Nov 18, 2010

An Intellectual History of Cannibalism

An Intellectual History of Cannibalism, a book by the Romanian researcher Cătălin Avramescu has been recently translated into English.

Quoted from Open Democracy:
Catalin Avramescu examines the place of cannibalism in European intellectual discourse. The practice as understood today cannot be divorced from a deep substrata of history and myth extending back to the first Crusades. Avramescu's tracing of the cannibal in European philosophical treatises from antiquity to the Enlightenment (but focusing more heavily on the latter period) shows how the character of the cannibal was used to elucidate disputes about everything from vegetarianism (if we allow ourselves to eat animals, then why not men?) to private property and political organization. The cannibal is a character in philosophical hypotheticals: his actual existence is not a subject of investigation. Avramescu seeks to show how, for centuries, the cannibal patrolled the line between the civilized and the uncivilized, serving as "an image of the subversion of the moral order."

The whole article here: Europe and its Cannibals


An interview with Cătălin Avramescu in Cabinet Magazine is worth a while as well.

Here's an excerpt:
Early modern authors were aware of the slipperiness of the concept of cannibalism and they played it to great effect. The consuming of the body of Christ in the ritual of the Christian communion or the medical use of the extract of mummies were, for instance, reconstructed as acts of cannibalism by radical writers and reformers. Some utilized symbolic associations such as that between bloodletting and money lending. On the other hand, there was, indeed, some acceptance of what I should call, perhaps, “minor cannibalism.” For instance: a man drowns in a river, is eaten by fish, and then another man eats the fish. What made the difference? Two elements. One is essential in casuistry: intention. The minor cannibals, such as the sick men flocking around the scaffold, do not themselves wish to harm the source of the matter they ingest. This contrasts with the perverted will of the “major” cannibal. The other element is the drama of dismemberment, which is a procedure that carries numerous associations in Western culture.

One thing that is very striking in early authors such as Hans Staden—whose book featured perhaps the most famous sixteenth-century woodcuts of cannibalistic feasts—is the easy elision of a cluster of things that Europeans consider uncivilized in the extreme, usually cannibalism, communal property, and incest. Why do they see these as a sort of package?

For two reasons. First is the influence of classical sources. To some extent, modern travel literature follows the conventions of the authors of classical antiquity such as, for instance, Herodotus, who describes the androphagoi as savages, nomads, cannibals, and as acknowledging no law. The second reason is theoretical. Natural man is, by definition, outside the bounds of the state. This means that whenever philosophers have imagined such a being, they arrived at this concept by eliminating the features that defined the experience of the citizen: property, law, domestic order.

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