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University of Chicago Press
Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria / Edition 2

Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria / Edition 2

by Lisa WedeenLisa Wedeen
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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226333373
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/09/2015
Edition description: First Edition, Enlarged
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

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.

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Ambiguities of Domination

Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria

By Lisa Wedeen

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-34553-6


Believing in Spectacles


In official Syrian political discourse, President Hafiz al-Asad is regularly depicted as omnipresent and omniscient. In newspaper photographs he appears as the "father," the "combatant," the "first teacher," the "savior of Lebanon," the "leader forever," or the "gallant knight," a transparent reference to the modern-day Salah al-Din, after the original, who wrested Jerusalem from enemy control in 1187. At regional summit meetings he "shows complete understanding of all issues." Religious iconography and slogans attesting to his immortality bedeck the walls of buildings, the windows of taxi cabs, and the doors of restaurants. If only by dint of repetition, everyone is fluent in this symbolic vocabulary of the Syrian state, which has become a hallmark of Asad's regime.

There is no reason to doubt that those members of the political and cultural elite who conceive and deliver these panegyrics to Asad's greatness in fact respect his leadership qualities. He is widely known both within and beyond the Middle East for his political savvy, especially in matters of foreign policy. But surely no one in modern Syria, neither those who orchestrate official praise nor those who are forced to consume it, believes that Asad is the country's "premier pharmacist," that he "knows all things about all issues," or that he actually garners 99.2 percent of the vote in elections. Neither the haloed images sanctifying his mother nor paintings of Asad framed by the sun are likely to inspire belief in his literal holiness. As one prominent scholar of Syria writes: "Enthusiasm may not go very deep; even party members cannot be forced to believe the slogans they chant.... Lack of inner conviction is acceptable as long as every single party member and official is prepared to demonstrate publicly his/her commitment to party and President." In fact, the main product of the cult of Hafiz al-Asad seems to be a general atmosphere of skeptical ambivalence that attends the practice of politics in Syria. "When [Asad] does make a public appearance," writes a Middle East Watch representative, "the delirious masses such as those that used to greet Egyptian president ?Abd al-Nasir are not present. Even the casual visitor to Syria can tell that Asad is not the object of universal adulation."

It is easy to adduce examples of the distanced, irreverent attitude Syrians adopt in relation to the cult and its propaganda. Daily state-controlled newspapers in Syria are widely considered to be functional tablecloths, rather than respected records of current events. One such paper, al-Thawra (The revolution), allegedly experienced a 35 percent drop in sales after it temporarily suspended its independent-minded cartoonist and political satirist. Television comedies and feature-length films often poke fun at official discourse, and underground jokes about the cult abound. People from different social classes and from diverse religious backgrounds privately grumble about the sheer financial extravagance of the cult. Spectacles such as opening festivals, referendum celebrations, and state holiday rituals are orchestrated and attendance is generally enforced by regime officials. (For example, party members have been known to order the university gates closed to keep students from leaving the campus; then they marshal students onto buses and transport them to festivities honoring the president.) This is not to say that no one would go to spectacles if the state did not compel attendance, but state authorities are sufficiently anxious about the matter to devise strategies ensuring a good turnout. One journalist estimated that at the opening ceremony of the 1996 "Festival of Basil," which was named after Asad's oldest son and sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, over 75 percent of those attending were military conscripts or members of the Ba??th Party's "popular" organizations.

Syrians of all sorts, at one time or another, have been compelled to bend their talents to the service of state propaganda. Youth are ritualistically enlisted to assemble at rallies orchestrated by "popular" organizations;individual poets, university professors, artists, and playwrights are periodically called upon to help produce the public spectacles and to maintain Asad's cult; the federation of peasants and workers and the professional syndicates of journalists, lawyers, teachers, and doctors, among others, are all required at one time or another to conjure up slogans and imagery representing their idealized connection to party and president. Often citizens respond by finding a way to avoid trouble without feeling deeply compromised. For example, one artist ordered to create a poster chose to copy a painting that hangs in Asad's office. The painting depicts the battle of Hittin in which Salah al-Din defeated the Crusaders and reclaimed Jerusalem for the Arabs. Over the battle scene, the artist superimposed a large photograph of Asad's face, adding the caption: "from Hittin to Tishrin." Tishrin (October) is universally understood to refer to the October 1973 war, so the poster, which was widely distributed during Asad's 1991 referendum, seems to identify Asad's October War with Salah al-Din's legendary military victory. The artist claims that his point, however, was to draw people's attention to the contrast between Salah al-Din's triumph and Asad's "victory." The artist found a way to subvert (or at least to persuade himself that he was subverting) the state's symbols without causing himself trouble with the authorities. He walked a fine line that many Syrians recognize as expertly as they practice what is required of them by the cult. Even members of the regime who are directly responsible for disseminating propaganda and ideology sometimes acknowledge the disparity between the slogans they produce and the political convictions they hold. As one independent member of Parliament said privately, "What the regime says is 180 degrees from the truth: they make a workers' union against the workers, a women's union against women, a Parliament against democracy.... No one believes the things they say, and everyone knows that no one believes them."

In Syria, in other words, it is impossible not to experience the difference between what social scientists, following Max Weber, might conceive as a charismatic, loyalty-producing regime and its anxiety-inducing simulacrum. There is a shabbiness to Asad's cult, even a cynicism about it, that is as apparent as its laudatory slogans and sempiternal images are ubiquitous. If its purpose is to create charisma and induce popular belief, then Asad's cult of personality does not seem to be working. Yet the Syrian leadership considers the cult worthy of considerable expenditures of both time and money.

Accounts of Syrian politics fail to address the question of why the state continues to devote resources to perpetuating the cult and compelling citizens to take part in it; indeed, most of the scholarship tends to ignore the cult and its implications for political life altogether. In the first volume of Raymond Hinnebusch's two-volume study of Syria, for instance, the Syrian state is likened to 'Bonapartist' regime — a postrevolutionary authoritarian regime standing 'above' classes and presiding over the formation of a strong new state and the transition from a feudal order to a more modern, complex society." But Hinnebusch fails to mention what Marx, from whom he borrows the term "Bonapartist," takes to be crucial, namely, the ways in which symbols and images publicly represent the leader's power. For Marx, Bonaparte's rule meant that the state could avoid a divisive declaration of its class interests by manipulating symbols, thereby diverting attention from the leader's material aims. "Bonapartism" loses its symbolic dimensions in Hinnebusch's work; he writes as if Asad's cult did not exist. Other scholars who do mention the cult treat it as marginal, worthy of only fleeting attention.

The methods of both the social sciences and the humanities do offer some useful tools for understanding a cult like Asad's, and this chapter will explore some relevant approaches to the significance of symbols for political analyses. Yet while the examples on which I will draw, from comparative politics and the literature on "spectacles" (state rituals, cults, and festivals), are useful and suggestive, they prove remarkably insufficient when applied seriously to the Syrian context. Either Syria is an exception to the explanatory models scholars proffer, or their central concepts are so highly ambiguous that they offer no clear explanation at all. These accounts, furthermore, fail to attend to one phenomenon that fairly leaps to the observer's attention in the Syrian case and that has been theorized abstractly in recent years: the ways in which cult and spectacle both produce political power yet also, paradoxically, invite transgressions. Deficiencies in the available literature imply that a careful investigation of Asad's cult can make a larger contribution beyond Syrian or Middle Eastern Studies. Specifying the nature of and rationale behind symbolic displays in authoritarian countries such as Syria can help to clarify more general concepts such as obedience, complicity, power, and membership.

Legitimacy, Charisma, and Hegemony

Political scientists have generated neither precise concepts nor an adequate methodology for understanding the role of rhetoric and symbols in producing political power in the absence of belief or emotional commitment. One prominent approach treats politics as basically a matter of material interests and the groups that articulate them, regarding symbolic displays of power and rhetorical practices as epiphenomenal. Applied to Syria, this "materialist" outlook produces studies restricted to the state's power to control material resources, on the one hand, and to construct institutions of enforcement and punishment on the other. Although the question of material and punitive inducements is undeniably important, such approaches fail to analyze the state's attempts to control the symbolic world, that is, to manipulate and manage systems of signification. This literature thereby overlooks the ways in which official rhetoric and images operate as forms of power in their own right, helping to enforce obedience and sustain the conditions under which regimes rule. Materialist studies simply do not explain why the Syrian government expends exorbitant sums of money and scarce material resources on symbolic production, instead of marshalling its limited funds for either increases in punitive enforcement or the positive inducements that goods and services can offer.

A second set of interpretations, which we might call the "ideational" group or the school of political culture, has suggested that rhetoric and symbols determine political outcomes. "Discourse" in the ideational school is an independent variable. Such interpretations tend to suggest that "successful" rhetoric and symbols produce "legitimacy," "charisma," or "hegemony" for the regime, enabling political leaders to win support for themselves and their policies by fostering collective ethnic, national, or class identifications. The problem with these treatments is that they fail to distinguish between public dissimulation of loyalty or belief, on the one hand, and real loyalty or belief, on the other. That all Syrians are capable of reproducing the regime's formulaic slogans tells us mainly that the regime is capable of enforcing obedience on the level of outward behavior. Interviews with men and women from diverse generational, religious, sectarian, and class backgrounds, combined with other types of evidence drawn from two-and-one-half years of fieldwork, suggest that Asad's cult does not produce popularity, establish his moral right to rule, or even work with those sorts of goals in mind.

It is impossible to get into policymakers' heads and come away with exact knowledge of why they do what they do. In countries like Syria it may be difficult even to get access to the relevant party circulars. But state action in the symbolic sphere is legible in the effects it produces, and these effects are both demonstrable and politically significant. By identifying them, it becomes possible to understand how a noncharismatic authoritarian regime uses rhetoric and symbols to produce political power, thus helping to ensure its own survival. That Asad has been in power since 1970 suggests the effectiveness of such a strategy.

This book argues that Asad's cult is a strategy of domination based on compliance rather than legitimacy. The regime produces compliance through enforced participation in rituals of obeisance that are transparently phony both to those who orchestrate them and to those who consume them. Asad's cult operates as a disciplinary device, generating a politics of public dissimulation in which citizens act as if they revere their leader. A politics of "as if," while it may appear irrational or even foolish at first glance, actually proves politically effective. It produces guidelines for acceptable speech and behavior; it defines and generalizes a specific type of national membership; it occasions the enforcement of obedience; it induces complicity by creating practices in which citizens are themselves "accomplices," upholding the norms constitutive of Asad's domination; it isolates Syrians from one another; and it clutters public space with monotonous slogans and empty gestures, which tire the minds and bodies of producers and consumers alike.

This argument is not meant to suggest that there are no ways in which the Syrian regime enjoys "legitimacy" or that the rhetoric never articulates any deeply held beliefs. Sometimes the rhetoric is patently absurd; sometimes it blends consensual understandings with obviously false statements, appropriating meanings and converting heroic acts into acts committed for Asad. And sometimes, too, the official discourse represents widely shared convictions about political life, albeit in stark Manichaean terms that simplify the range of complex, differentiated visions expressed by Syrians in private. At least three widely shared beliefs of political life find some expression in contemporary official discourse: first, the regime defends Syrians against Israeli threats; second, the Golan Heights, land seized by Israel in the 1967 War, must be returned to Syria; third, Asad's rule has produced unprecedented stability in Syria, which is desirable. The example of the Lebanese civil war is a chilling reminder of the consequences of not living under a strong state. Asad's cult clearly does more than call attention to consensually acknowledged achievements and aspirations of the regime. The particular role it plays in Syrian political life also suggests that the regime can do without legitimacy and that the regime's investment in rhetoric and symbols need not produce it to be valuable politically.

Legitimacy, as Samuel Huntington has acknowledged, is a "mushy" concept, yet it nevertheless continues to be widely employed by social scientists, even those who acknowledge its "mushiness." John H. Schaar has argued that lexical usage centers on an appeal to a higher authority, such as divine law, the law of nature, custom, or constitutions, external to the claimant making the appeal. Social scientific understandings of the word revolve around belief and opinion. For most authors, "successful" spectacles are those in which legitimacy is gained either by appeal to an external, consensually acknowledged authority or by making the represented figure popular.

To sanction Asad's leadership, Syrian rhetoric routinely invokes the external authorities of religion and Syria's modern constitution. Neither of these purported "higher" sanctioning authorities, however, can possibly be regarded as higher by the Syrian populace. For instance, no constitutional provision actually overrides or even limits Asad's power. And Syrians live in the contemporary world where appeals to sacred authority possess less resonance than they did in sixteenth-century Europe (an exemplary period for the scholarship on legitimacy and Western "cults of personality"), when ideologues in emerging Western states were justifying their respective monarchs' right to rule. The many practicing religious Syrians, in fact, comprise precisely the group that is least likely to believe the cult's claims. The greatest political opposition to Asad's regime thus far has been from organized religious Muslims, who resent the privileges conferred on Asad's clansmen and do not consider the ??Alawi sect (to which Asad and his elite cohort belong) to be Islamic at all. Religious Muslims are likely to be deeply offended by the cult, rather than enamored of Asad.


Excerpted from Ambiguities of Domination by Lisa Wedeen. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface, 2015
A Note on Transliteration

1. Believing in Spectacles
2. Killing Politics: Official Rhetoric and Permissable Speech
3. Acting “As If”: The Story of M
4. Signs of Transgression
5. Complicating Compliance


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