William Haas teaches writing at Western Oregon University. His work has appeared in River Teeth, Appalachian Heritage, and Main Street Rag, among others. On the web, his work can be found at Bull, The Tusculum Review, Underground Voices, and Babel Fruit. He eats, bikes, and breathes in Portland, Oregon.
In Defense of a Dying Art
It is best not to start with the tongue, lips, cheeks, or teeth since all are necessary to eat yourself.
-spoken by autocannibal Jackson Flank
moments before eating his tongue
and condemning himself to eternal silence.
The first documented case of autocannibalism occurred in mid-seventeenth century Spain. Scholars believe that self-consumption arose as a response to the philosophy of the recently deceased René Descartes. Attempting to discredit Descartes’ cogito, Sergio Comerente, founding and sole member of La Culpa de la Comida Perdida, scrawled his final message, “I eat therefore I am not,” in his own blood on the steps to El Colegio Real de la Filosofia in Madrid. Apocrypha holds that on the evening prior to the blood-letting, Comerente, soused on Sangria, claimed, “I can doubt everything but that I eat. By eating myself I remove the final doubt.” Comerente’s impulsive actions instigated the art form subsequently dubbed “autocannibalism.” Reflecting Comerente’s troubled motivations, no single reason exists why an artist chooses to pursue autocannibalism, an art form that allows for only one performance and no rehearsals.
The relation between creation and destruction fascinated the original autocannibals. They fashioned their art by pitting the survival instinct against the body. Theoretically, consuming only itself, a body can be sustained for an excruciating number of weeks, though, in practice, miscalculation tends to shorten this period. Early autocannibals extended the self-consumption as long as possible—stretching suffering and survival to the extreme—while savoring the process of eating themselves to death. Balanced on the brink, human frailty and ingenuity locked hands and plunged together into extinction. The Chinese autocannibal Master Hung Fe set the record in 1837 when he found a rate of consumption that allowed him to sustain his life over seven months, eating nothing but his own flesh and drinking nothing but his own fluids. During this time Master Hung Fe maintained a perfect balance between consuming his body and squandering it. He preached to his disciples, “Every moment is for me a waking nightmare, yet for the first time I feel at peace with myself and the world.”[i]
Master Hung Fe’s extraordinary feat initiated a competition among practitioners of self-consumption that culminated in 1908 with the charlatan antics of Austrian Josef von Schweinshax’n. Von Schweinshax’n raised suspicion after surpassing Master Hung Fe’s record by eight months. The following investigation uncovered that his apprentice had mixed von Schweinshax’n’s flesh with ground beef, thus unnaturally prolonging his life. Such trickery discredited autocannibalism, leading younger artists to decry what they saw as “excesses of consumption.” The next generation led a revolution in self-consumption that culminated in the two prevailing movements of the 20th Century: an environment of experimentation and the modernist speed school.
“To eat first the stomach is the boldest move,” wrote theorist Gilles Lacroix in his 1927 essay “Death and the Consuming Subject.” He continues:
The resulting image is exquisite: a cross-legged cannibal sits above the masticated bits of body that have been expelled through the hole once occupied by his stomach. The trick lies in devouring the body as efficiently as possible, composing a sonnet of bile beneath the starving autocannibal.[ii]
Lacroix argued that the true art lay in the method of self-consumption. He abandoned autocannibalism’s prior philosophical basis for an avant-garde approach, developing an aesthetics of death that placed emphasis on the mise-en-scène of the artist’s final moments. Lacroix’s response to von Schweinshax’n’s deception laid the foundation for the central ideology of the 20th Century, the Speed School.
Beginning with Lacroix, the early philosophical focus on the fragile balance between consumption and destruction shifted to an aesthetics of death that emphasized speed, precision, and efficiency. The change in focus politicized autocannibalism, transforming it from an elitist past time into a reverse hunger strike. In contrast to traditional forms, in which autocannibals prolonged their deaths, artists in the 20th Century entered a competition to see who could devour himself in the fastest, most novel way. Ragnhild Nordstrom sent a tremor through the autocannibal community in 1946 by intentionally developing food poisoning. Many regard her mode of death as the quintessential commentary on World War Two. Japanese autocannibal Shokuji Suzuki elevated his death to the simple eloquence of haiku by eating only his throat. Lecker and Appleton, the American marketing geniuses, invented a buffet-style chain of self-consumption boutiques. As traditional autocannibalism collapsed amid deception and dishonesty, the Speed School also found the limit of its expressive capabilities in the mechanized consumption of the German Selbstfresser.
A testament to German ingenuity and efficiency, the Selbstfresser combined the categorical reach of Kant’s philosophy and the abyssal depth of Nietzsche’s nihilism with the precision of Henry Ford, every German industrialist’s idol. The Selbstfresser invented a machine that strips the limbs, hair, and non-vital organs from the participant at lightning speed. The flesh is then fed to the artist in pulverized form using a system of pulleys, blenders, and tubes. The machine continues to dismantle the body, starting with the less vital spleen and gall bladder, then sweeping an arc of destruction through the heart to the brain. In the final stroke the teeth turn on the lips in a mechanical process deemed, “ignorant of the human perspective of autocannibalism,” by purist José Richards[iii]. Finally, the teeth are tipped down the disposal and the next artist straps himself in. The machine, designed by I.G. Farben in conjunction with Daimler-Benz, can dispose of six artists in an hour, a record speed for an art form that normally lasts days from beginning to end.
This incomplete overview of autocannibalism gives perspective to contemporary perversions of the art form that arise from the commercialization of self-consumption. Aware that the market niche would soon dry up if adherents to the more commercial forms of self-consumption were to complete the autocannibal task culminating in death, ad executives have pushed onto the greedy public “safe” methods of taking part in the rage for self-consumption. One popular form of commercialized self-consumption is a trend that has become a smash hit at fraternity parties, the so-called “Friday Nite Finger Fry.” By flooding the market with a variety of specialized barbeque sauces, local anesthetics, and one-time use disposable knives, companies such as Nabisco’s underground subsidiary Bite Me® have cashed in on the trend. Bite Me® has been propelled by celebrity spokesperson, Newcastle’s DJ Nigel NineFingers, who has incited a coup on dance floors across the U.K. with the dub-step hit “Sever the Digit.” There is even loose chatter of a television show on the Food Network marketed toward lonely singles called “Cooking with Yourself.”
Autocannibalism has penetrated corporate consumerism. Mass Appeal often marks the death of art. Regardless, connoisseurs remind us that pure autocannibalism still thrives underground. It survives in forms unthinkable to the mainstream, though unmistakably autocannibal, as practitioners in the last decade have radicalized their art. Protestors from Eugene, Oregon have chained themselves to the frozen food sections of groceries stores, devouring their bodies between shocked shoppers and frozen fish sticks. No one has yet determined the object of their protests. A cadre of vegan autocannibals have stopped eating altogether, though they continue to dismantle their bodies. Yet another group from England, adherents to the Guinness Book tradition, consume not only their bodies, but all of the objects from their daily lives: bicycles, cars, computers, pens, and telephone cords. Graham “Cracker” Harrison, a vocal member of this group claims, “we live in a consumer society. These bloody devices are not only a part of our lives; they are a part of us. We cannot return to pre-technological times. We can, however, eat the technology that digests us.”[iv]
Has autocannibalism lost its direction? Have its practitioners forgotten the delicate balance between life and consumption? Has autocannibalism become a blank canvas on which any and every radical group may now paint its own distinct picture? Cultural critic Rhonda Spassky-Clarke argues, “the primary responses to the rapid consumerization of autocannibalism point to the degradation, perhaps even the death, of the art.”[v] Various groups have subsumed autocannibalism under their own subset of radical demands. The spectacle of supermarket self-consumption has less to do with autocannibalism than it does with childish rebellion. Vegan autocannibals are not a natural extension of Lacroix’s essentialized starvation. Eating bicycles, cars, and airplanes is a well-documented and very British response to industrialization, a Post-Ludditism if you will. What does it have to do with autocannibalism? Perhaps the time has come for the art to eat itself.
[i] quoted in A History of Dangerous Ideas from the Tao Te Ching to Falun Gong by Qian Li. San Antonio: Patriot Press, 1997. [ii] from the collection Le Cuisine Nouveau: French Perspectives on Food and Famine. Edited and translated by Brigitte Hasbrouke. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951. [iii] “The Limit of the Limit: The Selbstfresser and the Perversion of Autocannibalism.” in Artforum. Volume XI, Issue 5, May 1973 pp 122-4. [iv] interview by the author. [v] “The Beginning of the Beginning, the End of the Beginning, the Beginning of the End, and the End of the End: A Poststructuralist Analysis of a New Historicist Moment: Victuals, Venison, and Vindication in Anonymous Women’s Writing Since George Eliot.” in Consume/Selfconsume: A Journal of Contemporary Concerns. Volume I, Issue 1, 2001 pp. 13-57.