Day One

Today is, so happy 13th baktun, everybody!  I hope all of you had a great time last night ringing in the new Mayan era.

Now that we’ve reached the other side of the big scary conglomeration of 12s, I am hoping that things settle down, though I don’t hold out much hope.  Just from a preliminary click through the interwebs, I have noticed that the Nibiru folks are still frothing at the mouth insisting that the super-secret (and super invisible, apparently) planet is still out there and still poses a grave and existential threat to us here on planet Earth.  Either it has “changed direction” at the last minute and will “swing around” to hit us just after the new year.

And in other apocalypse news, Ronald Weinland has the next scheduled end of the world event date: 19 May 2013.  Only 148 days to go!

Tracking fascination

One of the dubious pleasures of blogging is the availability of analytics.  I say ‘dubious’ here, because although Google and WordPress helpfully offer me a wide variety of data that I can sift and track according to any number of metrics, it isn’t altogether clear to me why such data is useful.  Of course, if I were offering advertisements on my site, or if I intended to approach someone for funding, being able to track my readership would be extremely useful.  But I don’t, and so I’m left with pages and pages of data that I mostly ignore, though sometimes I check my stats pages in much the same obsessive way that some of my friends check their Facebook walls or Twitter feeds.

Today, I got to thinking about my sense that the current fever of apocalyptophilia we find ourselves in is a relatively recent phenomena.  I’m not in any way arguing that human beings have not always had a kind of horrified fascination for imagining the end of (all) things, or that we’ve never before gone through such periods in our history, only that the contemporary moment feels somewhat unique.  Part of that feeling, I am sure, stems from the fact that I pay attention to any occurrences of apocalyptic rhetoric and therefore I see more of it than others would.  Once you are primed to look for something, you tend to see it.  Nothing controversial there.

But I do have a sense that there has been a measurable rise in ‘apocalyptomania’, a condition I liken to a kind of social hypochondria where every difficulty, every large-scale phenomena is suddenly elevated to the status of an extinction-level geophysical event.  In addition to the perennial interest in the apocalypse narrowly construed (anything related to a particular Christian eschatological preoccupation), we’ve also had stormpocalypses and snowpocalypses and in Los Angeles we even had a carpocalypse with the temporary closing of the 405 freeway for construction.  And so, as they say, I had a curious.

Tracking for the incidence of ‘apocalypse’ as a search term

Lucky for me, Google Trends was there to help.  It turns out that the last year or so has seen a distinct rise in curiosity about apocalypse, at least according to the prevalence of the term in Google search data.  That peak in September 2004 represents the high point of this interest (and is coincident – see point N in the graph above – with the release of the disappointing Resident Evil: Apocalypse), with a fairly steady drop off.  Interest in the apocalypse as a phenomenon began to climb again in October 2008 (coincident with the early days of the world financial crisis and just before the election of Barack Obama to the U.S. Presidency).  Not all of those high points are related to the particularly Christian understanding of apocalypse, though the highest points are.  Point E represents the spike in interest in May 2011 during the height of the hysteria stirred up by Harold Camping and the helpful folks at Family Radio Worldwide over the impending (and still delayed) end of the world, while the spike at point A represents the ‘zombie apocalypse‘ hysteria sparked by a series of gruesome news reports.

But there’s an even more interesting graph to be had here when you just search for instances of “pocalypse” as a suffix.

Tracking for the incidence of words with the suffix ‘pocalypse’

See that line?  Assuming that my methodology and search terms are valid (not always a safe assumption, mind you), the story here seems quite clear.  In September/October 2008 (See above Re: global financial crisis) there was a sudden bump in the suffix ‘pocalypse’ being added to more and more words.  The extreme spike again is May 2011, and is most likely related to the above mentioned Camping/Family Radio fizzle.  Since the calmdown after The End failed to materialize in May, we don’t seem to have reset to zero but to have established one of the many ‘new normals’ of contemporary life where everything begins to take on apocalyptic proportions.

Incidentally, in my research today, I noticed this little gem.  Neil deGrasse Tyson has a much better track record than Harold Camping at bringing an end to planets, so we’d best hope that this isn’t an omen.

Only 25 days till the end! Order now!

As anyone who knows me will tell you, the only thing I love more than apocalyptic pop culture is a free book, and today I came across two of them.

Apparently we’ve all missed the boat.  I’ve been counting according to the Mayan calendar largely because I’ve loved it ever since I bought a calendar pendant at a Cozumel market [mumble] years ago.  They’re lovely pieces of art and culture and quite the thing these days.  The Mayan calendar, if you believe in it as a definitive document (and why not?*), gives us 233 days left to enjoy ourselves before the end of all things (and conveniently gets us out of having to spend anything on Christmas presents this year).

Only today, while following a thread on a related topic, I learned that we may have less time than I previously thought.  According to Ronald Weinland, the end times have already begun, kicked off in December of 2008 by the global economic crisis.  The final, actual end will come later this month, on 27 May.

Of course, all of this immediately brought to mind the hysteria last year over the date set by Harold Camping, and my first thought was that perhaps Mr. Camping had returned to insist that he’d merely gotten the year wrong somehow.  It seemed a perfectly plausible mistake, since we often have debates over how to count when discussing the calendar.  And the failure of the skies to open and the trumpets to sound at dinnertime on the 21st did not stop Mr. Camping from revising his reasoning and calculations.

But no, this is an entirely different individual, with an entirely different argument to put forward, and he does so in two books that he’s offering for free at his website.  I have downloaded both, and now I know what I’ll be doing this weekend!

* I’ve nothing against taking the calendar as a given example of cultural meaning, but I’ve never been sure why people are so insistent that because it ends with a particular day that must, by definition, mean that the Mayans believed all the universe ended that day as well.  If we were to disappear as a species sometime this year, would the descendents of the cockroaches examine the fact that all of our calendars ended with 31 December 2012 and take this to mean that we, as a culture, didn’t believe in the possibility of life after the end of our current calendar?  As a society, we have (largely) agreed that a year has 365 days (plus just a little bit) and that every time we come to the end of one we get a fresh new one to replace it.  If we plotted our own calendar as a wheel, would anyone really believe that when you came to the end of the space allotted on the plate, that meant time as we know it would cease to exist?  No, we all understand that you’d then go out and buy a new plate.

Even if you bought one of those fancy ‘perpetual’ calendars and it ran out of numbers because it didn’t have the space for more, would we assume that our inability to manufacture an infinitely variable and open calculating system mapped onto a perfect, closed form of necessity meant that time would end when we no longer could measure it with such tools?  I think we’d chuck the old ones in the bin and go buy a new one.  Don’t believe that a sophisticated people could make such a mistake unless they believed that there was a finite end to the time allotted for humanity?  Have you forgotten that lots and lots of really smart people overlooked the fact that eventually we’d need more than two digits to indicate the year when coding software?

I’ve always firmly believed that the Mayans must have thought of their calendar as a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional structure.  Picture a spiral staircase.  We know when we see it in the ‘real world’ that it is a three dimensional structure which the motion is circular horizontally while also moving a person in vertical space.  The structure is a helix, a three dimensional curve that is potentially endless, but when you look at it in plan, it looks like a simple, closed circle.

The Mayans may have been aggressive and more than a bit bloodthirsty, but they were mathematically quite sophisticated.  You would have to be, in order to develop the elegant graphical equations they based their calendars and their architecture on.  Refusing to credit the Mayans with an understanding of calendars and the dual cyclical/linear conception of time that we take perfectly for granted today is as pernicious a chauvinism against past civilizations as the Flat Earth Myth.  It says more about us and about our attitudes toward non-Western and non-modern civilizations than it does about those civilizations themselves.  As I always remind my students, don’t confuse ‘ancient’ with ‘stupid’ or that is very much how you will reveal yourself.