Book Review: The Invention of the American Desert: Art, Land, and the Politics of Environment edited by Lyle Massey and James Nisbet

If I had to choose just one moment to share from The Invention of the American Desert: Art, Land and the Politics of Environment, it would be this: J. Robert Oppenheimer, creator of the atomic bomb, dreamed about deserts. Joseph Masco, in his contribution to this volume, describes the way that Oppenheimer’s role in the siting of the Manhattan Project’s intellectual heart at Los Alamos reverberated outward with material impact. Masco calls Oppenheimer a ‘committed desert modernist’ who considered the desert a beautiful and empty space ripe for inspiration and experimentation. ‘His perfect desert,’ Masco writes, ‘the one with both sage and physics—set in motion a series of ongoing environmental, scientific, and military revolutions, transformations that now connect every living being on the planet via the embodied radioactive residues of US nuclear nationalism’ (24). Masco goes on to look at US military photography of the hundreds of nuclear explosions carried out in the Nevada desert in the 1950s, arguing that Oppenheimer’s idealised desert is reproduced in these photos—a settler-colonial imaginary of uninhabited space that created ‘an image of containment for events that were quite literally planetary in scope, dosing the global biosphere and every living being in [radioactive fallout] with each thermonuclear detonation’ (35). Continue reading