The Case of the Mimic Octopus: Agency & Biomimicry

Mimicry involves a relational history between a creative, alive body, its perceptual abilities, and the environment it finds itself in. To claim the lived experience of space and wear and perform it over time is mimicry. One can show and act space by changing shape, colour, movement, and behaviour as wondrous examples of octopus mimicry will demonstrate. Space is relational to place and to potencies known and unknown by human beings, from gravity to the texture of substrates to other more-than-human beings nearby with their unique sensory capacities.
The diverse ways in which we recognize and represent animals often says more about us than them, and ideas about animal mimicry are a wonderful example of this phenomenon. Biologists argue that some animals have developed the ability to imitate other life forms (abiotic or biotic) as a selective advantage in survival, while Alphonsus Lingis (1983) thinks mimicry may be a kind of showiness in nature, exceeding even the need for camouflage, an ostentatious spectacle as subjects enjoy themselves—a form of visual delight. Conversely, according to Elizabeth Grosz (1995), Roger Caillois’ earlier work associated mimicry with a form of psychosis, whereby the animal could not locate itself in space. To be a mimic was to be psychotic.

Instead, this paper will argue that to be able to mimic, a being has to live-in-place intimately over time, actively changing its body to live well and safely in said places, and over time/space wild transformational alterations may result. This paper contends that to mimic is to extend one’s self out into ever changing environments; to become an ecology of relations. Consequently, to mimic is to have agency in relation to others. The fascinating world of octopuses and their forms of mimicry will be studied as confirmation that mimicry is a very wavy disturbance to individualistic, a-relational notions of self, and to the animal body as a mere sack for carrying genes. From the waters of marine mimicry, hints and implications will be drawn for approaches to biomimicry in art, media and technology.

Leesa was trained as a marine biologist, discovered herself as a feminist and has been working in environmental studies for the past two decades. She is Associate Dean, Associate Professor, and Coordinator of the Graduate Diploma in Environmental and Sustainability Education in the Faculty of Environmental Studies, at York University, Toronto, Ontario. Her areas of research and teaching focus on critical animal studies, environmental education and philosophy, natural history, sustainable agriculture, and human ecology. Her work examines who gets to count as a subject in worldly relations and how questioning inter-subjectivity can rework the material relations of production and environmental and social justice. Her preceding SSHRC funded research explored the phenomena of animal culture, consciousness and communication in whales and bats. Currently, she is working on human-animal relationships and conflicts in urban settings, using a mix of biosemiotics and political ecology.

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