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20 Years Since 'Rule of Experts': Current Paths in the Study of Technopolitics

Session I-09, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, December 1 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
Since its publication in 2002, Timothy Mitchell’s Rule of Experts has undoubtedly been one of the most influential works to come out of Middle East studies. Through a series of essays, the book challenged the universalist claims of social theory by critically examining several concepts animating twentieth century politics: expertise, property, agency, development and, of course, ‘the economy’. Its theoretical insights have shaped a generation of scholars critically engaging with colonial modernity and capitalism in various geographic regions. Within Middle East studies, the book has inspired several subfields to emerge in the last twenty years, especially STS, environmental history and critical political economy. This panel brings together early career scholars who have all drawn on Rule of Experts in their own work. It does so by focusing on the concept of ‘technopolitics’, referring to the mode of politics that works to simplify the world into a bifurcated one, opposing universal human reason to an inert, material, objective reality. Rather than taking this binary for granted, and assuming expertise arrives as a preformed set of knowledge to control the nonhuman, Mitchell deploys actor-network theory (ANT) to argue that expertise is an artefact of processes that mix human and non-human actors. Such hybridity must be concealed to produce the effect of an ontological separation that underpins expertise, but it also makes this effect inherently unstable. Expertise can always be ‘overrun by the unintended’ on the ground. Considering that expertise must be studied through the site-specific circumstances of its production, the papers in this panel all engage with the concept of technopolitics in various historical contexts across the MENA region. As such, the purpose of the panel is not simply to apply the arguments found in Rule of Experts, but to open a discussion about the polymorphous nature of technopolitics across time and space, entailing several questions. What are its genealogies, even before its crystallisation in the twentieth century? How is the artifactual effect of expertise produced and undermined through particular forms of human and non-human agency, for example infrastructures, environmental forces, material properties, bodily practices? How are certain disciplines (e.g. engineering) and spaces (e.g. technological zones) produced as apparent domains of universal reason – of the mind, rather than the body – despite their hybrid origins, and what kinds of violence are necessary for such effects? How can political economy be linked to ANT in answering such questions?
  • Iran’s nationalisation of oil in 1951 is popularly championed as an important episode of anti-colonialism in the Middle East. Expelling the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company half a century after the infamous D’Arcy concession, conventional narratives have argued it heralded an era when governments across the region (and Global South, more generally) increasingly wrested control of natural resources from foreign corporations and states. But how does our understanding of this event change when it is examined through the lens of technopolitics? Drawing on archival sources from Iran, the UK and US, in addition to Persian-language newspapers, oral histories and memoirs, this paper reassesses Iranian oil nationalisation by showing how it reproduced the expertise of the very oil company it expelled. It does so by highlighting how technopolitics functioned primarily by concealing certain forms of human agency in oil operations. By focusing on everyday practices in the Abadan refinery, it argues that oil expertise was produced and made unstable through processes that combined human and non-human agencies, including manual workers drawing on their embodied knowledge. The presence of labour made the company’s expertise continuously unstable, requiring various disciplinary practices that aimed to create docile workers, but which also produced subjectivities that unsettled management’s exclusive claim to expertise. The effect of expertise as exclusively a domain of disembodied, universal reason depended on disavowing and erasing manual labour, including attending forms of bodily violence. I show how this effect was then translated into the political discourse of the oil nationalisation movement through various interlocutors – especially visiting journalists – who drew attention to the colonial nature of the company at the same time they praised its technical installations. I follow these discourses as they shaped the implementation of oil nationalisation, such that the Iranian government sought to maintain the universal principles of ‘oil expertise’, marginalising oil workers as political, non-expert actors. My paper concludes that the diminished capacity of labour in the oil industry cannot be taken for granted, but rather should be seen as an effect of active work on the ground.
  • My paper investigates “durability” as a central but little-explored concept in the history of technical expertise and capitalist development in nineteenth and early twentieth century Egypt. It examines durability as a normative techno-fiscal paradigm through which civil engineers and financiers spoke a common language of accounting and surplus maximisation. Through this analysis of durability, my paper aims to answer two questions. First, is it possible to think of capitalist development without essentialising the productivity thesis? Second, are there forms of economic extraction not oriented toward the goal of increasing productivity? Standard accounts of capitalist development generally concur that surplus accrues from a systematic organisation of productive forces and recruitment of advanced technologies. Other accounts focus on the institutions of capitalism, primarily joint-stock companies as the archetype of this organisation. I interrogate these accounts at the level of technique, allowing for an alternative history of capitalist development to emerge. Financiers normatively demanded that engineers use their technical knowledge to produce durable infrastructures which guaranteed an uninterrupted flow of capital and minimum maintenance costs. Yet, my paper shows that engineers and colonial officials manipulated this paradigm in Egypt, where foreign joint-stock companies were denied ownership of the railroad. British colonial officials collaborated with civil engineers to maximise surplus not by employing durable tracks, but by deliberately using inferior materials which called for British firms to step in to deploy their expertise to repair and reconstruct them. I then link this paradigmatic manipulation to the pivotal moment of 1876, when Egypt plunged into a debt crisis leading to its financial takeover by the European Debt Commission and eventual occupation by Britain in 1882. I argue that the formation of the Debt Commission as a preliminary political institution for the foreign management of the Egyptian treasury was precipitated by paradigmatic manipulations of standard technical and economic practices adopted in Britain. In short, I investigate how various relationships to future surplus were construed in places where foreign political power was involved but joint-stock companies did not operate. I also examine how colonial political institutions emerged from the deliberate manipulation of technical practices and non-standard implementation of technical expertise.
  • This paper is a history of how agrarian communities in Lebanon enrolled international development researchers and their technologies into fulfilling these communities’ immediate needs. It argues and that these enrollments comprised a dismissal of the technological and temporal imaginary animating midcentury international development, and that this represents a strategy for how communities can eke out benefit from aborted, failed, or exploitative development interventions. In 1950, engineers from the United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) began a four-year research mission to prepare a development plan for Lebanon’s Litani River basin. Their report would form the basis of the Litani project. Animating the USBR mission were the technopolitical ideas about technology and temporality fundamental to the postwar “development era.” They believed US engineers would transfer large technological systems to backwards countries, and technology transfer would provoke—or constitute—modernization. Communities in the Litani basin did not share these ideas. They were extremely skeptical that this research program would actually lead to real works. They had slim interest in prospective technology that may or may not be built sometime in the future. Nor were they concerned with the broader field of expertise the USBR researchers imagined themselves to represent. But they did recognize that the USBR researchers represented an opportunity to materially benefit their lives. They insisted that the USBR use their skills and the tangible technology that had physically travelled to the basin—the USBR’s state-of-the-art drilling rig—to dig wells in their water-poor region. Lebanese and Euro-American planners, both in the 1950s and today, lament this kind of near-term pragmatism as a mercenary failure to understand big-picture state planning. But this paper shows that these communities’ skepticism was a pragmatic negotiation with the reality that, in the 1950s and today, most development schemes do not actually take place. Within the development finance industry, huge amounts of money and resources go into research for projects that never materialize. Litani basin communities provide lessons in how those subject to development and enrolled in technopolitical imaginaries can win benefits from that cycle of otherwise wasted research labor and funding.
  • In November 1854, Egypt’s viceroy issued a firman (decree) granting Ferdinand De Lesseps the exclusive right to form a universal company to construct the Suez Canal. A year later, an “international scientific commission” was formed to assess the “practicability and utility” of constructing the projected canal. The commission’s report was first published in January 1857. In addition to ascertaining the project’s feasibility, it determined the canal’s best route, its optimal dimensions, the best means of excavation, the projected costs, and identified the measures necessary to ensure the project’s profitability. In its immediate aftermath, the viceroy issued both a second, more elaborate firman, elaborating on the rights and obligations stipulated by the first, and a memorandum confirming his government’s commitment to provide the company with the workforce necessary for the project execution. My paper investigates the workings of this commission, and the report it produced. It addresses three main themes. First is the emergence of engineering and finance as criteria for settling the disputes around the canal’s practicability, utility, and route. In the months preceding the establishment of the commission, opposition to the constructing the canal, and to establishing the company, came from the British government, the Société d'études de l'isthme de Suez, and the Ottoman Porte. The reasons they offered for opposing the project were concerns over the French control over Egypt, the British monopoly over the Cape of Good Hope, the project’s possible contribution to Egyptian autonomy, its implications on the interests of British merchants in Alexandria, and the dispute over project ownership. Towards the end of 1855, however, both the British government and the Société expressed their opposition to the project in scientific terms, questioning its practicability, utility and choice of route. I scrutinize this year long negotiation which resulted in the rise of science as a universally accepted language for determining the project’s fate. Second, I study the labors of the commission which resulted in the publication of its report. I focus on the ‘framing’ of questions, which led to discarding the indirect route (proposed by the Société). Finally, I trace the implications of the report on the different parties involved in the project. Among other things, the report provided the ‘scientific’ justification for the conscription of Egyptian laborers to excavate the desert; laid the grounds for establishing the company in France; and offered an outline for the company’s finances.