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Eating and Being Eaten—Food Culture and Civilization

2021.2.15

Our web magazine includes articles that touch upon a wide range of ideas and offer a different perspective on the festival program. (This article has been shared from the print magazine of Kyoto Experiment 2021 Spring.)

Kobo Abe’s “The Anti-Cannibalism Lobby and the Three Gentlemen”

Among Kobo Abe‛s work, there is a short story called “The Anti-Cannibalism Lobby and the Three Gentlemen” (1956). It depicts a society in which people are managed as food. Not only are people eaten, but there are other people who eat them and the titular gentlemen are three such people.

In the story, we can identify several perversions. The first is, needless to say, the portrayal of the societal taboo against cannibalism as unreasonable, and of consuming humans for food as something normal. The thoroughly feeble and shabbily dressed head of the anti-cannibalism lobby is very easily refuted by the three gentlemen. The second perversion is that cannibalism, which is regarded as the practice of savages in cultural anthropology, is depicted as the activity of a sophisticated civilization. In contrast to the representative of the lobby, the three gentlemen are decked out in fine suits, and spout off to the lobby about just how logical it is to eat humans. The third is how the story perverts the status of human beings who occupy a position at the top of the food chain and always on the side that is eating others. Of particular note here is that those selected to be eaten are transported to the abattoir, processed, and then eaten by people in the upper echelons of society, but instead of being raised as cattle, those people live utterly ordinary lives, making homes, attending schools, and so on. Through the sheer state of being eaten, Abe perverts the commonsensical facts of which we are normally unaware, disquieting the reader, and confronting us with the indescribable fear of cannibalism.

Food and the Formation of Culture

The eeriness of these perversions reveals, as if to invert, the cultural traits loaded with the unconsciously embraced occupation that is eating. The act of eating is an occupation performed in order to live and is fundamentally something dependent on animalistic urges, but humans have throughout history emphasized their difference from other living creatures in the act of eating. In the way that parents, for instance, strictly discipline their children in table manners, the space that is the dining table plays a function in children‛s education. Or like in the custom of praying to God before a meal, we can imagine eating as a religious process. The animalistic act of eating is, in short, constructed as a cultural occupation by passing it through certain types of rituals.

Food also functions as something that prescribes the frameworks of the community or nation-state. As suggested by the Japanese proverb “to eat rice from the same pot,” sharing a meal is recognized as synonymous with solidarity among individuals and even with constructing a community. The Christian ceremony of the Eucharist signifies both accepting part of Christ into your own body by consuming bread and wine that has transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ, and also becoming a member of Christian society with the Church at its center. In the same way that pork is taboo in Jewish and Muslim cultures, bread and wine are important symbols that prescribe Christian culture. As such, differences with other cultures are defined by what is eaten, even though there is naturally mutual influence and exchange among cultures, while eating communal things or sharing a meal together forms the basis of a community.

But simply sharing a dining table doesn‛t make a community. As evident from the well-known theory by Claude Lévi-Strauss that asserted whether food is eaten raw or cooked as a symbolic binary opposition for understanding societies and cultures, food has been regarded as an important proxy for the whole of human civilization. The dining table also has its standards and customs, and various food systems exist according to each culture (not to mention class, gender, and so on), which includes the aforementioned concept of table manners. In short, the more imposing these ritualistic customs become, the more solid the community of people who abide by them, while those who do not or “cannot” carry out those customs are perceived as the Other and ostracized. By demarcating who is the Other through food in this way, those who belong to the community inflate their civilized nature, or attempt to solidify their privileged positions.

The emphasis on such cultural differences that surround food has been used particularly in the colonial period to construct relationships between subjugator and subjugated. The Western powers expanded their empires during the age of imperialism all while maintaining that they were doing so for the stated religious purpose of enlightening the non-Western peoples that they deemed to be savages by proselytizing Christianity. The colonization of the South Pacific, for instance, that was embarked upon fully from the eighteenth century, regarded the islands as “antipodes” not only geographically (as in, the hemispherical opposites of the Western powers) but also culturally, and emphasized the savagery that needed enlightenment, with cannibalism the indigenous custom symbolic of this. To put it another way, the South Pacific custom of cannibalism that was taboo in the West brought to the fore the supposed cruelty and inhumane aspects of the native cultures, somewhat curiously accelerating the colonization movement that professed itself to be enlightening them.

Melville and Polynesia

In the nineteenth century, when great numbers of whaling ships plowed the oceans around the world, one man put out to sea on such a vessel. He was Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, that classic of American literature. Melville sailed on the whaler Acushnet to the South Pacific in 1841. Along with a crewmate, he jumped ship at Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands in order to flee the harsh working conditions on board. But where he arrived after his escape was Taipivai, a village of cannibals. Melville spent around a month there before he was rescued by an Australian whaler that put in at the island, and his experiences served as the basis for Typee (1846). Typee met with a strong response for its portrayal of an undeveloped culture in the South Pacific, then the target of interest by the Western nations that were hastening their colonial activities, and Melville leaped to fame as a writer who had lived among cannibals.

The protagonist and narrator of Typee, Tommo, provides a minute depiction of the tribe‛s lifestyle and, though filled with fear that he might be eaten by the cannibals, comes to praise their hospitality and cultural activities that are rooted in their innocence or reciprocal common sense. Incidentally, this writer was fortunate enough to have the chance to conduct a field survey at Nuku Hiva, which is today heavily Westernized and administered as an overseas territory of France. The locals were like members of a big family, everyone greeting us with a smile when they passed. Our guide was from Taipivai and claimed to be able to name all the people on the island, so I tested this by pointing at a random house and asking who lived there, to which he answered in earnest. I have digressed somewhat, but I saw on my trip that the islanders‛ hospitality and innocence extolled by Melville is still there.

Now to return to the original topic. In Typee, Melville in no way attempts to guide the reader toward an easy conclusion that cannibalism is the culture of a barbaric Other. Far from it, cannibalism was, he points out, a kind of revenge exacted upon someone deemed to be an enemy, and more so than this custom of cannibalism, he writes that what is barbaric is rather the colonialism that brought sickness and starvation to the islands of the South Pacific, and the method of execution by dismemberment carried out on traitors in Western societies, in this way criticizing Christian civilization.

Cannibalism Today

Melville‛s viewpoint anticipated the postcolonialism of the second half of the twentieth century by more than a hundred years, and upends the hierarchy between Western and non-Western cultures, though he would go on to develop this perspective and, through his imagination, further expose the cannibalistic nature latent in Western society. In his short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853), for instance, which is set on Wall Street, a place symbolic of capitalist society in America, Melville portrays the relationship between exploiters and exploited metaphorically as those who eat and those who are eaten. (The workers who appear as characters in the story are given nicknames derived from food.)

In this structure of exploitation between social classes and nation-states that lurks within contemporary society there still remains the structure of “eater” and “eaten.” In the aforementioned “The Anti-Cannibalism Lobby and the Three Gentlemen” by Kobo Abe, the humans who eat people are depicted as an affluent and privileged class, while with the man from the lobby group that comes from the humans who are eaten, it is his malnutrition and poverty that is emphasized. Accordingly, although this is a somewhat simplistic interpretation of a difficult work, the story can be read as a fable of the structural exploitation in society, superbly matching Melville‛s viewpoint that saw through the “savagery” visible in Christian society in the West that was promoting colonialism.

Contemporary cannibalism is shrouded by a conceptual veil of consumption/consumer. Workers in the consumer society provide nourishment for society through their labor (that is, their bodies), but must place themselves in a paradoxical structure in which they are consumed. Moreover, in order to take precautions against possible death by overwork and the other risks attendant on their labor, people are willing to take out insurance, and exchange their own bodies and lives for money, which lubricates consumerism. Those living in the consumer society must cast their own bodies into a cyclical structure of consuming and being consumed that is mediated by money. We unconsciously accept that we consume while also being consumed, a state of affairs that has constructed today‛s cannibalistic world in the name of globalization. We are, to no small extent, lined up on the “dining table” of the consumer society, perhaps forgetting that we are “eaten” within that cycle as we enjoy our own food.

Jun Okawa

Jun Okawa is an associate professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the Faculty of Global Language and Culture, Kyoto Notre Dame University. He specializes in American literature, in particular Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and other nineteenth-century writers. His literary research has a focus on corporeal representation, especially in relation to food and skin.

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