Ray Grasse Proposes a Framework for Exploring the Fortean, But It's Pretty Much Zeitgeist Theory Applied to Fringe Believers
When I was in college, one of the pieces of anthropological literature that I had to read was an article called “Baseball Magic” by George Gmelch. The article, a revised version of a 1992 journal article, described the way that baseball players engaged in particular rituals in order to secure favorable game outcomes, under the folk magical theory that performing the same actions before a game—whether eating the same meal or wearing the same clothes or even repeating specific gestures—would produce the same positive outcome. The key is that there is no “empirical correlation” between the ritual and perceived result. The meaning, if any, is entirely in the head of the person performing it.
I couldn’t help but think of the logical error those baseball players commit when I read an article that The Daily Grail posted this week called “Portals of Strangeness” by Ray Grasse. Ostensibly, Grasse’s purpose was to make the case that Fortean phenomena—all the strange things that cause people to take notice of the world around them—have a deep importance because they hold a personal and collective significance for human beings. This, allegedly, justifies the study of Forteana as a phenomenon, with some sort of apparently objective existence as coherent representation of reality.
I will omit the author’s discussion of his astrological beliefs, but it takes little to see a connection between his belief that planets govern human fate and his parallel belief that Fortean anomalies “hold special significance as signposts of transformation and change in our world.”
Anyway, I don’t want to get too bogged down in Grasse’s personal story, which he seeks to universalize. Instead, I’d like to think about his proposed theoretical basis, which he says provides a systematic framework for understanding Fortean phenomena:
To some extent that involves becoming more aware of the larger network of events these phenomena are constellated within, since they inevitably seem enmeshed in larger patterns of significance. But it also requires the added critical step of asking, What do these events mean? For as important as those webs of synchronicity are, they mean little if we don’t make the effort to dig deeper and explore the archetypal meanings involved. Said another way, Fortean phenomena may be best understood as elements within an overarching symbolic worldview.
I trust that most of you can see the mistakes he has made quite easily: He has begun by assuming that Fortean phenomena are a coherent category of events taking place outside our categories of understanding and from that attempted to frame the question in terms of whether weird things hold deep meaning. If we were to start with the opposite assumption, namely, that these so-called phenomena only appear anomalous but are actually natural and merely poorly understood or intentionally misconstrued, then the question of meaning disappears altogether.
At the same time, however, Grasse accidentally comes close to making a good point. There is a constellation of meanings attached to Fortean phenomena, but it is not one that exists in the objective world of facts and matter; instead, it is the meaning that believers in the occult, the New Age, and the outré see in them, imposing onto ambiguous events a framework that has cultural meaning to them but one that is not objectively “real.” It’s sort of like when the Greeks saw the work of dryads and demigods in the actions of nature; indeed, Grasse at one point compares the ancient catalogs of monstrous portents like two-headed animals to Fortean research. But the pagan worldview lacks empirical support—we can find no demigods—and Grasse’s is similarly a fantasy woven into the unusual.
Grasse gives a good example of this when he attempts to analyze the circumstances surrounding the famous film clip that supposedly shows Bigfoot walking through the woods. I’ll leave you to read the whole thing, but he outlines all the material involving themes of wilderness and civilization, human evolution, and (less plausibly) counterculture that occurred in the weeks and months leading up to the creation of the film. “Putting all of these pieces together, the picture that starts coming into focus is indeed one of a powerful force welling up in the collective psyche—a force simultaneously rooted in the intuitive-emotional aspects of our nature as well as our rational faculties.” He’s describing zeitgeist, which is to say the impact of culture, but he attributes it to some sort of mystical power rather than the working of cultural influences and beliefs.
To that end, he offers a very weird claim, that the Fortean is also a method of uncovering the hidden nature of reality:
I’d like to touch briefly on another possible level of significance: the universal. What does that mean? Simply, that Fortean events of the most dramatic kind may be saying something important, perhaps even revolutionary, about the nature of the universe itself. Let me explain. […] Fortean events would represent tears in the fabric of reality, allowing other dimensions to bleed through into ours—a cross-pollinating of unique yet interlocking worlds. Such experiences occur at times that are special to us and filled with numinosity, or what the Greeks described as kairos, experiences of sacred time. At their most dramatic, such events display a quality of archetypal resonance and invite us to expand the boundaries of our consciousness, allowing us to catch momentary glimpses of the larger ocean of possibilities we swim within. In the end, Fortean events may represent portals into a different way of understanding our universe, and ultimately, ourselves.
But does it really? Half the time, he’s talking about cultural fantasies and then at the end he lurches into questions of science, which, if taken as hypotheses, could theoretically fall within the purview of science. Ultimately, his article, as personal and meandering and lacking in rigor as it is, speaks to the nebulous nature of whatever we call the “Fortean”—a mix of unusual but natural events, tall tales, and speculative science. By trying to weave a variety of unrelated events into a coherent worldview—one where the human perspective of strangeness provides a fictive link—Grasse is accidentally creating a cultural myth that he mistakes for a description of reality.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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