Speculation: Desert

Maps and Prototypes of Science Fictional Presences

Project Speculation: Desert takes off from the two interlinked futurist descriptions of anthropogenic impact on the planet: the desert planet and the drowned world. The desert planet and the drowned world from one angle seem to be absolute opposites: the latter the result of global warming leading to melting polar arctic ice and the permafrost layer, leading to apocalyptic visions of gigantic tsunamis, unconquerable floods, and drowned cities or countries, while the former represents the desertification of the planet, loss of greenery, biodiversity and arable land, with widespread hunger, drought phenomena and so on. From another angle, the desert planet is the ultimate future, for many deserts of the present were not too long ago covered in water, or lush greenery, and teeming with life-whose presences remain to this day. In India and the subcontinent, there is no dearth of examples of parts of the country suffering droughts, desertification, and flooding at the same time, leading to widespread destruction of property and loss of life- not just human life, but all manner of flora and fauna. Nuclear apocalypses of the Cold War period have been replaced by these apocalypses for a new epoch in the new millennium. If statistical models and extrapolations such as the planetary boundaries model are acknowledged, then one can see that these problems of our time will only intensify, leading to scientific visions and science fictional visions merging with spiritual-apocalyptic visions of the end-times.

The project maps this mergence from three intersecting nodes: the geo-cultural, the biological, and the science fictional, uniting the theoretical and practical engagements of the three different members of the group. At the heart of this project is what we call the "speculative desert." This speculative desert will be researched and classified in terms of fictional and real deserts, the real and imagined creatures and technologies that inhabit these deserts, the socio-cultural life in these deserts, and the geological peculiarities of these deserts and their futures.

We intend to investigate and present the intermeshing of temporalities through this speculative desert. At the one extreme, lies the investigation of desert geologies and lost civilizations, which will be based especially on our fieldwork in and around Dholavira and the Great Rann of Kutch region in India. As the site of the Harappan Indus Valley Civilization, the area has a long history of human settlement. As a borderland between India and Pakistan, the area is the site of constant power negotiations in the present, but its historical, cultural and geological importance transcend human time and flow into deep prehistory. The site is marked with unique geological activities and formations older than recorded history, and it is inhabited by species that have evolved with the desert landscape which predate human species (for instance, Savanna Grass from the Jurassic period). The desert holds the record of things that have come and gone, and holds the tensions of things of the present that too will be gone, and futures that are yet to come. Even though we will focus on the Great Rann in this project, our work has gradually developed from an engagement with multiple desert sites, real and imagined. For humans are but a blink on this desert landscape, and the harshness of it requires humans to be open to other ways of being, living and thinking with other species, such as the "Rose of Jericho," the resurrection plant that is the inhabitant of the Sahara. Indeed, at the other extreme lies the speculative desert that forms both the future of planet Earth in science fiction, as well as other planets such as Mars. Survival in such extreme desert landscapes depends on mimicking and learning from the non-human, which have inspired any number of science fictional reflections. While "terraforming" represents the desires to make something else inhabitable, such activities may even involve becoming something other, something between human and posthuman, where the body itself needs to be altered to fit into landscapes that are unbearable, such as on the desert landscape of Mars.

For us, it is this continuum that is of interest, as we move beyond simplistic divisions of human/non-human, life/non-life, nature/culture, real/illusory and other such garbage of thought, to coexistences and new transformations. For what is now plastic, the ultimate marker of the artificial and non-living, which may indeed outlive the living in its non-biodegradability, was once crude petroleum and natural gas, which in turn was once a biological life-form. What is now a multicellular human was once a unicellular being, which in turn was before it born of non-life in the primordial earth. All life is the trace of non-life, and all non-life is the potential of life. By focusing from the desert as non-life to the life in the desert - - not only through a picture of life appearing, disappearing, adapting, evolving and changing in the desert, but also matter, which changes forms and exists in a continuum of life and non-life, we do not seek to lessen the impact of the horrors of climate change and fears of the desert planet, but rather, inspire new reflections on what it means to live past the apocalyptic mode to the adaptive mode, especially under conditions that regularly inspire dystopian gloom. Thus what the project seeks to inspire through its output is a new ethical mode of reflection and cohabitation, between species, but also eroding the difference between life and non-life. These reflections need to occur at the level of forms, composition, rhythms of matter, and entangled relations.

In this project, the speculative desert is simultaneously real and imaginary, containing traces of life-forms past and yet to come, of civilizations of humans and kingdoms of non-humans, the site of continual mythmaking as an inscription of the past (cultural past to planetary pasts) and myths of times to come (humans on a desert planet, to the absolute planetary future of a desert planet Earth). This continuum, made visible in contemporary posthumanist thought, multispecies ethnography, and feminist science studies, will be pushed out from the confines of philosophy so that speculations of history, science, and art, can be synchronized and made visible through the artefacts of the imagination. Working through the history of desert speculations, we argue for a need to develop new speculations of the desert that may overlay the discourses of the anthropocene, through new taxonomies and new cartographies.

Text by Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay
2019-21 The project is/was supported by India Foundation for the Arts under the Arts Research programme with support from Titan Company Limited.