27 October, 2014Issue 26.2ReligionScience

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A Critical Hematology

Kate Travers

Gil Anidjar
Blood: A Critique of Christianity
Columbia University Press, 2014
560 pages
ISBN: 9780231167208

Academic books can dazzle for a variety of reasons. Some projects are so painstakingly, meticulously researched that, even though the subject matter is sometimes dry and often only ever capable of appealing to a highly specific audience, they command respect. Other works are written with such finesse and linguistic dexterity that they dazzle with their glimmering sheen of intellectual bravura. Yet others become cornerstones of the academic canon because of their wide-reaching implications in many diverse disciplines. Blood: A Critique of Christianity is that rare combination that manages all three. A project of soaring ambition and incredible scope, Gil Anidjar attempts to weave a narrative constructed from—and soaked in—the cultural, social, political history of blood within Christianity and, by extension, the entire Western world.

Blood is a book of two parts: “The Vampire State” and “Hematologies”. “The Vampire State” is a collection of political meditations on the role of blood in medieval Christianity and its subsequent influence on the Western body politic. Anidjar connects the symbolic and social functions of blood in medieval European theology with the emergent idea of the nation state, and its implications in the theorisation of race and Christian identity, illustrating how these concepts permeate the West’s enduring infatuation with capitalism and the construction of modern America.

Anidjar begins his epic narrative by addressing the racial purity laws of the medieval city of Toledo in Spain. It is here that he examines the privileging of Christian blood within the West as “good”, or distinct from others. Using the Toledo laws as a case study in the process of defining a “national” populous, he argues against Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, and Benedict Anderson, whom he believes construct race and racism as sociological class distinctions. Instead, he posits that these distinctions spread from medieval “theologico-politcal” differences, the expressions of which hold a sociological function.

Communities which are united through material blood ties need no longer “perform” their unity. They are “self-fashioning”. While it is certainly true that these communities are engaged in a process of self-fashioning, Anidjar later describes blood in the medieval community as a both “gift and a given”. And what else is the gift, and the act of gift-giving, if not a performance of mutual alignment, of unity? His examination of the early theorisation of the body politic, via John of Salisbury and Christine de Pizane, however, is a brief but vital reminder of the medieval roots of biopolitical thought. Theories of biopolitics are dominated by twentieth-century thinkers, and Anidjar’s tracing of the historical lineage of the conceptual bond between the biological and the socio-political is a valuable endeavour. The fluidity of these concepts and their slow drip-down through the centuries does much to support Anidjar’s refusal to accept conventional notions of periodicity in discussing blood as a theological, biological, and political entity.

Blood‘s examination of Western capitalism is a terrifyingly astute insight into parallels between the circulation of capital and the biological circulation. Not only does Anidjar highlight the obvious resonances of capital as the “life-blood” of the economy, but he also teases out the incorporation of the biological within the circulation of capital. He places blood and tissue in the liminal space between the social and the economic, and points to the practice of slavery as the ultimate gesture of capitalist incorporation—the justification for which was itself offered by early modern theories of blood as metonym for race.

On reading the opening three chapters of the book, what is perhaps even more striking than the clarity of the ideas themselves is Anidjar’s wilfully playful—bordering on facetious—use of language and style. The text at times does appear like a web of verbal contractions. He deliberately and repeatedly contradicts himself: “The one drop rule has no history […] The one drop rule has no history. This is not a completely accurate statement.” He is unabashedly unacademic (e.g. “Foucault says somewhere”) whilst weaving together a complex tapestry of textual references from Spanish statues to Walter Benjamin. At times, this plethora of citations can seem gratuitous or even contrived, however, this meshing of references is extremely effective at subtly enumerating the occurrences of blood within pop culture. Take, for example, the sentences: “The circulation of True Blood will be televised. There Will Be Blood.” This may appear as a meaningless iteration of pop-culture references, perhaps there for the sole purpose of injecting a little edge into his prose. However, Anidjar is playing a quick-fire game of free association, linking film, television, music, Gil Scott-Herron, Daniel Day Lewis, Johnny Greenwood, Anna Paquin—and blood, in two short phrases. This masterful manipulation of language and culture doesn’t exactly make for an easy read, but it can be joyful to see Anidjar in action.

The first part of this book alone would constitute a remarkable achievement. However, this is followed by “Hematologies”, an unexpected and challenging investigation into the role of blood which, he argues, occupies a crucial space at the centre of the Western literary canon. It is in this section of the book that Anidjar pulls off his most impressive intellectual acrobatics. He engages with Homer, Auerbach, Hobbes, Melville, and Freud to provide a riveting cultural analysis of blood amongst the ancient Greek philosophers and a psychoanalysis of Christianity.

Odysseus’ scar appears in the episode dealt with by Auerbach in Mimesis, his monumental survey of the Western canon. He was wounded by a boar whilst hunting, which left said scar. Anidjar points to the conspicuous absence of blood at the moment of the wounding, despite the clearly significant cultic function of blood for the Greeks. He goes on to compare the function of blood within Hebrew culture, which he describes as “dietic” and “juridico-cutic” with the scientific notion of blood, as it was perceived by the ancient Greeks. Anidjar refracts concepts of race and nationhood through natural philosophy. He outlines how blood was thought to be a direct product of digestion, so when Herodotus claimed that the Hellenic nation states were united by common blood, this was actually a comment on shared culinary customs and diet, rather than an idea founded in a hereditary conception of ethnicity. A debatable concept, that would no doubt cause controversy amongst scholars of the classics, but an original and admirable demonstration of the complex mesh of cultural, political and philosophical significance which blood has carried since antiquity and which has been embedded into Western culture as we recognise it today.

Anidjar saves his masterstroke for final sections of his book. His transposition of the Freudian theory of melancholia into an “economics of pain” ties together the function of blood within Christianity, Western states, Western capitalist economies, and the Freudian psychoanalytical framework. Uniting the writings of Paul and Freud, Anidjar puts his finger on a profound contradiction, the origin-point of the trauma which marks the Christian faith with vivid red streaks: “The only real significant murder, the first murder, is the murder of the father. It is the only murder, the true murder from which we have exonerated ourselves. It is the only crime against humanity, the one of which we, who worship the sons, are always already innocent.” This coalescence of scripture and psychoanalysis is a stroke of genius, weaving together the disciplinary structures constructed in the twentieth-century with institutional frameworks devised millennia before and refined in every century since. This transformative claim cements his argument that blood is as fluid, potent and ubiquitous in its symbolic form as it is in its material sense.

For Anidjar, blood deserves the same attention as sex. For him, blood requires a “critical hematology”, a “denaturalisation” of it as a topic, to strip it of what he calls its “excess significance”. This project, with its broad scope and fascinating insight, has in some senses catalogued this “excess significance”, although perhaps it cannot be said to have diminished it. If Blood will achieve one thing, it is to make increasing numbers of the academic community, from a variety of different disciplines, aware of the multifarious facets and functions of blood in the history and culture of the west.

Kate Travers is currently reading for a PhD in Italian literature at New York University. She also reviews music and books for The Line of Best Fit and The Oxonian Review.