Spring 2017

The Desert Is a State of Mind Cast over the Earth

The indifference of abstraction

Michael Marder

The desert is an invention, a creation of emptiness in the plentitude of existence, an introduction of barrenness into the fecundity of being. However dry this biome, it is never entirely vacant. Besides containing rocks or sand, the actual desert from Atacama to the Sahara and from the Gobi to Mojave is propitious to certain animals (coyotes and scorpions, chipmunks and rattlesnakes) and plants (barrel cacti and Joshua trees, tumbleweeds and ironwood) that find themselves at home there. It would be the height of arrogance to deem these and countless others of its inhabitants so insignificant that they are sidelined or forgotten, leaving only the vast vacuum, the expanding nothingness, that the ecosystem in question has come to denote. An automatic association of the desert with lifelessness betrays precisely such forgetting and neglect, which are, in my view, the side effects of a devastating project—refashioning the earth in the image of abstract thought. “The” desert is abstraction realized, cast over the world at the expense of biological, ecological, and ontological diversity.

When I write that the desert is an invention, I am alluding not only to how emptiness is interpolated by our manners of thinking into the plenum of what we, in a convenient shorthand, encode as “nature,” but also to how, in the literal sense of the Latin invenire, the desert is called forth and comes into the world thanks to the accumulated impact of human industries on the environment. Our unique geographic imprint, our intergenerational signature, it constitutes our legacy and lasting contribution to natural history. The desert, to be sure, preexists and will endure long after the planetary dominance of Homo sapiens. But, at the same time, it grows as a result of human-induced climate change, threatening the earth with desertification, which is accompanied by ever more acute and widespread water and food shortages, conflicts over increasingly scarce resources, and skyrocketing extinction rates. Properly understood, an invention is not a mere figment of imagination, and, even if it were something of the kind, it would not preclude the real work of shaping actuality, whether destructively or constructively. 

There is no desert. The desert is everywhere. We must find a way to hold onto both of these statements at the same time without experiencing the cognitive dissonance their paradoxical coincidence induces. Ultimately, in purely geographical terms, the desert is undefinable and, hence, indefinite, indeterminate, un-delimited. Although aridity may be its key feature, oxygen-starved “ocean deserts” are far from dry; despite pointing toward the absence of life, the desert is, as we have seen, populated by distinct plant and animal species. What, then, gives the desert its identity? Whence does it draw its meaning? 

If the desert has no clear-cut identity as a noun, then it may well be that what lends it some degree of coherence is the verb form “to desert” and the attendant passive voice “deserted.” Needless to say, the assumption that deserts are deserted by all forms of life is erroneous. Instead, the areas we relegate to the status of deserts are abandoned by our instrumental rationality, to which they appear useless. They are deserted to the extent that we no longer care for and about them, let alone about their autochthonous plants and animals. Unfit for the habitation of the very humans who’ve had a hand in their spread, deserts seem to be the areas of the world so vacant that they register as little more than black holes on the radars of our concerns. That is why the beings living there, too, are voided, rendered invisible, disregarded, forced to merge with nothing. Theirs is the fate of everyone and everything sacrificed to the arid abstraction of thought, indifferent to the singularity of existence. 

The desert, then, is a state of mind that levels difference and treats everything as the formally equal and interchangeable parts of the void. Actual deserts are, of course, awash with differences in terrain and mineral composition, in altitude and degrees of denudation whereby the terrestrial surface wears away, and in the flora and fauna whose habitats they are. But the desert represented, presented, and indeed produced as the earthly incarnation of abstraction is homogeneous; in effect, it is homogeneity as such. Only on its ideally lifeless, empty, windswept plains is the life of abstract thought possible. Only there does a mind closed on itself open unto the world, recognize itself in the harshest biome—which it sees merely as a concretization of its own drive toward abstraction—and then withdraw, desert-ing that enucleated place in the night it has made, one in which all cows (cacti, coyotes…) are black.

Traditionally construed as an exilic milieu rife with danger as well as opportunities for regeneration, the growing desert has been transformed into an indicator of our exile from being, above all from its diversity and existential vibrancy. That we neither care for nor deign to notice the beings populating its expanses is symptomatic, as Heidegger would doubtless confirm, of our lack of care for being itself. Abandoned, forsaken, left in the lurch there, in the total and blinding exposure to the elements (be they the sun or the wind), is the human duty—the sole duty still defining what remains of the human—to expose oneself to, be fascinated by, mirror, or channel all that is just as it is. In the etymological knot tying together the desert and (military) desertion, we may thus discern the devastating outcomes of abrogating humanity as a task still to be discharged. Opting for the indifference of abstraction instead of the involvement of care, we desert the world and ourselves, which is to say, desertify ourselves and the world. 

The global exile currently underway will not last for forty years, as did biblical wanderings in the Sinai intended to cleanse two generations of slave mentality. The way things stand, our exile from being into the desert of abstraction, concretely reflected in the spread of deserts worldwide, will, like an object’s approach to the outer edge of a black hole, take an infinity to be completed. And, at the end of this interminable itinerary, the actual will finally become rational, the deserts that consume the earth turning indistinguishable from the desert of abstract thought.

Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country in Spain and professor-at-large at the Humanities Institute, Diego Portales University, in Santiago, Chile. Among his most recent books are Pyropolitics (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), Dust (Bloomsbury, 2016), and Energy Dreams (Columbia University Press, 2017).

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