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Authoritarian Apprehensions

Ideology, Judgment, and Mourning in Syria

If the Arab uprisings initially heralded the end of tyrannies and a move toward liberal democratic governments, their defeat not only marked a reversal but was of a piece with emerging forms of authoritarianism worldwide. In Authoritarian Apprehensions, Lisa Wedeen draws on her decades-long engagement with Syria to offer an erudite and compassionate analysis of this extraordinary rush of events—the revolutionary exhilaration of the initial days of unrest and then the devastating violence that shattered hopes of any quick undoing of dictatorship. Developing a fresh, insightful, and theoretically imaginative approach to both authoritarianism and conflict, Wedeen asks, What led a sizable part of the citizenry to stick by the regime through one atrocity after another? What happens to political judgment in a context of pervasive misinformation? And what might the Syrian example suggest about how authoritarian leaders exploit digital media to create uncertainty, political impasses, and fractures among their citizens?
Drawing on extensive fieldwork and a variety of Syrian artistic practices, Wedeen lays bare the ideological investments that sustain ambivalent attachments to established organizations of power and contribute to the ongoing challenge of pursuing political change. This masterful book is a testament to Wedeen’s deep engagement with some of the most troubling concerns of our political present and future.


"Wedeen helps to answer the questions that have most perplexed scholars and commentators: how has Bashar al-Assad’s regime survived? And what explains the shrugging acceptance of it by so many ordinary Syrians? More broadly, she forces us to ponder the possibilities for political judgement in a world where facts no longer hold sway. . . . In this lucid and thought-provoking study, Wedeen shows us that, in the face of uncertainty, ambivalence and apathy thrive."

Times Literary Supplement

"Wedeen provide[s] a welcome shift in perspective. Instead of exclusively focusing on sectarian conflict, or attributing conflict to class warfare, [she] offers an analysis that closely considers how citizens have encountered the state in Syria, and how emotion and memory have played important roles in these experiences that are often neglected by political scientists."

Current History

"Authoritarian Apprehensions is the most theoretically insightful book on post–2011 Syria yet to appear."

Democratic Left

“Through close reading of an astonishingly broad array of cultural materials, Authoritarian Apprehensions captures the transition from Syria’s neoliberal autocracy to civil war authoritarianism while eloquently conveying both the grief and resilience of her ethnographic subjects. This wonderfully written book complicates the conventional political science account of authoritarian resilience and provides a compelling contribution to the growing literature theorizing authoritarianism.”

Asli Bâli, University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law

“Subtle and immensely insightful, Authoritarian Apprehensions is an enlightening study into questions of cultural production in the context of power, brutality, and obedience to rule. Drawing on Wedeen’s long-standing research in and knowledge of Syria, it engages the question of what it means to produce creative works in times of political fragmentation, state atrocities, and assaulted polities. Written in a vivid literary style, this book is so incredibly beautiful that I couldn’t put it down once I started reading.”

Laleh Khalili, SOAS University of London

"Wedeen offers a most needed analysis of Syria and authoritarian permutations. The book even if addressing one of the darkest chapters in recent history, offers hope in its insistence on the human faculties of reason. I trust that this book will capture its readers with its push for new ground in the scholarly apprehension of the lures of authoritarianism in Syria and in the new global order, which has not dimmed in light of the current global COVID-19 situation, that alas, offers itself for parallel readings. As such, Authoritarian Apprehensions can be used for teaching on both BA and MA courses, however, the book demands attentiveness and effort. To all who takes up the book the dividends will be plenty."


"Wedeen’s subtle and poignant exploration. . . speaks to issues of failure, loss, mourning and the seemingly impossible necessity of moving on—issues that escape the narrow realm of the intellect. Authoritarian Apprehensions is one of those rare academic works that evokes aspects of the human condition that are as ineffable as they are tragic."

Daniel Neep |

Table of Contents

A Note on Transliteration

Introduction: “I Know Very Well, yet Nevertheless . . .”: Ideology, Interpellation, and the Politics of Disavowal

1. Neoliberal Autocracy and Its Unmaking
2. Humor in Dark Times
3. On Uncertainty: Fake News, Post-truth, and the Question of Judgment
4. Nationalism, Sentimentality, and Judgment
5. Fear and Foreboding

Conclusion: At a Loss

Appendix, by Sofia Fenner



IPSA Committee on Concepts and Methods: Award for Concept Analysis in Political Science

APSA Middle East and North Africa Politics Section: Best Book Award

APSA Interpretive Methodologies and Methods Section: Charles Taylor Book Award

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