Analytic Theology

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Apocalypto by Mel Gibson

December 8th, 2006 by David Kronemyer · 1 Comment

DAVID KRONEMYER: Well, the reviews are in, and the general consensus is, Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” is (a) the most violent movie ever made; and, (b) all things considered, a pretty good movie. McCarthy, T., “Apocalypto,” Daily Variety (Dec. 1, 2006); Honeycutt, K., “Apocalypto,” Hollywood Reporter (Dec. 1, 2006); Scott, A.O., “The Passion of the Maya,” New York Times (Dec. 8, 2006); Turan, K., “‘Apocalypto’ – Another bloodbath, Mel Gibson’s ‘Apocalypto’ doesn’t miss an impalement or a dismemberment,” Los Angeles Times (Dec. 8, 2006); Morgenstern, J., “Gibson’s Bizarre ‘Apocalypto,’ Tale of the Primitive Maya, Is Violent but Stunning Fable with Enough Gore to Last a Lifetime,” Wall St. Journal (Dec. 8, 2006); as of this writing, there are 706 reviews at the Entertainment section of google.com.

I’m not here to talk about the movie, though. Rather, what interests me is the idea the movie’s epic tale of a civilization in decline eerily mirrors our own. McCarthy: “The greatest mystery surrounding the Mayan civilization is why it collapsed so suddenly. Gibson adroitly lines his film with hints of the numerous possible causes, including famine, disease, drought, increased warfare, a corrupt ruling class and general societal breakdown.” Scott: “The setting is Central America before the arrival of the Spanish, when the Maya empire, in Mr. Gibson’s version, was already in the process of collapsing from within. The basic moral conflict … is between a small group of people trying to live simple, decent, traditional lives and a larger, more powerful political entity driven by bloodlust and greed. This kind of conservative anti-imperialism runs consistently through Mr. Gibson’s work …” Morgenstern: “… the ghastly chaos of a pre-Columbian society that’s grown rotten to the core. (If the screenplay … suggests that any other civilizations are rotting, it’s as the writers intended.).

In his recent book Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), Jared Diamond analyzes this issue in detail. His methodology is to examine prehistoric cultures that “collapsed,” one of which is the Maya. Mr. Diamond attributes a large-scale societal collapse to any one or a combination of five separate factors: (1) damage people inadvertently inflict on their environment; (2) climate change; (3) hostile neighbors; (4) decreased support by friendly neighbors, as opposed to increased attacks by hostile neighbors; and (5) the society’s responses to its problems. Collapse, 11 – 15.

In turn, there were several different ways in which the progress of Maya culture interlaced with this schematic. Population growth outstripped the available resources. Deforestation and hillside erosion caused a decrease in the amount of useable farmland. This lead to increased fighting, as more and more people fought over fewer resources. Climate change exacerbated the underlying agricultural issues. Finally, the kings and nobles failed to recognize and solve these seemingly obvious problems undermining their society. “Their attention was evidently focused on their short-term concerns of enriching themselves, waging wars, erecting monuments, competing with each other, and extracting enough food from the peasants to support all those activities,” 177. [The only factor Mr. Diamond believes wasn’t essential in sustaining the Maya or in causing their downfall is cessation of trade with external friendly societies, 160.]

As with his previous work, Guns, Germs, & Steel (1997), Mr. Diamond does a brilliant job in eschewing “cultural” reasons for a civilization’s decline, as opposed to what we might characterize as “natural” reasons, that is, reasons arriving from, or imposed by, nature itself. For example, Mr. Diamond observes, whereas Egyptian agriculture was sufficiently efficient for a peasant to produce five times the food required for himself and his family; whereas for the Maya, it was only twice as much. Furthermore, the dominant crop was corn, which yielded far less protein than old-world crops such as wheat and barley. Even then, the corn only could be stored for a year, because the climate was so damp; whereas the Anasazi could store it for three years, because the climate was dryer. This is just an illustration; Collapse is chock-full of other examples.

While Mr. Diamond rightly has focused on collapses, which provide salience in their examples, I believe his approach is the only proper way to analyze the growth of civilizations, too. Any explanation depending upon reference to cultural artifacts, such as language, is inherently circular. Thus, for example, one of my interests is in discerning just why it is primitive cultures came to believe in a god, or gods. Analyses like the one proffered in Hamer, D., The God Gene – How Faith Is Hardwired Into Our Genes (2004) offer no help. It is nonsense to postulate the existence of such a “gene,” just like it is ludicrous to think humans have an “innate” capacity to learn language, as claimed, for example, by Noam Chomsky in Language and Mind (1968). Rather, it’s necessary to examine the real-world conditions the primitive society confronted, and how their evolution of cultural traits was an adaptive response to those conditions, combined with welfare-maximizing choices among competing alternatives. E.g. you pray to God X for rain, but if rain doesn’t come, you start praying to God Y.

While I doubt Mr. Gibson has read Mr. Diamond’s book (though he really should), I have little doubt but that Mr. Diamond will be in attendance at an early screening of Mr. Gibson’s movie. The reason why I say this is because, whether by chance or design, Mr. Gibson seems to have stumbled across most of Mr. Diamond’s factors. In a way, “Apocalypto” is a dramatization of those factors.

I have one more concern about the movie. In his review, Mr. Turan states: “[T]he reality of “Apocalypto” is that this film is in fact Exhibit A of the rot from within that Gibson is worried about. If our society is in moral peril, the amount of stomach-turning violence that we think is just fine to put on screen is by any sane measure a major aspect of that decline. Mel, no one in your entourage is going to tell you this, but you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. A big part.”

I concur with Mr. Turan, “Apocalypto” is concerned with a civilization’s decline and fall. I also concur with him that, in a way, it may be seen as a metaphor for our own civilization and culture. However, I must disagree with him that, by dramatizing this point, Mr. Gibson in fact contributes to this decline. I believe Mr. Turan has made an elementary category error, of the same nature as the kind identified by Bertrand Russell in his theory of types.

Put simply, it is inappropriate (and, in fact, unintelligible) to evaluate any phenomenon using its own assumptions, principles, and rules of discourse. The reason why is because both sides of the equation comprise (or rely upon) some, or all, of the same ascriptive predicates. The analysis therefore is inherently circular; it confuses the definiens with the definiendum (that which is defining, with that which is being defined). Instead, one must adopt a different perspective, a “meta”-perspective, one layer removed from the activity, or event, itself.

As applied to “Apocalypto,” Mr. Turan effectively equates the theatrical depiction of {violence in the movie} with the real-world phenomena of {violence in society}, {the decline of cultural mores}, {the corruption of youth playing video games such as “Grand Theft Auto”} – pick one or more, or make up your own. This isn’t a valid syllogism. We all can agree extreme violence is wrong, and the primitive Maya were a rather disturbing bunch. Mr. Turan shouldn’t condemn Mr. Gibson, though, for making a movie graphically illustrating this fact, particularly if (as Mr. Turan concedes) the movie is intended as a commentary on violence itself.