Can the pipe speak? An interview with Timothy Mitchell

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Timothy Mitchell is a political theorist and historian and currently a professor and chair of the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University. Mitchell’s research has focused on the Middle East, particularly Egypt’s recent history, but his work on subjects such as the making of modernity, the material and technical politics of modern States, and the role of economics and other forms of expert knowledge in governing collective life has influenced scholars from different “areas”, including certainly several of the contributors of this blog. In the interview podcasted in this post, which was carried out in Columbia University last January 24th, we discuss Mitchell’s work in chronological order[i], from Colonising Egypt (1991) to Carbon Democracy (2011). Enjoy!

images (1)Q1. In Colonising Egypt there is a very stimulating analysis of private property and the way it is enacted on the ground, which refreshed a key point within the Marxist tradition that seems to have been left behind in the study of Western nations. This emphasis on private property, or privatization processes, is surely important to think about neoliberalization in the periphery, but, and considering that you have also questioned this type of typologies, can property be also a useful starting point to think about what is happening in Europe, the US or generally the Western North?

A1. [5.12 mins.]

Q2. The second question is about the continuity you establish in Rule of Experts between what we could call a Keynesianism state and Monetarism in the way they construct “the economy”. For Latin-Americans, this might be surprising because most of the literature has taken for granted the existence of a big break or discontinuity between the state and governments before and after the neo-liberal reforms. Do you think these different emphases can be related to Latin-American-Middle East specificities or are they rather the expression of a different conceptual starting point?

A2. [9.22 mins.]

Q3. The third question is about your articles about economics and the economy (see for instance: ‘The properties of markets’ and ‘The work of Economics’) that were published between Rule of Experts and Carbon Democracy. Our impression is that, although there is no doubt these works relate to Callon’s writings about the performativity of economic knowledge, there is also (for instance in your analysis about Hernando De Soto’s entitlement program and the way it travelled from Lima to Egypt through the think-tanks in London and Washington DC) a kind of broader understanding of performativity and of the range of actors involved in these processes. Do you see that difference too?

A3. [5.00 mins.]

Q4. This approach though implies a great methodological challenge for researchers. How do you follow a case that includes poor settlements and settlers in Lima, public officials in Egypt and Peru, think tanks in at least three continents, and economists from different universities around the world?

A4. [5.11 mins.]

Q5. Your most recent book Carbon Democracy crosses so many issues and topics usually treated separately by economists, post colonial scholars or political scientists. The book suggests that to understand the political history of carbon energies, we do not only need to follow more or less heroic entrepreneurs, as traditional historians would do, neither focusing solely on the workers’ political struggles, as Marxists and postcolonial theorists would prefer, but the attention needs to be focused also on the networks, rails and
pipelines. The question is: when and how pipelines become political agents and how come we as researcher can follow them in their political roles?

A5. [4.43 mins.]

Q6. The next question is about your epistemological writings, particularly your article about the tension between area studies and the consolidation of the division of subjects among the social sciences (economics and the economy, politics and government, anthropology and culture and so on) in the book The Politics of Knowledge. This issue is a source of trouble for many Latin-American scholars. For the generation of my professors, the scope of their expertise was limited by the border of the nation state or at most regional concerns, but they were “experts” about many topics at once within these range. Our generation, on the other hand, has experienced a process of internationalization and we became specialists about certain topics. I think there is a certain risk or that perhaps we are losing something here. For instance, our work can tend to reproduce ethnocentric categories and to be limited to show how things like property, markets or democracy do not work the same way they work in the textbook definitions defined mainly in North American universities. What do you think about this, can we participate in the international dialogue without being trapped in both specialization and the asymmetries of the internationalization of the social science disciplines?

A6. [6.40 mins.]

Q7. We – I mean sociologists, anthropologists, political theorists and historians- are also knowledge producers. As such, what could we bring to our own practice from what we have learned about economists that have been probably the most studied knowledge producers within the social scientists?

A7. [7.49 mins.]

Q8. Could you tell us about your current work?  What are you working on now?

A8. [2.06 mins.]

Mariana Heredia

[i] Mitchell’s first book, Colonising Egypt (1991), follows the emergence of modern modes of government in the colonial period and explores the forms of reason, power and knowledge that define the experience of modernity in this country. By analyzing the interaction of law, private property, and violence, Mitchell’s second monograph, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (2002), questions the distinction between globalization as an economic and universal process and politics as a jurisdiction limited to national states. In this latter book and in the series of articles that followed it, Mitchell creatively used the work of Michel Callon and colleagues in order to reconstruct the making of “the economy” and “the market” as objects of twentieth-century economic knowledge and government. This particular dialogue between postcolonial theory and science and technology studies is extended in Carbon Democracy, Mitchell’s most recent book, that examines how western democracies are related to the construction of modern energy networks and the politics in Middle East.

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