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

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Rhetoric--Political aspects--Syria. Syria--Politics and government Assad, Hafez, Political culture--Syria. Public opinion--Syria. Having spent decades managing discontent, the Syrian regime found itself in unfamiliar waters when in March it encountered formidable popular protests.

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. 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.

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. It is gratifying to know that Ambiguities of Domination , published in English in and translated into Arabic in , continued to offer for some Syrians in 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.

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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. 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.

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. 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. The complexities of the first decade of the twenty-first century stand in contrast to this earlier period.

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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. 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.

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.

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. 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. Ambiguities invites disentangling sovereign might, moral right, and the presumptions of citizen support for each. Methodologically, defining legitimacy as being considered binding begs the question: Considered binding by whom?

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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. 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. 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.

Lisa Wedeen | Middle East Institute

Nor does it resemble Foucaultian spectacles that internalized discipline among Europeans. Instead, Wedeen argues, the al-Asad cult is a new kind of political tool wielded by post-colonial regimes that, unlike their European counterparts, have confronted the dual tasks of state- and nation-building simultaneously and with fewer resources. As a means of securing popular obedience, the al-Asad cult is both cheaper and more effective than the more elaborate and earnest European methods.

Indeed, the power of the cult lies precisely in its tawdry absurdity: "Asad is powerful because his regime can compel people to say the ridiculous and to avow the absurd" p. Wedeen supports her argument with an array of materials and interviews collected during more than two years of field work. An unknown error has occurred.

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Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while. Read preview. Reviewed by Elizabeth Thompson Lisa Wedeen makes an important and distinctive contribution to the recently burgeoning literature on contemporary Syria.

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

Read preview Overview. The Middle East Journal, Vol. Assad Warns U. Syria The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Palmyra ancient city, Syria The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

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