Although the African Sahara covers a third of the continent and crosses the borders of a dozen nation-states, it remains a blind spot in scholarly disciplines oriented by colonial-era cartographies that drew those borders and the area-studies paradigms that reinvent them. This is especially pronounced in French and Francophone literary scholarship which has inherited geographic and racial distinction that separate ‘Arab’ from ‘African’ in ways that make the Sahara itself fade from view. Area-studies categories like ‘Maghrebi’ and ‘Sub-Saharan’ are not natural or neutral, but are organizing frameworks that render the Sahara an absent presence, imagined as either a barrier that divides or as a bridge that connects, but not as a place in itself. The Sahara-Sahel is also presently designated by US security cartographies as the most dangerous region in the world – a ‘swamp of terror’ that poses extreme threat to civilization. Lack of knowledge about the Sahara in humanities and social science scholarship has reinforced perceptions of this desert as geographic, political, symbolic dead zone.
It is time to correct this.
The Sonoran Desert is one of many interconnected deserts that span the Mexican North/U.S. Southwest. It is a contested zone constructed by competing colonial discourses and desires, and has long functioned both as a violent non-space and as a constitutive space of national(ist) desire. This can be seen in early European renderings of the desert through Spanish military and missionary incursions as well as in contending versions of Mexican nationalisms, U.S. imperialism, and neoliberal economic strategies. We consider ways in which this emptied desert has been made a ‘proving ground’ in multiple senses – a space where the rational, western man proves himself human through a staging of apocalyptic and allegorical destruction as well as a space where catastrophic weapons and ideas are tested.
We follow the lead of Maria Josefina Saldaña-Portillo in Indian Given, Tom Lynch in Xerophilia, and Mary Pat Brady in Extinct Lands, Temporal Geographies to consider ways that this desert, rendered through borders and as a border, has become a malleable space for consolidating and deploying political power. Narcogeographies dominate both U.S. and Mexican approaches to the desert, making it appear inherently and overwhelmingly violent. In popular texts such as Breaking Bad and Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 – just as in U.S. ethno-nationalist political discourse – the Sonoran Desert is rendered as at once an anti-human and a humanitarian space. It becomes the space of obscene, misanthropic violence overwhelmingly envisioned as narco-trafficking and human trafficking; it also is a scene of philanthropic empathy that brings to view the vulnerability of migrants trekking across the desert. The desert appears as a dangerous zone whose environment enacts violence that threatens certain configurations of the human, and of the future.