As anthropologist Mary Douglas pointed out in Purity and Danger, there's a continuity to experience, whether modern or primitive, that makes all classification systems a fiction and yet all human knowledge depends on arrangements. As any given system of classification must give rise to anomalies, any given culture must confront events which seem to defy its assumptions.
To ignore the anomalies which a society's scheme throws up is to forfeit confidence in that scheme, hence the elaborate rules, rituals and beliefs that shape societal concepts of dirt(disorder) and pollution. In chasing dirt, she says, we are positively re-ordering our environment, making it conform to an idea. There is nothing fearful or unreasoning in dirt avoidance: it is a creative movement, an attempt to relate form to function, to make a unity of experience.
Douglas was talking about physical tidying, both in primitive cultures and in western (wall papering, decorating, tidying), but her comments can be stretched to apply to informational dirt – or infolution if you like.
Replacing 'matter' with 'information' in Douglas' definition of dirt, infolution is information that is out of place (or that has no place) – the by-product of a systematic ordering (rejecting of inappropriate elements) and classification.
The systematic ordering of information is generally achieved through a scheme called news values, whereby editors of newspapers, magazines and television decide according to consensually arrived at priorities of interest. The system is known fascitiously in the UK as dead Belgians don't count, a reference to the fact that people generally care most about events closest to themselves, with concentric rings of diminishing interest spreading outwards.
Culture, the standardised values of a community, mediates the experience of the individual by providing a (Douglas believes positive) pattern in which ideas and values are tidily ordered.
Ambiguous information is treated as if it harmonises with the whole, while discordant information is discarded. If accepted, the structure of our assumptions has to be modified. When something is classified as anomalous the outline of the set it is not a member of is clarified. Sartre, in his essay on viscosity, a contemplation on the aberrant fluid or melting solid (such as treacle) that and the lessons it teaches a child plunging his hands into it about boundaries.
Anomalous information can be therefore be treated negatively (outright rejection) or positively (deliberate confrontation) and create a new pattern.
As time goes by we invest more and more in our system of labels and uncomfortable facts become harder to assimilate. We can, do, and should force attention on to the ambiguity and the filtering mechanism itself, and it isn't always unpleasant (humour, revulsion, shock, belong at different points on the same scale, and it has been argued that we enjoy art because it enables us to go behind the explicit structures of normal experience). Aesthetic pleasure arises from the perception of inarticulate forms.
Douglas points out that pollution ideas work in the life of a society on two levels, one largely instrumental, one expressive. The first level involves people trying to influence each other's behaviour – social pressure – to conform and legitimise the holders of power. The ideal society is guarded by dangers to transgressors, and the laws of nature are dragged in to sanction the moral code.
She points out as number of ways in which society guards itself against transgressors. One is that by settling for one or other interpretation, ambiguity is often reduced. For example, when a monstrous birth occurs, the defining lines between human and animals may be threatened. The Nuer of the Sudan treat such
births as baby hippos accidentally born to humans. The appropriate action is to put them back in the river where they belong.
The existence of anomaly can also be physically controlled. A night crowing cock has its neck rung, so as not to contradict the fact that all cocks crow at dawn.
A rule of avoiding anomalous things affirms and strengthens the definitions to which they do not conform. Leviticus's abhorration of things that crawl is merely the negative side of the pattern of things approved.
Anomalous events can be labelled as dangerous. Attributing danger is one way of putting something beyond dispute, while helping enforce conformity.
Anomolies can also be used – as they are in poety and mythology – to enrich meaning or call attention to other levels of existence.
All these rules, Douglas says, apply equally to moderns and primitives, except that in the former, they are applied in a more disjointed manner to separated areas of existence, in the latter, society is more circumscribed, more cohesive.
The mainstream media tend to treat anomalous events as ridiculous or dangerous to contemplate. Events that seriously challenge our core view of the world (ufo sightings, unexplained events, paranormal).
Fortean Times attempts to collect and explain them, using myth and science. It was founded in 1973 to continue the work of Charles Fort (1874-1932), an eccentric New Yorker born of Dutch immigrant parents. Fort was sceptical about scientific explanations, observing how scientists tended to for and against theories and phenomena according to their own beliefs rather than the rules of evidence. He was appalled that data not fitting collective paradigm was ignored, suppressed, discredited or explained away.
Making his dictum You measure a circle beginning anywhere, Fort set out to attack the very roots of conformity and credulousness. He spent the rest of his life researching strange phenomena in the cuttings files of libraries in the USA and Britain, amassing tens of thousands of notes, writing books (most famously The Book of the Damned), getting depressed and burning his notes, then starting again.
And hence '''Fortean' Times, the Journal of Strange Phenomena,'' Published in London and using a global network of stringers, freelancers, scientists and enthusiasts to collect, cross reference and present the weird shit that goes on. And a great read it is too.
The backbone, and most fun part of the mag, is its Strange Days, a 16-page round-up of bizarre coincidences, accidents and freak events, Swedish horse ripping incidents, demoniacally-possessed computers, icons that weep blood, cats that walked 1,000 miles home, pony-tail snipping strangers amok in Rio de Janeiro, pregnant 90-year-olds.
Scrupulously referenced and cross referenced, it can be an amusing, sometimes even unsettling experience to read a two page round up of Lost City stories, or frog-raining incidents from around the world.
The rest of the mag is devoted to a wide variety of more in-depth stories, such as an analysis of Spielberg's movies for their Fortean content, or an interpretation along folkloric lines of mass culture phenomena, such as why the sudden spate of life-after-death movies a couple of years ago.
Besides its cataloguing or descriptive function, FT also attempts to get to the root of such phenomena, sorting out the urban folklore from the hoaxes from the genuinely unexplained, weighing up contradictory theories (say, of crop circle formation or cryptozoology), as well as presenting the latest ideas from the
'serious' side of paranormal research.
There are Fortean extracts from archaic magazines such as the Gentlemans Quarterley and the Oswestry Advertiser, showing that bizarre phenomena are not the strict preserve of the modern age.
Don't get the impression that FT is some kooky compilation put together by a bunch of acid casualties and credulous New Agers - that is not the effect that comes over. Rather, the overall effect of reading FT spans incredulousness and hilarity, and occasionally gives genuine food for thought.