On Emptiness and the Importance of Maintaining Life

Dace Dzenovska (University of Latvia)

Upon arriving in Riga in January 2010, I found myself in the midst of a lively debate about lielā aizbraukšana (the great departure). Most people had friends, colleagues, or family members who had left to work in Ireland or England, some following the recent economic crisis, while others left long before that. While in public life people were talking about the great departure, in policy and research circles scholars were articulating this phenomenon through a discourse on the problem of emigration. They recognize that emigration, combined with low-birth rates, could have dire effects for the life of the nation.

In this paper, I will ethnographically explore ways in which Latvia’s rural residents live with the emptying of the countryside – the great departure. I will also consider how and with what effects policy makers, scholars, and intellectuals constitute the phenomenon of rural emptiness as a problem of demography. In oscillating between these different registers of living, thinking, and talking about the emptiness, my aim is to trace what Kathleen Stewart has called “a contact zone for analysis” without definitively enclosing it in particular interpretive frames. I wish to see whether and how dwelling in this “contact zone” can generate insights that are overlooked by the prevalent scholarly and political discourses about migration and demography.

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