bronze age social structure collapse, lacking the psychological justification Jaynes attempts?

What if the Bronze Age Collapse happened only because the vast majority of the investment was placed into accounts that were held by imaginary agents? Jaynes speaks of Osiris as the corpse of the dead king speaking to his son, the living pharaoh. It is not much of a leap to think that the king did not take orders from the voice of his dead father, but from the fearful state of not living up to the ideal of kingship. The relationship of the actual individual to the platonic ideal of his profession might have been the causal relationship, the commanding presence in the mind of the individual. Imagine, a priesthood that does not believe in the gods that they profess to favor, but which nonetheless believes that it wants to believe in belief, and as such goes through the motions knowing that one day the collective unbelief of the priests of Marduk will come to light, for everyone knows that the deeds of the storm king are a show, a piece of stage magic. This is of course not too far from contemporary culture. Corporations and Nation-States do not have bodies. They do not act, rather they form a collective narrative that exerts influence by influencing the beliefs of individual humans with bodies. America and Apple do not act, rather individual bodies react to the idea of America or Apple and take action with hand or voice. The case of Apple Computers having more money than some nations and not using any of that stash comes to mind as an obvious parallel, but the way that professional guilds—the American Medical Association comes to mind—have an image of a respectable professional that seems oriented against adaptability and the fundamentally unpredictable nature of progress as a casualty of limiting liability also comes to mind.

A word of thanks to M. Vassar, with whom these ideas appeared in conversation.