The Opportunistic Apocalypse (Savage Minds)

by  on December 14th, 2012

The third in a guest series about the “Mayan Apocalypse” predicted for Dec. 21, 2012.  The first two posts are here and here.

There are opportunities in the apocalypse.  The end of the world has been commodified.  A few are seriously investing in bunkers, boats, and survival supplies. Tourism is up, not only to Mayan archaeological sites, but also to places like Bugarach, France and Mt. Rtanj, Serbia.  But even those of us on a budget can afford at least a book, a T-shirt or a handbag.

There are opportunities here for academics, too. Many scholars have been quoted in the press lately saying that nothing will happen on Dec 21 , in addition to those who have written comprehensive books and articles discrediting the impending doom. Obviously publishing helps individual careers, and that does not detract from our collective responsibility to debunk ideas that might lead people to physical or financial harm.  But neither can we divorce our work from its larger social implications.

It is telling that the main scholarly players in debunking the Mayan Apocalypse in the U.S. are NASA (which is facing budget cuts) and anthropologists.  Both groups feel the need to prove they are relevant because our collective jobs depend on it. I don’t need to go into great detail with this crowd about academia’s current situation. Academia has gone from being a well-respected, stable job to one where most classes are taught by underpaid, uninsured part-time adjuncts, and many Ph.D.s never find work in academia at all. Tuition fees for undergraduates have skyrocketed while full-time faculty salaries have stagnated.

Among the public (too often talked about as being in “the real world,” as if academics were somehow immune to taxes or swine flu), there seems to be a general distrust of intellectuals. That, combined with the current economic situation, has translated into a loss of research funding, such as cuts to the Fulbright program and NSF. Some public officials specifically state that science and engineering are worth funding, but anthropology is not.  To add insult to injury, the University of California wants to move away from that whole “reading” thing and rebrand itself as a web startup.

Articles, books with general readership, being quoted in the newspaper, and yes, blogging are all concrete ways to show funding agencies and review committees that what we do matters. The way to get exposure among those general audiences is to engage with what interests them — like the end of the world.  Dec. 21, 2012 has become an internet meme. Many online references to it are debunkings or tongue-in-cheek. Newspaper articles on unrelated topics make passing references in jest, stores offer just-in-case-it’s-real sales, people are planning parties.  There seems to be more written to discredit the apocalypse, or make fun on it, than to prepare for it.

We need to remember that this non-believer attention has a purpose, and that purpose is not just (or even primarily) about convincing believers that nothing is going to happen. Rather, it serves to demonstrate something about non-believers themselves.  “We” are sensible and logical, while “they” are superstitious and credulous. “We” value science and data, while “they” turn to astrology, misreadings of ancient texts, and esoteric spirituality.   ”We” remember the non-apocalypses of the past, while “they” have forgotten.

I would argue that discrediting the Mayan Apocalypse is part of an ongoing process of creating western modernity (cue Latour). That modernity requires an “other,” and here that “other” is defined in this case primarily by religious/spiritual belief in the Mayan apocalypse.  The more “other” these Apocalypse believers are, the more clearly they reflect the modernity of non-believers.  (Of course, there are also the “others” of the Maya themselves, and I’ll address that issue in my next post.)

This returns us to the difference I drew in my first post between “Transitional Apocalyptic Expectations” (TAE) and “Catastrophic Apocalyptic Expectations” (CAE).  I suspect the majority of believers are expecting something like a TAE-type event, but media attention focuses on discrediting CAE beliefs, such as a rogue planet hitting the Earth or massive floods. These would be dire catastrophes, but they will also be far easier to disprove. We will all notice if a planet does or does not hit the Earth next week, but many of us — myself included — will miss a transformation in human consciousness among the enlightened.

By providing the (very real) scientific data to discredit the apocalypse, scholars are incorporated into this project of modernity.  Much of the scholarly work on this phenomenon is fascinating and subtle, but the press picks up on two main themes.  One is scientific proof that the apocalypse will not happen, such as astronomical data that Earth is not on a collision course with another planet, Mayan epigraphy that shows the Long Count does not really end, and ethnography that suggests most Maya themselves are not worried about any of this.  The other scholarly theme the press circulates is the long history of apocalyptic beliefs in the west.  In the logic of the metanarrative of western progress, this connects contemporary Apocalypse believers to the past, nonmodernity and “otherness.”

I now find myself in an uncomfortable position, although it is an intellectually interesting corner to be backed into. I agree with my colleagues that the world will not end, that Mayan ideas have been misappropriated, and that we have a responsibility to address public concerns.  At the same time, I can’t help but feel we are being drawn, either reluctantly or willingly, into a larger project than extends far beyond next week.

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2012, the movie we love to hate

by  on December 11th, 2012

The second in a guest series about the “Mayan Apocalypse” predicted for Dec. 21, 2012.  The first post is here.

Last summer, I traveled to Philadelphia to visit the Penn Museum exhibit “Maya: the Lords of Time.” It was, as one might expect given the museum collection and the scholars involved, fantastic.  I want to comment on just the beginning of the exhibit, however. On entering, one is immediately greeted by a wall crowded with TV screens, all showing different clips of predicted disasters and people talking fearfully about the end of the world. The destruction, paranoia, and cacophony create a ambiance of chaos and uncertainty. Turning the corner, these images are replaced by widely spaced Mayan artifacts and stela. The effect is striking.  One moves from media-induced insanity to serenity, from endless disturbing jump-cuts to the well-lit, quiet contemplation of beautiful art.

Among these images were scenes from Director Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster film 2012 (2009). This over-the-top disaster film is well used in that context.  Still, it is interesting how often 2012 is mentioned by academics and other debunkers — almost as often as they mention serious alternative thinkers about the Mayan calendar, such as Jose Arguelles (although the film receives less in-depth coverage than he does).

I find this interesting because 2012 is clearly not trying to convince us to stockpile canned goods or build boats to prepare for the end of the Maya Long Count, any more than Emmerich’s previous films were meant to prepare us for alien invasion (Independence Day, 1996) or the effects of global climate change (The Day After Tomorrow, 2004).  Like Emmerich’s previous films,2012 is a chance to watch the urban industrialized world burn (in that way, it has much in common with the currently popular zombie film genre). If you want to see John Cusack survive increasingly implausible crumbling urban landscapes, this film is for you.

The Maya, however, are barely mentioned in 2012. There are no Mayan characters, no one travels to Mesoamerica, there is no mention of the Long Count.  Emmerich’s goal for 2012 was, in his own words (here and here), “a modern retelling of Noah’s Ark.” In fact, he claims that the movie originally had nothing to do with the 2012 phenomenon at all.  Instead, he was convinced – reluctantly – to include the concept because of public interest in the Maya calendar.

This explains why the Maya only receive two passing mentions in 2012 — one is a brief comment that even “they” had been able to predict the end of the world, the other a short news report on a cult suicide in Tikal. The marketing aspect of the film emphasized these Maya themes (all of the film footage about the Maya is in the trailer, the movie website starts with a rotating image of the Maya calendar, and there are related extras on the DVD), but the movie itself had basically nothing to do with the Maya, the Mayan Long Count, or Dec 21.

Nevertheless, this film’s impact on public interest in Dec 21 is measurable.  Google Trends, which gives data on the number of times particular search terms are used, gives us a sense of the impact of this $200,000,000  film. I looked at a number of related terms, but have picked the ones that show thegeneral pattern: There is a spike of interest in 2012 apocalyptic ideas when the 2012 marketing campaign starts (November 2008), a huge spike when the film is released (November 2009), and a higher baseline of interest from then until now. Since January, interest in the Mayan calendar/apocalypse has been steadily climbing (and in fact, is higher every time I check this link; it automatically updates). In other words, the 2012 movie both responded to, and reinforced, public interest in the 2012 phenomenon.

Here I return to Michael D. Gordin’s The Pseudoscience Wars (2012).  This delightful book deals with the scientific response to Velikovsky, who believed that the miracles of the Old Testament and other ancient myths documented the emergence of a comet from Jupiter, its traumatic interactions with Earth, and its eventual settling into the role of the planet Venus. (The final chapter also discusses the 2012 situation.)  Gordin’s main focus is understanding why Velikovsky — unlike others labeled “crackpots” before him — stirred the public ire of astronomers and physicists. Academics’ real concern was not Velikovsky’s ideas per se, but how much attention he received by being published by MacMillan — a major publisher of science textbooks — which implied the book had scientific legitimacy. Velikovsky’s “Worlds in Collision” was a major bestseller when it was released in 1950, and academics felt the ideas had to be addressed so that the public would not be misled.

With the Mayan Apocalypse, no major academic publisher is lending legitimacy to these theories.   Books about expected events of 2012 (mainly TAE ideas) are published by specialty presses that focus on the spiritual counterculture, such as Evolver EditionsInner Traditions/Bear & CompanyShambhala, and John Hunt Publishing.  Instead, film media has become the battleground for public attention (perhaps because reading is declining?). The immense amount of money put into movies, documentaries, and TV shows about the Mayan Apocalypse is creating public interest today, and in some ways this parallels what Macmillan did for Velikovsky in the 1950s.

One example of this is the viral marketing campaign for 2012 conducted in November 2008.   Columbia pictures created webpages that were not clearly marked as advertising (these no longer appear to be available), promoting the idea that scientists really did know the world would end and were preparing.  This type of advertising was not unique to this film, but in this case it reinforced already existing fears that the end really was nigh.  NASA began responding to public fears about 2012 as a result of this marketing campaign, and many of the academics interested in addressing these concerns also published after this time.

Academics are caught in something of a bind here.  Do we respond to public fears, in the hopes of debunking them, but no doubt also increasing the public interest in the very ideas we wish to discredit?  Should we respond in the hopes of selling a few more books or receiving a few more citations, thus generating interest in the rest of what our discipline does?  As anthropologists we are not immune to the desires of public interest, certainly (obviously I’m not — here I am, blogging away), nor should we be.  Perhaps something good can come of the non-end-of-the-world.  I’ll turn to this question next time.

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The End is Nigh. Start blogging.

by  on December 4th, 2012

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Clare A. Sammells.

My thanks to the editors of Savage Minds for allowing me to guest blog this month. Hopefully I will not be among the last of Savage Mind’s guests, given that the End of the World is nigh.

You hadn’t heard? On or around Dec 21, 2012, the Maya Long Count will mark the end of a 5125 year cycle. Will this be a mere a calendrical turn, no more inherently eventful that the transition from Dec 31, 2012 to Jan 1, 2013? Will this be a moment of astronomical alignments, fiery conflagrations, and social upheavals? Or will there be a shift in human consciousness, an opportunity for the prepared to improve their lives and achieve enlightenment?

I am going to bet with the house: I do not think the world is going to end in a few weeks.  That way, either the world doesn’t end — another victory for predictive anthropology! — or the world does end, and nothing I write here will matter much anyway. (More seriously, I don’t think our world is destined to end with a bang).

I am not a Mayanist, an archaeologist, or an astronomer. I won’t be discussing conflicting interpretations of Maya long count dates, astronomical observations, or Classical-era Maya stela inscriptions. Books by David Stuart,Anthony Aveni, and Matthew Restall and Amara Solari all provide detailed arguments using those data, and analyze the current phenomenon in light of the long history of western fascinations with End Times.  Articles by John HoopesKevin Whitesides, and Robert Sitler, among others, address “New Age” interpretations of the Maya.  Many ethnographers have considered how Maya peoples understand their complex interactions with “New Age” spiritualists and tourists, among them Judith MaxwellQuetzil Casteneda and Walter Little.

My own interest lies in how indigenous timekeeping is interpreted in the Andes. I conducted ethnographic research focusing on tourism in Tiwanaku, Bolivia — a pre-Incan archaeological site near Lake Titicaca, and a contemporary Aymara village.  One of the first things I noticed was that every tour guide tells visitors about multiple calendars inscribed in the stones of the site, most famously in the Puerta del Sol.  These calendrical interpretations are meaningful to Bolivian visitors, foreign tourists, and local Tiwanakenos for understanding the histories, ethnicities, and politics centered in this place. I took a stab at addressing some of these ideas in a recent article, where I considered how interconnected archaeological theories and political projects of the 1930s fed into what is today accepted conventional knowledge about Tiwanakota calendars.  I’m now putting together a book manuscript about temporal intersections in Tiwanaku.  The parallels between that situation and the Maya 2012 Phenomena led me to consider the prophecies, expectations, YouTube videos, blog posts, scholarly debunkings, and tourist travels motivated by the end of the Maya Long Count.

survey by the National Geographic Channel suggested that 27% of those in the United States think the Maya may have predicted a catastrophe for December 21.  But it is important to note that there is no agreement, even among believers, about what will happen. I tend to think of these beliefs as collecting into two broad (and often overlapping) camps.

Many believe that “something” will happen on (or around) Dec 21, 2012, but do not anticipate world destruction. I think of these beliefs as “Transitional Apocalyptic Expectations” (TAE). Writers such as José Argüelles and John Major Jenkins, for example, believe that there will be a shift in human consciousness, and tend to view the end of the 13th baktun as an opportunity for human improvement.

On the other hand, there are those who believe that the world will end abruptly, in fire, flood, cosmic radiation, or collision with other planets. I think of these beliefs as “Catastrophic Apocalyptic Expectations” (CAE).  While some share my belief that the numbers of serious CAE-ers is small, there are panics and survivalists reported by the press in RussiaFrance, and Los Angeles.  Tragically, there has been at least one suicide.  And of course, there has been a major Hollywood movie (“2012″), which I’ll be discussing more in my next post.

As anthropologists, we certainly should respond to public fears.  But we should also wonder why this fear, out of so many possible fears, is the one to capture public imagination.  Beliefs in paranormal activities, astrology, and the like are historically common, although the specifics change over time.  Michael D. Gordin’s excellent book The Pseudoscience Wars (2012) convincingly suggests that there are larger societal reasons why some fringe theories attract scholarly and public attention while others go ignored.  The Mayan Apocalypse has certainly attracted massive attention, from scholarly rebuttals from anthropologists, NASA, and others, to numerous popular parodies such as GQ’s survival tipsLOLcats, and my personal favorite, an advertisement for Mystic Mayan Power Cloaks.

There seems to be a general fascination with the Mayan calendar — even among those who know relatively little about the peoples that label refers to.  Some are anxiously watching the calendar count down, others are trying to reassure them, and many more simply watching, cracking jokes, or even selling supplies.  But there is something interesting about the fact that so many in the United States and Europe are talking about it at all.  I look forward to exploring these questions further with all of you.

Clare A. Sammells is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Bucknell University. She is currently living in Madrid, where she is writing about concepts of time in Tiwanaku and conducting ethnographic research on food among Bolivian migrants.  She is not stockpiling canned goods.