Gil Anidjar’s recent book Blood: A Critique of Christianity was the central focus for a great forum in Marginalia Review of Books last week, organized by Nina Caputo. Caputo chose four respondents from different disciplines – theology/Christian studies (Amy Hollywood), anthropology/religious studies (Pamela Klassen), literary studies (Ana Schwartz), and history (Jonathan Sheehan). The forum concludes with a final response from Anidjar (which begins: “I am becoming the blood guy”). I enjoyed the forum very much. It made me think about boundaries – the boundaries of Christianity, boundaries of academic authority, working across the boundaries.
The boundaries of Christianity
In Blood, Anidjar combines history, philosophy, political theory, literary analysis, psychoanalytic theory – and a poetic, playful style – in order to present a broad argument concerning Christianity and blood. The element of Christianity is blood, Anidjar argues (think: “the blood of Christ,” “Christian blood,” etc). Blood as trope, framework, cause, reason in Catholicism and Protestantism has dissolved into a ubiquitous influence throughout Western modernity, including its economic, political, legal, medical, and community formations and all manner of violence (think: capital flows, “blood = life,” “blood runs thicker than water,” “of the same blood,” “bloodline,” etc). This leads, as Amy Hollywood puts it, to Anidjar’s “political rage” in the face of a secular refusal to recognize that many of its problematic aspects – the violence of capitalism, xenophobia, democracy – are inextricably tied to “the Christian question.”
The general thrust of the overall argument is well known to anthropologists of Christianity. It might loosely be put as follows: (Western) Christianity is everywhere in (Western) “secular” modernity, including the discipline of anthropology, and we can’t seem to get outside it (or only with great difficulty). The argument has been made in different forms by anthropologists (Marshall Sahlins, Talal Asad, Fenella Cannell, Webb Keane). Gil Anidjar adds a new dimension to this general argument by suggesting that the operative link is blood. The general argument continues: we can’t seem to get outside Christianity, but we should really try! There is something broadly appealing about this to anthropological ways of thinking, perhaps because it helps us to interrogate the Western/Christianity/especially-Protestant-centric connotations of our own concepts (such as religion, change, agency, subjects, objects, etc – and now we can add to the list: blood, liquid, circulation, flows).
But it is a problematic argument too, as other anthropologists have argued, and as highlighted unusually well by two of the responses in the Marginalia forum: those by Jonathan Sheehan and Pamela Klassen.
Jonathan Sheehan critiques Anidjar's, shall we say, “everywhere Christianity.” Actually, he refers to it as a Christianity marked by “subjunctive hesitation,” echoing Anidjar’s phrase “Christianity, as it were.” He points to concrete examples of Christian communities in the Reformation whose central organizing metaphor was “spirit” rather than “blood.” He questions Anidjar’s willingness to see the influence of blood in so many places: “When blood, then Christianity. When no blood, there is Christianity too, except even more perniciously (because hidden). Within a few decades after Leviathan, water, not blood, became the analogy of choice for the flow of capital — is this a sign of Christian presence? Or absence? One imagines the former, since ... everything that flows can be thought of as blood ... And yet what criteria might let us evaluate? Christianity, as it were, turns out to be both itself and everything else too. Obviously this is exactly Anidjar’s point.” That last sentiment is formulated in almost the same way by Pamela Klassen: “I’m also not sure what [Anidjar] means by ‘Christianity,’ which may be part of his point.” Yes, replies Anidjar in his forum response, this is the point: “Just like the case of that famed cigar, it would be good to know that sometimes things are just what they are, would it not, and not what they are not (ostensibly and manifestly, that is)? If only they were.” However, he adds that it is “not quite accurate” to say that Christianity is everything, since blood “maps the limits.” Granted, he adds, these are “expansive limits.”
Pamela Klassen in addition picks up a type of argument that often holds much authority for anthropologists: examining how concepts work, or what work we make them do for us. Klassen points to how Anidjar’s argument rests on the implications of blood connected with violence and death, while largely skimming over “fertile blood”: blood connected with women’s menstrual cycles and giving birth. She describes Christian women who actively used blood and other liquids (breastmilk, pus) to challenge the patriarchal Christianity around them. As she puts it: “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.” Anidjar responds that if he had included women’s fertile blood, it “would not quite alter the argument that there is something singular about Christianity and blood. It might just divert it and even exonerate Christianity from the critique I try to launch. … I’m after Christianity in its dominant and hegemonic forms, Christianity in its historical and structural distinctiveness. Not quite a monument to gender equality”.
In sum, Sheehan and Klassen see two problems with the general argument that “(Western) Christianity is everywhere in (Western) modernity.” The first problem is that it forces us to define Christianity (as it were) so expansively that we have to suppress quite a few Christian communities who counter our selected narrative. The second (both methodological and ethical) problem is that this general argument tends to examine hegemonic formations of Christianity, which means that the moments of resistance that have been suppressed in Christian communities are suppressed again in the academic text. Further, Sheehan and Klassen both ask: What is Christianity here? Does it have any boundaries? And what criteria might we use to answer these questions? From their point of view, the criteria that they apply undermine Anidjar’s argument. But, as Sheehan acknowledges, these criteria probably don’t undermine the argument from Anidjar’s point of view. As Sheehan puts it: “Does it matter that spirit, rather than blood, organized Christian communities [in the Reformation and] well into the period we are discussing? Probably not, I suspect. Once Christianity has become everything that it is, and everything that it isn’t as well … then most of my usual historical evaluative mechanisms fail.” To which Anidjar responds: “Granted there are other Christianities, granted there are those who did organize themselves around blood … and those who did not: does that mean that Christianity’s existence is, as it were, in doubt?” Anidjar insists that there is something singular about Christianity, and that it has to do with blood.
The boundaries of academic authority
The way in which one weighs these arguments depends in part on how one has been disciplined into granting analytic authority to some types of arguments rather than others. There seem to be two different modes of authoritative argumentation operating in the Marginalia forum.
The first is what I will call – for lack of having done better research on it – the “resonance argument.” (I think I have taken the word “resonance” from the psychoanalyst Betty Joseph, though a quick Google search didn’t turn up any exact citation from her writings.) Sonja Luehrmann, in her thoughtful review of Blood, has also reached for the term “resonance” to describe Anidjar’s writing (which she combines with “evocative” and “free association”). The basic idea I want to get at is this: in some academic settings/communities, analytic authority can be granted based on identifying a similarity that, for one reason or another, resonates. For example, when a psychoanalyst interprets a moment of “transference” (e.g. identifies some similarity between the way in which you experienced a past situation and the way in which you construct present interaction), it is difficult – and perhaps meaningless – to “prove” that this is what is going on. But if the interpretation proves productive – e.g. by making previously unarticulated insights available to be articulated – then, in one way or another, there was something right about that interpretation. It was able to connect, to complete a train of thought by showing some kind of similarity, which struck a chord. It resonated.
Anidjar’s work cannot really be pinned down by one idea, but perhaps it is fair to say that one important aspect of his work is the result of his training his attention on similarities – say, between the distributed blood of Christ and the circulation of capital – that will resonate, that will prove productive. (Another important aspect of his work is the poststructuralist resources he works with – Derrida’s destabilizing “trace,” “différance” – but I will leave these aside for now.) Moreover, the general anthropological argument that “(Western) Christianity is everywhere in (Western) modernity” is, partly, based on resonances. I don’t think this type of “resonance argument” is quite the same as the criticized tendency toward “continuity thinking” in anthropology, or the methodological trap of “parallelomania” in biblical studies, although they all share the common trait of scanning for similarities.
In a second type of academic argument, analytic authority is not granted based on resonance, but rather on an understanding that the argument must strive to make the best possible sense of the fullest range of material available for a particular case. This is, I guess, what the anthropological term “grounded theory” tries to get at. This understanding of analytic authority is what prompts Klassen and Sheehan each to respond to Anidjar: we are not persuaded by your argument about the diffuse entanglement of Christianity/blood/modernity/violence because, says Sheehan, I can point to Reformation communities that were constructed around spirit instead of blood, and, says Klassen, I can point to Christian women who used blood quite differently. In other words, they are saying that the argument presented in Blood does not account very well for the full range of material relevant to the case of Christianity/blood. Klassen and Sheehan are not oriented toward “everywhere Christianity” or “subjunctive Christianity” (“Christianity, as it were”); rather, they are repeatedly drawn back to evaluating an argument against “somewhere Christianity” or “actually existing Christianities” – Christianity as manifested in a range of particular communities across time and place.
Working across boundaries
Can academics work across these boundaries? Jon Bialecki recently suggested that we should think about establishing "negotiating protocols" between anthropology and theology, since this particular boundary has attracted a fair amount of interest in the anthropology of Christianity (much work could be cited, but in keeping with the theme of this blogpost let me just point here to Joe Webster’s excellent recent comment on “the boundaries of Christianity and beyond”). Here are a couple of suggestions for communication protocol items: identify how any given anthropological or theological text itself works with the boundaries of Christianity (does it posit "everywhere Christianity," "somewhere Christianity," or something else), and the boundaries of analytic authority (does it present a "resonance argument," "grounded argument," or something else). This is not a foregone conclusion. On the one hand, it is perhaps fair to venture that “resonance arguments” may be more prevalent in theology than in anthropology, while “grounded arguments” may be more prevalent in anthropology than in theology. But on the other hand, being aware that "resonance arguments" are sometimes accepted in anthropology may make it easier to speak across the boundary.