A review of Lisa Wedeen, Authoritarian Apprehensions: Ideology, Judgment, and Mourning in Syria (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019).
In the English-speaking world, political scientists have largely asked two kinds of questions about the ongoing tragedy in Syria. How was a popular uprising able to gain traction in such a tightly controlled authoritarian system? And how has the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Asad managed to survive a widespread uprising, armed rebellion and assorted international pressures while engaging in a scorched-earth war that has destroyed much of the country? In this elegant and provocative meditation on the conflict, Lisa Wedeen expands the conventional focus on the structures of Syrian politics to encompass the lived realities through which those structures are apprehended and experienced.
Wedeen’s principal question is stated explicitly: How was it possible for so many Syrians to maintain a position of ambivalence toward the Asad regime? Yet the core of her inquiry seems motivated by a second, more painful question: How can Syria’s survivors ever overcome the trauma, the sheer horror of what has happened to the country in the last decade? Weaving together ethnographic insight, Syrian artistic expression and cultural theory, Authoritarian Apprehensions does not seek to provide narrowly rational answers to these questions, but rather to capture more complex configurations of feeling and understanding that can help readers comprehend what such questions mean for our common humanity.
While the outer limits of Syria’s political spectrum may have been defined by revolutionary protestors, Islamist rebels and regime die-hards, it is the uncommitted centrists—“who might have made a difference in the uprising’s tractive force had they tilted in its favor” (3)—that Wedeen suggests played the decisive role in shaping the early trajectory of the uprising. The impact of this so-called “silent majority” was evident in the absence of significant mobilization in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, despite major protests across the rest of country. Wedeen argues we cannot adequately explain this urban quietism with reference to economic position, sectarian identity, brain-washing or even regime coercion.
Instead, Wedeen explores Syria’s ideological transformation in the decade before the uprising, when neoliberal reforms under Asad ushered in an era of unprecedented optimism. Chapter 1 captures Syria’s emergence from dour, Soviet-style austerity into a colorful land of shopping malls, cappuccinos and conspicuous consumption. Old regime stalwarts such as the peasants’ and workers’ unions were replaced by inspirational programs for youth, entrepreneurs and rural micro-finance carried out by ostensibly autonomous non-governmental organizations (NGOs) headed up by Syria’s glamorous first lady, Asma al-Akhras. Wedeen contends that the members of Syria’s ambivalent middle were not simply won over by the content of twenty-first century neoliberalism—that is, the material conditions of a better life. Instead, she argues that twenty-first century neoliberalism structured the very form of their emotional attachment to its promise. From this perspective, the quiescence of Syria’s silent majority should not be understood as the product of a conscious ideological decision to side with the regime. Rather, it was the consequence of affective compulsions associated with their desire for an Aristotelian “good life.” The underlying cruelty of the optimism of the reform era, Wedeen observes, is that the desire for a better life has, since the revolution, perversely become an insurmountable obstacle to its realization.
Authoritarian Apprehensions explores the cultural dimensions of this predicament across two pairs of linked chapters. Chapter 3 builds on the opening chapter by discussing the conditions that were conducive to the studied pursuit of public ambivalence: namely, the generalized uncertainty and difficulty of ascertaining truth in an environment of cultivated lies, rumors and political mythology. Take, for example, the story of Ibrahim Qashoush. He was initially heralded as the author of the lyrics to a widely popular revolutionary dabkeh song and was reportedly repaid by being murdered, his vocal cords slashed and his body dumped in the Orontes River, presumably by regime loyalists. A rival narrative broadcast on state television held that Qashoush did not compose the song’s satirical lyrics but that he was a regime informant killed by opposition forces. Along with the regime’s repeated broadcast of scripted confessions and orchestrated show trials, the Qashoush story becomes in Wedeen’s analysis “both symptomatic of and contributing to an entire economy of uncertainty, which works to dilute moral outrage among addressees who otherwise might be available for political action” (86). In Chapter 5, Wedeen extends this analysis to rumors of violence that are variously fueled by sectarian enmity or else fomented by the regime as a simulacrum of putative sectarianism. The resulting “atmospherics of doubt” (82) create space for ambivalence even in the face of atrocity: The silent majority knows very well the situation but can find sufficient doubt in their repertoire (“but nevertheless….”) to avoid taking a stance.
Neoliberalism is commonly understood in terms of its political economy: the withdrawal of the state, the turn to monetarism, the rise of financialization and the restoration of elite power. In contrast, Wedeen’s approach builds on a complementary understanding of neoliberalism as involving a distinct set of cultural and emotional attachments.
Chapter 2, “Humor in Dark Times,” presents Syrian television comedies (including the well-known series Day’a Daayi’a) and revolutionary satirical skits (such as Masasit Mati’s Top Goon) as sites in which to follow the dance between the politics of redemption and the self-preservation of ironic detachment. Chapter 4, “Nationalism, Sentimentality, and Judgement,” probes the problems of evaluating politics, and building political solidarities, in the context of intensive ongoing mourning, as exemplified in four Syrian films directed by Khalid Abd al-Wahid, Ziad Kalthum and Ossama Mohammed. “Ideology works through seduction,” Wedeen reminds readers in her conclusion, “arousing fantasy content while simultaneously defusing it and smoothing out contradictions. It helps manage collective anxieties and sociopolitical incompatibilities by providing mechanisms that allow dissonances to be contained, disavowed, and displaced.” Read in tandem with chapters 1 and 3, Wedeen’s intelligent and sensitive readings convey the emotive crux of her book’s argument in form as well as content. The mood created by Wedeen’s text is from this perspective equally important as its argument. Authoritarian Apprehensions is a serious, powerful work which operates on multiple levels: it speaks to an impressive range of debates in the Anglophone academy and the Syrian artistic field without losing sight of the visceral suffering of Syrians both inside and outside the country.
As with Wedeen’s earlier acclaimed work on Syria and Yemen, Authoritarian Apprehensions is not only of interest to those seeking to understand politics in the Middle East; it also issues a challenge to American political science more broadly. Over the past two decades, Wedeen has championed ethnography within the discipline and has led the insurgent wing of the qualitative research community in its charge to win recognition for methodologies and approaches outside the positivist mainstream. Compared to Wedeen’s previous books, Authoritarian Apprehensions presents less direct ethnographic observation. We learn neither of specific situations in which Syrian viewers responded to episodes of Day’a Daayi’a, for example, nor of conversations that it provoked between Syrian audience members. Fetid rumors of sectarian brutality are not analyzed from a position within the ranks of shabiha militias. But participant observation is not the objective of Wedeen’s project.
Instead, Authoritarian Apprehensions makes a rarely heard case for treating film, cinema and other cultural forms as significant objects of social scientific analysis. “[T]hese artefacts are not mere representations or illustrations or affirmations of a theory,” Wedeen points out. “[T]hey also generate possibilities for what Hannah Arendt calls ‘world making,’ the ability to think anew, to think and act critically, to operate beyond or in excess of referentiality […] speaking to a relationship of collaboration rather than simple ethnographic data gathering” (15).
Wedeen therefore accords Syrian filmmakers and cinematographers an intellectual respect and analytical centrality not found in most political analysis. In doing so, Authoritarian Apprehensions marks a shift from an ethnographic mode of analysis familiar to the empirical social sciences to a more textual and philosophical mode of analysis more commonly encountered in political theory, cultural studies and the humanities. Wedeen’s interpretations of these texts are informed by an ethnographic sensibility born of long conversations with Syrian artists, debates about culture and politics and a deep, long-standing immersion in the field.
The book’s undoubtedly heavyweight intellectual scaffolding is nevertheless constructed from more conventional academic work: Wedeen’s footnotes are wide ranging and impressive, a parallel text of commentary in their own right. Yet references to these works sometimes seem a world away from the Syrian artists-cum-political theorists who are Wedeen’s principal interlocutors in the main text of the book. Ultimately, Authoritarian Apprehensions has bigger philosophical fish to fry, its own “structure of feeling” to express.
At its heart, Wedeen’s book is haunted by a discernible anguish. In her conclusion, Wedeen lays bare that the purpose of her critique of ideology is to search for what she calls “a wedge.” This wedge—a wedge of hope, perhaps—cannot be found in rational explanations of why the ambivalent middle confounded the promise of a revolution against authoritarianism. The wedge can only come about through:
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 loss of human beings who were loved, cared for, and are irretrievably gone (166).
The failure of which Wedeen speaks is not the failure of Syria’s silent majority. It is a collective failure—the failure of “all of us,” as Wedeen says—to prevent a decade of atrocity and suffering and pain. It is the failure of losing a life world that once existed and that can never be recovered. It is the failure to which an exhausted optimism of the will must inevitably, inexorably surrender when it encounters forces that cannot be overcome. Authoritarian Apprehensions seeks to excavate a way to feel and to imagine when confronted with this impasse, a way to reach beyond the defeat of the present. Its goal is to articulate a way to exist in this shattered world without severing ties with the lifeworld-that-once-was. Is the faith in this possibility itself a cruel trick of optimism? Perhaps. Yet this path also provides the only possible promise of redemption.
Wedeen’s subtle and poignant exploration of this predicament speaks to issues of failure, loss, mourning and the seemingly impossible necessity of moving on—issues that escape the narrow realm of the intellect. Authoritarian Apprehensions is one of those rare academic works that evokes aspects of the human condition that are as ineffable as they are tragic.
[Daniel Neep, ADF Research Fellow at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University, is currently working on a new book, The Nation Belongs to All: The Making of Modern Syria.]
 Lisa Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Lisa Wedeen, Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).