The Christian Question: A Response to the Blood Forum – By Gil Anidjar

Gil Anidjar March 2, 2015 1

Gil Anidjar Responds to the Blood Forum

Blood Cover

Gil Anidjar, Blood: A Critique of Christianity, Columbia University Press, 2014, 464pp., $40

I am becoming the blood guy.

Like Dexter Morgan, I suppose I was asking for it. And like that strange, and strangely caring sociopath who likes to be liked, I am grateful for the attention. But I am puzzled nonetheless. For when I write and when I look at what I have written, I often have the feeling of having stated the obvious (then again, I learned long ago that the “ob” of “obvious” may refer to that which is in the way, against the current, as it were, a kind of ob-stacle, such that the visibility of the obvious might just be all to e-vident or in-visible in its spectacular visibility).

Thus, encouraged by the fantastic (and generous) readers who have here come together to read Blood, I’m certainly grateful for the occasion, and more than happy with it to take the credit (or the blame) for what they describe as my insistence on blood in Christianity. Still, these days even The Economist (The Economist!) might publish (as it did indeed) something on blood and Christianity, or, as the case may be, on “blood and ecumenism,” a piece in which Pope Francis is quoted as saying: “The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard … It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants. They are Christians! Their blood is one and the same. Their blood confesses Christ.”

Francis thus brings together (better than I have, I think) a few among the multiple dimensions of blood that bind Christians and Christianity and better yet, Christianities, for which blood also — c’est le cas de le dire — testifies. The affirmation of identity (“one and the same”) is a response to the differing I try to highlight, but it also abolishes and remarks that difference (the blood of Christians, all Christians). It is an Aufhebung that leaves the blood of others open to, say, benevolent speculations. And it finds one of its sources in the singularly pure and purifying blood of Christ, itself multifariously shared by Christians. Francis and I (and The Economist!) thus appear to agree that Christianity exists, and that it has something to do with blood.

As I said, obvious.

But Francis, in his ecumenism, does include the sisters, whereas I, Pamela Klassen rightly points out, have refrained from doing so. I am the blood guy. Interestingly, Klassen (whose amazing work on medicine and liberal Christianity I have learned much from) opposes my blood of death to the blood of birth, recognizing that I have put some emphasis in the book and elsewhere on the matter of life. Indeed, I do not quite say that blood is death, as much as indicate that its association with life is more Christian than we have admitted, and less biological, less life-oriented even, than we might think. Not only that, it is this association that I see as de-materializing, dis-embodying. The critique of Christianity is therefore quite precisely the exploration of boundaries and limits that distinguish all too securely between flesh and spirit, between that which is the body and that which is not (and guess which has been better, by the way? but sure, I’ll take the blame. I’m the blood guy).

Be that as it may, Klassen is absolutely correct when she says that “when it comes to menstruation and childbirth it is not only Christianity that thinks with blood to build community through gendered hierarchy and exclusion.” Which is exactly why, given my interest in Christianity rather than in blood as such, I have duly left it out of my inquiry. For the point is neither that blood is only important to Christianity, nor that Christianity shares nothing with other human collectives by way of blood and other things. Nor would I deny that “most women between the age of twelve and fifty-five have thought with blood on a regular basis, reading its monthly overflowing presence or signal absence with anxiety, pleasure, or forbearance.” And though some might want to question the age thing, or the agency thing, and indeed, the universalistic tone here adopted, my own query has to do with the suggestion that including “the blood of fertility” (and, if I may, infertility) or of natality would not quite alter the argument that there is something singular about Christianity and blood. It might just divert it and even exonerate Christianity from the critique I try to launch.

There is clearly something not so singular (if not quite universal) about humanity and blood, and about gender and blood (not quite universal either, and far from identical across the board, but ok), indeed, about patriarchy. But is there not something quite singular about Christianity? So perhaps I’m not really the blood guy after all, not really. I’m the Christianity guy. I’m after Christianity in its dominant and hegemonic forms, Christianity in its historical and structural distinctiveness. Not quite a monument to gender equality or, for that matter, to gender singularity (though these days, we Christians are the liberators of other women, of course, and of a few other targets of our benevolent attention, surveillance and bombing machines, marketing and democratizing mission). And so, though I was proudly raised by some of the greatest gender theorists of this century, I think I may have gone a different way (I’ll nonetheless confess to not being so certain I diverged that much). I do think I’m not the blood guy though. I’m the Christianity guy.

Ah, but is there such a thing? My friend Jonathan Sheehan once wrote in his phenomenal book of “the theological function of the Bible” as guaranteeing “its place at the very center of European religion and letters. Theological authority infused the Bible with life.” Theology, he continued, “was the blood in the veins of Early Modern religious wars.” I would venture that our (always productive) disagreements are grounded in that word: “theological.” Clearly, we’re not talking about any theology, but about Christian theology, and more precisely no doubt Christian theologies (would this qualified plurality suffice to establish that there is such a thing as Christianity, to grant it enough integrity so as to attribute existence to it?).

More importantly, though, is it really the case that “theology” adequately describes the authority and function of the medieval Bible? Is it “theology” that “infused life” in the Bible? Was it not also the established institutions of Church and state, the Holy Roman Empire and a few other things (themselves infused with life by the Bible)? Indeed, was the Bible at the center of “European religion and letters” only? And how historical is the term “religion” in that sentence anyway? How historical the distinction of “religion” from “letters”? Would these two terms or categories moreover exhaust the significance, authority, and function of the Bible in (Christian) Europe? What about politics? What about philosophy? What about science and everything that our teacher Amos Funkenstein designated as “secular theology”? What about law and economics, kinship and war?

Surely, there were Christian communities who “organized themselves around things beside blood.” Then again, communities usually organize themselves around more than one thing, and it is the selection (not necessarily explicit or even conscious, sometimes less than present) and the dynamic organization of these things that make them what they are, as communities. So the question Sheehan raises is, I think, proximate to Klassen’s. Granted there are other Christianities, granted there are those who did organize themselves around blood (among other things, and even among other bloods, in fact) and those who did not: does that mean that Christianity’s existence is, as it were, in doubt? And, a different kind of point, does the absence of blood fail to inscribe itself within a field of generalized hemophilia that corresponds to the doctrine and practice, the imagination and vocabulary, the institutions and relations of Christians for whom blood — the blood of God — appears to have been of some peculiar importance? Did Luther think blood unimportant? Outside and below “the clerical hierarchy,” within and beyond “the plurality of the church” and “the vitality of secular ‘lordship’ in extra-ecclesiastical domains” — does blood fail to matter? And does Christianity end?

I take it that Sheehan is getting impatient with my psychoanalytic and differantial (with an a) inclinations (“When blood, then Christianity. When no blood, there is Christianity too”). Just like the case of that famed cigar, it would be good to know that sometime things are just what they are, would it not, and not what they are not (ostensibly and manifestly, that is)? If only they were.

One qualification, nonetheless: it is not quite accurate to write that “Christianity, as it were, turns out to be both itself and everything else too.” For the claims I make are indeed audaciously ambitious, but with these claims I seek precisely to show that Christianity is not “everything else,” and thus not everything it is not (for the historians, and for a few others). I merely wish to show that blood, which continues to be taken as a universal (for blood, as opposed to Christianity, does appear to exist), testifies in fact to the singularity, and maps the limits of, Christianity. These are expansive limits, much more expansive than “religion and letters” as they operated in Christian Europe, but Christianity is not everything, not yet.

Benedict Anderson famously asserted that the novelty of “imagined communities” involved the passing of a previous “system” he called “religious,” one that nonetheless offered more than a passing analogy to the “national.” Thus, “for all the grandeur and power of the great religiously imagined communities, their unselfconscious coherence waned steadily after the late Middle Ages.” But how do we understand the (putatively novel) coherence of national communities? What are we doing, in other words, when we refer to “American readers,” and when we say, as Ana Schwartz does in her beautiful discussion of Moby-Dick, that “what’s American about Melville’s novel is that ending,” in which Ishmael remains the orphaned witness? What is Sheehan doing when he speaks of “European religion and letters”? We need to scrutinize such terms and ask about the coherence they grant and fail to grant as indeed we have (incoherence and plurality do seem to dominate these days, but let us leave that), if perhaps not sufficiently.

What Schwartz describes is the way in which one author (say, Hobbes, or Melville) inscribes himself/herself within genres and forms, national and transnational imaginaries and psychic figures, histories of violence and of devastation: “practices of reading, writing, remembering, and interpreting,” practices that “distribute and pass on the empathetic feelings of kinship and community.” By engaging with Melville and Rowlandson, Schwartz calls attention, I think, to the testimony of literature or perhaps to the importance of American “religion and letters.”

But she is less concerned with centrality (and concomitant margins), and she isn’t merely reiterating Anderson’s point about print capitalism and its role in the rise of nationalism. Schwartz is rather underscoring the intangibility that traverses the material and the bodily, a moment, if you will, “when blood dissolves into empathetic feeling,” or when Christianity “dissolves” into Englishness or Americanness. The pertinacity of Christianity remains visible (and invisible) in that dissolution, and yet, “when thinking about blood, there can be no question of national difference, the qualities that could distinguish Latin-American from Anglo-American histories.” We must be wary, as Mahmood Mamdani warns, of seeing “state boundaries as boundaries of knowledge, thereby turning political into epistemological boundaries.”

Although Sheehan (generously?) includes me in the guild (“Loosely speaking, Blood does historical work”), Schwartz signals toward a non-historical, or anti-historical moment in my argument (Amy Hollywood kindly writes of my “legitimate concerns about historicism”). Just like Paul de Man opposed the rhetoric of tropes to the rhetoric of persuasion and showed their mutual embrace and collapse, Schwartz insists that literature tells us something that history doesn’t (or doesn’t know it does). Between the literal and the figurative, we are inscribed within many lineages, but “the matter of blood’s circulation merits ongoing and updated attention, across genres and form, even when — especially when — they appear unrelated to our proper literary lineage.”

Speaking of lineage. When I started writing the section of Blood that became the introduction, namely, “Why I am Such a Good Christian,” I considered two options (aside from the obvious Nietzschean reference and other pseudo-plagiarisms). One was to engage with Derrida in a direct manner, the other was to deploy an autobiographical tone.

My debt to Derrida is incalculable and it is working itself through in Blood as well (Amy Hollywood rightly refers to the significance of this debt). Yet, I refrained from a treatment of blood in Derrida, on which there is nonetheless quite a bit to say. The reason for this has something to do with the second thing, though I cannot quite formulate it with more precision than Hollywood has, who, commenting on Derrida (and Bataille), wrote in Sensible Ecstasies, that “there are reasons to distrust the transparency of these autobiographical gestures and to read them as strategic”.

Let us say that mine is a proximate expression of reticence toward the (auto)biographical. Derrida adds somewhere that the names of authors are neither identities nor causes; they are indices of problems or questions. The question of blood is not a matter of authorship; it is a matter (above and beyond the material but not, for all that, disembodied) of Christianity. And that is “why I am such a good Christian.”

I am therefore quite in awe of Hollywood herself assuming the first person at the same time as she acknowledges that my “jeremiad” is not personal (it’s not personal, it’s strictly business, as Michael Corleone puts it). She identifies in the book something she calls “political rage,” and I could not have put it better. This is about secularism, yes, and about modernity too. It is about killing and about innocence, race and religion, science and law, politics and literature. It’s about disciplines too (and I am therefore thrilled that my readers here are anthropologists, religion scholars, historians, and literary critics).

Blood is about death, violence, and murder, but it is also about life and its organization (in a not so felicitous phrasing I proposed the “bio-theologico-political” as our object of concern). Blood, and Hollywood underscores this just as I am obsessively trying to, is about the Christian question.

  • It is incredibly cheap of Gil Anidjar to use the recent, ritualized slaughter of Coptic Christians by Islamist thugs on the Libyan coast to peddle his book.

    Anidjar is elated that Pope Francis responded to this mass-slaughter by saying, “The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard”.

    But Anidjar is characterisitically sloppy in the use he makes of his “sources” – here, a pope’s statement in the wake of a mass Islamist killing.

    For Anidjar, the pope’s statement says something about blood and Christianity.

    But he should note that Francis is quoting the first chapters of Genesis – where it is Jewish blood that cries out, namely, the blood of Abel: “And the Lord said, What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood cries to me out of the ground” (Gen. 4.10).

    And what do we see when we consult the Septuagint’s Greek – which (need I specify?) pre-dates Christianity: φωνὴ αἵματος τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ σου βοᾷ πρός με ἐκ τῆς γῆς.

    “The voice of thy brother’s blood (φωνὴ αἵματος τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ) cries to me out of the ground” is an absolutely ad-verbum translation of the Septuagint’s – Jewish – scripture.

    So, in Pope Francis’ statement, we have not Christianity – but in the first instance Judaism, and only derivitavely, Christianity, in the picture.

    When we then recall – Anidjar is too flippant to do so – that the Islamic State deen titled their death-porn “A Message Signed With Blood”, and closed the video with a prolonged shot of these Christians’ neck-blood staining the Mediterranean – it should be clear, even to Anidjar, that Islam is also very much in the picture when it comes to blood.

    The pope’s statement dwells on blood not because the pope is a Christian, but because the Islamist video which occasioned the pope’s statment is titled, and is about, and documents the shedding of real, innocent – blood.

    But a gross mis-use of sources is to be expected of Anidjar.

    What is truly shocking – and occasions this comment – is not his blithe incomprehension of Francis’s words, which draw upon the Hebrew scriptures; nor his giddy disinterest in the Islamist blood-shed in Libya that actually occasioned those words; but rather his cheap and cheapening disregard for the cruelly taken lives of twenty-one Coptic Christian men.