On the Trail of the Elusive Vampire Squid from Hell

By Colin DickeyOctober 21, 2012

    Vampyroteuthis Infernalis: A Treatise by Louis Bec and Vilém Flusser. University of Minnesota Press. 112 pages.

    SOMEWHERE ALONG THE COAST of the Monterey Bay, a group of biologists are hunting vampires. In September 2012, the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biology ran an article by biologists Hendrik J. T. Hoving and Bruce Robison on that most elusive of deep-sea creatures: Vampyroteuthis infernalis, the vampire squid from hell. Living several thousand feet beneath the surface, it reaches a length of barely a foot; its eyes (an inch in diameter) are proportionately the largest of any species in the world. It can survive in extremely low-oxygen environments (it’s the only cephalopod that spends its entire life cycle in the Oxygen Minimum Layer of the ocean), and lives without sunlight; or rather, it produces its own, via bioluminescence, which it uses to startle predators, daze prey, and attract mates. Unusual among members of the order Octopoda, its eight tentacles are connected by a web, giving them the appearance of a hood that it can draw over itself when threatened. It was this cloak-like appearance that led the German naturalist Carl Chun, who was not without a sense of humor, to give it its name in 1903. Later, biologists who found specimens named them Cirroteuthis macrope, Watasella Nigra, and Retroteuthis Pacifica, among others, but Chun’s diabolical moniker came first, and it’s the one that has stuck.

    Hoving and Robison’s recent article, which got a great deal of play on the Internet, discusses in detail the vampyroteuthis’ feeding habits: specifically the way in which it lives on what biologists call “marine snow”: surprisingly nutritious flecks of animal carcasses, plankton, and feces that drift downward from above. Hoving and Robison’s interest, like that of all marine biologists, is in preserving the sea (which is to say, preserving it as it was when humans began to seriously study it less than two hundred years ago). In a video released by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Robison talks about the importance of the vampyroteuthis’ habitat, the pelagic zone, and the challenges the squid and its neighbors currently face: “They are threatened by ocean warming, decreasing oxygen, pollution, over-fishing, industrialization and dozens of other change taking place in the deep. We have a responsibility to learn all we can about these amazing animals, and to protect them from the greatest danger to life in the deep: the human species.” The video’s narrator continues this theme:

    This zone is home to many species eaten by fish that humans eat, such as tuna and salmon. Many whales, turtles, and giant squid also rely on this zone for their food. Even though all of this is out of sight, any upset in the balance here can ultimately have a devastating effect on what humans have come to expect from the oceans, a place that provides food for millions of people.

    The pelagic zone, in other words, is endangered because of our activity, and it’s important because it produces food we eat. Our desire to know about and save the vampyroteuthis infernalis is motivated chiefly by our desire to know more about ourselves, and focused less on the animal itself and more on its relationship to the humans researching and writing about it.

    Ask not what you can do for the vampire squid from hell; ask what the vampire squid from hell can do for you.


    Vilém Flusser and Louis Bec, to paraphrase Peter Frampton, want to feel like the vampyroteuthis infernalis feels. They want to upend this relationship, put the vampyroteuthis in the driver’s seat, give it the starring role. They want to “comprehend the basic structure of vampyroteuthic Dasein,” they write, adopting Martin Heidegger’s untranslatable word for existence, or “being-in-the-world.”

    In some circles, Flusser’s contribution to media theory ranks alongside those of Walter Benjamin, Marshall McLuhan, or Friedrich Kittler, but since much of his writing has only recently been translated into English, he is largely unknown in the United States. The son of Jewish intellectuals in Prague, Flusser left Czechoslovakia in 1939 at the age of 18 (the rest of his entire family was killed in the camps), ending up in São Paolo in 1940. He stayed in Brazil for the next 30 years, publishing his first books on media theory in the 1960’s, but left Brazil for Europe in the wake of increasing political instability. There, Flusser published his major works on media theory: Für eine Philosophie der Fotografie (“Towards a Philosophy of Photography,” 1983), Ins Universum der technischen Bilder (“Into the Universe of Technical Images,” 1985), and Die Schrift: Hat Schreiben Zukunft? (“Does Writing Have a Future?,” 1987), published the same year as Vampyroteuthis Infernalis: A Treatise, a collaboration with Louis Bec, a visual artist and founder of the “Institut Scientifique de Recherche Paranaturaliste,” a loosely defined organization devoted to “studying the incapability of living things to understand their own existence.” These were among Flusser’s final writings; he died tragically in a car crash in 1991 at the age of 71.

    Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, now finally translated into English by Valentine A. Pakis, is divided into Flusser’s 70-page “treatise” and Bec’s “report,” a dozen pages of illustrations — the two halves offering separate, largely disparate attempts to unpack the being-in-the-world of this strange cephalopod. Bec’s contribution consists of a series of images, not of the vampyroteuthis itself but of (invented) related species: the Akroate hadal f., the Upopetoma artagepargogone, and so forth. Resembling naturalist’s sketches and anatomical drawings, Bec’s images are accompanied by seemingly scientific explanations that turn out to be mostly nonsense: “The Vampyromelas enedraropalon belongs to the order Vampyromorpha. Its hypocriminological activities are elorenedric.” They’re pretty to look at, but Bec’s contribution doesn’t really add up to all that much; it’s in Flusser’s treatise that the real meat lies.

    Flusser begins by highlighting the alien nature of the vampyroteuthis:

    Humans and vampyroteuthes live far apart from one another. We would be crushed by the pressure of its abyss, and it would suffocate in the air that we breathe. When we hold its relative captive in aquaria— both to observe them and to infer certain things about it — they kill themselves: they devour their own arms. How we would conduct ourselves if dragged to its depths, where eternal darkness is punctured only by its bioluminescence, remains to be seen.

    And yet no sooner has this ontological divide been asserted than Flusser offers up a surprising affinity: “And yet the vampyroteuthis is not entirely alien to us [...] We and the vampyroteuthis harbor some of the same deeply ingrained memories, and we are therefore able to recognize in it something of ourselves.” Though it is a member of the order Octopoda, the vampyroteuthis infernalis occupies a genus distinct from both octopi and squids, and, like homo sapiens, it is the only species within its genus. “As two exposed and threatened pseudopods of life, we are both forced to think — it as a voracious belly, we as something else. But as what? Perhaps this is for it to answer.”

    Flusser wants to create a dialogue between human and vampire squid, knowing full well what kind of unease we’re likely to feel when faced with the uncanny presence of a thing with 75,000 teeth but no spine — a thing that may, in its own way, be as intelligent as we are. There is a sense of the horrific in the octopoda — the most identifiable feature of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu, after all, are the squid-like tentacles emerging from its mouth. Flusser is keyed in to this innate revulsion; to face ourselves, he suggests, is to face this horrible monster floating several thousand feet beneath us in pitch-black waters.

    How seriously should we be taking all of this? It seems on the surface a fairly sober bio-philosophical treatise, and yet even within the prose’s clinical detachment is a faux-revulsion that barely conceals its glee. The animal is, Flusser constantly reminds us, a “repugnant horror”; its principal attributes, he claims somewhat erroneously, are deception, rape, and cannibalism. As though to justify Chun’s naming of this otherwise-unassuming fish, Flusser does not want to let us forget that this bottom-feeding, barely-moving scavenger is, indeed, utterly diabolical.

    But Flusser is not really out to vilify the vampire squid. Rather, Flusser floats the idea that our own innate disgust may help guide us towards an understanding of the world in which we are obliged to live:

    We feel a connection with life-forms supported by bones, while other forms of life disgust us. Though existential philosophy has concerned itself with the idea of disgust, it has never attempted to formulate a category of “biological existentialism,” to advance something like the following hypothesis: “Disgust recapitulates phylogenesis.”

    Like Freud’s “uncanny,” Flusser’s concept of “disgust” is meant to foster a conversation — in this case, around the anthropocentric view of nature. “Incorporated into our ‘collective unconscious’ is a hierarchy of disgust that reflects a biological hierarchy,” Flusser argues, one that leads to a conception of nature in which all of life, “the slimy flood that envelops the earth,” is merely a “stream that leads to us: We are its goal.”

    What begins to emerge out of the murky depths of Flusser’s prose is a series of critiques of Western philosophy, as the radical strangeness of the vampire squid calls into question a series of long-held epistemologies. The act of searching for a vampyroteuthic Dasein, after all, immediately calls into question Heidegger’s notion that the non-human animal is incapable of any such thing. “The animal behaves within an environment but never within a world,” Heidegger writes in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, coming to the conclusion that the animal is weltarm, “poor-in-world”: forever “captivated” by its environment, it is part of the world but incapable of forming a worldview. Flusser immediately tosses this notion overboard — if humans have a worldview and a Dasein, then so too can the vampire squid.

    Heidegger isn’t the only one guilty of this fallacy; Hegel and Wilhelm Reich both get drubbings from Flusser, as does Plato, whose Allegory of the Cave describes a world which we apprehend through our sensory organs, by which we may or may not be deceived. But the vampire squid, as Flusser points out, lives in near darkness and does not necessarily perceive its world through its sensory organs. Instead, via bioluminescence, it creates its world: “The vampyroteuthis itself irradiates the world with its own point of view. Its bioluminescent organs engender appearances, that is, phenomena. A world such as this cannot deceive because it is a self-generated deception.” Our long-cherished philosophical models, then, all fail before the world of the vampyroteuthis.

    And then there’s the issue of the third penis. The male vampyroteuthis has three members, each with a different designated function: the first penetrates and deposits the spermatozoa, the second stimulates ovulation and certain hormones. The third, which rubs the female’s abdomen during copulation, is not nearly as well understood. When it is not being used during intercourse, it, in Flusser’s words, “actively feels the environment.” We may talk of gendered differences in perception, or even of “female intuition” as an extra-sensory perception of just one gender, but the male vampyroteuthis literally has an additional sensory organ that offers it an extra perspective on the world around it. “If only,” Flusser concludes, “we could grasp the world with a penis.”

    But, penises aside, what does it even mean to “grasp the world”? Humans experience the world by moving through it, by the cluster of sensory organs on our heads along with our legs and arms. In an oxygen-deprived landscape, though, the vampire squid must husband its energy, and instead drifts through the sea, scooping up what passes into its mouth, rejecting what it cannot use. “Whereas our method of comprehension is active,” Flusser writes, “[the vampyroteuthis’] method is passive and impassioned.” Thus there is a radical difference between our respective “cultures”:

    Whereas we have “problems,” things in our way, it has “impressions.” Its method of comprehension is impressionistic […] Culture is therefore, for it, an act of discriminating between digestible and indigestible entities, that is, a critique of impressions. Culture is not, for it, an undertaking against the world but rather a discriminating and critical injection of the world into the bosom of the subject.

    If there is vampyroteuthic culture, it follows that there must also be vampyroteuthic art. Construed loosely, its “art,” for Flusser, is the means by which the vampire squid reproduces: just as human artists achieve immortality through inert, lifeless objects like sculptures and books, the squid (like the rest of the natural world, including ourselves), achieves immortality through reproduction. Thus its art is one of seduction, or, as Flusser sees it, deception:

    Artistic creation is therefore both an outward expression by an artist and an inward impression upon the seduced. It is an act of raping another vampyroteuthis in an effort to become immortal in the body of the victim. Its art is a mode of rape and hatred — of deception, fiction, and lies; it is a delusive affectation, that is to say, it is “beauty.”

    Here again, Flusser challenges us to ask whether we humans are all that different. “Having lost faith in material objects as artificial memories,” he writes (circa 1987), “we have begun to fashion new types of artificial memory that enable intersubjective and immaterial communication.” Thus, Flusser concludes, “we are becoming increasingly vampyroteuthic.”


    If some of this seems like a little too much, it’s because it is; there are frequent moments when Flusser goes for overblown rhetoric over lucidity. One should not expect an explanation of Heidegger’s Dasein or Hegel’s Geist in anything approaching layman’s terms; if the squid exists in the depths of the inaccessible, so too will some of this book remain somewhat murky to those without an advanced degree in continental philosophy. (Sentences such as, “The vampyroteuthis is a born Kantian whose Plato comes later” will not get much elaboration.) Stylistically, the book is reminiscent of the collaborations of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari — though, as someone who, in my grad school days, broke down their Anti-Oedipus line by line, I find I no longer have the patience for this kind of sexy obfuscation or the kind of hermetic discussion that requires a working knowledge of Western Philosophy’s Greatest Hits.

    Which is not to say that Vampyroteuthis Infernalis isn’t worth reading — only that, unlike the vampire squid, the pleasure here may well lie mostly on the surface, in provocative sentences like the one that leapt out at me on first reading: “An organism is a stratified memory constructed of superimposed suppressions, somewhat like geological formations.” Here I confess a certain affinity with Flusser’s subject, since I’m mostly interested in cruelly taking pleasure from the text. I’m the reader who allows the text to drift into me, taking what’s digestible and spitting out what isn’t. Heidegger and Hegel, after all, are both long dead — what’s left is just chum and fecal matter floating in the sea. Take what you can use, and drift on.

    Ultimately, it’s not Flusser’s engagement with dead philosophers that unnerved me so much as the failure of his promise to truly understand the vampire squid’s being-in-the-world. In the aptly-named journal Flusser Studies, devoted to the philosopher’s oeuvre, Anne Popiel suggests that Flusser “proposes the world of the Vampyroteuthis as a model for human communication in the age of television, film, and digital images.” And therein lies the sucker punch: is this book really about the inner life of the vampire squid from hell, or is it all just an elaborate metaphor for the media culture analyzed in Flusser’s previous works? The book never truly seems able to decide between the two; or perhaps, faced with the radical impossibility of the former, it chooses the latter by default. Flusser seems to return, finally, to the notion that the vampyroteuthis infernalis’ job is to reveal to us our own Dasein, to reflect to us ourselves across an abyssal mirror. “Science as a whole,” Flusser notes, “is interesting insofar as it is an attempt to orient ourselves in the world,” and if this book at times seems to want to break out of that paradigm and show us what nature itself sees and wants in us, perhaps that’s just too tall an order. We’re left with the statement that “the vampyroteuthis that we encounter is not the vampyroteuthic Dasein but rather an object to our eyes and hands” — for a book about the vampire squid from hell, Flusser and Bec’s Treatise is a great book about human beings.

    If we’re truly going to learn from the vampyroteuthis infernalis, we’re going to have to work harder to let go of ourselves as the main character in its drama. Current attitudes toward nature run the gamut from those who see the earth’s natural resources as ours to exploit (drill, baby, drill) to those observers of the “anthropocene” who see human action as the chief threat to the global environment. Flusser’s intervention is hardly an improvement: on the one hand he posits an anthropocentric philosophical tradition, and on the other a vampyroteutho-centric version which ultimately tells us more about us humans, which, to my mind, is basically the same thing. All of these narratives, not coincidentally, place human beings at the center of the drama — either the earth is our treasure chest, or we are its sole steward; either we study ourselves, or we study others to learn about ourselves. In neither case have we progressed far from the Edenic vision laid out in the Book of Genesis. But then, though it may have had serpents, the Garden of Eden was conspicuously lacking in vampire squids from hell.

    The truth is far more radical than Flusser or Bec care to contemplate: the truth is what Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, learned. After devoting himself to a misguided quest to save Alaska’s wild grizzly bears, Treadwell and his girlfriend were killed and eaten by a bear desperate for food in Katmai National Park in 2003. The folly and misunderstanding at the heart of this quest is best summed up by Herzog’s closing monologue: “And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.” The vampyroteuthis infernalis is uninterested in us or our Dasein, and it’s own Dasein most assuredly rests in this indifference: indifference to all but potential mates, immediate threats, and the marine snow drifting down to meet it. And it is most emphatically uninterested in our attempts to save it and its ecosystem — and this, in the end, is the real horror.

    So ask not what you can do for the vampire squid from hell. What you do for the vampire squid from hell, you do for yourself.


    Recommended Reads:

    LARB Contributor

    Colin Dickey is the author, most recently, of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (Viking), as well as Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius and Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith. He is also the co-editor of The Morbid Anatomy Anthology. He currently teaches creative writing at National University.


    LARB Staff Recommendations

    Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

    LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!