Professor Rebecca Empson’s Inaugural Lecture – ‘Life in the gap: amplifying lives that flourish along the edges’

Leo Krapp, 3rd year BSc Anthropology student, reflects on Professor Rebecca Empson’s inaugural lecture.

Introduction

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama announced that history had ended; liberal democracy and capitalism marked the end of “mankind’s ideological evolution” (Fukuyama, 1992). In the intervening three decades, Western liberal-democratic regimes have witnessed one world-shattering crisis after another, social, economic, political, environmental, and now all four at once. History has not been on Fukuyama’s side. Intellectuals on both sides of the political spectrum have consistently failed, purposefully or not, to produce any kind of critical framework for anticipating and responding to these crises in a way that would provide some kind of emancipatory recourse. Part of this collective failure can be attributed to a lack of attention to the space between expectations and models on the one hand and dynamic, contingent experiences on the other. Professor Rebecca Empson’s new book, Subjective Lives and Economic Transformations in Mongolia: Life in the Gap, mobilizes a term used by one of her interlocutors to describe this space: “The Gap.” 

The Gap is a central guiding term for Professor Empson’s exploration of the subjective experiences of a group of five Mongolian women living through a period of incredible economic flux, and is both a methodological approach to creating ethnographic knowledge and a theoretical intervention to sidestep homogenizing accounts of the economic world. Although her work can be generally categorized under the subfields of social and economic anthropology, the rigor and innovation that characterize her inquiry mean that this book has far-reaching implications for the whole of the social sciences, and the introduction of the term “The Gap” is simply the starting block from which Professor Empson launches the construction of an imperatively relevant new approach to anthropological study. This blog post will journey briefly through some of the topics and themes of this book in an attempt to demonstrate the broad implications of this book for understanding the present and the future of mankind’s ideological evolution.  

The Gap

Professor Empson’s talk engaged with directly with gaps between: 

  1. economic models and the reality that their implementation creates
  2. the political ideal of democracy and the possible damages created by its manifestation
  3. the essentialized idea of a nation and its lack of sovereignty in the face of capitalism
  4. people’s dreams and expectations of the future and what often materializes

These theoretical considerations are supported by Professor Empson’s political commitment to utilizing the concept of the gap as a guide for her ethnographic insights as well. Having begun her study of Mongolia as a PhD student at Cambridge, her doctoral thesis focused on a gap between biological modes of kinship and forms of care and relatedness, looking specifically at how historical contingencies and indignities created far more complicated forms of kinship than ahistorical, linear, patriarchal lineages. The next theme that characterized her study of Mongolian economic life addressed the gap between the kind of linear idea of time and progress espoused by development agencies and the Buddhist concept of “the time of great calamities,” which created the space to critique the inequities of the unfurling of democracy in the region. The final ethnographic consideration of Professor Empson’s lecture considered the gap between forms of finance that are externally imposed and their “performance” on the ground, highlighting the rich diversity of forms of capitalism and the use of optimism to mediate speculation.  

A few themes can be traced through all of these examples. The first is economic performativity, or the idea that attempts to describe or prophesize the future of economic relations can actually bring this future about. The second is the politics of the future, or the idea that the optimism and the flourishing of life within the gap is a response to the unequal distribution in a capacity to hope and think about the future. And the third is the instability of the dominant narratives of democracy and extractive capitalism that are inextricably linked with the future of our planet. 

Implications 

The three themes can be synthesized to reflect on the implications of Professor Empson’s approach to the study of the subjective experience of economic relations in Mongolia, an experience increasingly shaped by the influence of global hegemonic capitalism and the tensions between Western liberal-democracy and the ascendancy of China. Professor Empson’s research provides a deeply anthropological contribution to the debates sparked by Fukuyama’s misguided teleology. She utilizes nuanced ethnographic insight into the lived experiences of her interlocutors to create the kind of knowledge that resists both capitalist triumphalism and the reproduction of economic and social models that, in attempting to describe the dehumanizing and degrading effects of modernity, only perpetuate them.  

This book not only attends to optimism, but produces it as well. The approaches to anthropological inquiry pioneered within Professor Empson’s research speak to a yet untapped potential within the discipline to create the kind of emancipatory knowledge that the social sciences need, in Professor Empson’s own words, to allow “the edges to flourish as their own centres rather than be confined to a periphery.”

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Professor Rebecca Empson’s Inaugural Lecture – ‘Life in the gap: amplifying lives that flourish along the edges’
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