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Mimetic Theory and Cannibalism

There is an uncanny and even fascinating relationship between mimetic theory and the topic of cannibalism. In one of his most influential books, La Violence et le sacré (1972), when René Girard has to produce an authentic tour de force in order to prove the “unity of all rites,” he resorts to ritual cannibalism. As Girard says, “Our discussion of the second type of sacrificial preparation—the integration  into the community of a victim of foreign origin—leads directly into a consideration of the most notorious example of cannibalistic ritual, as practiced by the Tupinamba Indians of northwest Brazil.”

Later on, in Les Origines de la culture (2004), he provides an even more impressive synthesis of both the origins and the meaning of culture by dating its two poles, according to the principles of mimetic theory applied to history: from ritual cannibalism to Eucharist. In Girard`s words: “Primitive cannibalism is religion, and the Eucharist recapitulates this history from alpha to omega.” The equation can be translated as follows: from a social order founded on scapegoating and sacrifice to a social order grounded on the defense of the victim and acknowledgement of the other.  

How to explain the instrumentality of cannibalism concerning the main assumptions of mimetic theory? The work of the Brazilian poet and thinker Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954) may help us to find a preliminary answer.

In 1928, Oswald published his “Manifesto Antropófago,” one of the most debated Latin-American avant-garde manifestoes. Oswald proposed that anthropophagy represented not only the “unity of all rites,” but that it also was destined to return as the utopian future of a primitive modernity—a vision perfectly aligned with the wave of primitivism, which overwhelmed European culture in the first decades of the XXth century. The manifesto opens up, as it could not be otherwise, with a punch line:

“Só a antropofagia nos une. Socialmente. Economicamente. Filosoficamente” (Only anthropohagy unites us. Socially. Economically. Philosophically).

Therefore, according to René Girard and Oswald de Andrade, anthropohagy, that is, cultural cannibalism, does provide the unity of human culture. However, this is not the most relevant affinity between the two thinkers. Let us then listen to Oswald’s synthesis of anthropophagy understood as a worldview:

“Só me interessa o que não é meu. Lei do homem. Lei do antropófago” (I am only interested in what is not mine. Law of Man. Law of the anthropophagite.)

Here lies the decisive element. In Oswald’s “Manifesto” the reason why the anthropophagite is radically caught by what the other has/is, is because he needs the other to shape his own self, that is, he needs the other to point out to him what is desirable and therefore what can be neglected. Fundamentally, the anthropophagite cannot find the stability required to indulge in self-centered notions of identity. Rather, the anthropophagite cannot simply be, he can only become through the constant assimilation of otherness.

The mimetic subject has the same basic structure; he also needs a model to determine “his” desire. In other words, the mimetic subject also, and necessarily, practices a sort of cultural cannibalism, which in mimetic theory gave birth to the only neologism created by René Girard: interdividuality.

João Cezar de Castro Rocha's picture
João Cezar de Castro Rocha is Professor of Comparative Literature at the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (UERJ). He is the author of Literatura e cordialidade: O público e o privado na cultura brasileira (1998; Mário de Andrade Award, National Library, Rio de Janeiro); O exílio do homem cordial: Ensaios e revisões (2004); Exercícios críticos: Leituras do contemporâneo (2008); and Crítica literária: em busca do tempo perdido? (2011, forthcoming). He has edited more than 20 books, among which are a collection of six volumes of Machado de Assis's short stories (Record, 2008); Producing Presences in Portuguese: Branching Out from Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht's Work (2007); The Author as Plagiarist: The Case of Machado de Assis (2006); and Brazil 2001: A Revisionary History of Brazilian Literature and Culture (2001). His book of dialogues with René Girard and Pierpaolo Antonello, Evolution and Conversion (2008), has been translated into seven languages, and received in 2004 the Prix Aujourd'hui in France.   Among others, Castro Rocha has received the following distinctions: the Endowed Chair Machado de Assis of Latin American Studies (Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana / Brazilian Embassy, Mexico, 2010); Hélio and Amélia Pedroso/Luso-American Foundation Endowed Chair in Portuguese Studies (University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, 2009); Research Fellowship (Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung / Freie Universität - 2005-06); Ministry of Culture Visiting Fellow (University of Oxford, Centre for Brazilian Studies, 2004); Tinker Visiting Professor (University of Wisconsin, Madison, 2003); Overseas Visiting Scholar (Cambridge University, St John's College, 2002); John D. and Rose H. Jackson Fellow, (Yale University, Beinecke Library, 2001).