“Anthropophagy” is a core concern of the anthropology of the Amazon, as well as a key concept of the Brazilian artistic avant-garde of the 20th century. In fact, Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 “Anthropophagic Manifesto” continues to reverberate throughout Brazilian art, music, literature and film, but also through Brazilian anthropology, to this day. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, one of the leading anthropologist of our time, discusses the problem of anthropophagy with philosopher and biologist Cord Riechelmann and philosopher and translator Oliver Precht.
Full text of the introduction by Oliver Precht
Tonight we will be talking about anthropophagy, which is a fancy word for ritual cannibalism. Ritual cannibalism – that means, we will not be talking so much about the kind of cannibalism that occasionally occured in a state of emergency, like for example after a plane crash, when the survivors have eaten each other out of hunger or out of sheer desperation. We will instead be focusing on cannibalism insofar as it has a certain function in and for a given society.
The question of anthropophagy or ritual cannibalism is in many ways at the very center of this entire series of events, at the center of these „revolutions in anthropology and cinema“, that the title of this event alludes to and that will be explored in a variety of different ways. To get to the very bottom of these revolutions in anthropology and in cinema, we have to broaden this already broad perspective even more. We have to take into consideration how the „cannibalist revolution in anthropology and cinema“ was also a revolution in and of philosophy, in and of literature and above all a political revolution. It would be tempting to say that it was a cultural revolution, but this expression would be quite misleading, not only because it reminds us of the horrors of the more recent Chinese history, but also because the notion of „culture“ itself, the distinction between „nature“ and „culture“ that is so fundamental to our European or Western or Modern perspective is not being left intact by this revolution. In fact, one of the „leaders“ of this revolution, if we can call him that, the Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade, said that the cannibal revolution is, I quote, „bigger than the French revolution“. He even said that it is, I quote again, the „unification of all revolutions in service of humanity“. The Chinese cultural revolution would of course not count as one of these revolutions „in service of humanity“ – at least not in Oswald de Andrades eyes. To state that the cannibalist revolution is the biggest revolution and that it is unifying all previous revolutions of course means making a pretty strong claim. Maybe it is just a joke, or a lie, or both at the same time, at the end of the day Oswald de Andrade is a poet and the poets at least according to some theoretical philosophers are liars. But then again there are also some philosophers, the ones that could be called political philosophers, who were lying too, not as a mere joke, but as a noble lie, for good, serious and political reasons.
In Brazil the reference to this famous poet or philosopher or politician or anthropologist – maybe you, Eduardo, can later comment on his anthropological speculation – in Brazil this reference would be a good starting point for our discussion tonight. Almost a hundred years ago Oswald de Andrade, or just Oswald as he is commonly referred to, wrote a very famous text called the „cannibalist manifesto“, he initiated the „cannibalist movement“, he edited the „journal for cannibalism“ and he influenced Brazilian culture in such to such a degree that a somewhat intellectual Brazilian audience would need no further explanation.
Here, in Germany, Oswald and Brazilian culture of the 20th century in general don’t play a very big role, although this seems to change. Anyway, if we want to understand the work of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, which of course is one the main purposes of this evening, it is important not to forget this specifically Brazilian cultural and intellectual background. I think, it would be a big mistake to simply dissolve his work in some sort of general or international theoretical discourse, because this general international discourse will always turn out to be a European or Western or Modern discourse. That’s why it was important for me and some of my colleagues to publish his book „The inconstancy of the wild soul“ alongside with the famous „Cannibalist manifesto“, which both appeared in the same book-series last year here in Germany and hopefully will make this intellectual tradition more visible.
Meanwhile, as most of you will probably have heard the name Oswald de Andrade for the first time, we will have to find a different starting point. I guess almost everyone in this room saw either a flyer, or a poster or the website announcing this series of events called „Tropical Underground“ and probably came across two sentences, two questions rather, that might have caught your attention and that I want to use as a starting point for tonight’s discussion. Roughly translated, they go something like that:
„Do the indigenous people of the Amazon really eat their enemies or do they only tell that to the anthropologists? And what are the Brazilian Poets and filmmakers up to, when they declare cannibalism their esthetical principle?“
So let us start with the first question: Do or did the indigenous people of South America really eat their enemies as it was reported by the first missionaries and colonisers in the 16th century? Or was this just a big lie, maybe some kind of collective delusion by the Europeans, something that belongs to the realm of fairy tales, a lie that was repeated so many times, especially by European philosophers, that eventually everyone, even modern day anthropologists believed it? And if it was a lie, did the missionaries just tell that lie in order to come up with a fascinating story, an entertaining joke, that would sell a lot of books? (Which by the way they did, Hans Stadens report of his encounters with the cannibals of Brazil was one of the first international bestsellers in the history of books). Or did they tell this lie not so much for the sake of becoming famous, but for political reasons, in order to discredit the indigenous people, so that they could justify conquering and enslaving them? Were they lying more like the poets or more like the political philosophers?
Or, yet another possibility, was the entire thing a lie not so much on the part of the missionaries but on the part of the indigenous people themselves? Did the indigenous people themselves tell that lie? And if so, what might have been their reason? Did they just tell these stories, because they were lacking the distinction between reality and fiction, between reason and myth? Or did they tell them, because they themselves were pursuing some kind of political agenda? Or were they just joking? Or, and at this point things become very complicated, was cannibalism in a broader sense of the word so central to the culture of these people that we first have to understand its meaning, before we can even talk about, what notions like „fiction“, or „philosophy“, or „reason“ or „humor“ or „politics“ might mean to them?
This question, or rather this entire set of questions concerning the objective reality of cannibalism has sparked an extensive and sometimes fierce debate over the last 500, but especially over the last 40 years. As I am not an anthropologist by training, I am not in the position to sum up all the details of this debate. From a birds-eye-point-of-view one could say that the one side is accusing the other side of projecting the image or the phantasm of cannibalism on the indigenous people, thereby turning them into some sort of savage creatures, that are lacking culture altogether. Their adversaries on the other hand argue that the problem is not so much calling these people cannibals, but claiming that this practice of ritual cannibalism and the cannibalist cosmology or Weltanschauung is something inherently barbarian or even evil. I think the former position which tends to deny the historical reality of cannibalism has its legitimate place in the history of the decolonization of thought. But I also think this history has moved on. Anyways we’ll have time to discuss these matters later on.
Let’s move on to the second question for now: What are the Brazilian poets and filmmakers and musicians up to, when they declare cannibalism their esthetical principle? When Oswald de Andrade wrote his cannibalist manifesto, he was of course referring to the stories about the cannibals of the 16th century. But even if these stories were nothing but lies, we still need to know whether he just repeated a lie that he believed to be true or whether he renewed this old lie, that he knew to be a lie? Did the poets and filmmakers think that the stories about the cannibals were an adequate representation of some kind of natural state of humanity, embodied by the Brazilian natives? And did they refer to this presumed natural state of humanity because it seemed like a funny and rebellious thing to do? Or did they have a critical understanding of the function of cannibalism in the broad sense of the word? Did they maybe understand something crucial about the „culture“ or the „society“ of these people, did they recognize something like a general principle of these indigenous societies that could be used to create a counter-culture, a counter-culture that would rival the dominating European culture? Because that is what they were aiming for, a counter-culture and not a return to some sort of presumed natural and innocent pre-cultural state of humanity.
When they declared cannibalism their principle they didn’t mean that they were going to literally eat their fellow humans, although they love joking about it. What they meant was that they were going to eat, do devour the imported European culture. This process of symbolic cannibalism, of devouring the European culture and thereby transforming it and oneself into something different, this process always meant turning the entire cultural inventory into a series of fairy tales or jokes. So these modern day cannibals were joking about many things, maybe also about the reports of actual cannibalism from the 16th century, but they were dead serious about this political principle of symbolic cannibalism.
Before I stop talking and we can start discussing these two questions in greater detail, let me just stress one last point that might help putting the whole debate into perspective. When the anthropologists and the poets talk about cannibalism, especially about the cannibalism of the indigenous people, it is crucial to understand, which perspective they take on. Do they speak in the name of and from the perspective of the Europeans or Westerners or Moderns or do they speak in the name of the indigenous people? This seemingly simple question soon becomes complicated, if we assume that the perspective of the indigenous people denies this very distinction. If it is true that the perspective of the indigenous people can be described in terms of perspectivism, then the fundamental distinction between Europeans and Natives is only a valid distinction for the Europeans. And as you probably know that is exactly the thesis of Eduardo Viveiros de Castros work. The notion of perspectivism is what it became most famous for. And this notion implies that the difference between Europeans and Natives has to be tackled from two different points of view. It is of course not my place to take on the perspective of the indigenous, a perspective that Eduardo Viveiros de Castro outlined so beautifully in his various books. But let me just quickly tackle this distinction from a European or Western or Modern point of view.
It is fair to say, that the most fundamental distinction of our culture is the distinction between nature and culture. This constitutive and at the same time violent distinction between nature and culture has created for us, for us Europeans, or Westerners or Moderns something that has been called the „Great Divide“. On the one side of this Great Divide there’s us, the Europeans, or the Westerners or the Moderns and on the other side there’s the Indigenous. Or as Achille Mbembe once put it: Nature starts on the other side of the European fence.
The problem with this distinction between nature and culture and with the Great Divide that follows from it, is that we can neither uphold it nor simply get over it. I cannot get into the reasons for why it cannot be upheld, as this would mean summing up the entire more recent history of philosophy and the world. We cannot get over it, because we are trapped in this way of thinking and in the world it has produced. Western thought has produced the distinction between nature and culture and the Great Divide in reality, more precisely as a political reality. So the big question is: How do we deal with this distinction and this Divide that we cannot escape. We still have to make use of it and we still have to position ourselves on either side of the Divide. But we have to do so without unconditionally reaffirming it, we have to do it with a different attitude.
And this question of attitude leads me to a very short footnote in your book Cannibal Metaphysics, a footnote that can easily escape the reader’s attention. It’s a shame the book hasn’t been published in German yet, but as soon as you get the book in German, pay special attention to the footnote no. 4 of the first chapter of the book. While the main text is dealing somewhat objectively with the Great Divide between the Europeans and the Indigenous peoples, the author adds in the footnote: „I include myself among the Europeans out of courtesy“. In the French edition, which was the first to appear, even before there was a Brazilian edition, the same thing: „Je m’inclus par courtoisie.“ So in German it will probably read something like: „Ich rechne mich zu den Europäern, aus Höfllichkeit oder aus Wohlwollen, oder aus Rücksicht“. At first it’s a bit confusing, you read it and you think „out of courtesy“, that’s nice, that’s very kind of him, but out of courtesy for who? Aus Rücksicht für wen? Out of courtesy for the Westeners, that will read the French and English translation? Or out of courtesy for the indigenous people the book is talking about? It’s hard to tell and it is only when we look at the Brazilian edition, which was published after the French translation, that things become a little clearer, or at least it seems that way. In the Brazilian edition the footnote reads: „I have included myself out of courtesy for the original audience”. He has, in the past, included himself, but maybe he doesn’t anymore and he did so out of courtesy for the primarily French, primarily European audience of the first publication.
So when addressing the Brazilian public, which might well include the indigenous people the book is talking about, the author seems hesitant to include himself among the Europeans, maybe even tempted to include himself among the Indigenous – maybe out of courtesy for them, because from a perspectivist point of view, the claim that you include yourself among the Europeans or Westerners or Moderns wouldn’t make much sense, it would sound like – a joke.
So please keep that in mind, when I ask him the first question: Do the indigenous people of the Amazon really eat their enemies?