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Report on Leela Gandhi's Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought and the Politics of Friendship

Page history last edited by Alston 10 years, 5 months ago

Research Report: On Leela Gandhi's Affective Communities


By Alston D'Silva, Affective Networks in Ensemble Character Dramas Team


Gandhi, Leela. Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought and the Politics of Friendship. Delhi: Permanent Black, 2006.



Leela Gandhi’s Affective Communities is an examination of the politics of friendship as a vector that ruptures and bridges typical modes of associations, insisting that “affective gestures… refuse alignment along secure axes of filiation to seek expression outside, if not against, possessive communities of belong” (10). Gandhi is concerned here with charting the congruence of radical anti-imperial sentiment in Late Victorian England in individuals with their counterparts on the other side of the colonial encounter mounting similarly aligned cultural projects. Informed and inspired by postcolonial and subaltern scholarship that eschews binarism bourne out both by imperialist ideology and in its opposition, Gandhi locates and examines the radical potential of the intersubjective transgression of affective crossing-overs. Gandhi takes as her ensemble a cast of characters of “anti-colonial actors” who were “actively renouncing, refusing, and rejecting categorically… aggressive manicheanism [of  imperial culture]” (5). Those rejections are manifestly material in the strongly affective relations of xenophillia and solidarity that she brings to light, conveyed in the political exhortations of print and expressions of friendships and love between friends. In this partly investigative work, she excavates sometimes surprising relationships between diverse characters from radical anti-colonialist, aesthetes and dandies, theosophists and radical vegetarians, and homosexual and bisexual activists, all united albeit tenuously in a critique of imperialism.



While Gandhi takes up a particular historical period contextualized by an impulse of socialist-utopic thinking (i.e., fin-de-siècle radicalisms), she is attempting a broader ambitious philosophical argument. She directs that utopic thinking towards the aim of locating that “singularity” following Agamben that might reject the gravity or compulsion of identification or belonging to a state apparatus or other problematic political categories. In one sense, Gandhi is following the complication of scholarship that has seen the imperial metropole as a site for the production of complex, diverse, contradictory discourses, both imperial and its opposition—the kind of scholarship concerned with cosmopolitanism. Gandhi, then, is shaking up a homogenized conception of Europe by highlighting its own impulses of implicit self-critique. Continuing on the cosmopolitan reassessment, her treatment tracks actors that traffic fluidly into different spaces. Consequently, equally operative in her formulation are non-European subjects. We encounter the French-born Jewish Pondicherry-residing mystic Alfassa and her relationship with the radical spiritualist, Oxford-trained Aurobindo Ghosh, an affective dyad that is exemplary of the productive boundary poaching of Gandhi’s pairing. The work closes to expand the potential for the reassembly of the social documented in these relationships to acts of radical solidarity in the contemporaneous political moment.


Leela Gandhi organizes her book into chapters that appear to engage with particular veins of Late Victorian socialist-utopian thought, matching that history with a theoretical commentary that substantiates the political subject she had identified. But in fact Gandhi’s sophisticated argument accumulates across the work, orchestrating various strains of political and theoretical devises to work in conjunction. For instance, Chapter 4, entitled Sex, focuses on the life of Edward Carpenter, the influential socialist and reformer, and trenchant critic of imperialism. Pursuing the axes of Carpeter’s homosexuality and his advocacy for ‘inversion,’ Gandhi persuasively places that difference as parceled within “the culturally complicated genetic structure of anticolonial thought” (35). Central to Carpeter’s critique of imperialism is the sexual category of Victorian gender politics. Homosexuality and inversion, adopting a surprising political productive Darwinian line of argument, are species-strategies that might afford European civilization escape routes from its imperial hypermasculine tendencies. The ‘primitive’ from the outside and the ‘invert’ from the inside bear the same critique to civilization. Gandhi does the work here of underscoring the categories of gender as the object of critique even homosexual desire in fact arises as an “exceptional” category of its own. For Gandhi through proxy via Carpenter, “any speaking of the name of homosexuality carried with it an obligation to refute, creatively, the elite prerequisites for civilized, intelligible sociality, and in so doing to posit a more all-encompassing alternative” (36). We can see clearly here Gandhi’s broader political project of imagining a community capable of affiliation by rejecting one’s own affiliations, even as she sets up theoretical framework to approach the friendships she examines in the chapters to come.


The chapter that follows, Meat, may seem like a subject removed from the ideas Gandhi introduced up to this point (though Carpenter himself was an animal rights advocate). But Gandhi compelling spells out the continuity of vegetarianism with contemporary socialist and Fabian thought. Moreover, she lays two striking anecdotes that evidence the kinds of alliances of friendship she argues for. She shares an otherwise unremarkable article by Mohandas Gandhi professing the kindness of British vegetarians to the Indian traveller that provides a point of departure for an excellent discussion of Derrida’s ideas on hospitality. She also shares a curious interview in a British vegetarian journal with Indian nationalist and British Member of Parliament Dadabhai Naroji, who after professing to in fact not be a vegetarian, is met with this encouraging response: “you are a very anti-British ruler and naturally enough pro-native… your views are sure to please my readers… you will meet with their approval in every sense of the word” (80). The fluidity and connectivity of these flows of persons, politics and ideas is something that clearly delights Gandhi. The penultimate chapter Art, which examines the figure of the dandy and wrestles aestheticism from the potential conservative grasp of a Kantian ethical framework, centers on Manmohan Ghosh who enjoyed the patronage of Oscar Wilde, and who is also the sibling of Aurobindo, whose radical politics and spiritual program is featured in the chapter on religion that precedes it. The affective and erotic politic established in the early half of the book winds through the examination of these spiritual and aesthetic movements of these later chapters, infused and bound up with the fin-de-siècle radicalisms of the time.


Gandhi’s book affords a theoretical framework for our examination of affective relationship in ensemble television dramas. “Communities of belonging” and the transgressions of contact are strongly implicated in a variety of texts we explore from alien encounters in the Star Trek: The Next Generation to the complex relationship between the survivors and “the others” in Lost. What Gandhi successfully accomplishes is the holding in suspension of both the activity of the category and its imminent dissolution via the contact of affiliation and affection. What finally excites me is the apparent optimism in Gandhi’s imaginable future where—avowals of teleological ambivalence aside—the organized struggle against imperialism dovetails with the spontaneous eruption of category-erasing solidarity, pregnant in every act of friendship.


Further Excursions on the Theme


Agamben, Giorgio. Means Without End: Notes On Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.


Haraway, Donna. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003.


Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.


Nandy, Ashis. The Intimate Enemy: Loss And Recovery of Self Under Colonialism. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1988.





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