Octopi And The Seeing Of Meaning
Communicated As Pure Intent Without Ambiguity
The following is an excerpt from Terence McKenna's talk in LA in 1987, Understanding and the Imagination in the Light of Nature which has been broken out here separately because i was always struck by the implications, touched upon below, of the transformation of human language and communication into something more actual than that which we are relegated to with such an incomplete and inadequate idiom as audio verbal symbols standing in for actual being and experience. "The word is not the thing" leaves us looking elsewhere. In all of this, the heart of the question seems to resolve to, "What is the meaning we ascribe to existence, being, and our experience of it?" Perhaps adoption of such a new "titular animal" as the octopi is a healthy life-connective way of re-focusing our search for creative, sustainable meaning.
[O]ur cultural crisis is deepening. Deepening mainly because we have very poor connections among our fragmented and autonomous psychic structures -- within ourselves as individuals and within ourselves as a society. Our whole problem is that we can't communicate with each other, we can't express intention. Yet the psychedelics are sitting there waiting to unify us, to introduce us to the trans-linguistic intention. To carry us forward into a realm of appropriate cultural activity, which is to my mind, the realm beyond history. Beyond history lies effortless and appropriate cultural activity. And nature has proceeded us, as it always does, by laying out models that can be followed to realize this.
As an example, I'll point out that the 19th century had a titular animal. Its titular animal was the horse, idealized as the steam engine, the Iron Horse. Marx talked about the locomotive of history, and there was a whole focusing on the horse archetype. Which in the 20th century, gave way to the titulary animal, the raptor, the bird of prey, as exemplified by high-performance fighter aircraft, as the kind of ultimate union of man and machine in some kind of glorification of the completion of a certain set of cultural ideals.
In thinking about this and in thinking about how language is the cultural frontier of our species, I went to nature looking for models of how we might move beyond the bird of prey, which when you think about it, is the American symbol. It was also the symbol of the Third Reich. A lot of creepy scenes have actually been into birds of prey, when Alleric the Visigoth burned Eleusis, it was the crow that fluttered on his battle standard as the greasy smoke swept by. These dark birds have been ever with us.
In looking for a new titulary animal and drawing the conclusion of what it would mean, I was drawn to look, strangely enough, at cephalopods, octopi. Because I felt, first of all, they are extremely alien. The break between our line of development in the phylogenetic tree, and the mollusca, which is what a cephalopod is, is about 700 million years ago. Nevertheless, and many of you who are students of evolution know, that when evolutionists talk about parallel evolution, they always bring out the example of the optical system of the octopi. Because, isn't this astonishing? -- it's very much like the human eye, and yet it developed entirely independently. This shows how the same set of external factors impinging on a raw gene pool will inevitably sculpt the same organs or attain the same end, and so forth and so on.
Well, the optical capacity of octopi is one thing. What interested me was their linguistic organization. They are virtually entirely nervous system. First of all, they have eight arms in the case of the octopods, and ten arms in the case of the squid, the decapods. So coordinating all these organs of manipulation has given them a very capable nervous system as well as a highly evolved ocular system.
But what is really interesting about them is that they communicate with each other by changing the color and texture of their skin and their physical shape. You may know that octopi could change colors, but you may have thought it was camouflage or something very passive like that. It isn't that at all. They have a vast repertoire of traveling bars, dots, blushes, merging pastels, herringbone patterns, tweeds, mottled this-and-thats, can blush from apricot through teal into dove gray and on to olive -- do all of these things communicating to each other. That is what their large optical system is for. It is to be able to see each other.
The other thing which octopi can do -- besides having these chromatophores on the surface of their skin --they can change the texture of the skin surface: can make it rugose, papillaed, smooth, lobed, rubbery, runneled, so forth and so on. And then, of course, being shell-less molluscs, they can hide arms, and display certain parts of themselves and carry on a dance.
When you analyze what is going on here, what at first seems like merely fascinating facts from natural history, begins to take on a more profound aspect. Because it is an ontological transformation of language that is going on in front of you. Note that by being able to communicate visually, they have no need of a conventionalized culturally reinforced dictionary. Rather, they experience pure intent of each other without ambiguity because each octopus can see what is meant -- this is very important -- can see what is meant. And I think that this heralds, or could be made to herald, a transformation in our own definitions of language and communication.
What we need is to see what we mean. It's not without consequence or implication, that when we try to communicate the notion of clarity of speech, we always shift into visual metaphors: I see what you mean, he painted a picture, his description was very colorful. It means that when we intend to indicate a lack of ambiguity and communication, we shift to visual analogies. This can in fact be actualized. And in fact, this is what is happening in the psychedelic experience. There we discover, just under the surface of human biological organization, the next level in the organization of language: the ability to generate some kind of acoustical hologram that is manipulated by linguistic intent.
Now don't ask me how this happens, because nobody knows how it happens. At this point it's magic. Nevertheless, the fact is it does happen -- you can have this experience. It represents a synesthesia in the presence of ongoing communication. It is, in fact, telepathy. It is not what we thought telepathy would be, which I suppose if you're like me, you imagine telepathy would be hearing what other people think. It isn't that. It's seeing what other people mean. And them also seeing what they mean. So that once something has been communicated, both parties can walk around it and look at it, the way you study a Brancusi, or a Henry Moore in an art gallery.
By eliminating the ambiguity of the audio signal, and substituting the concreteness of the visual image, the membrane of separation, that allows the fiction of our individuality, can be temporarily overcome. And the temporary overcoming of the illusion of individuality is a much richer notion of ego-death than the kind of white-light, null-states that it has imagined to be. Because the overcoming of the illusion of individuality has political consequences. The political consequences are that one can love one's neighbor, because the commonalty of being is felt. Not reasoned toward, or propagandized into, or reinforced, but felt.