Article: The Affinity for Affinity, Or How to Read the Petite Lexicon

by Roger Farr

10th October 2018


Black Mountain poet Robert Creeley famously wrote that “form is never more than an extension of content”. Similarly, the “content” or subject of Daniel Colson’s A Brief Philosophical Lexicon of Anarchism from Proudhon to Deleuze (2019) can be understood by examining its form, which proceeds by way of affinities between a set of terms that when taken together and indexed arbitrarily – and non-hierarchically – by the alphabet, bring into view something resembling anarchy. At the same time, the lexicon also draws upon the affinity its readers may feel for certain words. As he explains in his preface, when reading this book “all are invited to choose the entries that best suit them, perhaps because they feel a particular and intuitive affinity with such-and-such a word or such-and-such an idea” (20). I too have a strong affinity for Affinity, so I want to pause on his definition of this word.

Colson’s initial definition of affinity is “a concept from ancient chemistry recovered in modern times by Goethe and Max Weber to theorize human relations, which plays an essential role in the representations and practices of the libertarian movement” (25). Here the logic and syntax of the formal definition imposes itself on Colson’s method and intent, and in fact contradicts his usage of the word elsewhere. The problem lies in the class used to categorize the term: affinity for Colson is in fact not a sociological “concept”, but an embodied experience, “relation” and “practice” between various entities (people). He makes this distinction clearer and subverts his opening definition when he writes that affinity is “a direct bond between beings [which] refuses any instrumentalization or logical deduction” (96). In this case affinity, as in alchemy and chemistry, is classified as a “bond”, which is much closer to Colson’s use of the term in the rest of the book. Once freed from its reification as an analytical concept, affinity in Colson’s lexicon becomes the very fabric of anarchist and libertarian politics: “affinity defines the experimental and subjective way in which libertarian forces are linked to one another” (39).

Michael Löwy notes that the idea of affinity-as-bond first finds expression in the Hippocratic thesis that “like draws to like”. The idea flourishes in the alchemical and chemical discourses of the 15th to 18th centuries, where it designates the ways in which various elements and metals combine. Affinity is that force of attraction responsible for discrete particles coming together and taking new forms as singular homogenous bodies. The idea that affinity is a force capable of transforming bodies and material phenomena gains traction in literature and in social and political thought of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, most notably in romantic, utopian and libertarian tendencies.

Colson discusses the German tradition but largely neglects the French. In Germany, affinity – which always had a strong metaphorical or perhaps metaphysical tenor to it – was used by Goethe in Elective Affinities (1809) to examine the machinations of the love lives of aristocrats. This early romance novel demonstrates how static, institutionalized systems of law and custom (in particular monogamy and marriage) are at odds with passions and desires as they combine in real life. Goethe moves his character-elements in and out of rooms and situations, describes the subsequent reactions, watches the attraction and repulsion between bodies, and records the social effects of unpredictable affective relations in a prose that moves freely between literary and scientific discourses. A century later, the social register of affinity was developed by Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, where it “unites socio-cultural, economic, and/or religious structures without forming a new substance or significantly modifying the initial components – even though the interaction has the effect of reinforcing the characteristic logic of each structure” (28).

In France, the work of Fourier and É. Armand was instrumental in developing the political, and specifically anarchist-libertarian, capacities of the term. Affinity – or “passionate attraction” – for Fourier was nothing less than an unacknowledged natural law (theorized at once as both external “calculus” and internal “drive”) on par with Newton’s theory of gravity, operating in the social world. Affinity/attraction was “the order of universal movement and the social movement of the human inhabitants”. In accordance with the alchemical tradition, the development and realization of a “synthesis” of the passions was the secret “code” that would result in “social harmony” (84-85).

It is a significant fact that the theory of affinity is most robust in the individualist strains of anarchism that extend from Stirner. Significant but perhaps not surprising if we pause to consider the fact that love is a major concern in the concluding chapters of Stirner’s The Unique and its Property. Thus, it is in the work of the French individualist É. Armand that affinity finds some its most radical and most nuanced articulations. Armand, following Fourier, regarded affinity as both a social principle and a vital drive (eros). Contra Freud, eros and sexual attraction for Armand are inherently sociable forces that lead individuals out of themselves and towards other people. Liberty was therefore the practice of exercising one’s facilities of pleasure, with other compatible bodies. The basis of anarchist projects, for Armand, should be “amorous comradeship”, a type of erotic pact between comrades who have both a political and erotic affinity for one another, who come into association to increase each other’s capacity for pleasure, and seek to reduce the suffering caused by “exclusive” monogamous relationships and the family – social forms based on possession and the blood tie rather than attraction, reciprocity, and intimacy.

This last term – intimacy – is one of the most important correlatives to affinity in the Lexicon. The others are analogy, appetites, friends-of-our-friends, repugnance, repulsion, secrecy/transparency, and temperament. There are “first order affinities” (my expression) between these terms, and second-order affinities between other words like alliance, common notions, direct democracy, focal point, institution, mediation, organization, series, selection, and totality. Given the importance of affinity to Colson’s method and subject, one way into the lexicon is to follow such affinities between cognates. However as he notes “the paths that constitute this lexicon are … manifold”.



Colson, Daniel, A Brief Philosophical Lexicon of Anarchism from Proudhon to Deleuze, (Colchester: Minor Compositions, 2019)

Fourier, Charles, The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier. Selected Texts on Work, Love, and Passionate Attraction, trans. and eds Jonathan Beecher and Richard Bienvenu (London: Jonathan Cape, 1972)

Löwy, Michael, Redemption and Utopia: Jewish Libertarian Thought in Central Europe: A Study in Elective Affnity, trans. Hope Heaney (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992)

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