Genießen Sie diesen Titel jetzt und Millionen mehr, in einer kostenlosen Testversion

Kostenlos für 30 Tage, dann für $9.99/Monat. Jederzeit kündbar.

Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria

Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria

Vorschau lesen

Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria

365 Seiten
5 Stunden
Sep 9, 2015


Treating rhetoric and symbols as central rather than peripheral to politics, Lisa Wedeen’s groundbreaking book offers a compelling counterargument to those who insist that politics is primarily about material interests and the groups advocating for them. During the thirty-year rule of President Hafiz al-Asad’s regime, his image was everywhere. 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 create the official rhetoric, did not believe its claims. Why would a regime spend scarce resources on a personality cult whose content is patently spurious?

Wedeen shows how such flagrantly fictitious claims were able to produce a politics of public dissimulation in which citizens acted as if they revered the leader. By inundating daily life with tired 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. Wedeen‘s ethnographic research demonstrates how Syrians recognized the disciplinary aspects of the cult and sought to undermine them. In a new preface, Wedeen discusses the uprising against the Syrian regime that began in 2011 and questions the usefulness of the concept of legitimacy in trying to analyze and understand authoritarian regimes.
Sep 9, 2015

Über den Autor

Ähnlich wie Ambiguities of Domination

Ähnliche Bücher

Ähnliche Artikel


Ambiguities of Domination - Lisa Wedeen

LISA WEDEEN is the Mary R. Morton Professor of Political Science and the College and codirector of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory at the University of Chicago.

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637

The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London

© 1999, 2015 by The University of Chicago.

All rights reserved. Published 2015.

Printed in the United States of America

24 23 22 21 20 19 18 17 16 15 1 2 3 4 5

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-33337-3 (paper)

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-34553-6 (e-book)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/978022345536.001.0001

library of congress cataloging-in-publication data

Wedeen, Lisa, author.

Ambiguities of domination : politics, rhetoric, and symbols in contemporary Syria : with a new preface /Lisa Wedeen.

pages ; cm

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-226-33337-3 (pbk. : alk. paper) -- ISBN 978-0-226-34553-6 (ebook) 1. Symbolism in politics--Syria. 2. Rhetoric--Political aspects--Syria. 3. Syria--Politics and government--1971-2000. 4. Assad, Hafez, 1930-2000. 5. Political culture--Syria. 6. Public opinion--Syria. I. Title.

DS98.4.W43 2015



♾ This paper meets the requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48–1992 (Permanence of Paper).

Ambiguities of Domination

Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria


Lisa Wedeen

The University of Chicago Press

Chicago and London


Preface, 2015


A Note on Transliteration











Having spent decades managing discontent, the Syrian regime found itself in unfamiliar waters when in March 2011 it encountered formidable popular protests. Inspired by uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, protestors in Syria began gathering in primarily peaceful demonstrations, calling for meaningful political reforms and then, as the regime responded by attempting to squelch unrest, escalating to demands for an end to Bashar al-Asad’s rule. Many readers will recall the initial focal point for large-scale demonstrations in the brutal treatment of fifteen school children who had written antiregime graffiti on the walls of a local school in the southern town of Dar`a. A small number of angry protestors reacted to the brutality by marching on the governor’s mansion after Friday prayers, demanding the children’s release. A week later, a large crowd exited Dar`a’s main mosque after noon prayers loudly denouncing the regime. Security forces opened fire, killing four men and inaugurating a cycle of protests and crackdowns, mobilizing protests in neighboring villages—and by March 25 in other regions of Syria.

Outrage over disclosures that the Dar`a children were being tortured in prison, over the disrespect shown to elders attempting to negotiate their release, and at the sheer unaccountability of regime officials linked to the ruling family who were responsible for the children’s treatment tapped into a reservoir of preexisting dissatisfaction with official corruption, authoritarian caprice, and the government’s inattentiveness to suffering. With spirit, with blood, we sacrifice for you, ya Dar`a (bi ruh, bi dam, nafdiki ya Dar`a) played on the regime’s slogan of sacrifice for Syria’s leader (bi ruh, bi dam, nafdiki ya Bashshar). Voicing the national we as a commitment to the town where children had first been emboldened to violate the norms of regime-sanctioned behavior, protestors found in the example of errant pupils a locus for new political intensities in which acts of collective citizenship coalesced around resistance to tyranny and disrupting the status quo.²

At the time of this writing, four years later, the very collectivity of Syria has come under increasing challenge, threatened by an international arms market that knows no bounds; by seductive calls to sectarian, regional, and supranational commitments; by the cynical tactics of a regime fighting for its survival; by battles won and territories surrendered; by inertia, fear, displacement, wishful thinking, and exhaustion; by countervailing (but decidedly unhelpful) tendencies towards interference and inaction on the part of international actors—and by opportunists of all sorts. As in most bloody wars, it is the broken lives of ordinary survivors that will have to be pieced back together one day. And as in most tragedies, along with the devastating heartache and loss come moving examples of grace and dignity. We should not allow today’s shocking atrocities to blind us to those initial heady days of revolt, to the youthful hopes that powered them, the important refutations of tyranny, and the revelatory pleasures of self-discovery that produced a world-affirming, albeit short-lived, sense of the political. Any emancipatory politics of the future will have the possibilities inherent in those initial moments to draw on, when people strove for what Hannah Arendt calls worldly immortality, attempting to inaugurate an affirmative politics that relies on but also has the capacity to outlive any single individual’s display of courage.³

It is gratifying to know that Ambiguities of Domination, published in English in 1999 and translated into Arabic in 2010, continued to offer for some Syrians in 2011 (especially those who identified with an oppositional consciousness) an account of politics that resonated with their own experiences as citizens under dictatorship. In the context of the uprising, the Arabic version of the book generated widespread commentary, as the focus of at least one televised discussion and as a point of reference in any number of articles, often serving purposes that went far beyond my own nerdy intellectual preoccupations—or my political predilections. The book has been generally well-received in the United States in the confines of the academy, informing graduate seminar debates in political science and to a lesser extent in other humanistic disciplines of the social sciences. For political scientists keen on insisting that politics is about material interests and the groups articulating them, the book offered a counterargument, treating rhetoric and symbols as central rather than epiphenomenal to politics. The book took seriously the regime’s cult of personality under President Hafiz al-Asad (1970–2000), showing how flagrantly fictitious claims could be instrumental, producing a politics of public dissimulation in which citizens acted as if they revered the leader. Such indirect mechanisms of social control, while perhaps not strategically optimal, proved useful—economizing on actual deployments of coercion by generating disciplinary-symbolic practices in which citizens advertised to one another their compliance. The book did not romanticize resistance, but it did acknowledge the importance of everyday acts of transgression, the ways in which people worked the weaknesses of the system, counteracting the atomizing and isolating aspects of the regime’s politics of as if, even as these same transgressive practices shored up other disciplinary aspects of the cult.

Although not all of the regime’s claims were as patently spurious as the ones specific to the personality cult, the official rhetoric in general, controlled by what seemed an ossifying Ba`th party, became increasingly wooden and outmoded as Hafiz al-Asad’s rule wore on. Granted, many Syrians felt a certain pride in the elder Asad’s command of foreign policy, representing a widespread consensus in favor of ongoing national resistance to what were understood as genuine foreign policy threats and a conviction that despite a gradual reduction in provisions, critical aspects of the welfare state were to be maintained.⁵ Ultimately, these verities themselves had been rendered stale and seemingly bogus, often linked to absurd hyperbole, as indicated in pointed jokes, widely circulated cartoons, and even tolerated comedy skits on state-sponsored television.⁶

Or to put all this a bit differently: Under the elder Asad it was easy to find examples of the distanced, irreverent attitude adopted by most Syrians toward regime rhetoric.⁷ Conditions of unbelief were widely shared and acknowledgments of involuntary compliance abundant. In that context, the regime resecured obedience by occasioning continual demonstrations of it. As Slavoj Zizek has noted, external obedience, unlike good judgment or conviction or legitimacy, depends on a self-conscious submission to authority, which in the Syria of those times was in part predicated on not believing. Practices such as joke-telling or permitted comedy skits reproduced this self-consciousness, without which this politics of as if could hardly have been sustained. Like other postrevolutionary, postcolonial countries in which Soviet-style fatigue had not yet fully given way to what would be a younger generation’s seduction by the promises of the market, the rhetorical universe of flagrantly fictitious claims produced a prescriptive grammar that regulated public speech and helped most people know how to stay safe.⁸

The complexities of the first decade of the twenty-first century stand in contrast to this earlier period. On the one hand, what are we to make of the public demonstrations of support for Bashar al-Asad at the beginning of the uprising, when great throngs of people, seemingly independent of regime directive, flooded the streets wearing T-shirts of the president’s face, waving flags, and honking horns? Testimonies of love for the president were abundant on Facebook pages and continue to appear, in tweets and on the internet sites of "minhibbakji[s]—the name derived from a 2007 presidential election" slogan designating good citizens’ devotion to their leader. On the other hand, the complexities are apparent in the constant poking fun at the president on user-created websites (something no one dared before the uprising), the cartoons comparing him to other departed dictators, the challenge to the official portrayal of events by satellite television channels such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, and social media of all kinds calling for the end of the regime. If the earlier era of Hafiz al-Asad registered the ambiguities to be seen 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 violence but also by new forms of disorientation and uncertainty.

This uncertainty is connected to the ways in which official ideology ceased in the new century to be the privileged domain of the Ba`th Party, which had previously regulated both the content and the institutional circuits of discursive dissemination. With the rise of Bashar al-Asad, Syrian television dramas and advertising helped to diversify what was permitted, which helped inform what counted as the good life, to borrow Lauren Berlant’s felicitous term.¹⁰ Stimulated by the young president’s calls for reform, as well as by Syrians’ growing access to an outside world facilitated by satellite television and internet networks, a savvy younger generation both pressed for and also helped to manage the regime’s new image. Cultivating desires for commodities, fostering new ambitions of upward mobility, and producing individual philanthropic programs whose vision of citizen empowerment presumed citizens’ limitations—these were the sorts of disciplinary effects this market-oriented era prior to the uprising tended to generate.¹¹ Supposed nongovernmental institutions—actually under the control of the first lady’s office—devoted to aiding children with cancer, teaching youth business skills, and offering a range of extracurricular arts programs explicitly encouraged volunteerism. Helping to produce a social army on the model of American and European nonprofits, these GONGOS, an oxymoronic acronym for government-organized nongovernmental organizations, displaced the strident Ba`th party cadres of the developmentalist state with a third sector, an affective and ethical field that could put forward the moral neoliberal as its exemplar.¹² These new modes of social control, part of a system I call neoliberal autocracy, turned on a series of contradictions and incoherencies that may have helped produce conditions for, but certainly did not themselves cause, the current state of turmoil. After all, regimes and individuals live with contradictions and incoherencies all the time. But I am getting ahead of myself, for these matters are central to my new book project, one beholden to, but also moving beyond, Ambiguities of Domination.

When writing Ambiguities, one of my aspirations was to convince scholars to abandon legitimacy as a social scientific concept. But the term never went away, and of late it seems more popular than ever. For many, it persists as an important default concept, a way of seeking cover from complex political problems in a convenient abstraction with deep roots in the social scientific tradition. Yet, whatever the scholarly seductions and despite the term’s continuing widespread use, it lacks clarity and often obscures the very processes of power, obedience, consent, and acquiescence that it is intended to explain. The difficulties with the concept begin with the fact that it subsumes at least three different meanings: it can connote a moral right to rule; it can serve as a synonym for popularity; or it can mean, following Max Weber, a belief in the general appropriateness of a regime, practice, or leader. The latter definition, perhaps the most widely intended, poses a number of problems. Whose belief? How precisely does the scholar gain access to this putative belief? How, in short, can we know that it is legitimacy that is doing the work being ascribed to it? These conceptual troubles are linked to assumptions embedded in our theories of legitimation—assumptions about the nature of and differences between authoritarianism and democracy, about what belief entails, and about what counts as knowledge about the political world. Living in Syria during my fieldwork allowed me to realize that regimes can do without legitimacy (in all three senses of the term) and often do not attempt to cultivate it. Through a variety of practices, including the dissemination of ideology through mass spectacles, the proliferation of images associated with cults of personality, and, recently, (more or less bogus) elections, regimes are able to sustain their rule without necessarily producing legitimacy (in any sense of the term).

Political theorists such as my former advisor Hanna Pitkin criticized Weber on political-ethical grounds for attempting to make legitimacy a pure label, neutral with respect to the speaker’s position and commitment.¹³ Weber and those who follow his understanding of the term thereby obscure, in this view, the difference between what is lawful, exemplary, and binding and what is commonly considered lawful, exemplary, and binding.¹⁴ In failing to take on the commitment and responsibility implied in the word’s signaling functions, social scientists imply that even a regime as oppressive as Jim Crow or Nazi Germany could be deemed legitimate because the system was commonly considered to be lawful and binding. Social scientists assume the position of an outside observer looking in, and legitimacy really comes to be so-called legitimacy or what informants, subjects, respondents, natives call legitimacy.¹⁵ Hanna Pitkin writes: it is as if Weber has defined ‘red’ to mean ‘having the status of being considered red,’ or ‘false’ to mean ‘having the liability of being considered contrary to truth.’¹⁶ In at least one passage, Weber explicitly makes this equation himself, apparently without any sense of the slippage.¹⁷ He writes that the state "is a relation of men dominating men, a relation supported by means of legitimate violence (i.e., violence considered to be legitimate)."¹⁸ To put the concern somewhat differently: Weber takes a term whose signaling functions were primarily legal-ethical (based on an external standard) and makes them sociological (based on what is considered to be appropriate) and in doing so treats a term of judgment as if it were a neutral label.

Of course, Weber did not invent this redefinition of legitimacy out of whole cloth. The term whose Latin etymology and ongoing uses refer to law and legality offers no external standard that is objective or independent of context. Indeed, even red relies on some agreement about how we make reference to colors, how variations in light are distinct from each other in terms of what we call them, as Pitkin surely knows. More importantly, the critique may not get at the tensions in the very concept of legitimacy prior to Weber, the ways in which the concept’s associations with law have always made it suggestive of a universal standard and its particular instantiations—where the question of, say, the law or natural law or the law of nations is itself tethered to parochial laws and local statutes. Despite these caveats, what remains relevantly troublesome for our purposes here is twofold: First, the kind of appeal to legitimacy that a theorist like Rousseau would have made, one that was grounded on an external standard of judgment in which laws (or governments) were legitimate to the extent that those subject to them were equal coauthors, does get displaced in Weber’s analysis by the elision Pitkin identifies—with consequences for our ability to ground our judgments overtly or to recognize the normative judgments scholars in fact smuggle into their analyses.¹⁹ Second, for Weber (and many who use his notion of legitimacy), state sovereignty in particular gets conflated with ethical notions of the good, in a social scientific version of the old adage might makes right where might becomes at once the state (in all of its coercive glory) and people’s presumed endorsement of it. Ambiguities invites disentangling sovereign might, moral right, and the presumptions of citizen support for each. It does this by suggesting that we temporarily (at least) abandon the seductive recourse to legitimacy, not only for the political-ethical reasons some political theorists illuminate but because the term’s conceptual puzzlement cultivates methodological and epistemological problems as well.

Methodologically, defining legitimacy as being considered binding begs the question: Considered binding by whom? By what means can the researcher know what people consider binding, or which populations do and do not? Few researchers who invoke legitimacy ask themselves such questions or see them as in any way thorny. For those accustomed to conducting opinion polls, questions like these might seemingly be answered by simply asking people—but aside from whether we should believe what people say, this approach just takes us back to the ethical dimension of the problem, the collapse of a word signaling moral authority into one based on public opinion. Just as crucially, as Ambiguities argued, there is a range of discursive activity—such as flagrantly fictitious claims of regime omnipotence—that cannot be working to cultivate belief or emotional commitment, which the term legitimacy presupposes.

And this last methodological issue, that the term legitimacy may be obscuring the very mechanisms of social control in need of scrutiny, is closely related to an epistemological challenge: Scholars understand subjects as considering a government or a law legitimate if they act as if they do. This conflation of legitimacy with acceptance, acquiescence, consent, and/or obedience is troublesome for research on any political regime. In the context of studying authoritarian regimes, the problem with thinking in terms of legitimacy may be particularly stark. As Ambiguities underscores, such studies often fail to distinguish between public dissimulation of loyalty or belief, on the one hand, and real loyalty or belief, on the other. That all citizens routinely reproduce a regime’s formulaic slogans, for example, tells us mainly that the regime is capable of enforcing obedience on the level of outward behavior. This insight is not meant to imply that citizens under autocratic rule cannot be devoted to the regime, attached to (if not actually believing) even its patently absurd claims, and active in various forms of what Jean Comaroff has aptly called fascism lite.²⁰ It is to say that legitimacy forecloses attention to the variety of ways in which language might be operating, including how it might be used to secure order independently of belief.

The easy identification of legitimacy with consent and/or order is problematic, not only in regard to authoritarian regimes but also for our understanding of democracies as well. As political theorists have rightly noted, making legitimacy a stand-in for consent, for example, tends to elide instances of other-directed conformity with the dictates of majority rule, thereby confusing an ex-ante psychological orientation of conformity for a post-facto acceptance of that standard by the voter.²¹ Social scientists who attempt to focus on democratic legitimacy by treating it in terms of electoral procedures likewise neglect issues central to the maintenance of contemporary political order—issues of apathy and despair, for instance, or the ways in which democratic regimes also rely on potent mechanisms of coercive control.²²

In this sense, the problem is not that social scientists are normatively disengaged but rather that they are either insufficiently aware of their own normative commitments or uncritically related to them. Ambiguities of Domination is interested primarily in unsettling the reader so that he or she gains distance from a scholarly discourse that obfuscates the very practices, in this case disciplinary-symbolic ones, in need of analysis—some of which are relevant across regime types. Shifting attention away from incorrect assumptions about Syrian citizens as irrational believers capable of being easily duped and taking the regime’s strategies of survival seriously, my initial aim was to educate English speakers about and generate appreciation for Syria. Seeing citizen contestation through the ongoing fact of regime resilience—the ways in which liberal democracies and authoritarian systems alike are capacious and stretchable without losing their intelligibility and identity as such—does not mean that legitimacy in any of its meanings is doing the work attributed to it.

Moreover, and as the last four years indicate, there do come moments when regimes are stretched to a breaking point, when radical movements arise that pose an alternative to regime politics as usual. The ascendance of the Islamic State, whose central headquarters are in the northeastern Syrian town of Raqqa, is a current case in point. The story is by now a familiar one: Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, former and would-be mujahidin established an al-Qa’ida affiliate in Iraq. But unlike al-Qa’ida, the movement that was later to proclaim itself the Islamic State focused more on local enemies, doctrinal issues, and declared aspirations to build a state than on US empire or Zionism per se. Sowing sectarian dissension between Sunni and Shi’a, the group’s own internal cohesion soon gave way to internecine rivalries which had members denouncing each other as traitors and apostates. This internal conflict was exacerbated by the United States’s military surge and the Sahwa of self-identified Sunni leaders who turned against al-Qa’ida in Iraq (aided by American military support). The political analyst Peter Harling writes that the movement was thereby reduced between 2007 and 2008 to a few diehards entrenched in the Iraqi desert. That the movement is back—in spectacular fashion—is due only in small part to IS itself. The way has been paved for it by its enemies.²³ In the Syrian context, the Islamic State’s traction has to be understood in terms of the Asad regime’s battle against an opposition it was itself partially responsible for militarizing, helping to turn a primarily peaceful movement for change into a soul-crushing war.

Even prior to the uprising, according to a number of sources, the regime began cultivating militant Islamic activists, encouraging the personnel and enabling the construction of supply lines that have contributed to ongoing devastation.²⁴ The Syrian regime was aided in its efforts to undermine peaceful resistance and militarize opposition to its rule by a cast of regional and international players, including: private and official donors from Gulf monarchies whose petrodollars financed, through a variety of clandestine and not-so-clandestine channels, the arming of radical groups; Turkey, whose borders were left wide open, encouraging the appearance of ad hoc travel agencies and smuggling operations shuttling fighters and weapons across to Syria; Russia and Iran, which favor maintaining the Asad regime and continue to support it financially, militarily, and diplomatically; and the United States, whose history of intervention and continued meddling had a doubled effect, fostering anxieties of compromised sovereignty and conspiracy on the part of regime loyalists while also providing opposition groups with false hopes of rescue. Moreover, the US military arsenal has helped to up the ante for everyone—supplying militias directly and indirectly.

Such considerations of realpolitik in no way imply that the worlds of language and other symbolic orders are anything less than central. Indeed, the very bifurcation of material and ideational is part of what Ambiguities and my subsequent work has sought to undo. This division has arguably informed much of western thought—from philosophy through physics to political science. Ambiguities invites a dialectical rethinking of this split, favoring an analysis that sees ideas inscribed in material practices (to paraphrase Althusser) while viewing material practices as always already structured by and laden with ideas. There is no such thing as a police force without the ideas of enforcement and punishment, for example. The institution of schooling does not exist without an understanding of what counts as pedagogy. Ambiguities remains an invitation to analyze worlds without reimposing the split. That exploration initially allowed me to get at what was already in plain view—a world of transparently phony rituals of obeisance—without resorting to troublesome explanations reliant on terms like legitimacy, which were blocking intellectual access to the very phenomena in need of scrutiny. Nor was Ambiguities content with an oft-cited analysis (at least in political science circles) highlighting preference falsification. This attractive rational choice account, which drew attention to citizens’ practices of lying or falsifying their preferences in public, seemed to get only half of the story right—eschewing the kind of engaged fieldwork that could grasp what was also in part in plain view, the lived experiences of ambiguity and ambivalence, including people’s own awareness of the structuring logic of preference falsification. Its practice did not mean that people were unable to gauge what others thought; citizens often did have a variety of signaling mechanisms that made life more orienting and less anxiety-inducing than scholars such as Timur Kuran suggested.²⁵ James Scott’s also oft-cited distinction between hidden and public transcripts made some sense, but the split was exaggerated—with, again, much of what was supposedly hidden also readily observable.²⁶

For theoretical insights devoted to unsettling conventional wisdoms, I owe a great intellectual debt to Syrians of various political persuasions for their generosity, kindness, and patience. I have learned from disagreements even when they have pained me. I

Sie haben das Ende dieser Vorschau erreicht. Registrieren Sie sich, um mehr zu lesen!
Seite 1 von 1


Was die anderen über Ambiguities of Domination denken

0 Bewertungen / 0 Rezensionen
Wie hat es Ihnen gefallen?
Bewertung: 0 von 5 Sternen