Ambiguities of Domination

Considering widespread spectacles of cult in Syria, where the images or monuments devoted to President Hafiz al-Asad were pervasive, the book questions, “Why would a regime spend a bulk of resources on a cult whose content is patently spurious?”

What she found in Syria was interesting. In newspapers, television, taxi cab, and elsewhere, the images of President Asad can easily be found. The president was praised as “the father”, “the knight”, and “premier pharmacist”. At the same time, however, most Syrian did not believe in what they themselves talk about. How do we understand the role of those rhetoric and symbols in producing political power in such condition?

In political theories, there are three theories on the ways to produce political power: legitimacy, charisma and hegemony.[1] If legitimacy to mean an appeal to higher sanctioning authorities, the spectacle Asad’s regime impose higher authority, then it does not really work for Syrians because the very Asad’s dominance is in fact higher than anything he can appeal to — whether revolution, constitution, or even religion.

If by legitimacy it means “the capacity of the system to engender and maintain the belief that the existing political institutions are the most appropriate ones for society’,[2] then it also did not answer yet such question, “Do cult and spectacles, in the case of Syria, really bring about belief among Syrians that the existing regime is appropriate?” It is difficult to answer because, according to Wadeen, the holding of election shows that the regime itself is not sure about its popularity.[3]

Asad’s regime did not base their power on charisma. Charisma is 'power legitimized on the basis of a leader's exceptional personal qualities or the demonstration of extraordinary insight and accomplishment, which inspire loyalty and obedience from followers'.[4] Asad’s regime in fact is out of this category.

The existing understanding of hegemony, that it “consist of thing that go without saying because, being axiomatic, they come without saying; things that, being presumptively shared, are not normally the subject of explication or argument.”[5] This understanding to some extent does not capture the dynamics of official rhetoric in Syria whose statement can not be accepted as “axiomatic”.

Besides those theories, there are two approaches, according to Wadeen, usually used by political scientist: the materialist and ideational approaches. The materialist studies, concentrated on the material resources, fail to explain why Syrian government, which has not many resources, spends a bulk of money on symbolic production rather than minimizing it and using punitive enforcement. The ideational approach tends to treat “discourse” as independent variable. It suggests that successful rhetoric produces legitimacy, charisma, or hegemony. This approach fails to distinguish between public dissimulation of loyalty and real royalty.[6] In Syria, all Syrians are capable to reproduce regime’s slogan and act as the regime want, but, at the same time, they don’t really mean it.

Therefore, the main argument of this book is that Asad’s cult is strategy of domination based on compliance rather than legitimacy.[7] The regime produces compliance through enforced participation in cult of obeisance that are apparently phony both to those orchestrate them and to those consume them. Asad’s cult, according to the book, is disciplinary tool (in Foucaultian term) to generate politics of “as if”, dissimulative politic in which citizens act as if they revere their leader. It seems irrational and foolish, but it is politically effective: maintaining Asad’s administration since 1970.

Because the prevailing theories and approach do not satisfyingly explain what happens in Syria, Wadeen then uses a combination technique between those materialist and ideational approaches. She calls her approach “political ethnography” since she borrows techniques from political sciences and “interpretive” anthropology. This approach helps us to get at the meaning of the symbols, rituals, and practices in a way that avoids a simple functionalist interpretation — which try to understand if the symbols is meant to produce a political power. This functionalist interpretation is not relevant because we are not capable to know what is Asad and his men’s mind. It seems for me that, as other post-structuralists, Wadeen believes “author’s intention” is not relevant because, anyway, the author is death.

Wadeen works on three levels in which political power is produced in Syria:
- Sentence and statement
- Metaphor
- Act

In chapter 2, Wadeen discusses the proliferation of posters, slogan, and words working as coherent system of rules that regulates speech in ways that are comprehensible and facilitate communication. Regime has begun to build these “rules” as early as Asad comes to power. From depicting him as “comrade” in 1973, “savior” in 1976, and the use of the word ’ahd (contract of loyalty) since 1982, to leader that will rule forever (ila al-abad) in 1984 referendum.[8] Still, we find many other representations that is, in fact, sound contradicting: Asad can be both knight of war or man of peace; premiere pharmacist or teacher, lawyer or doctor.

Wadeen propose four explanations for that: first, the different representations express different group and interest that the regime is facing. But, because we don’t know what which groups is intended, what we can know is that the regime try to unify the differences through the language and symbol. Second, the differences also imply that Asad surround himself with competitive sycophant and encourage this rivalry for his favor by permitting contradictory statements to exist simultaneously. Third, it may be that the regime was producing counterfactual statements because the acknowledgement of certain fact can be embarrassing for the leader. Fourth, the statements function to communicate the regim’s power by dominating public space.[9]

In Syria, family metaphor operates in the official narrative to the regime’s idealized relation of domination and membership and to specify the form of obedience. Syrian family, as many others, is hierarchically organized and stratified: the young are subordinate to the old, women are subordinate to men.[10] In this context, father, being the oldest and male, is on the top of hierarchy. Depicting himself as a father makes him more powerful.

To show the “as if” act, dissimulative act, Wadeen presents an interesting example on how the regime even control “the dream”. It doesn’t really mean that the regime can actually control the dream but it emphasize on how citizens should retell their dream in accordance to what the regime want.

All those method, though sound implausible at the short run, it really produce political attitude that the regime want. In the long run, people get used to “lie” and to act “as if”, until they don’t realize what it means not to lie. Getting used to live in such context, people don’t think anymore about those odds and become naturalized.

For sure not all Syrians stop resisting the regime on that condition. In the chapter four, Wadeen deal with some transgressions, acts beyond the permitted boundaries. She calls it transgression because such resistance will not change the regime. It’s only a little bit deviation from the supposed boundaries.

Wadeen has been able to show this non-totalizing authoritarianism in Syria reveals the ways in which cults and their associated spectacles not only discipline participants, but also expose the way state control, on the level of symbolic strategy, is subject to transgression. The Syrian case enables us to view that rhetoric and symbols can produce idealized representation of the leader and nation state while also crating alternative spaces for irony and ambivalence.

[1] p. 5
[2] p. 9
[3] Ibid.
[4] Wikipedia,, January 18, 2006
[5] p. 11
[6] P.5
[7] p. 6
[8] Pp. 33-35
[9] Pp 40-41
[10] P. 51

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