Ghost Without a Shell

Part 3: A Tightrope Dance with Eight Arms
Complaining Bodies
Kraken Complex
The Future is Wild

The third and final part of Matthias Wittmann’s essay on the octopus argues that if we are to learn anything from the Kraken, it might be new techniques of responsivity—stretched between inside and outside, eccentric and curious, wanting and giving attention.

Read Part 2 here and Part 1 here.

Text Matthias Wittmann
Images Sarah Browne
Sarah Browne, Report to an Academy, 2016. Stills from HD video, 28 minutes. Cinematographer: Colum O’Dwyer.

Some future extinction scenarios present octopuses as real ‘climate change winners’ and harbingers of a post-human age. In the long run, octopods with their economy of flexibility will have outlived us human animals after all. This, for instance, is the prediction of the British TV miniseries The Future is Wild (2001). It introduces us to cephalopods as survival artists, from whose perspective the anthropocene will have been the warm-up phase for the cephalopodic age. The Future is Wild uses the potential of digital visualization to extrapolate a morphology of the future from scientific data on geological development and the expected adaptations of various animal species. We are presented with a post-anthropocene life in which the world is populated by poisonous land kraken and squids with video-screen-like body surfaces.

Are they part of the disease or part of the cure? This question not only drives science fiction films in which extraterrestrial life forms encounter humanity without answering the question whether they bring destruction (War of the Worlds; Life) or salvation (Abyss; Arrival). It is also crucial to the ‘Kraken complex’ as such. Whether they infest the earth from outer space, grab ships from inner space (the ocean), or suck data as a tentacular network, octopuses have been and are being made strange: pre-historicized, post-historicized, exoticized, and orientalized as the ‘other’ of both culture and nature, as counter-nature within nature or as counter-culture within culture. Not to forget anti-Semitic imaginary: in right-wing populist magazines, the giant octopus appears as an anti-Semitic symbol of Jewish global conspiracy and the adaptability of the “faceless business Jew”; the tentacles now grow not only out of the Rothschilds, but also out of the heads of George Soros, Mark Zuckerberg, or Goldman Sachs. In the anti-Semitic imagination, the versatile, adaptive finesse of the shape shifter becomes a symbol for the masks of the eternally wandering Jew and his endeavour to engulf the world with his capital.


Whether the octopus is the figure of humankind’s disappearance, the intelligent beast that will outlive us, is not the issue here. Right-wing populist politicians like to use population growth statistics to incite fears of ‘replacement.’ Is the octopus the optimally flexible, self-managing, (auto-)cannibalizing turbo entrepreneur of the future? Is it the biomass par excellence that fits into any mold, that can be instantly controlled because it controls itself instantly thanks to its hypersensitivity to how the world is changing? Not at all. As the ghost without a shell it is the maximally vulnerable body, the “resonance chamber” (Hartmut Rosa) for conflicting identities into which it is constantly pressed. First and foremost, it is completely unprotected, ergo: corruptible, consumable, seducible. As a body of maximum (digital) versatility, however, it is also a highly seductive figure.

Sarah Browne - Report to an Academy
Sarah Browne, Report to an Academy, 2016. Stills from HD video, 28 minutes. Cinematographer: Colum O’Dwyer.

Tentacular transgression and resistance begins with the crossing out of existing identification constraints. In Michel Foucault’s terms, the Enlightenment potential of tentacular interventions is to question the limits of what we are forced to be, say, see, and remember, with regard to the transgressibility of these limits. “The critical ontology of ourselves […] has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.” How might this refusal, this transgression, this crossing out of imposed identities look like? Sarah Browne‘s 28-minute essay film Report to an Academy (2016), inspired by Franz Kafka, gives us more than an idea of it. The film is about the attempts of an unknown woman, perhaps an art student, to escape planet academia—as the parade ground of neoliberal self-management. She tries to turn her tongue into tentacles, speaks a new language, then deforms her whole body, becomes boneless, secrets slime, places her mouth in the armpit, disappears through holes and cracks.

It is not easy to escape self-management.

Through a glass plate we look at a body that presses her/his/its tongue, breasts, and other body parts (ears) against this very glass plate, deforms itself beyond recognition, becomes ugly, disfigures itself in order to no longer fit into the molds and mobile prison cells of neoliberal niche management. This “complaining body” (Browne) tries to shed all fitness, even the chic of the self-optimized misfit. Deformations become the expression of an interplay of pressure and counter-pressure in a body that wants to or must become octopus—we are not quite sure. It is not easy to escape self-management. When the student’s voice can no longer be heard, she blames herself, starts to train her tongue like a muscle, in order to correct and capitalize the deficiencies.

Tightrope Dance with Eight Arms

Human society is desperately in search of exemplary, sustainable animal behavior — an animal eco-lifestyle, a new balance. Tentacle society is not a good role model in this regard. Having tentacles does not mean you can shake more hands. Why should octopods—like a wellness and feel-good cure—provide us with a heart (three hearts!) and brain (nine brains!) and balance? “The pursuit of balance is bad because it is imaginary,” Simone Weil once wrote. Octopus acrobatics are more akin to walking a tightrope with eight arms, in a quest for balance that constantly misses, deviates, disobeys.

Do we always have to be able to learn something from animals—like from fables—as My Octopus Teacher (Netflix 2020) claims, in order to turn octopus behavior into a model for ideal small-family parenting behavior, including a willingness to sacrifice oneself for one’s own child? Couldn’t the kraken just as well teach us the opposite (if we are that desperate to learn something)—namely: How to establish elective affinities and tactile-discursive entanglements without blood ties?

The octopus is born unfinished and never stops being reborn. It grows up parentless, has no long life, and is neither social nor unsocial. More or less voluntary attempts to form a society and develop solidarity—especially in captivity—are a major achievement of its life, along with its cunning intelligence.

At a certain spot at the east coast of Australia, at a depth of 15 meters, there exists a place called Octopolis by marine zoologists such as Godfrey-Smith. It has an astonishingly dense number of octopod individuals congregating in a very small space. It is thought that the octopuses settled around a metal object that fell from a boat and was gradually encrusted. That a metal object became the seed of crystallization of a new octopus habitat is, of course, speculation, reminiscent of the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The fact is, however, that here humankind’s junk—supplemented with crusts and shells by the octopuses—became the centerpiece of a habitat in which octopods, otherwise radical solitary and highly nomadic, found a more or less sedentary coexistence, forming a common, interspecies, symbiotic shell.

If one arm gets into trouble, it very well may be that the closest arm intervenes to help.

Needless to say, Octopolis is not only crowded with octopuses, but also with divers and their GoPro cams, who throw beer bottles and aluminum cans overboard, making them into new hiding places for octopods. But even each octopus considered on its own, is a mini-society, diverse in itself: a restlessly processing complex of distributed responsivities that make up a community. What we can learn from the octopuses are social techniques of responsivity that are responsible to the extent that they are stretched between inside and outside, eccentric and curious, wanting and giving distributed attention; guaranteed to be knot-free! Despite all the unpredictability, tentacle behavior follows an amazingly simple, wonderful principle of proximity: If one arm gets into trouble, it very well may be that the closest arm intervenes to help.

Text Matthias Wittmann
Images Sarah Browne
Complaining Bodies
Kraken Complex
The Future is Wild