Cannibalism is almost instinctively horrifying. Indeed, the notion of eating ourselves remains one of our greatest taboos. Thinking of it, one is almost immediately dismayed, unsettled, repulsed. Even mentioning it may cause one to squirm.
But cannibalism is above all a cultural metaphor for savagery or depravity, or a satiric tool suggesting the tendency of systems or cultures to destroy themselves. It is a method of satirizing civility or exposing its lack. But why does cannibalism lurk in this way in the shadows of our imaginations? What other, more pressing worries might cannibalism mask? In this piece I propose to examine cannibalism as metaphor—not practice. This is less an essay than a series of provocations, exploring the sources of our revulsion toward the concept. To be clear, active cannibalism—the murder of people in order to eat them—is a moral wrong. I am interested in its potential as a metaphor for or symptom of cultural anxieties.
When apparently real cases of cannibalism occur or are reported, they do so only under very few circumstances: in cases of horrifying desperation (as in the Donner Party, a group of westbound pioneers who have now become legend), ignorant primitivism (as in frightful and often unsubstantiated tales of “savages,” remote in terms of both time and space), or unrestrained psychopathy (serial killers, the most notable in this case being Jeffrey Dahmer). So cannibalism is always rationalized. They did it because they were starving to death. They did it because they didn’t know better. They did it because they were crazy.
More to the point, cannibalism exposes various cultural fears. As a metaphor, it’s a method of expressing anxiety about various ideological endeavors. In Maggie Kilgour’s essay “The Function of Cannibalism at the Present Time,” she observed, from her perspective in 1998, that cannibalism “seems to be gaining force as a symbol, both in criticism where it is associated with the tools of oppression used by a guilty imperial past, and in popular culture, where it seems to suggest fears about the present” (240). For Kilgour, cannibalism’s power lies in its ability to reveal fears about imperialism or capitalism—to suggest the futility of such endeavors. As Kilgour says, cannibalism represents “the nightmare of a capitalist society, uneasy about its own appetites” (241). In the act of cannibalism, the cannibal consumes without producing, suggesting a threat to capitalism: the hint of its self-destructive conclusion. And this is still true today, as tales of cannibalism in various forms are still prevalent—still have the power to horrify (from cannibals like Hannibal Lecter, most recently in the TV series Hannibal, to the innumerable representations of zombies in popular culture). The power of the tale of the Donner party, too—or of any tale of desperate survival—has to do with this bureaucratic anxiety: it, too, presents a tale of unproductive consumption, suggesting not just the folly of this legendary group of travelers but perhaps the folly lurking behind so-called progress. That is, the story’s frisson lies in the implicit question it poses: What would you do? Could you bear to eat your own to survive? More significantly: Will we reach a point where we cannot produce—where we can only consume? Is there such a point? What will we do? It is thrilling because we can imagine it in terms of our own lives, or we imagine ourselves into the narrative.
Cannibalism can also justify ideologies. Inherent to cannibalism is the erasure of boundaries: what is acceptable to eat and what is not, what is civilized behavior and what is not. To link the practice to “primitive” cultures, which, I think it is safe to say, was more common in the nineteenth century than today, is part of a racist imperialist project: to reinforce imperial civility and emphasize the need for other cultures to be educated, to become civilized. Cannibalism in these cases is typically a ritualistic or tribal practice, for example “the eating of one’s elders.” Enlightened individuals can smile and say, What silly customs. How fortunate that we have moved beyond such barbarity!
The relationship between psychopathy and cannibalism may be equally troubling. On one hand, the notion of cannibal-psychopaths is ghoulishly thrilling. It plays again with the concept of the non-producing consumer, and in this respect is similar to the tale of the Donner party. I will return to the relationship between psychopathy and cannibalism later, but I wish to emphasize here that each of the rationalizations I have suggested delimits civility. Each exposes some line beyond which a “normal” person would or could not cross. Therefore, as a metaphor, cannibalism is a balm: we would never go so far.
Cannibalism represents the outer limits of the civilized. It is a far-flung, barren outpost; we civilized twenty-first-century Americans consider it beyond the borders of the known or knowable; it is, in terms of civility, our ultima thule. And I mean that literally. Cannibalism is attributed to those who are remote from us, either geographically, as in cases of so-called savages, or psychologically, as in cases of serial killer-cannibals, or both, as in cases of desperate travelers.
I wonder to what extent the concept of Western civility rests on its apparent opposites. Groups define themselves in relation to other groups, define what they are by establishing what they are not. I return again and again to Norbert Elias’s The Civilizing Process, in which he theorizes the history of “civility” or manners—and Elias seems relevant here. He suggests that, in response to the formation and changing of states and power, we Western individuals have increasingly “civilized” ourselves, which is to say that we exercise ever greater automatic self-restraint over our behavior.
In feudal courts, those of higher rank subjected their social inferiors to control of impulses and emotions. Elias writes that “restraint on the drives was at first imposed only in the company of others, i.e., more consciously on social grounds. And both the kind and the degree of restraint corresponded to the social position of the person imposing them, relative to the position of those in whose company he or she was. This slowly changes as the social distance between people is reduced” (117). Extreme class differences have gradually become less so over time, and people more interdependent on each other. Accordingly, the possibility of feeling shame has increased, even for the upper classes in the presence of the lower classes, and in private as well. As social subjects, we fear shame and, in order to avoid it, restrain animalistic impulses. We develop complex rituals and rules surrounding such activities as eating. In short, manners hide that which we share with animals. Consider table manners. Chewing should be silent, unseen; once food enters the mouth it shouldn’t leave, and nobody should witness others’ mastication. We use napkins to wipe the traces of food from our faces and even hide those traces by placing our napkins on our laps. We disguise the origins of animal protein by using words with Germanic etymology to designate animal and French etymology to designate food (cow and pig become beef and pork). All aspects of the eating process are disguised as, or refined into, manners.
As for emotions, we encourage restraint of those, too, or we organize and monitor their release. In 1939, Elias observed that “the discharge of affects in physical attack is limited to certain temporal and spatial enclaves. . . . This is now reserved to those few legitimized by the central authority (e.g., the police against the criminal), and to larger numbers only in exceptional times of war or revolution” (170). The aggressive has specific socially sanctioned outlets (I imagine that sports could be another example). He further noted that “even these temporal or spatial enclaves within civilized society in which aggressiveness is allowed freer play—above all, wars between nations—have become more impersonal, and lead less and less to affective discharges as strong and intense as in the medieval phase” (170). One wonders what he would make of war today, which is perhaps, for most, as impersonal as possible. It seems that a culture’s identification as civilized requires organized release of aggression: is this necessary for the maintenance of power?
A culture’s self-identification as civilized also requires the definition of others as somehow uncivilized. Those whom we have imagined to be cannibals are, for various reasons, clearly uncivilized. Surely most people, when they attempt to visualize cannibalism as an event, a practice, reach automatically for all that is disgusting and brutish. Not, that is, an elegant, civilized meal. (With one major exception—Hannibal Lecter—to whom I will return later.) Cannibalism represents the stripping of all civilized behaviors, both in terms of the action itself (which is always also linked to murder, as opposed to some form of passive cannibalism) and in terms of civilized self-identity. A major element of imperial self-definition is the establishment of its own civility in comparison to imperial subjects. To link any group of people to cannibalism—an act that represents violence, impulsion, aggression, and above all excess; cannibalism is maximally savage—is to render it automatically, irrevocably barbaric. For a culture to expose the excesses of some other group is to soothe that culture’s fear of its own excesses.
Part of cannibalism’s danger lies in its undoing of boundaries: between what is acceptable to eat and what is not, what is civilized behavior and what is not, what is sacred and what is defiled. This is true for all taboos. Taboos are necessary to the construction of national identities. Every member of a given culture must understand what it is that will result in exclusion from the group. This is law, in one aspect. It is difficult to think of many taboos more disturbing than cannibalism, but some of those that come to mind as equally abominable include incest, pedophilia, and bestiality (all prohibited socially as well as legally). There is also endogenous murder—killing someone from within one’s own culture or social group. All of these involve the erasure or conflation of categorical distinctions between social groups. We assign to our various kinds of social relationships (between family members, lovers, friends, etc.) certain codes and regulations. Incest, pedophilia, and bestiality blur the lines that separate the sexual from other kinds of relationships. Endogenous murder blurs the categories of “us” and “them”: to whom we owe our respect and whom we may justifiably kill. Moreover, to launch an attack against socially or politically defined “others” constitutes an affective discharge, as Elias tells us.
In Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva claims that the abject is the object of primal repression; it confronts one with “those fragile states where man strays on the territories of animal” (12). Cannibalism is abject because it forces an encounter with an act that is stripped of all civility, all refinement. Cannibalism is a dirty practice; it defiles those who practice it. Defilement, Kristeva posits, “is an objective evil undergone by the subject. Or, to put it another way, the danger of filth represents for the subject the risk to which the very symbolic order is permanently exposed, to the extent that it is a device of discriminations, of differences” (69). The cannibal, for whom humans have use value—as most of us consider that all other animals have use value—represents the risks to which we expose ourselves, in consuming more than we can produce.
Kristeva claims that the rituals and discourses of the sacred attempt to code the taboos that preside over social formations: incest and death. Prohibitions against incest form the bases of social formations. I wonder if this is true for cannibalism as well. Kristeva in fact links cannibalism to rituals related to pollution. She writes: “Pollution rites arise within societies afraid of over-population” (78). These rites are not present for societies afraid of being underpopulated or dying out; in such cases the prohibitions are relaxed—and we associate cannibalism (e.g. of the dead) with those cultures. A culture that fears overpopulation also fears pollution, also fears cannibalism, possibly because the concept of cannibalism directly posits that humans might have use value: that there is, or will be, waste present in the society (in the form of corpses). It is a gruesome imagined consequence of a society afraid of running through its resources (I am thinking of zombies here). (A friend of mine pointed out that, while we’re wary of imagining that humans could have use value, we accept that they have exchange value.) A population’s fear that it will consume more than it can produce involves fear of that population itself being consumed (consuming itself). Civility disguises what we have in common with animals. To consume ourselves would be to threaten that civility, to make us no better than other animals.
As I have suggested, we rarely associate cannibals with etiquette, refinement. But there is one notable exception: Hannibal Lecter. The recent NBC television series Hannibal (2013-2015), developed by Bryan Fuller and starring Mads Mikkelsen as Dr. Lecter, aestheticizes the interplay between civility and savagery. In Hannibal, cannibalism is aestheticized to the point of eroticism. Played by the alluring Mikkelsen, the character of Hannibal himself demonstrates utter refinement: neat, immaculately dressed, well-mannered, soft-spoken, warm but not quite friendly. Still, the extent of his refinement suggests, in the world of the show, a fundamental mystery. While viewers are aware from the beginning (and from popular culture) of who he is, that he is a murderer and a cannibal, the other characters do not know. Indeed, contradictory tensions form the source of our pleasure as the viewers: between what we know and what the characters don’t, between the sumptuous cinematography and set design and the gruesome murder plots, between Hannibal’s exterior charm and the evil we know to be at his core. The camera spends a great deal of time lingering on food and its preparation. Hannibal, of course, a fine chef, takes great care to provide his guests with exquisite meals. (Another tense pleasure: the dinner parties charm and delight Hannibal’s guests and their palates, although we know all the while that they consume human flesh.) The phrase “food porn” comes to mind, as the show is indeed pornographic. If cannibalism represents the very antithesis of civility, Hannibal posits that, as in a dialectic, maximum civility is met with its opposite, cannibalism, and produces psychopathy. In fact, Hannibal follows an intensely rigid moral code: “Eat the Rude” is a popular tagline from the show. For him, the destruction and subsequent consumption of “the rude,” so designated by him, is a means to enforce civility through eradication of those who lack it. Hannibal destroys humans and uses them as food; but he does so to ensure that civility will last. He follows a kind of eugenicist project designed, apparently, to maintain a kind of social order.
Hannibal Lecter's homosexuality is implied in Thomas Harris’s novels, as Kilgour has pointed out. For her, Harris creates a world in which “cannibalism is certain and direct, while sexuality, and the difference between male and female is murky and hard to determine. At the same time the story draws indirectly on the traditional association of homosexuality with cannibalism, both conventionally feared as involving a loss of differences” (252). Fuller’s Hannibal further emphasizes the homoerotics of the character. Kilgour writes about Red Dragon that part of the goal of the hero, Will Graham, is “to reassure both himself and others that they’re not [alike]—that there is a way of telling the two apart” (250). In Hannibal Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is troubled, a brilliant FBI profiler whose ability to track down killers may be rooted in his psychological similarity to them—including to Hannibal. As many a Tumblr blog will attest, this is part of the show’s appeal. The series hints at the similarities between the two, that Will Graham is potentially as psychopathic as Hannibal; that, further, the connection between the two is a palpably erotic one. Issues of power are at work here too: Hannibal is a predator, who preys on the “rude”; he also “preys” on Graham’s mind as his psychiatrist; Graham’s job is to prey on predators, including, if he can catch him, Hannibal.
Caleb Crain has written about the historical association between cannibalism and homosexuality, claiming, “In the nineteenth century, cannibalism and homosexuality shared a rhetorical form. Both were represented as ‘the unspeakable.’” More specifically, in Herman Melville’s fiction, “the most open expression of love between men is tangled up with cannibalism. Love between men was a difficult thing to write about; the language of cannibalism defused some of the shame and offered the resource of a more speakable but parallel violation of the body.” The link between Hannibal and Graham is unspeakable in Hannibal, whether it be, in fact, psychological or sexual. That link is represented as an FBI agent’s hunt for a cannibal, who at the same time “hunts” him. Is Hannibal’s monstrous appetite a disguise for an “unspeakable” sexuality? I do not believe that that is quite right. What is most interesting about the series is its playing with the explicit and the implicit: we never see Hannibal in the act of murder but we witness scenes of nearly pornographic food preparation and lavish dinner parties. Similarly, we never see physical contact between Will Graham and Hannibal but we do see heavily loaded conversations that suggest the similarity between the two. Does Hannibal make an argument about these connections? I am not sure. But it teases us that politeness, civility, and sanity are misdirections, disguises for other fears.
I am interested in that association between homosexuality and cannibalism. Our culture has feared queer life for a very long time, and that fear has to do, as with all taboo subjects, with the erasure of conventional boundaries. It has to do as well with unrestrained, misdirected appetites: “violations” of the body. Perhaps the most prevalent stereotypical trait of gay men is promiscuity, a kind of excess that parallels the excesses of cannibalism. To conflate the two is unethical and incorrect (as well as disgustingly malicious). This is not a connection that exists, really, today. But I hope it is clear at this point that I have not exactly been writing about cannibalism. Rather, I have been discussing the cultural anxieties capitalism produces, of a population that consumes without producing. This is about the function, and the danger, of taboos. To combat or soothe cultural anxieties, various metaphorical depictions or understandings of practices and peoples have arisen to point out the extremities and violations of others: cannibalism is one. Illness and sexuality are others. The logic, I think, is something like this: “As long as we do not do this, we are fine. We have not yet gone that far.” The dirty or polluted, as Kristeva suggests, are abject, and as such they expose the risks underlying social order. Cultural hatred of cannibalism as well as of queer life are related; both are scapegoats.
Let me attempt to be clearer. In AIDS and Its Metaphors Susan Sontag points out that, for America circa 1989—and in 2016 too, I think—“Appetite is supposed to be immoderate” (76). Our culture encourages all manner of indulgence, including sexuality. She continues: “Hardly an invention of the male homosexual subculture, recreational, risk-free sexuality is an inevitable reinvention of the culture of capitalism, and was guaranteed by medicine as well” (77). The discourse surrounding AIDS spoke to capitalism’s other injunctions, which complement those telling us to indulge: “Limits have long been set on the indulgence of certain appetites in the name of health or of the creation of an ideal physical appearance—voluntary limits, an exercise of freedom. The catastrophe of AIDS suggests the immediate necessity of limitation, of constraint for the body and for consciousness” (78). The discourse played into concerns with the moderation of appetite. She observes that the response to AIDS is, in addition to being reactive, expressive of a desire for stricter control on personal conduct. I bring all this up to emphasize that, under capitalism, we feel both compelled and justified in pursuing any whim or desire, even if we fear, at the same time, that we should curb our appetites. If Elias is relevant today—if we still subject others to shame and ourselves to automatic self-restraint, which I believe we do—it is in the ways in which our choices as consumers are socially evaluated and regulated. Taboos reveal appetites that are misdirected or immoderate. I reference Sontag specifically because she uncovers the ways in which the evident excesses of gay men came to be judged and condemned. She is concerned about the dangers of using illness, and specifically AIDS, as a metaphor.
I am concerned about the ways taboos work. The problem, of course, is that some taboos are not really defensible. Certainly active cannibalism is wrong, and so is, for example, bestiality. But my point is that cannibalism is a fear that functions in a way similar to less monstrous practices—other taboos. The establishment of taboos allow a culture to define itself, which is a harmful act insofar as it allows a culture to avoid confronting issues with its construction and behaviors. A society that consumes without producing seems to be a real risk; we may run ourselves into the ground. And perhaps our very civility prevents us from understanding the risks to which our social order is exposed—because we are not yet, apparently, that bad. Cannibalism lingers as a horror; fearing it, we prevent ourselves from considering the potential of our own cannibalistic inclinations. In short: the way that not only this taboo but all taboos function is dangerous. There is not a better method of evaluating moral and immoral actions (for some taboos are and some are not immoral); but what we have is insufficient. Allow me to close with one further reference to Sontag, the final lines of her novel The Volcano Lover: “They thought they were civilized. They were despicable. Damn them all.”
Crain, Caleb. “Lovers of Human Flesh: Homosexuality and Cannibalism in Melville’s Novels.” Steamboats Are Ruining Everything. Caleb Crain, n.d. Web.
Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations. 1939. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000. Print.
Kilgour, Maggie. “The Function of Cannibalism at the Present Time.” Cannibalism and the Colonial World. Eds. Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, and Margaret Iversen. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 238-60. Print.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. Print.
Sontag, Susan. AIDS and Its Metaphors. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989. Print.