Egypt: Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity
Vitalis, Robert, The Middle East Journal
Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity, by Timothy Mitchell. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA and London, UK: University of California Press, 1990. xiii + 303 pages. Notes to p. 380. Sel. bibl. to p. 401. Index to p. 413. $49.95 cloth; $14.95 paper.
Rule of Experts is the most significant collection of essays by a single author to be produced in contemporary Middle East social science in a generation. There is no one writing today in the field more important than Mitchell. As was the case with his first book, Colonizing Egypt, this new one is apt to be the one book on Egypt that will be widely read and cited by scholars across area studies fields, disciplines, and places, from Paris to Delhi.1 Why will it? Because Mitchell uses his studies of Egypt to challenge us all to think harder, deeper, and more politically than we might want to about what we do when we do social science. It is "a book of political theory," he says, "but it sets forth a kind of theory that...avoids the method of abstraction from the particular that usually characterizes a work of theory. The theory lies in the complexity of the cases" (p. 8). Good, a reader of The Middle East Journal might think. Abstract academic theorizing seems increasingly divorced from "real world" concerns. Yet Mitchell's carefully crafted essays on Egyptian agriculture, irrigation, peasant studies, and development reform are aimed at uncovering the shaky foundations of this very object, the so-called real world.
Taking off on the arguments and method first used in Colonizing Egypt, Mitchell shows Egypt's and by extension colonialism's centrality to the new, emerging disciplines of the social sciences. Each of these disciplines, in its own way, insists that an unseen logic underpins "social life" or the "historical process" akin to that unseen world to which we gain entry when we open the pages of a biology or physics text. Mitchell argues that the practices that become what we call the social sciences (from map-making, calculating, counting, and enumerating to econometrics), together with the putative founding fathers of fields like economics (men such as John Stuart Mill, Thomas Malthus, and John Maynard Keynes) are bound up with nineteenth and twentieth century colonialism in direct ways.
Yet, the genealogical connection has been forgotten, as the social sciences have come to fix our understanding of "the logic of the market" or of "modernity" or other names given to "large patterns of social and political change" that supposedly "move" outwards from "the West. …