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Interview with Lisa Wedeen

April 20, 2018

 

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This interview was conducted during Lisa Wedeen’s visit to Washington University in St. Louis on April 20. The interviewer, Michael Kaplan, is a Mellon Sawyer graduate associate.

 

Michael Kaplan: What inspires your work and how did you come to your present project?

 

Lisa Wedeen: My work is inspired by my interest in exploring political possibilities that are not immediately evident, the counterintuitive, the daring—the roads not taken. My effort to think about politics as provisional, contingent, historically situated, and dynamic means appreciating both processes of reproduction and the forms of opening that reproduction enables. My theoretical commitment entails reflecting on matters in ways that don’t simply suggest that this group or that movement or this film is either emancipatory or is reproducing the conditions of domination. How do we get out of that sort of framework and think concertedly about both contradictions and efforts to smooth over them? How do we understand openings without romanticizing them? How do we accept the force of socio-political reproduction without despairing? My own answer is to analyze the tensions—in concepts, in lived political phenomena, in ways of thinking—rather than trying to resolve them. Methodologically, this requires me to tack back and forth between theory and ethnographically grounded evidence, where ethnography isn’t simply hanging out with people or interviewing them, but also thinking about the forms of discursive, embodied cultural production that allow us to read texts and understand lived experience in fresh ways. I am interested in grappling with the otherwiseness and political potentialities inherent in our actions while understanding those actions to be embedded in ideology. I am keen to embrace the human capacity for world-making, to borrow from Hannah Arendt, without being naively related to its challenges. I’m interested in unsettling conventions while also pursuing specific questions with interpretive generosity and a commitment to political judgment.

 

“I am interested in grappling with the otherwiseness and political potentialities inherent in our actions while understanding those actions to be embedded in ideology. I am keen to embrace the human capacity for world-making, to borrow from Hannah Arendt, without being naively related to its challenges. I’m interested in unsettling conventions while also pursuing specific questions with interpretive generosity and a commitment to political judgment. ”

 

My current book project, which is under review at the University of Chicago Press [now accepted and set for publication in 2019], is entitled Authoritarian Apprehensions: Ideology, Judgement, and Mourning in Syria. It emerged from an effort to think through how much had changed when I returned to Syria in 2010. (I had published my first book on Syria, Ambiguities of Domination, in 1999). Ambiguities of Domination asked, why bother with rituals of obeisance that are transparently phony? No one believes that the leader will rule forever, or wins elections by 99.2% of the vote. So that book was looking at a narrow question about flagrantly fictitious claims and asking what work they were doing. But when I returned to Syria in 2010, I saw that that kind of palpable sense of disaffection with dictatorial rule had changed, and in addition to citizens who had cultivated and continued cultivating what would become a very clear oppositional consciousness when it came to the uprising, there were others who demonstrated fervent loyalty to the regime, and still others, referred to in Syria as “the gray” people, who were ambivalently related to dictatorial rule. So I became quite interested in that ambivalence, in the toggle between attachment to order and the desire for reform, in ideology’s uneven saturation, and in the differentiated ways people are addressed politically.

 

“when I returned to Syria in 2010, I saw that that kind of palpable sense of disaffection with dictatorial rule had changed, and in addition to citizens who had cultivated and continued cultivating what would become a very clear oppositional consciousness when it came to the uprising, there were others who demonstrated fervent loyalty to the regime, and still others, referred to in Syria as “the gray” people, who were ambivalently related to dictatorial rule. So I became quite interested in that ambivalence, in the toggle between attachment to order and the desire for reform, in ideology’s uneven saturation, and in the differentiated ways people are addressed politically. ”

 

MK: What does the term ‘uncertainty’ evoke for you?

 

LW: It’s a play on Wittgenstein’s small book, entitled, On Certainty. And that was a book compiled of notes that he had written, published as a book posthumously, that was an attempt to offer a sustained critique of certain forms of radical skepticism.

 

MK: What are some of the practical and intellectual challenges of the field site in which you work and the materials you work with?

 

LW: Well, that’s changed over time. Initially, when I first went to Syria in the 1980s, the challenges were to learn Arabic, to think about what kind of projects were doable and would continue to motivate me, and also to live in conditions that were severely autocratic and to make sure that I honored the people with whom I was speaking and interacting—maintaining a fidelity to the array of interpretive encounters which reoriented my understandings of authoritarianism and the importance of symbolic displays of political power. There’s a difference between living under a durable, if not always fully stable, authoritarian rule, with the fear and anxiety that’s induced there, and then being there in the context of the uprising and staying until May 21, 2011, and just watching a situation begin to unravel, with the kind of revolutionary exuberance experienced by some, and a different kind of fear and anxiety by others. And now the challenge is huge because I can’t even go back to the place that I both loved and found so extraordinarily intellectually enlivening. And those who have stayed and those who have left are experiencing their country’s devastation. One dimension of the challenge is simply practical — the challenge of meeting people, and checking in on them in a way that one is committed to when one does the kind of immersive fieldwork that I do. Another dimension is emotional: Figuring out how to bear with them the heartbreak without over-identifying with experiences that are not in fact mine. So, addressing these two dimensions of the challenge together means traveling to lots of different places, as opposed to inside one country, and also dealing with people’s moods and efforts to detach from a situation, to reconnect to it, to bear the loss--and navigate the crushing disappointment, anger, disgust, and sadness.

 

MK: In your experience outside of Syria, has it been difficult for Syrians to open up?

 

LW: No, not at all, and there is an advantage that I have, having been in Syria for so long, and with Ambiguities having been translated into Arabic — even though I disagree with many of the translation choices made. Nonetheless, the fact is, a number of people have heard of the book and many people have at least tried to read it, and so I’m kind of known in a way that has given me access I wouldn’t otherwise have had. I am profoundly grateful to so many Syrians. I do think when you’re dealing with people who have undergone the kind of upheaval and disruption that we’re seeing in Syria, that it is very important also not to play the role of, say, psychologist. I’m not trained to deal with trauma, I don’t know how to help people in that way. When I was teaching children in the border area between Syria and Turkey in 2013, that was actually one of the harder things I did. So my efforts when I talk to people are also to contribute to their world in a variety of ways, but not to pass myself off as somebody I am not. Teaching kids — I know how to teach, although I don’t know how to teach children, as it turns out. But also doing work, like translating things for other people, actually offering services I know how to provide, that’s been something that has given me entry into these changed, tragic circumstances.

 

MK: What role, if any, has collaboration played in your research and your writing?

 

LW: Well, I tend to work alone, in the sense that I write by myself. Many of my colleagues in political science co-author work — I don’t do that. I’ve never really done it. I’m doing my first co-edited volume with Joe Masco from anthropology, and I’m quite excited about that. As director of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory and as former chair, there are lots of forms of informal collaboration that just make things work. Having said that, I think all of the enterprises or endeavors I’m involved with are, to some extent, collaborative. I rely tremendously on my friends and interlocutors in the field to help me gain access, to help me understand things, to read over what I’ve written and what I’ve read, to help me with translation issues that get to be tricky, to point me in directions that I might not have anticipated I would go, and to provide me with the sort of critical, honest feedback that helps me refine how I’m thinking about the world. So I think of that process as tremendously collaborative. I also work with colleagues at the university. I have been very lucky to have people read my work and offer me constructive criticism—students, faculty, people not only from my department of political science or from anthropology, but also in English. I took a class last year, when I was on leave, with Lauren Berlant on comedy. I learned an enormous amount about how to think about comedy, not simply in terms of analyzing content, but also of understanding form. That was revelatory for me. And I exchange work with my political theory colleague, Jennifer Pitts, almost every week. Her incisive readings of countless drafts and the reciprocity we’ve cultivated over the years are true gifts. So there are lots of ways that I collaborate that aren’t direct. I should say that my partner is also an extraordinary editor, and he has helped me to improve the language of the book and to clarify my ideas. I also have intellectual muses from way back, people I’ve internalized, such as my former advisor, Hanna Pitkin, or novelists, who have startling and luminous ways of describing a scene, reproducing dialogue, and distilling experience. Obviously that’s not collaboration, but it’s inspiration.

 

“I think all of the enterprises or endeavors I’m involved with are, to some extent, collaborative. I rely tremendously on my friends and interlocutors in the field to help me gain access, to help me understand things, to read over what I’ve written and what I’ve read, to help me with translation issues that get to be tricky, to point me in directions that I might not have anticipated I would go, and to provide me with the sort of critical, honest feedback that helps me refine how I’m thinking about the world. ”

 

MK: Given the current political moment, what role do you believe that academic scholarship on the Middle East should play?

 

LW: Again, my commitment is to critical thinking, and to fostering conditions for innovative modes of what used to be called imminent critique, or critical theory broadly understood. I am committed to what Theodor Adorno called, the ‘it could have been otherwise’ of politics. I’m less interested in producing policy prescriptions—indeed I don’t think I’m particularly good at that. I am better at, or at least aspire to cultivating a theoretically motivated space for alternative imaginings, which might also entail questioning what policy even is.

 

“Again, my commitment is to critical thinking, and to fostering conditions for innovative modes of what used to be called imminent critique, or critical theory broadly understood. I am committed to what Theodor Adorno called, the ‘it could have been otherwise’ of politics. ”

 

MK: Connecting this to the question on ‘uncertainty’: while your work is about Syria, it seems to speak to wider current issues, too.

 

LW: That’s what I always want to do. Syria is sometimes exemplary, it is sometimes the dramatization of something broader I want to be grappling with — in this case, the seductions of authoritarian rule so prevalent globally. Scholars and pundits who were self-satisfied and complacent about U.S. democracy can no longer be so. (And given the racialized politics of the U.S. it is astonishing to think that reflective people could ever have been self-congratulatory about politics in this country.) So my talk yesterday on fake news, which is shorthand for the dynamics of uncertainty and the ways in which factual truth is being made vulnerable in this period, is pertinent to the United States. The Trump administration’s mendacity is obviously a very important instance of these dynamics. It’s not only that conditions of what I call high-speed eventfulness and information oversaturation produce a kind of polarization or echo chamber or siloed publics, or filter bubbles—and each of these terms has different connotations and implications, which I explore elsewhere—it’s also how the uncertainty generated in these conditions provides an alibi for non-judgment. And non-judgment and the forms of disavowal that accompany it are important aspects of authoritarianism, whether we’re thinking about the United States, or the more coercively, overtly brutal conditions of Syria.

 

 

“Syria is sometimes exemplary, it is sometimes the dramatization of something broader I want to be grappling with — in this case, the seductions of authoritarian rule so prevalent globally. ”

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