Emptiness as a portable analytic

A response to Jeremy MacClancy from the Emptiness project team[1]Andris Šuvajevs also contributed to this response. (with another new blog from Jeremy forthcoming)

In his blog for our website, Jeremy MacClancy claims that the Spanish context of emptiness is worlds apart from that of Latvia, as a suitcase to a rucksack, because of the difference in the political usage of emptiness in those countries. According to him, this should invalidate the portable analytic of emptiness because the seemingly similar phenomena expose diverging dynamics. However, rather than invalidate the portability of emptiness, Jeremy reinforces it. His analysis of emptiness in Spain proceeds from two points of departure: first, contested and politicized discourses of ‘La España vacía’, and second, ethnographic and analytical engagements with emptiness in postsocialist contexts (as reflected in our publications and on the project’s website). In other words, Jeremy engages in the kind of comparison that proceeds from ethnography rather than abstraction. Such comparison cannot but throw up both similarities and differences. This is precisely what we had in mind when rendering emptiness into a portable analytic. This is not where it ends, however. The next step is to distil analytical insights from ethnographic comparison and to build theory. To that end, we take Jeremy’s blog as an opportunity to clarify our method and to engage in some more comparison.

The method

The inspiration for mobilizing emptiness as a portable analytic comes from the fact that many people, academics and non-academics, found that Dace’s depictions of emptiness in Latvia resonated with what they were living or observing. This did not mean mere observation of the nominal fact that there are empty buildings in many places or that people in different parts of the world leave the country for the city. This was recognition that there is some connection between the dynamics of emptying in Latvia, where Dace conducts her research, and the forces at play – for example, spatial configurations of capital and political authority – resulting in similar manifestations in other places.

Dace turned this initial resonance into method via the notion of emptiness as a portable analytic which she took from Cymene Howe’s and Dominic Boyer’s reflections on lateral theorizing. Lateral theorizing means mobilising analytical concepts from one empirical context to another rather than from a theoretical centre to an empirical periphery. This approach renders ethnography transparticular, that is, relevant beyond its immediate context, but it does not require the creation of a metaspace of abstraction. Lateral theorizing as we are using it here mobilises ethnography horizontally with the help of ‘portable analytics’, that is, analytical instruments derived from, to quote Howe and Boyer, “ethnographic contexts that help us to objectify or epitomize the forces and forms at work there, and then to dislocate and mobilize these concepts for experimental use elsewhere”. The portable analytic does not construct superficial similarities between ethnographic sites, nor does it erase difference. It provides a validated toolkit, theoretically coherent and consistent, but also dynamic, able to aggregate and amplify from situation to situation, in order to build and consolidate. It commits to sharpening the focus, making the picture clearer, moving from intuition, through articulation, clarification, reinforcement and repetition.

As the first step of developing emptiness from an ethnographic phenomenon into an analytic, Dace developed a three-part model of emptiness as a historical formation (see Dzenovska 2020). It consists of: (1) an observable reality whereby places lose their constitutive elements – people, schools, shops, infrastructure; (2) a way of life – concrete practices and relations that emerge in such conditions; and (3) an emic interpretive framework – how people make sense of the changing reality.

But what if this model moves and how? There are several possibilities. We might move all of emptiness by identifying its constitutive elements in Latvia and the way that they are articulated together and embed it in another location to see similarities and differences. Or we could distinguish one dimension – for example, the spatiality of emptiness – and do the same. If emptiness results in leftover space – empty apartments and abandoned garden plots – in a former monotown in Latvia, what spatial configurations can be observed in Russia, where Dominic works, or in Ukraine, the site of Volodymyr’s research? If ‘emptiness’ is the term used by residents of Latvia’s emptying towns and villages, are similar processes described with other terms elsewhere? For example, how is emptiness related to the talk of darkness that Maria encounters in Armenia? The elements that coagulate into an overall condition of emptiness are not a prescribed ‘normative’ catalogue. A range of elements of emptiness may be present in one circumstance, fewer in another; their balance and predominance will vary. They sit within a context of historicity, and whilst empirically observable and to a degree quantifiable, are best articulated and reflected via an emic perspective. This is to say that in the process of mobilizing emptiness new concepts will emerge. This series of concepts will serve as a basis for theory building, that is for amplifying our insights beyond specific fieldwork locations and identifying patterns in the reordering of relations between place (space, land, territory), people, capital, the state, and the future.

The meaning of emptiness

In his essay, Jeremy states that “Spain has not become empty, it has always been empty”, suggesting that geographical specificity results in low and objectively measurable population density. In our case, emptiness is not to be measured objectively, and we are not suggesting that the places we study are literally empty. There are people (if fewer), buildings (if crumbling), roads (if uneven), shops (if on wheels), social relations (if radically changed), and economic activity (if sparse and not friendly to social life). Emptiness designates the lived experience of the reordering of the relations between people, things, the state, capital, space, and time that is unfolding in places that are either expelled from the circuits of capital or included through dispossession. It is a term used by people who live these changes. For example, one striking aspect of representational practices in Latvia is the simultaneous embracing of the term by Dace’s interlocutors when they describe what’s happening in casual conversations and their refusal of the term when outsiders describe their lifeworlds.

Moreover, the traction of a postsocialist/post-Soviet-inspired conception of emptiness lies in the fact that a sense of emptiness emerges because something has been lost that was previously there (i.e. a political, industrial, economic, or social order with recognizable rules, subject positions, life trajectories, the past, and the future). This is, however, not simply or exclusively about an individual affective response. It is simultaneously a collective (i.e. political) experience and a personal subjective one.

The timespace of emptiness

In Jeremy’s depiction, emptiness looks like a static condition that magically emerges from depopulation, that is somehow passively endured, or at best countered with attempts to make life go on. We think that the problem here lies in that Jeremy thinks that by focusing on how people ‘attempt’ to make life go on we mean that they try but fail to make future trajectories happen. Attempting in our contexts, however, means that as practices and ways of life are performed, our interlocutors are unsure where these might lead. The future within the space of emptiness is thus uncertain and radically open rather than non-existent or passively awaited (although it might be argued that the future is ‘evacuated’ in cases of predominantly presentist temporal orientations).

Analysing emptiness requires us to halt at the moment of reconfiguration, rather than following trajectories through in their unfolding and making a normative judgment whether they ‘fail’ or ‘succeed’. Of course, things do happen in that meantime, in that pause between worlds. The head of the East German municipality where Friederike conducts research plants flowers even as various ‘projects of the future’ ring hollow. But it is highly likely, to the point of almost being inevitable, that the future that ensues will not be coherent in the past’s terms. It is for that reason that emptiness is about radical openness.

Emptiness is not a new order, not even a condition, but a space of reconfigurations, and as such has a peculiar temporality that comes without a discernible directionality – either because there is no identifiable linear sense of ‘progress’ left, or because there are multiple, fragmented trajectories at play, or because its temporality is perceived as apocalyptic. It is because of its radical openness that emptiness doesn’t fit into the logic of developmental, formative, normative, project, or world-making ways of thinking. Emptiness, rather, is the timespace before things are given new form (Dzenovska and Knight 2020).

The politics of emptiness

Jeremy considers affective and political reactions to the discourses of ‘empty Spain’, and the mobilization of various segments of society and political forces in response to them. The debate about emptiness – or, rather, emptying – has become central to party politics in Spain. It has led to a strike in 20 provinces, as well as generated various visions of what it would take to solve ‘it’ – digitalization, justice, real jobs, and more. Jeremy concludes that since emptiness in Latvia – and, in Jeremy’s interpretation, other postsocialist contexts – does not generate such a political response, it is a different phenomenon altogether. But this implies a certain normative and teleological attribute of emptiness, which we do not ascribe to our idea of emptiness, and it also renders the postsocialist space homogenously passive. This is not so. In some post-Soviet locations, such as Russia, emptiness has been politicized as a problem of sovereignty, and the state tries to address emptiness of strategic territories via a variety of programmes, from resettlement schemes to establishing special developmental zones. The fact that in Latvia emptiness is not explicitly problematized is not a necessary component of emptiness, but rather the result of a specific historical conjuncture.

Emptiness as a portable analytic, instead of essentializing a certain national condition of political passivity and hopelessness, serves to elucidate the different constellation of forces that contributed to the formation of emptiness and different ways in which agency of the inhabitants of the site of emptiness – or the state – is expressed. The fact that emptiness serves as an empty signifier that is successfully used to articulate various grievance of the depopulated regions of Spain makes the comparison with post-Soviet countries even more fruitful, as it sheds light onto the conditions of impossibility of such populist strategy in post-Soviet countries. Whereas in Spain populism has become a conscious strategy of such movements as Podemos, in post-Soviet countries populism has already existed as a lingua franca of oligarchic and authoritarian politics. Whereas in Spain political mobilization grew out of the reformation of the political sphere after the 2008 crisis, post-Soviet countries lived through cycles of failed attempts of modernization and relapsed into demodernization. Thus, emptiness as a portable analytic proves fruitful for the reconstruction of the varieties of political (de-)mobilization after the demise of the post-political condition.

The problem of the politics and the political, their variability in the context of emptiness emerged in numerous papers in our Ways of Seeing conference. We are working on a deeper analysis of this problem in the special issue dedicated to the Politics of Emptiness, which we intend to publish as an outcome of the conference. The contributions will examine how the political agency of the inhabitants of sites of emptiness across the postsocialist space reflects both the quotidian contingencies which populism disdains – for example, elderly peasants making common cause with urban ecological activists to combat hydroelectric schemes in Serbia, and the terrifying intervention of the mega-‘political’ (in Carl Schmitt’s terms) in Ukraine.


1 Andris Šuvajevs also contributed to this response.

Collaborate with us

If you would like to find out more about the project or contribute a blog on a resonant aspect of your own research to the Field Reports section of our website, please get in touch by writing to emptiness@anthro.ox.ac.uk.