Lisa Wedeen, “Ideology and Humor in Dark Times: Notes from Syria.” Critical Inquiry 39.4 (2013).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?
Lisa Wedeen (LW): This article is part of a book project on what I call “neoliberal autocracy” and its unmaking. The book was initially envisioned as an account of aging authoritarianism and generational change. Then the uprisings happened and my orientation, although still centered on issues animating that project, had to evolve in response to new circumstances--conditions that have produced moments of joyous camaraderie, as well as ongoing experiences of anxiety, fear, nostalgia, and soul-crushing loss. Oddly enough, right at the moment when my first book, Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria (University of Chicago Press, 1999), was receiving unprecedented attention in the Middle East of 2011, I found myself experiencing the book’s limitations. Returning to do fresh fieldwork in altered circumstances required me to explore complexities Ambiguities had neglected. The new book charts changing power dynamics in the 2000s and early 2010s, but also provides what I hope is a nuanced general theoretical account of ideological “interpellation” (to use Louis Althusser’s felicitous term)—the differentiated ways in which people are “hailed” into a system. The book analyzes the unevenly saturating conditions, contradictions, and incoherencies that help explain some citizens’ political ambivalence and others’ willingness to take extraordinary risks in an attempt to transform political life.
The article gets at some of these concerns by asking why, during the first year and a half of the Syrian uprising, the populations of the two major cities (Aleppo and Damascus) failed to mobilize in significant numbers, even as Syrians in many other areas were taking to the streets. And why did this reluctance to participate actively in the uprising seem to be changing in the spring of 2012—prior to events country-wide taking an overwhelmingly violent turn, making large-scale peaceful demonstrations unlikely anywhere? These questions may seem remote from the current horror, but they suggest important ways of understanding aspects of what has become an ongoing tragedy.
J: You’ve begun to discuss this article in relation to the book. Say more.
LW: “Ideology and Humor in Dark Times” sutures together arguments from two separate chapters. One chapter deals with the seductions entailed in what, following Lauren Berlant, I call an ideology of “the good life,” comprised not only of the usual aspirations to economic well-being, but also fantasies of multicultural accommodation, domestic security, and a sovereign national identity. This version of the good life, I maintain, generated the conditions for sustaining neoliberal autocracy in the first decade of Bashar al-Asad’s rule. Attempting to comprehend both the tenacity and incompleteness of ideological reproduction, the article then draws on a second chapter, about how laughter operated for Syria’s television-savvy citizenry under the market-oriented autocracy of Bashar al-Asad. Taking as emblematic the work of Allayth Hajju, one of Syria’s best-known television directors, this part of the article analyzes humor as a way to think through both the grim realities of Bashar al-Asad’s rule and the evident enticements of the neoliberal turn. As I argue in the article, “at times uncannily prescient, at times poignantly bleak, Hajju’s comedy opens up alternatives to its own most conservative impulses….[It] illustrates and helps perpetuate the ideology of neoliberal autocracy; at the same time, it provides some openings for, while attempting to manage, an oppositional consciousness.” The parts of the chapter not included here—and still very much in progress—track humor’s evolution (in the form of cultural creativity like the cartoons of Kafranbel or videos such as “The Strong Heroes of Moscow”) in the context of the ongoing, increasingly bloody struggle.
Other chapters in various states of disrepair include one on conspiracy theories and takhwin (distrust), as well as accusations of betrayal or treason in the context of challenges to the security state. Lest we think of this phenomenon as particular to Syria or the Middle East, this chapter draws inspiration from scholarly literatures devoted to the the United States’ cold war anti-Communist and post 9/11 periods, with authors’ attention to everyday means of generating paranoia, stigmatizing “others,” managing would-be opponents through the practices of counter-subversion, and staging spectacular, popular scenes of what Michael Rogin (1988), referring to the American context, called “political demonology.”
There is also a chapter on sectarian violence, which asks why sect becomes a relevant category when it does. Charting the ways in which sect articulates with other experiences of belonging, such as regional, class, and generational affiliations, this chapter also raises a challenge to scholars who conceive of sect as existing outside of ideology. The notion of ideology I have operating here—one less beholden to Weberians or classical Marxists and more in keeping with Foucauldian and Zizekian innovations—precludes any such understanding.
An additional chapter on nationalism, sentimentality, and judgment examines television melodramas, as well as regime and opposition-oriented works of nonfiction. At present, it converses with colleagues in the University of Chicago’s English department, including Lauren Berlant (again), whose work on sentimentality has been crucial. Her thinking has allowed me to see these melodramas not only as “mawkish” vehicles that short-circuit the hard work of mourning or simplify the political, but also, as she describes it, as “a mode of relationality in which people take emotions to express something authentic about themselves that they think the world should welcome and respect; a mode constituted by affective and emotional intelligibility and a kind of generosity, recognition, and solidarity among strangers.”
I am also currently reading a new book by James Chandler who sees the “mimetic task of the sentimental narrative” as one that represents to itself the sensibility of what in Chandler’s case is British commercial society, and in mine a version of Syrian national society. Chandler points out that sentimental narratives not only seek to “epitomize or allegorize this sensibility”; they are also a “means to activate it by affective movement, and thus to shape it amelioratively.” Whatever the distinctions to be made between sentimentality and the sentimental, Chandler’s account as sketched above is precisely what I think Syrian Ramadan series tried to do this year—and what both regime-supportive videos and opposition ones often attempt as well. The chapter then moves to alternative visions of collectivity and the issue of judgment; here I engage the political theories of Hannah Arendt and Jacques Rancière.
I imagine another chapter on youth and generational change, drawing on materials such as the works of Syrian playwright Mohammad al-`Attar to help explore the early days of the uprising, the felt sense of freedom engendered for those who protested on its behalf, and the generational conflicts that were simmering beneath the surface prior to the uprising’s inception.
J: How does this article relate to your previous research?
LW: As I have summarized elsewhere, Ambiguities of Domination examined the “cult of personality” around Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad (1970-2000)—the rhetorical practices and imagery that worked to displace discussion of substantive political issues in public. For much of Asad’s rule (1970-2000) his image was omnipresent. In newspapers, on television, and during orchestrated spectacles, Asad was praised as the "father," the "gallant knight," even the country`s "premier pharmacist." Yet most Syrians, including those who created the official rhetoric, did not believe its claims. Ambiguities asked: Why would a regime spend scarce resources on a cult whose rituals of obeisance are transparently phony? The book concluded that Syria`s cult of Hafiz al-Asad operated not to produce belief or emotional commitment—which the concept of Weberian legitimacy presupposes—but to specify both the form and content of civic obedience. Beyond the barrel of the gun and the confines of the torture chamber, Asad`s cult served as a disciplinary device, generating a politics of public dissimulation in which citizens acted as if they revered their leader. By inundating daily life with instructive symbolism, the regime exercised a subtle yet effective form of power. The cult worked to enforce obedience, induce complicity, isolate Syrians from one another, and set guidelines for public speech and behavior.
The problem with Ambiguities was not, as some critics claimed, that it failed to take into account variation—treating Syrians too monolithically rather than acknowledging various backgrounds. That is false and misses the point. For the research not only went to great lengths to demonstrate the widely shared conditions of unbelief as they pertained to the cult, but more essentially, derived from an analysis of flagrantly fictitious claims, which by definition were unbelievable. The problem with the book was that its question was narrow. It dealt with a small subset of official rhetoric. The book also covered a time period in which official rhetoric, primarily controlled by what seemed to be an ossifying Ba`th party, had become remarkably wooden and outmoded. And in both senses, the narrowness of the book’s domain and the specificities of the time period (a post-revolutionary, post-colonial era in which Soviet-style fatigue had not yet fully given way to the market-oriented promises that would appeal to a younger generation—with their own capacities to entice and exhaust), the book falls short of capturing the complexities of the moment we find ourselves in now. To quote from “Ideology and Humor in Dark Times”: “If the earlier era of Hafiz al-Asad charted the ambiguities evident in overtly authoritarian logics of domination, the contemporary period’s ambiguities suggest the intricacies of rule in a market-oriented, information-awash era in which various forms of sovereignty—both personal and collective—are threatened not only by [what has become world-shattering] violence but also, [even when demonstrations were primarily peaceful,] by new forms of disorientation and uncertainty.”
J: Who do you hope will read the article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
LW: My writing is generally geared towards an academic audience and this piece is no exception. I mean “academic” in a broad sense, however, for many of this world’s most exciting intellectuals do not necessarily fit easily into institutions such as universities. I am less interested in policy-making communities; I have given up on the fantasy (and I am not sure I ever had one) of influencing politicians and policy-makers, at least in the US context—the one I know best. American empire is not going to disappear because I can demonstrate how self-defeating and unethical it is. I do hope that in addition to folks in the US and European social sciences and humanities, many Syrians will be among the readers of this article and my subsequent book. I love Syria with all of my heart and I owe a great intellectual debt to Syrians of various political persuasions for their generosity and kindness. I have learned from disagreements even when they have pained me. I have attempted to cultivate what Bertolt Brecht termed a Verfremdungseffekt—a distancing effect made possible by an active cultivation of one’s critical and innovative faculties. But that critical estrangement is not always possible or appropriate when life has become unbearable.
The war in Syria now is devastatingly sad. And although I remain emphatically against American intervention—a position that has endeared me to some and infuriated others—I also understand the desire for rescue, the fantasies of repair that attend it, and the despair that the current situation generates. All of the available political choices seem awful, with the simple pleasures that revolutionaries and regime supporters alike enjoyed just three years ago irretrievably lost. I hope that readers of the article will understand its main question and my responses in the context of an ongoing exploration—one where I remain a student of language and politics. On the one hand, I want to celebrate the world-affirming possibilities of the political, of acting together in concert to produce novel forms of togetherness, ones that carve out space for human flourishing and justice. On the other, I understand the reluctance of those whose fear of the regime or an “extremist” Islamic opposition, or both, discouraged action. Or who could not imagine an alternative to neoliberal autocracy worth risking everything for. What Alain Badiou calls “negative power,” the call to make tyrants go away, is important, but, as he notes himself, it is not the affirmative stuff of a visionary political program. In the absence of such a program, we have fragmented oppositions—often bought off by wealthy sponsors or too beholden to narratives of liberal humanitarianism and individual liberty to congeal, at least at present, into something collective, common, general, new.
 Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” “Lenin and Philosophy” and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 127-86.
 Lisa Wedeen, “Ideology and Humor in Dark Times: Notes from Syria,” Critical Inquiry, 39.4 (2013), 842.
 See Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011). Berlant’s use of nonsovereignty appears in “‘On the Risk of a New Relationality’: An Interview with Lauren Berlant and Michael Hardt,” interview by Heather Davis and Paige Sarlin, in “On the Commons,” Reviews in Cultural Theory. For my discussion, see Wedeen, “Ideology and Humor,” 842-43.
 Wedeen, “Ideology and Humor,” 845.
 Michael Rogin, Ronald Reagan, The Movie: And Other Episodes in Political Demonology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).
 Earl McCabe, “Depressive Realism: An Interview with Lauren Berlant,” June 2011.
 James Chandler, An Archaeology of Sympathy: The Sentimental Mode in Literature and Cinema (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 223. Thanks are owed to Jennifer Pitts for bringing this book to my attention.
 This description is excerpted originally from Lisa Wedeen, “Conceptualizing Culture: Possibilities for Political Science,” APSA 96 (December 2002), 723; it is reproduced in Wedeen, “Ideology and Humor,” 849.
 Wedeen, “Ideology and Humor,” 851.
Excerpts from “Ideology and Humor in Dark Times: Notes from Syria”
[Author’s Note: In the first excerpt, from the section “A Tale of Two Cities,” I anticipate objections to my argument emphasizing ideological interpellation.]
One seemingly compelling but ultimately inadequate argument points to the economic geography of the protests. In this view, the conflict is between the haves and the have-nots, and the explanation for relative quiescence in the key parts of Damascus and Aleppo has to do primarily with the two cities` geographical distribution of wealth. On the one hand, there is evidence to support this explanation; according to activists on the ground, even the highly touted demonstrations in affluent parts of these big cities (such as the one in Mezze, in Damascus, on 18 February 2012) drew their crowds from adjacent poorer areas already accustomed to rebellion. Moreover, citizens in drought-stricken areas of the countryside, in less well-to-do cities, in cities` outskirts, and in the markedly poorer parts of well-to-do neighborhoods have been remarkably resilient in registering opposition (both peaceful and armed) often at tremendous bodily risk. In contrast, old-money bourgeois families and the swelling ranks of the nouveau riche in the posh downtowns have generally favored wishing away the need for political transformation, as opposed to participating in the struggle to bring it about.
On the other hand, the conflict cannot be reduced to this sort of economic determinism; in poor areas throughout Syria, the demands being expressed are not simply or even primarily economic in character. In addition to persistent calls for the downfall of the regime, freedom, and dignity and, increasingly, assertions that God is great, some slogans cast doubt directly on economic interpretations of the uprising. Referring to the Syrian president`s then-prominent spokesperson Bouthaina Sha‘ban, people in an impoverished area in the coastal city of Lataqiyya chanted as early as March 2011: “Ya Bouthaina, wa ya Sha‘ban, al-sha‘b al-suri mu ju‘an” (oh Buthaina, oh Sha‘ban, the Syrian people aren`’t hungry). Similar slogans have continued to undercut a purely economic understanding, pointing to an ideological geography of protest—one embracing divergent patterns of consumption and commitment, suggesting a variegated relationship to market-oriented openings and the pleasures they proffer. A housing boom in the 2000s made areas adjacent to the downtowns of Aleppo and Damascus a source of wealth for inhabitants who used to derive their income from harvests or small businesses. These families are now wealthy, but they nevertheless are understood by supporters of the regime in Damascus and Aleppo as different, as country bumpkins, simple folk (darawish), even nomads (nawarin)—all derogatory terms that lay bare how unreliably income maps onto political power or social status. Wealthy inhabitants in these areas of resistance go in for large families and are demonstrating a renewed commitment to pious practices in marked contrast to the lifestyle choices exemplified by the first family and its supporters.
Being wealthy, in short, does not necessarily imply identifying with the glitzy, assertively modern aspects of the “enlightened” (tanwiri) elite. And citizens attached to fantasies of the officially sanctioned good life are not necessarily capable of achieving it, of course. University protests in Aleppo and youth activism in mixed-income neighborhoods of Damascus suggest, additionally, important generational dimensions of contention and what appeared, at least for the brief period from May to July 2012, to be a growing willingness of middle-class youth to take to the streets, largely as a registration of moral outrage at regime excess. Even some of the merchants involved in the regime`s brand of crony capitalism are reliably said to be funding the resistance. The success of a call for shopkeepers to strike in May 2012, as opposed to the resounding failure of the same move in May 2011, indicates that class interests and collective solidarities toward the conflict were—and remain—in flux. Finally, the rank-and-file thugs in President Asad`s security forces, the shabiha, are still being recruited in large numbers, and they hail from lower income families.
Many of these shabiha self-identify as ‘Alawi, and sectarian affiliations have become increasingly salient to the violence of the conflict and to expressions of existential survival of “minorities.” But studies of civil war have shown that ethnic or sectarian divisions rarely cause conflict. It may well be that the sectarian claim making by the Syrian regime works to keep some Syrians off the streets, particularly in Aleppo and Damascus. Putting forward images of the regime as the guarantor of this explicitly multisectarian order is nevertheless itself part of a decades-old, evolving nationalist repertoire in which fantasies of accommodation and order came to be harnessed to economic figurations of market-oriented prosperity—for wealthy neoliberals and poor regime thugs alike.
Exploring the relative quiescence of Syria`s two main cities in the first year of the uprising, before the escalation of violence made widespread peaceful protest unlikely anywhere in the country, allows us to consider more general issues of ideological uptake in the neoliberal present while also specifying neoliberalism`s autocratic permutations. The vision of the good life that emerges from this blend, as we shall see, is embodied and consumed in various ways—by television stars who wholeheartedly uphold or ambivalently navigate the system, film characters who represent its fantasylike aspirations, and all manner of creative efforts to offer an alternative. But in order to understand this decade, it is helpful to return to the era immediately preceding it, in which flagrantly fictitious statements defined a rhetorical universe through which authoritarian rule was partially secured.
This essay has focused primarily on the first year and a half of the uprising and the decade preceding it, an era of market-oriented reforms in which new aspirations to a consumer-oriented, urbane good life became moored to familiar, older fantasies of national sovereignty and multisectarian peaceful coexistence. Only partially economic in content, the aspirational consciousness animating new forms of sociability and experiences of social freedom in this period found iconic expression in the Lady Di and Prince Charles-like imagery of Syria`s first family. Idealizing the modern, urban professional-managerial class, the first family offered one version of what it meant to be exemplary of the good public in Syria—glamorous, entrepreneurial, individually responsible, and civilized. The veneer of a kinder, specifically neoliberal autocracy glossed over the economic cruelties caused by the state`s attenuation of social provisioning (including widening inequalities and new opportunities for corruption) and the ongoing use of coercive control to handle unrest.
As authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya began to teeter, some Syrians, affectively invested in stability and consumer pleasure, voiced hopes that the seemingly popular young president would understand the need for reforms and manage an orderly transition to an electoral system. Instead, like a deadly blast from the past, in apparent homage to the more overtly dictatorial practices of the father, old guard political advisers were brought back from retirement, making the regime`s fear of losing autocratic control glaringly apparent. This intention of regime dominance found dramatic and unusually candid expression in a New York Times interview with the notorious first cousin and (fittingly, given the neoliberal context) paragon of corrupt entrepreneurship, Rami Makhlouf. Even as the president went on promising reforms, Makhlouf declared as early as 10 May 2011 that the regime was determined to “fight to the end.” Just as security forces found a new raison d`être in their (re)expanded duties, so too did disrespect for autocratic control increase. And in an ideological struggle over who stands in for Syria, it was children who would substitute for the first family, offering up a vision of innocence and helplessness in the face of the professional managerial elite`s consuming market-oriented excesses and the regime`s overweening political power. Whether it was the young students arrested in Dar‘a, the more anonymous children who prompted anxieties about milk deprivation in the face of a military siege, or the widely circulated images of a tortured-to-death thirteen-year-old boy, Hamza al-Khatib, children signaled the disruptions of generational change, unmet aspirations for the good life, and the affronts to dignity (karama) that neoliberal autocracy both effected and attempted to conceal. The regime`s idealized world was revealed as a fantasy with little chance of accessing an actual world (of glamor or, later, sectarian peaceful coexistence and national sovereignty) to which the fantasy could be anchored. In this context a younger generation`s savvy at circulating images of brutality became a form of protest in its own right, a way of bearing the brutality by bearing witness.
Hajju`s comedies adumbrated a newfound ability to express collective disrespect. For comedy is a mode of aggression, raising questions of how we talk about collective life and who the “we” is that gets to talk in the first place. In Hajju`s case, as with all tolerated comedy, the refreshing irreverence was also a way of containing the very hostility it acknowledged—even encouraged—reflecting the managerial class`s ambivalence to a system of rule that celebrated their presence. As a critique of prevailing forms of power, his comedy provided the impression of regime openness while underscoring citizens` attachment to and recognition of their own subjection. That recognition is almost always dual, inducing complacency among some but also laying the groundwork for potentially new disruptive publics.
In the current era of enormous upheaval, in which “hopes are sparked and snuffed and sparked again,” the privilege of the professional-managerial elite has ceased to be self-reproducing. And along with the war`s anguish and disappointment and terror, there remain resilient enclaves of world-affirming possibility—collective imaginaries ill-defined and by no means programmatically articulated but that, at the very least, refuse the self-evidence of dictatorship. It is my hope that assertions of dignity and Syrian unity (wahid, wahid, wahid, al-sha‘ab al-suri wahid [one, one, one, the Syrian people are one]) amidst unspeakable indignities and chaos do not ultimately lead back to either an autocracy or the emaciated forms of electoral contestation that pass for democracy in places like the United States. And I dream of a nonnationalist, antiimperial collective imaginary that finds seduction and pleasure in alternatives to the neoliberal and, yes, even Keynesian capitalist order.
 Thanks are owed to Kevin Mazur for his question at an earlier presentation at Princeton University in November 2011, which pressed me to consider in more detail the economic geographies of protest.
 Interviews with activists by author, February 2012.
 For a discussion of this slogan and similar ones being chanted in Dar‘a, the heartland of defiance, see Reinoud Leenders “‘Oh Buthaina, Oh Sha‘ban—the Hawrani Is Not Hungry, We Want Freedom!’ Revolutionary Framing and Mobilization at the Onset of the Syrian Uprising,” Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa, ed. Joel Beinin and Frédéric Vairel (rev. ed. forthcoming).
 Yasin al-Hajj Salih, “Fi Shabiha wa Tashbih wa Dawlathima,” Kalamon, no. 5 (Winter 2012), is one well-informed example of a growing number of discussions of shabiha.
 See, for instance, James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin, “Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War,” American Political Science Review 97 (February 2003): 75–90, and Stathis N. Kalyvas, “The Ontology of ‘Political Violence’: Action and Identity in Civil Wars,” Perspectives on Politics 1 (September 2003): 475–94.
 For a discussion of the ways in which ‘Alawi solidarities have congealed in the context of the uprising, while also producing new forms of differentiation among ‘Alawis of the coast and interior, see Aziz Nakkash, “The Alawite Dilemma in Homs: Survival, Solidarity, and the Making of a Community.” The article discusses in depth the fears of existential threat and commitments to the status quo. It also charts the economic incentives (including aspirations to upward mobility both prior to the uprising and in the wake of war) that have helped to establish (and, in the context of the uprising, militarized) sectarian allegiances to the regime. Shabiha in the interior reiterate the claims of the official discourse, that the country`s very “‘unity`” is the “‘target`” of “‘armed gangs” and “‘terrorists’” (6).
 Anthony Shadid, “Syrian Elite to Fight Protests to ‘the End,’” New York Times (11 May 2011).
 The phrase is taken from the book jacket for Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (New York: Riverhead, 2013).
[Excerpted from Lisa Wedeen, “Ideology and Humor in Dark Times: Notes from Syria,” published in Critical Inquiry 39.4 (2013), by permission of the author. © 2013 by The University of Chicago. For more information, or to read the full text of this article, click here.]