Stephanie Cussans Moran

Transtechnology Research,
Room B312 Portland Square,
University of Plymouth,
Drake Circus,
Plymouth,
PL4 8AA.

Octopus Optics: a Cross-Disciplinary Investigation of Human Visual Bias in Narrative with Corresponding Writing Experiments using Animal Focalisation 

What is it like to be a human? If an octopus wrote an anthropology based on human depictions of octopuses then how might that reconfigure this existential question?

Stephanie’s PhD thesis addresses the posthuman problem of visual bias in animal storytelling practices by experimentally adopting the perspective of another highly visual animal – the octopus – through fiction.

It seeks to question, find the edges, and feel the limitations of human representations of other animals and asks what doing so might say about our own naturalcultural perceptions and interpretations. In attending particularly to opticality in Anglophone storytelling, the thesis investigates ways in which representations of nonhuman animals and their Umwelten, or perceptual worlds, may be hindered by anthropocentric and anthropomorphic perceptual biases that misapprehend different ways of seeing. The thesis proceeds from the position that the eye is not separate from the rest of the perceptual apparatus, but that interconnected sensory perceptions are frequently filtered through vision in fictional texts. It argues that this visual bias in animal storytelling, based on misrecognitions and cultural misunderstandings, leads to a failure to recognise other animals’ agency. 

Drawing on posthuman thought across the fields of media and literary theory and philosophy of science, and approaches from ecological psychology and cognitive narratology, this thesis assembles and synthesises a cross-disciplinary approach to analysing animal storytelling. Storytelling is understood here as the narrative form through which knowledge is transmitted and contextualised in academic disciplines and cultural artefacts; including narratives in anthropology, natural history, philosophy and science; or mediated through fiction, films, artworks and AI. 

Analysing fiction about other animals and zoological literature on octopus visual cognition, from the alien perspective of a differently visual animal, makes it possible to suggest that the empathic, mimetic western human optic is based in a visuality evolved for a predatory and acquisitive ground-dwelling lifestyle, through which it interprets and mediates nonhuman animals. By reconceptualising visuality from this ecological perspective, this thesis aims to disclose misrecognitions, representational blind spots and cultural misunderstandings in animal storytelling in order that we might tell stories, in the broadest sense, that better recognise the agency of other animals. 

The thesis draws from zoological, artistic and literary thought, and takes inspiration from seventeenth century poet, philosopher and scientist Margaret Cavendish, to make the argument that anthropocentric and anthropomorphic visual metaphors and focalisation of other animals tend to represent ways they inhabit and move through human Umwelten, from a human perspective, thereby reducing narrative affordances for expressing agency in relation to differently constructed Umwelten. In doing this, it hopes to contribute to the ethical and political aims of the posthuman project of flattening species hierarchies by recognising and attempting to mitigate human bias. In taking the set of perspectives and positions it does, partly through the author’s writing experiments which utilise animal focalisation, it also intends to affect a sense of respect for other animals’ differing but equally important affordances, purposes and ways of life within the environments we share. 

Keywords: Cognitive narratology, ecological psychology, nonhuman animals, posthumanism, opticality, visual perception, nonhuman agency, octopus, science fiction 

Bio

Stephanie completed her 3D3-funded PhD at Transtechnology Research in 2023. She is an artist and information professional, with a background as a Librarian in academic, specialist and public libraries and archives. She is Partner at Etic Lab LLP digital research and design consultancy, based in mid-Wales, a Board Member of the Innovation Advisory Council for Wales (IACW) and Art Editor at The Ecological Citizen, a peer-reviewed ecological open access journal.

Her artistic practice as a painter (in both oils and pixels) and producer of offbeat, cross-disciplinary projects, including over a decade’s experience of art organisation leadership, has informed both her PhD method and her work with Etic Lab. Etic Lab is a partnership of scientists and artists who together conduct research, build applications and execute projects, aiming to use radical new ideas to create meaningful results and solve complex problems in socially useful ways.

Stephanie holds a Postgraduate Diploma from Cyprus College of Art and an MFA in Fine Art from Goldsmiths College, London. Tweeting at @SJ_MoranUK

Recent Publications, Conferences and Project Work

Research Fellowship:

AHRC-Smithsonian IPS Fellowship, ‘Using multimedia and AI to investigate nonhuman perspectives in ecosystem conservation and natural history collections’. Collections-based research with the freshwater mussel collection in the Invertebrate Zoology department at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC, Jan-April 2022. Funded by the AHRC and sponsored by the US Government. 

Publications:

‘Alien Perspective, a Speculative Weightless Sketch’, Transtechnology Research Reader 2019-21. January 2022.

‘Crow Black’, catalogue essay, Darkness at Noon, curated by Ruth Calland at APT Gallery, London, November 2021.

‘Rethinking communication with other life forms’, The Marine Biologist magazine (Marine Biological Association UK),  July 2021. With Maggie Roberts.

Exploring the Pluriverse: Fictioning, Science and Interspecies Communication’, Ecocene Journal, July 2021. With Maggie Roberts.

Eco-Sci-Fi Art and Interspecies Technology‘, Vector no. 292, Special issue on Speculative Art (Journal of the British Sci-fi Association), pp.8-11. Fall 2020.

Digital Technologies in the Access to Justice Sector: a Strategic Overview (Contributor), Etic Lab Press, April 2020.

‘Visual Democratisation: AR and the Underpass Festival’, co-authored with Christian Tilt and Alexander Hogan. Proceedings of EVA London 2019.

‘Narrating Collective Empathy Online’, Transtechnology Research Reader 2019, pp.110-127.

Interview with artist Annabelle Craven Jones, Alembic exhibition catalogue, Res. Gallery, London

Reviews:

Zootechnologies: A Media History of Swarm Research by Sebastian Vehlken‘. Leonardo Reviews online, May 2020.

Extraterrestrial Languages by Daniel Oberhaus‘. Leonardo Reviews online, March 2020.

High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica and Visionary Experience in the Seventies by Erik Davis’. Leonardo Reviews, September 2019.

Conferences and Talks:

Rethinking Communication with Other Life Forms‘, The Marine Biologist Deep Dive, The Marine Biological Association UK, Plymouth. Youtube interview with Dr Kevin Hogan (Etic Lab) and Guy J. Baker, Editor The Marine Biologist magazine. November 2021.

‘Strange Relations: Exploring Interspecies Communication through AI and the Arts’, FIBER Festival, Netherlands. With Maggie Roberts. November 2021.

‘Animal Consciousness’, SoundArt Radio, Totnes UK. With Sarah Scaife. August 2021

‘Communicating Between Two Alien Intelligences Through Art’, Art Machines 2, Hong Kong. With Maggie Roberts. July 2021

‘Octopus Consciousness: a conversational provocation’, Posthuman Voice Symposium, University of Exeter, UK. With Sarah Scaife and Lucinda Guy. July 2021

‘ISCRI – An AI coded by an Octopus’, SWW DTP Research Festival: Futures, South West and Wales. June 2021.

‘Scoping your Collaborative Digital Project’, SWW DTP Research Festival: Futures. With Etic Lab and George Simms. June 2021.

‘Nonhuman diegetic worlds: the visual perception of animals as described in Richard H. Horne’s The Poor Artist, or Seven Eye-sights and One Object: Science in Fable (1850)’, Transtechnology Research Seminar, Plymouth, UK. March 2020.

‘Eco-Sci-Fi’, Stuart Hall Research Network, Iniva, London. With art collective Keiken. February 2020.

‘Eco-SF’, presentation and workshop on worldbuilding and ecological storytelling, SPUR virtual residency programme, Nottingham, UK. November 2020.

KRAKEN?: AI, Octopuses and Alien Intelligence, lecture for Goldsmiths Visual Cultures public programme, London UK. With Etic Lab and collective artist 0rphanDrift. October 2019.

‘Alien Holobiontology’, Digital Ecologies II: Fiction Machines, Bath Spa University, Bath UK. July 2019

‘Visual Democratisation: AR and the Underpass Festival’, EVA London. July 2019.

‘Mantic Staining: the Divinatory Paintings of Ithell Colquhoun’, Re-writing the Future: 100 Years of Esoteric Modernism, Merano, Italy. With Anna Sebastian. May 2019.

‘Ecological Science Fictioning’, Environmental Arts Practice Research Conference, University of Plymouth, UK. April 2019.

‘Future Ghosts and Biosemiotic Chronotopes’, Haunted Geologies Symposium, University of Plymouth. March 2019.

‘Alien Physics’, Transtechnology Research seminar. February 2019.

‘Coding the Digital Occult’, Occulture Berlin. November 2018.

Blog posts and papers for Etic Lab include Anti-Muslim Propoganda in the US: a Study of Online Narratives and Communities, write-up of research by Kevin Hogan; Nascent: a New Contemporary Art Platform August 2019; The Guru Code: Algorithmic Reality Production and Cultural Work (with Alexander Hogan) May 2019; Building an Interspecies Twitter Bot (or, What Does a Cyborg Imagine it’s like to be a Bat?) September 2018.

Early PhD Project Work:

Interspecies Twitter bot, with Etic Lab  @alien_ontology

Skullcracker Suite Ballet, online hypertext sci-fi ballet with sonic drone score by sound engineer Chris Hind.