Kraken Rising: How the Cephalopod Became Our Zeitgeist Mascot

As H.P. Lovecraft devotees know, Cthulhu (“kə-THOO-loo”) is the octopoid horror that slithered across the intergalactic wastes, in the time before Time, and slumbers now in the ocean’s abyssal depths, dreaming of apocalypse. As described in “The Call of Cthulhu,” he’s a cosmic obscenity, a partial-birth nightmare of “vaguely anthropoid outline” with the scaly hide and “rudimentary wings” of a dragon. But his most memorable aspect is his cephalopod head, variously described as an “octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers,” an “awful squid-head with writhing feelers,” or just “pulpy” and “tentacled.”

When the stars align, Cthulhu will rise again to resume His dominion over the Earth, ushering in an age of frenzied abandon. Humankind will be “free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy” — Aleister Crowley’s idea of Primal Scream therapy, maybe, or what Burning Man might look like if the Manson Family were called in as rebranding consultants.

Recovering English majors will be reminded of the leviathan in Tennyson’s poem “The Kraken,” which rises from the abyss at the end of the age, when “fire shall heat the deep.” (The Lovecraft scholar Robert M. Price thinks the author drew inspiration from the Tennyson poem.)

As it happens, the many-tentacled One is rising these days, though less as an omen of apocalypse than as an emblem of the zeitgeist. The cephalopod — octopuses and squid, especially the giant squid, Architeuthis — has emerged, in recent years, as a tribal totem for geeks and hipsters of the Threadless T-shirt persuasion, celebrated in tattoos, skateboard decks, Gama-Go’s Giant Squid messenger bag, the Colossal Squid onesie retailed by Hipster Baby Tees, artist Adam Wallacavage’s tentacled chandeliersEtsy seller OctopusMe’s sterling-silver rings cast from actual tentacles, and let us not forget the Screaming Octopus Mini Vibrator or the insertable silicone Tentacle from Whipspider Rubberworks, a “g-spot stimulator” studded with glow-in-the-dark suction cups. (Both go well with tentacle hentai, the only-in-Japan cartoon-porn genre devoted to fantasies of wide-eyed Lolitas ravished by cephalopods).

On June 29, the achingly hip SF writer and self-described “cephalopod geek” China Miéville is rolling out a new novel, Kraken, whose McGuffin (Hitchcock’s term for a plot device that ratchets the narrative along) is a giant squid specimen, stolen from a natural history museum. A squid-worshipping cult called the Congregation of God Kraken is trying to use the pickled monster to set the machinery of apocalypse in motion (just as, in real life, contemporary evangelicals are attempting to nudge Jehovah into action by breeding the “perfect red heifer” enshrined in Old Testament lore — a portent, they believe, of the End of Days).

Image Courtesy of: thing is certain: the devoutly ironic (ironically devout?) Cthulhu cult, with its Cthulhu for President bumper stickers and Cthulhumas tree ornaments, isn’t a vector of transmission for the cephalopod meme’s spread through pop culture. I asked Robert M. Price, a doctor of theology, former Baptist preacher-turned-“Christian atheist” and, incalculably, fervent Lovecraftian, if the Cthulhu cult represents the lighter side of the New Atheism spearheaded by Richard Dawkins. Is it, I wondered, in the same socially satirical vein as the church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a tongue-in-cheek “irreligion” whose patent absurdity parodies the irrationality of all religious belief?

Price, who when he isn’t challenging Christian claims for the historical Christ in books like Deconstructing Jesus applies his hermeneutic gifts to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, told me that while most Lovecraftians are secularists or outright atheists, their embrace of Cthulhu is poles apart from the Flying Spaghetti Monster phenomenon, which in his view “is simply ‘give-’em-the-finger’ ridicule of religion.”

To be sure, he concedes, Lovecraft fans sometimes “use it that way (with ‘Campus Crusade for Cthulhu’ bumper stickers and such), but they have a positive and deep interest in the Cthulhu Mythos that no one could have in a mere gag. The sheer complexity, together with the mysterious ambiance of the thing, what with its ancient grimoires and unknown gods, is irresistibly fascinating to many of us, as fascinating as if they were real, though we know they are not.

“I believe that the widely-spreading tentacles of the Cthulhu meme is best understood as a pop culture religion like Star Trek fandom and the Church of Elvis. John Strausbaugh (in E: Reflections on the Birth of the Elvis Faith) describes these as genuine religions, though of a new and mutant type. They are religions that ignore the traditional ‘sacred versus profane’ distinction intrinsic in classical religions. They also lack any element of sincere belief. Their adherents are rejoicing in the spirit of the thing, celebrating what they love. But they are not necessarily trying to derive moral guidance from their religions, and they do not literally believe in the stories of their pop faiths.”

Octopus TenticlesSo the cult of Cthulhu is fandom as postmodern religion, unfettered from traditional belief’s insistence on religion as moral truth and literal fact. It’s a hermeneuticist’s leap of faith into the world of the text, a world the Cthulhuists regard not as Truth but as “truth,” in ironic air quotes; managing the Fitzgeraldian feat of holding two antithetical ideas in their minds at the same time (while still maintaining an epistemic equilibrium), they have their critical distance and eat it, too, believing as if rather than believing in.

Thus, the Cthulhu phenomenon runs parallel to, but isn’t congruent with, the cephalopod meme. Arguably, Cthulhu is just another incarnation of the bulbous-headed, feeler-faced aliens who pursue humankind through sci-fi’s troubled dreams. In pulp fantasy, the octopus, with its humanoid head, eerily intelligent-looking eyes, and deft, fingerlike appendages, has served as a durable metaphor for the utterly Other, creepily alien yet just enough like us, in a grotesque, funhouse-mirror way, to be genuinely unsettling.

H.G. Wells’s Martians, in War of the Worlds (1898), are octopuses by any other name: “heads — merely heads,” their cephalopod-like beaks ringed by “whip-like” tentacles. On Wells’s Mars, ultra-advanced “mechanical appliances” and “chemical devices” rendered physical labor and even bodily processes such as digestion obsolete, begetting creatures with freakishly overdeveloped brains and shriveled, vestigial bodies. Writing in Victorian England, where the Hobbesian social order struck a sour note amid the symphony of industrial progress, Wells wondered if a similar fate awaited Homo faber. “[T]he Martians may be descended from beings not unlike ourselves, by a gradual development of brain and hands (the latter giving rise to the… delicate tentacles… ) at the expense of the rest of the body,” the narrator speculates, in War of the Worlds. “Without the body, the brain would, of course, become a mere selfish intelligence, without any of the emotional substratum of the human being.”

Prefiguring by more than half a century Marshall McLuhan’s humanist revulsion at man the “gadget lover,” in thrall to his technological prostheses, Wells offers a cautionary tale, on the eve of the 20th century, about what happens when the unfeeling intellect (“vast and cool and unsympathetic”) is cut loose from the body that anchors it to the human condition.

Image Courtesy of: exactly a century later, in the first flush of the Digital Revolution (©Wired magazine), the cephalopod archetype resurfaced. This time, however, the semiotic polarities were reversed: the mythic image that gave shape to fears of Homo cyberneticus deformed by his overreliance on technology into a posthuman freak — his body “shriveled to nothing, a dangling degraded pendant” to his overdeveloped brain, as Wells put it — now embodied the cultural values of the hacker class (codeword: geek). With the Revenge of the Nerds in full swing — Bill Gates and Apple’s two Steves ascendant, Silicon Valley brainiacs the new media darlings, outlaw hackers and cyberpunk novelists the iconic rebels of the moment — a big-brained mollusk with a sci-fi pedigree seemed right for the zeitgeist. Evolution has reduced the cephalopod to a network of hyperactive neurons, a pair of oversized eyes, and a clutch of nimble limbs — the very attributes most hackers, videogamers, and computer programmers would check off, if technology made them the masters of their own Darwinian re-engineering.

“I believe that the totemic image for the future is the octopus,” wrote the cyberdelic philosopher Terence McKenna, in 1990. Fresh from immersion baptism in hyperreality — his first encounter, via Virtual Reality, with a 3-D simulation he could walk around in — McKenna was convinced that humanity was poised for a techno-evolutionary leap. Ever the McLuhanite, he believed that humans are transformed by their labor-saving gadgets and mind-warping media. The cephalopod pointed the way forward, he said, because squid and octopuses “have perfected a form of communication that is both psychedelic and telepathic; a model for the human communications of the future.” Rebooting McLuhan’s dream of forging, through digital connectedness, a global consciousness that transcends linguistic barriers — “a state of absorption in the logos that could knit mankind into one family and create a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace” (McLuhan)  — McKenna extolled the octopus’s jaw-dropping ability to telegraph its emotional state by means of “a large repertoire of color changes, dots, blushes, and traveling bars.”

For McKenna, the octopus was the poster animal for the Teilhard de Chardinian, techno-transcendentalist strain in digital culture. Embodying the profoundly anti-modernist (and inescapably religious) dream of healing the rupture between language and meaning, signifier and signified, the octopus “does not transmit its linguistic intent, it becomes its linguistic intent.” This, said McKenna, is “the essence of a more perfect Logos, a Logos not heard but beheld.” Forgetting that visual imagery is no less culturally contingent and historically contextual than words, he envisioned the use of VR to “change vocal utterance into visually beheld colored output,” which he believed would “telepathically” communicate linguistic intent through “the unambiguous topology of meanings beheld,” as if visual representation and subjective meaning were a seamless whole, and not subject to the same semiotic slippage that bedevils language. Anyway, we can dream, can’t we? “In the not-too-distant future, men and women may shed the monkey body to become virtual octopi swimming in a silicon sea.”

Homo cyberneticus deformed by his overreliance on technology into a posthuman freak now embodied the cultural values of the hacker class.

For our purposes, the most fascinating aspect of McKenna’s exaltation of the octopus as an evolutionary totem for cyberculture is his strikingly un-Wellsian embrace of the creature as a “naked mind” that wears its thoughts on its skin. “Like the octopus, our destiny is to become what we think,” he wrote, “to have our thoughts become our bodies and our bodies become our thoughts.” Lest we forget, as McKenna seemingly did, this posthuman apotheosis (which, paradoxically, is also a return to the world before the Fall into language, before the breach between representation and truth) happens in Virtual Reality. But while the mind floats free in McKenna’s silicon sea, the evolutionarily irrelevant body at the other end of the high-tech tether shrivels “to nothing, a dangling degraded pendant.” A century after Wells, the symbolic octopus has evolved from a metaphor for the ghastly hypertrophy of the intellect into a sublime emissary of cosmic consciousness. Spiritual kin to the luminous ETs in Close Encounters and the undersea angels in The Abyss, McKenna’s octopus beckons us toward a future that looks a lot like Eden, where self and other, human and nature, and sign and meaning were one. Today, the cephalopod is a floating signifier in the pop unconscious, flashing multiple meanings. For the “happy mutant” demographic descended from the McKenna-Mondo 2000 cyberdelic subculture of the ’90s, the octopus is a geek mascot, routing, with hackerish ingenuity, around obstacles to its liberty and late-night cravings. The hipster-geek blog Boing Boing routinely runs items that reaffirm popular perceptions of the octopus as a brainy nonconformist, from the octopus who uses coconut shells as a portable “safe room”  when predators are near; to the octopus who de-stresses by juggling the hermit crabs in his tank to the octopus who loves his Mr. Potato Head toy and “turns aggressive” when anyone threatens to it away from him.

Unnervingly clever, and startlingly human in their emotional displays, octopuses are providing yet more evidence in the case against anthropocentric claims for human exceptionalism (tool use, the play impulse, emotions). As well, they remind us that our self-serving bias in favor of the charismatic megafauna, specifically primates, is just that: the merest narcissism.

More and more, we’re realizing that octopuses aren’t spiders from Mars or Cthulhu’s familiars, but part of the continuum of thinking, feeling things of which we’re part. Next time you steel yourself for the gastro-macho of eating live octopus, Korean-style, consider the aquarist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium who recalled an octopus he’d had “play sessions” with. When he returned, after a long absence, the animal greeted him by climbing out of its tank and throwing its arms around his neck, “like when you go on vacation and your dog misses you terribly.” 

Image Courtesy of: store.mcsweeneys.netBut there’s a flipside to the symbolic binary whose geek-friendly face is the octopus. The other half of the cephalopod meme’s dualistic dyad is the giant — and even colossal — squid, the Kraken’s flesh-and-blood avatar. In recent years, megasquid have been caught, alive and in their element, on film and, on even rarer occasions, on hooks. In 2004, Japanese researchers photographed a 26-foot-long giant squid, live, in its habitat, for the first time ever. In 2007, a fishing boat in Antarctic waters hauled up a 39-foot, 990-pound colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) alive. It didn’t survive, but it was the first mature specimen of the biggest (and, some maintain, baddest) member of the order Teuthida ever recovered, not to mention the largest confirmed specimen of a cephalopod to date. (Baddest because the club-like ends of its tentacles bristle with vicious, swiveling hooks, the better to grab Kirk Douglas with.)

If the Pokemon-cute little “Dumbo Octopus” Grimpoteuthis (so-called because of its earlike fins) is the embodiment of happy mutant culture, emblazoned on McSweeney’s Dumbo Octopus T-Shirt, the megasquid has washed up on the shores of the collective unconscious as a symbol of the irretrievable otherness of nature, the ambassador of that last terrestrial frontier, the Abyssal. As the noted postmodern philosopher Donald Rumsfeld reminded us, beyond known knowns and known unknowns lie unknown unknowns — things we don’t even know we don’t know, into which category must fall the undiscovered denizens of the deep.

The Abyssal appears, in the mass imagination, as a Dalinian dreamworld populated by bathypelagic monsters unlike anything on land, an underworld haunted by bioluminescent nightmares. It is the business of the Abyssal to be the inexhaustible account from which we withdraw our wonder and horror, the last great repository of awe in a world desacralized by science, cynicism, and the media. Embodied myths like Architeuthis and Mesonychoteuthis give shape to the notion that science hasn’t killed the marvelous; that monsters may still lurk in the far corners of Google Maps.

3 Responses

  1. Suska says:

    This article focuses on some octopus – cthulu connections but misses how Lovecraft took it and how we in general understand it. As a meme the whole matter is better understood as a mortified relationship with our bodies, especially sexuality. From there the clearer idea that makes this meme travel is that it’s funny; we mock the prude, but we know it is powerful and can be viewed as hideous.

  1. November 4, 2012

    […] usually, anyway—but they often enjoy acting as though they do. The cultural critic Mark Dery has called Cthulhu’s devotees a “postmodern religion, unfettered from traditional belief’s […]

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