Dace Dzenovska: "Emptiness: a historical formation, a heuristic device, and a concept"

The Departmental Seminar Series features Dace Dzenovska, Associate Professor in the Anthropology of Migration at the University of Oxford.

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The seminar will be held on Zoom. Join Zoom Meeting.


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. 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. People point to houses and apartments that stand empty and list friends and relatives who have left. They fear school closures and cancelation of transportation routes. They imagine the future as an entirely different world in which they will have no part. In eastern Latvia, near the border with Russia, emptiness is a social formation that consists of: (1), an observable reality whereby places rapidly and seemingly irreversibly lose their constitutive elements: people, infrastructure, services, social networks, and the future; (2), a way of life that emerges in response to such changes; and (3), an emic interpretive framework for making sense of the new reality.

In this talk, I consider how the historical formation of emptiness might be mobilized as a heuristic device for lateral comparison of contemporary articulations of economic and political power in the former socialist spaces and beyond. I also consider the discursive repertoires that my interlocutors draw upon when they describe the world around them as empty and emptying. What kind of a concept of emptiness can be distilled from their interpretive practices? What is its analytical potential beyond the concrete ethnographic and historical contexts of the Latvia-Russia borderlands?


Dace Dzenovska holds doctoral and master’s degrees in social cultural anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, as well as an interdisciplinary master’s degree in humanities and social thought from New York University. She specializes in political anthropology, focusing in particular on three areas:  (1) the geopolitics of mobility and migration;
(2) forms of statehood, sovereignty, and capitalism in post-Cold War Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union; and, (3) (post)socialism as a critical lens for analysis of “late liberalism” and corresponding knowledge practices in anthropology.

Published Jan. 18, 2021 9:47 AM - Last modified Apr. 20, 2021 10:32 AM