Seminar at American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) meeting 2019
Both the Sahara Desert and the Sonoran Desert have long been treated as liminal sites and testing grounds for the exercise of discursive and geopolitical power. Both have also long been cast as empty, or defined as borders where the reach of civilization fades into anti-human frontier. These deserts have been made testing grounds for nuclear weapons, zones of indefinite detention and death, and spaces of ecological disaster and geopolitical threat. Narcotraficantes rampage through the Sonoran Desert; Islamic militias lurk in the depths of the Sahara Desert; “illegal” immigrants, goods, and animals are smuggled across both deserts; and Western civilization consolidates itself against the threats posed by these anti-human specters. Such visions carry justifications for policing, gridding, exploiting, and even refertilizing projects in both places.
We propose that comparative focus on these two deserts in particular will both challenge these reductive yet profoundly consequential perceptions and will alter some of the institutional frameworks that organize literary studies. By bringing attention to deserts that have long been cast as marginal non-spaces despite spanning the borders of multiple nation-states, we will consider what such a paradigm shift may offer in terms of reimagining planetary relations and connections. This juxtaposition will also permit us to raise methodological and epistemological questions about how to organize literary studies in ways that move beyond existing comparative frameworks, such as linguistic (Amazigh, Anglophone, Arabophone, Francophone, Hispanophone), theoretical (World Literature, Comparative Literature, Postcolonial Literature), and spatial (nations, borders, regions) categories.
Our seminar seeks to complement and extend efforts to think along other axes and practices for comparative literary study. We aim to illuminate pathways for south-south, multilingual, and transnational intellectual exchanges that have been overlooked. We hope that this approach to desert studies will bring to light previously ignored connections. In particular, our comparative approach draws from and supplements Oceanic Studies, especially as proposed in PMLA 125.3 (2010). Oceanic Studies created an alternative means to trace global networks and flows, and it has offered novel, connective terms for comparative literary studies. Moreover, recent work on connectivity in the Mediterranean and the Saharan Desert guide our effort to rethink inherited disciplinary boundaries. In examining a series of key terms, protocols and questions developed under the rubric of “Comparative Desert Studies,” we aim to generate a similarly invigorating model for reconceptualizing comparative methodologies by seeking avenues to rethink dominant frameworks that presently organize literary and cultural studies.