Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen

Laleh Khalili is compelled to heap praise on a thought-provoking piece of writing

January 15, 2009

Lisa Wedeen's brilliant, thought-provoking and beautifully written book, Peripheral Visions, is about the practice of politics - and also about a more interesting way of "writing about" politics. It is this combination that makes it not only a compelling piece of scholarship, but also a profoundly useful course reading for those curious students (preferably postgraduates) who want to go beyond the commonplace definition of such congested concepts as "democracy", "identity", "nationalism" and "Islamic politics".

Wedeen sets out to answer the question: "What makes a Yemeni a Yemeni?" To do so, she looks to the various ways in which the political is enacted in the lives of the people who are considered, and who consider themselves, Yemenis. This entails looking at Yemeni unification, the ritual of chewing the plant qat for its stimulant properties, "sectarian" conflict in Yemeni hinterlands and Islamist pieties as lenses through which these concepts can be interrogated, deconstructed and rebuilt in more precise, nuanced and supple ways. Wedeen does this by combining richly textured ethnography with an erudite reading of political theories. The book's central chapters are self-contained (making them useful to set for courses) while still intricately interwoven.

Wedeen begins with a brief introduction and an opening chapter that set the tone, define the theoretical domain of the book and provide a concise historical narrative of the process of Yemeni unification in 1990. The second chapter, "Seeing like a citizen, acting like a state", takes three seemingly disparate events (the 1999 Yemeni presidential election, the decennial celebration of Yemeni unity in 2000, and a serial murder case in 2000) to claim that, counter to much mainstream theorisation, the experience of citizenship and political participation can flourish under a state that is unstable, fragile and unable to propagate a uniformly consolidated sense of national identity. The chapter is also an eminently readable recounting of the spectacular (if tragicomical) political performances enacted by the state during unification.

Chapter three, "The politics of deliberation", takes the everyday ritual of qat chewing, during which political relations are forged, political ideas are discursively constructed and the public sphere is constantly reproduced, to critique the formalistic procedural definitions of democracy proffered by such "canonical" works as Adam Przeworski's Democracy and Development. Wedeen argues that instead of looking at elections, examining everyday practices through which persistent public deliberation makes democratic persons would more usefully allow us to see forms of democracy occluded by those theories that embody American notions of liberal democracy.

Although I find this part to be one of the most brilliant in the book, I am left with a nagging question: if we are to critique formalistic notions of democracy, how can we celebrate "the form" of qat chew as encouraging democratic deliberation when the content seems to be pedestrian electoral gossip (rather than radical plans for social redistribution, or some such) and the form itself also reproduces gender segregation and class hierarchy?

"Practicing piety, summoning groups", the fourth chapter, is not only about the construction of sectarian identities (and a usefully severe corrective to drivel about "Sunni/Shia ancient hatreds"), but also a clever demonstration of how regimes and states can act at loggerheads. Here, Wedeen convincingly argues that the Salih regime in Yemen has sown conflict and division in the Yemeni hinterland, undermining the state's monopoly over violence and control over the territories, precisely in order to ensure its own survival.

Chapter five, "Piety in time", is equally wonderful because, unexpectedly for a book that has placed such premium on culture and meaning, it takes both political economy and neoliberal economic policy seriously. Here, Wedeen presents a multicausal, carefully argued and lucidly written account of how - in addition to ideological and ethical loyalties - structural adjustment programmes, widening disparities of wealth and increasing poverty can encourage the rise of those religious institutions that might support Islamist political mobilisation, but which even more often endorse and promote personal piety and spiritual belonging.

All chapters return again and again to what it means to hold a particular political identity - whether national or Islamic, Islamist, sectarian, or some combination thereof - and how it is performed, enacted and reproduced in relation to the state and to other political actors. The book's relationality, in fact, is one of its greater strengths.

In reading Peripheral Visions, I was left curious about the residual impact of the Southern Yemeni anti-colonial struggle on national identities, and of the effect of the Egyptian support for the northern Republican cause on northerners' sense of Arabness, which the book does not really examine in any detail. Neither does the book provide a systematic analysis of the identitarian differences between urban and rural populations, or gender and class identities (the latter must have been significant, given that at least South Yemen has had a vibrant union movement).

Nevertheless, by dint of its originality, lucidity and intelligence, Peripheral Visions will take its place alongside Timothy Mitchell's Rule of Experts, Joseph A. Massad's Colonial Effects and Diane Singerman's Avenues of Participation, among others. It is one of a new breed of books about Middle East politics that upend our understanding of political concepts, introduce texture and depth into theories of politics, and show the way forward beyond the aridity of positivist political "science".

Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen

By Lisa Wedeen

University of Chicago Press

320pp, £38.00 and £12.00

ISBN 9780226877907 and 7914

Published 19 September 2008

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