Cannibalism as Food for Thought

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Cannibalism as Food for Thought

Cannibalism as Food for Thought: Introduction

The present essay notes, with regret, that even among its non-Western critics, understandings of cannibalism have continued to be narrowly framed and articulated around a rather disturbingly parochial Eurocentric index of consumption and of what it means to be human.

It invites the reader to critically interrogate presuppositions that proliferate around cannibalism as an essentially negative indulgence and practice that diminishes the humanity of both the eater and the eaten, and therefore to be viscerally and rationally opposed in the interest of real or imagined ideals of purity, cleanliness, decency and palatability of ‘cultured’ and ‘civilised’ beings (Douglas 2001[1966]). It challenges scholars to explore innovative ways of thinking about cannibalism, predicated upon keeping prejudices and expectations of modernity in check, as well as seeing in such expectations and prejudices a disguised form of cannibalism. Within the call for innovativeness, it should be possible and epistemologically significant to analyse cannibalism in the strict sense (as something ‘strange’, ‘unsettling’ and ‘outside’ our expectations of generosity on the possibility of a common humanity and equality of access to human dignity) without invoking notions of primitive savagery, but alsowithout a feeble and stifling political correctness (Lindenbaum 2004).

The essay brings into conversation past and present articulations, representations and understandings of and around cannibalism in the interest of pointing attention to the veiled, disguised and mostly invisible dimensions of cannibalism in the many a so-called modern and civilised society that we inhabit and love to show off as trophies in human progression from primitivism and barbarism to liberalism as the pinnacle of tolerance and inclusivism. In this connection, the essay suggests that we could enrich our understanding of Western modernity, by thinking of it as underpinned by a quest for superiority and supremacy through the cannibalisation of the non-Western ‘Other’. Such cannibalisation has taken the form of enslavement and extractive colonialism in the past, and in the present, it takes the form of sweatshop labour extractive capitalism, the repressive policing of the mobility of the non-Western ‘Other’, and the opportunistic trafficking (in whole or dismembered) of those reduced to the indignities of life as human waste and as wasted humanity by Western modernity and its chainsaws of Frankenstein industrialisation, commodification, globalisation and trivialisation (Barker et al. 1998; Hulme 1998). In the form of neoliberalism and globalised consumerism, those who do not qualify to be consumed all too easily find themselves consumed by irrelevance and the stark invisibility of whatever humanity they may claim or aspire to.

The essay argues for recognition of cannibalism as a normal way of being human as open-ended composites,1and for assuming the ethical and moral implications and obligations of a universe, a cosmology and ontology informed or dictated by this recognition. In an interconnected world characterised by eating for sustenance, self and collective protection, projection and reproduction, one (humans and non-humans alike) cannot eat, ad infinitum, without the risk of being eaten in turn, and/or the possibility of eating oneself up into bare existence and, ultimately, extinction. This calls for constant awareness of the centrality and importance of cannibalism in our daily quests for and processes of being and becoming. Such awareness is an imperative first step in the process of how best to harness the reality and potentiality of cannibalism in its multiplicity of forms and manifestations in the interest of all and sundry, regardless of race, place, culture, class, gender, sexual orientation and generation. Once we recognise the ubiquity of cannibalism in all its guises and disguises, we are compelled, in all humility, to confront the question of an all-inclusive ethics and morality of a flexible, nuanced, complex, interconnected, bridging humanity articulated from the vantage point of incompletenessas the norm (Nyamnjoh 2017[2015]a, 2017b) – a morality and an ethics that privilege boundary crossing in the negotiation of moral dilemmas and the cultivation of moral sympathies and inclusive moral compasses (Englund 2015a, 2015b; Nyamnjoh 2015a). Put differently, if cannibalism is a normal way of being human as a dynamic and flexible reality, then it is in our individual and collective interest to develop a carefully negotiated and delicately navigated moral and ethical order of self-preservation that is founded on inclusiveness informed by the myth of wholeness, the humility of incompletenessand the reality of interconnections of interacting fluidities.

The tendency thus far has been to dodge or tiptoe around this question by defining cannibalism too narrowly, and by outsourcing or projecting it onto purportedly inferior others, while taking attention away from our own cannibalism and its resultant anxieties in the name of civilisation and pretensions to a superior moral order. In research, to define is to confine, and to predetermine the outcome is to direct attention to certain aspects by taking attention away from other aspects of our subject of enquiry. If cannibalism is not explored and understood in its fullness, we might not know when, as Travis-Henikoff (2008: 243) puts it, we are over-consuming and risking running out of food, family, friends or enemies. This highlights the need for us to curb our enthusiasm for cannibalisation through a careful balance between our cravings for proteins and profits as a way of life (Harris 1977; Sahlins 1978) and the imperative for reproduction, social and otherwise, not only of the fittest and the human, but of all and sundry, humans and non-humans.

Notwithstanding arguments in favour of ‘contingency cannibalism’ informed by the recognition of and subscription to ‘superhardcore survivalism’ (Takada 1999; see also Esteban 2016), such potentials to harness cannibalism are best explored not within the modernisation or civilisational Darwinian logic of survival of the fittest and winner takes all or giant compressor syndrome. The most promising framework for such harnessing lies with the logic and framework of incompleteness(Nyamnjoh 2017[2015]a, 2017b), which, along with its ethics and morality of conviviality, recognises our mutual entanglements and manglements as humans, one and all, seeking sustenance in full awareness that cannibalism and cannibalisation are, in one form or other, the only game in town, a necessary evil. What opportunities for an ethics of conviviality are there when we all recognise that no one has the monopoly of cannibalism and cannibalisation? That no single being, culture or civilisation can have the last laugh in the game of cannibalism? That as eaters and eaten we all survive together or we perish together? In our cannibalistic indulgence, there is hardly room for such extravagant assertions as: ‘Everyone for themselves, and God for us all.’ Let’s not delude ourselves. We all are in it together, our Cannibalism Ubuntuboat: we either perish as one or we survive as one.

There is more meat to cannibalism than meets the eye

Among humans cannibalism2– ‘the act of any life form consuming others of its own kind’ (Travis-Henikoff 2008: 56) or seeking externalisation of the self through the internalisation of others of its kind (Viveiros de Castro 2014[2009]: 176) – is a universal attribute of being and surviving as human through hierarchical relationships of power and seeking distinction at all costs through claims of and aspirations to fulfilment (Jooma 1997, 2001; Carbonell et al. 2010). As Travis-Henikoff remarks of the Asmat of New Guinea, among whom ‘Anyone, at any time, was a possible target’, headhunting and cannibalism served to define ‘boundaries, expanding victorious villages and depleting, or totally destroying, a losing group. At all times, every village was potentially at war with every other village’ (Travis-Henikoff 2008: 240). To be alive and stay alive is to admit and embrace the cannibal reality – however in your face or disguised – of that very fact.

As a lifelong game of eating and being eaten, cannibalism is practised by all and sundry, to various degrees through relationships and social interactions, be this horizontal or vertical. In love or in hate, fear or fascination, everyday life and relationships or ambitions of dominance, cannibalism comes in handy, and has always done so, since ancestral times, making of us all, without exception, ‘descendants of cannibals’ (Travis-Henikoff 2008: 93) and perpetrators of cannibalism. ‘[T]here are cannibals lurking in all of our ancestral closets’, argues Travis-Henikoff, with ‘recent DNA studies’ in support (Travis-Henikoff 2008: 189), and there is no reason to assume that cannibals are confined in the ancestral closets, if we were to take cannibalism seriously beyond its literal and primary connotation of eating the flesh of another human. To eat ‘la viande des autres’ (Geschiere 1995) might be its obvious public face, but cannibalism as a practice is far more of an insinuating and insidious part and parcel of everyday life and social processes than meets the eye or tickles the palate. Taking others in as food for the body, the mind and the soul is not confined to ingesting them through the mouth. The consuming passions of our cannibalism need more than the mouth (real or imagined) in their quest for fulfilment.

We cannibalise those we love, just as we do those we hate, and not always literally, as a study of white labour and black slave labour in the makings of American capitalism would suggest (Fitzhugh 1988[1960]). This point is echoed by another study of ‘cannibal democracy’, which shows how blackness is selectively cannibalised through an insistence on whitening up in the making of racialised citizenship in the Americas, Brazil and the USA in particular (Nunes 2008). The idea of cannibal democracy could also be extended to depict forms of government that thrive on institutions and on structures and practices of dissemblance that eat up the very populace whom they are purportedly enshrined to protect. As individuals and collectivities, many of us have somehow fallen prey to the idea that we succeed best (or delude ourselves that we are successful) when we literally, symbolically, metaphorically or indirectly eat up rivals and enemies and/or make a meal of fear and those we claim to love.

To literally kill a person in order to feed on the resources and opportunities made available to us by their death amounts to cannibalism, regardless of whether we actually make a meal of the dead person’s body. To feed on someone’s life chances is tantamount to feeding on someone’s flesh – either way, one is depleted, diminished, cannibalised. Similarly, to reduce a person to a degradable, shameful, acute and passive level of dependency and powerlessness – to a bare existence stripped of self-worth, personhood and agency – by one’s exceedingly predatory claims of entitlements to power, privilege, resources and the bodies and energies of others in a given context, such as film producer Harvey Weinstein allegedly did to women who came hunting for fame, dignity and agency in Hollywood,3amounts to cannibalism.

At a personal and individual level, such cannibalism takes the form of freezing the humanity of others at sub-zero temperatures, so we can eat up their life chances with a numbed sense of guilt. In societal and cultural terms, cannibalism comes with denying ourselves the uncontained animalism and monstrosity we effusively imagine and project onto others through the drama of fear and fascination, so we may make game of others without feeling the weight of the screaming desperation of severed prey to which we have reduced others. Reducing others – be they individuals, communities, cultures or ways of life and systems of value – to a ridiculous defensiveness and to a fate worse than death amounts to nothing less than cannibalism gone rogue. With cannibalism, instant death might not always be the worst form of extraction, as dying by degree is equally and often more effective in feeding cannibalistic appetites for much longer terms.

Naked or clothed, cannibalism is part and parcel of the everyday in a world (primitive or traditional, modern or civilised) animated by and framed aroundambitions of completenessand the zero sum games of winner takes all that go with such ambitions (Nyamnjoh 2017[2015]a, 2017b). It is cannibalism’s ubiquity and capacity for presence in simultaneous multiplicities that pushes Claude Lévi-Strauss (2016[2013]) to argue emphatically, as did George Fitzhugh (1988[1960]) before him, that in one form or another, ‘we are all cannibals’, regardless of our excited claims to being modern, of our often exaggerated displays of revulsion when cannibalism features in our conversation menus, and of whether or not the humans we consume are served through our palates, injected, inserted as transplants or grafted onto our bodies.

Cannibalism need not be a cultural or a normative practice in the society where it occurs to qualify as such, ranging as it does from the ritual to benign, from medicinal to gastronomic (Lindenbaum 2004; Travis-Henikoff 2008; Brown 2013). In our ambitions of completeness through autonomy-seeking behaviour (Nyamnjoh 2017[2015]a, 2017b), we would have few successes to report, let along celebrate and enshrine, if there was little room for cannibalism in our lives, covert or overt, symbolic or metaphorical. The very idea of society as a network of interconnecting and interacting hierarchies, let alone civilisation, is absolutely unthinkable without cannibalism in one form or other. We may all be cannibals, but cannibalism is far from being an indiscriminate act. Each cannibal has a hierarchy of desirability and raison d’êtrefor their cannibalism. When we go out shopping for the real or metaphorical meal of the day, what are we most likely to put in our shopping baskets? What are we most likely to ignore? What reasons do we readily or reluctantly avail ourselves of for the choices we make or fail to make? If we were in a position to pick and choose whom we ingest or incorporate in one form or another, how would we go about our business of cannibalisation?

To build a society and champion a civilisation is to spill blood,4often savagely, and to make mincemeat of others, their ideas, moral and ethical order, especially of those who think differently and pose a serious challenge to our ambitions of dominance and its absolutes, and to our truth claims (Diop 1991; Bourdieu 1984, 1996; Barker et al. 1998; Elias 2000; Harrison 2008). Yet, paradoxically, the more we crave fulfilment through pretensions to modernity and civilisation, the greater our tendency to outsource and disguise our cannibalism, keen as we are to claim and maintain illusions and delusions of superiority in love and in hate through willing away any direct or obvious forms of cannibalism and the repulsive violence associated with it.

Many who think, talk and refer to cannibalism with visceral revulsion seem to limit it to the physical or literal act of ferociously making a meal of the flesh and bones of others – an evil act or practice often associated with primitive savages living dangerously like wild animals at the margins of humanity and human civilisation, and needing to be stamped out at all costs (Watson 2006; Avramescu 2009; Metcalf 2014). Even among us ethnologists, anthropologists and archaeologists renowned for our readiness to bend over backwards with understanding and in celebration of ‘cultural relativism’, ethnographic evidence (Johnson 1993) and the suspension of any and all value judgement against the morality of any given culture (Petrey 2005: 116), there is a good measure of lingering unease when it comes to making a case for tolerance and accommodation of cannibalism and its cultural logics (Lumholtz 2009[1889]; Arens 1979; Hulme 1998; Takada 1999; Aubry 2002; Lindenbaum 2004; Petrey 2005; Turner II 2008). As Caroline Aubry remarks of herself and fellow anthropologists, ‘We might like to think of ourselves as open-minded and adventurous, but we nevertheless still recoil at the thought of eating human flesh. Cannibalism … still represents a limit to cultural relativism’ (Aubry 2002: 433).

The tendency, a priori, even among such scholars of relativism, is to represent and relate to real or imaginary cannibals and cannibal cultures as less than human, animalistic and ruled by basic instincts. Reacting to a statement that ‘Several academics and scholars have written and loudly proclaimed that human cannibalism has never been practiced except for instances of starvation’, Erima Henare, a Maori man whose ancestors practised cannibalism, retorted, ‘That is absurd! ... Someone should eat them; they could take notes posthumously’ (Travis-Henikoff 2008: 109–110). The ‘blanket disbelief in ritual cannibalism’ by some scholars seems intended to counter the equally ‘blanket condemnation of precontact indigenes as blood thirsty savages’ by European explorers, both of which are often uncritically internalised and reproduced by certain scholars (Petrey 2005: 114). Could such an overly sensitive or politically correct disposition by scholars of either blanket account for a measure of symbolic cannibalism – consuming the dynamic nature of the practices and social experience of those studied and rendering them into shells of themselves in the name of cultural relativism, on the one hand, while paying lip service to the very same cultural relativism by insisting on political correctness on the unsettling dimensions of the lives and stories of the communities of their ethnographic curiosities, on the other?

Few anthropologists are ready to argue publicly and seriously, the way Beth Conklin does, that, whatever their personal or cultural revulsions, scholars should not ignore ‘the possibility that people different from themselves might have other ways of being human, other understandings of the body, or other ways of coping with death that might make cannibalism seem a good thing to do’ (Conklin 2001: 6). Her rare plea for scholars to accept and put cannibalism in perspective is supported by Mikel Burley (2016) and by Claude Lévi-Strauss in a short essay, one of his most recent before his death, We Are All Cannibals(2016[2013]). This essay makes the call to hunt for cannibalism beyond the confines of its stereotypical hunting grounds, by arguing in material culture terms that if things or possessions are technologies of self-extension for a person, then dispossession, repossession and dispersal of a person’s material accumulations or extensions amount to cannibalisation of that person, regardless of whether the person is physically dead or seemingly alive.

Even the idea of gift exchange ceases to be confined merely to the circulation of material substances: it is a form of cannibalism, and could and should be understood in terms of eating the other up by degree in little gift parcels, in lieu of making an instant, once and for all, meal of the person, in the manner of a boa constrictor. Eating up is not only a multivariate practice and process. It takes myriad forms, and is often far more intricate than meets the eye, even as gazing is a spectacular form of eating up the other.

In anthropological practice for example, as anthropologists who may or may not be interested in cannibalism as a subject of ethnographic research, we are all too aware of how much cannibalisation of our informants, their histories and stories, intimacies and local knowledges would apply to us who, often with inconvenient and intrusive technologies of observation and lack of reflexivity and positionality, frequently study down or around the poor in remote localities and locations, in the interest of promoting our personal careers, discipline and/or making a difference in the lives of the poor and the powerless (Nyamnjoh 2012, 2015b; Gordon 2013). And if we were indeed in the company of cannibals, seeking to immortalise their rapacious savagery with our cameras, how often do we stop to ask ourselves questions such as: ‘Where does the heart of darkness lie, in the fleshy body-tearing rites of the cannibals or in the photographing eye of the beholder exposing them naked and deformed piece by piece to the world?’ (Taussig 1987: 117).

Such cannibalisation may not always be mitigated by the fact that anthropologists have already recognised that ethnographic praxis is fundamentally premised on the time and generosity of others, that it may often be awkward and uncomfortable, and that the gift of friendship may be the best form of reciprocity an anthropologist can marshal in order to ‘repay’ their interlocutors. It is not often that we feel or allow ourselves to feel cannibalised in turn by those we encounter in the field, who might want to take us into confidence as a bridge, translator or facilitator for taking to the wider world – on their own terms – their own creativity and its outputs or whatever other end they seek to achieve by associating with an anthropologist they perceive, rightly or wrongly, to be well-connected and well-suited for their purpose (Schwarcz 2017). If, as I have argued, cannibalism is dispersed and often part and parcel of ordinary human beings and doings in contemporary life, rather than an exceptional practice performed only by primitive ‘savages’ in the past, then surely, such cannibalistic tendencies must seep into ethnographic praxis, since the discipline of anthropology does not stand outside the societies it seeks to comment on. Instead of sweeping under the carpet our own cannibalism as anthropologists, it is worth looking into whether and how anthropology itself might be considered a form of cannibalism (or, at least, as having cannibalistic tendencies), but one that desperately seeks to present itself as productive, invigorating and crucial to unsettling routine assumptions about the anthropologists and their interlocutors.

Beyond anthropology, just imagine how much eating we as humans do of others, with our eyes and ears mostly, thanks to the global proliferation of instant multipliers of visual and oral images of spectacle and the spectacular by information and communication technologies such as the television, the computer, the internet, cell and smart phones, large and gigantesque video projection, and social media platforms such as Google, Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. Such cannibalisation entails opening oneself to being cannibalised in turn, not only by other humans, but by the ultimate facilitators and ‘macdonaldisation’ of consumer cannibalism – the technological companies for the mass production and circulation of desire. In this regard, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, the four most important tech companies, have each ‘embedded themselves in our lives, hugely influencing us by playing to our basic human instincts: from the eternal human search for answers to our need for love’5(see also Galloway 2017). Their lure and allure tempt us to indulge without relent as the prisoners of desiring greed that we all are. As the controversial and scandalous harvest of the personal data of over 87 million Facebook users in the USA by Cambridge Analytica – a firm linked to former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, which compiled user data to target American voters – shows,6these tech companies could fall prey to or connive with third party public relations and/or political campaign companies, who are willing to go to extreme lengths, however unethical, to serve the propaganda and ideological interests of their clients and sponsors.7

Imagine how much consumption of celebrities and their jaws-dropping sizzling photos and videos – in a manner not dissimilar to how predators of the wild feast on their prey – we would otherwise go without, were it not for this global proliferation of and instant gratification for desire made possible by these cannibalising magic multiplier technologies and tech companies? Maggie Kilgour has written of ‘a veritable boom of cannibal literature, film and criticism’ in the West since the late 1960s, making of ‘the cannibal … a major modern mythical figure’ of ‘a ‘consumer society’ uneasy about its own material appetites’ (Kilgour 1997: 19). As Jennifer Brown has argued, the entertainment industry of music, film, literature and television offer a popular menu of cannibalism delights for millions of customers, from snacks to five course meals (Brown 2013). In December 2011, as part of a TV show meant to provide ‘serious answers to stupid questions’ two Dutch TV presenters, Valerio Zeno and Dennis Storm, ‘ate pieces of each other’s flesh in front of a live television audience’, in response to the question: ‘What does human flesh taste like?’ (Van Beers 2012: 65).

When accusations of cannibalism are literal and confined to the real or imagined actual ingestion of the flesh and bones of other humans, such accusations are usually a ploy for something else. During the unequal encounters of the past between the West and the rest, for example, claims and accusations of cannibalism served as the perfect excuse for enslavement, colonisation, exploitation and forceful Christianisation and Westernisation (Arens 1979; Barker et al. 1998; Hulme 1998; Gustav 1999; Valsiner 2000; Conklin 2001: 4; Obeyesekere 2005; Watson 2006; Sewlall 2006; Travis-Henikoff 2008: 102–103; Avramescu 2009; Rothera 2009; Mackintosh 2011; Brown 2013: 17–53; Wankier 2016). As Gananath Obeyesekere (2005: 1) puts it, the often dramatised accounts or ‘cannibal talk’ of man-eating natives as part of a repertoire of Western obsession with ‘savagism’ was a ‘colonial projection providing a justification for colonialism, proselytism, conquest, and sometimes for the very extermination of native peoples’ (Obeyesekere 2005: 1). Cannibalism was then and now, ‘the ultimate charge’ that a group of people so labelled deserved not only the status of savages worthy of extermination, but that you who had labelled them thus were authorised to do the exterminating (Kilgour 2001: vii).

In many an instance, colonialism was justified by presenting prospective colonies as virgin territories awaiting the embrace (passionate or tentative), enchantment, consummation and domestication – cannibalisation so to speak – by the benevolence of expansionist enlightenment penetration spearheaded by European settler masculinities. In other words, the colonising, enslaving and dispossessing West failed to notice the irony of its very own cannibalisation of non-Western ‘Others’, their labour, bodies, creative energies and material riches, while actively claiming real or imagined cannibalism amongst those it sought to annihilate literally, socially and metaphorically.8How could they not see that their craving for total and absolute control over the colonised – body, mind and soul – was nothing short of cannibalism (Brown 2013)? Would they be surprised, subsequently, to learn that the tools of self-extension, ownership and control (books, media and ideologies of superiority, disinformation and misinformation) we use to cannibalise spectacularly end up cannibalising us in turn (Debord 1990)? How can we be surprised when we – in the manner of trigger-happy, bloodthirsty, control freaks – have learnt repeatedly, that our mass produced man-hunting killing machines and weapons of mass destruction are just as cannibalising when turned inwards against our communities, our loved ones and ourselves, as they are devastatingly cannibalistic towards our prey, our enemies and those against whom we go to war?

In their cannibalistic endeavours the penetrating, colonising and enslaving Europeans were aided and abetted by tools of self-extension such as popular literary traditions that feasted like scavengers on fictitious encounters with avid cannibals in which male Western adventurers were intended to prove their manhood and bravado and affirm that they had, in Indiana Jones-like fashion, ‘indeed travelled into the wildest, most dangerous and exotic realms of human existence’ (Conklin 2001: 5; see also Lumholtz 2009[1889]; Célestin 1996; Gill 1999; Rawson 1999; Guest 2001b; Blythe 2003; Obeyesekere 2005; Brown 2013). Drawing on her study of the legitimating literature of the colonial encounters between the English adventurers and their constructed cannibals of distant lands in India, Africa and elsewhere, Jennifer Brown concludes:

The colonial adventure fiction from Robinson Crusoeto Tarzanthrived on gleeful descriptions of savage cannibals and the dashing heroics of the English men pitted against them. Driven by a need to justify imperialism and to glorify Englishness, these books built on a long tradition of labelling the enemy or Other as cannibal. By reducing the natives to animal status, the colonialists could rape the land with impunity and label themselves civilizers. However, beneath all of these heroics was a creeping anxiety. Joseph Conrad questioned the rapacity of the colonial system itself and shed a glimmering light on the not-so-attractive appetites of the supposedly civilized imperialists (Brown 2013: 215).

Given the contested nature of empirical information pertaining to pre-European and precolonial forms of sacrificial anthropophagy or cannibalism, many an endogenous people and community find themselves often at the mercy of unsubstantiated ‘cannibal talk’ (Obeyesekere 2005: 257). Repeatedly represented as cannibals by invasive Europeans in the past, some native communities, such as the Maori of New Zealand, eventually developed a strategy of identifying themselves as cannibals as a form of deterrence or ‘a weapon of the weak’ (Obeyesekere 2005: 52–56).9Similarly, under German colonialism the Maka of eastern Cameroon earned a reputation as ‘hardened cannibals’ (Geschiere 1997: 33–34), a reputation which they eventually accepted and learnt to play upon to their advantage. Thus, when during one of his field work visits Dutch anthropologist Peter Geschiere invited a Maka village elder to eat at his house, the elder started the meal with this ‘shocking’ affirmation: ‘It’s good. Before we ate whites. Now we eat with them.’ (Geschiere 1997: 28). In the face of such self-serving mythical accounts of cannibalism, it is hardly surprising that many a scholar, especially from the non-West, has tended to be rather sceptical of any reported matter-of-fact accounts of cannibalism and to demand rigorous scrutiny of the purported evidence (Arens 1979; McGowan 1994; Salmon 1995; Hulme 1998; Conklin 2001: 6; Kilgour 2001; Obeyesekere 2005; Petrey 2005; Watson 2006; Langfur 2014a, 2014b; Lévi-Strauss 2016[2013]; Metcalf 2014). This is especially the case when, in the absence of credible documentary evidence, claims of cannibalism are attributed to archaeological sources (Barber 1992; Salmon 1995; White 2001; Carbonell et al. 2010), which might offer evidence ‘that some humans (or human corpses) have been treated with a certain lack of respect’ but not necessarily proofthat ‘the flesh of the humans whose bones have been discarded in the village dump actually had been eaten by village residents’ (Abler 1980: 311). The closest to evidence of cannibalism, in findings and conclusions by archaeologists, among whom cannibalism remains ‘a contentious issue’ (Bello et al. 2016: 739) and ‘virtually all the evidence has a measure of ambiguity and is capable of alternative interpretation’ (Green 1998: 169) would read more or less as follows:

Results: The frequency of cut marks at Gough’s Cave exceeds 65%, while it is below 1% in the Serbian sites, and no human tooth marks and only one case of percussion damage have been observed on the three Serbian collections. The distribution of cut marks on human bones is comparable in the four assemblages. Cannibalized human remains, however, present a uniform cut mark distribution, which can be associated with disarticulation of persistent and labile articulations, and the scalping and filleting of muscles. For secondary burials where modification occurred after a period of decay, disarticulation marks are less common and the disarticulation of labile joints is rare. The micromorphometric analyses of cut marks on human and non-human remains suggest that cut marks produced when cleaning partially decayed bodies are significantly different from cut marks produced during butchery of fresh bodies.

Conclusions: A distinction between cannibalism and secondary treatment of human bodies can be made based on frequency, distribution and micromorphometric characteristics of cut marks (Bello et al. 2016: 721).

William Arens, for example, argued that Europeans, who dramatised the cannibalism of the non-Western societies and cultures they sought to conquer, Christianise and Europeanise, would be hard pressed to point to any concrete examples, beyond their prejudices and overly fertile imagination of their long-distance travellers (sailors, merchants, soldiers and missionaries) and writers, where cannibalism was an effectively institutionalised and socially accepted practice (Arens1979, 1998; Petrey 2005: 114–118; Watson 2006: 15–16; Estok 2012; Brown 2013: 4–5). In South Africa, missionary obsession with, preconceptions and appetites for cannibalism and fascination with the slaughter and consumption of humans were instrumental in shaping both the form and the content of the narratives of their African informants about their beliefs, cultures and socialities (Delius 2010). As Hal Langfur has argued in relation to European encounters with indigenous communities in Brazil, the primary goal was ‘conversion’ of the natives as ‘the ultimate confirmation for colonists that their mission was just, that the natives, given the right conditions, might be guileless lambs, willing – even eager – to submit themselves to church and crown’. In this connection, ‘cannibalism was only the most disturbing of behaviors invoked to condemn them as savages, to legitimate their slaughter, to justify their enslavement and the seizure of territory’ (Langfur 2014a: 5).

Uncomfortable, perhaps understandably, with the raw, cannibalistic violence characteristic of Western encounters with non-Western worlds, Arens, if only to drill home his point that a morbid fascination with cannibalism says more about the rituals of the fascinated than those of the fascinating (Brady 1982; Mar 2016: 325), did not hesitate to throw whatever baby there may have been in claims of cannibalism out with the bathwater of Western insinuations, stereotypes and extravagant exaggerations on cultures of ritual and rampant cannibalism among non-Western peoples in distant places (Abler 1980; Sahlins 2003). As a strategic ploy to draw attention to the contentious nature of texts pregnant with exaggerations, prejudice and innuendo and offering a powerful licence for radical alterity and stereotyping with impunity, Arens most certainly had a point. His point was especially worth marking if one takes into account these words by Jennifer Brown on the unrelenting fascination with cannibalism in the West: ‘cannibalism in our culture is not simply indicative of our obsession with it, but also highlights the sheer pleasure we take in it, hearing about it, contemplating it, fantasizing about it’ (Brown 2013: 2). When it is not supposedly real cases of humans eating humans that are depicted, it is fantasised cases of zombies, werewolves and Dracula-like vampires feasting on human blood to ensure a regular menu of fears (ranging from the racial and the psychological to the political, economic and territorial) and fascination with cannibalism and the enduring ties between the human and the beastly in the civilised cultures and creative avenues of self and collective cultivation of the West (Brown 2013: 10).

That said, why is William Arens’s discomfort so understandable? So relatable? Was he utterly disgusted by the highly ideologically driven, thinly substantiated and palpably questionable arrogant claims of superiority brandished by European scholars in their monologues on Europe and its thirst for conquest? Did the fact that the inadequately documented overly sensationalised cases of cannibalism are overwhelmingly about the non-Western world, and that the documenting is mostly from the outsider standpoint of the European adventurer and mostly by European scholars exacerbate his disgust (Petrey 2005)? Was Arens further disgusted by the fact that scholars and the ruling elite of the global south (products of the colonial world in many regards) actively participate in the reproduction and perpetration of colonialist narratives, imagery and practices of cannibalism in its many forms, reifying the terror of their purported barbarism and cannibalistic nature as constructed in Western literary, anthropological and related representations (Taussig 1987; Marcelin 2012)? Was Arens’s whole purpose to, as Marshall Sahlins suggests, create doubts about the ‘apparent “truths”’ of cannibalism ‘by arguing that their status as truths is derived from the regime of power on whose behalf they have been constructed’, and through this, ‘to assume the moral high ground’ as defenders of the indigenous peoples against the the predatory excesses of an invasive West (Sahlins 2003: 3)?

Why are we so defensive, so eager to distance ourselves from cannibalism even when we have little or no evidence to the contrary (Takada 1999: 23-29), and despite the ever surging enthusiasm of archaeological findings using more sophisticated scientific techniques of authentication (White 2001)? Could the reason be the persistence of European eagerness to keep shifting the goalposts of a common, universal humanity even through standards of measure dictated by its own subjectivities in past encounters engineered and propelled by various crusades of missions civilisatrices (Devisch 1996, 2017)? In other words, could the reason for our being overly defensive be that even among its non-Western critics, understandings of cannibalism continue to be narrowly framed and articulate around a rather limited Eurocentric idea of consumption and of what it means to be human? Still in different words, could the rest of the world be guilty of seeking recognition and representation for its own humanity within the very narrow parameters or frames of reference imposed by the very Eurocentrism that licensed the violation and debasement of that humanity from the outset of unequal encounters?

If alternative cosmologies, ontologies and epistemologies silenced systematically by the zero sum logic of Eurocentrism were to replace or at least enter into serious conversation with the prevalent Eurocentrism, would our approach to cannibalism maintain the same unease, discomfort and defensiveness that William Arens so eloquently expresses and with which many of us identify?

Put differently, would our understanding and approach to cannibalism change were we to stop whitening up (becoming assimilated, incorporated or cannibalised by whiteness and its reductionist indicators of being human), or at least doing so rather sheepishly (Devisch 1996, 2017)? If we were to seriously challenge the skewed Eurocentric understanding in which our cannibals are always from the next geography (be it continent, region, country, town, village, ethnic or racial community) (Brady 1982; Rawson 1999: 168–169, 183–184; Valsiner 2000),10could we be more accommodating of the fact that cannibalism is part and parcel of being and becoming human, in the fullness of the challenges confronting our creative imagination? In this connection, Brown (2013: 12) notes that even when the cannibal is provided for within the boundaries of the Western nation, as opposed to the colonial jungles of yesteryear, the tendency remains to depict them as ‘outside the boundaries of the civilised modern city’. Could Arens’s unease with cannibalism, an unease shared by many a non-Western intellectual, be accounted for by a zero-sum model of civilisation that privileges appearances, the imaginary and differentiation over and above the experiential and the messiness of its everyday articulations?