The Malta Independent 25 September 2022, Sunday
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My Octopus Teacher

Michael Briguglio Thursday, 9 June 2022, 07:25 Last update: about 5 months ago

For some reason or another, I never found the time to watch ‘My Octopus Teacher’, the award-winning documentary film released on Netflix in 2020. Only until University colleague and friend Mark-Anthony Falzon told me that this is a must-see during one of our recent chats in the corridor at the Faculty of Arts. “This will really tickle your fancy in environmental sociology”, Mark told me.

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I obliged, watched it, and was left dumbstruck. ‘My Octopus Teacher’ is about a relationship formed between a filmmaker, Craig Foster, and a wild octopus in the South African sea. Foster followed the Octopus for almost a year, and a bond was formed between them. He learns about her world, from eating to sleeping, and from playing to healing. She also devises a crafty approach to escape from shark predators. The Octopus eventually dies as per the natural reproductive process, and the natural cycle continues in the indifferent kelp forest.

Seen at face-value, this film is magical, with footage which has to be seen to be believed. If one digs deeper, however, it may offer lessons about human-nature relationships, particularly in times of environmental crises such as climate change. 

Whilst reflecting on the film, a question which consistently comes to mind concerns where the social starts and ends in its relationship to nature, a question which challenges various social and natural scientists, and which also characterizes various controversies of our times.

For some, environmental issues – such as the protection of marine life – are ultimately social constructions, meaning that they are very much related to how humans perceive them. In this regard, some social groups and discourses are more influential than others in the cultural battlefield of meaning. For example, animals considered to be ‘cute’ or ‘curious’ make better environmental campaigns, or Netflix documentaries, for the matter.

Along similar lines, nature is seen as ‘plastic’, namely something which can be moulded in line with human needs and wants. As the narrative goes, we are ‘social’ beings, and we can create and recreate ourselves in a society in flux. In the meantime, rhetoric on the importance of the ‘environment’ may be pushed aside when financial concerns appear.

For others, though, environmental issues cannot be separated from the natural ‘reality’ that sustains them. Here, the logic is based on the standpoint that nature has capacities, limitations and powers which may go beyond what we, as humans, perceive through our social constructions. One may wish to live for ever, but ultimately one will die, and one may deny Covid-19, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. At the same time, humans have both commonalities and differences with other species.

The realist approach adds that as humans intervene in nature, often with the intention of improving living conditions, they are changing it and themselves in the process, at various directions, and sometimes consequences may be unpredictable or unintended. For example, various scientific research shows how marine life is being affected by climate change, overfishing and other factors.

A question which keeps environmental sociologists awake is where we can draw a line between the social and the natural, and if we actually can at all. Traditionally, social and natural sciences have been separated into strict specializations. But we are increasingly aware of the limitations of such an approach. For example, healthcare has medical aspects as well as social ramifications. Similarly, planning is not just a matter of architectural design, but also of social and other impacts.

Along similar lines, ‘My Octopus Teacher’ raises questions about human engagement with nature, about whether humans are really as independent from nature as we sometimes portray ourselves to be. Was the Octopus really doing what the documentary was suggesting, or was this merely a human interpretation? And if the Octopus does have such intelligence, what does this tell us about human identity?

Perhaps we should move towards interpretations that neither privilege human culture, nor simply consider ourselves to be determined by biology. These two factors may be interacting, co-constructing and influencing each other.

Transposed to some issues which frequently make the news headlines, one may be encouraged to reflect on the social and natural dimensions of issues such as gender, mental health, medicine and development. For example, though gender is a social construct, this shouldn’t mean that we throw biological knowledge out of the window. Hence, the need to deliberate broadly and to learn from each other’s knowledge traditions. The Octopus is a great teacher in this regard.

 

Dr Michael Briguglio is a sociologist and senior lecturer at the University of Malta

www.michaelbriguglio.com

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