Call for Papers - Comparative Desert Imaginations: Place, Mobility, and Environment Symposium & Student Workshop Spring 2021 (20-21 May 2021)

15 Mar 2021


Announced by the University of Pittsburgh

Deserts have long acted as spaces of political tension and asymmetrical power, functioning as testing grounds for nuclear weapons, zones of indefinite detention and death, spaces of ecological disaster, and sites of geopolitical threat. The desert today continues to evoke problematic imaginaries of narcotraffickers, “illegal” immigrants, smugglers, and Islamist militias, images that have prompted justifications for policing, securitization, gridding, exploiting, and even (re)fertilizing projects in this supposedly dead space. Most recently, the flow of sub-Saharan African immigrants out of “desert space” into European territories has led many Western commentators to interpret current migrant patterns as a type of ‘encroachment’ of the Sahara, a socio-political desertification that has placed this vast land at the center of Europe socially, politically, and culturally. Yet such dialogues collectively eclipse deeper connections and exchanges that have taken root between desert inhabitants for millennia and have ignored the interplay of imperialist agendas, venture capitalist initiatives, and necropolitics (Mbembe) in the desert that have long shaped the cultural and socio-political contours of this landscape as a real and imagined space.

This two-day symposium and student workshop aims to open “the desert” up for a robust discussion about how such factors are playing out not only in the Sahara, but in different desert landscapes across the world. Additionally, it will chart the path for comparative desert studies, with chosen participants expected to reflect on deserts across languages, media, and disciplines towards transforming the idea of the desert from a disenfranchised space into a lens of critical inquiry for unpacking how this landscape has been used to construct diverse narratives for a spectrum of individuals, groups, causes, and ideologies around the world. The ultimate goal of this conversation will be the production of a platform for the development of a dedicated critical desert studies approach capable of addressing current and future questions with regards to the nature of the desert as landscape, imaginary, text, artifact, and even non-space from a cross-disciplinary perspective. In placing deserts at the center of scholarly thinking, particularly around investigations of the post-colony, humanitarianism, environmentalism, and mobility, this symposium will play a significant role in defining this nascent field of study by re-orienting the desert from the periphery to the center of scholarly discourse.

Themes of the papers may include:

Colonialist genealogies of the securitization of the Sahara
The Sahara/Desert as a discursive production
The desert as a space for collective and individual trauma
Deserts as dumpsters and burial grounds
Local, regional, and trans-regional imaginations of the desert
Filming loss in the desert
Desert gothicDesert and sexuality
Desert as a space for memory
Imagining sustainable futures through the desert
Desert as archive and space of knowledge production and preservation
Visual art and aesthetic engagements with deserts
Deserts and desertification in the age of Anthropocene

Please send a 300-word abstract to by March 15, 2021. For any additional information or specific queries, please contact Brahim El Guabli at

Event Date: 
Monday, March 15, 2021 - 3:30pm to 4:30pm
Sponsored By: 
This conference is part of a multi-year collaboration between colleagues at Notre Dame University, Yale University, and Williams College.