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Thursday 21 December 2023

What does fortean mean?


(courtesy of Bing Image Creator)
It's almost 13 years since I started this blog, but I don't think I've ever explained exactly what I mean by the word "forteana" in the title. I was prompted to think about this by a comment from Colin Jones on the previous post, The Fortean Influence on Science Fiction. Colin described forteana as "a fantastic word which ... covers everything from sci-fi to horror to fantasy to haunted houses to Conan the Barbarian to H.P. Lovecraft and everything in between" - a sentiment I'd heartily agree with, and in fact I'd add several other dimensions as well. But before I get onto my own definition of the word, I thought I'd look at a few other views on the subject first.

I started by typing the single word "fortean" into my favourite online toy, Bing's image creator. As usual it came up with four offerings, but each of them was a montage of several smaller images, so I really got my money's worth (or I would have, if it wasn't a free app). I've put one of Bing's creations at the top of this post and another at the bottom. I particularly like the first, where the way the images all have the same triangular structure gives them a kind of artistic unity. The second one is a lot more cluttered, but the basic style is very similar.

I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by these images, which show the same broad understanding of the word "fortean" as Colin and myself. Several of the sub-pictures depict the usual suspects such as UFOs, ghosts and cryptozoological creatures, but there's also a strong element of fantasy, surrealism and even psychedelia which (in my opinion) shows a good grasp of what the word really means.

In contrast, the online dictionaries I looked at don't get close to a proper definition of fortean. The Oxford dictionary, with "of, relating to, or denoting paranormal phenomena" fails completely, as it doesn't even include obvious things like UFOs or Bigfoot. Wiktionary gets a bit closer, with "of or pertaining to anomalous phenomena" (although I wouldn't say that non-standard theories about, for example, the Knights Templar or the pyramids - which are definitely fortean, in my opinion - really class as "anomalous phenomena"). But even if this gets the subject matter approximately correct, it doesn't touch on the equally important question of approach or attitude. A debunker of anomalous phenomena isn't a fortean, and neither is an unquestioning believer. But a dispassionate observer of the incessant battles between those two might be, as might a satirist or an artist or simply an uncommitted fence-sitter.

Both those dictionary entries acknowledge that "fortean" comes from Charles Fort, but the link isn't necessarily as simple as it might be. There are three different aspects to Fort's work, and any of them could be used to define the word fortean. First there's his subject matter, which he referred to as "damned data" - reported phenomena or events that don't fit the accepted mainstream narrative. I guess Wiktionary's "anomalous phenomena" is a reasonable approximation to that. Secondly there's Fort's method - sitting in libraries and scouring through old newspapers and magazines - which was adopted by a few of his successors such as William Corliss, but is really too restrictive to be a useful definition. After all, it's the exact opposite of the hands-on approach of many other undoubted forteans, from Bernard Heuvelmans to Fox Mulder.

The third, and most frequently misunderstood, aspect of Fort's work is his basic attitude. After objectively listing a series of anomalous events, and pointing out how powerless mainstream science is to explain them, he would often expound some patently ridiculous theory of his own. Skeptics gleefully take this as proof that Fort was a crackpot believer in all sorts of craziness, but I think that's the opposite of the truth. I think Fort profoundly mistrusted beliefs of any kind, and much of his writing is a satirical attack on people who take their beliefs too seriously.

So what does fortean mean in the context of this blog? I think the last point about not getting bogged down in beliefs - or worrying about whether any particular theory has to be "right" in order to be interesting - is a key part of it. As for subject matter, it's basically the whole spectrum of "damned data" - not just data that's damned by mainstream scientists, as Fort focused on, but by mainstream historians, philosophers, journalists, politicians and mainstream anything else. Or, as I said in reply to Colin's comment, "anything lying outside accepted normality". If you're not quite sure what that encompasses, take a look at the tag cloud in the right-hand sidebar of the blog!

(courtesy of Bing Image Creator)


Colin Jones said...

As you know, Andrew, it was thanks to Fortean Times that I first encountered Charles Fort and the word "fortean" and though I said it's a fantastic word it's also a word I've never come across anywhere else other than the pages of that magazine which is a great pity as "fortean" encompasses such a wide spectrum. Anyway I certainly understand about not getting bogged down by belief or obsessed by a certain theory - ever since childhood I've loved all things fortean but I'm also extremely rational and I think every seemingly unexplained event probably has a natural explanation (I heard only recently that the whole Bigfoot myth might have begun as a hoax). However I like to think I'm open-minded too so I could never dismiss anything as impossible no matter how bizarre it seems which is I suppose why I still enjoy reading about forteana. I'm reminded of that famous line by Donald Rumsfeld when he said "There are things we know we don't know and there are things we don't know we don't know" which could be a great description of forteana!

By the way, Andrew, it's fascinating that AI did a much better job of understanding the word "fortean" than online dictionaries written by humans. I suppose this is further proof that AI could make humans unnecessary in the not too distant future!

Andrew May said...

Thanks for a very perceptive comment, Colin (and also thanks again for your earlier comment which prompted this post in the first place). Basically I agree with everything you say, and there's not much I can add. It's such a shame that so few people are able to take an interest in subjects like Bigfoot - with its amazing mix of folklore, pseudoscience, misperceptions, hoaxes and genuine mystery - without firmly aligning themselves on either the believer or skeptic side.

I agree with your comments on AI too - particulary as all it really "knows" about any given subject is what it's read on the human-created internet. But in my dealings both with Bing's chatbot and its image creator, I do feel it has a fantastic imagination that transcends its input data.

Colin Jones said...

Merry Christmas, Andrew! On the subject of forteana did you know that David Attenborough believes the Yeti could exist? There was a documentary series on Radio 4 earlier this year called YETI in which David Attenborough said the Yeti could be a large prehistoric ape which still survives in remote regions. It was nice to hear that someone so esteemed takes an interest in cryptozoology!

Andrew May said...

Thanks Colin - Happy Christmas! Yes, it's always nice when professionals admit there might be something to things like the Yeti, rather than automatically dismissing them out of hand.

Colin Jones said...

Andrew, if you're interested, on Radio 4 tonight at 8pm 'The Briefing Room' will be discussing UFOs and the possibility of intelligent alien civilisations. This programme normally deals with important political and economic issues and NOT forteana so I can only assume they've decided to let their hair down and have some fun as it's Christmas!

Andrew May said...

Thanks for the heads-up Colin. I probably won't be able to fit it in this evening, but I'll catch up with it on BBC Sounds at the weekend.