Altered States: The Remaking of the Political in the Arab World

Altered States: The Remaking of the Political in the Arab World, edited by Sune Haugbolle and Mark LeVine (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2023)

Reviewed by Birgitte Stampe Holst, University of Copenhagen

This anthology investigates how analyzing the nature of the state helps shed new light on the political changes in the Arab World over the past four decades and in particular the dynamics of the uprisings in the 2010s. For this purpose, the authors reinvigorate and develop Timothy Mitchell’s (1991, 1999) seminal notion that the elusiveness of the limit between state and society should guide us in our analyses of the state.

The book opens with an introduction in which editors Sune Haugbolle and Mark LeVine lay out their perspective (drawing on Mitchell) that notions of the state as a unit separate from society emerge within and through institutional arrangements, political practices, and the production of the public imagery of the state. In this conceptualization, the state is not an external entity that governs specific organizations and representations of itself. Rather, the appearance of the state as a separate locus of power is an effect of various institutional arrangements. Moreover, the production of this “state effect” is part of the way in which power works. Haugbolle and LeVine relate this conceptualization of the state to the legacies of colonialism, authoritarian rule, and the uprisings that have been significant elements of politics in the Arab World over the past decades. The editors thus make the case for thinking with Mitchell in contemporary analyses of Arab states. The introduction is followed by ten independent chapters with various empirical focus points covering Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and the UAE. Each chapter draws on the in-depth knowledge that the author has acquired through fieldwork and/or analysis of documents, ranging from political writings (or manifestos) over newspaper and magazine articles to online archives of images. Through analysis of policies and practices related to the state, some chapters show how the state effect is continuously produced through media narratives, architectural endeavours, and diplomatic efforts, among other things. Other chapters draw on fieldwork among activists or “regular” citizens and/or documents to show how the state effect is both continuously produced and challenged. This happens as citizens variously appeal to and critically scrutinize state institutions. Some chapters concern themselves less with the production of the state effect and instead investigate the ways in which specific policies or political developments take shape through the involvement of various actors from within and outside the state. Finally, the conclusion shifts the focus from the limits between state and society to the limits between sovereign states. Through the example of Jordan and drawing on several of the preceding chapters, Jillian Schwedler argues that upon closer inspection the experience of a sovereign Westphalian state delimited from other states is (also) an effect of power relations.

The central argument of the book is that any state (as state effect) is always in the process of being made. Therefore, an analysis of the state should zero in on the ways in which it is constituted through the complex negotiations over power that unfold in various locations and among divergent actors. Such analyses will provide more fine-tuned understandings of relations between individuals and institutions in the Arab World and of the dynamics of the uprisings in the 2010’s. As a crucial element of this argument, editors Haugbolle and LeVine posit that the state effect sometimes wears off and that such a development must be understood as key to revolutionary dynamics. The argument is supported across the ten chapters and the conclusion. The authors show how the state effect was/is challenged as part of revolutionary efforts and that analysis of states as coherent and self-contained units cannot capture the complex dynamics of politics in the Arab World. For instance, in Chapter Eight, Ted Swedenburg asks why progressive cultural producers who supported the uprising against the Mubarak regime in Egypt would later turn to support the military in its coup against the democratically elected Morsi government. In his analysis, Swedenburg shows that many cultural producers were tied directly to the state during the rule of Mubarak and thus the line separating cultural production and state was never clear. Moreover, in the time leading up to the coup against Morsi, culture became a key area of political contestation. In relation to such contestation, cultural producers (and others) saw the state apparatus itself as disjointed in the sense that the minister of culture, appointed by Morsi, was perceived not as a representative of the state but as a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood. The state thus emerges as a set of institutions that are not only internally incoherent but also not clearly delimited vis-a-vis society. The state effect is arguably in flux as it is variously produced and challenged. This state of flux, in turn, plays a key part in the dynamics of political contestation.

The goal of the collection is to bring into dialogue the developments in the sociology and anthropology of the state and the detailed knowledge within Middle Eastern Studies. As such, the authors draw on anthropological insights on the ways in which the state as the provider of social order is always challenged by local and global forces. Simultaneously, the collection engages more explicitly with Timothy Mitchell’s work to explore the variety of ways in which the notion of the state effect can be utilized. This effort is successful as the collection brings the work of Mitchell (and his inspiration from Michel Foucault) to speak to a variety of political dynamics and analytical agendas. In terms of the regional literature, including the literature within political anthropological, the main contribution of the collection is to unfold the profound complexity and variation of Arab politics. It thus provides a significant supplement to the equally necessary analyses of the strategies of oppression, co-optation and legitimation that authoritarian states use to retain power and the various strategies Arab citizens use to navigate in relation to such forms of power. Moreover, the collection speaks to the significant work on the intersections of kinship and politics and the ensuing problematization of the public-private distinction that has been developed in the political anthropology of the Arab World over the past decades.

The book should appeal to researchers and students (at all levels) alike.


Mitchell, Timothy. 1991. “The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and their Critics.” The American Political Science Review 85 (1): 77-96.

Mitchell, Timothy. 1999. “Society, Economy, and the State Effect.” In State/Culture: State-Formation after the Cultural Turn, edited by George Steinmetz, 76-97. Ithica, London: Cornell University Press.

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