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Modernity is a Fable

Modernity may be the name for our current historical epoch, allegedly characterised by unfettered progress, liberty, and the conquest of religion and superstition in the name of truth and science. But it is also a story, a fiction. Specifically, it is a fable – a linear morality tale: ultimate redemption in the face of, in spite or even because of, seemingly insurmountable obstacles thrown on our path by external forces or evil others.

The power of such a narrative is evidenced today not only by the manipulation on all sides of images of beheading, fanatics hell-bent on martyrdom or the sacrifice of others, and the uncanny return of religion in latter-day society, but also by its grip on popular culture. Even in the case of the catastrophic, post-apocalyptic scenarios that nowadays dominate cinema, television and young adult literature, the plot inevitably concerns the travails of a hero or heroine who must go through hell, metaphorically but also literally, in order to find ultimate redemption. Crucially, the hero/heroine may have to engage in the commission of evil acts, which would otherwise be totally unacceptable and accidental but seem justifiable and necessary as part of some sort of wider providential plan.

Whether it’s the survivors of a zombie-apocalypse in The Walking Dead or the heroine of The Hunger Games, the general idea, the arc of the story, involves a consideration of the cultural and epistemological status of eyewitness accounts of strange landscapes and situations whose motives are pious rather than vainglorious: the power of belief or trust to produce redemption, the individual and communal particularity of being chosen for redemption, and the duty of those so redeemed to communicate this “truth” to their fellows.

In that respect at least, the dominant trend in our 21st-century culture (not only in western culture) – represented by The Walking Dead or The Hunger Games, but also the “return of religion” to the politics of an allegedly secularised world – has more to do with the baroque period of the 16th and 17th centuries than with any other in the history of humankind. In fact, as I will do here, one could draw a strict line between the narrative of Hans Staden’s True History, published in Europe between 1557 and 1964 (no less than eighty-three editions attest to its enduring popularity) and today’s The Walking Dead.

For starters, the main focus of both narratives is the same: cannibalism, the eating of human flesh. In Staden’s case the reader is invited to share, in imagination, in terror, the memoir of a German mercenary made captive by the Tupinamba indigenous of sixteenth-century Brazil. The latter’s representation hinges upon the spectacular and exotic nature of their violent practices centred on ritual sacrifice and anthropophagy. The sensational representation of such violence becomes the means “by which its internal meanings can be obscured and its external significance manipulated to provide legitimacy to the outrage of the observer”; also to the colonial violence that is simultaneously being enacted.i

In turn, The Walking Dead speaks to a time in which the expansion of global media since Staden’s day has convinced many more people around the world of the actuality of terror, and made visible the ways in which the destruction of the bodies of the wretched of the earth, the marginal and the condemned, are integral to the reproduction of colonial/modern/capitalist societies. In the meantime, these internal meanings – the allegorised notion of a tyrant society that eats its own – can be obscured by the image of the foreigner/native terrorist or the “enemy within”, the cannibal serial killer of such popular tv dramas as Homeland, Dexter or Hannibal, whose apparent normalcy lures us into the trap of torture and terror “into which we fall once they strike”.ii

At this point, such external meanings are manipulated to provide legitimacy to the outrage of the observer and justify the neo-colonial violence that is simultaneously being enacted in order to sustain modern/colonial societies through their moment of most acute crisis. Here again, the 21st century and the 17th century intersect one another, revealing the way in which the modern narrative of subjectivity and moral responsibility cannot do away with the theodicy-like fantasies of redemption through violence and the exclusion of evil, pace its claims to have conquered religion.

In the modern/colonial literature, a connection was made between Tupian sacrifice and religious ideas of Eucharistic sacrifice dividing Protestants from Catholics (and these from Jews and Muslims), through the motif of cannibalism. As Whitehead and others point out, this led to the obfuscation of the political internal meanings of the inclusion of the victim among the Tupi and other indigenous peoples around the world; specifically the inclusionary politics, communal as well as individual, that left no room for big others such as God, Law and the Sovereign. But also, not to a condemnation of violence tout court.

Rather, it led to more nuanced notions of how and when violence could be justified, and by whom. These notions continue to frame the cultural imaginary of modern societies, evoking the image of a violence whose irrationality resides in the obscurity of religious fanaticism. Today’s “suicide bomber”, like the colonial cannibal, is a Western media formation mobilised as proof of the illegitimacy of the political causes behind certain acts and the legitimacy of others (i.e. military intervention).

Staden’s account was also an autobiography, a reflection on how violent trauma affects the construction of one’s self-identity through the purging of doubt in favour of belief. Such capacity for belief would be presented as the ultimate basis of knowledge and individual utter responsibility, proportional to one’s subjection to divine grace within the bounds of reason. The domain of modern reason – including objective knowledge and moral responsibility (or “privatised” religion) – emerges thus against a background of terror, anxiety and psychosis.

We’re told that such phantoms have been exorcised from the body politic of modernity, or confined to the dustbin of history (together with the cannibal people “without” history of post-Hegelian imagination). However, as the cases of Staden’s narrative, contemporary pop culture and the “War on Terror” reveal, it is more the case that such phantoms not only still haunt modernity but trust modern subjects into committing vengeful acts of its own. These are then disguised as justifiable or necessary evil acts on the way to redemption. The fable of modernity and its others isn’t so much a delusion or a lie, as the mirror in which modernity can look at itself. It’s also in this mirror “where its others look back”.iii

i Hans Staden’s True History: An Account of Cannibal Captivity in Brazil. Edited and Translated by Neil L. Whitehead and Michael Harbsmeier. Introduction. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008, LVIII.

ii Ibid. LXI.

iii Eduardo Mendieta, “Imperial Somatics and Genealogies of Religion: How We Never Became Secular”, in Postcolonial Philosophy of Religion, edited by P. Bilimoria & A. B. Irvine, Springer, 2009, 231-246.

Painting: Zahid Mayo, London, oil on canvas

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