Cannibalism as a bourgeois institution

Many of our worst fears exist at the intersection between eating and death. Very young children are often terrified of being sucked down the bath plughole, or being gobbled up by the hoover. 

Clinical work has shown the prevalence of an unconscious fear of being eaten by one’s mother: if I came out of that body, I could end up going back in. This fear survives in adults who complain endlessly that no one wants them, but run a mile as soon as anyone expresses real desire; and particularly in the man for whom the ‘vagina dentata’ always hovers somewhere on the periphery of his thoughts. 

This terror-lust is given a peculiar inflection in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, where a ‘John’, while fucking a ‘hooker’, suddenly discovers that she is literally eating him with her cunt, so that he ends up being swallowed up whole, disappearing behind her labia into slick darkness. The mother-whore dichotomy, collapsed in one dread image. The countervailing image, of the powerful, omnivorous, psychopathic male, the Primordial Father imagined by Freud and depicted by Bret Easton Ellis among others, recently made a surprise appearance in George Osborne’s joke about chopping up Theresa May and storing her as meat in his freezer.

The trope of cannibalism in psychoanalysis, which appears in the concepts of introjection, and of sarcasm as oral aggression, is part of its coloniality. Culturally, the figure of the cannibal has been linked to early imperialist myths and misrepresentations. The first proto-ethnographers and proto-anthropologists were also conquerors, or their amanuenses. As William Arens argues, the very existence of anthropology as a discipline depends on the myths of anthropophagy. 

The earliest account of cannibalism came from Dr Diego Alvarez Chanca, a Spanish physician who accompanied Columbus on his expeditions, and who described having witnessed bones of men eaten by the Carib: in fact, he had not even been present at the scene he described. The existence of a few bones was sufficient to indicate cannibalism: the primal “cannibal scene”. Peter Martyr, historian of Spain and its New World discoveries, described Caribbean homes as sites were human flesh and limbs were hung up on the walls, suspended from the rafters, although he had never made it to the Caribbean.

The primal ‘cannibal scene’, which also appears in Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan tales, is not the actual consumption of human flesh, not the presence of actual cannibals, but the aftermath: the bones, the human skulls, and so on. Although there are, historically, examples of anthropophagy, they are far less numerous than the writings about cannibalism suggested, and far more likely to be linked to sacrifice, or warfare, than to any generalised suspension of the prohibition on eating fellow humans. 

This cannibal scene, invoking the cannibal as someone who munched human flesh purely for nourishment and satisfaction, with no regard to civilised standards, was a European projection. Montaigne intuited this: we, he said, are the cannibals. Such tales of Cyclopes and goblins, ghosts and witches and others who would consume humans, and especially children, had long been part of the moral imagination of Europeans. Their appearance in the colonial context was also linked to other projections. The myth, for example, that Hawaiians received Captain Cook as a great god from the sky had been developed in London, and was part of what Octave Mannoni characterised as a colonial “Prospero complex”, the fantasy of the European as a superior, omnipotent being.

In contemporary culture, there is a reversal of this trope. The figure of Hannibal Lecter, especially in the television drama series, is a sophisticated, white European. He ostentiously bears the markers of aristocratic civilization, taste and erudition, which Tarzan only unconsciously bears. His consumption of human flesh, without remorse or pity, is precisely what makes him such an interesting and sophisticated commodity. Yes, he consumes humans, but he does so with the discrimination and intellect appropriate to an era when social distinction derives, not from narrowness of consumption (snobbery), but from informed, edified omnivorousness. The projection of cannibalism returns in inverted form, not as the marker of barbarism, but precisely as proof of civilization.

Yet, what we know about imperialism and the slave trade, though they were justified by the ‘cannibal scene’, is that they also engendered literal instances of anthropophagy. The late Vincent Woodard, in his under-recognised classic, The Delectable Negro, performs the most original historical autopsy on these practices, their cultural and social meaning, the libidinal bonds they were linked to, and their persistence.

Unsurprisingly, testimonies of actual anthropophagy in the slave plantations, insofar as they originated from slaves, were not taken seriously. Perhaps the most famous example of this is what was done with the body of Nat Turner after he was executed. There is evidence that he was flayed, his skin made into souvenirs like purses, his flesh broiled and made into grease, his bones passed out to white residents of Southampton, Virginia and handed down as heirlooms. Many whites feared he would somehow rise from the grave, rebone himself, and start his rebellion anew. 

Black Southhampton residents claimed that there was an attempt to force them to eat the flesh and entrails, a claim that was dismissed as infantile superstition on the part of “older darkies”. Yet the countervailing claims of the white press, viz. that Turner had sold his own body for dissection and spent the money on ginger cakes, was ludicrous: Turner, as a slave, did not own his body to sell it.

In fact, the violence of white-supremacy, particularly that aimed at black men, often took a ‘cannibalistic’ form, as when those lynching Claude Neal in 1934, forced him, as part of a prolonged and horrific torture, to eat his own severed penis and testicles. This, Woodard argues, was a “reflection of white male oral fixations upon black male virility and black men as a sexual threat”, and indeed the habitual castrations perpetrated by lynch mobs, and the ideological spectre of black rapists, indicates just how eroticised this violence was.

And indeed, what could be more eroticised, more fixated on the delectable flesh, than to eat it? Or, to be more precise, cannibalism is where the erotic and aggressive are turbulently combined. For Woodard, the instances of actual and metaphorical human consumption in the slave plantation line up in a series within the overarching logic of what Frederick Douglass described as a cannibal entity, “glaring frightfully upon us – his robes already crimsoned with the blood of millions, and even now feasting greedily upon our own flesh”. There is sometimes, in the literature on ‘social death’, a tendency to conflate these registers, but Woodard is doing something else. 

Woodard’s argument is fundamentally that the libidinal relation structured by, and structuring, the plantation, was a form of homoeroticism. The white male’s desire for black flesh, repressed and experienced in displaced forms as a threatening fantasy, was perfectly compatible with punitive violence (and with intense homophobia). Punishments on the plantation were often displacements of eroticism. James Baldwin, describing an incident wherein he was sexually assaulted and groped by a powerful white man in Little Rock, Arkansas, the kind of man you would call to “get your brother off the prison farm … prevent your brother from being dug up, later, during some random archeological expedition”, writes:

“it is absolutely certain that white men, who invented the nigger’s big black prick, are still at the mercy of this nightmare, and are still, for the most part, doomed, in one way or another, to attempt to make this prick their own.”

If such fantasies lend themselves to a recognisable form of pornotroping and white erotic voyeurism, they also demonstrate something else. The “big black prick” invented by white men, desired by white men, might be perceived as a source of “virility”: of a more immediate, less ‘cultured’ relationship to life, but it is not figured in this fantasy as a source of generative power. The prick and the phallus are not the same thing. The prick may be an imaginary entity, a phantasm, but the phallus is a symbol, or more exactly a place in the symbolic order assumed to be inhabited by white, bourgeois men. Prospero is the phallus, to put it another way. Sheldon George’s analysis of the trauma of slavery, and its intergenerational repetitions, hinges on just this distinction.

For Woodard, the confusion of violence and eroticism, of cannibalism and sex, is one of the ways in which sexuality – and Woodard, as a gay black academic, was mainly interested in confronting modalities of gay desire – is constituted by, and inseparable from, racial formation. The mythical origins of racial inequality, in 19th century ideology, turned on the fabular ‘Curse of Ham’, wherein the son Ham, looking at his father Noah’s nakedness, and perhaps performing an act of incest on him while the latter is drunk, incurs the affliction of ‘black skin’. 

This projection has particularly pernicious permutations when it becomes the legitimating foundation of the cannibal institution of slavery, which extols patriarchy while destroying the authority of, or murdering, black fathers (as penal institutions do, in a different way, today); extols the phallus while denying it to slaves, or castrating them. It sets up a “homoerotic triad”, a “flesh eating dynamic” between “black father, son, and Western (white male) tradition”. This, though it excludes women from the circuit of desire, is a curiously Oedipal representation, inasmuch as the Oedipus myth is precisely where representations of cannibalism and incest are fused.

The possibility of cannibalism is, from one point of view, a primary reason why there are food taboos. The preconditions for human community depend on them; without them, we are like the Cyclopes. However, prohibition also functions as a kind of morality tale, telling us what we really want and why we really mustn’t have it. In drawing attention to the prohibited thing, it also supports the desire for it, leaving its bearers the question of what to do with it.

The existence of capitalism poses a different question. It is a form of sociality that is decidedly anti-social and that encounters taboos and prohibitions as barriers on accumulation to be overcome – even where these, such as a prohibition on burning fossil fuels, would be in the long-term interests of capitalism. If it is implausible that capitalism will destroy such a fundamental prohibition as that on cannibalism, notwithstanding contemporary fantasies of urbane cannibalism, it is not because of anything in the circuit of capital accumulation as such – which, for Marx, had decidedly cannibalistic qualities.

Europe’s early-modern colonial merchants and capitalists engaged in what could be called the primitive accumulation of the cannibal. They projected and displaced flesh-eating desires, while engaging in immense enterprises of consuming human flesh, both literally and by consuming its life-processes (as labour-power). In creating the cannibal, they also created the exception who could be cannibalised. If the fantasy of the cannibal as an exotic racial outsider is very slowly dying – though look how the self-orientalising Daesh seeks to embody and provoke such fantasies – the implication of Woodard’s work is that racialized anthropophagic desire is still very much circulating in the institutions of white-supremacy. Which only provokes the question: and in what other forms, what other institutions, what other social practices, could the cannibal live?

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