Abusing the Proper — Blood Book Event

Closing out such a productive book event, first I must confess the difficulty of trying to read Blood this summer. In transit for six weeks between cities on opposite sides of this continent, my efforts to read the book were constantly distracted. These were Ramadan nights when my twitter timeline was filled with blood, pictures of blackened faces rubble and the black billowing clouds of hell loosed onto the earth. All (certainly warranted) criticisms of the pornographic consumption of the dead aside, the futility of such witness (perhaps the futility of every such witness, no matter how fervent, never again and the responsibility to protect), this is the evening redness in the west. But Darwish wrote, “we do injustice to Gaza when we turn it into a myth, because we will hate it when we discover that it is no more than a small poor city that resists” (ونظلم غزة حين نحولها إلى أسطورة لأننا سنكرهها حين نكتشف أنها ليست أكثر من مدينة فقيرة صغيرة تقاوم; full excerpt here, trans. Sinan Antoon). And so these lines eventually proved steadying against news of other crimson tides, these lines from the Darwish prose poem titled Hayrat al-‘a’id (“Perplexity of the Returned”) proved a steadying guide (dalalat) to those at a loss in these bloody times (dalalat al-ha’irin), trying to read Blood. Somewhere in that texture there is a pun or at least a tired gesture about Maimonides and Anidjar, namely the power of a line of prosody to exceed itself beyond its context.

Someone (Anthony?) rightly commented earlier that the book resists being disciplined into history or theology or political theory, being utilized and cited to other ends. I can see people working with certain of its close readings (Benjamin, Freud, Melville), folding these moments of the book into their scholarly arguments. Beyond this segmentary approach, I think it’s also possible to respond broadly to its ambition. One example of this kind of work is Kevin O’Neill’s forthcoming Secure the Soul (2015). This decentered ethnography finds Christianity beyond the limits of religion alone, in (indeed making up) the soft security apparatus of postwar Guatemala. Like Christianity, because of Christianity, confounding whatever differences between secular and Christian security, the logics of pious gang prevention show that it is possible to ethnographically demonstrate the idea of an anthropology of Christianity as compulsive — even in the Christian science that is anthropology.

My difficulty of reading Blood this summer abruptly raises the question of reading it among blood, that is, what is the relation between this book and the world, its Christianity and actually existing Christianity. Already Anthony has beautifully answered this question in a way I find entirely persuasive (Blood as index of an archive), and I should note that my question does not have to do with some of the more predictable historical or anthropological lines (what about historical change, what about non-Western Christianities) which I’ve heard raised by audience members at Anidjar’s talks (and which his book itself anticipates and sets aside). It seems clear in any case that while his book intersects with these registers it marks a more immediate claim (a further comment on this below). Rather I am curious first about the figure of this relation. This is a question Anidjar addresses throughout the book, from its opening to its close. My suggestion in short is that the way Anidjar characterizes this relation opens a window onto the formal status of Blood as critique of Christianity. And so although there is a lot more to discuss here, even at the end of this book event, I begin at the very end of the book:

Blood is not quite an object, not a thing either. It is neither old nor new; although it is also that and more. Nor is blood a discourse that would regiment, precisely, the course of blood through the realms of human and inhuman existence … As a ‘metaphor’ that does not relate to a literal term, whose referent is anything but granted, blood is, it should be treated as, catachrestic. (258)

1. trope
Neither one nor the other, though it is that and more. The cut between literal and figurative is suspended (their distinction liquefied), it must be refused for this inquiry to proceed. These are words to trace in this book: metaphor, metonymy, symbol, figure, relation. And, for the first and only time on its last page, catachresis.

Blood proves a problem for and of rhetoric. When did literal blood gain its metaphors? This is the question that blood offers. But this is a question that presumes too much, for Anidjar:

The very distinction between literal and figurative blood is part and parcel of the peculiar and enduring dominion of blood, enabling the dissemination of blood across seemingly distinct realms, which it covertly unifies. The absence of a concept of blood, at any rate, makes it impossible to assert with any assurance that the blood of kinship, for instance, is metaphorically derivative with regard to the presumed literal, allegedly primary, blood of physiology or medicine (this is why blood is not a signature, in Agamben’s sense, as it cannot be referred back to a field to which it would primarily belong). (85)

Anidjar’s answer is to refuse the choice: instead of maintaining one against the other, literal and figurative, part and whole, apparent and subtle, blood spreads. He then asks we read differently: “We should bracket all assurances with regard to whether blood is ever a metaphor, a metonymy, or…a concept. Whatever we have encountered of blood up to this point, the language of blood should continue to be read, and as it were acknowledged, as if literally” (180). To understand the language of blood we must treat it as magical: it confuses the difference between literal and figurative, words and things. We must become savage philosophers.

But metaphor has always been a productive trope, Christopher Bracken has thoroughly demonstrated, despite Western philosophers’ and anthropologists’ long racialized efforts to repress and secure the unruly powers of language. So what is peculiar about blood? It “cannot be referred back to a field to which it would primarily belong”, it is “a metaphor with no proper referent”: “blood is, it should be treated as, catachrestic.” And this catachresis is that with and through which Christianity becomes what it is (dividing and irrigating the familial, social, medical, theological, economic, legal, political) (258). This figure renders Christianity. And, at the same time, it convenes the question of the proper. Although roundly condemned as an abuse of language, as an improper, bold, mixed, and desperate metaphor, catachresis is ultimately the asymmetrical syntax of tropes, where trope and inscription cross. Andrzej Warminski explains:

For catachresis is less a matter of the relation between literal and figurative, proper and transferred, senses than it is a question of naming, marking, putting a word and imposing a sense where there is neither word nor sense. In other words, as much as catachresis is a figure…it is also–supplementarily–a mere marker, a place-holder; it has nothing to do with sense; it only stands in the place of a lack. As place-holder for a lack of sense, as a “syntactical plug,” as it were, it is neither literal nor figurative; it is outside, asymmetrical to, questions of sense.

Catachrestically convened, requiring denaturalization: bloody Christianity, as it always will have been.

2. proper
Blood itself does not publish a deconversion programme (though it may lay the groundwork for one). But this is the risk of the book in how it will be read: what is to be done with bloody Christianity? The strident tone of Blood‘s partial summary (“All significant concepts of the history of the modern world are liquidated theological concepts,” viii) yields the conclusion of a recent post on the book, which has it declare “a revolutionary project of de-theologizing the modern world”. I am more pessimistic about this revolutionary project, when the blood has already spread, our hands sticky with it and its tang on our lips. So much literature on Schmitt has hinged on how secularized is understood (“secularized theological concepts”) that the liquidation here (“liquidated theological concepts”) seems determining. More directly, this revolutionary reading of Blood seems to hinge on an account of catachresis as the abuse of language (what is to be done but correct the abuse? the difference between proper/improper is reinscribed). But if catachresis is not the abuse of language but its actualization (where trope and inscription cross), then it is clear that it is not a simple matter of being for or against. We then encounter, as Anidjar has written elsewhere (read “liquidated theological concepts” for “religion”),

the magnitude of the problem one encounters in attempting to engage the grammar of a concept while being inscribed within its history; the difficulty one may have, in other words, in extirpating oneself from the concept of religion, or minimally in refraining from reproducing or occluding its inherent tensions, divisions and usages.

“Extirpating oneself” — I am still struck by the conjugation of this phrase, years later. Not extirpating the concept  from the world (a mission) or from oneself (a conversion). But extirpating oneself from the concept: engaging its grammar (how can one not) while seeking minimally to divest oneself from the world it sustains. A BDS campaign against Christian hemophilia.

3. critique
If trope and inscription have crossed, AUFS readers are well aware, then de-theologizing is too late. This is because of liquidation: because the tools it gives us for revolutionary de-theologizing are those of secular criticism, which will not work, no matter its lessons. Instead these gestures (no heteronomy! detranscendentalize the secular!) yield a generative indeterminacy constantly needing decision, an imperative consistent with and opening onto the catachrestic operation of bloody Christianity. This also goes toward answering some comments by Ananda Abeysekara, who some years ago read Anidjar’s “Secularism” to offer a reading of Said that remains aporetically invested in its object of critique (Christianity). The revolutionary reading of Blood (with its account of catachresis as abuse to be corrected) certainly seems vulnerable to this argument; the other reading of Blood (with its account of catachresis as actualization to be lived against), less so. As critique of Christianity, Blood is “restless and otherwise bound, neither new science nor archaeology, but rather partaking of a different, older tradition of disputation—in its initial and final stages a reading, a measuring of the adversary, among whom one lives and whom one invariably emulates, however grudgingly” (xii). Excavating, speculating, tracing, prophesying, and ultimately naming, Blood declares an outside to bloody Christianity. But shifting its grammar? That may be a matter less of revolutionary de-theologizing than of Divine violence.

Given Blood‘s reading of flesh and blood, flesh and bone, through the Bible, I grew curious about how blood appears in the Quran. It occurs there ten times, in dietetic contexts (Q 16:66: milk is pure despite being produced among blood; Q 2:173; 5:3; 6:145; and 16:115: animal blood is unlawful to ingest), in refuting the pagan practice of animal sacrifice (Q 22:37: It is not their flesh or blood that reaches God, but your piety), in the false wolf’s blood on Joseph’s tunic (Q 12:18), among the plagues of Egypt (Q 7:133), and describing bloodshed as a type of human corruption and as contravening the Israelite covenant (Q 2:30, 84). I grew curious about this earlier this summer, when I found myself editing an article reviewing the Quranic occurrences of the term arham (namely one’s close kindred entitled a specific portion of one’s inheritance). The editors went back and forth for a few weeks on the appropriate translation of the term, given its overwhelming English renditions as “blood-ties”, “blood-relations”. But these relations have no relation to blood at all, at least nothing beyond the blood of birth. They have rather to do (minimally) with a sense of natality, marking the kind of lateral kinship one gains from being born of the same womb. A homonym: rahim (pl. arham), both womb and ‘womb-relative’. And each related to rahma (mercy). Al-Raghib al-Asfahani (d. 502/1108): “just as the word rahim is derived from the word rahma, so also the quality [of mercy] found in people is derived from the quality eternally existing in God the Exalted, as the Prophet said, peace and blessings upon him: ‘When God created the womb, He said, “I am the Merciful (rahman) and you are the womb (rahim); I have given you a name derived from My name; whoever maintains ties with you, I shall maintain ties with, and whoever cuts you off, I shall cut him off.”‘” A community of names, maybe, but certainly not a community of blood (Blood‘s wager and its refrain: of course, not everyone is like that).

Except that since William Robertson Smith’s 1885 Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia, orientalists and anthropologists (mondialatinisation) have held the early Muslim community to be exactly a kinship-based society composed of blood-rites and blood money, blood brothers and blood feuds. See Talal Asad’s critical Encyclopedia of the Qur’an article “Kinship“: “So what does ‘kinship’ mean in the Quran? Certainly not ‘common blood,’ a Western idiom, because the Arabic for ‘blood’ (damm) is never used in the Quran to denote that which relatives share in common. (…) On [the Day of Judgment], any sense of kinship as common substance is proven meaningless. Only similitude links us together. Hence one must temper worldly attachments of every kind” (99). I bring this up not, as Anidjar writes, to “endorse fraternity (murderous or otherwise) [or in this case natality] instead — Carole Pateman, Marc Shell, and Jacques Derrida have provided significant warnings thereabout. I mean merely to underscore a measure of difference…” (420n120).

2 thoughts on “Abusing the Proper — Blood Book Event

  1. I love this post, Basit. I don’t have much of a question at this stage, more it helped me to think about some of the questions Blood (does it only raise questions? Is that what blood does? Like, for example, “why is that child bleeding?”). The connection to natality is interesting to me, in part because I know I have resisted certain feminist theologians and perhaps certain Irigarians attempt to work out natality as the transcendental condition for all thought. I get it, but it always feels a bit romantic to me in a way that moves the name of the Father to the Mother. There is a difference, of course, and it may be some misogynstic residuum in my soul that always comes up a bit like bile when I hear talk of natality-as-kinship (on this I think that Benslama’s reading of the figure of the woman in Islam may be interesting, it is in his Psychoanalysis and the Challenge of Islam). But perhaps one way to think about blood and being free of it is something analogous to a remark by Jared Sexton that Dan Barber quoted to me (I think from his Social Life of Social Death article, but perhaps I am mistaken): “black people have been denied kinship for centuries, and so can you.” If I understand Sexton, the line is meant to be funny. A reversal of the usual denial of kinship as a kind of (queer) freedom.

    Anyway, sorry I don’t have a more coherent thought to share about this wonderful post.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Anthony. I half regret ending the post on that note — I’m certainly not trying to pose natality as an answer of any sort. I just thought it remarkable how thoroughly blood-soaked secondary literature on early Arabia is, when the immediate senses of some of these terms (even in the juridical discussions, inheritance obligations and etc) have little really to do with it. I’ve had an allergic reaction to some pieces by Benslama but know that I should spend more time with him, so I’ll have to get into that this fall!

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