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Emptiness (Part II): An uncertain spring

Published 27 March 2020 / By Mathilde Morin

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Introduction

Today is the first day of spring. I have been confined for a week now. I read in Le Monde that 562 people have died from coronavirus in France. Yet I have felt strangely at peace these last few days, convinced, as announcements forthcoming from the Ministry for Solidarity and Health suggest, that by staying at home, I can save other people’s lives.

At home, that is to say in my family’s house in the suburbs of Paris, I have shifted to a temporal mode characterized by the absence of recognizable directionality. The usual rhythm of my busy student life at the University of Oxford replete with upcoming essay deadlines, social events, and new encounters has been disrupted. I am forced to dawdle about indoors in a kind of everlasting present. I pass the time reading novels left aside in my former bedroom, cooking for my family, and keeping up with school work despite absence. At present, it is impossible to envisage any kind of future projects. Our president, Mr. Emmanuel Macron, told us that we would have to be confined for at least two weeks, but it is now widely accepted that this will last for much longer, as the examples of China and Italy aptly demonstrate. Cloistered here, I have come to feel stuck in a void generated by suspension of the usual flow of time. I wonder: how long will I have to linger here, in the midst of what seems like a temporal void, an emptiness patched up with small routines and mundane occupations?

My mindless contentedness evaporated this morning as I went to the Saturday morning open-air market of my town to buy some bread.[i] The strange joy of my family’s fortress was suddenly invaded by the disquiet that I could read in people’s eyes, rendered more perceptible yet by the masks that hid the rest of their faces. “Emptiness also had a sensual dimension,” writes Dace Dzenovska about life in the emptying towns and villages in the Latvian countryside. She describes her interlocutors who felt “anxious, even a little nauseous,” as they walked past abandoned houses.[ii] The temporal emptiness I had come to sense indoors had its spatial counterpart outdoors: closed shops, deserted cafés, and scarce market stalls, as well as passers-by, gave an impression of bleak desolation replete with anguish. This is the exact contrary of what the market usually is: a place of effervescence, where people come by foot in the morning to buy fresh and high-quality food from producers of other French regions. On the weekends, as families reunite, more time is given to the preparation of three-course meals (four, including cheese!). The market, a place of bubbling sociality, is where recipes are exchanged, products are tasted, and friends are met on the way back home. Stopping for coffee or a glass of wine afterward amid the sellers’ gaudy clamours is also quite common, while enjoying the smells of roasted chicken and warm bread. This morning, however, the market was silent and smell-less.

Reflecting uneasily on the affect created by a seemingly regular event – the market – in extraordinary circumstances, I recalled with irony the anthropologist Marc Augé’s cheerful descriptions of French markets as “places” as opposed the “non-places” generated by “supermodernity” such as airports or highways.[iii] Controlled by policemen who reminded people to stay at a distance of a meter from each other, the market this morning seemed to have introduced postmodern spatial practices of enforced emptiness, characterized by an actively pursued “dis-entanglement” of people.

As people frenetically rubbed their hands with sanitizer after having bought a baguette or a bit of meat, they rushed away, encouraged by policemen who repeatedly told people to refrain from sticking around. Some stopped and lingered, when encountering a friend they wanted to greet, but were soon asked to clear up. The threat of having to pay a fine (minimum 135 euros) seems to be indeed powerful enough to put people off. Appalled by this atmosphere of tension, I began wandering in the alleys as a policeman asked me what I wanted to buy. I responded ‘bread’ and was asked to go straight to the baker’s stall, avoiding the central alley. I went home remembering awkwardly that all of this had started in a market, thousand of kilometers away from this one.

The concrete social formation of emptiness that Dace Dzenovska finds in the Latvian countryside is a “transitional state” from an old world that is ending and the new world that is not yet visible.[iv] It is caused by multiple factors, including post-Soviet neoliberalization and nationalism. I wonder whether the emptiness of today is transitional as well. How deeply will this crisis will affect us, what kind of traces will it leave behind? In the meantime, however, today’s emptiness is also “becoming a lasting state of affairs with its own internal dynamics.”[v] Of course, the two spatial contexts described are radically different, but it is engrossing to note a resonant kind of temporal emptiness.

In such a “lasting state of affairs,” everything is uncertain, except for the coming of spring.[vi] It has arrived officially this morning. These last few days, I have spent a great deal of time in my parent’s garden enjoying the blooming of many flowers – tulips, elder flowers, hyacinths, pansies, forsythias – and the gentle spring sun that I had much longed for in England. Learning to cultivate the “arts of noticing,” poetically described by Anna Tsing as means of collective survival in a world of precarity, I acknowledge how reassuring it is to think that, surely, in a few days from now, cherry trees will all have blossomed as magnolias slowly wither.[vii] This cyclicality of nature comes to gently fill the temporal void into which this human tragedy has plunged us.

About the author: Mathilde Morin is an MSc student in Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford.

This essay is part of a sub-theme on emptiness in the Coronavirus and Mobility forum, including essays by Dace Dzenovska, Mayanka Mukherji and Friederike Pank.

References

[i] Open-air markets have been banned as Monday, March 23, 2020.

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

[iii] Augé, Marc. 1995. Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, London: Verso.

[iv] Dzenovska, forthcoming.

[v] Ibid.

[vi]Ibid.

[vii] Tsing, Anna. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.