North Africa, West Asia

How does authoritarianism survive in Syria? An interview with Lisa Wedeen

How did the emergence of a civil-war autocracy in Syria change the way the regime reproduces its power?

Tugrul Mende
26 May 2020, 12.01am
Posters and graffiti of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, 2014
Picture by Hosein Zohrevand / wikimedia commons. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0

Following a decade-long re-engagement with Syria after a period researching Yemen, Lisa Wedeen recently published her latest book, Authoritarian Apprehensions: Ideology, Judgment, and Mourning in Syria (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2019). In this book, Wedeen explores authoritarian resilience and political transformation in revolutionary Syria and analyzes satirical productions as one way of understanding political and social developments in Syria.. We discussed her research and findings in her book over email, going through various cultural productions in Syria from the last two decades.

Lisa Wedeen is the Mary R. Morton Professor of Political Science and the College and the Co-Director of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory at the University of Chicago. In addition she is Associate Faculty in Anthropology and Co-Editor of the University of Chicago Book Series, Studies in Practices of Meaning. Her first book on Syria, Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria, was published in 1999, with a new preface in 2015.

Tugrul Mende: How did you decide on the subject of your new book?

Lisa Wedeen: I had initially planned to write a book that wrestled with what seemed to be the emergence of a kinder, gentler version of autocracy under president Bashar al-Asad (2000–). Among the issues I imagined exploring were the forms of generational change that appeared to be both a product and a driver of neoliberal market openings; the new aesthetic imaginaries of everyday life accompanying the marked embrace of consumption and departure from Soviet-era asceticism; and the discernible support Bashar seemed to be garnering from communities that had hitherto withheld it from the regime, including former dissidents, artists, urban professionals, and members of the clergy.


A lot changed with the beginning of the uprising in 2011, of course. That was March and I was still in Damascus, leaving toward the end of May, and I learned a tremendous amount during that time—about a newfound revolutionary exuberance, as well as persistent expressions of political ambivalence.

As a whole, Authoritarian Apprehensions remained keyed to my initial interests in authoritarian resilience and political transformation, focused in particular on ideological uptake, or how people were being recruited into Syria’s neoliberal autocratic order. I’ve always been interested in political discourse—and the politics of rhetoric and symbols. But this book required me to find and articulate a theory of ideology, drawing in particular on post-Althusserian cultural Marxism and on affect theory. Putting those literatures into conversation with theories of political judgment helped me think afresh about issues of compliance, epistemology, and political attachment.

From a number of angles, the book investigates the complicated, varied, often incoherent forms of address that helped secure the citizen buy-in the regime needed to survive. Authoritarian Apprehensions argues that ideology matters in cultivating citizens’ attachments. It works not only through outright belief, but through mechanisms that complicate belief and unbelief, not least because of the way people can know something and not know it at the same time. Ideology can generate ardent loyalty but also ambivalence—and in the case of Syria, this ambivalence, people’s manifest toggle between desires for reform and their attachment to order, was critical to the regime’s capacity to survive.

TM: How is this book different from your previous one on Syria, Ambiguities of Domination?

LW: The two books deal with three different forms of compliance inducement—and three different Syrias. Ambiguities of Domination captured the conditions of a durable autocracy relying in part on flagrantly fictitious claims to reproduce its power. Authoritarian Apprehensions examines two additional modes of compliance inducement. In the first decade of Bashar al-Asad’s rule, regime institutions and rhetoric relied less on party mechanisms of social control and more on an emerging group of television and advertising-oriented cultural producers, setting the tone for an upbeat, modern, and internet-savvy authoritarianism. Alongside that came regime-organized, market-inflected civil society organizations that tapped especially into a spirit of youthful voluntarism. This all changed in the second decade with the emergence of a civil-war autocracy, in which the means and mechanisms of mediation were no longer geared to perpetuation but rather to the restoration of a stability that had been radically challenged.

In understanding how this happened, Authoritarian Apprehensions treats the opposition-oriented Syrian filmmakers showcased in the book 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 manifest impasses—collectively. Here the films of Ossama Mohammed and Ziad Kalthum, and the shorts of the anonymous collective Abounaddara appear as works that offer me theoretical assistance in my exploration of the paths not taken and the forms of knowing and resonance we all have hovering around the edges of our multiple worlds.

TM: In chapter two, you write about comedy. What made you choose comedies and why did you introduce this chapter with Bertolt Brecht?

LW: I start with a few lines from Brecht about how even in the “dark times” there will be singing—about the dark times. The irony resonates—and comically, which is important—with Syrians, who know what it is to sing about hardship, or more to the point here, to laugh about it. The specific television comedies I chose were ones that homed in on questions of central concern to the book, for example, the ways ideology works through cultural production, how it is unevenly saturating, and what kinds of ambivalence get reflected in and generated anew through comedy. Comedy is a source of attunement: alerting us to things we already know but are not attending to. It is also a profoundly social activity. And it can both reproduce status-quo conventionality and be an incubator for oppositional consciousness.

Because I wanted to think about comedy from the point of view of ideology critique, I chose ones that were either immensely popular and/or were emblematic of the book’s general themes. Some, like Day`a, daay`a (A Forgotten Village, 2008 [2010]), have had important and variegated afterlives—providing inspiration for memes among Asad loyalists and among an array of opposition-identified citizens. Some examples so obviously have traction you can't help but notice them (like the first season of the wonderfully irreverent finger puppet series, Masasit Mati’s Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator in 2011). They cause scandals or surprise or excitement that get refracted in other public sphere venues. They have staying power over time. Other skits had very little impact, but for me they opened up a way of thinking about ideology and authoritarianism.

TM: How difficult was conducting research on Syria, obtaining material and finding interview partners for your work?

LW: I am very lucky to have had the privilege of living and studying in Syria in the 1980s and 1990s, so when I returned in 2010–2011, I started with plenty of established contacts and was able to meet others through these contacts and through new acquaintances, friends, and colleagues. I note in the book how, as a scholar with ethnographic commitments, I write with a profound sense of solidarity with Syrians of various stripes—which includes the solidarity to disagree, to judge, to be surprised, angry, even repelled.

Writing from a situated perspective in this way means not giving in to a titillating curiosity about people who find themselves being violated and exploited by the conditions in which they are living. I do engage subjects as sources of ethnographic knowledge, but I do so while maintaining due respect for them as interlocutors. Being attuned to shifting power relations, context, structural inequalities and ongoing neocolonial interventions entails creating and being open to interpretive encounters that call for cultivating curiosity, mutual reciprocity, reflexivity, and enduring commitment.

TM: How did research on Syrian culture and art change after 2011?

LW: When I left in May 2011, I realized I probably would not be able to return—at least not while the Asad regime remained in power. My work then became more multi-sited—in Beirut, Istanbul, on the border between Syria and Turkey, in Paris, Berlin, Chicago. Syrian friends and acquaintances began visiting me, which I loved. I spent months at a time in Beirut. Online social media conversations became more important. Some worlds opened up and others closed down. I certainly met many more Syrians after leaving Syria than I would have had I stayed, but of course the circumstances in each site and in virtual communities continued to change, as did my interlocutors’ experiences of them.

On culture and art specifically, doing research in these conditions meant using film, videos, television serials, comedies, and other expressions by regime- and opposition-oriented cultural producers, not simply as evidence to demonstrate a point (which was my strategy in Ambiguities), but also to think with and through these cultural products. Fundamentally, I’m interested in how they 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.

TM: In what way do you think terms like autocracy and nationalism will be redefined through the different political, social, and cultural changes that Syria has undergone since 2011?

LW: I can imagine that they can be repurposed in the context of the political, social, and cultural changes you elude to, but I am not sure they can be redefined exactly. Concepts like these are polyvalent, which entails having to opt for one understanding of the concept as opposed to another. For nationalism, my preference is for a historically specific notion, referring to idioms of affective connection and a sense of belonging with anonymous others to a territory. Looking at Syria, this means that the practices used to recruit affective attachments to the nation have been changing as Syrians go through the experiences of displacement, revolutionary exhilaration and disappointment, assertions of loyalty, and fear—to name a few factors. Syrians, like people everywhere, are heterogeneous, so the forms of addressability depend on who is being addressed (loyalists, activists, and that large swathe of the Syrian population in the ambivalent middle) and who is doing the addressing (the regime, television serial directors, advertisers, activists, opposition-oriented filmmakers, etc.). So, what counts as a Syrian depends on who is judging and for what purposes.

The book also discusses the divergence between the ways mourning comes to expression, suggesting, broadly, two different economies of suffering. The regime’s version requires that only “we” experience grief and that only “they” inflict it. Predictable emotions operating within conventional structures of melodramatic nationalist sentimentality are heightened so that other unruly emotions and an alternative process of mourning can be refused acknowledgment, even if these emotions remain present. In the regime version, mourning must in no way be disruptive or internally conflictual. Opposition filmmakers, to take the examples of Ziad Kalthum and Ossama Mohammed once again, acknowledge difference and conflict in their work. They provide, in a certain sense, training spaces for a political otherwiseness, incitements to do the imaginative work required for political judgment. Some of those judgments will be confined to nation-state imaginaries and some of them make appeals to a polyphonic, broader, situated, yet universal public.

TM: How much did the role of humor change before and after the Syrian uprising in terms of art and activism?

LW: Here I can talk about autocracy, in terms of how that concept also changes with experience over time. Chapter two begins with A Forgotten Village, the popular television series I mentioned, because the series exemplifies efforts to reconcile the contradictory logics of neoliberalism and autocracy, situating the attachment to unfreedom in backwards citizens. This contrasts with the court jester/common man who mocks the government and demands that citizens be treated with dignity, as characters in some Syrian comedies in the 1970s and 1980s did (with Durayd Lahham’s character Ghawwar a lasting example). The characters in A Forgotten Village are in no way exterior to the conditions oppressing them. Here it is the writer and the director who speak truth to power, not the characters representing everyday people. Both ruler and ruled are buffoons, and the critique of the regime is matched by a diagnosis that situates “the people” at the heart of the problem.

With the uprising, it was left to the dark humor of the uncensored internet to produce parodies of official discourses calling unequivocally for the regime’s ouster. And as the uprising evolved, the terms of what counted as humorous were clearly in flux. Clever remixes of the president’s speeches and fast-paced parodies of regime thugs’ machismo expressed a newfound creativity unbound from the censors.

Top Goon, the YouTube finger-puppet series, is a good example. The president puppet is a callous buffoonish figure with a wooden head sporting big ears, a high forehead, a widow’s peak, and a beaky nose, which along with Bashar’s characteristic lisp are exaggerated for comic effect. He is completely dependent on thugs to stay in power, and he is continuously being flattered by stupid, sycophantic advisers—themes reminiscent of scenes from A Forgotten Village, now repurposed with a fundamental disdain for personalized authority at the series’ comedic core. The book deals with other such instances, as well. The video “Strong Heroes of Moscow” (2011) and skits created by young people such as Nakzeh (“little poke” in slang from Idlib; 2016), in which a young man’s trenchant monologues draw attention to key demographic categories emerging since the uprising began—poking fun at the loyalists, the ambivalent middle, and the opposition. The YouTube video comedy series Min Fawq al-Asatih (“over the roofs,” connoting something done by indirection or in secret; 2017 from al-Ghouta) does an especially sophisticated job of ventriloquizing various kinds of Syrians in ways that reestablish grounds for commonality without occluding the fact of difference. One even enjoins the newly elected President Trump to borrow from Syria’s authoritarian playbook.

TM: Since 2011 there has been a lot of journalistic and academic works published on the Syrian uprising, how much did the content change and where do you see your work located in this area? Was it difficult to find the right publisher for this kind of book?

LW: I have had a long and rewarding relationship with the University of Chicago Press. My editor in this instance, Priya Nelson, has been extraordinarily supportive and insightful. I have learned a great deal from her—and she also sent it out for review to people who were exceptionally helpful to me.

I did have colleagues who urged me to “get the book out quickly” once the uprising started and interest in Syria became more widespread. But I am not that kind of writer or thinker, to be honest. There are lots of excellent books out there—books from Syrian activists, first-person narrative accounts, mixed-genre books about particular aspects of the uprising, journalistic accounts, encyclopedic discussions of, say, documentary film, and some new social scientific accounts that are very informative. I admire people who can respond to immediate events. I couldn’t seem to get my verb tenses right.

My book took a long time in part because I love Syria, and I had to find the analytic distance needed to write about a devastating situation while maintaining fidelity to my political theory commitments and avoiding either sensationalizing or seeming insensitive. This was an exercise in humility. And as I have noted elsewhere, I owe a tremendous debt to Syrians of many different political orientations for their faith in me and for their patience, generosity, and insights, which have truly expanded my thinking.

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