Just back from Japan and the topic of octopuses has been on (and off) my mind for some time. Therefore, I offer an anthropological, cephalopod blog: eight footnotes, or eight ways of spilling ink (with apologies to J.L. Austin).

1. A woodblock print by Kuniyoshi from the early 1840s: ‘Fashionable Octopus Games’ (Ryûkô tako no asobi). A delicious, delirious parody of (human) sociality: octopus intoxication, cephalopod frolics, carried out in earnest; bug-eyed, plastic antics – after work, this is how the octopus unwinds. Sporting sweet potato leaf hats and other implements, the revellers strike comical octo-poses: acrobats, duellists, cephalopod kids hungry for candy, octo-sumo. But there is, it seems to me, more to this than mere anthropomorphism – octopuses playing at being people. The group of three, cavorting at the bottom left of the image are (the inscription says) performing a ‘sparrow dance’ (suzume no odori): octopuses playing at being people, playing at being sparrows. And what better actor, in this case, than the octopus – the hydrostatic, expert mimic – a creature (as Caillois says) with a ‘vast repertoire of forms at its disposal’. Perhaps, recognising the octopus as a master of appearances, Michelet was right to describe it as ‘more mask than being’, but for him, the octopus’s slimy, skinny corporality was a source of horror, a western, nineteenth-century nightmare: such a risible animal, so soft and see-through, constituting nothing, and yet, in reality, it is ‘tensed, and breathing out murder.’ This malevolent image lives on, and is escalated, in the writings of Victor Hugo (‘glue shot through with hatred’; ‘a pneumatic machine that attacks you’), the submariner fantasies of Jules Verne, and on into the writhing octopoid horrors that populate the pulp-fiction of H.P Lovecraft. But the octopus is configured very differently in Japan. There is no trace of horror here in Kuniyoshi’s artwork. Rather, what’s going on is sheer, fleshy pleasure; an image that Gregory Bateson might well frame: ‘This is play’.

2. Culture, Geertz once asserted, is quite like an octopus. Attempting to trump functionalist ‘culture as organism’ talk, he elected the octopus as the relevant model for culture: only loosely integrated, it moves, too, in a piecemeal, rambling fashion. (Though Geertz neglected to mention the octopus’ capacity for mimicry, for culture is also endowed with protean powers of copying.) But if culture is like an octopus, then one is tempted to speculate on its fate at the hands of anthropologists: is it not captured and cooked (in our books) for subsequent consumption? (Not many buyers though, these days.) And yet, why not stick to the octopus as a model, not of culture this time, but as a model for a method that attempts to make sense of nature-cultures: an octo-ontological method capable of fantastic adaptation, mimicking whatever environment it finds itself in; suspended in, supported by, the fathomless seas of fieldwork that are its living conditions – but, remove the creature from the medium, and just see how long it will live…
We’ve had enough of cutting, of dissection – the language of analysis; Occam’s razor, or the surgical slogan so well loved by cognitive anthropologists: ‘carving nature at the joints’ – an ‘unpleasant metaphor’, says Hacking of this cutting. The axiom of Occam’s razor: ‘entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity’. Why not, in anthropology? The principle of Occam’s octopus: multiply entities; let us have eight-legged explanations!

3. 30th of June 2010. In Akashi (Japan) again – I did my original fieldwork here, eight years ago. The octopus (tako) – more so than the sea bream (tai) – is the civic symbol of this town hard by the inland sea. The local orchestra is known as the ‘Octopus Philharmonic’ (tako phiru), and the ‘Octopus Ferry’ (tako feri) can take you daily across the straits to Awaji Island. The Akashi octopus is famous – and delicious – (they say) because the currents flow strong in the straits; hence its legs are short and fat, to cope with the flow. Every day (apart from Thursdays), auctions are held at the harbour. Plastic boxes sloshing with fish and crates alive with octopuses are dumped down on the tables, while wholesalers crowd about (consuming cigarettes and canned coffee) and flash hand-signals at the auctioneer; a mini-Tsukiji (see Theodore Bestor for a sublime study of this Tokyo fish market). Shortly afterwards, the same octopuses and other sea creatures will be available, still writhing and jerking, for public purchase, in Uonotana (the Akashi fish market).
19th July 2009. Akashi again. The owner of a restaurant (speciality: seafood) tells me he’s heard of octopuses creeping out of the sea, by night, to steal potatoes from the fields.(It turns out – as Tone documents in his cultural history of the octopus in Japan – that this story is told all over the place. What’s going on? Fashionable octopus games?)

4. July 2010. The World Cup is well under way. Live from a German aquarium in Oberhausen, an octopus predicts (successfully) the results of every German football match, as well as the final. The octopus is called Paul. (Is he not a sort of octo-apostle, by means of the extraordinary authority he extends?) His questing tentacles are so many prehensile divining rods. He divines with his whole hydraulic body, dancing the answers to the questions which are put to him (apologies to Evans-Pritchard). When Paul chooses Spain over Germany, there are some angry reactions in the German media to the Tintenfisch-Orakel: Ab in die Pfanne (Throw him in the frying pan!) – so states the newspaper, Berliner Kurier.

5. Takoyaki, a dish not uncommon throughout Japan, but especially popular in Kansai, is a dish that consists of fried balls of egg and flour mixture, each containing a chunk of boiled octopus, topped with sauce, mayonnaise and powdered seaweed. It was reputedly invented in Akashi, at the beginning of the 20th century, and the history is interesting, being a tale of excess egg yolks and felicitous simulation. It was traditionally the case that crafted balls of coral (sangodama) were used as hair ornaments, weights for hanging scrolls, etc. But an enterprising artisan realised that hardened egg-white formed around lead, would make an excellent substitute for expensive coral. Manufacture began in Akashi, but what to do with all unwanted egg yolks? A further enterprising caterer conceived the idea of takoyaki, which, being spherical in shape, itself imitates the imitation of the sangodama – ‘a replica of a replica’, as Tada Michitarô observes. In Japan, playful simulation is often a serious business.

6. Box number 56 of the archive of Gregory Bateson (held at the University of California, Santa Cruz) is labelled ‘Octopus Observations: 1961-1965.’ At one point, Bateson tells us – in the Foreword to Steps to an Ecology of Mind – he had twelve of them in a tank in his living room. But his research went nowhere in the end. The funding dried up.

7. In a commentary originally published in Harvard Monthly (1903), William James railed against the ever-creeping system at work in American universities that he called ‘the PhD Octopus’. Namely, the increasing need for those applying for academic jobs to possess a doctorate, a tendency which, James anticipated (with Paul-like powers of foresight) would ‘run into technicality and to develop [into] a tyrannical Machine with unforeseen powers of exclusion and corruption.’ The ‘Doctor-Monopoly’ is now upon us; the Machine is running overtime.
(I had an idea last year for a project to study octopus fisherman in Akashi, a PhD project to redeem the PhD I’d already tried for and failed. But, in the end, the idea went nowhere. No way to work in the academy without the consent of the Doctor Octopus (with apologies to Stan Lee).)

8. 15th July 2010. With my parents, waiting for the Octopus Ferry in Akashi. The ferry terminal shop stocks octopus rice-crackers, t-shirts, key-chains. Outside, a grimy vending machine: Papa Tako Jinja (The Shrine of Papa Octopus), dispenses omikuji (printed paper divinations). (This might be a whimsical, mechanical parody, but the association between the octopus and religiosity is really not so strange. There is a shrine in Iwate prefecture dedicated to the Takogami (octopus god), and many more temples all over that connect the octopus to the Buddhist divinity Yakushi.) A sucker for octopuses, I slot in 100 Yen and twist the handle. Papa Tako gives out his prediction: ‘Take care not to drink too much’. True, totally true.
We board the ferry and head off across the straits towards Awajishima.

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Comment by Philip Swift on August 12, 2010 at 1:24pm
Many thanks for the appreciative remarks, Giovanni.
I must admit that the anthropology of fishing is a subject I don't know much about. (My writing above is based on a number of impressions and ideas about octopuses that I'd had bottled up for a while, but I never got round to doing any proper fieldwork on the topic.)

If what you say is true about the marginalization of maritime anthropology, then it's pretty regrettable. But what about Kalland's work on Kyushu, or - further afield - Palsson on fishing in Iceland? With quality work like that, maritime anthropology could surely adopt, as it were, the famous posture of the Akashi octopus, and 'walk with it's head held high' (atama o mochi-agete, tatte aruku).
Comment by Philip Swift on August 10, 2010 at 2:29pm
John, that is brilliant - takotsubo cardiomyopathy. The octopus pot or trap is, then, a suggestive metaphor (from a Japanese point of view), in medicine as well as social theory, although, as you imply, it has its limits, given that the octopus seeking refuge in the pot awaits its ultimate destiny as sushi.

As for the question of mantic octopuses, Paul - the uranai tako (fortune-telling octopus), as he's known in Japan - is an obvious instance, achieving superstar status. (His celebrity was even denounced by the president of Iran.) But, as with humans too, the ability to predict the future is not a universal capacity of the species. In a gimmick I saw on Japanese daytime TV, they attempted to get an octopus (in the manner of Paul) to predict the outcome of the popular end of year 'M-1 Grand Prix' (not, in fact, a car race, but a stand-up comedy competition). Unfortunately, the poor creature just remained curled up in the corner of the crate. (Perhaps octopuses should stick to predicting football, a game, you'd think, they would really be good at.)

A slightly different kettle of fish: octopuses are associated, in Japan, with the buddhist divinity Yakushi - as I wrote in my blog above. At temples consecrating this connection, the usual votive plaques (ema,) available at shrines and temples all over Japan, are printed with images of octopuses. The standard procedure is to write a wish on the back of these wooden tablets, and hang them up in the temple precincts. But here is an amusing, and highly inventive variation, that I've borrowed from a blog by Negito Onigiri. Instead of a wish, the dedicator has written to the temple authorities, suggesting a great way to make money. The writing says: 'Were you to sell octopus ornaments (tako okimono), lots of [school kids] taking exams would come [to buy them and make wishes].' The writer justifies this idea by means of a wonderful pun: 'OCTOPUS' equals (in Japanese) 'oku to pass' (lit. if you display one of these ornaments, you will pass). My translation doesn't really do the idea justice, but believe me, it's genius.

Comment by John McCreery on August 10, 2010 at 3:52am
Random bits

1. Tako tsubo It might be worth noting that while "octopus pot" is a literal translation; the meaning is actually "octopus trap." The octopus who enters the pot looking for security is on its way to becoming sushi (or consumed in other ways).

A more recent use of the term is described as follows.

Broken heart syndrome is a temporary heart condition brought on by stressful situations, such as the death of a loved one. Many people who have broken heart syndrome may have sudden chest pain or may think they're having a heart attack. These broken heart syndrome symptoms may be brought on by the heart's reaction to a surge of stress hormones. In broken heart syndrome, a part of your heart temporarily enlarges, a condition called cardiomyopathy.

First described medically in 1991 by Japanese doctors, the condition was originally called takotsubo cardiomyopathy. Takotsubo is a type of pot used by Japanese fishermen to capture octopuses. When doctors take X-ray images of a person who's experiencing broken heart syndrome, part of his or her heart resembles the pot. Today, the condition is also referred to as stress cardiomyopathy, stress-induced cardiomyopathy or apical ballooning syndrome.

Broken heart syndrome is treatable, and usually requires about a week to recover.

2. Touché. Nice risposte to the eight-legged essay. But this triggers another association of "eight," the eight trigrams, whose sixty-four combinations are the basis of the I Ching "Book of Changes." Has there ever been some form of octopumancy using octopuses?
Comment by Philip Swift on August 9, 2010 at 9:50pm
I love the illustration of Victor Hugo's octopus, which matches his vision of the creature as an inky blasphemy: 'a beast made of ash, living in water'.

I'm not sure I really get Geertz's octopus model either, although it is memorable. It is, arguably, just another version of the zoological, physiological fantasies of functionalist anthropology, decisively derided by Evans-Pritchard (Edward, of course, rather than Ambrose), except that, rather than the horse, it refers to the more exotic octopus.

But there is an interesting (and relevant) instance of animal analogizing from Japanese social theory. Maruyama Masao first suggested that postwar Japanese society exhibited an 'octopus pot' (tako tsubo) tendency, in so far as people sought security in more or less self-contained social groups. While I'm not sure how credible the model is, the comparison itself is interesting in its own right.
Comment by Huon Wardle on August 9, 2010 at 5:50pm
I have to admit I never understood Geertz' culture : octopus analogy. I certainly see some of your concerns. Ultimately an octopus is squishy and malleable but it is still what it is so why an octopus?

Victor Hugo's octopus making up the initials 'V' and 'H'

Comment by Philip Swift on August 9, 2010 at 3:33pm
Keith, many thanks.
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard's blog is a great piece of critique. William James was no doubt correct in saying that the PhD - when it is comes to be conceived as a sacred qualification that only endows those who actually have it with the right to speak - is just 'a sham, a bauble, a dodge'. Dr. Athreya (the object of EP's ire) may have the bauble, but he's clearly just a babbler.

John, the Chinese eight-legged essay sounds intriguing, though it seems (according to the same entry on wikipedia) that the format came to be seen by some as a straight-jacket, so I had better be careful to keep my explanations loose-limbed and flexible.

On a different note - a footnote on a footnote - I'm strangely spellbound by these unfathomable Japanese stories of octopuses emerging out of the sea to sneak potatoes (Chamberlain even briefly mentions this in his idiosyncratic encyclopaedia, Things Japanese). As I mentioned, Tone Yuutaro (in 'The Octopus: Cultural Histories of People & Things', vol.74 - in Japanese) documents a number of such accounts, before dismissing them as misconceptions. But something more interesting is at work here, I think, except that I've no idea what it is - myth? memory? Or that slippery place somewhere in between.

By way of tantalising indication, I refer to another woodblock print, by Kyosai, the hard-drinking student of Kuniyoshi (one feels that, had he gone to Papa Octopus Shrine in Akashi, he would have received the same advice I did.) This image - even more off-the-wall than the one I featured in the blog above - is entitled, 'Imo-dako gassen' (The Potato-Octopus Battle).

Comment by Keith Hart on August 7, 2010 at 1:58pm
If you want to find octopus on a French menu, it comes as poulpe. It comes from the Greek polypous (many feet) via Latin. But it also sounds like something different, even horrible (pace Michelet) in English.
Comment by Keith Hart on August 7, 2010 at 1:50pm
Hi Philip. Brilliant. Couldn't take my eyes off the screen for a second.

Paul the Octopus is still a major trending topic on Twitter. I looked him up and couldn't get past the two dozen entries issued in the last two hours. Google is a disappointment since what you get there is the historical highlight of Germany's horror when he picked Spain to beat them. I thought I had read that he was being transferred to England, like any other promising footballer (Ozil for Man U as next Paul Scholes, I say), but all I could find by searching guardian.co.uk was that the magician Paul Daniels has signed up his octopoid namesake for a documentary. Lots of good jokes around, like the rumour that Real Madrid have signed him up for 90 mn euros.

On the question of doctorates, you gotta read the piece by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (yes he is EP's son and a brilliant Euroskeptic economic journalist for the Telegraph. Some asshole from the Fed said that bloggers should shut up if they didn't have a PhD. Read Ambrose's putdown. The Fed should be shut down, not the blogosphere. "Economics shouldn't be treated as a science. It's a branch of anthropology & psychology, a moral discipline."
Comment by John McCreery on August 6, 2010 at 8:42pm
Your "eight-legged explanations" evokes a memory of the eight-legged essay, a style of writing that participants in China's imperial examinations were required to master during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. According to Wikipedia,

The eight "legs" or sections were as follows:

Opening (破題): Two sentences of prose whose function is to broach the topic.

Amplification (承題): Five sentences of prose, elaborating upon and clarifying the theme.

Preliminary exposition (起講): Prosaic writing

Initial argument (起股): A specified number (4, 5, 8 or 9) of sentence pairs written in parallel, developing the initial argument. The parallel sentences address the topic and convey similar meanings, with similar structure but different words.

Central argument (中股): Sentences written in parallel, with no limit as to their number, in which the central points of the essay are expounded freely.

Latter argument (後股): Sentences written in parallel, with no limit as to their number. Here, points not addressed in the previous section are discussed; otherwise, the writer may continue padding the ideas in the central argument. It is to be written in a serious tone rooted in realism.

Final argument (束股): Parallel sentence groups, each one consisting of either two to three, or else four to five, lines. Here, the main theme is revisited and loose ends are tied up.

Conclusion (大結): Prosaic writing where free expression and creativity are allowed. The concluding remarks are made here.
Comment by Philip Swift on August 6, 2010 at 6:32pm
Although I was aware that Bateson was a fantastically polymathic character, I must admit I had no idea he'd carried out research on octopuses until I started writing this blog. Thanks for the tip-off. I'll seek out Lipset's biography. (I don't believe that Bateson's octopus observations were ever published.)

Great anecdote, John. My Japanese fiancee's (well, soon to be wife, in a week) father likes to tell a joke that goes: 'What's the French word for "octopus?"' To which the answer is, 'ashi happon!'. Like so much comedy, it loses all its sense in translation - ashi happon just means 'eight legs' - but to Japanese ears, the expression sounds vaguely, phonetically 'French'. Though, having said all that, I've known a number of Japanese who didn't find the joke all that funny either.


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