Dispatches to Massia – Tentacular Life


There’s a particularly weird but important episode in the history of biology which involves the picture above. If I could have been in massia in person the idea would have been to do some paper crafts to try and make this comparison (between a vertebrate and an invertebrate easily to visualize). In 1830, spurred on by a paper by some younger biologists, the anatomist Geofrroy St Hilare suggested that there was a one body plan for all animals, there was a limited number of parts that were simply rearranged to make each animal. Geoffroy argued that this ‘unity of plan’ meant that there were no extreme differences between the so-called kingdoms of animals, the divisions between mammals and reptiles or vertebrates and invertebrates (spined and spineless) were not ‘real’, they were just our way of classifying the arrangements of parts.

This infuriated Cuvier who insisted on radically different branches on the tree of life…you could not get a chicken by folding it at the belly and attaching its feet to its head. (Incidentally the word cephalopod which refers to squids and octopuses means ‘head foot’). A great debate ensued which drew attention from the Americas and the rest of Europe. Cuvier who insisted on understanding animals in terms of fitness to their environment is often treated as the winner of the debate. Yet while Cuvier advocated adaptation it was Geoffroy who had early evolutionary views. For Cuvier species could not radically change while for Geoffroy’s ‘origami of the species’ (sorry bad joke) anything could in effect become anything else. But there is one aspect of Geoffroy’s work that lived on and that was looking at living things in terms of homologies – comparing the parts of animals not in terms of their function (a bat wing and a bird wing are both for flying) but for where in space the part it is and what it means for the shared ancestors between animals (a monkey arm and a bird wing are not that weird if you just stretch out the monkey fingers…).

As Melody Jue’s chapter from Wild Blue Media highlights tentacular beings occupy our imagination in part because they seem so alien. In terms of evolutionary biology our last shared ancestor was a long long time ago (Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds is a nice text on this which is in the archive). And yet they are highly intelligent and they also have eyes very similar to ours. But of course they are pulpy, their intelligence is distributed throughout their bodies. The comparison of perception between mammals and cephalopods seems almost impossible – many sea creatures have radial symmetry meaning that they perceive all around them at once (like a jelly fish). Humans have of course bilateral symmetry (we are split down the middle and have a sense of left and right) but an octopus has both. They grow with mirror images of their parts but their tentacles give them a radial orientation so that they move without any apparent rhythm and often at diagonal angles.

This seems like a pretty good way into the ‘cognitive estrangement’ that Jue links to the terrestrial biases of our we think an interface and how we think the alien. Orientation as a kind of projected set of dimensions and capacities for movement leads to a different notion of motion and space and also highlights the signals and cues picked up from the body (as in her discussion of nitrogen narcosis). How in ocean life the notion of down and up have very different physiological consequences and spatial senses.

On pg 80 (pdf 10) Jue talks about Le Guin and the assigning of goodness or badness to directions (this will come up with the next two days – the problems of ascent with the Moynihan text and going back down to compost). Up towards the heavens is better to us generally then going down or descending to hell.

Which brings us to Flusser and his fascination with the vampire squid from hell. Squids and octupuses are different but the alienness and tentacularity we attach to them is similar. In terms of physiology (and perhaps why we might think we can imagine what it is like to be a cephalopod) squids and octopuses have a central nervous system (CNS) – which means having a strong orientation towards the front (anterior).

On p85-86 Jue discusses of how orientation models give us an indication of the categories which we use to organize our perceptions (what Flusser calls biological Kantianism which is also part of Uexkull’s work). Without going too deeply into Kant the question is about what are the most basic forms that condition our experience and that if we subtracted them any kind of experience would seem impossible. Two easy examples are space and time – it is awfully difficult (or impossible) to imagine an experience of anything without space or time. But unlike Kant Flusser (and also Jue) want to talk about how the shape and form of the body condition how we perceive space and movement in a fundamental way – so not only about up as good and down as bad for (some) terrestrial animals but also how directions are radically different.

For instance both humans and birds have a notion of up but the physical motions required to move up are very different (a bird can take flight and ascend) whereas a human can jump or climb (or fly through complicated technical means). The distinctions of course color how we think about directions (to back back above) in general and invite the kinds of speculative science fictions that Jue emphasizes.

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