Fertile Blood – By Pamela Klassen

Pamela Klassen in the Blood Forum

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

See the Blood: The Element of Christianity Forum page for all contributions.

Gil Anidjar’s Blood: A Critique of Christianity is an enigmatic book of echoes and avowals that casts death, and not birth, as the pivotal moment for thinking about blood. In a blending of genres that includes theoretical exegesis, historical claims, riddles, word searches, and polemic, Anidjar argues forcefully that blood must be denaturalized — even dematerialized — in order to be analyzed as a key concept at the pumping heart of modern secular/political power. As have many other scholars, from Karl Marx to Talal Asad, Anidjar insists that this secular power is deeply infused by Christianity.

Anidjar’s insistence that blood plays a “singular role” in the “Christian imagination and in Christianity’s effective history,” however, distinguishes his critique of Christianity from those of earlier theorists. Venturing a cautiously comparative claim, Anidjar writes: “not all religions (but what is ‘religion’? and are there really many within this asymmetric hematology?) give meaning, whether theological, political, anthropological and familial, legal and economic — eventually natural — by way of blood.” Echoing modes of argument from a diversity of writers — from Friedrich Nietzsche to Carl Schmitt to Herman Melville to Joan Scott — Anidjar avows that understanding blood as a “liquidated theological concept” reveals the widespread dispersal of Christianity in fields of modern biopower, including sovereignty, medicine, warfare, and economics.

In earlier work, I have found Anidjar’s reflections productive for thinking about Christianity less as a tradition and more as a “polemical concept,” especially in relation to the field known as “anthropology of Christianity.” Here, I want to focus on his insistence that blood needs to be denaturalized as a concept in order to see the infused and dispersed power of Christianity as a kind of “violence denying-love” that delusionally transforms “collective guilt [into] collective innocence.” To do this, Anidjar focuses especially on blood in its relation to Christian narratives, theologies, and rituals of crucifixion, atonement, inquisition, and eucharist, or as he casts these in other terms, patricidal murder, innocent crimes, and vampirical divinity.

Anidjar’s account of Christianity is most cutting in his reading of Freud reading Paul: the crucifixion and resurrection is the “primal murder” of the father — i.e., God — that becomes the story of “Christ the hero, Christ the innocent murderer” by which all humanity can achieve universal redemption. In Anidjar’s paraphrase of Freud, Christianity “turned the cult of the dead father into a worship of the murdering son as innocent.” Trinitarian intricacies aside, with his singular Christianity Anidjar tells a story of blood along patrilineal, patriarchal, and patricidal lines.

At the same time that Anidjar catalogues the conceptual and historical bloodiness of Christianity, he asserts that “blood is distant from us.” A distant, conceptual blood that underpins a story of murder and innocence may well reveal important ways that Christianity has infused the history and present of colonialism, state violence, and racism. It is striking to me, however, that Anidjar’s engagement with blood continually skirts around the question of the blood of fertility. With patricide and death between father and son overwhelming his genealogical story of blood and Christianity, Anidjar pays little attention to significance of blood in terms of the maternal body, however immaculate or blood-stained — the Virgin Mary merits only the briefest of footnotes in the book.

Anidjar does note occasionally that menstruation and birth are important to consider when thinking about blood, but nowhere does he consider women’s blood (in either conceptual or embodied terms) in any sustained way. He turns to Caroline Walker Bynum’s argument in Wonderful Blood, in which she considers blood the “central problem” of late medieval Christian devotion. He does not consider, however, Bynum’s earlier work on eucharistic piety and women’s devotion, in both Holy Feast, Holy Fast and Jesus as Mother. In these works, Bynum demonstrates how eucharistic rituals and piety offered a practice and theology through which women critiqued and resisted male ecclesiastical and familial power, at least enough to show that they realized that access to eucharistic blood was highly gendered. Encountering Catherine of Siena (not Sienna, as Blood insists) through these earlier writings of Bynum provides evidence not only for the bloodiness of eucharistic piety but also for a piety of breastmilk and pus.

With patricide and death between father and son overwhelming his genealogical story of blood and Christianity, Anidjar pays little attention to significance of blood in terms of the maternal body.

In the face of patriarchal control of the sacraments and lineages of church authority, medieval women mystics such as Catherine and Hadewijch of Brabant (another mystic quoted by Anidjar) experimented with their own liquid devotions, with blood, breastmilk, or pus as their symbolic and material resources. According to Bynum, when Catherine drank the pus of the sick for whom she cared, she strengthened both her “eucharistic craving” and her desire to “serve others through suffering.” She, along with many other women mystics, had visions of nursing the baby Jesus and drinking blood from his adult wound; “miraculous lactation” on the part of women mystics was thought to heal others in ways both physical and spiritual.

As Bynum argues, women mystics developed a eucharistic piety in which blood and breastmilk were often indistinguishable, and in which they understood drinking the blood of Christ not with vampirical metaphors, but with maternal ones. (Though one could argue that vampires and mothers may not be metaphorical opposites, to do so you would have to enter into a discussion about mothers.)

Repeatedly “leaving aside the question of what is (or rather: what is not) transmitted between mother and child,” Anidjar’s genealogical and even “embryological” approach to blood largely avoids thinking through the significance of natality, fertility, and the cyclical bloodiness of women’s embodiment. This is somewhat curious both in “real” terms of embodiment and in “theological” terms of incarnation and ritual prohibitions associated with menstruation and childbirth. Christianity — based not only on the crucifixion but also on the incarnation — is a complex social imaginary whose power depends on the combined control and celebration of the maternal body. Reading blood — conceptual or otherwise — through death without also reading it through birth has profound political consequences that reassert and even revitalize the violent innocence of Christianity that Anidjar seeks to critique. At the very least, continuing a long tradition of reading (even if critiquing) Christianity so that patrilineal or patricidal blood relations blot out the subjectivities and bodiliness of women re-enacts a story that still has destructive consequences today.

It took me a while to read Blood — more than a month, let’s say. This heightened my awareness that for millennia most women between the ages of about twelve and fifty-five have thought with blood on a regular basis, reading its monthly overflowing presence or signal absence with anxiety, pleasure, or forbearance. When blood’s absence becomes fertility, a pregnant woman reads blood in a new way, depending on whether she wants to bear a child or not. Once she gives birth, the blood comes again; for centuries this was the most dangerous time in the life of a woman, as the blood could come so forcefully that it would kill her. Blood is neither distant nor necessarily a sign of violence; blood is a flow of great consequence for a woman’s life, regardless of what she has chosen or endured in terms of her sexuality. When a woman such as Catherine of Siena wrote about going around “clad in blood,” she knew of what she wrote.

The blood of menstruation and childbirth is theological-political blood.

Is the blood you know the blood you think with? Anidjar’s “political hematology” thinks a great deal with theorists such as Aristotle, Paul, or Thomas Hobbes. In Anidjar’s reading, Hobbes’ political theory uses the blood that circulates and pumps through the heart to think about the nation and threats to it from “foreigners.” Hobbes’s state of nature is also a primal myth beginning with death and a war of all against all. He ignores the fact that there would be no nasty, brutish, and short lives without women who gave birth to such brutes, and other people who cared for them when they were tiny, vulnerable, and utterly without guile.

The blood of menstruation and childbirth is theological-political blood. As Nancy Jay argued many years ago, “sacrifice is remedy for having been born of woman.” As Jay showed, when it comes to menstruation and childbirth it is not only Christianity that thinks with blood to build community through gendered hierarchy and exclusion; across many forms of social, political, and “religious” organization, “the blood of menstruation and childbirth is the quintessence of impurity.”

Duly noting that menstrual blood might raise some interesting questions for a political hematology, Anidjar chooses not to ask what these questions might be. With the blood of menstruation and childbirth to the fore, the conceptual and real violence of the ways Christianity makes meaning with blood appears to be not so singular after all.

Even if Jay’s feminist critique of religion does not figure in Anidjar’s analysis, I’d suggest that if he wants to draw on Caroline Walker Bynum’s research to frame his argument about the eucharistic politics of blood and if he seeks to echo the imperative of Joan Scott by considering “blood as a category of analysis,” he needs also to seriously engage with their calls to think with gender, embodiment, and the politics of experience.

Neither Scott nor Bynum glorify women’s experience, women’s embodiment, or even the category of “women” itself. Their decades of critical research and theoretical interventions, including their critiques of Christianity, require those who follow in their wake to take seriously how the very power of Christianity, whether in medieval Europe or secular modernity, is gendered, materialized, and embodied.

I appreciate Anidjar’s polemical voice, and the ways that he gamely seeks to draw together a wide range of others’ voices to argue his critique of Christianity. I am not always convinced by his historical claims about the singularity of Christianity in its understanding of “flesh and blood” or even by his claim that his is not an “historical explanation.

I’m also not sure what he means by “Christianity,” which may be part of his point. His concern to think through how genealogies of modernity are also often implicitly or explicitly genealogies of Christianity is a provocative intervention into an ongoing conversation that matters for more than just academic reasons. Asking “the Christian question” with the concept of blood as your primary lever, however, requires asking persistent questions about the blood of fertility and birth as well as the blood of violence and murder.