“Fin-de-siècle-radicalism and the politics of Friendship”

Affective Communities: Anti-colonial thought Leela Ghandi (2006), chapter5 : “God: Mysticism and Radicalism at the End of the Nineteenth Century”, pp: 115-141

Leela Ghandi’s Affective Communities is one of the many academic works that embody a new and more productive way of dealing with postcoloniality. Right in the introduction of her book, she has made it clear that what has impoverished the postcolonial academic project is “the putative non-West upon the putative West, through gesture of oppositionality, culturalism, nativism (and) fundamentalism” (1). The attempt of writing history from “below” has sometimes glossed over the enterprises of European people who were, right from the beginning, against the politics and ideologies of colonial imperialism in London. What about people, she asks, “who renounced the privileges of imperialism and elected affinity with the victims of their expansionist cultures (…) the nonplayers in the drama of imperialism” (1). What made this mindset possible, she argues, is the cosmopolitanism of 19th century London, a culture which subsequently contained “anti-imperialist and critics of imperialism.” Therefore, the central argument of Leela Ghandi’s book is to excavate the “long-forgotten nineteenth century metropolitan anti-imperialism”, an unciousness oblivion caused by the sometimes parochial perspective of postcolonial writers.

In order to comprehend the intellectual and philosophical standpoint of those metropolitan anti-imperialists, Leela Ghandi talks about “the ethical imperatives” of these enlightened people, “immune to the ubiquitous temptations of an empire (considered as a) factory for ‘making imperialist-minded citizens” (2, quoting Shneer). In fact, Leela Ghandi draws on Edward Said’s notion of “contrapunctuality”, “new alignments” that replace “the binary oppositions dear to nationalist and imperial enterprise”, alignments that undeniably “provoke and challenge the fundamentally static notion of identity that has been the core of cultural thought during the era of imperialism” (E. Said, Imperialism and Culture, xxviii, 36). Ghandi’s reliance of Edward Said refers to Omi K. Bhabha’s “interstiality”, hybridity and “mimicry”. In order to go beyond the “monochromatic landscape of imperial division” (6), Leela Ghandi challenges both emperial and anticolonial orthodoxy.

Chapter 5 of Affective Communities criticizes what I sometimes call the problematics of postcolonial thought which sometimes “disqualify the maturity and seriousness of some white anti-imperialists’ politics and their friendship with colonized people” (115), epitomized by the historical figures of Nivedita and Edward Carpenter in the Chapter. Paroma Roy, one of the parochial postcolonialists, “discredit(s)” the politics of European anti-imperialism when he considers their endeavor as “nostalgic spiritualism within Indian nationalism, favoring orthodoxy and revivalism over rationalism and reformism” (116).

In addition, Leela Ghandi puts forward a deconstructive analysis of Emmanuel Kant’s philosophy of the “empirical” and the “metaphysical”. She argues against Kant’s insistence upon the idea of “human autonomy” with Metaphysics enabling him to transcend any social relationality. In sustaining this idea, Leela argues, Kant sees in “hybridity” something not productive. In contrast, Ghandi considers “hybridity” as discloser of Kantian philosophy, claiming hybridity as “the basis for a more humane and humanizing ethics” (117). Instead of a metaphysical detachment of man with his society, Leela Ghandi proposes, throughout this chapter, “an empirical-metaphysical politics of hybridity” (118). there must be something pure and sincere in metropolitan anti-imperialism, a true sentiment that triggered their politics of friendship with colonial India, the “inexplicable spiritual-affective pull towards Indians” she  writes (120).

Western philosophy has been nurtured, since the Enlightenment, by the separation of religion and State, when the divorce between Reason and Dogma took place during the 18th century onwards. In the case of colonial India, however, Leela Ghandi does not want to apply such dichotomy or dualism; she sustains the idea of the “admixture of theism and ethics”, a sort of spiritualist revolution that eventually led those metropolitan anti-imperialists to India.

What I found interesting in Ghandi’s book is her wiping out  of the many limits of Kantian philosophy which sustained that Reason intervenes to liberate “moral agents” from “the empirical contaminants”. For that to be possible, Kant argues, humans beings must stand aloof from “the contingencies of our humannes and sustain strict independence from the domain of ‘lurk’ which circumcribes our desires and inclinations at any given moment”; in a sense, to be free from the “heterogeneity of consciousness and the “distractions” of human social experiences” (126). Leela Ghandi obviously disagrees with such an argument in that Kantian philosophy refers to what she calls “the mongrelization of subjectivity” which springs from “the perils of relationality” be it vertical (transcendental) or horizontal (existential).

Kantian philosophy has received harsh criticisms in postcolonial and cultural studies, specially in the writings of Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy, in their interventions about heterodox social movements in Britain. The human body is no longer set aside from other bodies, but is in perpetual contingency which triggers as Gilroy has put it, “a nexus of rich interpersonal relationships” (128). The problematics of Kantian philosophy lies in its “extraction  of worship and metaphysics from the realm of social justice.” The “impassivity of Kantian rationality”, Ghandi says, has to be replaced or overcome by the compatibility of religious faith and social justice” what she calls “the empirical-metaphysical politics of hybridity”, when the role of the metaphysics consists in “producing or enabling empirically meaningful types of hybridity” (131). Human experience has to be prioritized over a rational and would-be autonomous body and spirit. Relying on William James’ radical pluralism, Leela Ghandi insists upon “the ontological and epistemological primacy of (human) experience” which might echo Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialism. And she argues that James’ philosophical credo lies in the beleif that Kant and Hegel’s “allergy to pluralism, contradiction and experience have impoverished Western thought” (132). Instead of that allergy, Leela Ghandi valorizes “the all-inclusiveness of conjunctural relationality, what William James has called “the horrizontal demands of conjunctive relationality in a pluralistic world (…) an obligation to coexist with irreducible difference that few are equipped to handle” (133).

However, Leela Ghandi warns against the dangers of empirical relationality in which some moral agents (may be more economically powerful) might take over other, thus deepening hierarchies. In today unstable identity formation and unsecure worlds, relationality may be considered as mere utopia,  with warring identities and vacillating connections ceaselessly dividing the world. “How then” Ghandi asks, “might we submit to the psychic hazards of the nonimpirical relationality (in the kantian sense) upon our ethical capacity as experiential beings is predicated? How can you “trust yourself and trust other agents enough to take the risk?

About Babacar

I am a graduate student at the Bowling Green State University (Ohio) in American Culture Studies program for a two year Master degree. Am studying the theories of race, multiculturalism and feminism and their intersectionality in the formation of Identity in the racial and postracial America.
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One Response to “Fin-de-siècle-radicalism and the politics of Friendship”

  1. Good post, looking forward to reading more of your posts.

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