Rule-bound savagery

In his account of the world’s geography, Hegel offered an infamously racist image of the African “Negro” as a savage beast, “the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state”.[i] The Negro was so unhuman, in fact, that his existence would question the very idea of a human Universality, excluding the African from all justice and morality – concepts he could only hold in contempt. The proof for his inhumanity was found in his tolerance for tyranny and predilection for cannibalism, a practice the true human would be deterred from by pure instinct. Lacking all higher reverence, the “sensual Negro” found nothing but matter in man, that is, mere flesh, and accordingly, “the devouring of human flesh is altogether consonant with the general principles of the African race”.[ii] Lacking proper civilization, savage man found in his fellow beings nothing but matter, that is, meat like any other meat.

For obvious reasons, Hegel’s prejudiced view has not been unchallenged. In fact, an alternate understanding of cannibalism is found already in Schopenhauer who pointed out that the savagery of cannibalism and murder, in fact, stands parallel, rather than opposed, to the intricacies of European civilization. That is, while in one country evil may be expressed as cannibalism, in another, it rather takes the delicate shape of “court intrigues, oppressions, and subtle machinations”.[iii] Cannibalism and courtship is but culturally bound versions of the same force, a drive towards wickedness. Against Hegel’s compulsion to situate the cannibal outside of the Universal, Schopenhauer rather stresses how cannibalism itself is a civilizational phenomenon, a custom relying on a particular cultural context.

The view of cannibalism as an expression of social cultivation, rather than a lack thereof, would dominate 20th Century anthropological discourse. Arguing against Hegel, Georges Bataille stressed how, as a social act, cannibalism relies on a close familiarity with, rather than ignorance of, the law. As an act of transgression, it is a hyper-cultivated phenomenon, for, whereas the brute animal eats indifferently, it is the social protocols surrounding human flesh, its very status as sacred and forbidden, that “arouses the desire” in the cannibal.[iv] Rather than an act of savagery, cannibalism is a willful transgression relying on the palpable presence of a strong social taboo: “the taboo does not create the flavor and taste of the flesh but stands as the reason why the pious cannibal consumes it.”[v] Accordingly, Franz Steiner stresses how the very notion of the taboo, etymologically speaking, denotes both the holy and the profane, the exalted and the debased.[vi] Where Hegel only saw a lack of reverence, Bataille notes how transgression itself is an act of piety, as it is born out of reverence for the rule broken.

[i] G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree, Kitchener: Batoche (2001), p. 111.

[ii] Hegel, p. 113.

[iii] Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, trans. E. F. J. Payne, vol. 1, p. 369.

[iv] Georges Bataille, Eroticism, trans. Mary Dalwood, London: Marion Boyars (2006), p. 72.

[v] Bataille, p. 72.

[vi] Franz Steiner, Taboo, London: Cohen & West (1956), pp. 31-32.

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