In the 1970s, when the New Deal consensus began to erode, something unexpected started to play a role in popular culture. It was the decade after the industry-approved release of The Pawnbroker (1964), the first Hollywood film to show women’s bare breasts, and all the old taboos seemed to have been sloughed off. Sex and violence of the crudest kinds were permissible now in books, magazines, and on the big screens. Someone must have asked, why not cannibalism, too?
Why not, indeed. What has happened in the human world over history and from place to place, what human beings are capable of, what the limits of human cooperation and aggression may be—these are all subjects of importance for just about anyone with an inquisitive mind, even when they touch on that which seems to be inherently disgusting or horrifying. And so films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Cannibal Holocaust (1980) hit the big screen, along with creative, eerie art house works like Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1999), which concludes, after much vicious hedonism on the part of the rich protagonists, with a cannibal repast. Fannie Flagg’s bestseller novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (1987)—peddled as an innocuous, feel-good book—was able to finish off with a comic tale of a cannibal barbecue. And in the grim world of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), the only thing more rewarding than eating a person one has murdered seems to be having sex with the corpse.
Scholars got in on the act as well. Anthropologists, historians, and critics became fascinated not only by the newly current popular cultural phenomenon but also with the history of cannibalism, either as actually practiced, as related in legend (from Herodotus to the Grimm Brothers), or as falsely ascribed to foreign peoples, whose supposed cannibalism was used as evidence that it was okay for Western imperialists to come in, see, conquer and civilize them. I plead guilty myself. I wrote on the subject in connection with Shakespeare, Defoe, and the 1607 settlement of Jamestown. That is why I was invited to a conference at Southampton University recently, where the subject was “Cannibalism in the Early Modern Atlantic.” Among the developments that caused us to gather was the discovery, confirmed by forensic anthropologists but contravening my own earlier beliefs, that in early Jamestown, during the starving time of 1609-10, some early English colonists really did eat their dead.
Many social thinkers and artists have said expressly that they were interested in cannibalism not only because it was fascinating in its own right, but because it served as a metaphor for the depravity of capitalism. Prominent theorists such as sociologist Dean McCannell and philosopher Jean Baudrillard contributed to the discourse. Cannibalistic practices mirror the inner logic of capitalist economics, they argued: capitalism unleashes appetites that have no limits, and so in the end it eats its own. But you don’t need to go to an academic to hear that. Wrote the late critic Roger Ebert about Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover,
[The movie] is about the greed of an entrepreneurial class that takes over perfectly efficient companies and steals their assets, that marches roughshod over timid laws in pursuit of its own aggrandizement, that rapes the environment, that enforces its tyranny on the timid majority…
In 2011, with similar language, Ebert gave his support to the Occupy Movement.
Cannibalism is still a feature of popular culture today—there is a grisly allusion to it, for example, in the penultimate episode of Mad Men, when a World War II vet explains how he and a group of stranded troops managed to survive without supplies: they had some captured Germans among them to eat. But cannibalism doesn’t seem as vital or menacing now. Zombies and vampires seem to have outrun cannibals as subjects of fascination and fear. Perhaps the cannibal trope is exhausted. But the real problem may be a belated realization: cannibalism is not really that good a metaphor for capitalism.
After the crash of 2008 it has become especially clear that financial capitalism can be dangerously parasitic, and that productive capitalism is often today just another form of rent-seeking. So blood-sucking vampires make at least a little bit of sense, if not for better films. But cannibalistic capitalism cannot be. Literary critic Crystal Bartolovich observed this as early as 1992. If capitalism is to grow and capital to accumulate, the workers and consumers have to survive and thrive, if only to work and consume all the more. Capitalism’s minimum requirement is that it not devour its own.
Nevertheless if you think of cannibalism as the ultimate form of aggression, then maybe it still makes sense to cling to cannibalism as a metaphor for the lengths to which capitalism corrupts, or to accuse the “entrepreneurial class” of harboring cannibal-like urges. But real cannibalism is usually something people do when confronted by the ultimate: either as a means of survival in extreme situations or else a way of ritually honoring the dead. Capitalism today, however, is a system for avoiding extremes—that is, for redistributing risk and homogenizing consumption—and at the same time for scorning the dead.
“Risk” capital seldom risks the riskers. They are too big to fail. The joys of consumption are made to entice as if placing the consumer at the edge of the exotic and the erotic; but really it’s just cars, hamburgers, and perfumes, made and distributed by the same multinationals everywhere. And as for death, Baudrillard argues that we are unlike early civilizations in that dead have no meaning for us; for they neither produce nor consume and therefore have no symbolic role to play for us anymore. Being a part of a system that expands and expands, reproducing itself, without concern for anything, ultimately, but itself – that’s what it means to live in capitalist society today. If we can find an apt metaphor for that, we may have some good books and movies ahead of us, though probably not a lot of social transformation. The riskers have us where they want us, and it’s not a cannibal feast.