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   suche   steirischer herbst, 24. Oktober - 24. November 2002

steirischer herbst 2002
visual arts

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Claude Rawson - abstract
Eating People is Wrong? Anxieties about Cannibals from Plato to NATO

From the earliest times, we have defined ”barbarians” as, among other things, cannibals. There is an alternative and complementary tradition which accuses ”us”, their rulers or conquerors, of being more cannibal than the cannibals. Its best known expression is in Montaigne, but it goes back to Plato, to Aristotle, and even earlier. This tradition of reverse accusation coexists with a species of denial of its literal truth, even when it is known to be true, as when Montaigne compares Frenchmen and American Indians, or when Swift writes about the Irish. Thus, in the defence of the ”barbarian” victim of ”civilized” violence, ”we” have usually said ”we” are more cannibal than ”them”, but only in a metaphorical sense. There is a historic human obsession with the cannibal question, with its imputation to others as well as to ourselves, as one of the deepest tests of cultural self-definition. ”We” generally do not admit to it. It is something that ”others” do. Eventually, however, even the imputation to others comes to be denied, as, in a different sphere and in different cultural contexts, the Nazi Holocaust is sometimes denied: indeed, some anthropologists and historians (Sahlins, Vidal-Naquet) have compared the two denials, and the comparison has itself been denied by the cannibal-deniers.
Cannibal-denial has more recently become a feature of postcolonial polemics. Within these polemics, there has been an accentuated concentration on cannibal themes, idioms, and images, usually with an insistence on the metaphorical status of the cannibal subject-matter. Thus, ideologues in the age of NATO who deny that people eat people are simultaneously claiming that tyranny, imperialism, capitalism, consumerism, and even literary criticism, are forms of cannibalism. A very early drift to metaphor, visible in Plato, has been hypertrophied into a dominant discourse in our own time. In Plato, the metaphor of the cannibal tyrant was intended as a comparison with ”real” cannibals. The children of NATO don’t believe in ”real” cannibals, but have a habit of comparing almost everything else with these creatures in whom they don’t believe..