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.