Des is a doctoral candidate working on a thesis at the University of Melbourne on cannibalism, and how its cultural manifestations (i.e. books, films, news reports, etc) challenge the assumed superiority of humans over other animals.
What, or whom, would you be willing to eat, if you were starving?
We face daily a marketing chorus telling us to consume ever more voraciously, while at the same time being warned that resources are being depleted, temperatures are rising and limits to growth are being reached. People hunger for the abundance they see paraded around them and are enraged as their own life gets more difficult.
Those we are willing to eat must first be objectified, turned into impersonal “things”, divorced from the cute animal who was slaughtered at our behest. But aren’t humans supposed to be different? This blog will look at the ways humans are similarly objectified by cannibals (real and fictional).
The growing public fascination with cannibalism reminds us that we, too, can be prey and then meat, and offers a stark choice: are we also more than “just” meat? Or will we let that anger, that frustrated entitlement, and that knowledge of our indisputable fleshiness, bring us ever closer to crossing that thin red line between carnivore and cannibal?
This blog started, as texts about food should do, at a dinner table. A friend of mine was a commercial sales rep for a big technology company and had to fly around all parts of Asia, and was required to socialise and dine with prospective clients. Cultural variations in cuisines had made his eating habits extremely eclectic, and he boasted that night, to a table including a number of vegans, that there was no kind of animal he had not eaten, or would not eat. I pondered this: in our restricted circles, horse meat, kangaroos and even rabbits would be looked on askance; monkeys, snakes, dogs and cats would be right out. Yet there was one animal that, it turned out, he had not eaten, despite his bravado, a species of hominid (great ape) named Homo sapiens.
The subject of food choices is endlessly intriguing: people who will run screaming when faced with a cockroach will happily tuck into a plate of prawns, which are the underwater versions of the same type of animal. Pescatarians, those who eat no meat but happily eat fish, will often refuse to touch shark flesh. In our own class, Mammalia, we will chow down on a seemingly random selection of species: we eat cows but not horses, sheep but not cats, pigs but not dogs. Yet in cultures all over the world, we will find seemingly arbitrary exceptions: in the Middle East pigs are out, cows are sacred in most of India, and horses are a delicacy in some countries and a scandal when found in pies in others. I have another friend who will happily eat most kinds of mammals but will not go near rabbit flesh.
When asked about how these choices are made, the common response is a shrug of the shoulders and a reference to what we were taught to eat as children. But of course nothing is ever that simple: many children love non-human animals and are shocked when they discover the connection with the contents of their dinner plates. A period of socialisation, of seeing some animals as loveable and others as food, is necessary before they can again face the family over a Sunday roast. Much later we discover, or are brutally informed, of the horrors of industrial agriculture: the confinement, torment and industrial slaughter of billions of gentle domesticated animals each year for food, for profit. We then have a new learning phase of dissociation: putting on the blinkers, erasing the sounds and sights of the slaughterhouses. Erasing what we know, just as we do when the ads come on for starving children or refugees.
“Others” – be they non-human animals, refugees or terrorists, have to be objectified, a process which is a necessary prerequisite for any form of abuse. A prerequisite of objectification, in turn, is supremacism, the view that a certain group are superior to others and should therefore be entitled to dominate, exploit and sometimes even eat those others. As humans, we believe we are superior to other animals, (or just “animals” as we call them), pretending that we are not in fact animals ourselves. Within our species, we find all sorts of ways to objectify other human groups such as racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, etc.
This blog will look at ways the animal known as “human”, one that is usually not considered prey, is dissociated, objectified, turned into meat, both in fiction and in fact. Some writers have tried to place the act of cannibalism into a historical footnote, but, as I will cover in future blogs, it still happens, and happens often. If society deteriorates, be it through political division, climate change, natural disasters, war or a perfect storm of outside events, could we revert to the cannibalism of which we so readily accuse our forebears? Will our voracious appetite for meat (we kill some 70 billion land animals annually for food) make it that much easier to harvest the flesh of our fellow humans?
The Cannibalguy blog will be updated weekly and will concentrate on reviewing movies and books and television shows that involve cannibalism. Some weeks, I will concentrate instead, or as well, on news items regarding actual or at least alleged acts of cannibalism reported in the press.
The name of the blog, “The Cannibal guy”, is used ironically – I am not advocating cannibalism! Please don’t tell the magistrate that it was my idea – I am appalled at the way we callously kill chickens and lambs and pigs and cows, so certainly don’t want to add another victim species to the list. But what we do to other animals – be it eating them, wearing them, experimenting on them, or making them perform for our amusement – requires us to see ourselves as different, higher, closer to angels than to our fellow denizens of earth. I hope that a glimpse into the world of those who see us as “just meat” might in some way alter those perceptions, and help us toward a kinder, more considerate world for humans and other animals.
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Can human subjectivity survive the experience of humans as “just meat”?