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“The Weird” versus “weird” {TWT02}

Part two in a series.

Two definitions of “weird” from Merriam-Webster:

  1. Of strange or extraordinary character: odd, fantastic
  2. Of, relating to, or caused by witchcraft or the supernatural: magical

By capitalizing The Weird, I’m obviously intending it to mean something more than the everyday, first sense of “weird”: unusual. When people say something is weird, they mean that it is something they don’t have a ready explanation for. The paradigm they inhabit is not sufficient to explain it. So weird becomes a placeholder.

The Weird, as I’ll be using it, will be something closer to the second sense, though not exactly. The key difference is better expressed by J.F. Martel in his essay “Reality is Analog: Philosophizing with Stranger Things”:

A thing can be strange in effect or strange in fact. In philosophical terms, the first kind of strangeness might be called epistemological, meaning that it has to do with how we perceive things; the second kind of strangeness might be called ontological, meaning that it has to do with the way things actually are at their inmost.

Martel illustrates this with the example of Bigfoot. If cryptozoologists were able to prove that Bigfoot is a hitherto-unknown species of rare ape, the whole phenomenon would be shown to have been an instance of epistemological strangeness—that is to say, weird. Epistemological strangeness is temporary; once further information is acquired, it is no longer strange. Epistemological strangeness is something we can deal with.

Ontological strangeness, however, makes us moderns more uncomfortable. Ontological strangeness says that some things absolutely refuse rational explanation—that is, The Weird. They are not perceivable in the usual way and do not obey the usual rules. In the case of Bigfoot, there is a group of interpreters of the phenomenon who see it as something ontologically strange. That is, Bigfoot “forever eludes capture even though people have been seeing it for centuries in the wilderness of North America and will probably continue to do so for as long as there are forests for sheltering mysteries.” It will elude capture because it is not, in fact, a rare ape but a phenomenon that cannot be measured, weighed, or examined.

And so Martel gives us our first attempt to define The Weird: “things that elude all possible explanation because they are rooted in unreason.” The next few posts will be other attempts to define The Weird.

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