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Leela Gandhi. Affective Communities: Anti-colonial Thought, Fin-de-Siècle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2006. ISBN: 0822337150. Price: US$21.95.

  • Tanya Agathocleous

…more information

  • Tanya Agathocleous
    Yale University

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Affective Communities is a consistently surprising book and, as such, an exhilarating and illuminating read. Gandhi sets out to uncover a series of “minor narratives of crosscultural collaboration between oppressors and oppressed” (6) and thereby to chart a history of anti-colonialism hitherto disregarded because of its location in the metropolitan center. How were the imperatives of empire refused, Gandhi asks, and how were alliances forged across the East-West binary? Bringing together an unlikely series of fellow travelers, from Oscar Wilde and Oxford undergraduate Manmohan Ghose to Jewish French mystic Mirra Alfassa and Indian yogi Sri Aurobindo, Gandhi details the historical congruities, affective bonds, and forms of marginalization that allowed individuals from starkly different geographical and cultural locations to make common cause against empire.

In uncovering the stories of these relatively minor historical agents, Gandhi also takes on, with deftness and surety, a daunting number of controversies and unresolved debates about ethics and politics within postcolonial studies, philosophy and critical theory. Exploring in some depth the legacy of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Foucault and Derrida, among others, she toggles back and forth between theoretical exegesis and historical anecdote to show how each illuminates the other in regard to the central question of what form a liberatory politics might take. One of the overarching goals of Gandhi’s project, then, is to point to the possibility of resistance at the heart of the empire and across its territories: a goal whose contemporary urgency she makes clear by elucidating the continuities between nineteenth-century empire and Hardt and Negri’s use of the word to describe global forms of power today. Another of her missions is to reclaim fin-de-siècle utopian socialism—and its myriad connections to anticolonial thought—from the dustbins of history to which, she argues, it had been ingloriously consigned by the beginning of the twentieth century. Critics ranging from Max Nordau to Engels and Lenin and, later, Orwell, dismissed utopian politics as “immature” and “infantile.” But it is precisely this immaturity, Gandhi contends, that makes utopianism politically potent. Unassimilable to the mechanisms of modern forms of power and teleological historical narratives, the immature politics that she celebrates “posit a radical inclusiveness” because of their “intransigence in the face of all structure, law, axiom, and generality” (183). Utopian thought—an embrace of impossibility and a refusal of the given—serves as a crucial antidote to the strictures and exclusions of what Gandhi calls, citing Foucault and Agamben, “governmentality.”

What was the nature of the fin-de-siècle utopianism and crosscultural exchange that Gandhi wishes to chart? And how to tell its story without entering into the structures, laws, axioms, and generalities of historical determinism that made it invisible in the first place? One way that she addresses both these questions is to organize her book around the confluence of certain friendships and various fin-de-siècle movements and identities, thereby positioning individual and collective narratives in uneasy but productive proximity. Focusing on homosexual exceptionalism, animal welfare movements, mysticism and radicalism, and late-Victorian aestheticism respectively, each chapter shows how various forms of outsider collectivity lent themselves to anti-colonial thought and generated affective bonds across diverse subject positions.

“Meat,” the chapter on animal welfare, is among the most eye-opening and fascinating of Gandhi’s studies. Delving into Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” to argue that “rich anticolonial possibilities accrue from ethically informed reassessments of human-animal sociality,” she traces the links between British vegetarian and animal welfare movements and the evolution of M. K. Gandhi’s revolutionary ideals, specifically those of ahimsa (non-violent passive resistance) and swaraj (self-rule). The chapter moves nimbly from the story of the young Gandhi’s lonely studies in London to the warm welcome and likemindedness he discovered in vegetarian circles and then sojourns into a history of Victorian animal welfare ideology to show how early animal rights rhetoric, heavily influenced by Jeremy Bentham and J. S. Mill, was in league with “the colonial imperatives of utilitarian philosophy” (94). Fin-de-siècle dissidents, Gandhi argues, positioned themselves against the paternalism endemic to the utilitarian agenda by coupling animal welfare to socialist and anticolonial aims. In doing so, they created a platform for an “enlightened model of anarchic, disobedient, and paradigmatically nongovernmental sociality” (97) entirely compatible with, and influential for, Gandhi’s evolving ideals of anti-colonial resistance and post-colonial community. By its end, the chapter is able to throw entirely new light on the fact that Gandhi described the partition of India as the vivisection of the continent, for its painstaking narrative convincingly demonstrates that “mature Gandhian politics owes at least part of its inheritance to the inchoate murmurings of a few radicals on the margins of late Victorian culture” (114).

Another notable section of the book is that on spiritualism; a chapter in which Gandhi’s approach to the topic brings a novel perspective to contemporary debates about the role of religion in modern political life. Identifying Kant as the origin of a modern secular ethics that denies “the moral subject access to all external influences: human, physical, and divine” (126), Gandhi argues for the ethical value of “the mongrelization of subjectivity” that some forms of religion entail (127). While many postcolonial writers and critics, such as Salman Rushdie, privilege the material conditions of modern life, rather than a metaphysical realm, as the basis for self-pluralization, Gandhi positions the openness to otherness evident in the rhetoric and practices of fin-de-siècle mystics as a salutary reminder of religion’s utopian potential. The connecting thread of the kinds of politics that she valorizes in each of her chapters is the willingness to risk not just exile (the condemnation of one’s political community) but self-exile (the possible transformation or loss of one’s identity in relation to the other). Spiritualism articulated just this kind of openness to indeterminate transformation, she argues, and it emerged at a time when it was able to wrest the concept of “multiple personality from abnormal psychology and deliver it to ethics” (137).

The section of the spiritualism chapter devoted to a historical friendship—that between the French Mirra Alfassa and the Bengali revolutionary Sri Aurobindo, who worked together on an ashram in Pondicherry and shared similar views on Indian nationalism—is disappointingly thin. As with many of the book’s historical anecdotes, the intrinsic interest of the crosscultural alliance that Gandhi has unearthed, its value as evidence for her arguments, and her impressive story-telling skills, combine to make one yearn for more thickness of description. But the chapter also showcases the book’s virtuosic interdisciplinarity. While the friendship is less central than it should be in order to do justice to the structure of the book, the chapter manages to connect its narrative to a rigorous critique of Kant, William James’s pragmatist philosophy, the experiments of the Oxbridge Society for Psychical Research, and to circle back to the complex politics of Edward Carpenter, whose homosexual ascetic activism Gandhi has already treated at some length in Chapter Three. Thus while the balance of theory and history in her chapters tends to tilt to the former, part of the value of Gandhi’s work in this book is her skill at intermeshing them so closely that they become productively indistinguishable.

A more significant shortcoming of Affective Communities, in my view, is its historical arbitrariness. At several points in the book, Gandhi argues that utopian socialism came to an end in 1892 because of its condemnation in the works of Nordau and Engels and the rise of scientific socialism. It was only resurrected again, she claims, with the spontaneous youth uprisings of 1968 and the anti-globalization protests in Seattle in 1999. Because she wishes to reclaim the “immaturity” of utopian socialism so as to argue for its vitality, newness, and unassimilability, her discontinuous and fragmented view of its history is important to her argument. Moreover, the synchronous view of political activism that she takes for most of the book allows her to effectively demonstrate the intricacy of the alliances, affective and otherwise, that knitted together so many oppositional identities at the fin de siècle. What is missing from the picture, however, is a sense of why these alliances failed so suddenly. By pointing forward to 1968 in her conclusion, Gandhi also begs the question of how the “affective communities” she traces across the fin de siècle prefigured modern transnational utopian solidarities, such as those documented, for instance, in Brent Hayes Edwards’ The Practice of Diaspora or Laura Doyle and Laura Winkiel’s collection, Geomodernisms: solidarities that could be just as easily cited as crucial to the radical irruptions of 1968 and 1999. In contesting historical determinism as rigidly as she does, Gandhi misses the opportunity to posit affective community across as well as along time.

This problem is only evident, however, because of Gandhi’s astonishing success at moving between contexts as diverse as Victorian intellectual history, Western philosophy, Indian nationalism and postcolonial theory to recreate communities that would not be visible without the benefit of her particular wealth of knowledge. The quality of insight made possible by the connections she forges generates more avenues for exploration than Gandhi can reasonably satisfy in the scope of the book, and this is the very measure of its importance. Affective Communities is the kind of book, like Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, that opens up a myriad of scholarly topics and imaginative possibilities, so that its absences seems less like shortcomings and more like acts of generosity to those who will be able to pick up where Gandhi leaves off.

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