a collaborative genealogy of spirituality


by Gil Anidjar

Limbic, 2010 by <a href='' target='_blank'>Kathryn Parker Almanas</a>
Limbic, 2010 by Kathryn Parker Almanas

The importance of blood in American race discourse can hardly be overstated, and its particular, if hardly unique, function is generally granted. From slavery to eugenics, the practices of blood quantum, the one-drop rule, and everything Orlando Patterson called “rituals of blood”—all this testifies to the indisputable significance of blood in race discourse and racist practices. This significance carries over into law and into science but it still speaks, as if by containment, to the issue of race. Robert Cover did remind us that the relation between blood and law goes further, arguing that law is “that which licenses in blood certain transformations, while authorizing others only by unanimous consent.” Similar statements could be averred with regard to science, or to medicine at least, and perhaps to political science as well, since William Harvey’s discoveries on the circulation of the blood were picked up by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, by John Adams and countless others. At this point, however, we already run the risk of courting a strange but banal universalism (menstruation might be invoked for good effect), whereby blood could appear as a matter of concern common to every culture.

Presumably consumed with anger and revenge—not to mention law—the Old Testament famously seems to confirm, and partake of, such universalism. The soul is blood, it (approximately) said. The more widespread translation, however, from Luther onward, has it that “the life of the flesh is in the blood,” which introduces a massive innovation, a new kind of universalism. Consider that where the ancient texts (Hebrew, Greek, and Latin too) asserted an equality of creatures, the new dispensation offers blood as a principle of difference, which implicitly separates human from (soulless) animal. Thus, Acts 17:26 was translated: “And He hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth,” leaving the door open to doctrines of “lower” races as animals. In the early version, in other words, neither life nor difference was quite what was at stake. Only in this light can we take the measure of the transformation that has taken place and understand the peculiarity of the new universalism of blood, and the difference blood makes. Not surprisingly, the translation, which averred the contiguity of (human) life, blood, and spirit, was spectacularly reiterated by G. W. F. Hegel, philosopher of the universal par excellence. Hegel enacted the new universalism, the universalism of the new, when he stated that the “simple infinity, or the absolute Notion, may be called the simple essence of life, the soul of the world, the universal blood, whose omnipresence is neither disturbed nor interrupted by any difference, but rather is itself every difference, as also their supersession; it pulsates within itself but does not move, inwardly vibrates, yet is at rest. It is self-identical, for the differences are tautological; they are differences that are none.” As a universal, the soul of the world, and the simple essence of life, blood had become the absolute notion, which divides and differentiates—the difference, Shakespeare’s Salarino had proclaimed in The Merchant of Venice, “between bloods.”

Let us linger for another moment with the suggestion that blood is universal. In that perspective, America would merely, and merely illustratively, partake of blood. Such universals, though patently false (as the Old Testament demonstrates), do make it easier, but not necessarily compelling, to consider the specificity of the American spirit in its rapport to blood, to ponder the plausibility of its circulations. There is, however, no mention of blood in the Declaration of Independence, and the American Constitution only refers to blood once, in the context of treason and its effect on blood, which it calls, after English law, “the corruption of blood.” This older phrase signals the legal consequences of the act of treason and the cancellation of property rights, forbidding family members the inheritance of a traitor. More important, the text points well beyond the general matter of blood in law, and underscores the particularity of the new universalism. Here law establishes (and naturally reiterates) two essential components of the American spirit. The first has to do with kinship, immortalized by Lewis Henry Morgan as the “community of blood,” and which David Schneider famously designated as “American kinship.” The second component is the foundation of the American economic regime (among others), namely, property. I quote from a 1792 Act of the Laws of Virginia, which deploys the device of blood quantum in a context that has little to do with race:

And, in the cases before mentioned, where the inheritance is directed to pass to the ascending and collateral kindred of the intestate, if part of such collaterals be of the whole blood to the intestate, and other part of the half blood only, those of the half blood shall inherit only half so much as those of the whole blood.

I am not suggesting that property, rather than race, is systematically tied to blood (even race was never fully so), only that the blood of kinship is determining of both race and property as inheritance. And when considering the endurance, the further importance of blood in economic thought, what Hobbes referred to as the “sanguification” of the body politic, Marx as the vampirism of capitalism, and which Henry Giroux recently described as “the shameless blood lust of contemporary captains of industry,” blood would have to be recognized in its extensive, familial and domestic, social and national, and indeed, economic, dimensions. To which one would of course have to add the current sedimentations of the slogan “No Blood for Oil.”

So blood in America was never exclusively about race. Nor has it been a mere instance of an alleged universal. Humankind, in the Bible or elsewhere, was never made “of one blood” (unless one reworked the old Latin or followed equally overdetermined, but faulty, translations). Blood is rather the mark and marker of a specific conception, and projection, of law and kinship (Abraham Lincoln put it best when he said “Let every man remember that to violate the law is to trample on the blood of his father”). It is the mark and marker of a particular regime of economy and medicine (the expansion and proliferation of which might come to constitute a problem). In the medical field in particular, from sickle cell anemia to the invention of the terminology—and modus operandi—of “blood banks,” shipping these ahead of the bombs too, the investment in blood, Douglas Starr rightly points out, has long been about “medicine and commerce,” and about much more. The emphasis on race science therefore does a dual disservice to our understanding when it turns our attention away from the considerable role blood played in American society at large, preventing as well a recognition of “the enormously powerful symbolic role of blood in American culture and politics,” as Susan Lederer has it. One can therefore speak, with Keith Wailoo, of “the rise of an independent hematological sensibility” in the United States. One can speak, finally, of the “hematological style in American politics.”

Consider Samuel Sewall who, in 1700, understood the presence of Africans on the continent as constituting “in our Body Politick . . . a kind of extravasat Blood.” Or John Adams, again, who, commenting on the British constitution, wrote that “a political constitution is like ‘the constitution of the human body’; ‘certain contextures of the nerves, fibres, and muscles, or certain qualities of the blood and juices’ some of which ‘may properly be called stamina vitae, or essentials and fundamentals of the constitution; parts without which life itself cannot be preserved a moment.’” James Madison, for his part, reminded his listeners of “the kindred blood which flows in the veins of American citizens, the mingled blood which they have shed in defense of their sacred rights, consecrate their union, and excite horror at the idea of their becoming aliens, rivals, enemies.” There were a couple of relevant Roosevelts, and then there was Ronald Reagan, who buttressed a widespread regime of “hemophobia,” as Michael Davidson calls it. And after September 11, Catherine Waldby and Robert Mitchell tell us, “the excessive desire to give blood was perhaps driven by a sense that the body politic was itself wounded in the attacks.” Barack Obama made clear, in his inaugural address, that he continues to hold up the bloody torch: “Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man—a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience sake.”

I submit therefore the following formulation toward an understanding of the American spirit, of American spirituality through its generations.

Blood is spirit. Blood is the American spirit.

This statement could easily have been misunderstood as a contrived reduction of American history, of American religion. Does it not seem to summon race first and foremost, one of America’s more embarrassing, yet ephemeral and marginal, facets? One might retort with some reason that race is hardly so negligible, or obsolete, yet that case would be misguided, or at the very least difficult to advance, by having recourse to an argument on the spirituality of race in America. But what if race was derivative instead, a moment or component in a larger spiritual movement? What if that movement and its history were carried by blood, by a Great Awakening, and quickening of blood? What if blood defined a more expansive history of America, of spirituality in America? What if America was possessed by blood?

But blood is a metaphor, is it not? It cannot—more precisely, it should not—be read literally in most of the instances I have recalled. The domains of its operations are not to be over-interpreted, as if one could find bits of flesh and drops of blood in the law or in the economy. Besides, blood is a universal! I have begged to differ on a number of counts here, locating these very claims, along with other moments and practices, in a larger, American hematology. I will now content myself with the following remark: the possibility of reading blood spiritually, the insistence on its metaphoricity, rather than on a literality to be exposed and interrogated—in reading the Old Testament, for instance—is precisely what the formulation I offer here seeks to make explicit. The very possibility of distinguishing between a “literal” blood and a (notably massive) series of metaphorical displacements is constitutive of our hematological condition. No blood could be extricated from the determinations America has construed, elaborated and deployed. To the extent that blood continues to be seen as a metaphor that would have been (wrongly) literalized in race discourse and practice, to the extent that blood continues to be unreflectively seen as if it were distinctly spiritual or physiological, it maintains its covert hold on us. In the United States of America, at any rate, all blood is spirit, and all spirit is blood. Literally.