First Glance: Blood : A Critique of Christianity by Gil Anidjar


Blood: A Critique of Christianity

by Gil Anidja.

Columbia University Press, 2014.

ISBN: 9780231167208 0231167202
OCLC Number: 863199863
Description: xvii, 441 pages; 24 cm.

Table of Contents:

Preface: Why I Am Such a Good Christian
Introduction: Red Mythology
Part One. The Vampire State
1. Nation (Jesus’ Kin)
2. State (The Vampire State)
3. Capital (Christians and Money)
Part Two. Hematologies
4. Odysseus’ Blood
5. Bleeding and Melancholia
6. Leviathan and the Blood Pump
Conclusion: On the Christian Question (Jesus and Monotheism )

The third part of Dr. Gil Anidjar‘s quasi-trilogy on the sweeping and radical changes in the theology, politics, and history of Abrahamic religious monotheism that began with The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy (2003) and continued with Semites: Race, Religion, Literature (2008) has arrived with Blood: A Critique of Christianity.

So this is a blood studies review. Which is to say that I greet this valuable contribution to the study of blood first and foremost because of its translation and not because of its contribution to religious studies, though that may be an important one. No, I also do not mean translation in the sense of Anidjar’s wonderful Derrida translations. Rather, Anidjar’s particular contribution lies in the translation that is so often necessary to make true inter- or transdisciplinary work possible. In Blood: A Critique of Christianity, Anidjar discusses and brings together inquiries that run parallel, beckoning other scholars to work on the intersections.

What’s inside?

The table of contents above reflects the content very well. “Red Mythology” picks up and refines the discussion of Walter Benjamin’s “Blutgewalt” that Anidjar discussed a few years back (scroll down for more of the earlier texts that led up to the book).

The first part deals in history. Nation, State, and Capital form the trinity (pardon the pun) of the first part, in which Anidjar argues that

  • a) that the concepts of nation and race arise from a reconceptualization of the Eucharist as not the universal unification of humanity, but as a marker and performance of Christian communities as pure, exceptional, as visible, and politically organized,
  • b) that this Medieval tradition faded but ultimately reemerged in Hobbes’ Leviathan that inscribes blood into political theory, which Anidjar traces down to the ‘one-drop rule’ of the United States and onward, and
  • c) which traces the image of circulating capital from Hobbes to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and to Marx.

The second part focuses on Christianity in particular.

  • It begins by acknowledging the universality of blood across the Ancient world through Auerbach’s reading of Homer and other Greek authors. This, however, serves to point out what Anidjar sees as a peculiarly Christian obsession with blood when compared to the Greeks.
  • Next, part two observes the ways that melancholia, love, and vampiric obsessions with mesmerized women run from Catherine of Siena and Bram Stoker to Freud.
  • The second part concludes with a wide-ranging reading of Moby Dick as Herman Melville’s commentary on Christianity, at the heart of which commentary Anidjar finds Hobbes’ Leviathan and thus the birth of the Christian understanding of blood itself, the religion that is governed by blood, not the other way around.

The book concludes by reading Freud as wrestling with “the Christian question,” which to Anidjar is also the question of modernity (245, 246).

How does this work?

The opening short sketch introduces the searching, puzzled tone that alternates with the assertion of historical fact throughout the book. I mention this for those who are not reading current critical scholarship, which often tries to do away with the formal assumptions of past work by writing criticism differently. More on that at the end.

In the opening, Anidjar advances his central claim and his metaphor of the element:

 The reading I offer, the argument I ultimately propose, is that between presence and absence, blood is the element of Christianity, its voluminous mark (citation, context). It is the way in which and upon which Christianity made its mark. More broadly, a consideration of what blood reflects, produces, and sustains, what it engenders, must take—as one adopts—the form of a critique of Christianity. (Blood 11)

Even though one might object at the inclusion of most of an OED entry, it does illustrate the complexity of the term in the way that the most wonderful of entries can. This metaphor is also less problematic than Anidjar’s constant use of “hemophilia” as a literalization of the affinity and love for, the need for blood, which to me cries out for more work on the intersection between the cultural desire and political emphaiss on blood and the actual illness of hemophilia and disability in general. Some work to consider would be David L. Kirp‘s “Look Back in Anger.”

Past scholarship

But to go back to the genesis of Blood: A Critique of Christianity for a moment. The book builds on a number of prior publications by Anidjar, which already hinted at his growing interest in blood as the key to considering the history of Christianity of the Euro-American variety.

As a blood scholar, I knew Anidjar’s name not from his monographs, but from an important and distinctly contemporary, if you will allow me this sloppy use of the term, article that also enters into Blood, namely “We Have Never Been Jewish: An Essay in Asymmetric Hematology” (in Jewish Blood: Reality and Metaphor in History, Religion, and Culture. Mitchell B. Hart, ed. New York: Routledge, 2009). In it, Anidjar meditates that,

Parts for the whole, sociology (along with history, anthropology, and biology to boot) has become, naturally, Christology. Or vice-versa. Christology is hematology, and it is the fabric of our lives. It raises “new questions about family, society and politics” (p. 256 [of Bynum’s Wonderful Blood]). For it is a fact that “not all religions give meaning by such stark, simultaneous assertion of life and death as does medieval Christianity” (p. 255). Indeed, not all religions — but what is “religion”? And are there many really? — give meaning, whether theological, political, anthropological and familial, legal and economical — even natural — by blood. To the extent that Judaism is a religion (something that is not to be taken for granted), it certainly does not elevate, or simply diffuse blood in any comparable way. Moreover, for Jews, belonging — if it can be figured — has nothing to do with blood. By blood, then, we have never been Jewish. (“We Have Never Been Jewish” 44-5)

An apt introduction to Blood: A Critique of Christianity, and yet already a hint at the scope and dimensions this text takes on.

Also drawing in past scholarship, the Vampire State concept arose from one of several entries in Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon (2011), an on-line project by the New School for Social Research, is about “Blood.” Therein he already attempted a definition of blood:

At the most basal, as the most basal, blood functions as a liminal marker, the potent sign of politics at its recalcitrant limits. Blood operates, or, shall we say, circulates at the outer extremes of politics, there where the shedding of blood signifies the ultimate exercise of power (ius gladii and all that), as well as the undoing of the community that descends into violence. (n.p.)

This binary of violence frames much of the political thrust in Blood: A Critique of Christianity. The history of blood as that which marks violent death pervades this most recent text and clamps together the two parts, keeping it from breaking apart.

In an undated interview with Nermeen Shaikh of The Asia Society, Anidjar lays out this political history of Christianity and roughly draws the boundaries of his argument in Blood: A Critique of Christianity

Clearly, the role of Europe is crucial in this respect. Europe is after all the very site of the theologico-political. In other words, Europe itself has not, has absolutely not worked out or worked through the difference it has inherited from its past, the difference, assuming that there should be one, between theology and politics, because secularized Christianity is still Christianity, however translated (Schmitt), metaphorized (Blumenberg) or perverted (Löwith). The only tradition that has found itself secularized, that has reinvented or simply transformed itself as secular, is Western Christianity, so whatever changes Christianity has undergone in the last 300 years, are still changes that Christianity has undergone as a cultural unit (however porous and problematic and invested in claiming its own “purity” that unit might be).

I will say this quickly and probably all too schematically because it is something I have recently been trying to learn about, and which has become increasingly astonishing to me. When people talk about the Inquisition and about the emergence of the antecedents of modern, biological racism, they often refer to the “limpieza de sangre” (the Purity of Blood statutes), those statutes and regulations identifying conversos or “New Christians” (converts or descendants of converts) as having Jewish blood and barring them from certain official positions and functions. Such statutes were first written in Spain in the 15th century and became increasingly widespread about a century later throughout Spain and Portugal. Implicit to these statutes is the claim (well recognized by those who opposed them, and they were many) that the holy sacraments do not work, that baptism is no longer sufficient or even efficient to make one a Christian. The implication of these statutes for the “New Christians” was, of course, enormous. More important, it seems to me, is the question of what it means for the Church ultimately to uphold a distinction between old and new Christians. This is a huge problem for Jewish historians, as it is for historians of Spain. As for me, I cannot think of any more anti-theological, secular a statement on the part of Christianity than this. The “limpieza de sangre” is, as it were, the beginning of secularization: the de facto abolition of the Sacraments in their efficacy. This is where one truly finds the “New Christians,” then. Not or not only among the conversos, but among those – the Church – who reinvent themselves as “Old Christians.” All of this is still very Christian, of course, very Catholic, done in the name of the Church even as it goes against the most basic principles of Christian theology. What remains, at any rate, is that Catholicism, Christianity in fact, has changed radically at that moment, yet it is Christianity that has changed, and afterwards it is still going to call itself or function as Christianity. So one could say that everything is exactly the same, and yet just a little different, to quote Walter Benjamin. Something radical has happened to Christianity, quite apart from what has happened to the Jews and to the Moors. Of course, it is a catastrophe, and Europe has changed at that moment. Western Christendom has totally reinvented itself by claiming to be conservative (and what could be more conservative than the Inquisition?) and that is the beginning of secularization. Secularization is just Christianity by another name. But a different Christianity, of course. (n.p.)

What is great?

So what does Blood: A Critique of Christianity bring together? Obviously, there is quite a bit of Derrida, especially the political Derrida. But Blood also brings up and successfully incorporates the wonderful work medievalists have recently done on blood. Most notably Caroline Walker Bynum’s brilliant Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond receives sustained attention. The work of medieval historians, scholars of literature and law has documented the profoundly different ways that blood was conceived of by people across central and northern Europe, and the ways in which they resembled each other and enrich our understanding of our own historical relation with blood. But not many of them would open chapters with Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” (in Reflections), which to Anidjar unsuccessfully attempts to cleave apart violence and murder. A text that considers Benjamin might well consider, as does Blood, Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political. Yet few of them would involve him with Hobbes in a reflection on Christianity in The Merchant of Venice.

In the end, the value of the religous Critique itself cannot be estimated in one short blog entry. However, I will take the liberty–and who in this digital wild west is there to stop me, after all–to consider some questions that remain.

What work remains?

The value of the text lies in a big risk it takes and that it navigates with care.

Let me explain. The translation effort here results in part from the sweeping scope of the argument, made possible by the bridging of all these disciplines, methods, fields, and lines of inquiry. This scope creates an abstraction that Anidjar has been criticized for and is aware of. I am a friend of abstractions and of attempts to place the whole before the reader’s eyes. The challenge for the reader lies in the simultaneous abstraction of “Christiantiy” and its concrete incarnations–no pun intended. Anidjar’s important argument develops out of and stands in its tension, and it would be wise for other scholars to listen to him and contribute to the discussion.

I am not a scholar of religion, so I hope that some of you more expert will contribute below and get into the details. But this much is clear. Christianity is Western, well European, it is Medieval and German in the 1930s. Yet it exceeds the material evidence. As Adnijar puts it in his Semites, much “more than an idea, Christianity is a massive institution, the sum total of philosophical and scientific, economic and political achievements, discursive, administrative, and institutional accomplishments, the singularity and specificity of which are not to be doubted (“culture and imperialism,” “societies for, rather than against, the state,” and so forth).” (Semites 44). This breadth at times threatens the depth of specific points. I don’t think Anidjar would necessarily disagree that in order to create such a broad critique, details must be limited. Yet when we historicize this term in each stage, we may find problems–which does not mean that Adnidjar is wrong, but that some of this arguments will probably need revision in light of historical evidence. Because “Christianity” is the focus through which the State is read, through which everything is read, economy, science and all other discoursive formations are subsumed under its structures.

We know, for example, that the history of first British and then French transfusion experiments a mere ten years after Leviathan arose not so much on the backdrop of a Christian obsession with blood, but in the re-structuring of knowledge centers, away from monasteries and to the courts and ultimately the Royal Societies. As Holly Tucker’s Blood Work explains in a most entertaining and insightful way, the struggles over vivisection, transfusion, and other experimental practices were influenced by money and political power. While I would not deny any connection to Christianity, I do not see these processes arise from a Christian obsession with blood purity or unity.

Likewise, it would take a far more detailed and longer effort, for example, to convince me that we can simply ignore the epistemic shifts that occur between, say, Galenic humoralism and contemporary blood product markets and still speak of a Christianized medicine in the same way without simply erasing significant differences. Part of the problem of writing about blood before the last third of the nineteenth century is that much of it was still caught in local specificity. In this way, any discussion of race and Renaissance drama does well to pay close attention to Mary Floyd-Wilson’s research of geo-humoralism in her English Ethnicity and Race in Early Modern Drama.

But also in the U.S. context, the ‘one-drop rule’ was usually state law, not federal law like the blood quantum laws that wreaked havoc in Native communities across the nation and into the Pacific islands. To compare Saint-Domingue to the continental U.S. jumps over some of the very legacy Anidjar rightlyinsists on. The limpieza de sangre exists until today in the echoes of the castas system of any specific colonial and postcolonial space (Catholic spaces, nonetheless), especially in Mexico, and so María Elena Martínez’ Genealogical Fictions seems would seem like a worthwhile conversation partner. Regulations of different bloods did not only come through the limpieza de sangre, but also through the Napoleonic Code Noir and other local regulations of blood that muddy the religious waters, so to speak. To speak of these multiple and overlapping histories productively, it is necessary to acknowledge the specific local context and history in every case and then relate them back to the whole. This is no impediment to broader insights. The parts may yield the whole, but the parts must be known.

This gets to the trickiest aspect of the text and indeed to any blood study. As I said above, this is a blood studies review, so I will point out some differences in the way Anidjar’s text approaches the scholarship. Obviously, his research is solid, but to reach the broad audience that could benefit from his text, I would hope for some longer and clearer explanations of some allusions and look for some familiar names. Bettina Bildhauer’s Medieval Blood gets a footnote that explains that it will teach all there is to know about medieval blood–and yet appears nowhere in the text and so remains itself cryptic. Of course Bynum’s work speaks more to the scholar of religion, but as the concept of “Christianity” de-limits the theological discussion, the secular sources might be worthwhile.

Especially a bridge to scholars of medicine becomes less visible by abbreviated references. This may well be an editor’s decision, but it definitely short-changes the possible connections. The brief nods to Keith Wailoo’s classic exploration of medical technologies Drawing Blood, and Catherine Waldby and Robert Mitchell’s seminal explanation of current medico-capitalism Tissue Economies do not suffice for those unacquainted with the texts.

Some texts come to mind that will hopefully further enrich our conversation about Anidjar’s work and that offer themselves as connections to pursue from his position.

To return to the beginning, the “element” metaphor itself stayed with me. It so usefully functions as a matrix to place blood in. My mind is buzzing with the sheer amount of connotations amassed in the combination of such sheer boundless terms. Add the fourteen entries on ‘element’ to the twenty-three of ‘blood’ and apply them to ‘Christianity’… If the book have a fault it therefore lies not in its thorough research,  or in its important contribution, nor in its usefulness to many scholars or its exemplary bridging of disciplines, but merely in the insight that is perhaps as old as our thinking about blood: man is finite, and some things must exceed the mind of any one text. But that is no fault, really, but only an opportunity for more conversation.

In the end, Anidjar probably would not deny this small critique of mine either, though he might question my assumptions of what a text is. Because as I mentioned above, Blood: A Critique of Christianity is one more thing: a sustained poking and prodding at the established form of scholarly exchange and yet another attempt by a scholar to present a text outside itself, in the openness of the scholarly enterprise:

 I will merely assert that I did not wish for this to be a book. Instead, one could imagine the whole thing as restless and otherwise bound, neither new science nor archaeology, but rather partaking of a different, older tradition of disputation—in its initial and final stages a reading, a measuring of the adversary, among whom one lives and whom one invariably emulates, however grudgingly. Think of it as an unfinished project of some premodernity. Early on, at any rate, the growing number of meandering pages now lying ahead impressed themselves upon me (no, seriously) as plausible candidates for a gathered volume, though I would have preferred otherwise. (Blood 13)


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