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"