Cannibalizing the Exotic

February 13, 2017

 

This essay was originally published in the catalog accompanying the exhibition “Constructing Paradise”, curated by Dieter Buchhart and Mathias Kessler at the Austrian Cultural Forum New York. Exhibition Dates: February 1 - April 24, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

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Cannibalizing the Exotic: Colonial Practices, Cultural Erasure, and What May Come

by Patrick Jaojoco

 

“Cannibalism alone unites us. Socially. Economically. Philosophically.

 

The world’s single law. Disguised expression of all individualism, of all collectivisms. Of all religions. Of all peace treaties.”

 

  • Oswald de Andrade, Manifesto Antropófago[1]

 

One must eat in order to grow; this is a law that applies to both the individual and the system. If the mandate of capital is to continuously and ever-more-rapidly expand its reach, then consumption here has two meanings: that which is traditionally meant by “the consumer” (those at the buying end of things), and the insatiable appetite systemic capitalism has for everything that is not yet within its grasp. Chantal Mouffe’s Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces[2], which highlights the problematic nature of consensus, resonates with the latter profoundly: if consensus is what consists of a democracy, then those outside of democracy are either excluded, left to their so-called “wildness,” or integrated, often violently. We have seen this in the development of the “New World,” in the genesis and wake of the slavery economy, in the continued oppression of people of color in the United States and abroad, and in the coffee beans and quinoa grains that professionals in Manhattan’s SoHo district enjoy and consume routinely.

 

Consumption is also at the heart of the Cannibalist Manifesto, written in 1928 by Brazilian modernist poet Oswald de Andrade. Observing the active othering of his culture by the Western lens, de Andrade sought to embrace his nation’s Tupi history of cannibalism while also metaphorically, polemically subverting modernist and colonialist accounts of cultural history. Historian and literary theorist Leslie Bary notes that by “cannibalizing” Western poetic practices himself (“Tupi or not Tupi, that is the question,” de Andrade asks, forming a surreal mash of Shakespearean and Brazilian), the poet “challenges the dualities of civilization/barbarism, modern/primitive, and original/derivative, which had informed the construction of Brazilian culture since the days of the colony.”[3] De Andrade’s “single law”—cannibalistic codes and frameworks that exist within the hegemonic system—further highlights the violence of cultural cannibalization performed by the colonialist project that informed those dualities.

 

It is with this complex lens of cannibalization—in its metaphorization a crucial way of understanding culture today—that this essay aims to illuminate the colonial project’s problematic cultural practices, and further, to continue de Andrade’s project in understanding what might be productive means for decolonized cultures to establish agency.

 

Historically, colonized cultures have been silenced in profound ways as per the mode through which the modernist colonial project has worked and continues to work. It includes developments within the modernist art canon, as they have influenced culture at large and perpetuated uncritical discourses of “the exotic.” Those discourses have included terms like “discovery,” “New World,” and “the Other” that define the colonial project as the center, the locus of knowledge and truth; modern art has translated these words into images that continue to pervade mass culture. These are the details of cannibalization: obfuscation of entire cultures and histories, consumption via monetization, and digestion via redefinition.

 

We see this in the mass erasure of Native American culture in the United States, though with entirely different layers of history. If Native American communities weren’t killed en masse, they were cannibalized by Christian American society and given small reservations on which to exist in a fringe state, their social systems newly reliant on hegemonic modes of exchange. Successful Native Americans have started casinos, attracting other wealthy capitalists; others have suffered from the capitalist demand of consumption and live in poverty. These stories have been ignored by mass culture; see here the example of the “crying Indian” of the American 1970s. In a series of public service announcements for the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign, prominent actor Iron Eyes Cody was depicted shedding a single tear for his and his people’s land. Despite his public persona, Iron Eyes Cody was born Espera Oscar de Corti[4], and was Sicilian-American. The modernist cultural value of the landscape was reestablished and perpetuated within the advertisement: America’s beauty lies in its clear green fields rather than the indigenous community’s tepees that once inhabited them.

 

Mid-century philosopher René Girard’s idea of mimetic desire—in which an individual’s desire for an object is an imitation based on a model’s displayed desire—is useful to discuss here. When the advertisement works, the viewer imitates the “Indian’s” desire for a “clean” land, a nature without the invasive distractions of modern pollution or indigenous architecture. However, the “Indian” is not Indian at all (neither the South Asian nor Native American kind), but Italian. It is an erasure of indigenous identity, its replacement an imaginary creation based on colonialist ideals of both the native person and the landscape. It notes surface-level environmental problems while perpetuating the institutional consumption of lands and cultures external to the system. Therefore, by way of imagery and advertisement, viewers imitate and perpetuate the structures and desires of colonial rhetoric. Advertisements like these obscure the real indigenous cultures pushed from their homes, not by environmental pollution, but by cannibalistic Western development.

 

To further illustrate the notion of cultural cannibalization, one can look to the reverse phenomenon—non-Western culture integrating an object of Western culture—in the widely lauded 1980 fictional comedic film, The Gods Must Be Crazy. In the film, the San tribe in the Kalahari Desert comes across a Coca-Cola bottle dropped from an airplane. The bottle—removed from its Western context, its original object identity erased—quickly becomes an object of desire for the tribe, its many uses (as a crafting tool, or a musical instrument) drawing each individual to it. However, the collective desire for the object causes rifts in the tribe, and so Xi, the tribesman who brought the bottle back, is ordered to venture out and cast the thing off the edge of the world and back into the unknown. The San had cannibalized an object, unable to see its original cultural codes and recoding it to fit their own. They see the shadow of a commodity that still carries the values of ownership that the San had not previously had. Their construction of the object is like a Baudrillardian simulacrum: its image, uses, and cultural values built not on the Western reality of the thing—a mere soft-drink container—but rather from an interpreted shadow of the cultural object. It is crucial that this construction is built upon a tabula rasa; when integrating an object (or human, or landscape) from the “outside” into a specific framework of thinking, culture resists adopting an identity that may challenge its structure.

 

Of course, the difference between these two examples of framework integration is that colonialism exists on a global scale, and includes historical and current injustices. The colonial framework is unable to see outside of itself. Its defined, divided, economized map of the world—in a way, the world’s shadow—is more real to the colonialist than to the cultures and landscapes that the maps supposedly represent. Within the artistic context, when Paul Gauguin and Oskar Kokoschka pictorially and colorfully cannibalized the exotic, their images fed into this simulacral shadow central to the colonialist framework. Culture at large has been convinced of the “crying Indian” of the 70s and is continually bombarded with problematic images of the source: of the islands, mountains, and forests that capitalism tells us to consume via delusional modes of tourism.

 

At the present moment, however, we are at a point where the myth of an endlessly growing capitalist society has been busted. Left without “Others” to consume, the system’s brand of cannibalism has become catabolysis.[5] Unlike the individual, when the system eats its own muscles, those muscles begin to see the institutionalized shadow and flex against it. The muscles realize that the system to which they are attached is a type of monster created by a colonialist Dr. Frankenstein. They begin to elucidate for themselves the bodies—not systems—they once flexed for, the societal bodies that have been obscured by a cannibalistic system.

 

Shadows, then, can be seen as a key motif and metaphor in postcolonial artistic practices today. We see the hyper-sexualized colonial version of black American identity in Kara Walker’s silhouettes; the scientific homogenization of landscape in Christian Kosmas Mayer’s Les Vues du Brésil (notable is the erasure of color and indigenous peoples from the original 1829 painting by Jean Julien Deltil); and the near-total obfuscation of identity in the photographs of Marissa Lôbo’s performance. This is the illumination of the simulacral shadow itself via artistic metabolization. It is the cannibalization of dominant colonial imagery and perceptions, the very project that de Andrade had hoped to spur in Brazil almost one hundred years ago.

 

In those hundred years, the colonial project has neared completion, and has little left to culturally cannibalize. Contemporary globalized society is on the verge of a future that holds postcolonial, culture-specific evolutions, and thus de Andrade’s cannibalistic turn is more useful now than ever. His method of historical cannibalization—bringing cultural history to the present, subversively illuminating and appropriating problematic hegemonic practices and perceptions—is crucial for the contemporary project of decolonization. Returning to Chantal Mouffe, critical art’s aesthetic objective becomes clearer: to “foment dissensus, to make visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate.”[6] By illuminating and consuming the societal shadow, the contemporary may do its crucial cultural work: to re-imagine cultural frameworks, to fully break apart an already fragmented system, and to propel forward, away from modernism, away from the colonial contemporary, and into a fundamentally different post-contemporary system—or collective of systems—of life.

 

 

 

[1] de Andrade, Oswald; Bary, Leslie. “Oswald de Andrade’s ‘Cannibalist Manifesto,’” Corner-College.com, accessed 24 September 2016, http://www.corner-college.com/udb/cproK3mKYQAndrade_Cannibalistic_Manifesto.pdf.

 

[2] Mouffe, Chantal. “Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces,” Art & Research Vol. 1 No. 2, Summer 2007.

 

[3] de Andrade, Oswald; Bary, Leslie. “Oswald de Andrade’s ‘Cannibalist Manifesto.’”

 

[4] “Iron Eyes Cody,” IMDb, accessed 25 September 2016, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0002014/.

 

[5] A biological process in which the body breaks down its own fat and muscle tissue in order to stay alive. Catabolysis occurs when there is no longer any source of nourishment feeding all body systems.

 

[6] Mouffe, Chantal. “Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces,” Art & Research Vol. 1 No. 2, Summer 2007: 4.

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