Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts

Ch. 1 “Can the Mosquito Speak?”

About as iconic an example of a Foucauldian approach to technopolitical analysis as you’re going to find. Would also be good as a way to think about actor-network theory or something rather like it.

Starts with what seems like environmental determinism, but very quickly switches up both by bringing increasingly complex chains of causation into the picture; second by subordinating disease and food to technological and economic institutions and the landscapes of change and action that they create; third by introducing the figure of unintended or anticipated change and quickly ramping that up to near-ontological primacy (e.g., that the complexity of causality + the full ‘landscape’ of environmental transformation + the near-certainty of unintended effects = technopolitical change is always unmanageable and inevitably destructive, but that power allows some human agents and institutions to weather unmanageability better.)

“Dams, blood-borne parasites, synthetic chemicals, mechanized war, and man-made famine coincided and interacted.” But says: it’s not enough that they interacted–that’s a fairly conventional kind of argument in environmental and technological history (add a new variable! add a new relationship!).

Commandment against “isolating” any factor or element from interaction–that this is not just an ordinary error, but crucial to the functioning of technopolitical power. The list of things that should not be isolated out multiplies on p. 28: colonialism, nationalism, developmentalism, social class and social change, capitalism, globalization, modernity. And the attempt to stand in a “universal” location to appreciate all those additions is in turn yet another part of technopolitical power–the analyst is outside of and exempt from the analysis.

What does it mean to make organisms, water, dams, institutions into actors w/agency? In part that (following in his reading Marx) there is no human agency without technics; that all agency is hybrid–human-water, government-dam, mosquito-building. By p. 34 I’d argue that the repudiation of a liberal theory of agency is so total however that the human is now somewhat indistinguishable from “additional agencies, circulations and forces”, that no kind of atomism or distinction is permitted. Take that too seriously and language itself is indicted in the dock.

“It was an important aspect of the politics of technical expertise that these failures were overlooked, in fact actively covered up. Techno-science had to conceal its extrascientific origins. Nowhere…was it mentioned that every one of these technologies–crop spraying, high-yield corn, drainage mechanisms, fertilizer plants, or a mud brick more resistant to disease–were themselves responses (and unsuccessful responses) to problems caused by earlier techno-scientific projects, in particular the Aswan Dam.” p. 42

Even that which technopolitical work calls its progress or triumph, in Mitchell’s reading, is the outcome of unintended or unanticipated systematic effects. But this for me is another huge objection in the end to Mitchell’s framing (throughout the book): that a theory of unintention (or emergence) should allow that sometimes unintention subverts or destroys existing structures of power, and that sometimes broadly speaking “good” things happen. Either way is kicking modernism in the and I’m all for that–it denies that for the most part that we can consciously name a goal that is based on independent, objective analysis and then consciously measure the steps necessary to reach the goal. But there is a problem with assuming that unintention always preserves forms of rule or power and that it always has a perverse directionality.

Strongest possible statement against: nature/culture; material/idealist; naturalist/agentive; environment/society, reason/forces and so on.

I understand Mitchell’s assertion that this does not mean “introducting a limitless number of actors and networks, all of which are somehow of equal significance and power”. But it’s not clear on what basis we could provide a limit if not through the kind of reasoning that social science provisions.

1 thought on “Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts

  1. richard


    Can you detail what you understand by Foucaultian when you say:

    “About as iconic an example of a Foucauldian approach to technopolitical analysis as you’re going to find. Would also be good as a way to think about actor-network theory or something rather like it. ”

    Can one think of this approach or intuition as what might be called kaleidoscopic?



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