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“But the world is growing older, and, as it grows older, growing on the whole less frivolous. We are getting serious now, not only about Business, but also about Science. For we have been slowly altering our attitude towards Knowledge. When Knowledge was first invented, the game was thought too hard, and after trying it a little the East soon lapsed into the indolent conclusion that it was the source of all evil, leading to labour and the fall of man. Then the Greeks took it up gaily as a game, and played it with great zeal, until the world wearied of the “beauty” of useless knowledge and bethought itself of “saving” souls. This latter game endured for many centuries, right through the merry middle ages, when men sinned recklessly, and as recklessly repented (at a ruinous cost to their heirs), until Bacon harnessed the divine steed of Science to the chariot of Progress” – F.C.S. Schiller

Our marketing plan is otherworldly.

Our marketing plan is otherworldly.

Lately, I’ve been oddly irritated by the conflation of “Weird News” with Forteana, mostly because the equation of stupid human tricks with the mysteries of the universe manifests the subtle subtext that curiosity about damned data is a function of human ignorance, lumping the headlines for dumb crimes, anatomical oddities, sexual deviance, bigfoot sightings, and unidentified flying objects into an amorphous mass of light entertainment.  Not that entertainment is a bad thing.  Once the nuts and berries have been collected, and the Mastodon is on the barbecue, we all like to kick back and hear tell of the strange things afoot in the world, be they stories of gods and monsters or cautionary tales revolving around the ridiculously poor judgment of our fellow man. The recent resurgence of strange phenomena as entertainment is easily discernible in the current propagation of television shows with anomalistic themes, from Ancient Aliens to UFO Hunters to the endless stream of “true ghost” stories, and monster-themed reality TV.  The modern media megacorporations don’t generally waste their time on things that don’t make bundles of money, which is superficially good news for those with a day job and a Fortean hobby as a sideline, making us think that maybe there is a way to make a decent living seriously exploring the fringes.  This, of course, would be utterly untrue.  One can certainly get a limited measure of fame, infamy, or notoriety, maybe even sell a few books or get invited to speak at conferences with important sounding names, but classification of existential aberrations as “entertainment” confines anomalistics to an intellectual ghetto.  Certainly, there is always profit to be made from both silliness and sobriety, but the mutually exclusive choice between materialism and mysticism is no choice at all.  While, Forteana has been “productized”, it has not been commercialized, an odd distinction, but one over which science has mastery, that is, the theoretical must be made practical, or as philosopher F.C.S. Schiller said, “In science, when an alleged discovery is disputed, it is not the custom to indulge in subtle dialectics to decide whether the original evidence, say for wireless telegraphy, or telegony, or radium, or N-rays, or seedless apples, was or was not good enough to preclude all cavil; but those who believe in the new facts simply continue their work and perfect their methods, until the practical success of their discovery puts its reality beyond question” (Schiller, 1905, p15).  Perhaps anomalists should seek to produce practical results, not data (as we have plenty of that), but tangible and reproducible improvements in human existence.  In short, until inquiry into the strange can build a better philosophical or practical mousetrap, it will be relegated to page six.

In 1905, F.C.S. Schiller concluded that the science of the future might well lay within the occultist spirit of the age, but part of the problem was the tradition of mystery schools and esotericists hiding their knowledge, while everyone else presumed that they had nothing of value to hide.  This also abrogated control over discourse about the occult, spiritualism, and all the Fortean phenomena of the millennia to Science, which as it is reasonably concerned with determining what is possible, is expressly unconcerned and mocking of inquiry that proceeds from what is impossible, yet nonetheless occurs, as well as to hoaxsters who wanted to use the “product” to make a quick buck and slide out of town on their ill-gotten gains.  Yet, the occult and the esoteric have always been science yet undiscovered, sometimes insightful, and sometimes just plain wrong, but often mistakenly rewritten as the ignorant daydreams of our forefathers or stumblings about in the dark of smart, but woefully non-modern investigators of natural phenomena.

It seems, therefore, that the occasion is appropriate for considering how the inevitable process of reducing the “occult” to humdrum “science” may be forwarded. For I am not only serious-minded myself (albeit circumstances have sometimes compelled me to descend to levities of expression), but also most anxious to encourage the spirit of the age. I therefore feel it to be my duty to point out emphatically that the “occult” can never become scientifically established until it becomes a commercial success, and that to render it the latter is the most expeditious means of getting it recognised as the former. Whoever, therefore, holds that in “occultism” lies potential science should labour to develop its practical and commercial aspects, to discover methods which can be patented, and perhaps even brought out by a limited company and quoted on the Stock Exchange.  I say this thus coarsely, although I know that my suggestion will be repudiated with the fiercest indignation and denounced as an atrocious profanation by a multitude of patient “students” of various branches of the “occult” who have long grown accustomed to seclude their “phenomena” from the public gaze, and would find nothing more embarrassing than a sudden conversion of the world to their ideas. But once we consent seriously to face the facts of the situation we shall find (1) that there is no other way, and (2) no analogy to follow, but that of science. There is no other way, because (1) there is at present more social prejudice against researchings into the “occult” than researchers could remove in a thousand years by purely scientific methods, even were they ten times as numerous and skillful as they are; (2) because at present there is no money where with to prosecute researches, nor any likelihood of raising an adequate supply until the suspicion has arisen that there is money in it; (3) because the greatest and best part of the evidence comes in such very personal and subjective ways that it is extremely difficult to arouse a conviction of its genuineness as knowledge, without submitting it to such a practical test; (4) because consequently all the evidence is disputed, and will continue to be so, until such time as we have gained such control over it as to be able to produce it at pleasure and at a profit; (5) because it is necessary in this case to convert both the masses and the professors. Of these the former are indifferent, the latter prejudiced as well. Now nothing, and least of all a miracle, will convert a professor who has once committed himself in print; but though the masses may be hard of heart and thick of skull they are almost ludicrously sensitive to what appeals to their pocket (Schiller, 1905, p14-15).

It is the inherent irreproducibility of the anomaly that makes it simultaneously fascinating and fantastic, a challenge to our notions of reality, but the productization of strange phenomena as pure entertainment, rather than legitimizing serious inquiry into the obscure, is redefining human speculation into the undeniably bizarre nature of the universe and our experience of it as a reflection of unadulterated human stupidity.  Then again, maybe a select few may have already figured out how to quietly and pragmatically profit from their esoteric knowledge, and are simply loathe to share the goose that laid the golden egg with the rest of us.  Now, that would just be good business.

Schiller, F.C.S.  “A Commercial View of the Occult”. Occult Review v.1: [a Monthly Magazine Devoted to the Investigation of Supernormal Phenomena and the Study of Psychological Problems]. London: W. Rider and son, Limited, 1905.