Timothy Mitchell – Rule of Experts

26 August, 2021 - examPrep

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.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *