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The Octopus


Via Mother Jones is this superb site called Vulgar Army highlighting the use of the octopus in history to illustrate the evil power of corporations or other sites of power. It was especially popular in the late 19th and early 20th century during the time of monopoly and labor repression. It faded by the 1930s though has never fully gone away (and the site has examples from each decade). It’s actually kind of hard to imagine the octopus as a scary enough animal to use as a comparison to corporations. It feels more like a Melville-esque old-timey fear of sea creatures that has gone away for whatever reason. Maybe Jacques Cousteau and TV nature shows. Maybe sushi bars. Maybe aquariums.

Naturally enough given my love of both debauchery and disease, I’m rather enamored of this image of the liquor octopus. I’ve also long enjoyed this classic I.W.W. octopus image:

To no small extent, this sort of imagery was necessary in the polylingual early twentieth United States, when you had to reach a workforce that might have native speakers of up to 10 or 12 different languages at a given jobsite. They might not all be able to speak English, but the octopus had universal symbolism. Salvatore Salerno argues in his book on the European anarcho-syndicalist roots of the I.W.W., Red November, Black November, that Wobbly artists consciously drew upon European precedents for the posters, cartoons, poems, and songs. This makes a lot of sense given the high immigrant population many of the groups Wobblies organized.

Today, with our self-conscious drawing from past art forms to influence today’s imagery, you could see a revival of the octopus as a metaphor for corporations. It certainly isn’t going to have the resonance with everyday people, but it is not an inaccurate metaphor for modern corporate practices. And as the Mother Jones article points out, at least one artist is using it as part of the Occupy Wall Street art.

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  • David Kaib

    Please add this quote to the top of the page:

    Naturally enough given my love of both debauchery and disease, I’m rather enamored of this image of the liquor octopus.

  • Occupy the octupie!

  • NBarnes

    I had to look twice at the final cephalopod. The first time I saw a hammer and sickle formed by the Q in squid and its eyebrows. Which I thought was kinda awesome, but somewhat off-message.

  • Davis X. Machina

    Octopuses (or octipodes, but never octopi) were less theoretical, less aquarium-bound critters back then. Some of those immigrants were personally familiar with him, as polpo en su tinta, or octapodi kokkinisto or such.

  • I think the last (current) one is inspired by Matt Taibbi’s description of Goldman Sachs:

    “The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

    • Ah, that is useful to know. I thought it was kind of obscuring the message. Makes sense now.

    • Benjamin

      Yes, the artist credited Taibibi as her inspiration.

  • There is also a long history of using the octopus as a symbol of the international communist conspiracy. I have seen a lot more such cartoons than one’s depicting capitalism as an octopus. But, of course there is the Frank Norris book, The Octopus, which would fall more on the anti-capitalist side of the metaphor.

  • microtherion

    Better “Fight the Vampire Squid” than “Death to the Fascist Insect”, I suppose.

  • LeeEsq

    Anti-Semites of the Protocols of the Elder of Zion variety loved using the Octopus in their political cartoons. I think I’ve seen at least one cartoon that depicted Alfred Dreyfus as an octopus.

  • soullite

    just like Panda’s dangerous, but cute because of their big round circles around the eyes, Squids and Octopi are scary despite being mostly harmless because their number of limbs makes them seem totally alien to land-dwelling lifeforms.

    This is also the reason why trees often seem creepy when they are barren of leaves. Too many god-damned arms.

    • Hanspeter

      And don’t even get started on trees infested by the Pacific Tree Octopus…

  • soullite

    And Melville, really? I mean, it makes a certain amount of sense, but there actually was an American writer far more closely associated with squid imagery…

    • skidmarx

      Like this?

  • c u n d gulag

    And I think we can have a cartoon of a politician labeled “Republican,” standing at the podium giving a speech in front of TV camera’s, and behind him/her, there’s a giant octopus, labeled “Koch Brothers,” stuffing the politicians pockets with money with 4 hands, while the other 4 hands are busy stuffing cash into the TV camerapersons’s pockets.
    And below, it would say, “Vote Democratic! Or else, this Kochtopus will be strong-arming Republicans into office near you.”

    Though I wouldn’t be suprised if I found out that our Conservative friends have been using George Soros as an octopus metaphor for years.

  • cpinva

    debauchery and disease

    sounds like the name of a DC lobbying firm.

    the image i use in my work (i audit very large corporations) is a spider web: the holding company at the center, with it’s 100’s (and possibly 1,000’s) of operating subsidiaries (foreign & domestic) spreading out around it.

    these are publicly held entities, and i can almost guarantee that no one person, shareholder/director/officer/etc. has a clue what’s going on in the entire activity at any given time.

    bear in mind, spiders don’t immediately consume you, like and octopus or squid would, putting you quickly out of your miser, they wrap you up in webbing, saving you for a snack later.

    if that isn’t a metaphor for the banking industry, i don’t know what is.

  • UserGoogol

    Don’t forget George Orwell’s favorite horrible mixed metaphor: “The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song.” I think Orwell’s kind of over-prescriptivist in Politics and the English Language, but I love a good bad mixed metaphor as much as the next guy.

  • balt

    Clearly you are unfamiliar with the Shark vs. Octopus video, or you would never question the use of the octopus as a ruthless, cunning predator. http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/player/animals/invertebrates-animals/octopus-and-squid/octopus_giant_kills_shark.html

  • Also, in written & speechified discourse: Pharoah.

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  • Adam Eli Clem

    Vulgar Army was/is a good site, but it followed a path broken at tonmo.com, in a thread begun in 2003, titled “Octopus & Propaganda,” analyzing many of the same images.


    As they say, first in the field.

    Adam Eli Clem
    The guy who started it

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