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.