A Vital Friendship: The Radical Naturalism of “My Octopus Teacher”

By Jensen SutherMay 30, 2021

A Vital Friendship: The Radical Naturalism of “My Octopus Teacher”

It is an eight-armed invertebrate that lives at often terrifying depths. Ghost-like, it disappears into and merges with its surroundings to hide from predators and quietly envenom and capture its prey. Despite being color-blind, it camouflages itself by mimicking its environment, through photoreceptors distributed across the surface of its body. In effect, it can see with its skin. The neurons of the octopus are not centralized like ours but are rather housed mostly in its arms, which are semi-autonomous, even self-like. Like the squid and the cuttlefish, the octopus is part of the cephalopod family, with which we last shared an evolutionary antecedent about six hundred million years ago, during life’s infancy in the ocean. The octopus — effectively an innervated, self-moving sponge — is about as biologically foreign to Homo sapiens as it gets. What better symbol of nature’s otherness, its alienness to human beings, than this strange creature?

Yet: Note the action verbs above. The octopus “hides” and “captures.” It “camouflages itself.” It is acting on instincts and biological imperatives, yes, but in doing so, it is also acting on ends — the end of finding prey, the end of hiding from predators — for the sake of its life. We may not think with our arms or see with our skin, but isn’t there something familiar about this way of being, of navigating the world? The paradoxical nature of the octopus — utterly alien and yet strangely familiar — has been the recent object of interest of philosophers like Peter Godfrey-Smith, in his book Other Minds (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), and filmmakers like Craig Foster, the human subject of the Oscar-winning Netflix production from late last year, My Octopus Teacher (dirs. Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed).

The context of this resurgent interest in the octopus stretches back several centuries. Following the modern scientific revolution, a debate broke out among biologists and philosophers of science (and even some Romantic poets, as Jessica Riskin has shown) over the sorts of “purposive” descriptions of the organism I offered above. Are they just a façon de parler, an anthropomorphizing way of speaking human beings cannot help but adopt? Or do these descriptions contribute something essential to the comprehension of living organisms? Are we just projecting the intentional structure of our cognition and lives onto mechanical nature, or is nature more than mere mechanism (quantum or Newtonian)? According to Godfrey-Smith, scientific interest in the octopus stems from the considerable intelligence it exhibits, despite the very different evolutionary path it has traveled. While these creatures experience the world in a drastically different manner than we do, the point is that they do experience it. This raises the philosophical question — originally formulated by Thomas Nagel — of what it means to be something it can “feel like” to be.

In her recent book Fellow Creatures (Oxford University Press, 2018), philosopher Christine Korsgaard argues that animals are creatures for which things can be good or bad. Indeed, it is with the living organism that “value” first arises in the world. For Korsgaard, animals have a “final good,” an orienting purpose: the life they are trying to maintain. In light of this final good (their own life), animals experience elements in their environment as dangers to be avoided or pleasures to be pursued. Likewise, their bodies are self-organized and differentiated into functional parts, which can fail to work as they should or become damaged or diseased. A living system — unlike, say, the solar system — can succeed or fail, be healthy or sick. Many reductive naturalists argue that this “teleological” way of thinking leads to theism: if one ascribes a purpose or function to an animal, then one must assume that someone — a divine creator — produced it in accord with a design. But Korsgaard’s naturalized teleology both requires the theory of evolution and rejects any creationist ideas about intelligent design. Indeed, what evolution reveals is how there can be purposive objects in nature, even if no one designed them to function as they do.

The deeper point of Korsgaard’s book is — as its subtitle suggests — to establish “our obligations to the other animals.” The question of purposiveness in nature isn’t just a theoretical question about how we must understand the world, if we are to get it right; it is also an eminently practical question about how we should treat our fellow creatures, what we owe them as fellow seekers of the good. Unlike the other animals, we do not just have a good but know that we have one. For Korsgaard, this obligates us to recognize one another as ends in ourselves, as opposed to mere means. But it also obligates us to recognize the other animals as ends as well, even though, on Korsgaard’s account, they are constitutively unable to recognize this themselves.

My Octopus Teacher achieves aesthetically and cinematically what a book like Korsgaard’s accomplishes philosophically — through propositions and deductions. What it “teaches” us is what it means to recognize and acknowledge the form of the living: the kinds of beings that are oriented by ends and for which things can be pleasurable or painful, precisely because their lives can go well or go poorly.

Produced by Craig Foster’s Sea Change Project, which was founded in 2012 to research and help protect the Great African Sea Forest off the coast of South Africa, My Octopus Teacher tells the story of Foster’s year-long relationship with a female octopus. In the late 2000s, after a decade of intense creative activity as a documentarian, Foster suffered an existential crisis and wanted to give up filmmaking entirely. “Your great purpose in life,” he intones over stunning images of rain falling on the Cape of Storms, “is in pieces.” Foster describes a strong need to be on the “inside” of the natural world he had known intimately as a child but had observed for years from the outside, through his camera lens. So, he decides to return to his childhood haunt, the kelp forest at the Cape, and commits to diving — sans wetsuit or scuba tank — in the frigid, turbid water every day for a year. Drawing on the animal tracking skills he learned years earlier while filming in the Kalahari Desert, he decides to submit to this strange world and its alien inhabitants and to try to learn their ways.

A peculiar formal feature of the film is the disjunction between the seamlessness of its cinematography and Foster’s frequent trips back to the surface for air. While Foster can hold his breath for only so long, the filming itself is rarely disrupted, presumably because the filmmakers are wearing the scuba gear Foster makes a point of casting aside. This introduces an artificial narrative structure that, in eliminating the dynamic of exhalation and inhalation constitutive of life, papers over the finitude of form. This is naturalist cinema that masks the “nature” of its own protagonist, in a way that — we will see — ultimately undermines its own radical ethical aims.

Foster frames his first encounter with the octopus as a kind of mystery to be solved, which gives the film its narrative arc. The octopus appears covered in shells and rocks, which she holds close to her body using her suckers. Foster is mystified, and the camera lingers, compelling us to ponder what we see. The enigma prompts Foster to ask: What if he were to keep returning to this part of the kelp forest and to follow this creature on a daily basis? What could one learn from such an intensive focus on the habits and predilections not of one “specimen” among others in a lab, but of a unique individual, out in the wild?

While an octopus has about as many neurons as a dog, making it one of the more intelligent creatures on the planet, they are known not to score as highly on intelligence tests as animals with comparable capacities. One theory is that they are simply less interested in the tests and exhibit their intelligence in different ways. For example, they are consummate escape artists with a crafty and mischievous nature — an evolved trait that enabled them to lose their protective shell and still survive in predator-infested waters. Because Foster’s documentary shares DNA with that ubiquitous genre of naturalist cinema, the beautiful, high-definition, Attenborough-narrated documentary, we are treated to stunning images of curious behaviors that appear to demonstrate the octopus’s superior intelligence. But Foster’s existential narrative goes much deeper: it treats intelligence not just as a causally regulated pattern of behavior but as an evaluative way of relating to the environment that makes a claim on any possible observer. To recognize intelligence is to feel the force of a certain kind of practical demand. For this reason — and as Foster shows — the naturalist observer is always already part of the environment she observes.

In an important early moment, Foster drops a camera lens while the octopus — curious about this new presence near her den — inches toward him. The crash spooks her, and she disappears, abandoning that particular den behind for good. “Have you ruined it forever?” Foster asks. “Is that animal ever going to trust you?” The emphasis on trust in this scene is, in some ways, the key to the film as a whole. To trust is to allow the other in and to count on her to treat you as she should. In this asymmetrical relation between animal and rational animal, the octopus cannot trust that Foster is an “animal person,” someone who keeps his word, and so forth, nor can Foster trust the octopus to abide by moral principles, to not infringe his rights. The form of trust available is more primitive: they can each exhibit through their acts an intent to do no harm, which is in some hard-to-comprehend sense mutually intelligible.

Foster rediscovers the octopus soon after his initial mistake, and the trust they eventually establish enables him to enter her world. Unlike the typical naturalist documentarian, Foster is not the disinterested narrator of mating rituals and patterns of predation, observing from multiple hidden cameras. He is not an intruder in an otherwise “natural” habitat but, to an extent, a part of the nature he is observing. Foster watches the octopus hunt and play, but the two of them also begin to play together: she rides his hand to the surface, rests on his chest, allows him to follow her closely. “The boundaries between [us],” he remarks, “seemed to dissolve.” Even as he sits at a table at home after the fact, looking into the camera and retrospectively narrating the events we see, the viewer feels that Foster remains “alive” to what has happened. It is as if, in expressing himself to us, he means to testify to the relationship that has been, to make it real for himself by asking us, the audience, to recognize its reality. The lens of the camera here is very far from a God’s-eye view.

The film’s narrative is largely propelled by a central mystery: what was the strange maneuver the octopus was performing when Foster first discovered her? In a recent piece on the film for n+1, Sophie Lewis criticizes Foster’s “total perplexity” in the face of an obvious “logic of pleasure and ornamentation,” as if to suggest that he was being too analytic, too intellectual. This objection is an odd one, since the answer is revealed near the end of the film and has nothing to do with decoration or display: it is the octopus’s ingenious technique for both camouflaging and shielding herself from the pyjama shark pursuing her. The climax of the film is also the peak of Foster’s recognition of the octopus as a fellow creature: in effectively wielding the stones and shells as a tool — a shield — the octopus takes something to be “good,” conducive to her ends, and thereby manifests herself as a character, a self-moving agent. By solving the “mystery,” Foster does not just determine the environmental cause for the development of some evolutionary trait. He rather narrates his acknowledgment of the octopus as the subject of a life.

Lewis’s more general criticism of My Octopus Teacher is an important one and should be taken seriously: does Foster anthropomorphize the octopus? When his own recovery from depression is likened to the regeneration of an arm the octopus lost to the pyjama shark, is this just, as Lewis suggests, a metaphor that should have been resisted? But Korsgaard helps us to see that this is not a metaphor. Living beings are creatures for whom things can be good or bad, given the final good of the life they are trying to live. The regeneration of an arm is the octopus’s distinctive way of making herself whole again, of living up to her life-form — just as Foster’s recovery manifests our distinctive way of making ourselves whole again, of living up to our spiritual form of life, which can change historically in a way the life-forms of other animals cannot. In acknowledging the pain of the octopus, Foster re-learns what it means to be the kind of being that can be in pain. To move beyond the “obvious” — to achieve reflective rather than merely reflexive knowledge of life — is precisely the point of the film, the “lesson” Foster learns from his teacher.

Korsgaard ends her book by reflecting on the consequences of the realization that we have an obligation to other animals — an obligation to recognize them as ends in themselves, trying to live lives of their own. We should, for example, stop eating meat and institute measures to control population growth. In a striking passage, Korsgaard even suggests that, “if we continue to abuse the individual animals and the animal communities,” we may “fail to deserve” our place on earth and forfeit our own right to self-preservation. I highlight these strong claims because — in an otherwise staggeringly insightful book — they reflect a certain myopia. If we are failing our fellow creatures, chances are that we are also failing one another. We cannot “forfeit” our own right to life because, by Korsgaard’s own lights, we are a species with a good, a collective final end. To treat other animals as we should, we would first need to treat one another as we should, a possibility systematically foreclosed by the capitalist imperative to produce for profit. Nature — which includes both human and the other animals — is treated as a mere means under capitalism, as raw material for commodity production. Nothing short of a total reorientation of our production process — of how and why we produce — would suffice to change our relation to our fellow creatures.

Foster’s film is confronted by a similar difficulty. The ethical utopia of My Octopus Teacher calls to mind Marx’s criticisms of the old political-economic vision of the Robinsonade, a narrative about a Crusoe-like figure meant to demonstrate what humanity is “really” like underneath the conventions of polite society. Marx does not take kindly to the theoretical device of the Robinsonade, which he exposes as an attempt to naturalize a historical form of production. In Foster’s case, the utopia of an unspoiled and original ethical relation is reflected in the formal peculiarity I noted earlier: the continuous flow of the film belies Foster’s own need for air. This is breathless cinema that hides the conditions for its own metabolic exchange with the world. The profound beauty of the film’s seamless cinematography is thus complicit in the production of the illusion of a pure relation, beyond social and historical bounds.

This real risk of sentimentality and moralism must be weighed against the film’s ethical and recognitive achievements. We live in a historical world in which the consumption of animals remains necessary for the survival of the vast majority and in which the sort of reciprocal recognition Foster attains is generally out of reach. My Octopus Teacher thus offers more than a moral lesson in how we ought to treat our fellow creatures. It should prompt radical reflection on the collective level in the same way that it did for Foster on the individual level. Attending to our fellow creatures, we must ask ourselves who we would have to become — how we would have to change — to allow our animal others to flourish as the spontaneous, self-determining beings that they are.


Jensen Suther is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Yale. His work has appeared in a range of academic and popular publications, including b2o: an online journal, Modernism/modernity, The Review of Metaphysics, Mediations, New Centennial Review, Radical Philosophy, and Telos.

LARB Contributor

Jensen Suther is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Yale. Through a novel synthesis of Hegel and Marx, his first book project — Spirit Disfigured — argues that the modernist novel expresses the historical crisis of the idea of a free, self-determining subjectivity at the heart of modern thought and politics. His work has appeared in a range of academic and popular publications, including b2o: an online journal, Modernism/modernity, The Review of Metaphysics, Mediations, New Centennial Review, Radical Philosophy, and Telos.


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