In a digressive post, DB Donlon, the Blogsquatcher, comments on Sigrid and my conversation about Bigfoot and Yeren over at the University of Chicago Blog.
Donlon reiterates a criticism he made of my book based on some early publicity: that I advocate the psychological hypothesis--I dismiss all Bigfoot sightings as imagination or mis-identification.
I would like to repeat--and amplify--my response to the first post as a rejoinder to Donlon's latest.
I am not a "skeptic" in the sense that I want to debunk belief in Bigfoot. I am a skeptic in the sense that during my research for the book, I had a chance to study a lot--although by no means all--of the evidence put forth in support of Bigfoot's existence.
But the book is not primarily about the evidence for and against Bigfoot. Nor, really, is the conversation between Sigrid and myself. Rather, it is about social questions--how society works--not psychological ones--how the brain works.
Certainly, bits and pieces of are [edited: our] skepticism come through--and Donlon highlights those, including mis-reading Sigrid's explanation for why she read Bigfoot fiction: she said that she enjoyed the works and justified it as connected to her dissertation the Chinese wildman, yeren. Donlon understands her use of the word justify to mean that she thinks all Bigfoot-related material is inherently un-intellectual. I read her to mean that she felt guilty about any reading not directly related to her work and so she had to excuse herself for reading "fun" books.
Instead, the book--and our discussion--is about the cultural meaning of wildmen. Indeed, in Sigrid's final comment she distances herself from debunkers. We want to know how people make sense of these wildmen stories, regardless of their truth or falsity. I thus don't like the word myth, but prefer legend--which has a technical meaning among folklorists: a legend is a truth proposition. It is a story put forward that could be true, or might not be. Myths, by contrast, are generally accepted to be false. I wanted to understand what Americans did with the legend--the possibility--of Bigfoot.
This exact same methodology could be applied to undoubtedly existing animals--as I did in my first book, The Fire Ant Wars.
In fact, I am agnostic about the various hypotheses Donlon puts forth to explain Bigfoot sightings--the flesh-and-blood hypothesis, the psychological hypothesis, and the Native American hypothesis. I simply do not know what people have seen nor am I particularly concerned about it. What interests me is that people believe they have seen something, or, in many cases, they go out in the woods expecting to see something.
I want to know how they make sense of that thing they have seen or expect to see. How does it both reflect cultural categories and cause them to think differently about their world. To repeat myself, what meaning do they take from it. And, by extension, what does American culture more generally make of these supposed sightings. Because in looking at that, we can see some of the workings of our society: how knowledge is judged credible or not, who has the authority to speak, how is meaning made in the modern world.