Emptiness: capitalism after socialism

Dace Dzenovska, University of Oxford

Oxford University
Dec 10, 2019 · 6 min read

The concept of “emptiness” conjures up a rich archive of meanings — from chaos before order, to “empty lands” settled by colonial modernizers, to the existential emptiness of modern subjects. It is a malleable and generative concept that connects things that are not the same, but may be of the same kind. Among them are modern anxieties that can be reinterpreted as potentialities: the existential emptiness of modernity turning into the enlightening emptiness of Buddhism, the unincorporated spaces where “there be dragons” becoming frontier settlements, ruins coming alive as art projects, empty villages reimagined as biodiversity areas, and more.

However, I analyze emptiness as a concrete historical formation that has emerged in conditions when socialist modernity is gone and promises of capitalist modernity have failed (Dzenovska, forthcoming, 2019). I have developed this approach on the basis of anthropological fieldwork in the once vibrant, but now deindustrialized areas of eastern Latvia, where residents talk about emptiness — and emptying — as a matter of course. While these areas are not and cannot be physically empty, for the local residents emptying is an observable reality and emptiness the overarching frame within which individual lives unfold (see Image 1).

Image 1. Abandoned shop in eastern Latvia, 2019. Photo: Dace Dzenovska.

People point to vacant houses, unfinished apartment buildings (see Image 2 and Image 3), and list friends and relatives who have left. They describe how the empty streets and homes produce discomfort, even nausea. They equate emptiness to the disappearance of productive activity: land and industrial buildings stand empty, even though they are still someone’s property. Moreover, the state is closing down schools and cancelling transportation routes. People fear that their village will disappear from the map entirely.

Image 2. Unfinished apartment building in a “village of an urban type” in Latvia, 2011. Photo: Dace Dzenovska.
Image 3. Abandoned farmstead in eastern Latvia, 2019. Photo by Dace Dzenovska.

Discouraged by withdrawal of the state and capital, local residents imagine wild nature taking over abandoned homes and villages becoming uninhabited spaces of resource extraction, or new places of residence for foreigners from distant lands (see Image 4). 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. And yet, this transitional state is also a lasting one, producing its own material and social dynamics, tensions, and challenges. While emptiness suggests the end of the world as people know it, individuals nevertheless continue to live and craft futures. Some people pursue the future by migrating, others work to maintain the future as a little bit more of the present, while others yet enjoy the freedom that comes with the end of the world (Dzenovska 2019, 2018).

Image 4. Abundant apple tree by an abandoned house in eastern Latvia, 2018. Photo: Dace Dzenovska.

The emptying villages and towns in Latvia are not alone (see Image 5). Emptying — or the thinning of material and social relations that leads to a radically different future — is an increasingly common state of affairs across the formerly socialist world. This can be glimpsed in the intensified circulation of popular and scholarly narratives about the rapidly depopulating Eastern Europe, about industrial ruination in Russian monotowns, and more. Dominant representations of emptying in the former socialist world tend to link it to systemic endings, that is, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Eastern European socialisms. This is misguided. Indeed, the socialist order has collapsed, but so has the capitalist order that was supposed to replace the socialist one and lead to prosperity and democracy. Today’s ruins are as much of the past as of the future (see Image 6).

Image 5. A closed shop in Komstromskaya Oblast, Russia, 2019. Photo by Dace Dzenovska.

Even as emptiness is increasingly common, there is little understanding of what it means to inhabit — and govern — places that are abandoned by capital, the state, and people. And there is little understanding of these emptying places as crucial coordinates in the global landscape of capitalism. And yet, they are as significant as megacities for understanding how novel forms of economic and political power are remaking the world. Thus, as part of the ERC Consolidator Grant project that I will launch in 2020, I propose to study emptiness as a concrete social formation, as well as use it as a tool for relational comparison that will lead to far-reaching analytical insights about global futures on the basis of in-depth ethnographic studies in the former socialist world.

Image 6. Former Kologriv School of Animal Husbandry, Kologriv, Russia, 2019. Photo by Dace Dzenovska.

Using emptiness as a tool for comparison does not mean making it into an abstract concept or a metaphor, but rather moving emptiness in all its empirical richness horizontally, from eastern Latvia to other parts of the former socialist world where similar things seem to be happening — for example, to towns and villages in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia (see Image 7). These sites are historically and geopolitically different, yet they all experienced some form of capitalism after socialism, and in all of them, people are living amidst empty buildings, disintegrating social relations, and uncertain futures.

Image 7. Dormitories of the Kologriv School of Animal Husbandry, Kologriv, Russia, 2019. Photo by Dace Dzenovska.

The magnitude and novelty of emptiness are particularly pronounced in postsocialist contexts, because here two systems of organizing life — socialist and capitalist — have retreated in quick succession. Here, the future has been lost in several senses: there are no ideologies that promise to reverse emptying, and many people believe they have lost control of their lives. Decline or abandonment of certain places have happened before. But most such events in the modern era have occurred as a result of production-based capitalism’s spatial fixes and within an overall narrative of progress. Today’s emptiness comes at a time dominated by finance capitalism and devoid of promises of better collective futures. Instead of being incorporated into the market economy and welfare networks, as was the case at the heyday of modernity, today people and places are expelled from circuits of capital and care of the state. Some people are able to move, while others are stuck in place. This makes the lived experience of emptiness strikingly new (see Image 8).

Image 8. Life amidst ruins, Kostromskaya Oblast, Russia, 2019. Photo by Dace Dzenovska.

References:

Dzenovska, Dace. Forthcoming. “Emptiness: Capitalism without People in the Latvian Countryside.” American Ethnologist.

Dzenovska, Dace. 2019. “Timespace of Emptiness.” In Orientations to the Future, edited by Rebecca Bryant and Daniel M. Knight, American Ethnologist, March 8, 2019. http://americanethnologist.org/features/collections/orientations-to-the-future/the-timespace-of-emptiness.

Dzenovska, Dace. 2018. “Emptiness and Its Futures: Staying and Leaving as Tactics of Life in Latvia.” Focaal 80 (1): 16–29.

Research has been supported by the University of Oxford’s John Fell Fund.

Follow us on Twitter: @COMPAS_oxford, @DaceDzenovska, and @oxford_anthro, and Facebook: @COMPAS.Oxford


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Oxford is one of the oldest universities in the world. We aim to lead the world in research and education. Contact: digicomms@admin.ox.ac.uk

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Oxford is one of the oldest universities in the world. We aim to lead the world in research and education. Contact: digicomms@admin.ox.ac.uk

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