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Chapter 5 The Machinery of Truth
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Chapter 5
The Machinery of Truth

The bombardment of Alexandria, we are told by an Englishman who witnessed from a ship at sea the event that had initiated the colonial occupation of Egypt,

commenced on Tuesday, July 11, 1882 at seven o'clock in the morning. From where the Tanjore was anchored we could see the whole thing quite clearly through our glasses. To a civilian who had never seen warfare the spectacle was magnificent.[1]

Within two days most of Alexandria was turned to rubble and ash. How far its destruction was due to the British bombardment and how far to the local inhabitants who responded by setting fire to European property was never determined. It scarcely seemed to matter that Britain caused such loss to the Europeans for whom it claimed to be acting in self-defence. 'The patience ... of the British public was exhausted', we are told, and 'something effectual' had to be done.[2] Following the bombardment the marines were sent ashore, accompanied by a new kind of armament invented in the 1860s, the Gatling machine gun. With the help of this rapid-fire weapon, after a week of street fighting they took possession of the town.

Machine guns then accompanied the British as they proceeded with their larger purpose, to overthrow the new nationalist government. Junior officers in the Egyptian army had assumed power a year before - promising, if not a revolution, at least an end to the absolute power of the Turkish elite and their European creditors, and to the crippling indebtedness of the peasants. They were defeated by the British forces within the space of eight weeks. In the final battle at Tell al-Kabir the new machine guns 'gave most effective support, firing with great judgment upon the enemy whenever exposed to them'.[3] The mechanical efficiency of the invasion was then turned into a demonstration of Britain's military power. 'On the 30th September a grand parade before the Khedive of all the [British] troops took place. The army had for the purpose gradually been concentrated on Cairo. It was no mere question of show and no mere holiday spectacle. It is hardly possible to imagine a sight more calculated to impress an Eastern population than the display of the various arms of the little force which had in so short a time disposed of the fate of Egypt.'[4] More than a mere spectacle, the dis-


play of arms demonstrated to an 'Eastern population' the effectiveness and authority of Britain's military occupation. The speed and efficiency epitomised in the new machine guns on show was made the mark of Britain's colonial authority.

Reading the official history of the invasion published by the War Office in London, one senses the remarkable self-certainty with which the British prepared and carried out the occupation. This self-certainty was made possible by the enormous resources of the British Empire, including its new weaponry. It was a certainty that seemed to be generated in particular out of the coordination of these resources, by the modern means of transport and communication. 'The following statement', says the official history in its own self-certain style, describing the days before the shelling of Alexandria, 'will give some idea of the questions that at this time had to be settled.'

Arrangements were made to provide tents, wood as fuel for 20,000 men for sixty days from Cyprus, and to be ready to purchase mules. The formation of a railway-construction company of engineers, the organisation of a corps of military police, regulations as to newspaper correspondents, were determined on. The establishment of hospitals at Gozo (Malta) and Cyprus, water supply, revolvers, carts, the extension of service of men then serving with regiments from six years to seven years,

10 Alexandria after the British bombardment, 1882.


had to be considered ... The formation of a Postal Corps was determined on and a scheme for it devised. It was decided to arrange with the Indian Government the dispatch of troops from thence. All these points had been settled, and the details departmentally worked out, by the 10th July.[5]

The control of communication brought together all the military resources of the Empire and concentrated them at the scene of the battle. Railways were constructed to carry the forces from one engagement to the next. The telegraph wire and postal service advanced at the same pace, carrying the daily reports of newspaper correspondents - as well as the private letters of soldiers - back to the impatient 'British public' on whose behalf the war was fought.

The coordinated movement of commands, of soldiers and supplies, of news reports, even of private correspondence, all contributed to Britain's military effectiveness; it all provided a further instance, in other words, of the effectiveness of the methods of order and discipline I have been examining in the preceding chapters. But such coordination also contributed, no doubt, to the effect of self-certainty. The sudden breakthroughs in developing the technology of communication during the last third of the nineteenth century, which were to culminate in 1895 in Marconi's successful demonstration of the wireless telegraph, made possible both the continuing penetration of the colonial order and also what might be called its truth. They gave global political power not just its detailed practicality but its facticity. From the tourist spectacles of bombardment and the displays of weaponry to the telegraphed news report and the postcard home, global colonialism came into being not only as a local method of order, seeking to work with individual minds and bodies, but as a process that was continuously reporting, picturing and representing itself. The great exhibitions that I discussed in chapter 1 were only particular highlights of this continuous representational process. Within such a world of representations the general public - that curious body - could be formed and entertained, and a modern political certainty produced. It is this question of certainty, raised in chapters 1 and 2, to which I now want to return.

One could study such global certainty as simply the end result of various long historical developments. In this view the steadily increasing range, speed and certainty of means of communication coupled with the increasing range, speed and certainty of means of destruction would correspond, and contribute, to the increasing range, speed and certainty, so to speak, of the truth and authority of modern political power. Such an approach, however, would take the nature of this kind of power and authority for granted, and examine its growth rather than its peculiar quality. It would not explore, in other words, the representational dimension of this power, a power which


worked more and more by the methods I have referred to as the world-as-exhibition. What I want to describe here is the distinctiveness of this kind of power and truth. It is a truth of the age of telegraphs and machine guns, of representations and exhibitions, and is an authority imagined and produced in the image of such mechanisms. Our thinking about this authority, however, is itself something that lives within the language of machinery and communication - the language of representation. Contained in this manner, we are generally constrained from considering the very peculiar way in which the truth of such political authority is produced.

To see the peculiarity of this authority I propose rather than examining its origins to compare it with the modes of achieving authority and truth which colonial power, in the case of Egypt, was to replace. I am going to do so by looking in particular at the question of writing. I have two reasons for examining political authority in the use of words. First, as we saw earlier when looking at the teaching mosque of al-Azhar, the authoritative interpretation of legal and scholarly texts was a significant aspect of the way in which an older political authority used to work. Second, what happened to writing in later nineteenth-century Egypt provides a parallel with wider political changes. A transformation that occurred in the nature of writing corresponded to the transformation in the nature of political authority. Both writing and politics, I am going to argue, came to be considered something essentially mechanical. Their essence in both cases would be considered a process of communication. Communication and machinery might appear to be neutral and matter-of-fact notions. But it was these seemingly innocent processes, the mechanisms of the world-as-exhibition, that served to introduce a modern and mysterious political metaphysics.

Eight Words

In October 1881, a month after the nationalist leader Ahmad Urabi had lined up his troops in front of the Khedival Palace and forced the regime to accept his popular demands, thereby precipitating the British invasion to restore Khedival power, a book had been published in Cairo entitled The Essay on Eight Words (Risalat al-kalim al-thaman ). The book discussed the meaning of eight words 'current on the tongues of the younger generation today', nation, homeland, government, justice, oppression, politics, liberty and education. It was written by Husayn al-Marsafi, the senior professor at Dar al-Ulum, the école normale set up in Cairo ten years earlier to produce teachers for the new government schools, who was among the most prominent of the established scholars and teachers of his time. Significantly, he was also the mentor of Mahmud Sami Pasha al-Barudi, the officer and poet


who was to become Prime Minister the following year of the short-lived nationalist government.[6]

The vocabulary and thinking of the nationalist leadership was reflected in Eight Words . Addressing the political crisis as a crisis found in the misuse and misunderstanding of words, the book's major theme was the need for the authority and discipline of a national system of education. Colonel Urabi's own ideas concerning 'political matters' had first been formed from reading about the military training of the French and the manner in which they were 'drilled and organised', and in their manifesto of 1881 the nationalist leaders declared that the aim of the Egyptian people was 'to complete their national education'. This they sought to achieve by means of a parliament, the press, and the spread of schooling, adding in the manifesto that 'none of these means of education can be secured except by the firm attitude of national leaders'.[7] Thus the nationalists seized power in October 1881 not so much in the name of revolution as in the name of Egypt's 'national education'. Urabi brought his regiment out of the barracks and took them by train from Cairo to the Delta town of Zaqaziq, near the village of his birth. There he gave a speech asserting 'the usefulness and necessity of a good education', and as his first act of national leadership laid the foundation stone of a new school.[8]

Eight Words was sympathetic to the grievances of the nationalist officers, while warning them against mistaking factionalism for patriotism. The eight words it discussed were the new vocabulary of modern nationalism, whose proper use required, in turn, the school-centred authority of the nation-state. Marsafi supported the general spread of schooling, so that teachers would be able to use words like 'patriotism' repeatedly in the classroom and explain their proper meaning. The book criticised traditional scholars for having lost their moral and political authority, and advocated in their place the new authority of teachers over students in the government schools. And yet, the book was still caught up in other, older notions of authority. Unlike the nationalist leadership, Marsafi was opposed to the uncontrolled spread of printing in Egypt. He argued the need for a body of properly educated scholars who would be responsible for the books and journals to be printed, in order to control the misuse of writing. Indeed, he understood the political crisis as a whole in terms of the breakdown of a textual authority, evident in the proliferation of words 'on the tongues of the younger generation today'.

Although as a scholar of enormous talent Marsafi had been drawn into the educational politics of the new state, in many ways he still belonged to a different tradition of scholarship and authority. He was a man from a small village in the Nile Delta, trained at al-Azhar, and blind from birth. He had grown up within an intellectual and political tradition in which the city depended upon the countryside rather than dominating it, allowing particu-


lar villages to provide generations of Cairene scholars. This was a tradition which rejected the use of the printing press and accepted blindness (there was an entire college for the blind at al-Azhar) for the same reason. Namely, that the only way to read a text and retain its uncertain authority was to hear it read aloud, phrase by phrase, by one who had already mastered it, and to repeat and discuss it with such a master.

This sort of tradition in respect of words and their transmission stands in marked contrast to the proliferation of telegraphs, news reports, and even private correspondence among the British. Marsafi was a remarkable scholar. Unlike many Azhar scholars, he was open to the innovations of European methods of schooling and had even acquired, despite his blindness, the ability to read French. It seems strange, that at a moment of profound political crisis he should be as preoccupied as he was with questions of proper linguistic usage and the threat of an uncontrolled spread of new vocabularies. Marsafi's response to the crisis echoes that of an earlier Egyptian scholar, the historian al-Jabarti, writing on the previous occasion when the country faced the threat of occupation by a European army. The French forces that invaded Egypt in 1798, like the British in 1882, had employed innovative methods of communication. Jabarti's account noted, as I mentioned in chapter 2, how the French 'make signs and signals among themselves that they follow and never deviate from'. Still more indicative of the unusual nature of European power was that the French arrived to conquer Egypt with a printing press.

Landing at Alexandria and advancing upon Cairo, Napoleon's first act had been to issue a printed proclamation to the Egyptian people, prepared in Arabic by French Orientalists. Jabarti's response to this strange innovation, in a chronicle written in the midst of the crisis, was an interesting one. He began his account by copying the text of the proclamation, and followed it for several pages with a detailed list of its grammatical errors. Phrase by phrase he pointed out the colloquialisms, misspellings, ellipses, inconsistencies, morphological inaccuracies and errors of syntax of the French Orientalists, drawing from these incorrect usages a picture of the corruptions, deceptions, misunderstandings and ignorance of the French authorities.[9]

The contrast between the critical and sometimes hostile response among Muslim scholars to the introduction of an Arabic printing press and the efficient and advanced techniques of the French military scholars is sometimes taken to exemplify the history of Egypt's relationship with the modern West. It took the Napoleonic occupation to introduce to the Middle East the first Arabic press, and the absence of printing over the preceding centuries has often been cited as evidence of the backwardness and isolation of the Arab world that the French occupation was to shatter. After the


departure of the French soldiers the Egyptian government did manage to set up its own press. But this was essentially a part of the country's new military equipment; the bulk of what was printed in the first half of the century was for purposes of military instruction.[10] The few individuals who tried to extend the use of the press outside the military project subsequently found themselves removed from office and in some cases exiled. By the 1850s, when Egypt had been forced to abandon its military ambitions, the press had fallen into disrepair, and in 1861 it was formally shut down.[11] Printing was started up again by the government under Isma'il, and by the time of the nationalist uprising there was an active periodical press. But the government attempted to suppress whatever publication it did not control, and establishment scholars like Marsafi spoke out against the press, blaming the political crisis in part on the wanton spread of printing.[12] Thus the story of printing in Egypt seems to confirm the backwardness of the Arab world, its continuing resistance to change, and the irrational hostility of Muslim scholars towards modern learning. However, rather than evidence of others' backwardness, resistance and irrationality, I think these attitudes towards the technology of printing can point us towards an understanding of some of our own strange ideas about the nature of writing, and the political assumptions to which they correspond. To understand these ideas, I am going to examine Marsafi's own purposes in writing Eight Words .

Ibn Khaldun

The first clue to an understanding of Marsafi's purpose is the book's title. 'Eight words' refers to the eight political terms discussed, but it also refers, I think, to politics itself. The reference is to the so-called 'ring of eight words' found in popular wisdom literature and political writings, in which the nature of the political was always expressed. Rifa`a al-Tahtawi's major work Manahij al-albab al-misriyya , for example, which had appeared a decade before Marsafi's text, began its interpretation of the meaning of politics by citing the circle of eight words.[13] The eight words denoted the eight parts of the political world, with the meaning of each one interpreted in terms of the next: ' ... the sovereign is an order supported by soldiers, the soldiers are assistants sustained by means of wealth, wealth is nourishment gathered by the subjects' and so on, so that 'each term is tied to the next and the last returns to the first, joining them in a circle whose end is not marked'.[14] The circle derives from the same origins as Aristotle's golden octagon, but the source for Arab scholars of the nineteenth century was the work of the great fourteenth-century North African writer, Ibn Khaldun. Ibn Khaldun's seven-volume study of the conditions and history of human social life, Kitab al-ibar , had been one of the first works published on the


new presses set up in Cairo in the 1860s, in the first printed edition of the complete text.[15] The work was being read among students and intellectuals, in particular at the new teachers' training college, where both Marsafi and Muhammad Abduh are known to have lectured on Ibn Khaldun.[16]

Book one of Ibn Khaldun's work, known as The Muqaddima , presented his theory of human society, a theory addressed to the political crisis of his own age. The entire theory of the governing of human communities, he wrote, if studied with due attention, could be understood as a commentary upon the ring of eight words.[17] Marsafi, taking his title perhaps from this passage, was also writing in a period of political crisis. In many ways, of course, the crisis of Marsafi's age was unique, for the penetration of European capital had caused an unprecedented weakening of the kind of local authority whose nature I want to describe. Yet the weaknesses of this authority were something generic, and were described better than anywhere in the work of Ibn Khaldun. It was an authority, in the first place, as I suggested in an earlier chapter, that seemed by nature to be unstable. Its tendency was to expand continuously, until its strength began to degenerate and it proceeded to fragment itself and become dispersed. Its effectiveness always decreased towards its edges, being weaker in the countryside than in the city and weakest of all where the countryside met the desert. Its strength lay in the strength of those who ruled, and the strength of the bonds between them. In the second place, it was an authority that made particular use of the authoritative interpretation of texts. Texts too carried their own authority, an authority which mirrored that of politics in its tendency to degenerate over time and become corrupt. The proper preservation and interpretation of the authority of writing was in this sense an essential resource of political power. The crisis and collapse of political power, in turn, was addressed by Ibn Khaldun in terms of the degeneration and collapse of scholarship.

Marsafi's own intellectual career was part of an attempt, on the part of himself and other Azhar-trained scholars drawn into the educational politics, to extend and make secure political authority in Egypt by means of the revival of learning. He wished to draw on Ibn Khaldun's discussion of scholarship, in an effort to revive on the basis of existing notions of authorship and the power of writing a political authority that worked through literature. The attempt failed, but the failure can throw light on the change in the nature of writing and politics that was to take place.

The subject of Marsafi's lectures was the art of proper writing in Arabic, taught through the study of its literature. Marsafi had revived through his lectures the study of an enormous range of Arabic literature, both poetry and prose, which most al-Azhar scholars, entrenching themselves intellectually during the upheavals of the previous fifty years or more, had neglected.[18] The purpose of this learning was more political than the term 'literature'


might suggest. The body of literature being taught was known as adab , a word meaning manners, politeness, or propriety. 'Polite letters' was a literature that embodied the manners of a threatened social order and the values of an imperilled social class. There was an adab appropriate to every social position, establishing in life the patterns of proper conduct.[19] The study of polite letters would establish among people the boundaries and the patterns of social action. 'The real meaning of adab ', Marsafi explained, 'is that each should know the limits of his position, and not overstep them.'[20]

The manner in which a proper learning would serve a political authority was made clear in Eight Words . The book was introduced as a sharh , a work of textual criticism, which would interpret the real meanings of important words.[21] The book was full of references to written sources whose texts were grafted into its own, including the Quran, the Traditions of the Prophet, an enormous range of works in Arabic literature, and even a number of works in French.[22] But these were not its only sources. Political activity itself was a sort of reading, that is, an interpretation of words which required criticism.

Marsafi understood the political crisis within which he wrote as the attempt by particular groups to give particular meanings to words, such as liberty and injustice.[23] The liability of these words was to be misused and misinterpreted. Like all words, they carried the risk of being placed out of context, or spoken in the wrong sense. This verbal liability was not the result of the prevailing political disorder, but the symptom and nature of the crisis. There was no analytic separation in this approach between writing and politics, or between theory and practice. Every political act was an interpretation of words, and thus a textual act, a reading. Marsafi's own purpose was to interpret the 'real meaning' (haqiqa ) of every word he treated, and from there to see that meaning 'realised' (haqqaqa, tahaqqaqa ) in political life. The political world was not a posited object, independent of written language. Words were not labels that simply named and represented political ideas or objects, but interpretations whose force was to be made real.[24] The scholar responded, therefore, to a socio-political crisis such as the events of 1881–82 with attempts to provide the proper interpretation of words.

Employing and reworking the writing of Ibn Khaldun, Marsafi said that besides the specialised knowledge required in every occupation there was a general body of understandings (umum al-ma`arif ) that all individuals must acquire. The survival and well-being of the community depended on the acquisition of such shared understandings, for it was these that enabled the separate social groups to think of their work, in its variety and diversity, as the labour of a single person. Without this conception of a single body that a shared understanding produces, the 'realisation of the community'


(tahaqquq al-umma ) was not possible. It was through its common learning, shared among its members, that the community itself is distinguished from other groups. The danger for a community that failed to realise these shared meanings was that the community would split into separate factions and fall into the hands of foreigners.[25] It was to counter such a crisis that Marsafi wrote.

Marsafi concluded Eight Words by stating that intelligent men in the community were to pay particular attention, within these understandings, to what concerned the habits and character of the people, and distinguish between the good and the bad; and that those who taught in the new schools were to make patriotism (al-wataniyya ) the basis of their instruction. Every trade and occupation was to be taught in a way which brought out that the work is in the service of the community. By using the word 'patriotism' frequently in class, teachers could help to realise its meaning, so that the community would deserve its name and become one in reality.[26]

To sum up so far then, Marsafi's book was suspicious of printing and suggestive of Ibn Khaldun. Printing was part of the general problem of the 'spreading of words' that seemed somehow the nature of the political crisis. Political authority, in turn, was associated with the authority of writing. Extending the authority of writing, through schools and proper learning, was the means to restore and make secure political authority. The importance of Ibn Khaldun was that he addressed the general question of authority in terms of the question of authorship, thus directly linking the political crisis to the issue of writing. To understand the nature of this link, I want to compare what writing was, for Ibn Khaldun and for Husayn al-Marsafi, with our own understanding of how words work. I will begin with certain strange assumptions of our own.

This Ideal Existence

In the events of 1880–82, Ahmad Urabi and his fellow political leaders called themselves al-hizb al-watani . A hizb is a party or faction, and the phrase meant the patriotic or nationalist faction, those who were opposed to the control of Egypt by foreigners, whether Turkish or European. In Eight Words Husayn al-Marsafi warned the nationalists against dividing the country into hostile ethnic groups, invoking for the purpose some further associations of the word hizb . Compared to the unity implied by the word umma , which means community or nation, Marsafi argued, the word hizb implied self-interest and factionalism (tahazzub ). The word's associations were brought out to discredit the politics of those who used it. Political argument always worked through this power of language, seeking out the contradictions in words or their ability to evoke alternative meanings. Urabi


in turn tried to bring out different associations of the word. When he was put on trial after the defeat of the nationalist movement by the British, his interrogators asked him why he had allowed himself to be called 'the leader of al-hizb al-watani '. Urabi replied by associating the word hizb with the fractures running through the whole country, and its domination by foreigners. The inhabitants of Egypt, he pointed out, are divided into separate races each of which could be considered a hizb . 'The native people of the country (ahl al-bilad ) are a hizb in themselves', he argued before the judges, adding that 'they are called "the peasants" in order to humiliate them'.[27]

Urabi's statements in court are quoted in the article on the modern term 'Hizb' in the Encyclopaedia of Islam , with a very different approach to language. The article's purpose is to show how the word hizb , 'albeit slowly, unconsciously and hesitatingly ... has come to be stabilized in meaning and to signify unambiguously a political party'. Urabi's powerful claim that both the nationalist leadership and the Egyptian people could be called a hizb is cited to illustrate what is called the originally 'ambiguous and fluctuating' meaning of the term. The word 'stands in Urabi's mind for two different meanings', says the Encyclopaedia , 'which he cannot clearly distinguish'. Since Urabi's time, it can then be shown, the word has evolved, 'albeit slowly', from this state of confusion to one of clarity - a movement, in other words, from hesitation to certainty, from ambiguity to unambiguousness, from instability to stability, and from unconsciousness, it is implied, to political awareness. The movement traced by the Encyclopaedia , moreover, is not just the history of a word. The word stands in people's minds for a meaning, and its development is taken to represent the gradual development of this meaning, this political mind.[28]

There are two assumptions that govern this approach to language, neither of them fully shared by Urabi or his contemporaries. The first is that the proper nature of words is to be clear, stable and univocal, and that a word acquires more power the closer it comes to this ideal. The second is that the study of words is the study of some larger abstraction for which they stand - the political mind or culture or meaning of a certain community.

Telegraph Signals

At the time of Urabi's trial, as the countries to the north were embarking on a global expansion of their colonial power, European theories of language were dominated by the work of those who had come to be known as 'Orientalists'. Oriental scholarship, as Edward Said has shown, grew in importance in the nineteenth century with the growth of European commercial and colonial interest in the Orient. If the expansion of Orientalism was due to the


position of the Orient within Europe's expanding power, the strength of Oriental studies was also due to the position of this Orient within the patterns of nineteenth-century European knowledge. Since the end of the preceding century, to know a thing had come to involve knowing the stages of its internal development, its 'history' in the new sense of that word. This was true of the two pioneering nineteenth-century sciences, geology, which had unfolded the life-history of the earth, and biology, which had unfolded the life-history of the physical organism.[29] It was equally true for the life-history of the human mind, whose unfolding was Orientalism. 'Whether in the petrified strata of ancient literature or in the countless variety of living languages and dialects,' claimed Professor Max Müller of Oxford, invoking the parallels of geology and biology in a single phrase,' ... we collect, arrange, and classify all the facts of language that are within our reach. '[30]

Analogously with his physical body and his planet, man himself was now to be understood not in the psychology of his power of reason, but in the development of this relatively new and peculiar object, the human mind. Orientalism was 'the experimental science', in the words of the great French Orientalist Ernest Renan, which would uncover 'an embryogeny of the human mind'.[31] The raw material of this empirical science of 'the mind' was provided by Oriental languages. Just as geology had given a meaning to be read in the strata of the rock, and biology a meaning in the fossil, Orientalism had given to ancient words, uncovered in Oriental texts, the means of providing 'a comprehension, in no other way obtainable, of the gradually advancing condition of mind and state of knowledge' of the human race.[32]

Language was to be thought of as an organism, evolving in accordance with natural historical laws. Its cells were formed of individual words, each of which was an entity with a plenitude of meaning whose development could be traced back to an etymological origin. In the birth of individual words and the stages of their growth could be discovered the stages of evolution of the human mind. 'Every new word', it was claimed at the inauguration of the Ninth International Congress of Orientalists, 'represents really a most momentous event in the development of our race.'[33]

The study of languages was of particular political usefulness because Orientalism shared a further feature of nineteenth-century science. It introduced from its sister disciplines the fundamental idea of the 'survival'. Like fossils to the biologist, contemporary non-European languages were survivals, remnants from the past of the human (that is, the European) mind, preserved at various stages of 'backwardness'. As Renan explained: 'la marche de l'humanité n'est pas simultanée dans toutes ses parties ... Telle est l'inégalité de son mouvement que l'on peut, à chaque moment, retrouver dans les differentes contrées habitées par l'homme les âges divers que nous voyons échelonnés dans son histoire.'[34] Orientalism was not merely some


esoteric study of alien languages, which the political requirements of European geographical expansion had turned into a thriving institution of colonial power. It was the proper study of mankind. Man was to be studied in terms of the history of the human mind; the stages in the development of this new mental object, lost in the vertical depth of the past, were made available by Orientalism, captured in time, distributed across geographical and colonial space.

Orientalism, however, like all nineteenth-century science of man, had its limitations. It enabled colonial administrators to talk of the 'Oriental mind' and to conceive of its 'backwardness'. But because its theory of language considered individual words to be plenitudes of meaning in themselves, Oriental Studies tended to remain caught up in the detailed analysis of texts. What was needed was a way of moving quickly from these empirical particulars to the abstraction of an Oriental mentality. What was needed was for words themselves to be considered insubstantial objects, mere tokens, and for the Oriental mind to become a fuller, more substantial structure - to give way to some new abstraction, such as Oriental (or Middle Eastern) 'culture' or 'society'.

The breakthrough was made by suddenly considering a language to be in essence not an organism but a means of communication. It was a breakthrough that came with the coming of modern communication. In 1895 Marconi demonstrated for the first time his system of wireless telegraphy; such events made it possible to explain the nature of language in a new way. 'Words are signs', it was now declared. 'They have no other existence than the signals of the wireless telegraph.' This claim was made in 1897 by Michel Bréal, professor of comparative grammar at the Collège de France.[35] The significance of arguing that words were mere signs, as empty in themselves as telegraph signals, was that a language could now be thought of as something more, existing apart from words themselves. The meaning of a language existed not in the plenitude of words, which were arbitrary marks meaningless in themselves, but outside them, as a semantic 'structure'. Bréal illustrated the separate existence of this structure by comparing the effect of words to 'the illusion' that occurs when looking at paintings in an exhibition. Standing before a picture, he wrote,

our eyes think they perceive contrasts of light and shade, on a canvas lit all over by the same light. They see depths, where everything is on the same plane. If we approach a few steps, the lines we thought we recognised break up and disappear, and in place of differently illuminated objects we find only layers of colour congealed on the canvas and trails of brightly coloured dots, adjacent to one another but not joined up. But as soon as we step back again our sight, yielding to long habit, blends the colours, distributes the light, puts the features together again and recomposes the work of the artist.[36]


Words were not a living organism but the parts of a representation. Placed together they formed an image of something, a coded message, a telegraph. They were made of marks that were meaningless in themselves; inspected closely, they dissolved into dots. In forming a representation, moreover, they presupposed a subject, who stands apart like the viewer of a painting or the visitor to an exhibition: 'everything proceeds from him and addresses itself to him'.[37] The purpose of linguistic representation was this communication between speaking subjects.

Linguistic meaning was to be found, then, neither within the material of the words themselves nor simply within the mind of the individual. It lay outside both, as a 'structure' with an 'ideal existence'. (Bréal's discovery of linguistic 'structure' occurred in the same years as Durkheim's discovery of social structure, which rested as we saw on making the same separation between the material realm of representations and an ideal realm they represented.)[38] 'It does not diminish the importance of language', Bréal wrote, 'to grant it only this ideal existence; on the contrary, it means placing it with the things that occupy the first rank and exert the greatest influence in the world, for these ideal existences - religions, laws, customs - are what gives a form to human life.'[39]

Language was to be considered part of an ideal realm, like law and custom (and later culture or social structure), the realm that gives 'form' to people's ordinary life. This form was something unique to a particular people. Such forms or structures had not been visible to nineteenth-century Orientalists, who had mistakenly argued that a people's conceptual world was limited to the words one found in their vocabulary. For Bréal there was something more. 'By not admitting a people to have ideas other than those that are formally represented, we run the risk of neglecting perhaps what is most vital and original in its intelligence ... It does not suffice at all, in order to give an account of the structure of a language, to analyze its grammar and to trace the words back to their etymological values. One must enter into the people's way of thinking and feeling.'[40] Once words were conceived as mere instruments of communication, mere representations of something, it became possible to move from the words themselves to this something, this larger abstraction - a people's mentality, its way of thinking and feeling, its culture.

To sum up again, in Europe the words of a language had come to be considered not meanings in themselves but the physical clues to some sort of metaphysical abstraction - a mind or mentality. Since the end of the nineteenth century, this mentality has been formulated into an entity in its own right, existing apart from mere individuals and mere words, as an abstract realm of meaning that gives order to ordinary life. This view of language did not emerge in isolation. As we saw with Durkheim's argu-


ments for the metaphysical existence of 'society', in the world-as-exhibition everything one encountered was coming to be ordered and grasped as though it were the mere physical representation of something abstract. Politics itself in its colonial age, as I suggested at the start of this chapter, was beginning to proceed more and more by continuously ordering up the representations that would produce this apparent realm of meaning. Husayn al-Marsafi on the other hand, opposed to the spread even of printing, shared a belief in no such metaphysical realm. His ways of using words, it followed, did not carry the same assumptions about the nature of meaning. It is to these ways and assumptions I will now turn.

Ordinary Language

Perhaps the first thing that one notices about a work like Eight Words is that it is not 'organised', in the way we expect of a text and especially of a text addressing an urgent political crisis. The book has no table of contents - no structure that might seem to stand outside the text itself - and offers no straightforward authoritative definitions of the words it treats, but seems to wander through all the associations each word evokes, in a way that seems disorganised and even badly written. 'The statements of ideas are illustrated', according to one analysis of the text, 'in what seems a wilful disorder, with amusing anecdotes, with comparisons of human habits with those of animals, with verses of the Quran and hadiths, and with stories drawn from the personal experience of the author.' The analysis seeks the necessary remedy to this problem, explaining that it 'will not follow the whimsical arrangement of the work, but will put in order the main themes'.[41]

The problem of understanding what seems like a 'whimsical arrangement' and even 'wilful disorder' appears throughout the scholarship of Middle Eastern studies. It is encountered not only in the study of texts, but also as we saw in the way cities are built or in the absence of political institutions. Again I want to explore this apparent absence of order more closely. By examining a line or two from Marsafi's text in some detail, I propose to show that the supposed disorder is a consequence of reading it according to our own strange assumptions about how words work.

The first of the eight words examined in the book is umma , a term that can be translated into English as community or nation. The word is interpreted first of all as jumlatun min an-nas tajma`uhum jami`a , which could be translated as 'a group of people united by some common factor', the common factor, it is added, being tongue, place, or religion.[42] But this idiomatic English translation misses the force of the phrase. First of all, jumlatun can mean not only a group or gathering, but also a combination of words, a


clause or sentence. And j-m-` , the verb, means not only to gather or unite but also to compose, to compile a text, to write. The community is something that coheres, according to this semantic echo, in the way a gathering of words compose a text.

But there is much more than this. The force of the phrase gathers not simply from the various references of the separate words, but from the reverberation of senses set up between the parts of the phrase by their differing sounds. The initial sound j-m-l indicating sum, totality, is echoed at the other end of the phrase in the sound j-m-' indicating a union, gathering, assemblage. An almost identical sound, m-n , fills the middle of the phrase, min an-naas . These sounds in turn recall other potential sounds, such as j-mm , to gather, be numerous, j-m-d , to congeal, j-mh-r , multitude mass, j-l-s/m-jl-s , to sit together/assembly, perhaps m-l-` , to be full, crowd, assembly, and so on. All these further sounds are implicated in the meaning, the force, of the phrase. Each combination of sounds connects with and evokes a further sound, so that from one combination to the next a potentially endless chain of meaning can be made to reverberate, however distantly, in the movement of a single phrase.

This writing does not seek to discover and realise the power of words in a unique, univocal meaning, but in allowing the sounds and suggestions of a word to mix with those around it and proliferate. In English we would call this proliferation poetic or literary. 'Literary' language has been defined as a kind of writing where 'words stand out as words (even as sounds) rather than being, at once, assimilable meanings' and where their 'quality of reference may be complex, disturbed, unclear'.[43] In explanations of this kind, the literary or poetic is defined in opposition to something normal, to the plain or ordinary use of language. For the author of Eight Words , there was no such plain language. All writing worked by making words 'stand out as words', that is by evoking the echoes and resemblances in which one word/sound differs from the next.

In so-called plain language, as we have seen from Bréal, we understand words to work as signs. Bréal's successor in linguistics was Saussure, who formulated our modern theory of language, accepting that its essence was communication. According to Saussure, the word or linguistic sign is a two-sided entity consisting of a sound-image ('signifier') and a meaning (the 'signified'). Just as the physical dots on the canvas, in Bréal's example, represent a picture, the sound-image represents, or signifies, a meaning. The word is thus composed of a 'material' image, as Saussure says, and a non-material thought. Its two sides, as inseparable as the two sides of a sheet of paper, are the material and the conceptual.[44]

The two sides of the sign, though inseparable, are not equal to one another. The material element in the word is merely the representative of the


meaning. The sound-image stands for the idea, which originates elsewhere, in the mind of the speaker or author. Thus the material element is secondary, in both rank and sequence. It merely represents a meaning in material form, in order to communicate it. The conceptual element is prior, closer to the original thought being communicated, to the author, to the origin. As Jacques Derrida has pointed out, this hierarchy is found, at another remove, in our understanding of the relationship of speech to writing. The written word, it is said, is a representation of the spoken word. Writing is a substitute for direct speech, and can make an author's words present for a reader in the author's physical absence. Just as the material element in spoken language is secondary to the conceptual, writing is secondary to speech. It is still further separated from its author's mind, from the original intention being communicated. It is further removed from the meaning itself.[45]

It is this hierarchy of original meaning and secondary representation that is at work, and at stake, in the distinction we make between normal language, whose purpose is to communicate, and the literary or poetic. Words that 'stand out as words (even as sounds)' are words that do not know their proper place in the hierarchy. In so-called literary writing, words are not the dutiful representatives of their authors. They do not mechanically make present a simple, original meaning from their absent author's mind. As we saw from the line in Marsafi's text, such words usurp larger powers, gathering their force from their associations with other words and setting loose an almost endless play of semantic/verbal echoes.

To label this usurpation a poetic or literary effect, and therefore oppose it to what is 'normal', protects the hierarchy. Poetic language is treated as an exception, which proves the validity of the normal process of communication. The essential opposition of material sound and immaterial meaning is preserved, preserving the hierarchical relationship between the two elements. More than just a linguistic theory is at stake here. On this hierarchical opposition rests an entire metaphysics of meaning, of the broadest political importance.

Just the Same Only Different

What exactly is this strange two-sided sheet, the sign? Suppose, as Derrida suggests, we refuse to take for granted the opposition of ideal versus material (and hence of text versus world) of which it is said to consist, and their hierarchical relationship. What kind of a thing then is the sign, what sort of event? Derrida's answer would be that the sign is never exactly a thing or an event, in the sense of a unique and isolated empirical particular. Words do not work in that manner. In the first place, as Saussure himself elsewhere explains, a particular word always exists in relation to other similar sounding


words. Its particularity is simply an effect of the way it differs from like-sounding words, as we saw just now with certain Arabic words. The English word 'bit', for instance, acquires its uniqueness only by differentiating itself from words like 'bet' and 'big'. 'Big' in turn establishes itself as different from 'dig' and from 'pig', and so on. The same is true of what we call the word's meaning. The meanings of 'pig', for example, are determined by other words, such as the existence in English of the word 'pork' to refer to pigs when served as food. The very bond between a word and its meaning, which was said to be the essence of the sign, can be shown to be just an instance of this process of difference. To find the meaning of a word (to borrow an example from Terry Eagleton) we look up its definition in a dictionary. The definition we are given is made up of other words. These words in turn are defined by more words, and so on. Words acquire their meaning from other words, not from the accuracy with which they 'represent'. A word and its meaning turn out to be not a unique, two-sided object, but the product of interwoven relations of differences, one 'element' of which exists only in terms of others, in a weave that has no edge or exterior.[46]

If meaning is not simply that abstract realm we gain access to in dictionaries, how is it that words nevertheless do mean? It can be argued, Derrida shows, that what is most essential about words, for them to work as words, is that they are repeatable. A sign that was unique even in this sense, that happened only once, would not be a sign. So even when we insist on something's identity as 'the same word', it is in fact something reiterated on different occasions, in different contexts. The simplest identity of a word, its self-sameness in this sense, is formed out of differences, the difference of reiteration. This reiteration has something paradoxical about it. On the one hand, each occurrence of a word is different. The word may differ in time or place, and may be modified in a diversity of empirical characteristics — being written, for example, instead of spoken. Language depends on the possibility of such diverse and different repetitions of the word, just as it depends upon the differences between words; it occurs only as such differing repetition. On the other hand, what is reiterated must remain the same word. In the midst of different repetitions, through every modification, there must remain a trace of something recognisably the same. It is this trace of sameness that we experience as the word's 'meaning'.

Meaning arises, then, because the word is always a repetition, in a double sense. It is a repetition in the sense of something non-original, something that occurs by modifying or differing from an other; and a repetition in the sense of the-same-again. Meaning is an effect of this paradoxical quality of sameness and difference, whereby a word always happens to be just the same only different.[47]


The paradox of repetition is not something to be resolved, Derrida would argue, as a strange consequence of language. On the contrary, language is something made possible by the movement of repetition and differing. The paradoxical effect of an inseparable sameness within difference is not acknowledged, however, but avoided. It is avoided by supposing, with Saussure, that the word is an object made up of two opposing aspects, the material and the conceptual. These belong to two distinct realms, one physical and the other, somehow, meta-physical, which are assumed mysteriously to be conjoined in the unity of the word. It is this mystical distinction between two realms that Derrida shows to be no longer fundamental, but a 'theological' effect. 'It depends entirely on the possibility of acts of repetition. It is constituted by this possibility.'[48] I now want to return to Arabic, and argue that this theological effect of a distinct 'realm' of meaning was not produced; or at least, to the extent that it was produced it was acknowledged to be something theological, and treated as such.

The Absence of the Vowel

In examining earlier a phrase from Husayn al-Marsafi's Eight Words , I have already suggested that the so-called literary use of language, in which 'words stand out as words, even as sounds' was not an exception to ordinary writing but the only kind of writing there could be. There was no 'white mythology', as Derrida calls it, according to which the play of differences between words would be something additional to the ordinary way in which words evoke a meaning. Or rather, so as not simply to invert the white man's mythology and make Arabic the example of its absence, the questions of meaning and the play of difference remained problematised in the writing of a work such as Eight Words . Rather than representing an author's univocal meaning, the words produced their force from the play of differences between them, differences which cannot be resolved into a distinction between the conceptual and the material. But this argument about the nature of Arabic writing can be made from several other features.

First of all there were its inscriptional features. Saussure argued that the material form of words was something arbitrary, attached to their meaning only by phonetic convention. Derrida points out that this separation between material form and meaning ignores all the non-phonetic aspects of writing, which are 'material' and yet create effects of meaning — such as punctuation, spacing and the juxtaposition of different texts. In Arabic, writing proceeded generally without recourse to punctuation or even spaces between words, often juxtaposed several texts on a single page in various significant relations to one another, made careful and meaningful distinc-


11 Page from a  Commentary on the hundred grammatical regents of al-Jurjani  by 
Sa'd Allah, known as al-Saghir, copied in 1808 by Ahmad Abd-Rabbih, with 
marginal and interlinear notes and glosses; Naskhi script.


tions between different styles of script, and in general extended the art of inscription into the most elaborate and deliberate forms.

A second set of features problematised by Derrida are those that make a book or other piece of writing seem an 'interior', an internal place of meaning separated from the 'real world' outside. The title page, the preface, and the table of contents are examples of such features, which seem to stand apart from the text and, like the map of a city, provide it with a form and exterior frame. Arabic writing, again, in general did not employ these devices, and instead began every work with a lengthy invocation (khitab ) and indeed made the method of transition from the khitab into the rest of the text (fasl al-khitab ) a subject of important theoretical debate. There are many other features one might mention: the significance of the verb 'to be', which in Arabic occurs only in the 'past' (Derrida, following Heidegger, has to use the present tense of the verb 'to be' 'under erasure', writing it and crossing it out at the same time, because the empty device of the verb 'to be' makes us forget how problematic is the notion of 'being'); the conception of language as a code, existing apart from the words themselves as a grammatical structure (the Arab grammarians did not study the rules of a code, but the modes of sameness (nahw ) and difference (sarf ) in language, terms that are now translated as 'syntax' and 'morphology'); and finally, what Orientalists have called 'the absence of the vowel' in Arabic. I will look briefly at this last idea.

In the Arabic script, it is said, the vowels are not normally marked. An English transcription of an Arabic phrase, such as mine of Marsafi's earlier in this chapter, has to insert the missing vowels. But this way of putting it is misleading. The vowel is a peculiar European invention, and is not some-thing 'missing' from Arabic. Arabic words are formed by what Arab grammarians call the 'movement' of a sequence of letters. Each letter is pronounced with a particular movement (of the mouth and vocal cords), referred to as 'opening', 'fracturing' and 'contracting', and different movements of the same letters produce differences in meaning. The letters k-t-b , for example, can mean 'he wrote', 'it was written', 'books', and so on, according to the different ways in which each letter is moved. It is the different kinds of movement that the Orientalists translate into vowels.

The movement, however, is not the equivalent of a vowel. As the Tunisian linguist Monçef Chelli has pointed out, the movement cannot be produced independently of the letter and a letter cannot be produced without a movement, whereas vowels and consonants seem to exist independently of each other.[49] This independence, Chelli suggests, gives words in European languages a peculiar appearance of fixedness, as opposed to the movement of Arabic words. In treating words as moving combinations of letters, Arabic writing remains closer to the play of differences that produces


meaning. Seen in this way, the vowel is not something missing in Arabic. It is a strange artifice, whose presence in European writing masks the relations of difference between words, giving the individual word the apparent independence of a sign. Chelli goes on to argue that this apparent independence endows words with an object-quality. As sign-objects they seem to exist independently of their being said. Their existence appears as something apart from the material repetition of the word, and seems to precede such repetition. The realm of this prior and separate existence is labelled the 'conceptual', the independent realm of meaning.

The purpose of this discussion of Arabic writing has been to suggest that in diverse ways Arabic is much closer than European languages to the play of difference that produces meaning, and correspondingly much further than European languages from producing the metaphysical effect of a conceptual realm, a realm of 'meaning' that is believed to exist quite apart from words themselves under the theological name of 'language' or 'truth' or 'mind' or 'culture'. Derrida's work is usually employed to demonstrate, in the reading of a particular text, how this effect of meaning can be made to collapse. That is not my interest. Despite the ease with which such feats of deconstruction seem to be accomplished, what needs explaining is not why meaning collapses but why it does not. Politically, what seems important is not just to show that outside the text, or outside the exhibition, there is only a further text or a further exhibition, but to consider why, in that case, we have come to live more and more as though the world were a real exhibition, an exhibition of reality. My study of nineteenth-century Egypt is intended as a study of how a world comes to be ordered and experienced as though it were an exhibition, divided in this way into two realms, the realm of things and the separate realm of their meaning or truth.

In earlier chapters of this book I have described some of the ways in which Egypt was organised in the nineteenth century to produce the effect of a conceptual realm. One example was the rebuilding of cities, with a regular plan to the streets and exterior façades; another was the geographical hierarchy of schools, arranged to represent the structure of a nation-state. More generally, the technique of order I called enframing, in military manoeuvres, in timetables, in the layout of classrooms and hospitals, in the rebuilding of villages as well as cities, in each case tended to produce the effect of a structure, which seemed to stand apart as something conceptual and prior.

Meaning is an effect not only of conceptuality, however, but also of intention. 'To mean' implies at the same time both to signify and to have intention or purpose. If a piece of writing or other process of representation produces meaning, in doing so it produces the impression of an authorial intention or will. The more effectively this meaning is made to stand apart as its own realm, the more effective will be the impression of such intentionality. In


order to return to the questions about modern political certainty that I raised at the beginning of this chapter, I want to show how the methods of effecting the existence of a separate conceptual realm were at the same time a new method of effecting intention, certainty, authorial will, or more generally authority itself.

Author and Authority

We understand writing to be a means of communication, a vehicle which can carry the words, and within them the ideas, of an author across the distance of time and space. Thanks to the mechanical efficiency of linguistic signification, an author's intention or meaning can be made present to an audience despite his or her physical absence. In writing, the author's absence is overcome. According to this understanding, printing, for example, is simply a more efficient means of overcoming absence. It provides a wider and more lasting representation of an author's meaning.[50]

In this ordinary understanding of writing the mechanical nature of words is never in doubt. If writing can represent an absent author's mind or meaning, if it can make an absent author present to a reader, this is because it is the nature of words to operate as the representatives of singular meanings. Such a mechanism of meaning appears normal and unproblematic. If words do have the potential to multiply in meaning, to work ambiguously, to slip beyond their author's original intention, to be misread, this liability, as we saw just now, is considered an exception, rather than something essential to the way in which writing works. Ambiguity is declared to be simply a question of minor error, or else a poetic effect. The liability then remains within the control of the intention of the author, who can decide whether or not to be poetic, to allow the words a little licence.

It seems to me that before the introduction of printing no Arab writer found these assumptions similarly unproblematic. Writing was not the mechanical representation of an author's meaning, and in this sense there was no simple 'presence' of an author in a text. Authorship, and authority, were far more problematic concerns. Because writing could never unambiguously represent an author's unambiguous meaning, it follows, no proper Arab scholar would have been interested in the power of the printing press. The problem of the author's presence in writing, furthermore, corresponded to a problem in the presence of political authority in society. As evidence for these assertions I will return to the work of Ibn Khaldun, in which the crucial issue was precisely this absence of author and authority.

Ibn Khaldun shares the assumption that writing attempts to extend the presence of an author. The art of writing, he says, 'enables the innermost thoughts of the soul to reach those who are far and absent. It perpetuates in


books the results of thinking and scholarship.'[51] But here the similarity with our own assumptions about writing ends, for Ibn Khaldun does not understand this overcoming of absence in terms of any mechanical practice of written representation, but rather as a problem at the centre of human social life.

To write, according to Ibn Khaldun, is to risk being misread or misunderstood.[52] Words that survive beyond their author's presence are cut loose. Their tendency is to drift, to become altered, to be read without regard for context, and to germinate new meanings. And there is always their ordinary ambiguity.[53] It follows that words do not mechanically signify a singular meaning. The reading of a text is always a work of interpretation. 'The student of ideas', he says, 'must extract them from the words (sounds) that express them.'[54] The meaning arises, as we have seen, only from the differing movement of the letters. The letters are moved, hence differed and made to mean, only when recited by the reader. For this reason, the scholar in his work 'does not copy comments directly from books but reads them aloud'.[55] A text is never to be read mutely, it must be recited aloud in order to mean.

To read a text, then, one must recite it, for the bare letters on the page are ambiguous. Properly, one must read it aloud three times, following a teacher. On the first reading the teacher gives only brief comments outlining the principal issues, on the second he gives a full interpretation of every phrase, including the differences in interpretation among the different schools, and on the third he explores even the most vague and ambiguous terms.[56] The teacher, moreover, must be the one who wrote the text, or failing that, one of those to whom the author read the text, or one who read it under one of them, and so on in an unbroken chain of recitation leading back to the original author.

In the Iranian town of Nishapur, to give an example, those who wished to study and teach the Sahih of Bukhari, one of the most authoritative collections of the sayings of the Prophet, 'travelled some two hundred miles to the town of Kushmaihan near Marv where there was a man who recited the text from a copy made from a copy made from Bukhari's own dictation'. The scholar Abu Sahl Muhammad al-Hafsi, we are told in another example, 'studied the Sahih of Bukhari under al-Kushmaihani who studied it under Muhammad b. Yusuf al-Farbi who studied it under Bukhari himself. Seventy-five years after the death of his master al-Kushmaihani, Abu Sahl Muhammad al-Hafsi found himself ... to be the only man alive who had studied under him.' He was therefore brought over two hundred miles to Nishapur, and honoured personally by the ruler. 'Then in the Nizamiya madrasa he gave a class, in which he dictated the Sahih to a great crowd.'[57]

These kinds of practices should not be explained away, it seems to me, by references to the importance of the oral or the memorised over the written;


they should be taken as indications of the very nature of writing and authorship. Only such chains of recitation could overcome the inevitable absence of the author within the text. Given the ambiguous nature of writing, which was not merely a flaw in particular texts but something essential, as we saw, to the way in which words acquire their force, a mute and private reading could never recover the author's meaning, never restore the author's presence. The entire practice of Arab scholarship revolved around the problem of overcoming the absence in writing of the author's unequivocal meaning.

Ibn Khaldun wrote in a period of political crisis in the Arab world, as I mentioned, which was also a period of crisis in the problem of authorial absence. This relationship between political weakness and the weaknesses of written scholarship was no coincidence for Ibn Khaldun. He addressed one in terms of the other. The connection is evoked even in the title of his work, the 'Book of ibar '. As Muhsin Mahdi has shown, the term ibar is ambiguous, both referring to and illustrating the ambiguity of language. The word can mean the 'lessons' to be learnt from historical texts, but in a wider sense suggests both the expression of meaning and its concealment.[58] The fuller title continues this link between writing and history, for the work is further entitled 'the record of the subject and the predicate' in the history of the Arabs and others. The first sixty or seventy pages of the text are then concerned with the problem of writing, showing how texts are corrupted and misread, how the techniques of discipleship have broken down and the chains of authority have been severed. The purpose of the work is to bring a remedy to the political crisis by overcoming this breakdown in writing. The remedy Ibn Khaldun offers is entirely new. It stands out from the fourteenth century as a unique attempt to overcome the essential weaknesses of writing. But the remedy is not that of a theory of representation.

His solution is to attempt to set down for the first time the grounds of interpretation, principles which are to govern the future reading of texts. The grounds are in the form of the essential 'context' or 'circumstances' (ahwal ) of human social life. He offers in the Muqaddima an elaborate statement of the ordinary limits of human community, explaining the process in which communities are formed, grow, flourish and decay. These contextual limits are to circumscribe the possible interpretation of all written works, to keep the reading of history, given the corruption of texts and the normal ambiguity of writing, within the bounds of historical probability. His work was an enormous effort to provide the interpretive limits that would help to overcome the absence of authors of the past, and thus make it possible to imitate what was useful from the historical record.

This perhaps explains the enormous interest in the work in nineteenth-century Egypt, where scholars faced a similar crisis, and where men like


Marsafi understood the crisis very much as a crisis in the use of words, to be resolved by a teaching of a proper understanding of writing. From around the time of Marsafi, however, the entire practice of writing had begun to change. Words were to lose their power, their ability to proliferate in meaning, their tendency to echo and reverberate with other words and set in movement a play of resemblance and difference. Or at least this tendency was to be denied, circumscribed as an exception, confined by names such as poetry. Their essence was to become the mechanical process of communication. The entire problem of authority to which Ibn Khaldun addressed himself was to be overcome, by a forgetting of the problematic nature of writing in the face of the apparent certainty - the effect of an unambiguous meaning - made possible by the modern methods of representation. How might such a transformation have occurred? Within the limits of this work I can only suggest an answer. The introduction and spread of printing was the most obvious factor, but the change can be seen in new kinds of writing, in particular the enormous state-sponsored pedagogic literature, and the new journalism with its 'telegraphic' style.

The telegraph and the printing press were among several kinds of new machinery and technique appearing in Egypt that introduced a modern practice of communication. (It was an Egyptian employee of one of the European telegraph companies, Abdullah Nadim, who had begun producing Egypt's first popular nationalist newspaper in the summer and autumn of 1881.)[59] The Egyptian army, as we saw, had adopted the new techniques of signalling, which made it possible to assemble and control the enormous modern armies of the nineteenth century. The operation of the new Egyptian railways, which as I mentioned were among the most extensive in the world in relation to the country's size and population, depended on an elaborate system of signals and codes. A general aim of the British was 'the improvement of communications, traffic and general commerce'.[60] The gradual spread of government schooling involved new techniques of instruction and new methods of classroom obedience. These kinds of development all demanded, during the decades of the later nineteenth century, that language be employed not in the 'proliferating' manner examined above, but as a precise system of signs, in which words are handled as though they were the unambiguous representatives of singular meanings. The aim was to use words in the ordinary manner of Europeans, who were observed in the streets of Paris, as we saw in chapter 2, to use words only as 'necessary to do business'.

The linguistic transformation was a part of the process of ordering, in armies and schools, architecture and railways, irrigation projects and the production of statistics, which, like the world exhibition, began to produce what seemed a structure standing apart from things themselves, a separate


realm of order and meaning. This new realm, I propose to argue from the parallel with writing, would appear not only as the realm of meaning but also as the realm of intentionality - of authority or political certainty. With the older kind of writing, exemplified by Ibn Khaldun, the presence of an author's intention or meaning in the words of a text was, as we just saw, essentially problematic. The problem of the author's presence in writing corresponded to the problem of the presence of authority in political life. The new mode of writing and communication made the re-presenting of an author's meaning appear an essentially unproblematic mechanical process. The unproblematic presence of an author in writing would now correspond, in all the other realms of ordering that characterise the world-as-exhibition, to the production of an essentially unproblematic and mechanical presence of authority in political life.

This political authority, produced in the modern state the way a modern text produces the unambiguous effect of an author, would appear continuously and mechanically present. At the same time, like an author's meaning, this authority would somehow stand mysteriously apart. Just as meaning does not exist in the 'material' of the words themselves, but seems to belong to a separate mental or conceptual realm that words only ever re-present, political authority would now exist apart as something metaphysical, which in the material world is only ever re-presented. Authority would become something both mechanical and mysterious: as certain and straightforward as the process of meaning, and equally metaphysical.

To conclude this chapter, I want to offer some evidence that this transformation in the nature of authority took place, in a manner that parallels the transformation in the nature of the author, of the author's meaning in a text. The evidence I will offer is a common image of the nature and place of authority, the image of the community as a body. I want to demonstrate, in effect, a transformation that occurred in parallel, in three different aspects: in the notion of writing, of the body, and of politics.

The Machinery of Government

The description of the political community as a body can be found throughout the history of Arabic literature. In the new political writings of the 1860s and 1870s it remained the most common image to which writers turned when explaining the harmony and hierarchy of social life, even when introducing new themes such as nationalism and education. 'There can be no doubt that the nation is like a body', wrote Tahtawi in the opening pages of the Manahij , and that individuals and groups form its limbs or members.[61] Marsafi in Eight Words relied upon the body in the same way, whenever he wished to explain how the community was composed of interacting parts. In


discussing education, he said that its purpose was to teach the student 'that his community is a body, of whose organs and limbs he is a part'.[62]

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, the Iranian-born scholar and political activist who was teaching in Egypt at the same time as Marsafi, also used the living body to express the nature of social life. Every organ and limb corresponded to a particular profession or trade, the social groupings to which individuals all belonged. Government, which was one such profession, could be considered the brain, ironsmithing the upper arms, agriculture the liver, seamanship the legs, and so on.[63] This provided a powerful expression of the order of the social world and the authority of different groups within it, and its power was employed frequently in political debate. When Afghani was invited in 1870 to give an address in Istanbul at the inauguration of the new university, he argued for the importance in society of philosophical thought by suggesting that the bodily location of philosophy as a profession was alongside prophecy, in the position of the soul. This attempt to give the practice of philosophy an authoritative position in the social order, expressed in terms of the parts of the body, provoked a storm in Istanbul's scholarly and religious establishment, and Afghani was expelled from the country.[64]

The image of the body was powerful because it provided the separate elements of the human world with their intelligibility, revealing the meaningful relations between them. The living body was an image that expressed an order of things that was given in the nature of human existence, from which could be deduced how the social world should be arranged. It demonstrated hierarchies of task and position, by showing the connections linking different groups into a continuous whole. 'Just as every limb and organ of the body has a function to perform by nature, and one part does not consider its task honorable nor another contemptible but each simply performs that for which it was created ... so the individuals of the community each have a function they must perform.'[65] Like the circle of eight words mentioned earlier, this continuous whole was not an order conceived in the image, common to us today, of an inside versus an outside, a material world versus its structure, or a physical body versus a mental entity called 'the mind'. Thus the rulers corresponded simply to a particular organ of the body. Just as writing was not thought of in the simple terms of the metaphysical presence of an author's meaning in a physical text, in the image of the body there was no abstract authority, no invisible interior source of power governing a physical exterior.

Even among the writers of the 1870s, however, the body as a metaphor was beginning to show symptoms of stress. The body was spoken of, but usually to say that some vital organ was absent,[66] or that some limb was diseased and should be removed.[67] Teachers were to teach their students in


the new government schools that they were the limbs and organs of a body, but if they failed to do so the body itself would fail - the community would not be realised.[68] New political practices were making this image of the body inappropriate. The organisation of schooling, the expanding military order, the rebuilding of the country's capital and other towns and villages, and all the other new methods of order I have discussed in earlier chapters, were all processes introducing a new imagery of the body and at the same time a new effect of political authority. By the last decades of the nineteenth century, the old image of the body was seldom used in political writing. Where the body does appear, it is in a wholly new sense.

Unseen but None the Less Real

The image appears, for example, in Muhammad Majdi's Eighteen Days in Upper Egypt , an account of his trip up the Nile in 1892 on a Thomas Cook steamer. The context is indicative of the changes taking place in Egypt. Majdi was an official in the Egyptian Court of Appeal, and travelled as a tourist on a boat that carried mail, colonial officials, and officers of the army of occupation. The year 1892 was Majdi's first opportunity to tour Upper Egypt since the nationalist uprising of 1880–82, for, as I mentioned in the last chapter, it had taken the British ten years to suppress provincial resistance to the occupation.[69] As he boarded the steamer and set off from Cairo, he described the country as a body, whose heart was its capital city.

Whenever I leave Cairo I think of it as our country's heart, in which we ourselves are like the spherical particles of blood. We accumulate there, and form into lines in order to get out, proceeding just like the fluid of life. It is as though we are impelled by a regulated movement, on which the life of the body depends.[70]

This image of society as a body is very different from the earlier usage. The body is no longer something composed of social groups forming its various limbs and organs. It exists apart from people themselves, as a sort of machinery. The one organ mentioned, the heart, which corresponds to the new colonial capital, is a pump driving the machine. Individuals are not parts of the body, but uniform particles that flow within it. The body's mechanical parts serve to channel, regulate and set in motion these moving particles.

A second example is provided by an article published in March 1900 in one of Egypt's new daily newspapers, al-Liwa ', discussing the political need for organised education. The article compared the country's system of schooling to the nervous system of the body. Each school, it said, could be considered an individual nerve-ending, and the nerve-endings were connected back to the body's central nervous system. The system was con-


trolled and regulated by its brain, the Ministry of Education. Orders were sent out from the brain to the schools at the nerve-endings, which sent back impulses registering the reaction of the school as it made contact with the outside. Although the body in this image still seems to refer to the way in which parts are interconnected, it has become something utterly different. The connection it refers to is not the interaction of separate members that form a whole, but the relationship of an exterior to an interior. Previous images of the parts of the body never referred in this way to an outside, and hence the body was never an inside. The body has now become not only a mechanical object, but an object with an outward surface. Its relationship to an exterior makes it into an interior. This interior forms a political apparatus, whose furthest extension is the school. Seeming to exist apart from a world 'outside', the apparatus of politics and schooling must touch this exterior world, send back messages about it, and work upon it. Notions of this sort the old imagery of the body was never thought to express.

These examples suggest how the political image of the body had changed, in accordance with new political practices. The body as a harmony of interacting parts has been replaced with the body as an apparatus, known as politics, schooling, government, or the state. It is thought of as a structure within which particles move, or else as an internal mechanism working upon something external to it, namely the people, Egyptian society, the outside world. Like the process of writing, the political process was now to be thought of more and more in terms of this kind of mechanical, internal/ external apparatus. Perhaps nothing would seem more straightforward and less metaphysical than the idea of a machine - just as nothing seems more straightforward than the mechanical process of representation by which we understand the nature of meaning. But a machine never occurs by itself. What is mystifying, so to speak, about machinery is that thinking of something as a mere machine always implies something else apart from the machine; just as what is mystifying about the exhibition, as I suggested in chapter 1, is the effect it produces of a real world outside, a place beyond the process of representation. The image of the machine makes possible certain fundamental yet seemingly obvious separations in the understanding of the political world: between the machinery and the 'raw material' outside, and also between the mechanism and its operator. It is these separations, which pass unnoticed, that turn out to be problematic. I will illustrate this with a final example.

Just as the new machinery of war and communication, as we saw at the start of this chapter, was essential to Britain's colonial occupation of Egypt, the machine was a favourite metaphor among British colonial administrators. In Cromer's Modern Egypt the system of colonial power is described again and again as a machine, indeed as 'one of the most complicated politi-


cal and administrative machines the world has ever known'. Chapters of Cromer's work are devoted to the 'nature of the machinery' and to describing the 'parts of the machine'. To explain the ideal of colonial government, explicit comparisons are made to steam machinery, where 'the rate at which each wheel turns is regulated to a nicety'. Safety-valves and 'a variety of other checks and counterchecks' are required as 'guarantees against accident'. In general, each portion of the machinery is to operate under 'perfect control'.[71] Cromer's text can be considered one of the first major works of modern political science, and it foreshadows in its vocabulary the kind of idiom which political science was required to develop. Politics is conceived mechanically, in terms of equilibrium and control, input and output - or in Cromer's terms, raw material and finished article. The colonial official, he wrote, 'will soon find that the Egyptian, whom he wishes to mould into something really useful ... is merely the rawest of raw material'. The tools with which he worked would determine 'the excellence of the finished article'.[72] The political is a machinery, working upon an external world, a world in which the lives of Egyptians occur as 'raw material'.

This image of the political process corresponds both to the new, mechanical image of the body and to the new understanding of writing. Writing too was now to be understood as a mere apparatus or instrument, like the body and hence like the machinery of politics, an apparatus of communication which reacts to or works upon a world external to it. Like this understanding of the text, the politics of the world-as-exhibition would now presuppose its own unproblematic exterior, the raw world outside itself forming its great referent. Yet although writing, the body and the political process were each now understood mechanically, each seemed to share a similar physical/metaphysical nature. Just as the mechanical understanding of the body now presupposed the 'mind', the non-mechanical (nonphysical) operating consciousness whose orders and intentions the body mechanically relayed, so writing would now presuppose an operating consciousness. A text would be the representation of an author, in our modern sense, of whose intentions and meanings it was likewise merely the machine. Just as the body was now thought of as a vehicle through which a mind communicates with the world, so writing was to be thought of from now on as a mere vehicle of communication which makes an author's mind or truth present in the world. Politics, in turn, would be understood as a mysterious machine that makes present the ideal realm of an authority, the state, within the material world of society.

After four chapters of Modern Egypt describing the various parts of the political machine, Cromer comes to describe himself, the Consul-General. The passage in which he introduces himself illustrates this new notion of authority. His power is mechanical, we are told, like the power of other parts


of the colonial apparatus, yet, as we will read, it is unseen. It is something real, but invisible, operating through the machine and yet existing apart from it. To express this strange idea the metaphor switches, at a certain moment in the writing, between the machine and the body. 'An endeavour has been made in the four preceding chapters to give some idea of the machinery of Government in Egypt ...', Cromer begins.

This description is however incomplete; indeed in some respects it is almost misleading; for allusion has so far only been made to those portions of the State machinery whose functions can be described with some degree of precision. There are, however, other portions of that machinery whose functions are incapable of exact definition, but whose existence is none the less real. Whether, in fact, the whole machine works well or ill depends in no small degree upon the action of those parts of the machinery which, to a superficial observer, might appear unnecessary, if not detrimental to its efficient working. In the Egyptian body politic, the unseen is often more important than the seen. Notably, of late years a vague but preponderant power has been vested in the hands of the British Consul-General ...[73]

Cromer has discussed the power and functioning of each part of the political apparatus over several chapters without once, as far as I know, employing the image of the body. At the moment when he turns to discuss power itself — the vague, invisible, preponderant power of the 'British representative', who 'represents' colonial authority itself — the machine metaphor is suddenly associated with the body. In terms of the 'body politic' one can speak of the 'unseen'. To the physical apparatus of the body can be added a separate entity, the non-physical, non-visible realm of authority itself. Colonial authority appears as this unseen, yet 'none the less real', metaphysical power. Although the metaphor switches from the machine to the physical body, there is no contradiction. The body is now thought of like a machine, and a machine, like a physical body, always implies a non-mechanical power separate from itself. There is always apart from the machine an operator or a 'motive force', as Cromer says, the working of an unseen will.

What matters about this language is not how well it represents the working of colonial authority. What is interesting is the kind of imagery to which writings like Modern Egypt must resort in order to echo and correspond to the strange effects of colonial power. The question that matters is what kind of thing colonial or modern power might be, if it must be depicted in the form of a machine. The machine always implies an operator apart from itself, just as writing is now distinguished from its author's meaning and the physical body from its mind. In each case there is an absolute separation between a visible, material apparatus and an intention, meaning or truth continuously presented from within it. The world divided into two realms


that I have been describing in these pages is a world where political power, however microphysical in its methods, operates always so as to appear as something set apart from the real world, effecting a certain, metaphysical authority.


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