Intellectual history of cannibalism

 Issues 39 Smith Avramescu 1

“Cannibal Feast–Fiji.” Postcard sent on 15 July 1907.

Romanian political scientist Cătălin Avramescu is the author of the enticing book An Intellectual History of Cannibalism. It is apparently the best scholarly book about the cultural impact and political theory surrounding people who eat people. Interesting topic, but perhaps too meaty for my current media diet. I'm pleased Cabinet has interviewed Avramescu so I can digest his material in more bite-sized chunks. OK, I'll stop. From Cabinet:
 Images K8927 Do you really think it’s possible to do the intellectual history of cannibalism without doing the history of cannibalism itself?

Yes and no. Cannibalism was often taken as a “thought experiment,” much like Maxwell’s demon or Schrödinger’s cat. Philosophers have often fantasized about human flesh and the dire necessity that could compel a human being to eat another human being, though they have almost never observed it directly. Sometimes they even imagined situations that are plainly impossible, like that of the sailors adrift in a boat who supposedly cast lots to choose one to be sacrificed. In real circumstances, they would die of thirst long before dying of hunger. That said, I am reluctant to draw a sharp distinction between “real” and “imagined” or “symbolic” cannibalism. There is no separate Ding an Sich of anthropophagy, one that is not preceded by need, fear, or lust, or one that does not leave in its wake guilt, pleasure, or terror. On the other hand, actual cannibalism always lurks at the periphery of our sanitized, modern world of representations. A few years ago, a collection of photos from World War II was declassified. These pictures were so extreme that they had been kept in a vault at the Finnish Ministry of Defense for more than sixty years. Among the atrocities frozen in time by the camera are images of cannibalism in the ranks of Soviet soldiers...

What is next for cannibalism studies? Are there themes from the book that you would like to see developed further, by yourself or by someone else?

I am reluctant to advance a program. Scholarly research owes more to chance encounters that it often admits. I must say, though, that I would be interested to read a systematic analysis of how the non-Europeans have perceived, from a moral point of view, the diet of the Europeans.

"The Raw and the Cooked: An Interview with Cătălin Avramescu"

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  1. RE” “imagined”

    There is, of course, a very real case where life-boat occupants killed and ate one of their number.
    R v. Dudley and Stephens (1884) 14 QBD 273 (QB)
    Classic law school reading about necessity as a defense for murder.
    (It isn’t one.)

  2. This Christmas stocking filler still has a leg in it. Nom!

    Also – “plainly impossible”? Is he calling the survivors of the whaler Essex liars? Famous case, inspired Melville, and all that.

  3. Sounds very interesting but there is once case of a breed of chimp that eats another of it’s species (chimp b) after invading and capturing chimp b’s territory and eating the enemy chimps regardless of the fact that’s there is an abundance of figs (their main source of food and reason for invasion.

  4. I wrote my Master’s dissertation on the ethics of cannibalism in survival situations and I can say that there are indeed many documented cases of people having eaten others in ‘castaway’ like situations. Indeed, as Avramescu notes, people would die of thirst before hunger, however this is in most situations.

    In the case of Dudley, Stephens and Parker, Parker was killed because Dudley and Stephens believed his blood to still be viscous. Had they waited for him to die his blood would have been too congealed to offer any sort of hydration. The fact that they ate his body afterwards is incidental and is something that, having already killed him, made sense.

    But there are also other cases of survival cannibalism. The most famous and perhaps most recent is in the one involving Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, when it crashed into the Andes. Being surrounded by snow the survivors had no shortage of water. However, their rations did eventually begin to run low and they did indeed engage in cannibalism for its nutritional benefits rather than for hydration.

    The reasons for cannibalism vary depending on the situation and the need. My research concluded that cannibalism can be ethical so long as certain measures are enforced. All potential benefactors and victims must consent, knowing full well that it may be them who may be killed and eaten. The method for choosing must be random and fair. It must be taken as a last resort.

    Avramescu’s book is interesting but it has little to no philosophical or ethical considerations. That’s fine, however, as it is a history and not a treatise on its ethicalness.

  5. “In real circumstances, they would die of thirst long before dying of hunger.”
    Actually, if you find yourself stranded on the open sea, you should drink about a cup of sea water a day, starting the first day. Your body will be able to process the low amount of salt and you will get enough water to survive. (as long as you have a companion to snack on)

    1. Actually, if you find yourself stranded on the open sea, you should drink about a cup of sea water a day, starting the first day. Your body will be able to process the low amount of salt and you will get enough water to survive. (as long as you have a companion to snack on)

      Source?

  6. Damn you, Pescowitz. I’ve had this book in my Amazon wishlist for months, and I was just waiting for the price to drop a bit. Now it won’t drop for at least another 6 months. Thanks.

  7. It’s wild to see a revolting subject being easily laughed off. (Note that more than half of the Comments so far have a lighthearted jokes.) I have this reaction mostly when something revolting happens that doesn’t affect me directly and I can’t change it. That’s when I make jokes too….cannibalism jokes included. Even though cannibalism jokes are always in bad taste.

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