In his book recently published by the German publisher Matthes & Seitz Berlin, writer and media scientist Matthias Wittmann made the octopus the central figure for an analysis and criticism of our cultural and media history. He describes the animal as an incessant deviation and a virtuoso of ambiguity. For V/A, Wittmann pursued some of the aspects that emerged from his essay further and consulted the Kraken for an ambivalent diagnosis of the present. We will publish his text in three parts over the next few days, accompanied and framed by stills from the film Report to an Academy by Irish artist Sarah Browne. The following first part suggests that we’re not only in the midst of a society of the tentacle, but might also let the octopus help us imagine new modes and narratives of collectivization—open to new inclusions, intervals and interspaces.
Read part 2 here and part 3 here.
It tentacles… Having left behind Debord’s “society of the spectacle”, we have arrived in the midst of a new regime: the society of the tentacle. A wonderful octopus proliferation is underway—in our media environment as well as in the world’s oceans. It has been going on for 60 years, to be precise, as statistics and the data of fisheries show. But just as global warming, trivially called ‘climate change,’ has only been perceived as significant in recent years in spite of impending climatic tipping moments having been debated since the 1970s, the increase in the octopus population has become newsworthy only rather recently. It runs contrary to what we read about the extinction of other species: the disappearance of the Chinese swordtail sturgeon; the decreasing number of Western honeybees; the diminishing diversity of birdsong; or, as Pier Paolo Pasolini noted in his 1975 article “L’articolo delle lucciole”, the disappearance of the firefly.
Octopuses are ectothermic animals whose body temperature is completely dependent on the environment. The warming of the oceans improves in their quality of life. They also don’t get entangled in nets or plastic bags. Rather, plastic cups, aluminum cans and beer bottles provide the octopus with what its body is lacking: a protective shell. And where else, if not in cans and cups, should octopuses hide if dying coral reef ecosystems cease to offer hiding places and camouflage?
There Is no Hardware
An octopus would sooner slip through the eye of a needle than be captive to a fixed and fixing form. It doesn’t have to shed its fur or break its ribcage in order to escape through holes, gaps, and cracks. There is no grid, no net, no lattice through which the octopus could not slip—but also no grid that could not deform, injure, dismember the octopus. “Octopus’s Garden,” as its home is called in a song by The Beatles, is hidden because octopuses are fragile and effusive . Unlike ten-armed cephalopoda—squid and cuttlefish, which still have rudiments of shells or inner skeletons (cuttlebones) made of chitin often used as a whetstone for caged birds—octopuses have no hardware except for their beaks. Perhaps this is why octopus aquariums often are stocked with human skulls. Octopods that swell through eye sockets or mouths—as can be seen in Jean Painlevé’s La pieuvre (1928)—are reminiscent of flesh that loses its contour and escapes, as Gilles Deleuze wrote, “through the screaming mouth.”
Since octopuses are skeleton-less, they rarely leave fossils, more often, and still not frequently, only fossilized body imprints. The Lebanese museum Expo Hakel is one of the few museums worldwide that houses rare octopus traces that can be dated back to the Cretaceous period (145 – 66 million years ago). The anatomical evolution of the octopus thus can only be sketched rather than reconstructed.
If the fossil, as Michel Foucault writes in The Order of Things, “permits resemblances to subsist throughout all the deviations traversed by nature,” octopuses are completely devoid of substance, backbone, and identity. The many-tongued, constantly deviating pantomime of tentacles knows no “distant and approximate form of identity” in the shape of a fossil. Not least for this reason, octopuses and squids were demonized in the 19th century as an essence-less disturber of the polito-zoological class structure.
Colonialism, maritime shipping history, and Kraken watching are closely intertwined. Strictly speaking, it was a giant squid, not a Kraken, that surfaced and was harpooned near Tenerife by the crew of the French navy ship Alecton in 1861 (stationed at French Guiana). During the course of the 19th century, the myth of the great Kraken evolved into the disturbing embodiment of contingency, historicity, and changeability, destabilizing the seemingly unchanging garden of creation. Octopus’s Garden is not a well-ordered tableau in which every identity has an assigned place, but a place of conflicting identities home to a transgressive excess of a variety of forms.
10 years before the encounter of the Alecton with the giant squid, Herman Melville thematized the appearance of the shapeshifting ghost without a shell in Moby-Dick: “A vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length and breadth, of a glancing cream-colour, lay floating on the water, innumerable long arms radiating from its centre, and curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas, as if blindly to clutch at any hapless object within reach. No perceptible face or front did it have; no conceivable token of either sensation or instinct; but undulated there on the billows, an unearthly, formless, chance-like apparition of life.”
Comparable to a blockbuster logic of exaggeration (avant la lettre), the crew of the Pequod sights something much more monstrous than the white whale in chapter 59 of Moby-Dick, a “pulpy mass” that is difficult to name: There is talk of “cuttle-fish,” “squid,” and “the great Kraken.” The monster from the deep remains a creature on the edge of evidence and classifiability.
Remarkably, the crew is unable to recognize any tangible sign of sensitivity. The Kraken is a horror for physiognomists, a joke and joker of the seas, a crazy emoji: it offers no possibility of deducing internal traits from external signs. Apropos: Cephalopods—nautili, cuttlefish, squid, and octopods—have only recently, in 2010, been granted the status of pain-sensing animals by an EU Directive (2010/63/EU), making them the only invertebrates to be subject to special protection measures as laboratory animals.
The shape-shifter in Melville’s Moby-Dick surfaces as a chance-like, unfathomable, lust-driven blob, a restless modulation that collapses the central-perspective coding of stable space. On the horizon, the human subject encounters a non-human, monstrous focal and vanishing point whose rays or tentacles make stable space collapse and the usual perspective go crazy. This perspectival freaking out can be called aperspectivity (Thomas Hensel): we are confronted with a perspective that radicalizes the suction power of central perspective (long arms radiating from the creatures center), only to have it simultaneously collapse from this point. An anatomical detail on the side: the center from which the arms radiate is exactly the place where the mouth and anus meet in the cephalopod’s body. We are talking about a growth axis diametrically opposed to that of humans, and thus to the upright walk as conventional criterion for intelligence. Mouth and anus have moved closer together, so that the head is now between the legs and the excrement is at the front.
As an ornamental, hybrid natural theater of excess of form(-lessness) without fathomable cause, the Kraken became the symbolic figure of the unfinished born body, condemned to lifelong indecision: a shape without a shape. In The Sea / La Mer (1861), the French historian Jules Michelet likened the Kraken’s impulsiveness and drivenness to a “steam engine” overcharged with power. The raging of the Kraken became the epitome of a sucking, soulless seductive force, a mechanical devil’s theater that had to be disenchanted. Basically, according to Michelet, the Kraken is nothing but an ostentatious “embryo going to war.” As counter-figures, Michelet brings into play the jellyfish, which fits perfectly into the oceanic harmony. The whale also functions as a kind of counterpart to the Kraken: in contrast to the predatory, supposedly bloodless loner, the whale is a gentle giant “with red blood and milk like us humans,” who lives in large families and is endowed with generous love.
Throughout history, the Kraken (or squid or octopus) was not only seen as a raging whirl of tentacle slashes and an unfinished body being born, but also as a deep fake, a fake from the depth of the society, a blob, a mob: “Aren’t you hollow inside? You are more mask than creature […] a nameless something, sea water that evaporates,” Michelet says about this hybrid “chimera,” of which nothing remains once it has been “turned like a glove.”
What the Kraken, this ambiguous creature of unruly restlessness, stood for in political zoologies, and in some cases still stands for, is class trouble (Stephan Gregory). Zoological classes have always served to enforce socio-political class as well. “The secret of aristocracy is zoology,” Karl Marx wrote in 1843. If the Kraken is the symbolic form of a social class, as Michelet implicitly suggests in his political zoology of the sea, then it is the dangerous class. It may be the Lumpenproletariat, threatening the “ideal citizenry” (Antonia von Schöning)—as an oceanic union of peuple and bourgeoisie—into the abyss of a theater of war of unleashed forces, into the turbulence of a new revolution (along with the subsequent regime of terror).
The Kraken is a romantic arena of conflicting forces: regressive and progressive, horizontal and vertical tendencies. It is not without reason that the recent French protest movement of the yellow vests (gilets jaunes) in the heterogenous, non-identitarian initial stage of this “movement without movement” was repeatedly compared to an octopus without a center and head (= representation). The class-transgressive character of the Kraken is further reinforced by the fact that in its body, mental and manual work are inseparable and thus hardly hierarchizable.
But let us leave the mythological Kraken aside for the moment and look at the individual octopus temperament. Most important is that each octopus temperament is a mini society. It consists of eight autonomously, idiosyncratically—and rather rarely symmetrically—acting tentacles that, for all their individual agency, develop a tremendous cohesive power, a cohesion in the state of distraction—without getting knotted, by the way. Octopuses are loners and have—from a human perspective—a short life (of two, sometimes three years). They have no parents when they hatch from their egg (since their parents die after the act of procreation), but still: they are in the company of their curious tentacle subjectivities, collecting visual and tactile data, perhaps not producing a whole, coherent big picture (or big data), but many conflicting world views.
Seen in this light, octopuses become never-ending sources of narratives about forms of collectivization with simultaneous internal differentiation, whereby self-touch becomes contact with other, and vice versa. Class interests and particular concerns are no contradiction in the society of tentacles: “Wir sind viele, jeder Einzelne von uns” (“We are many, each and every one of us”), as the song by German band Tocotronic goes. The octopus is a non-completable “Gestalt,” a “We” that is constantly missing something. This makes it restless and unpredictable, open to new inclusions, full of lacks, holes, intervals, and interspaces.
Tentacles are bizarre, peculiar, and exuberant. They are here and there, in the front and in the back, left and right, up and down, they move backwards and forwards at the same time. Their transversal queerness makes them unpredictable. As a resonating space for sensations, as perception in a state of distraction, tentacles are a constant deviation, even from themselves. Caspar Henderson suggests thinking of tentacles primarily as “super-tongues” in his Book of Barely Imagined Beings: “Each octopus arm is a muscular hydrostat, like a human tongue, and each of the tens or hundreds of suckers on it is lined with tens of thousands of chemoreceptors—taste buds to you and me—and a comparable number of nerve endings that provide an exquisite sense of touch. The next time someone tries to impress you with that trick of touching the end of their nose with their tongue (something that happens to me disturbingly often), tell her or him that an octopus has eight tongues sprouting out of their cheeks which they can double or halve in length at will.”
In this sense, octopuses speak to us in eight tongues, or perhaps only with three tongues while they make and taste their way elsewhere with the remaining five tongues. In addition, they have wide-angle eyes that do not necessarily look in the direction they are moving. To engage with the language of the tentacles is to expose oneself to a multidirectional game with ambiguities, which for us is, first of all, an acrobatics of the flesh between abstraction and concretion, movement and standstill, stretching and contraction, figure and ground, centering and decentering, responsivity and indifference, sabotage and withdrawal.