In my last post I briefly mocked Harold Bloom for predicting the end of good literature. To some extent I just wanted to make a pun on his name (“Harold of the Apocalypse”), but I also think that doomsaying is fascinating phenomenon while simultaneously a sort of cognitive fallacy. Whether people predict the whole kit and caboodle going ‘away the crow road’ or just bemoaning the death of some crucial segment of society or culture, its usually because they are not appreciating the full context of what they’re saying. Harold Bloom decries the popularity writers like Stephen King and J. K. Rowling, as if people haven’t been reading crappy literature since the invention of writing. And before that they were telling each other stupid stories, just like everyone does now. Its just that people put less effort into saving the crappy literature, so each generation gets the fun of producing its own. As usual XKCD put this sort of misunderstanding into context the best.
I recently worked with an individual who bemoaned how the current batch of kids don’t get enough contact with nature and are scared of it. He kept repeating that he was terrified to leave the world to them. This is quite a statement for someone to say about kids a decade younger than him, but also shows a certain ignorance. Every generation has been saying complaining about the next for all of recorded history and probably before. Older neanderthals likely complained about the lazy younger generation with their modern gadgetry like fire and spears. While I agree with my colleague that kids need a certain amount of time stomping around in the woods, this generation will figure themselves out just like all the other ones. Every generation has their talents too. Anyone who’s helped their parents with a computer (likely using this formula) is aware that the baby boomers are surprisingly bad at connecting to the internet (I’d mention TV remotes or printers, but neither of those things are ever designed to work intuitively). Curmudgeons bemoaning the death of society through crappy literature, fear of nature, smartphones, or loud music, are usually scared of change and are ignoring the larger context.
But where do predictions of the actual apocalypse come from? It’s not like people stop at worrying about the death of literature, good taste, or intellectualism, humans predict the end of the world on a remarkably regular basis. As one might be inclined to ask someone buying a lottery ticket, why keep doing something that hasn’t worked yet? Throughout recorded history, the end has been predicted again and again. In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson suggested that predicting the end of the world was a symptom of conflating history and cosmology. Cosmology in this sense is an individual’s or society’s understanding of the larger universe, which is almost always a religious conceptualization. And for whatever reason, religions tend to have very clear explanations of how the world got to the present state, but unclear conceptualizations of the future except for an end of some sort. Thus if you start mixing history, comparatively recent recorded events, and cosmology, you will rapidly find the apocalypse looming in your future.
And such conflation is more common than might be obvious. Consider how many times you’ve seen Jesus depicted as white, when he was clearly Middle Eastern. How often do people quote scripture in English, as if it hadn’t been translated in and out of half a dozen languages first? Its no wonder that someone who believes in a white English speaking Jesus would interpret a couple modern events as signs of the end. I suspect there is also a strong element of the curmudgeonly fear of change I mentioned earlier, combined with a melodramatic sense that the world would end with the fall of one society or civilization. In Jared Diamond’s Collapse he repeated refers to the destruction of civilizations, often referring to people who are still around. The Mayans are still alive and would be very offended if you told them that they didn’t exist any more. They would probably also make fun of anyone who thought that their calendar predicted the end of the world.
That’s what I think anyway. I’d be curious about other theories explaining the multitude of apocalypses.