Timothy Mitchell’s Rule of Experts examines the technopolitics of modernity in Egypt from roughly 1892 when the British invaded to the late 20th century. It does so through a series of themes — social calculation, agency, abstraction, violence, law, capitalism, and expertise — imbricated in a number of modernizing endeavors by various social scientist actors — anthropologists, development agents, and, especially, economists. At the heart of Mitchell’s analysis is the question of whether various late modern social scientific and social theoretic constructs, most notably “the economy”, are simply new names for old things or novel “social constructions”. Also central to his analysis is a challenge to the particularity-generality causal relationship of inductive reasoning. Even though Mitchell writes an introduction that seems to perform in ways we typically expect introductions to perform in relation to the case studies found in the body of the text, Mitchell subverts this genre convention by telling the reader up front that his introduction “abstracts from these particulars [found in the chapters] in ways that are misleading and perhaps at times opaque.” The generalizations we typically draw from the specifics of an historical analysis, for Mitchell, apparently cannot be induced from the particularities. The introduction is “no substitute” for the chapters themselves.
Rule of Experts is, in its own words, a work of political theory. But it also makes several timely contributions to historical theory and method. For much of this book, Mitchell questions a “logic of history” predicated on the inevitably universalizing force of reason — the technical control that it acquired over natural and social affairs. Mitchell’s logic of history is, presumably, different. One historiographic contribution he makes, especially to the histories of science and technology, is to question the foundational assumptions of social constructivist approaches to history. If I am understanding him correctly, Mitchell believes that social constructivism, in insisting on the culturally-contingent nature of everything social (including science and technology), leaves untouched and “untroubled” everything else, that is, the “real, the natural, the nonhuman.” In so doing, social constructivism surrenders that ground to the “systematizing forms of social science” and hands over to those forms of social science “a territory and a logic that they would never so easily have been able to establish.” In the course of establishing the cultural contingency of social activities, the non-systematizing social sciences admitted the existence of certain universalizing processes (modernity, capitalism, globalization) undergirded by certain forces (natural, material, technological, and economic), legitimating the logics of those forces. This is a critique of social constructivism that I have not heard before and I need to spend more time talking and thinking about, for its implications are serious. I will say now, though, that many social constructivist historians of science and technology seem fully aware of these forces, their logics, and the contested intellectual terrain they operate in, and work hard (perhaps because of Mitchell, perhaps not) to, as Mitchell likewise aims to do in this book, contest “that territory and that logic”.
Another historiographic contribution Mitchell makes of particular value to my research is the inclusion of nonhuman actors as agentive forces in historical narratives. This is not new to me, environmental historiography is awash with nonhuman agentive forces and actors (but, again, perhaps thanks to Mitchell). In his first chapter Mitchell tells the story of Egypt’s simultaneous invasion by the German army during WWII and of anophales gambiae-carried malaria. This story and the death toll it depicts only make narrative sense in light of the complex multifarious interactions between the Nile, the Aswan Dam, the hydrographical changes it caused in the Egyptian landscape, the peculiar reproductive dynamics of plasmodium falciparum, and the Japanese takeover of Dutch Indonesia and its embargo on supplies of cinchona-derived quinine. The attribution of agentive qualities to nonhuman actors has enormous power to undermine universalizing master narratives about the logics of capitalism and colonialism by challenging the anthropocentric “Reason” purported to exercise mastery over nature and people that gives motive force to the universality of capitalism and colonialism. The ontological decentering of our species by removing its monopoly on agency is as important as the geographic decentering of the metropole in postcolonial thought.
Another of Mitchell’s historiographic contributions pertinent to my research addresses the hierarchical relationship between science and technology. Take the following excerpt for example:
Still, it might be argued, science one by one solved the problems it encountered. Many of them were overcome, it is true, but then one would have to acknowledge that science did not direct the engineer’s work as a preformed intelligence. The projects themselves formed the science. . . . The British engineers returned to London after each season of construction in Aswan to present papers at meetings . . .. The expertise was hybrid, not an exterior intelligence applied to the world, but another artifactual body. If one adds to this Willcock’s view that the older system of basin irrigation was more sophisticated than the barrage and reservoir that replaced it, the conclusion that follows is that in some ways, rather than applying knowledge to the world, the engineering work took it away. British engineers were taught things by the dam and carried this knowledge into scientific journals and irrigation manuals, but the farmers and local irrigation experts who had managed and maintained the earlier hydraulic system had much of their knowledge taken from them.
Mitchell here undermines the diminutive role of technology as “applied science” and indeed even questions the ability of science and technology to be conceived of as separate at all. Engineering is not directed by the “preformed intelligence” of science. Instead, science and technology are co-constructed in an iterative interplay. A dam is designed and construction on it is begun with the knowledge acquired from previous dam-building projects. When this knowledge inevitably fails to be perfectly portable to its new temporal, spatial, topographic, geologic, and social context, alterations are made to the knowledge of dam building on the ground in the act of constructing that specific dam, that are then taken back to the sites of dam design and packaged into the knowledge of dam building for future dams. In a colonial or interventionist context in which there exist power dynamics between the dam designers, dam constructors, and dam “recipients”, this iterative interplay between technology and science, knowledge and praxis, thing and idea acquires a dimension of epistemic colonialism. The knowledge taken from the particular implementation of a real dam and given to the general construct of dam-ness is a knowledge taken from one group of people by another. In Western cosmology, with our ontologies of immateriality, conceptions of intellectual property, and immutable mobiles we conceive of knowledge as infinitely reproducible and transferable, as incapable of being lost, only translated and recontextualized. In short, our epistemic coloniality purports to operate under a law of “conservation of knowledge.” In reality, a dam built on the upper Nile or an agricultural regime instituted in Mexico supplant preexisting systems of hydraulic engineering, irrigation, fertilization, and genetic stewardship in which local knowledge is stored, developed, tested, and transmitted. Those who farmed in concert with Nile floods do not suddenly forget the flood-based agricultural regime they used before, but once the Nile no longer floods, they do not maintain or transmit this knowledge, it is rendered obsolete, and shortly disappears.
Yet another historiographic contribution Mitchell makes is to prefigure Jasanoff and Kim’s sociotechnical imaginaries. In his chapter “Heritage and Violence”, Mitchell sets out to describe Egypt’s cultivation of a self-conscious singular national identity. Paradoxically, in order to cultivate this identity of a new modern nation state, Egypt invoked its ancient pharaonic history. Mitchell described this political cultivation of national identity as “nation as pedagogy”.
In the nation as pedagogy, the emergence of the national community is understood as the history of a self that comes to awareness, or of a people that begins to imagine its peoplehood. History is written to describe the growing self-awareness or imagination of a collective subject. This imagination takes the form of a gradual revealing of the collective subject to itself, a revelation shaped by those powers of communication, reason, and consciousness that define our understanding of an emergent self.
Mitchell’s “imagination of a collective subject” comes to closely resemble Jasanoff’s sociotechnical imaginaries, but with an interesting twist. Jasonoffian imaginaries are prospective, that is, in the case of sociotechnical imaginaries, the imaginary serves to unite the society behind a future technological goal or achievement which will simultaneously help to make or remake that society or nation. I see Mitchell’s process of national identity formation as a retrospective imaginary, generated by the production and distribution of histories used to amalgamate disparate social groups into a singular self-conscious social entity.
There are, of course, twenty other things I could discuss about Mitchell’s book. Every chapter is laced with sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit historiographic and political theoretic interventions. I will say, though, that as I parsed through the messy, human-nonhuman-material-immaterial-thing-idea- contingent reality of 20th century Egypt and its experts, every intervention Mitchell made felt earned.
- 3 – By admitting the existence of a universal process (modernity, capitalism, globalization) and of forces that, when all is said and done, underlie it (the forces of nature, the material, the technological, the economic), these ways of thinking again and again handed over to the systematizing forms of social science a territory and a logic they would never so easily have been able to establish. It is that territory and that logic that this book contests.
- 7 – “This book examines the making of the economy and broader questions about politics and expertise, in a postcolonial context. In common with other uses of the term, the word ‘postcolonial’ in my title does not refer to the period after the end of colonialism (an end it might be difficult to locate). It refers to forms of critical practice that address the significance of colonialism in the formation and practice of social theory. Colonialism, from this perspective, was not incidental to the development of the modern West, nor to the emergence there of new forms of technical expertise, including the modern social sciences.
- 8 – The book as a whole examines a wider set of issues concerned, to express them too abstractly, with problems of social calculation, agency, abstraction, violence, law, capitalism, and expertise. By writing about these abstract issues in a particular place, I also locate them in particular episodes, projects, conflicts, and transformations. This is a book of political theory, but it sets forth a kind of theory that, for reasons that will become clearer, avoids the method of abstraction from the particular that usually characterizes a work of theory. The theory lies in the complexity of the cases. This introduction abstracts from these particulars in ways that are misleading and perhaps at times opaque. It therefore offers no substitute for what lies in the chapters themselves.
- 8-9 – The first theme to which I want to draw attention is the question of ‘the character of calculability.’ . . . The economy, I have already suggested, can be understood as a set of practices that puts in place a new politics of calculation. The practices that form the economy operate, in part, to establish equivalences, contain circulations, identify social actors or agents, make quantities and performances measurable, and designate relations of control and command.
- 10 – The question of calculation is related to a second theme I want to identify, that of human agency. In the social sciences, the ability to calculate often defines the existence and power of human beings as social agents. In economics and in parts of other disciplines, social explanation is organized around the question of the calculations made among individuals, presenting particular arrangements or events as the outcome a sequences of interacting computations.
- 13-14 – Nationalism and violence lead back to the question I raised at the start about the logic of history. Throughout the book I am concerned with the question of how one can relate what happens in a particular place to what we call the global forces of modernity, of science and technology, and of the expansion of capitalism. Chapter 1, for example, examines a series of seemingly global forces — technology, science, imperial power, and capitalism — and asks how one might understand the working of these different forces in a way that avoids lending to any one of them a logic, energy, and coherence it did not have. In particular, I consider how one might write about capitalism or the economic without attributing to them an internal rationality, an element of samess, or an inherent power that is then given the credit for what happened.
- What all is meant by “the logic of history”? What might an aspiring historian take away from this about how to “relate what happens in a particular place to what we call the global forces of modernity, of science and technology, and of the expansion of capitalism.”?
- 15 – A final theme is the one from which the book takes its title. In each of the chapters that follow, we encounter modern forms of expertise. We meet the engineers who built the Aswan Dam, the administrators who defined the law of property, the scientists and public hygienists who attack epidemic disease, the surveyors who made the Great Map, the political scientists who diagnosed rural politics, the experts who confirmed the irrationality and violence of the peasant, and a series of development practitioners and economists who devised programs of financial aid and economic restructuring. From the opening of the twentieth century to its close, the politics of national development and economic growth was a politics of techno-science, which claimed to bring the expertise of modern engineering, technology, and social science to improve the defects of nature, to transform peasant agriculture, to repair the ills of society, and to fix the economy.
- Three questions run through my examination of modern techno-politics. First, how do the binarisms fixed in place in modern politics open up the distance that requires and enables this expertise . . .? In each case, the place and the claims of expertise are constituted in the separation that seems to open up, opposing nature to technology, reality to its representation, objects to their value, and the economy to the science of economics. Second, if those separations, as the book argues, are not what they seem, if they occur not as fundamental oppositions but as uncertain forms of difference constituted, and at the same time undermined, in the political process, how is the expertise actually formed? What can we learn from its difficult and divided genealogy? Third, if these separations allow reason to rule, and all history to be organized as the unfolding of a locationless logic, how does expertise attach itself to this logic? What strategies, structures, and silences transform the expert into a spokesperson for what appear as the forces of development, the rules of law, the progress of modernity, or the rationality of capitalism?
- 28 – There are two characteristics of social explanation relevant to this problem. First, social theory typically operates by relating particular cases to a larger pattern or process. Events in a place like Egypt are explained as the local occurrence of something more general, or an exception to what generally occurs, or a particular variation in the general range of possibilities. In some of the social sciences this aim is quite explicit, expressed in rules of method and styles of writing. In others it is implicit but still at work, for example in historical scholarship, in which the narrative may focus on a specific context but draws its structure and relevance from an implied comparison with other, more general cases. Inevitably the generic case in such accounts is the history of Europe of the West, and the particulars of what happened outside Europe are explained as replicas of Europe’s history, or variations from that historical pattern, or alternatives to it.
- 29 – The second feature of social explanation follows from the first: all the actors are human. The protagonists of the history of the nation, of modernity, of capitalism, are people. Human beings are the agents around whose actions and intentions the story is written. This is necessarily the case, for it is the intentionality or rationality of human agents that gives the explanation its logic and enables particular cases to fit as instances of something general. The general or universal aspect of events that social theory attempts to identify occurs precisely as the spread of this human reason, technical knowledge, or collective consciousness. By contrast, although the river Nile is transnational, and anopheles mosquitos are quite global, their generality is not the same as that of capitalism, the idea of the nation, or modern science. The Nile is not considered an abstraction, nor is the mosquito experienced as an expression of the universal.
- It is not that social analysis necessarily ignores disease, agriculture, chemicals, or technology, but that these are externals — nature, tools, obstacles, resources — whose role is essentially passive. Even on the occasions when they are given a more independent force, there is still a fundamental divide between human agency and the nonhuman elements.
- 34 – But why insist on all these additional agencies, circulations, and forces? Surely the task of social science [read: history], like all science, is to simplify, to identify a limited number of more decisive agents. Why not accept a simpler but more powerful story, one that can depict the big picture and even identify certain patterns or predictions? There is an old answer to this question: that if the world is a complicated and indeterminate place, with many agencies and forces at work, then an accurate picture of that world will be a complex and indeterminate one. But the answer I want to propose here has to do with the role of expertise and reason, explanation and simplification, in the politics of the twentieth century. Politics itself was working to simplify the world, attempting to gain for itself the powers of expertise by resolving it into simple forces and oppositions.
- 37 – Still, it might be argued, science one by one solved the problems it encountered. Many of them were overcome, it is true, but then one would have to acknowledge that science did not direct the engineer’s work as a preformed intelligence. The projects themselves formed the science. . . . The British engineers returned to London after each season of construction in Aswan to present papers at meetings . . .. The expertise was hybrid, not an exterior intelligence applied to the world, but another artifactual body. If one adds to this Willcock’s view that the older system of basin irrigation was more sophisticated than the barrage and reservoir that replaced it, the conclusion that follows is that in some ways, rather than applying knowledge to the world, the engineering work took it away. British engineers were taught things by the dam and carried this knowledge into scientific journals and irrigation manuals, but the farmers and local irrigation experts who had managed and maintained the earlier hydraulic system had much of their knowledge taken from them.
- How do we apply this to Green Rev and post-Green Rev Mexico?
- 38 – The aim of those involved in the disputes, one might say, was to ‘personify’ the forces of nature in politics, that is, to translate their potential into human projects. As with ‘Abbud’s later attempt to personify certain circulations of capital, chemical fertilizer, and electricity, the forces put to work, although portrayed as nature or material resources and therefore subject to human expertise and planning, never quite accepted this secondary role. There were always certain effects that went beyond the calculations, certain forces that exceed human intention. Scientific expertise and national politics were produced out of this tension.
- So we might say of this chapter that the problematic is that social theory situates the locus of agency in human actors and marginalizes the historical-constitutive force of nonhumans. One narrative solution to this problematic is to render in text, as protagonists, certain human actors as personifications of nonhuman agencies/forces/circulations.
- 42-43 – Techno-politics is always a technical body, an alloy that must emerge from a process of manufacture whose ingredients are both human and nonhuman, both intentional and not, and in which the intentional or the human is always somewhat overrun by the unintended. But it is a particular form of manufacturing, a certain way of organizing the amalgam of human and nonhuman, things and ideas, so that the human, the intellectual, the realm of intentions and ideas seems to come first and to control and organize the nonhuman.
- 52 – Expertise, however, did not confront such resistance externally, after it was already complete, nor did the power of capital. Plans, intentions, scientific expertise, techno-power, and surplus value were created in combination with these other forces or elements. . . . What is called nature or the material world moves, like the plasmodium, in and out of human forms, or occurs as arrangements, like the river Nile, that are social as well as natural, technical as well as material. The world out of which techno-politics emerged was an unresolved and prior combination of reason, force, imagination, and resources. Ideas and technology did not precede this mixture as pure forms of thought brought to bear upon the messy world of reality. They emerged from the mixture and were manufactured in the process themselves.
- 83 – This chapter explores these questions in early twentieth-century Egypt. Examining what happened in Egypt will enable us to introduce the issue of colonialism into the history of economics. It is important to appreciate to what extent the realization of the economy belongs to the history of colonialism. The economy appeared in the context of the collapse of an imperial order. World-encircling arrangements of investment, management, production, information, and trade based on the political control of colonial resources gave way to arrangements based on ostensibly national economies. The economy was constructed by definition and default as a national rather than imperial space. The nation, and the national economy in particular, provided the format of what could appear as a postimperial political topography.
- 98-99 – IF the system of landed property brings into being a topographical space that defines the extension of economic process, the cadastral survey translates this int oa paper landscape, cotton production generates a simplified measure of the production and circulation of commodities, and the building of the metropolis provides a material expression of the intensity and expansion of exchange relations, paper currency plays another part in the formatting of social processes as an economy. The new money forms a system of circulation, one that somehow occurs both as the movement of wealth and its representation.
- 117 – Our world is made up of technical bodies, hybrids that are neither wholly objects nor ideas, more than just things but not disembodied spirits . . ., not properly divisible into nature and culture, or reality and representation. The clerks in the survey office converted theodolite and chain readings from the field into distances to be drawn on the map. Their computational labor was divided up and correlated to form ‘an almost mechanical system,’ something close to a piece of machinery. A calculating apparatus, made out of men, had the mechanical powers of a computer. Like all computers, it was a mixture of hardware and software. But at the same time, the new world of modern politics is organized to manufacture the effect that this difficult, unstable, temporary distinction between hard and soft, physical and mental, real and representational, is a permanent, fundamental, and ontological divide. The map presents itself as a mere representation, an idea or abstraction, set apart from the real, fixed, physical reality it depicts. It erases and hides the contested, political, representational nature of the world it portrays, in the same action with which it denies its own (shrinking) physicality. The mechanical organization of labor, them movement from the field to the office, the repeated accounts of the precision and accuracy of the work, all operate together to produce the effect of a bifurcated world. It is as such an effect that the economy is brought into being.
- This book as a challenge to social constructivism. The world as admixture of materiality and ideality
- 132 – Ahrout’s book had acquired its continued relevance and hence monopoly in the minds of Western scholars by its ahistorical method of explanation, in which the condition of rural Egypt is attributed not to political and economic forces of the day but to a timeless peasant mentality.
- The idea of peasant studies as ahistorical because peasantness is constructed as timeless and static
- 181 – One might suppose that the Lower Nile valley, compared to many other parts of the world, offered a well-defined geography and history within which to imagine a self-contained society. It should have been relatively easy to picture Egypt as a self-sufficient nation, to minimize the wider relations people may have had with other regions, and to give its particular mixture of communities a singular and self-contained past. The survival of monuments from more than five thousand years before, indeed the powerful image of what we call ‘ancient Egypt’ as the cradle of civilization, would seem to offer modern Egyptian nationalism a neat and uncontroversial way to lay together supericumbent images of people, place, and past.
- Mexico underwent a similar process in the course of nation-state formation, imbricated with indigenismo, that resuscitated ancient Mexicanness, often in murals
- 183 – In the nation as pedagogy, the emergence of the national community is understood as the history of a self that comes to awareness, or of a people that begins to imagine its peoplehood. History is written to describe the growing self-awareness or imagination of a collective subject. This imagination takes the form of a gradual revealing of the collective subject to itself, a revelation shaped by those powers of communication, reason, and consciousness that define our understanding of an emergent self.
- Can this be connected to the concept of national imaginaries? From reading Jasanoff, imaginaries seem to primarily be prospective, that is, in the case of sociotechnical imaginaries, the imaginary serves to unite the society beyond a future technological goal or achievement. What about retrospective imaginaries, generated by the production and distribution of histories used to amalgamate disparate social groups into a singular self-conscious social entity, such as the nation?
- 192 – The preservation of the past required its destruction so that the past could be rebuilt. Likewise, the performing of the nation required that every one of its rural inhabitants be declared outside the nation, uncivilized and unhygienic, so that in rendering them civilized and clean, the nation could be made.