This book has been translated by Madarat Research and Publishing
Extending deconstructive theory to historical and political analysis, Timothy Mitchell examines the peculiarity of Western conceptions of order and truth through a re-reading of Europe’s colonial encounter with nineteenth-century Egypt.
In Colonising Egypt, Timothy Mitchell sets out to delineate the development of a colonial order in Egypt that sought to construct “a political subject who must learn that reality is simply that which is capable of representation”. Arguing that this process entailed the imposition of a new order onto a society that existed in a different mindset, the author highlights the ways in which these transformations were engendered, as well as their philosophical background. Relying heavily on the theories of cultural historians such as Michel Foucault, this work can be daunting at times, yet a careful reading can help illuminate the radical physical and intellectual transformations undertaken by Egypt’s colonial forces.
The first of the book’s six chapters introduces the work through the idea of the exhibition and draws parallels with the theories in Edward Said’s Orientalism. In Said’s work, the “Orient” was first constructed by scholars who used fragments of texts and anecdotal evidence to piece a particular image of a monolithic “inferior East” that stood in opposition to a “superior West”. For Mitchell, by the turn of the 20th century, European cultures were fixated on the notion of representing cultures through literal exhibitions, which was their primary method of conceptualizing the “other”. Cultures had to be packaged in easily digestible and viewable forms that could be observed simply and from which concrete meanings or “truths” could be extracted. In Said’s chronicle, when Europeans arrived to colonize the East, they discovered that its reality was nothing like what the scholars had claimed. Since they were unable to conceive of the “Orient” in any other way, and since the region was not allowed to have its own voice, they therefore declared the contemporary age “corrupt” and set about “restoring” the East. In Mitchell’s account, Europeans were unable or unwilling to accept that Egypt was not a place easily amenable to being understood through an “exhibition model”, and that its realities and culture were more complex and nuanced than anything that could ever be “represented”. They attempted, therefore, to reorder, discipline, and “enframe” society in a way that was comprehensible to them. For the Europeans, the world itself was conceived as an exhibition and reality had to be transformed in a way that could produce representations.
In chapter two, Mitchell outlines his theory of “enframing”, which he defines as “a method of dividing up space and containing […] which operates by conjuring up a neutral surface or volume called ‘space’.” The essence of this process entailed a reorganization of cities as if they were barracks and the instilling of a sense of “order” to a “space” conceived previously as chaotic. The “natural” way of things was, through this transformation, reconceptualised as systematic, with “the meticulous elaboration of task, surveillance, and penalty” utilized to ensure that everyone’s place was fixed and that this new “order” was maintained. This new framework of organization came to be referred to as “modernisation”, as a way to attach teleology to this cultural colonization, and the author contrasts this to the older, Arab version of the city that was capable of efficient operation without the use of a framework. Mitchell’s next chapter focuses in on the idea of “discipline” and how it was instituted through new educational infrastructure that focused on the industriousness of the pupil in order to fuel capitalist ends. Unlike the concepts of exhibition and enframing, discipline sought to make itself less visible so that the operative nature of its power dynamics grew as obfuscated as possible. As in the last chapter, the author compares this new system to the efficiency of the “disordered” traditional system and elucidates the ways in which it functioned outside of a disciplinary model.
The fourth chapter examines the ways in which the colonials’ bodies and minds were divided and then conquered. The body was first supervised through new registration processes, then policed to align it with emerging capitalist production, and finally molded and controlled through new “sciences” of hygiene and medicine. Theories on the mind, meanwhile, took an ethnographic turn, with the malfeasant “character” of the Egyptian becoming a prime concern. Indolence developed as a recurring theme, with industriousness emerging as the primary cure. New definitions of the city, meanwhile, led to the creation of the “crowd” and the problem of “social order”, the lack of which was in large part a consequence of the Egyptian’s failed character. The remedy for all of this, naturally, was education, which would mold society into the form of a well-oiled machine. This metaphor becomes the central focus of chapter five, which contrasts the mechanical nature of language and writing in the European context against that of the Arab one. Language for the Europeans became perceived as communication rather than an organism. He then makes several observations about Arabic, which, oversimplified, boil down to the idea that its words and forms exist only in relation to one another and that “[w]riting was not the mechanical representation of the author’s meaning”. This led to local skepticism about the printing press, since it detached the author’s presence and power from their text and offered too much potential for (mis)interpretation.
Mitchell’s final chapter serves as a conclusion and recapitulation of his major points, and is only marginally less opaque than the remainder of his work. The first word that would come to most people’s mind about this book is “dense”, and it is far from accessible to anyone without the proper historical and theoretical background, since the author expends only limited effort in providing the reader with explanations and context. Nonetheless, Colonising Egypt is a rich, if brief, work that delves into the heart of colonialism and explores it, in the vein of Edward Said, as a cultural and intellectual endeavor as much as a political or economic one. While scholars of Egypt in general may garner varying degrees of usefulness from this book, students of postcolonialism will almost certainly appreciate its value.
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