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Colonizing Egypt: A Review on the Methods of Western Imperialism
Colonising Egypt, a work by Timothy Mitchell, observes the process and the resulting consequences of colonialism on three separate stages: that of the world-at-exhibition, the Egyptian city, and the West. Within each instance there is evidence for distinct divisions between the interior, or organized framework, and the exterior, seen as an unsystematic chaos. In a detailed exposition of these different levels of “enframing”, in which order is imposed through division, control, and motivation, Mitchell repositions the study of colonial history.
It is the egocentric European certainty of exhibiting a superior political structure that supposedly allows them to reach out and impose their abstract ideals and physical structures upon a foreign society, since, through events such as world fairs and exhibitions, an understanding of an alien people has already been attained. Life as depicted within these public displays was clearly understood as being nothing more than a mere representation, yet was structured in accordance with actual reality, leading in lieu to the imposition of order on the object that was originally only symbolized. In Mitchell’s case that represented object was Egypt, which now served as the goal of British colonialist efforts.
The same organizational methods that were applied to the exhibition were then, during the early 19th century, imposed upon Egyptian society itself through a series of deliberate and systematic reforms. The military had undergone a modernizing effort immediately after the Napoleonic conquest, and was therefore already conformed to the European wants of discipline and order, which functioned through the physical confinement of troops, allowing both for surveillance and the establishment of hierarchies.
The militaristic approach although did not remain within the barracks, but was introduced into civilian life. The city was the first to undergo an innovative transformation. The neat divisions and containments of the newly structured capital and corresponding villages became representative of things unseen, such as clarity and logic. But the tangible, material state of Egypt was not the only aspect to be addressed; the unseen elements of existence also received necessary attention, the most important of these, being the mind.
Thought witnessed a transformation via education, a creation of the 19th century. School locations, classrooms, and schedules were completely standardized and meticulously constructed. Here, within the walls of academia, students were introduced to self-discipline, productiveness, and “patriotism”. The goal of formalized education was the creation of the model citizen, who was now -in correlation to the newly ordered city- direly needed.
The greatest contribution of this new found educational system was perhaps the field of practice known as politics, which after the 1860s deemed its responsibilities to include maintaining the health of the masses, policing as well as reorganizing the streets, and most of all, the education of ignorant minds. Instead of the sporadic pre-colonial monopolization on power, the modern stance of politics focused in on the individual. Again, a framework directed the workings of the populace beginning on the inside (the individual), and progressing outward (the society).
Since the innovative outlook of 19th century politics focused on the individual, the colonial powers adjusted their Oriental views to continue the monitoring and manipulation of restructuring. This was done through anthropological means, such as the ethnography, which exemplified the practice of cultural relativism, or the unbiased appreciation of another culture. The main focus of these early cultural assessments centered on the European idea of indolence, which, through the written word, managed to infiltrate Egyptian society, in turn causing productiveness to become the primary concern of the state and the individual.
If nothing else, enframing featured one paradox after the next. The Orientalist scoffed at the inferior Egyptian, yet took pride in showcasing their practices, traditions, and environment. Europeans went to search for the true meaning of what they had seen as a representation, only to degrade the actual object for not resembling the reproduced image. Order was imposed upon a society that had to retain a measure of its original “disorganized” state for the actual presence of “order” to be realized. Framework is deemed as primordial and a necessity, but only arises in response to the restructuring of Egyptian society. Most importantly, the order and certainty of representation became the order and certainty of reality.
Copyright Lilith Eden 2011. All Rights Reserved.