- Our Cannibals, Ourselves
In Our Cannibals, Ourselves, Priscilla L. Walton examines the pervasiveness of the trope (and practice) of cannibalism in post-Second World War American culture in the context of earlier accounts of the cannibal Other, the validity of which, she rightly points out, has been seriously questioned in recent decades. Applying Michel de Certeau's theory of the historical 'despatialization of boundaries and cultural norms,' Walton claims that there has been a paradigm shift in understandings of cannibalism over the past several centuries from 'them' over there to 'us' here, a domestication paralleling the transition from modernism, 'a stable figure of Otherness,' to postmodernism, 'a field of conflicting significations.'
Walton draws on an impressively wide range of interdisciplinary scholarship and primary material from television, film, political and medical discourse, journalism, and contemporary fiction. The first chapter outlines earlier attributions of cannibalism to Others in travel literature and sensational novels, mentioning current scepticism among a number of scholars about these accounts. (William Arens, whose The Man-Eating Myth has been of fundamental importance in critiquing the role of anthropologists in perpetuating stereotypes about habitual cannibalism, unfortunately appears as Jonathan Arens throughout Walton's book.) The second chapter turns to disease and the transition from 'filth theory' to 'germ theory,' relating epidemics, vaccination, flesh-eating diseases, and even computer viruses to cannibalism. Chapter 3 analyses vampire literature and movies in the light of Cold War ideology and aids. The fourth chapter is concerned with mad cow disease, anxieties about food production (and the 'food disparagement law' that restricts public criticism), and the related disease of Kuru suffered by the Fore of Papua New Guinea, once thought linked to cannibalism, though Walton presents some of the imperialist ideology evident in the documentation (while nevertheless referring to them as 'the cannibalistic Fore' in the introduction). Dietary disorders, particularly anorexia nervosa - an inverse form of cannibalism, Walton argues, because [End Page 449] it involves the body feeding on itself - are the subject of the fifth chapter, which includes a discussion of postcolonial texts linking such conditions to the resistance of oppression. The final two chapters treat flesh-eating serial killers and issues associated with consumer culture and capitalist economics.
Our Cannibals, Ourselves provides an interesting introduction to contemporary concerns about the body and its relationship to an often threatening world. Walton's treatment of fictive representations of these concerns is one of the strong points of her work, partly because the comparison with cannibalism is made most explicit in these sources, whereas it is often tenuous in other sections. To claim that epidemics are cannibalistic because they threaten to 'devour' a population is a stretch, as is it to insist upon cannibalism in vaccination because it involves the 'use of bodily materials for the sustenance of another.' A clearer working definition of 'cannibalism' would minimize this slippage, though it might also make it harder to state unproblematically, as Walton does, that the 'transformation [of cannibal tales] into household phenomena is unique to this era.' Additionally, Walton's overarching assertion about the twentieth-century shift in perceptions of cannibalism from 'there' to 'here,' while frequently stated, is never convincingly argued and lacks historical nuance. To posit an earlier perception of cannibalism as being solely the practice of Others 'out there' is to overlook those whom Norman Cohn calls 'Europe's inner demons': early Christians, Jews, witches, all accused of anthropophagy to justify their persecution. It also fails to account for Renaissance anxieties, for example, about the ingestion of body parts for medical purposes, debates about the Eucharist, and textual employment of the trope to critique social and gender inequality. Nonetheless, as a study of twentieth-century issues relating to the interconnections between disease and consumption, there is much that is useful here. [End Page 450]
Jan Purnis, Department of English, University of Toronto