What do cannibalism, Phil Beadle and Indigenous law have in common?

In her essay “Eating the other: Deconstructing the ‘ethics’ of Cannibalism”, Nicole Anderson explores ways in which cultural studies theory helps us to understand what cultural practitioners do in the real world (Anderson 2008b). Anderson draws specifically on Derrida’s theories of deconstruction, binary opposition and différance to explore the ethics of cultural cannibalisation. She makes strong instructive links between the real life legal case and the ethics of consensual cannibalism, and Derrida’s deconstruction of cultural appropriation. This paper summarises and evaluates Anderson’s own deconstruction and finds that the chapter clearly illustrates how cultural theory is essential for understanding what cultural practitioners do. While Anderson does not fully explore how binaries impact her ‘real world’ cannibalism case, and while some pragmatic aspects of the case are ignored, the author does stimulate important debate about how societies may come to mitigate homogenisation while still preserving the law.

Anderson uses Jacques Derrida’s process of deconstruction to explore the case of German cannibal Armin Meiwes. While this particular ‘cultural practice’ is not part of most people’s experience of the ‘real world’, the ethics employed by lawmakers and society is. As Nick Mansfield states in lecture five, “Cultural studies believes that behind all cultural practices … lie un-interrogated assumptions about the nature of reality” (Mansfield 2013, 2). Deconstruction interrogates those assumptions in an attempt to make sense of cultural practice. The case illustrates the mismatch in views on the “nature of reality” and the application of the law; Meiwes, despite consensual cannibalism not being a recognisable offence, was sentenced to life in prison (Anderson 2008b, 69). Anderson draws on Jacques Derrida’s interview, “Eating Well: or the Calculation of the Subject’, explaining the theories needed to understand the subjectivity of experience, and how it applies to society, identity and the law.

Anderson explains how Derrida’s theory of différance reveals the fluidity of boundaries of oppositions. In an earlier chapter, Anderson explains the origins of différance; the word ‘difference’ comes with its own meanings, so Derrida created a custom term, which “incorporates two significations” (Anderson 2008c, 55) those of ‘deferral’ and ‘difference’. The first term refers to the deferral of time and space between the word and the concept: for example, the word ‘happiness’ stands in for the feeling. The second term, ‘difference’, indicates that the word ‘happiness’ will never feel the same to any two people, and the experience is not identical to the word itself. In this way, Anderson explains that the way we understand cultural practice, through language, in the real world, is unstable, and experience is subjective. Anderson proceeds to deconstruct the Meiwes case, along with Derrida’s deconstruction of ‘eating’, using this theory.

The reduction of Meiwes’ ‘victim’ to the status of ‘animal’ is exposed by Anderson to present logical problems. Meiwes’ consenting victim, Bernd Brandes, was painted by media and legal teams, as an animal, ostensibly “because at the heart of the ‘rational subject’ is … self-preservation” (Anderson 2008b, 71). However, as Anderson explains, Merleau Ponty’s theory of embodiment posits that there is no fixed relationship between biology and identity (Anderson 2008a, 6-8); rather than being separate, we live and think through the body” (Anderson 2008b, 71). Thus the binary delineation between rational man, and vulnerable animal, is arbitrary. The corresponding ethical issues Derrida’s work raises complicate the Brandes/Meiwes case: if Brandes is an animal, and humans eat animals without compunction, does this not provide Meiwes with justification (Anderson 2008b, 73)? By linking Derrida’s everyday example and theory with an extreme case, Anderson warns of the “subtle and insidious danger” of applying a “singular morality” to cultural practice (Anderson 2008a, 6).

While Anderson makes an impactful case for the interrogation of real world cultural practice using cultural theory, some of aspects of the theory have not been fully applied, and some elements of the case have been downplayed. Anderson’s earlier discussion outlines the ways in which binaries are hierarchical, meaning that usually only one of the opposing positions are privileged; for example, men are privileged over women, and white skin is privileged over black. And while this works to explain Brandes’ position as animal/victim and Meiwes as human/attacker, the implications of Meiwes’ position in several binary oppositions is unexplored. Meiwes occupies a middle class, white, male position, calling into question the extent to which embodied issues like class, gender and inequality have played into this phenomenon.

On initial investigation, the chapter builds a strong case for reviewing Meiwes’ actions in light of his marginalisation; however, in doing so, Anderson downplays the subjectivities influencing Brandes’ decision to allow Meiwes to kill him. Brandes was suffering from a severe psychiatric disorder, was under the influence of sedatives, and was bleeding heavily when he gave consent (Harding 2003). Anderson cites morality, not illegality, as the impetus for the discursive construction of Meiwes as active hunter and Brandes as passive victim. She further posits that Meiwes’ life sentence is, like Derrida writes, a symbolic cannibalisation of Otherness: that society feels safer with deviants – though not technically outside the law – behind bars (Anderson 2008b). So while this case serves an illustrative purpose, and calls for balance and recognition of blurred binary lines, the generosity that deconstruction can provide errs on the side of Meiwes.

Using deconstruction, and the collapsing of binaries that différance can illuminate, less extreme examples can be explored. A recent podcast with UK secondary teacher of the year, Phil Beadle, reveals that working class boys are burdened with the stigma of being perceived as uncultured and lazy as a result of their position in the class binary. Beadle draws attention to school discipline systems which do not honour working class cultural values, explaining that boys caught fighting are both punished, when clearly one party has instigated violence (Beadle 2012). He points to the success of Launcelot primary, where rather than the symbolic cannibalisation of working class values, local culture is celebrated: pictures of successful local citizens adorn the school’s walls, replacing symbols of middle class success (Beadle 2007). Here, an acknowledgement of the multitude of aspirations present in British society reveals how questioning binaries can improve real world outcomes.

Parallels can be drawn between Anderson’s concern regarding consent and the recent recommendations in Australia regarding Indigenous customary law. A key recommendation of the discussion paper was that

“A partial customary law defence … should be introduced that would reduce a charge of murder to manslaughter in those cases where an accused acted in the well-founded belief that the customary laws of his or her Indigenous community required the act constituting the offence” (Australian Law Reform Commission 2010).

It could be argued that Meiwes was also acting in the belief that he was operating within the laws of his culture. In the case of Indigenous Australians, concessions have been made to allow for subjectivity when meting punishment. A similar concession was initially made for Meiwes (Anderson 2008b, 68) but charges escalated to murder. Deconstructive approaches failed Meiwes and Brandes in practice, but the theory nonetheless has important and promising real world applications.

The discourse emerging from the case, and Nicole Anderson’s instructive deconstruction of Derrida’s interview, exposes the serious and concrete applications of cultural theory. In this case, the autonomy of Brandes is posthumously retracted as a result of adherence to a logically questionable humanist rationale. Meiwes is caught in the ethical crossfire: the act of literal cannibalism, while technically legal, is so outside the realm of ‘decency’ that his Otherness must be cannibalised to preserve moral order: Anderson describes Foucault’s ‘genealogy’ as “The attempt to reveal the contradictory and non-linear aspects of historical events, in order to show the influence power has on subjects and bodies” (Anderson 2008a, 9). While cultural studies does not claim to be able to provide all the answers, it does disrupt and question, giving fresh – and perhaps more just – perspectives on what people, even cannibals, practice in the real world.

A full reference list can be found here.

Image by the incredible Mario Hugo. 

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