Symposium Introduction

“Have I not called this a book? Is it not one after all?”

Gil Anidjar’s Blood: A Critique of Christianity may well be a book, but Anidjar wishes that it wasn’t: “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” (xi). The disputation is alive, and dispute it certainly does, with references to critical theory and historical texts circulating as though the book (or rather, the “disputation”) were a capillary system rushing with blood. Here’s what Anidjar disputes, “blatantly plagiarized” (he admits) “from Carl Schmitt”:

All significant concepts of the history of the modern world are liquidated theological concepts. This is not only because of their historical development—in which they circulated between theology and the operations of the modern world, whereby, for example, the blood of Christ became the flow of capital—but also because of their systematic fluidity, the recognition of which is necessary for a political consideration of these concepts. (viii).

The liquidation of theology, Anidjar contends, is not a concept. This is not a disputation about ideas. It is about how this material liquid called blood generates the modern politics of war, economy, and psychoanalytic introspection. It is a dispute dripping with blood.

Blood, after all, is not an idea. Blood is a material, bodily liquid. Blood literally, physically, materially courses through the Christian West, including its secular guises. “The reading I offer, the argument I ultimately propose,” Anidjar declares, “is that between presence and absence, blood is the element of Christianity, its voluminous mark (citation, context)” (ix). From the outset, Anidjar suggests that the circulating, shedding, and obsessing over blood is uniquely Christian because it, frankly, does not work that way in Jewish thought, not even in the Bible. “There is,” Anidjar repeatedly reiterates, “a difference between bloods,” but this difference certainly has no precedent in the “flesh and bone” language of Hebrew Scripture (44–49) and doesn’t even have its roots in the New Testament, a text framed by the medical tradition of the Greeks and the Romans in which the significance of blood was debated (49–53). The notion that blood ties together communities of kinship and separates those communities from others originates in what Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac called the corpus mysticum, the “eucharistic matrix” that distinguishes a Christian people as different from other peoples because their political theology exalts the shed blood of the murdered Jesus Christ (53). Anyone who understands kinship in terms of blood, even Sephardic Jews in post-Inquisition Spain, bleeds into Christianity. The mythological mystical body bleeds into them, and if such a thing as “secularization” were to enter the discussion, it would be defined as the “(relative) autonomy of nation (or race) from religion, be it along temporal, existential, or simply analytical lines,” which does nothing to separate the “secular” from its eucharistic history (64). Adjudicating between these different national, racial, and religious bloods in turn is the “vampire state,” a bloodless apparatus that has its origins in the eleventh- and twelfth-century papal revolutions and manifests in the nineteenth-century American “one-drop” rule for African Americans. The vampire state feeds off these communities of blood, deriving its legitimacy over the body politic by claiming that it can unite the different bloods into a single ocean of blood. However, “economic theology,” the “history of blood and money,” that shows the spirit of capitalism for what it is demonstrates otherwise (141): as both Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Marx’s Communist Manifesto observe, the difference between bloods privileges Christian participation in financial circulation at the expense of Jews like Shylock. The coins in circulation are derived from stamped communion wafers, the body politic is a blood cult from the Eucharist, so there cannot only be blood—there will be bloods.

To talk about the infusion of Christianity in the modern world is thus to discuss political hematologies. Anidjar gives us three.

  • The first is that the difference between Christian and Jewish bloods raises a unique hematological question in the Western canon: can we speak of “Greek bloods”? In Anidjar’s analysis, the answer is yes; the problem is that Greek blood from Homer to Aristotle is not about kinship in the Eucharistic Christian sense, but about food eaten by the gods, the dead, the living.
  • A second hematological issue is Freudian, mulling over the collective melancholia of the modern unconscious and discovering that the possibilities for the phantasmagorical emergence of the vampire have to be Christian. Indeed, the vampire is us in postcolonial melancholy still attending to the wounds of Christ who was killed (as Freud claims we remember) by those of a different blood. The West stews over the irony that having derived its founding mythology from having blood shed, it has in turn shed blood in colonial conquest.
  • This brings Anidjar to his third hematology: an examination of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick as a race science of Christian blood, one that rightly recognizes the Leviathan, the whale, as the blood-pumping heart of the modern body politic, whether American or not. That much of this is unconscious, Anidjar provocatively concludes, suggests that despite Freud’s Jewishness, his obsession with the founding murders of modernity makes him a Christian, part of the collective unconscious through which these bloods still flow. Blood is thus a critique of Christianity, raising the “Christian question” instead of Marx’s “Jewish Question” to get at the blood that continues to infuse and infest the contemporary world.

If this is a disputation, then Anidjar is in good company in this forum. He may have gotten his wish, for the four panelists have submitted four responses in four academic genres. We begin with Brittany Pheiffer Noble, who takes Anidjar to an “author meets the critics” session of sorts, probing whether Anidjar in fact can make his connections between Christianity and blood. We turn then to Bettina Bildhauer’s comparison of Anidjar to filmmaker Quentin Tarantino to account for Anidjar coursing from blood fact to blood fact. This is followed by Eugene Rogers, who shows us publicly what peer reviews often circulated privately look like, and this is quite the example, for this peer reviewer calls Anidjar’s disputation not so much a book, but an opera. Finally, John Lardas Modern rounds out the historical account that Anidjar provocatively traces, confirming Anidjar’s reading of the blood-pump in Moby-Dick not only with scenes from the book and analysis from critic C.L.R. James, but clips from YouTube as well. Think of Anidjar as having thrown down the hematological gauntlet, calling forth a symposium that is not simply about ideas. “Academic scholarship, the would-be lifeblood of the American mind,” he claims, “must not be left out of this all-too rapid survey” (105). Because it has not been, we can expect indeed that there will be bloods.


UPDATE: The original introduction referred to the “one-drop” rule as referring to Native Americans. It referred to African Americans. The error has been corrected.

Brittany Pheiffer Noble


A Fog of Blood

GIL ANIDJAR’S LATEST WORK, Blood: A Critique of Christianity, offers a dazzling and occasionally maddening meditation on the theme of blood in Christianity and Western culture. In the “element” of blood Anidjar has alighted onto a subject whose history and myriad incarnations—literal, textual, figurative, imagined—reveal, for him, the essence of Christianity. By proposing a Christian paradigm for understanding blood (a paradigm that must be searched for and teased out, as it is hidden), he intends to demonstrate how our modern treatment of blood exposes an enormous debt to Christianity. Thoroughly haunted by twentieth century critical theory, Anidjar moves from the Biblical to the “medieval,” then on to the modern—specifically how earlier concepts of blood are essential for understanding race, law and politics in America. As if this gallop through Western culture were not enough food for thought, the second half of the book wanders off the part-exegetical, part-historical trail blazed in Part One and focuses instead on literary analyses of Homer, Hobbes, Melville, and Freud.

The text’s verbal gymnastics make it difficult to articulate precisely what blood is, other than to invoke Anidjar and insist that 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 is a presence and an absence, and sometimes something in between. Blood “moves, operates, and circulates to the extent that it is inscribed, co-agitated, repeated” just as it “mobilizes and condenses, it singles out and constitutes, a shifting perspective (ebbing and flowing, later circulating) like one of those images and forms—elements, again, or complexes of culture—that fill the material imagination.” In short, this is neither a philological nor physiological study.

As the book straddles multiple disciplines, one of the difficulties in reading Blood is that it is not easy to pin down precisely what Anidjar means by Christianity. The latter half of the book deals with literary investigations that are but tenuously linked to Christianity as a lived religion, a historical movement or even an abstract set of theological claims. Self-consciously neither a purely historical or theological study, Blood explicitly focuses on the medieval and modern West and neither investigates Eastern nor late antique Christianity. While some limitation is necessary in such an ambitious project without taking into consideration the first millennium of Christian thought, we have no idea the parameters of this transformation of blood, nor do we know if it was a deviation from or a continuation of the past. Moreover, the “Middle Ages” and “medieval” seems to function as both a historical epoch and a temperament in the study (Middle Ages continually recurs in scare quotes).

Setting aside the problem of what “medieval” Christianity is and how it is distinct from what came before and after it, I venture a critique of Blood’s critique by suggesting ways that Christianity also circumscribes the importance of blood, in particular by looking to historical and theological examples that challenge the overwhelming centrality of blood for Anidjar’s reading of Christianity. Anidjar has struck on some essential qualities of Christianity, but that they are not born solely or even primarily out of blood. While the entire book is willfully provocative, the stakes seem much higher in Part One and so my response will focus on the questions and tentative conclusions reached in the first half of the study, “The Vampire State.”

The two most compelling examples, for me, of how blood is transformed by Christianity lie in Anidjar’s interconnected investigations of the Eucharist and of the emergence of kinship based on blood. I would propose that these two examples came about as part of different radical changes brought on by Christianity, changes that are actually obfuscated if we fixate on blood. In the Eucharist, or the “Eucharistic Matrix” as Anidjar dubs it, we see blood transformed. “We should see in blood the central symbol and the central cult object of late medieval devotion—and perhaps the central problem as well. This is to say that blood is not merely a part of medieval Christianity. It is rather its very fabric” (53). In being the fabric of Christianity, blood takes on two important roles: in the Eucharist it testifies to the transformation of the spiritual (or transcendental) into the material. In this transformation, first of Christ’s blood, then of the blood of the community, blood becomes the primary marker of inclusion within the community of faith: those who partake of the Eucharist are transformed by their contact with Christ and are also bound now to the co-communicants who also have the blood of Christ coursing through their veins. “Accordingly, along with the rise of the Eucharist cult and the dissemination of bleeding relics, the very notion of the church as the ‘mystical body of Christ’ also changes. It no longer signifies the invisible body of Christ mysteriously found in the sacrament and distinct from other, material, bodies, but rather embodies the visible member (the flesh and blood of the community)” (58). From this binding power of Eucharistic blood comes the possibility of being outside of the communion of Christian blood. The visible union of the Christian community through the consumption of the Eucharistic “blood” thus gives ways to the fixation on blood for lineage and kinship in Inquisition-era Spain and, presumably, continues to haunt us to the present day.

Naturally, the Eucharist is the basis for the mystical body of Christ made visible, but the sacraments were never something entirely invisible; by definition they are physical manifestations of the sacred. Throughout Blood, we see how blood navigates invisible and visible domains. Anidjar seems to see this move from invisible to visible as a critical shift in the history of Christianity, as a moment that makes the blood of Christ a physical bond between church members, setting the stage for later racial bonds. However, this intermingling of the invisible with the visible had been happening since practically the beginning of Christianity. In fact, the “Eucharistic Matrix” is only part of a broader vision of early and Medieval Christianity: the transformation of the entire material world by the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Beginning with the incarnation, Christian theology has insisted that the sacred has interrupted the material. This is evident not only in the liturgical, theological and devotional importance of various elements—water, oil, bread, and bone—but also the fundamental conviction, so succinctly stated in the fourth century by Athanasius of Alexandria, that “God became man that man might become God.” Human beings’ relationships to God and to each other have been radically transformed by the Incarnation and Christ’s “conquering death by death.” This is the theological basis for Christian life and Christian community. The notion that the Eucharist mystically unites a community of visible and invisible members, rendering the invisible visible, is neither a Medieval nor modern invention. The church fathers, woefully ignored in general in Anidjar’s study, develop robust Eucharistic theologies. To take one indicative example, St. John Chrystosom already insisted in the fourth century: “For what is the bread? The Body of Christ. And what do they become who partake of it? The Body of Christ: not many bodies, but one body. For as the bread consisting of many grains is made one, so that the grains nowhere appear; they exist indeed, but their difference is not seen by reason of their conjunction; so are we conjoined both with each other and with Christ: There not being one body for you and another for your neighbor to be nourished by, but the very same for all.”

This example not only highlights the unifying power of the Eucharist much earlier than any examples in Blood, but it also gives literal and symbolic weight to the bread—the flesh—and not only the wine—the blood. It is somewhat baffling that bread as host is so under-investigated since for most of “medieval” Western Europe (starting around the twelfth century and universally from the early fifteenth century), communion for the laity meant partaking of only the bread and never the wine. And it was the host that was celebrated in the Feast of Corpus Christi and displayed and contemplated in elaborate monstrances. Naturally, this does not necessarily negate the symbolic or literal importance of blood in Christianity. Yet the fact that blood has been subsumed under the species of flesh—this flesh-blood distinction being considered at length by Anidjar in an Old Testament context—demands closer attention in a study that attempts to unveil the nuanced identity of blood.

While there is no denying the powerful permutations of blood in Christian theology, history and politics it must be understood alongside other physical substances which “exceed their bounds” in Christianity. Anidjar points out blood devotion and blood relics as important in medieval Germany, but proposes that they are somehow unique in Christian devotion. In fact, blood, bones, and fragments of the Cross had all long been objects of devotion and holy relics. In response to Anidjar’s rhetorical question: “Are we to believe not that ‘the being of Spirit is a bone,’ but that everything solid has melted into blood?” One must respond: Certainly not (22)! Bones are indeed still bones and they too have meaning that exceeds their bounds, crossing from material into spiritual and back. In fact, from very early on, Christianity is replete with elements eliminating the boundaries between the visible and the invisible. As relics, bones are intimately connected to martyrdom. They are objects of veneration and pilgrimage and shards of the bones of saints must be placed in an altar in order for it to be consecrated. In a Catholic or Orthodox Church, the Mass cannot be served without a bone relic in the altar. Bone is instrumental in consecrating the site of the Eucharist; it cannot be replaced by blood.

Moreover, particularly in the Eastern tradition, oil has an important role in blessing and healing. Chrism, or sacred oil, is used to anoint new members of the church. Importantly this chrism creates a lineage, as it is a mixture of old oil and new oil that links everyone anointed with it. Miraculous icons excrete myrrh, which is also collected and saved, venerated or used in devotional practices, to say nothing of the icons themselves and the incredibly important liturgical and devotional role they play in creating a sanctified space uniting the material and spiritual.

Lastly, I want to bring up possible alternatives to primarily linking blood to kinship and community in Christendom. Anidjar tells us early on that “this difference between bloods—blood as the site of difference—is constitutive of the history of blood that occupies me throughout this book” (19). His critique of Spanish Catholicism and its racial politics that endure in the New World is entirely convincing. But the critique is at once too ahistorical and too broad to offer Spain as a rule rather than an exception. In particular, it strikes me as impossible to talk about how Christianity changes kinship relations without a serious consideration of monasticism. In monasticism, we see also see that “individuals and collectives were being conceived anew.” In this case, it is not only in Eucharistic communion, but also through vows, tonsure, asceticism and spiritual adoption. Christianity also creates new, non-biological forms of family and kinship outside of the monastic context: one example would be godparents and how the church historically understands this spiritual kinship: incest prohibitions extend beyond blood relatives to godparents and the children of godparents.

As a commentary on literature and western thought, Blood is delightful and convincing. However, as an investigation into the history of Christianity, it would have been more compelling if it wrestled explicitly with those cases where blood is not simply “invisible” but secondary to other elements of Christian worship and practice. Perhaps the issues I’ve raised are irrelevant because they distract from blood, or are too bound to strict historical considerations in a study written in a literary mode, but I would hope that this sprawling work could engage more with absences of blood in order to better establish its presences. Blood proposes that that blood is “the fabric of Christianity,” and furthermore, “Christology is hematology; it is the fabric of our lives . . . Simply put, not all religions . . . give meaning, whether theological, political, anthropological and familial, legal and economic—eventually natural—by way of blood.” However Christology cannot be limited to hematology and in uncovering the essential role of blood in Christianity, Blood risks creating a fixation on what is, in fact, just one part of the body, one half of the Eucharist. Blood cannot be treated as a kind of overriding principle in Christianity. Rather it must be understood within an entire matrix of all aspects of sanctified matter, all aspects of the body.

  • Gil Anidjar

    Gil Anidjar



    However ambitious—preposterously so—the attempt I made in Blood to raise “the Christian Question,” I have to confess it was written with fear and trembling. This not so much for everything I tried to include in it (and knew too little about, God help me), but for everything I was leaving out. The other Christianities, the force of images (icons, paintings, statues, buildings), the complex matter of relation to countless others (internal and external others, human or not), the infinite subtleties of sites of tension, contradiction, opposition, and much more (I also left out “REDRUM” as a section subheading, I swear!). Everything, if you will, that is otherwise drenched in blood, and everything else too, which remains, perhaps, out of blood’s reach or resisting its dominion.

    I did not think of arguing that blood is important for Christianity. It seemed so very manifest, even obvious, at any rate, well known. Numerous books, and a few movies, clamor after the blood of Jesus quite clearly (my favorite title has to be Benny Hinn, The Blood: Its Power From Genesis to Jesus to You). Others, more scholarly inclined, have certainly showed and documented the history of blood and its symbolic values much better than I could. What concerned me was that even though it has been easy to recognize that there is something peculiar and particular, even singular, about Christianity and blood, such particularity never interrupted or disturbed the alleged duality and universality of blood (“As both substance and symbol, blood reveals us, divides us, and unites us. We care about blood, because it spills literally and figuratively into every significant corner of our lives,” writes Lawrence Hill in a recent bestseller on what he calls “the stuff of life”). At the same time, the intensification of blood in modernity, the latter’s “sanguification,” seems to have been marked, when acknowledged at all, with a kind of exceptionality, an archaic aberration or at least a surprise, a remnant of some pre-Christian blood thirst. At once exceptional and universal, biological and symbolical, perhaps remarkably, if momentarily, Christian (or better yet, “religious”), blood would have spared that part of the project of modernity some still wish to hold on to or indeed long to finish.

    “The Christian Question,” I said and will repeat. For I do want to be clear that, medieval or modern, blood is meant, in my argument, to provide a measure of Christianity. I invoke Kant’s image of the dove, which, flying where no dove would have flown before, serves to illustrate and warn about the limits of reason, permitting thereby to map the expanse of its rule. Similarly, blood traces the limits of Christianity—not quite its essence, unless we can understand that term as something changing and malleable, protean, perhaps historical. And as it flows to and through surprising realms, what blood makes apparent is that Christianity extends far beyond its essential (self-)understanding as a religion. Following the trail of blood across politics and economics, science and literature, religion and race, I was therefore thinking that we might come closer to “an anthropology of Christianity,” an account thereof that would have us ask anew: Is Christianity a religion? A religion like any other? How else could it be understood? And what precisely are those realms which, widely conceived as (secular) products of “modernity” yet drenched in blood, seem however covertly to testify to the pertinacity of Christianity?

    Brittany Pheiffer Noble

    I have grown a bit skeptical of the use of the plural as a kind of ontological proof in reverse (if it’s plural, it sometimes seem, it doesn’t exist). But yes, of course, there are other Christianities. After the manner of “alternative modernities” (remember those?), we might even argue that there are “alternative Christianities.” Yet it is one thing to recognize diversity, another to deny the relative integrity of Western Christendom through its versions and transformations.

    I certainly could not disagree with Brittany Pheiffer Noble’s argument that other materialities are at work in Christian practices and conceptions. And though I would refrain from identifying blood exclusively with the body or with “physical substances” (I tried to argue that, its “symbolic” dimension aside, blood in Christianity is more than a body part, more than physical or physiological, in fact, and more than symbolic too), it was not my intention to limit Christology to hematology or to argue that the qualities of Christianity are born “solely or even primarily out of blood.” The thickness of the book (and its strategic hyperbole) notwithstanding, I did not seek to produce an exhaustive account of Christianity in all of its aspects, historical or other. Still, I am puzzled by the suggestion that “the overwhelming centrality of blood” would be a peculiar (idiosyncratic?) reading that I am proposing. I wrote earlier that I did not find it necessary to argue that Christianity has a peculiar and particular relationship to blood since that is most obvious and well known (as Eugene Rogers puts it in his post—more hyperbolically then even I would—“no Christianity exists without blood-language; and no Christianity exists without some version of this bloody logic. Blood does not explain everything. But it explains a lot that otherwise escapes us”). It is the depth and significance of this relationship, its expanse and endurance, that I sought to demonstrate. And it is the basis for the core of my more important argument (important to me, that is), namely, that Christianity cannot be understood as merely “a lived religion, a historical movement, or even an abstract set of theological claims.” Christianity is much more than that. It is a particular organization of collective existence and a changing set of theologico-political structures and institutions. It is an organization of the real that establishes and divides politics and religion, law and literature, economics and science. And yes, it is also a conception according to which “the sacred has interrupted the material” (the spirit has interrupted the flesh, the Christian has demonized the Jew and the Muslim, etc.), a conception that does go back to the Church fathers and even to the New Testament. This too, like the bread as host, may remain “under-investigated.” Which is extraordinary enough, for in acknowledging that we do not have quite a full grasp on “the entire matrix of all aspects of sanctified matter,” we are also stating that we still do not know what Christianity is—and remains.

Bettina Bildhauer


We Have Never Been Unbloody

GIL ANIDJAR IS ACADEMIA’S Quentin Tarantino. Both men have rewritten the history of the modern West as a history of blood: of medieval conceptions and practices of blood shaping modern history and thought, especially in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century racism and slavery, in twentieth-century Nazism and in contemporary popular culture. This history of blood is more than the history of a minor body part; it is the history of modernity’s other. Hugely ambitious in scope, Tarantino’s latest historical epics Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained as well as Anidhar’s Blood do nothing short of reconceptualising modernity through its roots in medieval blood, in a way that is accessible and appealing to non-medievalists.

The major achievement of Anidhar’s Blood is to bring into focus “the singular role that blood has played, and continues to play, in the Christian imagination and in Christianity’s effective history,” a history which has been disavowed by our allegedly so rational, secular, non-physical modernity (256). Anidjar’s starting discovery is that many major theories of modernity—by Benjamin, Weber, Foucault, Bauman, Marx, Hobbes etc.—define modernity through an exclusion of blood. That blood is even mentioned in these theories has rarely been noticed, but Anidjar’s painstaking uncovering of a wealth of references to blood demonstrates that it is covertly assigned a central role in the formation of modernity. This role is mostly to denote what modernity does not want to be, and as such is associated with the medieval. Three of the main concepts and phenomena through which modernity commonly defines itself, which are hailed as specifically modern achievements—nation, state and capital—are based on medieval Christian understandings of blood, Anidjar shows.

The reason for blood’s centrality to modern Western thought, according to Anidjar, goes back to its significance as a marker of community in medieval Christianity. Blood is often assumed to have “always” been seen as the stuff of kinship. Although we now believe that relatives share chromosomes, not blood, the idea that the same blood courses in the veins of members of the same family and is passed from parents to children survives in phrases like “she’s my flesh and blood” or “blood is thicker than water,” or in the idea of blood brotherhood. Anidjar makes the striking point, however, that this idea of blood as holding together families is not as old or as universal to premodernity as we might think. He shows that it played merely a minor role in ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Roman cultures, and came to prominence only in medieval Christianity. According to Anidjar, it arose at the very specific historical moment when medieval Christendom was imagined to be united by Christ’s blood, to the extent that the medical conception of families as sharing one blood is secondary to and later than the idea of Christendom as sharing one blood. All Christians were understood to partake in Christ’s blood mainly through ingesting it in the form of Eucharistic wine and bread, a ritual that became increasingly central in medieval theology and devotion. Anidjar perceptively links this to a concept that is usually understood to be exclusively Spanish, the idea that Christians’ blood is purer than that of recent Jewish and Muslim converts to Christianity, as first formulated in the Statutes on the Purity of the Blood in Toledo in 1449. This later merged into the idea that Christians were actual descendants, blood relatives of Christ and Mary, according to Anidjar. Because the concept of that blood can be “pure” arose in the context of distinguishing pure from impure blood, it contains the roots of racism at its very origin. The notion that not all Christians’ blood is equal made it possible for the Church, who had previously opposed all violence, to sanction bloodshed by Christians against non-Christians in the Inquisition. Blood here becomes a sign not only of community, but also of violence. (Anidjar only briefly mentions a third important way in which Christ’s blood united the community of medieval Christians: insofar as the Church in the later Middle Ages was often represented and labeled as Christ’s body, sometimes seen as born like a baby from the wound in Christ’s side.)

In contrast to religious thought, political thought in the medieval and early modern period defined community without reference to blood, says Anidjar. This is surprising, given the pervasiveness of the Christian understandings of blood as creating communities, and the fact that the state was often compared to a body with the king as its head, peasants as its feet and so on. In part, the bloodlessness of this body politic according to Anidjar is precisely due to a disavowal of the Middle Ages in modern political thought, and thus to an avoidance of the medieval, religiously connoted rhetoric of blood. Nevertheless, ideas of pure blood continued to inform the political discourse of racism, especially the “one drop rule” that defined as African-American or Native American anyone with even one African or Native American ancestor in eighteenth and nineteenth-century America. Because the body of the nation can only be defined in distinction from such outsiders, blood thus actually has a crucial role in the formation of America as a paradigmatic modern nation state. The same is true for National Socialism’s idea of German nationality as inherited through blood, and the exclusion of the polluting blood of Jewish Germans from the national body. The modern state in this way vampirically feeds on communities created by blood, according to Anidjar: those of family, nation, and race. Since Hobbes’ Leviathan, money also came to be understood as the blood of the state, circulating and creating connections between all its members, in an adaptation of the idea of Christ’s blood suffusing and being shared in Christianity. So theories and practices of modernity assign blood a central position in defining nation, family, race and economics without ever acknowledging the medieval roots of these blood communities. The “blood talk” that still permeates contemporary popular culture, in its current preoccupation with vampires, “no blood for oil” or bloodshed on TV, further witnesses the continuing deep resonance of blood in our allegedly modern world.

Although Anidjar is a theologian and the book’s subtitle is “A Critique of Christianity,” his main contribution to my mind (unsurprisingly, given my own research interests) is not to the history or critique of Christianity, but to the history of blood and of modernity. As someone who researches and teaches medieval German literature with a special interest in blood and in the role of the Middle Ages in modernity, I was always going to love a book about the importance of the Middle Ages, of German history, of literature and, above all, of blood. While Anidjar’s outsider approach to literary criticism, medieval history and German history can be somewhat jarring to those trained in these disciplines, it yields amazing insights in its single-minded focus on blood in combination with its broad historical sweep. Anidjar tells a counter-intuitive story, but it is a good story and backed up with a lot of—slightly random—evidence.

A remarkable feature of Anidjar’s blood is the clarity with which it puts medievalism at the center of its argument. Part of the problem is the disavowal of blood by modernity, which it shunts to the premodern, the religious and the irrational. In this sense, Anidjar’s Blood is a more literary, more popular, less scholarly companion to Kathleen Davis’ excellent Periodisation and Sovereignty (2008), which it cites admiringly, and which tells the history of how the Middle Ages were disavowed as sacred and feudal in order to give birth to the concept of secular, modern, colonial capitalism. And it is a companion to Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Vol. I, also referenced, which like Blood explains major changes in mentality and thought from antiquity and the Middle Ages to modernity, and is similar in scope, insight, energy, and style.

Just as Foucault’s, Anidjar’s style is rambling and sprawling. This in part caused by Anidjar’s ear for soundbites about blood that are too good to leave out, and in part by a lack of editing, but it also has a purpose in that the text grapples with issues that can only be approximated rather than fully grasped in the medium of academic writing. Anidjar’s argument makes sense, but it does not make cut-and-dried, fully footnoted sense; it makes sense on a more intuitive, tentative, imaginative level, a level that shares something with literature. It befits a sensibility that allows, for example, to argue that naming a medical condition hemophilia “has functioned as part of a containment apparatus, channeling a more general—and singular—flow of blood, a generalized love of blood, which it seized and confined to, which it dissimulated in, this medical vocabulary. Naming a particular condition may have obscured a phenomenon of much broader import—economic, scientific, and political” (25). This point, that modernity’s affinity to blood has been overlooked in part because we are used to thinking of hemophilia as an illness, is valid, but it would be hard to back up with evidence in the way academic writing usually requires. It comes as no surprise, then, that the references and index are rudimentary and sometimes inaccurate, the footnotes mainly further sprawling extensions to the text, and a bibliography completely absent.

One of the issues Anidjar grapples with in his meandering sentences is how exactly he conceives of blood. He states time and again that blood is more than a metaphor, but more than a real substance as well: not a word, not a thing. With this self-torturing repetition he falls back into the very trap he is so valiantly trying to escape: claiming that blood is somehow always more than “just a concept.” In my own book Medieval Blood, I spend a chapter analysing this pattern of thought as it appears in medieval medical, religious and fictional texts. Blood is often seen to fall somehow outside the realm of culture and language, to be something that is not culturally constructed, but pure biology, unalienable truth, the epitome of the body. When someone says “it’s in my blood,” that means it is unavoidable, it can’t be helped, and this shuts down any further discussion. First, nature is isolated from culture, or body from society, and then blood made to epitomise this pure nature or body, so that when blood shows, this is considered a revelation of pure truth outside cultural constructions. The blood flowing when hosts were attacked by non-believers, for instance, was claimed to be proof that Christ was present in the substance of the host, as if stories of host miracles required any less belief than the teaching of the church regarding the transsubstantiation. Or Christ’s blood appearing from the wound in his side on the cross is taken to be evidence that he is truly human, because humans bleed—as if the statement that blood flows in the Gospels is less a written construction (however divinely authorised one believes it to be) as any other biblical statement supporting the doctrine of the incarnation. In other words, when money is compared to blood, when relatives are said to share the same blood, of course that is a metaphor, but that does not make it any less important as a pattern of thought. We cannot escape discourse, just about everything we know is mediated through language. Blood, too, is always both a word and a thing, both a symbol and a reality, and both are intertwined.

Although Anidjar’s main interest is in providing a backstory of modernity rather than in the Middle Ages per se, I can support his claims about the role of blood in medieval European cultures. I must admit to having investigated blood primarily in relation to individual bodies, not collective bodies, and—like so many others—to have overlooked the beginnings of the definition of race through blood. Anidjar is right that the idea of blood as uniting kinship groups was much less common in medieval European thought than one might expect. Moreover, when the blood of kin was invoked, this typically happened in the context of the violation of these kinship ties through violence, an aspect that Anidjar does not mention, but which fits in well with his connection of the communities of blood with their violent policing of their boundaries in the Inquisition, in slavery, racism, and Nazism.

My own explanation for the preoccupation with blood in medieval culture and thought is that it helped to create not only communities, but also individual bodies and people. The notion of a body is no more given than that of a nation, race or state; and blood is used to define the body and demarcate it from the outside. And blood functioned to demarcate truth from contingency, reality from symbol, in the manner described above. One further important aspect that Anidjar neglects is that blood also worked to distinguish men from women. The notion that some blood is better than that of others, which Anidjar observes in the postulation of Christians’ pure blood, has precursors in the idea that male blood is better than female blood. This is richly evidenced in medieval medicine, literature and devotion, where women’s blood was described as less pure and contained than men’s blood and as constantly flowing out of the body, which in the case of menstrual blood could be downright poisonous. In fact, women were associated with blood and matter especially in theories of conception, while only men had access to form and spirit beyond blood. Women were therefore imagined to seek and suck out men’s purer blood, both in natural philosophical descriptions of sexual intercourse, and in fictions aligning women with Jews and dragons in their joint hunt for Christian men’s blood. Only virgins could approximate men’s self-containedness and control of their bloodflow; and a number of great female avengers and virgin saints match men in their heroic bloodshed. Here again, Anidjar’s book is well complemented by Tarantino’s films, which do see the importance of blood in creating gender hierarchies, and which celebrate neo-medieval blood-splattered female avengers railing against them. One can only wish Anidjar’s work Tarantinoesque popularity.

  • Gil Anidjar

    Gil Anidjar


    Gendered Blood

    I must begin by expressing my gratitude. For the occasion, of course, provided by Syndicate, and for the rare pleasure of having my work engaged in such a gracious and positive fashion by scholars I admire and respect. And for the compliments too (Tarantino! Handel!), which grant me a mediatic vision I cannot, in all honesty, claim, but which I am happy to appear to supplement. Bettina Bildhauer, from whose Medieval Blood I have learned much, points out that this supplement has much to do with periodization. To put it bibliographically, it is true that, word count aside, I follow Kathleen Davis much more than Carolyn Walker Bynum. And I did seek to align myself with those who aim to push back the dating of the world we live in. Having learned what I could from the critique of periodization, as well as from the different recastings of the “renaissance of the twelfth century” (aka the Papal revolution), I would probably want to insist that 1492 remains emblematic even if it is not precise or accurate. But historical precision or the persistence of the medieval as a period or mindset, important as these may be, are not quite what I am after. Should I mention, at the risk of confirming an obsessive diagnostic, that historicism has Christian affinities that could still be combatted? What we call medieval is of course more than Christian (but remember, Christianity must be understood as something else than “religious”). But it is also that. By the same token, Christianity well exceeds the medieval—or the modern. Christianity has acquired its relative integrity, its particularity, by way of a preoccupation with blood (even if not exclusively or even primarily with blood), which lasts and endures still, even if through massive transformations. And what blood tells us is that Christianity has to do with a way of organizing collective (and indeed individual) bodies: the family, the community, the Church, the nation, the race, the state, the economy. It organizes labor, societal and intellectual divisions. In that sense, Christianity is akin to many a polity (or series thereof). Yet, it is peculiar, even singular, for the way in which blood has pervaded, at times established or buttressed, those multifarious conceptions and practices, internal realms and divisions. Christianity—and not modernity, not primarily so—is about politics and economics, law and literature, religion and race, philosophy and science. Much of these had yet to be fully defined and formed in the so-called Middle Ages, in the manner we are now somehow familiar with (if not agreed). One thing that seems to me crucial, at any rate, is that blood testifies to processes that, however differentiated and even divided, are extended and enduring in ways that history, even Foucaultian history, does not quite control. Which is why I would want to underscore that I am not a historian nor a theologian—or only a little. What I am trying to understand is not history, and it is not religion. Nor is it modernity per se. It is something that appeals to another sensibility, yes, a literary sensibility, the force of the signifier, the vicissitudes of metaphors, the structure of the mark. And then there is the unconscious.

    Which should have brought me to sexual difference.

    Now, most of what I have had to say in the book seemed to me perfectly obvious, at once acknowledged and repressed (Freud’s argument about the fetish comes to mind). When it comes to sexual difference and its relation to blood, and vice-versa, it was equally obvious that the claim that Christianity is singular would be harder to make on that level. Bildhauer is right. One must (with Tarantino and a few others) “see the importance of blood in creating gender hierarchies” and many have, from questions of menstruation to matters of religious devotion (Walker Bynum, Peggy McCracken, Charlotte Fonrobert, Ruth Tsoffar, Luce Irigaray were among my guides). This too may be obvious, but I did not feel capable of deploying, much less expanding, that rich font of insights toward my purpose: a demonstration of the singularity of Christianity.

    • Bettina Bildhauer

      Bettina Bildhauer


      Style is substance

      I’m thrilled at the chance of having a virtual conversation with the author and with close readers of a book that has really inspired me, so I’ll unashamedly just start asking questions rather than adding more comments, and see if I get any responses. Gil Anidjar, first an apology for getting your name wrong – twice! I know exactly how that feels. Could I ask you to comment a bit more extensively on your idiosyncratic style, which, as Brittany Pheiffer Noble also hints, violates academic conventions. As an academic, I am heavily invested in these conventions, even as they vary acorss disciplines and countries, but I also see their limitations. Style is substance, and the style of really groundbreaking thinkers is often an easy target for criticism. I presume that one could not say the important things you are saying if one used the usual standards of academic evidence and neutral language. Do you think a more interactive form such as this symposion is more appropriate to your kind of argument? You mention a literary sensibility in your response – do you think your book is on the threshold between academic and literary writing? Or simply that of a literary critic? What does your comparative literature perspective bring to your study of Christianity, and your theological background to your work in comparative literature? Would you say that there is a qualitative difference between the literary and the non-literary texts you cite as evidence for Christianity’s preoccupation with blood?

    • Gil Anidjar

      Gil Anidjar


      On style

      The word “violation” when it comes to style and conventions has a nice archaic ring to it. I do take it as a compliment, but must confess that “On a touché au vers!” is quite unimaginable today. The subversive break with conventions is about as banal now as the “change you can believe in” that is generated by Apple (or your local campaign manager) every time a new device acceleratingly arrives on the market. The revolution, besides, will not be academized. Which is not to say that our actuarial duties should not be refined. So, yes, style is something that matters a lot to me. And to the extent that I can claim a literary sensibility in my writing (something which would horrify a number of people), I suppose it is because the first book of Derrida I read was The Post Card. It is also because I am increasingly convinced that the kind of description we scholars aim at (whether we are in fact literary critics or philosophers, cultural workers or social scientists, but even physicians or lawyers), the interdisciplinarity we seek, have already been achieved by literary means. Think of the libraries of scholarship dedicated to World War II and think of what W.G. Sebald’s “Air War and Literature” has accomplished. One hardly substitutes for the other, of course, but the knowledge and the embodied precision of Sebald’s prose seems to me to provide a kind of standard that no scholarly account (including those that inform Sebald’s work) could dispense with, or exempt itself from. To be sure, Sebald, or Melville, hardly abide by convention. Which might mean that the very notion of literature (or, at the very least, of genre) is questionable. But the ability to convey wide knowledge and information, reflections and emotions, as well as—an ancient pipe dream, no doubt—wisdom, is something that seems rarely achieved in “conventional” scholarly rendering—at least today. I am myself hopelessly attached to the scholarly apparatus, to footnotes (though I have failed to impress upon my editors the necessity of dispensing with endnotes). But it seems to me that by now this too answers to a literary imperative. The smooth continuity of the page (Sebald interrupts it with photographs) seems a lie. That being said, I am utterly unpersuaded by John Modern’s kind gesture in his post of bringing Moby-Dick and Blood together (paradoxically, I included Melville in an argument that seemed to me a mere part of the massive account of Christianity and blood he wrote). Blood is really nothing more than a footnote (alright, a series of footnotes) to the extraordinary account Melville wrote. There is accuracy and precision, motion and emotion, a true violation of consensus and convention, as well as complicity and contamination, and there is wisdom too in Moby-Dick. Mostly, there is everything in Moby-Dick. And if literature is the proper name of such an accomplished account of the world as it can be observed and described (something that might be doubted if that name is shared with Fifty Shades of Harry Da Vinci, or whatever that was); if style is what, in our writing, partakes of such an account, it is to remind us that fiction, not convention or representation, may be the closest we come to truth.

Eugene Rogers


The Genre of this Book

YOUR WHOLE READING OF this book depends on how you perceive its tone and genre. If you expect reasoned detachment and persuasive argument, you’re only going to frustrate and irritate yourself. It lacks—or spurns—the usual academic virtues, which are Aristotelian (measure, moderation, the rhetoric gauged to its audience), in favor of what might be called a noble vice or Nietzschean virtue. This book designs to provoke, not persuade. It uses history not to make arguments, but to pose questions. It free-associates not to escape rigor but to expose sedimented verities. It adopts an angry tone, which can be the seed of virtue, if anger shows a desire for justice rather than the vice of irascibility.

But the way to really enjoy the book is to think about opera, where the important thing is not that an emotion be trained as fuel for reason, but that it be forcefully, even beautifully expressed, with extra notes that run away and digressive cadenzas that try or delight the patience. The genre of this book is not argument but aria. Think of your favorite anger arias. I think of Handel’s in Italian: Traditore! Gelosia! Crudeltà! The book set the first line of one running through my head: Vivi, tiranno! Svenami, ingrato! from Handel’s Rodelinda. Loosely, he sings, “Live on, tyrant; go ahead and kill me!” The tone is caustic and full of rebuke; the metaphor is one of blood. Literally, Svenami, ingrato, sfoga il furor is “Dis-vein me, ingrate! Unleash your fury!” “Sarcasm” lacks the requisite bravado and magnificence. The book, like Handel’s singer, protests the power of those who (like the tyrant) should have no power. Like the aria, it is full of defiance, baroque in notes that sound briefly and flee away. The singer of the book, like that of the aria, is a hero who disclaims agency, or a victim who exercises agency by taunting the tyrant. By “the singer of the book,” I don’t mean Anidjar any more than I mean that Handel is his singer Senisino: the author is not a victim, but (with tenure at Columbia) resembles a court composer. Rather, in writing the book, the author has created a persona who, like a Handelian character, marshals the power at the margins to deploy, not reasoned argument or careful qualification—when does Handel do that?—but contrast, exaggeration, suspicion, and hauteur. If you read this book, you must make up your mind to enjoy it.

Or another way. Many figures begin in a polemical stage. Enfant terrible. The early Karl Barth, for example. The question is whether they will develop a constructive stage. Barth did. Milbank? The constructive Nietzsche we never saw. Certainly Anidjar has one thing in common with the theologians. He has caught their eponymous disease, the rabies theologorum.

This is not so much a book about blood, as a contribution to one of its native literatures, the polemic. It aims not so much to describe as to draw blood; it re-taliates. As Christian anti-Semitism has tarred Jews with charges of carnality and blood-obsession, this book seeks to turn the tables, and describe those charges as projecting attitudes internal to Christianity and only blamed on the victim. This is a good question. But Anidjar doesn’t answer it. His power of association—his method—is conceptual and phenomenological: Freudian and (as I’ve said) Nietzschean. It only masquerades as history. It does not carefully disentangle continuities and discontinuities, but deals in identities and binaries. Here is a series of identities: Blood=violence=death=capitalism=Christianity. Here is its binary: No-blood=peace=life=Judaism. The continuity is unbroken in each identity, the discontinuity complete between the binaries. They are constantly elaborated, complicated, and detailed, but not disturbed, crossed, blued, or queered. The first identity is realistic; the second is idealistic. Identities and binaries can be quite heuristic; phenomenology is not wrong; one might profitably compare reality with ideals—but not when reality is univocally assigned to one group and ideality to another. Anidjar brilliantly generates and elaborates hypotheses. Historical facts are recruited for this construct; they are not allowed to gray the chiaroscuro effect or muddy the music. Blood must always mean death; it is not allowed to mean life. Magisterially he refuses to see (as we do in class when we have to make the best of a dumb student) when others he cites present evidence and argument at odds with his own. (Dumb students whose arguments I prefer: Biale, Eilberg-Schwarz, Mary Douglas, Nancy Jay). He tests these hypotheses by exposing them to readers.

There is much to admire in the book. In my own book about blood, now underway, I thought I had rung all the changes on blood vocabulary, but Anidjar composes much more elaborate variations. The bibliography alone is prodigious (it would help to have one apart from the notes, and to list the authors in the index). The sheer number of surprising hypotheses will generate some brilliant ones. The idea that blood is not an anthropological given, but must have a history, has to be right, even if its history turns out to be much more complicated and quite different from the identities and binaries that Anidjar proposes. The idea that Christians project their own obsessions onto Jews must also of course be true, even if others are not immune to the fault.

Improvements for the Second Edition

It is pointless to criticize the argument of such a book, if its point is not stepwise moderation but the heuristic and provocative power of contrast. Rather I suggest improvements for the second edition: not to sap its energy, but to keep it from missing so many notes. The second edition that surpasses or overturns the first has some important exemplars in theology. For example, the most influential Christian protest against World War I is not the first edition of Karl Barth’s famous Epistle to the Romans but the preface to the (much changed) second edition. It was important the first time, but much more important the second time.

The treatment of the evidence

A number of small things add up to undermine the contrast and reduce the effect by seeding doubt in the mind of the reader.

  1. For example, why refer to the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament without so much as a scare quote? Wouldn’t it be more effective to contrast the Christian with the Jewish interpretation of these texts, or at least point out the hegemonic name, largely avoided by Religious Studies scholars?
  2. Genesis 9:4, Lev 17:11 and 14, and Deut 12:23 all say that the life is in the blood. Anidjar tells us the Hebrew word is nefesh, which means person or soul, and is not the same as “life.” But how do we get from there to the conclusion that blood means death? Certainly there are no comparable verses that say the death is in the blood. To most readers, “the soul is in the blood” will reinforce, not undermine the idea that blood means, not life alone, but life and death: that is part of its power. Anidjar has read Walter Benjamin before he turns to the biblical evidence, and draws the conclusion that blood equals violence; but this misleads him when he comes to the biblical evidence, because the biblical authors did not have Benjamin to go by.
  3. The next example is a wonky but important example of how the book handles its evidence. The Introduction makes much of a change in the Western translations of Acts 17:26, reading from the Reformation to the Revised Standard as “made one blood all nations” (25). The Vulgate had “made one all nations.” One of Anidjar’s more surprising hypotheses is that filiation in antiquity was not understood in terms of blood, but that the Spanish blood purity laws and Inquisition read blood back in. It suits Anidjar’s purpose, therefore, for the conjunction of “blood” and “nation” to come very late. The Introduction as it now reads suggests that the King James and the Lutherbibel unilaterally introduced the word “blood” into that verse, because the word “blood” did not appear in the Vulgate. The Introduction presents this fact with a tone of triumph, as if it would, later in the book, become a crux. (It turns out to be a hit and run.) The reader familiar with New Testament reference books becomes very uneasy at this point. Of course, Anidjar knows that the New Testament was written in Greek, but the oldest source mentioned in the paragraph is the Vulgate. Anidjar must also know that the Protestant Reformers prided themselves on returning to the Greek to wrest the text from the Catholic magisterium, but the paragraph makes it sound as if he finds Reformation translations suspect for smuggling recent ideas into the “correct” Vulgate. The paragraph reminded me of students who compare translations without consulting the Greek. The contrast becomes ineffective because the presentation lacks authority, and it sounds, in the Introduction, where many readers will begin, as if something important hangs on a faulty idea that early modern Christians slipped an extraneous but powerful word into the a text established by the Vulgate rather than the Greek. “The more recent variant is attributed to ‘ancient authorities,’” he notes (25), supplying scare quotes, as if research into earlier sources were illicit. The task is to clean up the contrast so that it introduces no further doubt into the mind of the reader. If you consult the critical Greek text in Nestle-Aland, you see that the editors have chosen to exclude the word “blood,” just as Anidjar would like. Surely that would carry more weight than quoting the Vulgate in Latin? Why would you quote the Latin when you could quote the Greek? I can think of reasons, but they would have to be explained.

But the reader, now having picked up Nestle-Aland, glances down at the apparatus, to see what those dubious “ancient authorities” might be. You remember that you learned this stuff thirty years ago for just such an occasion; it’s like finding algebra useful for once; and you go treasure-hunting among the sigla. For the reading with blood, not in the main text, but among the variants in the notes, what do we find? Anidjar needs it to be confined to the East and as late as possible. First we find D; that’s the fifth century Codex Bezae in Cambridge—the principle representative in Greek of the Western text-type. Furthermore, its Old Latin (pre-Vulgate) versions date to 250 or earlier. No Reformation invention, that one. Then a surprise: we see the gothic-font M or M that stands for the Majority Text. This means that since the fifth century, the largest number of mss belong to this group, using “blood,” including over fifty uncials, a papyrus, and over 80 percent of the minuscules. (Often referred to as the “Byzantine” text, in recent editions of Nestle-Aland it simply contains all the mss not cited individually, including Alexandrian and eclectic ones.) The next abbreviation, gig, for Codex Gigas, is obscure; way in the back you find it means that the reading with “blood” continued to be copied, in Latin and against the Vulgate, into the 13th C. Then we find the abbreviation sy, which tells us the Syriac tradition is unanimous in preserving the reading with “blood,” which is interesting if you are trying to distinguish in binary form between “Christian” and “Semitic” readings. Finally we come to the notation IrLat, which tells us that the Latin version of Irenaeus quoted Acts with “blood”; he died in 202 CE. Between the Latin of the Codex Bezae and Irenaeus, we have good reason to think that the Vetus Latina (the reconstructed Latin Bible traditions before the Vulgate) contained the supposedly modern reading with “blood.” Furthermore, it dominates the Greek tradition, received early unanimity in Syriac, and continued to be copied in the West through the 13th C. The Introduction as it stands, therefore, claims to present evidence in favor of its hypothesis that a connection of blood and nation “emerges in the momentous distance that separates the Vulgate from Luther and filiation from blood” (25). The suspicious reader finds evidence that instead it emerged by 202 at the latest and belongs to the short distance that separates the Vetus Latina and the Greek majority from Jerome. The Introduction raises instead an opposing question: Why did the Western church, in the form of Jerome’s translation, suppress the reading with “blood”? So as not to undermine the contrast, a second edition should qualify its thesis, find another way to read the evidence, or remove the impression that anything important hangs on the translation of Acts.

  1. Then one reads that “for Aristotle, semen has nothing to do with blood” (290, n. 81), which (however one reads Aristotle) seems to conflict with the more familiar view, presented later with approval that in Aristotle “blood . . . is the source and origin of semen” (184). The apparent contradiction has to do with semen treated as spiritual spark vs. ejaculated matter—a reading that imports into Aristotle a modern opposition of spirit and matter. On the contrary, the point ought to be that the father’s pneuma travels in the blood and therefore in the semen. Because matter and spirit intermingle or vary on a continuum without modern ideas of transcendence, even adopted children could be said to resemble their (adoptive) pater through household contact with the paternal spirit. Blood and spirit belonged more closely together in antiquity, rather than less. Whatever the first edition means to say about Aristotle, it needs to be cleared up to persuade the reader that the association of blood with ancestry is a late, Christian invention that arrives ex machina around the time of the Inquisition.
  2. The use of blood language in the Spanish era of limpieza de sangue gets full play, but why is that allowed to characterize Christianity without remainder, when the Vatican strongly condemned it? Anidjar mentions the condemnation, to be sure: but he does not allow it to complicate the aria.
  3. You wonder anew about the choice and treatment of evidence in an entirely different field when Anidjar mentions blood in the U.S. Constitution. You would suppose he would write about the 3/5 compromise. Instead he writes of “the ‘corruption of the blood’ that sanctions treason in the US Constitution” (98). When, unfamiliar with that bit of the Constitution, you look it up, you read, in Article III, “The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood.” The sanction that Anidjar cites as evidence not promulgated but prohibited. This sort of thing is hard to account for.

In all these cases, the treatment of the evidence blurs the contrast that Anidjar wishes to display.

Genealogy biological and cultural

In what follows, I’m not saying there was “race” before modernity. I’m saying that there were social uses of blood language before modernity, indeed before antiquity, not because there was “race,” but because “blood” underwrites more conceptualities than one. Blood is (contingently and historically) a metalanguage in which people not only deploy but also debate conceptualities (and develop and subvert them). That’s why blood can underwrite and undermine conceptualities at need. Anidjar insists that ancient Israel did not locate biological ancestry in the blood. That may or may not be. But even readers not specialized in ancient Israelite biology will wonder about cultural constructions of community. Cultural, in the sense of “cutting”: they will want to know why circumcision, which cuts the penis and identifies male members of the community, does not count as connecting filiation and community-membership. They will want to know how the blood-prohibition of kashrut fits or does not fit among the hypotheses. They will want to know why blood-discourses and rituals of Dionysian and Mithraic mysteries are not allowed to influence Christianity either. And they will wonder why the work of Nancy Jay is footnoted but not dealt with in these pages: since she is the great proponent that nations all over the world—Israelite, Greek, Roman, Nuer, Aztec, Ashanti, Hawaiian, Lefevrite Catholic—see sacrifice, when it cuts and bleeds an animal, as a figure of childbirth accomplished, culturally, by men. That is, the people present at a sacrifice belong to a community by cultural kinship, which is more secure than the kinship of childbirth, so that sacrifice is “birth done better”—done culturally. Jay’s is a surprising and controversial thesis, but it opposes Anidjar’s directly, because it says the theory of biological inheritance doesn’t matter, but cultural practice trumps it. Circumcision? Kashrut? Sacrifice? Why are these topics not discussed—why are they not distinguished and reclaimed? To leave them untreated just raises questions that distract from Anidjar’s hypotheses. A good model already exists, referred to but not absorbed by Anidjar, in David Biale’s Blood: The Circulation of a Metaphor. “Circulation” is a non-binary, non-monolithic metaphor that works very well. In Christianity and Judaism we have to do not with agent and victim or with blood and no-blood. Rather we have two agents that both emerge from the destruction of the Second Temple and the end of animal sacrifice; who both use blood to disagree with and turn it to new purposes; who both trade the metaphors back and forth as they seek to differentiate and reclaim themselves from one another. The Gospel of Matthew and Mishnah Yoma both deal with the inability to sacrifice on Yom Kippur. The plausible thesis that Christianity comes to “own” the blood discourse that it has appropriated and developed, and that it projects it onto a Judaism that it invents, is made less plausible, not more, by the refusal of blood discourses to Judaism. The second edition must deal with the obvious objections.

Perhaps the reason that Anidjar fails to deal with Jay has to do with a bigger blind spot. He seems to ignore feminist readings of blood. This has to do, in turn, with the use of Walter Benjamin (explication du texte sans texte) in the first chapter to associate blood univocally with violence. Anidjar cites plenty of other scholars who themselves crudely or subtly gender the blood of violence as male and the blood of fertility (menstruation and childbirth) as female, but (whether or not the binary is justified) he seems not to take the life and fertility tropes seriously. Jay is the most sophisticated of those scholars. A related oversight is that he never mentions the extensive internal critique of Christianity by feminist Christians, who distinguish the blood of violence from the blood of solidarity. This is the integrity of a Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. whose life is perseverance in solidarity to the end: Anidjar would find much grist for his mill in the fifty years of feminist critique of Christian blood language, but it would require him to distinguish between some Christian theologies and others, upsetting the monolith; to acknowledge that blood functions to show fertility as well as violence, life as well as death; that gendering plays a role. Another book cited but unabsorbed by Anidjar, is William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Euchrarist: it would also require Anidjar to distinguish between blood rituals that promote and resist state violence. All of these things queer rather than reinforce the binaries according to which blood must mean only violence, be associated only with Christianity, arrive new on the scene at highly specific but shifting points; and can have nothing to do with life, peace, or Judaism. All this would be much more persuasive if it were less black and white and allowed to go gray: but shades of gray are not opera, so this may be help that Anidjar is displeased to receive.

In short: Anidjar’s view depends on normative and phenomenological disciplines: philosophy of religion, the normative end of anthropology (even as he fights with it over blood), a neo-Freudian psychology applied to groups, the hermeneutics of suspicion, even Christian theology of Israel, turned on its head. In much of the book as written, history gets in the way. One option would be to drop the historical pose altogether. The book is brilliant at proposing hypotheses, but self-undermining at treating the evidence. Why not admit the genre and start with Freud’s Moses and Monotheism and Totem and Taboo, which now come, belatedly, at the end? Those books are read, a century on, not because we think they are historically accurate, but because they open new possibilities.

Let me propose an alternative view, one that I have been developing independently from Anidjar for The Analogy of Blood, though in dependence on some of the same figures—including Mary Douglas, Nancy Jay, and Bettina Bildhauer. This is a view with significant overlaps with Anidjar. It can take on board much of his critique, but it focuses on repair—which allows constructive reference to Christianity’s ideals. It admits the power of binaries, but depends on queering them. It admits—it insists—on the danger, the pervasiveness, and the persistence of blood, but judges that, like gender, blood is not soon or easily going away. After we understand about blood, what shall we do next?

Blood may be red because iron compounds make it so, but multiple societies draft its color and stickiness for diverse purposes of their own. We imagine individual, social, and animal bodies as securely bounded. Inside, blood carries life. Outside, blood marks the body fertile or at risk. But the securely bounded body is a social fiction. The skin becomes a membrane to pass when the body breathes, eats, perspires, eliminates, ejaculates, conceives, or bleeds. Only bleeding evokes so swift and public a response: blood brings parent to child, bystander to victim, ambulance to patient, soldier to comrade, midwife to mother, defender to border. Society works to maintain the fiction of bodily integrity (its own and our own), and its work takes place in blood. It is the body’s permeability that leaves us bloody-minded.

Since Durkheim, sociologists of religion have called the “totem” the elementary form of religious life. Since Maximus the Confessor, with a high point in Aquinas, theologians have worked by “analogy.” They need not quarrel over terms. “Analogy” is just the indigenous Christian word for “totemism.” Aquinas and Durkheim would agree that Christianity creates an ordered, hierarchical series on “the body of Christ,” uniting God, believer, history, community, and somatic symbol in an ineliminable pattern. On different levels the historical body of Jesus is Christ’s body; the church is the Christ’s body; the bread is Christ’s body; believers make up Christ’s body; crucifixes around their necks display Christ’s body; and the body of Christ is the body of God. There is no Christianity without some version of this series, which theology calls “analogy” and Durkheim “totemism.”

Closely allied with the “body” of Christ is his “blood.” The New Testament mentions the blood of Christ three times as often as his “cross,” and five times as often as his “death.” The blood of Jesus is the blood of Christ; the wine of communion is the blood of Christ; the means of atonement is the blood of Christ; the unity of the church is in the blood of Christ; the kinship of believers is the blood of Christ; the cup of salvation is the blood of Christ; icons ooze the blood of Christ; and the blood of Christ is the blood of God. This pattern may underwrite or undermine binaries at need. But no Christianity exists without blood-language: and no Christianity exists without some version of this bloody logic. Blood does not explain everything. But it explains a lot that otherwise escapes us.

For a generation, first humanities and then science-and-society scholars have talked about “the body”: the human body, the social body, the medicalized body, the body and its instruments. But the Latin for body (corpus) can mean even more: planet, atom, statue, fat. Such scholars have really meant bodies with blood, human, social, or animal. They have imagined “the body” bounded as an envelope, not alarmed with a fluid to redden its breaches. In Bynum, Biale, Bildhauer, and Anidjar, “the body” has yielded to blood. Historians and critics have hardly addressed the anthropological problem that blood persists. It persists because it provides a fluid to think with, a spur to growth and gratitude, a means of costly signaling, and a language in which to disagree. Internal and external critics of Christianity have protested for half a century that Christian blood-language is dangerous. Yes, it is dangerous, but the protest has been anthropologically naïve. I intervene in their critique to say that Christian blood-language is not going away, and that the options are not exhausted by leaving it unchanged, on the one hand, or deploring it, on the other. A third option remains: to repeat blood’s language subversively, to free it from contexts of oppression or violence. This option reclaims or “mobilizes the signifier for an alternative production.”1 Take for example the Gospel writers who show Jesus at the Last Supper subverting a structure of violent oppression (crucifixion) to make it a repeated feast (communion). He redeploys and queers blood language, saying over the wine, “this is my blood; do this to remember me.” Indeed, it is an eschatological wedding feast (Matt 23), the wedding of the Lamb, where the groom gives his spouse his body and shares his bodily fluids.

Now here is a curiosity. Crucifixion does not kill by bleeding; it kills by suffocation. Even arms and feet can be attached to a cross with lashes instead of nails and draw no blood. If Jesus had been Hindu—where Vedic sacrifice requires stopping the breath rather than letting out blood—the gospels recording him might have made use of this positivist factoid. Why then does blood language seep in where it hardly seems to belong? In portraying Jesus, the Synoptics chose blood to redeploy the language of Second Temple sacrifice just as the destruction of that temple separated that language from its traditional practices: and the language of Second Temple sacrifice—unlike the language of Vedic sacrifice—is that of blood. That’s why the Synoptics associate the crucifixion—isn’t it?—with blood. Both Matthew and Mishna Yoma, for example, need to do something else with the Yom Kippur (in Matthew not Passover) ritual after it’s no longer possible; they repeat it, giving free reign to the language of blood; they repeat it subversively; and they repeat it in ways that reclaim it from Roman oppression, whether in crucifixion of religious leaders or destruction of religious spaces.

Sacrifice, like creation, intends a gift, this time almost unimaginably, perhaps immorally costly. When material understanding uses the costliest signaling, it takes place in blood. Blood is meaning made costly, meaning with bodies on the line. For that reason both “without shedding blood there is no forgiveness” and suicide bombings continue. Humans do use people to think with—nations, sexes, victims. Must we? We must recover, critique, subvert, and repair, for a wider public, the ways we understand by means of blood, lest they exercise their influence in oppressive ways or out of conscious sight.


  1. Judith Butler, “Contingent Foundations,” In The Postmodern Turn: New Perspectives on Social Theory, edited by Steven Seidman (1994), 51–52.

  • Gil Anidjar

    Gil Anidjar


    Universal Blood

    As I have begun to admit, I have done my best to stay away from sexual difference (menstruation), from sacrifice (blood spilling, largely), and from murder (blood spilling, but different). One reason for this choice, I suggested earlier, is that I knew it was going to be harder to invoke “universal themes” such as these and claim to signal the singularity of Christianity (as Eugene Rogers rightly points out, “multiple societies draft [blood’s] color and stickiness for diverse purpose of their own”). I do not, could not, pretend that blood is unimportant elsewhere (the Old Testament, ancient Greece, but there are indeed countless other examples that could be invoked, beginning with ancient Rome), nor that there were no “influences” on Christianity. Nor indeed, that Christianity is beyond comparison, much less a “monolith” (like Rogers, I tend to think that “no Christianity,” at least no Western one, “exists without some version of this bloody logic”). Having been rigorously reminded of these objections (and taking note as well of Rogers’ thoughtful suggestions for a slightly implausible next edition), I still resist the overwhelming tendency or aim to say everything (the good and the bad, you know, balance in the classroom) and to make Christianity a mere instance of a general rule (the universality of blood, the—more questionably universal—practice of sacrifice, the history of sexual difference, the stuff that “humans” presumably do when they all “use people to think with”), or to argue that its “dialogue” with others has been conducted in a benign and non-binary manner (sometime it was, sure). Nor am I certain that it is for me to activate whatever potential for repair might otherwise be identified in the Christian tradition. Others than me are better placed. For my part, I am interested in the dispute (there’s a newsflash) and the domination. I am interested in violence, yes, and in “the heuristic and provocative power of contrast” and less in the well-established clichés about “neighborly love” and other cheeks (though you might re-read Freud’s Moses on all this, as I have been trying to do since I wrote on the enemy, and in Blood as well). That is why I riff on Latour by invoking an “asymmetric anthropology,” which is, I think, my way of “absorbing” (rather than reiterating) the remarkable work of Nancy Jay, David Biale, Israel Yuval, and those feminists scholars I mentioned earlier.

    My problem—assuming it is mine—is not blood. Nor is it binaries. I understand how it might look like it is (though I don’t think that when I argued against the view that “the blood is the life” I was quite saying that “blood is death,” at least I couldn’t find that quote in my book, nor by the way do I really contrast the Christian with the Jew, such is not quite the agenda of this court composer). But with blood I did try to call attention to something that far exceeds blood, however understood. And it is not violence per se (Walter Benjamin’s term, Blutgewalt refers to power as well). I was trying to escape the confines of “religion,” to understand the overwhelming asymmetry by which the world has been transformed, continues to be transformed, by something that cannot be conceived exclusively as economico-cultural (capitalism), nor as politico-racial (colonialism) or simply as historico-scientific (modernity)—but I simplify, of course. It is this simplification that makes me refrain from embracing the phrase “Hebrew Bible” as opposed to the Old testament—and this is “Why I Am Such a Good Christian.” I am trying to raise a question that seems to me broader and more complex, less resolvable, less answerable or fixable by now, a question that attends to the division and distribution that makes us think of these “phenomena” (capitalism, colonialism, modernity, etc.) as distinct; that makes us think that economics is not politics, that religion is not science, that law is not literature. I was reading Shakespeare (who deserves a mention after all) and I wanted to say that all these are drenched in blood, in Christian blood, which maintains and perpetuates the internal (and external) partitions of Christianity. I wanted to raise the Christian question.

John Modern


An Impossible Film

GIL ANIDJAR’S BLOOD: A Critique of Christianity (2014) is a consuming book—a fierce intelligence combined with compelling readings of everything and anything related to the mechanics of circulation, the rhythmic splattered arcs, the media and metaphysics, the diseases born within and carried by the blood.

Blood is also a book that seeks, in the mode of obsession, interpretive leverage on the relationality, for lack of a better word, of modernity. More specifically, it seeks to appreciate the liquidation of theological concepts, something becoming something else. The goal, then, is to appreciate the liquefying power of the state and the state as liquid. But not just any liquid. All that is solid, Anidjar insists, has melted into blood (140). From blood we came and to blood we all shall return. Our big categories and the phenomena to which they refer—the State, modernity, Christianity, secularism, capitalism, Enlightenment—are, too, born of and borne by blood. The image of a blood pump—for Hobbes, Melville, and Anidjar alike—is an apt one for it captures the go of discourse, the motive power—within? behind? above?—many a contemporary condition.

Blood is difficult to follow sometimes. As a reader, I am often going back, rereading paragraphs, rereading them again, moving ahead without a clear understanding of where, exactly, I am and what lies ahead. And this is a good thing indeed, for Anidjar’s Blood is exhilarating in the sense that you feel your self thinking—which is increasingly rare these days—thinking thoughts without an object, thinking thoughts that you dared not think until Anidjar conjures his particular force of dizzying dissent. Which is to say that there are ups and downs and questions and blurred headlines along the way. I can only imagine what Anidjar’s style, gestures, and claims will provoke in readers neither ready nor willing to take this particular trip. For it is an outrageous one, akin to a fantastic voyage.1 An incitement to be sure.

This is a book that picks the scabs, that lets the blood dribble and flow and coagulate at the level of affect—this is a very different approach to the powers of secular modernity than, say, the schools of Taylor or Cassanova or even Asad. Anidjar’s argument moves across these (and many others—Hobbes, Freud, Foucault, Derrida, Marx) tenable readings of modernity, of how the religious and the political achieve their categorical difference. For Anidjar, this is a history of blood, of Christianity, of myth and rite taking hold. Grooves made and channels forged, arterial exchange naturalized and loops laid. For this categorical difference happens by way of a vascular system. The medium of the blood is the message of the blood.

Anidjar writes of “the under-theorization of blood,” the consequence of which has been that the virality of Christianity remains unthought as does its morphing, mutating mechanics. “Visible and invisible at once, suffusing, as a matter of fact, a dialectic of hypervisibility and utter opacity, blood seems to put an uncanny pressure on our critical abilities” (105). Indeed, blood in Anidjar’s telling is everywhere. It courses in, through, and around the book. It overwhelms. It spills over, a tidal whoosh in whose spray and glisten there is the future. For blood is “neither a thing nor an idea. And blood is not a concept. It is not an operator, neither actor nor agent. Blood mobilizes and condenses, it singles out and constitutes, a shifting perspective (ebbing and flowing, later circulating) like one of those images and forms—elements, again, or complexes of culture—that fill the material imagination” (xii).

Blood evokes a rich analytic web: contagion, transitive flow, viral and blood-borne vectors, contamination and coagulation, the science of sacrifice, the eucharist, and of course, there is literal blood—the red spouting slippery stuff. Consequently, this is a book written in blood, which is to say, written in such a way as to mimic blood, a conjuring that is at once an aggressive molecular analysis. Within the deep recesses of sanguification, everything is red.

Driving Anidjar’s analysis is the question of how and why we moderns (Christians in disguise for the most part) have traded in our old hearts for new-fangled versions. The move from communitas to immunitas is bound up in the emergence of a particular kind of proprietary subject and the various institutions that lend their support to this seemingly atomistic world. The more virtual our world becomes to us the more refined and pure our individualism becomes—steersman all at the helm of our social networks!

This is an age of and and iHealth®.2 (Forget the wires and tubes. This no hassle monitor makes it easy and convenient to check your own blood pressure, anytime and anywhere!) This is an age in which blood is increasingly abstracted, particularly when it is shed. This is an age of blood feuds on the big screen. This is an age of all manner of protections and protocols and strategies around blood. This is an age of HAZMAT fonts, body suits, head covers, face shields, face masks, goggles, aprons, boots, and rubber gloves and bloated awkward grainy gaits.

According to Anidjar, blood “ostensibly suffuses and unites the political life of the West” (86). Blood’s is no trick of linguistic difference nor mere imagination of community. There are the bloods of science and technology, of war and capital and colonial rule. There are the bloods of the law, literature, and religion. Wary of overdetermining the Christian character of this political life, Anidjar follows the blood. [Race, nation and the “intensification of blood” (88).] In doing so he offers a kind of secularization thesis, or rather, a meditation on the bloody difference that modernity makes. But despite Anidjar’s stated wariness I sense a certain relish in his overdetermination of Christianity. Within the pages of Blood, Christianity—something that we all know does not exist in essence but is ever laid on from without—becomes hyperreal. Everywhere and nowhere. It is the object of his critique after all, bound up in the excessions that comprise the “modern state” (107)—the discipline(s); the strategic enactment of boundaries, categorical and otherwise; boundaries designed to dissolve, an obsolescence that seems planned in retrospect but nonetheless speaks to blood’s logic of perpetual motion, to seep, to move out and across and to flow. No beginning and no end.

The flow, however, is systematic—for the distribution of blood distinguishes between realms. Anarchy does not rule. For blood generates and ultimately dissolves. But what is this logic? What is this totem? This divinity? This categorical imperative? How to even ask these questions without engaging the God who is not so much a region beyond knowledge as something prior to the sentences we speak.”3

According to Anidjar, blood is the integrity and singularity of something, something that you are in but also something else. Blood conjures this strange living amidst surging forces, the move in, through, and out of individuals in continual loops. For ours is a world that is seemingly infinite in its scope, a world hell-bent on actualizing its own limitlessness. In his diagnosis Anidjar is not alone.4 Needless to say, it does not yet have a name. It will never have a name. But call it Christianity. Or original sin. Or race. Or big science. Or imperialism, capitalism, or secularism. Does it matter, really, given how much blood has been shed?

This question simmers beneath Anidjar’s remarkable reading of Moby-Dick as doing “justice to Christianity as the history of blood” (213). Anidjar moves through the text and its interpreters in a singular performance, recasting Melville’s political theology in terms of blood—blood become the heuristic that best addresses a massive system—“a circulatory system—that divided and separates between and across multiple realms and domains of which science and politics are only a part” (204). Anidjar follows Melville in “showing how blood, in and through its distributive flow, governs the distinct logics of” religion, the economy, science, politics, the law, technology and industry (212). For blood, in Anidjar’s rendering of Melville’s rendering, is that which mediates the categorical domains of antebellum life—what Hobbes once called “the Sanguification of the Commonwealth” (210).

According to Anidjar, Moby-Dick is at once a theology of blood and suggestive explanation of why we worship—“an account and compendium of pervasive inscriptions, a series of testimonies on blood, in short, a writing of blood and in blood: the ultimate hematography” (205). Like the concept of culture in antebellum America, blood was magnetically charged, a sympathetic medium that coursed through each and every human and in between. It was the answer on the tip of the occult tongue (and many others). A cacophony of energy claims and spirit seeing in which blood assumed its metaphsyical hue. “Many have been led astray by their anxiety to find a medium through which to influence is communicated,” wrote the magnetist La Roy Sunderland. “But what is the medium of Cohesion? What is the medium of any feeling which is excited in one mind by what is seen or heard, or merely thought of, by the person feeling it? You receive a letter from a distant friend, giving you joyful intelligence. Your joy is excited instantly. Where does the fluid come from that excites you in this case?5 This fluidity came from within but was simultaneously shared. It laid bare the code of human progress, the decipherment of which was the consummation of self-knowledge.

Moby-Dick is a work of vascular criticism—accounting for its place in the flows of history and culture. Aboard the Pequod, whose blood-soaked “wood could only be American,” and amidst the “uncivilized laughter” of “barbaric, heathenish, and motley” whalers the spirit of Christianity is manifest (571, 423, 122).

The book—Melville’s and Anidjar’s—is not only about forces, per se, that impinge upon the individual, that determine her decisions or condition his actions—but about the self as flow and regulation and susceptibility. A problem, then, remains. How to write against those characterizations in which subjects have insisted that they are free, or at the very least, potentially free to choose, to intend, to interpret, to believe, to demand, to conspire and imagine conspiracies, to act upon some still secure space within? For whatever things we choose, intentions we have, beliefs we possess, demands we make, they are not and can never be solely our own. On first blush, this may be considered a rather banal point (blood flowing), a truth known to humanities grad students and school children in equal measure. But what happens when one begins to write—in words on the screen and only later, if ever, on the page—about agency, and much else besides, as distributive phenomena?

Within the interpretive tradition (bloodstream?) Anidjar encounters many a Melville scholar, including C. L. R. James, who had this to say in his Mariners, Renegades & Castaways: “Melville’s theme is totalitarianism, its rise and fall, its power and its weakness.”6 Born in Trinidad James arrived in the United States via his home in London in October of 1938 at the invitation of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. Planning to stay only a few months James embarked on a series of speaking engagements across the country. He would remain in the United States until his deportation in 1953. During his stay in the United States James became increasingly concerned with “the forces making for totalitarianism in modern American life.”7

James was interested in the practical ways in which “the mechanization and destruction of the human personality” (MRC 11) could, in the end, be avoided through dialectical motion. In his study of Hegel James sought to affirm that individual acts could have systemic implications, thereby affirming that the “world-system” harbored the seeds of its own undoing.8 Throughout the 1940s James was intimately involved in a number of radical reform efforts, from speeches and pamphlets to organizing striking sharecroppers in southeast Missouri.9 By 1948 James had become enough of a political threat to be served with deportation papers by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. He was in violation of the laws of nation, race, and blood. In order to make his case public and to fund his legal defense James began delivering public lectures on Herman Melville. It was during this period that he developed ideas that would inform Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways (written while James was detained on Ellis Island pending his deportation on passport violations).10 Under the auspices of McCarran Immigration Bill of 1952, James was imprisoned as an “alien who has engaged or has had purpose to engage in activities ‘prejudicial to the public interest’ or subversive to the national security.”11 As James confessed, “my experiences there [on Ellis Island] have not only shaped this book, but are the most realistic commentary I could give on the validity of Melville’s ideas today” (MRC 125).

In his own work James assumed the intellectual burden of demonstrating how Moby-Dick could be used to harness the energies of democracy and to counter a “ceaseless barrage of propaganda, visual and auditory” (AC 159, 173, 163). This optimism frames his assessment of Moby-Dick as a model of immanent critique. “the depth and accuracy” of Melville’s observation revealed “the secret of the mechanism by which political power is grasped and wielded today”—a revelation that could lead to revolution (AC 77, 129,76–80).

Moby-Dick,” wrote James, “is in essence a scenario for a film . . . closest to the spirit of the tragedy of Aeschylus.” Because “Melville believed in democracy,

one must imagine a Melville aware of the fact that the whole nation would gather on a certain day of national festival to listen to Moby Dick as a play or a film. Imagine too that Melville’s writing would be profoundly affected by this. Then think of the character of Ahab and the others, and Melville’s profound thesis presented to the people and a tremendous response by the whole nation to the dramatic presentation of fundamental problems. We then have some idea, however rough, of what the Greek drama was, and the failure of popular art today. So concrete and yet so profound were Melville’s conceptions that his imagination in attempting to encompass all that he saw fell almost naturally into what can easily be read as a scenario for a type of film which modern film-makers have not as yet even dreamt of (AC 129, 156).

In similar fashion Blood, a film treatment of blood is not yet possible. It could be tried but its visuals—its empiricities—would soon shock the audience or blur distinction or both. Its empiricities are too vast, like Melville’s Moby-Dick or McCarthy’s Blood Meridean. This kind of blood saturation is hard to capture on screen. There is always, of course, the pull of the literal. The gory/B-horror flicks, Tarantino ultra violence, and the experimental gesture of showing “10 hours red screen”12 continuously looping for a definitive period of time, projected day and night at the end of a long museum hall. But even though Blood is too literal (radically empirical?) for that kind of treatment, I could imagine a trailer being attempted in the vein of the Lumiere’s “L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat” (1895)13—a short silent film that is storied to have caused the audience to jump out of their seats as the train came barreling toward them. Or if that really didn’t happen a sample of Blood might look something like this—the stuff of blood, ever the parts of a whole, buzzing, gushing through the seams of the elevator, cascading toward you, flooding the hall of the Overlook Hotel, splattering, enveloping, drowning, red.

  1. https:/C:/dev/home/—youtube.

  2. http:/C:/dev/home/

  3. Michel Foucault, Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966) (New York: Vintage, 1994), 293.

  4. William Connolly, for example, in his “The Evangelical-Capitalist Resonance Machine,” Political Theory 33:6 (December 2005): 869–886, makes the incisive argument that given the contemporary intersections of media, one must approach the making of religion as something that takes place in, through, and beyond ideology. Now, admittedly, that is a very difficult space to access, analytically. For to get to where that work goes on one must let go of ideas, of the categories that led you to the threshold. One must abandon the tried and true ground of objectivity and submit to the possibility that such a place does in fact, exist. Such a place, moreover, demands both a humility and a poetics—analysis that takes place between words and between interpretations.

  5. La Roy Sunderland, “The Agent in Animal Magnetism,” The Phreno-Magnet and Mirror of Nature 1:10 (November 1843), 296.

  6. C.L.R. James, Mariners, Renegades & Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In (Hanover: University Press of New England, 2001), 54, 88. Hereafter cited as MRC.

  7. C.L.R. James, American Civilization (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1993), 38. Hereafter cited in the text as AC.

  8. See, for example, C.L.R. James, Grace Lee, and Raya Dunayevskaya, State Capitalism and World Revolution (1950 reprint, Detroit: Facing Reality, 1969).

  9. Kent Worchester, C.L.R. James: A Political Biography (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 70.

  10. James’s choice to write an entire book on Melville was no doubt motivated by a desire to textualize his own Americaness, legitimate his political claims to American citizenship, and to pacify those who dismissed him as a foreign agitator. Upon publication, copies of Mariners were sent to every member of Congress in a failed attempt to pre-empt his deportation. Aldon Lynn Nielsen, C.L.R. James: A Critical Introduction (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997), 162; Paul Buhle, C.L.R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary (London: Verso, 1988), 106.

  11. Cited by Lisa Lowe, Immigration Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), 9. See, also, Pease’s introduction to Mariners, xviii-xix, xxv-xxviii.

  12. https:/C:/dev/home/

  13. http:/C:/dev/home/

  • Gil Anidjar

    Gil Anidjar


    What’s in a Name?

    I have long been struck by an image evoked by my colleague Sheldon Pollock in an essay called “The Death of Sanskrit,” where scholars trained and habituated into a certain set of practices whose time had sadly passed, are described as persisting in reproducing those practices with meticulous precision and dedication while adding nothing to the achievements of those who preceded them. Just as Kant’s dove (or perhaps akin to Coyote, who insists on pursuing Roadrunner well beyond the edge of the cliff), these scholars appear to have been blissfully oblivious of the fact that conditions, essential conditions, had changed. The world had moved on. Does this not apply to much current scholarship as well? Blood, should it need recalling, is hopelessly textual. It pursues what feels like an increasingly obsolete path. Well over the edge.

    But John Lardas Modern kindly eggs me on, offering something that makes me want to rethink all this and read my book again (though I think I’ll go instead for Modern’s own Secularism in Antebellum America). “The medium of the blood,” he writes, “is the message of the blood.” I take this to mean, just as McLuhan did, that “any technology gradually creates a totally new human environment,” and that to understand blood as a technology or medium would mean to acknowledge the environment it has created.

    Is that the same as “totalitarianism,” as Modern also suggests in his brilliant reading (or counter-reading) of C. L. R. James? Does it mean, at the very least, that Blood ignores the question of agency? I confess that I was more intrigued by the agency of blood. But I am also more indebted to Talal Asad than Modern grants. Blood seeks to describe a transformative condition, a set of conditions that have inscribed themselves on collective and individual bodies in ways that exceed our full consciousness (especially those “individuals” among us, those “subjects [who] have insisted that they are free, or at the very least, potentially free to choose, to intend, to interpret, to believe, to demand, to conspire and imagine conspiracies, to act upon some still secure space within,” as Modern puts it). Asad understands this transformative process as “modernization” and “Westernization,” the origins of which he locates in Europe, over two centuries ago. I understand it as “Christianization” and I push back the clock. But I think we are in agreement that this transformation, or series of transformations (undergone by Christians as well as by those they converted, conquered, enslaved, and otherwise civilized or democratized) involve “a new experience of historical time” as well as “our concept of human beings making history” (I quote here from Asad, Genealogies of Religion). I suggest that it also involved a massive “sanguification,” which indeed entails more generally a new “distributive phenomenon.” What this means, as Asad also writes, is that “although it is spatially discontinuous and internally diverse, ‘the West’ is not a mere Hegelian myth, not a mere representation ready to be unmasked by a handful of talented critics. For good or ill, it informs innumerable intentions, practices, and discourses in systematic ways.” I seek to understand this “singular collective identity [which] defines itself in terms of a unique historicity in contrast to all others” by way of blood—and other things. I cannot in good conscience claim full responsibility for Christianity’s overdetermination or for its “hyperreality” as it emerges from my argument.

    But I do insist it can be named, as it perhaps must (Asad calls it “the West,” I call it “Christianity”). There is always a catachrestic dimension to such naming, but why should we give up and prophesy that our object of concern “will never have a name”? “Imperialism, capitalism, or secularism”—these have been useful names. They might be still. I think Christianity is a good name too. It has potential. As to whether it matters in relation to all the blood shed, I defer (as my sprawling footnotes demonstrate) to more talented critics, and experienced film directors (Tarantino again! and Kubrick!! and of course Richard Fleischer).