on fucking octopuses

A couple of days ago, the Marxist-feminist theorist Sophie Lewis tweeted a thread about a documentary she’d seen involving a man’s relationship with an octopus. A Catholic writer named Elizabeth Bruenig (whom I can’t link, because she has blocked me), triggered a pile-on against Lewis, in which Lewis was accused by various anti-intellectual parties of having libeled the subject of the documentary, of advocating for bestiality, of equating homosexuality with bestiality, and various other things. Lewis had done none of these things, but the pile-on spread to two further constituencies: the usual anti-sex crowd, who were looking for an opportunity to say “queer is a slur” or something; and a constituency of young, queer lefties whose objection seemed to be that Lewis’s thread was cringe, and that they didn’t so much mind that they’d been whipped into a frenzy by the author of anti-sex articles for The American Conservative, because they really didn’t like what they kept calling “theory.”

I stepped in on Lewis’s side (stunned that so many people who should have known better seemed to be relishing Bruenig’s monstering of her) and drew quite a lot of fire myself from the same mixture of children, terfs, and the Capital Vol. II or gtfo crowd. I lost over a hundred Twitter followers, and was told that it was my own fault for having advocated bestiality. I started to get DMs asking me why I wanted to fuck octopuses. Eventually, this became funnier than not, and I started playing it up, talking about how it turned out I did want to fuck octopuses, and after all what was so wrong with that?

In the midst of all this, a journalist contacted me to interview me about my thoughts about queer theory, octopus fucking, and Sophie Lewis. The plan for publication has been shelved, because apparently a marine biologist pulled out, so with the journalist’s encouragement I am publishing that interview below. I’m keeping the journalist’s name out of this to protect their blushes.

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Hi Grace, what did you find compelling about Sophie’s thread?

I generally find Sophie Lewis’s thought compelling. Hers is a radical theoretical framework grounded in the rhythms of queer life—which I enjoy thinking with and occasionally against. I read Jasbir Puar’s perspective recently about how the calls to abolish the family reify or re-instantiate colonial social models predicated on the imposition of genders, and I thought that was reasonable too. Either way, I’m still mulling over the utopian socialism at the core of Lewis’s thought, as I am with the by-now-commonplace assertion that “gender is a colonial construct,” which explains a great deal, but doesn’t explain the phenomenon of trans women—our lives, our desires, our histories—and the way in which sometimes highly binary gender constructions have been part of radical, decolonial practices, especially in the traditions of Black trans feminism, since the nineteenth century.

I liked the octopus thread because it offered some insight into the critical practice that Lewis deploys, which sometimes gets lost in the abstractions deployed for and against her work. The question of how we—readers, thinkers, queer people in general—engage with the objects that we engage with is interesting to me. I saw some people on Twitter objecting to Sophie’s thread because they thought it valorized Netflix, and Netflix is a large, powerful, disreputable corporation. I have no empathy with the person who would respond in that way, but I think just objectively such a person would lack an interest in the messiness of criticism. I think queer theory (if it exists) and Marxism have both oscillated between criticism and theory, phenomenological immediacy and structural critique. The dialectical materialism has, historically, been deployed in the service of exactly this problematic—how to engage the fact that the world as we see it has been utterly subsumed by capital.

I also like when dykes talk about eroticism, and I liked the pictures, and Sophie is funny. It wasn’t all very serious.

Why is queer theory important to help us understand what’s happening here? Is it more or less important than say, marine biology?

I think I have to reject both premises! I’m not sure I think queer theory is important for achieving that end, and I’m not sure it can be separated out from marine biology—I suspect one could have a queer theory of marine biology (and Eva Hayward’s and Jason Zuzga’s work both point in that direction). I actually didn’t really see Lewis’s thread as exemplifying queer theory—it was just a tender, observant note on a nature documentary. That it was attacked as queer theory, and that that association led it to be called “degenerate” by the terfs, and “decadent” by some anonymous left-wing accounts, indicates that far more was at stake here than what Sophie Lewis thinks about octopuses: what was at stake was the question of “queer” as a political subject of any stripe whatsoever.

At one point, Foster describes the octopus as a “liquid predator”. Is there something specific to octopuses that make them seem more appropriate for queer eroticism than other animals?

As I mentioned to you when I agreed to do this, I haven’t seen the movie and I’m in no rush to do so. That phrase feels kind of hot to me—I can understand others won’t feel that way—but god knows, nobody can legislate for another person’s fantasy (queer theory number one). Human-octopus sex has been a subject of fantasy for many centuries, of course; perhaps people look at Hokusai’s famous print “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” and see it primarily as a depiction of sexual violence against an unconsenting animal, but I’d venture to say that such an interpretation would be eccentric, and that what is quite clearly depicted is a “dream”—that is, a fantasy—of a particular kind of sexual intensity for which the octopus is a sign. Perhaps “attentiveness,” perhaps “devotion,” perhaps “skill at cunnilingus,” or fleshiness, or sucking... I mean it’s not hard to speculate what people might find hot about the fantasy Hokusai’s depicting.

I think that people misunderstood what “queer” might mean in a context like this one: it isn’t that there’s something homosexual about the sex act Hokusai is depicting, or about the eroticism Lewis is evoking (and neither of those are the same; and neither is their mode of representation, obviously enough). “Queer” has been used for decades to denote a coalitional politics, grounded in LGBTQ community responses to the AIDS pandemic, and the mass-murderous neglect of the state in the face of that pandemic. “Silence = death” remains one of the enduring slogans of queer activism, and is perhaps queer theory number two (it is, at least, a theory that is distinctively queer). So, we could say, a queer theory emerges only to confront the dominant biopolitical regime of the moment; it could not exist abstractly, or in the absence of such a coalitional confrontation.

Why do you think people reacted the way they did, especially to Sophie’s assertion that the filmmaker and the octopus ‘have a kind of sex’?

This is a big question, and of course it’s important to note that there were a number of constituencies—I counted three—who took issue with Lewis’s thread, and they did so for different reasons. Undergirding all, however, is the central fact of American life: erotophobia, an overwhelming aversion to eroticism that structures any and every political representation under the sign of neoliberal modernity (queer theory number three). We could think about the constant silencing of erotic relations, their banalizing into questions of fucking (“did he fuck the octopus”), as though the reduction of aquatic, liquefacient eroticism into a pornomechanical act can—and should—dispel any doubts that the erotic necessarily produces. Sex itself is banished under the same logic, but recently we have seen the partial recuperation of sex at the precise expense of eroticism: this is how, for example, people may talk with pornographic directness about their own sexual fantasies and practices, but recoil utterly when sex detaches itself from the str8, pornomechanical fucking dyad: when sex becomes amorous, collective, relational—in short, erotic

Now, the ideological structure of the erotophobic aversion is intimately tied up with the meaning of the phrase “silence = death,” and indeed with psychoanalysis, which is as useful a queer theory of the erotic (number four) as we’ve developed. So let us enumerate the three groups of haters who came after Lewis. First, Liz Bruenig, the “dirtbag left,” and the mainstream biopolitical administrators for whom they speaks: the terfs who supported Bernie, those who aren’t terfs but find reason to grouse about “identity politics,” whatever they take that to mean. These people escalated to using words like “degenerate”; Bruenig herself has written warmly in The American Conservative about a book recommending that Christian lesbians to avoid sex. This constituency, however drenched it may be in the juice of political reform, is motivated by one thing: erotophobia, which is inseparable from homophobia (in so far as the homosexual becomes the figure for anti-erotophobia), from misogyny (because women are taken to signal eroticism) and, ultimately, from biopolitical power as such. 

Second, actual children: plenty of people going after Lewis were kids. I can’t be too mad about that, I suppose, but it was annoying to see so many people who should have known better encouraging children to associate Lewis’s eroticism of the octopus with bestiality—it was the opposite of pedagogy, and it was shameful.

Third, a constituency of younger queers themselves who seemed to find Lewis’s thread, and my defense of it, cringey, and believed they could separate their own aversion from erotophobia by relocating it in a resistance to theory. Perhaps the “theory” in question was “queer theory”—some seemed to think so—but I suspect it was actually psychoanalysis: a theory of eros, that is, that refuses to differentiate between different kinds of desire—that clumps together eros and philia as “libido.” Somehow, a group of left queers decided that the psychoanalytic discursive register was decadent—as though it were not itself a mobilized component of “silence = death”—and responded with rage, embarrassment, and disgust.

Foster does describe himself as being in love with the octopus. Do you think it’s necessarily an erotic love? Aren’t there other types of love it could be?

As I’ve said I haven’t seen the movie, but I’ve answered this above: psychoanalysis refuses to distinguish. That’s challenging to a lot of people—it is a mortal threat to erotophobia—but it explains why so many kinds of love and desire bleed into each other, how hard it is to separate out and make sense of our desires... Str8 thought, recoiling against the erotic drive, attempts to split desire into different kinds; it understands queerness as a kind of desire rather than as a coalitional politics founded on the fact of desire as a prohibited social condition. Queer theory number four: the governance of desire is the central problematic for biopolitical power, and the coalitional forces arranged to contest that power are what we call “queer.” Please do note that this coalitional model of queer has less than nothing to do with validating or confirming an identity, or with the question of who is allowed to say or do certain things—perhaps that is an unpopular view now, but it should be one of interest to anyone who understands their work as oriented towards socialism. Str8 thought taxonomizes desires—it creates heterosexuals and homosexuals—but queer theory turns to the struggles into which desire as such throws us all.

Ok here’s the big one. Did he, in your professional opinion, fuck the octopus?

It sounds to me like the substance of Lewis’s claim is that the dude loved the octopus, and that that love spoke in powerful, intimate, and complex ways to the fact of queer desire as Lewis understands and feels it. So, I’m less interested in the question you’ve asked me than in its demand to be understood as the question: what questions does this one silence, what can it not imagine about eroticism, and how is it working to suppress queer life?

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