Emptiness and Chronic Crisis

From the Series: Emptiness

Image by Ricardo Hernandez.

After the destructive rupture of financial ruin and a decade of aggressive structural reform, Greece has entered a timespace of perpetual crisis marked by suspended futures and intense temporal disorientation. Crisis has become routinized, an inescapable present where the future is feared as potentially worse than the current status quo. The vernacular holding together life in limbo is emptiness, connecting disparate domains of social life, becoming an integral part of the affective structure of crisis. People talk of empty state coffers, workplaces desolated by a brain-drain, hollow political promises of emergence, social and material dispossession, hopeless futures. Scaling up from individual stories of defeated expectations and tangible material absence, I propose that emptiness has become part of the affective structure of a Time of Crisis, a vernacular of the epoch that runs through daily life as people make sense of the tapestry of destruction that shapes their experience of European late-modernity.

In Greece, emptiness frames and classifies seemingly unrelated realms of anthropological inquiry, being spatial, temporal, and existential, thus allowing for topological comparison of the general atmosphere of the era. Topology—the “science of nearness, connectedness and distortion” (Serres and Latour 1995, 60)—speaks of potentialities and possibilities at the “thresholds of transition” (Gros, Russell, and Stafford 2019). At the threshold of the “new normal”—routinized crisis—a topological analysis of vernacular emptiness underscores the distorted spatial and temporal connectivity between domains of a society stuck in suspended transition between rupture and emergence.

Emptiness punctuates daily parlance in the guises adeios (άδειος, empty) and kenos (κενός, empty, also void). It references a “before” of abundance and meaning, an elsewhen where neoliberal accumulation and European belonging were considered birthrights. It captures how the present feels different from the precrisis years, while emphasizing the prominent futural orientations of resignation and apathy brought about by endemic crisis; adeia zoi (empty life), adeio tameio (empty coffer), kenos logos (empty [political] speech), kenos anthropos (empty person), keno mellon (empty future). Embracing the topological spirit of distortion and connection, for those in Greece, emptiness is “actively morphing, changing, and being recycled in the local imaginaries around displacement, suffering, and life-making” that denote a Time of Crisis (Rao 2013, 316). The vernacular of emptiness is an affective pivot around which daily life unfolds.

As such, emptiness facilitates the making-sense of chronic crisis and precarious futures holistically, rushing through the veins of social life, connecting realms as diverse as inheritance law, psychoanalysis, and rhetoric culture. Arguing for the structuring qualities of emptiness, Dace Dzenovska (2019) cites rural Latvia where emptiness has become an “end of the world” trajectory that filters through various daily practices. Since the dramatic rupture that was the fall of socialism slipped into a permanent period of transition, people now “expect to die as the world ends or the world to end when they die” (see also Lynteris 2019, 128). As in Greece, emptiness in Latvia is an integral part of the affective structure of chronic crisis, a central plotline in the story of European late-modernity.

Characteristic of an elongated period of suspended orders, one may justifiably ask whether emptiness is ever truly vacuous. To paraphrase Frank Kermode (2000, 45–46), life in Greece is currently situated between the tick of rupture and the tock of possibility, or the gap filled with speculation between the destruction of the Old World order and emergence from the rubble of the uncanny present. As such, the gap that my Greek research participants characterize in daily discourse as empty might not be deemed empty at all, but rather filled with speculation, anticipation, or the nausea-inducing vertigo of teetering on the proverbial cliff-edge of history (Runia 2010; Knight 2016). The gap between tick and tock points to the weirdness of the world in its current form—in this case chronic crisis—and leads either to conjecture and fantasy or to apathy and resignation about the future (Bryant and Knight 2019, 82). As a manifestation of life under intense anxiety and stress, with no horizon in sight, one might argue that a Time of Crisis is conspicuous for the fullness of emptiness.

So it is that the vernacular of emptiness is part of the affective structure of a time of chronic crisis, defining life in suspension between savage rupture and the first shoots of emergent possibility. Ever-present in local discourse, emptiness topologically indexes spatial change, temporal disorientation, and existential quandaries. At this (elongated) threshold of transition, emptiness is woven into conversations, practices, and affects that identify the routinization of a new world order that is chronic crisis.


Bryant, Rebecca, and Daniel M. Knight. 2019. The Anthropology of the Future. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.

Dzenovska, Dace. 2019. “The Timespace of Emptiness.” In Orientations to the Future, edited by Rebecca Bryant and Daniel M. Knight. American Ethnologist website, March 8.

Gros, Stéphane, Kamala Russell, and William F. Stafford, Jr. 2019. “Introduction: Topology as Method.” In Topology as Method, edited by Stéphane Fros, Kamala Russell, and William F. Stafford, Jr. Theorizing the Contemporary, Fieldsights, September 30.

Kermode, Frank. 2000. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Knight, Daniel M. 2016. “Temporal Vertigo and Time Vortices on Greece’s Central Plain.” Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 34, no. 1: 32–44.

Lynteris, Christos. 2019. Human Extinction and the Pandemic Imaginary. London: Routledge.

Rao, Vyjayanthi. 2013. “The Future in Ruins.” In Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination, edited by Ann Laura Stoler. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Runia, Eelco. 2010. “Into Cleanness Leaping: The Vertiginous Urge to Commit History.” History and Theory: Studies in the Philosophy of History 49, no. 1: 1–20.

Serres, Michel and Bruno Latour. 1995. Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.