:: Article

On Blood Writing

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By Hunter Dukes.

‘Whoever writes in blood and aphorisms
does not want to be read but to be learned by heart’
-Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

Perhaps the strangest object to surface after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq is known only as the Blood Quran. When I first heard its name, I pictured Dead Sea scrolls of carmine papyrus, quartered away in some limestone crypt. But while the words are ancient, the edition is new. Commissioned by the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on his 60th birthday, the book was printed in the blood of its patron. Over the course of two years (and twenty-something litres) master penman Abbas Shakir Joudi al-Baghdadi calligraphed 605 pages of sanguine verse. Now, kept under lock and key in a Baghdad mosque, the book presents a double bind. It has been ruled haram (forbidden) to copy the Quran in bodily fluids; it is also frowned upon to destroy a working copy of the sacred text. This exegetical uncertainty, the language’s messy entanglement with the actual life force of a former despot, and the surprisingly aesthetic quality of the object make it difficult to determine what should be done with the book of blood.

Knowingly or not, Hussein was acting in lineage with a number of religious precursors, real and imagined. The British Library holds a tenth-century copy of the Diamond Sutra, written in the blood of an ascetic octogenarian who pricked a finger when his nib ran dry. The Codex Gigas (or ‘Devil’s Bible’) might be the largest surviving medieval manuscript, but its red ink is rumored to have flowed through human veins before being set upon the page. H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, a fictitious grimoire that appears across his writing, was revised by horror director Sam Raimi into a work of anthropodermic bibliopegy—bound in skin, written in blood. His cult film, Army of Darkness, begins with the following voiceover:

I first saw the damn thing at that blasted cabin. The Necronomicon. An ancient Sumarrian text, bound in human flesh and inked in human blood. It contained bizarre burial rites, prophesies…and instruction for demon resurrection. It was never meant for the world of the living.

In the last year, blood writing has made a surprising resurgence in the visual and literary arts. It started in August, when Brooklyn-based sculptor and conceptual artist Ted Lawson interpreted the ‘self’ in self-portrait as both subject and material. Running an intravenous line from his arm to a robotic drawing machine, the artist munched biscuits while the pantograph stippled a pointillist portrait. Based on a scanned photograph, the finished product (Ghost in the Machine) depicts a nude Lawson, head cocked away from the viewer, face coarse and blurred. Set within a matrix of smaller dots, the artist looks like he was pressed against a life-sized pinscreen—perhaps even punctured. Where the blood pivots from ground to figure, these points swell to form his body’s contours, marking irregular, almost cell-like shapes. The painting is testament to the lossy compression of transmediation. DNA dapples the canvas, but you cannot see a face. Ekphrasis effaces identity. Beneath Lawson’s queasy aesthetics, we find a veiled Platonism: a copy of a copy of a copy (a drawing of a bitmap of a photograph) really does leave something behind.

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Even more curious than Lawson’s portrait is the unfortunately scored making-of video entitled Ghost in the Machine (blood robot selfie). Structured upon a series of dissolving jump-cuts, most of the video is nothing more than Lawson pacing about, trying to keep his bloodline clear of the tracking stylus. As the shots dissolve and reconstitute, so too the artist. All the while, the painting grows and grows. There is something parasitic about this depiction of man and machine. Inverting Wilde’s Dorian Gray, whose portrait absorbs the physical effects of its owner’s debauchery, Lawson’s painting feeds off his presence. Ephemerality equates to anaemia, as the artist literally fades away from blood loss. A particularly bizarre image from the event, featured in the coverage by Dezeen Magazine, seems to be a still taken from the video, but cannot be found in the final cut. It shows a sedentary Lawson, staring down at his mobile phone, while his bloodied representation gazes up from the paper— the monster looking back at father Frankenstein. The image is cross-lit: identical shadows appear on each side of the artist, meaning it was somewhat posed. Puzzling over this photograph, at once so candid and so staged, I began to imagine that Lawson was using his phone as a mirror. Or taking a ‘blood robot selfie’. What could be a better depiction of the ways in which we reproduce our selves across a slew of social mediums and media than a man gazing at a picture of himself, while his painted portrait looks upon the scene of digital absorption?

My contention is this: in a moment when the arts are further investing in the technological aspects of techne, and the word ‘humanities’ is continually concatenated to ‘the digital’, blood and blood writing offer a return to a bodily materialism. Don’t get me wrong—my eyes are not dewy for some fallen arts & letters Eden. One of the more schlocky arguments against the rise of e-readers is the claim that the Kindle and its compatriots have somehow stripped the text of a sensual necessity. Without the fermented smell of a Penguin’s lignin pages, or the egg salad stains on a Billy Collins poem, you are somehow only getting half of the experience. If reading leaves you enough peripheral awareness to float your senses in the mildewed effluvium of a cruddy book jacket, you might be doing it wrong. I like opening an edition of Jamaica Kincaid to find a passage labeled TRANSCENDENT in adolescent scrawl. But I also like being able to quickly know how often Samuel Beckett uses the word ‘bicycle’ in Molloy (61 times, or, an average of once every three pages). Sometimes I want to leaf through a reproduction of William Blake’s illuminated Book of Urizen; other times I want to carry his complete works in my jacket pocket. This has always seemed a worthwhile tradeoff.

If something is at risk of being lost with the continued turn towards the digital, it is a sense of finality or completeness that often accompanies a material object. In an era when controversial articles can be quietly retracted, and revising an edition is as simple as uploading a new file, works have a tendency to remain works in progress. When an uncalibrated monitor can fundamentally change the colour composition of a digital image, every viewing becomes an act of reviewing. This has led to an incredible culture of collaboration, and a much-needed destabilization of the belief in intellectual property and artistic intentionality. Coupled with this sense of incompleteness, however, comes a further distancing of the writer from the written, the artist from the artwork. If a text can be copied and pasted, it can also be co-opted. When every document threatens to become a shared Google Doc, it is difficult to know where creation ends and collaboration begins. These are old ideas—Walter Benjamin recognized the irreproducibility of an artwork’s aura in his 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’; Jean Baudrillard outlined how notions of authenticity and reality are contingent upon a cyclical network of simulacra and simulation (1981); Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault separately debunked the myth of a coherent Author intentionally communicating a specific message to her reader (1967 / 1969). What is new, however, is an emerging resistance to reproduction—a form of authorship inherently linking writer and written together through one of the oldest bonds. The blood pact.

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At the end of April 2015, a remarkable coincidence occurred in the world of magazine publishing: two separate periodicals printed issues in blood. Beirut-based Audio Kultur, a self-described ‘wholesome publication’, mixed the blood of five Lebanese-Armenians in with its ink. A symbolic gesture intended to raise awareness for the Armenian genocide centenary on 24 April, the magazine printed posters and editions with the slogan ‘Still Here, Still Bleeding’. They also released a video, intersplicing footage of venipuncture with blood donor interviews. Less than a week later, the Austrian Vangardist, ‘a progressive men’s magazine’, printed 2500 copies of its May issue with the blood of three HIV-positive donors. There is no fine print, the cover is nothing more than a white plane overlaid with red ink, reading: ‘This Magazine Has Been Printed With The Blood of HIV+ People’. As the title page explains, the virus quickly dies in dried blood (the ink was also cautiously pasteurized). Taking the magazine into your hands is an act equivalent to shaking the hand of an HIV-positive person— a decision to ‘take up the issue’, in both senses of the phrase.

While each of these magazines could be accused of pulling a PR stunt, the simultaneity reveals a deeper longing: the desire to rekindle the quasi-mystical relationship between the human body and a body of text. To write in blood is a final act, you cannot go back without reopening a vein. Once a blood-written text is birthed into the world, it has a life and afterlife uniquely its own, forever reflecting the material circumstances of its maker. Words written in the blood of Armenians will always bear their genetic signatures. It is impossible to hold a copy of Vangardist without confronting a physical manifestation of the virus itself. Unless the Blood Quran is incinerated, traces of Saddam Hussein will remain spliced with its inimitable language. And, given that the ideal half-life of DNA is 521 years (6.8 million until complete decomposition), chances are that a trace of Lawson’s actual body will last longer than his body of work.

The notion of seeking some form of immortality in artwork is not new either. Yeats put it beautifully, when he wrote of being gathered into the artifice of eternity. The genetic dimension of blood writing updates an old idea with new technology. At the extreme end of this practice, we find people like Canadian poet Christian Bök, who encodes his verse in DNA before injecting it into rapidly multiplying bacteria. Contemporary philosopher Michel Serres, a master of dredging up the contingencies between seemingly unrelated phenomena, has long been curious about the connection between signatory acts and bodily fluids. In his short and potent Malfeasance, Serres explores the ways in which humans appropriate through pollution, how signing a piece of writing is like spitting in a bowl of soup.

Whoever spits in the soup keeps it; no one will touch the salad or the cheese polluted in this way. To make something its own, the body knows how to leave some personal stain: sweat on a garment […] waste in space, aroma, perfume, or excrement, all of them rather hard things …but also my name, printed in black on this book cover, where my signature looks sweet and innocent, seemingly unrelated to those habits. And yet…

And yet. When Nietzsche wrote, in Thus Spake Zarathustra, ‘Write with blood, and you will experience that blood is spirit’, he was speaking in metaphor. But, as he spent a lifetime revealing, truth might be nothing more than metaphor reified. If Serres is onto something with his ludicrous connection between bodily excreta and signatures, then perhaps the recent interest in blood writing is the physical manifestation of a spiritual dearth. In a time when ‘authenticity’ feels dirty in the mouth, blood looks good on the page.

On 5 May, a few days after Audio Kultur and Vangardist released their ferrous issues, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake celebrated its 75th anniversary. One of the most memorable sections from Joyce’s almost impenetrable epic concerns a character called Shem the Penman. Described as an ‘evilsmeller’, Shem writes ‘up and down the four margins’ of his page with ‘rancid Shem stuff’. As a result, his house is a ‘stinksome inkenstink’, a place that stinks of his ink. In a passage written in Latin to obscure its vulgarity, Shem is described making this ink from his own faeces. An abject act in itself, what follows is even more so. Forgoing paper in order to write upon his own skin, Shem covers ‘every square inch of the only foolscap available, his own body, till by its corrosive sublimation one continuous present tense integument slowly unfolded all […] cyclewheeling history […] reflecting from his own individual person life unlivable’. Covered in ink-stink, Shem’s skin becomes a dirty record of all history—but, for the first time, history becomes his life, livable. Blood writing (or Shem writing, for that matter) is not a sustainable practice for many reasons, but perhaps it marks a change in course—the beginnings of a reclamatory materialism for the digital age.

Hunter Dukes is a writer based in Cambridge, England. His other works can be found here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, June 17th, 2015.