Vanessa Ramos-Velasquez: Digital Anthropophagy and the Anthropophagic Re-Manifesto for the Digital Age

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Vanessa Ramos-Velasquez is an artist, multimedia specialist, and interdisciplinary researcher from Brazil and the United States, where she was a Fulbright scholar in Visual Communication and Media Studies. Her artistic practice materializes as performance art, installation, videoart and experimental film. In 2011 she received the Vilém Flusser Theory Award Distinction at transmediale with the work Digital Anthropophagy and the Anthropophagic Re-Manifesto for the Digital Age. Currently, she conducts research in the field of phenomenology in digital culture at the Vilém Flusser Archive at Universität der Künste – Berlin, and at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin at the Institute for Cultural History and Theory.

The background of my discourse on Digital Anthropophagy comes from the “fair use” conundrum of the Information Age. One of my own art practices is to create films from found footage and openly exposed media. I metabolize these materials into new contexts. In the creative process of this practice, in the age of the Internetworked Information Society as the producer of culture also engaged in remixing, offering a rich self-serving online buffet, I often thought of the Anthropophagic practices of some Brazilian indigenous tribes when they came into contact with their colonizers. The indigenous cannibal honorably eats the foreigner in order to incorporate his strength, experiences, and qualities and to see through the cannibalized foreigner’s eyes. But I find that in today’s digital culture, we unceremoniously consume the world around us in a globalized structure, thus quickly acquiring worldly references and spitting them out in a personal but also somewhat homogenized way. We have thus become both the cannibal and the cannibalized because of the wide and immediate access to information and the incredible reduction of time it now takes to consume that widely available culture. It no longer takes a passive person watching the ships arriving on the shore in order to consume what they might bring aboard and, conversely, for the colonizers in those ships to take away the riches they “discover” in far-away lands. Over five hundred years later, that exchange has now become cross-pollinated and more equal, and happening in an inhuman speed cycle. And the paradigm of power acquisition has now shifted from land ownership of colonies to ownership of information and creative property, especially engendered by the virtual world.

This virtual world has started to disintegrate former imperialisms and push toward a democratization of access and freedom of use of information. And so, I offer an analysis of Information Metabolism which drives human experiences.

Background of my Anthropophagic Re-Manifesto for the Digital Age:

In 1928, a Brazilian Modernist author, Oswald de Andrade wrote the Manifesto Antropófago, (the Cannibal Manifesto). It was an assertion of the unique Brazilian voice in the emerging modern time, away from clichés of colonialism, whilst unapologetically metabolizing outside references from the “First World.” Over 100 years since Brazil’s independence from Portugal, the moment of transformation had come! To devour outside artistic influences from Europe, and to finally incorporate all their developments useful to Brazilian culture, while seeking the Brazilian modern identity, strength and unique vision. It was as much a dictum against the colonizer’s power, as it was a criticism of the colonized people’s hunger for what is not their own. My manifesto-poem offers a new take on the original Manifesto, and I call it a “Re-Manifesto,” alluding not only to remix culture, but also to a re-assertion of previously colonized cultures into the new dynamics and context of cultural influence in the digital era. My Digital Anthropophagy theory, likewise, seeks to update that anthropophagic practice of cultural cannibalism to the digital age, proposing that the virtual1 world is the new frontier and anyone can be a colonizer.

In my Re-Manifesto, I expose that the allure, the attraction of “the other” is mutual and that it serves to form a symbiotic relationship that feeds all parties in that contact. The concept of “the exotic” is a two-way or multi-way road, for if one has never seen the other before, their mutual discovery is of equal impact, and a curiosity to consume that newly found exoticism is occurring mutually. The question thus is not about the symbiosis itself, but about the degree of positive influences and acculturation, especially in the era of an ongoing digital revolution. Of course the great line dividing this equality in colonial times was an economic one: the colonizer upon seeing a newfound land sees money, while the “found people” just see “unknown people” in their land. That very innocence of the Golden Age is the exotic raw material that the “First World” seeks, but beware as even in that innocence of the “primitive being” lies the cannibal spirit. And since there’s no more land to discover, the colonizer has now become the entrepreneur who seeks to conquer the virtual landscape of 1’s and 0’s. But now the “primitive innocent” is born with a much larger capacity to understand and dominate that virtual world. So now the entrepreneur is forced to invite the cannibals into the game in order to keep the barbarians at the gate. And these little barbarians will grow up to be the entrepreneurs of tomorrow in an endless cycle of digital evolution. The power to influence the world, to create change, can now come not just from a presidential office, or a corporation, or a religious institution. Anyone can be a colonizer except this time nothing is done by imposition because the internetworked community functioning as a universal brain decides what gets served up and, consequently, what becomes consumable in this natural entropic filtering process. And in order to avoid the boredom of media entropy, more media is needed to continuously feed the internetworked society, so that we never starve ourselves.

So, my thoughts on the Digital Revolution are but a glimpse through a prism reflecting how the indigenous cannibalistic practice resonates to today’s so-called civilized society, materializing as remix culture spanning the entire world in an age where virtually all colonies have proclaimed their independence. It’s the new world order: anyone can choose to be the either the colonizer or the colonized, and why not both?

The law of men was meant to separate and elevate us from the so-called savages and create a civilization by teaching men to consume and interact within guidelines. But whereas the savages are the nude ones living deep in the isolated jungles, or wearing suit and ties in a skyscraper office, or a tech-savvy kid in the bedroom, all have the impetus to surpass their own limitations by reaching outside of the self and assimilating and acquiring the qualities of “the other.” All of them engage in rituals to satisfy their hunger and curiosity, and that can only be done by devouring the world around them. As philosopher Merleau-Ponty stated, “we perceive the world through our bodies; we are embodied subjects, involved in existence.”2 The incorporation and transfiguration of source materials belong to a biosynthetic process that metabolizes the raw ingested material, generating something else, for example:

 – from ancient Greek philosophy: Anaxagoras in 450 B.C.

“Nothing is born or perishes, but already existing things combine, then separate anew.” 3

 – from modern philosophy: Vilém Flusser in 1984:

“I press a certain key and the whole human history appears on screen. If I don’t like that history, I can modify it freely by pressing another key. I modify history nearer to the heart’s desire…. Other keys allow me to recombine these universes and perhaps even change them…. All information accumulated by humanity are at my disposal to be altered by me.”4

So, the probability of the improbable, that is, inventing something truly new, as if created in a vacuum, is nearly impossible – there’s no anechoic chamber of thought. Outside influences are always pouring into us. We are what we’re exposed to! We are what we eat! We are what we output! And it is the composite of our DNA, social environment, and free will that determine what we say “yes” or “no” to, when remixing ourselves with the world. Thoughts remix pre-existing ideas into hopefully new ones, and it’s most probable that only new technology generating new creative processes or the combination of old and new can lead to something newer than what is generated with the creative power of the mind with the currently existing tools and processes of creation and execution. We are born into this world with only our DNA, our basic operating system. Everything else that makes that system and hardware function in society is acquired thru our exposition to the world. So if we are incentivized to consume everything and each other, these installed experiences and applications will self-run! That’s the phenomenology of a human being, even more so in the Digital Age.

It’s a feeding frenzy of the senses, and in order for that symbiosis of a healthy digital ecosystem to exist, digital inclusion and net neutrality are of extreme importance for everyone to win in the exchange. Be it the individual, the corporation, the institution, or the government. In the natural world, the fresher something is, the higher the nutrients. And the essence that we all take from the internetworked society is no longer just to satisfy, restore, and protect the physical body. The communication philosopher Vilém Flusser envisioned a further dynamic of Marshall McLuhan’s cosmic media and global village as an ant colony, whereby future generations will have atrophied bodies and bigger heads and constitute a cosmic collective brain. But what if we attain a transcendental power, a new light that will propel us into the next Revolution where the noticeable change might be more a question of evolved ethics, where we surpass the limitations of greed, and yes that includes coming up with ways to ensure that people working with ideas can be rewarded for their work fairly, so that we can continue to feed one another.

Following the basic concept that acculturation is a process by which “the aggregation of peoples is changed from a mere mechanical mixture into a chemical compound,”5 we can arrive at a modern day definition which derives from our digitization leading to an amalgamation of our collective existence: past, present, and future. We are able to cannibalize each other across every imaginable spectrum operating in a medium that allows us to transcend Distance, Politics, Religion, Social Status, Family Formation, Age, Values and Beliefs. It’s a free-for-all with the potential to fulfill every imaginable consumption desire.

Consumer-driven markets incentivize people to live in a state of perpetual desire to acquire. Advertisements constantly bombard us with visuals, sounds, scents, oral satisfactors, tactile titilators, all vying to enter our five senses. But these instigators of desire either deny us or want to control our ultimate satisfaction: our desire of self-expression; to apply everything that somehow entered our bodies and became part of our individual or collective experience and to output what we have incorporated into our being. That self-expression is a consequence of the inevitable metabolism resulting from processing all that information.

The metabolic process of digesting large amounts of information online results in almost involuntary digital culture phenomena such as appropriation and re-appropriation. Appropriation being the individual output of recombined information molecules which get served up as remixed forms through the individual process of metabolizing the raw material. It generally only leads to authorship issues when the “cannibal,” the author of the “new” work, is profiting from someone else’s source material. The re-appropriation, in turn, becomes an uncontrollable, viral phenomenon such as memes, which end up on Google and YouTube perpetually as they get spread. Cannibals cannibalize other cannibals in an endless cycle.

Today, kids are born with digital inputs and outputs practically attached to their fingertips. They are TRANSHUMANS, experts in codifying, decodifying, and re-codifying the world without borders that surrounds them. This digital world of 1’s and 0’s are natural to them. It’s in their DNA. They grow up unaware that one must credit or pay to use media. A digital gadget does not come with a booklet on the ethics of media usage explaining copyright terms to these children. So it follows that authorship rights in the age of digital culture are quickly falling by the wayside. When everything looks “free for the taking,” with everyone influencing one another in a super fast pace until no one remembers who started what, who is the gate keeper? These tech-savvy children reject the old model and are creating new ones. It will be impossible to stop them. They are the new cannibals, and they may propagate our history to secure our immortality.

The data processing never stops; it’s a hungry machine in need of food, and we too have become a hungry machine in need of food. And that food is information. Food for thought, thought generating ideas, ideas generating action, actions generating change, change generating awareness of the human condition, awareness of the human condition awakening the awareness of our own mortality, and the acknowledgment of our own mortality generating the need to leave the marks of our passage through this life. To leave a testimony of all that we have consumed as an embodiment of our full being and, ultimately, of all that we have become. No man is an island. The medium is the message. And so we log onto the social networks to share our lives with the world. And the world reacts by taking it all in and remixing these outputs. We all want to bite off the apple. But everyone wants to be eternal. The search for truth and knowledge is our daily affirmation of immortality. And the future God might be Google or Facebook, the mainframe memory, guardian of our brains and experiences. Long after we’re gone, this sort of institution or its transmutation will still exist as a virtual building that houses our embodiment as human beings and producers of data. The keeper of our conscience during our passage on earth.

The performative lecture, which is sometimes read from inside a boat, is immediately followed by the reading of the Anthropophagic Re-Manifesto for the Digital Age.

After its reading, the manifesto is eaten and shared with audience members, accompanied by the sharing of a local mind-altering drink.

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Barnes, Fiona R., „Resisting Cultural Cannibalism. Oppositional Narratives in Michelle Cliff’s No Telephone to Heaven”, Accessed April 13, 2010 [Link]

Benjamin, Walter, Über den Begriff der Geschichte, in: ders.: Illuminationen. Ausgewählte Schriften. Frankfurt/Main 1974. Bd. 1, S. 253 f.

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McGee, W. J., „Piratical acculturation“ (1898). American Anthropologist, Vol. 11, No. 8 (Aug. 1898): pp. 243-249.

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Rudmin, Floyd W. Catalogue of Acculturation Constructs: Descriptions of 126 Taxonomies, 1918-2003 Accessed April 15, 2010 [Link]

WIKIPEDIA. Accessed May 2009 – July 2010

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  1. Virtual = Alternative: I believe that the term “virtual” underestimates and trivializes the events and culture generated online, as they may generate very real consequences in the physical world away from keyboard. I use “virtual” only as indicative of the concept already widely adopted to talk about the online universe. I hope that this connotation is eventually understood as “alternate reality
  2. Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Trans: Colin Smith. Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge, 2005) (eg. p. 408)
  3. Anaxagoras, quoted by R. Taton, Histoire Générale des Sciences, Paris, P.U.F., 1957, vol. 1, p. 217
  4. Vilém Flusser, O Universo das Imagens Técnicas: Elogio da Superficialidade (São Paulo: Annablume, 2008) p.148, Ins Universum der technischen Bilder (Göttingen, 1992), p. 139.
  5. Sarah E. Simons, “Social Assimilation” American Journal of Sociology. (1901): part I, pp. 791-792. Quoted by Sarah Wilson, Melting-Pot Modernism (Cornell University, 2010), p.22

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