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.[Record]

  • Tanya Agathocleous

…more information

  • Tanya Agathocleous
    Yale University

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 …