wedeen, peripheral visions

This summer I read Lisa Wedeen’s 2008 book, Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen (University of Chicago Press). I’d read her earlier book on Syria, Ambiguities of Domination, as well as her APSR article on adapting sociological approaches to culture to the study of political science. Both of these were worthwhile: the book, if nothing else, as a non-European case illustrating Vaclav Havel’s case about saturated symbols, the article as a consideration about how to apply culture to the study of politics. Peripheral Visions far exceeds these. It’s an extraordinary book in many ways, and its innovations far exceed the boundaries of its case.

Let me preface this by saying that I know nothing about Yemen, so the case itself is not of particular interest to me. North and South Yemen were “reunited” in 1990. I use the scare quotes because, as the book notes, they had never before been united. Rather, the unification was the realization of a nationalist cultural project until “a brief civil war in 1994…transform[ed] a democratic partnership into an authoritarian, northern-dominated politics that continues to this day” (2-3).  The book traces the development of Yemeni/democratic publics through deliberative and performative practices. A central problem of democratic development worldwide is how democratic publics are created, invoked, elicited, and measured, and much of the literature on this democratic development follows Habermas in privileging 18th- and 19th-century Europe as the breeding ground for these publics. The Yemeni case provides important correctives to political theories of deliberation and democracy, based on Wedeen’s reading of its post-colonial character and the historical moment of its nationalist project.

Theoretically, the book proceeds from the literature on the creation of publics through shared address (e.g., Warner) and “…the various practices that exemplify and produce specific assemblages of fellow readers and listeners who, whatever the content of their discourses, nevertheless have come to share (or be perceived to share) the everyday experiences of others within a limited, territorially sovereign space” (7). The lineage extends, of course, to Benedict Anderson’s emphasis on writing, printing, and recording as essential to the constitution of the modern nation-state, particularly in a post-colonial context. The innovation is in the insistence that’s not just people(s) that are produced but publics: collectivities in something like civil society that are distinct from, and can call upon, the state from outside its walls. In turn, deliberation is the particular practice that constitutes these publics.

A particularly appealing characteristic of the book is that, while fully steeped in a sophisticated theoretical tradition, it insists on real  empirical grounding as well:

Peripheral Visions specifies the “work” particular discourses do–how the use of words, the understanding of abstract concepts, and the enactment of everyday practices produce specific logics and generate observable political effects…. it is not simply that democratic virtues cause or are realized in particular kinds of democratic acts but also that democratic persons are themselves constituted through the doing of democratic deeds. (14-15, 17)

Ethnographic though it is, then, the book insists on a causal narrative that attaches practices to outcomes that can be observed. In this sense, it reminds me of the very different book by Sarah Igo that demonstrated (or at least claimed) the role of public opinion polling in “teaching” Americans a particular mode of enacting citizenship.

I particularly appreciated the book’s careful but thoroughgoing critique of minimalism in political science definitions of democracy, generally based on Przeworski et al.’s Democracy and Development book. Essentially, Wedeen says, Przeworski holds the definition of democracy to be the presence of contested elections. This account is overly binaristic, but more importantly fails to evaluate substantive representation: whether “…subjects have control over what a government does, and…governments are continually responsive and accountable to their subjects” (109). It is conceivable, Wedeen suggests, that a minimally democratic state might utterly fail at substantive representation; and even that a state in which some degree of substantive representation exists might not have truly competitive elections. Yemen, she suggests, is a case of the latter. Przeworski et al., on the other hand, are concerned with the fact that the United States might be the former: they “criticize Dahl’s insistence on the importance of participation in his definition of democracy…. because Dahl sets the threshold of participation ‘too high,’ thereby disqualifying the United States ‘as a democracy until the 1950s.’ It is unclear, however, why excluding the U.S. is a problem per se” (110).

….Any political analysis that fails to take into account participation and the formation of “public spheres” as activities of political expression in their own right falls short of capturing what a democratic politics might reasonably be taken to include…. I am interested in exposing the democratic deficits that the electoral definition conceals. (111)

To pursue this illustration, the book presents an extended account of qat chews, a Yemeni tradition in which conversations about public or private matters take place among people as they chew qat, a plant containing a stimulant related to caffeine. Like Habermas’s salons, qat chews are relatively informal, attended by choice, and containing wide-ranging conversations and disagreement. They are also largely gender-segregated, reproducing some of the critiques of Habermasian public spheres. My reading is that qat chews tend to be more agonistic than the public spheres Habermas and his followers imagine: “it is the multiclass, peaceful nature of political debate that distinguishes public spheres from other worlds where violence is the ultimate arbiter and force is privately held” (139).

The book embraces the theory of performativity–that by stating or measuring a phenomenon that phenomenon is (also) evoked. But unlike prior discussions of performativity in economics, it is not limited to a kind of “gotcha” claim but rather to a dialectical relationship between practices and publics in which practices evoke subjects who, through their practices, become publics. One important insight derived from this analysis is that weak democratic institutions can actually serve to strengthen democratic publics, because “…state formation seems to entail modes of regimentation and pacification that may be antithetical to democratic activities, if by ‘democratic activities’ we include the presence of civic associations and also the informal political practices of vigorously debating with others in public…” (99).

In Yemen, by contrast, Wedeen identifies “vague, mildly constraining forms of national identification [emerging] in the absence of an effective sovereign state…. discursive practices, such as newspaper and television reports, mosque sermons, and some street and qat chew conversations help to construct national persons by producing the shared conditions under which a community of anonymous fellow citizens can imagine itself into existence” (101).

Wedeen suggests that “…we may want to avoid thinking about democracy as a ‘thing’ at all, or a label that we affix to a state, but rather focus instead on the existence or absence of democratic practices” (146). This admonition serves, in a sense, as the crux of the book: an insistence on democratic practices and cultures, dialectically related to institutions but far from exhausted by those institutions’ relative success.

I found this book very generative and have been using it in structuring my own thinking about the institutional and historical sources of democratic practices in the United States (I am spending the summer and fall writing a book on the sociology of democracy, focusing mostly on the US). In addition to the Franco-American (not the food company, the cultural pattern) strain of performativity theory, I think there’s ample theoretical justification in Frankfurt School work for understanding the democratic public as evoked by the tenuous assumptions of “administrative research,” assumptions that take hold as this research becomes increasingly commonplace.

That said, Wedeen’s book (and these theories) are heavy on the demo- and short on the -cracy. To locate democratic development mostly with popular democratic practices, even in the absence of institutional representative apparatus, is to privilege the capacity of the public (demos) to speak–an important criterion for democracy, to be sure, but it must be at least equally important for the state to listen! That’s the -cracy part: the capacity for the demos to rule or govern, not just speak. Wedeen is far from silent on that matter (she suggests thinking of “the relationship between discourses… and institutions… in ways that might be termed ‘dialectical'” [49]), but absent an evaluation of representational effectiveness I think it may be a stretch to refer to these practices as actually democratic.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

2 thoughts on “wedeen, peripheral visions”

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