Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 207

Surviving Forced Disappearance in

Argentina and Uruguay

Memory Politics and Transitional Justice
Edited by Jonathan G. Allen and Maria Guadalupe Arenillas

Memory and Transitional Justice in Argentina and Uruguay:

Against Impunity
By Francesca Lessa
Surviving Forced Disappearance in Argentina and Uruguay:
Identity and Meaning
By Gabriel Gatti
Surviving Forced Disappearance
in Argentina and Uruguay

Identity and Meaning

Gabriel Gatti
surviving forced disappearance in argentina and uruguay
Copyright © Gabriel Gatti, 2014.
Softcover reprint of the hardcover 1st edition 2014 978-1-137-39414-9
Translation copyright © Laura Pérez Carrara
All rights reserved.
First published in 2014 by
in the United States—­a division of St. Martin’s Press LLC,
175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.
Where this book is distributed in the UK, Europe and the rest of the world,
this is by Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited,
registered in England, company number 785998, of Houndmills,
Basingstoke, Hampshire RG21 6XS.
Palgrave Macmillan is the global academic imprint of the above companies
and has companies and representatives throughout the world.
Palgrave® and Macmillan® are registered trademarks in the United States,
the United Kingdom, Europe and other countries.
ISBN 978–1–349–48383–9 ISBN 978–1–137–39415–6 (eBook)
DOI 10.1057/9781137394156
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Gatti, Gabriel.
[Detenido-desaparecido. English]
Surviving forced disappearance in Argentina and Uruguay : identity
   and meaning / by Gabriel Gatti.
     pages cm.—(Memory politics and transitional justice)
Revised and updated version of the author’s El detenido-desaparecido :
narrativas posibles para una catástrofe de la identidad, published in 2008.
     1. Disappeared persons—Argentina. 2. Disappeared persons—Uruguay.
3. State-sponsored terrorism—Argentina. 4. State-sponsored terrorism—
Uruguay. 5. Political persecution—Argentina. 6. Political persecution—
Uruguay. 7. Identity (Philosophical concept) I. Title.
HV6322.3.A4G3813 2014
362.870982—dc23 2014001267
A catalogue record of the book is available from the British Library.
Design by Newgen Knowledge Works (P) Ltd., Chennai, India.
First edition: August 2014
10  9  8  7  6  5  4  3  2  1
A Eli. Por todo el equilibrio
This page intentionally left blank

List of Figures ix
Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: Sociology from the Gut 1

1 A Catastrophe for Identity and Meaning:
Forced Disappearance, Modernity, and Civilization 15
2 Activists of Meaning: Bringing Order to Ruins,
Remaking Archives, and Undoing Traumas 33
3 Moral Techniques: Recovering Disappeared Identities
through Forensic Anthropology 57
4 The Meaning-Preserving Machinery of the Grandmothers
of Plaza de Mayo 77
5 Art and Science Struggling with the Absence of Meaning 97
6 Noisy Silences: The Testimonial Work of the Former
Detained-Disappeared 117
7 Serious Parodies: “Children of” Inhabiting (More or
Less Joyfully) the Absence 129
8 Transnationalization of the Detained-Disappeared,
Social Creativity, and Other Unintended Consequences
of Forced Disappearance 155

Notes 171
Bibliography 181
Annex: List of Interviews Conducted 191
Index 195
This page intentionally left blank

2.1 Deposit in “Casa Grimaldi,” Santiago de Chile 38

3.1 Skeletons dissociated from their names at the
EAAF headquarters in Buenos Aires 61
3.2 “Robotín” drawn on a paper napkin 67
3.3 Boxes at EAAF headquarters 69
5.1a, b Images taken from Gustavo Germano’s
Ausencias exhibition 103
5.2a, b Images taken from Gustavo Germano’s
Ausencias exhibition 104
7.1 Photograph by Kitsch featured in Diario de una
princesa montonera 134
7.2a, b Images taken from Arqueología de la ausencia,
by Lucila Quieto  141
7.3a, b Two stills from the film Los rubios 146
7.4 A Still from the film Los rubios 149
7.5 Final stills from Los rubios 151
7.6a, b Two images of the exhibition Huachos. Huérfanos
científicamente producidos por el terrorismo de Estado  152
This page intentionally left blank

This book is the culmination of a long research process. It began in 2008

with the publication of the book El detenido-desaparecido in Montevideo
and it matured in 2012 with the publication of a revised version in
Argentina under the title Identidades desaparecidas. Although quite a few
things have been moved around in this English edition and several new
developments have been included, the essence of the book was already
contained in the original edition, and therefore I feel it is best to repeat
here the thanks I expressed then to the many people who supported me
throughout the difficult process of carrying out a study that is somewhat
singular and perhaps not easy to stomach for the sensitivity of the buffer
country, “el país amortiguador.” Of the many who so generously helped
me, I thank in particular those without whom I could not have pulled this
off: Anabel Alcaide, Brenda Bogliacchini, Martha Casal de Rey, Graciela
Daleo, Daniel Gatti, Pablo Harari, Elixabete Imaz, Pablo de Marinis,
Fabiana Rousseaux, and, very especially, María Barhoum, who nurtured
this project with images that crossed both darkness and joy, a register she
mastered and one of the many things I will miss about her.
Between that first book and the revised edition, the text was read and
reviewed by many people who contributed valuable feedback and thus need
to be mentioned by name and thanked: Daniel Alvaro, Adriana Bergero,
Pamela Colombo, Daniel Feierstein, Liliana Feierstein, Francisco Ferrándiz,
Kirsten Mahlke, Silvana Mandolessi, Danilo Martuccelli, Mariana Eva
Perez, Alvaro Rico, Silvia Rodríguez, Estela Schindel, Marcelo Viñar.
As for the current edition I cannot forget to thank the editor of the
series, Lupe Arenillas, for getting this project off the ground from afar;
Martha Casal de Rey, an excellent reader; Valentina Torres, who squeezed
pixels from where there were none; and Laura Pérez Carrara, who has done
an excellent and thorough job of translating a challenging text.
If all intellectual work is in part a group effort, in the case of academic
work it is also partly institutional. In this sense I would like to express my
gratitude to the colleagues and students who listened to what I had to say
and contributed their comments in the seminars that I have held on this
xii Acknowledgments

small subject in my university, the University of the Basque Country, and

other universities (Universidad de la República, Montevideo; University of
Buenos Aires; University of Chile; Centro de Estudios Sociais, Coimbra;
Institut d’Hautes Etudes de l’Amérique Latine [IHEAL], Université de la
Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris; University of California, Los Angeles [UCLA]
in the United States; the Universities of Heidelberg and Konstanz in
Germany; and Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas [CSIC],
Madrid). And lastly I would like to remember here and express my sincere
thanks to the research and travel grant programs of the University of the
Basque Country and the Basque Government—some of which have been
lost in the memory of the crisis, used by many as an excuse to dismantle
the system of public funding for research in Spain—that made it pos-
sible for me to make the initial trips that were necessary to conduct the
research that underpins this project. I also thank IHEAL, which through
my appointment as Pablo Neruda visiting professor for the academic year
2013–2014 allowed me to take some time off from my usual work routine
to put the finishing touches on this book.
Paris, November 18, 2013
Introduction: Sociology from the Gut

Yeah, everything I see on the subject, anything having to do with the

children of the disappeared or the disappeared themselves or . . . Some
more than others, of course; some make me angry, others don’t . . . I don’t
know exactly . . . But none of them tell my story, and yet they’re all talking
about me. So, what I say is, what’s up with that? (I21)1

This study is written from a special place: my gut. Because it is I who is

speaking. I am not trying to hide it: I am speaking as a sociologist and as
a relative of the disappeared.
“I” am Gabriel Gatti, PhD in sociology. What I am normally inter-
ested in is thinking and teaching about collective identity and sociological
theory: where the two intersect, where they diverge, the liminal forms of
identity, forms so insubstantial as to make it hard to talk about them,
forms that appear slippery to the language of the social sciences, so much
so that they often elude us. They are impossible monsters, devoid of words
or representations to depict them. Forced disappearance of persons pro-
duces much of that.
“I” am also Gerardo’s son and Adriana’s brother, Ricardo’s brother-in-
law and Simón’s cousin still, although Simón is no longer Simón, but at
least he is. They are all, or have all been, in different ways, detained-disap-
peared. My sister Adriana was killed in a shootout in April 1977. She was
17. Her body remained buried until 1983 in the Buenos Aires cemetery
of Chacarita, in that non-place of the NN.2 Ricardo, her boyfriend, was
18 when he was chupado (sucked up) by the ESMA (Escuela de Mecánica
de la Armada), a clandestine detention center; little is known about what
happened to him there and nothing is known of his final fate. Simón was
taken from his mother when he was only a few weeks old and lived with
his appropriators until he was found in 2002. My father disappeared in
Argentina in June 1976. We know a great deal of what happened to him in
Automotores Orletti, the chupadero (sucker) he was “sucked into” when he
was disappeared, but nothing of his final fate.

G. Gatti, Surviving Forced Disappearance in Argentina and Uruguay

© Gabriel Gatti 2014
2 Surviving Forced Disappearance

They are dead, and yet they are still in that limbo of the non-dead/
nonliving, the place of the disappeared. They are my past and also my
present. They are constantly being disappeared: neither dead nor alive, they
are entities that are certainly uncomfortable to talk about; uncomfortable
to build an identity around, I assure you; uncomfortable also to study,
to construct a sociology that explores them and the identities that have
formed around them over the years. Believe me. They are the place from
which I speak—my place of enunciation. They shape me.
But I will not talk about them here, mind you, just about what surrounds
them from the time they are disappeared: how their presence/absence is
managed, how that impossible is processed, how they are represented,
how their identity is shaped by what surrounds them. That is, then, what
this book is about. It is about what surrounds the detained-disappeared.
I do not go any further than that; I do not go down into the hole. My
language—language in general—ventures only as far as the edge. Beyond
that, it recoils, it dies out.
I do not mean to imply that the detained-disappeared are beyond
words. No, that is not what I am saying. Much less that they are beyond
thoughts. I am not saying that at all. What I am saying is quite the oppo-
site: that they should be talked about and thought about, but that neither
talking nor thinking about them must be done in just any way or with
the language used to think about, speak of, and represent things and phe-
nomena that are more localized and solid. More normal. Striking the right
tone, however, is difficult, as both with the figure of the detained-disap-
peared itself and, to a great extent, with everything that came after it—the
more than 30 years that have passed since those disappearances occurred,
the groups formed to search for the disappeared, the ways in which they
are remembered and processed, the memories that manage the image of
the disappeared, the policies that regulate their memory . . . —two strong
mainstays of life in society are put into question: identity and language.
Identity, in fact, falters. Not just the identity of the detained-disappeared
themselves, but also that of those who surround them, and even the very
word “identity” falters. And so does language . . . Language is distorted,
because the words we use to speak about things, the processes we employ
to represent them fail when they come against these entities or what sur-
rounds them, and they trip over themselves with the enormous impossibil-
ity of moving fluidly around these entities.
That is how it is with the detained-disappeared: nothing that usually
fits does. Nothing. Identities lose their footing and the ways of talking
about them are forced to navigate uncharted waters. No, nothing fits: bod-
ies are separated from identities; words are dissociated from things; iden-
tities without bodies and bodies without identities are born; and family
Introduction 3

relations are ruptured; what was normal cracks and is left without bear-
ings. Terrible. The figure of the detained-disappeared is, in fact, a true
break in meaning, something that produces a catastrophe: How can a
death without a body be managed? How can we represent what happened
in places where language was expelled, chupado, and where the exception
was the norm? How can we recreate the world following absences that are
not, strictly speaking, absences? Where does that leave meaning?
Thus, semantic explanations—both existential and academic—for the
absence of meaning, for the unfathomable, for the irrepresentable . . . gain
force. There is no other way around it. It is a swampy ground difficult to
tread on. It is also uncomfortable to analyze.

Of Sociology, Which Disappears in the Face of

Forced Disappearance
In everyday life, forced disappearances are not managed easily or in the
same way by everyone. This is also the case in the field of scholar explana-
tions. Some of the ways to manage them in the day-to-day and explain
them academically focus on examining the phenomenon according to
political, military, and economic considerations. Such considerations
undoubtedly exist. Here, however, I will look at other battles, which are
only in appearance less gruesome, but which I believe are more structur-
ing: the battles waged in the territory of meaning. Because, without doubt,
much of what is specific to the detained-disappeared and the worlds they
generate has to do with the enormous difficulty they produce in language,
which recoils from them or is reduced by them. Language is rendered
silent. If I were a poet, I would invent a language for this dis-language; if
I were an artist I would represent the irrepresentable; if were a novelist, I
would journey to the depths of the ineffable. But I am a sociologist and
sociology is at odds—very much at odds—with what eludes it, it cowers in
fear when faced with figures or situations that escape its way of represent-
ing, so rounded, so categorical. What am I to do, then? How can I address
something that, by its very nature, challenges the limits of reason? Perhaps
by positioning myself in its place and examining it from there, that is, from
the place of things that pose a problem for meaning, that are hard to analyze,
grasp, imagine. Social actors themselves do this—we, as social actors, do
this. Why not sociology, then? Instead of explaining and rationalizing,
why can sociology, in its explorations of that-which-has-no-meaning, not
walk beside the things it analyzes?
4 Surviving Forced Disappearance

There are examples of such efforts in the social sciences, efforts that
upon coming into touch with the impossible—the horror, the amorphous,
the extreme, the uncertain . . . —far from rationalizing it or fleeing from it,
face it head-on with a language marked by the consistency of the object
observed: uncertain images for an uncertain reality; in the face of hor-
ror and absence of meaning, languages that leave us at the threshold of
horror. When faced with what eludes us, when seized by a “theoretical
freeze” (Lewkowicz 2002, 91), how are we, as analysts, to go about observ-
ing things that do not yield to our instruments and our language? The
known world has ceased to exist, and with it have gone the old ways of
portraying it, of thinking about it, of narrating it. So, how can we speak
about what we want to speak of if we say that what we want to speak of is
unspeakable? This is what happens with forced disappearance of persons,
with the detained-disappeared and what surrounds them: words fail us,
our received theories burst into pieces, sociology literally disappears.
This is the problem sociologists face with the detained-disappeared:
our strategies are too direct, they work well with that-which-has-meaning
but not with its opposite; they are comfortable with the stable and institu-
tionalized, but not with that which slips through our fingers, eludes and
escapes us, that which becomes stabilized as unstable. Venturing into a ter-
ritory of social life that rigorously subjects meaning to disaster is, indeed,
a problem for sociologists: it leaves us stuttering, inarticulate, and it defies
our theories, which are quickly reduced to stammers. Because we cannot
navigate that-which-has-no-meaning in just any way.

From My Shoes, the Place I Speak from

I choose here to venture into that territory from a marked place. Classical
science—and, of course, sociology—fancied itself neutral, innocuous,
clean, innocent. Objective. The method it defined itself by was unobtru-
sive observation performed by rational citizens removed from their object;
observation by members of a special kind of community, a community
of scientists trained as such: modest witnesses, with an unadorned, direct,
and factual narrative (Haraway 1997). But this perspective is undergoing a
transformation, imprinting a radical twist on that original neutrality and
changing the modest witness, radicalizing it, inventing the mutated mod-
est witness (ibid., 3). This entails that observers recognize their implica-
tions, their responsibilities over what they observe, their situation in the
field they examine, their position in it (Haraway 1991, 183–201); that they
accept that all knowledge is situated, that it has consequences that affect
Introduction 5

the object of observation, which is not definitive or unique. It involves rec-

ognizing that they are part of the action they observe, that they are “finite
and dirty, not clean and transcendent” (Haraway 1997, 36). Recognizing
that they speak from their shoes.
Those shoes—my place of enunciation, the place from which I enunci-
ate this text—are marked strongly by a specific sensitivity toward the fig-
ure of the detained-disappeared. That sensitivity is sustained in two keys.
The first key has a clear generational tonality, and I can cite two anecdotes
to support this. The first is an anecdote from not too long ago. On April 3,
2007, shortly after publishing an article on narratives about the construc-
tion of identity in the world of the detained-disappeared, where I called
the more recent ones “narratives of the void,” I received an email from
V. S., the daughter of one of the disappeared. I did not know her. Like me,
V. S. had settled down in the place where she was initially exiled; like me,
she became a sociologist; she is also in her early forties, like I am. And she
said something to me about that article (Gatti 2006) that flattered me and
that I liked, naturally, but which also had an impact on me: “This is some-
thing I’ve been turning around in my mind for some time now: how to go
about (re)presenting the thing, discussing the issue, positioning myself.
And none of the known ‘narratives’ rings entirely true to me. Your article is
the first thing I read . . . that talks explicitly and clearly about this. . . . What
you say about narratives of the void is suggestive and clever. Maybe, among
other things, it’s because I feel that in part it legitimates my uneasiness, how
very difficult it is for me to find the right words, and the fact that at the same
time I don’t want silence. I no longer feel like it’s just me being crazy. It’s a nice
feeling” (Emphasis added).
The second anecdote has to do with my coming into contact with prod-
ucts recently spawned by children of the disappeared who belong to my
generation, and with one product in particular: Albertina Carri’s movie
Los rubios (2003). Narrating life in the void and narrating it differently was
what she set out to do in her movie:

I had to somehow convey how I start thinking about memory, about

absence, about the void, about fictions . . . because this is clearly something
that happened to me. . . . On the other hand, in doing so I didn’t want to
prevent viewers from thinking for themselves. I thought that telling them
straight out,“Well, you know, my parents were killed when I was three,”
would be like taking something away from them, a certain capacity. Because
it’s something that shocks you. I know that. I mean, I live with it.3

Differently, yes: abandoning heroic aspirations, asserting the value of

informality and chance, reclaiming one’s own childhood as a possible one,
6 Surviving Forced Disappearance

speaking of one’s identity as if it were a fictional one, speaking of the iden-

tity of one’s parents as a mystification. . . . Upon a cursory reading—which
I would not want for my own text—Carri’s work may appear to be irrever-
ent toward the generation that came before her. But it is not. It reflects a
different way of narrating disappearance: it does not speak from the filled-
with-meaning; it projects a way of speaking from the void. It entails stay-
ing there—in the void—and thinking from there about the disappeared,
about identity, about oneself.
The other key that I draw on to explain my sensitivity for the figure
of the disappeared is built on certain precautions, which generate a reluc-
tance in me, sometimes even a belligerence toward linear or direct inter-
pretations of the phenomenon of forced disappearance of persons and its
consequences. Perhaps “belligerence” is not a proper term to describe this
position. It would be more accurate to find a midpoint between respect for
such interpretations—after all they shaped and colored the narratives that
formed my childhood and adolescent landscapes—and the need to offer
alternatives, which come to rationalize and give form to different ways
of experiencing and narrating the world of the disappeared. Perhaps less
literal ways, with causal relationships that I imagine more winding than
straight; playing, I would like to think, with the textures of the void and
the absence, capable of seeing life, and not just trauma, in these places of
void and absence. I may not have another choice, that may be how it will
have to be, because that was the way I found to deal with that experience.
But I think it goes beyond that. That sensitivity is an indicator, a fact that
denotes a new development associated with a certain moment: the emer-
gence of managing strategies that are specific to a generation forced to
carry with it a supervening, already-made absence, to manage the impos-
sible that is the detained-disappeared and to invent languages to bear it.
In any case, this text is tainted by that sensitivity—I am not trying
to hide it. It could not be any other way: in this matter my body is a true
battlefield, scarred by the many wounds left by this catastrophe. Which
is why I had to travel far to do this. I had to go from here to there and
back again; moving there while I was here and moving here while I was
there. Adverbs still confuse me, mind you. Do not think I come out of
this unscathed. If I am lucky, I will come out less disappeared and more of
a sociologist. Or not. But I will come out knowing that I speak from my
shoes and that it is only from there that I can pull off this sociology of the
detained-disappeared and of what surrounds them. In these shoes and in
the body they hold up there is a bit of everything: figures, old ones that
have always been there, like the silhouettes of the absent, always present;
like the discourses heard since childhood—from the tragic discourse of
loss raised like a flag by the Mothers to the epic discourse of the search
Introduction 7

conducted by the Grandmothers; from the militantly heroic discourse that

is the domain of old comrades to the more playful discourses of some
contemporaries. Also in my shoes there is the possibility of resorting to
the explanation of forced disappearances as the product of politically and
economically supported apparatuses, which I have heard from activists,
some sociologists, and more than a few political scientists. And in those
shoes, too, I have found new strategies in my explorations: noisy silences,
direct ellipses, nonliteral languages, which speak of this by speaking of the
impossibility of speaking of it.
They are complicated ways of speaking and of doing sociological work.
I choose them. Which is why I do not want to make this book easy, you
should know that. In fact, I think that in order to be how it should be, it
has to be unsettling.

From the Field of the Detained-Disappeared,

the Place I Speak about: Human Rights,
Transitions, Lifeworlds
It’s not because of my awful experience that I have something to
say. . . . (I27a)

In sociology, a field can be roughly defined as an institutionalized social

space, a social space crystallized around a phenomenon or a type of phe-
nomena (Bourdieu 1998). It is a slice of reality whose facticity and objec-
tivity—its “how it is”—is not important, rather what matters is that the
field exists in the imaginary of the agents who participate in it and place
their stakes on it. There are fields that, if not universal, are very common,
so much so that we have naturalized them to the point of perceiving them
as universal and ubiquitous: the field of politics, the field of economics, the
field of religion, the field of culture. . . . Others are less common, but highly
generalized in the contemporary world, as social resources (actors, routines,
institutions . . . ) cluster around the phenomena they take their name from,
setting them apart as an arena of action: the field of sports, the field of the
arts, the field of human rights. . . . They all share a characteristic: they exist
because the agents they engage act as if they existed, and develop practices
in response to that assumption. This generates a clustering of forces within
these fields: social relations, life paths of individual and collective agents,
cultural representations, routines, more or less consensually constructed
narratives, scientific objectifications, institutional acts. . . . That is all that
8 Surviving Forced Disappearance

is necessary to create a reality, the field itself, where, in the representation

of both the observer and that of the very agents that inhabit and manage
it, social life unfolds around the phenomenon that shapes the field and
gives it its name. Thus, in sum, for a field to exist it must have achieved a
certain degree of consolidation, both imaginary and practical: not every
social phenomenon constitutes a field, and neither can fields be considered
to be universal and eternal.
So I think I can hazard—in the way of a hypothesis for this study—
that over the years that span from the 1970s to the present, a field of the
detained-disappeared has been gradually consolidating. As with every field,
it has its genealogy, its small history, we could say, that in this case is the
history of the figure of the detained-disappeared themselves, which at first
did not exist—in fact, in the early 1970s, not even the relatives of those who
would later be known as the “disappeared” used the term; the term was
gradually adopted when certain elements suggested that what was happen-
ing to these people was “something different” (Demasi et al. 2005, 18), that
their problem was “unique” (da Silva 2001). A figure that, later, as a cer-
tain political transition spread across the Southern Cone of Latin America,
was managed in the realm of fields that, while only recently formed, had
already been institutionalized—the fields of political and social struggles
in defense of human rights (Jelin 2003). It was only with time that this
figure was sufficiently well defined to make it possible to construct a life-
world around it. Today, in Argentina, behind the categories of detained-
disappeared or forced disappearance, and thanks to them—because of
them—an intense social life has formed and crystallized: complex social
worlds that are dense, intense, awash with institutions, laws, public poli-
cies, professionals (forensic anthropologists, social scientists, legal experts,
psychologists, artists, archivists, writers . . . ) and a rich scenario of victims,
with conflicting positions and diverse narratives, from the heroic to the
tragic, from the epic to the parodic.
They are unique worlds, these worlds of the detained-disappeared, cen-
tered on a strange figure—the disappeared do not fit any known taxon:
they are neither dead nor alive, neither present nor absent—that generates
unexpected kinship ties (what is the son of a non-dead/nonliving? the part-
ner of a non-dead/nonliving?), with a powerful, very unique group of social
movements and institutions that belong solely to it (movements of moth-
ers, grandmothers, children, and, more recently, siblings . . . of detained-
disappeared persons, associations of former detained-disappeared persons,
public bodies devoted to researching the figure of the disappeared . . . ),
with consensually constructed rhetorics built around that figure (the rhetoric
of absence, of silence, of the void . . . ), with its own languages (such as the
Introduction 9

peculiar categories used to refer to relatives of the detained-disappeared),

with artistic and cultural productions focusing on it (an art of the void, a
representation of silence, a literature of pain . . . ). With all of that, the field
springs up, and when that happens, it begins to harbor life, however rare.
And the life it harbors is diverse: routinized narratives, generational ways
of doing, biographies, aesthetic languages. . . . I do not mean to say that the
field of the detained-disappeared is a field that has attained its finished
state. As with every field, it is not stable; on the contrary, it is precarious
and changing and, like all fields, it is filled with old voices and also with
new voices. But it already exists as a singularity.
I am in that field. It is a terribly complex field, in the process of being
formed, populated by agents vying for a legitimate place of enunciation,
fighting to impose the true history, the true memory. These agents are
diverse: professionals and activists, relatives and academics. . . . They tense
the field, battling each other to build it, to establish its limits, to determine
its contents, competing against one another to speak of the disappeared and
on their behalf. I wander through these tensions and my field notebook—I
come back to it—is meant to reflect some elements of this battle.
I started this field notebook in August 2005, with these notes:

Field Notebook: 8/1/2005 and 8/5/2005, Buenos Aires. The Field of the
Detained-Disappeared (I & II)
I’m in Buenos Aires. I just got here and I’m just starting to approach the
field. At A. A.’s house, I’m assailed by the current situation: J. S., a relative
of one of the disappeared and a National Human Rights Secretariat offi-
cer; N. C., a member of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo (founders chapter);
and G. D., a member of the Association of Former Detained-Disappeared
(AEDD) arrive. They share a world of affinities, of hatreds, friendships,
and resentments. It’s a dense world, of shared jargons, of institutionalized
rituals. Their identity has grown strong, a style has crystallized. They’ve
played this role for so many years! The field has been formed and an “every-
day” has been established in it, where the detained-disappeared constitute
the condition of possibility: unmoving in time, they make the present of
this small community of meaning possible. These agents have long been
fixtures in my life. They’re comforting, but “infantilizing.” “Little Gatti.”
They’re the first of the two powerful barricades behind which the field of
the detained-disappeared stands: family and activism. “Who do you love
more? Your mommy or your daddy?” Ugh!!
But new actors have recently taken the stage in this field: professionals
(legal experts, forensic anthropologists, psychologists, archivists, archeolo-
gists . . . ) and academics (sociologists, historians, philosophers . . . ). They all
compete in this market of symbolic goods. I engage S. H., a sociologist: she
reproaches the relatives for claiming that they are the only ones legitimately
10 Surviving Forced Disappearance

entitled to speak; she demands the right to speak legitimately from a pro-
fessional perspective. I agree because I use the same jargon and occupy the
same position as these agents; I’m comfortable with them, I understand
them. “Dr. Gatti.” They’re the second of the two strong barricades behind
which the field of the detained-disappeared stands: experts and academia.
“Who do you love more? Your mommy or your daddy?” Ugh!!

That field notebook shows a body—my body—that is tossed around the

field; so, how should I act? As a relative connected by blood ties to the field
of the detained-disappeared? As an academic who sees in the field of the
detained-disappeared a case study for theoretical issues relating to extreme
If I approach the field as a relative I cross over to the warm realm of
family and activism: networks of old affections and long-standing solidari-
ties spontaneously open up to me, including me naturally; in interviews
the discourse is softened, the subjects interviewed are not just interviewees,
they are comrades or contemporaries of my father, fellow activists of my
grandmother, guardians of my childhood, feeders of my memories. They
take care of me. But if I act as such I risk being delegitimized in the other
realm—the academic domain—as the rhetoric of the old scientific objec-
tivity still echoes in academia, backed by the powerful weight of detached
observation, value neutrality, uninvolved and descriptive knowledge. It is
hard science, panoptical and arrogant. From that perspective, revealing a
knowledge gained from a place as marked as the one I assume as my own
will generate, I presume, not only a grimace of, let us say, methodologi-
cal distrust—which is logical—but also gestures of indulgent understand-
ing. These are educated people, however, so they express their misgivings
On the other hand, working as an academic allows me to move com-
fortably through university circles, to lecture on extreme identities in
national and international seminars, to publish an article now and then
on the obstacles faced by sociological theory when analyzing subjects out-
side its analytical frames. . . . But it raises some suspicions in the realm of
family and activist affections, where, in a caring but cautioning tone, I
am offered advice. “You might be interested in speaking with . . . ,” “Be
careful with this discourse that . . . ,” “Watch out for so-and-so, he’s a . . . ,”
“Don’t be lured by the siren song of. . . . ” And while they allow me to say
things they would not tolerate from other academics—like criticizing the
Grandmothers or reproaching activists . . . —I do sometimes detect an irri-
tated frown and more than a few grimaces of disgust among my audience.
Nevertheless, since they care for me, their criticism never goes beyond a
warm reprimand.
Introduction 11

But it is not easy, as these lines I wrote in my field notebook in 2007,

while in Montevideo, reveal:

Field Notebook: 11/23/2007, Montevideo. Las Viejas

H. P., A. G. and L. C., members of the Mothers and Relatives of Detained-
Disappeared Uruguayans show up at the presentation of my book at the
Center for Uruguayan Interdisciplinary Studies. “Las Viejas” (the old
ladies) are part of my personal universe, they’ve never been a part of my
academic universe. It unsettles me, and uneasiness is not something I’ve
ever encountered before in connection with this subject-matter. How will
my work be interpreted? As part of which of those two universes?

I accept, then, that mine is a place highly marked by the object I speak
of, that my position in the field of the detained-disappeared is necessarily
loaded. I accept that, yes. But, on the subject of the machinery that gener-
ated all this, can anyone really say they do not occupy a marked space? Can
anyone objectively believe that they have an innocent view of this matter?
Does anyone really think they can speak from a neutral, unmarked place?
The machinery that manufactured forced disappearances is part of our
national heritage, no less. It did not spring from the absolute evil of a hand-
ful of heartless beasts, nor was it the result of things getting out of hand,
or of an outbreak of rage, madness, or psychopathic derangement among a
group of lunatics. It is tempting to think it did, believe me. I would much
rather lay the blame on absolute evil, on what falls outside all logic, on a
place impossible to comprehend. If I could say that this was the work of
some inexplicable force of nature, something truly beyond us, if I could
attribute the causes to the enormity of abysmal evil, then I would have a
ready-made explanation and there would be nothing more to explore.
But that is not how it was. Speaking of Nazi Germany, Hannah Arendt
(1963) coined the phrase “the banality of evil”: banal evil, routinized evil,
institutionalized, conventional, ordinary evil, which as such becomes good.
The same thing happened here: the practice of forced disappearance was not
the exception, it was the raison d’état; the detained-disappeared were not
the product of barbarism, they were the result of an exacerbated civilizing
zeal. This horror was not—is not—a blemish in the beautiful Buenos Aires
or a flaw in the immaculate history of Montevideo, the Athens of the Rio
de la Plata. On the contrary, it was a product of its own achievements, the
result of the profoundly civilizing and rationalizing impulse of the political
culture of this part of the world; a direct effect of the development in the
Rio de la Plata of a peculiar, sometimes protective and occasionally even
efficient, welfare state, a phenomenon derived from the mysterious forces
that drove the construction of cultural, ethnic, and even class homogeneity
12 Surviving Forced Disappearance

in Uruguay and in Argentina; a result of the unique and almost unanimous

representation of citizenship, law, and order, the construction of that sym-
bolic, socially magic, and tremendously efficient place, which is the genu-
inely American middle-class fable of a commonly shared social space. . . . It
would not be sociologically possible to fully explain the form taken by
both the figure of the detained-disappeared and forced disappearance and,
ultimately, the social managing of the consequences of the two, without
considering all the elements listed above, which together constitute the
assets that we pride ourselves in having as the unique Latin Americans that
we, those of us here in the Southern Cone, believe ourselves to be.
All these elements of uniqueness—of the Uruguayan and Argentine
exceptionality—constitute our heritage. But here I will try to explain how
forced disappearance and the detained-disappeared are also part of that
same package: this horror is ours. Gerardo Gatti or Adriana Gatti are not
just my disappeared; do not kid yourself. They are also yours, because they
are a product of the things that make us what we are: the old Batllista wel-
fare state, the old populist dream of Peronism, the good old aspiration of
social homogeneity, the dream of a civilized nation, the rhetoric of the civi-
lizing project, the Great America, the dream of progress, the enlightened
perfectionist zeal. . . . They are—we must accept it—a product of what
makes us exceptional. Yes, I am addressing you: if my position toward
forced disappearance is a marked one, then so is yours. No different. Even
more so if you believe it to be neutral or innocent or detached. So, if you
feel tempted to be compassionate with the view I offer you about this, I
thank you. But do not worry yourself about me. In any case, I extend the
same courtesy to everyone else: in this matter, we all deserve compassion.

*   *   *

In the hypothesis that underpins this book, forced disappearance of persons

appears as a catastrophe for identity and for language, or, in simpler words, as
something that affects identity and makes it impossible for it to be repre-
sented and experienced as it normally is in the West, and that dismantles
the conditions of possibility that support our strategies of representation.
Yes, it is a catastrophe, a catastrophe that irritates, that disturbs, that upsets
the reading we make of ourselves, that disrupts the interpretation of iden-
tity and the language we turn to when we talk about it. Nothing is the
same after that debacle. However, in spite of everything and contrary to
what one might expect when faced with broken identities and impossible
languages, there is life in the field that is formed around the detained-
disappeared when the figure is consolidated. Existence is possible there,
and meaning is constructed.
Introduction 13

It is true, nonetheless, that that reality, which I have called the “field of
the detained-disappeared,” is diverse, precarious, changing. Little in it has
anything to do with unanimity and a great deal has to do with diversity:
of memories, criteria, struggles, representations. And voices. So diverse is
this diversity that it could only be organized under a classification as crazy
as the taxonomy proposed by Borges—where “animals are divided into (a)
those that belong to the emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are
trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids . . . , (h) those included in the pres-
ent classification. . . . ” (1964). Impossible. However, an analytical study
demands that a cut be made, reality must be probed until the structures
that generate collective discourses are identified, even if it means probing,
and even assaulting, personal discourses. That—whether I like it or not—
is the task of the sociologist. To do this I posit that two narratives (Ricœur
1990), two ways of telling and living, organize the field of the detained-
disappeared. I do not mean to say that these narratives explain everything.
They do not explain everything, much less everyone. They are simply,
if you like, ideal types (Weber 1978), places that guide the discourses of
agents and analysts, they are magnets of a sort toward which action tends,
always appearing broken and combined.
They emerge, it is true, at different points in time, in the course of gen-
erations and the comparative history of nations: the first—which I will call
narrative of meaning—is harsh, primal, typical of a time of conceptions,
tragic, and it is associated with more ancient discourses; the second—
which I will call narrative of the absence of meaning—is also harsh, but it
belongs more to a time of things already conceived, more negotiating than
the first, not so much tragic as tragicomic, if not parodic, besides being
associated typically with today’s younger generations. The first seeks to
explain and understand the radical novelty of a figure of uncertain and
unknown language and identity; the second seeks to inhabit a supervening
absence that has become institutionalized, to manage that impossible—
the detained-disappeared—which has been crystallized as an impossible,
to invent languages for a reality recognized as catastrophic, uncomfort-
able, but accepted as it is. The first, in short, goes well with situations
typically found in times of regime changes, the type that political scientists
and common sense call “transitional,” and also fits in with forms of repre-
sentations that seek to exorcize the horror and recover what is hidden by an
ignominious recent past. The second, however, develops under conditions
in which the impossible phenomenon is naturalized as such and in which
the challenge is not so much to demand something, but to manage it: How
does one go about managing a life that unfolds within an impossible?
Chapter 1

A Catastrophe for Identity and

Meaning: Forced Disappearance,
Modernity, and Civilization

This chapter works on what is the skeleton of this book, on its hypothesis,
namely, that forced disappearance of persons constitutes a catastrophe
for identity and meaning. It does so by situating the concept of catastro-
phe in the coordinates of a civilized and lettered Latin America—a Latin
America pregnant with culture and rational individuals. That was the
Latin America that harbored forced disappearance in its most devastating
form. That is where the machinery of disappearance, set in motion by
the state, attacked its dearest and most finished product—the citizen—
destroying it and causing tidal waves of absence-of-meaning.
Let us start by defining catastrophe.1 There are facts that always mean
the same and there are others that mean nothing. The former are facts
associated with meanings and the latter are facts disassociated from meaning.
I am interested in this disassociation: when for that something, someone,
or fact—even if it that loss of meaning does occur, and I am aware it
does, even if it falls within the universe of the factual and it matters to
me—I lack the interpretative frameworks, the structural frameworks, the
schemes, or thought systems . . . from which to grasp and understand it,
classify or order it. This rupturing of facts from meanings can be momen-
tary or lasting. If the latter, then the concept we must work with is that of
It is not a trauma that interrupts normality, not a lasting trauma that
harms the normal but can be overcome because there are institutions for
it; neither is it a disruptive, intense, and tremendous but brief event, like
an earthquake or a tsunami. These all have in common the separation of

G. Gatti, Surviving Forced Disappearance in Argentina and Uruguay

© Gabriel Gatti 2014
16 Surviving Forced Disappearance

meaning from fact, but in a catastrophe that separation is neither over-

come—because there is nothing to overcome it with—nor does it end—
because it is permanent. It is the disarticulation of words from things, of
meanings from facts, a disarticulation turned into structure. It is distin-
guished from trauma in that it is impossible to fix; it is different from an
event in its duration. And like trauma and events, even if it seems impos-
sible, it is characterized because in it life and meaning are created and
Indeed, not only does the cause of catastrophe remain, but no agreement
for a new order emerges to replace that which was subjected to destruction.
It is, ultimately, anomie turned into norm, permanent exception, perpet-
ual mourning, an eternal event. “This time,” Lewkowicz says, “the flood
is here to stay” (2004, 154).
The disappeared, and disappearance itself, are a catastrophe. And a
catastrophe of the most intense kind: words fight with things, the speaker
stutters, the body splits from what names it, nothing can be expressed
with the words that formerly expressed it, nor does it seem possible to find
substitute words. Meaning cracks. And yet, I will say it now, in that black
hole there is life, one lives, one is. A strange destructive force, that of this
phenomenon, a perfect bomb that razes everything but nonetheless enables
the construction of a dense world of life. It is my place for thinking and
living. Or, that is how I conceive it.
The language, the identity, the meaning that forced disappearance
shatters are the language, identity, and meaning of modernity, of those
beauties of rationality and order that we around here, in the Americas,
project ourselves as being: individuals, citizens, lettered people. . . . In that
shattering and in the paradoxes that pierce it from then on is where, in
spite of everything, a world of survivals is built.

The Catastrophe of Forced Disappearance:

Civilization, Modernity, and Biopolitics
In modernity, the world is continuously subjected to purifying efforts
that tear it apart (Serres 1991, 107). The world is fragmented, the con-
tinuous is disaggregated, things are separated and classified, they come
apart and regroup. The modern drive to visualize, classify, order, name,
label. It is not innocent. I can tell you right off: I think those efforts
underpin all the guides that steered the historical processes leading to
forced disappearance of persons.
A Catastrophe for Identity and Meaning 17

They also underpin many more things, because the number of prac-
tices operating with that logic is extensive, huge, infinite: sciences,
hospitals, parks, university buildings, gardens, censuses, urbanizing
utopias, nursery schools, museums, timetables, concentration camps,
TV programming. . . . They all have a common denominator: the
power to do what they represent. Reality is built according to the mod-
els representing it: the city, the society, the world itself . . . respond to
a preexisting map. A plowed universe: to each thing, person, action,
or phenomenon there is a name, a moment, a place. A space of tax-
onomies opens up, an analytical space, a space of classifications that is
imposed onto the continuous, onto the promiscuity of limits, and onto
the mobility of confusion. The classifying grid is imposed on indistinc-
tiveness, making identities and differences fit.
The city is ordered by dispositifs: truth-producing dispositifs, knowledge
dispositifs, power dispositifs. Powerful articulators of order. Mediators of
sense, conductors of meanings: maps, plans, clerks, landscapes, tables,
graves, machines, regular prisoners and political prisoners, towers, folios,
compasses, instruments, buildings. . . . Artifacts of representation that
have since been growing unchecked, both in number and strength. The
world is seized by modern representation. Analysis falls under its aegis. It
is my territory, the territory of sociology. It is also the territory of forced
disappearance of persons, but we will come to that later. I am not saying
that we are accomplices; what I am saying is that all of us, everyone who
has lived in and for the modern, share a certain familiar air. And that we
must reflect on that connection.
Among the products of those efforts are Argentina and Uruguay. They,
like other similar places, are the epitome of those efforts, the ideal product
of the modern dream: places fashioned from a mold. There, the colonizers’
“motivations . . . to found new cities in the territory they had just conquered
and to destroy the ancient indigenous cities they had found in their path
were a response to a new design, that of inventing a new Europe” (Blengino
2005, 19). Places imagined as emerging from nothing, from a vacuum:
like molding work applied to a desert populated to the insistent beat of a
project. Society forged by modern utopia.2
In the America I am referring to, conquered territories are imagined as
a desert that is filled through a meticulous work of gardening (Bauman
1987) making it possible for (1) a population to emerge in them (Foucault
2007); (2) a Lettered City to be built in them (Rama 1996); and (3) a
subject to be formed for that population, an inhabitant for that Lettered
City, a citizen-individual. In this area, that is the civilizing project. It is
still open.
18 Surviving Forced Disappearance

The Shaping of the Population: Foucault Wanders the

Since the eighteenth century, government has been exercised not over a
territory but over a population. This is what Michael Foucault termed
biopolitics: “the endeavor . . . to rationalize the problems presented to gov-
ernmental practice by the phenomena characteristic of a group of living
human beings constituted as a population: health, sanitation, birthrate,
longevity, race” (1997, 73). In other words, the way in which government is
exercised as design, control, domination . . . of bodies, collective bodies and
individual bodies. Roberto Esposito explains this eloquently: biopolitics is
a form of government in which the sphere of politics or law and the sphere
of life overlap, and that overlap has only occurred in modernity, when the
individual and the preservation of the individual become the premise and
goal of all other political and legal categories (2007).
This government of populations has its genealogy and it has its
The genealogy of the government of populations will be easily found
upon coming across the genealogy of the idea of society, a way of social life
that, it should be noted, is of recent invention (Donzelot 1984; Kaufmann
and Guilhaumou 2003). Indeed, the idea of society appears in the imagi-
nary of its many predecessors—from republicanism to anarchism, from
liberalism to socialism, from sociology to social work—as a territory for
corrective action (the place of policies and rights) and for observatory action
(the place of sociologies and anthropologies). They are powerful writings,
those of the predecessors—and of others—who in their social work suc-
ceeded in realizing what they had dreamt: society, which is thus a “strate-
gic notion” (Donzelot 1984, 77) and also a technology of government. I
could go on, but I think this is enough to put forward a powerful idea, that
of the making of society, an idea—a project almost—that has shaped and
shapes several centuries of political and scientific thinking, that has guided
and guides the molding and modeling work of social life in the eighteenth,
nineteenth, and twentieth centuries (de Marinis 1999, 90), that has created
and creates efficient action fields, both for things and for people. And even
more, that has created and creates things and persons . . . 
 . . . things and persons shaped and fashioned after the logic of the
nation-state and the citizen-individual, the protagonists of this tangle. I
will not elaborate on this further (Gatti 2007). It is enough to recall here
that the metaphors that shape our subjectivities are a direct legacy of the
nation-state at the collective level, and of the citizen-individual at the per-
sonal level. They are both siblings—one older, the other younger—and
A Catastrophe for Identity and Meaning 19

as such they are alike even though they may give the impression that
they fight and compete against one another. But, whether they like it or
not, they will always have the same parents (modernity and rationality)
and the same logic: they are both figures that are organized, coherent,
and ­stable—like the state—and indivisible—like the individual. Always
uncontaminated, always in their place; neither dirty nor in disorder.
With a clear and visible name, territory, and history. Both are the models
of modern life and they are also its product, so much so that they have
become our producers of solidness (Lewkowicz, Cantarelli, and Grupo Doce
2003, 171). I am not just talking about empirical references—although
there is that—or administrative realities—although there is that too. I am
talking about “meaning-conferring pan-institutions,” about the “general
principles of consistency” of subjectivity (ibid., 31, 65), that which for us
moderns constitutes our basic geometry, no less (Moya 1984). They are
our metaphor.
Let us retain, then, a motto, which is easy to articulate: that the ideas
of society, nation-state, and citizen-individual are modern—and only
­modern—products and projects, and that the search for them organizes and
colonizes our subjectivity.

The Construction of the Lettered City:

Beautiful, Unsoiled Gardens . . . 
But not everything works equally well everywhere: the modern form of
government, that which since the eighteenth century finds in the popu-
lation its object and its product, that has in the nation-state and the
­citizen-individual its most cherished creatures . . . extends everywhere, but
in different ways. This work of colonization of reality thus has its historic-
ity and its territoriality. Or in other words: the history of the invention of
society in Europe is not the same—even though it might be similar—as
the history of that process in Latin America. The first involved combating
the feudal state and its policy of gamekeepers (Bauman 1987), who man-
aged their dominions with careless unhurriedness: they carefully took
care of basic pruning, but let wildlife flourish unchecked; they protected
the elementary principles of exclusion and inclusion from suffering major
alterations but interfered only occasionally with what was included, and
then only very leniently. It is in response to that gamekeeping policy that
the government of the knowledgeable and knowledge as a leading force
is established in old Europe (ibid.)—the modern government that orga-
nizes, enlightens, educates, that transforms the world and adapts it to the
Plan, implementing the art of rational social life.
20 Surviving Forced Disappearance

But this was not the case in the Americas: the state did not concern
itself there (here) with replacing old gamekeepers; rather it imagined that
its task required introducing gardeners to first plant civilizations, and then
tend and cultivate them. These gardeners worked on a previous nothingness,
filling it, enlightening it: “Modern culture is a garden culture. It defines
itself as the design for an ideal life and a perfect arrangement of human
conditions” (Bauman 1989, 92). Ángel Rama worked with the idea that
the Latin American city was born from the execution of a plan that was
not only enlightened but also literary. That city is a thing that results
from the execution of a word in an age in which word and thing begin
to get along, or at least to function together according to modern pacts.
Latin America, an empty continent in the imaginary of the colonizer, was
the ideal site for that recently formed coupling of words and things to
start their life together off on the right foot: “Latin American cities have
ever been creations of the human mind” (Rama 1996, 1). Virgin land,
vast continent, tabula rasa, ex nihilo construction, perfect world, tamed by
representation. A world begotten by reason; nothing can be more beautiful
and clean: New Spain, New Helvetia, the Athens of the Plata, New León,
New Berlin, the Switzerland of America, New Granada, New Paris. . . . The
same but this time without errors. The modern order of representation in
a state of paroxysm.
A prototype that is transferred onto reality. Design and plan (“order-
ing principle,” in Rama’s words), which governed that translation of the
model onto the field; a script in the form of guidelines that are also the
written word. Even today the results of that work of representation—
because it is, indeed, representation that goes all out with the vacuum to
be colonized—are strikingly efficient: cities are born, states are conceived,
lots are neatly traced and well-plotted, what we call imaginaries are envi-
sioned, pregnant with utopia, marked by the plan from which they were
drawn and by the clauses that adorned it, including a certain obligation
for the gardener to keep the lot free of weeds. This is relevant to the issue I
am dealing with here—forced disappearance of persons in the 1970s—as
it will condition a future that will continue to think of civilizing, main-
taining, and cleaning. After all, that future, our present, is not that far
from the origins.

Field Notebook: 5/10/2008, Viloria (Navarra). Inocuating [sic] Evil from

Uruguayan Society
In Las Fuerzas Armadas al Pueblo Oriental (Vol. 1, La subversión), a book
issued by the Junta of Commanders-in-Chief in June 1976, the series of
(seven) objectives that formed the “strategy of the Joint Forces” are listed
under the epigraph “Military Defeat.” Before attempting the last objective,
the supreme attainment of order (in their jargon: “providing security for
A Catastrophe for Identity and Meaning 21

national development, co-participating in the drafting and implementation

of the National Plan of Economic and Social Development and its sector
programs”), there was another one that had to be fulfilled, which was key
to the work of reorganizing, cleaning, and hygienic prevention. That is how
it’s explained (“neutralizing the political apparatus of subversion and action
in mass fronts”) and it is articulated around the peculiar—perhaps made-
up—verb inocuate: (1) “inocuation of the political front”; (2) “inocuation of
the labor front”; (3) “inocuation of the student front”; (4) “final inocuation
of the political front, outlawing the Communist Party, the Socialist Party
and all other Marxist groups.” Clean up? Inculcate? Civilize? Annihilate?
All of the above?

Gardening work as hard at the core as any other effort of sociological

­engineering; powerful like them, and probably—why not?—in the minds
of those who devised it even well-intentioned. And perhaps beautiful. Or
at least routine. In any case, certainly not necessarily sinister but necessar-
ily tidy: the gardener, as we all know, is in charge not only of designing the
garden, but also of clearing out the weeds, of tending it patiently and with
admirable persistence to keep what is inside its fences immaculate. That
demands eliminating; but for a good cause.
Modernity in a state of paroxysm, society under the gaze of the engi-
neer/gardener. Whose dream was that? Rama speaks of lettered men
and that includes auditors, property registrars, economists, architects,
geographers, journalists, lawyers, notaries, clerks, bureaucrats of the
administration. . . . The list does not end there, it can be expanded to
include many of diverse political tone. Of various fates and moralities
too. But it colored, and still colors, the social landscape of that part of
the world:

Field Notebook: 12/14/07, Punta Colorada. Talk Show on El Espectador Radio

Station: Cattle and Eucalyptus in Modern Uruguay
December 14 commemorates what is believed to be the date in which cattle
were introduced into the territory of Uruguay. This feat, accomplished by
Hernandarias, is celebrated by Carlos Maggi, a conservative essayist, and
Mauricio Rosencof, a writer, the Culture Director at the Municipality of
Montevideo, and a member of the MLN-Tupamaros, in the talk show that
airs every Friday on El Espectador radio station. They both agree (strange,
isn’t it?) in pointing out that Hernandarias should be credited with fir-
ing the starting gun of the economy of modern Uruguay (was there any
other Uruguay before that?). Maggi adds that following the systematiza-
tion of cattle farming, Uruguay was now undergoing its second wave of
modernization with the current systematic forestation of a good part of
its territory. “That’s the beauty of Uruguay: that it’s nature is a planted
nature,” he remarks. In Uruguay, the natural is a modern artifice. A good
base—excellent, in fact—for a gardening culture.
22 Surviving Forced Disappearance

The Manufacturing of the Civilized Individual:

Elias Triumphs in Buenos Aires
The subject that lives there, in that garden, is that marvel of rationality
that we know today as the “individual.” In the individual, biopolitics
and civilization converge. This individual is a recent invention whose
gestation depends, in part, on his maintaining a good relationship with
the machinery of registration and socialization of the national states of
the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries (censuses, schools,
public bodies, identity documents, laws for the bureaucratic registration
of persons . . . ). And it also depends on how well a person who merits
being called such responds to the—increasingly more closed—question-
naire of the civilizing process: requirements of good manners, demands
of self-awareness (Elias 1978), enlightened reason tests, civic behavior
assessments. . . . That subject called individual has a history, no mat-
ter how ahistorical it is made out to be today and how much we view
it as a “sociological universal that accompanies the human condition”
(Béjar 1988, 15). It is not; on the contrary, it is, as I have said before, a
recent invention. In fact, there was nothing like the individual in Greece,
where the closest thing was the idiot, or in Rome, where there was such a
thing as a person, but the term referred to something much more specific
(masks) (Elias 1991, 157). A long process was necessary for the individual
to take shape and an even longer one for the colonization of the idea of
person to spread as it has today. It was only in the seventeenth century
that something that until then was limited to the sphere of logic and
grammar (individuus: the symbol of an indivisible unity) started being
applied to human subjectivity.
Norbert Elias gives good clues for addressing the social genesis of
this  unique subject that was, and is, the citizen-individual. In The
Civilizing Process (1978) he analyzes how the work of civilization—
which is a long-term process and whose two most important empirical
correlates are the ideas of population and the planning of society—
occurs simultaneously with another process, whose scope is only seem-
ingly more modest: that of the birth of the modern individual. Its
history can be traced by ­following a path in which as external coactions
grow so does the degree of self-awareness. Good society brings with it
the good attitudes of an always rational and self-controlled individual,
“a type of man who is calculating, always on the defensive, repressing
his spontaneous emotional reactions, a great observer and knowledge-
able of his own self and a skilled expert in the psychological observa-
tion of the human being” (González García 2001, 47–48).
A Catastrophe for Identity and Meaning 23

At the level of affective economies, the civilizing event is then translated

into self-rationalization. Society finds its perfect accomplice at the level of
personal subjectivities: the rational individual. Balance is reached at last:
need-dispositions match action-orientations. From then on, society is read
as an aggregation of self-restrained individuals: modest, well-mannered,
playing by the rules, equipped with a psyche—the civilized psyche—with a
growing degree of internal differentiation (id, ego, and superego), who do
not defecate or spit in public, who eat well and similarly.
They are the ideal dwellers of the Lettered City. They are not machines,
and what is more, at times they even participate in public life and believe in
citizenship and even in the possibility of changing and improving the place
they inhabit. They are subjects endowed with will (Anguita and Caparrós
1998). In the 1970s there were a great many of them.
Modernity created ordered populations, filled with rational individu-
als, clean. The plan worked out well.

The Civilizing Process in the Southern Cone:

Weeding the Beautiful Garden
A few brushstrokes are enough to paint a picture of the purity of the
“American workings” of the civilizing process. These are places spawned
by the civilizing letters, which, immersed in a sort of nominalist efferves-
cence, rebaptize everything they find: “Names are changed and new ones
invented for minerals, plants, and persons. Bushes and herbs are classified
scientifically. Religious men also change the name given to people and
resort to numbers to check how successful the work of evangelization is”
(Blengino 2005, 56). Ángel Rama was right in calling it the Lettered City:
a life resulting from the written word, from letters (and from censuses and
the judicial system and from identity cards . . . ). Foucault and Elias would
be happy to contemplate Argentina’s and Uruguay’s design.
The landscape that provides a backdrop for forced disappearance of
persons is thus laid out: the civilizing project, that is, a rhetoric of the
construction of social life in which the discourse of ex nihilo creation of
that society is at work besides the discourse of the elimination of what is
in excess, where the construction of what fits the project carries as much
weight as the domestication (and possible disappearance) of the dysfunc-
tional, the uncomfortable, and the conflictive.
I should perhaps clarify that this is not just an interpretation by
analysts: the authors of Argentina’s 1976 coup d’état pompously called
24 Surviving Forced Disappearance

themselves leaders of the “National Reorganization Process,” while in

Uruguay what came after the 1973 coup was called by its less flamboyant
artificers a civilian-military government. Both sparked old imaginaries
of the nation-state in this region, which saw states as established in an
order-disorder dialectic, born of the development of Sarmiento’s battle of
civilization against barbarism (Blengino 2005), inheritors of the weeding
work of General Julio Argentino Roca in Argentina’s Desert Campaign
or General Fructuoso Rivera’s in the campaign to wipe out Uruguay’s
indigenous population.
In Uruguay’s case, historian Carlos Demasi, analyzing what the 1973
coup meant in the imaginary of those who perpetrated it, observes that
the historical narrative that the civilian-military regime constructed was
not very different from the traditional account of Uruguay’s historiog-
raphy (1995, 36, 40), namely: “After the labor pains and the rebellions
typical of youth, the country set itself on the path of uninterrupted prog-
ress until the present day. The bloody civil wars were left behind as the
natural convulsions of a society in the process of being formed, where
some confused countrymen put up obstacles to the work of the govern-
ment. . . . But thanks to the ability of its rulers . . . the country gradually
overcame its difficulties” (ibid., 32). Throughout that process, Demasi
says, the country plan is essentially the same. But to avoid diversions,
every now and then the project is revised and the bad elements weeded
out. Gently, though: “Coups were bloodless and there were even some of
the ‘good’ variety, and dictatorships were only brief intervals in which
certain flaws of the previous stage were corrected and society was pre-
pared to reach new targets. . . . [But] naturally in the building process
many materials that were not precisely waste were discarded” (ibid., 33).
Civilization against barbarism. Project and adjustments. There was no
rupture, then; only continuity of what was already there: “In the country’s
history there are no disruptions, dissociations, disarticulations” (Rico
1995, 79); the prefix changes to re-: recovery, reconstruction, restoration,
renovation . . . Remaking the old project, that was being distracted from its
course. But there is something new (I will come back to that shortly): in
the center of that dialectic is now the very product of civilization, the rational
citizen-individual. That changes things.
Thus, if forced disappearance of persons now appears to us as synony-
mous with horror itself, how can that horror have existed in these places
of civilization and norms, in these gardens of controlled pruning? How
could such a collapse occur in Argentina and Uruguay, countries that
were believed by all—especially by their nationals, including myself—as
cultured and lettered, exceptional in Latin America, forged to the beat
of literary quotes, led by the hand of Borges, Onetti, Benedetti, Rodó,
A Catastrophe for Identity and Meaning 25

and Bioy Casares, with two capitals that are more European than many
European capitals because they synthesize them? It is certainly tempting
to resort to the argument that the dictatorships, torture, or, in a higher
level of brutality, forced disappearance go against a sort of rule of progress
of civilizing processes.3 But, perhaps, more than the hypothesis of a col-
lapse of civilization or a sudden barbarization, it might be more accurate
to argue that what we witnessed with the coup d’ états of the 1970s was actu-
ally an exacerbated rationality. That the dictatorships rather than forcing
the Argentine and Uruguayan societies, rather than pushing them into an
exception in their history, revealed that they contained no few instances
that were “prepared to easily serve the task of extermination” (Vezzetti
2002, 152).
I think that such a hypothesis is very well possible factually speaking
and enormously rich analytically speaking: forced disappearance of persons is
not barbarism but quite the opposite; it is exacerbated modernity. This is the
hypothesis from which Zygmunt Bauman (1989) analyzes the Holocaust,
when he argues that even as this phenomenon deserves adjectives from
the field of the ominous, its logic is not, however, alien to the logic of
our enlightened modernity, both in its most spectacular manifestations
(scientific rationality or the construction of the idea of citizenship) and in
its most banal productions (the gardener’s careful weeding, a doctor’s rela-
tionship with his patient . . . ). The Holocaust was a “sociological labora-
tory” (ibid., 12) of great proportions, which starkly revealed not our risk of
returning to pre-social barbarism but the “hidden possibilities of modern
society” (ibid.). It is difficult to say, because I am modern, because I speak
from sociology, because my identity is built on its metaphors, but that
devastation was, is, and probably will be, the apotheosis of the civilizing

The Holocaust . . . [was] fully in keeping with everything we know about

our civilization, its guiding spirit, its priorities, its immanent vision of the
world—and of the proper ways to pursue human happiness together with a
perfect ­society. (ibid., 8)

Roca and the Desert Campaign. Before him, in 1831, Fructuoso Rivera
­civilizing the territories east of the Uruguay River in the Battle of
Salsipuedes. Foundational genocides of these exceptional places, which will
be joined by forced disappearance of persons. Same story, same project.
Same as the Holocaust. All of these phenomena were “legitimate resident[s]
in the house of modernity; indeed [they] would not be at home in any other
house” (ibid., 17). They all, in fact, share the same logic, which allows us to
reasonably believe that what happened in this part of the Americas in the
26 Surviving Forced Disappearance

1970s was in fact not a collapse of civilization or a process of barbarization,

but, on the contrary, something that arose from the radicalization of the
modern project. The logic was an old, familiar one: the logic of “civiliza-
tion against barbarism,” the logic of “construction of meaning in the face
of chaos,” the logic of “weeding the garden.” Which is why Hugo Vezzetti
is right when he says that “dictatorship[s] [were] both an irruption and an
outcome” (2002, 16).
That is how it was, what came into play was an old rhetoric: the rheto-
ric of purification, of recycling the excess. Which is why state bureau-
cracy operated in the 1970s like in the wars against the indigenous
population, its predecessors, managing similar representations of disci-
pline and chaos, the desert, the Other and the norm, the population and
its regulation. It supported a fiction: that of countries in order, harmoni-
ous, organic, corporeal . . . affected by subversion and the enemy within.
Intervention was necessary to regenerate the nation. And thus a fantastic,
but effective, lineage was constructed: from Roca to the Military Process;
from the Indian and the desert to the subversive and subversion; from
Rivera to the Dictatorship. Salsipuedes and the Two Evils. Anchored
directly with the foundation of the nation, with the imaginary of the
state against disorder. Same enemy (chaos, the excess, the waste, the des-
ert); same tools (weeding, cleaning). Equating the savage with the sub-
versive in the imaginary, and, consequently, equating Roca in Argentina
or Rivera in Uruguay with a savior, a character who is also the civilizer
and, therefore, the cleaner and hygienist. Modern project, with similar
densities. The goal: refounding the nation; the instruments: the same
in the 1970s as those used in the mid-nineteenth century, a powerful
cleaning and exterminating machinery. It is hard to say it, but they were
seeking beauty, they were after an orderly world.

The Paradox of the Detained-Disappeared,

a De-Civilizing Effort
In this context—that of the civilizing process, of the policies of popu-
lation, of the (re)construction of the Lettered City made-according-to-
plan—the machinery works with automatisms, even in the 1970s, even
today: it is the state deploying its policy of population, acting as a gar-
dener state, operating through the stewards of its land who make sure that
the Eden they have created is kept in its place and that if something slips
out of frame it is tucked back in and reorganized. Today the same goal
persists: carve out civilization in the desert, tend the plants so they will
A Catastrophe for Identity and Meaning 27

grow strong, orderly, in line with the garden, committed to the project. In
the field notebook I kept during my research I made the following entry
on December 27, 2007:

Field Notebook: 12/27/07, Montevideo. Without an Identity There Are No

Rights, Without Papers There Is No Identity
At the end of the political year 2007, Tabaré Vázquez4 tours the coun-
try with members of his government. On December 27, 2007, in Sarandí
Grande, a town in the Department of Florida, he reflects on the conse-
quences of the poverty alleviation policies implemented by his government,
the government of the Frente Amplio coalition. He says: “Our citizens
and the poorest and most disadvantaged of our people are recovering their
rights. First because they are learning what those rights are, they are being
informed, and second because they are recovering them. They are becom-
ing citizens, which they were not for the simple reason that they did not
even have identity documents, which made them ineligible for the social
benefits they were otherwise entitled to. Through the identity program
‘Live Birth’ every Uruguayan child is registered immediately after birth
and is given an identity card for free, because as we said without an identity
there are no rights” (http://www.presidencia.gub.uy). The anti-exclusion
policies implemented by the Frente Amplio coalition are without a doubt
civilizing policies: they prevent exclusions, that is, they create included
individuals. In other words, citizens.

But, even though this is explained through that, even if there is a thin
thread that links the foundation of the nation to the 1970s, even if it all
seems like history repeating itself, it is not entirely like that. There are two
major new elements:

1. That power, the power of the modern project, is wielded anywhere

where there is a population that falls under its dominion, but espe-
cially in the clandestine detention centers (CDCs). In them power
was probably applied with the banality of the idiotic gesture—idi-
otic in the sense of trivial and mechanical—of the bureaucrat, who
represses out of routine and common sense (Bauman saw it in his
analysis of Auschwitz and the Holocaust: “Contemporary mass mur-
der is distinguished by a virtual absence of all spontaneity on the one
hand, and the prominence of rational, carefully articulated design
on the other” [1989, 90]). But the CDC caused that power to expand
beyond what the bureaucrat controlled and planned, and took it to
a territory situated far beyond routine—the territory of terror. It is
there that the CDC became the most efficient creature of the proj-
ect that was developed in the 1970s to discipline the population—a
28 Surviving Forced Disappearance

creation.  It makes sense, then, to conceive it as a “peripheral but

core” creation (Calveiro 1998, 13): you cannot see it but without it
the process does not make sense. Like the Lager in Nazi Germany,
the CDC is the epitome of the biopolitical space, a space of extreme
control over life. An Argentine legal expert corroborates this when
she says, “Every disappeared person went through a camp. The
matrix of the crime is in the camp, in the concentration camp” (I4c).
First new element: a network of places endowed with an enormous
degree of civilizing power, an extreme degree of civilizing power.
2. It is logical to assume that that power was wielded as it has always
been wielded: on the entities that break the logic of that order. The
1970s do not represent an exception, or at least not totally. Because
a paradox gave substance to the greatest distinctive feature of the
dictatorships of the Southern Cone: the entities that were the object
of forced disappearance were the most refined products of the civilizing
work, that is, individuals with full citizenship rights, clean (or dirty
by choice), rational, and enlightened citizens. The perfect products of
modernity were indeed the ones who were going to be torn apart
by the machinery that was their condition of possibility. Civilizing
routine that is applied to the most finished product of civilization,
inverted civilizing machine; de-civilization, which is not the same
as barbarism, rather, on the contrary, it is civilization at its fullest.
Because that enormous power—the civilizing power—created this
landscape. And if it is necessary for its survival, it can destroy it.
Second new element: The project set in motion in the 1970s to
discipline the population targeted—and I would venture that this
was historically unprecedented, so much so that it is both theo-
retically fascinating and morally terrible—its own product: the
modern and rational individual with an identity ratified by civic
and administrative credentials.5 It targeted the clean and self-aware
individual of the nation-state, of liberal citizenship. The subject for
whom the psychoanalyst’s couch has meaning. And it destroyed
that individual.

Two new elements, then, that come into play in the unhurried succession
of the civilizing process: the creation of a civilizing space with an unprec-
edentedly devastating power; the application of the civilizing machinery
to itself, and the subsequent shattering of one of its most outstanding
products, the individual. I am particularly interested in this last element,
because it is from that paradox—the paradox of the machinery turning
on itself—that catastrophe emerges, and that, in my opinion, the dimen-
sion of horror that results in forced disappearance is explained.
A Catastrophe for Identity and Meaning 29

The state of affairs at the time, the military trained in the School of
the Americas, the National Security Doctrine, the generalized produc-
tion of an internal enemy as a feature of the times, the Nazi experience.
Algeria too. Even Vietnam. These factors would certainly explain a lot of
this episode in history. But none of them, neither alone nor taken together,
can shed light on the great horror that forced disappearance of persons
caused—and causes; a state beyond the limit; a catastrophe; a critical
moment in which language and identity are ripped apart. And there is no
soothing or stitching back together afterward. Meaning falls apart and
that falling apart remains, immovable. That is where the truly structuring
aspect of forced disappearance of persons operates. It is there, in meaning,
where the battle is waged.

The Repressive Perfection of

the Detained-Disappeared
Some brutes painted the Mona Lisa when what they were actually trying
to do was kill a fly with a paintbrush. . . . They did incredible things, they
separated an identity from a body, that’s what they did. (I10)

In the 1970s, the mix of ingredients I have been working with so far—
biopolitics, civilization, hygienist obsession, social engineering, American
utopia . . . —produced a huge emergency, a novelty, a singularity, an
unintended consequence, a contingency: the repressive perfection of the
detained-disappeared. The detained-disappeared are sheared individuals;
they are bodies separated from their names; consciences cut off from their
physical support; names isolated from their history; identities deprived of
their voting cards, their citizenship papers.
Indeed, what here in this part of the world is read as identity—a
­citizen-individual—was devastated: it was stripped of its name, banished
from its territory, torn from its history. Catastrophe is such that things
no longer have words to give them substance; structure, the conventional
order of things, is hit by an earthquake so great that the disarray that
ensues can no longer be interpreted with the words we have. Our cogni-
tive structures crack, the cognitive structures that we use to think of the
living, the dead, the normal meaning of things. And the abnormal too.
Because we are faced with a figure that is thought of as placeless (“The dis-
appeared leave no traces, they create a void” [I41]; “I would like to know
where my mom is. I don’t think it’s fair that she is nowhere” [I27h]); a
figure that does not fit into any recognizable entity; a figure that is absent
30 Surviving Forced Disappearance

and present at the same time (“With the detained-disappeared absence

becomes presence” [I41]); a figure without logic (“Disappearance is an
attack against logic. It causes a sense of the absurd” [I41]; “They don’t
exist, they are a fantastic notion, they have no entity” [I42c]); a bodiless
figure: “A body without identity and an identity without body” (I12).
Nothingness. Terrible.
Something unthinkable, bordering on the socially impossible, and
before which “words see themselves failing” (Gómez Mango 2006, 15).
Which is why disappearance and its figures can only be described with
terms of hazy semantics: chupado (sucked up), separated, dissociated;
borrado (erased), a subject impossible to record in the repertoire of struc-
tured existence; chupaderos (suckers), places where subjects were absorbed,
snatched up by the disappearing machinery. The detained-disappeared
are the “living-dead,” Gómez Mango says again, “the dead snatched away
from death . . . always present in absence itself” (ibid.). It is hard to admit
they were right in anything, even if it is a nominative victory for them, but
Argentina’s Military Junta itself expressed the ambivalence of the figure
when its first commander in chief, Jorge Rafael Videla, said, “The disap-
peared are just that: disappeared; they are neither alive nor dead; they are
disappeared.” Also, on the other side, the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo
gave a similar definition:

The condition of “ disappeared” is determined by what we do not know about

them (their captivity, their death, the whereabouts of their remains, and, in the
case of those who went through the concentration camps and were not identi-
fied, who they were). What we don’t know, negation, is what defines them.
(Muñoz and Perez 2005, 222)

They exist as a present absence. Exist, not are, because disappearance

entails permanence in an impossible state. It is no small thing what we are
facing: a new state of being, no less. Discovering this is a shock: “When they
told me ‘you’re disappeared,’ they didn’t really tell me ‘you’re disappeared,’
but rather you are a disappeared” (I41). If we thought that in the architec-
ture of existence there was no possible place for existing between life and
death and if there was (purgatory, limbo, limen, ghosts and spectrums of
various names . . . ) it lasted only briefly and corresponded to temporary
states of being (or nonbeing); forced disappearance of persons invents a
space of perpetual instability, a sort of permanent limbo. A space that is
also unresolvable: there is no resolution even with the likely certainty of
death. They will continue being detained-disappeared: “That person who
had until then been a forced disappearance, once the remains are found,
becomes a disappearance with remains found” (I16). It never ends.
A Catastrophe for Identity and Meaning 31

The catastrophe was . . . is enormous: an entity that had the privileged

status of citizen-individual was banished to the outside territory. Turned
into NN, changed from the defined, clean, clear category of citizen to
the ambiguous, dark, invisible, contaminated category of disappeared, a
category fraught with impossibilities. It enters a territory that is anything
but comfortable, a territory associated with ghosts. And ghosts are known
for conjuring up images of the sinister, which is what has no definable
status: it is “a non-person, something whose existence is uncertain” (I41),
“it’s something that is not there” (I42d). It is an unprecedented state for
which there was no name: “It speaks of . . . a new abysm” (I41), something
that goes beyond anything known. What is created with the detained-
disappeared is a new state of being.
Let us stop and think about what that entails. We do not come across
such states every day. . . . We must choose one of these two options: we
either take the disappeared out of there to exorcize the horror, or we think
about them in that place, their place. From the perspective of life, I do not
know which to choose; but analytically, I choose the second.
Chapter 2

Activists of Meaning: Bringing

Order to Ruins, Remaking Archives,
and Undoing Traumas

Forced disappearance of persons destroyed the meaning we give to iden-

tity, by tearing the unions that we, as moderns, believed unbreakable. It
tore our interpretation of the ontological unity of the human being, the
stable union between a body and a name. It tore a subject’s ties with its
history: what links us to a lineage, a legacy, a family, a line of filiation
that projects us backward and forward in time. It also tore that subject’s
connection to a space of social relations, a community. A multiple tearing
that separated what normally goes together. It is frightening to see the
rupturing of the equations that make us who we are, the equations that
are naturalized as universal. . . . 
And we react.
One way of reacting is reflected in the following chapters: we react
with tons of meaning, the same kind of meaning that forced disappearance
of persons dissolved. What I call “narratives of meaning”—which I will
devote the next three chapters to—manage the catastrophe by attempting
to restore what catastrophe has destroyed. They try to return what was
thrashed to its ex ante state: if disappearance cut something short, the work
of those who propose this narrative goes the opposite way.
My first move will be to frame this work in the context of the prolif-
eration—a very recent development—of policies of memory. I will argue
that these are motivated not only by a (laudable) mandate of justice and
restitution, but also by the (questionable) impulse to fill the void left by
forced disappearance and other catastrophes with meaning. I will then

G. Gatti, Surviving Forced Disappearance in Argentina and Uruguay

© Gabriel Gatti 2014
34 Surviving Forced Disappearance

go on to comment on four practices that involve that double effort. All

of them have three things in common: first, they are as new as the field
of the detained-disappeared; second, they reflect the development within
that field of a world of experts, bearers of technical expertise; third, they
are part of the narratives of meaning. I will begin by discussing the work
that archeologists do, which entails returning meaning to the operators
of destruction, to the ruins of the clandestine detention centers; then I
will discuss the work done by archivists who manage the entrails of the
monster—to clean them—who administer the remains of the bureaucratic
records kept by the clandestine state when it destroyed part of its citizens;
lastly, I will give four facts that describe the efforts of psychologists who
have attempted to heal the wounds left by trauma.
They all work toward the same goal: to recover meaning. They are
­activists of meaning.

The Horror Vacui and the Policies of Memory

Natura horret vacuum

In the Western world, being as we are heirs of the horror vacui, we have
never gotten along with the void. It is something that goes way back, even
before sociology began to explore reality: ever since Aristotle, it seems,
who referred to the void as an “inconsistent concept” (Ribas 1999), or
since Kant, who even claimed, probably accurately, that empty numbers
lacked respectability. An intransigent sensitivity toward the void is what
we have, present also in sociological thinking when it states today that
if social reality is empty of its old meanings, new ones must be found to
replace them (Gatti 2005). In any case, whether you are a philosopher,
a physicist, a mathematician, or a sociologist, the void emerges as the
“impossible reverse of what exists” (Ribas 1999, 6): as it is not filled with
what gives meaning, it cannot be, and if we come before something that
we think is a void, we try to fill it with meaning. We will never allow that
which is in the void to have an entity as such.
Is this also valid for the disappeared and their social worlds? I am ven-
turing that it is (see chapters 5, 6, and 7). However, the dominant narratives
are not saying the same thing. This is not limited to Argentina or Uruguay
or to strategies for managing the figure of the detained-disappeared. On
the contrary, it is quite common when coming out of times of horror. We
might need to anchor the explanation in some limit of the human condi-
tion when faced with pain or absence of meaning, and think that giving
meaning to our existence is the sine qua non that enables that which leads
Activists of Meaning 35

us to live together, and do so discerningly (Feierstein 2012). If nature horret

vacuum, than humans do so all the more. Or maybe not.
I would like, however, to sociologize and historicize the hypothesis
and tie the explanation of the currently very widespread policies of memory
to one of the expressions of what I call here “narratives of meaning.”1
I am thinking of narratives typical of periods of transition, of postwar
and post-dictatorship situations, marked by the mandate of reconstruct-
ing opprobrious pasts. It is a complex mandate, polysemous, and not at all
automatic, as it is not necessarily expressed immediately after the end of
a dictatorial regime.2 But wherever it does manifest itself, it has a recog-
nizable feature: it often confuses memory with truth and objectivity and
these two with justice. And this has consequences. The consequence that
I find disturbing is not political, nor should it be read in terms of justice.
It has to do with the ways of knowing the world of those narratives, that
is, with what we could call its epistemologies. I agree that demanding
truth, justice, and memory, freeing the victims from the place of infamy
to which they were relegated, rescuing the imprisoned, exiled, tortured,
and disappeared from the dustbin of oblivion, all help—how can we think
otherwise?!—those entities recover their dignity and regain the status of
things-with-meaning. And that is a good thing. And it is a good thing for
that act of rescuing to be turned into a journey full of the honors merited
by the things, phenomena, and persons who have earned the right to have
others demand justice for them.
But if I take more than just the citizen perspective and observe from
the analytical perspective of the social scientist, I am troubled by one of
the consequences of these policies: the denaturalization, the changing of
these figures into something else, the transformation of exiles or prisoners
into full citizens or the disappeared into whole subjects, without fractures.
Or without catastrophes. And they are not: to a greater or lesser extent,
catastrophe constitutes them. They are, indeed, inhabitants of the void.
Elizabeth Jelin (2002) talks of the “labors of memory,” and she is right,
because that is exactly what it is about: a work to shape a time with mean-
ing and give meaning to everything that is in that time, even if that which
I am speaking of is at odds with meaning itself, confronting it. It is a
lengthy task, with much erasing and forgetting; much selecting; much
institutionalization of the correct timelines; much abandoning of others,
discarded because they were poorly thought-out; much battling between
narratives over which is the legitimate representation of the past. And
even though it never ends and is always somewhat precarious, it tends to
be monolithic. But it is not synonymous with the construction of truth,
and should not be confused with it, at best it is synonymous with the
production of the plausible and with its institutionalization as a shared
36 Surviving Forced Disappearance

What I say is relevant. Or rather, the questions behind what I say are
relevant, as they can essentially be summarized in a single question: How
do we go about using terms as powerful as “truth” and “justice” in connec-
tion with the figure of the detained-disappeared given how its very unique
nature is at odds with the very idea of representation? The answer that
first comes to mind leads me to say that it can be done with imbalance,
by distorting disappearance and the detained-disappeared through their
incorporation into an account, a series, a chain of facts-with-meaning.
Representing it. Denaturalizing it. It is problematic, very much so, because
if we give meaning to the catastrophe of meaning it stops being such and,
oh, it was precisely that catastrophe that we wanted to think about. It is
a high price to pay, no matter how much moral profit is to be gained by
paying it.
However, while it is true that my theoretical sensitivity makes me
­somewhat wary of these narratives, I cannot stop associating them in my
mind with terms such as “justice” and “emotion.” Ultimately I do not stop
being a modern subject, a link in chains of powerful filiations, heir to
a legacy of convictions that, analytical doubts notwithstanding, prevent
me from imagining anything other than that these forms of conjuring the
catastrophe are not only ethical but also necessary. And touching.

Giving Meaning to the Ruins

The clandestine detention center is the operator of the destruction, the

place where it all happened. But all that is left of most of the places that
were devoted, generally for a short time, to the task of extermination is
either ruins or just a vague memory of what they contained. What can be
done now with these places that have become ruins or voids after so many
years of being abandoned?
Ruins are interesting places. In the short history of the social sciences
it is one of the first forms of catastrophe of meaning that caught our atten-
tion. In a 1911 article, Georg Simmel—a pioneer in many things—dared
to reflect on the seductive yet disturbing status of ruins. “The ruin of
a building,” Simmel said, “means that where the [building] is dying,
other forces and forms . . . have grown . . . [and] a new meaning seizes on
this incident” (1959, 259). In the terms of my work I would phrase it as
follows: a thing, an object, attains the status of ruin when it is no longer
associated with the words that gave it its old meanings and when it forms
alliances with other words, which give it a new meaning, a meaning that
has to do, precisely, with this separation between words and things. In
Activists of Meaning 37

other words, ruins have a meaning: their lack of meaning. This ambigu-
ity gives ruins their uniqueness, their condition as both places of life
and places without the life they once had: “Such places, sinking from
life, still strike us as settings of a life” (ibid., 260). Situated between the
formed and the unformed, located in a place halfway between what is
and what is not (“between the ‘not-yet’ and the ‘no-longer’” [ibid., 260]),
ruins have a unique materiality, neither totally in nor totally out of the
circle that gathers the things that are, near the place of waste—that is, of
what is radically no longer—but maintaining, nonetheless, the trace of
what they were.
We can adopt several strategies to deal with ruins. One is to leave
them in the state in which we find them and work with them from there.
Approach them as a place from which life seems to have withdrawn but
which life has reclaimed, lending it an odd meaning: new but not entirely
so. This strategy, which does not force that place to give up its condition
of ruin, will be discussed in chapter  5. Another strategy is to fill them
with representation, to take that space out of its ruinous condition, that
is, to give meaning back to it, recover it. Here the aim is to reestablish
the bond between those things, now ruins, and meaning, facilitate their
reconciliation following a period of bad relations. This is what archeolo-
gists do and although they do not deny that those spaces are in a state of
ruin, what they try to do is overcome that state, be it by reconstructing the
spaces or by showing the moment in which they gave materiality to some-
thing with a specific meaning: they represent, they make scale models,
they draw up maps and figures. . . . “Things regain their meaning” (I13), a
young Argentine archeologist said to me as she worked to retrieve an object
from the rubble of a clandestine detention center.
Archeologists can thus be called activists of meaning, as their activ-
ity is guided by the following axiom: if forced disappearance of persons
destroyed identity, then archeologists rebuild it, they provide identity; if
forced disappearance of persons occurred in that space—the clandestine
center—then they reconstruct it and they reconstruct what happened in
it (“We have to work on the identity [of the clandestine center]” [I13]).
They go into the hole where the catastrophe occurred, where bodies were
separated from names, where the disappeared became such. And they
fill it:
We’re going to try to make a small scale model. Some people need to see it
like that, and we’re going to reconstruct it, so that they at least have a scale
model for reference. (I13)
The way we see it, in the state of ruin this is in, [if we were to leave it as
it is] we would be left without a part of the explanation. We’re recovering
it so we can say “it existed here.” . . . (I13)
38 Surviving Forced Disappearance

Placing the clandestine detention center in history, giving meaning to

the operator of devastation, that is the objective. Stripping that ominous
space of its ominousness: it is not hell, it is not something beyond every-
thing. It is an explainable place. But the price of this work to provide
meaning may be high, very high: an overexposure to meaning avoids the
question of what else the clandestine detention center was, a place where
representation itself failed, a place that did not fit into any series. Turned
into heritage, into a place with identity, this space becomes part of a series,
a piece in a continuum. It becomes part of a history and it is no longer
singularity—brutal, immense singularity. Its unfathomable singularity is

The space is not just one space . . . It also has to do with understanding why
this place became a detention center . . . There’s a whole historical recon-
struction there, one that includes all previous periods, that also depicts a
certain country, which led to that place being taken by the Air Force and
turned into a detention center . . . So, when the project considers the history
of this place, it does so from the 1800s to 2005, a period throughout which
the place had different uses, focusing on its use as a detention center almost
as a pivotal one, because we wouldn’t be here today if this hadn’t been a
detention center. (I13)

Figure  2.1  Deposit in “Casa Grimaldi,” Santiago de Chile. A sign with the
photograph of a detained-disappeared woman can be seen among other objects
awaiting the moment it will be displayed. Photograph by the author. December
Activists of Meaning 39

Continuity prevails over disruption. What is more, if there was any trace of
the latter, its insertion in the former annuls it. It is the strategy to give the
place back its meaning, to make it an anthropological place (Augé 1995),
a space that is presumed to be full of identity, which is suspected to be
bursting with history, a space that we know allows social relations to be
deployed within it. It is irrelevant if those three things—identity, history,
social relations—are flooded with perversity; the important thing is to
bring them out of obscurity, illuminate them, situate them in a linear,
continuous, causal timeline . . . 

We can’t isolate this clandestine detention center without taking into

account its connection with the other clandestine detention centers . . . in
the area. Neither should we . . . place it out of time and work with it that way,
because we will fail to understand these continuities. So [this project] works
on what this clandestine detention center is, observing the causes, why it
came to be specifically a detention center, but also discovering why we got
to what the deployment of State terrorism meant, and in that same analysis
we observe its continuities in the present. (I13)

. . . and give meaning back to them; that is, restore the relationship that this
thing—the clandestine center and its universe—had with its correspond-
ing words:

The clandestine center obviously means something to us. The thing is that
we think that in order to have a historical reconstruction we have to link
a historical process that involved different events, and one event perhaps
leads to the explanation of the next one. . . . We have to understand the
before and the after. (I13)

It would be reasonable to think of the works that focus on turning these

spaces into a memorial, a reminder, part of a “map of pain,” or a landmark
in an expository tour of Buenos Aires’ clandestine centers, as only a part of
the representations of the recent past, as not imposing the truth but merely
proposing one interpretation among many. They are, an archeologist says,
“excuses to start thinking . . . I’m not going to reveal ‘the truth’” (I13). But
it would not be unreasonable either to think that these proposals shape, or,
why not say it, abuse those places and overload them with meaning, that
is, denaturalize them, transforming them into part of a collective identity
and memory, one identity and one memory (“Our general objective today
would be to recover a space for the reconstruction of memories, of an iden-
tity” [I13]).
On September 17, 2005, I went to visit the archeological works at
Mansión Seré, in what is left of the clandestine center that operated
40 Surviving Forced Disappearance

in that place, in the outskirts of Buenos Aires. In my field notebook I


Field Notebook: 9/17/2005, Buenos Aires. Mansión Seré: Signified ruins

In a park in the district of Morón (western Buenos Aires province),
young archeologists and anthropologists are excavating the founda-
tions of Mansión Seré, a center of devastation. To protect the excava-
tion site, a fenced perimeter has been put up around the ruins of what
was once the camp, a perimeter that cuts through what is currently
a soccer field. Some kids are playing, a few adults are kicking a ball
around . . . the ball rolls into the area of the former clandestine center.
As we’re talking about the horror, the ball rolls by in front of us. It’s not
very disturbing.
I ask them about the ruins. They tell me: “They don’t mean anything
in themselves; they mean something in the context they reconstruct.” But,
isn’t the building’s status as ruins precisely the feature—isn’t that the con-
text of the clandestine center, the void they point to—isn’t that what best
exemplifies the devastation it caused? Is there a better testimony than that
absence of meaning to give evidence that what collapsed here was the pos-
sibility of representing?
I leave the place with the feeling of having been before an excess of
representation. I have the impression—and this poses problems for me—
that the detained-disappeared and the clandestine center are excuses to
irritate the neighborhood and force it into reflecting and thinking about
itself. That more than representing the past, it’s about activating the pres-
ent. The idea is not all that bad, not bad at all, in fact. But it’s a different

These activists of meaning work from their professional expertise against

the devastating effects caused by forced disappearance of persons: if
forced disappearance destroyed, they build. If it broke into pieces, they
reassemble. If it separated things from meanings, they give new meaning,
they re-signify, even at the risk of excess (“The purpose [of our work] is
to always try to unite [object and meaning] and add even more meaning”
[I13]). With their work, they tell me, things “come back here with some
meaning” (I13). Archeologists, in sum, patch up materials that have been
torn and incorporate them into an account: they give materiality to a
memory; they turn the clandestine detention center into heritage, no
less; that is, they make it part of a series when perhaps, and only perhaps,
the place it occupies is the place of that which disrupts the series. Perhaps
that is where it should be left too, in the place of the ruptures of discon-
tinuity. It is probably more uncomfortable and uglier. Perhaps also more
just and accurate.
Activists of Meaning 41

Cleaning the Bowels of the Monster

Public archive employees are a key character of modern logic, one of the
vessels of its order. Although they may earn a living with materials of a dif-
ferent texture, what they do is not all that different from what the activists
of order of Zygmunt Bauman’s garden (1987) did. Like them—and many
more, actually like almost all of us who engage in modern work—they clas-
sify, order, arrange hierarchically, clean, select . . . even manage comfortably
the portion of reality they are in charge of.
While clandestine repression lasted, the state used a different registry
to record its actions, but bureaucracy was not suspended. At that time,
the network of clandestine centers that supported the mechanics of forced
disappearance operated with the old logic of the state apparatus: it issued
documents, produced files, gave rise to notations, demanded the organi-
zation of files, recorded populations, classified individuals, entered inputs
and outputs. . . . It noted, wrote, registered, logged. Old verbs. The mate-
rial in those archives is not very different from what goes up on the shelves
of the state in clean times. Even the same kind of data is represented:
persons embodying citizens; individuals as they appear recorded in birth,
death, and property registries; lawsuits; people entering and leaving the
country. . . . That is, the basic material for the well-oiled workings of a
government of populations.
But if during clean times this material takes on the texture of things
that can be given public visibility, during times of disruption of order the
substance of this material is quite different: it is the substance of the invis-
ible, of the hidden, of the unclassifiable. . . . It is a dirty material, that of the
garden state when it concentrates on weeding out the bad. It operates in
the same way, but it leaves strange traces, incomplete traces: small, barely
visible incisions made in the regular materials of the state, some signs that
point to torn or inexistent files, clues, not much more than that, notes
jotted down indicating somebody’s either temporary or definite departure
from the dungeons of the disappearing machinery and their entry into the
more visible or known parts of the state apparatus.
They are traces of a clandestine state: “We assume there must have
been . . . , because sometimes we’re able to find a document or two that
guide our way in those clandestine structures, but . . . ” (I18). The state
continued operating but it did so covertly and that is why what remains
of that work gives off that peculiar stench: notes made by a morgue
worker who buries and certifies to the existence of an NN corpse; confus-
ing accounts of nurses who assisted a young pregnant woman with gun
42 Surviving Forced Disappearance

wounds and filled out a medical report for the records of a Buenos Aires
public ­hospital; routine work by coroners and service police on duty dur-
ing some night in 1973 or 1974 or 1975 or 1976 or 1977 or 1978, who out
of habit photographed a body found on a street and attached the report to
a file; letters from my father to my grandmother that an officer filed away
with more serious documents in a box with his things; annotations on the
margins of some sinister file, or the opposite, comments written in a hor-
rified handwriting on the margins of an insignificant file; notes by acting
judges who reviewed a file and wrote that that body belonged to “no one,”
that it was an NN, and that the final disposition of that nonidentity was
to be a common grave in a public cemetery; trivial work by state archi-
vists who saved a copy of the fingerprints of a nameless body; automatic
gestures of some officer in Montevideo who opened, wittingly or unwit-
tingly, the Condor mail,3 picked up Adriana’s identity card or my father’s
letters to my grandmother and left those pieces of indirect evidence of the
passage of these subjects through the bowels of the monster, depositing
them in the dungeons of the state. Traces of a void.
That is what archivists work with today, with the material that the
machine produced in Mode B, the clandestine mode, which is the same as
the normal one but dark, which is of the same order but at the same time
it is not:

Sure, sometimes we’re lucky . . . in very few cases, we find files that have
been left behind. . . . For example, there’s a case of a young man who was
detained and when he was brought in someone with a more bureaucratic
task than others did what he always did with any ordinary arrest and put
things down in writing. So there’s a list of all the things they took when
they abducted the young man, everything they stole from his house. . . . The
officer listed all the items. . . . Then this officer at one point wrote a memo
asking what he should do about the man’s things and if he’s been released
and when. He puts together a whole file, with notes that came and went,
things jotted on several little pieces of paper. Until someone tells him, “No,
he’s been transferred to Coordination,” until someone writes, by hand:
“Stop being so fucking stupid! Don’t you know this is all illegal.”
[GG] That’s incredible! Under what category did he file that?
Under “Illegal,” SC Desk, or Subversive Criminal Desk, where there’s a
whole file that this man had opened with the arrest . . . the so-called arrest,
which was actually an abduction. (I18)

In early August 2005, I went to the former headquarters of the Buenos

Aires Province Police Intelligence (Dirección de Inteligencia de la Policía
de la Provincia de Buenos Aires, or DIPBA), the operation center of what
was known as “Camps Circuit,”4 currently the Provincial Commission for
Activists of Meaning 43

Memory, in La Plata, not far from the city of Buenos Aires. I was looking
for something neutral. I wanted to find out how those who labored with
the bureaucratic scraps of the 1976–1983 period worked, what criteria they
used. I was not expecting anything more than that. However, it was not
easy for me to go into the DIPBA: although work is being done to make
the place more agreeable (“Where horror once lived, life will prevail,” reads
a sign over the entrance), the building still looks too much like a police
station. After staring at the building for a long time from a café across the
street, I summoned up the courage and the person I was with encouraged
me to go into the dungeon. Although the space has been fixed up and
conditioned for the public, it retains something very disturbing, as I had
feared. I ask about the Archive. At the end of a hall, the person then in
charge greets me. She herself had been a detained-disappeared person in La
Plata, and had become a member of the Association of Formerly Detained-
Disappeared (Asociación de Ex Detenidos-Desaparecidos, or AEDD). She
is accompanied in her work by members of the association H.I.J.O.S. (a
Spanish acronym for Sons and Daughters in Favor of Justice and Identity
and Against Forgetting and Silence, which also spells out “children”).
The situation becomes more dense.
While I wait for her to be free so we can schedule an in-depth interview,
I look at her computer screen and see what she is working on at that precise
moment. I see a file containing the information of an individual that is
available at that site. It is not just any person: “León Duarte. Automotores
Orletti. Habeas Corpus Petitions. . . . ”5
I feel dizzy.
It is merely a coincidence, two lines of causalities that intersected,
nothing more than two trajectories that crossed paths in one precise
second—my path, as I was investigating representations of forced disap-
pearance of persons, and the path of some judicial investigation that was
requesting information on Uruguayans who disappeared in Automotores
Orletti, including my father—but I cannot help but think that there is
something that looks a lot like fate in all this, and that fate, in my case,
often plays with things that have an ineffable shape. This feeling, or
rather certainty, becomes a conviction with which I start working ana-
lytically: on the other side of the door that is behind N. E.’s back, the
door that leads into the archive, lie hidden the bowels of the monster,
and those bowels are, to say the least, difficult to represent. I wrote this
about that door in an entry in the field notebook on October 5, 2005:

Field Notebook: 10/05/2005, La Plata. Behind a Gray Door Lay the Truth
That door is Dante’s door, behind which the dungeons of the clandes-
tine state are hidden. I leave there shaken, with the sensation . . . I don’t
44 Surviving Forced Disappearance

know . . . that bureaucracy stops there, and that beyond it lies the concen-
tration camp. It hides the remains of hell. It’s funny but it’s the same ­feeling
I’ve had when I’ve gone to the headquarters of the Argentine Forensic
Anthropology Team, with that door that hides small boxes of uniden-
tified bones. In its November 25, 1998 issue, the newspaper Página/12
announced the opening of the DIPBA Archive in an article meaningfully
entitled “Behind a Gray Door Lay the Truth.” There I read: “There are
thousands and thousands of index cards, rolls of microfilm, folders and
boxes of documents, the history of repression from the 1970s to 1997.”
Papers of the state operating in Mode B.

Indeed, the archive behind that door is one of those things that merit
adjectives falling under the category of the horrifying. And it is a problem,
because the work of the archivists consists in knowing what is hidden
within that monster, but in order to do that, should they arrange the
material according to archival science criteria, or try to maintain it in
their current dirty, frightful state? Clean it? Show its logic? Is it not also
true that by studying this logic, however illogical it may seem, we will
gain insight into the nature of the monster? Ludmila da Silva illustrates
these questions quite eloquently:
We must look at the archives of repression as constructions and instruments
of classification of the world of the security agents who produced them.
We need to look at them as spaces from which we can construct knowledge
by taking into account how they were organized, their ­classificatory logic,
where they were physically located, and not just the documents them-
selves. (2007, 207)

So I insist: How should we manage the archive? With the sensitivity of

someone who knows what this archive represents, or with the cold detach-
ment of the technician who seeks to construct an accurate representation?
I am curious to know how those who have to toil with what remains of the
dirty work of the state go about it. Do they hygienize them? Do they turn
them into material of a state, the state for which the archivists work, a state
that now operates in order? Or do they manage it in a way that matches
its unique substance, respecting its logic, the logic of the state operating
in Mode B? In sum, do they clean the bowels of the monster or do they
display them as they are, dirty? These are questions that the professionals
themselves pose in some of their work documents:

One of the most important investigation activities underway is the estab-

lishment of technical guidelines and analytical criteria for mapping and
declassifying the Archive, according to methodologies designed for treat-
ing sensitive archives. . . . This work allows us to begin unraveling the
classification logic and the meanings that the information in the archive
Activists of Meaning 45

had at different moments in time, the nature of the body of information,

its timeframe, how the information circulated, how it was searched and

Because there is in these archives a peculiar logic, the logic typical of the
period they classified. For some time, until 1976, this logic was the logic of
a bureaucracy that does what it has always done, although discreetly, as the
material it handles is sensitive. It classifies, orders, records, stores, writes
down, refers, remits, synthesizes. . . . The gardener catalogues his plants—
the citizen-individuals—and keeps a record of his potential enemies, neatly
arranged according to origin and type of evil embodied . . . 

In the archive [of the DIPBA] there is an index card for each person, the
personal index card. This personal index card refers me to files, the files
are divided into different desks and factors. I can have a desk, say, that’s
the SC or Subversive Criminal Desk. . . . The factors are . . . how they clas-
sified society: students, political parties, religions, entities of the public,
trade unions. . . . For example, Desk A corresponds to the Student Factor and
Political Parties Factor; Desk B is Trade Unions and the Economic Factor . . . ;
and Desk D is social and religious entities; but Desks D and C break the fac-
tor logic because they correspond to Subversive Criminal. (I17)

. . . although this was always done with the knowledge that such repre-
sentation of the other was done in the name of the state, owner of the
­classifications, legitimized to apply them:

[This archive] was designed from a position of legality. While this archive
may have been illegitimate because it was based on political and ideological
persecution, the fact remains that it was legal, it had a statute, it fell within
the organizational structure of the police, which is at the same time an
apparatus of the provincial state. (I17)

But then . . . catastrophe strikes and the state starts straddling two

­ arallel worlds: the world of Mode A—the normal one—and the world
of Mode B. It compartmentalizes itself: clean bureaucracy on one side,
clandestine bureaucracy on the other. I am interested in the latter.
It is shaped like a hole, a black hole, like voids: chains of data that
are ­broken, series of references that until a certain date could be fol-
lowed, easily vanish. Like the subjects sucked up by the apparatus that
­produced and broke these series, who also vanish:

It’s happened to us with some of the disappeared, that their relatives

came looking for papers and found that their persecution came right up
to the day before the disappearance. There’s like a thoroughness that [is
­interrupted there]. (I17)
46 Surviving Forced Disappearance

Crossed data sequences, neat annotations that connect the catastrophe to

the familiar logic of the old garden state, which suddenly become undone
when that same state throws its classic operation into disarray. It is the
same state, but it operates like a clandestine state, and the documents it
produces record those operations, which is why what remains from that
shift is dirty, or what remains is absence, the void. A former detained-
disappeared woman, now working in the DIPBA archive, gives me her
–[GG] In your case, what record of you did you find here?
–In my case there’s an index card that refers you to certain files or to an
alphabetized folder. My case is one of those cases that when you look for
the file or the alphabetized folder you find that there is none; there’s only
that one index card.
–[GG] So, there’s nothing that refers you to something. . . . 
–Right. There’s the index card you saw, like the one you saw for León,
there’s that index card with some annotations, but when you go searching
for the files, they’re not there. That means that there was something, but
that something is now gone. (I18)

In these chapters on the efforts to give meaning to what appears not to

have any meaning, the efforts to annul the catastrophe, I am interested in
the work of those who approach the archives with the aim of representing
that which representation has left. That is, the work of those who seek
the Archive, with a capital A, the one that gathers the truth. They know
there is no such thing, but that does not stop them from attempting to
reconstruct it from what is left. It seems difficult. As difficult as giving
visibility—and representing is precisely that—to the dark workings of that
clandestine state (“I’d say [that our work is an attempt to] reconstruct that
and to make it visible” (I16); “It’s very moving when . . . a report comes in
and you start reconstructing and suddenly you know what happened; you
think, ‘Great!’” [I16]). Action is taken from the state against what the state
did; order is restored to its dark side. Archivists, when they perform their
trade from within the very state, seek to make visible the wheels that the
state set in motion to implement a system of forced disappearance of per-
sons, endeavoring to turn it—and its product, the detained-disappeared—
into recordable objects, capable of being archived . . . and making that
effort from the new state.
Field Notebook: 10/03/05, Buenos Aires. CONADEP,7 the Bureaucratic
Record of the Disappeared, I
The CONADEP workers talk of the (repressive) state from their position
in the (legal) state. They are conscious of this, but they say that there is
Activists of Meaning 47

no common logic between disappearance and the current record of the

detained-disappeared. There must be something there, however, because
a former detained-disappeared woman—they themselves tell me—senses a
common feature between the two moments of the institutions of the state:
when they give her the number she is registered under in CONADEP it
scares her because it reminds her of her number in the detention center.
They know that poses problems; so they try to humanize the files, referring
to them by the name of the case, instead of a number, They try to avoid
things like what happened with a piece in Página/12, where Gustavo Enrique
Grassi, one of the disappeared, was identified as “CONADEP Number
2353”. . . . They found a powerful and paradoxical solution: they certify that
a person was detained and disappeared, they produce the inscription that
indicates that that person is neither alive nor dead, nor merely absent, but
detained-disappeared; they produce documents from the state so that the
state will recognize the peculiar citizenship status of one of its products.
On the one hand, respect for the dirty monstrosity that the state created
(“That’s what it created, disappeared. Not dead. Disappeared”). On the
other, the effort to regularize it.

Problem: abusing that material through excessive representation. . . . Same

problem: working from the state to build an object that can be cata-
logued (the detained-disappeared) and is capable of generating specific
public policies (“human rights policies”), proper bureaucracies (human
rights secretariats, memory museums . . . ), adequate budgetary alloca-
tions (reparations . . . ). Because public archive workers are essential cogs
in the modern machine: they give shape to the assets of the state and,
through the inscriptions they structure, they set the world down in writ-
ing, they enter and back the categories from which policies are organized.
Their diagrams and lists, their classifications and organizational charts
make it possible to convey a representation of the world: alive, dead,
disappeared; disappeared with remains or without remains; disappeared
arranged by clandestine center. And so on. A new order. Complicated
but with meaning.
They are not innocent. Which does not mean they are guilty, it means
that their work produces effects, as does the work of every one of us who
is a vehicle for the philosophy of representation (Ceruti 1994): we help
create the reality we talk about, believing that we are talking about a real-
ity that “was already there.” Bruno Latour has written about this in terms
of practices that harden facts (1985, 10): they turn soft, diffuse realities
with indefinite, sometimes even indefinable, limits . . . into proven facts,
hard objects, transportable and comparable matter, singular objects. An
excellent image if we transfer it to our field, thinking of what is done
by cataloguing the detained-disappeared and “their world” in archives
48 Surviving Forced Disappearance

(judicial causes, army corps, centers, reports . . . ): for these operations of

classification, the disappeared are rationalized, situated, examined, cata-
logued, and compared.
If I transfer Latour’s idea without much thought to my field, it is
because I find that in this field there is also a huge distance from the
starting point—the weakness of the detained-disappeared, a soft, flex-
ible, evanescent, uncomfortable matter—and the finishing point—the
detained-­disappeared as an object, something hard, firm, solid, with a
name, territory, and history. Comparable and classifiable.8 And in between?
In between is the work of professionals, which leads to that transformation
of the status of the disappeared from its original evanescent situation to the
final firm object. This work goes through five successive filters: mobilizing
or defining (reducing reality to a few elements, building a definition); fixing
the forms (taking the object defined in the filter out of its context, isolating
it as an independent form); flattening (reducing the varieties of the object
to a few features, so that they fit on a sheet of paper); recombining (being
able to compare the defined, fixed, and flattened object with other, similar
objects already defined, fixed, and flattened); and inscribing (translating
that defined, fixed, flattened, and recombined entity into signs, files, doc-
uments, pieces of paper, traces . . . that materialize that entity as an object).
After these five steps, the object enters the homogenous and ordered realm
of geometry (Latour 1985, 22), and we can definitely say what the detained-
disappeared are and distinguish them from what they are not.

Field Notebook: 10/03/05, Buenos Aires. CONADEP, the Bureaucratic Record

of the Disappeared, II
Groups of young employees are talking passionately about something.
Others are going through files. Some interview relatives. They work in
­different categories: repression agents, survivors. While I wait for the women
from the CONADEP investigation team to see me, one of them talks to a
relative. . . . A while later somebody tells her: “There’s Gatti’s boy.”
When we finish the interview, we go down to the archive; it’s in the vault
of what was formerly a bank. It’s being painted by soldiers from the state
penitentiary division, the police body that serves the Ministry of Justice,
under whose jurisdiction the Human Rights Secretariat falls. Ugh! A lot
of documents, old files, sick papers that need to be cured. They’re sorted
according to their original archive (the CONADEP Archive, the Human
Rights Secretariat Archive) and there are separate files for the others (Jews,
Uruguayans, Paraguayans . . . ). Objective: to achieve a good administrative
Residues of the state. Papers without identities, names without bodies,
disappeared persons locked in that vault. They’re trying to put that dirty
material in order. Inside it are my father and Adriana. I ask to leave.
Activists of Meaning 49

An intense exercise of re-signification of the detained-disappeared: if

it was something that was covered up, that was not tabulated, that was
not logged . . . it is now revealed, tabulated, classified. The very criteria
of a clean and transparent state organize this task. The DIPBA Archive
is cleaned up; CONADEP’s is reorganized; in Uruguay, a professional
survey of available human rights-related documentary sources begins
(Markarian 2007; Rico 2009). The professionals act and they know what
to do:

–[GG] And according to what logic do they order that material?

Chronologically? By detention center? Political groups?
–[The archive of the National Commission on the Disappearance of
Persons, CONADEP] is organized according to sources, CONADEP,
Human Rights Secretariat—which is the continuation of CONADEP—,
there’s another category that is Habeas Corpus, there is International
Reports, another is National Reports filed with Non-Governmental
Organizations, Photographic Archive . . . According to sources of
­i nformation. (I16)

The state applies itself to its younger brother—the citizen-individual—but

in a different direction that it did in the dark periods:

–I feel that the state has to have a fully reparatory attitude, and my work
with respect to that is that. . . . 
–[GG] You work as the state.
–I work from a place where I think that, as the state, I have to repair,
so that the place where I stand, how I treat the relative . . . is a place of
­reparation.” (I16)

Repairing the Traumatized Psyche

That this pain is a pleasure (Influenza, Todd Rundgren)

These first narratives, those supported by a strategy that seeks to repair,

exorcize, annul if it can, the catastrophe, its effects, finds in grandmothers,
mothers, sons and daughters, siblings, in sum, in the relatives, one of its
direct targets. In all of them—in all of us—there is a common denomina-
tor: they—we—are individuals capable of being affected by a demolishing
earthquake. Thus, they—we—make up a unique universe, the universe of
the victims, subjects afflicted by the effect of a word that is as key as it is
repeated in this history: trauma. But, even though it is inevitable, there are
50 Surviving Forced Disappearance

different ways of telling and experiencing it. Some narratives involve tak-
ing pleasure in the symptom: elaborating it and—why not—even enjoy-
ing it (see chapter 7). It is only for these narratives that the Influenza line
featured above in the epigraph makes any sense. Others involve creating
accounts that are built on images of compensation, balance, annulment. It
is these I want to discuss here.
Given this text’s disciplinary approach, it will be obvious that what
interests me here is not trauma as a psychological ailment, but trauma
as one of the recurring themes in the field of the detained-disappeared, a
common topic of discussion, work, and reflection, which generates imagi-
naries. Thus, if I look at this term and what surrounds it, it is not to reflect
on a psychological fact whose truth I do not doubt—but which, I insist,
I do not speak of because I know nothing of it9 —but of the sociological
fact of trauma. Namely, on the one hand, the construction of the shared
conviction that a trauma exists and that it defines a population, that of the
victims, the afflicted. The one I belong to. And on the other, the subse-
quent construction of an expertise, that which trauma delimits, that of the
professionals of the psyche. And there are many.
The work of these professionals is key in the managing of forced
­d isappearance of persons. The issue actually dates farther back, to when
the idea of the reflective, modern, self-aware, modest individual—that
idea so in line with the analysis of Norbert Elias and Michel Foucault—
took shape in the almost archetypical, if not clichéd, subject of this part
of the world,10 a subject, if you will allow me the pun, who is couch
fodder. This subject—the citizen-individual—was (in the case of today’s
detained-disappeared) the object of the catastrophe; this subject (in the
case of today’s relatives of the detained-disappeared) is also the target
of the policies of balance deployed by the professionals of the psyche.
It was for this subject that, in fact, part of the specific jargon of the field
of the detained-disappeared was constructed: the reference to “trauma,”
the unanimous consideration that what is at stake is the “unprocessed
mourning,” the allusion to the “family narrative,” the “blank” as a way
of referring to the language of absence. . . . It is for that subject that the
solution is created, the bond formed by blood ties—a very sturdy material,
incidentally, with which to build supports—one of the backbones of the
explanations both of the intensity and type of pain that disappearance
causes and of the forms of resistance it generates.
Interesting coincidence: the target of the policy of devastation, the
object of the catastrophe, its preferred object, is the object preferred by
analytical work, the ego of a modern, rational, self-aware individual.
The couch fodder of the civilized citizen-individual was the recipient of
aggression, and is now also the recipient of care. And of those things—the
Activists of Meaning 51

problem, trauma; of their solution, the family bond—the work on the

psyche is a major protagonist.
As for the problem, they are . . . we are . . . the individuals trapped in the
trauma, the objects of attention of the work of the psyche: mothers con-
fined to perpetual mourning; former detained-disappeared devastated
by guilt, demolished by the fracturing of their ego; children cloistered
in the impossibility of finding an identity; siblings gripped by a feeling
of blame. Subjects who are devastated, trapped in their respective holes,
who “are stuck to that” (I7), seized by “a name that has to do with that
fact in their lives . . . , as if that fact of their lives were all that constitutes
their personality, their identity, their history, their existence, their being,
above all the substance of their being” (I5): “That’s all they talked about,
they referred everything back to that place” (I5). The destruction was
enormous, overwhelming. The diagnosis corroborates it, and the texture
of the nouns and the adjectives that sustain it can only produce desola-
tion: “Traumatic crashes” (I8); “Psychosis-inducing ambiguity” (Kordon
et al. 1999); “Traumatic and traumatizing encysting” (ibid.); “Traumatic
­reminiscences” (I7). Whew!
Perhaps in the sequence of arguments that underlie the small frag-
ments of the above interview is the key to what sparks my interest in this
way of constructing the discourse of which these professionals are spokes-
persons, which when applied to the realm of forced disappearance coin-
cides in essence with that of the prevailing narratives about this ­f igure,
the narratives that work toward restoring the balances that catastrophe
devastated: if what was dismantled was identity, what needs to be done is
to recover it. Or in other words, if what needs a response is trauma—a
wound and a hole—in order for it to be effective that response necessar-
ily involves ­re-stitching the wound and filling up that hole in which the
subject who is subjected to it is settled. That is, it involves giving meaning
to the void.11 Allow me to reduce this discourse to a simple expression,
an expression that takes the form of an algorithm, the algorithm of the
balance of the psyche in the face of the thrust of a catastrophe. It translates
into a diagram that looks like this:


52 Surviving Forced Disappearance

Old sequence, which begins with identity and its metaphors (­coherence,
balance, order, integrity . . . ) and ends with the aspiration of recovering
them. In between, after the catastrophe, is the work that seeks to find a
new balance and supports it with actions whose aim is clear: “integrating,”
“constructing,” “processing,” “filling,” “elaborating”. . . . Because the void
does not constitute, it cannot: it is the opposite of constitution. Better
still, in capital letters: it is the opposite of the Constitution of Order. It
defines situations in which it is not possible to be trapped. There is no
other choice, then, but to break the circuit of trauma:
The grief derived from traumatic situations, when not resolved by a gen-
eration, is left pending to be elaborated by future generations. (Kordon
et al. 1999)
Something is left buried in the descendents, who carry the burden of that
sort of . . . of void . . . You know? It’s a living dead. That figure in psychoanal-
ysis is very strong, an unfinished mourning is a living dead, a living dead in
the sense that you can’t bury it, you can’t be done with it. (I7)

It is trauma, and balance is required to deal with it (“There is a need to

reconstruct from that void that has been left in their lives. . . . In these
cases the construction of the image is done over a void” [Kordon and
Edelman 2005]). The logic of trauma haunts the devastated individual;
its terms—the hole, the blank, the erasure . . . —announce a future of
danger, of years of grief and denial, with presences/absences that are dif-
ficult to manage, with disappeared begetters who reappear as ghosts or
fantasies. Threats. Voids, which need to be filled. Paradoxes, which need
to be unraveled. If not, the situation becomes unresolvable. It will not
do, no, it is not even possible, no, to think of gaps that are not bridged
or absences that are not filled, even if it is with patches or replacements
of the originals.
If trauma is the problem, the family bond, the filiation, is the solu-
tion. The first is gap, the second, fullness; the first fractures, the sec-
ond guarantees balance. The professional of the psyche interprets: if the
conventional institutions for managing death (bereavement, mourning,
rituals, tombs) are missing here, effort must be made to build functional
equivalents, that is, institutions that carry out the same tasks. The solu-
tion is not far: it is hidden in one of the planes of identity that forced
disappearance of persons destroys, that of the inscription in time of the
broken subject, sustained by lineage, by the strength of successions, by
the guarantee of family. And it works. And how (see chapter 4). Seldom
before has political action turned for references to the denominations
of the modern family as at this time. Just consider the names cho-
sen by these organizations: Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers
Activists of Meaning 53

of Plaza de Mayo), Madres de Plazo de Mayo (Mothers of Plaza de

Mayo), Madres y Familiares de Detenidos-Desaparecidos (Mothers and
Relatives of Detained-Disappeared Persons), H.I.J.O.S (sons and daugh-
ters), Hermanos (Siblings). . . . These groups provide words for the things
that were separated from their meaning. They represent the catastrophe
and exorcize the horror of the void, so much a part of us. They con-
tribute to guide the devastated psyche in a reassuring direction, good
because it is an old, familiar direction, effective because it repairs what
is broken: toward the natural state of things, that necessarily involves the
­family, that cannot elude filiation. First consequence: those unique enti-
ties are naturalized with sufficient backing, it seems, to combat the pain
with assurances; second consequence: there is no place for bastardy as a
form of identity, which is not conceivable if not as part of a continuity
in time, for which family, lineage, and—why not say it—blood and its
powerful rhetoric provide a vehicle. A psychotherapist gives a categorical
diagnosis: “Humanity is a succession of parents and children and filia-
tion is the linkage of the human chain. . . . The subject cannot conceive
of itself either as self-spawned or as identical to another.” (Lo Giúdice
2005, 35–36).
Thus, in the rhetoric that structures the psyche work when it is
deployed in the field of the detained-disappeared, what is broken is
put together by restoring the old balances. For example, if among the
mothers of the detained-disappeared what is impossible is processing
the grief, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, in their various groupings, pro-
cess it collectively, as they offer meanings to the lack of meaning, they
fill with explanations the absence for which there is no name. Another
example: if among the children of the disappeared what falters is the
image of their parents, and, consequently, their own identity, it will
be understood that the group of peers (H.I.J.O.S.) operates by offer-
ing the individuals that form it a replacement filling (“[H.I.J.O.S.] has
an identity power that in a sense is necessary to be able to support the
processing of grief ” [I8]; “[H.I.J.O.S. has] created social conditions for
elaboration. . . . It’s a group of peers, as was once the group of mothers
who searched for their sons and daughters. . . . They’re groups that rein-
force identity through belonging. They work as an identity-bestowing
primary group, as a reference group that produces social representations
capable of functioning as an identifying support for all” [Kordon and
Edelman, 2005]).
In “El duelo: Lo inconsciente, lo colectivo” (Grief: The Unconscious,
The Collective), Darío Olmo, a forensic anthropologist and at the time
member of the EAAF, and Fabiana Rousseaux, a psychoanalyst and cur-
rent director of the Help Center for State Terrorism Victims (Argentina),
54 Surviving Forced Disappearance

reproduce the following passage from a text written by the children of

Lidia Massironi, a disappearance victim identified by the EAAF:

Threading together death, bones, and a name in a tomb . . . after having suf-

fered the amputation of rituals and tears, makes the body, already absent,
take flesh in a history as silenced as it is desecrated. . . . Today there are those
who are working on the identification of their bodies, anonymous bodies
found in mass graves, they bring them out of the ground that would have
eventually fused them with nothingness, to return them to culture. Perhaps
by writing their names we may be able to humanize them at the crossroads
of history. (Olmo and Rousseaux 2005)

“Return to culture,” “humanize.” Certainly eloquent and dense. And

revealing of a narrative in which nothingness, silence, absence . . . are places
that need to be exorcized with spells such as culture, family, history. The
void versus the full. The things of impossible habitation against the nar-
rative of meaning, which inscribes even the impossible to signify and
­re-signifies it. Hallelujah:

The impossible to signify is beyond human capacity, one needs to signify

even that which is impossible to signify, and then that void has to be filled
with words. I believe that the horror of torture and disappearance lies in
an extinction of language as a way of living together among men; torture
is the disappearance of that which defines human beings, which is shared
living and experiences through language, and in the horror, that thing that
determines that in order to be alive human beings need to be part of a
community and a species, that thing is interrupted and shaken, it’s like
electroshock. (I6)

*  *  *

Earthquakes, disasters, dictatorships, they all leave marks, pain,

trauma. Broken individuals, disarticulated families, shredded social net-
works. . . . These wounds are the basis from which a rhetoric typical of post-
violence society is built on, the rhetoric of the mark (Piper 2005), which
is very widespread: in Argentina, in Uruguay, in Chile, in Cambodia, in
Iraq, in Colombia, or in post-Francoism Spain; and very simple, too, gov-
erned by an equation structured along three moments: (1) identifying what
causes damage, what breaks down what existed; (2) defining the subject
of that affliction, the victim; and (3) prescribing the actions to repair the
damage. I have discussed some of the reparatory actions in the previous
Activists of Meaning 55

A dense world of life has been built around it, fed by a force difficult
to resist and refute, which is articulated as follows: If what happened tore
something apart, then we stitch it back together; if the catastrophe, whatever
it may be, broke, then we repair. That tune, the tune of moral techniques
(see chapter 3) is played on that scale, the scale of the reparatory good: it
reconstructs what has been torn apart, it re-signifies the meanings that
were drained, it remakes the identities that were destroyed. . . . And the
success it has is enormous, global, it works everywhere and it works with
techniques and experts with similar protocols and features.
There are no other options. Or are there?
Chapter 3

Moral Techniques: Recovering

Disappeared Identities through
Forensic Anthropology

Reclaiming Good: Recovering the Remains,

Rebuilding Identities, Repairing the Damage
Today, in any situation classified as “post-violence,” a similar battery of
categories, professionals, legal devices, and so on are deployed: transi-
tional justice, legal expertise, international bodies, truth and reconcilia-
tion commissions, testimony-gathering methods, public hearing protocols
for victims of human rights abuses, mechanisms for listening, forensic
techniques. . . . That “thick manual” (Lefranc 2009, 562) with aspirations
of universality has led to the formulation of recipes that call for identical
ingredients regardless of where they are applied and however different the
situations they are meant to solve. Forensic anthropology and its methods
are an essential part of such recipes.
Thus, in recent years, a new character has emerged as a fixture in
the landscape of countries undergoing transitional processes. Silently,
­crouching at the edge of a ditch or donning a lab coat, forensic anthro­
pologists have become indispensable in the humanitarian universe, to
which they bring a materiality that is beyond the reach of other profes-
sionals: they give substance to pain, translating ungraspable feelings into
tangible materiality. . . . 
They are also the Trojan Horse through which hard science has accessed
the very soft matter of human rights. More than that: the powerful gears

G. Gatti, Surviving Forced Disappearance in Argentina and Uruguay

© Gabriel Gatti 2014
58 Surviving Forced Disappearance

of humanitarian rationality (procedures, work protocols, devices, instru-

ments . . . ) have set up shop in the social universes of pain. Indeed, while
it would not be accurate to say that the professionalization of the focus on
the pain of others is something of the last few years, I do think we could
safely assert that the naturalization—in the sense of an application that is
not reflected on because it is taken for granted—of the transcendent motives
behind these humanitarian-driven practices and techniques is quite a new
development. Paraphrasing Arendt, Jessica Cassiro has coined the expres-
sion “banality of good” (2006) and I think it is a concept that applies very
much to this case, as does the perhaps more precise idea posited by Isabel
Piper that we are witnessing a generalized “transformation of a political
problem into a technical problem” (2005).
Combining archeological techniques with methods used in bioanthro-
pology, over the last decade forensic anthropology has become a major
(and global) player, taking an active role in situations marked by serious
human rights abuses, and positioning itself in the front lines of the efforts
to ease the suffering of the victims of these abuses. In Argentina, Serbia, El
Salvador, Spain, Uruguay, Guatemala, Bolivia, Somalia . . . forensic anthro-
pology is reclaiming good by rebuilding the identities destroyed by the
practice of forced disappearance, recovering the remains of the disappeared
and restoring them to their relatives. And even though it is not possible to
return to a time before they were disappeared and/or killed, finding and
identifying their bodies at least makes it possible to manage their deaths in
a territory where pain is more bearable. . . . 
One of the most renowned teams within this new legion of profession-
als is the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (Equipo Argentino de
Antropología Forense, or EAAF). Formed in the 1980s, in addition to its
ongoing work in Argentina, the EAAF has carried out investigations in
some 35 countries that, following periods of political violence, decided
to investigate and determine the fate of detained-disappeared individu-
als. In its website, the EAAF defines itself as a scientific nongovernmental
organization with no political affiliations that applies the methods and
techniques of the forensic sciences, including forensic pathology, social
anthropology, archeology, forensic anthropology, genetics, ballistics,
radiology, and computer science, to investigate cases of individuals who
have been disappeared or killed as a result of political violence in different
countries around the world. Its aim is to “recover and identify remains,
return them to [the victims’] families and provide evidence in court pro-
ceedings [in order] to shed light on human rights violations, contributing
to the search for truth, justice, reparation and prevention of violations,”
thus combating impunity and building a strong and independent justice
system. In 2004, on the twentieth anniversary of the EAAF, Clyde Snow,
Moral Techniques 59

a United States forensic anthropology expert who was one of its inspiring
forces, said, “For the first time in the history of investigations into human
rights violations we began using scientific methods to investigate these
crimes” (Ginzberg 2004). The significance of the work performed by these
professionals should not be taken lightly: science and its instruments are
put at the service of good. The EAAF “works to develop and adapt existing
scientific tools and new technologies to the investigation of human rights
I am interested in these two facets of forensic anthropology. As a
technical and scientific discipline, it involves DNA extraction and com-
parison procedures, court-ordered expert analyses, systematic research
in archive records, protocols for the exhumation of human remains,
archaeological reconstruction methods. . . . That is, without a doubt,
not only the most visible and spectacular dimension of forensic anthro-
pology, but also the most irrefutable: it yields results, it is effective, it
produces documents, gathers evidence, enables rituals, furnishes empiri-
cally based arguments. It is tangible, real. But no less important, though
certainly much less visible, is the moral aspect of this practice, what the
work done by these professionals reveals in terms of ethics, the militant
commitment they assume in working to undo evil. They repair, recom-
pose, restore. They remake what has been unmade by evil; in sum, they
reconstruct the good, in the interest of which they work as activists from
their position as scientists.

The Rationality of a Name- and

Identity-Dissolving Machinery
The problem, the key issue, is in the name. That’s where the battle is
waged. (I1)

Psychoanalysts Marcelo Viñar and Maren Ulriksen have worked exten-

sively on the impact that torture has on its victims and on the social fab-
ric in which they are embedded. In a groundbreaking study, they posited
that what torture jeopardizes are the links that connect things with their
meaning, the spaces where words and body meet and combine. It is that
relationship that torture wrecks. “Torture situates itself at the hinge that
articulates the flesh-and-bones body of the individual with the social body
and with the word that seals the tacit and explicit contract between indi-
vidual and socius” (1993, 131). When they are tortured, victims come close
to not being (désêtre) (ibid., 77): they are turned into remains; mere bodies,
60 Surviving Forced Disappearance

stripped of meaning. Broken bodies. A force so enormously devastating,

torture “touches that point of intersection that is the foundation of what
makes us human: the body and the word” (ibid., 128). The intensity of that
split is particularly severe in the case of that “sinister, cruel, unconceivable”
figure (ibid., 9) that is the detained-disappeared person, the severance of
the link between words and things and between body and name taken to
its most extreme form, its breaking point (ibid., 126). After it, nothing
remains of that relationship—a body without a name, a name without a
body (“The key fact [in forced disappearance] is the date and place of the
abduction, when body and identity are separated” [Somigliana and Olmo
2002]), or worse, just a body that suffers (“[The disappeared are to me]
bodies to which things happen. . . . Bodies that fall to the sea, silent bodies
lying on rows of bunk beds. Just bodies” [I27e]).
In theoretical terms we could say that with forced disappearance the
things that constitute modern identity appear torn apart in pieces. This
tearing apart is threefold: it severs the alliance between a body and a name;
it detaches that body and name that are joined together from a continuity
that they are part of; and it removes that body and name bound together
and with history from its insertion in the space of a community sanctioned
by the state.
The first dismembering affects what is read as the ontological unity of
the human being, that which joins one body (and only one body) with one
name (and only one name). A terrible machinery whose workings broke
down the body-and-conscience unity naturalized in the modern subject,
the conditions of possibility of our ontological equilibrium. One of the
members of the EAAF describes this diagnosis more clearly: “What clan-
destine repression did was make two things out of one; identity and body
are one and the same, they have to be the same; at one point it’s like you
go through a place, a spot, where two things that form a single one are
dissociated” (I10).
Once the first dismembering was complete, the machinery then sepa-
rated that name and that body that were joined together in an identity
from their connection to a family narrative. It cut kinship ties: “What hap-
pened . . . led to a rupture in the human kinship system; it massacred bonds
and fractured memory” (Lo Giúdice, 2005, 37). Disappearance produced
a rupture in time, no less, in our connection to the past and to our origins,
that which binds us, through kinship, to the future.
It did not stop there. The machinery also tore apart the relationship
that binds the individual, formed by a body and a conscience embedded in
a history, to the administrative unit that gives the individual meaning as
a citizen, the place from which individuals position themselves in relation
to the community: the state. It stole the identifications without which we
are not whole, without which we fall short of being: “From the moment we
Moral Techniques 61

are born we are assigned a number and an identity, nobody escapes that.
[Without that] you do not belong to the state, you are not, as an individ-
ual, a full subject of law” (I11). Stripped of citizen rights, transformed into
rabble, outcasts, drifters, banished, nameless individuals . . . the detained-
disappeared are nothing, insignificant characters, nonentities:
–It’s like this: if you come across a dead man and you say, “It’s Juan Pérez,”
Juan Pérez means something to you, he’s Pérez . . . [They say]: it’s an NN
It doesn’t exist, an NN means nothing. . . . The NN have always been the
homeless. [Elements] living on the margins of society. They include ­drifters,
beggars, lunatics. Anyone pushed to the fringes of society.
–[GG] The disappeared too. (I11)

Let us look at the sequence again: the machine devoured whole individu-
als, entities conceived as the union of a single—albeit changing—body,
and a changing—but essentially single—conscience. After swallowing
them up, the machine spit out a new category or figure: the detained-
­disappeared, a subject, but now a broken subject, not quite an identity
but a pseudo-­identity. A machine with a simple but powerful action: it
produced a new state of being, no less, a body separated from its name, a
conscience severed from its physical medium, an identity outside of time
and space. It invented the detained-disappeared.

Figure  3.1  Skeletons dissociated from their names at the EAAF

headquarters in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Still taken from the movie Nietos.
Identidad y memoria (Grandchildren. Identity and Memory [Ávila 2004]).
Still reproduced with permission from the author.
62 Surviving Forced Disappearance

The following passage is a transcription of an account given in that

film by an EAAF member:
“What we haven’t been able to do yet in all these cases,” he says
glancing at the boxes, “is establish a connection of meaning that
will make it possible to turn right side up again the relationship
between identity and body that we all have. What state terrorism
does, among other things, in these cases is it causes a dissociation,
it forces identity and body to split. The identity is left in the air
and the body is left here. The aim of our work is for things not to
remain as they left them, and this,” he says pointing to the boxes,
“is how they left them, with identities severed from their bodies.”
Shortly before I saw the movie, when I was in the room shown in
those images, I wrote an entry in my field notebook on September 21,
2005. Under the title “Buenos Aires. EAAF: Disturbing Boxes with
Nameless Bodies,” I wrote:
This is my second visit to the headquarters of the Argentine
Forensic Anthropology Team. D. B. shows me the boxes contain-
ing remains that have no names. They’re disturbing. The ones
that do have names, those that have recovered their identity, they
exude something close to peacefulness.

There is no need to delve too deeply into this machinery that swallows
up individuals and disgorges remains to detect—again—the stamp of
the civilizing process: the work of managing the population, the obses-
sion with keeping a clean garden, the effort to clear out the weeds and
preserve things as they are, in order. Those same concerns were present
in the machinery of disappearances. The EAAF members give concrete
clues, and are so direct in conveying their findings that they may sound
cruel, so explicit in the terms they use—production line, waste . . . —that
they verge on the gruesome: “It was like a production line” (I11); “It took
care of any glitches . . . without giving it much thought. ‘How do we deal
with this? What do we do with the bodies?’ ‘Put them on a plane and
drop them down; put three or four bullets in them and throw them in a
dump’” (I10); “Do you know how they saw it? ‘Let’s sweep the dirt under
the rug,’ that’s how they saw it. That is, let’s do it but in such a way that
nobody notices” (I10). That was it. A practical problem that was solved
by the state and through its routine procedures, the routine procedures of
bureaucracy and its agents.
Moral Techniques 63

Thus described, it would seem that what we have is a machinery—

the machinery of disappearances—that is not at all remarkable, much less
monstrous; it is merely rational. Again, what we have is our old civilizing
project. Mechanical workings. Something that runs on mindless routine,
with simple, but enormously efficient, mechanisms, easily explained in
terms of inputs and outputs: the inputs were whole individuals with bodies
that matched names; the outputs were either remnants of those individu-
als (in the form of nameless bodies—unidentified corpses—and bodiless
names—names absorbed by the machinery of disappearances but with
no bodies to go with those names), or else, very rarely, whole individuals
(names connected to bodies, dead or alive) who had been sucked dry of
information. Inputs and outputs. Just that. Not much more:
The phenomenon of disappearance is similar to an input-output system:
the process begins with the disappearance. That is the point in which a
given person enters the “clandestine circuit of repression.” The key fact at
this point is the place and date of the abduction, when body and identity
are separated. If the individual is released or legally charged and impris-
oned, both components will become “one” again. If, as was usually the
case, it ends in an also clandestine death, the separation is perpetuated.
(Fonderbrider 1997)

System, machine, mechanics, device . . . they are all apt nouns for this
process. After all, it is merely a mechanism for regulating order, which,
because of its nature, demands a similar terminology: “The repressive
device discharges a body without identity” (Somigliana and Olmo
2002); “The stripping of the identity of the captives, when they are
brought into the clandestine structure by the task group, and their
coming out as corpses with unknown identities are the constant vari-
ables and the most distinctive features of this system” (Olmo and
Rousseaux 2005). These descriptions are certainly cold and mechani-
cal. They hurt, no doubt about that. But they strike the right tone: they
accurately describe something that is unbearable because it is so ter-
ribly rational. Or, in other words, because that is that (rational) this is
this (unbearable). It impacts, it hurts. Perhaps because of what it man-
ages—identity—and because of what it makes of it—mere remains,
“When no longer valuable as a source of information, the individual is
disposed of . . . ” (I11); “The bodies are treated according to a bureau-
cratic proceeding designed for the ‘unidentified-corpse-­found-in-the-
street’ phenomenon” (ibid.).
The state itself, which had shaped a citizen-individual, first sucks
that individual up and then bans him, erases him, completing the pro-
cess of (de)civilization that it started. That, in the words of a forensic
64 Surviving Forced Disappearance

anthropologist, is “what makes the disappearance perfect” (I11). Cold,

horrible. And certainly the right tone.

Forensic Anthropology, Combating

Evil by Reclaiming Good
After the individual goes through the disappearance machinery what
is left are scraps, remains, residues. Very little is left: some information
about the individual before he or she acquired the condition of detained-
disappeared, perhaps accounts (incomplete, uncertain, also few) of the
individual’s passage through the clandestine detention center. Physically
there is, sometimes, although rarely, a body without an identity; most
often there is an identity without a body, a name of someone who is
known to be a detained-disappeared person but of whom little else is
known. Some bureaucratic traces might remain—a bizarre advantage of
having been devoured by the civilizing machinery of the state—but more
often than not even that will not be there and it will only be possible to
access information that indicates that others have come before asking
for information on those who are now disappeared: records of habeas
corpus requests made by mothers, copies of disappearance reports filed
by partners unable to present themselves before the state as subjects of
law with legal standing to inherit, purchase, or sell community prop-
erty . . . because the impossible status of their disappeared partners pre-
vents it. . . . Absurd redundancy.
Nothing else remains of those identities.
Nothing more.
It is with those scraps that forensic anthropologists work. They are
modern-day heroes striving to restore meaning where meaning has been
erased, professionals who work with the scraps of what once had meaning:
bodies, names, remains, files. . . . It is no exaggeration to say that foren-
sic anthropologists are zealous champions of our pacts between things
and words, between bodies and names, between names and consciences.
They seek to heal the wounds that affect the—supposedly universal—ties
between a body and a name, between subjects and their history, between
individuals and their space in the community, and they endeavor to make
those wounds consequently less painful for those who construct meaning
in their memory.
These are not applied that way in just one place. On the contrary,
their uses have spread gradually, becoming universal. Thus, in Argentina,
explaining the flood of affections triggered whenever the remains of a
detained-disappeared person are found and identified, Estela de Carlotto,
Moral Techniques 65

president of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, says, “It’s very difficult,

because it entails bringing the search to a close. . . . Confronting the reality
of their remains, their bones. . . . But at the same time it’s the way that all
of humanity has of closing the circle of life” (Bullentini 2012; emphasis
added). But also in Serbia (Claverie 2011) or in Spain (Ferrándiz 2010),
cases that are imagined identical to each other and to Argentina’s and any
that fall under the same criminal category—forced disappearance—in all
those places, the consensus is that the same universal goods have been
trampled, that is, the indissolubility of the bond between body and name
or individual and genealogy, the need to process death in analogous ways:
with a body, with a burial ground. With certainties.
On these certainties regarding the universality of the representations
of good and bad deaths rest many conditions of possibility of the effec-
tiveness of the work of forensic anthropology. Let us assume, then, that
these principles about death, identity, pain, or bereavement are, in fact,
universal. I am interested in naturalizing them so that we may better
understand the triviality of the technical gesture applied by forensic anthro-
pologists when they struggle with issues of such magnitude, a triviality
that is only possible if their expertise is applied from the certainty that
it is protected by goodness. That distance between the moral complex-
ity of forensic anthropology and the instruments with which it performs
its trade, between the automatism, the repetitive and thus unreflective
expertise of the skilled professional, and the good that it strives to attain
makes it possible to speak of the banality of good that I mentioned earlier,
citing Jessica Cassiro’s apt formula. It is science at the service of good,
both west of the Atlantic . . . 

It’s the culmination of our work, what we strive for, our aim. It’s a very
powerful sensation, because when we work with bones we’re not constantly
thinking about what we’re doing. But suddenly the bones go from being
a number to having a name . . . It’s like we’re permanently going back and
forth from the scientific to the human aspect of it. (Ratti 2003)

. . . and east of the Atlantic . . . 

In the last eleven years, nearly 300 mass graves have been exhumed [in
Spain] through scientific methods involving forensic experts, archeolo-
gists and anthropologists . . . who have recovered the remains of more than
5,500 victims. Upon completing each exhumation, the forensic experts
draw up reports . . . reconstructing the crimes of the Franco regime. . . . For
the victims’ families, these reports represent . . . the consolation of knowing
the truth after decades of uncertainty, wondering where their disappeared
loved ones were and what they went through in their last hours. (Junquera
66 Surviving Forced Disappearance

The machinery of disappearance invalidated the equations that

underpin identity here in the modern West: the union between a body
and a name, the insertion of that unity within a family narrative that
gives subjects their time, the embedding of that unity in a commu-
nity represented by the state, which gives subjects their space. . . .  The
predominant reaction to that catastrophe is to manage the rupture by
rebuilding what was destroyed, an effort that forensic anthropology
undertakes through three major operations: rebuilding the body-name
relationship; repairing the relationship of the individual with his or her
history; restoring the relationship of a subject with his or her commu-
nity. In order to rebuild the first, the body must be reconstructed and
associated with a name; in order to repair the second, the genetic iden-
tity must be reconstructed and associated with a genealogy, a family
history; in order to restore the third, the bond between the disappeared
identity and its condition of citizen must be recreated. In each case,
different recompositions are made possible through a technical routine
that reclaims: the model body; the minimum identity; the individual in
the file.

The Prototypical Human (Remaking the Body)

In 2005, I was in Buenos Aires researching the work of the EAAF when one
of the team’s anthropologists drew a picture of Robotín for me. I recorded
the conversation I had with him then:

We immortalized it as “Robotín.” It’s a person. You can mark it and use it

to distinguish features, identifying those that might apply, and ruling out
those that don’t. For example, if it has this feature here, then we can say
it’s a woman, if it has that other feature, then we can say it’s a man. That’s
the first aspect we can distinguish. If there’s a wound here, then there must
be a wound there, if the document indicates there’s something here, then
among the exhumed skeletons we have to have one that has something
here; but not just here; suppose there’s also something here, here, or here.
This gradually outlines possible matches between one aspect or another,
that is what we’re talking about. What we have here is not an identity but
a pseudo-identity, we have a person who died in certain circumstances and
whose name we don’t know . . . to be compared with a skeleton that we defi-
nitely don’t know who it corresponds to among a very large group. . . . We
might not be able to establish it with this, but we are going to be able to
determine that it might be one of these four and that’s a hell of a huge step
forward. . . . 
Moral Techniques 67

Figure 3.2  “Robotín.” Drawing by the author reproducing a picture drawn by

a forensic anthropologist during a visit to EAAF headquarters in 2005.

Robotín is a model, a prototype of an ideal body. This model is used to

compare what is found in a mass grave, when a clandestine inhumation
is exhumed. From that comparison they can deduce what remains of the
disappeared and what is missing, and, if possible, what happened, and, if
they are lucky, who it is:

First you make an inventory of the bones that you gathered, then, if
there are actually any bullet marks, you try to see which fractures were
caused by a bullet. . . . You reassemble the parts, put them together, if the
skull is broken, you try to piece it together and then you start estimat-
ing gender, age, height, laterality, dental records, and you see if you have
someone. . . . (I12)

In a text about representations of the body in forensic anthropology,

Ariela Battán (2008) refers to this discipline’s work as an exercise in ana-
mnesis of the bodies of the detained-disappeared. The work of forensic
anthropologists undoubtedly involves restoring memory to bodies that
68 Surviving Forced Disappearance

have lost it. But this restoration is not an innocent act, as it serves as a
vehicle for—and in fact contributes to naturalize—representations of the
body and of identity that are very concrete, very epochal: first, an eru-
dite representation of the body, a body conceived by modern science as a
physical unity composed of indivisible parts, “an anonymous and asexual
body . . . , removed from history and culture” (ibid., 143–144), a model
body, in sum; and second, the representation of the body narrated as a
biological body inseparably associated with a history, with a biography
(ibid., 145).
Two levels—the model, biological body, the erudite body, and the
body narrated as a body associated with an identity—that are dissoci-
ated by forced disappearance, a dissociation that the anamnesis work of
forensic anthropology cancels by re-associating that which was split.2 “The
practice of identification is described as a fitting together, to the extent
that the aim is to join together again something that has been dissociated
through violent actions, whether physical (such as abduction, murder, and
clandestine burial), or bureaucratic (that is, lack of proper records, ano-
nymity, fabrication and suppression of information, etc.)” (ibid., 144).
And order is restored: things fit together again and rationality returns,
“What’s incredible about [the EAAF working model] is that it works!
I think if there’s a contribution, then that’s it, that it works, [identity]
is reconstructed. How it’s reconstructed is in some ways . . . almost
­magical. . . . It gradually takes shape” (I10).

The Minimum Identity of DNA

(Reentering the Biological Chain)
While doing fieldwork in Argentina, I interviewed a forensic anthropolo-
gist who convinced me to switch roles. He told me to stop the interview so
he could draw a blood sample and enter my information into the national
genetic data bank. Comparing it with the data available, he said, might
help match one of my missing relatives with the remains of the detained-
disappeared that had already been found or with remains that might be
found in the future. I accepted. Quickly and efficiently, he donned gloves
and pinched my left index finger with a needle, transferring small amounts
of blood onto three round pieces of blotting paper, from which he first
peeled a protective film. He put the samples in a plastic envelope, which
he then placed in a cardboard box. The procedure took less than a minute.
In those seconds, important scientifically rigorous and sterile protocols
were concentrated and combined, condensing massive doses of political,
Moral Techniques 69

Figure  3.3  Boxes at EAAF headquarters. A label on the center of one of the
boxes reads: “DNA.” Buenos Aires, August 2005. Photograph by the author.

affective, and anthropological significance. The weighty significance of

the motive alongside the weightless asepsis of science. It is clear: the task
of forensic anthropology “combines human rights activism with scientific
concern” (Dezorzi 2011).
What was deposited in that box, along with many other samples simi-
lar to the ones I left, was the possibility of identifying disappeared bodies
and, thus, recomposing their identities. What was left was scientifically
grounded hope: “We’re a group of people who are working together to
find the truth because returning the remains to the victims’ relatives
is actually giving them back a history that they didn’t have, that was
hidden from them, and which they were denied. So, we’re not merely
returning the bones to them, but a possibility of obtaining justice” (Ratti
2003). Behind the sequence of technical actions performed by the foren-
sic anthropologist who drew my blood lay, in fact, good. No less. Thus,
forensic anthropology simultaneously involves the prophylaxis that
the procedure demands, the coldness of the instruments it works with,
knowledge of matters such as DNA, which are beyond the layperson . . . 

Trained technical personnel in the centers designated by the Health

Ministry for sample collection [take the blood samples]. Each sample con-
sists of a small amount of blood, six drops worth, which will be drawn like
70 Surviving Forced Disappearance

any normal blood sample for analysis. The sample is then transferred onto
three strips of special paper that allows the blood to be stored for years with-
out having to freeze it or subject it to any special treatment.3

. . . with the intensity of the goods whose recovery is the aim of this pro-
cedure: identity, truth, justice, memory, history. . . . This is eloquently
­illustrated by the words used by Horacio Pietragalla Corti to describe how
he recovered his identity as a direct result of the genetic identification of
the remains of his disappeared parents:

Looking back over these years, since I started living with the truth, I can’t
emphasize enough what it has meant for me to learn who I am. From
the day I got the results of the DNA test I’ve felt the need to be able to
reconstruct the history that had been taken from me, hidden from me.
(Pietragalla Corti 2005)

Pietragalla Corti’s account is called “Reconstructions,” and it describes a

journey: from nothing to everything, from an identity void to a complete
identity. Behind his intense history lie intangible protagonists: DNA and
the rhetoric of blood (Gatti 2012; Sosa 2011a, 2001b; Jelin 2011), which,
having become depositories of beings, invite us to conceive identity as the
preservation of what is:

I remember as if it were yesterday the questions I used to ask friends and

relatives, about what music they listened to, what made them angry, how
they felt. But none of the answers were enough for me. That upset me,
because I felt I would never really know them. Until one day, frustrated,
thinking how unfair it was that I didn’t get a chance to know them, I saw
my reflection in the mirror and I realized that, of course, to know them I
had to know myself; I am part of them. So it was also surprising to discover
how much is inscribed genetically in our bodies: to learn that just as my
parents were crazy about seafood, so am I. (Pietragalla Corti 2005)

The banality of the technical act of collecting a blood sample, the pro-
cedure—in essence very simple, a mere comparison—for identifying an
individual through DNA takes on profound moral significance once it
is applied to the conglomerate of values of the social universe of human
rights. There, technical expertise is transformed into identity, into the
recovered history of a destroyed subject:

Our aim is the full reconstruction of the history of the disappeared person.
Reconstruction has a precise goal, which is being able to give [the remains]
an identity [and] see who out of all the disappeared [they belong to]. That
body belongs to a specific history. (I11)
Moral Techniques 71

And in that same action, the concept of identity is caught in the net of
hard science and its instruments: “Forensic molecular biology is a very
powerful tool for investigating human identity through the application
of objective criteria” (Corach 1997). Based on that, statements as signifi-
cant as the following are plausible, so that the concept of identity returns
to the old fictions of unity and permanence, of biology and genetic
determinism. . . . 

The question about identity is, then, the question of “what’s left” . . . what
continues while everything changes. (Rinesi 2004)
Identity as a concept means that something or someone is the same as itself.
(Corach 1997)
[In identity] emotional ties are based on genetic bonds. (ibid.)4

The catastrophe produced devastated bodies, shattered names, broken

identities. To exorcize its effects, some forms of socially addressing the
phenomenon of forced disappearance (laws, practices, imaginaries,
concepts . . . ) equated identity with biological makeup. The potentially
changing aspect of the former is canceled when viewed from the per-
spective of the supposed invariability of the latter—the DNA—now
conceived as proof of the “essence of each individual,” something that
nothing, not even the most spectacular of catastrophes—and forced dis-
appearance is one such catastrophe—can alter. At the core of this moral
technique, a tiny drop of blood, a needle, a strip of blotting paper and
a box. . . . 

Recovering Identity on Paper

(Regaining Recognition)
While saying that identity is a construction has long been a common
assertion, now it is also becoming commonplace to posit that for identity
to take shape it needs to be recognized externally from the (collective
or individual) subject who is presumed to have such identity. The chain
of commonly held notions is completed when we consider that here and
now, in the civilized West, personal identity is the identity of the citizen-
individual and that it is recognized not so much by community, lineage,
or family, but by the state. Thus the means through which it is realized
are, as we also know, those which mark a subject as a member or an out-
sider of the community represented by the state: censuses, identity cards,
birth and death certificates, school report cards, passports . . . 
72 Surviving Forced Disappearance

Forced disappearance developed against this backdrop, at least in

the Southern Cone of Latin America. And that insertion of the citizen-
­individual in the community through that citizen-individual’s embedding
in the state’s institutions was the third good—along with the unity of body
and name, and the link between the individual and a family history—that
was ripped apart by forced disappearance.5 The citizen—the model prod-
uct of modernity, the favorite son of the civilizing project (Elias 1978)—was,
then, what the machinery of disappearance fractured, and it did so also by
removing him from the administrative networks that situated him socially,
and from which the disappeared vanished. What happened to citizens in
those networks when the state abducted them? What elements are there
to give evidence of their death? What is the legal status of these citizens?
Forensic anthropology answers these questions by restoring the modern
chains of recognition, that is, by restoring the disappeared individual to an
existence on paper, reincorporating that individual into the files:

In the work my team does, what’s important is preserving human dignity

and respect for the individual and the identity that individual had. Denying
the deceased their identity is to deny them their history, while identifying
them enables us to give their relatives back the right to perform death ritu-
als. . . . Very often being able to identify a person is not connected with the
possibility of returning their remains, but of finding that person in docu-
ments. (Wainschenker 2004; emphasis added)

While it continued to repress, the state did not abandon its record-
keeping, but it kept a different kind of record; it produced dirty mate-
rial: small incisions on paper, signs that referred to broken or inexistent
files, notations of someone’s momentary or final exit from the dungeons
of the disappearance machinery and their entry into more visible and
known sections of the state’s apparatus (“For every person who dies,
especially in a country like ours, where everyone is classified in one way
or another, you have some state record that allows you to identify them”
[I11]). The state continued to keep files but it did so covertly and that
is why what remains of that file-keeping gives off that peculiar odor of
darkness. Because disappearance stripped individuals of their condition
of citizens—that is, of members of the community materialized by the
state—forensic anthropologists must work with the remaining traces of
what certified that condition—files, fingerprints, notations on the mar-
gins of yellowing papers . . . —with the administrative vestiges, the ruins
of bureaucracy, the marks that might still be found of the old relation-
ship between that subject now devoid of credentials and the state, the
institution that granted those credentials.
Moral Techniques 73

It is with this that the archivists of the team of forensic anthropologists

work, with the material that the machine produced in Mode B, a clandes-
tine mode, which is the same used by the state to produce during clean
times, but which in this case is operated in the shadows: if the former con-
tains information on people as citizens, of individuals recorded as such in
birth, death, or property registries, the latter contains the same but broken
or forcefully absent: erased, disappeared subjects. The goal is to restore
to the latter the condition of the former; give them back their papers and
return them to the files. Files are vital for keeping what Bauman calls an
“orderly garden” (1989), as they classify, organize in a hierarchy, situate,
clean, select . . . they distinguish and give identity. A subject, in order to be
one, must be in the files. If not, then he is not a subject.

*  *  *

Order, then, is restored, and the model works: everything fits and ratio-
nality returns. Is this process really that rational? Is it so easy to gut? If it is
not, forensic anthropologists give the impression that it is, that they have
uncovered its mystery (“I try to take away any mysterious connotations,
strip the issue of mysteriousness. That’s precisely the aim. The idea is to
present it as something that can be reconstructed, as something that has
its logic” [I10]). There is nothing random here (“It’s not like a piano fell
on his head, he was a militant. . . . Basically, what the system sought was
to dismantle armed political organizations, and that was the rationality
of it” [I10]), no ghosts (“And, in fact, ghosts are no longer ghosts” [I10]),
no monstrosity (“I can tell you I understand all the monstrous connota-
tions it has, but with the relatives I try to play that down” [I10]), nothing
metaphysical (“The idea is to avoid giving the issue any metaphysical com-
ponents, it doesn’t deserve it” [I10]), and much less something sublime:

Even this problem, which seems beyond all limits, is not beyond all limits,
nothing is, no matter how terrible it is when it happens. But there’s nothing
beyond all limits. That, in a sense, can be conveyed to the relatives, because
I also want anyone who comes here with this problem, which is a hell of a
problem, to understand that this is just one of the problems they have but
it’s not their whole life. (I10)

Disappearance, which is devastating, still emerges as something terrible

but now there is a logic to it. If the right procedure is applied, the pro-
cess is illuminated and it is possible to represent the before, and the after,
and even the in-between of the clandestine detention center, when the
citizen-individual collapses. The disappeared are less disappeared thanks
74 Surviving Forced Disappearance

to the Herculean task of the EAAF, which recomposes them, remakes

them, reassembles their pieces (“Do you know why it’s beautiful? Because
it rejects disappearance, it really rejects disappearance” [I10]). Eureka! The
model works: what was vague, vacuous, ghostly, shapeless is given shape
again. The pleasure of finding, the joy of discovery. Form is recovered, the
broken identity is put back together:

If I break this cup and I have to fix it, what do I do with the little pieces?
What was this? It was a cup, so I need to have a cup again, if I have all the
broken pieces. . . . I never have all the pieces, but it needs to be as close to a
cup as possible. (I10)

This reconstructed good is meant for several recipients: the justice system,
which it provides with evidence; public opinion, to which it gives proof.
And the relatives, to whom it gives peace of mind: the bereaved are now
truly bereaved, as they remove their disappeared from the domain of the
sinister, that is, from the unfathomable horror, to introduce them into con-
trollable, measurable territories:

I think that [identifying the remains of a disappeared relative] does peo-

ple good. . . . Or to put it the other way around: disappearance is bad for
­people . . . but to the few who have been able to process it in the terms that
are more familiar to human beings, the terms of the death we know, doing
so has done them good. Inconsistency, uncertainty, in general, does not do
anyone any good. And [forced disappearance] is a textbook case of uncer-
tainty. (Ginzberg 2012)

Uncertainty “does not do anyone any good,” no. The identification of the
disappeared, which works in the opposite direction, does. The policy fol-
lowed by forensic anthropology is a policy of balance, a policy of identity,
which is also in many aspects a policy of conservation of what was: it rejects
everything that destroyed the individual.
The place I occupy with respect to those who practice these poli-
cies is a place that is for me uncomfortable, which is not to say it is
unpleasant: I am their object, one of the recipients of their work, a rela-
tive with some experience in the matter. And it is logical that, even if I
present myself differently, that is how I will be approached, as an object
of attention. Constantly. Over and over again. Paradoxically, in their
attempts to take me out of there they do not let me out of there, out of
my role of relative:

–How can I help you?

–[GG] You’re asking me? Now? With this?
Moral Techniques 75

–No, not now. Next time. You should come back. Because you want to
know things about your old man. I don’t know if that’s what you want.
That’s not what you came here for now. So I’m not forcing it on you and
I’m not. . . . (I10)
Come back. Next time, call me and we’ll do an interview, as part of your
field work. What do you say? Come and say to me: “I’m Gerardo Gatti’s
son”, and I’ll tell you: “Okay, what we’re going to see is this.” (I10)

In August 2005, on Corrientes, one of the main avenues of the huge and
beautiful city of Buenos Aires, I conducted the first of my many interviews
with members of the EAAF. I interviewed the most charismatic member.
In my field notebook I wrote:

I introduced myself, presented my card, which says I’m a professor at a

university in the Basque Country. The man I was going to interview, M. S.,
looks at the blackboard where “4 p.m. Gabriel Gatti, friend of G. D.,” is
written. He starts making the connections. . . . He thinks . . . “Gatti?” Yes.
“Gatti Casal?” Yes. “Adriana’s brother? Gerardo’s son?”
He has the information. The roles are reversed and now I’m the one being
interviewed. The interviewer shakes my hand, again, and this time it’s
followed by a hug: I have become a relative. A different conversation
begins and the exchange does not go according to the script of the soci-
ologist (“I research such and such . . . ”), but in the only way that it can go
(“I research such and such, being part of such and such . . . ”). M. S. says
to me: “Imagine this without your card.” And he pushes my university
card aside. . . . 
I like it. I get angry. When the interview is over and I step out into the
street, I feel dizzy. I jump on a bus. But I don’t go far. I get off and I start
humming, imitating a strange, metallic sound, like a videotape as it reaches
the end (rrrr, rrrr, rrrr, rrrr, rrrr, rrrr, rrrr, rrrr . . . ). The sound of horror:
I had never been so close to it, so close to the belly of the beast, to its bowels,
to a discourse that told me I had understood its logic. I feel like retracing my
steps. These guys know something nobody else knows. . . . 
Chapter 4

The Meaning-Preserving Machinery of

the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo

The Broken Family and the Fracturing

of Normality
The category “detained-disappeared” upset the atonal rhythm of normal-
ity and triggered a different system of classifications, that of a world in
which a death that is not such organizes an everyday life that cannot be
sustained: there is no way of doing so, because there is nothing on which
to support it. Thus, those who suffered that calamity were left brutally
unsettled, in a universe in which the old categories, while available, no
longer worked. “Everything continued as if nothing had happened . . . but
all sorts of things had happened” (I43d). Grief or normality? Waiting or
mourning? Widowers and widows? Orphans? Dead or living? “The disap-
peared, those living-dead, the dead stolen from death” (Gómez Mango
2006, 17)  complicate things. Nothing makes sense. Deprived of death,
the relatives have nowhere to anchor the absence: they lack the body, they
cannot process their grief, they do not know where the body is buried (da
Silva 2001, 121). Bad death; death without closure (“All death must have
closure” [I43a]), where the bereaved who never are, settle in. Perpetual
mourning. In the words of different mothers of disappeared persons:

I know, and it’s true, that since the disappearance of my daughter I will
never have another happy day. (I43b)
The years don’t lessen the pain; that’s a lie. One gets used to living with the
pain, which is different. (I43a)

G. Gatti, Surviving Forced Disappearance in Argentina and Uruguay

© Gabriel Gatti 2014
78 Surviving Forced Disappearance

Pain settles in. Because there is a before and an after. Not even the sun is the
same as before, nor is green as green it was. Everything is different. But you
adjust . . . Life has already trapped you, now you’re in that little place that
you cannot leave. Your life is that little place. (I43d)
I find myself in a pain which I cannot overcome no matter how hard
I try. (I43a)

Like someone once told me, it is something that has no end: “It never
ends; it can never end. It is something that stays with you for the rest of
your life. Nothing will make it better. You still have that void here,” she
said, touching her chest. Endless pain. So endless that it is impossible to
think that identity—what we, moderns, define as something balanced,
circular, definite, coherent, and complete—can be fulfilled in such
­conditions that deny it to the point of making it impossible. . . . 
Disappearance broke the equations: it made parents bury their
­children (or dream they could bury them); it prevented children from
burying their parents; it made grandchildren believe that others, their
grandparents, were their parents. It destroyed successions, shattered evi-
dences, and threw into disarray the terrible but reassuring solidity of
the that’s-how-life-is. . . .  That is how it was: the normal, that geometric
place toward which everything tends, was truncated. It fractured the
world, yes, for a generation that had already formed the ground that sup-
ported its conventions; it ruptured genealogies (“The kids . . . they have
to reconstruct an image [of their disappeared parents made] from anec-
dotes. They don’t have their own anecdotes to tell, and at the same time
the role of parent was filled by their grandparents, their father’s or their
mother’s parents . . . [but] their grandparents, no matter how much love
they can give them, they’re a different generation. There’s a generation
missing” [I25]); it fractured the possibility of having those little things
that are hard to define but that you know are there, that is, all those
things that are taken for granted, necessary but invisible: the materials
that allow us to represent, order, and manage the world, its joys and its
tragedies, the inherited or invented uses and customs, the routines, in
short, the materials with which we fill time, the everyday and the not-so-
everyday, with meaning. Because of that, of that nameless catastrophe,
everything is rendered impossible. It is left without foundation.

Field Notebook: 8/11–19/2005, Buenos Aires. The Mothers

A mother of two disappeared persons tells me that when she was in her
early twenties she had her fortune told and the fortune-teller said to her:
“You will travel and you will have two children. . . . And then. . . . Then noth-
ing.” And she has this interpretation: “She saw it. It was there, darkness.
She saw a hole. She saw my children disappearing.” Cataclysm: irruption
The Meaning-Preserving Machinery 79

of the non-meaning that will mark life to the end. There, in that instant,
the instant of the earthquake, life stopped. Before, things were normal,
afterward. . . . Ugh! There are pictures of them from before, from when they
were young, many pictures. An album of the time when there was order.
Almost a totem. Afterward, the void, which is impossible to accept, but
which nonetheless you go after, because those who are not here, are, how-
ever, there. In that hole of disappearance is where the mothers live with
their children.

And it is just that, as Ludmila da Silva analyzes: “In the jigsaw puzzle
that each family had to put together after the abduction there were
key pieces missing” (2001, 113). There was no normality, no, not even
the normality required to conventionally manage death: “In the ‘nor-
mal’ processes of death, where there is a body to bury, the cemetery
is the space that divides the world of the living from the world of the
‘dead’” (ibid., 114). But here there are no bodies. Or remains. Or graves.
Nothing. Where can death be placed, then? How can we mourn them
without the materiality of a body that is present? How do we go about—
ugh! even asking it is hard—living in a place that does not exist with
someone, no, with something . . . no, that is not right either . . . whatever,
with an entity that has no name?
It was necessary to invent. Some of these inventions have the innocent
materiality of a photo album . . . 

Field Notebook: 09/05/2005, Montevideo. The Photo Album of the Monster

This couple lives among archives, memory, data, details, accounts. . . . In the
archives, a family album. It includes a disappeared boy, today a recovered
adult. It’s her son. The history of this young man, X, is represented like
this: it starts with a photograph in which he is a baby; that first photograph
is followed by a long series that corresponds to the period of his absence,
also long, the absence that comes after his abduction, a few weeks after his
birth. In the absence of anything else, that hole is covered with what should
have been, based on photographs of his father, which are the photographs
that are in the album, his father at 4, 7, 9, 13, 16, 20 years old. . . . Then the
boy appears as he is now, after he was recovered, as the adult he is now, the
true X.
Strange trick: the “how things are” lives alongside the “how things
should have been” and even if it is really impossible to represent the life of
this person organized comme il faut, the album makes his correct identity
visible, an identity that springs up, as if by magic, from that succession
of photographs. The presumptions of a normality that never was make it
possible to grasp the ungraspable. . . . It’s something common among the
relatives: albums, reference to the genealogies, allusion to the similarities in
80 Surviving Forced Disappearance

personality, the shared features. . . . They’re weapons that exorcize the lost

meaning, that build series where there are ruptures, that project continu-
ity where there is catastrophe . . . even at the risk of inventing similarities
where there are none, family ties where there never were. In my family
photograph I always also include Ricardo, who was my sister’s boyfriend,
and Amalia, his mother, and Pablo, his brother, also disappeared. In fact,
they’re still in that photo, and rightfully so. But Adriana and Ricardo, who
were 17 and 18 years old when they were disappeared, would they still be
together today? I don’t know. They are still together, however, nailed down
in that pluperfect past-present. Exiles idealize the place they left behind,
emigrants radicalize their Uruguayanness when they return, anyone who
misses the boyfriend they lost . . . says “and what would have been if I had
married him?” Saving sphericity of the world in which they would live if it
had not happened.

. . . others elevate that innocence to the status of policy of identity and

reach much more transcendent levels: extolling blood ties, praising filia-
tion, placing family continuity above all other forms of solidarity. These
social inventions were, certainly a form of resistance to destruction. And
the strategy was effective, to the point that today what Cecilia Sosa calls
with a sharp analytical eye “biological community of victims” (2011a, 5) is
firmly established, not just because of the diversity of groups that agree
with it (from the beginning of the Argentine dictatorship, the Mothers of
Plaza de Mayo; much closer in time, H.I.J.O.S.), but because in them lies
the legitimacy to talk of forced disappearance of persons, of the detained-
disappeared, and, in general, of all that which touches human rights.
Blood and DNA have turned into, yes, the fluids that fuel the energies of
the dominant narratives in the social universes of forced disappearance of
persons, to the point that “only those related by blood to the missing had
the authority to claim for justice” (Sosa 2011b, 65).
In previous chapters I examined how in the face of ruins archeologists,
some archeologists, sought to give meaning to that broken materiality; or
how archivists endeavored to restore dignity to the dirty files hidden in the
dungeons of the state; or how psychologists tried desperately to wrench a
subject from the devastating clutches of trauma, giving that subject back
the possibility of being; or lastly, how forensic anthropologists did, and
do, everything they can to reunite the bodies of the disappeared with
their names. . . . I finish now my observation of the activists of meaning
by considering the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, their epitome. With
them, the rhetoric of blood—that of the indissolubility of the ties imag-
ined around it—assumes the leading role, as it is the tool that they use to
reconstruct what they lost. They sustain a policy of identity that is in many
aspects a policy of conserving what is: against what destroys the being, we
The Meaning-Preserving Machinery 81

can only but attempt to remake it with the oldest materials available—
genetics and family.

The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo:

The Apotheosis of the Narrative of Meaning
Allow me three vignettes, if you will.
October 2005. Since 1993, and furthered by the Grandmothers of
Plaza de Mayo, there has been a public body in Argentina, the National
Commission for the Right to Identity (Comisión Nacional por el Derecho
a la Identidad, or CONADI) established with the purpose of developing
policies of reparation for cases where children’s identities were violated
by the state. CONADI coordinates an essential cornerstone of the prac-
tices of identifying appropriated children, the Genetic Data Bank, which
contains the genetic maps of all the families with disappeared children,
so that it will be possible to identify children of disappeared persons who
were appropriated and have not yet been found. In October 2005, I inter-
viewed the president of CONADI and she told me about this bank and
the reading of identity that it channels: “The basis of identity is truth,
knowledge of the truth, and there is only one truth. In fact, the truth is
that one has an inescapable biological origin, with an inescapable genetic
load, and then a history and a cultural and social development. . . . When
the biological is disassociated from the cultural, a false contradiction is
created” (I28).
In October 2009, “Chicha” Mariani sends a desperate email out over
the Internet. Very old and feeling herself close to death, she launched a
message in a bottle in the hope that it might be read by her granddaugh-
ter, Clara Anahí, who she had last seen three months after her birth, in
1976. Chicha Mariani is one of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. In
1976, her son and daughter-in-law were disappeared and became two of
the 30  thousand disappeared of the Argentine dictatorship. She knows
that her granddaughter was probably given up for adoption to persons
close to the political regime that was established in Argentina during the
1976–1983 military dictatorship. Clara Anahí is thus one of the approxi-
mately five hundred children who are said to have an appropriated iden-
tity. In her moving message, Chicha wrote: “I want to tell you that your
paternal grandfather was a man of music while my calling was the arts;
that your maternal grandparents were scientists; that your mother loved
literature and your father was an economics graduate. . . . Some of all that
is probably part of your interests in life, because, even though you were
82 Surviving Forced Disappearance

brought up in a different home, you carry the genes of your ancestors

inside you.”
From 2008 to 2012, in several interviews with children of disappeared
persons who were appropriated by collaborators or supporters of the regime
and were later restored to their families, the interviewees use the same
expressions when they speak of themselves: “We all had a violated identity
and now we all have our identity;” “I had a violated identity, I had another
person’s name. . . . Today we all have our own names, we all have our own
identity. It was closure, a closure that felt wonderful to me;” “My identity
[is now] restored” (I23 and I24). One of these interviewees, speaking to me
in the headquarters of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, summed it up
eloquently: “There’s a girl whose identity was restored last year. . . . And she
said all her friends used to make fun of her because she didn’t know how
to ride a bike and she was surprised to read . . . that her father had also been
mocked because he couldn’t ride a bike” (I19).
All these vignettes have three things in common: they are all moving;
the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo appear in all of them; and they all have
a key word: “identity.” According to the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo
themselves they are an NGO whose “mission is to locate all the children
who were kidnapped and disappeared by political repression and restore
them to their legitimate families, and to make sure such a terrible violation
of the human rights of children does not happen ever again, demanding
punishment for all those responsible.” It was created in 1977 and is formed
by mothers of disappeared men and women whose children were appropri-
ated by agents of Argentina’s repressive military regime. Through an unre-
lenting and remarkable work, which is still ongoing, the Grandmothers of
Plaza de Mayo have struggled indefatigably to find and recover their stolen
grandchildren and identify their abductors, and they have fought for their
own right to access the “status of ancestor” (Imaz 2011, 139). And their
work has had a major quantitative success (as they have found 109 disap-
peared children) but what is really impressive is their qualitative impact in
public debates in Argentina, in establishing the limits and content of the
field of the detained-disappeared and, above all, in the successful construc-
tion of a socially legitimized concept of identity. The organizational fabric
of the Grandmothers is thus present throughout the state and the leaders
of the movement have a major influence in the definition of human rights
policies, having contributed directly to the inclusion of three articles in the
International Convention on the Rights of the Child: Articles 7, 8, and
11, known as the “Argentine Articles.” These articles were inspired by the
work of the Grandmothers and are the three most important articles for
the drafting of adoption policies and for limiting global child trafficking.
They also establish the importance that relations built around biological
The Meaning-Preserving Machinery 83

ties have in determining the identity of a child and indicate the need to
protect the right that a child has of having an identity according to those
ties or, at least, to have knowledge of them.1 . . . 
In searching for their grandchildren—the children of their disap-
peared children—the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo have developed a
powerful machinery that is symbolic, media-friendly, institutional, legal,
and even artistic. The key factor in this machinery is the idea of identity:
on the one hand, because it is understood that what was attacked and vio-
lated by forced disappearance was precisely identity; on the other, because
it is believed that by reconstructing that attacked and violated good—­
identity—it will be possible to compensate in part for the devastating
effects of that repressive practice. We are not, however, talking about just
any identity; it is the identity associated with old nouns (family, origin,
truth, genetics, biology . . . ), some of which are colored with conservative
hues. “These women, old and tired, driven by the moral strength they
draw from the search for their grandchildren and their quest for justice,
have gradually built a continuity, connecting name, identity, and genet-
ics, [and] have given it the shape of a moral principle” (Imaz 2011, 139). It
is the construction of that morality that I would like to focus on, because
it entails more than a few problems.

(Brief) Digression on Modern Identity:

The Appeal of Things with a Name
The word “identity” is a simple word to articulate, but things get compli-
cated when we reflect on it: it is full of traps and safeguards, of defenses
that shield it from doubt. These safeguards constitute enormous burdens,
from which it would seem it is impossible to free ourselves and that make
reflecting on identity enormously difficult, as even to this day it continues
to be locked in the mystic of the semper idem, in the rhetoric of the identi-
cal, the permanent, the lasting, the solid, the firm, the stable, the unique,
in the place where we store the things that last.
If what I say is true, we should abandon once and for all the concept,
because of the danger it poses, but, above all, because of its uselessness,
as it fails to describe a world—the contemporary world—with too many
things, almost all, that do not go well with those adjectives. However,
the idea of identity—tricky or not, dangerous or not, burdened by huge
weights such as this—is useful: because it is used, because it is sought,
because it is said, because it is experienced. Be careful, then, not to radi-
cally criticize the term: it may not exist, but it is desired; a different term
84 Surviving Forced Disappearance

might be better, but this one says a lot about how the construction of
our identifications works. With the full weight of common sense, Stuart
Hall says that identity is “an idea which cannot be thought of in the
old way, but without which certain key questions cannot be thought at
all” (1996,  2). The concept is, indeed, useful, if not as an indicator of
facts—identity as truth—then as a reflection of very Western desires and
quests—identity as an aspiration.
These aspirations, when we talk about the Latin American Southern
Cone, and the Americas in general, cast as they are from the mold of civi-
lization and modernity, gardened and rational, take on a tone of opposite
intensity, the strong hue of the essential: the color family, the color origin,
the color authenticity. The same color of the verb to be. It is a strong iden-
tity, the identity of this part of the world. It is that identity that forced
disappearance of persons devastated; it is also that identity that the nar-
ratives of meaning reconstruct with brushstrokes of Being, of family, of
DNA, of origin, of authenticity . . . A bright, very firm color. Not in vain
is it sustained by powerful rhetorics, which are translated into expressions
that are frequently used in this field of the detained-disappeared: “true
identity,” “biological identity,” “recovering identity,” “biological name,”
“DNA name”. . . . 
In effect, the noun “identity,” at least in this strong sense of the word,
when it is accompanied by forced disappearance and the practices that
resist its consequences, has taken on an importance that it does not
have anywhere else. It generates psychological attention centers (Right to
Identity Attention Center), official bodies (National Identity Commission),
national and international legislation and case law (the so-called “Argentine
Articles” of the declaration of rights adopted under the International
Convention on the Rights of the Child), and it also produces networks
(Network for Identity), archives (Identity Archives), literary genres (theater
for identity). . . . And in all of these there are two common denominators.
One is of a theoretical nature: that the identity that is spoken of is not the
flexible, mobile, changing, playful one . . . of our era, but the hard, stony,
stable, firm one . . . that responds well when modern equations that gov-
ern the development of these things are applied to it. The other common
denominator is of a practical nature: that the Grandmothers of Plaza de
Mayo are always involved.
These equations refer back to figures of firm outlines and fixed con-
tents. To lasting figures, always the same, the same as themselves, always.
Allow me to review—it will only take a few lines—the confinement of
modern thought in a model of identity that refers to these images. I am
interested in doing so to show that it is with that model in the saddlebags
that many bodies defend themselves from the devastation that forced
The Meaning-Preserving Machinery 85

disappearance entailed for identity, for that identity. That model has
three features: it requires that in order for something (or someone) to
have an identity it must have a stable name, territory, and history, that
is, it requires that the name be its own and unique, that the territory be
clearly defined and closed, and that the history refer to an unequivocal
origin. The three qualities are serious, rigid, lineal, the three fit in well
with an architecture of the imaginary that refers, unequivocally, to unity
and stability (Gatti 2007).
Let us think now about the quality of the name only, which is the
element most exposed to a devastating risk with forced disappearance of
­persons: “Gabriel Gatti,” “Basque,” “Uruguayan” . . . are fixed features that
determine what is unique and exclusive of what is named with that name
(Descombes 1996, 300), which objectify what they name as a ­natural
difference and situate us, individually or collectively, in the world. That
name holds what it names, it gives permanence to what is named: because
of it, one exists, one is identified, one is classified (Lévi-Strauss 1966,
chapter 2); it helps build the fiction of the imposition of the stable over the
variable (the name, Ricœur says, is “a designation fixed to one same thing
in its multiple occurrences” [1990, 73]). Which is why its absence, the
absence of a name, takes us out of the world, leaves us without anything to
hold us down. Without identity: “He who has no name does not exist as a
man, he is tied to nothing” (Lapierre 1995, 16). Void. The powers of the
name. They are many and great. They make us think in the substantial
(Descombes 1996, 300), in the eternal even. Nicole Lapierre describes it

Sign of origin and filiation, the patronymic, through the inscription of a

lineage, creates a link to a history, a temporal development that goes beyond
birth and death. . . . At the same time marker and classifier, it links identity
to the vertical reference of generations, to the local anchorage of a region
or a country and, possibly, a social status. . . . In sum, the name says who
you are born of and where you come from, it assigns a place, in principle
inescapable. Because of that assigning . . . the future of each is stamped with
unequal depth. (1995, 13)

Thus, in our way of imagining identity, having a name is essential for

being: either you have a name or you are nothing. The Grandmothers of
Plaza de Mayo seem to confirm this verdict:

A baby, in order to constitute itself subjectively, will identify first with its
parents, from them it will receive a symbolic mark, an identifying trace that
will allow it to be. It will be marked with a name, a symbolic inscription
that is not merely a name as it includes the etymology of the last name and
86 Surviving Forced Disappearance

the family novel, because we name ourselves as we were named and when
we name ourselves we name the relationship we have with our parents, that
which included us in the order of the generations. (Lo Giúdice 2005, 36)

This is no small power. So great is this power that here, in the West,
and now, and also back then in the 1970s, having a name is a fact that is
necessary to be able to say that something—an entity, thing, group, or
individual—has an identity. If that is so, it is easy to infer that in this way
of imagining things, not having a name is equivalent to not having an
identity. This is what forced disappearance of persons does: it subtracts
a name from an individual, it turns an individual into a disappeared
person, it removes that individual from the chains that provide meaning,
it robs that individual of its origins in time, it extracts the bodies from
the networks that gave them meanings that turned the individual into
something more than a body in the space of the community. It is the
catastrophe that forced disappearance of persons caused: it was able—
perhaps not the right verb but it will do—to irritate the local ­reading of
It is in response to this that a strategy of resistance that involves giv-
ing those emptied bodies back meaning is generated, and the formula
chosen to do that is to relink them to the chains of meaning that made
them more than bodies, that is, to reincorporate them to their names, ter-
ritories, and histories. A possible benefit: recovering balance. A risk, also
possible: exceeding the original meaning, going beyond it. These chains
of meaning, the ones that provide names, can be made with different
materials: with language, with race, with legacies, with traditions and
customs, with spirits, with colors, and even with character. . . . In the case
I am discussing, the materials with which identity is forged are two, and
they are of the sturdiest kind: the biological genetic bond, and filiation,
or family ties. The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo exemplify the essence
of the strategy that channels both materials.

Materials for Forging the Names of the

Disappeared, I: Genetics
Steered by the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, the debate over forced
­disappearance of persons has moved identity as a noun into the foreground.
But that does not mean that it moved it to a new plane; on the contrary,
it moved it to an almost premodern plane, that of the biological roots
The Meaning-Preserving Machinery 87

of being: with the Grandmothers, identity is equivalent to nature, and

nature in turn is equivalent to genetics. Thus a tactical necessity—that of
finding elements that would serve to establish a link between a detained-
­disappeared person and an individual, now an adult, of whom nothing
is known (neither face, nor gender, nor location, nor name)—became
an ontological definition that has gone beyond the field of the detained-
­disappeared to colonize even the most common definitions of identity in
other fields where this is a social problem.
The mechanism can be described in a few simple words: they searched
for disappeared persons of whose whereabouts there were no clues, chil-
dren who were abducted with hardly any trace. Or without a trace. In
the absence of a trail with clues that might lead to them, they could only
be located resorting to whatever marks they bore, the genetic finger-
print, and the uncertainty of identity that hung—still hangs—over the
generation born during the period of repression. Both questions were an
­invitation to follow a path leading to one place: the origin. Tactical justi-
fication: it was the easiest way to get their message across. Practical justi-
fication: it was what was available for locating them. But the tactical and
practical justifications have with time turned into a theoretical construct
with universal aspirations and taken the form of an algorithm:

identity is origin → origin is gene → identity is gene*

*Note: To the extent that in Argentina paternity tests are called identity tests. That
is how the women in the team of biologists whom I interviewed see it: Here “DNA
studies [are] identity studies. . . . ” (I9); “Here identity is associated with DNA test-
ing, and, in fact, paternity tests are marketed as identity tests; it’s something we’ve
incorporated” (I9).

From there, the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo contribute to

g­ enerating a structure of categories and distinctions that is socially very
effective and has identity as its keystone. One of the parts of this struc-
ture is what distinguishes the living disappeared from the dead disap-
peared; the other is what makes genetics the place that concentrates what
is essential in a subject. The living disappeared are, obviously, children of
disappeared ­persons who were appropriated, the object of the search of the
Grandmothers, and the mark of distinction of the organization. This does
not mean that the lifeworlds of the groups and professionals who work
with one set of disappeared—the living—or the other—the dead—are
not connected; on the contrary, they work with each other, as I was able
88 Surviving Forced Disappearance

to observe in September 2005 when I interviewed the head of CONADI,

which, as I said, is the National Commission on the Right to Identity.
That month I wrote in my field notebook:

Field Notebook: 09/12/2005, Buenos Aires. CONADI: Recovering the Identity

of the Living Disappeared
As I am interviewing the head of CONADI, a calls comes in from the
EAAF (Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team). The two groups work
together, coordinating much of their efforts: one group locates children,
the other has the technical know-how and the resources to determine their
genetic identity. In this opportunity the call is about a young woman who
has doubts about her identity and CONADI refers her to the EAAF. When
the call is over, she tells me: “We do the same work, they work with the
dead and we work with the living. The aim is to give the living disap-
peared back their identity.” But that mark distinguishes and is used by the
Grandmothers to distinguish themselves: life, identity, family. . . . These are
their marks, not anyone else’s.

A month after that interview, I visited the “Casa de las Abuelas,” and I got
the same impression:

Field Notebook: 10/06/2005, Buenos Aires. Casa de las Abuelas

Nice place, beautiful house. When I go in I’m greeted by a girl who stops
the task she is busy with: filing her nails. On the wall I see Simón’s picture2
among the posters of children who were appropriated, and Adriana’s and
Ricardo’s among the posters of parents of children who could be disap-
peared. I ask her, while I wait, if the posters are updated. She doesn’t seem
to know. The phone rings. “No, look, you should call Human Rights for
that. This is for people who have doubts about their identity.” There are
other posters decorating the room, which read “Do you know who you
are?”, “Find an answer to your questions”. . . . Two high-school teenagers
come in, looking for information. They confuse the Grandmothers with
the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. The person who is there to inform the pub-
lic, one of the “recovered identity” boys, clears things up for them: “No, this
is Abuelas. We’re OK with Madres, no problem: but what we do here is we
look for disappeared who are alive.” In the background, two Grandmothers
sit quietly, knitting and reading.

And that life, the life of the disappeared who are being searched, is
detected by genes. In a universe where the factual is associated with
the tangible, if someone needs to give proof of something, that proof
will not be found in things such as the desire of being, the imaginary,
affections, or the social construction of the name, materials that are dif-
ficult to manipulate for us moderns, rather it will be found in sturdier
The Meaning-Preserving Machinery 89

materials. There, genetics and its totem, DNA, that is, that which we
laypersons believe synthesizes the essence of a person, are the ideal can-
didates. Whether that is accurate or not is irrelevant; in fact, it is not,
as geneticists themselves admit (“Well, it’s a problem because there’s
a reductionist trend with genetics: a gene for alcoholism, a gene for
schizophrenia. . . . It would seem that there’s nothing cultural, environ-
mental, or historical in anything” [I9]). But it does not matter, like I
said, whether it is accurate or not. What does matter is the belief that
genes condense our Being. And that belief has existed in this field for
some years now. In Buenos Aires, in September 2005, two of the geneti-
cists (I9) who were conducting expert studies for the Grandmothers of
Plaza de Mayo and for CONADI described, protected by their white lab
coats, the human rights–related work they did. What surprised me in
this case was not the naturalization of the technical exercise conducted
by these professionals, but the laziness that surrounds the concept of
identity in Argentina. Thus for these two geneticists, who while claim-
ing not to know about identity, never stop talking about it as if it were
evidence that always has to do with biology and refers to unicity: genet-
ics connects one’s present to one’s origins and one’s destiny. The work
done by these women—a technical work—would it rest on the same
arguments if it were done in a place where the identity = DNA equation
did not work? Probably not. But it does now, to the extent that genes
and genetics have come to define being.
The policy deployed by the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo for
searching for the disappeared became an identity policy, built around
the most conservative definition possible of identity: identity is the
­preservation of what is. From there, every definition of identity suscep-
tible to lability (wherever there is a play with genders, flexible names,
ambiguous territories, paradoxes, change . . . ) is banished to the terri-
tory of ideas that are equivocal (“If the theories did not support that
request, which the Grandmothers had a legitimate right to make, then
those books had to go” [Galiñanes 1997]) or foreign (“I have noticed in
practice how the discourse of some European psychologists and sociolo-
gists gradually changed as a result of observing the experience of the
Grandmothers, how they reunited with their grandchildren and how
their grandchildren reunited with their own identity. There was a view
of identity that was very . . . shall we say . . . cultural and social . . . soci-
ologistic . . . , where [anything] that had to do with biology and genetics
[was] highly disregarded” [I2]).
So, clear-cut, categorical definitions are invited to enter the territory
of identity, definitions made in the flesh (“Intrauterine memory, how
those kids recognize, who knows how, what they are.” [I2]), in the genes
90 Surviving Forced Disappearance

(“[DNA] shapes [our] essential characteristics as persons.”3). We are,

indeed, genes turned into names (“That person was registered in the
civil registry with a new name, the biological name” [I2]), and because of
that, yes, because of it, we are always the same as ourselves. What beauti-
ful fictions, these fictions of unity and permanence! How efficient they
are! They lead us to believe that identity is what remains, what we inherit
and does not change. The detained-disappeared, living or dead, are thus
that which was. Never that which is now—detained-disappeared—
merely a “pseudo-identity” (I10), a false identity. They are strong identi-
ties, those that can be imagined after the catastrophe, with firm names,
sustained by solid supports, immutable and indubitable. Would those
identities be as strong if this catastrophe had never befallen? No, surely
not. Today, in Argentina, Uruguay, or Chile (the places most directly
marked by forced disappearance of persons) the association of identity
with blood and genes has become very basic—so basic that campaigns
that would be met with uncertainty in other places are received naturally
there. Two examples of such campaigns are the blood sample drive orga-
nized in Chile by the association of relatives of disappeared persons in
2009, which under the slogan “You live within us, we carry you in our
blood” called on relatives of the disappeared to give genetic samples that
could later be used to identify the remains of their relatives should they
be found, and the Latin American Initiative for the Identification of
Disappeared Persons launched in 2010 by the EAAF under the auspices
of the national presidency of Argentina.
Again: a tactical need becomes an ontological assumption. Once this is
established—what may perhaps be necessary to identify those who are no
longer with us, of whom there only remains that which they shared with
those they had blood ties with—once it has been naturalized, it becomes
a general theory of identity. The question, then, now exceeds the detained-
disappeared and the field of human rights and invades very diverse ter-
ritories. In 2008, Andrés Gómez Seguel wrote to me from La Jolla to send
me this news report that was featured in the Santiago de Chile newspaper
La Tercera (http://www.latercera.cl):

A study of the population [will be conducted] with DNA samples . . . to

­create a genetic photograph . . . of the Chilean people. . . . The analysis will
be used to settle a historical debt with the victims of the dictatorship, as the
genetic map that will be drawn as a result will make it possible to identify
detained-disappeared persons. . . . However, the genetic map will not be able
to be used for paternity cases as it will be completely anonymous. . . . The
unprecedented sampling will provide a genetic bank that will preserve the
identity of Chileans. (July 12, 2008)
The Meaning-Preserving Machinery 91

Leaving aside the confusion between the genetic uniqueness of an indi-

vidual and the possible shared genetic characteristics of all members
of the population, what is interesting here is that the jumble of values
emerging in the field of human rights spills over to other territories, in
this case the territories of rationalization and hygienization of the popu-
lation, and does so through a rapid action vehicle: blood, genes. Or more
significantly still, the Argentine campaign for the identification of the
population through its genetic features that the government of Cristina
Fernández launched in 2011 under the name Biometric Identification
Program.4 The general aim is to make “strides in the field of security and
people’s rights,” in particular “the right to identity”; the concrete mea-
sures are registering the 40 million Argentines by drawing up a complete
genetic map of the entire population; the slogan is “Knowing ourselves
better means taking better care of ourselves.” Biological ties, in fact, go
from being an instrument for locating the living disappeared to becom-
ing the argument that supports the definition of identity, all identity,
and the basis for arguments—which are, moreover, morally backed—for
population rationalization policies, which we should consider seriously if
they are really in accordance with the human rights policies that seem to
justify and contain them.
The devastated body, the destroyed name, the fractured identity that
emerged from that catastrophe led to the belief that despite the disasters
we are, and thus being became synonymous with biological load that pre-
vails over any changes. A being, moreover, of which DNA is the proof. Our
essence, which nothing, not even the most spectacular of catastrophes—
and forced disappearance of persons is one such catastrophe—can modify.
And this belief is held both by those involved, the relatives of the disap-
peared (such as this son of disappeared persons: “Let’s say I’m a totally
different person from my parents, my biological parents . . . in the sense
that every person is unique. But the essence and a whole bunch of stuff are
engraved genetically in me, they’re things my parents left me” [I23]), and
by experts and professionals (“there’s absolutely no possibility of changing,
replacing, or suppressing identity”;5 “[in identity] emotional ties are based
on genetic bonds” [Corach 1997]).
Poor Simón. Or Macarena. Or Victoria. Or Mariana. Or Horacio, or so
many other “appropriated children” now recovered, “living disappeared”
who now have their “true identity.” I doubt there are any other people
who have had to hear so many times how much they look like their par-
ents or one of their relatives as I have heard these people being told: “You
have Gerardo’s eyes.” “See? His son looks just like grandpa Gatti.” They
can take comfort: they are not the only ones, as this refuge in essence is
92 Surviving Forced Disappearance

common currency among children of the disappeared, so bent are they—

they and those around them—on clinging to everything that ties them via
their genes to that origin truncated by catastrophe:

So it was also surprising to discover how much is engraved genetically in

our bodies: learning that my parents were just as crazy about seafood as I
am. (Pietragalla Corti 2005)
A boy [who had been appropriated and had recovered his identity] sends
us an email saying: “Pink Floyd! My mom listened to Pink Floyd! I can’t
believe it!” He lived his whole life with his family but nobody had ever
thought to tell him that his mom liked Pink Floyd. And he liked them too!
It was a bond. (I19)
My old man liked to cook, I like to cook; I love food I’d never even tasted
before and now I’m crazy about, things I never ate growing up because I
was raised with different meals, and as soon as I got a chance to taste them
I thought: “This is my favorite food.” And then I find out that that was my
dad’s favorite food too. (I23)

Forced disappearance of persons required taking a reflective approach

to the fact of identity. This approach could have taken very diverse
directions, and in fact it has. But in what I have called “narratives of
meaning” what is sought is very clear: if forced disappearance of persons
destroyed identities, resistance involves remaking them, reconstructing
them from what remains. Straightforwardly, unambiguously, without
leaving any room for absence of meaning, relentless toward paradox and

Materials for Forging the Names of the

Disappeared, II: Family
Maybe that’s a false memory. Don’t androids sometimes go around with
false memories? (Dick 1968, 89)

In their old headquarters, the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo are run-

ning one of the latest projects of the organization: the Family Biography
Archive. With this unique project, the Grandmothers seek to prepare the
legacy they will leave for the grandchildren who may be recovered in the
future and who, alone, will have no one to help them reconstruct the his-
tory of their parents and their families, a history they were stripped of. If
they are lucky, or if along the way they manage to learn who they were,
they will be able—according to the people behind the project—to learn
The Meaning-Preserving Machinery 93

who they are. . . . There, in the archive, they will find in a box the record-
ings, the photographs, the histories that make their history. The aims are
crystal clear, and so are the terms on which this project is built: to recon-
struct, to recover.

With the Archive we seek to reconstruct the life history of the disappeared,
those who are members of families with children who were abducted or
born in captivity during the last military dictatorship, both those who are
still living with their abductors and those who have already recovered their

Those boxes, jealously guarded in the Family Biography Archive, contain

the memory of the living disappeared. They are curious contrivances: each
box contains tapes with recordings, accompanied by their respective tran-
scriptions, of the interviews that the group of volunteers working in the
archive has collected on the life history of any disappeared person who had
a child that was later appropriated. They include interviews with friends
of the child’s parents, with their schoolmates, with their fellow militants.
And above all, interviews with their relatives: mothers, brothers, fathers,
sisters, grandparents, aunts, cousins. . . . It is a legacy that the grandmothers
are leaving for the grandchild who has not yet appeared, a story spun with
the solid thread—a very solid thread—of the family novel, of what is con-
sidered the true family novel. A fabric that leaves no doubts about what, in
the eyes of the archive organizers, is the true identity: “Now [thanks to the
information contained in the archive] it’s her, not another person. [Before]
she wasn’t the person she had to be.” [I29]).
There is no room here for ambiguities nor for exercises of relativization
of the idea of identity, which through the effect of this narrative is converted
into a solid, essential, and forceful weapon for combating the absence of
meaning. Consider the terrible texture of the following phrases—outside
true identity, a void, nothing, the nonidentity of anyone who does not have
a name, a territory or a history:

The grandchildren [appropriated children of disappeared persons] have a

“non-identity.” 7
When you have no roots, no family or social history, no name that identi-
fies you, you stop being who you are.8
These young people live in a state of exception without knowing it, their
situation, along with their documentation, filiation and identity, is forged.
(Lo Giúdice 2004, 48)
There aren’t two truths, three truths, x number of truths. That’s what
frames identity. (I28)
94 Surviving Forced Disappearance

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick (1968) presented

a powerful image: the androids—disturbingly and threateningly similar
to their human creators, who were beings with complete identities, as
opposed to the monsters and simulations that androids were—had the
memories of others installed in their own, artificial, incomplete, false,
and monstrous memory. Integrated into a coherent whole, these recol-
lections gave substance to the identity of these entities who, following
this implant, possessed a clean time and space, the time and space of the
family. Thanks to that ordered memory, each android gained substance,
solidity, as through its incorporation to the family saga the android was,
it had identity. Dick’s story was disturbing because it raised uncomfort-
able questions: Can one be without origins? Do those origins necessar-
ily require a single family history? Can one even be said to be if one’s
origins are not consistent from the viewpoint of genetics or the family
history? Can one have an identity without a name, a territory, or a his-
tory? To all of these questions, the answer of the Grandmothers of Plaza
de Mayo is no.
The group of women who work tenaciously and indefatigably gath-
ering material for the Family Biography Archive do not hesitate when
asked these questions: to the first two they answer, yes; to the other
three, a resounding no. They are guardians of a legacy, keepers of this
temple. Some of them are part of the Children of Grandmothers Army.
Yes, “Children of Grandmothers,” odd as it may sound. This slip irri-
tates again the field of reality that forced disappearance puts at stake: the
field of identity, family, lineage . . . It also indicates that the solution of
the narratives I am working with now—which repairs what are conceived
as “natural bonds”—promotes strange constructions: children who are
raised by their grandparents or their aunts and uncles, orphans who form
communities of peers. . . . It is a curious and very interesting unintended
consequence of this rhetoric: there where it situated the preservation of the
link, the recovery of the bond, the restitution of the family and the novel
that articulates it, the new—the very new—is born.
Alicia lo Giúdice, coordinator of the Psychological Team of the
Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, wrote that disappearance fractures the
human system of filiation and cuts off the possibility of forming a social
bond (2005, 37). Her words accurately reflect the verb around which the
political actions of the Grandmothers are conjugated—restore—and the
noun that makes their expression possible—identity. Thus, if those affected
by forced disappearance of persons are devastated subjects, the way that
devastation can be compensated is by reincorporating those subjects into
the fabrics that constitute them—their family, their heritage—which are
then reconstructed in all their forceful unity (“The aim is to recover the
The Meaning-Preserving Machinery 95

identity that was lost when the ‘disappeared’ entity was constituted, giving
way to a new social subject, negating the previous identity.”9). Balance is
imposed: the biological meets the cultural; family, lineage, saga, in sum,
the powerful rhetoric of authenticity complete what is etched indelibly in
each of us—our genetic fingerprint.
As I see it, the institutionalization and legitimization of these policies
of identity has forced the debates on this question to be conducted on
profoundly essentialist terms. That is certainly how it has been in the field
of the detained-disappeared, but it has spilled over its own borders, affect-
ing that which has to do with these concerns in other social spaces where
identity is an issue. There, now, the issues of Being, identity, and sub-
ject cannot escape the spaces of the biological—untouchable, immovable,
unquestionable spaces. Rigid.
Chapter 5

Art and Science Struggling with

the Absence of Meaning

The chapters that follow discuss the narratives of the absence of

­meaning, those built in and on the catastrophe caused by forced disap-
pearance. These are narratives that explicitly reveal that it is precisely in
that place—the catastrophe—and in no other place, that they are consti-
tuted, and that they accept that even though it might be a difficult place
to speak of, you can speak from it and you can build identity in it.
They speak from a new place. I will state it proudly: it is my place. And
I will be modest about it: it is hard for me to describe it. I will even cheat:
I will speak of it through what others—many who are sociologically like
me, others not—say about it and the account of how they live it. I must
confess that until recently I thought that this place was the product of a
personal experience, until I found that it also served as a hypothesis for
social research.
In that place, a discourse that has to do with a certain normalized
­e xperience of the catastrophe takes shape. This is probably due to the pas-
sage of time and to the fact that for many of those (us) who live in the
field of the detained-disappeared the process of socialization occurred
in absence, so much so that that they (we) did what seemed impossible
observing the ways of managing forced disappearance discussed in previ-
ous chapters. In effect, if the narratives sought to repair what was bro-
ken, to remake what catastrophe had devastated, those that I have called
­narratives of absence of meaning recognize that the catastrophe is no lon-
ger merely evident, but has constituted worlds, identities, languages—-
the catastrophe has been institutionalized as a stable and inhabitable place.
If I can say almost without a doubt that social spaces marked by that

G. Gatti, Surviving Forced Disappearance in Argentina and Uruguay

© Gabriel Gatti 2014
98 Surviving Forced Disappearance

convulsion have emerged, I can also venture with near certainty that
these spaces are filled with subjects, subjects who live that supervening,
now institutionalized absence, subjects who somehow have learned to
manage that disaster, subjects who have organized languages and identi-
ties for it.
It is speaking from there that I adopt here a position with respect to the
narratives of meaning, a position that, while not belligerent, is wary. It is
grounded on reasons that are both academic and vital. The former reasons,
again, stem from my shoes. Shoes that stand in a place deeply marked
by readings about identity and of identity reluctant to believe that it is
something that must necessarily be thought of as permanent, stable, fixed,
immobile, and inclined to think that if the truth about identity can indeed
be found somewhere, finding it will involve giving up the overbearing
logic of the unitary and of continuity to concentrate instead on figures of
uncomfortable textures and blurred tonalities. The figure of the detained-
disappeared is one of them: very uncomfortable, very blurry. Enormously
so. Leaving it like that is intellectually challenging for anyone whose work
focuses on contemporary forms of identity, as it entails concentrating in a
single site all the features that form the characterology of current identities
(their weakness, their fluidity, their complexity, their hybrid, and radicu-
lar condition) and applying in that site many tools that are usually used
­separately. That does not happen often.
And as for the second type of reasons, the vital reasons, they also spring
from my shoes, shoes that in that aspect lead me to occupy a position
highly marked by a concrete sensitivity—with more than just a slight gen-
erational tone—toward the figure of the detained-disappeared. From that
sensitivity, alongside the affection for weak identities, paradox or parody,
there is always a certain mistrust toward works that focus on stopping the
catastrophe, on preserving the old pacts between meaning and things, on
not losing the connection to our fullness and avoiding falling into bot-
tomless holes, works that are somewhat fearful, as they are—why not say
it—something of an exorcism against the ghosts created by that catastro-
phe. I look at them with mistrust, yes, because I believe that that intent
on reestablishing meaning has consequences, no doubt of the kind that
sociology calls “unintended consequences of action”: conservative effects,
which have forced and force the debates on identity to recede to an essen-
tialist state, which imprint the stamp of Truth where an intellectually
healthier one had set in—that of questions—reintroducing the issue of
Being into the places of the biological, which is untouchable, immovable,
In any case, I do not think I am alone in those highly marked places,
as there are indications that a paradigm of sorts is taking shape, which
Art and Science 99

is both academic and generational, a paradigm that turns the detained-

disappeared into a metaphor in which to settle to make the world legible
and an inhabitable place. I am talking about something that is still
fresh, in statu nascendi, although it seems to be solidifying; which is
why I only have indications of it. I will present them in the following

1. The first, which appear in this chapter, are found in the reflection
involved in artistic work, in how representation is viewed in art when
the artist is forced to face the irrepresentable.
2. In this chapter I also look at the birthmarks of the new narratives
that are starting to emerge in the professional practice of experts who
know that in order to move in the world of the detained-disappeared
without getting hurt by its sharp edges they need to resort to less
figurative and more indirect devices, they need to find languages
that can adjust to the uncomfortable logic of that entity.
3. In the next chapter, I will allow myself to take one step back in time
to describe—almost honor—the broken word of the survivors, the
former detained-disappeared, perhaps the first to come up with the
mot juste to speak of the fracture. They came back from the camp
and created a narrative to speak of that place in the face of which
language recoils.
4. Lastly, in the next chapter, chapter 7, I will show the clues—perhaps
not the most significant, but the most incarnate—that are evident in
a unique, and certainly new, group, formed by victims of the catas-
trophe, the children of the detained-disappeared, some of them at
least. I will call them “post-orphans”; they construct their identities
resorting to a grammar that is at best peculiar, made with, among
other ingredients, a substantial amount of parody, a bit of distanc-
ing, and a pinch of tragedy.

Art in the Face of the Irrepresentability of

Forced Disappearance
In contexts of transition, the art world approaches the things it
­represents by inviting them to regain the status of things-with-­meaning,
that same status that they were stripped of in times of ignominy: the
disappeared appear symbolically, the oppressed are brought back to
the ­c enter, the exiled return, the internal exiles go out into the public
space again . . . (Gatti 2006). The risk this strategy involves is a great
100 Surviving Forced Disappearance

one: getting these entities to abandon the status they attained. That is,
turning them into something else.
Another option is to face the representation of those things and figures,
including that of the detained-disappeared, accepting the very impossibil-
ity of representing and the resulting need to find means and languages to
work with that impossibility. In sociology, as I have said, dealing with
such an intense paradox is difficult. It is somewhat less difficult in what
can generically be called an “artistic exercise,” which plays—it can—with
that paradox. There, when what is at stake is what fractures meaning and
the possibility of portraying it, artistic work is efficient and even though it
may not always attain the depth that a social scientist demands, it is at least
capable of insinuating ways of reflecting that sociologists, for reasons of
scientific rigor, cannot always adhere to. Take what follows as that: insinu-
ations, suggestions of ways, languages, new concerns, sustained by ideas
such as remnants, rupture, absence, wound, sore, dis-language. I am not a
specialist in this, far from it. The purpose of this epigraph is, thus, both to
be informative1 and to present arguments: it aims to streak this text with
the (uncomfortable) hue that in recent years has been coloring the dis-
courses on the detained-disappeared and the field created around them.
Garbage, remnants, ruins, excrements, vomit, or, more broadly, the
things that are because they no longer are, these are the first of the con-
cepts that support these strategies that seek to reflect on social life when
it is in a state of catastrophe.2 In effect, these materials that no-longer-are-
what-they-were have given support to expressions of “a special realm of art
[that] ferments in what breaks, in the useless, in the infectious” (Moreira
1998, 132). In reference to other contexts, Peter Weibel (2002) gathers
various manifestations of what he calls “non-art,” which find their material
alibi in residues and remnants: bodies manifested through their remains,
which breach the frontiers between the public and the private, subjected
to situations that dilute and problematize the split between nature and
society. . . . They are not expressions in negative, manifestations of destruc-
tion, but displays of things whose positive status is being because they no
longer are.
These things are no longer what they were but neither are they some-
thing new and whole, they are something that was and that insofar as they
were they participate in our present. Does what I just wrote above remind
you of something? It evokes something in the group of Argentine artists
Escombros, artistas de lo que queda (Debris, Artists of What Remains): “[To
reflect on the disappeared], since it was formed the group Escombros, artis-
tas de lo que queda has been using both waste—material and symbolic resi-
dues of society—and contemporary media, genres, and expressions. Ruins,
desolation, and garbage intersect with bodies/traces, graffiti or writings on
Art and Science 101

the wall, photographic records, digitalization, in recent years the Internet,

and interventions” (Grupo Escombros 2007, 199). Broken, cracked, vio-
lated, torn material . . . serves as support to express, they say, in “the world
of the here and now” (ibid., 198), the violated memory, the disappeared
bodies. . . . They are entities that go well with these textures, the textures of
remnants and garbage. For the Chilean artist Gonzalo Díaz, the concept
of remnant is useful for thinking of the disappeared and of their non-
death, characteristic, he seems to be indicating, of catastrophes and ruins,
of places and moments outside the regular state of things. Invited to reflect
on the subject Where are the remains? In what area is the waste?3 Díaz pro-
posed a disturbing image: a family photo is superimposed over a passage of
Section 79 of the Chilean Civil Code, which establishes the status of bod-
ies that disappear in a catastrophe: “If two or more persons were to perish
in the same event, such as a shipwreck, fire, building collapse, or battle,
or if for any other reason the order in which they died was unknown,
every case shall be treated as if all had died at the same time and none had
survived the others.” Undistinguished remains, texture of the detained-
Along with garbage and remnants, fractured series have served to give
shape to the shapelessness of the detained-disappeared and their worlds.
The exhibit Retratos (Portraits), staged by Carlos Altamirano in Chile in
1996, shows a continuous series of current, peaceful photographs abruptly
interspersed by old, dark, disturbing photocopies . . . of the faces of the
detained-disappeared. They appear as holes in the series, empty spaces
that do not so much break as form part of it as voids. For Nelly Richard,
“In a fragmented continuity . . . the series is interrupted at regular intervals
by the black and white pictures of detained-disappeared persons” (2000,
30). The absent make themselves present but without their most marked
condition—their absence—being annulled by their presence in the series;
on the contrary, if they are there, they are there as not being part of it,
as absent. Even the dark and gray texture of the image that makes them
present again—that re-presents them—is an indication of their singular
nature: “temporal ambiguity of what still is and what no longer is . . . some-
thing suspended between life and death . . . between loss and remnant”
(ibid., 31). Altamirano’s ruptured series situates the detained-disappeared
in their place, between what is and what is not, between the no longer and
the not yet. And indicates also that the only way to work with these perso-
nas is by dismissing the literal presence.
The absence that breaks normality—the absence of identity, the absence
of representation . . . —is also the place problematized by Argentine pho-
tographer Marcelo Brodsky (2006). In the series Buena memoria (Good
Memory) he reflects on the fates of his generation, showing the units of
102 Surviving Forced Disappearance

meaning that disappearance, death, or exile fractured. It starts with a

photograph of a Buenos Aires National School class taken in 1967: a sepia
portrait of a group of schoolchildren, Brodsky’s own class, in their last
year of elementary school. A photograph of the normal. From there, the
paths taken in the lives of some subjects—then children, now adults—
are mapped out by the subjects themselves, whom Brodsky photographs
in front of the class portrait. But other paths cannot be narrated, because
the only thing that remains of them is absence: 98 students of that school
are today detained-disappeared. To speak of the biography of these sub-
jects you can only resort to the gap, to the fact that they are missing from
the generation that contains them as absentees.
Absence marks, in an even more disturbing way, Gustavo Germano’s
homonymous photo exhibition Ausencias. The concept on which it rests
is as simple as it is disturbing: comparing the past and the present and
being able to give density in the latter to what is lacking from the former.
Two moments: a long series of images of the 1970s in which young people
are shown, mostly in sepia, posing alone or with others, and beside each
picture, a current, sharper version showing what remains of that first pic-
ture: just the place; or the place but with less presences. In all of them
something is lacking, and that absence is powerfully eloquent. There is
something there that cannot be seen but which fills. And it oppresses and
overwhelms: you can look at one picture and it is bearable, maybe two,
three. . . . But the whole series produces a terribly disturbing effect, the
effect of discovering that the void, that void, is full.4
Another example of a work of art that illustrates that identity built in
absence is Julio Pantoja’s 1999 exhibition Los Hijos, Tucumán veinte años
después (The Children, Tucumán Twenty Years Later), which I discuss
here based on Diana Taylor’s review (2003, 183).5 Faced with the ques-
tion, “How does a group of teenagers whose parents are disappeared dif-
fer, visually, from a group whose parents are not disappeared?”, Pantoja
looks for the answer by asking several sons and daughters of disappeared
persons to choose how they want to be photographed. Almost all of them
choose to do so accompanied by signs of the absence, by photographs
that indicate the permanent and ambiguous presence of their disap-
peared parents (“My old man—one of them says—is sepia. What color
is yours?”).6
Exposing the body and showing the sores left on it by disappearance
has become one of the most common devices used in disappearance art.
This happens, in the first place, with many subjects directly concerned
with the phenomenon, generally children of detained-disappeared per-
sons, who, availing themselves of a peculiar and methodologically fasci-
nating reflective trick, show their sore-stricken bodies and histories while

“La Tortuga Alegre”. Río Uruguay. Entre Ríos
Orlando René Mendez
Leticia Margarita Oliva


“La Tortuga Alegre”. Río Uruguay. Entre Ríos

Figure  5.1a, b  Images taken from Gustavo Germano’s Ausencias exhibition

(2007). Reproduced with permission from the author.

Omar Darío Amestoy
Mario Alfredo Amestoy


Mario Alfredo Amestoy

Figure  5.2a, b  Images taken from Gustavo Germano’s Ausencias exhibition

(2007). Reproduced with permission from the author.
Art and Science 105

at the same time analyzing both the cause of the sores and the sore-stricken
body itself. The movies by Albertina Carri (Los rubios, 2003) and Nicolás
Prividera (M, 2007), the novel by Félix Bruzzone (Los topos, 2008), the
diary by Mariana Eva Perez (2012a), or this social research study (Gatti
2008b) are expressions of this strategy. They all have in common that
they show both the tearing apart itself and the observation of the tear-
ing apart, the observation of the wounded body itself. “That this pain is
pleasure,” as Todd Rundgren sings in his song Influenza, which Albertina
Carri chooses for the ending of Los rubios, in a cover by Charly García. Or
in Silvana Mandolessi’s words: these strategies reveal that one occupies a
precarious position that is simultaneously a pleasurable position (2011).
The sore-stricken body is also a work surface for artists who put their
own body in place of the absent victim. Felipe Martínez Quintero (2011)
has worked on several examples of this, all of them in the north, outside
the Southern Cone region: the work by Regina Jose Galindo, who “walks
from the Constitutional Court to the Justice Palace in Guatemala, leav-
ing behind countless footprints in blood”; the work by the Peruvian the-
ater group Yuyachkani, which in 2001 used the body of actor Augusto
Casafranca to represent the detained-disappeared Augusto Cánepa:
“Casafranca ‘embodies,’ that is, lends his body so that Augusto Cánepa
can be present besides the victims’ organizations. . . . In this performance—
not so much a play—Casafranca tries to deliver a letter from Cánepa to
the president of the transitional government. A fragment of the letter reads:
‘On July 15, I was detained by the police in my town, held incommuni-
cado, tortured, burnt, mutilated, killed. I was declared disappeared. You
will probably have been aware of the national protest campaign on my
behalf, to which I now add my own protest to ask you to return the por-
tion of my bones that was taken to Lima. . . . The body is, in a manner of
speaking, the minimum unit of death, and to divide it as it is divided today
in Peru is to break both the natural and social law.’” In all of these cases,
Martínez Quintero concludes, the artists “situate themselves between what
is said and what is unsaid . . . there where the word is not enough . . . , in
what any objective account will establish as silence and indetermination.”
Fractured series, identity built in absence. Wounds, in sum. But open
wounds, wounds that do not close. Wounds for which there is no language
that works comfortably: there is no literality to describe that deaf and per-
manent pain. The Memory Park in Buenos Aires and, more specifically,
the projected Monument to Victims of State Terrorism choose to set those
ruptures in stone. In Graciela Silvestri’s words:

It was decided that [the monument] would be materialized through a

deep, sharp rift, as if the ground had been split open by an earthquake;
106 Surviving Forced Disappearance

the authors knew that the geological wound they created with the names
of each detained-disappeared person . . . unadorned, spoke clearly to a vast
sector of society, and thus . . . the cornerstone pierced by a deep fault alludes
to that decision. The rupture used before in these monuments and works
of art constitutes a proven symbol, not of reunion but of unmended frac-
ture. . . . It does not seek to close wounds that cannot be closed, nor replace
truth and justice in the conclusion. (2000, 21)

“Fracture,” “rupture,”, “fault,” “wound”. . . . Terrible vocabulary, the vocab-

ulary that art work proposes for the absence of meaning. The memorial to
the detained-disappeared in Montevideo, designed by Ruben Otero and
Martha Kohen, works with similar references. The names of the detained-
disappeared are arranged in no particular order on transparent methacry-
late panels that seem to grow from a wounded stone, to sprout directly
from pain. It is not all that easy to reach the memorial; it is not easy to be
there either. It says nothing; it shows that it is difficult to say. It does not
seem to make an interpretation; it shows the difficulty of making an inter-
pretation. It does not close the representation; it leaves it open, it allows it
to never close, to constantly restart. It speaks from the blank; it represents
the irrepresentable without closing it.
Edmundo Gómez Mango, working with Juan Gelman’s texts and his
efforts to form a language for forced disappearance, wonders what word
to use there, where words are separated from things and cannot find their
way back again: “How do poetic verbs capture laments and transport them
to songs? How does the grief of mourning, separation, exile inspire verbs
and beget poetic words?” (2004, 40). His answer: with a dis-languaged
language, with words but words that are broken. “Tragedy often renders us
mute and sometimes pain can only be expressed through cries or laments.
But can the experience of pain occur truly outside language?” (ibid.,
54). With the “Gelman solution,” pain becomes language: “speaking or
­de-speaking to you / pain of mine / a way of holding / de-holding you,” the
poet writes (ibid., 60). Language of dis-identity:

Language itself is pain: words, terrified, become tangled up, deformed; not
only do they try to speak the suffering of the soul, but words themselves
become torment, torture, torn language, dismembered language. Poetry
must simultaneously “speak/de-speak” pain, “hold” it while at the same
time “de-holding” it. Language wounds words, disfiguring them, making
them “return” to a state of babbling, very close to sobbing or screaming, it
“de-speaks” them. (ibid., 61)

The disappeared appear, but as such, as nonidentity, dis-language. Words in

mourning (ibid., 70), dissociated. But words: our interpretative frameworks
Art and Science 107

have come to the limit of the sayable, but that does not necessarily entail
sinking into laziness or disillusionment or giving up on saying.
These “poetics of the crisis” (Richard 2007) do not stitch up the gaps,
rather they “reuse cuts and fissures, discontinuities and ruptures” (ibid.,
150). It is mandated by the fact, the movement is determined by the
­phenomenon itself that is to be represented: it is too precarious for an
integral language, too destroyed to move away from the ruins. Because the
question is, in fact, “What word is there for this? What word is there for
what is not?” Lament, wail, contortion?

Experts Facing the Absence of Meaning

It’s not by purifying, by turning what is dirty into something clean, that we
will understand. (I17)

Analyzing the work of some experts, I noted in an earlier chapter that

they could be considered true professionals of meaning, subjects who,
beyond their political intentions or activism, gave continuity to the
efforts of the lettered men of the past: they hygienize and regulate real-
ity, they interpret the world, they assign a word to everything. That is
their task and that is how they carry it out, especially in situations of
disorder and crisis. That is the case of the universe of realities derived
from the irritation wreaked on order by forced disappearance: experts
on psyche, experts on human intervention on space, experts on the body
and on identity, experts on the state and its institutions . . . take on the
responsibility of bringing balance to these entities when they have been
subjected to destruction. And we have seen that they are efficient in
their work.
But what happens when the diagnosis of these professionals is that
the meaning of these things is precisely its absence? That the absence of
what gives substance to their objects is the most salient feature of those
objects? How, then, do they interpret their work? I am not making a
play on words here or proposing perverse analyses. These are questions
that stem from the very practice of these professionals, forced as they
are to manage disjointed bodies, identities without material supports,
deaths without burial grounds or mourning, absent archives, buildings
in ruins, shapeless identities. . . . The pages that follow outline some of
the ­strategies followed by these professionals when they come against the
dissolution of their objects and must propose solutions for ways of think-
ing about them and acting on them without denaturalizing them.
108 Surviving Forced Disappearance

The Abject in Psyche Work

The work of psychoanalysts seeks, as we saw, to restore the balance lost

in a subject devastated by catastrophe: it battles trauma and what trauma
breaks, facing a patient who is imagined, one psychoanalyst says, as a “walk-
ing sufferer” (I5). With this approach, the effort is aimed in one direction:
taking the subject out of there, that is, rescuing him from a territory where
being is impossible (“You have to try to break away from the hole, because
that is the temptation: going into the hole and staying there” [I5]). That is
the dominant narrative among psyche professionals and abandoning it is
not an easy task, because it does not depend on specific situations, or on
exclusively disciplinary demands. Rather it depends on something more
far-reaching: deep convictions—modern convictions, our convictions—
regarding the notion of identity, convictions that show it as necessarily
circular, categorical, and, if broken, tending toward wholeness.
These convictions clash, and they clash heavily, with how identity is
staged around the detained-disappeared, a staging that questions the pro-
fessional, who is on occasions even scandalized: “[Upon seeing a group
of children of disappeared persons resorting to black humor to refer to
their parents] my own perceptual system rejected the connections it was
making, but for them it was completely normal; you could say it was
like the slang used by kids. It’s very difficult to get for those outside the
group. . . . ” (I8).
However, upon finding evidence that identity is built in these places,
it is no longer just about rescuing the affected subject from those holes,
but also about helping them first learn how to digest the peculiarity of his
identity and then inhabit those cavities. I do not know how that is achieved
therapeutically; in what I do know how to measure, it reveals an awareness
of the need for new readings of being, subject, and identity.
In effect, it would seem that in the field of work of psyche profession-
als the idea of identity, and with it the images used to think about its
spaces and its times, is being re-signified; it is essential to be able to work
with the identity of people who shape theirs in areas that do not go well
with its modern architecture, in grounds whose constitution is thought
to be uncomfortable for a balanced psyche and in which, nonetheless, it
is formed. Now, one professional says, “[it is not about ridding oneself of
that [traumatic] history. The point is, precisely, to make with that his-
tory, to make with the hole. Skirting the hole, being there” (I5), helping
the patient “make a home” (I5) in that hollow. Now, under pressure of
these new concerns, the libraries of old books on identity are retrieved
and new life is breathed into terms such as foreclusion, sinister, abjection,
and parodic identity.
Art and Science 109

Powerful re-signification. Very powerful. So powerful that in the bag

of the psychoanalyst who works in the field of the detained-disappeared
one will now be hard-pressed to find an idea of identity associated with
what ought to be. What remains and what is done with it constitutes
the work site (“What is lost as identity cannot be restored, it cannot be
­recovered. . . . There is no [identity] that ought to have been” [I5]). That is
its normality: “They were born as if seized by the traumatic situation” (I8).
“There is nothing strange about trauma” (I7). That deregulated place,
­perhaps pathological, appears nonetheless as a possible place.

Archeologists and Archivists before the

Materials that Remain
Adequatio rei et intellectus

In the psyche, catastrophe produces traumas. In some material spaces it

also produced deep marks that are revealed today under the sordid, dirty
form of ruins or of a dusty archive. When faced with one or the other, the
conventional strategy revolves around three actions: cleaning, recovering,
and situating. That is, restoring the glow, remaking the lost fullness, and
explaining what they were before they were what they are now, almost
nothing, nothing with meaning. That is, the aim is to return those objects
to meaning.
However, be it because of aesthetic conviction, theoretical concern, or
professional rigor, another option is available: showing them as they are,
considering, however strange or uncomfortable it may be, that ruins or
dusty archives are a possible state and thus understanding that maintain-
ing their current absent condition of meaning, their dark, dirty condition,
makes sense, it is not meaningless. This also involves adopting a certain
position: believing that doing the opposite (cleaning, recovering, situating)
distorts the way they are now and hides the essence, the terrible essence of
what turned them into this, the catastrophe.
The dilemma that they face is a powerful one: these workers of mean-
ing, bearers of the modern instruments for hygienizing the world, agents
of a logic—the logic of modern representation that cannot confront the
void—must explain things that are broken, traumatized. Taking those
things out of those places is the first possibility, the one we turn to most
often, in fact. The other is leaving them there. This other possibility entails
that they . . . we . . . be forced to think of something that is radically dis-
rupting for a modern scientist: that the meaning of these phenomena is to
be found in the absence of meaning itself. If that is correct, what better way
110 Surviving Forced Disappearance

to explain them than in terms of a certain aesthetics of the unfinished? It is

not about—or it is not only about—proposing styles of writing and rep-
resentation that aim for, as Jean Griffet calls it, “the suggestive power of
uncertain images” (1991, 360). That is certainly part of it: finding narra-
tives whose textures fit well with those of entities and situations of such a
strange nature. But beyond that stylistic aim, there is another one that is
analytical: being rigorous with what could be called the mandate of repre-
sentation, namely, the correspondence between the thing and the word that
refers to it. Thus with things such as “trauma,” “ruins,” “waste,” “void,”
“remnants,” or “absence,” is it not best, even in the name of something
as cold as “scientific rigor” and “professional ethics,” to devise strategies
that fit well with those things? That is what has been suggested by French
sociologist and economist Yves Barel, a keen observer of moments in which
social life is left without meaning: “We need fluid words for such versatile
phenomena” (1984, 31).
Some archeologists who conduct their work (and their activism) in
clandestine detention centers seem to think so too: “We’re not going to
rebuild the house, the idea is not to remake the house [where the clan-
destine detention center was] because the state it is in now also tells part
of the story. All you see there as wreckage is really wreckage. . . . We’re
going to leave that wreckage there” (I13). This is also the case with cer-
tain archivists who have proposed something that merits attention: to
consider that the absence of data must be addressed, for all purposes, as a
piece of data.

Field Notebook: 10/03/05, Buenos Aires. Archive of the National Human

Rights Secretariat. The Great Invisible Archive
A. A., a Uruguayan human rights activist employed at the National
Human Rights Secretariat Archive, generously gives me some useful clues.
She explains how they work in the archives, what they hope to achieve,
what they want to rebuild. They don’t expect to find something—a Great
Archive—that holds a large concentration of data that will provide definite
proof of what happened. The intention, if I understood correctly, is some-
thing else: that Great Archive is a sort of huge black hole where the chains
of bureaucratic data are lost. The idea is to reconstruct it by following the
chains of files up to the point where they end abruptly. That is where the
disappearing machinery is; that is its evidence: a hard invisible core. It exists,
but as a void.

The absence of data exasperates archivists, making them inevitably feel

that something is not right in their search (“There’s something that
you know existed and isn’t there . . . because it is concealed, we don’t see
all its parts, we only see some. . . . But I think it was totally organized,
Art and Science 111

planned” [I16]). If something happened, archivists reason, somewhere—

in a hidden archive, microfilm, a double wall, a false partition . . . —there
must be evidence that certifies it, and if they cannot find it . . . then they
must look harder.
But not all writing is the same and it is possible to think that for some
kind of phenomena the record that gives proof of their existence is, pre-
cisely, non-writing. That is in part the case with the disappeared: no
record of that should have been left behind, and none was left; that is to
a large extent its most atrocious characteristic, its enormity and its inexis-
tence. It happened, that much we know; they are dead, we know; we also
know who is responsible. But there is no data, no evidence . . . or if there
is it does not fit well with the logic of data and evidence. It is a part of
the data, this data, of this catastrophe: that there is no data. I have said it
already: the magnitude of this extermination was such that in addition to
the obvious—bodies and lives—what was also annihilated here was rep-
resentation itself, its possibility. The question posed by Jean-Luc Nancy
(how to go about “making what is not of the order of presence come to
presence” [2005, 34]) can thus be reformulated as an answer: the only data
is the absence of data.
A priori we could say that this answer renders impossible any eluci-
dation of what happened in the clandestine detention centers, that it
is a trick answer, as it precludes all other answers. But only a priori: if
taken literally, by asserting that “the only data is the absence of data”
what is being proposed is the opposite of immobility or silence, what is
being suggested is a strategy for articulating in a precise way the rep-
resentation of what happened. It is a very practical strategy, typical of
a professional concerned with representing accurately. In the face of
this, the professional will propose that we assume that “data has a dif-
ferent nature there” (I17) and accept that, consequently, we need to
think about it differently. This is what archive professionals do, subjects
who—we must bear in mind—are eminently pragmatic: “In these cases,
when we make our annotations, we usually write that we found the
index card but we didn’t find the files. We record precisely that: that
there is no data” (I18).
Thus, while in a strange way, fact and representation do come
together again: if the disappearing machinery sought to produce that
void (“They knew full well that there were things that were illegal and
they didn’t record them” [I17]; “This, which was conceived from the
institutional system, would not be recorded” [I17]), the archive evi-
dences that fact with a record that matches its condition: to empty data,
absent record. Resounding absence, that absence. Very much present,
in fact.
112 Surviving Forced Disappearance

Jurists in the Face of the A-Juridical

If archivists try to figure out how to turn the non-data into data, the
paradox is greater for jurists, at least some of them, those who propose
reflecting on how to legally categorize something—forced disappearance
of persons—that is characterized by resisting the logic of the law, that
is, by being a-juridical. This is not easy to explain for a layperson. So I
will not attempt to explain it in legal terms, but will use other terms that
are more familiar to me. And I will try to find elements in legal writings
that can help us reflect on the strategies that must be followed to render
that which escapes the underlying logic of these terms thinkable, repre-
sentable, objectifiable even. A concept—that of exception—which I will
approach by situating myself midway between the learned language of
legal and political philosophy (“An emptiness and standstill of the law”
[Agamben 2005, 48]) and the simple language of common sense (“It is the
exception that proves the rule”), will serve to round off and summarize
this epigraph on forced disappearance as a work site.
From what I understand, the first option to address the legal anomaly
that is the figure of the detained-disappeared is to work with it according
to a logic that looks for family likenesses with crimes that are already known
and categorized. This strategy understands that forced disappearance of
persons is similar to those crimes, but it adds something: it is more lasting
(“It is a permanent crime. As long as the individual is deprived of his or
her freedom, the crime is committed every day, every minute . . . ” [I3]), it
is more intense (“deprivation of freedom especially aggravated because it
involves state agents” [I3]). In any case, explaining forced disappearance
through family likenesses is an efficient option, because it makes it visible,
perceptible, understandable, and, also, legally manageable.7 It gives it a
meaning: if it is like kidnapping, evidence and convictions similar to those
of kidnapping will have to be found; if it is like genocide, evidence and
convictions similar to those of genocide will have to be found. . . . A better
understanding is achieved through comparison. But in order to compare
we need to have two things of a similar nature. Is that what we have here?
It does not seem so. Forced disappearance of persons is, without a doubt,
unique. And the jurists who work in the field of the detained-disappeared
know that that is what they are up against.

Field Notebook: 9/23/2005, Buenos Aires. Tribunales. Jurists Give a Name to

the Void
Practical people. We agreed to meet for the interview at the Buenos Aires
court district of Tribunales, surrounded by the instruments of state man-
agement: lawyers, paralegals, notary publics. . . . There can’t be that many
Art and Science 113

places like this, where you can see so clearly the material state and soci-
ety is made of in this part of the world: the law, letters, regulations, plan-
ning. . . . Bauman and Foucault would have a ball here. My interviewee is
a battling lawyer (“I’m a criminal lawyer, not a jurist, I’m a trial man, a
battling lawyer; I know what I have to cite, but my work hasn’t focused
on examining the figure of the detained-disappeared”). He composes the
definition of disappeared working with the textbook in hand: deprivation
of freedom, responsibility of the state, misinformation. . . . They’re amaz-
ing people, these workers of the law: they move between a results-oriented
approach, tactical cunning, and highly complex substantive definitions.
Their discourse is fascinating, as they must back whatever they claim
with seamless arguments, even when they refer to things that border on
the unspeakable. It’s true, out of all the groups of professionals whom I’ve
interviewed they’re the ones that come closest to the construction of an
accurate name for the void.

It is true, as jurists say, that in criminal law the tendency is to avoid

criminalizing new conducts, to avoid creating new criminal categories.
But it is also true that this crime is special: it does not fit any existing crimi-
nal type. Which is why David Baigún, an Argentine jurist, asked himself,
as early as 1987, “Should forced disappearance of persons be categorized
as a special crime?” (1987, 67), to which he answered firmly that a new,
“autonomous and independent” criminal type should be created, because
even if it is similar to the crimes it is compared to, it exceeds their scope.
Now, several lawyers who are used to battling daily in court seem to
agree with Baigún’s words:

It was a mistake to address in ordinary criminal law acts that were not
ordinary. . . . (I4c)
We’re not dealing with an ordinary detention, due process is not possi-
ble. . . . It is often said that this is a crime that affects several legal rights,
not just the victim’s . . . that of the relatives, of society as a whole. It’s not
just about freedom. Hence the inadequacy of talking about deprivation of
freedom, it is not enough, and neither is homicide. It’s not that, it’s some-
thing much more serious and it affects more legal rights than just personal
freedom or physical integrity. (I3)

Thus, as reasoning based on family likeness proves inadequate, a second

option emerges: categorizing forced disappearance as a new and autono-
mous criminal type. Now, then, based on what can the legal specificity
of the figure of the detained-disappeared be argued? Perhaps by adjusting
the line of reasoning to the negative nature that the crime is believed to
have; that is, defining it by what it does not have or by what it denies: it has
no evidence, no identity of the direct perpetrators, no body . . . (Moreno
114 Surviving Forced Disappearance

Ocampo 1987). Because, in fact, in the detained-disappeared there is no

evidence (“Another specific characteristic of forced disappearance of per-
sons is the lack of evidence, which makes it more difficult to include it
as a specific criminal type” [Baigún 1987]; “there is no legal evidence of
that” [I4d]), there are no bodies (“I think disappearance is different from
murder. It’s different when there’s a body, you can bury it with a name
in a place where you can go and cry for your loss” [I1]; “A woman who
had been held at the ESMA clandestine detention center told [the judge],
‘Listen, we can’t bring our dead comrades here because they were thrown
into the sea’” [I1]), there are no places (“They are in a state of limbo and
they exist in a limbo” [I1]), neither is there information (“The key aspect
is disinformation, the absence of information, in that absence of informa-
tion the very existence of the crime is denied” [I3]), there are not even
facts (“The victim is nowhere to be found and that is used as an argument
to claim that the crime itself does not exist, in that sense, that it does
not occur in the factual world” [I3]). And because of all that, there is
no legality, as expressed with keen intelligence by Mónica Pinto (“It is a
crime that is in a lasting a-juridical state” [1987]), an idea that one of the
persons I interviewed for this study, a Uruguayan lawyer, translates into
more concrete terms:

We could say that what was sought with forced disappearance was to avoid
all possibility of present or future prosecution. . . . That is the horror that all
of this poses. (I3)

Perhaps because of all of this, it was not until recently that the figure of
forced disappearance was defined in the norms of reference of interna-
tional law. Even though there had been many attempts to construct the
figure in legal terms, it was not until June 2006 that the United Nations
Human Rights Council first dared to name the figure in a draft that was
adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December of that
year as the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons
from Enforced Disappearance. This crime is defined as follows in the

For the purposes of this Convention, “enforced disappearance” is consid-

ered to be the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation
of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting
with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a
refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the
fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person
outside the protection of the law.8
Art and Science 115

In all the attempts to legally construct the figure there is a sense of the
difficulty in establishing this “dismal and ghostly” category (Sábato
1987) of the detained-disappeared. Because more than for being some-
thing in positive, what stands out in forced disappearance of persons is
what it denies: there is absence (of a body, of data), there is clandestinity
(of the procedure, of the place), there is concealment (of the act and the
whereabouts), there is deprivation (of the space of legality). The crime is
complex: it erases everything.
In the face of forced disappearance, the classic notions of crime are
rendered useless, subjected, they too, to catastrophe: it is an act committed
against law, produced to exist in a territory devoid of law, excluded from
law, sustained by a network of places conceived by the state as places where
the law of the state does not apply. “With forced disappearance of persons,
repression is not carried out pursuant to or against the law; it is a use [of
the law] that makes no use of the law. In this use of the law, ‘normal’ is no
longer such” (Pinto 1987, 196). That is its logic.
It need not be immobilizing. It is true that forced disappearance sub-
jects the law to enormous tensions. But if the possibility of not doing
anything has been discarded and if family-likeness-based reasoning does
not satisfy because of its inadequacy, the option available is to define this
crime according to its paradoxes. This definition could be constructed
by building on the complex concept of exception. Following Giorgio
Agamben’s work (1999, 2005), I would say that exception is the rule that
is proven there where rules are suspended. It emerges from the act through
which the state annuls its own legality and produces a paralegal—not ille-
gal—universe where order exists as an absence and where the language of
order does not work.9 This produces a paradoxical statement: “Exception
appears as the legal form of what cannot have legal form” (Agamben 2005,
1). And in the face of these situations that occur in a logic of exception and
the characters produced there, how can one work juridically? How can
one gauge the juridical meaning of this “sphere of action that is in itself
extrajuridical” (ibid., 11)? How can one act in the face of that “juridical
lacuna” (ibid., 16)? What we have is a tangle of formidable dimensions,
that a priori would appear to preclude any legal regulation—“it is impos-
sible to legally regulate something that, by its very nature, [was] removed
from the sphere of positive law” (ibid., 10–11)—and which cannot be
addressed either through the normal practice of criminal law or by draw-
ing analogies. However, some jurists have a different answer: to address
something that happened under a state of exception, one must proceed
in terms of exception (“I believe there must be special judges, an ad hoc
tribunal” [I4b]) and work, moreover, from the place where the paradox
116 Surviving Forced Disappearance

was created: the state (“The state has to assume in its capacity as state the
crimes it committed acting as state. . . . There is no norm within the state
that can authorize that” (I4b)).

*  *  *

Forced disappearance of persons, its effects, were not left unanswered. The
predominant answer—predominant both in numbers and intensity—was
and is articulated around narratives that try to compensate the catastro-
phe, that seek to exorcise the paradox of the disappeared, with meaning
in spades. Other narratives, less active still but nonetheless present and
vigorous, play in the field that is shaped by this paradox and assume that
it describes the (sociological, psychological, and also aesthetic) nature that
characterizes the field of the detained-disappeared and the universe inhab-
ited by the characters that populate it. Proposing remnants and waste as the
materialities typical of forced disappeared and the detained-disappeared,
thinking that the absence or the wound provide rules for its language, facing
trauma as a space that is also inhabitable, understanding that the ruins of
the clandestine detention centers must not be annulled by a meaning that
returns them to what they were and must rather be left as ruins because
their identity lies in the absence of meaning, thinking up mechanisms of
representation in which the absence of data is a piece of data that can be
archived, and, ultimately, making a-legality the evidence of the existence of
an abhorrent crime and making the exception to the norm its norm . . . are
other options of complex narratives to make forced disappearance of per-
sons and the worlds that surround it thinkable, representable, sayable in
their own terms, the terms of a catastrophe of meaning.
Chapter 6

Noisy Silences: The Testimonial Work

of the Former Detained-Disappeared

The Disappearance of Language

There are problems that are very hard to fix. One such problem—and not
a small one—is the fracturing of modern balanced pacts, especially those
that made words accomplices of things, representations accomplices of facts.
There are many situations today in which these pacts are broken; I would
even venture that it happens in almost every situation. Some of these situa-
tions, while not banal, can be seen by sociologists as ordinary: the difficulty
of explaining ideas of nationality or belonging in a globalized world; the
awkwardness, not to say problem, of talking about sex and gender using
inherited categories; the indistinctness of the once clearly distinguishable
ideas of youth, adulthood, or old age. . . . And so on, with almost every-
thing. And there are also extreme situations, not at all ordinary. One of
these is, of course, forced disappearance. It forces us to reconsider almost
everything, and to do it seriously: the relationships between memory and
community, between life and death, between individual and environment,
between identity and language, between representation and facts. . . . 
A first option for facing this collapse is refusing to believe it, think-
ing that language can handle this, that representation and its logic are still
standing despite this crack, thinking, ultimately, that “evidence,” “data,”
“truth,” or “objectivity” are all still possible despite the catastrophe. Another
option is to go in the opposite direction, believing that representation is
not possible after this catastrophe and that, moreover, it is not possible in
toto, that is, that no word can get along well with these phenomena, that

G. Gatti, Surviving Forced Disappearance in Argentina and Uruguay

© Gabriel Gatti 2014
118 Surviving Forced Disappearance

there is nothing to be done in the face of disaster. And there is a third

option: understanding that the violence inflicted by those acts on language
is so great as to block it, to leave it in a state of shock, but neither denying
the problem nor succumbing to silence or despair, rather reformulating the
very exercise of representation and building a language suitable for that
which is not easy to talk about.
Before I go into some of the concrete aims of that effort to construct
a language of the non-representable, allow me to digress. It will be brief,
even though the subject is dense. It is about going back over the catastro-
phe, over something that was destroyed by it, language. And over what
it forces us to do: invent. Near us, upon accepting the Cervantes Prize in
2008, Juan Gelman spoke of the limits of language and the possibility
and obligation of reinventing it to speak of what has not been spoken of or
cannot be spoken of, and he said: “These new words, what are they if not a
victory against the limits of language? . . . There are millions of spaces that
have not been named, and poetry works and names that which does not
yet have a name” (2008). And he then added, speaking of the task of those
who handle language, poets or writers, sociologists or witnesses: “This
demands from the poet that he clear . . . paths he has never covered, that
he cut through the weeds of his subjectivity, that he ignore the clamor of
imposed words, that he explore the thousand faces that experience opens
up in the imagination, that he find the expression that will mirror them in
writing” (ibid.). If the facts went beyond, then language must venture out
and explore new territories. In my field— that is, the field of sociology—
Elizabeth Jelin has written that in addressing extreme violence instead
of thinking that its consequences are not narratable because language is
rendered powerless before them, the right argument could be situated at
a point where the impediment is thought to lie in the “restrictions and
limitations of the language of the symbolic systems available” (2002, 88),
that is, that language can always go beyond. This is no different, really,
from what Theodor Adorno probably meant with his famous dictum,
“There can be no poetry after Auschwitz.”1 Neither is it different from
the position adopted by Georges Didi-Huberman in Images in Spite of
All (2004), where, without denying that the Nazi Germany camps were
“experimental machines for a general obliteration . . . of the psyche . . .  of . . .
social link, . . . a hell manufactured by humans for the obliteration of the
language” (ibid., 20), he says that over what remains—ruins, devastation,
broken bodies, names without support, non-places, remnants without
apparent value, insignificances . . . —representation can be built, even if
it is different. Those strangely textured things, are they no good? Can
we be rid of them just by declaring that they are no good, that they are
useless? No. Or not necessarily. The debate can be resumed situating the
Noisy Silences 119

questions within words themselves and asking: How can we represent

when words are lacking or are silent? How can we conceive the representa-
tion of that which we know is not representable?
The camps, forced disappearance, did obliterate our way of approach-
ing that entelechy called reality. As Jean-Luc Nancy says, “What the camps
will have brought about is . . . a complete devastation of representation or
even the possibility of representing” (2005, 34). But that did not exhaust
representation, it did not exhaust its mandate, rather it required, Nancy
says, that it put itself “to its own test—to the test, that is, of making what is
not of the order of presence come to presence” (2005, 34). The effort, then,
entails finding a way to say that which is impossible, asking ourselves how
we can go about representing this impossibility of representing.
There are, besides the pioneering ideas of the world of art or the more
complex elaborations of certain professionals (chapter  5), other, more
incarnate representations, the representations of the people directly
involved. They are risky representations, de-worded dis-languages, on
the fringes; far from conservative. I will now give clues of the particu-
lar word of the former detained-disappeared, survivors and witnesses of
something that cannot be spoken of but that they nonetheless talk about.
In ­chapter  7, I will show a bit of the structure of the language of the
children . . . of some of the children of the disappeared. Parody is, in their
case, the characteristic mark.

The Chupadero and Its Narrative

How can we structure this insanity? (I41)

The chupaderos—“suckers,” a fitting name, a new denominative victory

for the beasts—are those spaces that abducted individuals and spit out
waste, those pits where everything, even language, was trapped. They are
the operators of devastation, the dispositifs without which this machinery
would have been impossible.
That was where everything happened. That was where catastrophe
occurred. They are strange spaces: listening to those who (barely) lived
through them you have the impression that they are in a world parallel
to ours. Spaces that are regulated by terms that are of the order of the
clandestine, of the exceptional, of the dark, of the secret (Forster 2000, 85).
Marco Bechis’s movie Garage Olimpo (1999) conveys this special texture
of the chupadero well. The film is set in Buenos Aires in 1976 and the
city is depicted in two planes—one is illuminated, the other is not; one
120 Surviving Forced Disappearance

is above ground, the other is below ground; one is visible, one not; one is
apparent and the other detained-disappeared. One world is on—the world
of rules. The other is off—the world of broken rules. They run in parallel,
with barely any doors between them. They are not communicated. They
­coexist, but they have different logics:

The distance that separates us from the City of Buenos Aires in the aerial
views: a city weighed down under those bird’s-eye shots, often empty of
people, other times populated by absent people who walk past the gate of
Garage Olimpo without suspecting, or better yet without wondering, what
it conceals. . . . The sun is always shining over Buenos Aires. . . . Down below,
in the torture center, darkness contrasts sharply with the luminosity out-
side. (Gallotta 1998)

Field Notebook: 09/17/05, Buenos Aires. Automotores Orletti, Full or

On my way to Morón by train, as I pass through the Flores neighborhood,
I see that Automotores Orletti2 is open. We get off at the following stop.
Wary, I approach the place, attracted by something that calls out to me.
The vertigo that draws us into the void? A final place where they connect
with my world, a sort of antenna, perhaps something like a grave? I look for
gaps in our space-time but all I see are everyday scenes: some guys are work-
ing, washing a car; an old man watches them. They sweep the sidewalk, the
birds are singing. They find it odd that I’m watching them, but they don’t
do anything. Just another nosy passerby. Neighborhood routines.
I grow frustrated: I wish I could feel something but the place says noth-
ing to me. It’s not easy to imagine the chupadero, that space outside logic,
surrounded by routine activities, when you see the unbroken continuity
between normality and that space. I get frustrated: That place I’m seeing
now can’t have wreaked such devastation!! That can’t be that anfractuosity,
that catastrophe of reality!! I expected to find a black hole that absorbed
meaning. . . . And I see the opposite: something full of meaning.
On Página/12, that same day an Auschwitz survivor is quoted saying,
“Those who were in Auschwitz can never get out and those who were not
there will never be able to go in.”

The chupadero has a different logic, a different language, a different

texture. In it, Rules—that which govern the normal order of things—
transmute into the-negation-of-Rules; it is, literally, anomic. It is “the
hole of the disappeared” (I5). A grim space; a place dominated by absurd
logic, in which everyday life occurs in “the farthest depths of cruelty and
madness” (CONADEP 1984, 59). There, a former detained-disappeared
person says, “the law of gravity was suspended” (I41); there, another
recounts, “all limits were exceeded” (I41). A third explains, “The rules of
Noisy Silences 121

the outside world did not apply there, the rules that we’ve known since
birth” (I41). Pilar Calveiro, a clandestine detention center survivor who
was held at the ESMA (Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada, or Naval
Mechanics School) in Buenos Aires, tells how while she was there she
“had a very clear sensation of being in a different dimension,” in a sepa-
rate world. Cut off from the outside world, the concentration camp, she
says, “is an unreal reality” (Calveiro 1998, 103).
A great deal was left behind in that world: above all, people, of course,
but also language. . . . 
 . . . And something came out of there, the former detained-disappeared.
But they came out of there without words to speak of that; or rather,
without the right words. They had to put together a specially structured
account, the narrative of the chupadero (Vezzetti 2000, 14), with a struc-
ture that is not much different from a traveler’s account: it tells of their
passage through “another world,” to which they first went, from which
they then returned. The first part is the narration of a plunging into hell,
filled with darkly textured terms (“It was like I was falling in deeper and
deeper. You could feel it” [I41]; “It was as if you were gradually losing your
hold on life . . . losing all control . . . being erased from every list” [I41]; “you
start becoming aware of this non-being, this loss of identity” [I34]). The
second part is just the opposite, an account of the return to the light of the
world-with-Rules (“When we got out of there . . . I thought we had reached
paradise” [I36]; “It was like coming out into a white light” [I36]; “You step
back into reality” [I36]). The subject becomes a subject again, abandons
the state of no-being, becomes someone again: “I knew that if I was in jail I
was, that is, that my name would appear somewhere” (I34).

Field Notebook: 10/05/2005, La Plata. A Former Detained-Disappeared

Person. Brought into the Light: Back from the Non-Being
N. E., a former detained-disappeared woman from the city of La Plata,
was sucked in, she was in hell, she came out, and she saw herself coming
out of it as her existence gradually materialized in small bits of paper, in
records: notes from her parents, notes to her parents, a prisoner number,
documents. . . . She was nothing and then she started being. That is the phe-
nomenology of disappearance when we speak of the reappeared. She started
being when she started to wish she was a prisoner: a record in bureaucracy.
Before that, nothing.

But, like I said, something is left behind there: the words to speak of that
place. Because even though they recover their identity, and even though
upon returning they reemerge as subjects and disappear as disappeared, the
journey has a very high toll: a toll paid in language. Reality is recovered,
122 Surviving Forced Disappearance

yes, and it is true that “words reappear” (I41). But, oh!, those words refer to
something else, they have a different tone and it is not the right one: “I felt
like a Martian when I first came out. I went from the reality of the camps
to this reality that is totally different . . . it’s totally different” (I42f); “Who
can say, who can verbalize the reverse process of disappearance?” (I32).
When former detained-disappeared persons come back from the clandes-
tine center they are recorded again, they are reincorporated into the series,
they are reinserted into things we call “normal,” even if it is the idiotic
bureaucracy of an ordinary jail, or the more terrible one of a penitentiary
under a full state of exception. They change universe. But each universe is
untranslatable into the other. What works here does not work there, none
of the known laws, none of the old rules. And that cannot find a place in
the known language, which cannot contain it, it is too big, too devoid of
meaning. It has no name, it is unspeakable: “There’s something of a. . . . It’s
like horror. But it’s not horror either. In horror there is some meaning”
(I42c). Nothing can, surely, encompass what happened. It is excess: excess
for anything that refers to a universe other than that universe. An intervie-
wee, a survivor of Automotores Orletti, describes her visit to the chupadero
many years after coming out of it:

It looked so small. . . . I couldn’t believe that everything that had happened

to me had fit in there. It was like it couldn’t fit there. Like it had been much
bigger than what the building looks (I36).

The Former Detained-Disappeared and

You are what we were, we are what you will be. (Inscription over the gate of
the old cemetery of Orereta, Gipuzkoa, Basque Country)

And still it must be told. How? Through testimonial accounts. How are
those built? Giving shape to a place from which to be able to speak, the
place of the former detained-disappeared, a difficult place, very hard to
manage in a world that, like ours, does not get along well with anything
that falls outside the series and which abhors anything that has no mean-
ing: the former detained-disappeared are in the unsettling space of the
in-between, in the paradoxical limbo, in the ambivalent purgatory. Places
as aberrant as they are abnormal, always impossible. Only from there can
they speak, situated nowhere (“We’re still nowhere” [I41]), being invisible
to everyone else (“If before, being disappeared meant being in a sense dead,
Noisy Silences 123

being alive today is for us still being disappeared but alive, because we are
not seen” [I41]), being ghostly (“Sometimes I felt like a ghost, nobody lis-
tened to us, nobody believed us” [I33]). The former detained-disappeared
occupy a difficult place, indeed. How can they continue to cling to an
identity, that of the disappeared—inhabitants of the hole—if upon leaving
the hole they stopped being that? How can they demand to continue talk-
ing as disappeared when they have stopped being that precisely because
they can speak?
The first step is to find a common name to designate this difficult
collective position: “appeared,” “reappeared disappeared,” “ghosts,” “the
appearing disappeared” (I41). Finally, former detained-disappeared. The
second step is to underpin that common name by building a socially
shared place of enunciation in which to overcome the syndrome of those
who are estranged, a comunitas3 (“A place of our own” [I41]; “Like our
own union, the union of the survivors” [I41]). They are social spaces in
which it is not even necessary to speak: silence is enough, other codes are
observed (“[They’re] all people who understand perfectly, who know what
happened, who you don’t need to explain anything to” [I37]). Those places
are perhaps comfortable, but they end up stigmatizing those who inhabit
them, who only are because they were there, a “there” that is incorpo-
rated to their name (they are Survivors of Orletti, of Vesubio, of Pozo de
Banfield . . . ). Because the reappeared, the survivors, the former detained-
disappeared turn a sore into the place from which they enunciate: “We’re
an open wound” (I41); “We’re the ones who escaped death” (I41); “We’re
the ones who return from the void” (I42a).
A negative mark produces them. Building on studies by Chela Sandoval,
Donna J. Haraway (1991, 155–156) writes about the strategies of black
women who, being “at the bottom of a cascade of negative identities,” (ibid.,
156) appropriate what negates them to construct a definition of themselves
as a group. But that inversion of the stigma becomes a community mark;
the category that made their identity inadequate or inappropriate becomes
a positive property, a place of affirmation and vindication. It is the case here,
and doubly so: first because the alliance is formed by turning a terrible
mark—that of being disappeared—into what binds the group together . . . 

And he told me, “But how are you going to get together? It’s like forming an
association of the lame.” That’s how the Peronist Disabled Persons’ Front
was formed in the year 1973. . . . I must’ve thought then how there were
associations of blind people, but that what brought you together was some-
thing you lacked . . . , “you got together based on something you lacked.”
An association of defective people, you get together based on a defect, on
a flaw. (I32)
124 Surviving Forced Disappearance

 . . . and then because that mark (the detained-disappeared) is preceded by

a qualifying word (former) that reveals unequivocally that they are not
wholly what makes them nonetheless a group—disappeared:

The very fact of the name, the “former,” indicates that something is
­lacking. What you lack is being disappeared. (I32)

Shared name and place. Both very complex. Only once they are con-
structed is the third step possible: building the language that will go
well with them. That language takes the form of testimony. For many it
is almost a trade: that of terstis, the person who mediates, who conveys
information, a means of sorts (Agamben 1999, 15).4 That is their identity:
communicating data, gathering data, searching for data. Reconstructing
facts. And as the witnesses speak, their bodies contort; they cry; close
their eyes; retreat. They connect with a terrible place; the way they say
it will be terrible. Nothing of what I say has to do with a staging, but
rather with a way of telling, which explains how one thought of oneself
as dead, as exiled, as survivor, as witness; which makes their testimo-
ny—theirs and that of others—their life, the means to find truth, truth,
truth. Information, details, names, places, connections, clues, evidence.
It is the rhetoric of the witness.
And while they stage it, their eyes remain closed. They are witnesses,
this is how they talk: “We understand that perhaps our main role is
to give testimony” (I34); “I feel [like a witness]. . . . I like that term, I
think that’s what it is. . . . As a survivor . . . but not as a former prisoner,
as a witness of what I lived there, of the torturing of the Uruguayans
who were there” (I38). In Montevideo, in September 2005—although it
could have been in 1977 in Paris, in 1980 in Madrid, or yesterday in any
city where I met a camp survivor who had known my father—I chat with
an Automotores Orletti survivor in a coffee shop in the neighborhood of
Pocitos. He saw my father there. And he tells me about it. At that point
I turn off the tape recorder, although I will later write this in my field

Field Notebook: 9/9/2005, Montevideo. Witness On Stage

When I’m with the Orletti people, I’m little Gatti: “I knew your father . . . ,”
“Your father was a highly respected man,” . . . They treat me warmly, of
course, they’re solicitous. Helpful. They saw my father in Orletti. Or
they knew him from before. Now, when I interview them, they play the
role they’ve always played with me: they give me memory, now about my
father’s disappearance. I never asked them to do it: it came out naturally.
It was OK. And they give me information. And documents. And reports.
And testimonies. They warn me that it will be painful, they herald that
Noisy Silences 125

I will want to know details. They remember, recall, close their eyes,
retreat. . . . Testify.

A true mission that, as such, engages the activity and life of the subject,
sometimes to the point of tedium, both from their own reading of their
identity as former (“There are times when I’m fed up, I can’t stand it
­a nymore, I just want to be left alone” [I32]), and the reading that their
fellow activists make of them, how they see them and their mission, as
in many cases fellow activists see the former detained-disappeared as the
representatives of the disappeared generation: “What is left [of that genera-
tion] are the former detained-disappeared. . . . We operate with principles
and norms [of that political generation]” (I31).

The Paradox of the Former Detained-Disappeared:

Speaking of the Impossibility of Speaking
What does the testimony of the witness give? And how does it give it? Is
theirs a conventional speech? Drawing on Primo Levi, Agamben analyzes
the relationships that are established between two of the figures produced
by concentration camps and Nazi extermination: the drowned—those
who did not make it out of the camp; and the saved—the survivors of
the Lager. The survivors can talk about the camp, but only to a certain
extent; the drowned, who did experienced it, cannot tell their experience:
they have seen the Gorgon and they have no words.5 The former testify,
represent; the latter, mute, are represented. The former are locked in the
absurd of an impossible: they speak of something they came close to but never
touched. It is what Agamben suggests calling “Levi’s Paradox”: (1) “The
Muselmann is the complete witness”6 (1999, 47, 158, 165); (2) “I [the saved]
bear witness for the Muselmann” (ibid., 165).7 Adapted to our case, this
paradox is the paradox of the former detained-disappeared and it could
be formulated as follows: (1) The disappeared are the complete witnesses;
(2) The former detained-disappeared speak on behalf of the disappeared.
The paradox: Those who can give testimony cannot talk; those who can talk
have nothing to say. Exasperating, as some of them admit:

The impact is on the disappeared and they can’t bear witness, they can’t
talk. The fact that it is being done by us, who in some way went through
the places the disappeared went through as detained-disappeared seems to
me . . . false. (I42c)
They’re the witnesses. (I42c)
126 Surviving Forced Disappearance

C’est en hiver que les jours rallongent, a testimonial novel about Auschwitz,
describes a trip taken by a group of camp survivors. They are all very
elderly and having long fulfilled their duty of giving testimony, they now
try to recall banal details of life in the Lager. At one point, a survivor, upon
noticing that trees have grown at the entrance to the camp, says: “Those
trees grew after our death” (Bialot 2002, 12). Their work as survivors has
forced them to do the impossible: speak while dead, as only taking the
camp experience to the limit were they able to find the right words. But it
is impossible to speak if you are dead.
The witnesses had to create a language where there could be none and
an identity where it was not possible. What a huge effort! What an obliga-
tion! In his monumental Shoah, Claude Lanzmann (1985) records a state-
ment by Michaël Podchlebnik, an Auschwitz survivor. It summarizes what
I am saying here: “Everything is dead. Everything is dead, but I am only a
man and I want to live. So I must forget. I thank God for what has been
left and for forgetting. And for not speaking about it.” To this Lanzmann
keenly and ruthlessly asks: “And you think it is right to talk?,” “No, it’s
not right. For me it’s not right.” “So why do you speak?” the filmmaker
says. “Because it is my duty.” The former detained-disappeared had to
make similar efforts, creating a place fraught with tensions and paradoxes,
forcing the most sensible to find themselves mixing tenses and verbs in a
way that is inappropriate for the normal record of the sensible, but a way
that nonetheless responds well to the needs that narrating this catastrophe

And I was talking and I said: “They took”—that’s how I put it—“they
took us to the basement”8. . . . It was crazy, [that’s how] I said it: “took
us”. . . . (I32)

A paradoxical position, no doubt; terrible, rather: only speaking as part of

the group of detained-disappeared are they granted legitimacy to speak;
but it is only by saying that with respect to that group they are in a posi-
tion of lacking—they are former—do they have the possibility of doing it.
And that tension shapes, as I said, the verb tenses with which they enunci-
ate their present, tenses that are impossible to understand correctly if we
expect to hear something very structured:

I was sure, so convinced that I had lived it and died with them; but you
could say I didn’t die completely. That’s it [at the ESMA] I didn’t die
­completely. (I32)

What can they speak of, then, those who, although they came near it,
did not experience the horror to its limit? Of the devastating things that
Noisy Silences 127

happened in the camp, of course. But, considering that the witness says
that “there is something impossible to convey” (I42c), that “[telling it] will
strip it of everything you felt when you experienced it” (I37), that “you’re
going to turn it into something . . . material” (I37), that, in sum, “the expe-
rience of what you lived through can be described but that there is a small
part that . . . ” (I33), the witness can also speak of another destruction that
was suffered there: the destruction of language itself. So, testimony does
not only recount things, it also speaks of the difficulty of recounting things
when meaning is devastated. That is the tension that it expresses, that
­terrible tension to which forced disappearance subjects language. That
catastrophe, yes. Which is why it has been rightly said that testimony is
the discourse that gives “linguistic expression to the ineffable” (Sucasas
2002, 333), that what matters is not what it has of truth but what it reflects
of the despair at not being able to speak of it. I am not saying, no, that
what they say does not tell us anything about what happened. On the con-
trary: I am saying that regardless of whether testimonies inform us of what
specifically happened in the camps, it also informs of one of the greatest
devastations, that of language itself, which cannot properly recount what
happened there.
Testimonies give words to the catastrophe of forced disappearance:
they point to the flaws, gaps, cracks in representation. The former
detained-disappeared are the agents that settle in that anfractuos-
ity formed in the rupturing of words and things. A rough, stuttering,
­stammering, uncomfortable place. But possible.
Chapter 7

Serious Parodies: “Children of”

Inhabiting (More or Less Joyfully)
the Absence

Absence, fracture, rupture. These are possible concepts to draw the

logic—even, if you wish, the socio-logic—of the social universes that
emerge from the catastrophe that the disappearance of a subject entails.
But a socio-logic falls short of being a sociology: it lacks flesh, warmth,
sweat, smell; it lets few people in. What was said earlier regarding the
different ways of understanding professional work in reference to an
absence-of-meaning-like phenomenon as is forced disappearance, is no
doubt a way of accessing part of the social worlds of disappearance, and
clearly, it goes without saying, anthropologists, psychologists, archeolo-
gists, archivists, artists, and jurists are social actors who are very much
alive and very complicated. But while it is true that these are all agents
who are incredibly active in this field—their work, their vocation too,
is ultimately to act on that field—it is also true that they are not active
full time and that they are not the sole inhabitants of that field. We are
missing something, and that is the strategies of the actors most directly
affected by this catastrophe.
What we are missing, yes, is to step in their (my) shoes, to get inside
their (my) gut.
To do that, I will work again with two ideal types that match the two
narratives that have been used throughout this book as templates for
­analysis—the narrative of meaning and the narrative of absence of mean-
ing. It is in the second narrative that I situate a group with a new voice, a
sometimes irreverent voice, the group of the children of. This is what I will
discuss in this chapter.

G. Gatti, Surviving Forced Disappearance in Argentina and Uruguay

© Gabriel Gatti 2014
130 Surviving Forced Disappearance

Before I begin, two clarifications are in order. One involves repeating a

methodological warning I made at the beginning of the book about how
such ideal types should be read. Ideal types are tools for dissecting reality
that are very useful for the social sciences: they contribute to make inter-
nally and externally coherent cuts based on a reality that is presented as a
heterogeneous continuum. But they merely indicate scopes of action of the
agents, tendencies, not agents or persons. That is what they are: ideal types,
models—constructs built by selecting and exaggerating certain aspects of
reality. They do not exist, nobody matches them exactly, although they
guide our actions.
The second clarification goes a bit beyond these procedural consider-
ations regarding the use and scope of the ideal types, and brings us again
into the territory of adjectives. I would even say, if you will allow me,
that it contradicts the first clarification. Because I am not a stranger to
the field, no, neither am I neutral; which is why I cannot help but qualify
these narratives and the ideal types that I have associated them with: the
adjective I come up with for the first—the narrative of meaning—is “old,”
for the second—the narrative of the absence of meaning—“new.” For the
first, “wretched,” for the second, “hopeful”; for meaning, “predictable,”
for its absence, “reflective.”
We were born in the second narrative. The catastrophe came here
to stay, it cannot be overcome, it cannot be replaced. The detained-
­disappeared will not appear again and their absence will be a solid pres-
ence forever. Let us manage it:

–This absence, which your parents become, changes enormously. You

know? It changes, you’re continuously changing how you feel with respect
to that absence. . . . It’s sort of like a light bulb that changes in intensity:
stronger, dimmer, off, on again, it’s always there but it changes . . . 
–[GG] . . . and which is sometimes managed in one way and sometimes it’s
managed in another way, for example, sometimes we want to fill it up and
other times we try to go around it. That’s my experience.
–Yes. (I21)

Renegade Monsters and Parodic Little

Post-Orphans: Notes on the Restless Identities of
Some “Children Of”
In Argentina, and Uruguay too, the victims have become in many respects
sacred icons. But not just anyone can claim the title of victim: it is the
Serious Parodies 131

blood ties that pave the firmest access roads to that status and to the places
of symbolic and real power associated with it (Jelin 2011; Vecchioli 2005).
In effect, as we saw (in chapter 4), alongside the search for the disappeared,
blood, DNA, and family have become increasingly central in human rights
policies and a significant part of public life is immersed in them. In effect,
blood has been charged with power.
Cecilia Sosa, in a keen analysis of the “biological community of vic-
tims,” says about this rise: “The unwritten rule of the post-dictatorship
stipulates that only those who were ‘directly affected’ by the military
repression are entitled to assume the rights of remembering. . . . It is not
that the dictatorship only left a bloodline chain of victims, but that the
evocation of a community of blood worked as an effective instrument
of political intervention for the human rights associations for more than
30 years” (2011b, 2). Powerful paradox, that of the kinship of the bereaved,
when it reaches the heights of social and institutional legitimacy that it
has in Argentina, it becomes a “happy narrative” (Sosa 2011a, 2011b), a
place with painful marks but socially comfortable, in the sense of being
protected by routines, naturalizations, common sense, things taken for
granted. . . . 

Field Notebook: 8/11/2005–9/12/2012, Buenos Aires. Several Steps in the

Human Rights Secretariat. The Officialization of a Lifeworld
[2005] New headquarters of the National Human Rights Secretariat: A
freshly renovated reception area, a conference room named after one of
Argentina’s human rights icons, Emilio Mignone. Everything is starting to
smell official. And it’s even stronger when I go into the building: security
guard, national ID card number, authorization to go in. Upstairs there are
a lot of people; they’ve known each other forever. As I listen more closely I
realize how thickly packed that network is: “M. S. called to see whether . . . ”;
“Did you see J. S. anywhere around here . . . ?”, “Do you know anybody at
CONADI?” I have witnessed, I think, the process of institutionalization of
a bureaucracy, which this building lends materiality to. [2012] Over there,
children of disappeared persons amble about mixed in with Secretariat
officers; Or are they children of who are also officers? At the Assistance
Center for Victims of State Terrorism I’m not really sure who’s who, who’s
helping who. The state appropriates kinship. The marks of the apparatus
are evident: official photos protect the offices of those who until the day
before yesterday were tough revolutionaries, signs bearing the coat of arms
are piled on the tables of combative militants. The rhetoric is that of an
old office (“Please take a seat in the waiting room,” “We haven’t received
cards yet, this country is a disaster!” . . . ), the relationships between those
who occupy it are marked by blood (“You’re Gatti’s kid? It’s an honor to
meet you. A terrible, terrible story. I apologize on behalf of the Argentine
state . . . ”).
132 Surviving Forced Disappearance

But in the universe of that “biological community of victims” there

are, however, some differences. There are at least two polar positions, the
­positions of the two narratives that interest me here. In one of them, the one
I have called the narrative of absence of meaning, the work of “the children
of”—of some of them—stands out. Blood, DNA, kinship marks . . . run
through them, they run through their history, they mark their identity.
But they do it differently from how they did it with their grandmothers,
mothers, or fathers, whose narratives are completely different: they build
new family bonds, they rethink blood ties, they distance themselves from
the power of blood. . . . It is hard work that yields fascinating results. A few
vignettes will serve as introduction to my argument. As you will see, how-
ever, they are not just that.
In 2008, Félix Bruzzone published his second novel, Los topos
(Bruzzone 2008). The book is politically incorrect and sociologically
thought-provoking, two things that usually go together: the narrator, who
like the author himself is the son of disappeared parents, falls in love with
a transvestite, Maira, whose parents are also disappeared and who has a
project: to kill repressors. Maira ultimately disappears, leading the novel’s
narrator to cross-dress in order to continue his lover’s project. Identities
in liminal positions, transvestism and gender parody, playing with names
and bodies, body prostheses, reflective distancing. . . . Parody, in fact, not
applied only to the figure of the disappeared, but also to themselves, to
those whose identities were formed in this social world, a strange world
that emerged from forced disappearance, the “children of.” Bruzzone thus
puts into words a new issue, post-disappearance disappearance:

I thought about telling the people at H.I.J.O.S. about the new

­developments. Maybe they could organize a campaign to vindicate
Maira, raise her up like a banner of the new generation of disappeared
and fuel the battle against imperialism. I could just see [them] . . . talk-
ing about the neo-­d isappeared or the post-disappeared, that is, the
disappeared that came after those who had disappeared during the dic-
tatorship. (ibid., 80)

A few years earlier, in 2004, and in a peculiar place—Las Vegas,

Nevada—as luck would have it a Latin American film festival was show-
ing Los rubios (Carri 2003), a movie that reflected the concerns of the
group that gathers people in their thirties with disappeared parents. The
movie is almost a paradigm. Two fragments—taken from a book written
by the director, Albertina Carri, four years after completing the film—are
enough to illustrate the movie. The first reveals a strong reflective disposi-
tion regarding one’s own identity and the place where it is forged; better
Serious Parodies 133

yet, regarding the fact that identity is something that is forged. It reads:
“I, Albertina Carri, am in a plain. . . . Everything is woozy, a mixture of
fiction and reality. Which is why I know that at this point I myself am a
mark with respect to me, the wounds are no longer identifiable, they are part
of a whole constituted as identity. I have no way out, therefore. . . . The only
option I have is to assume my misfortune and gradually incorporate it into
my daily existence” (Carri 2007, 16. Emphasis added). The second speaks
of how to talk about that—forced disappearance of persons—once we
assume that we are that, that we exist in the social and personal territory
that is constructed in its consequences and that that demands talking in a
different way: “By reclaiming fantasy we can cross certain borders, move
to (and expose) a territory where reason fails and where words are trans-
lated as hollowed out words” (ibid., 24. Emphasis added). Shortly after,
when I was well into my field work, I started accessing the accounts of the
“children of.” After listening to many of the accounts gathered in the vast
album of the Memoria Abierta (Open Memory) foundation, in my field
notebook I wrote:

Field Notebook: 9/12/2005, Buenos Aires. Fundación Memoria Abierta, the

“Children Of ”
As I listen to the interviews with children of disappeared persons that I
was able to access in Fundación Memoria Abierta, their words echo in my
ears: the feelings the interviewees convey sound familiar, their concerns
ring normal to me. . . . The absence, the demand for a memory of their own,
the awareness that the one they have is inherited, that they have portable
memories, like the replicants in Blade Runner. . . . Normalized experience of
the void; socialization in the void, reclaiming it as the place where identity
is constructed, parodic stance with respect to the previous generation, to
their own identity. Yes, it’s all there, all I imagined. It wasn’t just a personal
experience; it also worked as a hypothesis.

In March 2007 I saw M, a documentary by Nicolás Prividera (2007),

also the son of a disappeared person. In an interview in the Buenos Aires
newspaper Página/12, Prividera talks about the language he had to use to
make his documentary: “It’s a subject that is all talked out. . . . What was
being said had become a fossilized discourse.” To which he later adds:
“[I wanted to] build a story about the difficulty of building a story” (Kairuz
2007. Emphasis added). That is not very different from what Valeria
Sobel, daughter of a disappeared person, wrote in 2007: “[Being the son
or daughter of a disappeared person is] not wanting deadly silences but
not finding the right words, the words that won’t smother, that won’t
sound grandiose or reduce everything to heroes and victims, words that
will leave room for other things.”
134 Surviving Forced Disappearance

Figure 7.1  Photograph by Kitsch featured in Diario de una princesa montonera

(Perez 2012a). Among Montonero stars and floating hearts, Mariana Eva Perez
presses her smiling face against the photograph of her disappeared father. The
Montonero princess writes: “My first picture with my dad.”
Reproduced with permission from the authors.

Not long ago, in 2012, Mariana Perez—daughter of disappeared

­ arents, sister of a recovered brother, granddaughter of a prominent
member of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, and herself a longtime
human rights activist—published in book form a blog she had been writ-
ing for some time. She called it Diario de una princesa montonera. 110%
Verdad (Diary of a Montonero Princess. 110% True). What appeals most
to me about this text is how the author distances herself from the char-
acter when that character has reached high levels of social legitimacy.
It is evident in the ways she refers to herself, using names loaded with
irony: “hiji” (mini daughter), “militonta” (silly activist), “young esmolo-
gist” (in allusion to the ESMA), “precocious human rights girl,” “orphan
banished from the ghetto,” “superstar orphan,” “elderly girl raised by
grandparents.” Or the ways she has of naming the territory she inhab-
ited for many years, the very field of the detained-disappeared: the
“Disneyworld of human rights,” that “little issue.” But that does not
mean she does not feel a part of both: “I’m hiji and I’m proud,” Perez
says,1 and with that she marks the point of inflection of these narratives
with respect to the narratives of meaning, which until recently monopo-
lized the worlds of the detained-disappeared. Nobody doubts that “this”
is tinged with pain, with suffering, with doubts, with absences. With a
Serious Parodies 135

great deal of hurting. Nobody. But in those suffering universes there are
other things, and in them living is possible, however good or bad that
living may be, and even thinking is possible. Like Los rubios or Los topos,
Mariana Perez does so in a creative exercise in the form of self-fiction
(Blejmar 2013) through which she shows a character, that of “daughter
of,” that of hiji, which she now inevitably inhabits and which inhabits
her, but from which she can distance herself. She is, and always will be,
an “orphan produced by genocide”;2 she earned a place in Argentina’s
public life when the voice of the victims, the blood ties, reached unprec-
edented heights of legitimacy—and power. And from there she “inverts
the sign of the mark” and displays the distances with respect to herself
and the world that contains her “ignoring a number of limits . . . that
up until recently dictated the what could be said about the dictatorship
and its effects on Argentina and, above all, the how it should be said”
(ibid.). One more step toward the narratives of meaning: of the battle
and struggle to establish the ­denaturalization of a world that is already
highly institutionalized, bloated with mandates, with prohibitions, with
characters. . . . Naturalized and institutionalized, yes.
Forging identity from a rough place, an uncomfortable place, know-
ing that the identity that is being forged there cannot renounce those
marks, that the trauma that forged it is still forging it, but that, strange
as it may be, it is a livable, thinkable, even creative place. That the void
that the catastrophe of disappearance produces is inhabitable. And some-
times enjoyable. And that we can also talk about it, even if it is done
differently from how we talk about things in places with identities that
have more predictable, more normal, consistencies. I would say, then, that
absence, awareness of the constructed nature of all identity, a ­reflective atti-
tude toward the fictional character of the mechanism that underpins them,
the idea of paradox or the more caustic and elaborate idea of parody are
­elements that characterize these positions. It is also a significantly rebel-
lious break with the way previous generations talk about and experience
disappearance, which does not include them, which is different and
belongs to others (“Yes, I was in kindergarten, but something happened
there, mine is a possible memory and there’s no reason why I should have
to make ­literal reverences to what my parents or their generation were”
[Carri 2007, 114]). And, ultimately, the effort to take something that has
been talked about for years in terms of sorrow, epic, and glory and talk
about it in a more incarnate way and with other languages. If from the
1970s to the 1990s the dominant rhetoric was the powerful, tragic, harsh,
militant rhetoric of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, and from the 1990s
onward it was the very intense rhetoric of H.I.J.O.S. and the not only
136 Surviving Forced Disappearance

intense but also perhaps more conservative rhetoric of the Grandmothers

of Plaza de Mayo, new tones and new protagonists are now added:

I want to demystify the figure of the disappeared as sacred marble statues

and great heroes. I want to move them aside, take the spotlight away from
them. And say: “Well, okay, fine, this happened, they were the protagonists
of an era. Now it’s my turn.” (I21)

These are subjects, then, who have produced a certain normalized experi-
ence of the catastrophe, that of the almost 40 years that have passed since
their parents’ disappearance. But these subjects do not form a group.
Neither can it be asserted that this way of experiencing forced disap-
peared is the way all the “children of ” experience it nor that it is only
they, the children, who represent it. First, because the “children of ” do
not necessarily form a group, although they sometimes do form groups,
and they certainly do not form, as a whole, a single memory, rather
diverse memories, shaped by different marks of origin, class, even age
and gender. Argentine essayist Beatriz Sarlo aptly puts it: “[There are]
forms of memory that cannot be attributed directly to a simple division
between the memory of those who lived through it and the memory of
those who are their children” (2005, 157). In sum, not all the children
of the disappeared place themselves in the void, the absence, the parody,
or the reflexive distance and build their identity from there.
However, we can say that the strategies from which this phenomenon
is currently being addressed emerge from that place. In art, as we saw,
where a powerful rhetoric of remnants, of the mark, of the wound has
been built; or among certain professionals—archeologists, archivists, and
psychologists, for example—who search for records to work with rigor
and sensitivity toward the absence of meaning; or even among subjects
trapped by the obligations of linguistic constraints, as jurists are, whose
texts reveal their concern with finding formulas that will leave forced dis-
appearance, the detained-disappeared, and the social worlds built around
them in their place, a place roughly at odds with the presumption of coher-
ence and balance of the old modern identities, the identities that raised and
raise things-with-meaning as their banner.
If I can more or less safely say that 40 years after the policies of mass
disappearance of persons deployed in the Latin American Southern Cone
social spaces marked by that convulsion have emerged, I do not think I
would be wrong in saying that those spaces are filled with subjects who
are not only aware that the catastrophe is evident, but also that the catas-
trophe has constituted their worlds, their identities, and their languages.
Thus, the anecdotes I shared in the previous pages are more than just that;
Serious Parodies 137

they are indicators of the ways in which meaning is formed, actions are
performed, and identity is developed by subjects who construct these three
things—meaning, action, and identity—in places marked by a disaster
and who, far from fleeing, interpret that meaning, action, and identity are
not a given, are not natural, that they require a great deal of work.

Digression on the New Identities and

the Relevance of the (Old) Concept
of Anomie. Durkheim Meets Butler
In the social world of the detained-disappeared, what I am trying to
analyze are narratives that are still new, still very young. They are not,
however, alone in the universe: they are part of a general movement that
questions the classic ways of developing and thinking about meaning,
action, and identity. Thus, these subjects are less lonely than what their
condition of orphans would appear to indicate, especially if we look at
them through the same lens that is often applied to those who are in a
precarious, marginal, or subordinate position: a clinical, restorative, mer-
ciful lens. In effect, refugees, abandoned people, exiles, young women,
displaced persons, pariahs, the dispossessed, women on the run, trans-
sexuals, the unemployed, transients, other orphans . . . and all the many
monsters of identity and social life, both contemporary and not so much,
they all join them, as they all form part of the same group, that of the
figures of liminal identity.
They are figures we have always had a hard time thinking of, at
least from the short “always” of the history of sociology, that which led
Durkheim to limit our field of work, that of the normal—of what has
definition and consistency—separating it from the morbid, undefined,
inconsistent, pathological space, a strange, exceptional place without laws
to contain it: “We shall call ‘normal’ these social conditions that are most
general in form and the others ‘morbid’ or ‘pathological’” (Durkheim
1972, 103). In his efforts to establish a discipline, Durkheim made the
average, normal type our object of study and at the same time denied
the condition of object to the pathological, the unnecessary (“only nor-
mal is necessary because it is normative” [Ramos 1999b, 49]), contingent
(“the pathologic is an existence that lacks essence, product of an acci-
dental combination of circumstances” [ibid.]). If it deserved anything,
Durkheim concluded, it was not a sociology, but a teratology, the study
of monsters.
138 Surviving Forced Disappearance

This does not mean that this morbid territory is nonexistent; what it
does mean is that it does not have the necessary consistency to achieve a
minimum score in any of the consistency tests set by sociological analysis.
Even though it exists, its existence is vague, and when it takes shape in
specific situations it brings out on stage with it a term with a long-stand-
ing tradition: anomie, which, far from establishing among existing things
the object it qualifies, reminds us that it will never reach that ­condition
as it does not have what it takes. These worlds that emerge when the
frameworks that regulate action are in crisis, during void crises, are as sug-
gestive as they are sociologically irrelevant, that is, irrelevant for a certain
sociology: they are either the opposite of what exists, or they are a warn-
ing of what will exist but they are not. That is, they either result from
denying what already is—the normal that already exists—or, when they
specifically act as catalyzing agents of what Durkheim himself called “the
malady of infinite aspiration” (2002, 40), they point to what will interest
us and what will be—the normal that is to come—of which it is an early
manifestation. In such cases, they are intoxicating, but that intoxication
is short-lived for the sociologist: once the magic is over, he will conclude
that in those worlds there is, actually, no social life, and he will say: “We
must wait . . .”
The social sciences have moved in the wake of this, almost ruthless,
characterization of anomie since Durkheim, in the study of the wide range
of outsiders, freaks, that sociological literature visits from time to time.
But very recently—perhaps because reality loudly demands it—some
texts have started to consider spaces where there is “social life without
society,” searching for what we used to diagnose as pathological, to which
Durkheim failed to, could not, or would not attribute duration, stability,
or identity. Michel Agier, for example, in his studies on refugee camps
and the figure of the refugee, uses the category of anomie to talk about
both things—refugees and camp life—in terms of “spaces situated out-
side the nomos” (2008, 29), and he observes that these realities of ­terrible
liminality (ibid.) eventually “becom[e] . . . regular life for thousands of
people” (ibid., 85). Similarly, the always intuitive Zygmunt Bauman looks
to the dumping sites of the human waste of modernization (2004, 2007,
for example) to find in those cast-off populations (refugees, abject poor,
urban ghettos . . . ) social life built in “a lawless space” (2007, 37)  and
where there are none of the references that normally underpin identity:
“stateless, placeless, functionless, and ‘paper-less’” (ibid., 40). Life that is
at the same time normal and anomic, yes, but nonetheless—and counter-
current to Durkheim—assembled, spherical, with meaning: “a ‘total life’
from which there is no escape” (ibid., 47); life that a sociologist can look
at and try to understand.
Serious Parodies 139

But it is Judith Butler who, in my opinion, has best understood that

there is an inhabitable region outside identities constituted as normative
references. In effect, those who have been branded as occupants of the
“‘uninhabitable’ zones of social life” (1993, 3), that is, those who carry
the stigma of the abject, appear in her work not only as part of the “con-
stitutive outside to the domain of subjects” (ibid., 3), but also as subjects.
The shift is important: now the uninhabitable is effectively inhabited, it
reveals that what it contains are strategies for being, concrete strategies.
Thus considered, the abject is no longer a mere logical space—the “con-
stitutive outside,” necessary but empty; it is also a sociological place: an
inhabited space, “densely populated by those who do not enjoy the status
of subjects” [ibid.]). As that space is inhabited, its mere existence entails
the urgency of answering a question that is, in many aspects, the same
as what I am, ultimately, asking here: How are the lives of those who, on
the level of discourse, have lives “that are not considered lives at all ” (Butler
2006, 34)?
I think the above observations on what Butler proposes are doubly
­relevant for this study on social worlds constructed around the figure of
the disappeared: first, because, as I have said already, they overcome cer-
tain limitations that weighed down both the Durkheim of anomie and
many other ideas that the social sciences have proposed for thinking about
social spaces marked by normative voids, by catastrophes of meaning; and
second, because the social objects on which Butler rests her reflection are
many of the aspects I am considering here: loss or absence marks their past,
the ensuing vulnerability or precariousness marks their present.
The lifeworlds constituted around the detained-disappeared are not
like those of the transsexuals who are banished from the circle of norma-
tive identity, or the groups of relatives of victims of the 9/11 attack on
the World Trade Center, who are in permanent mourning. . . . But they do
look like them: like them, they believe their mark will have a short tem-
porality, and like them, they discover that it defines them; like them, they
aspire to reenter the territories of the normal and, like them, they remain
in those outside the discourse; like them, they believed it was not possible
to construct meaning there where they are and, like them, they enable a
statement in the form of an oxymoron: a community built in the shared
vulnerability of its members.
It is not easy to theoretically pose the possibility of life in the unin-
habitable, because as soon as we move away from the “liberal versions of
human ontology” (ibid., 25) and try to talk of things at the point of their
rupturing, at the very moment in which they become vulnerable, we also
move away from the possibility of reasoning in terms that are sociologically
legitimized. In order to think about the vulnerable we must not pay too
140 Surviving Forced Disappearance

much attention to what is still whole, just as we must not heed the siren
song of the narratives of meaning in order to understand the narratives of
the absence of meaning. Monsters must be taken more seriously and they
must be taken for what they are, not for what distinguishes them from
what they should be: “perhaps we make a mistake if we take the definitions
of who we are, legally, to be adequate descriptions of what we are about”
(ibid., 25). That is how difficult it is to think of the anomic. Thus, in order
to realize that in rupturing there is meaning and that the uninhabitable is
inhabited, that victim is something more than a lacking, we need to start
by staging an ontological insurrection and stop addressing things such as
mourning, forced disappearance, and any of its functional equivalents by
applying the logic of the obituary, that which regulates existence according
to the reassuring, but tricky, regime that offers only two opposing possi-
bilities: life and death, norm and anomie.

Precarious Lives Built in the Void

Those affected by forced disappearance are not just seeking to overcome

the catastrophe and bring balance to their lives in order to stop being
­victims. After four decades, they settle into that place, they manage the
catastrophe and inhabit it.
I will try to find a clue as to how they do it by delving into the work
aimed at forging identity that is carried out by the “children of,” some of
them, looking at such work as the front line of narratives and strategies
that are becoming increasingly visible in this field. With respect to these
narratives and strategies I will observe how the subjects who convey them
show a willingness to objectify their own identity, to mark it with the
signs of the special, to construct an account, a very generationally biased
account, bordering on the irreverent, sometimes verging on the parodic,
not toward the generation before them but toward themselves, toward
their own history, and, above all, toward the mechanisms that make them
and us.

The Normality of Absence

The starting point of these narratives is the normality of absence. It is an
absence that cradles them, a place of life, something with which they
live and in which they live. It is a supervening absence in which one
is. Macarena Gelman, a daughter, explains this eloquently: “I have no
choice,” “This has now become a part of me” (Contreras and Pérez García,


Figure 7.2a, b  Images taken from Arqueología de la ausencia (Archeology of

Absence), by Lucila Quieto (2007). The image of children of the disappeared,
like the author herself, merges with the projected image of their absent parents.
The wound, unstitched, is occupied and problematized, it is made tangible.
Reproduced with permission from the author.
142 Surviving Forced Disappearance

2008). Indeed, there is no other option but to be one with/in the void.
But it might not be such a terrible thing: after all, 30  years after that,
after the catastrophe, one can, if not trivialize it, grow used to the space it
shapes, to its routines, to its circumstances (“After thirty years of absence
you have a shared existence with that history” [I21]), with the paradoxes
that stir it (“Make them absent . . . make that absence a constant presence”
[I21]), with the very fact of being aware of that you are constructed there,
in the place where the catastrophe occurred, in Ground Zero (“We had to
grow up with that absence [and] we ended up being part of that history”
For these subjects, absence is, in effect, the territory of existence, and it
stamps an indelible mark (“[Daughter of ] is a title that I will have forever,
no matter how many other titles I acquire or drop, I will always have this
one” [I21]). There is nowhere to run, no: “Nobody can reset you to come
back from [sic] zero” (Contreras and Pérez García, 2008). And there is no
reason why they should either:

I remember a perfectly ordinary childhood, a normal childhood. . . . Nothing

really stood out, except knowing that the family, the extended family, I
mean, had been changed by this situation. (I27i)

Things may be situated in planes that are difficult to recognize, but not
impossible: there are families, but they are modified; everyone plays a social
role, but the regular categories are no good, you need to invent new ones.
What name do you give to a disappeared father? How do you call yourself
if you are raised by your grandparents? How do we go about narrating the
novel of the family and of the history one comes from when there are so
many ruptures? To me, at least, in certain inventions, they echo science
fiction novels:

Field Notebook: 12/21/07, Tucumán. The Four Origins of H.I.J.O.S.

P. V., a former member of H.I.J.O.S. Tucumán (Argentina), tells me about
the moment when the group was formed, when in order to be a ­member
you had to come from one of the so-called Four Origins: you had to either
be a son or daughter of a disappeared person, a son or daughter of a mur-
dered militant, a son or daughter of a former political prisoner, or a son or
daughter of an exile.
The distinctions that H.I.J.O.S. La Plata, also in Argentina, made
between “pure children” (children of the disappeared) and other children
come to mind. I also remember H. P., appropriated child with recovered
identity, who distinguished between “children with parents” and “children
without parents” . . . 
But it especially brings to mind a fantasy genre novel in which a
planet has been hit by a monumental calamity and the survivors organize
Serious Parodies 143

themselves according to their bastardy and orphanage marks. Parents are

not necessary (they no longer exist . . . ); they were just an alibi, the starting
point, for new structures of social life. An absence from which something
new was born. Years ago, in 1991, Donna J. Haraway said about bastards:
“Illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins.
Their fathers, after all, are inessential.” Does this help us think about this?
Yes, it does. It most certainly does.

In their reading of themselves, these inhabitants of the catastrophe can-

not help but fall prey to the syndrome of the special, the stigma of those
marked by a lacking. Of the non-normal: “You’re special because you’re
the victim of something very tragic, and, sadly, you’re sometimes . . . dif-
ferent and you’re even treated differently and sometimes it’s complicated
not to try to . . . to use your condition of son of like a cachet” (I22). Indeed,
with respect to the zero degree of things, that place that is as real as it is
­intellectually rejectable, socially efficient, and operational, which we call
“normal,” these subjects are in a position of lacking: lacking parents, lack-
ing names, lacking continuity, with broken lineages and filiations, with
the routines and little somethings of daily life in precarious state. They are
special, in some way they are absurd existences (“They’re circumstances
[the circumstances of my life] that could be surrealist, or baroque, or gro-
tesque. And they occur in real lives. . . . You know? That’s what’s so intense
about it, you see what I mean?” [I27a]).
Normally, those who lack something that is considered essential are
called precarious: they lack duration, stability, means, titles. They are
nameless, they have no history, no space of their own, no work, no home,
no homeland, they even lack categories and “at least one of the basic capac-
ities, without which there is no human life” (Leblanc 2007, 102). Which is
why we often say that the precarious are on the verge of social death (ibid.,
88–89). Toward these “badly secured” lives (ibid., 103), we usually adopt
clinical, pietistic positions: we try to restore to those who are lacking that
which they lack (homeland, history, legitimacy, visibility, work, identity,
protection, family . . . ). That is, in fact, one of the moral mainstays of the
narratives of meaning: repair to make things right. But there is no need: we
can see that the precariousness, the absence is inhabited, that absence of
center and identity is what constitutes normality, even if it is an anomic

The Inappropriate Bastard

Foreigners, refugees, the poor, the banished, the exiled, outcasts, bastards,
children of. . . . All those on the long list of chimeras to which the social
144 Surviving Forced Disappearance

sciences have been sensitive throughout history, they all have one thing in
common: the syndrome of those marked by a lacking. That is one of the most
powerful triggers of identity for the outsider, the freak, for those who waver
between categories, for those who “cannot place themselves immediately
on a map” (Joseph 1988, 72). Prisoners of indefiniteness, outsiders must
define a strategy to manage that weakness: one option is to camouflage
themselves and hide their stigma.
Another is to make themselves visible and enjoy the symptom.
The first option involves seeking the normality they lack, reaching
the place that now makes them special because they are removed from
it. In the field of the detained-disappeared, that option highlights moral
legacies and political lineages, the obligation of reproducing ideas and
recovering bodies, a positive disposition toward an inheritance, the desire
to safeguard it. Continuity forms an identity here: what they were, we are
(“Identity is what we are. It’s what they were and they are our parents. It’s
what we have of them in us”;3 “We come from a struggle, our [motto] is
‘We were born in their struggle, they live in ours’” [I26]); our bodies are
their bodies (“[in H.I.J.O.S. we want] to make an appeared out of that fig-
ure of the disappeared, from a part of them, yes, a son maybe, which can
also be the struggle” [I26]); our words are their words:

We’re not just children of the victims of repression, we’re children of activ-
ists, we’re children of a history of struggle and now we too want to fight our
struggle, we want to continue that struggle. . . . We’re testimony that there
was a repression, but also that there was another history of struggle, that
the struggles of today did not come out of nothing, they came out of these
other struggles. (I26)

Thus stated, the “children of ” are not special at all, then, rather the
­opposite, the apotheosis of what the normality of the filiation logic pre-
scribes: they reproduce the bond, they guarantee continuity. They are
prodigal sons.
But for the special there is a second option: settling into their particu-
larity, distancing themselves from their origins. By doing that they run
the risk of thinking they betray their origins (“I didn’t want to take on
the responsibility of that demand [of continuing my disappeared parents’
activism], but it seemed like I was betraying them if I didn’t do it” [I22]),
and that risk can lead them to question certain elements characteristic of
the model that defines identities, including theirs: “I think there’s a lot of
idealization, and I think that’s inevitable. . . . I wouldn’t want the image of
the romantic guerrilla, the hero, to win. . . . I’m not interested in t-shirts
Serious Parodies 145

with my old man’s face on them” (I27e). As cited above, Haraway observed
that illegitimate offspring are often unfaithful to their origins. And this
would be one such case, not because there is a betrayal of one’s origins, but
because those origins are examined until one discovers they are arbitrary
and contingent.
Recreating themselves in their specialness, these subjects invent
unique mechanisms, untinged by nostalgia, somewhat inappropriate,
often subject to disapproval. Forcing the metaphor, we could say that
they act like certain androids created by science fiction novels and films,
repudiating their creators and freeing themselves from their origins, yet
unable to hide the mark of those origins. It will always be evident that
they are androids: “They flee their creators. . . . The android is no longer
the sum of its parts; it has a soul, it is no longer an automaton” (Grange
1982, 25). The indelible stigma of their specialness becomes positive; the
category that made their identity inadequate or inappropriate becomes
a property, the support of identity itself. They turn their stigma into
something constructive: “I become (a subject) in that which denies me
(as a subject)”:

–I think it’s like a relaxing of that history, like taking away the solemnity
of it. That is: [speaking in a solemn voice] “Yes, well, my parents were mur-
dered . . . ”. It’s like moving away from that and saying: “Yes, well, enough,
we’re the little orphans and we’re going to be that for the rest of our lives,”
but . . . 
–[GG] Assume a monstrous place but playfully?
–Yes, I think so, yes.” (I21)

They are encouraging, these subjects, at least for theoretical reflection, as

they allow for powerful analytical possibilities to come into play, which
lead us to think of identities that are not dependent on origins, that is, the
opposite of what the old modern model prescribes. Thus, I think we can
safely venture that we are witnessing the birth of a huge development in
this context, that of the construction of a narrative that is: (1) genuinely
generational (“My father, my grandmother and my aunt carried out their
searches and found their closure. We feel that we too had to take it up
again . . . on our own” [Kairuz 2007]; “What I wanted was to construct the
image of my old man more freely, separate myself from my mother’s ver-
sion” [I27c]); and, perhaps because of their youth, (2) strongly disruptive,
even parodic. That might be the reason it is often disapproved by those
who come before them, who object to what they judge to be out of place
and mistaken.


Figure  7.3a, b  Two stills from the film Los rubios (Carri 2003). Above,
the rejection of the application for funding for the movie: “The project is
valuable . . . and should be revised with more documentary rigor. . . . It requires a
more demanding search for direct testimonial accounts, which could be achieved
with the participation of fellow militants of the director’s parents, presenting
different views” (Reproduced in Carri 2007, 5). Below, Albertina Carri discusses
the rejection with her team: “What they actually asked me for was the movie
that they as a generation need. And I understand them. But, the thing is, that’s a
movie that has to be made by others, not by me. They need to make that movie
and I understand that they do. But it’s not my place to make it.”
Reproduced with permission from the author.
Serious Parodies 147

The Parodic Orphan

Speaking of his novel Los topos, Félix Bruzzone writes about how the
­identity of the main character—the son of disappeared parents, like
­himself—is constructed:

The character has a mark of origin that is his orphan condition, which has
political characteristics as it is an orphanage produced by state terrorism,
because he’s the son of disappeared persons and in a sense there are certain
paths that he is predestined [to follow], paths he has to go down because of
the history he has; but there’s also the issue of wandering and to what extent
he can fool that predestination or how far he can stray from it. . . . That’s sort
of what the novel is about: how somebody who is marked so strongly—not
just because of his origin as a political orphan but also because of the issue
of the discourses that contributed to shape his conscience throughout his
upbringing . . . there was sort of like a predestination in that— . . . how he
alters that.” (Méndez 2009)

There is a strong tension, then, between “fate”—the mark of origin left

on a subject by the disappearance of his or her parents, first, and the
truth, justice, and human rights discourses . . . later—and the possibility
of influencing and changing that fate. At the theoretical level, that ten-
sion calls the concept of parody into play. It is a concept with which it
is difficult to familiarize oneself; to explain it we need to start with two
assertions. The first is formulated as an anthropological universal: all
identities are formed according to a framework of reference (familial, gen-
erational, national, gender . . . ) that contains them. That framework of ref-
erence both limits and enables: it interpellates me, therefore I am. In the
case of the framework that contains us here, now, the law of identity in
the West prescribes that identity is made of very solid materials: authen-
ticity, origin, reproduction, continuity, stability, seriousness. . . . That law
also provides that its instructions be performed with conviction, that is,
with the certainty that that origin and the purity, truth, and authenticity
of the Being exist.
The second assertion is also stated as an anthropological universal but
a more general one: the law of identity is set in motion through sheer repeti-
tion. That is, my gender is not an irresistible mandate of my hormones,
but a stereotyped performance of assumptions regarding what I believe
my gender does (I scratch a certain way, I open my mouth a certain way,
I cross my legs a certain way . . . ); that my nationality does not respond
to a call from the depths of the land, but to the ritualized enactment of
assumptions regarding what I understand makes me belong to a place
148 Surviving Forced Disappearance

(cheering when my team scores, singing anthems, eating beef, waving

flags, wearing a cowboy hat . . . ); that my body is not the simple manifes-
tation of a genetic structure but the construction of my difference in the
conviction that this difference is such because it is genetically grounded.
And so on. In other words, identity is the enactment of convictions . . . that
I have an identity and that it responds to a law; it is a “repetition [that] is
at once a re-enactment and a re-experiencing of a set of meanings already
socially established” (Butler 1990, 140).
In short: in order to be, I must abide by this framework of reference,
this law, that produces me and authorizes me; that is, I must properly
enact what it prescribes. But, must I do it in the same way always? Must
I enact the law’s mandates always in the same way? No. There is an enor-
mous range of possible disobediences (Butler 1993), from subversion of the
law (proposing a different one) to radical conversion (excessively repeat-
ing the existing one), and in-between, more or less refined ways of yes-
but-no. One of these ways, which I am interested in here, is the work of
reinterpreting, appropriating, and transforming the law, what we could
call parodic compliance in the sense of Judith Butler’s “parodic inhabit-
ing of conformity” (1993, 122). Yes, but no. Indeed: parody “subtly calls
into question the legitimacy of the command” of the law (ibid., 122) and
produces consequences that overstep the law, that confuse it, although
without replacing it.
I am interested in seeing how, in many aspects, this strategy operates
in this world, the world of the disappeared, specifically in the positions
I am discussing now. It is a distanced compliance, a respectful obedience
but with doubts regarding those magnificent and effective fictions called
my origins, my identity, my history, my legacy, my blood, my filial duties, my
DNA, my loyalties: “They make me, yes, but. . . . ” Parody is not mockery;
it is a mechanism on which reflective narratives are built, reflective narra-
tives regarding the “I” and “We,” the “Us” and “Them,” the “who am I”
and the “who are we,” which without renouncing the powerful supports
of the old modern identities that are the ideas of being, unity, coherence,
duration, stability—I will never tire of hearing the comparisons I have
heard so many times: “You look so much like your father!,” “It’s uncanny!
The same voice!,” “Wow! If Gerardo could see you!,” “You talk like all the
Gattis” . . . —which without renouncing them, they expose them for the
fictions that they are—but. . . . Parodic compliance highlights the fragil-
ity of the mechanism: there is no original reality, no pure Basque, no true
man, no authentic Uruguayan, no perfect woman. Neither is there a model
“son of” or “daughter of.” All identity is a fiction, all identity is a shift-
ing and altering of meanings. From these new narratives, the dominant
Serious Parodies 149

one in this field—which is solemn, family-based, and heroic—is assumed,

but circumvented, managed with a certain distraction. It is not expelled,
no; after all “heroes,” “survivor,” “struggle,” “Never Again,” “las Viejas,”
“justice,” “the where-are-they,” “relatives,” “Orletti,” “witness” . . . they all
form part of the landscapes of our childhood and adolescence, sometimes
much more than that. . . . One son of disappeared parents explains how he
processed this with the information he gathered on his father:

[All these facts about my father] build a certain image of him, but [I have]
this feeling always that it’s a constructed image. . . . All these things are kind
of like that: small wire threads that form a grid so that it matches what he
was really like. . . . I was lucky to be able to put something together that
makes me feel like I’m not exposed or fragile. Because you construct that
image so you can form an identity for yourself. (I27e)

Los rubios, Albertina Carri’s film (2003), is one of the most refined
expressions of parodic compliance. It shows how the subject is made
through means and mechanisms that she knows are contingent and
constructed: (“This film is about the impossibility of memory, of the

Figure  7.4  A Still from the film Los rubios (Carri 2003). The actress Analía
Couceyro, who plays the director, after constructing her history and making
her memory using stories and anecdotes she gathers from her parents’ fellow
militants, listens distractedly, laterally, from a distance, to the accounts gathered,
which are the landscape of her background.
Reproduced with permission from the author.
150 Surviving Forced Disappearance

frauds that are committed in its name” [Carri 2007, 24]). “I’m a con-
struction, but that’s what I am. And there’s no way out of it,” Carri
seems to be saying, and by doing so she shows the fragility and pre-
cariousness of her identity. She appropriates the dominant accounts
of the field of the detained-disappeared—serious, political, transcen-
dent . . . —from a position that Albert Piette calls “distracted action”
(1993), that is, in such a way that she reveals that the topics derived
from the more normative readings of identity are essential, yes, but also
partially avoidable.
Black humor is one of the strategies of this distant acceptance. It acts as a
sort of internal code among the “children of” when they form a ­comunitas
(Turner 1967, 1969), a code that operates along the tension between obe-
dience to the commands of the center, the normative identity, defined by
blood, continuity, or heroic struggle, and a certain unsubmissiveness toward
those rules manifested with irony, sometimes very cutting irony:
When my father’s remains were found, people would say to me: “C’mon,
let’s get together at my house and we’ll barbecue some ribs,” and I would
say: “No, no barbecue, I’ve had enough bones”. . . .  Or for Father’s Day: “So,
what do you wanna do tomorrow?”. . . . Or the door opens, there’s a whole
bunch of us, the door opens and I say: “Here comes my old man,” and the
door opened on its own. “Dad, come in,” things like that. . . . When I found
my mom’s remains, everybody was like: “So? How’s your mom?” “OK, I’m
happy. Tomorrow I’m going to take her home, I’m going to put the urn on
the table and have dinner with her. Then I’ll take her to bed and I’m going
to sleep by her side”. . . . Know what I mean? Real paranoid, real nuts, a psy-
cho, carrying his mom’s ashes everywhere with him. . . . But I only do this
among our people. (I23)

I got a lot of money from the compensation paid to disappearance victims.

Because of my family’s situation, I’m the sole heir. (I27a)
–A short time ago at a little orphan dinner, there were quite a few of
us . . . and we started to compete, we started saying . . . who had more points,
because. . . . I don’t know, for example, I have two [disappeared] parents, so
I scored high.
–[GG] That gives you a cachet. Lucky you!
–Exactly. I was winning because there was somebody else who only had
a disappeared mother, but then there was someone else whose father had
disappeared, her mother had disappeared and so had the partners of both
her mother and father. So she beat us all [laughter]. (I21)

True, this is a bit jarring. But pay attention to the codes that identify those
who tell it: they hide those who in earlier chapters expressed ­indelible
biological continuities between parents and offsprings. The same who
believe firmly in the policy of conservation of what is (“My old man liked to
Serious Parodies 151

Figure 7.5  Final stills from Los rubios (Carri 2003). While the song Influenza is
playing (“I don’t run, I don’t hide, I don’t fight what fate arranges”), Albertina Carri
and her team walk toward the camera wearing blonde wigs, cross-dressed as the
Carri family, which the distorted memories of some transformed into los rubios (the
blonds) of the film’s title. The authentic family is replaced by a new one, the original
by its simulacrum, the truth by its parody. Transformed into Los rubios in an act of
transvestism, rather than annul the family or overcome it, they re-signify it.
Reproduced with permission from the author.

cook, I like to cook; I love food I’d never even tasted before and now I’m
crazy about, things I never ate growing up because I was raised with dif-
ferent meals, and as soon as I got a chance to taste them I thought: ‘This is
my favorite food.’ And then I find out that that was my dad’s favorite food
too” [I23]) may also be the same who, just as firmly, express their con-
viction of the arbitrariness of what that policy is grounded on. Without
denying what persists, there is room for disobedience: “It is clear that my
parents are a fiction for me” (Carri 2007, 27). They disobey but they do
not escape the mandates of lineage, of its laws. And within the limits that
these laws allow them they form groups structured by a certain shared
bastardy: of “little orphans” (I20, I21, I23, I27c, I27f, I27h), of “happy
bastards” (I21), of “children without parents” (I23, I27a), of “grandmoth-
ers’ children” (I23), of “post-orphan” (I20).4
Through parodic compliance, the hard core of identity is not
destroyed but it is marked as arbitrary, as a convention (“‘the normal,’
‘the original’ is revealed to be a copy” [Butler 1993, 138]) and it is
marked as something one can even laugh at. In this case, the products
of this narrative indicate that (1) one can only exist in conventions and
in its repetition and (2) one can exist in conventions while at the same
time distancing oneself from them. In December 2010, in Buenos Aires,
152 Surviving Forced Disappearance

(a) (b)

Figure 7.6a, b  Two images of the exhibition Huachos. Huérfanos científicamente

producidos por el terrorismo de Estado (Bastards. Orphans Scientifically Engineered
by State Terrorism), organized in 2012 by CdeH (Colectivo de Hijos). In the first
image we see a long list of synonyms of what defines their identity, their orphan
condition. In the second, the logic of that same identity is problematized.
Reproduced with permission from the authors.

a group of “children of ” forms the Colectivo de Hijos (Association of

Children, or CdeH). Its founding manifesto is both a celebration of
their legacy and a declaration in favor of the right to speak. A resigna-
tion to their fate and a celebration of the need to distance oneself. What
follows are some extracts:
We name ourselves, we are an Association of Children. We are sons and
daughters of persons who were murdered and disappeared during the last
genocide. . . . Because we seek our own language. We build on their legacy,
we cut, paste, rearrange, add, and remove. We make our own, we do our
own thing. Because in this work we recreate ourselves. . . . Our orphan con-
dition hurts, it is a heavy load and an unavoidable mark, we carry it with us
wherever we go. . . . Because we seek answers, because we inquire and we try.
Because we invent a language made from images, texts, pushing the limit of
the possible. (CdeH 2010)
Serious Parodies 153

The Spanish sociologist Ramón Ramos has proposed (1999a) the figure
of the homo tragicus for thinking about social action. Ramos’s intention
is to avoid both the fiction that we are hyper-socialized actors, stupidly
repeating prescribed codes, and that other fiction that shows us as cre-
ative and independent individuals, hypo-socialized agents, governed
by pure reason, with a free and active imagination. Between yielding to
structure and creative novelty is the homo tragicus, a subject held down
by his script, which guides his acts but at the same time can grant certain
leeway to the character it assigns him. Neither structure nor creativity.
There is a certain epochal mood in the concept that makes it appealing for
understanding social life, also some recent film productions—The Matrix,
ExistenZ, Scream . . . —and, here and now, for understanding the identity
of the parodic post-orphans. Like the heroes in the ancient tragedies, they
are all portrayed as prisoners of a script that they follow, prisoners of their
fate. . . . 
After this . . . what happened to me is that I understood that you don’t have
any control over your own life. . . . I get the feeling that when you do some-
thing it’s because that’s something you have to do. There’s a fate, which
is this, and you go that way, and along the way you think you’re doing
things . . . because you had to do them. . . . (I27i)
I feel that my country’s history has a lot to do with my own history. What
happened to me is not an isolated event, it’s not a personal tragedy, whatever
happened to me is not something random. (I27h)

 . . . but of a fate that, in their actions, they aim to expand and modify, a
fate they appropriate:

I accept that as my history, and at the same time I play with it and I distance
myself a bit, I know it’s my fate but at the same time I try to show that
I want to change that script a bit. (I21)

There is, in fact, no other option. It is not possible to follow to the letter
the plot written out for the actors who play the lead roles in a drama of this
magnitude: no matter how solemn the actor, nobody can be that serious,
nobody can stick constantly to the letter of a script like this. If that were the
case, social life would be in every sense impossible. It would be unbearable.
In any case, faced with the certainty that for social actors being normal is
to fully belong, faced with the conviction that in order to be, one must be
at all times and wholly, one must be serious always, must always follow the
script, that social action makes sense if it satisfies the mandate of ­attentively
following what one must say and do in every occasion—faced with all
that, the day-to-day social life appears more distanced than subjugated
154 Surviving Forced Disappearance

and adopts a register that is more tenuous than tragic, more distracted
than committed, even in catastrophic situations. Although as sociologists,
political scientists, or politicians we may over-interpret social action, often
demanding that it stick to the script, social action is, more often than not,
out of frame, living things laterally, from a distance, involved but distract-
edly so (Piette 1992). We are that script, without a doubt, but we need to
follow it a bit “loosely”:

We have a scriptwriter here that we didn’t choose, you know? I didn’t choose
that scriptwriter. (I21)
Well, okay already, this thing I have to live with is yeah, yeah, yeah, but it’s
enough of a pain in the ass, it’s painful enough, I don’t know, so that I’m
going to have to build other identities. You know? (I21)
It’s so easy to go with the stuffy discourse of tragedy. . . . We suffered it
already, we have it in our bodies already, you know. . . . I never felt connected
with that. . . . This thing of putting myself in the position of ­daughter,
I  think at some point. . . . I want to feel that I can take the leap and not
always be a daughter. (I22)
Chapter 8

Transnationalization of the
Detained-Disappeared, Social Creativity,
and Other Unintended Consequences
of Forced Disappearance

From the Local to the Global:

A Transitional Justice Star Is Born
Every August since 2010, on occasion of the International Day of
the Disappeared, Amnesty International shakes the media out of its
lazy ­summer haze with a press statement that makes big headlines:
114 ­t housand families “are still looking for their loved ones who were dis-
appeared during the Spanish Civil War.” Even well into the twenty-first
century, it is front page news that some one hundred thousand plus people
reported missing in Spain since the 1940s have earned the peculiar label
of detained-disappeared to describe their current living status. Amnesty
International takes the opportunity afforded by this commemoration
to expand on the issue and compare what is still ongoing in Spain—
thousands of unsolved cases of forced disappearances—to other similar
situations around the world: 25 governments accused of forced disap-
pearances in 2009, thousands of detained-disappeared persons who are
victims of recent wars (12,000 reported in Bosnia Herzegovina, 16,409
in Iraq, 179 in Ingushetia, 1,300 in Nepal, 2,270 in El Salvador . . . ). The
statement closes with an explanation of what forced disappearance of
persons is (“a serious human rights violation perpetrated by states . . . ”),

G. Gatti, Surviving Forced Disappearance in Argentina and Uruguay

© Gabriel Gatti 2014
156 Surviving Forced Disappearance

what it involves (“a person is secretly detained, tortured, murdered . . . ”),

what some particularities of the horror it generates are (“families suf-
fer for years or decades under the weight of these state crimes. . . . They
know nothing of the fate of their loved ones, whether they are dead or
alive, if they were held captive, subjected to torture, kept in inhuman
conditions, buried in a mass grave. . . . They do not know if they will
ever appear again and what state they will be in if they do”), and who
legitimizes this definition (international humanitarian law through the
International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced
Spain, like many other countries before it, brings old issues onto a new
arena that re-signifies them—the arena of international humanitarian
law, of transitional justice, and their powerful categories. In that arena,
an old Spanish problem falls under a universal category that is new to
it and which subsumes and explains it. The problem, formerly nameless
(or without a consensually agreed on name), finally finds a name. The
“114,000” are part of an object whose existence is sanctioned by inter-
national law, victims of a crime—forced disappearance—addressed by
numerous humanitarian agencies, cases that fall under a category—the
figure of the detained-disappeared—around which revolve the lives of
hundreds of groups of victims, at times mobilized, most often suffering,
spanning different countries across the world and different periods of
Amnesty International’s press statement is thus more important than
what might initially appear. It announces that forced disappearance and
the disappeared have finally overcome the difficulties they met trying to
cross borders and now move comfortably from one side of the Atlantic
to the other, traveling effortlessly from one era to the next. Sanctioned
by international laws, it has become a solid object.
Allow me another vignette.
In his short novel Mala gente que camina (2006), Benjamín Prado
tells a story played out on a landscape rarely covered by Spanish litera-
ture, that of the fate of the children of victims persecuted under Franco
during the Civil War and, especially, in postwar Spain, children who
were adopted by pro-regime families. The story—deeply moving—is
populated by many of the usual characters found in this genre, both
the more intangible—guilt, secrets, revenge, concealment, betrayal,
hatred, humiliation, spite, reproaches . . . —and the more concrete and
human. One of these is Juan Urbano, the main character, a professor and
researcher who is preparing a lecture on Dolores Serna, the author of a
forgotten 1940s novel, Óxido. Another is Marconi Santos, a secondary
character. It is Santos’s presence in the novel that most interests me. The
Transnationalization 157

owner and host of “Montevideo,” a restaurant where the main character

eats dinner and breakfast every day, Santos is a Uruguayan exiled dur-
ing the 1970s dictatorship. He plays a key role in the tale spun by Prado,
because as Juan Urbano progresses in his research and finds a sordid
truth behind Dolores Serna’s story, in which forced disappearance and
appropriated children are part of the ingredients, Marconi Santos reveals
what happened in Uruguay during the dictatorship in the 1970s and thus
gives Urbano and the reader the framework to accurately represent what
they have just learned about Spain in the 1940s.
The disappeared have been transnationalized and today, 40  years
later, very different and remote situations are examined under a com-
mon model, a pattern provided by the figure of the disappeared in its
Argentine-Uruguayan strain. An incredible story: after not knowing
what it was, the disappeared have matured and expanded, overcoming
the obstacles the figure found as it tried to move easily across borders,
across the Atlantic—from Nazi Germany to Guatemala, from Argentina
to Ingushetia, from Guantanamo to Nepal—traveling comfortably even
from one era to another—from the post–World War to the Spanish Civil
War, from the Latin American dictatorships of the 1970s to the wars
of the postcommunist world. It has become a solid object: unchanged
no matter how far and wide it travels, immutable despite the obvious
differences between the various local uses. A star is born—a transitional,
transnational, shining star.

The Archetypal Disappeared: A Quick Guide

The archetype of the disappeared that has spread and triumphed across
the world has very local origins. It is typical of Argentina’s 1976–1983
military dictatorship and, to a certain extent, of the contemporary dicta-
torships of Uruguay, Chile and, in part, Brazil. I call them the archetypal
disappeared and what follows is a brief sketch of what in essence structures
this archetype; it is also a summary of what I say in this book, function-
ing as a quick guide. To describe the features of this archetype, I will run
down a series of ten propositions, arranged into two blocks. First I will
talk about disappearance in terms of its causes (the social and historical
roots of the machinery set in motion to disappear persons and bodies; the
logic behind the application of this dispositif for swallowing up persons
and bodies); then I will talk about disappearance in terms of its effects
(the consequences of the disappearing machinery on those who survive its
actions and on the social space where it is deployed).
158 Surviving Forced Disappearance

Forced Disappearance in Terms of Its Causes

First Proposition: Forced Disappearance Derives from the Same

Historical Process that Established (I) Civilization
Forced disappearance jeopardizes three elements, which to a large extent
underpin the modern meaning of action and identity: civilization (second
proposition); the nation-state (third proposition); and the citizen-­individual
(fourth proposition).
With civilization I am referring to a process that combines subjective
economies with macro-social dimensions. Three broad civilizing paths can
be distinguished: (1) one that leads to the forming of a population (that is,
a territory for government action peopled by citizen-individuals grouped
in a nation-state); (2) another leads to the forming of society through words
and ideas, that is, by realizing the gardener’s dream of order and progress,
agreement and education, utopia and freedom, civilization against bar-
barism; and (3) one that populates that modern chisel-carved world with
civilized individuals.

Second Proposition: Forced Disappearance Derives from the Same

Historical Process that Created (II) the Nation-State
That ideal, lettered society, filled with citizens who are members of a popu-
lation that is internally heterogeneous but presents itself as homogeneous
to outsiders, resembles a nation-state and is peopled by subjects who take
the form of citizen-individuals. The first is the model of modern collective
life and also its product, so much so that it has become our way of conceiv-
ing and living social life. This is not just an empirical reference—although
it is that, too—or an administrative reality—which it also is. I am talking
of our “meaning-conferring pan-institution,” of the “general principle of
consistency” of our subjectivity (Lewkowicz, Cantarelli, and Grupo Doce
2003, 31, 65), of that which for us moderns constitutes our basic geometry,
no less (Moya 1984). I am talking about the nation-state as that which
orders and colonizes our subjectivity.

Third Proposition: Forced Disappearance Derives from the Same

Historical Process that Created (III) the Citizen-Individual
If the state, in its hygienizing and rationalizing dynamics (propositions
four and five) was the active agent of forced disappearance, its passive agent
was the citizen-individual. This is not just any person; it is the modern sub-
ject, with full citizenship, a rational, enlightened and clean subject. It is a
Transnationalization 159

subject with history, the same history as human rights, in fact, the same
history also of the mechanism that destroys it. However, as with human
rights, the citizen-individual is viewed today as an ahistorical entity or
even as a sociological universal. But it is not. On the contrary, it is a recent

Fourth Proposition: Forced Disappearance Is Not Barbarism but

Exacerbated Modernity
Forced disappearance is part of that logic. Far from being barbaric, it is
modernity in a state of paroxysm, part of the dream of a society seen as
an object to be managed, as a matter of engineering and, in general, as a
garden that needs tending. It is tempting to fall back on the argument that
dictatorships, torture, or even forced disappearance go against the rule of
progress, but it is more plausible that what we have before us is the exacerba-
tion of the rationality furthered by that rule.

Fifth Proposition: Forced Disappearance Is a World-Rationalizing

If a dispositif is a means for rationalizing the world, which builds that on
which it is applied, forced disappearance is precisely that: a technique that
does what it says it does, it produces a world less filled with nuisances. It
consumes whole bodies, it devours them and then disgorges what remains,
which is a handful of bodies without names and many identities without

Sixth Proposition: Forced Disappearance Is a Dispositif Deployed in

the Territory of Identity
The most established image of what it means to have an identity in the
modern West presupposes that the entity endowed with such a virtue be
sustained by three indivisible bonds: (1) the union between a name and
a body (in the form of an individual) that is (2) embedded in a collective
history (in the form of a family novel) that enables it to imagine its time
as an enduring era, and which, finally, (3) is anchored to the present in a
firm, stable, and lasting community, which among us takes the form of
a nation-state. If it meets these conditions, then that entity is said to have a
Name of its own, a unique History, and a delimited Territory.
What forced disappearance throws into disarray is precisely that
­architecture of identity. It first tears apart that which is read as the onto-
logical unity of the human being, which joins one and only one body with
160 Surviving Forced Disappearance

one and only one name: the body, which cannot be found, is thus separated
from the name, which floats eternally without its physical medium. It then
tears apart the union of that name and that body associated with the con-
tinuity of the family novel. Finally, the machinery severs the relationship
between that individual and the community sanctioned by the state, that
is, it expels the individual from the pact of citizenship.

Forced Disappearance in Terms of Its Effects

Seventh Proposition: Forced Disappearance

Is Imagined as an Unfixable Disruption
And thus disaster, disorientation, a loss of reference points ensues. Once
those affected become convinced that what happened threw everything
into disarray, once the belief that it was not normal takes hold, it becomes
difficult to grasp within the normal frameworks of subjectivity. After the
tsunami, the subjects involved—sons, husbands, wives, mothers, daugh-
ters, partners, parents—say they live in a void, that their absent one is a
present entity, neither dead nor alive, a presence that is but at the same
time is not. What was normal has become undone and everything that
was a given no longer is. Forced disappearance makes almost everything
impossible, including the conventional ways of managing death.

Eighth Proposition: Forced Disappearance

Is Devastating because It Creates Unsolvable Paradoxes
As it developed, the disappearing dispositif operated in such a way that the
civilizing routine—which creates, among other things, citizen-individu-
als—was applied to the most sophisticated product of civilization—among
other things, to citizen-individuals. That is the “paradox of the detained-
disappeared” and it is formulated as follows: (1) forced disappearance is
part of the instruments typically used by the civilizing/modern order to
build and manage a population and (2) forced disappearance is applied to
the most sophisticated products of the civilizing/modern order. Forced dis-
appearance is, thus, an inverted civilizing machine. Rather than barbaric,
it is de-civilizing.

Ninth Proposition: Forced Disappearance Is a Catastrophe

Forced disappearance is a catastrophe, that is: a permanent disturbance of
the apparatuses of social construction of meaning and subjectivity turned into
a space of life. This space is difficult to experience and conceive, and it is
Transnationalization 161

defined by the rupturing of the conventional relations between social real-

ity and language when the rupture is consolidated and the difficulties in
representing what occurs in the territories traced by that rupture become
permanent. There is life after the tsunami, but it is not easy.

Tenth Proposition: A Social Field Is Built around the Catastrophe of

Forced Disappearance (the “Field of the Detained-Disappeared”)
Forced disappearance extends far beyond the foundational disaster, in
time, not only because the wounds never heal, not just because the dead
never die and the crime is ongoing, but also because a social field—the
universe of the catastrophe—first emerges around it and is then crystal-
lized, a field in which many agents are established.

The Journeys of the Transnational Disappeared

Let us leap forward—or better yet, upward—from our local disappeared

to the spectacular irruption of this archetype of the disappeared in inter-
national criminal law. Let us imagine ourselves at the United Nations
headquarters in February 2007, as the International Convention for the
Protection of All Persons against Enforced Disappearance is ratified,
following its adoption on December 20, 2006, by the United Nations
General Assembly. The second article of the Convention defines forced
disappearance as:

The arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty

by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the
authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal
to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or
whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside
the protection of the law.

Thus we have an active subject—the state—that operates in a setting

framed by the law; a heinous crime, which involves removing that subject
from the rule of law and plunging it into a space where laws do not apply;
and a passive subject that after the act of disappearance mutates its condi-
tion: from being recognizable as an individual with a first and last name
to being named through a term—disappeared—that does not refer to a
quality of the subject but to a state of being: a noun (in Spanish, “es un
desaparecido”) as opposed to an adjective (“está desaparecido”).
162 Surviving Forced Disappearance

Let us take a few steps back and return to Latin America, but without
leaving the realm of the justice system. Let us situate ourselves in 1994,
when the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons
was adopted. It states:

The forced disappearance of persons violates numerous non-derogable and

essential human rights . . . : the right to liberty and security of the person,
the right to recognition as a person before the law, the right to a defense
and the right not to be subjected to torture, and it constitutes a grave threat
to the right to life.

If the text ratified by the United Nations in 2007 highlights the active
agent of forced disappearance—the state—and underlines the most
­characteristic feature of this practice—the removal of the disappeared
individual from the rule of law and the plunging of that individual into a
space of legal exceptionality—the text of the Inter-American Convention
observes that not just any person is targeted: it is an individual, a citizen,
a modern subject. A citizen turned pariah, a subject who occupied the
privileged status of citizen-individual and who is banished to the outside
territory, where he is thrown into desolation, expelled from humanity—
stripped of name, body, and history.
The Argentine definition of the archetypal disappeared and of forced
disappearance has been passed into law. That will be the yardstick for
any other product of forced disappearance practices, whether or not it
is carried out by the state, whether or not the fate of the disappeared
person is unknown, whether or not the disappearing dispositif targeted
its victims selectively and systematically, whether or not the victim is an
individual, an ethnic group, a rural population, or a community of believ-
ers. Whatever the case, the definition has been enormously successful,
and the concept of disappeared invented by “the last Argentine dictator-
ship” and later ratified by the United Nations in 2007 travels from one
continent to another, through different times, virtually untouched by
the disruptions normally encountered in such long journeys. Hardened,
the detained-disappeared has turned into a truly immutable mobile.1 It
was born, in a complicated labor, in Argentina’s chupaderos, which gave
birth to the archetypal disappeared, and suffered two subsequent trans-
formations. First, without losing any of its complexity, but shedding
some nuances along the way, the archetypal disappeared became the
transnational disappeared through an intense process of legal transla-
tion. Then, it turned into the standard for studying, measuring, and
prosecuting the multiple cases of local disappeared already included in
the transnational type.
Transnationalization 163

Transnational disappeared (construction of the legal category)

Step 1: From “reality” Step 2: From the legal
to the legal text definition to “reality” (diversity
(construction of the filtered by the inscriptions that
category of represent it)

Local disappeared incorporated

into the transnational type
Archetypal disappeared (diversity of cases equated to the
(the Argentine standard) original standard through the filter
of the transnational disappeared
model: Ingushetia, Spain, Algeria,
Nepal, Guantanamo . . .)

First transformation
Second transformation

Archetypal disappeared  Transnational disappeared  Local disappeared.

Note: The diagram is constructed by combining several of the diagrams used by Latour and Hermant

What highways has it used to travel so swiftly and smoothly? What

are the discursive layers that shaped the successful disembarking of this
category or figure outside its place of origin?
Several hypotheses can be put forward to try to understand it. One
is soft, applied in transatlantic studies interested in objects that come and
go across the ocean, crossing, disputing, and (re)appropriating multiple
directions, both in time and in space. The transatlantic disappeared could
be one of those objects: born in America, it travels to Europe, renounces
its origins and composes an identity with more porous borders and more
fluid contents. Seen this way, it would not be as important to know how
the disappeared—as a concept—is produced but how it circulates; rather
than the “historical time,” the origin and the authenticity, what would
matter would be “the transhistorical time” of reinterpretations, where
“stories crisscross” and things are “renewed again and again” (Ortega
2010, 84).
Also, realizing that being sensitive to the local uses of these universal
concepts is much more relevant for understanding the production of the
concepts that structure the field of human rights (law, refugee, disap-
peared, victim, recognition, perpetrator, reparation, and many others), a
large part of anthropological research is being focused on this area. If the
164 Surviving Forced Disappearance

hypothesis of transatlantic studies was sensitive to the movement of dis-

authentication, this second hypothesis is sensitive to the local appropria-
tion of the categories of international law, that is, to the vernacularization
of rights (Cowan 2006), which necessarily involves the practice of agents
in concrete situations.
Nonetheless, if we aim to understand how the detained-disappeared
has reached the status of a high category of international law in human
rights violations, how it has been elevated to the altar of universal, trans-
atlantic, and transhistorical concepts, and, also, how all of that has been
legally ratified, a third, harder, hypothesis must be considered. The
hypothesis I posit involves situating the movements of the detained-
disappeared within a widespread development of the early twenty-first
century: the consolidation of human rights as one of the prevailing dis-
courses for perceiving the world and its variations. It is truly a new moral
economy, which—as Didier Fassin states—“came into being during the
last decades of the twentieth century. . . . It brings forth new kinds of
responses—a humanitarian government—in which particular attention
is focused on suffering and misfortune” (2011, 7). A very brief genealogy
of this morality requires that two temporalities be considered and the
naturalization of a new subjective and highly contemporary type—that
of the victim—be addressed.
Long-term temporality begins in the seventeenth century. It is the
history of enlightened humanism—full of vicissitudes, triumphs, and
defeats—and, with it, of the elevation of concepts such as citizenship,
sovereign individual, nation-state, Western civilization, and human
rights to the status of shared and universal truths. Briefly, it is the his-
tory of the construction of the concept of human as one of the regula-
tory, moral, and legal frames of reference that characterize the globalized
world. Medium-term temporality concerns the twentieth century, the
age of compensatory actions for the many situations that since the fif-
ties, more or less, we identify as typical of “humanity in conditions of
hardship,” conditions that Didier Fassin calls “global scenes of misfor-
tune” (2007, 508): unemployment, poverty, migration, asylum, scarcity,
disease, and so on. Again, briefly: it is the history of humanitarian gov-
ernment and its many agencies or concepts (from the United Nations
High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] to the idea of “interna-
tional humanitarian law” and the concept of transitional justice). It is
also the history of the construction of “a totalitarian fiction” (Agier
2011, 196), or, rather more accurately, a totalizing fiction: the existence
of a humanity with a shared and universal identity, in which only one
difference exists, that of one of its parts, an excluded part, situated on
the margins—the victims, who are the target of humanitarian actions.
Transnationalization 165

Seen from this perspective, instruments such as transitional justice or

international humanitarian law are, according to Ruti G. Teitel (2003),
normative efforts that have concrete effects, including the construction
of a global consensus on what is considered human, on its violation, and
on how to react to that violation. They are instruments that damage the
reality to which they are applied, insofar as they impact and modify it,
and they do so with the difficult-to-question legitimacy of those who
seek the universalization of the basic system of universal rights, fair but
ethnocentric, universal in its aspiration but local in its foundation. Thus,
the enormous battery of laws that equip the structure of international
humanitarian law—victims laws, memory laws, reconciliation laws,
reparation laws, recognition laws, data access laws, forgive-and-forget
laws . . . —operates everywhere in a highly performative way, creating
truth, consensus, and legitimized memory sequences, while at the same
time contributing to create new collective subjects, the victims, the sub-
jects assisted by that battery of laws.
If we agree that the two temporalities constitute the discursive lay-
ers that explain this new moral economy, we can also see how this new
moral economy gives rise to a character—the victim—that, while old,
has gained much force in recent years. We see all kinds of them: victims
of terrorism, of gender violence, airplane crashes, medical malpractice,
crises, floods. . . . They embody a new planetary subjectivity, that of a
character that is naturalized as damaged, suffering, assisted, passive, apo-
litical. They are everywhere. And while it may not seem that way, they
represent a recent subjective type (Mate 2008; Wieviorka 2003; Gatti
2013). Among the victims, the subset of detained-disappeared is well
situated, occupying the highest ranks in the contemporary “hierarchy of
misfortune” (Agier 2011, 213). Not surprisingly so, as the detained-dis-
appeared is a nonliving, a non-dead, a noncitizen, expelled from history,
nameless and bodiless. It is humanity falling short. The countersubject of
the old humanist and enlightened subject. A complete victim.

Of the Unintended Consequences

of the Transnationalization of the
In any case, the issue is far from being without consequences. One such
consequence certainly calls for the matter to be dealt with carefully.
Another two probably deserve to be celebrated.
166 Surviving Forced Disappearance

The first consequence is disturbing, and it has to do with the colo-

nizing force that the “transnational disappeared” gain as they shape
our way of conceiving any other detained-disappeared. I am referring
to a colonization that is aesthetic, historical, and social, a colonization
that erases differences and confines the subject contained in the signi-
fier “disappeared” or “affected by forced disappearance” within a model
that turns that subject, necessarily, into a suffering victim. Caution is
thus warranted. The transnational disappeared have become an efficient
instrument of justice, but the image of eternal sufferer obliterates the
variety of situations it represents. As it stands, its truth—and that of its
surroundings—is only “the truth of its suffering” (Fassin 2004, 91).
The second consequence is that the disappeared and their social ­u niverses
have entered the powerful framework of recognition offered today by
international humanitarian law, a normative standard that exponentially
increases the possibilities of garnering global interest for the subjects that
are the focus of its attention. In this sense, Rosa Linda Fregoso has noted
that the “human rights culture” and the category of victim that emerges
with it undoubtedly constitute a framework of recognition for severely
damaged lives: they enable subjects in a subordinate position to be rec-
ognized, to “produce presence,” to join a “cultural politics of visibility”
(2006, 75).2
The third consequence deserves to be celebrated, and perhaps because of
that its explanation merits more paragraphs.
We know that with forced disappearance a catastrophe occurred that
devastated identity, resulted in things being stripped of words with which
to give them substance, and upset the structure on which order rests. It
made everything snap. Although “creativity” is not exactly a quality asso-
ciated with the perpetrators of such a tremendous disruption, they can,
nonetheless, be credited with a finding, with having invented something so
destructively powerful that it was capable of demolishing modern identity,
destroying the language used to think about modern identity, and disar-
ticulating for a long time the long-standing connection between words and
things. A true feat.
The combination of certain ingredients—civilization, a hygienizing
obsession, social engineering, American utopia . . . —produced, almost
unwittingly, a novelty that is colossal in both its practical and symbolic
dimensions, the repressive perfection of the detained-disappeared. However,
it had an unintended consequence: a vast, dense, sad, rich, and complex
social universe—the field of the detained-disappeared. That, too, is a true
finding, not of the victimizers but of the victims, forgers of a new social
world where social life is a priori not possible, of identities where the very
idea of identity is fraught with enormous difficulties, of solidarity where
Transnationalization 167

not even the most visionary of sociologists believed it was possible, of suit-
able languages to give a voice and provide words for forced disappearance,
for the detained-disappeared, in sum, for that catastrophe that severs words
from things, that is devoid even of words and precludes representation.
Diverse narratives—which in my analysis I have limited to two, that of
meaning and that of the absence thereof—solidify those social worlds into
identities, into words, into solidarities, making them concrete. They are
very different, but share a tremendous creativity: they invented identities,
words, strategies, affections, social networks, names. . . . They invented so
much that they even reversed the meaning of the very concept that spawned
them, the concept of detained-disappeared, which they turned from some-
thing inexplicable into something explanatory; they transformed it into a
concept for understanding the things that are difficult to understand.
Another finding, yes, but one that is beautiful. Explaining what it is
becomes unnecessary. No longer is there a need to resort to other con-
cepts to understand it, or to compare it to other situations to know what
it is about. The detained-disappeared have their own place and it is made
of irrepresentability, of fractures, absences, exceptions, ineffability, and
indefinability, of invisibility and destabilization. . . . It is an uncomfortable
place, but a place nonetheless. I insist: this singularization of the detained-
disappeared can be interpreted as a victory, whether moral or political, I
cannot say; but certainly a victory of collective intellect, which proves it
is capable of defeating horror without obliterating it, of plunging com-
pletely into a hole that pierces reality and thinking from within that hole.
As far as the catastrophe of forced disappearance and, especially, of the
detained-disappeared is concerned, when this shift takes place, the figure
radically changes its status in the collective imaginary: from a concept that
needed explaining, the mystery, the unknown that needed to be found in
the equation, the problem that tormented, it has now become the opposite,
the variable that explains, the reference point, a sort of principle of intellec-
tion useful for thinking about all that which is imagined as strange and
If this is true, I think we have before us an extraordinary symptom
of the inventiveness of social life, another Mona Lisa that emerges from
this aberration. Beautiful. Intellectually powerful. Something to be taken
very seriously: a concept has been invented, an instrument for thinking
the ineffable, the obscure, the invisible, the fantastic has been discov-
ered (Mahlke 2012; Bergero 2010). It is indeed a finding, because the
detained-disappeared operates as a metaphor for explaining the peculiar
social conditions of the unemployed, the marginalized, the homeless,
the deranged, the exiled. . . . All of these are thought of as disappeared,
because, like the disappeared, they are uncomfortable, invisible, absent
168 Surviving Forced Disappearance

without being absent, out of place, unstructured, present without being

present. . . . A former detained-disappeared echoes this opening up of a
concept that was strange and its transition from explanandum—that
which needs explaining—to explanans—that which explains:

[When I see homeless children sleeping in the street] I have this image,
it’s like they’re also. . . . It’s like they’re not there. . . . To this system, they are
disappeared. . . . They tell me: “I go to school because it rescued me.” And
that strikes a chord in me too. . . . They’re in a place that is nobody’s. A place
where no one sees them. (I42e)

The disappeared trace a field, arrange the construction of a universe

around themselves, and, also, serve as a reference point and a metaphor
from which to explain social situations that, like them, are in impossible
places. Yes, I believe the disappeared have become a concept. Popular wis-
dom? History’s revenge? Probably: what was inexplicable now serves to
explain that which is still inexplicable. The intelligence of social life, which
is always magnificent, has transformed explanandum into ­explanans, a
problem into a solution.
We have countless examples of this inventiveness. An outstanding
example, because of its explicitness, is provided by the group Escombros,
artistas de lo que queda, which places the detained-disappeared at the very
center of that dark place where those obscured by history converge: the
unemployed, AIDS victims, the diseased, the tortured, the censured, the
deranged, the exiled, adolescents without future, abused women. . . . In
that place, the detained-disappeared play a double role, first as synthe-
sis (because like all those social monsters they are invisible, they are for-
saken, they are a horror . . . ), then as champions. Along that same line—the
detained-disappeared as a metaphor for situations of forsakenness—is an
event organized by the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (Asamblea
Permanente por los Derechos Humanos, or APDH) in August 2005.
Participants at this event spoke of the “socially disappeared.” They did
so unaffectedly and without worrying if they were saying something that
might sound counterintuitive to the audience. They applied the term to
many special situations, strange situations: transvestites, street children,
marginalized people. . . . And many more: the concept of disappeared was
used to speak of the abnormality that society attributes to transvestites, to
assist those wishing to understand the most radical expressions of social
precariousness, the status of the body of the disappeared used to explore
sexual pathologies. . . . The experience is repeated everywhere: in Colombia,
Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, France, Portugal. . . . Wherever I have had the
opportunity to speak about it, it is used to explore things that are hard
Transnationalization 169

to think about. No small feat, using this glassy concept to gain a greater
understanding of, the always inconvenient, social waste. On August 10,
2005, I wrote in my field notebook:

Field Notebook: 8/10/2005, Montevideo. The Disappeared as a Principle of

In Eduardo Mignogna’s El viento (2005) there are absent fathers, quests for
meaning, secrets, silences. . . . Ancient things. To explain them, in a press
conference, the director uses something new, the detained-disappeared.
That’s right, the detained-disappeared becomes explanans, a device for
explaining identity when it is perceived as empty, when it plays out in
absence. Curiously enough, disappearance is not the theme of the movie,
yet it is used to explain the issues the movie touches on: the difficulties
of identity, identity when it is fractured and disturbed, the construction
of the self with an absent father. . . . Thus, for example, a critic (Página/12,
August  2, 2005)  reviews El viento under the title “Essay on Identity”
and says: “Although that’s not what the story is about, a person raised in
Argentina without knowing who his or her father was is a very familiar
scenario.” My mother also gets it when she realizes that the movie is not a
metaphor for disappearance but that disappearance can be used as a device
to explore the difficulties of identity. Forced disappearance has become
established, at least in Argentine society, as a principle of intellection for
troubled identity.

In sum, I would venture that today the disappeared catalyze the vocabu-
lary of the language of that which is absent of meaning. They serve as a
reference for thinking about the unusual, the situations that are ludicrous,
abnormal, painful, all that which has been exceptional, that causes prob-
lems. And insofar as the disappeared are elevated to that status, the status
of reference, of metaphor, of concept, of language that is useful for speak-
ing of it, they also become the language of those things without a name or
a place: the pit as a metaphor for the black holes of reality, the testimony
of horror as a way of approaching the unspeakable, memory as something
plural and precarious, the difficulty of representing certain realities and
the fundamentally irrepresentable nature of others. . . . These, which were
conceptual devices and formal instruments for speaking about the disap-
peared and their field, are gradually underpinning the construction of a
language for the impossible. A victory, indeed.


1. This quote is taken from one of the 43 interviews I used as input for the
analysis that provides empirical support for this study. All the interviews are
identified with the letter “I” (for interview) and a number (21, in this case)
corresponding to a list included as an annex at the end of the book.
2. The letters “NN” are used to designate mass graves or any graves where
unidentified bodies are buried. It is the abbreviation of the Latin phrase nomen
nescio, which literally means “name unknown” but is incorrectly translated as
“no name.” In Argentina, numerous unidentified skeletons were unearthed in
public cemeteries during the 1980s and were later identified as the remains of
detained-disappeared persons. Those remains had been buried in NN graves.
In Uruguay, that search has only just begun. . . . 
3. Interview with Albertina Carri, posted on http://www.subjetiva.com.ar/­
internas/entrevistacarri.htm. Accessed June 2006.

1  A Catastrophe for Identity and

Meaning: Forced Disappearance,
Modernity, and Civilization
1. The concept of catastrophe has been extensively developed in the history of
the social sciences (e.g., Thom 1976; or Morin 1976; or more recently Dupuy
2002 and 2005; Mercier-Faivre and Thomas 2008; Lewkowicz 2002; and
Revet and Legumier 2013, who update the debates associated with the con-
cept with the support of rich field studies). In this case, my formulation of
the concept rests on the ideas of linguistic catastrophe posited by Steiner and
Rosenfeld and of psychic catastrophe proposed by Kaes. Linguistic catas-
trophe can be understood in relation to the effects that extreme phenomena
produce on language; hence Auschwitz, which Steiner says drove language
172 Notes

to a crisis so deep it can be defined as a phenomenon “outside language”

(1967), or which for Rosenfeld constitutes a “linguicide,” a case of “language
death” (in Grierson 1999). For Kaes, psychic catastrophe is produced “when
the habitual modalities employed for treating the . . . traumatic experience
show themselves to be insufficient” (1991, 98). That is to say, when a situ-
ation cannot be understood from the mechanisms of understanding of the
structure that is wrecked by that situation. And lastly, the idea proposed by
Veena Das, for whom an event is “that [which] institutes a new form of his-
torical action that was not inscribed in the inventory of a previous situation”
(2008, 28; from the ­prologue by F. A. Ortega), that is, it is not just a rupture
of the normative consensus and the impossibility of being substituted, but an
installation of life in a context in which that absence of norm gives form to
2. Although they refer to different eras, Mike Davis’s classic portrayal of Los
Angeles (1990) or the works gathered in Sorkin (1992) on the suburbs of the
large cities of the United States and the establishment of the middle classes
there as a result of sociological planning depict a molding process similar to
the one I describe here. It should be noted that while this may be a typical
­feature of social life as conceived throughout the Americas, it is no less true
that this close relationship between modern project and social life is not so
clear in the Andean region, whose history is impossible to narrate without
taking into consideration its precolonial traditions, which can, in contrast, be
ignored in the social history of the Southern Cone.
3. That is the argument held, for example, by Edmundo Gómez Mango (2006),
or one that Marcelo Viñar presents, in a personal conversation, as follows:
“Where the horror, the barbarism that existed can be processed, where they
can be recognized so the wounds can heal, [that is] civilization.” Dialectics
without gray areas.
4. Tabaré Vázquez is a former member of the Socialist Party and was president
of Uruguay from 2005 to 2010. The PANES (Social Emergency Plan), under
which all the re-citizenship measures mentioned in my field note were imple-
mented, was significantly successful in Uruguay, as was a similar program
in Brazil, known as Fome zero (zero hunger). These are two of the several
examples of policies aimed at reconstructing the modern, rational citizenship
bond, that beautiful pact of solidarity, which, in the 1990s, the years of the
Washington Consensus, was seriously threatened.
5. Roberto Esposito posits an idea that should be taken into account to under-
stand this paradox: the biologization of politics leads to viewing the world
from an organicist metaphor and managing the people and its functional
equivalents (community, nation . . . ) as bodies. If they are thought to be at
risk of disease, they will be immunized, and, if necessary, the infected part
will be removed. That immunization has paradoxical effects as it involves
a healing society that “directs its protective devices against its own body”
(2007, 19). The machine is applied to itself and destroys its own product,
destroying itself.
Notes 173

2  Activists of Meaning: Bringing Order

to Ruins, Remaking Archives, and
Undoing Traumas
1. It is not the aim of this book to analyze policies of memories, on which there
is a vast literature. For Argentina, see, for example, Sarlo 2005; Robben
2005; Taylor 2003; Vezzetti 2002; Franco and Lewin 2007; and Jelin 2003.
For Chile, see Richard 2007. For Uruguay’s case, there are some comments
in Rico 1995, and more recently in Fried and Lessa 2011, and Lessa 2013.
2. Thus, while in Argentina this process began—albeit in fits and starts—as
the country came out of the dictatorship in 1983, in Uruguay things moved
much more slowly, although less slowly than in Spain, where even today,
almost 40 years after Franco’s death and more than 70 years after the end of
the Civil War, the memory of that war and the dead, the disappeared, and
other victims of Franco’s regime is still being constructed, and not without
3. Operation Condor framed the coordination of repressive actions among the
regimes of the Latin American Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile, Uruguay,
Brazil, and Paraguay). It was active during the 1970s and 1980s, under the
auspices of the CIA. Automotores Orletti, where my father disappeared, was
one of the clandestine centers where Operation Condor was carried out.
4. Named after Police Chief Gral. Ramón Camps, a notorious repression agent
who headed a circuit of 29 clandestine detention centers distributed through-
out the Buenos Aires metropolitan area.
5. León Duarte was a Uruguayan labor leader. He was a militant in the same
column as my father and he disappeared in Buenos Aires under the repressive
operations that dismantled the column.
6. Taken from the website of the Provincial Commission for Memory (http://
www.comisionporlamemoria.org). Accessed August 2013.
7. The National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (Comisión
Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas, or CONADEP) was created in
1983 with the mandate of informing on the disappearance of persons that
occurred during Argentina’s 1976–1983 dictatorship. Its work was the basis
for the report Nunca Más (CONADEP 1984). On the Nunca Más (Never
Again) report, see Crenzel 2012.
8. This is all multiplied with the transnationalization of the figure of the
detained-disappeared, a phenomenon that I address in the last chapter.
9. If I take an interest in the analytical work of experts of the psyche, it is not
with the aim of refuting or confirming their findings. I am not competent
to theoretically analyze the construction of those who analyze the psyche,
let  alone to participate and take sides in internal, dense debates, between
Lacanians and Freudians, and between these and social psychologists. There
are plenty of experts on that. I am not one of them.
174 Notes

10. I am not aware if there is a good genealogy of the incidence of psychoanalyti-

cal discourse in the self-perception of Rio de la Plata people or if this is yet
to be attempted. It would be an interesting way of gaining insight into what
makes identity tick in this part of the world. As for what matters in this regard
for the purposes of this book, see chapter 1 and my reflections there on the
elective affinity of the figures that give substance to modern identities: the
nation-state, population, the citizen-individual, and, of course, the profes-
sionals of these different instances.
11. Readers will have understood correctly if in this outline they detect a simpli-
fication, almost a caricature, of the mending psychoanalyst. It is an unintended
effect of this chapter’s overriding argument, in which no professional should
see themselves reflected. But Marcelo Viñar did see himself reflected, as he
let me know in November 2008, at the launch of the first version of this book
(Viñar 2009). And he defended himself: “Gabriel Gatti defines my trade—I
exaggerate but only slightly—as a specialist in trauma, as a mender of holes
or a darner of traumas, and I buck and rebel against such a belittling defini-
tion of my trade. The concept of Trauma has become a wildcard that is used
for and confuses everything from cancer to an ingrown toenail. . . . For years
we have been combating the model of trauma, of the Post Traumatic Stress
Syndrome, of resilience: because they medicalize and psycho-pathologize a
problem that is not a psychopathology problem but a cultural problem. The
theories or institutions that embrace this logic fall, sooner or later, down the
slide of victimology, of ethics, of pity, or of compassion. Logic that neither I
nor we share, even if we are a minority. . . . The ethics of psychoanalysis must
combat survivor’s guilt and its Judeo-Christian sacrificial source” (Viñar

3  Moral Techniques: Recovering

Disappeared Identities through
Forensic Anthropology
1. EAAF website (http://www.eaaf.org). Accessed May 2005.
2. Along this line, Claverie (2011) describes the creation of “units for re-associ-
ating bodies” in Bosnia, in 2001.
3. Description of the protocol followed for collecting blood samples for the
genetic database of the Latin American Initiative for the Identification
of Disappeared Persons (Iniciativa Latinoamericana de Identificación de
Personas Desaparecidas), taken from the EAAF website. Accessed September
4. However, we should not forget that this technique is essentially a lab rou-
tine. Describing the history of what is known today as proof of identity, which
makes it possible to identify stolen or appropriated children by establishing
Notes 175

the biological connection between individuals separated by two generations

(grandparents and grandchildren) and overcoming the lack of DNA samples
from the parents’ generation, two genetic experts provide the following expla-
nation: “Actually, until 1984 there was no [test for this]. In 1984, there was a
change in legislation and a law was passed regulating the histocompatibility
test . . . , which already existed but was used for transplant cases, to test if a
donor and a recipient were a match. This test involved genetic markers that
are very specific to each individual, which are shared only rarely by people
who are not related, and which allow us to know if you’re an organ match for
your brother, say. . . . What happened was that the concept of histocompatibil-
ity was transformed and applied to identity. . . . The human rights organiza-
tions and the concept of ‘human rights’ changed enormously as of the 1980s,
and people started understanding this” (I9).
5. It was not like that in many other cases, including Spain, where what we call
forced disappearance today was not developed in a context where state logic or
the forms of subjectivity associated with it reigned. Therefore, in my opinion,
while “forced disappearance of persons” may apply to these cases as a criminal
category, its application as a sociological category is debatable (Gatti 2011).

4  The Meaning-Preserving Machinery of

the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo
1. There are many consequences of the universalization of the “Argentine
Articles”: associating name to identity; establishing that ours is “a continuous
and permanent state, something immutable derived from genetic ties” (Imaz
2011, 139); obstructing the possibility of filiations built on semen and/or egg
donations, “which form new families precisely through the legally established
annulment of mutual rights and obligations created by genetic ties” (ibid.).
“If we conceive the concealment of identity as a crime,” social anthropologist
Elixabete Imaz argues, “we turn thousands of people into potential criminals,
thousands of persons who in diverse life circumstances, following right or
wrong strategies, based also on diverse criteria, decided to conceal or refrain
from revealing the biological origin of their children, grandchildren, nieces,
nephews, or siblings (who doesn’t have a family secret?)” (ibid.).
2. Simón Antonio Riquelo is the name given at birth to my cousin, son of my
uncle Mauricio and my aunt Sara Méndez. Simón, whose name is no lon-
ger Simón, was identified in 2006. Adriana Gatti is my sister and Ricardo
Carpintero her boyfriend. They are both disappeared.
3. Taken from the presentation of the “genetic aspects of identity” available on
the website of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, at http://www.abuelas.
org.ar/genética.htm. Accessed October 2005.
4. Details of this program can be found online at http://www.presidencia.gob.ar.
Accessed July 2013.
176 Notes

5. Taken from an article on CONADI published by La voz del Interior, Córdoba,

January 26, 2003.
6. Taken from the presentation of the Family Biography Archive, available on
the website of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, at http://www.abuelas.
org.ar/archivo.htm. Accessed January 2008.
7. Taken from an interview with Estela Carlotto, president of the Grandmother
of Plaza de Mayo, in Gelman-La Madrid, 1997.
8. Taken from the presentation of “genetic aspects of identity” available on the
website of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, at http://www.abuelas.org.ar/
genética.htm. Accessed October 2005.
9. Taken from the presentation of the Family Biography Archive, available on
the website of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, at http://www.abuelas.
org.ar/archivo.htm. Accessed January 2008.

5  Art and Science Struggling with the

Absence of Meaning
1. For additional examples and better interpretations of this kind of works
of representation, see Jelin and Langland (comps.) (2003), Lorenzano and
Buchenshorst (eds.) (2007), or Richard (2007). More generally ambitious is
the insightful analysis by Robin (2000), in a text that examines with seldom
found clarity works such as Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum Berlin, or
Gerz’s Monument against Fascism, works that take on the irrepresentable and
wage the battle successfully by making “what is missing emerge in the visi-
ble . . . , inscribing the blank in the absolute core of the work; showing the void,
the absence; showing the hole” (ibid.). True writings of the un-inscribable.
2. I have worked on the image of garbage in two texts (Gatti 2008a, 2009).
These paragraphs are taken from those texts.
3. A number of Chilean artists, including Juan Domingo Dávila, Gonzalo
Díaz, Paz Errázuriz, Lotty Rosenfeld, Carlos Altamirano, and Arturo Ducló,
were invited to accompany the launching of the magazine Crítica Cultural in
4. Gustavo Germano’s website (http://www.gustavogermano.com) contains
more images from his exhibition, besides those shown here. Accessed August
5. Many of the photographs in this exhibition can be seen in Julio Pantoja’s
website, at http://juliopantoja.com.ar/hijos.html. Accessed August 2013.
6. The Uruguayan artist Juan Ángel Urruzola worked with similar materials
in the photo exhibition he staged in 2000, under the name Miradas ausentes
(Absent Gazes), partially available at http://www.urruzola.net/. Accessed
August 2013.
7. Also, a more conceptually daring strategy would have prevented any possibil-
ity of conviction. In any case, those who work in the field of law know that
Notes 177

theirs is a difficult task and that it requires cunning (“We fight with the tools
that are available to us” [I1]), intuition (“Yes, it involves opening gaps labori-
ously . . . trying to shake into action the slow and closed workings of justice, on
the one hand, and on the other, take a more advanced approach on the politi-
cal front” [I3]), and judicial imagination to turn, for example, the absence
of evidence into evidence (“We work with a theory that is called ‘functional
joint control over the act.’ Control over the act is the basis for charging any
perpetrator with a criminal offense. . . . There are a number of characteristics
that determine a person’s control over an act, to either execute it or prevent it.
We maintain that anyone who was at that time in a clandestine detention cen-
ter had joint control, that is, they controlled the act together with the actual
perpetrators” [I1]).
8. Before this, on August 17, 1998, the Draft International Convention on the
Protection of All Persons from Forced Disappearance proposed the follow-
ing definition: “For the purposes of this Convention, forced disappearance is
considered to be the deprivation of a person’s liberty, in whatever form or for
whatever reason, brought about by agents of the State or by persons or groups
of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State,
followed by an absence of information, or refusal to acknowledge the depriva-
tion of liberty or information, or concealment of the fate or whereabouts of
the disappeared person.”
9. These terms could be applied both to the Nazi Lagers and the clandestine
detention centers of the Latin American Southern Cone of the 1970s, even
today in free zones, the “indefinite custody centers” such as Guantanamo, or
the immigrant detainment camps distributed across all of Europe. . . . In addi-
tion to Agamben (2005), Judith Butler’s reflections in Precarious Life are very
relevant in this sense, in particular, chapter 2 (2006), where she analyzes the
arguments used by the Bush administration in December 2001 in support of
the so-called indefinite custody, also called “Detention, Treatment and Trial of
Certain Non-Citizens, in the War against Terrorism.”

6  Noisy Silences: The Testimonial Work of

the Former Detained-Disappeared
1. And the opposite of what would appear to be suggested by arguments such as
George Steiner’s when he wrote that Nazi Germany perpetrated a linguicide
against the German language, a crime that destroyed the language. It forced
language: “The thing that has gone dead is the German language,” Steiner
wrote categorically (1967, 141). It was ravaged, it was used for something for
which it was not made: “words were committed to saying things no human
mouth should ever have said and no paper made by man should ever have
been inscribed with. It is nauseating and nearly unbearable to recall what was
wrought and spoken. . . . The language was turned upside down to say ‘light’
178 Notes

where there was blackness and ‘Victory’ where there was disaster” (ibid., 149).
Language was pushed beyond all limits. Words suffered, and thus “something
[happened] to the words. Something . . . [settled] in the marrow of the lan-
guage” (ibid., 150).
2. Automotores Orletti was a clandestine detention center that operated in
Buenos Aires in 1976. Located in the Flores neighborhood, in the middle of
the city, it was the site where the disappearance of many citizens was perpe-
trated, including a great number of Uruguayans. One of them was Gerardo
Gatti, my father.
3. In rites of passage, all those who are going through the rites form a group (the
liminal group) with unique characteristics: they neither are nor are not, they
are neither in the structure nor outside it, they are neither in time nor out of
time. And those subjects are seen as dirty, contaminating, invisible, uncom-
fortable. During that stage, the liminal group constitutes what Victor Turner
called a comunitas: a relatively undifferentiated, unstructured society (Turner
1967, 98), a “comity of comrades” (ibid., 100) who have in common that they
are what the members of structured society are not and that they occupy
“a ‘moment in and out of time,’ and in and out of secular social structure”
(1969, 96). The liminal personae, like the former detained-disappeared, are
not beings like the rest. That is the case of the Association of Former Detained-
Disappeared Persons (Asociación de Ex Detenidos-Desaparecidos, or AEDD)
that operated in Argentina as a form of community support for the accounts
of many former detained-disappeared persons, thus making their identity as
a group plausible. It is also the case, although with much less of an impact,
of the group that in Uruguay gathers some of the survivors of Automotores
4. The witness is, according to Agamben (1999, 15–40), three things: terstis, the
intermediary (“the person who, in a trial or lawsuit between two rival parties
is in the position of third party” [ibid., 17]); superstes, the person who has
experienced something from beginning to end and has survived it and can
thus can give an account of it; and auctor, the person who makes the testi-
mony emerge, a narrator.
5. In Greek mythology, the Gorgon was a creature that had the power to bring
death to anyone who looked at it. Levi says: “We, the survivors, are not the
true witnesses. . . . We survivors are not only an exiguous but also an anoma-
lous minority: we survivors are those who by their prevarications or abilities
or good luck, did not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the
Gorgon, have not returned to tell about it or have returned mute; they are . . . the
submerged, the complete witness. . . .  They are the rule, we are the exception”
(1989, 63–64. Emphasis added).
6. In Nazi concentration camps, “Muselmann” (Muslim) was the term used for
prisoners who had reached a severe state of deterioration and who were unable
to stand long due to loss of leg muscle and thus spent much of their time
bent down in a prone position that recalled the position of Muslims during
Notes 179

7. That is how Giorgio Agamben literally states this paradox: “Testimony

appears here as a process that involves at least two subjects: the first, the sur-
vivor, who can speak but who has nothing to say, and the second, who has
‘seen the Gorgon,’ who ‘has touched bottom,’ and therefore has much to say
but cannot talk” (1999, 120).
8. In the jargon of the survivors of this clandestine detention center, the ESMA,
“the basement” was the place where prisoners were taken before the “death
flights,” from where they were thrown into the Rio de la Plata. There they
were drugged with pentothal so that they would be unconscious during the

7  Serious Parodies: “Children of” Inhabiting

(More or Less Joyfully) the Absence
1. In the magnificent text (Perez 2012b) she wrote for Gatti 2012.
2. The members of the group of children of disappeared persons call them-
selves Colectivo de Hijos (CdeH), of which Mariana Perez is a part. Her very
thought-provoking blog can be found at http://colectivodehijos.blogspot.com.
es/. Accessed October 2013.
3. Taken from the presentation of the history of H.I.J.O.S available on the
H.I.J.O.S.-Capital website, at http://www.hijos-capital.org.ar. Accessed
October 2013.
4. The intensity of these strategies is multiplied in the case of the children
who were appropriated and recovered, where parody extends into tropes
typical of excess. I would need to conduct a more thorough analysis of
this group and further empirical research to consider them in this study,
but I do want to note here some signs that can be glimpsed in my inter-
views with some of them or in interviews I have had access to, powerful
tracks that again lead to parody, but through an exaggerated normative
identity: having parents, but in this case too many parents (“This is dif-
ficult for people to understand, but that’s how it is. It gets to a point where
it’s awful to be always [distinguishing between] ‘biological’ and ‘adoptive’
[parents]. . . . My life is already far too mixed up, so I talk [about all four]
indistinctively” [Macarena Gelman, in Contreras and Pérez García 2008]);
having a family, but in excess (“I didn’t leave anything out after I met my
family. I just added to what I had” [I27h]). An example of a certainly
extreme situation is the one I heard from a son who had been appropriated
and was recovered in 2002. He told me that he took his biological father
out of his filiation equation—“because he never loved me”—and his adop-
tive mother too—“she always treated me badly”—and in his mind he put
together those who loved/love him: his biological mother and his adoptive
father, who was none other than his appropriator.
180 Notes

8  Transnationalization of the
Detained-Disappeared, Social Creativity,
and Other Unintended Consequences of
Forced Disappearance
1. An immutable mobile is an object that moves across great distances (physical
or imaginary) and which remains the same throughout: a Coca-Cola bottle
interpreted as such here and in the United States, a soccer ball identified
as a “soccer ball” in Nairobi and in Guayaquil, a person seen as an indi-
vidual in Toronto and in Montevideo, a detained-disappeared in Argentina,
Guatemala, or Spain. . . . Constructing it, Bruno Latour explains, requires a
persistent fact-hardening process (1985, 10): turning soft, diffuse realities with
undefined, sometimes even indefinable, and occasionally irrepresentable lim-
its, into hard, transportable, and comparable objects, into singular objects
that move in space and time.
2. “Production of presence” is an idea that R. L. Fregoso draws from Saskia
Sassen, 2002, “The Repositioning of Citizenship: Emergent Subjects and
Spaces for Politics,” Berkeley Journal of Sociology, 47:4–25.

Agamben, Giorgio. 1999. Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive.
New York: Zone Books.
Agamben, Giorgio. 2005. State of Exception. Chicago: University of Chicago
Agier, Michel. 2008. On the Margins of the World: The Refugee Experience.
Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity.
Agier, Michel. 2011. Managing the Undesirables: Refugee Camps and Humanitarian
Government. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity.
Anguita, Eduardo, and Martín Caparrós. 1998. La voluntad: Una historia de la
militancia revolucionaria en la Argentina. Buenos Aires: Norma Editorial.
Arendt, Hannah. 1963. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.
New York: Viking Press.
Augé, Marc. 1995. Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity.
London; New York: Verso.
Ávila, Benjamín. 2004. Nietos. Identidad y memoria. Film. Buenos Aires.
Baigún, David. 1987. “La desaparición: su ubicación en el ámbito penal.” In
La desaparición. Crimen contra la humanidad, ed. Grupo de Iniciativa por
una Convención Internacional sobre la Desaparición Forzada de Personas,
pp. 67–76. Buenos Aires: APDH.
Barel, Yves. 1984. “La dissidence sociale.” Actions et recherches sociales 16 (3),
pp. 29–50.
Battán, Ariela. 2008. “Del cuerpo de los sabios a las somatografías.” In Identidad,
representaciones del horror y derechos humanos, ed. Adriana Barrionuevo et al.
Córdoba: Ciudadano.
Bauman, Zygmunt. 1987. Legislators and Interpreters. On Modernity, Post-Modernity,
and Intellectuals. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Bauman, Zygmunt. 1989. Modernity and the Holocaust. Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University Press.
Bauman, Zygmunt. 2004. Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts. Cambridge:
Polity Press.
Bauman, Zygmunt. 2007. Liquid times: Living in the Age of Uncertainty. Cambridge:
Polity Press.
Bechis, Marco. 1999. Garage Olimpo. Film. Buenos Aires.
Béjar, Helena. 1988. El ámbito íntimo. Madrid: Alianza.
182 Bibliography

Bergero, Adriana J. 2010. “Espectros, escalofríos y discursividad herida en El

espinazo del Diablo. El gótico como cuerpo-geografía cognitiva-emocional
de quiebre. No todos los espectros permanecen abandonados.” MLN 125 (2),
pp. 433–456.
Bialot, Joseph. 2002. C’est en hiver que les jours rallongent. Paris: Seuil.
Blejmar, Jordana. 2013. “Ficción o muerte: Autofiguración y testimonio en Diario
de una Princesa Montonera: 110% verdad.” Crítica Latinoamericana. January
2013. Online Journal. http://www.criticalatinoamericana.com.
Blengino, Vanni. 2005. La zanja de la Patagonia. Los nuevos conquistadores: mili-
tares, científicos, sacerdotes y escritores. Buenos Aires: FCE.
Borges, Jorge Luis. 1964. Other Inquisitions 1937–1952. Austin: University of
Texas Press.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1998. Practical Reason: On the Theory of Action. Stanford:
Stanford University Press.
Brodsky, Marcelo. 2006. Buena memoria. Buenos Aires: La Marca editora.
Bruzzone, Félix. 2008. Los topos. Buenos Aires: Mondadori.
Bullentini, Ailín. 2012. “Es durísimo cerrar la búsqueda.” Interview with Estela de
Carlotto. Página/12 (Buenos Aires). May 24.
Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.
New York: Routledge.
Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.”
New York: Routledge.
Butler, Judith. 2006. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence.
New York: Verso.
Calveiro, Pilar. 1998. Poder y desaparición. Los campos de concentración en Argentina.
Buenos Aires: Colihue.
Carri, Albertina. 2003. Los rubios. Film. Buenos Aires.
Carri, Albertina. 2007. Los rubios: cartografía de una película. Buenos Aires:
Festival de Cine Independiente de Buenos Aires.
Cassiro, Jessica. 2006. “Argentine Rescuers: A Study on the ‘Banality of Good.’”
Journal of Genocide Research 8 (4), pp. 437–454.
Ceruti, Mauro. 1994. “El mito de la omnisciencia y el ojo del observador.” In El ojo
del observador: Contribuciones al constructivismo, comp. Peter Krieg and Paul
Watzlawick. Barcelona: Gedisa.
Claverie, Elizabeth. 2011. “Réapparaître. Retrouver les corps des personnes dispar-
ues pendant la guerre en Bosnie.” Raisons politiques 41, pp. 13–31.
Colectivo de Hijos (CdeH). 2010. Manifiesto. Available at http://colectivodehijos.
blogspot.com.es/p/manifiesto_17.html. Accessed November 2013.
CONADEP. 1984. Nunca Más. Buenos Aires: EUDEBA.
Contreras, Mariana, and Alvaro Pérez García. 2008. “Con Macarena Gelman.
Y el bebé del que hablan soy yo.” Brecha (Montevideo). March 7.
Corach, Daniel. 1997. “Identidad y antropología forense.” In Juventud e identidad,
ed. Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo. Buenos Aires: Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo.
Cowan, Jane. 2006. “Culture and Rights after Culture and Rights.” American
Anthropologist 108 (1), pp. 9–24.
Bibliography 183

Crenzel, Emilio. 2012. The Memory of the Argentina Disappearances: The Political
History of Nunca Mas. New York: Routledge.
Da Silva, Ludmila. 2001. No habrá flores en la tumba del pasado. La experiencia de
reconstrucción del mundo de los familiares de desaparecidos. La Plata: Ediciones
al Margen.
Da Silva, Ludmila. 2007. “Etnografía de los archivos de la represión en la
Argentina.” In Historia reciente: Perspectivas y desafíos para un campo en con-
strucción, comp. Marina Franco and Florencia Lewin, pp.  197–219. Buenos
Aires: Paidós.
Das, Veena. 2008. Sujetos del dolor, agentes de dignidad. Bogotá: Universidad
Nacional de Colombia-Pontifica Universidad Javeriana.
Davis, Mike. 1990. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. London:
de Marinis, Pablo. 1999. “Gobierno, gubernamentalidad, Foucault y los anglo-
foucaultianos (O un ensayo sobre la racionalidad política del neoliberalismo.”
In Globalización, riesgo, reflexividad: tres temas de teoría social contemporánea,
ed. Ramón Ramos and Fernando J. García Selgas, pp.  73–103. Madrid:
Demasi, Carlos. 1995. “La dictadura militar: un tema pendiente.” In Uruguay:
cuentas pendientes. Dictadura, memorias y desmemorias, comp. Alvaro Rico.
Montevideo: Trilce.
Demasi, Carlos, Jaime Yaffé, Gabriel Bucheli, Valentina Curto, and Vanesa
Sanguinetti, coords. 2005. Vivos los llevaron. Historia de la lucha de Madres y
Familiares de Uruguayos Detenidos Desaparecidos. Montevideo: Trilce.
Descombes, Vincent. 1996. Les institutions du sens. Paris: Minuit.
Dezorzi, Silvia. 2001. “Nadie baja a una fosa común porque le gusta sino para
recuperar la verdad.” Interview with Anahí Ginarte. La capital (Rosario,
Argentina). May 13.
Dick, Philip K. 1968. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Del Rey/
Ballantine Books.
Didi-Huberman, Georges. 2008. Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from
Auschwitz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Donzelot, Jacques. 1984. L’ invention du social. Essai sur le déclin des passions poli-
tiques. Paris: Fayard.
Dupuy, Jean-Pierre. 2002. Pour un catastrophisme eclairé. Paris: Seuil.
Dupuy, Jean-Pierre. 2005. Petite métaphysique des tsunamis. Paris: Seuil.
Durkheim, Emile. 1972. “The Normal and the Pathological.” In Selected Writings,
ed. Anthony Giddens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Durkheim, Emile. 2002. Moral Education. New York: Dover.
Elias, Norbert. 1978. The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic
Investigations. New York: Zen Books.
Elias, Norbert. 1991. The Society of Individuals. New York: Continuum.
Esposito, Roberto. 2007. Bios. Biopolítica y filosofía. Buenos Aires: Amorrortu.
Translated by Timothy C. Campbell as Bios. Biopolitics and Philosophy.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
184 Bibliography

Fassin, Didier. 2004. “La cause des victimes.” Les Temps Modernes 59 (627),
pp. 73–91.
Fassin, Didier. 2007. “Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life.” Public Culture 19
(3), pp. 499–520.
Fassin, Didier. 2011. Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present. Berkeley:
University of California Press.
Feierstein, Daniel. 2012. Memorias y representaciones. Buenos Aires: FCE.
Ferrándiz, Francisco. 2008. “Cries and Whispers: Exhuming and Narrating Defeat
in Spain Today.” Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies 9 (2), pp. 177–192.
Ferrándiz, Francisco. 2010. “De las fosas comunes a los derechos humanos: el
descubrimiento de las desapariciones forzadas en la España contemporánea.”
Revista de Antropología Social 19, pp. 161–189.
Fonderbrider, Luis. 1997. “Identidad y antropología forense.” In Juventud e identi-
dad, ed. Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo. Buenos Aires: Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo.
Forster, Ricardo. 2000. “Después de Auschwitz. La persistencia de la barbarie.”
Isegoría 23, pp. 69–90.
Foucault, Michel. 1997. Ethics: The Essential Works of Michel Foucault (1954–
1984). Volume 1. Edited by Paul Rabinow. New York: The New Press.
Foucault, Michel. 2007. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de
France (1977–1978). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Franco, Marina, and Florencia Lewin, eds. 2007. Historia reciente. Perspectivas y
desafíos para un campo en construcción. Buenos Aires: Paidós.
Fregoso, Rosa Linda. 2006. “‘We Want Them Alive!’: The Politics and Culture of
Human Rights.” Social Identities, 12 (2), pp. 109–138.
Fried, Gabriela, and Francesca Lessa. 2011. Luchas contra la impunidad: Uruguay,
1985–2011. Montevideo: Trilce.
Galiñanes, Arturo. 1997. “La restitución: Fundamentos, situación actual y per-
spectivas.” In Juventud e identidad, ed. Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo. Buenos
Aires: Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo.
Gallotta, Bárbara. 1998. No has visto nada . . . Una lectura de Garage Olimpo
de  Marco Bechis. Retrieved from http://www.otrocampo.com/1/garageo-
limpo.htm. Accessed April 2004.
Gatti, Gabriel. 2005. “La teoría sociológica visita el vacío social (o de las tensas
relaciones entre la sociología y un objeto que le rehuye).” In Las encrucijadas de
la diversidad cultural, ed. A. Ariño, pp. 177–200.Madrid: CIS.
Gatti, Gabriel. 2006. “Las narrativas del detenido-desaparecido (o de los proble-
mas de la representación ante las catástrofes sociales).” Confines de relaciones
internacionales y ciencia política 4, pp. 27–38.
Gatti, Gabriel. 2007. Identidades débiles. Una propuesta teórica aplicada al estudio
de la identidad en el País Vasco. Madrid: CIS.
Gatti, Gabriel. 2008a. “Identidades (de la) basura.” In Materiales e identidades, ed.
Elixabete Imaz, pp. 41–61. San Sebastián: Ariadna.
Gatti, Gabriel. 2008b. El detenido-desaparecido. Narrativas posibles para una
catástrofe de la identidad. Montevideo: Trilce.
Gatti, Gabriel. 2009. “La materialidad del lado oscuro (Apuntes para una soci-
ología de la basura).” In Tecnología, cultura experta e identidad en la sociedad
Bibliography 185

del conocimiento, ed. Gabriel Gatti, Iñaki Martínez de Albeniz, and Benjamín
Tejerina. Leioa: Universidad del País Vasco.
Gatti, Gabriel. 2011. “De un continente al otro: El desaparecido transnacional, la
cultura humanitaria y las víctimas totales en tiempos de guerra global.” Política
y Sociedad 47 (3), pp. 519–536.
Gatti, Gabriel. 2012. “Imposing Identity against Social Catastrophes. The
Strategies of (Re)Generation of Meaning of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo
(Argentina).” Bulletin of Latin American Research 31 (3), pp. 352–365.
Gatti, Gabriel. 2013. “Moral Techniques. Forensic Anthropology and Its Artifacts
for Doing Good.” Sociology and Technoscience 3 (1), pp. 12–31.
Gelman, Juan. 2008. Acceptance Speech, Cervantes Prize 2008. Available at http://
www.juangelman.com/wordpress/discurso-integro-al-recibir-el-­c ervantes/.
Accessed August 2013.
Gelman, Juan, and Mara La Madrid. 1997. Ni el flaco perdón de Dios. Hijos de
desaparecidos. Buenos Aires: Planeta.
Germano, Gustavo. 2007. Ausencias. Photograph exhibition. Available at http://
www.gustavogermano.com. Accessed July 2013.
Ginzberg, Victoria. 2004. “Aquí todavía están conscientes de la tragedia.” Interview
with Clyde Snow. Página/12 (Buenos Aires). June 27.
Ginzberg, Victoria. 2012. “La incertidumbre no hace bien.” Interview with Carlos
Somigliana. Página/12 (Buenos Aires). May 24.
Gómez Mango, Edmundo. 2004. El llamado de los desaparecidos: Sobre la poesía de
Juan Gelman. Montevideo: Cal y Canto.
Gómez Mango, Edmundo. 2006. La desolación. De la barbarie en la sociedad con-
temporánea. Montevideo: Ediciones de la Banda Oriental.
González García, José María. 2001. “Metáforas de la identidad. Nosce te ipsum.” In
Sobre las identidades: lecciones Carlos Mendive (1998–1999), ed. Juan Manuel
Iranzo and Rubén Blanco, pp. 41–60. Pamplona: UPNA.
Grange, Juliette. 1982. “L’ange automate. Histoire des robots au XIXème siècle.”
Culture Technique 7, pp. 17–29.
Grierson, Karla. 1999. “Indicible et incompréhensible dans le récit de déporta-
tion.” La Licorne 51, pp. 111–114.
Griffet, Jean 1991. “La sensibilité aux limites.” Sociétés 34, pp. 359–366.
Grupo Escombros. 2007. “Cuerpos replicantes: las Pancartas del Grupo Escombros
y la memoria.” In Políticas de la memoria: Tensiones en la palabra y la imagen,
ed. Sandra Lorenzano and Ralph Buchenshorst, pp.  197–210. Buenos Aires:
Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana-Editorial Gorla.
Hall, Stuart. 1996. “Who Needs Identity?” In Questions of Cultural Identity, ed.
Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay, pp. 1–17. London: Sage.
Haraway, Donna J. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature.
New York: Routledge.
Haraway, Donna J. 1997. Modest-Witness@Second-Millennium. FemaleMan-Meets-
OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience. New York and London: Routledge
Imaz, Elixabete. 2011. Contribution in Gabriel Gatti, Identidades desapareci-
das. Peleas por el sentido en los mundos de la desaparición forzada de personas,
pp. 195–197. Buenos Aires: Prometeo.
186 Bibliography

Jelin, Elizabeth. 2002. Los trabajos de la memoria. Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI.
Translated by Judy Rein and Marcial Godoy-Anativia as State Repression and
the Labors of Memory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
Jelin, Elizabeth. 2003. “Los derechos humanos y la memoria de la violencia política
y la represión: La construcción de un campo nuevo en las ciencias sociales.”
Cuadernos del IDES 2, pp.1–27.
Jelin, Elizabeth. 2011. “Subjetividad y esfera pública: el género y los senti-
dos de familia en las memorias de la represión.” Política y Sociedad 48 (3),
pp. 555–569.
Jelin, Elizabeth, and Victoria Langland, eds. 2003. Monumentos, memoriales y
marcas territoriales. Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI.
Joseph, Isaac. 1988. El transeúnte y el espacio urbano. Ensayo sobre la dispersión del
espacio público. Buenos Aires: Gedisa.
Junquera, Natalia. 2012. “Regreso a la escena del crimen 70 años después.” El País
(Madrid), April 6.
Junta de Comandantes en Jefe. 1976. La subversión. Vol. 1 of Las Fuerzas Armadas
al Pueblo Oriental. Montevideo: Junta de Comandantes en Jefe de las Fuerzas
Kaes, René. 1991. “Rupturas catastróficas y trabajo de la memoria.” In Violencia de
Estado y psicoanálisis, ed. Jeanine Puget and René Kaes, pp. 137–163. Buenos
Aires: Centro Editor de América Latina.
Kairuz, Mariano. 2007. “La pesquisa.” Interview with Nicolás Prividera. Página/12
(Buenos Aires). March 19.
Kaufmann, Laurence, and Jacques Guilhaumou. 2003. L’ invention de la société.
Nominalisme politique et science sociale au XVIII Siècle. Paris: École des Hautes
Études en Sciences Sociales.
Kordon, Diana, and Lucila Edelman. 2005. “Efectos multilaterales de la represión.”
Brecha (Montevideo). October 10.
Kordon, Diana, Lucila Edelman, Darío Lagos, Daniel Kersner, Silvia Schejtman,
and Mariana Lagos. 1999. “Memoria e identidad, Trauma social y psiquismo.
Afectación ínter y transgeneracional.” Available at http://eatip.org/textos/
MEMORIAEIDENTIDAD.htm. Accessed August 2013.
Lanzmann, Claude. 1985. Shoah. Film. Paris.
Lapierre, Nicole. 1995. Changer de nom. Paris: Stock.
Latour, Bruno. 1985. “Les vues de l’esprit. Une introduction à l’anthropologie des
sciences et des techniques.” Culture Technique 14, pp. 5–29.
Latour Bruno, and Emilie Hermant. 1999. “Esas redes que la razón ignora: labora-
torios, bibliotecas, colecciones.” In Retos de la posmodernidad. Ciencias Sociales
y Humanas, ed. Fernando J. García Selgas and José B. Monleón. Madrid:
Leblanc, Guillaume. 2007. Vies ordinaires, vies précaires. Paris: Seuil.
Lefranc, Sandrine. 2009. “La professionnalisation d’un militantisme réforma-
teur du droit: l’invention de la justice transitionnelle.” Droit et société 73,
pp. 561–589.
Lessa, Francesca. 2013. Memory and Transitional Justice in Argentina and Uruguay.
New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Bibliography 187

Levi, Primo. 1989. The Drowned and the Saved. New  York: Vintage
Lévi–Strauss, Claude. 1966. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago
Lewkowicz, Ignacio. 2002. Sucesos argentinos. Cacerolazo y subjetividad postestatal.
Buenos Aires: Paidós.
Lewkowicz, Ignacio. 2004. Pensar sin Estado. La subjetividad en la era de la fluidez.
Buenos Aires: Paidós.
Lewkowicz, Ignacio, Mariana Cantarelli, and Grupo Doce. 2003. Del frag-
mento a la situación. Notas sobre la subjetividad contemporánea. Buenos Aires:
Lo Giúdice, Alicia. 2004. “El lugar del intelectual frente a la vulneración del
derecho a la identidad.” In Identidad, construccion social y subjetiva. Primer
coloquio interdisciplinario de Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, ed. Abel Madariaga,
pp. 45–54. Buenos Aires: Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo.
Lo Giúdice, Alicia. 2005. “Derecho a la identidad.” In Psicoanálisis: Restitución,
apropiación, filiación, comp. Alicia Lo Giúdice. Buenos Aires: Abuelas de Plaza
de Mayo.
Lorenzano, Sandra, and Ralph Buchenshorst, eds. 2007. Políticas de la memoria.
Tensiones en la palabra y la imagen. Buenos Aires: Universidad del Claustro de
Sor Juana-Editorial Gorla.
Mahlke, Kirsten. 2012. “A Fantastic Tale of Terror: Argentina’s ‘Disappeared’
and their Narrative Representation in Julio Cortázar’s ‘Second time round.’”
Textxet: Studies in Comparative Literature 66, pp. 195–212.
Mandolessi, Silvana. 2011. Review of El detenido-desaparecido by Gabriel Gatti.
Mitologías hoy, vol. 1, 2011.
Markarian, Vania, coord. 2007. Relevamiento de archivos y repositorios documentales
sobre derechos humanos en Uruguay. Montevideo: UDELAR-MEC.
Martínez Quintero, Felipe. 2011. “El arte como archivo, lo otro como testimonio,
el artista como testigo.” 1er. Encuentro internacional de estudios críticos de las
transiciones políticas: Memoria, violencia y sociedad. Bogotá: Universidad de los
Mate, Reyes. 2008. Justicia de las víctimas. Terrorismo, memoria, reconciliación.
Barcelona: Anthropos.
Méndez, M. 2009. “Félix Bruzzone cuenta su libro, Los topos.” Retrieved from
http://www.cuentomilibro.com/entrevista.asp ?id=73. Accessed June 2010.
Mercier-Faivre, Anne Marie, and Chantal Thomas, eds. 2008. L’ invention de la
catastrophe au XVIIIeme siècle. Geneva: Droz.
Mignogna, Eduardo. 2005. El viento. Film. Buenos Aires.
Moreira, Hilia. 1998. Antes del asco. Excremento, entre naturaleza y cultura.
Montevideo: Trilce.
Moreno Ocampo, Luis. 1987. “La importancia de la prueba en el juzgamiento
de la desaparición forzada de personas.” In La desaparición. Crimen contra la
humanidad, ed. AAVV, pp. 125–136. Buenos Aires: APDH.
Morin, Edgar. 1976. “Pour une crisologie.” Communications 25, pp. 149–163.
Moya, Carlos. 1984. Señas de Leviatán. Madrid: Alianza.
188 Bibliography

Muñoz, Mónica, and Mariana Eva Pérez. 2005. “Reconstrucción de la identi-

dad de los desaparecidos. Archivo biográfico familiar de Abuelas de Plaza de
Mayo.” In Psicoanálisis: Restitución, apropiación, filiación, comp. A. Lo Giúdice.
Buenos Aires: Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. 2005. The Ground of the Image (Perspectives in Continental
Philosophy). New York: Fordham University Press.
Olmo, Darío, and Fabiana Rousseaux. 2005. “El duelo: lo inconsciente, lo colec-
tivo.” Unpublished manuscript, Contribution to the Colloquium “El duelo:
lo inconsciente, lo colectivo,” organized by Asociación Franco-Argentina de
Psiquiatría y Salud Mental. Paris, France.
Ortega, Francisco A. 2008. “Violencia social e historia: el nivel del acontec-
imiento.” Universitas humanistica 66, July–December, pp. 31–56.
Ortega, Julio. 2010. “Post-teoría y estudios transatlánticos”. In Estudios transatlán-
ticos poscoloniales, ed. I. Rodríguez and J. Martínez, pp. 109–117. Barcelona:
Perez, Mariana Eva. 2012a. Diario de una princesa montonera. 110% verdad.
Buenos Aires: Capital Intelectual.
Perez, Mariana Eva. 2012b. “I’m hiji, I’m proud.” Contribution in Gabriel Gatti,
Identidades desaparecidas. Peleas por el sentido en los mundos de la desaparición
forzada de personas, pp. 195–197. Buenos Aires: Prometeo.
Pietragalla Corti, Horacio. 2005. “Reconstrucciones.” Página/12 (Buenos Aires).
July 18.
Piette, Albert. 1992. Le mode mineur de la réalité. Paradoxes et photographies en
anthropologie. Louvain-La-Neuve: Peeters.
Piette, Albert. 1993. “Implication paradoxale, mode mineur et religiosités sécu-
lières.” Archives Sciences Sociales des Religions 81, pp. 63–78.
Pinto, Mónica. 1987. “Encuadramiento jurídico internacional de la desaparición
forzada de personas.” In La desaparición. Crimen contra la humanidad, ed.
AAVV, pp. 195–204. Buenos Aires: APDH.
Piper, Isabel. 2005. “Obstinaciones de la memoria.” PhD diss. Universidad
Autónoma de Barcelona. Unpublished.
Prado, Benjamín. 2006. Mala gente que camina. Madrid: Alfaguara.
Prividera, Nicolás. 2007. M. Film. Buenos Aires.
Quieto, Lucila. 2007. Arqueología de la ausencia. Buenos Aires: Muestra
Rama, Angel. 1996. The Lettered City. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Ramos, Ramón 1999a. “Homo Tragicus.” Política y Sociedad 30, pp. 213–240.
Ramos, Ramón. 1999b. La sociología de Émile Durkheim. Patología social, tiempo,
religión. Madrid: CIS.
Ratti, Camilo. 2003. “Ganamos una batalla chiquitita.” Página/12 (Buenos Aires).
October 23.
Revet, Sandrine, and Jean Langumier, dirs. 2013. Le gouvernement des catastrophes.
Paris: Karthala.
Ribas, Albert. 1999. “En los límites de la realidad: el vacío.” Mundo científico-La
Recherche 202, pp. 41–45.
Bibliography 189

Richard, Nelly. 2000. “Memoria, fotografía y desaparición: drama y tramas.”

Punto de Vista 68, pp. 29–33.
Richard, Nelly. 2007. Fracturas de la memoria. Arte y pensamiento crítico. Buenos
Aires: Siglo XXI.
Rico, Alvaro. 1995. “El orden de los simulacros y el orden social en la restauración
democrática.” In Uruguay: cuentas pendientes. Dictadura, memorias y desmemo-
rias, comp. Alvaro Rico, pp. 63–120. Montevideo: Trilce.
Rico, Alvaro. 2009. Investigación histórica sobre la dictadura y el terrorismo de Estado
en el Uruguay (1973–1985). Montevideo: UDELAR.
Ricœur, Paul. 1990. “Individuo e identidad personal.” In Sobre el individuo, ed.
Paul Veyne, pp. 67–90. Barcelona: Paidós.
Rinesi, Eduardo. 2004. “Identidad y rupturas de la legalidad.” In Identidad, con-
strucción social y subjetiva. Primer coloquio interdisciplinario de Abuelas de Plaza
de Mayo, ed. Abel Madariaga, pp. 127–136. Buenos Aires: Abuelas de Plaza de
Robben, Antonius C. G. M. 2005. Political Violence and Trauma in Argentina.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Robin, Régine. 2000. “Transfert de mémoire. Autour du mémorial de Berlin.” In
Passions du passé: Usages de l’oubli et recyclages de la mémoire, ed. Eric Méchoulan
and Walter Moser. Paris: L’Harmattan.
Sábato, Ernesto. 1987. “Palabras preliminares.” In La desaparición. Crimen contra
la humanidad, ed. AAVV, pp. 19–20. Buenos Aires: APDH.
Sarlo, Beatriz. 2005. Tiempo pasado. Cultura de la memoria y giro subjetivo. Una
discusión. Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI.
Serres, Michel. 1991. El paso del Noroeste. Hermes V. Madrid: Debate.
Silvestri, Graciela. 2000. “El arte en los límites de la representación.” Punto de
Vista, 68, pp. 18–24.
Simmel, Georg. 1959. “The Ruin.” In 1858–1918: A Collection of Essays, with
Translations and a Bibliography, ed. Kurt H. Wolff, pp. 259–266. Columbus:
Ohio State University Press.
Somigliana, Carlos, and Darío Olmo. 2002. “Qué significa identificar.” Retrieved
from http://www.naya.org. Accessed August 2005.
Sorkin, Michael, ed. 1992. Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City
and the End of Public Space. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Sosa, Cecilia. 2011a. “Los topos and Kirchner’s Death. Queering Affiliations in
Mourning.” IV Seminario Internacional Políticas de la Memoria. Buenos Aires:
Centro Cultural de la Memoria Haroldo Conti.
Sosa, Cecilia. 2011b. “Queering Acts of Mourning in the Aftermath of
Argentina’s Dictatorship: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo and Los Rubios.”
In The Memory of State Terrorism in the Southern Cone: Argentina, Chile and
Uruguay, ed. Vincent Druliolle and Francesca Lessa. New  York: Palgrave
Steiner, Georges. 1967. Language and Silence. New York: Atheneum.
Sucasas, Alberto. 2002. “Primo Levi: el nacimiento del testigo.” In La filosofía
después de Auschwitz, ed. R. Mate. Barcelona: Riopiedras, pp. 331–334.
190 Bibliography

Taylor, Diana. 2003. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory
in the Americas. Durham: Duke University Press.
Teitel, Ruti G. 2003. “Transitional Justice Genealogy.” Harvard Human Rights
Journal 16, pp. 69–94.
Thom, René. 1976. “Crise et catastrophe.” Communications 25, pp. 34–38.
Turner, Victor. 1967. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Rituals. Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University Press.
Turner, Victor. 1969. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. London:
Routledge & K. Paul.
Vecchioli, Virginia. 2005. “‘La nación como familia’. Metáforas políticas en el
movimiento argentino por los derechos humanos.” In Cultura y Política en
Etnografías sobre la Argentina, comp. Sabina Frederic and Germán Soprano,
pp. 241–270. Buenos Aires: Universidad Nacional de Quilmes-Prometeo.
Vezzetti, Hugo. 2000. “Representaciones de los campos de concentración en
Argentina.” Punto de Vista 68, pp. 13–17.
Vezzetti, Hugo. 2002. Pasado y presente. Guerra, dictadura y sociedad en la
Argentina. Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI.
Viñar, Marcelo. 2009. Review of El detenido-desaparecido by Gabriel Gatti. Topía
(Buenos Aires). April.
Viñar, Marcelo, and Maren Ulriksen. 1993. Fracturas de la memoria. Montevideo:
Wainschenker, Pablo. 2004. “No matarás. Café científico: el homicidio bajo
la lupa de la biología y la antropología forense:” Página/12 (Buenos Aires).
September 25.
Weber, Max. 1978. Ensayos sobre metodología sociológica. Buenos Aires:
Weibel, Peter. 2002. “An End to the ‘End of Art’? On the Iconoclasm of the
Modern Art.” In Iconoclash. Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art,
ed. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, pp. 570–670. Karlsruhe: ZKM.
Wieviorka, Michel. 2003. “L’émergence des victimes.” Sphera publica 3,
pp. 19–38.
Annex: List of Interviews Conducted

The table below lists the 43 interviews conducted or gathered as part

of the fieldwork that supports this book. I conducted 36 of them per-
sonally between the months of August and November 2005, 25 of
them in Argentina and 11 in Uruguay. The rest were obtained from
other sources, as follows: I4, I15, I27, I30, I42, and I43 are from the
archive of Memoria Abierta Foundation, Buenos Aires; I41 corresponds
to the transcription of several meetings of the Association of Former
Detained-Disappeared Persons. The interviews coded as I4, I8, I9, I16,
I19, I27, I42, and I43, are sets of interviews that contain interviews
with several different people and which are gathered and recorded in
the Fundación Memoria Abierta archive. In order to respect how these
interviews are grouped in the original source and the work criteria used,
each set is identified by a single number and each individual interview
is identified with a lowercase letter. For example, in “I27e”: “I” stands
for “interview,” the number “27” is the particular set of interviews that
is described below, and the lower case “e” is the specific interview within
that set of interviews.
The interviewees were selected according to a simple criterion: either
because they were professionals or because they were relatives or affected
persons. Interviews I1 to I19 are with professionals: I1–I4 are with
jurists; I5–I8 are with psychologists; I9 is with geneticists; I10–I15, are
with anthropologists and archeologists; and I16–I19 are with archivists.
I20 to I43 are interviews with relatives or affected persons: I20–I37 are
with children, including a discussion group; I28–I30 are with grand­
mothers; I31–I42 are with former detained-disappeared persons; I43 is
with mothers.
192 Annex

I1 Jurist. Association of Former Detained-Disappeared Persons.

Buenos Aires, Argentina
I2 Jurist. Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. Buenos Aires, Argentina
I3 Jurist. Legal cases of Uruguayan detained-disappeared nationals.
Montevideo, Uruguay
I4 Jurists (4 people). Memoria Abierta Foundation. Buenos Aires,
I5 Psychoanalyst. National Human Rights Secretariat. Buenos Aires,
I6 Psychoanalyst. Assistance to Torture Survivors. Montevideo,
I7 Psychoanalyst. Assistance to Torture Survivors. Montevideo,
I8 Psychoanalysts (2 people). EATIP (Argentine Psychosocial Work
and Research Team). Buenos Aires, Argentina
I9 Geneticists (2 people). CONADI (National Commission for the
Right to Identity) Experts. Buenos Aires, Argentina
I10 EAAF Investigator (Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team).
Buenos Aires, Argentina.
I11 EAAF Investigator. Buenos Aires, Argentina
I12 EAAF Investigator. Buenos Aires, Argentina
I13 Archeologist—GAAMI (“Memoria e Identidad” Archeological-
Anthropological Group). Buenos Aires, Argentina
I14 Archeologist. “Pozo de Rosario” Investigations Team. Rosario,
I15 Archeologist—GAAMI. Memoria Abierta Foundation. Buenos
Aires, Argentina
I16 Researchers (3 people). CONADEP (National Commission on the
Disappearance of Personas). Buenos Aires, Argentina
I17 Head of the Archive of the Provincial Commission for Memory. La
Plata, Argentina
I18 Coordinator of the Archive of the Provincial Commission for
Memory. La Plata, Argentina
I19 Volunteers (2 people) of the Family Biography Archive. Daughters
of disappeared persons. Buenos Aires, Argentina
I20 Daughter, 41 years old. Disappeared father. Buenos Aires, Argentina
I21 Daughter, 33  years old. Disappeared father and mother. Buenos
Aires, Argentina
I22 Daughter, 42  years old. Disappeared father and mother. Buenos
Aires, Argentina
Annex 193

I23 Son, 27  years old. Disappeared father and mother. Appropriated
son with “recovered identity” at age 25. Buenos Aires, Argentina
I24 Appropriated son with “recovered identity” at age 24. Buenos Aires,
I25 Daughter, 47 years old. Disappeared father. Montevideo, Uruguay
I26 Discussion group with H.I.J.O.S. La Plata. La Plata, Argentina
I27 Sons and daughters (9 people) of detained-disappeared parents.
Memoria Abierta Foundation. Buenos Aires, Argentina
I28 Head of CONADI (National Commission for the Right to Identity).
Buenos Aires, Argentina
I29 Volunteer of the Family Biography Archive. Daughter of detained-
disappeared parents. Buenos Aires, Argentina
I30 Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. Obtained at Memoria Abierta
Foundation. Buenos Aires, Argentina
I31 Former detained-disappeared woman—Clandestine detention cen-
ter (CDC): no data. Buenos Aires, Argentina
I32 Former detained-disappeared woman—CDC: ESMA. Buenos
Aires, Argentina
I33 Former detained-disappeared woman—CDC: Escuelita de
Famaillá. Buenos Aires, Argentina
I34 Former detained-disappeared woman—CDC: Circuito Camps. La
Plata, Argentina
I35 Former detained-disappeared woman—CDC: Automotores Orletti.
Montevideo, Uruguay
I36 Former detained-disappeared woman—CDC: Automotores Orletti.
Montevideo, Uruguay
I37 Former detained-disappeared woman—CDC: Automotores Orletti.
Montevideo, Uruguay
I38 Former detained-disappeared woman—CDC: Automotores Orletti.
Montevideo, Uruguay
I39 Head of CRYSOL, Association of Former Political Prisoners.
Montevideo, Uruguay
I40 Former detained-disappeared woman—CDC: Automotores Orletti.
Montevideo, Uruguay
I41 Meetings of the AEDD (Association of Former Detained-
Disappeared Persons), several sessions. Buenos Aires, Argentina
I42 Former detained-disappeared persons (6 people). Memoria Abierta
Foundation. Buenos Aires, Argentina
I43 Mothers (4 people). Memoria Abierta Foundation. Buenos Aires,

9/11, 139 Augé, Marc, 39

Auschwitz, 27, 118, 120, 126, 171n1
abject, the, 108–9, 139 Automotores Orletti, clandestine
AEDD, Association of Formerly detention center, Buenos Aires,
Detained-Disappeared, 9, 43, 1, 43, 120, 122, 123, 124, 149,
178n3 173n3, 178n2–3
Agamben, Giorgio, 112, 115, 124, 125, Avila, Benjamín, 61
177n9, 178n4, 179n7
Agier, Michel, 138, 164 Baigún, David, 113, 114
Alcaide, Anabel, 11 banality of evil, 11, 27
Algeria, forced disappearance in, 29, banality of good, 58, 65, 70. See also
157, 163 moral techniques
Altamirano, Carlos, 101, 176n3 Barel, Yves, 110
Alvaro, Daniel, 11 Barhoum, María, 11
Amnesty International, 155 Barnes de Carlotto, Estela, 64–5,
Anguita, Eduardo, 22 176n7
anomic identities, 16, 137–40 bastardy, 53, 143–6, 151. See also
anthropological place, 39 orphans
appropriation of identity and/or Batllism, 12
appropriated children, 1, 81, 82, Battán, Ariela, 67, 68
87–8, 91, 93, 142, 179n4 Bauman, Zygmunt, 17, 19, 20, 25, 27,
archeology, 9, 34, 36–40, 65, 80, 41, 73, 113, 138, 181
109–11, 129, 136 Becchis, Marco, 119, 120
archetypal disappeared, 157–61, Béjar, Helena, 22
162, 163 Benedetti, Mario, 24
archivists, 8, 9, 34, 41–9, 73, 80, Bergero, Adriana, 11, 167
109–12, 129, 136 Bialot, Joseph, 126
Arendt, Hanna, 11, 58 Biometric Identification Program,
Arenillas, Lupe, 11 Argentina, 91
Argentine Articles, International Bioy Casares, Adolfo, 24
Convention on the Rights of the black humor used by relatives of
Child, 82, 84, 175n1 detained-disappeared persons,
Aristotle, 34 108, 150
196 Index

Blejmar, Jordana, 135 children of detained-disappeared

Blengino, Vanni, 17, 23, 24 persons, 1, 5, 53, 81–3, 87, 92,
blood samples, 68–71, 80, 90, 174n3 93, 99, 102, 108, 119, 129–54,
blood ties, 10, 50, 53, 80, 90, 91, 179n1
130–2, 135, 148, 150 appropriation of their specialness,
Bogliacchini, Brenda, 11 143–7 (see also Colectivo de Hijos
Bolivia, forced disappearance in, 58 (CdeH))
Borges, Jorge Luis, 13, 24 as a mark of abnormality, 143
Bosnia, forced disappearance in, 155, obligations toward parents, 144
174n2 See also H.I.J.O.S.
Bourdieu, Pierre, 7 chupados and chupaderos, 2, 3, 30,
Brodsky, Marcelo, 101–2 119–22, 163
Bruzzone, Félix, 105, 132, 147 citizen-individual as the apotheosis of
Buchenshorst, Ralph, 176n1 Western identity, 17, 18, 19, 22,
Bullentini, Ailín, 65 24, 31, 45, 49, 50, 63, 72, 73,
Butler, Judith, 137, 139, 148, 158, 159, 160, 162, 174n10
151, 177n9 civilization/barbarism, 24, 26,
Calveiro, Pilar, 28, 121, 182 civilizing process, 15–29, 158–9
Cambodia, forced disappearance American dream and, 17, 19, 20,
in, 24 23, 172n2
Camps, Ramón, 42, 173n4 and biopolitics, 18, 19
Cantarelli, Mariana, 19, 158 and the citizen-individual, 22–3
Caparrós, Martín, 23 See also gamekeeper/gardener;
Carpintero, Ricardo, 1, 80, 88, 175n2 Lettered city
Carri, Albertina, 5, 6, 105, 132, 133, clandestine detention center (CDC),
145, 146, 149–51, 171n3, 182 2, 27, 28, 34, 36, 37, 38, 39, 64,
Casa Grimaldi, clandestine detention 74, 110, 111, 114, 116, 173n4,
center, Santiago de Chile, 38 177n7, 177n9, 178n2, 179n8
Casafranca, Augusto, 105 Claverie, Elisabeth, 65, 174n2
Casal de Rey, Martha, 11 Colectivo de Hijos (CdeH), 152,
Cassiro, Jessica, 58, 65 179n2
catastrophe, 15–16, 161 Colombia, forced disappearance in,
activism against catastrophe, 33–55, 54, 168
57–75, 77–95 Colombo, Pamela, 11
art work and, 97–116 comunitas, children of detained-
and civilization, 11, 16–26 disappeared and formers
forced disappearance as, 3, 15–31, detained-disappeared as, 123,
160–1 150, 178n3
inhabiting catastrophe, 97, 129–54 CONADEP (National Commission
linguistic catastrophe, 171–2n1 on the Disappearance of Persons),
psychic catastrophe, 172n1 Argentina, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50,
Ceruti, Mauro, 47 121, 173n7
Index 197

CONADI (National Commission for DNA, 59, 68, 69, 70, 71, 80, 84, 87,
the Right to Identity), Argentina, 89, 90, 91, 112, 131, 132, 148,
81, 88, 89, 131, 176n5 174–5n4
Contreras, Mariana, 142, 179n4 Donzelot, Jacques, 18
Corach, Daniel, 71, 91 Druliolle, Vincent, 173n1
Couceyro, Analía, 149 Duarte, León, 43, 173n5
Cowan, Jane, 164 Ducló, Arturo, 176n3
Crenzel, Emilio, 173n7 Dupuy, Jean Pierre, 171
Durkheim, Emile, 137, 138, 139
Da Silva, Ludmila, 8, 44, 77, 79
Daleo, Graciela, 11 EAAF (Argentine Forensic
Das, Veena, 172n1 Anthropology Team), 44, 53, 54,
Dávila, Juan Domingo, 176n3 58, 59, 60, 62, 66–9, 74, 75, 88,
Davis, Mike, 172n2 90, 174n1, 174n3
De Marinis, Pablo, 11, 18 Edelman, Lucila, 52, 53
de-civilization, 26–9, 160 El Salvador, forced disappearance
Demasi, Carlos, 8, 24 in, 58
Descombes, Vincent, 85 Elias, Norbert, 22, 23, 50, 72
Desert Campaign, Argentina, 24, 26 Errázuriz, Paz, 176n3
detained-disappeared, definition ESMA (Escuela de Mecánica de la
according to the International Armada), clandestine detention
Convention for the Protection center, Buenos Aires, 1, 114, 121,
of All Persons against Enforced 126, 134, 179n8
Disappearance, 161–2 Esposito, Roberto, 18, 172n5
as absence/presence, 2–8, 30, Family Biography Archive. See
46, 50, 52, 54, 134, 136, 140, Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo
142, 167 Fassin, Didier, 164, 166
as a concept for formless, 167–70 Feierstein, Daniel, 11, 35
invention of category, 8, 161 Feierstein, Liliana, 11
as a living-death, 30 Fernández de Kirchner, Cristina, 91
as negation, 29–31, 109–15 Ferrándiz, Francisco, 11, 65
as a new state of being, 30, 31 filiation. See blood ties; narratives of
as a repressive perfection, absence of meaning; narratives of
29–31, 166 meaning
as uncertainty, 65, 74, 87, 90 Fome zero (Zero hungry), Brazil,
See also paradox of detained- 172n4
disappeared Fonderbrider, Luis, 63
Dezorzi, Silvia, 69 forced disappearance
Díaz, Gonzalo, 101, 176n3 Argentine definition, 161–2
Dick, Philip K., 92, 94 as de-civilization, 26–9, 160
Didi-Huberman, Georges, 118 as excess of civilization, 11, 25–6,
dispositif, 17, 57, 119, 157, 159, 162 28, 159, 160, 172n3
198 Index

forced disappearance—Continued Gelman, Juan, 106, 118, 140

language (and dis-language) for, 4, Gelman, Macarena, 140, 180n4
5, 9, 10, 106, 107 Genetic Data Bank, 68, 81
as a rationalization dispositif, 16–31, genetic determination of identity
159 in forensic anthropology work,
forensic anthropology, 8, 9, 53, 57–75, 68–71
80, 88 in Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo
as a battle against uncertainty, 64, work, 80–3, 86–92
66, 73–4 genocide, 25, 112, 135, 152
ideal body in, 66–8 Germano, Gustavo, 102–4, 176n4
internationalization and success of, Gerz, Joachem, 176n1
59, 65 Ginzberg, Natalia, 59, 74
as a politics of conservation, 66 Gómez Mango, Edmundo, 30, 77,
See also blood samples; DNA; 106, 172n3
EAAF; moral technique; Robotín Gómez Seguel, Andrés, 90
Forster, Ricardo, 120 González García, José María, 22
Foucault, Michel, 18, 23, 50, 113 Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo
Franco, Marina, 173n1 (Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo), 7, 9,
Francoism and Post-Francoism, Spain, 10, 30, 52, 65, 77–95, 132, 134,
54, 65, 156, 173. See also Spain: 136, 175n3, 176n1
forced disappearance in as a conservative movement, 83, 86,
Fregoso, Rosa Linda, 166 87, 89, 136
Fried, Gabriela, 173n1 and exaltation of genetic and blood
ties, 80–3, 86–92
Galiñanes, Arturo, 89 and family, 92–5
Galindo, Regina Jose, 105 Family Biography Archive, 92–5,
Gallotta, Bárbara, 120 176n6, 176n9
gamekeeper/gardener, 17, 19, 20–7, 41, Grange, Juliette, 145
42, 44, 46, 73, 84, 158, 159 Grierson, Karla, 172n1
garbage, in the representation of Griffet, Jean, 110
forced disappearance. See remains Grupo Escombros, 100, 101, 168
García, Charly, 105 Guantanamo, as a case of forced
Gatti, Adriana, 1, 12, 42, 49, 75, 80, disappearance, 157, 163, 177n9
88, 176n2 Guatemala, 58, 105
Gatti, Daniel, 11 forced disappearance in, 157, 180
Gatti, Gabriel, as subject, 1, 5, 10, Guilhaumou, Jacques, 18
18, 34, 70, 85, 99, 105, 174n11,
175n5, 176n2, 179n1 H.I.J.O.S. (Sons and Daughters in
as object, 1, 5, 9, 48, 74, 75, 85, 97, Favor of Justice and Identity and
98, 105, 124, 131, 148 Against Forgetting and Silence),
Gatti, Gerardo, 1, 10, 12, 42, 43, 49, 43, 53, 80, 102, 132, 135, 179n3.
75, 124, 173n3, 178n2 See also Colectivo de Hijos
Gatti, Mauricio, 175n2 (CdeH)
Index 199

Hall, Stuart, 84 Lager, 28, 125, 126, 177n9

Harari, Pablo, 11 Langland, Victoria, 176n1
Haraway, Donna L., 4, 5, 123, 143, Lanzmann, Claude, 126
145 Lapierre, Nicole, 85
Help Center for State Terrorism Latin American Initiative for the
Victims, Buenos Aires, Identification of Disappeared
Argentina, 53–4 Persons, 90, 174n3
Hermant, Emilie, 163 Latour, Bruno, 47, 48, 163, 180n1
Hernandarias, 21 Leblanc, Guillaume, 143
Holocaust, 25, 27 Lefranc, Sandrine, 58
homo tragicus, 153 legal experts, 8, 9, 28, 57, 112–16,
horror vacui, 34–6, 53 129, 136
humanitarianism, 57, 58, 156, 164–6 Legumier, Jean, 171n1
Lessa, Francesca, 173n1
ideal type, 13, 130 Lettered city, 15–17, 19–23, 26, 158
Imaz, Elixabete, 11, 82, 83, 175n1 Levi, Primo, 125, 178n5
immunity, 172n5 Lévi-Strauss, Claude, 85
immutable mobile, 162, 180n1 Lewin, Florencia, 173n1
Ingushetia, forced disappearance in, Lewkowicz, Ignacio, 4, 16, 19, 158,
157, 163 171n1
International Convention for the Libeskind, Daniel, 176n1
Protection of All Persons against lifeworlds of the detained-disappeared,
Enforced Disappearance, 161–2, 87, 131, 139. See also field of the
177n8 detained-disappeared
International Convention on the liminality, 1, 132, 137, 138, 178n3
Rights of the Child, 82, 84, linguicide, 172n1, 177n1
175n1 Lo Giúdice, Alicia, 53, 60, 86, 93, 94
international humanitarian law. See Lorenzano, Sandra, 176n1
transition Los rubios, 5, 105, 132, 135, 146, 149,
Iraq, forced disappearance in, 54, 155 151

Jelin, Elizabeth, 8, 35, 70, 118, 131, Maggi, Carlos, 21

173n1, 176n1 Mahlke, Kirsten, 11, 167
Jewish Museum, Berlin, 176n1 Mandolessi, Silvana, 105
Joseph, Isaac, 144 Mansión Seré, clandestine
Junquera, Natalia, 65 detention center, Buenos
Aires, 39, 40
Kaes, René, 171–2n1 Mariani, “Chicha,” 81
Kairuz, Mariano, 145 Markarian, Vania, 49
Kaufman, Laurence, 18 Martínez Quintero, Felipe, 105
Kitsch, photograph, 134 Martuccelli, Danilo, 11
Kohen, Martha, 106 Massironi, Lidia, 54
Kordon, Diana, 51, 52, 53 Mate, Reyes, 165
200 Index

memorial to the detained disappeared, Nancy, Jean-Luc, 111, 119

Montevideo, 106 narratives, as ideal types, 13, 130
Memory Park, Buenos Aires, 105 narratives of meaning, 13
memory, policies of, 33, 34–6, 39, 40, filiation and, 33, 36, 52, 53, 77–95,
47, 165, 173n1 179n4
alternative forms of memory, science and expertise and, 33–75
133–6, 149 narratives of the absence of meaning,
boxes of (see Family Biography 3, 4, 13
Archive; Grandmothers of Plaza art and science and, 97–116
de Mayo) new kinship relations, 5–6, 129–54,
false, 92 176n1
fractures of, 60, 64, 92, 101 witnessing and, 117–27
intrauterine, 89 narratives of the chupadero, 119–22
photography album as a device for National Human Rights Secretariat,
reconstruction of, 79–80 Buenos Aires, 9, 47, 48, 49, 110,
reconstruction of, 40, 67, 70, 71, 79, 131
105, 124 National Human Rights Secretariat
Méndez, M., 147 Archive, Buenos Aires, 48, 110
Méndez, Sara, 175n2 National Reorganization Process,
Mercier-Faivre, Anne Marie, 171n1 Argentina, 24, 26
Mignogna, Eduardo, 169 Nazis, 11, 28, 29, 118, 125, 157,
MLN-Tupamaros, 21 177n9, 178n6
Monument against Fascism, Nepal, forced disappearance in,
Hamburg, 176n1 157, 163
Monument to Victims of State NN corpses, 2, 41, 42, 61, 171n2
Terrorism, Buenos Aires, 106 Nunca Más, 173n7
moral economy, 164–5
moral techniques, 58–75 Olmo, Darío, 53, 54, 60, 63
Moreira, Hilia, 100 Onetti, Juan Carlos, 24
Moreno Ocampo, Luis, 113–14 Operation Condor, 42, 173n3
Morin, Edgar, 171n1 orphans, 77, 94, 99, 143, 145, 147,
Mothers and Relatives of 150, 152
Detained-Disappeared Persons, “little orphans,” 145, 150, 151
Uruguay, 11 and parody, 130, 134, 135, 137, 151,
Mothers of Plaza de Mayo 152, 153
(Madres de Plaza de Mayo), “post-orphans,” 99, 130, 151, 153
Argentina, 6, 8, 9, 49, 53, Ortega, Francisco, A., 172n1
64, 77, 78, 79, 80, 88, 89, 93, Ortega, Julio, 163
132, 135 Otero, Ruben, 106
mourning, perpetual, 16, 50, 51, 52,
77, 106, 107, 139, 140 PANES (Social Emergency Plan),
Moya, Carlos, 19, 158 Uruguay, 172n4
Muñoz, Mónica, 30 Pantoja, Julio, 102, 176n5
Index 201

paradox of detained-disappeared, Ribas, Albert, 34

26–9, 160 Richard, Nelly, 101, 107, 173n1, 176n1
Paradox of Levi, 125, 179n7 Rico, Alvaro, 11, 24, 49, 173n1
paradox of the former detained- Ricoeur, Paul, 13, 85
disappeared, 125–7 Rinesi, Eduardo, 71
parody, 8, 108, 98, 99, 108, 119, Riquelo, Simón, 88, 91, 175n2
130–7, 140, 145, 147–8, 149, 151, Rivera, Fructuoso, 25, 26
153, 179n4 Robben, Antonius C. G. M., 173n1
parodic compliance, 148–52 Robin, Régine, 176n1
Pérez Carrara, Laura, 11 Robotín, 66, 67
Pérez García, Alvaro, 142, 179n4 Roca, Julio Argentino, 24, 25, 26
Perez, Mariana Eva, 11, 30, 105, 134, Rodó, José Enrique, 24
135, 179n2 Rodríguez, Silvia, 11
Peronism, 12 Rosencof, Mauricio, 21
Pietragalla Corti, Horacio, 70, 92 Rosenfeld, Alvin, 171n1
Piette, Albert, 150, 154 Rosenfeld, Lotty, 176n3
Pinto, Mónica, 114 Rousseaux, Fabiana, 11, 53, 54, 63
Piper, Isabel, 54, 58 Ruins, and art, 100–1. See also
Podchlebnik, Michaël, 126 archeology
post-violence societies, 58. See also Rundgren, Todd, 49, 105
Prado, Benjamín, 156, 157 Sábato, Ernesto, 115
precarious lives, 140, 143, 168, 177n9 Salsipuedes, battle of, Uruguay, 25
precariousness, 139, 143, 168 Sarlo, Beatriz, 136, 173n1
Prividera, Nicolás, 105, 133 Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino, 24
Provincial Commission for Memory, Sassen, Saskia, 180n2
La Plata, Argentina, 42–6, 121, Schindel, Estela, 11
173n6, 192 School of the Americas, 29
psychoanalysis, 49–54, 109, 173n9, Serbia, forced disappearance in, 58
174n11. See also mourning; Serres, Michel, 16
trauma Siblings (Hermanos), Argentina, 53
Silvestri, Graciela, 105
Quieto, Lucila, 141 Simmel, Georg, 36, 37
Snow, Clyde, 58–9
Rama, Angel, 17, 20, 21, 23 Sobel, Valeria, 133
Ramos, Ramón, 137, 13, 153 social field of the detained-
Ratti, Camilo, 65, 69 disappeared, 7–12, 13, 34, 50,
remains, 43, 64, 110, 116, 118 53, 82, 84, 87, 95, 98, 109, 116,
corpses, 41, 63 135, 144, 150, 161, 166
their use in representation of forced sociology, forced disappeared and, 3–4
disappearance, 100, 101, 136 sociology from the gut, 4–7, 10–11
See also NN corpses Somalia, forced disappearance in, 58
Revet, Sandrine, 171n1 Somigliana, Carlos, 60, 63
202 Index

Sorkin, Michael, 172n2 Vázquez, Tabaré, 26, 172n4

Sosa, Cecilia, 70, 80, 131 Vecchioli, Virginia, 131
Spain, 54, 58, 65 vernacularization of rights, 164
forced disappearance in, 155, 156, Vezzetti, Hugo, 25, 26, 121, 173n1
157, 163, 173n2, 180n1 victims
Steiner, Georg, 171n1, 177n1 biological community of, 80,
Sucasas, Alberto, 127 131, 132
dispositifs of attention, 57, 164, 165,
Taylor, Diana, 173n1 166, 174n11
Teitel, Ruti G., 165 in humanitarian era, 155, 156, 162,
Thom, René, 171n1 164, 165, 166, 167
Thomas, Chantal, 171n1 lifeworld of, 49, 50, 99, 139, 140
Torres, Valentina, 11 as a non-negative identity, 140
transition, 7, 14, 57, 99 resistance to the category of, 144
art in transitional context, 99–100 as sacred icons, 130, 131, 134,
international humanitarian law, 135, 143
156, 164, 166 in transitional context, 54
transitional justice, 155–7, 164 Videla, Jorge Rafael, 20
“transitional kit,” 57–8 Vietnam, forced disappearance in, 29
transitional societies, 34–6 Viñar, Marcelo, 11, 59, 60
transnational disappeared, 161–3, void, 5, 6, 8, 29, 34–6, 40, 42, 45,
165–6, 173n8 46, 51–4, 78, 79, 85, 93, 101,
trauma, 15–16, 34, 49, 80, 172n1 120, 123, 133, 135, 138–40,
and narratives of non-meaning, 142, 160
108–10, 116, 135 representation of, 100–2, 109–13
and psychoanalysis work, 50–4 vulnerability, 139
truth, 65
archive and, 43, 44, 46 Wainschenker, Pablo, 72
dispositifs to recovery, 17, 57, 58, Washington Consensus, 172n4
69, 70 Weber, Max, 13
and identity, 81, 82, 83, 84, 93, 98 Weibel, Peter, 100
memory policies and, 35 Wieviorka, Michel, 165
narratives of meaning and, 35, witness/witnessing, 119, 124, 125,
36, 98 126, 127, 149, 178n3–5, 179n7
Turner, Victor, 150, 178n3 modest witness, 4
Two Evils theory, 26 paradoxes of (see Paradox of Levi;
paradox of the former detained-
Ulriksen, Maren, 59, 60 disappeared)
Urruzola, Juan Ángel, 176n6 writing, forced disappeared and, 1, 10