Manuel Arturo Abreu

Is Theorizing Cannibalism Ethical?


The Indians aboard call this Bohio and say it is very large and has people there with one eye in the forehead, as well as others they call cannibals, of whom they show great fear. When they saw I was taking that course, they were too afraid to talk. They say that the cannibals eat people and are well armed.
     —Columbus, November 23, 1492

...if said Cannibals continue to resist and do not wish to admit and receive to their lands the Captains and men who may be on such voyages by my orders, nor to hear them in order to be taught our Sacred Catholic Faith and to be in my service and obedience, they may be captured and taken to these my Kingdoms and Domains and to other parts and places and be sold.
     —Queen Isabella, October 1503

1. Seeking a typology of cannibalism

The desire to theorize cannibalism from a non-cannibalistic cultural framework is inseparable from the disgust cannibalism arouses in the theorist. I am not disgusted by people-eating, and thus I am not interested in theorizing cannibalism as such, but instead in thinking about how non-cannibalistic cultures deploy the trope of 'the cannibal,' and to what ends. I seek to consider whether the following premise has any merit: theorizing cannibalism is unethical, in that it is an exclusionary maneuver for determining how human certain kinds of people are and thus how they can be treated. This is done by means of a conceptual slippage between the categories 'human,' 'cannibal,' and 'animal.' In considering whether theorizing cannibalism from a non-cannibalistic cultural framework presupposes—and thus confirms—the taboo on cannibalism in the West, I ultimately aim to show that 'cannibal' is a non-objective category (Arens 1979).

It's important to distinguish degrees of incorporation. This is important because the Western revulsion toward cannibalism only manifests itself at more extreme ends on the incorporation continuum. Consider the following points along this continuum: nailbiting; Pliny's vampirism (he maintained that drinking blood cured epilepsy); post-natal placenta consumption. While blood play is still seen as 'deep kink,' all three of these examples presumably would not invoke the same repugnance in a cannibalophobe as would cases of lethal cannibalism. And a pathologized instance of lethal cannibalism, such as the case of Armin Miewes, would presumably incite more revulsion than the Donner Party, since the latter was a 'dire case,' in which ethical axioms are temporarily 'tossed aside.'

Even the cannibalophobe is willing to admit that in dire situations, lethal cannibalism is 'unavoidable' for the West. It becomes clear in such situations that 'when people have to eat people, they do,' so to speak. But then why does the West avoid this practice when it is not absolutely necessary? Is there anything deeper than a basic revulsion to people-eating, or is that it? Is it some sort of parametric epistemological difference between cannibalistic and non-cannibalistic cultures such that for the former, the parameter is 'off'—whether defective (corrupted) or undeveloped (primitive)—and people-eating is not repulsive? If so, then it could be maintained that for certain people the category 'human' is defined as 'that which is not to be eaten.' However, a structuralist approach of this kind seems ill-fated, given that the parametric theory cannot capture potential culturally-cannibalistic practices where revulsion toward people-eating is in fact at play. It presupposes, in other words, that disgust and desire are mutually exclusive.

Illustration by Antonia Stringer

Either way, variation of this nature motivates me to seek a basic 'typology' of cannibalism, so to speak: what factors are at play in a given instance of people-eating, whether 'cultural' or 'pathological'? First, cannibalism either does or does not happen as a culturally-acceptable practice (acceptability can be gradient cross-culturally). This is clear from the stigmatization of the Miewes case: it is because lethal cannibalism is not acceptable in the West that a trial against Miewes was mounted, even though his victim gave full consent. Second, cannibalistic practices can take exo- or endo- form: exocannibalism is when people eat people from outside their communities of practice, while exocannibalism is when in-group members eat each other. Thus, eating one's dead ancestors as an act of worship or love would be endocannibalism, while eating one's slain enemies (whether as an honorific or desecrating ritual) would be exocannibalism. Third, cannibalism can be literal people-eating or it can be metaphorical, as in colonization.

Just as degrees of incorporation apply for 'literal' cannibalism, they also apply to 'symbolic' cannibalism. What is the latter? A simple example would be the Eucharist. Consider another example: Arens (1979) mounts a critique against the foundation of anthropology, positing that early accounts of cannibalism by Western anthropologists had no factual basis, and only served to justify the West's own 'cannibalistic' imperial tendencies. Of course, in laying the groundwork of such a claim, Arens (as I posit is inevitable in theorizing cannibalism) nevertheless evaluates cannibalism negatively: white colonization was bad because it savagely cannibalized other cultures by characterizing those cultures as savage cannibals even as there was no evidence. A similar line of argument might apply to globalization. But despite Arens' unquestionable good intentions, his analysis leaves us were we started: people-eating is repulsive, and one should not lie about whether another is cannibal in order to exploit that other (Columbus never met any cannibals, though he wrote in his 1492 journals that New World natives spoke of such practices on other islands, and thought initially that the Christians were cannibals; by 1494, Columbus was claiming that “as amongst all these islands, those inhabited by the cannibals are the largest and the most populous”).

Even in such a seemingly-radical proposal, the theory still has not left the realm of the normative: the negativity of cannibalism is presupposed. Moreover, since cannibalistic practices are in fact attested, Arens' theory seems even less feasible.

The equation “eating human flesh is dehumanizing” dehumanizes those cultures where cannibalism occurs. But further, the idea that the West and anthropology are 'bad for being cannibals' can itself then only be a projection of the misshapen idea that cannibalism is bad to begin with: this kind of analysis crumbles from its own assumptions, since as Arens himself posits, 'cannibal' as an anthropological category is a non-objective a priori component of our definition of the human. If it is possible to exit the normative circle that structures discourses on cannibalism in advance, and thereby to apprehend the phenomenon 'neutrally,' it will require radical conceptual-terminological analysis.

2. The play of distances

The original andropophagi were noted by Herodotus as a nomadic, lawless tribe of people-eaters near Scythia. The more familiar term cannibal comes from caniba, Columbus' rendition of the Carib people's emic name—as well, it was reported that they, the caníbales, ate human flesh, and the meaning of the word as we know it arose. As well, I note that the origin of 'Caliban,' as in Shakespeare's The Tempest, is from a version of caníbal with the 'n' and 'l' interchanged, attested in Hakluyt's Voyages (1599). What is the relationship between the cannibal and the Caliban, besides being near-anagrams in Spanish?

As the etymology of the word attests, Arens is not totally incorrect. Western cultures have long condemned far peoples as people-eaters to justify the way the West treated them, and Queen Isabella's decree quoted above shows that the labeling of New World natives as 'cannibals' directly enabled their enslavement. But Arens's misstep is in assigning badness to cannibalism per se. Badness belongs to the theory of the cannibal, so to speak, not the cannibal himself. Or, more precisely, the badness of cannibalism consists in the conceptual linking of 'cannibal' with 'inhuman.' After all, the introduction of 'cannibal'—there is no theory of X, no science or -logy, without terminology—served three semantic purposes: to name a people, to name a practice, and to ineluctably link the two. Joined with the underlying assumption of revulsion toward people-eating, naming the Caribs as such was clearly politically effective: these were inhuman practices, and those who practice them deserved to be treated inhumanly.

What is it that allows the linking of people-eating and inhumanity? Diderot begins his Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville… on the Inconvenience of Attaching Moral Ideas to certain Physical Actions which they do not Presuppose (1772) with a conversation between two philosophers. B asks what will happen when a given island's populace begins to multiply and resources dwindle. A responds that, obviously, cannibalism will emerge, until some means of procuring other resources arises. On this argument, then, Western civilization is precisely this means: it renders 'cruel' practices like cannibalism, which were essentially means of controlling population growth, unnecessary, and thus repulsive (this is questionable since cannibalism as population-control can lead to species death). Athenagoras' line of argument, however, sees the revulsion toward cannibalism more as a maxim than as a result: on his account, if people do not adopt the maxim that cannibalism is repulsive, civilization falls apart—they begin eating each other and doing “however many other things nature allows.” On this view, cannibalism is not an anomalous state that occurs outside (prior to) the condition of civilization. Rather, cannibalism is a bottomless hunger that must be restrained if philia toward the social body is to be maintained.

In light of these examples, I hypothesize that cannibalism and inhumanity are linked because of the Western notion of the sacrality of the rational body. The self-conscious being, with future plans and goals, is thwarted in these interests when she is killed: her higher-order thought dissipates into 'mere flesh,' as it were, and following Athenagoras, if humans become food, then all order is lost. Thus, a cultural system which practices cannibalism is, on these accounts, 'cruel' and 'ancient' in origin, as well as 'lacking' in philia. Simply put, the cannibal as cultural category is inhuman for the West because it denies precisely that most basic tenet of being human: as Harman put it, being 'that which is not to be eaten.'

Thus what is yonder is labeled not human, and this is the play of distances with respect to theorizing cannibalism. What is yonder is animal, or anthropophagic. It is notable that far-away, non-urban communities may not share the urban architecture of separation from other animals in the biotic community. That is, the development of the 'city' primarily served as a means of removing animals, aside from the 'domesticated' ones, from the daily experience of Western citizens, except when presented as food. The geographic distance between the urban and the animal leads me to consider the conceptual distance between urbanity (the concept of the city or polis, the site of the political and home of the 'political animal') and animality.

In this context, it is interesting to note that Marx excluded animals from the proletariat. Marx entertained an essentially Cartesian model of animal experience (unfeeling organic machinery), even while acknowledging that animals are capable of labor. The difference between, say, a beehive and a building is that a human has an idea in her head of the latter, while bees have no idea of the former (Capital, Vol. I, 283). In this way Marx echoes much of the literature on animal ethics: some relevant trait differentiates humans from non-humans, rendering the former (and, for some theories, not the latter) actual laborers / moral agents. We can see how this ties into Western notions of the cannibal as inhuman and thus more animal-like.

For much philosophy, the establishment of 'universal categories' is seen as more powerful than the attention to difference. But there can be no establishment without some kind of motivational state seeking to create hierarchy. This is at the essence of Harman's critique of Peter Singer: if an ethical framework like Singer's posits that we should treat animals equally, it would logically follow that eating humans is as ethical as eating animals. But since built into the very concept of 'human' (and therefore Singer's argument for animal liberation) is the notion that a 'human' is a 'thing of a kind which is not to be eaten as food,' there is a disanalogy between humans and animals, at least when it comes to what can be considered for food.

The concepts of 'cannibal' and 'animal' are thus inextricably related through economic categories of production and consumption: animals were phased out of daily urban life and the entrenchment of factory farming began. The 'cannibal' as category arose historically from European imperialism, and following Arens' proposal that 'cannibal' is a non-objective category, I posit that it is by naming certain humans 'cannibalistic' and thus 'less human' that the treatment of those thus named is normalized.

3. What do animals act like & what is ethics?

The child learns to eat the meat on her plate but is scolded for harassing the pet. She learns early on, then, that 'animal' can occupy a state which is either less human (and thus available for violent acts such as eating) or more human (and thus to be respected as autonomous agent, and not, say, have its tail pulled). Depending on the context, the child may early or later on learn that humans, too, can occupy these different states: televised wars make it clear that it is okay to kill certain humans abroad for reasons, but that certain other humans are not to be killed.

Just as pets can both occupy and not occupy the category 'animal,' and just as slaves were both non-human property and clearly human (since the master does not eat his slave), the anthropological 'cannibal' can be posited as a non-human human, which can be seen in a 1525 image in which canine snouts identify New World cannibals as non-human (Klarer 391):

Unknown, ‘Cannibals on the Caribbean Island’ in Lorenz Fries, Uselegung der Mercarthen oder Carta Marina, Strasbourg:
Johannes Grüninger 1525, leaf XVI,
Woodcut, handcolouring, 10.5 x 14.4 cm,
Archive of Early American Images, The John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.

The common-sense notion of ethics in light of the slippage of categories like 'human,' 'animal,' and 'cannibal' is thus as follows: we treat 'people' like 'people' and 'animals' like 'animals' because people do not act like animals, and we treat humans that do act like animals as they appear to be. We learn how these (sub)categories act based on the representations to which we are exposed. The initial steps toward a solution to this untenable philosophical situation, then, consist of pointing out the incommensurability of different epistemic modalities across human-constructed categories, as well as the fundamental violence involved in positing non-human animals and certain kinds of humans as locations of comparison, as sites of articulation.

One might argue that an entity is a moral agent if that entity is able to play the ethical language game. Because animals do not communicate using human language, they aren't able to 'play' the ethics game. Prima facie there already seems to be a problem with this language game: we are determining how to treat a set of beings without allowing them access to the language game on their own terms. This is not a language game at all, since all of its affected parties have not agreed to the rules (see Wittgenstein's On Certainty).

The crucial facet of the language game of ethics is that the players decide what to do. Characterizing animal ethics as “how we should treat animals” presupposes and reifies the power relation that a true animal ethics should seek to challenge. What I argue here is that every object of inquiry has an ontology which emerges as a response to the violence of inquiry, and that a language game which calls itself 'ethics,' that is, 'the search for a good life,' should be rigorous with respect to its meta-language, since as Harman shows with Singer, an argument can proceed without making certain assumptions clear, and this is a sign that we should tread carefully. (My only operative assumption is that it is good to be explicit about one's philosophical assumptions.)

Let's consider this 'ethics language game' notion further: ethics looks like a performance dictating normative action. It is inscribed by law, in the sense that an ethical injunction becomes much more powerful when law is involved: I kill the mosquito that bites me and not the human that bites me primarily because the latter action, while satisfying whatever motivational state caused it, would result in the bigger harm for me. Law serves as the 'ground' of ethics in this sense. We know this to be true because the idea of killing a person is contextually different from the actual action.

In the case of the utterance or the idea, tone and context matter heavily. Consider the difference between a lover saying teasingly to another “I'll kill you if you eat the last piece of pie” and a lover saying the same thing with a knife to the other's throat. Let's say this situation's two variants are video-recorded, because of the house's security system. If the addressee dies a year later and police can get a warrant to find the tapes in the house, it would be much harder to mount a legal case of intent to kill against the living lover if the only evidence was the video of the teasing utterance, as opposed to the video of the knife assault. However, if along with the video tape of the teasing utterance a notebook describing ways of killing the lover is found, then a much stronger case can be made about intention.

I take such a circuitous example because I follow a Wittgensteinian approach to ethics, motivational states, and interiority: there is no private language, and therefore no private mental states. Instead, there exist partly-nonlinguistic, physiological motivational states which confer sensory stimuli with impetus: it is these motivational states which are responsible for the fight-or-flight response, as well as for the rhizomatic mutability of human affect and epistemology, given language's recursivity. Sensory stimuli do not of themselves cause us to act, or to think; they interact with the organic machinery in such a way as to produce what is ready at hand. The role of ethics for this kind of argument is thus sentimentalist and epistemic: it is a method of discovering how to treat the Other.

4. Misreading Armantrout for “good”

By 'sentimentalist' I mean that the ethical framework I am positing here does not assert the objective existence of ethical value 'out there' in the world: instead, ethics is about feeling. Value is asserted in a heuristic fashion.

A misreading of section 1 of a poem called “Yonder” by Rae Armantrout provides a useful illustration:

Anything cancels
everything out.

If each point
is a singularity,

thrusting all else
aside for good,

“good” takes the form
of a throng
of empty chairs.

Or it's ants
swarming a bone.

In the case of ethics, we can misread “for good” here and read into Armantrout a sentimentalist viewpoint: for her, ethics are a feeling, articulated at a point in time. If ethics is “everything about how to be good,” then “anything cancels / everything out.” The second and third stanzas suggest that the point of ethical articulation, as a singularity, only considers the good—“for good” retains its idiomatic meaning, while the ethical singularity-point thrusts “all else / aside” irrevocably (“for good”) as it seeks the form of the good.

Each of the two last stanzas offers a metaphor for the form of the good—that is to say, for the form not only of what is sought, but also of what is thrust aside, canceled out by any given singularity-point. Given the disjunct, Armantrout's singularity-point leads to a binary-branching structure: the form of the good is either the “throng / of empty chairs” or “it's ants / swarming a bone.” Thus, if we take each point of experience and ethical articulation to be an instance of the “anything” in stanza 1, which can cancel everything out “for good” by virtue of its search for “the good,” then the ethical and the irrevocable take the form of one of these two elements. I believe Armantrout offers the disjunct in these last two stanzas as a way of exploiting the ambiguity of “for good,” and it is this ambiguity which affords my reading here.

Is that which is thrust “aside for good” the set of empty chairs or the ants swarming a bone? The same question applies for the ethical. Can they both be both at the same time, or switch between them depending on context? Following Armantrout, if each point leads the irrevocable and the ethical to take one of these two forms, then it is at each point that “good” takes one of these two forms. It is this mutability that leads “anything” to cancel everything out.

This mutability is inherent to the language game of ethics: the motivational states underlying the language game are the theory-external machinery which render it functional. My misreading emerges more clearly, then: in the performance of the ethics language game, anything—any kind of motivational state—can cancel out “everything,” that is, the entire ethical theory. Ethics is not only a sentimentalist domain dictated by the singularity of each point of articulation/experience, it is also not an empirical domain: the form the “good” takes is a cryptic, elliptical disjunct. Further, the poem suggests it is not the ethicist who decides upon the form of “good,” only that “good” takes form.

The two images Armantrout offers for the form stand in stark contrast. The first is a set of human-designed functional objects, unused. Use is implied but the image is static, and the production process remains concealed. The second image is of a process: a system of organic beings extracting use from a bone. But the source of the bone is concealed, just as the source of the chairs. In the latter case we presume a human source. Both images hold tension with respect to concealment and explicitness, as well as proximity and distance thereof—and we note the title of the poem, “Yonder.”

It is tautological at best to ask, in the context of Armantrout's post-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E idiom, 'what these images mean.' It would be better, instead, to mobilize my misreading for the topic at hand. How can these two forms that “good” might take with respect to a sentimentalist ethical framework help us understand the slippage between categories like 'human,' 'cannibal,' and 'animal?'

The chair image posits ethics as design: intentional, rational, functional. But note that the chairs are empty: ethics is not being used in this case of anything canceling everything out. Instead, “good” simply takes the form of this 'design' of ethics which is invoked in the performance as a kind of formal gesture (and thus 'empty' as the chairs are). My claim here is that every theory of cannibalism which posits cannibalism's inherent badness is of the 'empty chair' kind: it simply invokes an arbitrary schema or design to justify its underlying assumptions— whether they be that taking human life is bad, or that humans are not to be eaten, or that cultures are not to be appropriated.

Which brings me to the ant image. Here ethics is articulated as in organic motion or flux, not necessarily intentional, and relational in a way that seems quite different from the aesthetic relationality of the designed empty chairs. The ants do not necessarily relate to the bone in the same way that the chairs relate to their designers: the ants are simply acting on the bone. Ethics here can even be seen as instinctual, depending on one's 'theory of ants.' As well, function is not really in question with respect to the chairs: they are for sitting in, and they are unused. But what are the ants doing with the bone?

Presumably they are extracting use-value from the bone. Positing the ethical—that is, performing the language game of ethics—is thus a similar kind of value-extraction, a swarming. But we keep in mind that the images form a disjunction: the “good” takes the form either of empty-chair ethics or of swarming-ant ethics. This is not to say that use-value is not extracted in the empty-chair case, only that the form “good” takes is different when the ethical language game is performed. Use-value is extracted by empty design or by ineluctable swarming.

Therefore, with respect to the question of whether theorizing about cannibalism from a non-cannibalistic perspective is ethical, Armantrout offers two potential, cryptic answers. In the course of my misreading, I have only discussed 'empty-chair' theories of cannibalism. This kind of use-value extractions can be seen in Harman's claim that 'human' is 'that which is not to be eaten,' thus rendering all those who do eat human flesh 'inhuman.' This description, not coincidentally, applies to both non-human animal predators and human cannibals. Again: what is yonder is posited as inhuman: as animal or anthropophagic.

When we ask 'what is good?,' and more specifically, when I ask 'is theorizing cannibalism good,' “good” takes one of these two forms, metaphorically speaking. What does this mean for my purposes?

5. What would a swarming-ant theory of cannibalism look like?

Non-cannibals since Herodotus have been fixated with this non-objective category (see Avramescu's An Intellectual History of Cannibalism). Asking whether cannibalism is good or bad characterizes the cannibal as an Other. This is why I am positing that theorizing cannibalism is unethical: the very terms of inquiry marginalize the supposed 'matter at hand.' Theorizing cannibalism doesn't contribute to understanding the cannibal, but rather mobilizes a certain ethical design, “a throng / of empty chairs” meant for rational beings whom are not to be eaten: whether those beings are Athenagoras philias-full non-cannibal citizens or Arens' culturally-marginalized ostensible benefactors or the vegetarian moralist's humanized animals. All of these ethical designs perpetuate the fiction of the rational ethical agent.

But is theorizing cannibalism always bad? What would a swarming-ant theory of cannibalism look like?

Theorizing cannibalism as 'good' or 'bad' tends to entail objectionable conclusions. So far I have only mentioned theories which evaluate cannibalism as negative—theories that can be boiled down to the maxim 'people, whatever they are, should not be eaten,' applied to different domains. Instead of positing that this theorizing is good—since this puts the theorist in a tough spot, having to argue, for example, that colonization, from which the word, and thus the theory, originated, is 'good'—I want to try to circumvent the entire argument: if we consider the question of whether theorizing cannibalism is ethically necessary or unnecessary, instead of good or bad, more interesting results emerge. This question stems from a resonance in Armantrout's empty-chair and swarming-ant images: the chairs are necessarily relational to their human designers, while the relationality of the ants and the bone is not a necessary one.

An answer in the affirmative is tempting in light of two potential advantages. For one, it would bind us to the duty to understand cannibalistic cultures. For another, it would compel the theorist to adopt a conceptual-terminological analytic method—to delve into the tangle of terms to come away with a more verisimilitudinous representation of the 'facts at hand.'

The latter advantage is somewhat sneaky, since the theorist's new method is meta-theoretical (what is being theorized is not the cannibal itself itself but rather theories of cannibalism and their entailments).

This puts the theorist in a double-bind, and 'cannibalism itself' is never reached: instead, aspects of the theory are posited as 'cannibalistic,' as Arens did with respect to anthropology, or as Derrida did in his interview 'Eating Well,' where he posited that the calculating/rational subject is constructed through the cannibalistic sacrifice of the non-subject.

But what of the negative answer—the claim that such theorizing is ethically unnecessary? This claim seems actually preferable to me. If the theoretical enterprise that seeks to determine the nature of the cannibal is fundamentally complicit with the enterprise of colonization, then no methodical supplement will suffice to exonerate the anthropo-phago-logical inquiry of its ethical badness.

It seems to me that the question Is theorizing cannibalism is ethical? is analogous to the question How similar is this instance of cannibalism to the Eucharist?

The Eucharist is an instance of symbolic cannibalism. The bread and wine in the ritual are the flesh and blood of Christ, consubstantiatively. It is in the prevalence of this ritual in Western thought and practice that the questions of the ethics of cannibalism, as well as the ethics of theorizing cannibalism, gain cogency. It's easy to imagine missionaries of yesteryear in far-off places coercing 'cannibals' to take communion—to eat the body of their Savior instead of the bodies of their enemies. As well, on a kind of Freudian analysis, it becomes clear what the underlying mission of theorizing cannibalism actually is: to sublimate actual flesh-eating to the rarefied realm of theory, to the Eucharist dimension. Of course theorizing cannibalism could be argued to be ethically necessary, but only if the underlying assumption of such a proposition is the inherently ethical nature of the Eucharist.

A swarming-ant meta-theory of cannibalism would argue, then, that theorizing cannibalism serves as a kind of conceptual imposition of the Eucharist upon other cultures, which echoes missionary and colonizer logic. Indeed, the theorizing of cannibalism perpetrates the illusion of its own necessity, which follows from the importance of the Eucharist in Western culture. Eucharistic notions seem prevalent to me in idioms like “food for thought,” in which what is inquired is consumed, and Derrida's argument with respect to subjecthood as a 'necessary' cannibalism can be seen in this light as similarly Eucharistic, since for him we always-already cannibalize the Other to construct the terms of subjecthood.

Even as Derrida's argument can be attacked on these grounds, he makes an important point regarding the role of the play of distance between 'human' and 'animal' in constructing the myth of the rational agent: humans can be fucked but not eaten, while animals may be eaten but not fucked. Implicit in this normative Western dichotomy is a claim about animal rationality which deserves unpacking. It is because animals cannot consent that we do not fuck them—they do not play that language game. But of course, if they cannot consent to sex then they also cannot consent to being eaten. The solution to this lies in Marx's notion of the animal as unfeeling organic machine without relations: animals' inability to consent reveals that they are not rational—they have motivational states, but no sense of who is experiencing them, no continued sense of self over time, etc. Since animals are not rational, unlike humans, they are okay to eat. And likewise, those humans who historically have been deemed irrational were 'kosher' in a symbolic sense.

This gets at the essence of my claim: that 'human' and 'animal' are categories of reproductive capitalism. These categories are no less objective than is the category 'cannibal.' They serve to perpetuate the myth of the rational, calculating subject, the arbiter of the binary (yes/no, either/or, good/bad, real/unreal). The significance of my claim that theorizing cannibalism is unethical is that any attempt at interrogating such behavior (literal or symbolic) with a binary-ethical language game betrays the heteronomy of the motivational states underlying ethical maxims. Derrida fails on this reading because if subjecthood is always-already cannibalistic and the Other can never be fully subjectivized, then the question becomes how to 'eat well' (bien manger), which succumbs again to binary-branching.

6. The hypocrisy of theorizing cannibalism

The Eucharist is one manifestation of Western cannibalism. Around the same time that New World ostensible-people-eaters were called barbaric, Europe trafficked heavily in medicinal people-eating, as attested by Samuel Johnson in his dictionary of English (1785). Consider the following recipe by Oswald Croll (ca. 1560-1608, translated and quoted in Noble 2003):

Take the flesh, unspotted cadaver of a redheaded man (because in them the blood is thinner and the flesh hence more excellent) aged about twenty-four, who has been executed and died a violent death. Let the corpse lie one day and night in the sun and moon – but the weather must be good. Cut the flesh in pieces and sprinkle it myrrh and just a little aloe. Then soak it in spirits of wine for several days, hang it up for 6 or 10 hours, soak it again in spirits of wine, then let the pieces dry in dry air in a shady spot. Thus they will be similar to smoked meat, and will not stink.

Paracelsus argued that violent deaths trapped the souls in the bodies, and that these were the most prized comestibles. I mostly quote Croll's recipe in perverse delight at the prose, but Croll and Samuel Johnson show that cannibalism in Europe was not only common and seen as medicinal (this derived from the third-century philosopher Galen), but also elaborate. Clearly Europe is hypocritical, then, in condemning so-called 'cannibals' in the New World while practicing literal people-eating and attesting a long history of medicinal incorporation (recall again Pliny's maxim that drinking blood cured epilepsy). And of course, the Eucharist and medicinal cannibalism are a case of the-chicken-and-the-egg. Whence the difference with respect to New World and medicinal cannibalism, for Europeans? An answer to this might lie in a decree in 1604 by King James I, according to which only those skilled practitioners licensed at the Barber-Surgeon's company were allowed to dissect human bodies. Naturally, this decree prevented citizens from freely engaging in body-dissection, and medicinal cannibalism became a matter of the law. The New World cannibals, then, might have been called barbaric simply because they were not “eating well,” not eating meat medicinally— the structure of their cannibalism did not resemble that of European cannibalism, whose logic is Eucharistic and was became professionalized after James' decree.

Indeed, it was only by distancing their own practices from those of the New World that Europeans were able to maintain the (positive) medicinal value of their flesh-eating. European medicinal flesh-eating was positioned as rational, human. This can be seen in the London Pharmacopoeia (1618), which included entries for mummy, human blood, and human skull. New World flesh-eating, on the other hand, was indicative of the perceived animality of those people. With this in mind we can update both Derrida and Arens: it is not that subjecthood is always-already cannibalistic, but that Europe was literally eating people, and needed to distinguish their people-eating from the people-eating of the people they conquered. It is not merely that 'cannibal' as Western category is non-objective, since it condemns in others what Europeans do. It is in fact an erasure, a way of ignoring the actual European practices in order to use the category metonymically in the animalization of other humans. For lack of a better analytic tool, I invoked the Eucharist to make my point clear: theorizing cannibalism is the question of asking How alike is this to the Eucharist? This does not only a priori establish the Eucharist as inherently good (“Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you,” John 6:53), it establishes the medicinal status (that is, the Eu-charism) of European flesh-eating.

The theorizing of cannibalism itself is a kind of meta-theoretic performance positing its own necessity, because the theory itself reifies the (shaky) premise of the inherently ethical nature of the Eucharist. Theorizing cannibalism sublimates non-European cannibalism to “the Eucharist dimension,” so to speak, for it is only in this 'metaphysical' colonization that questions relating to the ethics of cannibalism (i.e., non-European people-eating practices), or the ethics of theorizing cannibalism, can be asked. In this way, theorizing cannibalism, whether it is ethical or not, is hypocritical.