To describe Spiral Jetty (1970) as a well-trodden example of twentieth-century art is something of an understatement. Nevertheless the conceptual, historical, material and social forces that unfolded during the production of this canonical work still hold the possibility of saying something new. This article foregrounds the significance of Smithson’s fascination with the pharaonic ruins of ancient Egypt and Sigmund Freud’s thesis of the death drive (1920). They were fundamental to the formulation of the remote monuments and thus Smithson’s articulation of the self-destructive ‘whirlpool’ of American politics in the 1960s and early 1970s. This essay draws, however, on postcolonial scholarship in the field of Egyptology and Smithson’s interest in the ‘dialectical situation’ of his work to foreground the physical emergence of Spiral Jetty in and of the social. As such, Spiral Jetty marks the point at which Freud’s thought and Smithson’s practice part company and facilitates a critique of the asocial vision of humanity that underpins Freudian psychoanalysis.