Desert Futures: Sahara/Sonora Conference

Location: McKenna Hall (View on

December 2–3, 2021
McKenna Hall, University of Notre Dame


Desert Futures Poster Design 1

To register for this conference, fill out this Google Form.

This conference is part of a series of three interdisciplinary conferences being held at Yale, Notre Dame, and Williams College. At these conferences, a wide range of languages, methodologies, and research practices are encouraged and in conversation with each other, with a primary focus on cultural and textual representations of deserts. Our presenters conduct research in a number of disciplines, including English literature, French literature, Arabic literature, Spanish literature, Latina/o/x studies, area studies, geography, history, anthropology, sociology, religion, political science, and gender studies. Research languages include Arabic, English, French, Spanish, and Tamazight.

On December 2 and 3, 2021, the University of Notre Dame will host a conference entitled "Desert Futures: Sahara/Sonora." The goal is to outline a vision of comparative desert studies through interleaving discussions of the Sonoran Desert and the Sahara Desert. We aim to articulate a psychogeography—adapted from the sense proposed by Guy Debord of the Situationist International—of the Sahara and Sonoran deserts. By bringing attention to deserts that have long been cast as peripheral and terrifying (even as they constitute geographically central zones), we consider a number of paradigm shifts—in the humanities as well as the social and physical sciences—that enable a reimagining planetary relations and connections, specifically by attending to spaces long considered antithetical to civilizational and colonial logics. This juxtaposition also permits us to raise methodological and epistemological questions about how to organize future literary studies in ways that move beyond existing comparative frameworks, such as linguistic (majoritarian language categories such as Anglophone, Francophone, Hispanophone, Arabophone) or theoretical (grand theory systems such as World Literature, Comparative Literature, Postcolonial Literature) categories.   

Both the Sahara and the Sonoran deserts have long been treated as liminal sites and testing grounds for the exercise of discursive and geopolitical power. Both have also long been seen as empty—defined by borders or limits that, when crossed, cause civilization to fade into an inhospitable, violent, and anti-human frontier. These deserts have been made testing grounds for nuclear weapons; zones of indefinite detention and death; spaces of ecological disaster and lurking threat. The idea that these deserts constitute the absolute periphery has created the new (anti)humans of the frontiers: visions of Narcotraficantes traversing the Sonora, Islamic militias lurking in the depths of the Sahara, and the erosion of legality as it has been constructed in the colonial framework. Western Civilization consolidates itself against the threats posed by these anti-human specters. We propose that a comparative focus on these two deserts in particular will not only help to change some of the institutional frameworks that organize literary studies, but will also contribute to challenging these reductive yet profoundly consequential perceptions.

Our project complements and extends efforts to think other axes and practices for the comparative study of deserts, and aims to open new pathways for south-south, multi-lingual, and transnational intellectual exchange. This approach to desert studies will illuminate connections that have been overlooked or ignored either due to the assumption that all deserts are equally alienating and empty, or because of the geographical distances between deserts. In particular, our comparative approach draws from and supplements Oceanic Studies, especially as proposed in PMLA 125.3 (2010). Oceanic Studies has created an alternative means to trace global networks and flows, and it has offered novel, connective terms for comparative literary studies, comparative historiographies, and has framed important conversations about the increasingly urgent competition for water and water access. A series of key terms, protocols and questions developed under the rubric of "Comparative Desert Studies" will generate a comparably invigorating framework for re-conceptualizing comparative methodologies in a number of disciplines, and will create avenues to rethink dominant frameworks that presently organize literary and cultural studies more broadly.

Conference Sponsors: 

Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts
Institute for Latino Studies
Department of English
Notre Dame Initiative on Race and Resilience
Department of Political Science
Department of American Studies
Department of Sociology
Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion


To register for this conference, please fill out this Google Form. For more information, please visit and


Conference Schedule:

Thursday, December 2:

8:00 – Breakfast

9:30 – Seminar Discussions

12:00 – Lunch

1:00 – Panel 1: Robin Reineke, Dominique Vargas, Natalie Koch

3:00 – Panel 2: Tom Lynch, Summer Weaver, & Melina Vizcaíno-Aleman

5:30 – Keynote: Ofelia Zepeda


Friday, December 3

8:00 – Breakfast            

9:00 – Panel 3: Farid Matuk, Argyro Nicolaou, Martín Camps

11:00 – Panel 4: Alison Rice, Teresa Villa-Ignacio, Simón Trujillo

1:00 – Lunch

2:00 – Panel 5: Suban Nur Cooley, Eda Pepi, Daniela Johannes

4:00 – Roundtable, Brahim El Guabli, Jill Jarvis, Francisco Robles, & Ofelia Zepeda

6:00 – Dinner and Poetry Reading, Featuring Ofelia Zepeda


For more information, contact Francisco Robles

Originally published at