The Opportunistic Apocalypse

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.

Clare A. Sammells is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Bucknell University. She has conducted research on archaeological tourism in Tiwanaku, Bolivia and on foodways among Bolivian migrants living in Madrid, Spain.

8 thoughts on “The Opportunistic Apocalypse

  1. I rather see the 2012-phenomenon as the latest outcome of the correlationist circle which both modernism and postmodernism depend on. Ironically, by breaking this correlationist circle we may end up in ontologies not too different from the “nonmodern” ones. Panpsychism plays a significant role in object-oriented ontologies and Meillassoux’s speculative materialism allow for a virtual God that may come to existence ex nihilo. Latour’s new project on multirealisms/modes of existence can perhaps also be seen in this light.

  2. Claire, Johan,

    Fascinating stuff. An important reference here may be German sociologist Ulrich Beck’s Risk Society. In this work, Ulrich observes that early modern science focused on visible things, simple machines, the anatomy of plants and animals. The invention of the telescope and microscope were revolutionary because they expanded the scope of vision. Science, today, however, deals witty invisible things—at least from the layman’s perspective. Social science has followed a similar track from a focus on visible wealth to a focus on invisible forces and, the focus of Ulrich’s analysis, invisible risks. One result has been a growing dependence on “experts” whose qualifications, theories and evidence are always in question. When I read Beck, I was struck by how much the new world he describes resembled the very old world of Daoist magic: invisible powers, “experts” who claim special knowledge of them, widespread skepticism about their claims coupled with a belief that there are those who really know and possess real power, a difficult proposition since they are supposed to be as rare as needles in the haystack. I noted, too, that they world of popular Chinese religion of which Daoist magic is a subset, has been fertile ground for millenarian movemts, some of which founded new dynasties while most were unmitigated, bloody disasters. What we don’t know, we fear. What we fear a lot, drives us crazy. A simple idea, but edible a powerful one, if it’s ramifications are explored.

  3. According to Webster’s New World College Dictionary the word Apocalypse(Gr apokalypsis) means to disclose and has nothing to do with the end of the world.
    Again, the first use of the word world(OE werold) meaning Age of Man or Epoch.
    In anthropological terms we are aware that Mankind in different societies on many continents, over varying epochs used Astrology(Mathematics of the Stars) to keep time and measured the cycle of the Great Year caused by Luni Solar Precession by inventing divisions based on constellations or shapes in the night sky over its 25,920 year period, known as Ages. In Western Astrology we know these 12 successive, 2160 year ages as Taurus, Aries, Pisces and the upcoming Aquarius etc. The Maya used a different criteria the the end of their present Age of the Sun happens on the winter solstice Dec 21-23, 2012.
    Our world( Society of Man) was changed by the terrible events of 9/11 and the latter war on terror followed by the banking collapse which has changed us beyond recognition and will continue to do so.
    Thank you for letting me comment

  4. Hi Johan and John — Thank you for your comments and suggestions; Beck’s book sounds interesting, I’ll look for it. I think I have drawn wider boundaries around the 2012 phenomenon than most, so while I am interested in why some people believe (I agree that current uncertainties are part of that), I think this situation is broader than just a comparison between western 2012ers (believers) and the contemporary Maya (non-believers). In my view, western non-believers also form an important part of this phenomenon, but are often ignored. I tried to address that in this post.

    Hi Crichton – Thanks for your comment. I am using “apocalypse” in its common contemporary meaning, where it usually refers to the end of the world. I find your comment about 9/11 and the banking crisis interesting; a lot of people who think something may happen on 2012 are concerned about serious global issues such as global climate change, predatory capitalism, etc. Those are concerns they share with others, although many don’t expect any sort of radical overnight change.

  5. Hi Clare
    Thank you for the kind reply
    I wanted to share the real meaning behind the original word Apocalypse for, what I consider to be, a valid reason. That reason is that most prophetic messages in wood stone and word from our ancestral past are misunderstood. I think, if I may say as a guest here, it would be wrong of me to translate the meaning of the word contemporary for the readers, but it would seem reasonable that if we were to try to understand history or prophesy, we must use the original meaning to understand the message written in a different language that appears to be the same.
    In the future generations(a foretelling) as the science of psychology progresses we will eventually understand the power of mass hysteria and the results of confusion and we will also understand our collective power to bring about our most feared results or our most fervent dreams. It is misspelling or spelling correctly that makes the difference.
    Please forgive this old and learned man for trying to sway opinions by asking that the young people who’s world it is to make or destroy ,take a look at another point of view.

  6. Crichton,

    Are you suggesting that ancient ‘prophecies’ are real things, but that in the Mayan case, they have been misinterpreted? How is it that you came to this conclusion?

  7. Prophesy or prophecy,could be to foretell under divine guidance.
    I cannot say that, but having studied ancient methods of time keeping, Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, India,”Celtic” and the Maya with whom I spent some time in the late 1990′s, I am aware that “ancient” people did not think in the modernistic way attributed to Luthor and Kant that led to linear thought and Darwinism.
    Post Modernism may be closer to the archetype, in my opinion.
    I demonstrated the ability of Neolithic Man to read angles to 3 arc minutes and how they used the cyclical phenomena of the planet’s motions against fixed background constellations to keep calendars which is the other description of divine meaning, clever conjecture and using a divining rod, a method, which for Christian expediency became occult.

    Time is a Man-made concept but if we are to understand the mathematical and psychological methods used to understand and employ Time that led to our present civilisation and mindset, we need to understand the way these long dead “Prophets” of extinct civilisations thought and communicated to themselves and their descendants.

    The Mayan Calendar is therefore an astrologically based cyclical system of measurement and having been interpreted into the Julian Calendar insists that the end of a creative Age of the Sun (An Age) is due on the 21-23rd December 2012 at the winter solstice.

    The winter solstice and its 3 day standstill is the right time when the sun is “Reborn” as far as the ancient northern civilisations were concerned.
    Even Christianity, Islam and Judea have their roots in the teachings of Akhenaten and his insistence of the Monotheistic God which gives life in a moment of astrological time.

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