- The Great Social Laboratory: Subjects of Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Egypt
Through her 2007 book The Great Social Laboratory, Omnia El Shakry has rendered an important service for historians of modern Egypt. By casting light on figures within the emergent social science disciplines of the early twentieth century, she has begun to tell a part of the story of Egyptian modernity that has hitherto received scanty attention. Unfortunately, though, the book seems to have little to offer to those with interests beyond Egypt. The eponymous "great social laboratory" seems, in retrospect, not quite so "'great" after all, at least for those readers interested in the possible comparative dimensions of El Shakry's topic—that is to say, the implications of her argument for colonial-national contexts beyond Egypt and the Middle East.
In terms that will be quite familiar to students of the various knowledge production projects mounted by colonial-national states during the modern period, El Shakry traces the development of discourses of subjectivity in Egypt from the British occupation, through the so-called liberal period, to the 1952 revolution and the rise of Nasserism in Egypt. She quite properly insists that we take seriously the contributions that Egyptian scholars made to this process of seeking to cultivate healthy, industrious, docile political subjects in the Nile Valley. Indeed, to my mind, the account is most valuable for singling out academics like Muhammad Ghallab, 'Abbas Mustafa 'Ammar, Elie Nassif, and Mirrit Butrus Ghali as a means by which to expose how the development of "native" social scientific disciplines fostered these discourses of subjectivity. It is worthy of particular note that El Shakry defies traditional periodizations of Egyptian history by demonstrating continuities among the work of colonial-era, liberal-era, and finally revolutionary-era social scientists.
The text contains fascinating details about the transmission and adaptation of social scientific thought, particularly in regard to race, the countryside, public health, women's reproductive roles, and the place of the state in both economic and social life. What is missing, unfortunately, is a considered analysis of what such a narrative contributes to our existing understanding of the development of an Egyptian modernity. There is no question that El Shakry is deeply engaged with scholarly debates on the role of the disciplines in the cultivation of modern subjectivities (perhaps too deeply, a subject to which I will return). For those unfamiliar with these debates, and particularly with how they have played out in Middle Eastern contexts, El Shakry's text furnishes an extremely useful synthesis. But for those already familiar with the debates, the text seldom moves beyond synthesis. Ultimately, the narrative of the Egyptian social sciences the author pursues is simply not put to use in questioning, revising, or even refining existing scholarship.
While scholars like Khaled Fahmy and Gregory Starrett, together more recently with Hanan Kholoussy, Liat Kozma, and Mario Ruiz, have effectively critiqued Timothy Mitchell's overreliance on the discourses of the powerful in analyzing the development of modern Egyptian subjectivities, El Shakry seems to return to these discourses with little regard for the inherently fractured and problematic ways in which they played out "on the ground," so to speak. The claim seems to be that the history of the "subaltern masses" is fundamentally intertwined with "ideas, epistemological orientations, and structures of knowledge" (221). One would be hard-pressed to challenge such a claim, but I am left to wonder whether this is simply a "straw man," easily knocked down. Surely the vital question to ask is not whether but how to explain this link between subalterns and structures of knowledge. Specifically, what types of sources will enable historians to tell the story of the impact of ideas on people's everyday lives?
There are two major stylistic flaws in the text that necessarily hamper readers' efforts to draw out this connection between ideas and people. The first is the author's tendency to employ language that is inaccessible, at best. This is clearly not a book aimed at...