Emptiness: An Introduction
From the Series: Emptiness
Emptiness conjures up a variety of meanings for the modern subject, such as chaos before order or an existential void that accompanies the life of plenty. It is a generative concept that allows modern anxieties to be reinterpreted as potentialities: the existential emptiness of modernity turning into the enlightening emptiness of Buddhism, the unincorporated spaces where “there be dragons” becoming frontier settlements, ruins coming alive as art projects, or empty villages reimagined as biodiversity areas. We argue, however, that today emptiness is emerging as a concrete spatial-temporal coordinate in the global landscape of capitalism and state power, and a heuristic device of political struggles.
We first encountered emptiness in the field. In eastern Latvia, where Dace conducts fieldwork, people use the term emptiness (tukšums) when they point to abandoned buildings, speak of friends and relatives who have emigrated, lament the closure of schools and cancellation of transportation routes, and fear the disappearance of their town or village from the map. In the Latvian countryside, emptiness is an observable reality where places lose their constitutive elements: people, schools, services, social networks, and jobs. It is a way of life (practices and social relations) that emerges as residents attempt to make life go on; and it is an interpretive frame locals use to describe the new reality which they perceive as a transitional state between a world that is ending and a world whose contours are not yet visible (Dzenovska 2020).
In Daniel’s field in austerity-ridden central Greece, emptiness (adeios [άδειος], “empty”) is a vernacular term through which people discuss national and personal debt, unemployment, the hollow political promises and rescue packages of international creditors, and the material dispossession caused by a decade of externally administered austerity. Emptiness is also invoked to describe how social and material conditions that people in late-neoliberal twenty-first century Europe perceived as a birthright have been stripped from under their feet. In its more abstract guise, emptiness captures hopeless futures and the collective inability to imagine life beyond the temporal horizon of crisis. Emptiness has become part of the affective structure of chronic crisis, transcending social domains, and indexing lives in suspension between the destructive rupture of financial ruin and emergent possibilities not yet in view. In the Greek context, the transitional timespace is filled with apathy toward the future, resignation to the elongated period of crisis, and a sense of temporal vertigo, yet elsewhere emptiness may be a hope-filled register of future-freedom and utopian thinking, as in the case of Scottish National Party visions for independence (Manley, this series).
When people in Latvia or Greece use the terms empty, emptying, and emptiness to describe the radical and not quite legible changes in their lives, they are not suggesting that there is nothing there or that emptiness is the opposite of fullness in any straightforward sense. In fact, emptiness can be very full, but not with the “right” things. People describe emptiness as overgrown meadows where there used to be cultivated fields, as foxes walking down the village main street in broad daylight, as weeds coming in through the broken windows of abandoned buildings, as university education losing its purpose, as changing attitudes toward property inheritance. Rather than disappearing entirely, things are rearranged in ways that are messy (Dzenovska, this series), suspicious (Mukherji, this series), beastly (Mathur, this series), or dizzying (Knight, this series) from the perspective of historically embedded human actors. In such conditions, there is rubble rather than ruins (Gordillo 2014) and emptiness rather than vacancy (Frederiksen, this series). This is because designating a pile of bricks as ruins or a house as vacant is an act of ordering, whereas emptiness is the space between orders (Dzenovska, this series; Frederiksen, this series; Knight, this series). Such rearrangement of things—and relations—suggests the end of a world that people had come to know and expect for most of their lives, as in Latvia, or of the gradual routinization of once unthinkable relationships to family, work, and politics, as in the situation of perpetual crisis in Greece. Just like space, the time between the old world that is ending and the new world that is not yet beginning is not empty in the absolute sense. As Frank Kermode (2000) has suggested, the momentary emptiness between a clock’s “tick” and “tock” is crammed with speculation and anticipation (Bryant and Knight 2019, 79).
In both Latvia and Greece, those who live emptiness use the term to describe destruction that is not necessarily of their own making. In contrast, in the history of Western modernity, the language of emptiness has been used to obscure destruction or erasure of people and lives. There are two analytical ways forward here: one, to dismiss the language of emptiness and show that in conditions perceived as empty things happen and nothing is empty; and, two, to embrace the concept of emptiness as a historically embedded analytical term that entails, side by side, destruction and the possibility of life, without definitively privileging one over the other (Hromadžić, this series). In this second sense, emptiness holds in tension the old world that is ending and the new world that is not yet visible or intelligible. Keeping the analytic of emptiness radically open (or the future as radically open, as in Manley’s essay in this series) means not assigning value to endings and not giving form to beginnings. To put it another way, emptiness is neither hope nor despair, but the potentiality of both. This is a particular analytics and politics of emptiness as a spatial-temporal coordinate of suspension indexing disruptive transition toward indeterminate futures.
The contributions to this forum tack back and forth between the language of emptiness and related terms—vacancy (Gille, this series; Frederiksen, this series), ruins (Hromadžić, this series), disorder (Dzenovska, this series)—as encountered in the field and emptiness as an analytic that holds both destruction and creation in view. The analytic of emptiness cautions against giving form to futures—for example, post-anthropocentric futures where nonhuman actors take the center stage—without recognizing the violence that precedes or even enables them (Mathur, this series; Lynteris, this series). It invites dwelling in the in-between space where endings and beginnings, destructions and creations, have not yet been sorted and arranged. This space is not empty, but rather full of humans, nature, things, relations, anticipations, and speculations.
The majority of the papers in this collection originate from a workshop, “Emptiness: Practices, Experiences, Meanings, and Sensibilities,” held at the University of Oxford in December 2019. We are grateful to the University of Oxford’s John Fell Fund and the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS), as well as the Centre for Cosmopolitan Studies (CCS), University of St Andrews for hosting and sponsoring the event and to all participants for two days of stimulating conversation. We thank the editors of Cultural Anthropology for valuable comments on all submissions and Publications Manager Jessica Lockrem for support on bringing the collection to fruition.
Bryant, Rebecca, and Daniel M. Knight. 2019. The Anthropology of the Future. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dzenovska, Dace. 2020. “Emptiness: Capitalism without People in the Latvian Countryside.” American Ethnologist 47, no. 1: 10–26.
Gordillo, Gastón. 2014. Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Kermode, Frank. 2000. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.