“The history of the world, my sweet,
is who gets eaten and who gets to eat!”
—Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd
Recent historical and anthropological debates on cannibalism have tended towards an examination, or rather an autopsy, of anthropophagi, explaining cannibalism through one of two conventional theoretical methods: a historical materialist approach whereby cannibalism is explained as an institutional practice, a sacrificial ritual embedded within a cultural, historical, economic, and even nutritive practice or a post-structuralist exegesis which dictates that “maneating” is simply a myth, a symbolic construct imposed by Western hegemonic ideology serving to marginalize and reify the other through its discursive encoding within epistemological and empirical paradigms, making the other understandable, representational, and ultimately, more digestible for the self. As both historiography and anthropology primarily depend upon chronicles and other historical documents and ethnographies, any “evidence” of cannibalism purported by such texts also evoke a myriad of political, social, and economic factors affecting the alleged “objectivity” of such material that would necessarily have to be taken into account within any interpretation, and hence representation, of alterity. In other words, the epistemological precepts embedded within historical and ethnographic texts must also be subject to at least the same empirical scrutiny as the scientific “truths” unearthed from these texts, thereby destroying the possibility of any interpretation based solely on scientific historicity or mythical inscription of the other.
Instead, what is necessary within ethnographic discourse concerning the other is a “heterological” approach to knowledge whereby the traditional axis of representation of the other based on empirically and epistemologically grounded documentation, as evidenced through the perpetual internalization of truths and the interment of fictions, becomes displaced by the acknowledgment of several long-neglected issues: temporality, the impossibility of a static truth, and the fictions necessarily embedded within every text. Fiction, as de Certeau points out, cannot simply be dismissed and put into its own “place” since, because of its “metaphoric” nature (unlike the “univocal” discourse of science), fiction naturally “moves into the domain of the other” (1986, p. 202). De Certeau continues this logic stating that:
Knowledge is insecure when dealing with the problem of fiction; consequently, its effort consists in analysis (of a sort) that reduces or translates the elusive language of fiction into stable and easily combined elements. From this point of view, fiction violates one of the rules of scientificity. It is a witch whom knowledge must labor to hold and to identify through its exorcizing. It no longer bears the mark of the false, of the unreal, or of the artificial. It is only a drifting meaning. It is the siren from whom the historian must defend himself, like Ulysses tied to the mast (1986, p. 202)
Fiction, a discourse which “informs the real” is posited against science, a discourse which pretends to “speak the real” (de Certeau, 1986, p. 202); thus, fiction exists in a constant state of agitation, fragmentation, reconstruction, and redefinition in relation to science. Consequently, de Certeau delineates historiography not within the realm of pure fiction or science, but instead locates history within a domain where science and fiction meet as a field of “knowledge”, a synapse between the nerve endings of epistemology and consciousness whereby the “questions of time and tense regain central importance” (1986, p. 203).
Viewed in this way, one might say that anthropology is a discourse which utilizes scientific methodology in order to “objectively” render explicit as many productive, behavioral, and cognitive regularities as possible for a given society, and to suggest how these regularities might arise out of specific conditions, while simultaneously defending these truths by “exorcising” the orbiting fictions which challenge its legitimacy. Accordingly, current interpretation of the other is epistemologically distanced from the self and all examination allegedly takes place within the sterile environment of science: the other is held up to light, examined, tested, proofed, returned to the petri dish, and conclusions about the specimen are entered into the log. The information extracted from and about the other is automatically assumed to be an absolute truth resulting from scientific praxis and not a possible truth resulting from the dialogical interaction of the self and the other (e.g. historiographer and document, ethnographer and individual/s).
Inasmuch as anthropology is concerned with representing the rituals of the other, it could be argued that current representational discourse among the social sciences in general is also a ritual in as much as the epistemological basis of knowledge maintains and guards the steadfast, static bonds between science and truth, self and other, reality and fiction, sacred time and profane time, past and present: “Rituals are given sanctification and rationalization in a culture by being referred to supposedly divine prototypes. Rituals periodically reconfirm the sacredness of their origins and re-establish ‘sacred’ (as opposed to ‘profane’) time for the community performing the rituals” (Eliade, p. 133). The crisis that the social sciences face is manifested through discourse whose ” sacred givens” evidence every product or result of scientific method as “fact” thereby presupposing the questions of power and trust which, ipso facto, are also “given.” Through scientific belief and practice, “truths” are embraced, “fictions” are dismissed, and the questions of power and trust remain elided in order to promote the illusion of transparent fidelity to “science.”
It is this problem of the “given,” the reverence to science and the negation of consciousness, which maintains what I would call a false link or false logic between the atemporality of “truth” and the temporal notions of “subjectivity” within the matrices of representation. It seems to me that representation acts in the name of the “truth” instead of in the name of the “subjective,” thus serving to strengthen or legitimate the epistemological basis of knowledge at the expense of the reified other while claiming to employ critiques of this very type of objectifying system. Therefore, we see how representation maintains the epistemological basis of its own discourse. That is, representation co-opts an other in order to further the very truths with which it examines alterity, ultimately reifying identity through allochronic distancing, collapsing notions of “truth” and “subjectivity” into one malleable whole under the apotheosis of truth, while reaffirming its own discursive “given,” the simultaneous subject and object of knowledge. Representation then, would seem to be virtually impossible given that allochronic discourse is, according to many theorists, inevitable, and for others, a mode of making—not representing—the other.
De Certeau’s notion of heterologies gives the social sciences the possibility of escaping the safe, neat dichotomy of self/other, subject/object, science/fiction, and present/past which established modern theoretical axioms by calling attention to the fact that the object of knowledge “presumed to be exterior to the work of the laboratory, in fact determines its operation from within” (1986, p. 214). In other words, any examination of cannibalism (or any other cultural practice for that matter) necessarily takes place within the space shared by both historical materialist and symbolic explanations as the former concentrates its efforts on that which exists within the “laboratory,” the scientifically proven, observable “facts” about the other, and the latter examines the subjective stimuli outside the sterile space of pure science, scrutinizing the social, political, and even economic motivations which mythically create (or help to create) the object of knowledge. Ultimately, historical or anthropological truths must be acknowledged neither as pure truth nor as pure fiction, but as science-fiction, where the scientific facts and “mythical realities” about the other are scrutinized as symbiotic products of cultural and epistemological praxis.
Returning to the discourse of cannibalism, it seems that we can only examine cannibalistic practices through the dialogical forum of science and fiction —the interstitial sphere where cannibalism exists both scientifically and symbolically. Likewise, as Marshall Sahlins concludes in his study of Fijan cannibalism, the “real” cannot be separated from the unreal, the mythical:
Since cannibalism in an institutional form, particularly exo-cannibalism, is normally an aspect of sacrifice, and concerned with the symbolic values of certain parts only of certain selected victims, something is to be said for definitions of the practice that would make it widespread, tolerating even figurative expressions as permutations of a more general common principle… The problem, of course, is that cannibalism is always “symbolic,” even when it is “real” (pp. 87-88).
Conversely, then, even if cannibalism is not “real,” there still exists a symbolic or mythological construct within which the fiction of cannibalism is based, thus making cannibalism real in—at the very least—an ontological and mythological sense. Correspondingly, the non-existence of a scientifically or mythically evidenced form of cannibalism must still be taken into account as the negative capability of science whereby myth none the less influences the positive capability of the representational act.
In Tropics of Discourse, Hayden White traces the dichotomy of science and fiction through his careful deconstruction of the myth of the Wild Man in ancient cultures, the inscription of the Wild Man into history, and finally the “remythification” of the Wild Man through what he calls “pseudo-scientific” theories:
[T]he Wild Man [is] a re-mythification, because it functions in precisely the same way that the myth of the Wild Man did in ancient cultures, that is, as a projection of repressed desires and anxieties, as an example of a mode of thought in which the distinction between the physical and the mental worlds has been dissolved and in which fictions (such as wildness, barbarism, savagery) are treated, not as conceptual instruments for designating an area of inquiry or for constructing a catalogue of human possibilities, or as symbols representing a relationship between two areas of experience, but as signs designating the existence of things or entities whose attributes bear just those qualities that the imagination, for whatever reasons, insists they must bear. What I am suggesting is that in the history of western thought the idea of the Wild Man describes a transition from myth to fiction to myth again, with the modern form of the myth assuming a pseudoscientific aspect in the various theories of the psyche currently clamoring for our attention (p. 154).
White’s theory of “myth to history to myth,” like Sahlins “historical metaphors” and “mythical realities,” offers academics—historians and anthropologists alike—a sortie: the possibility of shattering the static self/other dichotomy by demonstrating the fictions and “possible truths” which necessarily emerge from scientific methodology and epistemological legitimation embedded within contemporary forms of interpretation and representation. The problem of interpretation for White and Sahlins is that scientific methodology presupposes the dissolution of—or disregard for—the self. Yet, science cannot escape the speaking subject, even as an omniscient narrator, since science predicates episteme which embodies the act of subjectivity—be it viewing, smelling, measuring, interviewing, or surveying. Indeed, scientific inquiry is a tautologically bound to the dilemma of being about a truth based on objectivity while utilizing the subjective presence of the researcher to uncover his or her “facts” about this object of study—be it plant, mineral, or human. With the inclusion of the social sciences, we can no longer reify otherness of living persons with the same material, inanimate characteristics attributed to food groups or rocks. Yet, the inclusion of otherness, of an other consciousness, polemicizes the issue of representation, of not just the other, but also of the self since the positioning of the subject to an other is always a part of discourse. This would suggest that any inquiry of an other would necessarily incarnate an inquiry into the self, the investigating subject. As the self and the other are steadfastly woven into the fabric of experience, we must construct a discourse other than the traditional bifurcations of gazer/gazee, chonicler/chroniclee, through which representation can faithfully be achieved and whereby interpretation necessitates a mirror-like, fluid referentiality, posing any discourse within a real wherein the self and other exist dialogically.
As the acquisition of knowledge takes place within the context of power, representation fosters a community of trust—a trust that relies explicitly on the “guarantee of the real” (de Certeau, p. 213) and the credibility of the representation. Thus, the veracity of any representation of the other in this context would pose truth as being “real” and false as being “fictive.” Adhering to this logic then, any representation of the other would, in a sense, presuppose a rupture in the membrane dividing “reality” from “performance” whereby observation or writing is automatically (and architectonically) established within the realm of the theatrical, the staged and hence becomes a tool which “acquires the right to reclaim, subdue or educate history” (de Certeau, 1984, p. 144). Implicit within my argument is the query as to whether it is possible to reveal or portray “reality” by allochronically examining the other without simultaneously mirroring the self. Using the construction of cannibalism as it exists historically and mythically before and during the voyages of Cristobal Colón, I shall examine the “I“, the wall which epistemologically divides the self and the other serving to universalize difference through the other’s inscription within purely “historical metaphors” and “mythical realities.” The very positioning of narrator/narrated presupposes an unequal strategy of power which must be dismantled in order to allow for dialogical interaction between those who are positioned as the storyteller and those who are the objects of storytelling. Any ethnographic or historiographic pretense of representation or of revealing the “truth” ought to be abandoned for what Tyler posits as “evocation”:
Evocation is neither presentation nor representation. It presents no object and represents none, yet it makes available through absence what can be conceived but not presented. It is thus beyond truth and immune to the judgement of performance. It overcomes the separation of the sensible and the conceivable, of form and content, of self and other, of language and the world (pp. 199-200).
Ultimately, representation assumes a pre-written, a pre-conceived, a pre-represented “truth” which is legitimated through the act of observation, ethnographic writing, filmmaking, and dissection of the other through language which encapsulates and imprisons the meaning within our own frame, our own fantasy. Or, as Benjamin states: “Man therefore communicates his own mental being…by naming all other things” (1978, p. 317). It seems to me that representation today, the unearthing of “truths” about various others—historically and anthropologically—is at the very least the neo-colonial labor of the late twentieth century. Representation is realizable only as a narrative of subjectivity, a memoir of sorts, a dialogical process between the subject who names and the object which is named. Any “truths” resulting from this process are necessarily a synthesis of the observed or chronicled fact as well as the unobserved, unchronicled motivations, preconceptions, the pre-constructed truths, and the exchange of monies and titles that are cloaked in the science-laden discourse of communication: language.
Notwithstanding, language seems to subvert the very possibility of representation since “science adopted a model of language as a self-perfecting form of closed communication that achieved closure by making language itself the object of description” (Tyler, p. 200). Indeed, the language of science is the object of science. Instead of representation, Tyler contends that evocation would free language of the burden of scientific rhetoric which supposes “truths,” seeks objects, forms deductions, and chisels out generalizations. Evocation would then liberate ethnographic discourse from the bonds of universal knowledge and the consequent power imbued with such knowledge: “To represent means to have a kind of magical power over appearances, to be able to bring into presence what is absent, and that appearances, to be able to bring into presence what is absent” (Tyler, p. 208). Ultimately, Tyler posits the postmodern ethnography as a fragment much in the way that Benjamin (1978) and Adorno (1977) construct:
We confirm in our ethnography’s our consciousness of the fragmentary nature of the postmodern world, for nothing so well defines our world as the absence of a synthesizing allegory, or perhaps it is only a paralysis of choice brought on by our knowledge of the inexhaustible supply of such allegories that makes us refuse the moment of aesthetic totalization, the story of stories, the hypostatized whole… For postmodern ethnography the implication is, if not clear, at least apparent that its texts will be projected neither in the form of this inner paradox nor in the form of a deceptive outer logic, but as the tension between them, neither denying ambiguity nor endorsing it, neither subverting nor denying objectivity, expressing instead their interaction the subjective creation of ambiguous objectivities that enable unambiguous subjectivity (p. 208).
In the context of the chronicles written by Cristobal Colón concerning the Arawaks and Caribes, then, we must interpret the written text not as an objective whole, but a subjective fragment which intends (perhaps) to express a universal truth. We ought to acknowledge these chronicles as a communicative element of tension which, when coupled with other “[his]stories” of the “discovery” (i.e. the massacre of indigenous by the Conquistadors), entails a re-mythification of a story engaging the twentieth century reader within a newly “discovered” text. This new text embodies a complex network of temporal and experiential tensions: the dialogically conceived text formed by the voice of Colón; the silence of the object of knowledge and the reader’s own subjective creation within the context of Western epistemology which presupposes an equally vituperative “truth.”
By allying ourselves with a purely historical materialist or post-structuralist reading, we are making one of two essential errors. We are re-mythifying the native as an object of knowledge, a reified creation of our desire through our representation of the other as a Wild Man, “subverting” the subjectivity of indigenous peoples. Or, we are delineating this other as a Noble Savage, thus “denying” objectivity of an “outer logic” or ethos constructed by the other. In other words, it is far too simplistic to merely point out the historical “myths” shrouded by historical texts such as: the decimation of the indigenous, the political and cultural motivation of Colón’s language within his Diario, and the etymological roots of the word “cannibal.” Likewise, we can no longer revert to the purely practical “explanations” of cannibalism: nutrition, taboo, etc. In order for the social sciences to represent, language must engage in what Stoller calls a “tasteful ethnography,” that which incorporates both strategies whereby language is ultimately freed from the responsibility of portraying the “real”: “Free from the social, political, and the epistemological constraints of realism, a tasteful ethnography would take us beyond the mind’s eye and into the domain of the senses of smell and taste” (p. 29).
Two Tales of Cannibalism
The incomparable and solitary fable, for it resembles nothing and is related to nothing, unless it be the strokes of the pen upon the paper; a reality without precedents, without equal, destined to be destroyed with the papers upon which it exists. And nevertheless, because this fictitious reality is the only possibility for being, for ceasing merely to exist, one must struggle boldly, to the point of sacrifice, to the death, as great heroes and the implausible knights-errant struggled, so that others believe in it, so that one may tell the world: this is my reality, the only true and unique reality, the reality of my words and their creations.
—Carlos Fuentes, Terra Nostra
In Conquest of America, Tzvetan Todorov contends that for Columbus, “‘to discover’ is an intransitive action” (p. 13)—that is to say, for Colón “to discover” is an action devoid of intersubjectivity, a deed unaware of another consciousness. Within Colón’s Diario, we read a narrative of the Indian as an object, a blank, insignificant canvas upon whom he can—and does—impose his voice. Colón gives the reader an image of Noble savages without any religion who might afterward be converted to Christianity but still “interpret” their Spanish “visitors” through Christian ideals (i.e. the fact that Colón persists throughout his account that the Indians believe that the Spanish are from the heavens), natives who have no language and therefore must be taken to Spain in order to “apprender hablar” [“learn to speak”] (p. 68). We read of wild Indians who gladly give their possessions to the Spanish and who are in turn fetishized for these very gifts: they now embody a new economy of signification for the Spanish. We see how Colón interprets the Indians through the same discursive imperative with which he understands the Moorish peoples of Spain and North Africa (pp. 120 and 136). In addition, the geographical names ordained by the natives onto various bodies of water and islands are completely ignored and subterfuged with the discursive labelling by the Spanish to where even the Rio del Oro, for instance, maintains both the linguistic and semiotic authority of the conquistadors and is made atemporal through the lack of reference to any prior name or any previous history. Colón’s notion of discovery is locked into the realm of the real (what Husserl calls the wirklich), the sphere of the physical, whereby any character of consciousness remains obfuscated through the exercise of empiricism in search of an absolute “reality”, an objective truth. Or, as Todorov states, a truth which is pre-ordained and “already possessed” (p. 17) before the very act of [the] conquest.
In Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy, Husserl rejects the discourse of natural science which ultimately “reif[ies] consciousness” (p. 103). Instead, Husserl offers his notion of Weltanschauung philosophy, whereby through the discourse of “phenomenological science” we can no longer speak of “things-in-themselves” as Kant contends in his Critique of Pure Reason, since what things are can only be revealed as consciousness. Phenomenology thus opens up the world of cultural values and historical consciousness lending to philosophical inquiry, or as Husserl states:
The greatest step our age has to make is to recognize that with the philosophical intuition in the correct sense, the phenomenological grasp of essences, a limitless field of work opens out, a science that without all indirectly symbolical and mathematical methods, without the apparatus of premises and conclusions, still attains a plenitude of the most rigorous and, for all further philosophy, decisive cognitions (p. 147).
Husserl prescribes that we step outside of the notion—or, as he states, the “superstition”—of purely scientific “facts” in order “to harmonize the disharmonies in our attitude to reality—to the reality of life, which has significance for us and in which we should have significance—into a rational even though unscientific, ‘world-and-life-view'” (pp. 141-147). Acknowledging that knowledge has its essence as its object, phenomenology has a quite humbling effect on the sciences since it neither seeks nor accepts evidence other than that offered by consciousness itself.
Yet, Colón’s Diario narrates a so-called “discovery” of a “New World,” a discovery which posits all consciousness within the sphere of European culture while simultaneously marginalizing and reifying the consciousness of the native through Colóns’s representation of the Indian. From a phenomenological perspective, Colón’s narrative of “discovery” cannot be viewed as a purely empirical artifact, a relic of “truth,” an objective portrayal of “reality” since the text’s traditional link to an “absolute truth” denies the other consciousness, its own “truth” by, to quote Todorov, not “perceiv[ing] alterity.” Further, as Todorov indicates several times throughout Conquest of America, Colón’s quest is not one of “seeking the truth but [of] finding confirmations of a truth known in advance” (p. 19). Colón’s diary serves as a scientific log-book which gives “proofs” which evidence the original theories, the pre-determined truths of both the New World and the other, and which thereby set into motion, inscribing within the tower of empirical knowledge, the mythical formation of reality. Colón’s narrative of the “discovery” of America is merely an act of proving a pre-established truth “truth,” verifying knowledge of the West. In this way, Colón’s voyage is a quest for realizing the myth within a text. The Diario is the inscription of myth into history.
In Heterologies: Discourse on the Other, de Certeau evidences that Western historiography is based on science-fiction, a mixture of science and fiction, whereby representations speak in the name of the “real,” “only if they are successful in obliterating any memory of the conditions under which they were produced” (p. 208). Within this framework, time serves as a barrier between the subject and object of knowledge whereby the “past is conjugated in the present” (p. 215) and the other, the object of history, becomes the medium or the “mode through which time insinuates itself” (p. 217). Historical discourse as defined by de Certeau embodies the “myth of a scientific society that rejects myths” and time is “inscribed as the return of the other” thereby turning scientific discourse into an “ethical project” (pp. 220-221). In The Writing of History, de Certeau expounds on his notion of history by going one step further in stating that history has “become our myth” (p. 45) for the reasons that any historical narration presupposes a rupture in time thereby making ambiguous its origins, that discourse, being a “story-telling” operation (usually) in the third person assumes a death about that which it articulates knowledge, and that the space between “saying” and “doing” is usually reordered around an intelligibility of past events (pp. 44-48). In this way, then, the discourse of chronicling undertaken by Colón relies on the mythical structures present during the end of the fifteenth century—even assimilating two contradictory mythologies into his argument (Todorov, p. 49). Therefore, Colón uses myths to “deprive the object of which it speaks of all history” (Barthes, p. 142) whereby the mythical structures “evaporate” the historical and deprive the other—in this case the native Indian—of any identity outside of the predominant discourse of the West through its interpretation of religion, language, and history. Colón defines the Americans within the structures and values of his “reality,” inscribing the Indian within the space of the other—an other that has no recourse to discursive practice because the consciousness of the indigenous peoples are already engraved within the mythological structures embedded within historiography.
Another example of the mythical premise or preconceptions of cannibalism is found in The Fall of Natural Man, where Anthony Pagden excavates some of the mythical premises of cannibalism pointing out several accounts which were “popularized” by Christian scholars like St. Isidere of Seville and Tertullian. Indeed, by the time that Columbus set sail for the New World, Pagden proves that “anthropophagi had become a regular part of the topography of exotic lands” (p. 81). Furthermore, we see within the Diario that Columbus is directly informed by the Arawaks as to the “existence” of cannibals and, depending on whether he favored his informants or not, Columbus “believes” or “disbelieves” the stories of man-eating. It seems to me, then, that Colón’s discourse of cannibalism lends to a reading whereby the primary phenomenon of anthropophagi could be said to be the myth of cannibalism and the secondary phenomenon is the act of cannibalism as represented through historiography (or what de Certeau would call science-fiction). More so, I suggest that through its first mythical exegesis, cannibalism functions as a historical metaphor projecting the repressed anxieties and desires of the European man onto the native whereby the American is only redeemed or maligned through the pre-existing narratives. In other words, the only interpretation of the American native available to Colón (because he interprets difference as the need for hierarchy) is either his relegation of the Indian to the stature of the Wild Man (i.e. Foucault’s Madness and Civilization) or his redemption of the native as the Noble Savage, achieved by the native’s “unwilding” through: the conversion to Christianity, learning the Spanish language, gaining a history, and of course, giving freely of his possessions.
As the mythical formations of the Wild Man and the Noble Savage are made reality and then inscribed through fictional formation (i.e. Colon’s Diario), the American Indian is once again subjected to a third level of interpretation and representation that exists within the social sciences today: remythification. This process of remythification is exercised liberally today in Western anthropology and historiography in the attempt, ironically, to demythify the other as wild uncovering the psychological, political, economic, and social motivations of the conquistadors in an effort to clarify history, to purify the past, and to reclaim the identity of the other (the Arawak or the Caribe, for instance) as oppressed, exploited, and robbed of language, history, and culture. In this context, historical materialist and symbolic approaches are being employed to understand the past, but in unraveling the dusty layers of older episteme and myths, historical discourse ends up remythifying the other through both the older and newer systems of mythical construction as well as the older and newer sciences. In order for current discourse to “make sense” of the fictionalization of the other within historical texts previously believed to be “true,” it is quite à la mode for writers to conduct mini-exorcisms of the older texts, the older thought, proclaiming these texts untrue for x, y and z reasons. Either way, a certain discursive ethos either unveils the shroud of the Wild Man to replace it with the mask of the Noble Savage or confides that certain acts such as cannibalism did indeed “exist” and that we must understand how this practice formed part of such an “exotic” and “different” culture.
Ultimately, we must question that the very act of representation through purely epistemological foundations for science should be used as a tool for understanding, not as a goal for understanding. In this way then, we must question the very possibility of representation as representation necessarily relies on epistemology and thus reifies consciousness in its faithfulness to knowledge. In other words, the other is perfectly malleable, completely powerless to contest or challenge the “truths” (history) or “realities” (myths and textual de/re-mythifications) demonstrated within the ethnography or chronicle. Historical materialist and symbolic approaches to the other (seemingly) redeem the other by documenting its long, dark, hidden and previously forgotten past or by explaining the “reasons” for such practices so that we may better understand difference. Both approaches to representing the other still attempt to redefine the other within terms that either give into epistemology or into mythology, so to speak. There exists no dialogic interaction between these two discourses, no neutral grounds for subject and object to converse. Indeed, the intermingling between these two terrains within the social sciences is incredibly tainted, to say the least. Perhaps Michelle Rosaldo puts it best in her study of Ilongot headhunting practices:
When anthropologists discuss the “meaning” of things that people say and “mean,” they are, thus, always speaking in implicitly comparative terms because interpretation is of necessity constrained by understandings—themselves comparatively informed—of the significance of certain contexts. Ilongot explanations of their world taught me how to see and hear, and at the same time they required that I “interpret” or “explain” their sense in terms of my assumptions about what mattered in Ilongot lives. The business of deciding where to look and how to hear was thus a product of both what I heard in the field of a particular theoretical bent that taught me to see headhunting within the life cycles of men whose “selves” were shaped by a distinctive set of social processes. In order, finally, to understand why killing could rise to celebrations of collective life, I had to understand its sense within lives ultimately constrained by the relational forms of Ilongot society (pp. 233-234).
Like Rosaldo, many anthropologists agree that the dialectical relationship of experience and the necessary imposition (if you will) of theory form a new meaning—a meaning based on the temporal interaction of at least two consciousnesses, two histories, two experiences, two different “meanings” coming together and dialogically forming a shared experience. Yet, the authority of the anthropologist or historiographer is usually accepted as the verifiable truth because of his/her relation to the discourse of science and the narrative tools used to distance the past, collapsing time into one monolithic whole. Thus, the representation becomes a static “truth” whereby allochronic discourse obfuscates the consciousness of the other, reinscribing the other within our notion and our ritual of “truth.”
Representation, as expressed through narration, would thus form part of what Hegel calls the “dialectic of recognition” whereby time presupposes an ambiguity of truth:
This dialectic process which consciousness executes on itself—on its knowledge as well as on its object—in the sense that out of it the new and true object arises, is precisely what is termed Experience…consequently, then, what is era per se for consciousness is truth: which, however, means that this is the essential reality, or the object which consciousness has (Hegel, p. 142).
Narration linguistically binds meaning, identity; yet, within the context of another consciousness, another perception and memory, the ties of representation are broken and language loses its authority to represent. If anything, representation, in this context, can only demonstrate the “real” lacking the consciousness and experiences of the other. Representation is the temporal subjectivity of the self in relation to either the “mythical reality” or “historical metaphors” of the other.
For Jean François Lyotard, representation “announces the destruction” of the object, the erasure of experience:
Knowing everything, being able to do everything, having everything are horizons, and horizons are at an infinite distance. It is this infinite which paradoxically presents itself ready-made in established knowledge…The end of experience is doubtless the end of the subjective infinite, but, as a negative moment in the dialectics of research, it is the concretization of an anonymous infinite that ceasingly organizes and disorganizes the world… (p. 123)
Thus, representation attempts that which is impossible: to represent the “unrepresentable”—that is, the “object of an Idea” (p. 126). Kant’s notion of “negative” representation would correspond to Lyotard’s since the very gesture of representation puts an object into a relative, specific historical context from which the object is further represented through various acts of interpretation. This, of course, pulls the object from its initial pure space of pure representation and drags it through the murky waters of interpretive, post-interpretive, and theorizing spheres of influence which often impugn the initial representation:
Where the concept of an object is given, the function of judgment, in its employment of that concept for cognition, consists in presentation (exhibitio), i.e. in placing beside the concept an intuition corresponding to it. Here it may be that our own imagination is the agent employed, as in the case of art, where we realize a preconceived concept of an object which we set before ourselves as an end (p. 34).
Just as art presupposes a “preconceived concept,” so too do the social sciences in their continuum of the fabrication of alterity. The act of realizing a preconceived concept for Kant would correlate to Lyotard’s notion of representation as the destruction of experience which posits any representation within a world of endless destruction and re-construction.
Tyler’s notion of evocation presents us with a fragmentary narrative of postmodernism—a discourse free of the epistemological, experimental, allochronic and verifiable boundaries which representation entails because “ethnographic discourse is itself neither an object to be represented nor a representation of an object” (p. 207). The project of evocation would necessarily be liberated from the responsibility of totalizing history or a culture through writing; more so, evocation would be released from the obligation of bringing “into presence what is absent” (p. 208). Or, as Benjamin contends, the gift of the historiography would be to wrestle out of the traditional duty of “posthumously” interpreting the past in the manner of uttering Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s with the given sequence of the rosary:
Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal connection between various moments in history. But no fact that is a cause is for that very reason historical. It became historical post-humously, as it were, through events that may be separated from it by thousands of years. A historian who takes this as his point of departure stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. Instead, he grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one. Thus he establishes a conception of the present as the “time of the now” which is shot through with chips of Messianic time (1969, p. 263)
Benjamin claims that the articulation of history should not be concerned with “the way it really was” (Ranke), but instead with memory as the subject of historicity. Consciousness could be viewed as a fragmentary, yet subjective, part of a larger whole which we perpetually attempt to name and tailor, matching memory with the official “story”—a history around which scientists frantically scatter: finding parts, logics, and sequences that might actually match the picture on the top of the jigsaw puzzle box entitled: “The Way It Really Was.” Consciousness, therefore, often lays to the side of history in the traditional mode of history-telling, subdued in favor of a more complete story with a better narrative, characters, and ending.
Instead of this rigid retelling of a “real” or official history, Benjamin’s and Adorno’s project of the fragment foreshadows the postmodern paradigm of representation whereby the fragment becomes the only possibility of entrusting memory and consciousness to language from the perspective of both the writer of the text and its various readers. More specifically, Benjamin’s notion of the fragment manifests a freedom of consciousness in which consciousness exists within the space of matter and memory without abandoning the transcendental. Tyler denotes the space between the fragments as consciousness which replaces the traditional mode of ethnographic “chronicling” and instead offers allegory as the narrative form of evocation:
We confirm in our ethnographies our consciousness of the fragmentary nature of the postmodern world, for nothing so well defines our world as the absence of a synthesizing allegory, or perhaps it is only a paralysis of choice brought on by our knowledge of the inexhaustible supply of such allegories that makes us refuse the moment of aesthetic totalization, the story of stories, the hypostatized whole…More important that these, though, is the idea that the transcendental transit, the holistic moment is neither textually determined nor the exclusive right of the author, being instead the functional interaction of text-author-reader (Tyler, pp. 209-210).
The postmodern text has the capacity to “evoke transcendence” without creating itself for a specific transcendental order but more so, the postmodern text refuses the self/other dichotomy and instead posits the self-other relationship within a nexus whereby time and memory regain central importance leading to the infinite possibilities of meaning, plurality of loci, and heteroglossia as temporally revealed through the inter-relationship of text-author-reader and language-self-other. More clearly put, Clifford writes: “Allegory prompts us to say of any cultural description not ‘this represents, or symbolizes that’ but rather, ‘this is a (morally charged) story about that'” (1986, p. 100).
The fragment then, exists as a segment of a possible evocation, a future allegory. Evocation is demonstrated not in the act of retelling a sequential history, placing fragments into a set mold, but through storytelling whereby the words of the story claim a specific place within the listener’s ear, the storyteller’s words flow from a relaxed body where ennui is “the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience” (Benjamin 1969, p. 91), and the autochthonous rhythm of the narrative forms yet another memory between the storyteller and listener. Storytelling could be viewed as an act “problematizing’ and reconstructing the temporal, questioning the given, and relocalizing, recreating, memory within the trajectory where perception and experience perpetually intermingle, metamorphize, shift, and redefine each other. Or, as Marcus writes:
The return to an ethnographic present, but a very different ethnographic present from the one that largely ignored history in the classic functionalist anthropology of traditional, tribal society, is thus a challenge to the construction of the temporal setting for modernist ethnography. This is a present that is defined not by historical narrative either, but by memory, its own distinctive narratives and traces. This art of memory is synonymous with the fragmented process of identity formation in any locale—one whose distinctly social forms are difficult to grasp or even see ethnographically—and that thus sets another problematic to be explored in the production of modernist works (p. 317).
Indeed, memory maintains the fragment, time and space pasted on the grid of experience, which will achieve an ever-changing identity as the perpetual act of definition is a “disseminating phenomenon that has a life of its own beyond the simple literal sense of inhering to particular human agents at a particular site and time” (Tyler, pp. 320-326). Memory, for example, is what prompted Stoller to spend a chapter discussing Djebo’s fukko hoy (a special sauce of the Sonhay). As he writes: “A tasteful ethnographic discourse that takes the notion of mélange as its foundation would encourage writers to blend the ingredients of a world so that bad sauces might be transformed into delicious prose” (p. 32). Story telling is like Derrida’s notion of le vomi: It should “engage not the ‘objective’ senses of hearing and sight, nor even touch, which Kant describes as ‘mechanical’, all three which involve perception of or at surfaces, but the ‘subjective’ or ‘chemical’ senses of taste and smell” (cited in Ulmer, p. 55).
The task that those of us in the humanities face as readers of texts like Colón’s Diario does not lie in deciphering “fact” from fiction, decrying the lies and applauding the “truths” within this text, for critics like de Certeau, in my opinion, sufficiently argue this approach. But, instead, our challenge lies in examining the very notion of representation, the implications (or lack thereof) it holds within both historical consciousness and our understanding of the other, as well as examining all discourse within the necessary context of where fiction and science meet through mythical formation whereby we are not also presupposing truths, proving or disproving facts, thereby falling into the very same empirical rut which many have claimed the social sciences have slid. By not viewing the other through the purely discursive rhetoric of science, we are forced to examine the historical consciousness of both the silent objects of “discovery”, the Indians, and of the subject of discovery, the conquistadors, though the texts of the interpreter of absolute “truth,” Cristobal Colón. We would then have to undertake the task of deconstructing the process of the mythical creation of “reality” which in part formed the narrative of the discovery of America before Colón ever stepped foot in the New World. By breaking down the traditional dichotomy of self/other we concede to story-telling and no longer to history-making.
As Todorov points out, Columbus has only discovered America and not the American, for he was more “perspicacious when he was observing nature than when he was trying to understand the natives” (p. 17). Without the acknowledgment and the inclusion of the consciousness of others within the narrative, this “discovery” of the Americans can, in fact ,be called a “discovery” in a phenomenological sense, but can only be understood as a conquest in a historical or anthropological sense. Likewise, as within science, our form of remythification, by not including the consciousness of the other—be it Colón or the Arawaks, directly implicates us in the role of the conquistador, our direct action of conquering the other textually. Adorno and Horkheimer write:
So long as individuals are sacrificed, and so long as sacrifice implies the antithesis of collective and individual, deceit will be a constant of sacrifice. If belief in sacrificial representation implies recollection of something that was not a primal component of the individual but originated instead in the history of domination, it also becomes untruth in regard to the individual as he has developed. The individual—the self—is man no longer credited with the magical power of representation. The establishment of the self cuts through that fluctuating relation with nature that the sacrifice of the self claims to establish (p. 51).
Like “ritual cannibalism,” representation no longer entails the magical creation of the other, like popping a rabbit out of a hat, but instead involves a somewhat more disengaged and morbid action, such as: hunting the rabbit, subjecting it to a sacrificial killing, dismembering it, “cutting through” and across consciousness, naming it, and carefully preparing it for the dinner guests much in the same way Léry describes the cannibal feast below:
Ce qui ne fust pas sans grand estonnement et frayeur de tous cex qui l’entendiment. Et certes m’estant achemineé prés le lieu de leur demeurance, et ayant veu l’os, et le test te la teste ce ceste pauvre fille, curé, et rougé, et les oreilles mangées, ayant veu qussi la langue cuite, espess d’un doigt, qu’ils estent prests à manger, quand ils furent surpris: les deux cuisses, jambes et pieds dams une caudiere avec vinaigre,espices et sel, prests à cuire et metter sure le feu: les deux espaules, bras et mains tenans ensemble, avec la poitrine fendue et ouverte, apareillez aussi pour manger, je fus si effroyé et esperdu, que toutes mes entrailles en furent esmues. Car combien que j’aye demeuré dis mois entre les Sauvages Ameriquains en la terre du Bresil, leur ayant veu souven manger de la chair humain, (d’autant qu’ils manent les prisonniers qu’ils prennent en querre)si n’en ay-je jamais eu telle terreur que j’eus frayeur de voir ce pieteux spectacle, lequel n’avoit encores (comme je evoy) jamais esté veu en ville assiegée en nostre France (in Nakam, p. 291)
Similarly, we can see how our examination of the other is similar to Julia Child’s method of meat erudition:
The best way to learn beef cuts is step by step, or cut by cut. You could begin by peering closely at sirloin steaks every time you go into a market. Is the flesh cherry red and marbled with little veins of fat, and is the surrounding fat creamy white and firm? If so, it is a Choice or Prime steak. Is it a double bone or round-bone sirloin—the two best cuts, or is it from the wedge-bone or pinbone end? When you feel you have mastered the sirloin, you might move to the leg, familiarizing yourself with top round, bottom round, and sirloin tip. Then proceed to other cuts…
Anthropology and historiography follow these same rules offered by French cooking methodology: we take the other and cut it piece by piece, we “peer closely” at the native, we then categorize the Indian linguistically and finally, when we have “mastered” the other, we go on to new cuts—different hunter gathers, the migration of certain tribes to the metropolis, the role of the female within the !Kung¡ tribe. What we fail to do is what Julia Child advises after the above steps of meat preparation:
…Ask questions. Your butcher will be much more interested in serving you well if you show interest in learning about his meat (p. 289).
Indeed, through dialogue we might actually learn about the meat of the other by allowing the other a voice instead of the continuous cycles of its obfuscation through epistemological interpretation and representation whereby we prepare and then cook the other until it is à point: “The steak is done to a medium rare at the moment you observe a little pearling of red juice beginning to ooze at the surface of the steak. Another test is to press the steak with your finger; it is medium rare when it just begins to take on a suggestion of resistance and spring in contrast to its soft raw state” (Child, p. 293). Yes, now we have dish presentable to any meat lover. If you want your steaks cooked more or less and simply are not sure of how long to keep them on the fire, then Child recommends that you “cut a small incision in the steak” (p. 293).
Through a dialogical form of interpretation, we can enter in a process where we posit knowledge as the fluid interaction between the self and other and not merely a static representation of the latter. The fragments of history therefore become living components of a story, a possible truth, but only in terms of memory and consciousness of the self and of the other. What we desperately need in our interpretation of the self/other relationship then is a tlachialoni, an Aztec scepter with a pierced mirror on one end which was part of the apparatus of certain gods in watching over the earth and it’s human inhabitants (Leon-Portilla, p. 11). With the tlachialoni, we can peer through the hole in the mirror in order to view the other but only within the context of viewing ourselves synchronously—the mirror assumes the episteme and the hole is the space, the possibility, for us to step—if even partially—out of the mirror and not only to view the other, but also to see, taste , and hear the other. Until we are able to look through a discursive tlachialoni and interact with the other, we should be prepared to begin every cultural reading with the phrase: “Bon Appetit!”
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