In his fascinating essay ‘M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire’ (the link is to a PDF), the author and theorist ChinaMiéville wrote:
The spread of the tentacle – a limb-type with no Gothic or traditional precedents (in ‘Western’ aesthetics) – from a situation of near total absence in Euro-American teratoculture up to the nineteenth century, to one of being the default monstrous appendage of today, signals the epochal shift to a Weird culture.
Miéville charts the way that the cephalopodic suddenly erupts into late 19th-early 20th century “teratology” (monsterology), with conflicted foreshadowings and pre-disavowals (Verne, for example, and Victor Hugo) leading up to a story called ‘The Sea Raiders’ by H. G. Wells, in which previously unknown squidular monsters suddenly surface and go on an inexplicable rampage off the British coast, and on to the “haute Weird” of William Hope Hodgson and, especially, H. P. Lovecraft.
In this Weird tentacular, Miéville sees much significance. His argument, as I’ve gathered from the essay mentioned above (and from listening to various talks he’s given), is that the squidular, tentacular and cephalopodic, but especially the octopoidal, arises as a teratological metaphor to supply a need felt by those writers travelling through the crises of modernity at the turn of the 19th-20th century and after. In their formless and protean nature – many octopuses and squid have developed natural camouflage abilities, making them capable of astonishing feats of transformation – the octopoda seemed to be the shape to use in order to convey shapelessness. Moreover, the very “novum” or newness of the tentacular (in the West) as a symbol was attractive to those seeking to convey something that had not been conveyed before, that perhaps cannot be coherently conveyed at all.
The octopus – as I’ve mentioned on this blog and in Panic Moon, following my reading of Miéville – suddenly appears in and conquers the 20th century political propaganda poster (you can see an amazing array of such political octopus propaganda at this blog… to which I have contributed myself). I’ve suggested (rather obviously and, I’m sure, unoriginally) that the many arms of the octopus, radiating outwards from the central hub of the body, make it a perfect graphic figure for representing the putative multifarious global reach and manipulative ability of centralised power, whether that power is military, commercial, ideological, whatever. Exactly the kind of centralised but increasingly global power that was arising in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The octopus poster tends to show the creature reaching to many places at once. Miéville himself has spoken of the octopus as suggesting manipulation. He has noted how, in these propaganda representations, the octopus is used to signify just about everything from “perfidious Jews” and “perfidious Bolsheviks” to “capitalists”, “unrestrained railroad building” and “landlords”. In other words, it means everything… hence it means nothing. The octopus became immensely “symbolically fecund” in the early decades of the 20th century, but with no set cultural consensus about what it probably meant (unlike vampires and werewolves, say, which had – and still have – very well established, longstanding semiotic baggage). …