Discussion: “The Desert and the Law,” with Branka Arsić, Allison Powers, Oren Yiftachel, and Eyal Weizman


Join Cabinet for a panel discussion on deserts, extraterritoriality, and environmental conditions, featuring Branka ArsićAllison PowersOren Yiftachel, and Eyal Weizman.

Terra Nullius

The Roman legal principle of terra nullius (“nobody’s land”)—used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to render land across the frontiers of colonization as “empty,” as void of law, sovereignty, or rights of ownership—still haunts contemporary attempts to suspend the rights of indigenous peoples in the interest of development, oil, and mineral extraction.

This event will focus on the various ways in which the extraterritorial condition embodied by the terra nullius principle interacts with environmental conditions—and particularly with those of the desert, a terrain that most clearly captures the idea of emptiness.

The modern definition of what constitutes a desert, and where it begins, has never only been environmentally or geographically determined. Rather, it is a political category, against which human culture, law, and sovereignty are continuously defined. For indigenous peoples, however, the transition zones between fields and forests, and between fields and deserts, are deep frontiers where a liminal kind of agriculture slowly gives way on one side to areas that are cultivated, and on the other side to areas that are cultivated very little.

The Desert and Territoriality

The panel’s speakers will look at historical and contemporary examples from the US and Israel/Palestine in which the definition of the desert interacts with notions of law, territory, and extraterritoriality.

Branka Arsić will examine the American imagination of the desert in the nineteenth century by looking at deforestation in the American Midwest, as well as how Herman Melville wrote about his encounter with the desert in his travels through Palestine.

Allison Powers will present on the relationship between Mexican nationals in the American-annexed Southwest and the state-sanctioned violence that underwrote the transformation of arid desert lands into commercial farms or mines during the first decades of the twentieth century.

Oren Yiftachel’s presentation will focus on the plight of the Bedouin-Arab tribes in the Negev desert and their struggle to hold on to their lands and lifestyle in the face of a prevalent terra nullius approach that has “emptied” Bedouin space from its past and future.

The event will be moderated by Eyal Weizman. The presentations will be followed by open discussion.

The event is free and open to the public.

For more information see here.