Chthulhumedia talk Nov 2020

Contributing Authors
William Brown
For anyone interested the following is a transcript of my half of an introductory talk, delivered today at the 'Multispecies Heritage Conference' (hosted by Edge Hill Univeristy in the UK). [raw text, not corrected], that serves to introduce our cephalopod-media project to a wider audience.

Today’s talk stems from a position of middleness, if not, muddledness, as we work across and in-between various disciplines, two speakers and two ill-disciplined books of media philosophy. I will set up the project through a discussion of our recently published monograph subtitled Kinoteuthis Infernalis and the emergence of Chthulumedia (2020) and will let Will disentangle and move towards our forthcoming work on Infinite Ontology. These books are part of a larger project that resulted from being taken on a strange and unexpected witches ride courtesy of our encounters with strange subaquatic kephalopods or cephalopods -- As they are soft animals I will use the non-Greek soft "c" hereafter.

Will and I both share a background in Film Philosophy and Media or Communications Theory and didn’t begin our research together with animals in mind, or as a starting point for our media research. That was, until 2015 and 2016, when we began to notice an 'abstract' animal hiding everywhere in plain sight whenever and wherever we were encountering digital media. In a protracted recce and mediated discussion involving archiving and taxonomy we gradually became convinced that the cephalopod, particularly octopuses and squids, had emerged as THE totem animal of our digital times.

So, we began to track these animals, or, research around their mediated history. And the more we dug into this this, the more we began to perceive a profound convergence between these animals -or their umwelt - and many of the habits and practices fostered by incorporating digital and screen technologies into our lives and worlds. For this reason, Laura Marks describes our project as something like a "cephalopodic media archaeology." Certainly, as is the case with Jussi Parikka’s Insect Media (2010), we became fascinated by the idea that we could not only understand modern media as a forms of 'electric animal,' to borrow Akira Mizuta Lippit’s (2000) phrase, but that it was also useful to consider animals themselves as ecological forms of biomedia: Here emphasising the middleness of of animal bodies within ecological assemblages. To momentarily rephrase this through Deleuze and Guttari’s philosophical lens, we increasingly came to perceive a molecular connection, or block of becoming, immanently inter-connecting the kingdom of cephalopods and the world of networked digital computing, AI and semiocapitalism.

One archaeological example worth mentioning here relates to the historical work of the British zoologist and neurophysiologist John Zachary (J.Z.) Young, who was famed for his groundbreaking comparative studies between the brains, neural intelligence, and memories of octopus vulgaris and homo sapiens. Young worked in Naples on cephalopod brains because these have larger axons which are easier to see and study than in human brains. And although it is interesting to note the scientific heritage of human neuroscience and memory studies were linked to octopus brains and bodies, we also learned that the post war era saw Marshall Plan hurl money towards Young’s lab to see if they "could help crack the code of the cephalopod brain in order to make more efficient computers” (Courage 2013: 4). This resulted in Young falling more and more under the influences of cybernetics during the 1950s, whereby the octopus progressively became a model for a living computer containing, rather than being characterized by, a memory. As Kohe Nakajima et al reported, the resulting machines, based on these animals brain-body structures became part of the pre-history of artificial intelligence.

Our larger argument is that an alien form of cephalopodic thought and intelligence can be fathomed molecularly entering into composition with the ancestors of today’s digital media assemblages and techno-culture forms, with the cephalopod emerging as the proverbial ghost haunting the computer shell. Another of the other key influences for our project was Vilem Flusser and Louis Bec’s biophilosophical work Vampyroteuthis Infernalis A Treatise (1987)- a book of existential philosophy written from the perspective of the Vampire Squid (which is actually an octopus). An animal that although linked by a common worm ancestor to us (some 60 million years ago), appears to embody a kind of fruitful “physiological antipode” or opposite to our body-milieux-continum - and therefore a different umwelt to inhabit for defamiliarising the anthropocentric metaphors and geometries we typically live by. Writing in the 1980s, Flusser argued that the increasingly popular technological term software clearly betrays connections with the “soft intellegence” --to here purloin the phrase coined by Jacques Cousteau—of cephalopods. “Regarding the term software, there can be no doubt that ‘soft’ alludes to mollusks (‘soft animals’),” of which cephalopods are of course examples (Flusser and Bec 2012: 67).

Throughout the book we link the hyper-morphability of boneless cephalopods, as well as their movements through their environments, to different aspects and properties of software, cgi and digital rendering and navigation. I think here of the way EvaMarie guided us down and into the art museum yesterday through that volumetric digital ocean, or Jack and Christopher into their deep map of ghostly Carabou. Beyond this, as media philosophers it was interesting to us that the chromatophores located in the skin of octopuses and squids resulted in these animals having incredible visual communication capabilities. As Peter Godfrey-Smith notes in his book Other Minds - "[t]he skin of certain cephalopods is a layered screen controlled directly by the brain. Neurons reach from the brain through the body into the skin, where they control muscles. The muscles, in turn, control millions of pixel-like sacs of colour. A cuttlefish senses or decides something, and its colour changes in an instant . . . very roughly, we can think of that layer of the animal’s skin as a ten mega-pixel screen. (Godfrey-Smith 2016: 109–111).

For such reasons these animals appear as living biomedia with complex skin screens— an idea unethically exposed by the backyard brains group who have wired up a living squid’s nervous system to an iPod cable in order to turn the animal into a living music video machine. We trace similar (albeit more ethical) vectors into todays digital screen culture and imaging techniques. In a recent journal article we wrote for Porn Studies on the use of deep-fake technology to render fake celebrity porn, for example, we describe connections between these deceptive animals' abilities to disguise themselves as other things in the environment to these free AI technologies (Brown & Fleming 2020b). Here the mimic octopus becomes our guide.

Because deep-fake pornography emerge as technological forms of sexual abuse or non-consensual sexual violence, though, we also relate these latest techniques back to Flusser’s notion of the Vampire Squid’s Art and practices being ones of rape and hatred: This resonating with ideas repeatedly heard throughout this conference that highlights how animal studies is not just about "beautiful," "harmonic," and "natural(ized)" relations. For Flusser, to the emergence of what he calls a cybernetic nazism is a consequence of Vampyrotethizing our art and cultural forms. We might think here of other digital techniques, technologies and beliefs arising or intensifying in the world after Flusser, such as online identity theft, fake news, disinformation, digital airbrushing, deep fakes, and the likes.

Across the book, we also tried to allow the octopus to become, as the title of a more recent 2020 Netflix documentary puts it, something of a "teacher" (My Octopus Teacher, dir. Pippa Eldrich & James Reed). And, as was the case for Craig Foster in this film, we found learning about and learning from these playful animals, and attempting to think with these soft intelligent creatures — that often rightly get described as a ‘literal alien on Earth — leads to weird thoughts and dreams, that seem to bring one to the verge of a constructive break through, or break down. Inspired by their shape-shifting and patterning playfulness, we also naturally felt a need to deterritorialise dry and ossified academic writing conventions by putting them into contact with slippery and pulpy form of poetics. I sense resonances with Gordon’s verse throughout this conference here, which appears to offer an affective method of establishing withness between species.

It is perhaps also for this reasons that Professor David Martin-Jones described our book, The Squid Cinema from Hell, as being written in a style as if the ecological philosophers Deleuze and Guattari had “dreamed up a book on an ill-advised convertible road trip to Vegas.” On an aside, octopuses also often expel perception altering chemical cocktails into the brine to affect their predators and prey. Funnily enough, the idea of the octopus granting weird dreams and visions is historically common, and may be traced back to, among others, Plutarch who wrote: ‘Just as octopus is delicious to eat but gives one nightmares full of disturbing, weird imaginings (so they say), likewise with poetry too.’ In point of fact, verse is important to our larger project. Both when hidden in plane sight in words such as multiverses, inverse, perverse, and the likes but also on its own in relation to poetics. From per-verse to pervert - we also pick up on the oft forgotten suffix VERT which operates in words such pervert, convert, invert, divert - and of couse is bolted on as a dynamic prefix in the term Vertigo - and the invented surname of Soviet constructivist post-human filmmaker: Dziga VERTov. For us this relates to a twisted swerving off a linear course. The way the animals spin or screw through a volume.

In the book we write: "Please note, dear reader, that heretofore our purple patches and green (vert) lyrical (verse) style hopes to divert, perhaps even to pervert, the more sedimented linear habits of vertebrate thinking (by, among other things, undermining preferences for verticalities or hierarchies, while also discharging the stiff spinal columns of academic argumentation). Henceforward we overtly, rather than covertly, aim to (inter)convert you to our soft, sticky, screwy, and pulpy modes of moving—hoping that you too might in turn advertise our perverse invertebrate methods (that is, if you like it, you might tell people about what you heard here)."

Taking us back to our common ancestor shared with the cephalopods - we also note how, for Baudelaire the "ver," French for worm, is also akin to the "vers," or line of poetry (see Baudelaire 2018), in that both are, like the octopus’s tentacles, “long thin thing possessing a kind of life” (McGrath and Comenetz 2011: 144). In this way, to vert is to go into wormholes and to spiral into vertigo, but also to be poetic, to find the poetry that spins throughout our multiverse of ongoing becoming/creation/poiesis…

* At this point a verted over to my co-authors' four-limbs to conclude our introduction.

For 8 more introductions to our work free online, you might vert through this link: 8 new introductions to The Squid Cinema from Hell - Edinburgh University Press Blog


Original publish date
Nov 27, 2020
About the Author
I am a Senior Lecturer at a Scottish University with a specialism in film and philosophy. I have lived and worked in the UK, Australia, the US and China in my life and am the co-author of The Squid Cinema from Hell: Kinoteuthis Infernalis and the Emergence of Chthulhumedia with William Brown (2020). I joined TONMO in 2020 and am working on a series of projects that explore weird links between cephalopods and the form and content of digital film and media.


What a fascinating read. As one who seeks to mind-meld with other species, this article is both affirming and deeply disturbing. Middleness is my new word of the day. Thank you for the connections.
What a fascinating read. As one who seeks to mind-meld with other species, this article is both affirming and deeply disturbing. Middleness is my new word of the day. Thank you for the connections.
Thank you, and sorry for the late reply. Glad you liked it.
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