Max Weiss, Revolutions Aesthetic: A Cultural History of Baʿthist Syria (Stanford University Press, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Max Weiss (MW): Revolutions Aesthetic developed out of my interests in the intellectual and cultural history of modern Syria as well as my work as a literary translator. One kernel of the research idea for the book was generated by my reading and translation of Syrian novels. I found that Syrian novelists were taking increasingly greater risks in fiction writing by tackling political questions more and more directly—explicitly characterizing and thematizing the state and its representatives, the security services, and political power in the country more generally—than the scholarly literature seemed to notice. While I first tracked this development in novels published following the death of Hafiz al-Asad in 2000, during the first decade following Bashar’s coming to power, I then began to read more widely—moving back in time and keeping up with the burst of novelistic writing that accompanied the Syrian revolution from 2011—and found that there was an important story here about aesthetics, politics, and cultural production in the making of contemporary Syria that had yet to be told.
As I have also had a longstanding interest in film, I started thinking about the parallels, dissimilarities, and interconnectedness between literature and cinema, which led me to use novels and films as well as literary and cinema periodicals as the foundation for a new kind of cultural and intellectual history. There is still much research to be done on the history of other genres of cultural production during the Asadist period: poetry, short stories, drama, and the plastic arts, just to name the most salient. Nevertheless, novels and feature films fit well together for reasons of form but also inasmuch as novelists and filmmakers have played comparable social and political roles as intellectuals and public figures, making these works and their creators particularly well-suited to the analysis of an intellectual historian. Moreover, given the difficulty that scholars of Syria have faced in conducting archival and other kinds of research inside the country, both before and since the onset of the war, it seemed to me that approaching the cultural history of this period using the tools of intellectual history would be both appropriate and effective.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
MW: Revolutions Aesthetic makes the argument that the cultural and intellectual history of contemporary Syria—nominally a Baʿthist regime since 1963 but under the consolidated control of Hafiz al-Asad and his coterie of supporters, especially with the assistance of the Baʿth party, the army, and the security services following the so-called “corrective movement” (al-ḥaraka al-taṣḥīḥiyya) of November 1970—can be understood in terms of a struggle around aesthetic ideology. This is a point that has been implicitly and obliquely touched on by some scholars but had not been adequately historicized, to my mind. In that sense, this book makes some unorthodox methodological moves, bringing together the approaches of literary criticism, film studies, and intellectual history, all with an eye to the big questions typically raised by social scientists who seek to explain the nature of regime formation, political transformation, and authoritarian upgrading.
Revolutions Aesthetic argues that contemporary Syria has been shaped by an underappreciated agonistic struggle around aesthetic ideology, one which pitted different visions of politics, society, and art against one another. State-driven aesthetic ideology—what I call an Asadist-Baʿthist cultural revolution that relied, at the risk of overgeneralization, on an aesthetics of power—was deployed by regime officials and institutions such as the National Film Organization and the Arab Writers’ Union in the service of a sweeping political and cultural program deployed by the new regime. But the state never fully captured the cultural field and alternative visions of art and politics surfaced through forms I refer to as the aesthetics of resistance and the aesthetics of solidarity. The book reconceptualizes contemporary Syrian politics, authoritarianism, and cultural life by introducing a broad array of novels, films, and cultural periodicals to an Anglophone audience for the first time; it is worth noting that these are works that have not received much attention in any language, including Arabic. I interrogate themes that have been crucial to the making of contemporary Syria: heroism and leadership, gender and power, comedy and ideology, surveillance and the senses, witnessing and temporality, and death and the imagination. Revolutions Aesthetic places front and center the struggle around aesthetic ideology that has been key to the constitution of state, society, and culture in Syria over the past fifty years.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
MW: I was trained as a historian of the modern Middle East and wrote my first book about the legal, institutional, and intellectual dimensions of “sectarianization” within the Lebanese Shiʿi milieu during the first half of the twentieth century, that is, the periods of French Mandate rule and early Lebanese independence. That book was based on Islamic court records, French colonial archival material, and published sources in Arabic, French, and English. From there, my interests shifted towards the history, literature, and culture of modern and contemporary Syria as well as the methods and analytical concerns of intellectual history. I co-edited (with Jens Hanssen) two volumes on modern Arab intellectual history that were produced with an eye to signposting the state of the field while also tracking new approaches that have emerged in order to bring Middle East studies and intellectual history into a more direct and dynamic conversation. At the same time, I was becoming a more active literary translator, publishing a number of Arabic novels and works of nonfiction in English translation, a practice that now plays an integral part in my academic research as well. In other words, my scholarly activities have spread beyond the discipline of history, into the realms of intellectual history, literary criticism, translation, and film studies.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
MW: Revolutions Aesthetic is a long book and it will be obvious that it was written with an academic audience in mind. Nevertheless, I do believe that those who are interested in the making of modern Syria, cultural politics in the Middle East, world literature and cinema, and political thought more broadly will find much to chew on throughout. The book aspires to a kind of multidisciplinarity that is often invoked but less often executed. To be sure, by virtue of this approach—or set of approaches—Revolutions Aesthetic opens onto multiple scholarly fields—history, comparative literature, film studies, political science—and, of course, to the possibility that not all will be satisfied by my methodological choices or my interpretation of the works under study. Be that as it may, my hope is that Syrians will read this book (hopefully with an Arabic-language edition to appear soon) and that many will find the diverse representations of Syrian literature, film, and intellectual life familiar and even comforting. Having the opportunity to become friends with writers and filmmakers whose work is discussed throughout the book was an essential part of my process of researching, thinking, and writing. I hope that this book can move beyond its “academic” concerns in order to become part of a wide-ranging conversation among Syrians and scholars of Syria.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MW: Currently I am writing an intellectual history of modern Syria, one that looks at various forms of intellectual inquiry and social thought during the twentieth and early twenty first centuries. The book will tie together different aspects of intellectual debate, social thought, and political trends that have defined the history of modern and contemporary Syria. Some parts of this project have been published, one in an article about Michel ʿAflaq and the intellectual history of Baʿthism, the other in a book chapter on the question of religion, secularism, and sectarianism in modern Syrian social thought. In addition, I am involved in multiple translation projects. I am translating Syria in Ruins: Atrocity, Representation, and the Challenge of Reconstruction (working title) by the Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh, which is a challenging book that situates universal discussions about mass violence, genocide, and torture in relation to the brutal crackdown on the Syrian revolution as well as the personal experiences of political prisoners in Asadist Syria, including al-Haj Saleh himself.
J: What is the state of Syrian studies and how can it do more to raise its profile as well as that of Syrian scholars and intellectuals?
MW: Syrian studies has long been a small yet vital field within Middle East studies—the Syrian Studies Association (SSA) is the lodestar our scholarly community—but it has not sufficiently established itself in international terms. Given the complexity of the situation in and around Syria over the past decade, it makes sense that the field has been on its heels. But I think there is an opportunity now to organize ourselves in a more regular and global way. There are thriving and diverse intellectual and cultural scenes that are being created by Syrians around the world, especially in Berlin and Istanbul. In addition to recognizing the dreadful circumstances that led to the creation of these Syrian diasporic communities, it would be wonderful to see a concentrated effort on the part of Syrian studies scholars to build networks and organize events that bring together international academics and Syrian intellectuals. While I am not a fan of Zoom—we are all fatigued from the screen life—new digital infrastructure enables this sort of collaboration even for those who are unable to travel, for whatever reasons. It has never been easy for Syrians (whether coming from Syria or elsewhere) to attend scholarly meetings like MESA given the draconian visa restrictions facing prospective visitors to the United States and Canada. I would really like to see a series of events, which could perhaps become regular occasions, that would allow scholars of Syria and Syrian intellectuals, writers, and artists to come together and share their ideas and their work in a way that the field has not yet institutionalized.
Excerpt from the book (from the introduction, pp. 1-4, 38-39)
Revolutions Aesthetic is a critical-historical study of aesthetics, politics, and cultural production in Syria during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, one that places literature and cinema at the center of the story. Historical scholarship dealing with this period tends to focus on politics, war, and socioeconomic transformation. By contrast, this book draws on rich sources that have gone neglected or underappreciated by historians and other scholars—novels, films, and cultural periodicals—in order to throw new light on the historical evolution of Syrian state, society, and culture. Some of these materials were produced under state auspices; others were made independently. Either way, Syrian art and culture have had a complicated relationship with the state and the political. Revolutions Aesthetic takes as its object certain dimensions of the cultural universe of the Baʿthist regime, nominally in power in Syria since March 8, 1963 and then fundamentally transformed with the coming to power of Hafiz al-Asad (1930–2000) through the November 1970 “corrective movement” (al-ḥaraka al-taṣḥīḥiyya). In addition to launching myriad economic, social, political, and military initiatives, this regime also embarked on a project I refer to as Asadist-Baʿthist cultural revolution. In my use of the term, Asadist-Baʿthist cultural revolution entailed the conceptualization, dissemination, and (often haphazard) implementation of a new aesthetic ideology, one that drew on existing modes of artistic engagement while also charting new directions for Syrian, pan-Arab, and Third Worldist cultural and intellectual life. State institutions and regime elites were enlisted to reshape Syrian culture through an aesthetics of power that hinged on communicative languages that I characterize as speaking-to and speaking-for. Despite the substantial efforts dedicated to state- and nation-building, the Syrian regime could never completely capture the cultural and intellectual fields. Competing artistic visions, comprehensible in terms of the aesthetics of resistance and the aesthetics of solidarity, were articulated respectively through what I term speaking-against and speaking-with and therefore coexisted with regime power and state culture in uneasy but sometimes unexpectedly untroubled ways.
Revolutions Aesthetic sees works of literature and film as sites of agonistic struggle over aesthetic ideology. Thereby, I hope, it fundamentally recasts the cultural and intellectual history of contemporary Syria. The tangled histories of state power, ideological refashioning, technocratic reform, and social transformation can be understood through this evolving, dialectical relationship between aesthetics and politics. If the aesthetic ideology of Asadist-Baʿthist cultural revolution supported the wider aims of a revolutionary Arab nationalist agenda—the struggle to liberate the peoples of the Arabic-speaking world from Zionism, imperialism, economic “backwardness,” and cultural malaise—its exponents seemed untroubled by the consolidation of a cult of personality around Hafiz al-Asad and the concomitant solidification of an authoritarian security state under his rule and that of his son Bashar, who succeeded him in 2000 as a consensus replacement acceptable to the most influential elements in the ruling apparatus. Despite gestures toward the conceptual foundations of Baʿthist Arab nationalism—the ongoing and comprehensive reordering of society as part of Arab nationalist “resurrection” (al-baʿth) and nods to the venerable slogan “Liberty, [Arab] Unity, Socialism” (ḥurriyya, waḥda, ishtirākiyya)—the aesthetic ideology of Asadist-Baʿthist cultural revolution during the late twentieth century entailed, however implicitly, the disavowal of early Baʿthists, including most importantly Michel ʿAflaq (1910–1989), cofounder of the Baʿth Party during the early 1930s. This ideological and personal falling out with ʿAflaq and all that he stood for was defined as much by the political-economic orientation of the new regime in its sputtering progress toward liberalization and détente with the capitalist West as it was by internal party factionalism. In place of that vanguardist pan-Arab nationalism with its Marxist or Marxisant tinges, the Asadist-Baʿthist cultural revolution was oriented otherwise: promoting Syrian nationalism as an iteration of pan-Arab nationalism; foregrounding the inspirational powers of a heroic leader and muscular leadership generally; and constructing an aesthetics of power that resonated with the signature style of al-Asad’s political rule. Salah al-Din al-Bitar (1912–1980), cofounder with ʿAflaq of the Baʿth Party, adhered more stringently to a left political project typically identified with the so-called Neo-Baʿth that seized power in February 1966, even though he served multiple terms as prime minister between 1963 and 1966. And while al-Bitar clashed with the program of the Asadist-Baʿthists associated with the corrective movement—he was shot to death in Paris in July 1980 in an assassination reported to have been ordered by the Syrian regime—he shared their views that revolution in Syria should not be exclusively political or political-economic in nature. “In the Baathist system,” wrote al-Bitar, “the Arab revolution is not only a social, economic and even national revolution, but a total revolution; or, to employ a modern term, a ‘cultural’ revolution, in which the first aim is to restore Arab unity and personality.”
The revamped aesthetics of power attributable to the Asadist-Baʿthist cultural revolution promoted specific visions of heroism, masculinity, virtuous leadership, pan-Arab unity, state sovereignty, cultural patriotism, and political commitment. State-affiliated institutions such as the National Film Organization and the Arab Writers’ Union were authorized to advocate for robust literary, cinematic, and cultural engagement at a time of regional military antagonism, domestic and international sectarian conflict, and economic crisis. Over the course of this period, the Baʿth Party—along with the military, the domestic security services, and the government bureaucracy—was instrumentalized in reshaping the institutional and political landscape of the country in a way that also transformed Baʿthism itself. Once a vanguardist Arab nationalist party with aspirations of becoming a mass political movement, the Baʿth hardened into one core component of a corporatist state anchored by pragmatic bargains with delineated sectors of national society rather than a revolutionary leadership pursuing more idealistic commitments. Given the parallels and overlaps between the political and aesthetic dimensions of this transformation, Syrian cultural and intellectual history can be profitably interwoven with scholarship on politics, military affairs, and social dynamics. I stage this encounter through, for example, a discussion of the intellectual dimensions of Syrian military history in the 1960s through the 1980s; and a cultural analysis of the security state as reflected in literature and film produced during the early 2000s.
My modest scholarly contribution in Revolutions Aesthetic pales in significance compared with the scale of human suffering and loss that is the true tragedy of the Syria War: over a half million dead and nearly half of the Syrian population internally displaced, made into international refugees, or other- wise forced into exile. If the Syrian revolution and the war that followed have attracted substantial international attention in terms of geostrategic military analysis and humanitarian concern for the shocking displacement, destruction, and human suffering that has ensued, the cultural consequences of the revolution and the aesthetic dimensions of cultural production in the time of the war have attracted less attention. The destruction and persistent inaccessibility of archives and other historical materials in Syria will continue to complicate the research agenda of both Syrian and non-Syrian scholars. By gathering a range of literature and film into a single chronological narrative, Revolutions Aesthetic provides a glimpse into underappreciated perspectives on contemporary Syrian history which deserve to be studied and celebrated in their own right but also, crucially, might become part of the foundation for imagining different futures for the country. Because of the relatively ahistorical cultural analysis of this period hitherto, what has not yet been adequately appreciated is the extent to which the aesthetic ideology of Asadist-Baʿthist cultural revolution as well as the ensemble of competing aesthetic ideologies that occasionally challenged and sometimes affirmed state cultural production left its mark on the conditions of possibility for writers, artists, and filmmakers to generate new kinds of cultural production in the time of the Syria War. This entailed, among other things, attempts at unlearning statist cultural ideology and struggling to revolutionize culture in new ways, to re-revolutionize a cultural field that had already been staked out and incompletely captured by the rhetoric of revolution so pervasive in Asadist-Baʿthist Syria. The repurposing of “revolution” after the aesthetic-ideological field had been structured and surveilled by the security state for forty years was a monumental challenge for writers, filmmakers, artists, and intellectuals during this moment of possibility and danger. While my focus is not the military or political history of the Syrian revolution or the Syria War, extensive discussion in the pages that follow shows how crucial the Syrian revolution and the Syria War have been to the renewed flourishing of and sharpened contestation within the literary and cinematic domains. Revolutions Aesthetic showcases how the struggle over aesthetic ideology in Asadist-Baʿthist Syria became all too relevant once again, in ways both old and new, in the time of the Syria War, with repercussions that are still being felt and consequences yet to be understood.