Dana Schutz, Eye Eater, 2004. Oil on canvas, 60" x 72". Courtesy of Zach Feuer Gallery, New York.
  • Cătălin Avramescu. An Intellectual History of Cannibalism. Translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth. Princeton University Press. April 2009.

In July 2008, while traveling on a Greyhound bus between Edmonton and Winnipeg, Vincent Li beheaded his sleeping seatmate, a man he had never met, with a butcher knife. Li held up the head in crazed triumph as the bus screeched to a halt and the other passengers rushed out. He then began to pace back and forth along the aisle, witnesses report, tearing off the ears, gouging out the eyes, pulling out the tongue, and eating them.

This event, as well as Li’s recently concluded trial—not guilty by reason of insanity—might serve as an opportunity to take measure of the present state of cannibalism studies, mostly a minor academic industry, though one not without its star performances and its polarizing debates. For a long time, the field was dominated by a curious variety of négationnisme, most famously spelled out by William Arens in his 1980 book The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. According to Arens, cannibalism is nothing more than a projection of fear-induced fantasies upon unknown others, and in the past 500 years this projection has served as part of the ideological soundtrack to the European conquest of the rest of the world. As the incident on the Greyhound reminds us, however, sometimes people really do eat people.

The title of the original Romanian version of Cătălin Avramescu’s giddy book, Filozoful crud, translates as both “the cruel philosopher” and “the raw philosopher.” “Crude” in the sense of “uncooked” (think of “crudités”) and “cruel” share the same etymology, and in at least one Romance language—the easternmost and most obscure, yet in some sense also the purest, because the closest to Latin—these two meanings remain packed into one and the same word. In what sense, now, could a philosopher be both “cruel” and “raw”? Does Avramescu want to say that philosophers have somehow been both the perpetrators and the victims of anthropophagy?

When Columbus encountered the Arawak tribe of Hispaniola, they reported to him on the vicious, man-eating Caribs of the neighboring islands, whose name would later become our “cannibal.” Did the Caribs in fact eat the Arawaks? Is it naïve to wish to know? Part of what an intellectual history involves, Avramescu thinks, is a disregard for the question as to who, precisely, was eating whom, and when. His book is “in no way a history of cannibalistic practices.” Of course, he adds, “the instances of verifiable anthropology have sometimes left their traces in the ideal productions of the philosophers. However, whether cannibals existed or not is in fact of marginal importance.” Avramescu’s cannibal “is in the first place a scholarly creature, a personage who animates theoretical texts, and only to a lesser extent, if at all, is he a subject for the anthropology of the aberrant.”

Avramescu wants to know why the history of thinking-with-cannibals is coextensive, more or less, with early modern history, the period from the age of discovery to the age of enlightenment. Why did the historical life of the cannibal seem to come into existence at a certain moment, and die out at another? The question of origins is easier to answer: it was the encounter between Columbus and the Arawak and others like it that exploded in frequency towards the end of the 15th century. The reasons for this history’s end present a larger intellectual challenge, but Avramescu believes he knows why, by sometime in the early 19th century, the cannibal is no longer capable of “constituting any starting point for the articulation of a moral philosophy.”

I have mentioned that Avramescu hints cryptically in his original title that philosophers are somehow implicated, as actors rather than just as thinkers, in the history of cannibalism. This hint is repeated early on (page 2), in a delightful ad hominem directed at academic philosophers: “Having ended up as functionaries who know very well where their next meal is coming from, the philosophers of our times teach us one or another version of utilitarianism, moral relativism, or juridical positivism.” Avramescu follows up this mild rebuke with an admittedly endearing compliment—for himself, that is. “Sensitive to the pleasures of the no longer topical,” he tells us, “I have elected to present the reader with a study about a period of the past during which the eater of human flesh made his atrocious hegemony felt with the bounds of the science of natural law.”

What could this mean? Throughout the rest of the book, Avramescu charts what he sees as Western civilization’s broad shift from natural-law theory to juridical positivism through the lens of ideas about cannibalism. His thesis is that the cannibal ceases to play an important conceptual role in thinking about human nature, morality, and social order at precisely the moment that natural law begins to decline in importance and positivism moves in to replace it.

Natural-law theory, defended by Thomas Aquinas, Hugo Grotius, Samuel von Pufendorf, John Locke, and others, holds that nature itself dictates human law, its dictation is everywhere the same, and the good legal system is the one that takes this dictation faithfully. (Today, we may note by way of illustration, the few remaining defenders of natural law are generally opposed to gay marriage, on the grounds that, before the laws prohibiting it were written down in books, they were already written into human anatomy.) Legal positivism, in contrast, is the view roughly speaking that law is not or should not be based in morality. This latter view is at least closely allied, if not overlapping with utilitarianism and relativism, and all three seem to involve a recognition of the impossibility of valid universal claims about how society in general should be organized.

Curiously, however, the eclipse of natural law by positivism leads to a universalism of another sort, as cultural differences that could once be assessed through the judgmental lens of civilization vs. savagery are now assessed as “each valid in its own way,” and accordingly the only thing to bemoan about the natives is not that they are morally backward but only that, poor things, they are living in squalor. Avramescu explains: “the anthropophagus disappears in favor of the impoverished wretch, a figure who is discovered in all types of society and may thus become the subject of a universal science of inequality and want. In order for this to occur, the question of aberrant diet will appear as a social problem and not as a key to decipher human nature.”

With enough irony mixed in to make its nostalgia bearable, even admirable, Avramescu’s book weighs heavy with longing for a return to the age of cannibals. In this at least its author resembles Tobias Schneebaum, the “retired gay anthropologist” (in the words of an oft-cited blurb) and subject of the 2000 film Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale. In the film, an elderly Schneebaum makes a trip back to the Amazon to track down the surviving members of the tribe with which he had lived several decades earlier, and with whom he had, so he claimed, eaten human flesh. When he finally finds his old friends and shows them photographs of their younger selves taken during his previous stay with them, one of them proclaims (to paraphrase): “Oh yes, that was back before we wore clothes.” The anthropophagy and the nakedness went out together, in other words. What covered up their nakedness was not, of course, just any kind of clothes, but defective sweatpants that never made it from the sweatshops to the first world, t-shirts celebrating Selena, My Little Pony, the team that lost the 1994 Superbowl.

This simultaneity, the retreat of cannibalism and the advent of clothing, might lead one to believe that it was Euro-American global hegemony rather than juridical positivism that put a stop to our preoccupation with man-eating savages. Avramescu believes that the idea of cannibalism ceased to have much significance for moral discourse when we lost the absolute moral order that enabled us to distinguish between true civility and true barbarity. What this order was replaced with was one in which all human beings participate in the same progressive historical narrative, and the most fearsome others left are the filthy mendicants and the drunken Indians.

Here, interestingly, is where conservative critique starts to look a good deal like postcolonialism with a twist. For the gradual decline of talk of cannibals also appears to occur simultaneously with the Western powers’ gradual gain of control over the dark zones of the globe that once fed their wild fantasies. The decline of the cannibal as a meaningful figure might not, or not only, signal the decline of the old moral universe; it might signal that the natives are no longer restless, and they are no longer restless because they are now subdued by the overwhelming force of the colonial powers, by urbanization, ghettoization, alcohol, and corn syrup. One sign of their subdued state is the dirty pink sweatpants they are wearing; another is the traveler’s confidence that he will not be eaten.

The moment of the decline of natural law, and of the rise of Western global hegemony, seems also to be roughly the moment we started saying, of every new moral atrocity announced in the news, “Why, in this day and age? Who would have thought it possible?!” There is of course absolutely no evidence that moral atrocities are less frequent in our age than in ages past. What is distinctive about our age is the sense that they belong to ages past, and that when they happen today they are like some prehistoric coelacanth popping up in an industrial fishing net.

The problem during the early modern period is that indigenous European cannibalism presents a sort of conceptual impossibility, not because no European would do such a thing, but because, if it is a European doing it, it is ipso facto not cannibalism. By “European,” of course, one should not understand any ethnos that happens to find itself west of the Urals. Tales of vampirism generally involve mysterious Balkan folk, “others” of a different sort than the savages of the West Indies, yet others who in many ways provide a Medieval template for the conceptualization of the new kinds of others introduced in the age of discovery.

It is the mundane medical cases, conceptualized by the actors as something quite different from the barbarity of distant islands or the dark secrets of Transylvanian fortresses, that are often most alarming. In Protestant areas of Germany, Avramescu reports, “the blood of those beheaded on the scaffold was sold, and sometimes drunk at the scene by epileptics and other unfortunates.” This custom was attested in Marburg as late as 1865. One might indeed ask whether exoticist travel literature ever really told Europeans anything new about the range of human behavior, or whether what in fact differs from culture to culture are only the descriptions with which the underlying, and basically unchanging, things that human beings do are ornamented. Here then we might see a way to save natural law from the cannibal problem: we all already are cannibals, and this is perfectly natural.

We may not all drink the blood of the condemned, yet as Robert Boyle observes in a vivid passage cited by Avramescu, we should not “count [the cannibals] so barbarous merely upon the score of feeding on man’s flesh and bloud,” since “a woman’s milk, by which we feed our sucking Children, is, according to the received Opinion, but blanched Bloud.” Boyle goes on to tell of men who, in order “to prevent the Scurvy and the Gout, drink their own or Boy’s Urine,” and he relates that “under the name of ‘album graecum'” dog feces are “commonly given to Patients of all sorts and qualities against sore Throats,” while in Holland it is usual “to mingle Sheep’s dung with their cheeses, only to give them a colour and a relish.” Boyle just can’t let it drop: “We devour Oysters whole,” he moans, “guts, excrements, and all; nay, when not for Physick, but only for Delicacies, and our Courtiers and Ladies are themselves wont to make sawce for the bodies of Lobsters of that green stuff, which is indeed their Dung.” Disgusting, certainly, but isn’t anthropophagy a problem of an altogether different order? Or might it be that Avramescu is onto something in picking up Boyle’s treatment of kreophagy and anthropophagy, of carnivorism and cannibalism, as variations upon the same basic problem?

Consider this curious feature of the way we eat animals: unless you are a preening showman like Anthony Bourdain, you are always already a vegetarian of sorts relative to the vast majority of meats. You can’t eat dog or rat or parakeet, even though these are perfectly reliable sources of calories. Arguments about the relative toughness or stringiness of their flesh do not get to the heart of the matter. You can’t eat them because to do so would be to break the rules of the game. There are no such rules for the consumption of vegetable matter: whatever nourishes will do.

This distinction reveals something significant about meat eating: it is what you might call a charged domain of human activity, like sex and violence, and it is so no matter what kind of moral arguments you might offer up for or against culling deer herds, free range farming, and so on. Meat eating, like sex and violence, is regulated by religions, while for the most part plant-eating is not. Who can have sex with whom, or who can kill whom, or who can eat what meat when, are practically what religion is about. (The stuff about God is a later development, of interest to only a few.)

Why meat-eating should be seen as charged in this way, prior to any moral-philosophical considerations, is worth some reflection. It seems that at least from Porphyry on, the metaphysics and natural philosophy of nutrition required some sort of transformation in order to count as nutrition at all. That is, nutrition must involve at a minimum the transformation of matter that is non-identical with the matter of my corporeal substance into identical matter. Each creature then has a suitable range of non-identical food sources that it is able to convert into its own substance, but nature herself limits the range of possible conversions. Cannibalism would involve no conversion at all, and thus beyond its moral repulsiveness it is also naturally inefficacious as a source of nutrition. Thus the 2nd-century Chrisian apologist Athenagoras of Athens maintains that anthropopophagi, no matter how many human beings they eat, will gain no weight. “On the contrary, as soon as such meat, for which there is such a great antipathy, enters the space of the stomach, nature revolts and immediately eliminates it.” “Nausea,” Avramescu comments, “thus has an eschatological virtue.”

Human flesh is identical in kind to the flesh of the cannibal, but must remain perpetually other in number. In one way or another, food must be sufficiently different from its consumer in order to be a suitable candidate for sameness. (The same logic holds for rules prohibiting incest, a parallel to which we will return shortly.) On this scheme, it might seem that vegetarianism is inherently superior to carnivorism, since it involves the incorporation—note the etymology of this last word—of matter that is, at least in the organic world, as other as things get. Certainly, many early modern philosophers believed, as had Pythagoras, Plato, and a number of other ancient philosophers, that meat should be avoided, and that slaughtering animals is, if not “inhumane” at least obscene. The Enlightenment was not so restrained. As Avramescu notes, some eighteenth century philosophers argued that “a meatless diet was unhealthy, a ‘mortification’ proposed by their adversaries, the religious fanatics.”

Along this line of reasoning, we might imagine an Enlightenment thinker proposing in the dietary realm what Sade had in the sexual, that, namely, tout est permis. And just as Sade approved not just wanton sodomy but also incest, breaking down the very last stronghold of an already greatly weakened natural law, so we might imagine an Enlightenment argument in favor of eating our fellow men, on the grounds that nature prescribes no diet, and it is nothing but pointless mortification to subdue our appetites.

That these two appetites, for the flesh of humans and for the flesh of family, are linked in the Western imagination, is clear from as early as the first detailed report on cannibalism in the new world, Hans Staden’s 16th-century report on the Tupinamba people of Brazil. “No one has anything,” Staden writes, “but all things are held in common. And the men have as wives those who please them, be they mothers , sisters, or friends, therein make they no distinction … They also eat each other even those who are slain, and hang the flesh of them in the smoke.”

Most of us today, even those of us most keen on breaking down taboos, do not spend much of our time sodomizing our siblings or eating our deceased grandmothers. Could it be that natural law is not as thoroughly dead as Avramescu has made it out to be? Very speculatively, one might suggest that cannibalism and incest function somewhat like negative regulative ideas in the Kantian sense. They are unthinkable, yet the unthinkable thought of doing them anyway, of doing those deeds we can’t really picture even as we spend our lives in fear of picturing them, seems to give shape and meaning to all those things we can do. Meat would not make a feast if the pig it came from were not, in a sense, on its way towards being human; traditionally, a bride would not be accepted by the family she marries into unless she were similar enough to them to pass as a blood relative. In both cases, similarity provides a meaning-endowing semblance of identity.

Some years after Columbus met the Arawak, a new set of explorers began expanding the limits of Europe’s power by taking the territory of those notorious anthropophagi, the Mesoamerican people widely referred to as “Aztecs.” Just as their own God was losing prestige, some anthropologists and historians have argued, Europeans were themselves gaining prestige abroad as gods. Arens, who denies that the Mesoamericans, or anyone else for that matter, practiced anthropophagy as a part of their culture, also argues that the Aztecs were no dupes, and understood full well that Cortés was no god. Cortés and his men could not have been mistaken for gods by the Aztecs, since, Arens writes, “their human qualities were apparent enough from the first moment of contact with an Aztec provincial official, from whom Cortés demanded in all candor ‘some gold’ to show his good intentions.”

Two paragraphs later Arens tells us that it was the foreigners’ “interest in precious metal which made the most vivid impression on the natives.” He cites an anonymous native informant who describes the way the Spanish behave in the presence of gold: “Like monkeys they seized upon the gold. It was as if they were satisfied, sated, and gladdened. For in truth they thirsted mightily for gold; they stuffed themselves with it, and starved and lusted for it like pigs. And they went about moving the golden streamer back and forth, and showed it to one another, all the while babbling; and what they said was gibberish.”

One might reasonably ask: Well, which is it? Was the Spanish lust for gold perfectly transparent to the Mesoamericans, or was it incomprehensible? Does greed make one’s humanity “apparent enough” or is it a distinctly European idiosyncrasy that the Mesoamericans could only interpret on analogy to the business of monkeys and pigs? To ask these questions is not to make a knitpicking demand for consistency, but rather to approach the heart of the themes that have been occupying us since the beginning of this review. What in a stranger’s actions is transparent and what, in contrast, opens that stranger up to the projection of fantasies of otherness? Greed and cruelty are, one might think, both universal and easy to recognize, even in complete strangers. But there is no a priori reason why a god should not be greedy and seek to get as much gold as he can, even if this stretches our usual understanding of the concept of God. There is similarly no reason why a person should have to be exceptionally cruel to participate in an anthropophagous feast. There is already something inherently cruel about the slaughter of animals, but this inherent cruelty does not and cannot allow an exceptional portion of cruelty to everyone who benefits from the slaughter.

So Cortés may have been met as a god by a nation of man-eaters, but this does not in itself make Cortés impressive, nor the Mesoamericans savage. What would make Cortés’s apotheosis impressive is if, for the Mesoamericans, by definition ‘gods are great.’ I do not know whether they in fact held this. What would in turn make an instance of Mesoamerican cannibalism exceptionally savage is if it were executed outside of the ordinary, rule-governed practice of human ritual sacrifice and consumption. But the Aztecs were not a multitude of Vincent Lis. They were a civilization.

The early modern fantasy of cannibal savages in the New World was of groups of people who lived by no law, as animals: hence the constant coupling of cannibalism and incest in the European imagination. There is, to be sure, something asocial, lawless, and ‘animal’ about a certain kind of cannibalism, namely, the kind that is deviant relative to the culture of the cannibal. This much is clear from the figure of the cannibal in another, very different Native American culture: the Cree of Canada and the Northern US. For them, the ultimate form of asociality is a condition diagnosed these days as “Windigo psychosis,” the apparent transformation of an individual into a mythological creature, whose primary distinguishing trait is that his lips have been eaten away and his teeth are left exposed in a skeletal smile. The Windigo is the sorry soul who has become so detached from the social world that he will eat anything—including himself.

One might suppose that with their figure of the cannibal, early modern European thinkers did not go far enough in imagining what life would be like for those who live under no law. If there were truly no law, we would all be gnawing our own lips off. Life would be far too nasty, poor, brutish, and short to afford the time to even think about appointing a sovereign. But the Europeans’ cannibal served his purpose, just as the much more fearsome one imagined by the Cree serves his: as a mirror that reflects society by showing it in the negative. Even if Avramescu’s affectionate revival of the figure of the cannibal is not a project of its time, his work reminds us nonetheless of the treasures to be found along the via negativa through the history of political philosophy.

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