Ghost Without a Shell

Part 2: The Ends of Paranoia
The Abyss
Vampire Squid

Further advancing his tentacular exploration of the octopus, Matthias Wittmann dedicates the second part of his essay to paranoid and digital psychopathologies of the present. Can the octopus encourage us to think more from multiple perspectives instead of clinging to a closed worldview? And does the image of its deep-sea habitat help us to better understand the challenges of our digital network society?

Read part 1 here and part 3 here.

Text Matthias Wittmann
Title Image Sarah Browne
Sarah Browne - Report to an Academy
Sarah Browne, Report to an Academy, 2016. Stills from HD video, 28 minutes. Cinematographer: Colum O’Dwyer. Performer: Saoirse Wall.

Tentacles tend to trigger paranoid perceptions and conspiracy-ideological associations when we are looking for a center or a head—and closure when we try to complete the uncompletable “Gestalt” full of gaps and interstices. One tentacle implies further tentacles; further connections imply something tremendously larger, maybe even a center. In order to create coherence in a moment where contingency is seen as a threat, many people are currently applying and adopting a paranoid hypoperspective. This “Hypoperspectivism” is a monomaniacal bundling of energy towards a horizon of understanding that obsessively hides cracks and ambiguities.

Moving along the tentacles also means exposing oneself to the danger of a “paranoid drift” between the system and doubt, which becomes the system again. The octopus embodies the paranoiac’s fear of loss of control. Its maneuvers escape the paranoid fixation to a center or a power node, it relies on a polyperspectivism of tentacles and suckers. This polyperspectivism does not strive towards a final representation, a closure of the “Gestalt”; rather, it warrants a dynamic horizon composed of “seeing for” (voir-pour), “seeing how” (voir-comme), “seeing through” (voir-par), “seeing that” (voir-que), “seeing with“ (voir-avec), as a prerequisite for preventing the completion of a world view (Emmanuel Alloa).

Who knows what other perspectives the octopuses will collect with the GoPro cameras they have captured from us.

This octopod counter-intelligence debunks and ridicules paranoia for not being able to stop inscribing itself into the heart of a central intelligence. An octopus has three hearts, nine brains, 500 million neurons, and thousands of suction cups. Anti-paranoid polyperspectivism—the new “Poulpism” (Pierre Desproges)—does not strive toward suturing the multiplicity of perspectives into a final representation. It organizes itself as an interplay of de-centering and re-centering, whereby re-centering only takes place provisionally, at the site of new conflicts that prevent closure (completion) of the worldview. “If the ‘ciné-eyes’ of all countries are ready to unite,” the French cinematographer Jean Rouch wrote, “it is not simply to have one point of view.” And it could be added: When the suckers and chemoreceptors of the world unite, it is certainly not to have one point of view or binary split visions. Who knows what other perspectives the octopuses will collect with the GoPro cameras they have captured from us.

Smart Sensor Society

Octopuses are the new dolphins. Although they are anything but swarm-intelligent and—with the exception of opening jam jars or baby bottles—are hardly suitable for training, they are considered to be the intelligent animals of the present. Robotics and tech visionaries regard the distributed, non-binary cognition of octopods as a new role model for artificial intelligence and a vicarious agent of an emerging sensor society.

Katsushika Hokusai’s color woodblock print The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (1814), part of a whole series of shunga erotica from the Edo period (1603 to 1868), already knew this at the beginning of the 19th century. The woodblock print, which shows a female shell diver being orally and tentacularly pleasured by two octopods, became a kind of founding document of tentacle eroticism, also called tentacle hentai or shokushu goukan. The picture makes the octopus appear as a kind of ‘smart sex toy’ with a highly responsive intelligence. Like in a feedback loop, the lust of the octopus increases in view of the pleasure it gives the woman. If we look closely, it becomes clear that the woman is by no means at the mercy of the octopus, but has lifted her lower body slightly, gripping and squeezing the tentacles with her hands to control her ‘sex toy.’ Meanwhile, the smaller octopus supports her neck like a smart pillow. The principally undecidable, cybernetic question remains: Who is controlling whom? Who is fusing with whom?

Katsushika Hokusai – The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (1814). From wikiart.org.

Vilém Flusser imagined the polymorphously perverse Vampyroteuthis Infernalis (vampire squid from hell)—a particularly legendary kraken and a missing link between an eight- and ten-armed cephalopod—as a life form deeply imbedded in digital logics. “Digiti” (lat.), that means finger, and squids have many of them. The ‘vampire squid,’ for example, has fingers that are connected by a skin in such a way that they look like Dracula’s cloak.

Referring to Flusser, Swiss literary theorist Yves Citton has shown that deep-sea vampyroteuths have a profoundly digital habitus, and they tell us a lot about our state of immersion in a digital culture that forces us to multiply our connected subjectivities. Just as the ‘vampire squids from hell’ emit clouds—not ink clouds as Flusser thought but luminous clouds—or use their bodies as displays, so too are we surrounded by clouds, filters, interfaces, and dazzling displays. We click, grope, choose, gaze, or command our way through the “milieux numeriques” of affections and detections. When we dive into the deep sea, vampyroteuths can tell us a lot about our software-based being, about our “medial psychopathology” (Yves Citton), and our multidirectional dis- and re-orientations.

Vampire squid and data (= ocean snow, i.e. the permanent shower of particles consisting primarily of waste and excrement) intersect each other incessantly, just as all of our bodies are permanently permeated by networks and connections that appear increasingly immediate to us because they gradually migrate under the skin as chips and sensors. The deep sea is not a metaphysical hell but the medial world that surrounds us all. As critical, skeptical filters, tentacles can help us with orientation, secretion, and contact. As curious, easily seduced feelers, they can at the same time lure us into many detours; detours that may even turn out to be great discoveries, if deep-sea and society pressure still allows for detours.

In addition, what our digital technoculture calls ‘morphing’ has long been a well-established, refined bodily technique in the cultural history of the cephalopods. The fluid morphing effects from James Cameron’s Terminator II (1991) or The Abyss (1989)—here, a long water tentacle, a kind of pseudopod, enters the deep-sea station and begins to imitate human facial features—are everyday hunting, playing and communication software in the cephalopod’s habitat. VR entrepreneur, computer scientist, and artist Jaron Lanier has repeatedly expressed his enthusiasm for the octopus’ body techniques and speaks of “post-symbolic communication” in terms of octopod language: “For instance, instead of saying, ‘I’m hungry; let’s go crab hunting,’ you might simulate your own transparency so your friends could see your empty stomach, or you might turn into a video game about crab hunting so you and your compatriots could get in a little practice before the actual hunt.”

Flusser’s imaginations of the vampyroteuthian deep-see life is in close dialogue with the techno-imaginary of his time, clearly rooted in the popular aesthetics of the 1980s. The habitat of the vampire squid is presented to us as a mixture of deep-sea wonderland, black-light disco, and an anticipation of the deep-sea scenario in the showdown of James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989): bioluminescent and fluorescent. As the aforementioned Lanier writes: “An eternal ‘son et lumière,’ a show of infinitely variable luminosity and sonority. […] A garden that whispers, shines and dances.”       

James Cameron – The Abyss (1989).

In the night of the vampyroteuthen with its submarine emissions and biofabricated illuminations—Flusser prefers “skin painting”—we encounter the promises and dilemmas of our digitally networked society: interactivity, connectivity, and responsivity as the foundations of a ravenously streaming archive of relentless presentism. Like octopuses, vampire squids from hell do not have a cultural technique of storing and transmitting their knowledge to the next generation. As Flusser writes: “The Other’s memory is for Vampyroteuthis the same as stone and language are for us. Vampyroteuthis is sculptor and writer working against the Other. He hammers and composes the other. Vampyroteuthis’ vocation is the Other. It is during the violation of the Other that Vampyroteuthis realises himself. It is through this struggle against the Other that he acquires new experiences. It is this struggle that fascinates him, that absorbs his interest. This ‘feedback’ between emitter and receiver, this dialogue, is the essence of vampyroteuthian art.”

The deep sea confronts us with a culture of memory under conditions of exile.

Although Flusser’s vision of squid culture as a total communication culture based on telepathic sculpting resonates with the Zeitgeist of his time, it is not just a phantasm of totality but a consistent critique of totalitarism coupled with a search for the resistant potential of (mnemo-)technologies. Flusser’s fable of the ‘vampyroteuth from hell’ thus becomes a narrative about migrant cultures of memory, which can also be read against the background of his own experiences as a Prague Jew who was driven out by the Nazis, fled to Brazil via London and whose entire family was murdered in concentration camps.

The deep sea confronts us with a culture of memory under conditions of exile: with the relationship between media and migration, sender/receiver relationships (as well as their disruption), and questions of the trans-generational transmission of remembered experiences of violence and forced dispossession. How can information be passed on ‘under water,’ in a fluid medium, from subject to subject? How can displaced persons succeed in equipping themselves with smart, mobile intelligence in such a way that they may escape the grids of surveillance and control technologies while, between departure and landing, staying in contact, navigating, and documenting experienced violence?

Text Matthias Wittmann
Title Image Sarah Browne
The Abyss
Vampire Squid