Preferred Citation: Mitchell, Timothy. Colonising Egypt. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1988 1988.

Preface to the Paperback Edition

Preface to the Paperback Edition

This book is not a history of the British colonisation of Egypt but a study of the power to colonise. While focussing on events in Egypt in the latter part of the nineteenth century, its argument is addressed to the place of colonialism in the critique of modernity. Colonising refers not simply to the establishing of a European presence but also to the spread of a political order that inscribes in the social world a new conception of space, new forms of personhood, and a new means of manufacturing the experience of the real. Colonising Egypt analyses in the everyday details of the colonial project the metaphysics of its power.

Chapters 2, 3, and 4 of the book examine the development in Egypt of the power to colonise. Chapter 2 begins by describing a novel attempt in the early nineteenth century to regulate the daily life of rural Egyptians. In the 1820s and 1830s orders were issued from Cairo prohibiting the movement of villagers outside their native districts, prescribing the crops they were to grow and the means of cultivation, distribution, and payment, and stipulating the hierarchy of surveillance, inspection, and punishment by which these rules were to be enforced. Attempting to control from Cairo the agricultural revenue of the Nile valley was nothing new. But earlier forms of control were always porous and uncertain. Typically, a powerful central household imposed levies on less powerful regional households, which in turn imposed obligations on those around them. Revenues flowing towards the center were liable to leak at each juncture and could be increased only by further expansion outward, which weakened the network by adding further points of leakage. The new controls of the nineteenth century attempted not just to appropriate a share of the agricultural surplus but to penetrate the processes of rural production, manipulate its elements, and multiply what John Bowring (an English advisor to the Egyptian government) called 'the productive powers' of the country. The effectiveness of disciplinary methods, as Michel Foucault has termed these modern forms of power, lay not in their weight or extent, but in the localised ability to infiltrate, rearrange, and colonise.

Bowring, the advisor in Cairo, was the friend and assistant of the En-


glish reformer Jeremy Bentham, who in turn was the inventor of the Panopticon, the institution in which the use of coercion and commands to control a population was replaced by the partitioning of space, the isolation of individuals, and their systematic yet unseen surveillance. Foucault has suggested that the geometry and discipline of the Panopticon can serve as an emblem of the micro-physical forms of power that have proliferated in the last two centuries and formed the experience of capitalist modernity.

Foucault's analyses are focused on France and northern Europe, yet forms of power based on the re-ordering of space and the surveillance and control of its occupants were by nature colonising in method. Moreover, examples of the Panopticon and similar disciplinary institutions were developed and introduced in many cases not in France or England but on the colonial frontiers of Europe, in places like Russia, India, North and South America, and Egypt. Jeremy Bentham corresponded with local rulers in all these places, including the governor in Cairo, Muhammad Ali Pasha, advocating the introduction of the panoptic principle and other new techniques. For many Europeans—military officers, Saint-Simonist engineers, educationalists, physicians, and others—a place like nineteenth-century Cairo provided the opportunity to help establish a modern state based on the new methods of disciplinary power.

The model for the new forms of power in Egypt, as chapter 2 explains, was the New Order, the Egyptian military reform of the 1820s whose innovative methods of manoeuvering and managing armed men created a military force more than four times the size and strength of previous armies. The creation of this force had both regional and domestic consequences. Regionally, it enabled Cairo to colonise an empire that stretched from Arabia and the Sudan in the south to Greece and Crete and later Palestine and Syria in the north. Local revolt and European intervention forced the empire's dismantling, and military power was subsequently redeployed to set up and police the geographical boundaries that created Egypt as a politico-spatial entity. European commercial and political penetration further weakened the regime in Cairo and brought on its economic collapse, followed in 1882 by the British invasion and occupation.

Domestically, the creation of the new army, as Bowring remarked, 'was in itself the establishment of a principle of order which spread over the entire surface of society.' The spread of this principle is examined in chapters 3 and 4. In agriculture the new controls over movement, production, and consumption were decentralized and intensified by converting the country's 'productive powers'—meaning villagers and their lands—into commodities. The same principle of order was manifested in the rebuilding of Cairo and other Egyptian towns and villages to create a system of regular, open streets, in the supervision of hygiene and public health, and above all in the introduction of compulsory schooling. School instruction


seemed to offer a means of transforming every youth in the country into an industrious and obedient political subject. In the second half of the nineteenth century the discipline of schooling came to be considered the defining element in the politics of the modern state. Political order was to be achieved not through the intermittent use of coercion but through continuous instruction, inspection, and control.

Disciplinary methods have two important consequences for an understanding of the colonial and modern state—only the first of which is analysed by Foucault. In the first place, one can move beyond the image of power as a system of authoritative commands or policies backed by force that direct and constrain social action. Power is usually imagined as an exterior restriction: its source is a sovereign authority above and outside society, and it operates by setting limits to behaviour, establishing negative prohibitions, and laying down channels of proper conduct.

Disciplinary power, by contrast, works not from the outside but from within, not at the level of an entire society but at the level of detail, and not by restricting individuals and their actions but by producing them. A restrictive, exterior power gives way to an internal, productive power. Disciplines work within local domains and institutions, entering into particular social processes, breaking them down into separate functions, rearranging the parts, increasing their efficiency and precision, and reassembling them into more productive and powerful combinations. These methods produce the organised power of armies, schools, and factories, and other distinctive institutions of modern nation-states. They also produce, within such institutions, the modern individual, constructed as an isolated, disciplined, receptive, and industrious political subject. Power relations do not simply confront this individual as a set of external orders and prohibitions. His or her very individuality, formed within such institutions, is already the product of those relations.

One should not overstate the coherence of these technologies, as Foucault sometimes does. Disciplines can break down, counteract one another, or overreach. They offer spaces for manoeuver and resistance, and can be turned to counter-hegemonic purposes. Anti-colonial movements have often derived their organisational forms from the military and their methods of discipline and indoctrination from schooling. They have frequently been formed within the barracks, the campus, or other institutions of the colonial state. At the same time, in abandoning the image of colonial power as simply a coercive central authority, one should also question the traditional figure of resistance as a subject who stands outside this power and refuses its demands. Colonial subjects and their modes of resistance axe formed within the organisational terrain of the colonial state, rather than some wholly exterior social space.

The second consequence of disciplinary power, the one that Michel Fou-


cault does not discuss, yet the more important for understanding the peculiarity of capitalist modernity, is that at the same time as power relations become internal in this way, and by the same methods, they now appear to take the form of external structures. For example, the Egyptian military reforms of the early nineteenth century transformed groups of armed men into what seemed an 'artificial machine.' This military apparatus appeared somehow greater than the sum of its parts, as though it were a structure with an existence independent of the men who composed it. Older armies suddenly looked formless, composed of 'idle and inactive men,' while the new army seemed two-dimensional. It appeared to consist on the one hand of individual soldiers and on the other of the machine they inhabited. Of course this apparatus has no independent existence. It is an effect produced by the organised distribution of men, the coordination of their movement, the partitioning of space, and the hierarchical ordering of units, all of which are particular practices. There was nothing in the new power of the army except this distributing, arranging, and moving. But the order and precision of such processes created the effect of an apparatus apart from the men themselves, whose structure orders, contains, and controls them.

A similar two-dimensional effect can be seen at work in other forms of colonising power. In the nineteenth-century rebuilding of Cairo, for example, the layout of the new streets was designed to give the appearance of a plan. Such a plan was not merely a device to aid the work of urban reconstruction but a principle of order to be represented in the layout of the city's streets and inscribed in the life of its inhabitants. The new city remained, like the old city, simply a certain distributing of surfaces and spaces. But the regularity of the distribution was to create the experience of something existing apart from the physical streets as their non-physical structure. The order of the city was now to be grasped in terms of this relation between the material realisation of things themselves (as one could now say) and their invisible, meta-physical structure.

The precise specification of space and function that characterise modern institutions, the coordination of these functions into hierarchical arrangements, the organisation of supervision and surveillance, the marking out of time into schedules and programmes—all contribute to constructing a world that appears to consist not of a complex of social practices but of a binary order: on the one hand individuals and their activities, on the other an inert structure that somehow stands apart from individuals, preexists them, and contains and gives a framework to their lives. Such techniques have given rise to the peculiar metaphysic of modernity, where the world seems resolved into the two-dimensional form of individual versus apparatus, practice versus institution, social life and its structure—or material reality and its meaning.


The question of meaning or representation is an essential aspect of this structural effect, and is the central theme of the book. The methods of organisation and arrangement that produce the new effects of structure, it is argued, also generate the modern experience of meaning as a process of representation. In the metaphysics of capitalist modernity, the world is experienced in terms of an ontological distinction between physical reality and its representation—in language, culture, or other forms of meaning. Reality is material, inert, and without inherent meaning, and representation is the non-material, non-physical dimension of intelligibility. Colonising Egypt explores the power and limits of this ontology by showing the forms of colonising practice that generate it. As a motif exemplifying the nature of representation, the book takes the great nineteenth-century world exhibitions that formed part of Europe's colonising project. Drawing on the work of Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida, it refers to this modernist metaphysics as the world-as-exhibition.

Chapter 1 of the book, which precedes the analysis of disciplinary power outlined above, introduces the problem by reading from the accounts of Egyptian and other Arab travellers who visited nineteenth-century Europe. The most common topic of their accounts was the description of the world exhibitions, where they encountered imitation bazaars, Oriental palaces, exotic commodities, colonial natives in their natural habitats, and all the truth of imperial power and cultural difference.

Drawing from the Arabic accounts, the chapter locates the distinctiveness of representation in the ability to set apart a realm of images and signs from the real world they represent. It then shows how this separation, which is analogous to the structural effects just mentioned, lacks the ontological certainty it claims and is no more than an uncertain and unstable effect.

What most surprised the non-European visitors to the exhibitions was the realism of the artificial. The famous Rue du Caire at the 1889 Paris exhibition reproduced an entire street of the Egyptian capital, and imported real Egyptian donkeys and their drivers. By its realism, the artificial proclaims itself to be not the real. The very scale and accuracy of the model assure the visitor that there must exist some original of which this is a mere copy. Such techniques persuade one not that the representation is necessarily exact, but that there is a pure reality out there, untouched by the forms of displacement, intermediation, and repetition that render the image merely an image.

Chapter 1 discusses several features of the exhibitions that reinforce this modernist experience of the real, by generating what seems an unproblematic distinction between reality and its representation. Physical barriers separate the exhibition from the real world outside. The displays inside are


arranged to express the European historicoeographic order of culture and evolution, an order reflected and reproduced in the multitude of plans, signposts, and guidebooks to the exhibition. As a result, the exhibition appears not just to mimic the real world outside but to superimpose a framework of meaning over its innumerable races, territories, and commodities. Made to appear an abstract order apart from physical reality, this framework is an effect of structure analogous to those of military order, urban planning, and other colonising practices mentioned above, produced by similar methods of coordination and arrangement.

The technique of representation was not limited to the world exhibitions. Outside the exhibitions visitors to Europe encountered further mechanisms of representation. In museums and Orientalist congresses, the theatre and the zoo, schools and department stores, the very streets of the modern city with their meaningful facades, they found the method of meaning to be the same. Everything seemed to be set up before the observer as a picture or exhibition of something, representing some reality beyond. The visitor to Europe encountered not just exhibitions of the world, but the world itself ordered up as though it were an endless exhibition.

The extent of the processes of representation begins to reveal the elusiveness of their apparently simple structural effect. The structure of meaning in a system of representation arises, it is suggested, from the distinction maintained between the realm of representation and the external reality to which it refers. Yet this real world, outside the exhibition, seems actually to have consisted only of further representations of the real. Just as the imitations in the exhibition were marked with traces of the real (were the natives on display not real people?), so the reality outside was never quite unmediated. Colonising Egypt is not concerned so much with this necessary elusiveness, but with the question of how it comes to be overlooked. How does the colonising process extend the world-as-exhibition, supplanting with its powerful metaphysic other less effective theologies?

As a counterpart to the Arab descriptions of Europe with which the book begins, the second half of chapter 1 considers the writings of nineteenth-century Europeans who left the world-as-exhibition and travelled to the Arab world. Their purpose in travelling to the Orient was to experience the reality they had seen so often on exhibit, but what they found there confused them. Although they thought of themselves as moving from exhibits of the Orient to the real thing, they went on trying to grasp the real thing as an exhibit. This was inevitable. To the European, reality meant that which presents itself in terms of a distinction between representation and original; something to be grasped as though it were an exhibit. Unlike London or Paris, however, a place such as Cairo had not yet been rearranged in terms of this absolute distinction and set up as an exhibition before the visitor's gaze.


The Orient refused to present itself like an exhibit, and so appeared simply orderless and without meaning. The colonising process was to introduce the kind of order now found lacking—the effect of structure that was to provide not only a new disciplinary power but also the novel ontology of representation.

In chapters 2, 3, and 4, the discussion of military methods, model villages, urban planning, schooling, and other colonising projects explores the ways in which these methods of order simultaneously inscribed in the social world a new legibility. The disciplined and uniformed soldier would now be clearly distinguishable from civilians, making it possible to identify stragglers and overcome the last major barrier to the development of large armies—the problem of desertion. Model villages were intended to organise and make legible the life of ordinary Egyptians, introducing an architecture that would make even women and their families visible to the 'observation of the police'. The new, open streets of modern Cairo and other Egyptian towns embodied a similar principle of visibility and observation, the principle of the exhibition. The hierarchy of the new primary, secondary, and higher schools constructed over the entire country was designed to give a describable structure to the new nation-state. At the same time, the schools made available a general code of instruction and information, to be mastered prior to embarking on life itself. Without this code, the existence of a nation-state was now considered impossible.

In each of these cases the principle at work was the same. The methods of order and arrangement created the effect of structure. Like the careful layout of an exhibition, this structure appeared as a framework within which activities could be organised, controlled, and observed; and it also appeared as a plan or programme, supplementing the activity with its meaning. The same technologies of order created both a disciplinary power and a seemingly separate realm of meaning or truth.

Chapter 5 of the book explores the relationship between truth and power a step further, by turning to the question of language and drawing a parallel between the creation of linguistic intention or authority and the creation of political authority in the colonial state. Language provides the most far-reaching example of how the distinctive technologies of the colonial age, including new methods of communication, printing, and schooling, create the effect of a structure apart from reality, supplementing it with what is experienced as its order and meaning. Drawing again on the work of Jacques Derrida, the chapter suggests how the modern understanding of language is intertwined with these new technologies. It rests upon the mechanical theory of representation generated by the world-as-exhibition, whose metaphysic was not shared by pre-modern Arab scholarship.

Arabic writing was transformed by the new technologies. Textual practices designed to protect the meaning or intention of writing were made


obsolete by the metaphysics of representation. Textual intention was analogous in nature and method to the intention or authority of political power, and in fact had always formed an important part of such power. The new effect of meaning—as an abstract frame constituted in opposition to the real—offered at the same time a new effect of political authority. Like meaning in the world-as-exhibition, authority was now to appear as a generalised abstraction, with names like law or the state. Like meaning, it would now appear as a framework standing outside the real world. The colonial transformations that introduced the effects of representation tended at the same time to create this new effect of authority.

To make its argument about the metaphysics of Western writing, chapter 5 sketches an account of some of the practices surrounding the art of writing in the pre-colonial Arab world. This account resembles parts of other chapters that discuss pre-colonial methods of building, of organising space, of learning, and of producing meaning and social order. These passages are deliberately fragmentary and incomplete. They do not pretend to represent a pre-colonial past. For reasons that lie at the core of the argument of this book, such a representation would not be possible. Rather, they are intended as commentaries on the book's account of the colonising project, to suggest the possibility of thinking about language, meaning, and political order in ways that are not governed by the metaphysic of representation. The passages should also be read as arguments with the work of the contemporary theorists to whom they refer, such as Pierre Bourdieu and Jacques Derrida. The aim is to advance a more radical critique of modernity than their theories are usually allowed to support.

JUNE 1991


Preface to the Paperback Edition

Preferred Citation: Mitchell, Timothy. Colonising Egypt. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1988 1988.