2012 @ Journal of Contemporary Religion

There’s a review of my book 2012 in the new issue of Journal of Contemporary Religion. Pretty hard to tell whether the reviewer liked or disliked it, but a review’s always better than no review 😉

Review:
Am I the only person who thought there was no substantive difference between 20 December 2012, 21 December 2012, and 22 December 2012? At least from reading this edited volume, I can say that I am not that person any more. At the same time, I am left entirely unpersuaded—although I may venture out to look at the sky on 21 December 2012, just to say I saw it.
As an edited volume, this book offers a variety of perspectives on the putative Maya calendar prediction that the night of 21 December 2012 will not only be the “end of the Maya calendar”, but also in some way or other “bring about a catastrophic destruction of the world and/or a radical renovation of human consciousness”, in the words of Robert Sitler whose 2006 article in Nova Religio, which is updated in reprint here (the only reprint in the volume), in many respects can be said to have introduced this prophecy phenomenon to formal scholarship in the study of religion. Subtitled “New Uses for an Ancient Maya Calendar”, the chapter highlights that the prophecy has moved in at least two directions: one is a relatively straight reading of world destruction or destruction of the-world-as-we-know-it, with tangible, immediate geographic consequences that will likely entail the loss of both animal and human life on a dramatic scale; the other reading is a softer one, connected with New Age visions of a different human world order, a sort of Haight-Ashbury gone global. One of the virtues or vices of the book is that these two visions sort of compete with each other through the chapters, although the ‘softer’ New Age one seems to win out at the end, although not in a triumphalist way.
As with all collections, different chapters will strike different readers as more or less worthwhile, depending on what the reader brings to the volume. I particularly appreciated the introduction to the Maya prophecies by Mark Van Stone in Chapter 3, which includes drawings as well as text. I confess that I still do not understand them very well, but at least I could follow along. Without the drawings, I would have been totally lost. John Hoopes in Chapter 4 begins to lay out the connection with the New Age side of the phenomenon, which returned me to personalities I had encountered in my work on Spiritualism, not least the indomitable Helena Blavatsky, who always seems to end up in the middle of these ventures. Hoopes notes that in the New Age guise, this becomes “modern mythology—telling stories with moral intent 
 an ‘eternal return’ to a ‘primordial tradition’ that represents a pristine and uncorrupted state of being 
 the use of the Maya calendar as a tool of self-aggrandizement by individuals in an ongoing drama of political posturing, economic opportunism and struggles for power” (56). As Pete Lentini writes in the following chapter, “The 2012 Milieu?”, these actors create groups that “advocate and promote the legitimacy of stigmatized knowledge” and therein he makes analytical reference to Colin Campbell’s concept of the ‘cultic milieu’, noting that “the means of communication and interaction are crucial for the cultic milieu reproducing itself” (60–1). What is particularly interesting about this phenomenon in the present case, as contrasted with both Campbell’s work and my own, is the combination of both mainstream formal media and all the various Net options—not least videos posted to sites like YouTube. More than one chapter is devoted to using these sites as foci for research on the phenomenon, especially in the New Age sense. While the Net strategy may not be perfect, it does give the option of quantitative analysis of the development of a social phenomenon over time.
Some of the following chapters are devoted to the analysis of creative literary and film productions inspired by the 2012 predictions. Others look more closely at the New Age aspects. For example, Graham St John in “2012, Visionary Arts and Psytrance Culture” looks at movements from the 1960s to the present that have presented the Maya as “a time schedule for consciousness-evolution” and “the New Spiritual trajectory” that “embraces a ‘radical immanence’”, particularly through the Dreamspell Calendar associated with JosĂ© AgrĂŒelles, who is in many respects an agent for his own programme, the Foundation for the Law of Time, and a major (re)inventor of the new ‘psytrance culture’ of the Maya, tying to the US west coast, particularly to Haight-Ashbury (129ff), but with particular effect in Australasia, as Joseph Gelfer notes, not least because there are still at least semi-aboriginal peoples in both Australia and New Zealand, who can serve as a contemporary reference for the imagined Maya.
Other than the opening chapters that orientated me, I most appreciated, however, John Major Jenkins’s concluding chapter, “Approaching 2012: Modern Misconceptions versus Reconstructing Ancient Maya Perspectives”, which is preeminently a critique of the popular literature on the Maya calendar problematic: “many popular writers on 2012 are content to invent their own clever models, with only the barest reference to the facts of Maya calendar tradition, apparently concerned primarily with proffering their own trademarked systems to carve out a market share of the burgeoning 2012 cottage industry. Today, the 2012 discussion is largely swamped with showbiz and exploitation, fed by the mass media.” (165) What we have presently as a result are two almost entirely different 2012 scenarios: one is focused on the prophecy as found in actual Maya ruins/relics and what observable geo-cosmic events will occur on or about 21 December 2012; the other is an adaptation of that to postmodernity, which in its present circumstances is foundationally a-historical and more psycho-social than cosmological. It is also, as far as I can determine, not falsifiable by the tools of the social sciences.
WILLIAM H. SWATOS, JR.
Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University, Baylor, USA