Emptiness

After the “Emptiness: Ways of Seeing” conference

The virtual EMPTINESS project launch conference, held on 28 Sep-1 Oct 2021, garnered a lot of interest from around the world and generated lively discussions and rich cross-fertilisation of ideas. A local viewing hub was kindly hosted by Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU) throughout the conference, where Dace Dzenovska (PI), Dominic Martin (Postdoctoral Researcher) and Volodymyr Artiukh (Postdoctoral Researcher) were able to attend in person. Together with Alis Oancea (Advisory Board chair), Maria Gunko (DPhil student) and Friederike Pank (DPhil student), they led six panels and two roundtables, covering topics such as infrastructure and governance, politics and ideology, utopias and myths, lives and livelihoods, ecologies of emptiness, and war and displacement. The conference opened with a workshop at the RSU focusing on emptiness in Latvia. It also featured an online art exhibition that included film, photography, and discussions with the artists. The final programme can be found here.

The recording of Roundtable 1 on Emptiness: Space, Capital, and the State can be viewed here. Roundtable 2 is forthcoming as a book forum in a journal and we will share further information upon publication. The art exhibition couldn’t be recorded but you can learn more about the artists’ work on their respective professional websites (links given in the programme where available); you can also view Ian McNaught Davis’ exhibition contribution here and related work by Francisco Martinez here.

The rich and diverse presentations hung together vis-à-vis empirical resonances and a shared object of analysis – the dynamics that emerge when thinking with and in relation to emptiness, understood as disappearance or radical reconfigurations of material, social, and political relations that have until recently constituted a place. The term “emptiness” was not to be taken literally or as a metaphor, but rather as an ethnographically derived analytical term for generating reflection (see here).

Several common themes emerged during the conference: value, (dis)connection, the future, and the analytical and political traction of the term “emptiness”.

Value

The fact that a place is being devalued by capital and/or abandoned by the state may be lamented by those losing value in the process (and not just economic value, but also self-value as in recognition in the public space as a good worker, etc.), but some – such as environmental activists or de-growth promoters – may find it to be a good thing. For example, some of the presentations suggested that there may be new – and less destructive and oppressive – forms of life emerging in conditions when places and people are devalued by capital and abandoned by the state. Discussions also touched upon the question of whether, how, and what kind of value may return to the places and people devalued by capital. This reflects a tendency to think of destruction and possibility as engendering each other, whether inspired by Joseph Schumpeter’s thinking about capitalism’s creative destruction or Walter Benjamin’s depiction of the destructive forces of progress. The difference that the analytic of emptiness introduces, however, is that it does not posit a necessary relationship between destruction and creation.

(Dis)connection

A place may be integrated into the global capitalist system – that is, connected – as devalued. It may be emptying because it is connected to capitalism by becoming unneeded by capital, but that does not mean that there are no disconnections on another scale. For example, people may become disconnected from services, from each other, from other places (by virtue of losing transportation infrastructure). At the same time, a place may become reconnected via its devalued status – for example, when tourists consume abandonment as a niche product outside the tourism industry. There are nested hierarchies of connectivity that are not captured by a simple juxtaposition of connectivity and disconnectivity.

The future

Emptiness entails a repertoire of temporal orientations exhibited by those who live it – either there is no horizon, or there is no action-oriented future, or the orientation to the future is one of endurance, of keeping the future at bay. The future appears as radical uncertainty and therefore subject to often dystopian imaginations of total replacement of ways of life or people.

Meaning

Finally, what language do we use when talking about patterns of valuation, connection, temporality? Some of the conference participants questioned the concept of emptiness and proposed other terms – for example, liminality or twilight zone. On the one hand, this is precisely what the analytics of emptiness is striving for – conceptual exploration and generative reflection. As we see it, the concept of emptiness marks a problem space that allows, even encourages, emergence of and co-existence with other concepts. On the other hand, the term “emptiness” derives from ethnography. It is a term used by people living the dynamics of radical reconfiguration of material, social, and political relations that constitute a place. By keeping it concrete in this way, our goal is to call attention to the politics of language in naming these dynamics.

Acknowledgements and thanks

We extend our thanks to everyone who contributed to this successful conference, with special acknowledgement to the team at Rīga Stradiņš University and to the University of Oxford’s Educational Media Team for their technical and organisational support and expertise in making this event possible.

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.