Wednesday, October 1st, 2014
The ocean is in fashion. Anchors, oars, whales, maritime flags, and octopuses adorn the button-up shirts of American hipsters. Not to be outdone, academia has also adopted the marine as a central motif in the past decade, often situating the Atlantic World and its symbols as sites, metaphors, and producers of the modern self and modern capitalism. However, within the context of the United States, many marine symbols have served another purpose: to represent threats to individual and national security. I intend to take this opportunity to examine briefly the motif of the cephalopod (i.e., octopuses, squids, and fictionalized creatures with similar features) and to trace the motif’s relationship to religio-political contestation and broader concerns over power in the United States.
Of course, the creatures of the sea, whether allegedly seen by ship or washed up on a beach, have fascinated a variety of cultures around the globe for centuries, but within the American context the cephalopod became a common motif in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century cartoons as oceanic symbols in general became more and more popular thanks to narratives both real and fictional (e.g., Moby-Dick , Toilers of the Sea , Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea , and, later, with a more purely metaphorical bent, The Octopus: A Story of California ). Even as new technologies made the Atlantic and Pacific oceans more accessible than ever, America’s fascination with the creatures of the deep sea grew, often with a sublime and morbid tint. Furthermore, cephalopods became a useful shorthand for critiquing phenomena believed to be threatening to the existing religio-political order as understood by the historical subjects.
Mormons were the first religious group to be targeted by sensationalist American newspapers utilizing images of cephalopods.
In these fairly well-known illustrations, the tentacles were used to symbolize expansionism, influence, and manipulation. In Illustration 1, the octopus with Brigham Young’s face issues a multi-pronged attack on public opinion, schools, YMCA, justice, and even Ireland. In Illustration 2, which was occasioned by Reed Smoot’s election to the U.S. Senate, the octopus occupies a geographical space in the West, but stretches a tentacle to Washington D.C.
The illustration implies that having finally established an empire far away from U.S. interference, the Mormons were now seeking to take control of the federal government. Some anti-Catholic literature, having long relied on reptilian imagery to represent the Catholic Church, also began to deploy the cephalopod in the early twentieth century.
However, the cephalopod was not only used to critique specific denominations or churches. Publications also utilized the octopus to critique, in very similar ways, American corporations, cities, and modernism itself (as produced by the Moody Bible Institute). In fact, cephalopods were first popularized through propaganda that targeted railroad monopolies in the waning decades of the nineteenth century (see Illustration 3). Other fields then incorporated the imagery in the following decades.
With this admittedly small set of data, I would like to propose some directions for scholarship interested in analyzing religious contestation. I argue that historians have much to gain by crossing or ignoring the boundaries of what is typically defined as “religious” and by examining how certain motifs have crossed a variety of modernity’s compartments—compartments that are contingently produced with certain interests in mind, yet certainly powerful in a multitude of ironic ways that go beyond individual or communal control.
From corporations, to churches, to cities (or more specifically, to cite one example, the corruptive reach of the mail-order catalogs produced therein), to twentieth-century imperial ideologies and industries, the aesthetic of the cephalopod in the past two centuries has provided a convenient shorthand for identifying a dangerous and amorphous other that is submerged until just before or when it becomes too late to react against it. At this moment the threat becomes ever-expanding and clearly present. This was one of the common threads of nineteenth-century deep-sea fictions and one of the underlying implications of these propaganda cartoons. The compelling nature of these illustrations, I believe, is based on their ability to make the invisible (under the sea) visible (landed, reaching, and unescapable).
I argue that although we should not collapse the different political goals sought after in these productions, we can identify a nerve that cuts across typically fenced-off cultural fields (i.e., the fields of “religion” and “economics”). This nerve registers the fear of institutionalized systematicities, whose center is always elsewhere and othered, overwhelming the capacity of individuals and the local to be themselves. (However, as John Modern argues, systematicity and this type of individualism ironically developed together.) Nonetheless, the consistent re-use of octopuses and the like suggests the tenderness of this nerve, one especially vulnerable within the turn-of-the-century context of massive national expansion, radically interconnecting technologies, and the growth of corporations and the federal government (often in a reciprocal relationship).
My intention in bringing together these few illustrations is straightforward: scholarship interested in religious contestation, which is a field of interest to me, could find productive avenues by looking for similar discourses and aesthetics in archives derived from other cultural fields. Such an approach might allow us to propose new sources and frameworks for such contestation. These frameworks could incorporate the political, incorporate the economic, and blur the distinction between these and other fields. Theoretical frameworks, I assert, can become claustrophobic when based solely on the adjective “religious.” Tracing the repurposing of signposts like the cephalopod could allow us to gain some visibility in these murky waters and to map out the submerged cultural terrain that is inevitably connected in a variety of ways.
Finally, I have one question to pose: how might we explain the amelioration of the octopus today after such a history of malignancy?
Jeffrey Wheatley is a graduate student at Northwestern University. His research explores formations of religious contestation, racialization, the state, and capitalism with a focus on nineteenth-century North America. Of late he has been researching the epistemologies at work in missions to Native Americans, representations of Catholic exceptionalism in the American West, and Gilded Age corporate religious sensibilities. He is on Twitter @wheatleyjt.