Qunfuz

Robin Yassin-Kassab

Apocalypto

with 2 comments

The end times are everywhere. The country where millenarian fundamentalists have the most sway over foreign policy is probably the United States. That means the Empire is partially run by people for whom ‘Bring it on!’ has cosmic connotations. For America’s Christian Zionists, the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was a clear sign that the end is near. Many have it carefully mapped out, from Rapture to Armageddon. And these days the apocalypse is almost as popular amongst Muslims. Many Sunnis like to point to the Signs of the Hour which they believe are already in place; my favourite, and one which is hard to argue with if you’ve visited Dubai or Riyadh, is ‘Beduin will compete in building high towers.’ The one-eyed dajjal or antichrist who will rule before the Mahdi, or guided-one, and the final return of Christ, is seen variously in the single eye of the dollar’s masonic pyramid or in the one-eyed television screen. I’ve even met someone who claims that their cousin saw the Mahdi in Mecca. Shia Muslims identify the Mahdi with the last, and hidden, Imam. Moqtada as-Sadr has frequently explained the build-up of US forces in the region over the past decade and a half as preparation of a rapid-reaction force to take on Imam al-Mahdi. The explosion in the shrine at Samara, the place where the final Imam was last seen, and chaos throughout Iraq – the holy land of Shiism – has naturally encouraged apocalypticism among Shia Muslims. But apocalypticism goes beyond the monotheisms. For some Hindus, we are reaching the end of Kali Yag, the age of darkness, which means this cycle of history is approaching a full stop. Doomsday cults thrive in Japan and Russia. Mayan prophecies locate the end in 2012. And, of course, environmentalists describe a hotter near future in which what we call civilisation could totally collapse, billions of us could die, and most of the world could become uninhabitable.

People have always worried about the apocalypse. An Assyrian clay tablet of 2800 BC says, “Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end.” But we seem to be having a spike in apocalypse-fantasies at the moment. There are good reasons for this.

Firstly, the power balance in the world is shifting dramatically. It’s a good bet that even if we are still here in a century, the world will look completely different. The West has been dominant for the last 500 years, to the extent that everybody now wears Western clothes, consumes Western cultural products, studies English, models their architecture, technology, state machineries and legal systems on Western prototypes. This century will see power shift decisively to China, India and other non-Western centres. It’s not at all clear what the consequences of this will be, but it’s natural that people’s dim sense of the huge change will expand to earth-shaking size.

Secondly, people everywhere feel lost, and frequently seek nihilistic compensations (fascism, Wahhabism, hedonist-consumerism, etc…), as they have been uprooted from their traditions and past. I include in this category young British people who don’t know the Bible or English literature, and therefore are disconnected from the long tradition of their culture, as much as tribesmen of the Southern Arabian peninsula who suddenly have no idea how to live without air conditioning and MTV, and who wouldn’t recognise desert poetry if it bit them on the nose. If your cultural rootedness reaches as far back as Britney Spears’ first release, it’s hard to conceptualise a non-exploding future.

Thirdly, the world capitalist system, to which there doesn’t seem to be any serious alternative, is clearly unsustainable. Marx’s suggestions about how to replace capitalism have all been discredited, but much of his basic criticism seems sounder now than ever before. Capitalism would be fine if it got stuck at the level of small business – a set-up which seems to me to be conducive of democracy and social responsibility – but capital inevitably concentrates, and corporations or state complexes take over. These cause ever bloodier and bigger wars. And the international concentration of capital is continuing apace. Marx said capitalism would inevitably morph into imperialism as capital seeks more capital and more markets. Well, look at the world. Marx said capitalism will inevitably commodify the natural environment and the human soul. Again, look about you.

Finally, there’s global warming, the environmental apocalypse. There is now very nearly consensus among scientists, although not among popular media and corporate-sponsored lobbyists, that climate change is happening very rapidly and is caused by our economic activity. If there is a 4 degree C increase in temperature over the century, as seems likely, our world will become significantly harsher even for the best-placed people. If there is a 6 degree increase, the scenario really is semi-apocalyptic. So what are we doing about it? Renouncing capitalism? Learning desert survival skills? Banning cars, planes, electric light and computers? Well, a few of us are buying energy-saving lightbulbs.

The more I talk about it the more convincing the prospect of apocalypse becomes. So it’s apt that Mel Gibson’s latest film, Apocalypto, addresses the issue head on. Gibson has hinted that Apocalypto is a critique of contemporary Western civilisation, specifically of the Iraq war. But that’s bollocks. What it really is is a celebration of Catholic imperialism as the answer to our problems. As such, it is much more problem than solution. The film mashes history to conflate Mayan and Aztec civilisations, implies that the great American city states were intact when Europeans arrived (in fact they collapsed centuries before), and portrays native Americans as, one the one hand, noble savages with an inarticulate, intuitive grasp of Catholic liturgy and, on the other, ignoble and very scary murderers. Much of the film is an extended chase scene structured around sub-Biblical imagery and prophecies of the end. The end for the wild men and redemption for the Christ-hero comes with the arrival of European ships, of bearded men in robes bearing crosses. The audience can’t help but think ‘Thank God for Christian Europe!’ Reality tells a different tale. Over 90% of native Americans died in the first century of European colonisation. Most of these were killed by European diseases, but many were killed by massacre. Genetic studies of the present population of Colombia, for instance, show what happened. Most Colombians are descendants of a group of European males and native females. So it was straightforward, kill the men or work them till they die, take the women for the bedroom. Not much redemption there.

The violence in the film is at times pornographic, in the sense that you feel Gibson must have actually had an erection while organising it. An example is the part when our hero clubs our villain in the head and blood spurts sideways for a good twenty seconds. The blood lust of the cinematic consumer, of course, is good and redemptive, while the blood lust of the savage Mayan-Aztec human sacrifice is bad and, well, savage.

A note on human sacrifice. Of course, human sacrifice was a grotesque and barbaric means of keeping people loyal to the ‘state,’ and was based on the worst superstition. Such practices are revealed in their spectacular and naked barbarism when you view them from outside the ideological prism in which they are performed. If aliens from the planet Zog were to invade the Earth, slaughter everybody, and burn our books, their archeologists would soon find Auschwitch, where Europeans recently committed mass slaughter for reasons of redemptive purity, or for that matter, Iraq, where hundreds of thousands have been killed in a slaughter sparked in the name of Democracy and Civilisation. Some of the worst superstitions.

If the Zog people wait a century, perhaps they won’t need to bother slaughtering us.

I should say before I go that Apocalypto is a wonderfully well-made, tremendously exciting and often beautiful film. Recommended, so long as genocidal reality doesn’t get in your way.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 3, 2007 at 8:31 am

2 Responses

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  1. Qunfuz,

    Interesting and erudite analysis, as always. God save us from fundamentalists of all stripes. To them “bring it on” also implies “by any means necessary”. The result is the mayhem we are seeing around us -witness the 130 killed in a single truck bomb yesterday. Clearly people other than Mel Gibson are also getting a hard on from the sight of blood.

    You last two lines trying to resuscitate Apocalypto after you bludgeoned it, left me unconvinced. I hate gratuitous violence almost as much as Eurocentric portrayals of “noble savages”.

    abu kareem

    February 4, 2007 at 1:34 pm

  2. I have to say my perceptions of that film were slightly different. I watched it in Woolwich which has a much higher “ethnic” mix than elsewhere in London and peoples reactions at the end of the film were quite revealing. When his wife asks him if they should go to the strange things in the sea, most people (annoyingly) shouted out no! Recognising the dread that these Europeans were bringing to South America. I was very interested in your talk about a shift in emphasis from Western European Dominance to a Chinese/non-Western culture. Have you read much about Wallerstein? He has some interesting conclusions which he has built up on from the work of the historian Braudel. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on them. Also, perhaps at this time one would do well to remember Ibn Khaldouns argument that each culture carries within it the seeds of its own destruction as it’s elites lose their own “assabiyah” and are overtaken by those more eager and hungry for dominance.

    Wassim

    February 5, 2007 at 5:55 pm


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