An Inter-Species Crowd: How to Talk to Animals and Space Aliens

by Leanne Ogasawara

First moments of Trinity. Timothy Morton mentioned in his book Hyperobjects that this photograph was banned at first because it was considered provocative.


Imagine finding out that intelligent life has been discovered on the far side of the galaxy. To learn that across the endless expanse of intergalactic space there exists a planet filled with new forms of life –and riches unimagined– if only we can find them. It won’t be as easy. Even in the 17th century people knew that flying to the moon in a chariot pulled by wild geese wouldn’t bring them face-to-face with aliens.

Maybe you’re thinking we could detonate all the nuclear bombs in the world on the dark side of the moon to get their attention? Well, that might work, but the aliens would have to be looking at just the right moment when the x-rays ripple past their telescopes. Astronomers have long been searching the radio waves of the universe for a message in a bottle. But so far, nothing has washed up.

Radio silence.

I became interested in Daniel Oberhaus’ book Extraterrestrial Languages after stumbling on a really exciting review in the London Review of Books. But it was not the history of SETI attempts to communicate with alien civilizations that excited me. What genuinely grabbed my attention was when the author made the obvious point that if we can’t even communicate with other species on our own planet, how are we supposed to communicate with aliens? Of course, we have been able to teach primates, Corvids, parrots and other birds, and certainly dolphins a lot of our human language — But how many words do we speak of Dolphinese or Chimpanzine? And what songs can we sing to in Whale-song?  [Note 1] Read more »

Do Octopuses Have Souls? (On the Nature of Animal Consciousness)

by Leanne Ogasawara

Anyone who has ever found themselves caught in a staring contest with an octopus –those soulful cat-eyes returning your gaze through the thick glass of an aquarium tank– can attest to the uncanny power these creatures exert over our human imagination.

They certainly look alien. With three hearts pumping blue, copper-infused blood, their tentacles (“each with a mind of its own”) are covered in suckers that can feel AND taste. Because their beaks are the only hard parts of their bodies, a large octopus can squeeze through a hole not much bigger than one of their eyeballs. They are like the Great Houdinis of the deep! Without a hard shell like other mollusks, octopuses have evolved clever ways for keeping a step ahead of predators: Not only can they change colors to camouflage themselves, blending into almost any watery environment, but they can also send out ink bombs. After lobbing one to confuse an enemy, an octopus can jet propel away from danger at surprising speeds in a funnel of water.

Is it any wonder that there have been people who believe they might have originated in space? From the Scandinavian myth of the Kraken and Jules Vernes’ 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, to Japanese sea monsters and the sexual predators found in erotic shunga prints, again and again–in so many cultures around the world– these creatures show up in stories and art as monsters and space aliens. And who could forget the fear instilled in the losing soccer teams by Paul the Clairvoyant World Cup Octopus? The Argentines got so angry at him that they threatened to kill him and cook him in a paella, if he kept foretelling their bad luck!

My own personal octopus “horror” is the not-as-rare-as–you-would-think sight of Japanese TV personalities (and a few of my friends) traveling in Korea and eating live octopuses–desperate tentacles clawing their way out of the people’s mouths! Read more »

Translating Descartes

by Leanne Ogasawara

1. The philosopher and the translator

It was probably the most interesting translation job I ever had. Hired directly by the philosopher himself, my task was to translate into English a series of talks and papers he would be delivering in the US and Europe in the coming year. Philosophy being what I studied as an undergraduate, I had high hopes for the job. But my Japanese philosopher quickly became frustrated with me.

Leanne-san, is it possible for you to forget Descartes while you translate my papers? He wrote superciliously in a style of Japanese designed to be condescending beyond belief.

Well, this took me by surprise! Was it possible that I was guilty of an unconscious Cartesianism? Surely, he must be joking; for had I not studied at the feet of the great Heidegger scholar, Hubert Dreyfus, who had made it his mission to demolish Descartes in front of our very eyes –before turning to Heidegger? In all my philosophy classes, in fact, Descartes (always referred to as “the father of modern philosophy”) came up again and again–mainly in the form of other philosophers’ reactions to some aspect of his work.

So much so, that sometimes I think my understanding of Descartes is itself a rejection of Descartes.

And so, I informed my philosopher that not only had I forgotten Descartes long ago, but that I had no plans to ever remember him again.

He was not convinced and pressed his point. Read more »