Vampyroteuthis Infernalis by Vilém Flusser


Cover design by Michel Vrana.

This, then, is the book that arrived a fortnight ago when I just happened to be in the midst of a week of tentacle posts. Vampyroteuthis Infernalis: A Treatise, with a Report by the Institut Scientifique de Recherche Paranaturaliste was originally published in Germany in 1987. This new edition is the first translation into English (by Valentine A. Pakis) published by the University of Minnesota Press in their Posthumanities series. It’s 100 pages long with a supplement of squid illustrations by Louis Bec. It is, to say the least, an odd book:

Part scientific treatise, part spoof, part philosophical discourse, part fable, Vampyroteuthis Infernalis gives its author ample room to ruminate on human—and nonhuman—life. Considering the human condition along with the vampire squid/octopus condition seems appropriate because “we are both products of an absurd coincidence…we are poorly programmed beings full of defects,” Flusser writes. Among other things, “we are both banished from much of life’s domain: it into the abyss, we onto the surfaces of the continents. We have both lost our original home, the beach, and we both live in constrained conditions.”

I’m not familiar with Flusser’s other work since I read few academic texts but it seems safe to assume that Vampyroteuthis Infernalis is an exception among the author’s volumes of media and communication theory. The tone is light but not overly comic unless you regard as inherently amusing Flusser’s analysis of an obscure cephalopod—the Vampyroteuthis Infernalis (the name translates as “vampire squid from hell”)—as a useful tool for studying the human condition. The study so far as it goes is along the lines of some of the essays by Jorge Luis Borges rather than any lengthy disquisition, looking at the squid’s existence from a number of angles in order to draw comparisons with human life. You wouldn’t think it easy to talk about “squid culture” or “squid politics” but Flusser manages:

…we are able to imagine cultural structures (“Utopias”) in which even our biological constraints are done away with. The vampyroteuthis cannot fathom Utopias, for the structure of its society is not a cultural product (it is not a “factum”) but rather a biological given (a “datum”). When it engages in politics, it does so against its own “nature”—it commits a violent act against itself. In the end, however, is not all human political activity contra nature?

And so on. In Borges terms (for me he’s the obvious touchstone) the book is reminiscent of the Chronicles of Bustos Domecq (1967), a series of deadpan essays about absurd cultural developments credited to one “H. Bustos Domecq” but written by Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares. Flusser lived in Brazil for a number of years so Borges may have been an inspiration. Like Borges, Flusser is learned enough to write convincingly about his subject before he starts evading the reader’s grasp. The opening of Vampyroteuthis Infernalis is a creditable and informative run through the Octopoda taxonomy; later we have references and terminology from Heidegger, and Wilhelm Reich makes a surprising appearance. Many of the parallels are ingenious, such as when Flusser compares our electronic media—the glowing screens of televisions and computer monitors—to the glowing chromatophors on the skin of the squid which the animal uses to communicate in the lightless depths of the sea. Flusser ends on another Borgesian note, describing his “fable” as offering “an image of the self reflected between two facing mirrors”. Perhaps that’s the best way to regard this book: a continual play of reflections all of which would vanish if one of the mirrors were removed.

Those who wish to lose themselves in the reflections can order the book in hardback or paperback direct from the University of Minnesota Press. Elsewhere there’s a fair amount of Vampyroteuthis Infernalis footage on YouTube which reveals the animal in question to be as wonderfully strange as its name would imply.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Le Poulpe Colossal
Fascinating tentacula

Weekend links 66


A design by Emma Kunz (1892–1963).

• Following the news this week it’s worth reminding people of a great post put together by Adam Curtis back in January, Rupert Murdoch—A portrait of Satan. One detail there concerns the death of chat show host Russell Harty in 1988. This week the London Review of Books posted an extract from Alan Bennett’s diaries referring to the Harty episode where he notes how the tabloid practice of getting private phone numbers from the police was common and widespread, not simply the actions of a single newspaper. For more about the deathbed hounding of Russell Harty (and Bennett’s loathing of Murdoch) see Writing Home. Related: Dennis Potter shortly before his death discussing his desire to kill Rupert Murdoch.

• Don’t get mad, get even: Hakim Bey’s Black Djinn Curse: “How to invoke a terrible curse on a malign institution.” See also: Black magic as revolutionary action.

Village Voice talks to Linda Manz about her experience as a young actor in Days of Heaven, The Wanderers and Out of the Blue.

Truth Wins Out infiltrates the “ex-gay” clinic run by Michelle Bachmann’s husband.

Free Situationist booklets by Larry Law. Related: films by Guy Debord at Ubuweb.

• Have tea with Doctor Dee in Mortlake, London, next Wednesday.

Publisher Peter Owen: Sixty years of innovation.

Wilhelm Reich: the man who invented free love.

A conversation with Brian Eno by Ben Sisario.

The mysterious minaret of Jam, Afghanistan.

Stereolab cover designs at Hardformat.

Orgone Accumulator (1973) by Hawkwind | Cloudbusting (1985) by Kate Bush | Orgasmatron (1986) by Motörhead | Orgasmatron (1993) by Sandoz | Orgone Donor (2004) by Deathprod.