Mediascapes of the Maya Apocalypse

December 21, 2012 seemed as fitting a day as ever to kick off Latin America Visualized with our inaugural post.  As the promise of apocalypse becomes increasingly doubtful as the clock ticks toward midnight, let us consider the politics behind worldwide claims of a Maya-prophesied doomsday.

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(Photo: AFP/Getty)

My interest here is not in explaining the intricacies of the Maya calendrical system, which can be found in easily digestible language and format here and here:

I am more interested in exploring what seems to be an endemic problem in the North American collective consciousness to desperately cling to exoticized, sensationalized, and demonized portrayals of indigenous cultures.  And to do so even when accurate information is a mere keystroke away.  Countless media portrayals of indigenous cultures as ahistorical and embodying a spectrum of “savagery” (from bloodthirsty to noble) surely contribute to this colossal display of ignorance about our southern neighbors.  Consider, for instance Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto or Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

What unites these films is not only a profound misrepresentation of ancient Amerindian civilizations, but an utter refusal to do the necessary homework that would imbue these representations with an inkling of historical accuracy.  Silvia Moreno-García writes about this phenomenon in a popular website dedicated to fantasy fiction, while anthropologist Helaine Silverman tackles pop culture representations of the Incas from a more academic perspective in her article “Groovin’ to Ancient Peru,” published in 2002.  What inevitably happens in these films is something akin to Pseudologia Fantastica (a fancy way of describing pathological lying) in which small nuggets of truth become woven into an elaborate tapestry of falsehoods.  One of the promotional posters for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, for instance, exhibits a group of silhouetted axe-wielding natives set against a landscape of pyramids that bear a slight resemblance to the “El Castillo” pyramid of Chichen Itzá in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula:

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Keep in mind that this movie is set in Peru, whose pre-Columbian civilizations built architectural mounds known today as huacas, not pyramids.

This kind of visual schizophrenia that pays no mind to temporal, geographic, or cultural specificities is by no means specific to cinematic portrayals of Amerindian peoples.  As Ella Shohat and Robert Stam have noted in their book Unthinking Eurocentrism, this kind of practice permeates an array of media representations of the “Other,” arguing that cinema

“became the epistemological mediator between the cultural space of the Western              spectator and that of the cultures represented on the screen, linking separate spaces and figurally separate temporalities in a single moment of exposure” (93).

Moreover, historical inaccuracies abound even in films about Europe’s ancient civilizations.  We need look no further than The Gladiator and the slew of academic critiques it inspired, such as this one to understand the pervasiveness of these practices.

But there is a critical difference to be made here, which is that the descendants of the people so flagrantly distorted in popular discourse remain marginalized from the very channels of communication and power that enabled these cinematic and popular misrepresentations to proliferate.  The modern-day Maya, who number nearly 7 million and speak 29 dialects of the Mayan language, lack the economic and social capital to combat global hysteria around an overhyped prophecy that speaks more to Western fears and fantasies of zombie-esque worldwide destruction than to historical reality.  This is why NASA is considered more equipped to “prove” the false logic of a Maya apocalypse than Maya people themselves.  This is why #endoftheworld became one of the most top trending hashtags on twitter and why people could “check in” to ApocalypseApocalypse on Foursquare as the clock struck midnight on December 21.  Perhaps most embarrassingly, the hashtag #Mayans has soared to the top of the Twittersphere’s trending charts, even though “Maya” refers to the people and “Mayan” refers to the language.

This is why the words of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, remain poorly circulated in western media outlets.

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His discussion of the Maya calendar speaks to broad gestures of pan-indigenous solidarity when he states,

“And I would like to say that according to the Mayan calendar the 21 of December is the end of the non-time and the beginning of time. It is the end of the Macha and the beginning of the Pacha, the end of selfishness and the beginning of brotherhood, it is the end of individualism and the beginning of collectivism – 21 of December this year. The scientists know very well that this marks the end of an anthropocentric life and the beginning of a bio-centric life. It is the end of hatred and the beginning of love, the end of lies and beginning of truth. It is the end of sadness and the beginning of happiness, it is the end of division and the beginning of unity, and this is a theme to be developed. That is why we invite all of you, those of you who bet on mankind, we invite those who want to share their experiences for the benefit of mankind.”

(see original video here and excerpts of the transcription here)

And this is why stories such as the march of 12,000 Zapatistas into San Cristobal de las Casas in Oaxaca remain at the fringes of journalistic media today.

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They marched to commemorate a mass killing in 2007 and to honor the end of the 13th Baktun that has initiated the dawn of a new era.  Their rallying cry sums it up nicely, a stark contrast to the deafening hysteria surrounding 12/21/12: “to be heard, we march in silence.”

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One thought on “Mediascapes of the Maya Apocalypse

  1. Really interesting and thoughtful argument. I hope more people read this and begin to understand the truth behind their words and actions.

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