My Octopus Girlfriend
Pippa and James Reed (directors). My Octopus Teacher. 2020.
My Octopus Teacher debuted on Netflix in September 2020 to a world thirsting for social communion yet terrified of contamination; a world at war with vapor, to say nothing of wetness, and sheltering cabin-feverishly in the precarious dryness of the indoors, all too ready to escape visually into the alien intimacies of the Atlantic. The group behind the film, The Sea Change Project, is a small initiative devoted to using artistic and narrative methods to pursue biome protection and social ecology on the South African coast; its cofounder, Craig Foster, is the star of the film, and the lone human who speaks on-screen. Set in the kelp forest near the Cape of Storms where Foster spent much of his childhood, My Octopus Teacher is the product of more than a decade of collective labor. It deploys mainstays of the marine documentary genre with disarming skill: a snorkel-cam, panning shots of sea-filtered sunlight, “ethereal chanting” background audio that lets the viewer know when to feel awe, sadness, amusement, and so on. Even when there is no octopus on-screen, the viewer is intoxicated by Foster’s solitary swims through the icy shallows, the dense columns of kelp.
The film is, openly, a love story: a plot about a camera-toting human diver whose yearlong relationship with a female octopus is ultimately framed as a salutary intervention into his poor mental health. Over the course of their courtship, Foster films his beloved getting assaulted by pyjama sharks and (no thanks to him) surviving. Eventually, her natural lifespan elapses and the octopus dies, having mated with another octopus and incubated her eggs. Pale with grief, Foster summarizes their relationship: “She was teaching me to become sensitized to the other . . . I fell in love with her.” In the final scenes, he ropes his teenage son into some walks on the beach and fishes up tiny octopuses—his octopus’s babies?—in the palm of his hand, smiling the serene smile of a father reborn.
To say My Octopus Teacher knows it is a love story is not to say that it transcends the narcissistic conception of love that clings to most heterosexual romance plots—the tradition of love-as-personal-growth-opportunity that encompasses, entre autres, Petrarch, Indiana Jones, and the manic pixie dream girl. The archetypal white lover is enthralled as much by his own love as by his love object, such that this love is always threatening to become, in a sense, colonial. Put the encounter underwater, however, and the scene is liable to evoke vulnerability and radical equality instead, like those teenagers Romeo and Juliet kissing in a swimming pool. One might be tempted to say, exultingly, that there is no time when a human is more octopus-like—libidinous, umbrageous, vulnerable, radiantly sexy, omni-potentialized—than when she is in love.
A first confession: Did I say in love? I meant “on acid.” I don’t always know the difference. I was certainly tripping on LSD when I watched My Octopus Teacher. I like to think I would not be so presumptuous as to write about octopuses and their suitors were I not lysergically enhanced. I try to open my molecules to the miracles of that medicine on a monthly basis, and I generally try to be in a forest or a park for the occasion. Here, though, it was a rainy afternoon by the beach in Delaware during Covid times, and I was holidaying with friends, midwifing their very first experience with the drug in a safe and cozy indoor environment. What an honor, to put the paper under their tongues and octopus their minds. Beauty blossoms. Flesh comes alive. History itself beats and breathes. All things, living and dead, nonthreateningly assert their connection. Neurosis evaporates. Gravity and lightness, profound things and droll, intertwine like anemones.
Not long before, a human person—let’s say it was me—had dropped acid and walked into the clear, cold water of Harriman Reservoir, the two-thousand-acre lake created by the Harriman hydroelectric dam in Vermont. By the time she walked out of it again, three hours later, she estimated, a good 0.01 percent of its contents were surely composed of her cum. The reservoir had taken her in its tinkling mineral embrace and laid her on the buzzing currents just below its surface and unendingly fucked her. It’s true that she had vaguely heard, over the years, of people having sex with rivers, vegetable beds, and parcels of woodland. Medieval humans with vulvas were, so she’d read, eminently practiced in the art of oceanic nongenital climax. But nothing like this had ever happened to her before, nor had she expected it, so her astonishment was considerable. Her body felt like a polymorphic tapestry made up of one trillion thirsty assholes flung wide in blinking, ecstatic welcome. Never before had her cunt opened so wide or drenched its surroundings to this extent. Never before, to her knowledge, had it been brought to orgasm by a biome. I have long thought that really good sex temporarily washes binary gender away, and this particular (all too welcome) sexual ambush by reservoir sluiced it beyond comprehensibility.
We wanted to reach out a soothing tentacle and offer a half a tab.Tweet
Back in Delaware, we had already spent a couple hours of our trip sitting on the porch watching the rain. It was time, we felt, to go indoors and recline with some more frivolous visuals. Someone who hadn’t imbibed (and therefore knew how to operate a laptop) clicked on an ocean-colored thumbnail on a streaming platform. Minutes later, we were weeping salt tears of adoration for that canny, sexy octopus. Lustily, we jeered at the film’s repeated attempts to “justify” the interspecies relationship by making it a “lesson.” Couldn’t they have resisted making her resprouting an arm a metaphor for Foster’s recovery from depression? Couldn’t they have left the tiresome reproductive futurism out of it? Nevertheless, we rooted for them both. We hooted with laughter at Foster’s total perplexity when he first dips under the surface and encounters what, to us, seemed so obviously a logic of pleasure and ornamentation. “What is she doing?” intones the solemn voiceover. “Duh, Craig!” we rasped, tears running down our horny throats. “This is a queer slut from outer space. Be a better lover!” We wanted to reach out a soothing tentacle and offer a half a tab.
Nothing could be less hassle than succumbing to what the philosopher Alphonso Lingis calls “the sliding suctions of octopus eros.” Foster almost succumbs, which is why he gets so tongue-tied and flustered as an interviewee: he can’t condense all the flirtation and communion into a teachable zoological takeaway. At one point he maintains, without sounding altogether convinced, that “helping” the octopus recover from the shark attack would be “interfering in the animal’s world.” Fine—but he also seems intermittently aware that video documentation is itself “interfering.” As a viewer, one really wants the messiness of the boundary to carry on troubling him. To what “environment” do his emotions belong, to what “world” their relationship? Why isn’t she deemed to be interfering in “his” world, especially, for example, when she literally uses his body as a prop to hunt with? Why can’t he, actually, go to her and hold her and say goodbye when she dies? “THIS GUY SAYS HE LOVES HER,” we bellowed at my startled partner, who happened to return from outside at the moment of the film’s climax. “BUT LIKE, HE’S FILMING HER WHILE SHE BLEEDS OUT.”
Yet, somehow, oh—she survives. Lo and behold, that vulgar octopus is dancing, pranking him, and playing, yes, playing, with shoals of fishes. It would not have taken us hundreds of days of daily diving, we confidently reckoned, high on indignation and arousal, to discover she was capable of play. “God, she is so patient with him,” we murmured. We rolled our eyes admiringly.
Here begins my second confession. While all this was winding down, I tweeted about it. Some people would have decided against doing this, but frankly, my brain has never met a piece of dumb TV it didn’t autogenerate criticism about, and it shows no signs of stopping now. The hot, wet exuberance of my trip was giving way to calm, silken grace. I was in the mood for some whimsical riffing. What exactly did I tweet? A bunch of annotated stills and googled images paired with idle musings about the fact that My Octopus Teacher had made me cry even though it felt, in the end, like “an object-lesson in scientific masculinity.”
I tweeted about belonging to “a trio of acid-tripping queers” who’d noticed that Foster says the same thing as the subject of a world-famous work of woodblock tentacle hentai (Hokusai’s “Octopus and Shell Diver,” also known as “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife”). I threw in a tweet or two about the octopus horror in Robert Eggers’s 2019 maritime misogyny film, The Lighthouse, linking it to the tacitly gynophobic reactions attributed, throughout history, to burly seafarers upon encountering cephalopods—e.g. from Victor Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea: “this irregular mass advances slowly towards you. Suddenly it opens . . . These radii are alive: their undulation is like lambent flames . . . A terrible expansion! . . . Its folds strangle . . .” I tweeted my hypothesis that “if you track Foster’s use of she/her versus ‘it’ to refer to the octopus, his lapses seem to correspond to the surfacing of his shame about having made, well, a documentary about the maiming (by shark) & suffering of a nonhuman person w/ whom he was in a significant relationship.” Oh, and I also noted in passing that, “At one point, they have a form of sex.” I had introduced the thread as being about “a flawed but moving” documentary about a “lifechanging erotic relationship.”
When the thread went viral and at least four-thousand-odd content producers saw fit to respond by condemning me for bestiality and/or homophobia, ordering me to check myself into a psychiatric institution, or wishing the wholesale obliteration of our planet, I was somewhat perplexed. The pile-on began when the high-profile left-Catholic writer and podcaster Elizabeth Bruenig quote-tweeted me to say (jokingly, one hopes), “our civilization has failed.” Bruenig eventually deleted all her thoughts on the matter, but only after she had spent days fanning the flames, asking faux-innocent questions concerning the relative erotic standing (for me, or perhaps for queer people as a whole) of various species of sea creature. By that time, a number of far-right, antisemitic, and homophobic accounts—as well as left, liberal, vegan, gay, and feminist ones—had become equally if not more incensed by my tweets. From where I sat, it now appeared that thousands of strangers pitied me for not realizing that love wasn’t sex. (It’s true: I am hazy on the distinction.) Pearls were clutched about the libel I had supposedly committed against that nice, upstanding South African man by intimating that he’d experienced interspecies eros. In the meantime, I had a pleasant exchange with Craig’s wife, Swati Thiyagarajan, an interaction that did not surprise me given that Thiyagarajan had written, on Sea Change’s website, “My husband fell in love with an Octopus. Sure, I was jealous . . . of him”!
After all, no one ever mentioned the putting of a human dick into a living mollusc.Tweet
I struggled to see who it was I had supposedly maligned, in what way I’d morally degraded society. Granted, phrases like “intrinsic queerness of octopus epistemology-cum-embodiment” are an acquired taste, but a New York Times columnist and her fans were bashing me as a danger and a sicko because I’d noticed that an immensely intelligent nonhuman’s mucus membranes had powerfully engulfed the heaving torso of a cold and lovestruck swimmer on TV. The erotophobes taking issue with me coalesced around several different constituencies. “I counted three,” wrote the preeminent scholar of trans studies Grace Lavery in a published interview about octopusgate. The “dirtbag left” called me a degenerate bringing family-abolitionist shame upon the socialist cause once again. Sex-negative LGBTQ teens, TERFs, and animal-rights supporters reacted in a legalistic and defensive way to my rank advocacy of an animal’s boundary violation by a cis male human. Most hurtful to me, though, was a group of left queers who had decided, pace Lavery, that my wet-pantied psychoanalytic register was “decadent,” and responded with rage, embarrassment, and disgust.
At the Guardian, Elle Hunt combined notes from all three categories, writing “a new Netflix documentary . . . has become the subject of impish suggestion and scurrilous rumour on social media.” She presumably thought she was making the discourse less awkward, bless her, by describing the movie as “conspicuously sexless, as is good and right.” At one point, she describes the octopus as a “Manic Pixie Dream Mollusc,” claiming that this means “it is all strictly above board”—clearly forgetting that the manic pixie dream girl is, well, an erotic archetype. She then attempts to land a rather audacious quip: “by Sophie Lewis’s measure,” she reasons, “I’ve had sex with an octopus too. (To be clear: I have not.)”
In order to dispel the acute discomfort I’d inadvertently aroused, people were reducing the question of the possibilities and pleasures of liquescent, membranous, aquatic touch to a question of index-finger-stab-stab-in-the-hole (“did he fuck the octopus”). Or they were pretending to, at any rate. But why were they pretending? Why do we so frequently recoil when sex floats beyond the confines of “the” straight pornomechanical act into more distributed, collective, touchy-feely—i.e., erotic—zones? After all, no one ever mentioned the putting of a human dick into a living mollusc. And for some reason, no one wanted to know if the octopus had “fucked” (in that boring sense) him. But guys!—I was feeling defensive—I even made the effort to say “a form of sex”! I, who refuse even to say “pegging” to differentiate the supposedly straight sodomizing of men from the gay! If contemplating the dick-in-mollusc possibility was so unbearably repugnant, why was it happening? Was it perhaps still easier, and less threatening to the moral order, than contemplating sapphic cephalopod cuddles?
The octopus’s body is nothing but nervousness: it is “not a thing controlled by the animal’s thinking part, but itself a thinking thing,” Amia Srinivasan summarizes in her wonderful essay (“The Sucker! The Sucker!”) about the philosopher Peter Godfrey Smith’s book on the octopus. So, my question—a question directed especially to anyone who has ever described themselves as “sapiosexual”—is how can you deny that octopuses are the apogee of hotness? In the eyes of a dilettante like me, the entire world of octopodia—from Hokusai to William Burroughs—appears as one big sprawling tapestry of sexual titillation and deliquescence. To me, representations of octopuses straightforwardly say: Behold, this scary, sublime, flashing, cloud-colored concatenation of tongues, it threatens to give you the best orgasm of your life. Then again, the writer China Miéville—a far more learned reader of the visual and philosophic life of the octopus through human cultures than I—would caution me to distinguish between the overt sexiness of octopodes in “Eastern,” notably Japanese, art on the one hand, and traditional figurations of octopodes in Europe and America on the other, as symbols of abjection, bewilderment, and alienness. Where any octopus-desiring transpires in the Anglo-European tradition, Miéville would say, it is transpiring in a more occult, covert, and disavowable way.
But there are also those who might support me in my more polemical view. As Donna Haraway explains in a footnote to Staying with the Trouble, certain historians contend that the Greeks regarded cephalopods as “close to the primordial multisexual deities of the sea—ambiguous, mobile and ever changing, sinuous and undulating, presiding over coming-to-be, pulsating with waves of intense color, cryptic, secreting clouds of darkness, adept at getting out of difficulties, and having tentacles where proper men would have beards.” Yummy. Meanwhile, Eva Hayward, who theorizes how we see and know (just generally, but also gender) with the help of jellyfish, spiders, starfish and the like, remarks in her essay about Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon’s 1965 film The Love Life of the Octopus (Les Amours de la pieuvre) that the octopus is no less than “displaced sexuality.” Octopuses are eros. They are prehensile G-spots, diffuse brains densely bedecked with kisses, great floating mucus membranes, liquid predators.
Are octopuses floods, or are they reservoirs? Are they two-thirds water, like us, or do they explode the body–environment boundary? To be in the (even virtual) presence of an octopus is closely akin to an acid trip, I feel: a hot flood, a visitation of humility, of xenohospitable love, divine trust, comradely fearlessness. These are vantage points from which the anxious hubris of one’s usual subjectivity feels viscerally and philosophically amusing. To be touched, tongued, by the octopus—to be fucked by the universe the octopus-molecule discloses, dense with history, electric with laughter and tears—seems like it would be the end of oneself, in a good way. Nothing could be scarier, except perhaps good sex. Octopuses look like our own spilled viscera, billowing large—our very souls, uncaged by any shell. Such an intimate alien’s touch might roil the tissue of received reality.
There is a surprisingly capacious canon of transfixed worry about the labial lability of the octopus in terms of what it seems to be saying about your household, your democracy, your wife. Srinivasan opens her essay by patiently explaining the obvious: namely, that the so-called “Fisherman’s Wife” in Hokusai’s “Octopus and Shell Diver” is not undergoing an unpleasant assault—though this is what repressed Europeans who couldn’t read Japanese assumed circa 1815—but, au contraire, having a blooming great time:
In the text arranged in the space around the three entwined bodies, the shell diver exclaims: ‘You hateful octopus! Your sucking at the mouth of my womb makes me gasp for breath! Ah! Yes . . . it’s . . . there! With the sucker, the sucker! . . . There, there! . . . Until now it was I that men called an octopus! An octopus! . . . How are you able? . . . Oh! Boundaries and borders gone! I’ve vanished!
The vast majority of the action in My Octopus Teacher takes place underwater, intercalated between interviews with Foster in his office. While there exists a rich tradition of historically engaged aquatopianism, notably in Afrofuturist narratives about submarine arcadias populated by fugitive enslaved people who were thrown overboard, My Octopus Teacher falls instead within another literary tradition: the adventurist-escapist, which boasts Verne’s Captain Nemo, for example. In this tradition, the Underwater means that the settler-colonial rift between Man and Land can more readily be suspended or, less generously, fantasized out of existence. Despite the long-standing reality of subaquatic state extractivism in underwater exploration stories (both fictional and not), the violence of nation-statehood is often imperceptible. No Black person appears in My Octopus Teacher to remind one of apartheid. Craig Foster is a settler, as (by the way) am I. The white South African subject of My Octopus Teacher thus embodies both the grief-stricken local person and the blithe adventurist view-from-nowhere. And while his devotion to fostering community responsibility for and communion with the African Kelp Forest is palpably sincere, his use of the word “primal” to describe his relation to that ecosystem (as, for instance, in the subtitle of the hardcover coffee-table book he coauthored with Ross Frylinck, Sea Change: Primal Joy and the Art of Underwater Tracking) simultaneously suggests a surprising level of ethical confidence about his conduct. Clearly the octopus’s home is somewhere—borderless as it seems—that Craig feels he naturally belongs.
The origins of this learned confidence are recounted in the film’s opening, in which Foster reflects on the decidedly unwet formative experience driving his obsession with achieving oceanic union with nonhuman nature. Twenty years ago, in Botswana, he had made a documentary with his brother entitled The Great Dance: A Hunter’s Story, about indigenous trackers hunting large mammals in the Kalahari desert. Filming the San bushmen instilled in him, Foster vouchsafes, an envious and insatiable yearning. The goal for him, lifted from them, is to be “inside the natural world”: an art he now perfects every day at home through what he—a settler, now a conservationist, unselfconsciously redeploying the hunting parlance—calls “underwater tracking.”
The octophobes, for their part, were wittingly or unwittingly sanctioning a capitalist ordering of sex and the erotic.Tweet
The white naturalist’s fantasy of indigenous-huntsman subjectivity is an obvious cop-out, a rationalization of the two-way character of that slimy relationship in all its surprising unreason and noninstrumental pleasure. In Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, Alexis Pauline Gumbs mentions how she “facilitated a writing workshop with scientists at Cal Tech inviting them to put themselves, their passions, and their relationships back into their writing about their research topics.” Scientists, she notes, “especially those people who have designed their entire lives around the hope, the possibility that they will encounter” a marine animal, “are clearly obsessed, and most likely, like me, in love. Whether they can admit it in their publications or not.” I have taken the liberty of signing Foster up to Gumbs’s workshop.
Colleagues at Sea Change say Foster initially did not—and was reluctant to—appear personally in My Octopus Teacher, and it shows. Unwilling to respect the genre of the straight eco-documentary, the end product still shies away awkwardly from being the paradigm-shattering interpersonal memoir and honest interrogation of love it nevertheless claims to be. To do justice to that undertaking, one surmises, Foster’s love would have had to be allowed to bring the octopus into the making of the film as a subject in her own right: an unknowable alien, yes, but a lover with a will, perhaps leveling immanent critiques of her non-octopus boyfriend. What if he’d attempted, not as a scientist but as a person, to listen to and paraphrase her desires? What if he’d joined in with her fish-shoal dance? What if he’d shared with her his camera? What if he’d been a more enthusiastic pupil, attempting to learn, for instance, the art of thinking-with-one’s-limbs? Or even just to communicate to her his gratitude, his smittenness? The possibility of something genuinely weird, perhaps epistemically dangerous, dangles tantalizingly near, and remains foreclosed.
As concerns the bridgeability of the abyss that separates human subjectivity from that of cephalopods, both the optimism of my will and the pessimism of my intellect are shared, I think, by Vilém Flusser, the author of Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, a work of “alien phenomenology” that seeks to think the universe with—no, as—the titular animal. For Flusser, reaching across this interspecies abyss is a horror story. Conversely, for Foster and for me (another octopus-lover), it is about love. He and I alike desire it that way. At times, “staying with the trouble” (as Donna Haraway puts it) of the octopus’s radical alienness is too tiring for my brain. Perhaps, in the end, some element of anthropomorphic solipsism is literally unavoidable. Still. I lapse into projection and simile; into minimizing the alienness of the mind at hand.
Perhaps it’s not my place to weigh up, absolve, or go to bat for Craig. An octopus had fun with him—good for her. Regardless, love fosters responsibility. I am haunted by the question of whether a tracker, even a tracker in love, is able to respond to the subjectivity of the beast she stalks. We live in erotophobic times, and even to ask questions like this risks boiling the ballad of Foster and the Octopus alive in nonviolent solvent.
Ranged against octopus epistemology, in this world, there are antispiritual, antipleasure forces at work. We can see them cropping up in Foster’s speech when he disciplines his vocabulary back into objectivity, the weirdness of his attachment having become too much for him. And if we are not careful, they will all too readily have us deeming love and eros mutually exclusive. Excuse me, but it goes without saying that if you are horrified by the octopus, then you are afraid of human genitalia, of touch, and ultimately of yourself. The violent collective distaste or allergy our culture evinces for any association between octopuses and arousal, surely, has something to do with our intuition of that threat.
Lurking behind my three groups of Twitter haters—“children, TERFs, and the Capital Vol. II or gtfo crowd” in Lavery’s taxonomy—was a common phobic aversion to touch, to slime, to eros. In case this needs spelling out: queer people in the contemporary liberal anglosphere are applauded (certainly tolerated), as long as we stick to victim subjects. That is to say: as long as we don’t talk about rimming each other at Pride.
I do not know how to firmly distinguish between queerphobia and erotophobia. For many of us, this phobia amounts to the misogynist fear of having a dick do to us what we do to others when we fuck them; for even more of us, it is at the same time complexly entangled with, and often mistaken for, our trauma, specifically our well-placed fear of rape. Like any other sex panic, octopusgate also stemmed from queerphobic sentimentalism about children and the bourgeois family, from alarm at the possibility of becoming unmanned by everyday experience (a rainstorm . . . a sunset), from horror at bottoming, and from contempt for gender ambiguity and nonprocreativity. It stemmed from the erotophobic discomfort about any intimation of carnal encounter surely more intense than (though having nothing to do with) the pornomechanics of “fucking.”
But queers are not really interested in blurring, or for that matter delineating, the terms sex, the erotic, and fucking. These distinctions are clearly culturally and temporally bound, but more importantly: Who do they serve? Sex under capitalism can never be fully free from the compulsion to enjoy, to consume, to marry, to reproduce, and to work. The enemies of queer life (including on the left) see whatever we do as disgusting, regardless, unless we do it within the institutions of property or marriage, and even then behind closed doors. The octophobes, for their part, were wittingly or unwittingly sanctioning a capitalist ordering of sex and the erotic. Sure, the octopus is not queer, and nor is Foster, but the outcry at my reading of their encounter as queer, and as sexual, was of a piece with the biopolitical imperative to police public expressions of deviant sexualities: a centuries-old project of class war and state formation that primarily affects dykes, whores, faggots, kinksters, and sodomites, but equally sucks a lot of joy out of life for everybody else.
This danger has unsurprisingly gained steam in 2020. Ghosts and echoes of the AIDS era’s moral panics are everywhere, even though Covid-19 is not sexually transmitted. There has been more scrutiny of the flouting of public health protocols for the sake of desire—circuit parties, cruising, hookups, “chem sex,” and so on—than scrutiny of (say) weddings, though the latter are proven superspreader events. This comes as no surprise: the imperative of capitalist social reproduction takes priority over queer life. Capitalism, as I have already suggested, is definitionally anti-erotic (which is to say queerphobic). As a way of organizing nature, it has not only subjected us all to the domination of work; it also generated the novel coronavirus—meaning that the ruling class have fucked the planet to the point that billions of us now have to stay in our (also ecocidally built) houses and refrain from going outside to flirt with the trees.
Yet we have loved, in 2020 and 2021, to rationalize our turned-off-ness with reference to the Covid-19 pandemic alone, leaving uninterrogated the structural dynamics of our aversion. Take, for example, what Jane Dailey in a new book calls “the sexual panic at the heart of America’s racist history”—the country’s foundational anxiety about “miscegenation” and “interracial” sexualities. A New York Times opinion piece has claimed that “intimacy was hard enough pre-pandemic; now wanting to be closer to someone feels almost impossible.” Another, in the Washington Blade (“America’s LGBT news source”), is entitled “A hookup isn’t worth your life in the COVID era.” The author writes: “this awful crisis is giving us an opportunity to keep our pants zipped” and hence to improve our “self-respect.” This all-too-common line is almost as stupid as it is violent. If any one group in America possesses an established practice of informal contact tracing—for STI exposure, for instance—it is promiscuous, self-respecting queers for whom sex and the erotic are inextricable aspects of how they relate to the world. The erotic encounters queer people choose to pursue “during Covid,” either at home or outside, are an order of magnitude less risky than, say, working at a grocery store. The difference is that the latter involves a compulsory and reproductive kind of proximity, while the former involves an elective and non(re)productive proximity. In sum, that the erotophobes’ error is an error of scale. An erotophilic society would be throwing its all into the collective tenderness of physical distancing; it would organize “How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic” reading groups in every neighborhood, and re-center antiwork politics, family abolition, and hedonism as core platforms of any revolutionary left organizing.
What does this have to do with the octopus? Optimistically, one might speculate that any cephalopod sex panic right now is indirectly linked to the lockdown-inspired fear that these radical horizons suddenly are on the table, that things will never go back to “normal.” What if one of the ingredients of the brouhaha was an unconscious recognition that technologies of false distancing, like automation and outsourcing, have been exposed? That boundaries have been irrevocably breached? I am loath to bring up Craig Foster again, but I want to insist: If you consult the subtitle index of My Octopus Teacher, you can see that he says precisely the same things as that other free-diver whose ecstatic apotheosis appeared as a horror and a tragedy to the gaze of 19th-century white people. “This is absolutely mind-blowing,” “An amazing feeling to think that this animal is capable of that,” “There’s no greater feeling on earth. The boundaries between her and I seemed to dissolve.”
If you are reading this and you feel vaguely distressed about the horniness of well, everything really these days, not to mention anguished that a sweet, ennobling documentary about a platonic companionship between Man and Beast could have been obscenely read into in that way, rest assured, I really do understand. For your eyes only, here is my actual review of the movie:
One out of five stars. I mean, what could be more depraved than porn involving one’s teacher? I’ve never heard of such a thing and am sure, gentle reader, that you haven’t either. Teaching, last time I checked, is a sacred, venerable institution. Teachers are, definitionally, smarter than we are. Frankly, it hardly bears thinking about, what made a “family” streaming platform think it was acceptable to release a documentary about someone who strips down to his swimming-trunks every day for a year, allowing his own teacher to sit naked on his throat, and ultimately “falling in love” with her (his words, by the way, not mine). Afterwards he just lies there, watching her while she gets her arm ripped off—believe me, telling you this hurts me more than it hurts you. What can I say? By recounting the sordid events of this attack on teacherly authority, my sole hope is that I may spare you having to watch it yourself. I mean! It’s not as though our underfunded education system is already undergoing a major crisis of legitimacy or anything, is it, Netflix?! Shameful. And months later, toward the end of the movie, the student, this absolute pervert, films his professor as she dies. Meanwhile the platform rates this filth “suitable for general audiences.” Reader, sometimes I wonder: What have we become? Who among us shall bravely take a stand on behalf of teachers everywhere? I, for one, won’t hear a word of apologism for pedagogue-, schoolmarm-, or educator-themed erotica. Thankfully, as I say, I’m pretty sure it isn’t a thing. Or wasn’t—up until this egregious misstep! Still, there’s no point crying over spilt ink. So what I want to propose is that we all simply pretend that My Octopus Teacher be not the title of this oeuvre. Let us, together, bend the offending flick into a clean and decent shape through a collective effort of our imaginations and conceive of it, instead, as My Octopus Girlfriend, a wholesome movie about getting non-genitally soppy with an octopus vulgaris specimen in the wild. Because—to be fair—if the eponymous octopus in question were depicted living out her sexuality in a responsible and role-appropriate way, i.e., with someone who wasn’t her student, the whole thing would really sing. If Craig Foster could just have picked out an octopus who wasn’t his teacher, all would have been well.
Who among us can be totally sure they have not had sex with an octopus? As it happens, I have not; I have never even, to my knowledge, met an octopus in the wild. However, there was an octopus in my local aquarium, pre-Covid, for whom I might have laid down my life, had I met her in the ocean rather than in a cage. The poet Robin Gow, in a breakup essay, describes this exact octopus (somebody they were dating showed them how to “join the water and all its queerness” on a visit to Camden, New Jersey). “I don’t believe in queer utopias because there aren’t any,” Gow writes, contemplating the unspeakable wrong of the octopus’s captivity. “I do, however, trust octopuses. I believe in octopuses, and I’m sorry.” For my part, as I think I’ve demonstrated with my story about the Harriman Reservoir, I do believe in queer utopias. Otherwise, I’m right there with Gow. “I think that our brains might not be in our bodies,” as octopuses’ are, they conclude—“but I do certainly think with mine.”
As it happens, another human drifted past, not too far away, while I was losing my reservoir virginity (just kidding, virginity is a fascist concept). For a few moments, I was jolted back into self-consciousness, sensing in myself what theorists of sluthood have called a “call for bubbles of privacy that seal off subjects, as if to prevent their leaking or sluttiness,” an inner spasm of rejection vis-à-vis the promiscuity of the medium I was in.
But upon closer inspection, this “man” was definitely a fellow frog-person, and there was nothing in him to fear. Actually, he was—no doubt about it—having sex with the reservoir, just like me. “I’m having sex with this reservoir right now,” I said to him when he passed me, because it seemed like the right thing to say. “Me too,” he calmly replied, before smiling, and floating away.