Sunday, August 19, 2018

Encountering the Cannibal: Melbourne University Open Day Introduction to Anthropology


Whether it is medicine or psychology or astronomy university subjects aim at professionalizing what is an ordinary experience pursued with varying intensity by people in their everyday life. Medicating the body and thinking about the body in medical terms did not begin, nor does it end, with the study of medicine at university: people think medically about their bodies and the bodies of others all the time. Even with the rise of medicine as a profession people are wont to leave ‘thinking medically’ to medical doctors. There are always people who will tell you they know better than the doctor without them having pursued any medical studies. Such people often claim that what they know, they know from experience. Such experiential knowledge acquired in everyday life should not be discounted. It is a problem however when people who claim it as a source of knowledge think that those studying medicine at university stop having experiential knowledge. University knowledge comes on top of, not instead of experiential knowledge. In medicine, it gives you access to an accumulated, extensive, formalised, institutionalised and rigorous way of thinking and doing medicine that one can only access through hard work, at university.

Anthropology is no different. One of its primary objects is the way we reflect on our experience of cultural difference. This is something people do all the time from very early in life. For most of us, the earliest experience of cultural difference is when we get to visit our friend’s house for the first time, perhaps for a sleepover, and discover that they do a number of things differently in their household. In many ways, our first pre-anthropological anthropology is when we go home and report to our parents or siblings on the experience: ‘You should see what they have for breakfast!’ or ‘I can’t believe how they talk to their mum and dad!’. We engage in our first comparative analysis without necessarily calling it so. From this early experience of cultural difference we move to more elaborate experiences of travelling and encountering cultural differences connected to studying away from home and travel.  We move from ‘you should see what the neighbours do’ to ‘you should see what they do in Kerala (assuming you’re not from Kerala)’ or ‘It’s seriously weird how they live on the Gold Coast in Queensland (assuming you’re not from there).’ Our life involves then continuous reflections on such encounters with difference and a continuous engagement in comparative cultural thinking. Anthropology offers on top of this everyday reflection, a formalised, institutionalised and rigorous way of investigating and thinking about how we do this kind of reflection.

Even for those who do not wish to become professionals, anthropology involves a reflection on the pitfalls of such everyday comparative thinking such as ethnocentrism and the hierarchical classification of cultures. It is one thing to note that unlike you who spreads a small quantity of it on your toast, the neighbours like their breakfast vegemite piled on theirs, it is another to think that your mode of eating it is normal and while theirs isn’t. This is an early sign of ethnocentrism. You note that your friend’s dad doesn’t have a dryer and hangs the clothe on the line and you think that your household is more ‘advanced’ and that they are ‘backward’ because you use the latest dryer.  Note your friend might come to your house and note that you use a dryer and decide that you and your parents are ‘backward’ because you still seem unconscious of the imperatives of global warming. Anthropologists are not immune from ethnocentrism and ‘cultural hierarchy’-mode of thinking but anthropology over the years has provided us with important tools to help us avoid such pitfalls, or at the very least, when we feel we want to be ethnocentric, to do so fully aware of the pitfalls of how we are thinking.

This is why cannibalism offers a good ground for highlighting the way anthropologists think. For cannibalism often invites the strongest forms of ethnocentrism. Even a person who is otherwise a committed cultural relativist, who always thrives on ‘respecting other cultures’, will find it hard to say: ‘ah well, in your culture you eat people, in my culture we don’t, that fine by me’. Cannibalism also invites a strong hierarchical mode of thinking. It often conjures images of backwardness, barbarism and primitiveness. But Claude Levi-Strauss has argued that there are certain cultural continuities between cannibalism and other forms of eating in the world. For instance, he argued that endo-cannibals (people who eat their own people, usually eating a bit of an ancestor as a demonstration of love and to ingest his or her spirit) tend to boil the human meat that they are eating, while exo-cannibals (those who eat the meat of others, usually eating a bit of a worthy enemy warrior again to ingest their warring spirit) tend to grill the meat. Levi-Strauss argues that this is in continuity with our own habits of favouring stews for homely endo-dining (eating among ourselves, such as in a family dinner) while bar-b-ques are favoured for exo-dining (eating with others in a social event).  This is why as one anthropologist noted it is more often than not men who do the bar-b-que while women, as symbols of homeliness, are associated with making stews. Stews, Levi-Strauss also stresses, are more located in the realm of culture in that one needs a cultural utensil like a pot in order to stew, while grilling is the unmediated, or only relatively mediated, action of nature on nature: meat on fire. This might not seem much but such type of thinking helps bring cannibalism in from the wild, as it were, by showing that far from being a sign of wilderness, it is a cultural form like any other cultural form and shares with other cultural forms some important characteristics.

Another important way of thinking cannibalism anthropologically is to reflect on it as a mode of ‘eating our own’ with an emphasis on what ‘our own’ means. Our society highlights a human/non-human divide when we think what is edible. Societies that engage in cannibalism also have a divide between what is and isn’t edible except it is not as anthropocentric as ours. They see the divide as between some humans, animals and plants and other humans and animals and plants. They consider some plants and animals and even the landscape as ‘one of them’ more so than other humans. For them eating such plants and animals is considered taboo and is just as sacrilegious as cannibalism appears to us. We can see a continuity today between such cannibalistic forms of thinking human commonality with animals, and current vegetarian and, even more so, vegan, modes of thinking which redefine the boundaries of what is the edible ‘non-us’ and the non-edible us. 
I am sure some tabloid newspapers, those great experts in university education, will tell you otherwise, but anthropology does not invite us to become ‘pro-cannibal’. It will allow us, however, to be open to what we can learn from cannibalism in terms of other ways of thinking our relation to nature in these times where such alternative modes of thinking are so necessary in the face of global warming.

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