Lisa Wedeen, Authoritarian Apprehensions: Ideology, Judgment, and Mourning in Syria (University of Chicago Press, 2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Lisa Wedeen (LW): Returning to Syria in 2010 after a long hiatus, I was surprised to see how much had changed—and how much remained familiar. I intended to write a book that grappled with the seeming emergence of a kinder, gentler version of autocracy under president Bashar al-Asad (2000 onwards). Among the issues I envisaged exploring were market openings and generational change; new everyday aesthetic imaginaries accompanying the embrace of consumption; and the support Bashar seemed to be garnering from unexpected quarters, including former dissidents, artists, urban professionals, and members of the clergy. Then came the uprising in Tunisia, inspiring large-scale protests in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain—and Syria. I was still in Damascus when the uprising began in March 2011, leaving only toward the end of May, by which time indications of the regime’s brutal intransigence and the troubles besetting multiple oppositions had become too glaring to ignore. (I conducted subsequent fieldwork in Lebanon, Turkey, parts of Europe, and the United States, as well as long distance with Syrians still inside Syria.)
Authoritarian Apprehensions is the book that resulted. It remains keyed to my initial interests in authoritarian resilience and political change, abiding concerns to political scientists, while also exploring important issues currently under debate in political theory and anthropology. Focused from the outset on the complexities of ideological uptake and the processes of recruitment into what I had decided (pre-uprising) to call Syria’s “neoliberal autocracy,” the book became increasingly inflected by the extraordinary rush of events—the revolutionary exhilaration of the initial days, and then the devastating violence that shattered hopes of any quick undoing of dictatorship.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
LW: Authoritarian Apprehensions asks: How has the regime been able to bear the brunt of the challenges raised against it? And what does the Syrian example tell us about the seductions of authoritarian politics more generally?
My approach to this orienting puzzle identifies novel modes of ideological interpellation, borrowing Louis Althusser’s term, i.e., new ways of “hailing” citizens into Syria’s autocratic system. The book investigates the complicated, varied, often incoherent forms of address which secured the citizen buy-in that the regime needed to survive. Via interpellation, ideology helps manage collective anxieties and sociopolitical incompatibilities by providing mechanisms that allow dissonances to be contained, displaced, and disavowed.
As containment: Ideology makes what are essentially social and historical anxieties seem natural and inevitable. We see this also in modes of hyperidentification—fantasizing celebrity glamour (or elegance or composure or whatever) without necessarily believing that such a transformation will ever happen.
As displacement: Where unbearable fears are relocated onto a new object and anxieties about unacceptable attributes transferred onto a fantasy Other. Blaming “terrorists” for a national crisis or projecting in-group violence outward are processes of displacement, which helped organize collective life in Syria’s authoritarian circumstances.
And ideology operates as disavowal. The theorist Octave Mannoni noted people rationalizing their lives, acknowledging and disavowing simultaneously. The phrase, “I know very well and yet nevertheless,” exemplifies this maneuver—and this distancing from accountability has implications for politics. In the case of Syria, disavowal typically works like this: “I know very well that the regime is incorrigibly corrupt, and nevertheless we can build government-sponsored civil society organizations that truly empower citizens”; “I know very well there is ‘no going back’ to the way things were before the war, yet all will be resolved as easily as ‘biting into a zucchini’ (`addit kusayeh).” Or, among secular activists in the first two years of the uprising: “I know very well the opposition includes violent Islamic militants, but I shall act as if they do not exist.” Disavowal goes beyond denial in that the problem calling for judgment is at least posed. In disavowal, ideology hails subjects into a position where realities that can no longer be denied are nevertheless dismissed. In this sense, disavowal expresses the contradiction it simultaneously repudiates.
I use the term ideology not to refer to a party platform or a distinct doctrine—although it can be made manifest in discrete documents. Instead, following a cultural Marxist tradition, ideology refers to embodied, affectively laden discourses that are conveyed in part acephalously through everyday practices. Understood not simply as content but also as form, ideology has identifiable structuring effects, the nature and function of which, as I suggested above, are to contain socio-political conflict and smooth out complexities that might otherwise make life unlivable. Undergirded by fantasy investments that persist even in the face of knowing better, ideology structures a politics of “as if” that goes beyond the enforced public dissimulation I identified in my first book, Ambiguities of Domination. More important in this current situation than feigned belief or demonstrations of outward obedience are the common ways in which ideology is reflected in and generated anew through ordinary moments of disavowal—rationalizations that enable participation in and allegiance to existing orders. In conjunction with specific content, ideology lays bare the seductions of status quo conventionality in the face of challenges to it (chapter one); the varied work comedy does (chapter two); the role “fake news” plays in unmooring political judgments from their frames of reference (chapter three); the possibilities for appropriating the affective intensities around mourning (chapter four); and the ongoing operations of sectarian othering (chapter five).
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
LW: Ambiguities of Domination and Authoritarian Apprehensions deal with three different forms of compliance inducement, and three different Syrias. Ambiguities captured the conditions of a durable autocracy whose reliance on single-party rule, an omnipresent security apparatus, and flagrantly fictitious claims had come to seem brittle and outmoded to observers and participants alike. Authoritarian Apprehensions examines two additional modes of compliance inducement. The first decade of Bashar al-Asad’s rule ushered in an avowedly upbeat, modern, internet-savvy authoritarianism. Its institutions and rhetoric relied less on party mechanisms of social control and more on an array of newly prominent cultural producers, along with regime-organized, market-inflected, so-called “civil society organizations,” tapping into a spirit of youthful voluntarism. This all changed in the second decade with the emergence of civil war autocracy, in which the means and mechanisms of mediation were no longer geared to perpetuation, but to the restoration of stability after being radically challenged by some Syrians’ passionate commitment to an “it could have been otherwise” of political existence. Echoing Theodor Adorno, the latter phrase speaks to this book’s engagement with the possibilities of and impediments to social transformation—not so much “resistance” per se as the imagined alternatives opened up by the necessarily retroactive analysis of political potential in the present. Authoritarian Apprehensions is also more concerned with divergent demographics, uneven uptake, and the importance of theorizing an ambivalent middle—those who toggle between an attachment to order and a desire for reform—in understanding authoritarian resilience. In that sense, it is more beholden to cultural Marxist and affect theory than either Ambiguities or Peripheral Visions. It is, as Elisabeth Anker nicely put it, an analysis of “genres of (un)bearability.”
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
LW: Among those who I hope will read the book and find it worthwhile are scholars of political and social theory, of anthropology, Middle East studies, cultural and literary studies, cinema and media studies, and comparative politics; political ethnographers; anyone interested in Syria (including Syrians of various political orientations); and people who worry about the seductions of authoritarianism in the present. And others, who I hope will be convinced by my efforts to repurpose the concept of ideology, to underscore the importance of judgment for politics, and to recognize the hard work of mourning in times of devastating loss.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
LW: I am finishing an edited volume with my colleague in anthropology, Joseph Masco, entitled Conspiracy/Theory.
J: How does judgment relate to ideology?
LW: The book understands the politics of ideological reproduction not simply as the propagation of certain beliefs, but as the circulation of complex forms of political attachment, enabling people to know and not know something at the same time. My chapter on fake news shows how the regime took advantage of the results of technological innovation, such as the oversaturation of information and the sheer velocity with which information is transmitted and apprehended in the internet age. The uncertainty the regime was able to produce in these circumstances not only polarized communities into siloed publics, but also provided alibis for non-judgment. For some, notably those in the ambivalent middle, it became easy to deem events too confusing to judge. In those circumstances, the possibility of envisioning a creative challenge to dictatorship in the context of the Syrian regime’s apparent victory—and indeed a global resurgence of authoritarian rule—was to be found among artists who imaginatively circumvented the problems of, say, fake news, by experimenting with genre in documentary filmmaking. Some also practiced what Hannah Arendt called “representative thinking,” i.e., re-cultivating a capacity for political judgment, not by overidentifying with suffering others or by conforming to a majority opinion, but by doing the imaginative work of inhabiting multiple standpoints, by “being and thinking in my own identity where actually I am not.”
Excerpt from the book
Authoritarian Apprehensions challenges scholars to consider what the epochal, as well as ambiguous, set of regional events known initially as the Arab Spring means in larger historical and theoretical terms. Locating the Arab world within a world-historical frame is necessary for any adequate analysis of what these events betoken, and doing so raises certain central questions of modern critical thought. But this book also prompts thinking about what categories like neoliberalism or ideology or autocracy might mean—not only as grounded phenomena or as instantiated in historical moments but as theoretical constructs in need of parsing in relation to power, politics, aesthetics, subjectivity, and belief.
Retooling the construct of ideology for contemporary times therefore calls for an understanding of the concept not only in discursive terms (through the logics of everyday practices, policies, scholarship and so on), although these are important. Ideology must also be understood through recourse to the languages of seduction, affect, attachment, and the incitements of desire. In the pages that follow, we will be attending to the psychic and embodied processes that trigger mimetic identifications with persons and fetishized objects, whether they be the Syrian president and first lady for loyalists or SpongeBob SquarePants waving the pre-Baʿthist flag for children of activists.
Classic theories of ideology attempted to explain precisely why piercing critique was so often forestalled by governing ideas. Capitalism perpetuated hope, it was said, even among the dominated, in dangling the carrot of upward mobility. Authoritarian Apprehensions taps into this vein of scholarship, not in accepting the perhaps crude sense of ideological capture, but by looking instead at the contradictions and aporias internal to its approximation—without arguing that contradictions or other kinds of dissonance are necessarily the source of a democratic or any other kind of oppositional consciousness. The book’s preoccupations are set against the backdrop of intensified collaboration between privatized consumer interests and authoritarian cults of personal governance, in the context of the globalization of a variety of authoritarian populisms that likewise threaten democratic participation. In these current circumstances, there seems to be an acceptance of an order reminiscent of the fascisms of old. This acceptance is visible and tangible in the personal autocracy of Asad in Syria, as it was in Zuma’s macho-nationalist South Africa, in China’s country-as-corporation, in the ultra-right nationalisms in Europe, or, for that matter, in the “law-and-order” governance of the United States.
Given this condition, where might we expect an affirmative politics to take root, if at all? Where, given the machinations of global capital, the maneuvering of regional powers, and the seductions of dictatorship itself, might we find openings like the ones that protesters who took to the streets in 2011 hoped to exploit? This book contains no definitive answers to these questions, but it does find, in some of the experiments with comedy and film during Syria’s catastrophic war years (2012–), pathways for critical thinking—a necessary basis and resource for cultivating “an actualized next or new that is somehow better than ‘now.’” At their best, these works, discussed in chapters 2, 3, and 4, embody a kind of potentiality—in wrestling with the conventions of genre or the narration of loss or both. As self-conscious products of the political contradictions of the present and in generating critical distance from these contradictions, the works are avowals of creativity amid the overwhelming destruction of war, refusing—despite their markedly different treatments of violence—to ignore the horror or be fully done in by it (pp. 15-16).
Throughout the book, I make use of films, videos, television serials, comedies, and other works by regime- and opposition-oriented cultural producers, not simply as evidence to demonstrate a point, but also in order to think with and through these cultural products…. [T]hese artifacts are not mere representations or illustrations or affirmations of a theory. They not only attune us to the implied audiences of artistic products, as important as these aspects of cultural analysis might be, but they also generate possibilities for what Hannah Arendt calls “world making,” the ability to begin anew, to think and act critically, to operate beyond or in excess of referentiality—to encourage the art’s evocatory functions, speaking to a relationship of collaboration rather than simple ethnographic data gathering. The invitation is to treat some Syrian artists as political theorists in their own right, interlocutors rather than “informants,” their artifacts productive of possibilities for expanding the space of interpretive encounter in order to diagnose (and see ways out of) the impasses—collectively (p. 15).
[I]mages are central to the operation of ideology as form, whether in the context of the incongruous neoliberal autocrat or in the quick resort to state-sanctioned violence. And in ideology’s neoliberal variants, sociopolitical life is economized in the marketing of authoritarian order as the palatable substitute for what would otherwise be chaos. As the specificities of the Syrian uprising showed us in its early days, this collusion of dictatorship with the market was only partially successful, for at the same time it generated demands for justice and dignity that stretched the limits of what Asad’s version of neoliberal autocracy could manage ideologically—at least without the war. This is not to argue that the regime was behind all the violence or that it had everything under its direction or control. But it was able to take advantage of circumstances both local and global, whether new like the high-speed eventfulness of internet news cycles or old as in historical and sociological patterns of prejudice and injustice. It was able to put forward its own version of civility in a bid to represent rebel parts of the countryside as the ones that were uncivilized, hardening sectarian sentiments and stimulating fears of reprisal in the process. The regime convinced enough addressees that it alone could rule, exploiting ambivalent citizens’ shift between the desire for freedom and the fear of disorder to turn what was for most a vaguely lived atmosphere of impending violence into a devastating conflict. Drawing from a professional managerial elite, including members of the Syrian drama community as well as those keyed to the advertising arts, Syria’s ideological apparatus broached social contradictions and anxieties in the service of symbolic resolution, urging addressees to bury dreams for human dignity and a civil state and to embrace a nationalist re-tethering of community to the regime—a fantasy “bribe,” to quote Fredric Jameson, in which some form of collectivity is reestablished, but at the expense of political judgment and democratic action.
In these circumstances, pathways back to political judgment can be found in comedy’s capacity for irreverence; in artistic efforts such as Abounaddara’s to bypass the impasse of fake news by unsettling the conventions of documentary representation; and in the cultivation of interpretive generosity through representative thinking demonstrated by films such as Ossama Mohammed’s controversial Silvered Water. These are all important attempts to perform an incandescent otherwiseness to the bleakness of the present moment. They are instances of creative estrangement that operate inside ideology but at a distance, opening imaginative possibilities for reclaiming some kind of ameliorative agency in the world. Such agency will come embedded in structures (of capital, dictatorial rule, and new combinations of the two) that can prove extraordinarily dynamic, agilely self-recomposing, and capable of almost organic rejuvenation. In avoiding the romanticization of resistance or the celebration of aesthetic politics as necessarily redemptive, my insistence on locating political judgment at the center of ideology critique remains an effort to discover, in the openings produced by reproduction, a wedge.
Looking at Syria, what the wedge requires is a commitment to world making in the face of disaster, acceptance of the exhaustion that accompanies failure—of the ways in which all of us are flailing in some way most of the time. In these circumstances it means doing the hard work of mourning the loss of revolutionary promise (for now) and the devastating death of human beings who were loved, cared for, and are irretrievably gone—transforming those who survived. How to narrate a Syrian present that incorporates those who cling to the past, those who fantasize its easy restoration, and those who worked hard for a political transformation that failed? This book is an early and provisional effort (pp. 165-166).