Volume 8, Number 1 (January 2011)
Author: Jean Baudrillard
Note: With the cooperation of The Seagull Press IJBS is pleased to offer a selection Baudrillard’s Carnival and Cannibal. (2010) [pages 3-9]. Translated by Chris Turner. The original text in French was published by Editions de L’Herne, Paris (2008).
We may start out from Marx’s famous saying about history occurring first as authentic event and then being repeated as farce. In this way, we may see modernity as the initial adventure of the European West, then as an immense farce repeating itself on a planetary scale, in all those latitudes to which Western religious, technical, economic and political values have been exported. This ‘carnivalization’ passes through the stages of evangelization, colonization, decolonization and globalization, which themselves are historic. What is less visible is that this hegemony, this ascendancy on the part of a global order, whose models seem irresistible-and not just its technical and military models, but its cultural and ideological ones too – is accompanied by an extraordinary process of reversion, in which power is slowly undermined, devoured or ‘cannibalized’ by the very people it ‘carnivalizes’. The prototype of this silent cannibalization – its ‘primal scene’, so to speak – could be said to be that solemn mass at Recife in Brazil in the sixteenth century, at which the bishops who had come expressly from Portugal to celebrate the Indians’ passive conversion were devoured by them in an excessive display of evangelical love (cannibalism as extreme form of hospitality). As the first victims of this evangelical masquerade, the Indians pushed things spontaneously to the limit and beyond: they absorbed physically those who had absorbed them spiritually.
It is this dual – carnivalesque and cannibalistic – form we see reflected in every corner of the world, with the exportation of our moral values (human rights, democracy), our principles of economic rationality, growth, performance and spectacle. They are taken up everywhere, with greater or lesser degrees of enthusiasm, but in a totally ambiguous way, by all those ‘underdeveloped’ peoples who have not so far heard the good word of the universal and, hence, provide fertile ground for missionary work and forced conversion to modernity, but who, more even than being exploited or oppressed, are simply made a laughing stock and transfigured into caricatures of the Whites – like those monkeys that used to be dressed up in admiral’s costumes and put on show in fairs.
Meanwhile, they ape the Whites, who regard them as apes. In one way or another, they return the derision a hundredfold to those who inflict it on them; they turn into the living derision of their masters, trapping the Whites in their grotesque doubles, as though in a distorting mirror. There is a magnificent illustration of all this in Jean Rouch’s film Les Maîtres-Fous, in which the Blacks who work in the city meet up in the forest in the evenings to ape their Western masters – employer, general and bus driver – and, in a kind of trance, to exorcize them. This is not a political act, but a sacrificial ‘acting-out’: a stigmatization of domination using the very marks of that domination.
But we may ask ourselves whether these Whites – the employer, the cop and the general: the ‘native-born’ Whites – are not already figures in a masquerade; we may ask whether they are not already caricatures of themselves, characters taking themselves for their own masks. The Whites may thus said to have carnivalized – and hence cannibalized – themselves long before exporting all this to the whole world. We have here the great parade of a culture in the grip of a profusion of resources and offering itself for its own consumption, with mass consumerism and the consumption of all possible goods merely providing the most current form of this self-devouring. And to this farce is added that other dimension Walter Benjamin spoke of, through which today’s humanity succeeds in turning its worst alienation into an aesthetic, spectacular delight.
It is all a great collective spectacle, in which the West decks itself out not only in the spoils of all the other cultures – in museums, fashions and art – but also in the spoils of its own culture. And, indeed, art fully plays its role in this turn of events: Picasso annexes the best of a ‘primitive’ art and the African artist today copies Picasso as part of an international aesthetic.
If all the peoples decked out in the signs of whiteness and with all the exotic technologies are at the same time the living parody of these things, a deriding of them, this is because these things are quite simply laughable, but we can no longer see it. It is when they extend to the global level that universal values are revealed as a swindle. If there was an original – historical and Western – event of modernity, we have exhausted all its consequences and it has taken a fatal, farcical turn for us ourselves. But the logic of modernity demanded that we impose it on the entire world, demanded that the fatum of the Whites should be that of the race of Cain, and that no one should escape this homogenization, this mystification of the species.
The remainder of the text in English translation is available from Seagull Books (London, New York, Calcutta).