Timothy Mitchell is a political theorist and historian. His areas of research include the place of colonialism in the making of modernity, the material and technical politics of the Middle East, and the role of economics and other forms of expert knowledge in the government of collective life. Mitchell is the author of numerous books and articles, including Colonising Egypt, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity and Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. He is currently working on a new project provisionally entitled Durability: A History of the Future, 1869-1912.
Primary Materials: Next year will mark the thirtieth anniversary of your landmark study Colonising Egypt, which examined the role of Western representational practices in the Egyptian colonial encounter. Could tell us a bit about the genesis of the book? What were you reading at the time of writing? Who most strongly influenced you?
TM: Well, that's a shock to know that it's 30 years! You must be right, and it's nice to have an anniversary, I suppose….
One of the books I read went more into shaping the dissertation that I wrote before, and that partly influenced the book; it was The Cheese and the Worms by the Italian historian Carlo Ginsburg. Ginzburg’s work had nothing to do with the subject of my book, but his mode of writing history just appealed to me enormously.
In terms of theoretical influences, I think it was a coming together of four different elements. One of the first was the work of Pierre Bourdieu and his Outline of a Theory of Practice. I don't know if that went directly into the book, except that I do draw on some of his material in the second chapter of the Colonizing Egypt—and a lot of reviewers weren't too happy about that! The second influence was Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, which came out at around the same time in English. Foucault was very influential for me in wanting to think about how to study modern forms of power without resorting in any simple way to a concept of ‘the state’, but also to think about the relationship between power and knowledge in new kinds of ways. Said’s Orientalism came out, again around the same time. Said’s work was influential, though it was coming from somebody working in the field of literature and cultural studies, which was not where I wanted to locate my own work. In fact, I wanted to do something totally different around questions of representation and the construction of the agrarian. Lastly, there was the work of Derrida. I wasn't really reading Derrida at the time of writing the dissertation, but it became influential as I transformed that dissertation into a book. I think that reading Derrida gave me some key ideas with which to think through the questions of representation in ways that I don't think I got from any of those other sources. It was really a coming together of those four intellectual influences.
It was crucial that all of these books were appearing more or less at the same moment. I was doing my work at the time in the context of a Near Eastern studies program at Princeton that had some very interesting individuals in it, but that was also home to a much more traditional kind of Middle Eastern studies—people who were aghast at the publication of Orientalism and things of that sort, and who did not read post-structural or continental theory. So I was working against some of the intellectual environment that I was shaped by. I was also in the department of political science, where there were some very interesting political theorists, but not people working on the non-western world in interesting and innovative ways that made sense to me.
PM: In Colonising Egypt you deal with questions of representation and how they relate to the colonial project. You take up some of these themes of your first book again in Rule of Experts, emphasizing even more strongly the inseparability of the material world from the world of ideas. Has your work on representation has informed your ideas on materiality? Does thinking about representability somehow change the way in which one can think about materiality?
TM: Absolutely! I think I was in denial at that time, but lately I have been realizing that I have just been making the same argument in some ways all the way through, although obviously with a different set of emphases. A common theme has always been to think about representation in terms of a material world. There’s always a two-part-argument here, and I think this is what has remained the same. It’s both a question concerning the inseparability of ‘representation’ from forms of the ‘material’, but also –and at the same time– an attempt to understand how we came to believe in the fundamental nature of that distinction, and its taken-for-granted quality.
So, there always have to be two parts to the argument. First, unpacking a system of representation and showing the particular way it is built up out of certain sets of devices and material practices, and ways of arranging and organizing the world. Therefore, one doesn’t have the separation one thinks one has between realms of “representation” and the “reality” to which they refer. But then, trying to understand how is it nevertheless that we think that the world is divided in two. Actually, my dissertation was called “As If The World Were Divided In Two.” It was a quotation from one of my sources, and that “as if” is always important. It is both trying to undermine, or ask questions about the significance of the separation and yet showing how we live in a world that is constantly organized as if there were those two separate domains that stand apart as sort of ontologically different orders of being.
PM: In Carbon Democracy you explain how carbon extraction and democratic politics are intricately tied together, noting a weakening of modes of democratic protest with the advent of the more fluid flows of oil energy. What was the trajectory that brought you from the more traditional narrative of the emergence of democratic forms to this new direction, more informed by the materiality of resources?
TM: In part, I think that book came out of the experience of the decade before it was published, in the years of the Iraq war and a renewed concern with the politics of oil in the Middle East. I sensed there was a special problem to be explained about democracy. So, I thought what if we think more directly about oil and its flows, its materiality? And what if we do that by thinking of it in relation to the history of coal, the earlier form of carbon energy? I was also becoming interested in broader questions of ecology and environmental history for thinking about the threats of climate change, climate collapse, and so on. And so, approaching the history of oil politics by thinking about carbon, its history, and its flows just seemed to make sense for those broader concerns and contemporary politics. I realized that one could make a different argument about coal and democracy. There was always a general argument that coal was the basis of the Industrial Revolution and that the Industrial Revolution led to large scale industry and urbanization. You had populations collected together that could make political demands. Looking more closely at coal and its movement—trying to think about how it is different from the way oil was produced and moved and shipped—you realize that there was this point of vulnerability with coal that was a special part of the history of this popular ability to disrupt energy flows.
PM: In contrast to this material vulnerability of coal, you argue that political, economic and social relations are engineered out of the flows of oil. How has this fluid and incalculable nature of oil shaped your mode of writing your book and your thinking about the economy?
TM: In terms of shaping my writing, it’s the other way around. To help me with my thinking, I don't start out with a clear sense of what the argument, the topic, or even the question is when I'm writing. I just get interested in taking things apart, wanting to know how they were put together and how they might be put together differently. So, I'd say it's that approach that led me to think about the properties of oil. It made a difference that it was fluid as opposed to the more solid and bulky nature of coal. You could construct a different history of how energy could be interrupted or not interrupted, how coal’s materiality could be the basis of forms of democratic protest or demand.
You also ask how that shaped my thinking about the economy. I've been thinking about economists and the economy for a long time and the subject keeps coming back into many topics I write and think about. One of the things that shaped that concern was that I found myself teaching in a political science department, from when I got my first job in mid 1980’s, in a period when many political scientists were adopting the methods and approaches of economics. I had started studying the history of development in the Egypt work, but I became interested in thinking about the economy and the making of the economy as an objective politics.
Around the same time, I had started reading work in science and technology studies (STS) and in particular the work of the Paris school of Bruno Latour and Michel Callon. This was the moment in which Callon himself was starting to write extensively about the question of “the economic” and developed a new sociology of markets. I invited him to NYU for a brief visit and then for a longer stay and we got to know each other’s work quite well. So that was informative, as was subsequently getting to know Latour. Callon in particular gave me a new set of tools for thinking about economic forms of expertise that were enormously helpful.
So, I don't know that my interest in economics reflected something about fluidity in general. I think I managed to get two histories together in a book about oil and democracy and to also make that a story of the invention of the economy. But that was because those were the two things that I was interested in and so the thinking about two shaped one another.
PM: Given the purchase carbon’s materialities gave you in writing a new kind of history of democracy, can you speak a bit more generally about the study of materiality? What do you think its future holds? Why do these questions matter now?
TM: Part of what attracted me to the material turn was this interest in breaking the hold of economics and forms of political theory that have been shaped by economics on the study of contemporary conditions. The other social sciences had a tendency to be equally anti-material and to want to reduce everything to the human and to reduce the human to merely the interaction of intentions or ideas or forms of social networks. So it seems to me that we’ve only just begun to touch the surface of rethinking these worlds.
I think it is also a question of the status of the disciplines and the fact that the scholarly world is so much structured by a set of disciplines that came into being somewhere about a century ago. You can trace them earlier, but they get certified as organizational units in the early decades of the 20th century, a world already divided up into these abstractions of “the economy,” “society,” and “culture.” So part of the work that needs to be done is continuing to think around the limits of those disciplines. The work that needs to be done is about thinking how we could escape from the limits imposed by disciplinarity. I am not against methods and I think one of the things one sees and feels with fields like STS and the history of science is the development of rigorous methods that exist as inter-disciplinary fields.
The other thing I'd note is a problem I have with some of the ways in which the notion of the material turn or materiality is discussed. There is a widespread sense that we are living in a kind of dematerialized world, a world of social media and the internet, a world of increasingly ephemeral, ethereal forms of production, engagement, and interaction. The sense is that this is somehow characteristic of our contemporary situation: a world that is financialized and that somehow has levels of the fabricated or the fictional that seem the very opposite of the material; a movement from an age of material production and material forms of industrial wealth to a world dominated by finance and by things that seem somehow to exist representationally. One of the kinds of work we need to do is precisely not to take those distinctions for granted. I am interested in how distinctions between the fictional and the real, the ephemeral and durable are produced.
To illustrate that with the example of the age of the computer and the Internet: in the work of Carbon Democracy, I became interested in energy transitions, revolutions from water and wood and animals to coal; from coal to oil; electricity and so on. I find it useful to think of the age of computer and the Internet among other things as an energy revolution. You know the silicon chip is an energy device; it's a way of storing electrical charges and using that storage of electrical charges to make possible much more rapid rates of calculation, memory, and so on. Thinking about that as a very material process is one example of the ways in which the dematerialization of life is actually built completely out of the reorganization of new forms of energy, its storage, its manipulation, its efficiency and so on—just like the earlier, apparently more material transformations of the age of coal to the era of oil.