2012: Apocalyptic Ends Recovering the Noise of Crisis

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series

The end is nigh. On December 21, the latest apocalypse will shake the foundations of the world as we know it. Witness the collision of innumerable catastrophes: Climate change is forging massive superstorms, unleashing biblical floods, propelling glacial shifts and earthquakes, and devastating the structures humans have built since the beginning of civilization. Ubiquitous social decline will result in moral decay, the collapse of the global economy, World War III, and the ultimate ascendance of the secret cabal that wrote the blueprints for the New World Order. We’ll face swine-flu plagues and bath salts cannibalism, nuclear catastrophes, mass extinctions. Prophecies fulfilled. Eschatons immanentized. Towers will fall. The dead will rise. The very heavens will rebel against us: upon our apparent galactic alignment, our planet awaits skin-melting gamma ray bursts, grid-destroying solar flares, and tectonic plate-disrupting pole shifts. In short, human civilization is utterly and irrevocably fucked. But perhaps, if we’re really lucky, when the aliens or angels or Atlanteans arrive, they’ll save us from ourselves with a world-embracing, transcendental epiphany that will turn back the tides of history and resurrect our long-dead gods.

Or maybe it’s much worse than all that. What will we do if civilization continues after December 21? If the economy collapses, won’t we still have to eat? And assuming that the sun doesn’t explode on the winter solstice, will we still have to work on the 22nd? What’s worse?

These are not new fears. The word “apocalypse” derives from the Greek ἀποκάλυψις, meaning the removal of a covering or revelation. Its original sense designated a genre of religious texts that purported to uncover reality behind the veil of illusion, favoring phantasmagoria and mystical symbology as the means of conveying the noumenal beyond. Its use to refer to the end of the world is incidental, deriving primarily from the Christian eschatology of the Revelation to St. John. However, eschatology has existed for millennia, stretching back long before the birth of Christ. Many mythologies feature at least one story in which the world met its complete destruction (even if it later reformed).

2012’s narratives of the end of the world have had the opportunity to grow and focus. The genre has escaped the pages of spiritual revelation into the more spectacular media of film and television. Directors now select their cause of the end from a range of possible forces1, no longer confined solely to supernatural judgment. Each also depicts a victory, either in favor of the destructive power or of heroes of some redemptive quality. Apocalypse films therefore don’t differ much from their eschatological counterparts: to reveal what the directors perceive as real, they magnify their story until the whole world is at stake, using this spectacle to present a picture of the hope (if any) we have against threatening powers. But entertainment tends more toward escapist fantasy than spiritual guidance (even if it pretends to it). The crises we actually face rarely involve simplistic causes or clear victories. These pictures cover an atmosphere of noise, in which developing crises interact chaotically like weather systems. But while apocalypse stories serve as Farmer’s Almanacs to explain these complex systems and project their outcomes, they often posit false causes or impossible situations, calling into question their own utility.

2012’s apocalypses feature a spectrum of cause-redeemer polarities, from the supernatural to the all-too-real. This article will descend through that scale, beginning with the “2012 phenomenon” itself, working through The Walking Dead, The Dark Knight Rises, The Turin Horse, and ending with this year’s non-apocalyptic crisis film, Beasts of the Southern Wild. In opening fissures in 2012’s doomsday spectacles, this essay is an attempt to reclaim the sky from the scenes in the clouds.

A Taxonomy of Apocalyptic Horses2

This year provided many examples of the apocalyptic mode. Some threaten the whole world, others threaten a single household. But the macrocosm is the microcosm. What distinguishes these stories from one another is not the affected group, but rather the chosen root cause of the threat to civilization and the power, if any, that the author thinks might save us.

The Dead Horse

Spoiler alert: the world will not end (nor will we achieve transcendence) on December 21, barring an asteroid collision or a sudden “black swan.” As far as archaeologists can tell, Mayans never predicted an apocalypse to occur on this date. Never mind that the data we have about golden age Mayan culture (i.e., that which the Spanish imperialists didn’t obliterate) is miniscule considering how much the world lost; we aren’t even certain how Mayan calendars match up with the Gregorian. 2012-ers ignore the fact that the Maya were not just a single civilization, but a plurality of ethnic groups and cultures that lived in the same area, spoke similar languages, and, further, forget that many Mayans still live today and some of them are quite upset about the co-opting of their cultural institutions and the arrogance of these grandiose, research-light claims. Mayanists constantly discover new sites and note that several monuments mark dates far beyond the end of the 2012 Long Count “end date.”

But even those who don’t think the end of the world is coming, such as Daniel Pinchbeck, who predicts mass transcendence after the solstice, or the late Terence McKenna who predicted an utterly “novel” occurrence on this date3, have skewed the half-deleted data in favor of their theories. New Age gurus think they are witnessing the beginnings of an elevated “consciousness” and find in the Long Count a final date when most will “wake up” from their ignorant slumber. Sometimes it’s gods or aliens4; sometimes it’s a mass shift that we spontaneously undertake. It’s easy to sympathize with this desire: Who wouldn’t want us all to achieve Nirvana just by virtue of time reaching a predetermined date (or by the forces of history providing the correct circumstances, which is tantamount to the same thing). But if the day when we realize the solutions to the problems facing our world ever arrives, it will do so because of work, not because it’s simply the right time or because a god descends to inform us. Awareness is something one must cultivate, and on December 21, the most we can expect to happen is a true believer creating a one-shot crisis out of zeal, or the suicide of a cult, or a whole lot of effort justification and placebo effects.

Spiritualists can find the apocalypse in any calendar. In the 1960s, the Age of Aquarius (which, astronomically, will occur around approximately the year 2600) was to precipitate the enlightenment of all (Father Yod and The Source Family’s The Thought Adjusters, released earlier this year on Drag City, contains some artifacts from this school). In fact, this phenomenon is fairly common in any group with radical beliefs in the supernatural. Millennialism occurred in 1000 C.E. just as it did in 2000. Last year, radio personality Harold Camping declared that Jesus Christ would return to Earth on May 21, 2011. When that didn’t happen, he recognized his miscalculation and informed the public that it would occur October 21. It’s now December 2012.

It’s not hard to glimpse the probable origins of these apocalyptic scenarios. For those who believe in the intervention of supernatural forces, these stories provide a hope for validation of the wickedness of society and of their own future redemption. The evangelical fire-and-brimstone story has us meeting our maker in judgment for our moral depravity, now so abominable that the supreme being can no longer abide. When these groups raise their collective struggles, either real or imaginary, to the supernatural layer, they place the responsibility of bettering society on a force that, at best, they claim exists beyond their own understanding. In suspending their own will, they pass the buck to Christ, or Quetzalcoatl5, or a pseudoscientific miracle. If you can believe in these beings based on textual authority or flawed New Age “research,” a well of pain relief lies open in which to drown your troubles. But Quetzalcoatl is not coming, at least not as a god (and I’d recommend a healthy dose of skepticism in evaluating any individual who claims to be him). Supernatural intervention will not occur6 . Intellectuals have beaten this dead horse for centuries, and yet we’re still addressing the fallout from its passing.

A Horse with No Name

But even as we abandon the supernatural, the threat of nature rises up before us. Here, real danger lurks, and a genuine fear of death rears its head. Earth’s homeostasis has suddenly fallen out of balance. Storms build and dump flood waters on the coasts, while deep droughts threaten our food sources and convert vast swaths of farmland to desert. Species are going extinct at a higher rate than ever in human history. Extrapolating from these phenomena produces what seems like an endpoint. Will climate change one day obliterate human society? How do we imagine a world in which the world itself turns against us? While disaster-porn spectacles like Roland Emmerich’s 2012 fill this role, the majority of these stories chronicle not the lead-up but the fallout from the apocalyptic event. These narratives tend to mythologize the lone survivors, who wander the wastes left from the collapse of the former world armed with vigilante justice and cold benevolence. We have a fine example of this genre in Waterworld, but lately the most common natural apocalypse features a more straightforward antagonist: zombies.

In the first episode of The Walking Dead, Sheriff Rick Grimes finds a nameless horse in an abandoned pasture and rides like Wyatt Earp into the heart of Atlanta. Zombies promptly eat it. The Walking Dead presents the post-apocalyptic world as a series of moral dilemmas. The old heroic image seems to no longer work. You might have to kill your best friend or an innocent child turned by the plague. And yet, within the surviving enclaves, a return to so-called “traditional” values has occurred. Women wash the clothes and cook dinner while men hunt and guard the camp from intruders. After the end, we’ll no longer take for granted food and shelter, needs that modernity has estranged from us. Money becomes useless, and only “real things” have value. It’s a utopia, for some — the violent struggles of the pre-civilization world have returned, and one can again achieve glory in battle, no longer tied to the workaday existence of the modern everyman. Humans flee the cosmopolis, the original source of their anxiety, for the countryside, and a slow transformation takes place: the greatest enemy is no longer nature, the force that created this doomsday, but ourselves.

Even when an author posits an uncontrollable cause of the apocalypse, morality returns to precipitate our redemption (or potentially our downfall). Willfully disobedient characters meet their doom. Living villains emerge as eminently more dangerous than the mindless forces of nature. In desperation, humans seem to lose even the most instinctual moral compass; but the few good souls that still walk the earth ultimately, despite heavy losses, prevail. Over time, this benevolence becomes an enforceable law. The Wyatt Earp kill-or-be-killed archetype returns as wartime dictator (sometimes with hints of democracy or pseudo-committee structures). Characters gain specific duties, handed down from Sheriff Rick or the Governor, with occasional advice from advisers. It becomes up to single men to “hold the group together,” and the Horse with no Name archetype becomes nation vs. nation, strongman vs. strongman. We must be careful that, in fleeing for fear of chaos, we do not take refuge in the comforting cage of tyranny.

The Dark Horse

Some fictions attack the morality problem head on by immediately presenting the apocalyptic threat as a faction of humans. This is the most common form that the conspiracist view of history takes: some evil group is the single enemy of all, and through machinations, they will execute a plan to destroy and remake society. Sometimes these are actors at the highest level of government and finance, or, in the case of high-budget Hollywood thrillers and propaganda, a degenerate group of terrorists. When great power falls into the wrong hands, the whole world is in danger. And it’s up to a hero, or a group of them, to save us.

2012’s greatest example of this narrative comes in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan’s Gotham hosts a Straussian police force built on a noble lie, serious organized crime issues, a bloated aristocracy, and a growing underbelly of leftist radicals. Even Batman himself has sunk into malaise. But a balance exists — that is, until the arrival of Bane (the name immediately clarifies his moral position). Batman confronts him, loses, and finds himself at the bottom of a prison in the Middle East (where else?). Meanwhile, Bane captures Wayne Enterprises’ fusion reactor and arms it as a bomb7, hanging it over Gotham’s head like the Sword of Damocles. Under the pretense of freeing Gotham’s citizens, Bane actually plans a nuclear holocaust.

Bruce Wayne’s initial attempts at escaping the prison fail, but he learns of the purpose of Bane’s mask: it dispenses an analgesic gas to ease his constant pain. According to the morphine-addled former prison-doctor, Wayne fails to rise because the support rope allows him to be unafraid of death (Alfred has been warning Wayne of his recklessness since the earliest parts of the film):

Doctor: You do not fear death. You think this makes you strong. It makes you weak.
Bruce Wayne: Why?
Doctor: How can you move faster than possible, fight longer than possible without the most powerful impulse of the spirit: the fear of death?
Bruce Wayne: I do fear death. I fear dying in here while my city burns.
Doctor: Then make the climb.
Bruce Wayne: How?
Doctor: As the child did. Without the rope. Then fear will find you again.

So the polar forces of this conflict each have a particular fear: Batman eventually rises out of the pit heroically afraid of death, and the apocalyptic Bane assaults Gotham out of fear of the pain of economic struggle and moral decline. Bane’s fear of pain (here presented as the force of evil) propels him to attempt to destroy the metropolis, the overflowing excess of modernity, the seat of financial power and decadence. Batman’s fear of death impels him to preserve Gotham, despite its many faults, saving in the process a busload of innocent orphans, all themselves potential Batmans and Robins (ironically, also potential Banes). In this dichotomy, Nolan presents an initially compelling characterization of what causes apocalyptic desire: the desire to assuage the pain of modernity. Bane’s fearlessness in the face of death paints him as a Machiavellian conspirator, prepared to execute Ra’s al-Ghul’s “destiny” by obliterating the quintessential city, the forge of wealth and poverty, seat of excess and crime.

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series

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