In a Tentacled Neighbor’s Garden
#II. inside animals / animals inside
ii. a bestiarium vocabulum – the octopus
If Derrida’s decisive experience of being under the gaze of a cat—or more precisely, his own “little pussycat,” in his own bathroom—left him with an unprecedented propulsion to “think through this absolute alterity of the neighbor” (2002, 380), one may wonder what further philosophical impetus would have come out of an encounter like the one that the South African filmmaker Craig Foster had with a certain octopus(sy) in his own coastal backyard.
In the Academy Award-winning wildlife/human-autobiography documentary My Octopus Teacher (Netflix 2020), Foster documents his developing, and increasingly intimate, relation to a nameless common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) in the cold waters outside his Western Cape home, to the backdrop of his own previous psychological burnout. In the course of eleven months, Foster pays daily visits to the octopus and follows her throughout the remainder of her life, presented in a string of fragmental moments of however long he manages to hold his breath. As a matter of fact, a lot seems to come out of these encounters: a transformative development for the human protagonist, a symbolically rich piece of reality-cinematography for the viewers, and presumably even a few valuable events for the other, cephalopod, lead character, herself.
In this essay, I will explore some of the questions that, like in this example, arise concerning the human relation to the animal other. In the first part of the essay I discuss some of the philosophical literature on the topic, with a particular emphasis on the writings of Jacques Derrida. I then turn to the example of the octopus in the essay’s second and final part, with some reflections on this particular human-animal encounter and the things that render it interesting.
In Derrida’s account, the topic of animals is of fundamental importance to philosophy, with ineluctable consequences for all three of philosophy’s core branches, of ethics, ontology and epistemology. As such, the maladroit, rejective treatment—or perhaps, rather, the careful repression—of the topic of animals within the history of Western philosophy, warrants a certain deconstructionist examination.
In the essay “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)” (2002), Derrida takes up this task, with a particular emphasis on the philosophies of thinkers like Descartes, Heidegger, Lacan and Levinas, and on the mythologies of the Judeo-Christian and Greek traditions. According to Derrida’s (2002, 399) main argument, the line separating man and animal, as imagined in traditional Western philosophy and “common sense,” does not constitute a unilinear, indivisible border, but is rather a heterogeneous one that also has an ongoing history. Moreover, on the other side of this imagined line across from man, we do not find a group of beings that can legitimately be subsumed under the unified concept of “the Animal” in general. Rather, this is a space of great plurality and of shifting relational divisions, which renders futile the idea of steadily objectifying this realm once and for all. Finally, the history of the relational border between man and animal seems, according to Derrida, to have recently entered an unprecedented phase, with important consequences for both human subjectivity and ethics.
Let us now take a closer look at what Derrida means by these various, connected claims. It is first of all important to make clear that Derrida (2002, 398) is not at all trying to simply erase any conceptual border between human and what humans call “the Animal,” in favor of some kind of biologically underpinned continuity between all living creatures. This would, on the one hand, leave us with an even blunter concept of “Life” in general, saying even less than “the Animal” in general, by ignoring all possible differences. On the other hand, such geneticism can, as we are well aware of, have ethically dubitable consequences. Rather, what Derrida is interested in is what “feeds” this limit and gives rise to its various configurations.
Unsurprisingly, one of the things that seems to feed this limit the most, is the concept of language. For Descartes, and his philosophy of mind-body dualism, the aspect of language easily settled the question of how the animal is distinguished from man. He writes (2007, 61):
[A]lthough all animals easily communicate to us, by voice or bodily movement, their natural impulses of anger, fear, hunger, and so on, it has never yet been observed that any brute animal reached the stage of using real speech, that is to say, of indicating by word or sign or anything pertaining to pure thought and not to natural impulse. Such speech is the only certain sign of thought hidden in a body.
Moreover, although we may be tempted to infer the idea that some resourceful animals also possess immortal souls just like humans, this, Descartes (2007, 60) writes, “is unlikely, because there is no reason to believe it of some animals without believing it of all, and many of them such as oysters and sponges are too imperfect for this to be credible.” The issue of language thus becomes at least twofold: for philosophers like Descartes it is the criteria by which we can distinguish man from animal, while for Derrida this tendency to name, and subsume all animals under a single linguistic concept also becomes the track for his deconstructionist approach to animal philosophy.
This way of thinking about the animal is far from unique to Descartes, Derrida observes. It is, rather, endemic to all of Western philosophy. In fact, the very title of Derrida’s essay on Lacan’s theorizing on the animal, more or less sums it all up. In “And Say the Animal Responded?” (2003) Derrida questions the rigor with which Lacan’s distinction between “reacting” and “responding” determines the limit between the human and the animal. Despite preliminary hopes of a more nuanced account of the psychoanalytical subject vis-à-vis the cited evidence of something similar to a mirror stage in certain animals, Lacan nevertheless maintains a distinction between animal communication as “gregarious” and human communication as “social.” In an attempt to counter ill-founded communication theories of “language as sign,” Lacan holds that human language, rather than operating within a fixed structure of signs, functions by evocation (of a response in relation to the other), and not through simply informing. By contrast, animal interaction can legitimately be seen as a type of pre-wired system of communication, but to then infer that this must also be the case with humans would be a fallacious case of, as Lacan (cited in Derrida 2002, 126) puts it, “putting the rabbit into the hat so as to be able to pull it out again later.” Moreover, animals can of course also work to misinform through pretense, but what here allegedly distinguishes the human realm is the human further capacity of “pretended pretense.”
Derrida’s mission is then, again, not to collapse the difference between concepts such as “reaction” and “response,” but rather to question the way in which these distinctions are taken to provide the border between the human and the animal. How does one in actuality determine whether a behavior is a case of “pretended pretense” or merely simple “pretense”? And can we in fact attribute all these capacities that have been denied the animal, to man in every instance? Furthermore, Derrida (2003, 135) asks, even if such a distinction would be possible to draw in principle, what would be its foundation? Since Lacan refuses any theoretical input from empirical accounts of e.g. ethology, it seems that the bedrock here consists in mere dogma. Any allowance for the animal to actually be giving a response is just rejected a priori.
This trait becomes, I believe, more explicit in Heidegger (1995), whose phenomenological ontology essentially takes as one of its core aims to clarify the metaphysical foundations of the sciences. Thus, even if biology and zoology may talk about “the environmental world” of the animal, we cannot, Heidegger (Ibid., 193) seems to say, engage in any detailed interpretation of such theories on the lives of animals, before the question of what constitutes the essence of animality has been examined on a metaphysical level.
Heidegger’s thesis is that animality consists in “poverty-in-world,” which means that animals, in contrast to inanimate objects, do have a certain access to being, and yet lack the human capacities of world-formation and of ontologically penetrating one’s lived environment in the sense of “taking-as,” as of human Dasein. Here, again, the animal is deprived of exhibiting some essential capacity, which in turn separates it from man. In line with this, Derrida (2002, 388) cites Walter Benjamin’s similar idea of the perceived aphasic “sadness” of nature in not being able respond. Accordingly, humans can name the animals, but in contrast to named—or, to use Althusserian language, interpellated—human subjects, animals lack the possibility of linguistic resignification (FN: crucial to e.g. Judith Butler’s  philosophy) or, more simply, of responding to this quasi-subjectifying call from the other.
But is this really the proper approach with regard to the animal? And to what extent is this not just a question of a lack in animals, but rather of something that relates to ourselves as human subjects?
As for the general methodological decision to take ontology as the fundamental starting point in philosophy, an important alternative has been provided in the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas (1959; 1961) instead argues that subjectivity and ontological discourse first comes into being through the encounter with the other in the form of a face, which expresses the vulnerability of that other, along with an ethical injunction to be in its service and to not harm it. Accordingly, it is rather the ethical relation toward this perceived lack in the other that produces the subjectivity of the human “I” and all that follows from this. As such, before ontology and before language, there is the encounter with the untotalizable alterity of the face of the other, and this is how humans gain their essential abilities of responding and of responsibility.
Yet, even in the case of Levinas, one may, as Derrida does, ask how other this other is taken to be. As Levinas (1988, 172) states in an interview, his principal thesis is that “the human breaks with pure being,” in the sense of “being,” proposed by both Heidegger and Darwin, that “the living being struggles for [its own] life.” This is then what separates man from animal life, namely a fundamental ethics with regard to the other. And yet, Levinas does not entirely break with Heidegger when he earlier in the same interview (Ibid., 169) states that “[w]e understand the animal, the face of the animal, in accordance with Dasein.” Conceding, furthermore, that the existence of a face in an animal is not something we can entirely refuse, Levinas nevertheless maintains that the face of an animal is not a face in its purest form (again, this Heideggerian in-between state), and that any ascription of a face to the animal will always be secondary to, and derivative from, the concepts that arise from the fundamental event of encountering the face of a human other.
However, this humanist line of reasoning may be found somewhat surprising, given the crucial asymmetry that fundamentally structures the ethical relation in Levinas’ account. According to Levinas (1986, 31), ethics has its basis in the original, dual ‘I-Thou’ relationship, in which this perspectival ‘I’ is not generalizable to a demand for ethical or moral reciprocity. To take such a step would be to enter directly onto the political level, where several other ‘Thous’ must be taken into account, and be compared to some (essentially tragic) extent. And yet, what must remain the primary guide in such a second-level strife toward ideal, and always improvable, political justice, is the ethical encounter with the other. As Levinas (1986, 31) phrases this fundamental ethics: “not only am I more responsible than the other but I am even responsible for everyone else’s responsibility!”
So, why, one may ask, should we then suddenly refer to a perceived lack of reciprocal responsibility in the other, when it comes to denying the animal a proper face? This question becomes all the more pressing when we take into consideration the fundamentally infinite alterity that Levinas ascribes to the face. How is it that this infinity is somehow still conditional upon it being a human face?
In response to this, as well as to all the ontological accounts we have just discussed, Derrida describes a similar face-to-face scene where he, naked, meets his cat in his bathroom and is filled with not only a sensation of shame, but of shame of being ashamed. The encounter may be said to have two crucial components. First of all, Derrida asks, how could it be denied that I am in fact being seen by the cat, whose gaze moreover is so bottomless and undecidable that it can only be described as an infinite alterity? And secondly, whence this shame of being ashamed? Ashamed in front of whom? Regarding this second point, Derrida makes a lengthy exegesis of Western mythology which lands in the fact that the human acquisition of clothes, technics and language—in other words, all that is taken to uphold the distinction between man and animal—is fundamentally related to an imagined fault or original misdeed in the human.
This can be said to help reverse the whole perspective. What the encounter with the face of a cat produces is not just a pity of the silent animal but, rather, a feeling, in the human subject, of shameful neglect of proper responsibility toward the unique animal other. The question that, as Derrida (2002, 396) argues, should be asked in regard to animals is thus not “can they think?,” but rather, as Bentham suggested, “can they suffer?,” or somewhat paradoxically, “can they not be able?” The affirmative response to that question seems so obvious and undeniable, that Derrida wonders how it is that no other philosopher in history (except presumably Bentham), has had or has acknowledged such an encounter with another animal in their philosophies. Perhaps it is rather due to a case of shameful repression, that the question of the suppression and suffering of animals has been supplanted by the question of whether they possess language or not. In light of this, the first step forward in the political economy of animals, must, as Derrida (1991, 113-5) states in an interview, be that we acknowledge the fundamental, ethical crime in killing and suppressing animals, without any redemptive prevarications or disavowals. In other words, although we inevitably must eat, what we need to do is to at least “sacrifice sacrifice.”
As both Derrida (2002, 394-5) and John Berger (2007) recognize, humans’ relation toward animals seems to have entered a completely new phase in the last roughly 200 years. Since the industrial revolution, the presence of animals in human society has increasingly been one of seeing animals in terms of materials, to be produced in factories, or alternatively as distractions in zoos. Simultaneously, this brutal disavowal of animal dignity has, however, also spurred a seemingly new awareness of the rights of animals. To come back to the theme of the perceived “mute sadness” in animals, it is perhaps not surprising that the restricted mode of existence that animals have been assigned in zoos, yields, as Berger (Ibid., 260) seems to describe, a disappointing muteness with regard to what we could plausibly take to be the animals’ own ways of responding or of exhibiting some sort of expression of life. So, how can we, on a more positive note, work to decrease the suppression of animal dignity, and do so more on the animals’ own terms?
A first step would naturally be to acknowledge the obvious fact that animals lack the capacity to sit at the political negotiation table themselves. But this, as Martha Nussbaum (2006) argues in her criticism of the social-contract model for political justice, should not mean that they should thereby be excluded from holding any rights. In her alternative “capabilities approach” to political justice, Nussbaum conceives of justice in the form of sets of inviolable and non-fungible rights to the various capabilities required to lead a dignified life, regardless of birth. Such a list of basic capabilities will determine a minimum threshold for the provided possibilities of pursing a dignified existence according to one’s own further convictions, but will naturally vary depending on what is at least minimally normative to the given species in question. This means that each individual must, in the first instance, be seen in terms of their own specific abilities and inabilities, against which an engagement to help develop these capabilities must rely. The direction of this facilitation of basic capabilities must, in Nussbaum’s view, then be guided by some kind of normative species ontology, and especially in cases where the right-holders in question may themselves be unable to linguistically express themselves (as in the case of animals) or even be partly unaware of what form such a dignified life could have. Although this Aristotelian-inspired approach of Nussbaum’s thus certainly operates with an ontological understanding in the pursuit of justice, the acknowledged asymmetry with regard to the plurality of rights-holders, along with its fundamentally ethical momentum, make it seem to me as a basically instrumental use of ontology, and, overall, as not too far from the kind of path toward greater justice that both Derrida and—though slightly unwittingly or unwillingly—Levinas gesture toward.
“The octopus,” Aristotle (1910) writes, “is a stupid creature, for it will approach a man’s hand if it be lowered in the water.” Although the originator of deductive logic and biology was certainly a bit too quick in this inference, we could perhaps understand his mistake to the backdrop of the ostensibly radical otherness of this creature. To begin with, the significance of the cephalopod in human culture occupies such an immense range, that it seems both wider and deeper than the oceans. From the Hawaiian sea god of Kanaloa to the terrifying myths of the deep-sea monster Kraken in Scandinavian folklore—recurring in the infamous giant squid attacking the Nautilus in Jule Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas—and H.P. Lovecraft’s more recent Cthulhu deity, the cephalopod again and again shows up as the other par excellence; as master of the infinite seas, or as an atrociously other-worldly creature, imagined as so infinitely alien and far from the life of man.
Its spineless, soft body that can squeeze itself through the smallest aperture, its capacity to adapt and camouflage the color of its skin, and its decentralized intelligence with neurons dispersed throughout its entire body to the tips of its multiple suckered arms—poking and grabbing in various directions—also gives it the shape of the omnipresent, surveilling Parent, God or State. When the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office launched its NROL-39 reconnaissance satellite project in 2013, it opted—to much subsequent public outcry—for the logo of a gigantic yellow octopus wrapping its arms around the Earth, along with the slogan “Nothing Is Beyond Our Reach.” As a spokeswoman of the NRO explained the choice (Hill 2013): “NROL-39 is represented by the octopus, a versatile, adaptable, and highly intelligent creature. Emblematically, enemies of the United States can be reached no matter where they choose to hide.” Here, the octopus is, thus, not only master of the seas but also of space.
The figure of the octopus, moreover, lends itself to many obvious psychoanalytic interpretations: again, the omnipresent parent (cf. Louise Bourgeois’ famously imposing eight-armed spider sculpture Maman) and last but not least, the conspicuous set of tentacles. The cephalopod tentacle remains one of the most famous fetishes of Japanese erotica and pornography, with a tradition stretching back to at least Hokusai’s celebrated 1814 woodblock print The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. The genre of tentacle erotica is frequently associated with rape (or at least as taking place in the murky waters between violation and consent), as perpetrated by the beastly cephalopod, and it is perhaps this very transgression—between human and the frightening, othered animal—that serves to eroticize this scene, similarly to what the film scholar Linda Williams (2004) has described in an article on the skewed dynamics of interracial pornography. In fact, one of the first and loudest internet discussions upon the release of My Octopus Teacher, was the one of whether Foster in fact engaged in a sexual act with the octopus. In one Twitter thread (Lewis 2020), Foster was even critiqued for his own patently queerphobic disownment of having had sex with the octopus. That may be a step too far to state (Foster cuddles with the octopus, at the octopus’ initiative; not exactly a Hokusai scene), but the cultural imagination at work here is indeed telling.
Finally, cephalopods are eaten and enjoyed as food in many places of the world: from the calamari of Greece (perhaps the symbol of its cuisine) to Korean san-nakji, where the cephalopod is ingested alive, or, at least, posthumously still moving (often taken as a sign of the consumer’s masculinity). To conclude, and to stop this inexhaustible list, the topic of the relation between human and cephalopod, seems to warrant a sub-discipline in itself.
Although some criticism has been vented against the autobiographical narrative aspect of My Octopus Teacher—notably, the trope of the white, depressed man reconnecting with nature—as stealing the spotlight from the real, non-human, star of the show, I still believe that the film marks an interesting contrast to the standard, popular wildlife infotainment found everywhere else on Netflix and other channels. Here it is not just a question of a digitally mediated aquarium or of a “technical clairvoyance” that, to cite John Berger (2007, 257), allows us to see the normally “invisible” nooks of the natural world. Rather, what we see is someone being seen by the seeing animal, and who—despite any cynical tropes—in fact gains, and regains, some sort of subjectivity due to this fact. In the wake of mourning his deceased octopus friend, Foster’s reaction is not simply one of personal gratitude, but also one of felt responsibility towards marine life, as he comes to initiate an organization (Sea Change Project), with the mission of informing about the preservation of threatened marine life.
However, as with many other similar charity initiatives, one may legitimately ask whom it is for, and by what means. On the front page of Sea Change Project’s website (www.seachangeproject.com), one is met with the exhortation “remember you are WILD,” to the backdrop of a fluctuating ocean surface capping a beautifully swaying, dark-turquoise forest of kelp. First of all, it would be very easy to interpret this reminder as merely another message to the modern urbanite that the main value of the preservation of marine habitats and habitants lies in the therapeutic possibility for disconnected humans to heal themselves through nature. And secondly, one may ask, does “nature” have to be this beautiful in order to be protected?
These critical remarks may be fitting to some extent, but then, from the point of view of Derrida, why, initially, disparage this arguably responsible approach of Foster’s? Especially when it is so clearly grounded in the caring for an individual animal other, as in this case. Despite Foster’s exhilaration at “being part of this place” he—lacking gills—still clearly remains a guest in these “wild” waters (where it is, ironically, the octopus who hurries to cover her body, in algae clothing, in the first face-to-face encounter with the semi-nude man, outside her den). If more animals have their capabilities of leading a flourishing existence increased by such initiatives, then so much the better.
And yet, choosing one specific habitat to protect, in the wake of a one-on-one encounter, will of course, as Derrida would point out, naturally mean a disregard of another third party, who does not get seen or protected to the same extent. Here it becomes, I believe, particularly clear that the aesthetic predicates we tend to ascribe to various animals and species have an important impact on who gets seen and who gets protection. As Roderick Nash points out in a fascinating overview of the history of the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973, despite the fact that the U.S. federal law of 1973 made up a great advancement in animal rights, the law’s formulation remained somewhat anthropocentric in its stated purpose of protecting species that are “of aesthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational and scientific value to the Nation and its people” (Nash 1989, 176). Emblematically, while the ESA made possible the first non-human plaintiff in a U.S. court, in the form of a beautifully yellow Hawaiian bird whose habitats had become threatened by excessive grazing, and who later won the case, the law’s specification of e.g. “aesthetic value,” also made possible certain loopholes. One of the first cases of ESA lawsuits going to the Supreme Court, included a legal battle between a multi-million dollar Tennessee dam project and the snail-darter, which is a grey, three-inch type of minnow fish discovered to only live in a small section of the Little Tennessee river. As the main opponent Rep. John Duncan of Tennessee expressed his position in the battle: “I have a picture of the snail-darter. You cannot eat it. It is not much to look at. It is a slimy color.” (Nash 1989, 178). After a long protracted legal battle, the snail-darter eventually lost to the dam project.
Similarly, we may wonder whether the greyish and horrifying pajama sharks that repeatedly harass and even dismember Foster’s octopus friend, will be granted a face in the extended Levinasian sense. For, common to most empirical accounts of respectful human-animal relations in which the animal is granted a subjectivity of its own, is that they are after all accounts of either primates, genetically and morphologically close to ourselves, or of animals that have been bred and trained to live with humans, which we thus naturally tend to have an affectionate regard toward (see e.g. Smuts 1999). Against this background, a similar account from a relation with a wild mollusk like Foster’s octopus friend is indeed a significant step farther. Yet, having proven what an intelligent, graceful and fascinating animal the octopus in fact is, we may wonder to what extent her rights of a dignified existence are indeed conditioned upon her aesthetic features. How can we guarantee justice for all the ugly, scary, and disgusting animals out there?
Regardless of its ethical relevance to the question of animal justice, I can’t help feeling compelled by the octopus’ being, which is presented in My Octopus Teacher. This is an invertebrate animal with a resourcefulness and inventiveness that in several situations make myself feel outsmarted, and whose shifting form, colors, and ways of moving I could probably look at indefinitely. It is also arguably an animal that is playful and curious about what it sees, and that sometimes reaches out an arm just to see. What Aristotle took for stupidity may in fact just have been an invitation of trust.
This essay was originally written in connection with the course ‘New Perspectives on Vulnerability,’ given by Professor Don Kulick at Uppsala University in the fall of 2020. A special thanks to Don for providing numerous inspiring discussions, readings, and perspectives on the issues at hand.
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