All our previous positions are now exposed as absurd. But people don’t draw the obvious conclusion: it must also mean then that our present situation is absurd.
The mode of communication of [octopi]: they become their linguistic intent. This repertoire of blushes, dots, stripes, traveling fields, color changes. And, then, because they are soft-bodied they can quickly reveal and conceal all parts of their body very quickly. So if you watch an octopus in communication its surface texture is changing, its color is changing, and it is hiding, and revealing—it’s dancing, and it’s a dance of pure meaning, perceived visually by the object of its intention, which is other octopi.
So, compare this for a moment to our method of communication. We use rapidly modulated small mouth noises. As primates we have incredible ability to make small mouth noises. We can do this for up to six hours at a stretch without tiring. No other thing we can do approaches the level of variation with low energy investment that the small mouth noises do. A person using a deaf-and-dumb language is exhausted after forty-five minutes. But a problem with the small mouth noises mode of communication is: I have a thought, I look in a dictionary that I have created out of my life experience, I map the thought onto the dictionary, I make the requisite small mouth noises, they cross physical space, they enter your ear, you look in your dictionary, which is different from my dictionary, but if we speak what we call ‘the same language’ it will be close enough that you will ‘sort of’ understand what I mean. Now if I don’t say to you, ‘what do I mean?’ you and I will go gaily off in the assumption that we understand each other.
But if I say to you “do you understand what I meant then” you say “yes, you meant that you don’t want to sit with Harry and Sally because their pending divorce makes you uncom”—I say “no, that’s not that I meant: I meant—” So there’s misunderstanding because the dictionaries are not matched. Now notice what’s happening with the octopi. There is no dictionary. Both parties are seeing the same thing because my body is my meaning. I become my meaning. And you behold the meaning I have become. I am like a naked thought. Not even a naked nervous-system. More naked than that. I am a naked thought, in aqueous space, unfolding in time. I maintain this is why octopi eject clouds of ink: it’s so they can have private thoughts. Because if you can be seen you can be understood. Well this is a perfect model, condoned by nature, for the kind of transformation we want to lead our culture toward.
And I don’t think it’s that outlandish. Our previous animal totems were chosen unconsciously and were rather unfortunate, I think: I take the totem of the 19th century to be, um, the horse, expressed as the steam engine. And the totemic animal of the 20th century is the raptor, the bird of prey, expressed as supersonic fighter aircraft, which is just, you know, the leanest, meanest machine you can get together these days. But these mammalian and avian images are too close to the rapacious heart of the primate inside us; embracing an image of the soul like that of the octopi is permission for a strange and alien kind of beauty to be let into our lives.