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“Like legend and myth, magic fades when it is unused — hence all the old tales of elfin kingdoms moving further and further away from our world, or that magical beings require our faith, our belief in their existence, to survive. That is a lie. All they require is our recognition” ― Charles de Lint

Don't let "The Man" oppress your folklore!

Don’t let “The Man” oppress your folklore!

We are after all animals.  Well I am at any rate.  Perhaps you’re a little more civilized.  I don’t like to pass judgment, but despite all our cool gadgetry and elaborate philosophies, most of us embrace a few residual elements of our beastly inheritance.  Maybe you’ve shed your fondness for raw meat and marking your territory (at least in the traditional excretory sense), but rest assured one aspect of the higher mammalian repertoire that we’ve retained is our acute awareness of the dominance hierarchy, that is, our social status in relation to other individuals concretely expressed in preferential access to resources (food, mates, the best place to lay our weary heads) at the expense of our compatriots.  The alpha wolf gets the biggest bone, so to speak, even if the beta wolf goes hungry.  Expressions of the human dominance hierarchy are ubiquitous, and as we have in most cases moved beyond ripping each other’s throats out to maintain the pecking order, we tend to express dominance through what we politely refer to as “social status”, signaled by subtle cues like the clothes we wear, the neighborhoods we live in, the schools our children go to, and even the way in which we use language.  Unsurprisingly, this similarly permeates discourse on anomalies through the insidious dismissiveness of the declaration that something is not real and merely “folklore”.

Should you doubt that class distinctions are fundamental to human interaction, one can unearth this endless jockeying for prized social position in even the unlikeliest of places, as observed by cultural historian Paul Fussell in his book Class when he said, “There seems no place where hierarchical status-orderings aren’t discoverable.  Take musical instruments.  In a symphony orchestra the customary ranking of sections recognizes the difficulty and degree of subtlety of various kinds of instruments: strings are on top, woodwinds just below, then brass, and at the bottom, percussion.  On a difficulty scale, the accordion is near the bottom, violin near the top.  Another way of assigning something like ‘social class’ to instruments is to consider the prestige of the group in which the instrument is customarily played.  As the composer Edward T. Cone says, if you play a violin, you can play in a string quartet or a symphony orchestra, but not in a jazz band and certainly not in a marching band.  Among woodwinds, therefore, flute and oboe, which are primarily symphonic instruments, are ‘better’, than the clarinet, which can be symphonic, jazz, or band.  Among brasses, the French horn ranks highest because it hasn’t customarily been used in jazz.  Among percussionists, tympani is high for the same reason” (Fussell, 1992, p21-22).  Now, clearly mastery of any kind of instrument is a subtle art and such fine distinctions between social status could not really be a function of the physical object itself, rather an application of the psychology of human stratification.  Except for you plebian bassoonists.  Always getting drunk on cheap beer and crashing parties.  Have some manners.

I’ve been watching discussions of the recent rash of reported sightings of Slenderman from Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, England with this commie pinko rhetoric in mind.  Yes, I know that Slenderman is the creepy invention of those wacky folks over at the Something Awful website, but have puzzled at length over the tension between “facticity” vs. “authenticity” in regards to Mr. Slender (see “Black-Eyed Children and Slender Men: Waiter, There’s Some Emic in My Etic”), but as the discussion of Cannock Chase has progressed, I realized that the argument was much more nuanced and rooted in the maintenance of an anomalistic dominance hierarchy, that is, some bizarre things are worthy of consideration, and others are prima facie dismissible.  Even among those aficionados of the deep weird, this results in a ruthless sorting process that identifies some occurrences as “strange phenomena” and relegates others to “folklore”, folklore translating as code for things that the unwashed masses uncritically accept under the intoxicating influence of culture.  This is not to say that anyone who endeavors to explain the folkloric nature of Slenderman is an evil agent of the class war.  That would just be silly, and besides we reserve that global appellation for people from Kansas or employees of Fox News.  Consider instead that the class war in the Information Age has evolved into a struggle between the technological haves and have nots.  Is this sounding a little too “Unibombery”?  Don’t worry, I haven’t paid off the mortgage on the cabin in Montana just yet.  The modern way in which we control social status is through the control of information.  Our technocratic elites are those with a mastery of technology and technique, and thus the arbiters of “real” information.  This has extended into the world of the Fortean, where the greater accessibility of a wide variety of folklore that might once have been communicated in oral traditions are now available at the click of a button, and thus the technocratic underclass, always suspected of gullibility, superstition, and increased susceptibility to the power of suggestion, can be safely characterized as genuine but unwitting dupes, rather than witnesses or informants, just as the Marxist theologians celebrated the authenticity of the proletariat, while simultaneously pointing out that the ignorant masses did not understand their own alienation from the means of production, and thus allowed themselves to be oppressed by robber barons.

In anomalistics, credibility and class seem to have always been inextricably related.  Certainly there a lot of reasons to dismiss the Cannock Chase flap, but the oft quoted Frank J. Sulloway soundbyte that “Anecdotes do not make a science. Ten anecdotes are no better than one, and a hundred anecdotes are no better than ten”, is misleading, and reflective of no less than the dominance hierarchy within science – natural scientists feel they are more “sciency” than social scientists.  Research psychologists and sociologists regard themselves as superior scientists (based on their more frequent use of quantitative methods) than anthropologists.  Even skeptic parapsychologists maintain class consciousness of their superiority to ghost hunters.  And everybody sneers at the humanities.  Thus when the word “folklore” enters into the equation as an explanation for anecdotal evidence of strange phenomena, its explanatory value is limited to a reflection of class distinctions i.e. “only a dumb peasant (or a hundred of them) would claim to have seen a non-existent monster invented on the internet”, and the mechanism by which they came to this understanding is obviously an over-reliance on folklore.  It would seem that if you choose to examine things that should not exist (whether they exist or not), the standard of fact or folklore as discrete categories derisively and deliberately ignores the alternative of the search for significance.  The lumineferous ether seemed like a good scientific explanation for certain physical facts at the time, but turned out to be theoretically unsound.  Witches may not have been dancing at Sabbats to Satan, but they may have had some useful knowledge of the healing arts, anecdotally that is.  Declaring folklore and fact dichotomous, and identifying “folkloric traditions” as the reason why the common folk might believe in what we self-assuredly know to be untrue (and untrue is more often than not synonymous with insignificant), politely asserts ones place in the intellectual class hierarchy in the guise of being explanatory.  As J.R.R. Tolkein once said, “Pay heed to the tales of old wives. It may well be that they alone keep in memory what it was once needful for the wise to know”.

Fussell, Paul.  Class.  New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1992.