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  • Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought, Fin-de-Siecle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship
  • Parama Roy
Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought, Fin-de-Siecle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship. By Leela Gandhi. (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2006).

Ashis Nandy’s classic text, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism (1983), famously showcased a psychic and affective politics of colonial rule that was marked by its disparagement of androgyny, femininity, and childhood as offences against a rationalist, aggressive, adult masculinity that was the badge of civilisational fitness. Against such a horizon he juxtaposed a variety of Indian responses that refused the normative parameters of colonial ideology, privileging instead the epicene, non-adult, and non-modern values available in indigenous and non-dominant occidental models of thought and practice. We can think of Leela Gandhi’s new book as something of a companion text to Nandy’s notable (but by no means uncontested) analysis of colonial encounter and colonial engagement. Indeed, some of the same cast of characters -- C.F. Andrews, M.K. Gandhi, Oscar Wilde, George Orwell, Sri Aurobindo, Mirra Alfassa Richard--feature prominently in both works. Gandhi’s text showcases an array of imaginative Britons of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods who “renounced the privileges of imperialism and elected affinity with victims of their own expansionist cultures” (1), seeking to understand their complex affiliations through an investigation of the tropes and philosophical categories of friendship, hospitality, and decidedly minor, eccentric forms of cosmopolitanism.

For Gandhi, E.M. Forster’s famous observation in Two Cheers for Democracy, “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country,” is an exemplary instantiation of the ethical openness, risk-taking, and antiauthoritarianism that marked an earlier generation of British and Continental utopian socialist anarchist subcultures and movements (10, 30). Her focus on friendship as “the lost trope in anticolonial thought” (20) is a powerfully imaginative move, putting her at odds with some familiar strains of postcolonial and transnational analysis, which have, generally speaking, been skeptical of such affective and ideological possibilities. As a counter to the sometimes predictable diagramming of contact and encounter in postcolonial studies she proffers the category of utopian thought, and its historical instantiation in the 1878–1914 period in a variety of linked movements, cultures, and strains of thought, such as anarchism, vegetarianism, antivivisection campaigns, Theosophy and the turn to eastern spirituality, the affirmation of homosexual rights, and Wildean aestheticism. Insisting that we take their utopian conceptions seriously rather than dismissing them as they all too often have been as too “minor” or too “immature” to merit the name of anti-colonialism, she notes the ways in which they embody a generous “other-directedness” and a robust if sometimes unexpected critique of the cultures of colonialism and capitalism. What the radical subcultures that she highlights seek is an ethic of friendship that is xenophilic, non-patriotic, egalitarian, anarchist, non-violent, sexually nonconformist, and imaginative in its willingness to conceive of another world order. As such, Affective Communities seeks to enact both a “straightforward historical redressal” (2) and to imagine the radical ethical and political implications of friendship for refurbished postcolonial studies.

As an instance of historical recuperation of the marginal figures and recessive possibilities of fin-de-siecle culture, the book is decidedly uneven. Some of the historical actors who feature in the second half of the book—notably Mirra Richard, Sri Aurobindo, Manmohan Ghose, Lawrence Binyon, and Oscar Wilde—are too sketchily treated to bear the historical and, relatedly, the theoretical weight they are expected to carry. Gandhi seeks to revivify not just minor actors but also seemingly minor acts and gestures as part of a repertoire of ethically related and consequential possibilities. But, without a sustained elaboration of the relational grammar of such acts, they remain overly dependent on a sometimes careless associative logic, and largely impervious to mobilisation in aid of a larger theoretical argument. Gandhi is far more effective in her early chapters on Carpenter (“Sex”) and M.K. Gandhi (“Meat”). She is deeply persuasive and engagingly subtle in her examination of the anti...