The politics of scorn in Syria and the agency of narrated involvement



Recent uprisings across the Arab world raise the question of how populations living under dictatorial regimes moved from apparent quiescence to active revolt. The question is particularly acute for Syria, where the Asad regime has ruled not simply through coercion, but also by enforcing a culture of everyday cynicism. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in Aleppo in 2008-9, I argue that everyday Syrian narratives that lament or scorn the self are a way of radically identifying oneself with a contemptible situation, and inviting that fact to be witnessed and empathized with. I term the radical identification enacted in these narratives ‘involvement’. In order to understand why these narratives do not merely reproduce a cynical political culture in the same way that private mockery of the regime does, I propose a model of agency that develops the theme of authentic voice. I argue that the self-scorning voice sounds authentically through the combined agency of the involved subject and the empathetic witness. By enacting involvement, narratives that scorn and lament the self defy the culture of political cynicism and prepare the ground for revolt.