Emptiness and Futures
From the Series: Emptiness
Following a chaotic Brexit referendum and its subsequent political fallout, the Scottish National Party (SNP) has seized the opportunity to rally toward a new referendum on Scottish independence. The SNP argue that since Scotland voted to remain in the European Union in 2016, the country should be given the opportunity to decide whether it continues to belong to “Brexit Britain” or forge its own path as an independent nation in Europe. The official SNP message is clear, setting out determinate visions for Scotland’s future that are translatable into concrete party policy. Yet away from the main party line, SNP activists engage with a very different futural orientation, presenting the future of an independent Scotland as “empty,” a productive timespace of creation and transformation from which a new nation will emerge. “The future will be whatever you want it to be,” I was told by an SNP activist, “when the time comes, we will build it together.”
Traditional election-time political campaigns are carefully crafted around “wishful images” of hope that appeal to the electorate (Bloch 1986). Hope in election-time periods, Rebecca Bryant and Daniel M. Knight (2019, 150) argue, transcends the gap between the potential and actual, carried in political rhetoric and technologies of the imagination, which orient voters toward a potential future that is clear, determinate, and often tightly tied to party policy (Manley 2019). The official SNP campaign does just this, projecting a clear, determinate vision of an independent Scotland as a social democratic European nation that is pro-immigration, oil rich, and socially conscious. However, among SNP activists, this carefully crafted future the official party is selling disappears, replaced with the vision of “emptiness”: an independent Scotland as a blank slate where every citizen will help build the country from scratch, a time when new history can be written after rupture and the destruction of old orders. After a successful independence vote, they claim, Scotland will be empty of political policy and promises, existing in a timespace of indeterminate potentiality and creativity. Emptiness here is temporal rather than spatial, place remaining the same but the future being emptied. Emptiness emerges as a timespace of transition and transformation where speculation replaces concrete policy, holding in tension destruction and potentiality (Dzenovska and Knight, this series).
I first came across this alternative vision of Scotland’s future during a long and grueling weekend campaigning with SNP activists for the 2019 European elections. Standing in central Edinburgh handing out flyers, the veteran activist I had accompanied that morning was engaged in an argument with a disgruntled voter who did not want to rejoin the EU on the occasion of Scotland gaining independence. Instead of insisting on the SNP’s official independence narrative, the activist’s demeanor softened, and in a confiding tone he told the voter that Scottish independence does not have to be the SNP’s version of independence. Independence can be whatever he wants it to be; it will be an empty space for everyone to build a future together through democratic elections and citizens assemblies. Election-time policies were abandoned by the activist, replaced by an entirely indeterminate vision of Scotland’s future as an empty space waiting to be filled through collaborative interaction.
The future, one SNP activist told me, is best conceptualized as “empty.” The key about Scottish independence, he insisted, is that once Scotland becomes independent “you will get a real democratic say on how you want Scotland to be.” Emptiness as alternative futural orientation surfaced often during private conversations with SNP activists and at unofficial fringe pro-independence meetings, usually in an attempt to emphasize the inclusive and democratic nature of the movement. At the very core of Scottish independence arguments lies the absolute belief in self-determination: the idea that Scotland should be independent simply for the right to vote for its own government. It is not about any particular vision of independence or any policy, but about exercising a democratic right to freedom. From this core belief stems the alternative version of the future where there is no firm plan or projected wishful image for an independent Scotland. Instead, activists argue that Scotland’s future should only be visualized after independence, when all citizens are truly free to exercise their democratic rights away from the clutches of Westminster.
Resonating with Fredric Jameson’s (2005) “Utopian problem,” SNP activists believe in the near impossibility of imagining a concrete postrevolutionary society while trapped in the current constraining paradigms of status quo politics. Following the footsteps of “Western Marxists” and Frankfurt School theorists, SNP activists believe that true political freedom may only be attained post-rupture, in the empty temporal space that will emerge in an independent Scotland. Framing the future as empty of determinate policy and ideology not only allows SNP activists to reject traditional deterministic electoral practices, but creates the necessary conditions for true utopian creative freedom by eliminating the constraints of the status-quo. Futural indeterminacy is reframed as a site of hope in which futural emptiness emerges as a timespace of affect and creativity, but not necessarily determinacy or materiality.
In this alternative version of the future as “empty,” the event of independence becomes a moment of radical rupture, a moment of differentiating and emergence that carries with it a creative/destructive dynamic (Holbraad, Kapferer, and Sauma 2019), where the destruction has a creative potential immanent within it. It is in the aftermath of this rupture that a creative empty space emerges, free from all sociopolitical constraints Scotland had previously been subject to, giving way to what Dace Dzenovska (2019) has called “a timespace of emptiness,” However, unlike Dzenovska’s spatial emptiness of the Latvian countryside, this temporal emptiness is not apocalyptic but creative, framed by SNP activists as a productive timespace from which a new collective political future will emerge. Temporal emptiness becomes an analytic that holds in tension the old world that is ending and the new world not yet visible (Dzenovska and Knight, this series), yet this tension is one to be embraced rather than feared, representing a space of hopefulness for the future.
Among SNP activists, then, temporal emptiness creates an emic interpretative frame through which they make sense of the core beliefs of Scottish independence. On the one hand, official SNP policy gives form to the future, on the other hand, the future is denied any recognizable form. Promoting futural indeterminacy allows Scottish independence to be reframed as a future that is not constrained by the SNP’s official party policy. Instead, its emptiness belongs to everyone equally as a creative timespace of productivity where hope is derived not from traditional election-time wishful images, but from emptiness itself. As such, emptiness is a timespace of transition and transformation, brimming with creative affect and possibility between the destruction of a former regime and the manifestation of a new political order.
Bloch, Ernest. 1986. The Principle of Hope. 3 volumes. Translated by Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. Originally published in 1954–1959.
Bryant, Rebecca, and Daniel M. Knight. 2019. The Anthropology of the Future. Cambridge: Cambridge University 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.
Holbraad, Martin, Bruce Kapferer, and Julia F. Sauma. 2019. Ruptures: Anthropologies of Discontinuity in Times of Turmoil. London: UCL Press.
Jameson, Fredric. 2005. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso.
Manley, Gabriela. 2019. “Scotland’s Post-Referenda Futures.” Anthropology Today 35, no. 4: 13–17.