Friday, December 21, 2012

Will The World End In 2012?

This article originally ran a couple of years ago in .zap!!, an a.p.a. I belong to (or belonged to; I haven't seen an issue in a couple of years now).

Beats me. But I'm taking bets. Name your amount. We'll define the world ending as the collapse of civilization and the extinction of most human beings. I bet the world doesn't end. You bet it does. If the world ends, you collect. The only stipulation is that you can't do anything likely to cause the world to end. OK, you can still vote Republican, but no germ warfare or the deal's off. That's a sucker's bet, of course. If I lose, it's unlikely you will be around to collect, even if I still am around to collect from. And if I win, you owe me money and look like a dunderhead for thinking the sky was falling. Whatever gave you that silly idea in the first place? Well, you aren't the only one to think that.

In the past few years, the notion that the year 2012 will be a landmark, perhaps apocalyptic, time has spread, evidenced by a spate of cultural products about the year including books and movies. On Amazon.Com, hundreds of books and other products dealing with this notion are offered for sale such as 2012: The Return Of Quetzalcoatl by Daniel Pinchbeck, which I personally wasted some money on. Indeed, the 2012 doomsday notion has become a piece of folk wisdom. I've heard people chatting about it casually, even indicating they were or were not making plans based on that notion. Sometimes the 2012 phenomenon is interpreted in a more mild manner, that it merely signals the date when humanity makes a evolution in consciousness and we all treat one another and the rest of the Earth more kindly as a result.

Whatever its interpretation, where did the notion that 2012 is an important date come from in the first place? Did someone place an "Apocalypse Wanted" ad on Craigslist and 2012 applied? Or does the 2012 phenomenon have roots in popular culture? Proposed expiration dates for the human race appear frequently--remember Y2K?--but some catch the imagination more than others. 2012 appears to have quite caught our imagination. Most discussions of 2012 reference the Mayan calendar, and claim that the calendar--one of many the Maya kept--ends on December 21, 2012, the date when supposedly everything comes down, an ancient prophecy gets fulfilled, our solar system is aligned with the galactic center of the Milky Way, it's the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, it's the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere, and I eat a Milky Way candy bar and wonder what all the fuss was about as nothing much happens. It's odd that when my calendar ends every year, I don't end time; I just start a new calendar. The Maya, we're led to believe, apparently do things differently. Actually, I don't think the Maya have much to do with this notion, but they've been tied into it in order to add some ancient gravitas to what otherwise would be just an intriguing but ultimately silly idea. Nevertheless, the ancient Maya have become the core of the notion. However, the real source is a man named Terence McKenna, and his brother Dennis.

Terence McKenna was an interesting chap (he died in 2000), with a strong interest in psychedelic drugs. Such interest took him and his brother to South America in pursuit of new ways of getting high. However, the McKennas weren't just hedonists. They seriously thought such drugs would open up their minds to a higher reality than what we normally can perceive. The result of the brother McKennas' trip, both figuratively and literally, is a book called The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens, and the I Ching. Originally published in 1975, it was republished and given greater distribution in 1993 when Harper republished an updated edition (in response to Terence's growing reputation as a sort of computer guru). The Invisible Landscape makes for a fascinating read, though it can be boiled down to what you'd expect of a couple hippies: an argument for taking drugs. However, the McKennas didn't want to take drugs just to get high. They wanted to take drugs to expand their minds and become modern day shamans. In fact, the first part of the book discusses shamanism quite a bit. The shaman is a member of a tribe of humans who interacts between the material and spiritual worlds for the benefit of the entire tribe. Often a marginalized person before the experience that leads to becoming a shaman, usually a near-death experience, the shaman becomes a prestigious if mysterious figure in the tribe afterwards. To the shaman, the material world is just one way of seeing the universe. In fact, normal reality can be regarded as a mask for the greater riches of space and time where everything is alive and ultimately part of the same organism, whom we might call God.

Not content with giving us a plausible explanation to our parents for why we might want to drop acid, the McKennas go further and begin to critique the scientific method as too limiting in its approach to understanding the universe. They go further still and blame science for the spiritual crisis of modernism. As the scientific method revealed more about the material nature of the universe from the Enlightenment on, the older belief systems such as Christianity became displaced. This explains why even today some fundamentalist Christians refuse to accept the theory of evolution. Despite the many attempts to reconcile faith and reason, religion and science really are competing worldviews. If mythology explained how the world came to be in various creation myths, science now provides the same function for us, whether it's physics exploring the big bang or biology exploring evolution. Based on evidence and logic, science has provided a better creation myth. However, the human soul yearns for more, which is why the old stories such as the one (or two) in Genesis still hold considerable power. As the McKennas write on page 17 of the 1993 edition: "Modern science has given us a picture of human beings as accidental products of random evolutionary processes in a universe that is itself without purpose or meaning". The McKennas were among the many who still desired meaning. Many of their hippie brethren, who felt similarly, would become Jesus freaks or reject the Western tradition of Christianity as well and embrace an Eastern religious tradition instead. Some would cobble together their own system, resulting in the spread of so many cults in the 1970s. Others would explore the occult or older pagan religions. A lot of these ideas would mix together creating what we would now term the New Age spiritual movement. After the tumultuous middle decades of the 20th century encompassing such experiences as the Holocaust, a nuclear arms race, and the conflicts of the 1960s, it's fairly understandable that many people in the USA, especially the young like the McKennas, might want to reject traditional explanations of the universe. Most, aside from the Unabomber and a few other hardcore back to nature types, however, only rejected science theoretically, not practically. In other words, they still plugged in toasters, put in bread, pressed down, and expected toast to come out and not a genie or something.

However, the McKennas wouldn't abandon science, even theoretically. They wanted to reconcile it with the experiences they had on psychedelic drugs, which seemed to defy scientific understanding. Noting that science too has a faith in that its practitioners believe that the universe is measurable by material methods, a huge but seldom noted assumption underlying the entire scientific enterprise, the McKennas sought to develop an understanding of the structure of the universe by combining science with the mysticism of shamanism. So they applied scientific methods such as observation and data collection to taking ayahuasca and other drugs from "tryptamine-bearing psychoactive plants" (page 98) in order to achieve a shamanic state. Their discoveries, that an alien insect was trying to guide them to deeper understanding and "come to give humanity the keys to galactarian citizenship" (page 110), that singing machine elves greet humans in such a trance state (page 114), and that "twentieth-century history was experienced as a frantic effort to build an object . . . to allow life to escape to Jupiter on the heels of an impending global catastrophe" (page 110), sound laughable, as the McKennas knew, which is why they are presented in the book as merely the observations of someone in a trance state. Nevertheless, the McKennas were profoundly shaken by their experience and it inspired them to develop a theory that spacetime was "a flux of novelty whose variables are predictable" (page 156), a theory that, like the software that helped to map it out, would be called "timewave zero", though it is also referred to as "novelty theory" or "this crazy shit someone came up with while high and staring at a clock that other people will believe when they are high and staring at a clock". OK, maybe only I call it that last term. In any case, timewave zero represents an attempt by the McKennas, particularly Terence, to argue that existence is essentially one entity that develops into many entities, or, as the McKennas, might call them, novelties, and that a structure underlies existence as it is experienced through time. In fact, I'm sure my presentation of the Mckennas' theory is quite reductive because a) timewave zero doesn't make any fucking sense if you really take a close look at it, or b) the McKennas question our conventional conceptualizations of space, time, and even consciousness itself and thus the language used to usually refer to those concepts is inadequate to explain the theory. You can guess which side I lean to.

But I digress. Back to the structure of existence, which can be traced by examining "the ebb and flow of connectedness or novelty in any span of time from a few days to tens of millenia" (page 170). To do this, the McKennas used the I Ching as a model, assuming, based on intuition and some commentary on it, that its structure mirrored that of the universe, and, with the later assistance of a computer program, Terence mapped out the flow of novelty in history. Starting with the bombing of Hiroshima as an example of increased novelty, the McKennas used a mathematical pattern developed from the I Ching, and extended the discovered pattern into the future and discovered that "The end point is the point of maximized novelty in the wave and is the only point in the entire wave that has a quantified value of zero" (page 171). The original estimate for this date was November 2012, but upon learning that the Mayan long count calendar ended on December 21, 2012, an idea being popularized by art historian Jose Arguelles in books such as The Mayan Factor, Terence adjusted the date accordingly (though it was December 22 for a time as well). Thus, an idea was born that would become a meme in our culture. The McKennas' timewave zero and Jose Arguelles’s interpretation of the Mayan calendar would merge in 1990s popular culture, establishing 2012 as a new expiration date for the human race, popularized by such works as the comic book series The Invisibles by Grant Morrison, the cyperpunk magazine Mondo 2000, and the book Maya Cosmogenesis 2012 by John Major Jenkins. In fact, The Invisibles is where I first came across the idea, as Morrison worked it into his story about a band of terrorist/freedom fighters battling the new world order. It wasn't until after 2000 though that the notion of the world ending--or experiencing a psychic leap in human consciousness or evolution or whatever--in 2012 took hold. Once popular dread over Y2K—which saw a similar spate of cultural products--subsided with the advent of the 21st century, a new expiration date was needed and 2012, already somewhat established in popular culture, captured the public’s imagination and became more widespread. This is a credit to Terence mostly. As a scientist he might be a bit dodgy, but as a storyteller and a salesman, he had few equals. Even I want to believe in his bullshit, and I should know better. Just the milder, peace, love, and kindness version of 2012, of course. I'll pass on the magnetic pole shift, nuclear war, sunstorm, asteroid collision, and other nastier, more apocalyptic versions of 2012 please.

However, the reason for the success of the 2012 phenomenon isn't only Terence. He was clever--as are all the little gurus now selling us ancient Mayan wisdom-- in tying into an archetypal need we have for finality. All human cultures seem to need an expiration date, an apocalyptic myth if you will. See the Indian idea about the Yugas and the Greek notion of the ages of man for older examples. The usual function of such endtime myths is to scare us straight into behaving appropriately, or at least how the perpetrators of such stories and beliefs would want us to behave anyway. The example most familiar to us would be The Book of Revelations in The Bible. Now, some people still believe in Revelations, and take it for a prophecy more than an admonition, but for those of us for whom Christianity seems quaint need something new so 2012 fills the bill (though I'm sure some Christians have folded 2012 into their elaborate Revelations mythology by now). The best endtime myths, like Revelations, are careful not to be specific with dates and thus are evergreen in their approach to the end of days. The ones with dates like 2012 can scare the hell out of us a bit more for a short time, but when the date passes without incident, as they usually do (so far, anyway), it gets discarded. However, it's only a matter of time until a new date and new myth will emerge to circulate. Some, like 2012, before Y2K, are already waiting in the wings ready to take the stage. We seem to have a need for an expiration date for the human race.

And why not? The expiration date seems strangely logical. If civilization and humanity began at some point, just as we as individuals began at some point, it seems possible that civilization might end and we might die. Who knows? No one. But there are plenty of bullshit artists willing to pretend they do in order to make some cash off the fear and ignorance of others. Some of them may have even bullshitted themselves into believing their own bunkum. Unfortunately, people can be harmed by these ideas more than losing some money to a confidence artist. For example, the Heaven's Gate cult committed mass suicide in 1997 thinking the end was nigh. They thought Earth was about to be wiped out and thought ending their bodily existence would be the way to have their souls picked up by a UFO shadowing the Hale-Bopp comet. Something like that anyway. Of course, their theory made little sense. And though we'd like to think most of us would never be so foolish, we can never be too sure. So even though the 2012 phenomenon can be an interesting topic for a dinner conversation, some danger exists that some people will take it too seriously and cause problems. And, I don't know if you've looked lately, but we have a lot of problems on planet Earth as is.

And, one problem the 2012 phenomenon has is its source. A recent film produced by The Disinformation Company, 2012: Science Or Superstition provides a good overview of the 2012 phenomenon. Most of the film focuses on the idea of the Mayan calendar though, and only a DVD extra features the McKennas and timewave zero. This is likely because, despite their earnestness in creating it, the timewave zero theory is nonsense, a classic example of the garbage in, garbage out maxim of computer science taken to an extreme. Why is assuming the I Ching has a structure mirroring the universe any more sensible than assuming that the universe is measurable by material means? How can it be matched up to history without being susceptible to considerable subjective judgment as to which events constitute an uptick in novelty as opposed to habit? Terence was an especially interesting thinker, but timewave zero is a daft thought. Could that be why the McKennas as the source of the idea that 2012 is a watershed for humanity one way or another are mostly forgotten today? After all, saying an ancient Mayan prophecy points at the year 2012 as significant sounds better than explaining the 2012 idea came from a hallucination on mushrooms by a couple of hippies in the early 1970s. However, maybe I'm wrong and the McKennas are right. Place your bets.

For more fun with the end of the world in 2012, please read my novel Blog Love Omega Glee.

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