Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Gangnam Style "Maya Apocalypse"

Over the next couple of days the famous "Gangnam Style" video by Korean rapper Psy is about to reach over 1,000,000,000 views, the first video on youtube to reach such a milestone. So long as the much ballyhooed "Maya Apocalypse"doesn't pan out, that is. 

The end of the world as predicted by the Maya calendar is upon us, or so we are lead to believe by countless articles, news reports, documentaries, and social media messages. Like many Mayanists, I have been deluged by friends, family, and reporters, asking for my opinion on the end of the world as we know it. They ask a lot of questions, and I am happy to answer them, but too many of the questions are based facts that are ... well, simply not factual. I have long ago given up trying to persuade the public that there is no basis for pretty much anything said about 2012. No, the Maya didn't predict the end of the world, nor does their calendar end on December 21, 2012, and it doesn't even "start over" as some of my Mayanist colleagues are fond of stating. There are inscriptions that prove that the Maya calendar keeps going until at least A.D. 4772, and no reason to think it stops even then.

How, then, did this craze about 2012 and the end of the world come about? To me as an anthropologist, this is the most fascinating aspect of this whole phenomenon. Over 40 years ago my archaeological grandfather, Michael Coe, described the end of the 13th baktun as the Maya version of "Armageddon". Michael Coe never meant to predict the modern nonsense of 2012, but New Agers and pseudoscientists latched onto his phrasing and ran with it. They fed off of each other's crazed ravings, and cloaked their New Age beliefs in Maya words and concepts, most often terribly bastardized and misunderstood. We westerners have an insatiable appetite for scaring ourselves with tales about an impending Apocalypse and every generation is insistent that they are living in the End Times. The difference about the 2012 phenomenon has been that it is the first major apocalyptic scare that has swept across the western world that has ostensibly been based off of prophecies from a culture outside of the Judaeo-Christian European tradition.

I think therein lies a lot of its appeal and why it has spread so quickly. Not only does it tie into our particularly western need to obsess about the end of the world, but it comes from a foreign, indigenous culture. Few people other than the descendants of the ancient Maya speak Mayan languages today, and there are very few of us Mayanists who actually understand the ancient Maya calendar, as much as it is understood today by anyone. Therefore, the 2012ers can say almost anything and not fear that they are going to be contradicted, and by attributing their claims about the end of the world to ancient Maya prophecies they gain the cultural cachet of presenting their own delusional ravings as ancient, indigenous wisdom. If one of our own started predicting the end of the world, as Harold Camping did last year, that person would be either, at best, ignored, and at worst, savagely mocked. The western world, however, has come increasingly to buy into the noble savage idea of foreign, indigenous cultures. We fully expect traditional cultures and peoples that were conquered and colonized to be absolutely brimming with ancient wisdom and knowledge; knowledge that is always applicable and directed towards ourselves. Sadly, with us westerners, even our New Agers are hopelessly egocentric and tend to think that all indigenous cultural wisdom and prophecies are ultimately about us. At the same time that supporting foreign cultures has become fashionable and politically correct, these foreign cultures, by their very foreignness and the attendant language and cultural barriers, allow us to project onto them our own beliefs and desires.

And this brings us back to the Gangnam Style video. By now almost everyone with internet access has seen the video, and while one can credit the song with some of its popularity, it is hardly a marvel of lyrical or melodious creation. Heck, the overwhelming majority of people who have watched the video (and keep watching it again and again) can't understand a word of the Korean lyrics and have no real understanding of the cultural message that is being conveyed about Seoul's posh Gangnam district and the lifestyle of its inhabitants. And while one can credit the hilarious dance stylings of Psy for the viral nature of the video, would such a video have been as popular if it was an American artist performing those dances? I doubt it, and I think that the video's popularity is in no small part reflective of the general perception by most westerners for Korean and Japanese pop culture is silly, crazy, and incomprehensible. And, I think the social pressures that compel nearly all of us into at least checking out "viral" material played no small part in this video's popularity. If everyone else is watching it, most of us are going to be more than a little curious, and thus we lend our passive support to whatever is trending in popularity at the time.

I thus see some interesting parallels between the popularity of Psy's Gangnam Style video and the 2012 "Maya Apocalypse" phenomenon. Not only have both become enormously popular topics in the late months of 2012, but both are examples of items of foreign cultural content being appropriated and popularized by westerners, most of whom know next to nothing about the original cultural material. And, most importantly, both were popularized and spread virally by the internet. The popularity of Psy's video is inconceivable without the internet, and the same can be said about all the hype about 2012, a point that I am not alone in making. The internet has allowed the proliferation of not only real data about the ancient and modern Maya, but it also allows for the dissemination of pseudoscience and nonsense, and sadly the latter is in far greater abundance. Both the Gangnam Style video and the 2012 phenomenon illustrate how a single, global internet culture is now emerging, where people from every ethnic, linguistic, and national background are now familiar with and share the same viral topics. The 2012 phenomenon may have run its course, but it is the harbinger of things to come, where the internet will spread not only popular videos, no matter which culture originally produces them, but will also spread across borders cultural information and misinformation, in at best equal amounts. There never was a Maya prophesy about 2012 but it doesn't take a seer to recognize the new world that we have created, one that brings with it a plague of misinformation that will spread virally across the globe.

If anyone is interested in the truth about 2012, I cannot do better than to recommend the books 2012: Science & Prophecy of the Ancient Maya by Mark Van Stone and  Order of Days by David Stuart. And, if you want to participate in pushing Psy's Gangnam Style video over the billion views mark and playing your part in the new, viral world, just click here. It's not like you haven't watched it a copious amount of times already, and let's admit it, after reading this far you're probably already pretending to ride that horse and singing the only words from those lyrics you think you know.

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