One sure-fire way to test the legitimacy of the 2012 predictions stuff you might be reading is to look at the language the author uses to describe these folks who supposedly predicted the end of the world on Dec 21, 2012. The scholarly world refer to the ancient and contemporary people of Mesoamerica who, starting around 4,000 years ago, created a magnificent and complex civilization that continues to this day. The proper term for these people, at least in scholarly language, is “Maya” (the contemporary Maya have other terms for who they are, but that is another part of the story). The word is not “Mayan.” If your newspaper or magazine article or blog or tweet says, “Mayan” that person has not done their homework. Even Wikipedia gets the “Maya” and “Mayan” distinction correct (having been corrected many times by knowledgable editors over the years). It’s Maya, both singular and plural; the term Mayan refers to the languages spoken by these people and may also refer to scholars who study them, the Mayanists. By the way, if linguistics isn’t your thing, use this other test: if they talk about the Lost Continent of Atlantis or ancient astronauts and extraterrestrials, run for the hills!

Every bogus prediction uses the term Mayan. It is like some uncontrollable tic, which is kind of nice because it is like a red flag going up for you, dear reader. But there is another problem that is beginning to surface, which is that acknowledging the existence of real Maya people doesn’t matter. Recently I had a discussion with some fellow members of my 3D modeling community at the DAZ 3D site (here is the link but you may have to be a member of the community to see it: Calendar Stone discussion). The question was whether the model offered for sale, called Mayan 2012, should have been based on an Aztec calendar stone instead of something specifically Maya.

Although I had no dispute with the quality of the model (and actually purchased it), and the description of it by the designer is appropriately vague, it is another example of mashing up all things south of the border and remote in time. That this is not a Maya image he is using, but an Aztec one, is what I pointed out. The reaction and conversation should tell us, anthropologists, just how we have failed to help educate the world about the wonders of diverse cultures. The discussants basically dismissed the need to distinguish the Maya and the Aztec, arguing they are the same or that ethnicity or cultural identity or historical accuracy is not important.

People are used to make labels on everything and everything is based on theories . Yesterday they called them Aztecs today they are Mexican and tomorrow God know what else ..

 

I always understood that he Aztec calendar was based on the Mayan Calendar anyway.Who cares? I bought it and I love it.I’m sure anyone who needed a genuine Mayan calendar would know straight away what this was because it’s far more famous visually than a Mayan calendar.

And it is often used as a symbol for the Mayan Calendar.

 

 

Ethnicity really does not matter.

 

This next one especially disturbs me because she was an anthropology major!

Don’t worry about mixing up Aztec and Maya. It happens all the time and we are all fair game to human error. I’m a former history/anthropology major and this little mix up didn’t upset me in the least. You got the right general area and era so I give you props for that. Smile

Check out the work of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center for a sense of why acknowledging heritage and identity is an important act. I will be starting a pop culture blog on heritage to tie this in to examples like this one here.

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I spent a great deal of effort avoiding the pre-release hype surrounding Avatar. I didn’t go to the Comic-Con session about it or read any of the online buzz or previews or reviews or interviews. The reason I did this is because I wanted to give this movie a chance to win me over when I finally got to see it. I wanted it to work. I really did.

I have found the critiques of Avatar fascinating. As The New York Times described on its front page, people are reading all sorts of messages into the movie, from the most socially conservative to the most philosophically radical. This, I think, is the measure of a good movie (that is, a movie that is good to “think with”). This kind of flexibility is not a weakness but a gift, the kind good movies give us: the excuse to talk about things that need to be talked about.

As I describe to my students (in a course called “Anthropology and the Cinema”), the meaning of a movie does not reside in what is actually shown on the screen. The meaning of a movie is only created by our using it: thinking about it, talking about it, imitating it, critiquing it. Avatar isn’t about the White Man’s Burden (or white guilt or the Messiah complex, or whatever you want to call it), or about ecology, or about the evils of militarism and capitalism. We can certainly use it to talk about these things and even though much in Avatar is heavy-handed (“unobtanium,” anyone?), it is still good to think with.

How does it do this? One way is to use a familiar story. Many critics and viewers have expressed concern about the “stolen” story of Avatar. They note that this supposed original take on an alien encounter sounds awfully familiar, like Dances with Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, Pochohantas, or other movies that include oppressed Native Americans rescued by sympathetic white men. But there are no original stories that would resonate with the large audience Avatar has attracted and it is precisely because it is a “stolen” story, one that our culture tells over and over, that it has been popular.

The story is not just one of military vs science, or military vs natives, or commerce vs nature, or animism vs monotheism (that one is from the Vatican). It is actually all of these and more: it uses one of the most common and general themes of American narratives: what happens when we encounter something that is different. How will we act, what will we think and feel? Will we honor our core values or betray our deep fears? Will we be honest, kind, understanding? Will we be open or closed, mean or helpful? We constantly, daily, endlessly test this in our selves and our culture. The movies offer us endless scenarios for testing this out in a virtual universe that has different parameters (blue people instead of some other color, an alien planet instead of next door) and a lot less real-world repercussions for our testing.

The complaints about this movie being like Dances with Wolves, etc, are not wrong, but they are oh so narrow. This movie is also like Cameron’s own Titanic, The Abyss, the Terminator movies, Dark Angel (on TV), or Aliens. It is like Gran Turino and Atonement and The Reader and Slumdog Millionaire and District 9 and every alien movie ever made, not to mention most buddy movies and chick flicks, and Disney animations from Beauty and the Beast to Tarzan. They all ask the same thing: can you love someone who is different, can you work with someone who is different, can you ever understand someone who is different? I don’t know that we can even find a definitive answer to these and other questions; we are just, as humans, always endlessly looking.

So, is Avatar a good movie? You can apply your aesthetic criteria and get one answer and you can apply your political criteria and get another. But if you apply your anthropological criteria–is it good for thinking about what it means to be human–then Avatar succeeds but not, as Cameron claims, because it is unlike any other movie that has ever existed, but rather precisely because it is so like so many other movies that have gone before.

I am not going off to the annual American Anthropological Association meetings until Friday, and then only for a day. In fact, I have not been to the meetings in years. We are a two-anthropologist family (a dangerous enterprise) and it always seemed more important that my husband go and keep us his contacts since he had the tenured position and I simply floated from one temporary teaching job to the next. Now, don’t get all gender-pissed at me: I can uphold my feminist credential against any onslaught but the fact is, we under-employed anthropologists have to pick and choose how we spend our non-existent conference dollars and how we exercise our minor status. The meetings, quite simply, just make me feel bad when I see so many happily employed anthropologists in one place.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t miss the session at 10:15 that Faye Ginsburg is chairing tomorrow (Friday): EXPLORING THE “BOUNDARIES” OF EXPRESSIVE MEDIA IN ANTHROPOLOGY. This is what I do (I think), in my research and my classes and it will be worthwhile hearing how other people are doing this. The fact is, way too much anthropology for me has become one of two things: an attempt to quantify everything and emulate the hard sciences, or a noble but I think misdirected effort to cozy-up to social work. My research involves talking to people (easy to quantify: today I talked to 10 people) and listen as they tell me how they think their world works. But I don’t feel the need to step in and fix their world or help them see how they can change it. If that condemns me as more of an observer rather than a participant, so be it.

Take offense if you will, but I love applying “old-fashioned” anthropological concepts (worldview, “the Other,” mythology, symbolism, ritual, categorization…) to the most contemporary topics: participatory fan culture, Hollywood blockbusters, and weird everyday stuff like 2012. And this is where the bedwetting comes in. 2012 (the movie) is worthwhile if only as an excuse to really really wreck Los Angeles this time. I saw, with true awe, my old house uplifted on a chunk of expensive realestate and plunged into the sea. The stuff of mythology.

Besides the quiche fiasco I described in my previous blog, there is a framing story that deserves mention. John Cusack plays a divorced dad who picks up his kids for a camping trip. His ex-wife hands him a tote bag that contains “Pull-Ups” (big kid diapers) for his daughter who still wets her bed. This was done in whispers, a shameful thing.

Now what this kid goes through in the next two hours would make anyone wet their pants but she remains fairly calm, protected by a series of heavy-handed symbolic hats. It is not until the end that she announces that she does not need the “Pull-Ups” anymore, thanks dad. I swear, that is the line the movie ends on. Makes you wanna scream, “It’s a damned good thing, kid, because that factory is probably lava-encrusted by now.” Is this the best story we can come up with about what is important at the end/ends of the world (of anthropology?). Maybe it’s a good thing the diaper factory is gone. Maybe we will learn to “Depend” less on the things that make us ashamed to put on our symbolic hats and face the apocalypse.

The greatest threat to the future of humankind has been revealed. It is quiche. Again. You remember  the social threats of quiche, don’t you? In the 1980s, “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche” was a satirical book about masculinity and what makes a real man easily identifiable was that he didn’t eat girly foods like quiche. Manly men ate red meat. Most of those manly beef-eaters are now probably dead, but that is another story. “Real men don’t eat quiche” was a cultural truism at the time and it was easy to identify the wimpy, effeminate, maybe-gay men like actor Alan Alda and talk show host Phil Donahue, and any man who was sensitive and kind. They were the men who ate quiche. In the 2000s they were metrosexuals. Who knows where they are hiding today.

I have a handmade sign in my office that I picked up off the floor at a professional wrestling match  from the same time period. I was studying wrestling and the Wild Samoans were a fascinating team: big burly guys who were supposedly semi-primitive fellows from Samoa. Not under any circumstances were they guys you would want to cross. The discarded fan’s sign read, “Samoans  eat quiche.” It was the ultimate insult of the time  and I hope the guy ran after he waved that sign.

So, when I heard in the new movie 2012 that quiche was once again the threat that this time would cause the earth to upheave and humans to build new arks complete with giraffes and rich Middle Easterners, I should not have been surprised. But of all the wacky things that this wacky movie pronounces, it is the renewal of the fear of quiche (and bedwetting, but more on that later) that was the most disconcerting.

I am using pronounce literally here. In the beginning of the movie, a television journalist is reporting on the suicides that have just taken place at Tikal (pronounced, oddly, “tickle”), an ancient site of the Maya civilization. This mass suicide is due to the predictions of the end of the world that would take place on December 21, 2012. The source of the predictions is supposedly the “Mayan Quiche calendar.” The word Quiche is pronounced “keesh” like the egg pie. So for the next two hours and 30 minutes I am thinking about girly brunch food raining down on an unsuspecting world.

There has been plenty of debunking of the 2012 predictions and most of them do a good job of explaining that like all calendars the Maya one is cyclical and has beginnings and ending that are marked but not that result in the world melting into its core. So, I will tackle here instead the language used in 2012. First, I love disaster movies and it is hard to rile me while I am watching floods and earth fissures and ash storms devour human beings. But 2012 is not honest to its form. The best disaster movies are carefully researched “what if” scenarios and a big part of making “what if” worlds believable is getting the language right.

So quiche, that sort-of-French dish that is an egg and custard and cheese pie, is pronounced “keesh.” It is not a dish of the Maya, ancient or otherwise. The word the reporter in 2012 mispronounced and that the movie misunderstood is Quiché (with an accent) and pronouced keech-chay. The Quiché (or K’iché’) are one one of several Maya people who still live in Mexico and Central America. You will notice I said “Maya” and not “Mayan.” The people are called Maya, singular and plural. The civilization is called “Maya” and the calendar is a “Maya” calendar. The term “Mayan” is not a generic adjective. “Mayan” is generally restricted to the languages of these people: “Mayan” to refer collectively to the languages of all the Maya people, K’iché’ Mayan to refer to the specific language of the K’iché’ people. How hard would it have been to call up an expert on the ancient Maya culture to find this out?

Most people, of course, didn’t get annoyed by this and spent the rest of the movie watching people fall into abyss after abyss as the world fulfilled the ancient quiche’s prediction. I pictured a bubbling crusted pie opening a slit (like Harry Potter’s sorting hat) and proclaiming the end of the world, with male quiche-eaters the first to go. By the way, there was not one Maya person depicted in the film so clearly this prediction was not coming from the Maya people but from the brunch food that had apparently escaped from the 1980s.

Mayan Quiche.  Serve it at your next “girly-man” event.