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Akira Mizuta Lippit


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Reality is an active verb, and the nouns all seem to be gerunds with more appendages than an octopus.

– Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto

Reality is neither a state nor a fixed being, says Donna Haraway, but a movement toward being that produces beings and becomings (gerunds) with “more appendages than an octopus.” Neither a state nor static. She says: “Beings constitute each other and themselves through their reaching into each other, through their ‘prehensions’ or graspings.” 1 The prehensile quality of beings and their becomings involves both tactile and sensual-perceptual forms of grasping: “reaching into each other,” in Haraway’s idiom, involves both physical and emotional forms of penetration. Reality takes shape in a grasp. If reality is an active verb, then for Haraway, being is an octopus, and becoming octopedal. The prehensions or legs of the octopus forge the activity of becoming oneself and other through an intertwining of legs and legacies, what Haraway calls “potent transfections.” 2 I am infected by an other, by significant otherness. In The Companion Species Manifesto, Haraway’s companion is an Australian Shephard, “Ms. Cayenne Pepper”; Haraway’s figure for the appendages of reality, for the prehensions and graspings of significant otherness is an octopus. (Haraway and her companion, human being and canine, share between them eight legs or limbs; they form together, perhaps, as companions, an octopus.)

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1 Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm, 2003), 6.

2 Ibid., 1.

3 Burroughs, “Octopus,” in Living with the Animals, ed. Gary Indiana (Winchester, MA:

Faber and Faber, 1994), 2.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 3. (original emphasis).

8 Ibid., 2.

9 Ibid., 3.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid. (original


The octopus, William S. Burroughs believes, is intelligent and emotional, “more intelligent than any animal except the

chimpanzee” and “subject to hysterical fear.” 3 Almost as smart as a primate and capable of exaggerated, even neurotic, human affect. More and less than human, more or less human. And remarkably, the octopus’s affect is visible, says Burroughs, rendered by changes in its color: it turns “red with lust or anger and pale green with fear.” 4 The octopus displays its emotions.

The animal that Burroughs loves can also return his affection:

“What a compliment to see an octopus turn a pleased pink at sight of me.” 5 It responds in the form of a colored affect. (Even its retreat assumes a writerly posture: “And, like writers,” says Burroughs, “they can escape in a cloud of ink.” ) 6 Burroughs’s octopus is an exemplarily visual animal. Its feelings are revealed on the surface of its skin, marked by transformations in shade and hue. “Look at the way the octopus changes color: a flush of salmon pink washing into deep aching purple, nacreous pearl shading into a wash of underwater greens, a wave of clear electric blue.” 7 A color-coded semiology of affect. The spectacular octopus is both a spectacle and spectator. “Above all,” says Burroughs, “I love his huge eyes. His watching eyes.” 8 For

this vigilance, “the octopus is hated and feared: ‘WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT? Don’t looka me!’” 9 In Burroughs’s aquarium, the visuality of the octopus is an economy that moves from inside to out, from outside to in, defined by a unique form of exteriority, ecstasy. Its look, which arrives from a deep and faraway outside, provokes hatred and fear. An abject ectopus. The octopus opens a field of outside visuality, what Burroughs calls a

“mutant” visuality. 10 Outside and ecstatic, Burroughs’s octopus displays its insides

like an X-ray, all of it “indecent”: “All its feelings right out there right now, all indecent.” 11 What is mutant in the visuality of the

octopus is not its indecency, but rather its inability to keep its insides out of view, and the immediacy of its display, “right now.”

The octopus is pathologically (“hysterically”) outside. Right out there right now, as Burroughs says. A hysterical invertebrate, an

invert, pervert, oectopus. For Burroughs, the octopus occupies a place of significant

otherness, to use Donna Haraway’s expression, but with a greater

degree of specificity that yields, paradoxically, greater distance. There is between Burroughs and his octopus a libidinal visual

rapport but not exactly companionship. Their worlds (elements, environments, umwelts) are too far apart, and the electric sexuality that travels between them—through the visual fields of water and air—comes precisely from the impossibility of co-habitation.


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Burroughs’s significant but incompatible other can only be described by its proper name, a significant octopus. Burroughs’s octopus, and to an extent Haraway’s, is an oectopus:

near and far, loved and reviled, loving and perverted, emotional and hysterical; each paradox marked visually by a unique legacy forming on the body an octo-paradoxy. The oectopus is cousin to another significant other, Oedipus, whose swollen leg left him also balancing a line between the octo-paradoxa that mark the oectopus. Oedipus is also a figure that falls outside the configuration for which he is named, marking him in a species close to but distinctly apart from the human. More or less and more and less human. He is an illicit but significant other to most around him. And his legacy is marked by eyes and legs: Oedipus’s life is bound by an economy of legs from his own pierced legs at infancy (which left him with a swollen foot, oidipous, and a limp) to the riddle of the Sphinx, which asks about an animal with varying numbers of legs at different times of the day. (“What walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening?”) Oedipus solves the riddle with the answer “man,” naming the animal that crawls as an infant (four legs), walks upright as an adult (two legs), and uses a cane in old age (three legs). (The total number of this creature’s legs is nine, although Oedipus himself used only one leg in infancy, since his feet were pierced and bound together. 8 + 1, octopus + Oedipus = 9 legs.) “The earliest form of the riddle that comes down to us,” says Charles Segal, “uses feet to ask about the different generations of mankind.”

There is on earth a being two-footed, four-footed, and three- footed that has one name [literally, one voice]; and, of all creatures that move upon the earth and in the heavens and in the sea, it alone changes its form. But when it goes propped on most feet, then is the swiftness in its limbs the weakest. 12

Name and voice are one in the nine-legged creature proposed by the Sphinx: Oedipus and octopus, Oectopus. The illicit unions that permeate Oedipus extend beyond register of incest and include the Sphinx, who is herself, a gendered monster sent by Hera to punish Thebes. She is a hybrid animal—part lion, part woman—formed, perhaps, like Haraway’s unit through the suturing attractions of significant otherness. 13 Oedipus is the one who sees and knows but never at the same time. Or rather, seeing and knowing do not coincide for Oedipus. Before the Sphinx, Oedipus solves the riddle of riddles, “Man!” but fails to see himself inscribed in the riddle and at the origin of a crime. (Oedipus is in this and other respects always outside of humanity, outside of the very narrative of humanity that he

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12 Segal, Oedipus Tyrranus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 36. Segal adds: “The riddle points to the precarious, changing nature of man: of all creatures he alone uses intelligence to change his mode of locomotion as he progresses through life. As the very existence of the riddle implies, he alone is conscious of his uniqueness in nature. Oedipus, as self-aware, intelligent Man, is the solver of his own riddle. Indeed his name, in one possible etymology, suggests the meaning “Know Foot” (oida, “I know,” and pous, “foot”)— that is, ‘He who knows the riddle of the feet’” (36). “The answer to the riddle is both ‘Man’ and ‘Oedipus,’” says Segal (37).

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13 Charles Segal underscores the erotic nature and function of the Sphinx: “In various versions of the myth, both literary and pictorial, the Sphinx preys on young men, carrying them off in a deadly, quasi- erotic embrace and devouring them. Thus, she is a particular danger in the male passage to adulthood” (Segal, 33).


Sophocles, Oedipus the King, in Sophocles I, ed. David Grene and Richard Lattimore, trans. David Grene (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1954), 66-67.

15 Ibid.,25.

16 Ibid.,28.

names, a human outlaw and pervert.) By the time Oedipus learns

his true origins and uncovers his unwitting crimes (they are in another sense unconscious), a deferred trauma erupts before his eyes, which he pierces and blinds. Upon seeing the lifeless body of Jocasta,

He tore the brooches – the gold chased brooches fastening her robe – away from her and lifting them high dashed them on his own eyeballs, shrieking out such things as: they will never see the crime I have committed or had done upon me! Dark eyes, now in the days to come look on forbidden faces, do not recognize those whom you long for – with such imprecations he struck his eyes again and yet again with the brooches. 14

Oedipus’s “dark eyes,” darkened on the occasion of his enlightenment, is prefigured and embodied by the blind seer Teiresias, who anticipates the crisis between seeing and knowing that awaits Oedipus. Responding to Oedipus’s hostile reception of Teiresias’s claim that Oedipus is himself “the land’s pollution,” 15 Teiresias says:

Since you have taunted me with being blind, here is my word for you. You have your eyes but see not where you are in sin, nor where you live, nor with whom you live. Do you know who your parents are? Unknowing you are an enemy to kith and kin in death, beneath the earth, and in this life. A deadly footed, double striking curse, from father and mother both, shall drive you out of this land, with darkness on your eyes, that now have

such straight vision. 16

Eyes and legs organize Oedipus’s body, fate, and legacy. Their mode of organization is a disorganization—eyes see but don’t see, legs are bound and unbound, leaving Oedipus out of sync with the figure he offers to the Sphinx. Oedipus himself always lags behind the truth; when he finally catches up he is consumed by disaster. Oedipus is a kind of octopus, an organism defined by its eyes and legs. For its “watching eyes,” says Burroughs, “the

octopus is hated and feared.” Hated and feared by most, but also loved by some; and like the Oedipus, the octopus is an exile from

“this land,” from the earth. But the oectopus is not like Oedipus, or rather it is like Oedipus according to the logic of “potent transfections” that Haraway describes. It likes Oedipus, just as Burroughs likes the octopus. The oectopus forms from the illicit transfection of Oedipus and octopus. But why insist on this Oedipal dimension of the octopus (on each individual octopus, as Derrida would insist); and why force the octopus, which feels on the outside, as Burroughs says, onto the legacies of Oedipus? Why insist on a significant otherness between Oedipus and octopus, named in the Sphinx- like hybrid oectopus? The visual life of the octopus, from


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Hokusai to Jean Painlevé and William Burroughs has been figured by a sense of illicit, perverse, and transgressive sexuality; and an irreducible visuality of the outside. 17 And just as Oedipus is not one but many (he is the one, singled out, but marked and traversed nonetheless by a potent multiplicity), the octopus may be an exemplary figure for a multiple visuality, a multiplicity of visualities signaled by its eyes and legs. In the potent transfection between Oedipus and octopus, a visual–erotic riddle and Sphinx emerges, an oectopus. It embodies in a phantasmatic body (a body that consists entirely of eyes and legs; a body that is less without organs than simply without) a speculative and spectacular visuality rendered by perversion and irreducible exteriority. It is a figure of deviant visuality, a scene from the outside but also of the outside that glares back in the full splendor of a perverse and impossible visuality: “‘WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT? Don’t looka me!’”

December 2004

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17 Japanese painter Hokusai’s Woman Diver and Octopus (1814) and French filmmaker Jean Painlevé’s 13–minute documentary The Love Life of the Octopus (Amours de la pieuvre, 1965), as well as Burroughs’s short essay, emphasize the erotic and libidinal economies of the octopus.

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