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  • Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought, Fin-de-Siècle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship
  • Jonathan Harris
Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought, Fin-de-Siècle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship. Leela Gandhi . Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.

Leela Gandhi's Affective Communities is an engaging journey to the fringes of late Victorian imperial society where the reader discovers an eclectic mix of radical, socialist, and antiimperial politics. Gandhi primarily seeks to provide an alternative history of antiimperialism. Whereas postcolonial studies typically define antiimperialism as a set of actions performed by the colonized against the colonizers (the "putative" East against the "putative" West), Gandhi investigates the antiimperialism of several metropolitan, mainly British characters (1). According to Gandhi, these characters forsook the privileges of imperial domination to critique both imperialism and the tradition of Enlightenment thought that appeared to legitimize it, developing affinity with the oppressed in the process. In doing so, Gandhi's characters display a capacity for personal hybridity and radical alterity that she places at the center of a proposed politics alternatively called anti-communitarian communitarianism, immature politics, or the politics of friendship.

Curious to understand why E. M. Forster should hope "to have the guts to betray [his] country" rather than his friend" (10),1 and why other metropolitans shared his sentiments, Gandhi presents four case studies covering homosexual activism, vegetarianism, mysticism, and aestheticism in the late Victorian era. In each case, Gandhi shows her characters struggling to defend their lifestyles against the binary classifications that they, and she, see as endemic to Western theory and politics. These "binarisms," distinguishing mainly between "mature" and "immature," push the protagonists' various interweaving commitments outside of the bounds of "mature" Western society, thereby throwing the protagonists into the same category as the colonized, whose "immaturity" legitimated the civilizing impulse of the imperial project.

The protagonists ultimately defend themselves by asserting the superiority of Indian civilization. Homosexual and vegetarian mystic Edward Carpenter, for example, criticizes the male/female dualism in Western society, which renders the homosexual a deficient being and, sustained by a meat-based diet, becomes a disease leading to imperialism and racism (58). The cure required [End Page 183] embrace of "intermediate types" (i.e., homosexuals), who were more readily accepted in Indian and ancient civilizations, and who were capable of forming utopic communities that defied the logic of the social and sexual contract.

Thus, writes Gandhi, the "savage" and the "invert" were natural allies against binary thinking and its imperial product (59). We see Carpenter's "cure" at work in the figure of Mahatma Gandhi, a loose friend to Carpenter and others of Carpenter's milieu such as vegetarian Henry Salt, whose political persona seems to have included a form of "bisexual radicalism" (63–64).

Gandhi wants to embrace the "messiness" of politics, defined by hybridity and alterity, against the conceptual tidiness of Kantian and Aristotelian appeals to self-identity or corporate unity. Gandhi's characters estrange themselves from Western civilization to enter the great unknown of "a world without taxonomy," risking the "psychic derangement" (p) that occurs upon dislocating the self, something that the aforementioned tidiness intended to prevent. In this way, Gandhi's theme is reminiscient of Bonnie Honig's argument against the "displacement of politics" that occurs in both liberalism and communitarianism.2

In her most ambitious chapter, Gandhi quarrels with both streams to defend the political nature by noting the intersection of mysticism and antiimperial politics, exemplified in the figure of Mirra Alfassa, the French-born spiritual partner of Indian nationalist Sri Aurobindo and "Mother" of the latter's eponymous ashram. Gandhi blames Kant for pushing religion, "dogmatic" religion, outside of the realm of political in what she calls an argument against "hybridity." The Kantian subject must be free from metaphysical and empirical contaminants in order to be considered a self-identical rational subject. Here, Gandhi turns to Derrida who, in his "Faith and Knowledge," turns Kant's preferred rational "reflective" religion into a simple capitulation to the same and familiar, making it incapable of developing any moral capacity. The "dogmatic" faith that Kant refuses for its risky attempt to gain knowledge of an unknowable God is essential to Derrida, who argues...