Western philosophers have long written about emptiness as a malady of alienated and disenchanted moderns. However, in the once vibrant, but now deindustrialized Latvian-Russian borderlands, residents talk about emptiness as something that remains when the promises of modernity have been betrayed. When discussing it, they talk about the number of houses or apartments that stand empty and the number of people who have left. They describe how empty streets, stores, and homes produce discomfort, even nausea. For the locals, emptiness is not a temporary state of falling behind the global march to prosperity, but a transitional state between a world that has ended and a world whose contours are not yet visible.
This talk will reflect on “emptiness” as an object of study and a lens for analyzing how people and places become disconnected from and attempt to reconnect with what they understand to be meaningful life. It will mobilize the concept of emptiness developed on basis of ethnographic research in the Latvian-Russian borderlands as a “portable analytic” that can be useful for understanding contemporary reterritorialization of power that produces emptiness as an enduring form of life.
Dace Dzenovska (PhD, UC Berkeley) is Associate Professor of Anthropology of Migration at the University of Oxford. She writes about re-bordering and migration in the context of European Union enlargement, as well as tolerance promotion and the postsocialist democratization agenda in Latvia. Her book School of Europeanness: Tolerance and Other Lessons in Political Liberalism has just been published with Cornell University Press. She is currently working on another book manuscript on staying and leaving as tactics of life in Latvia after postsocialism, as well as on a new project on emptiness in the Latvian-Russian borderlands.