- Desapariciones: Usos Locales, Circulaciones Globales ed. by Gabriel Gatti
Reading a book on disappearances feels like sinking into shifting sands. While trying to get a grip on some of the darkest episodes of history, the reader is confronted with the fact that the present era keeps on generating new desaparecidos on a daily basis. Together with the other authors of this edited volume entitled Desapariciones: Usos Locales, Circulaciones Globales (Disappearances: Local Uses, Global Circulations), Gabriel Gatti tries to make sense of a concept full of paradoxes and of the methodological and ontological problems that surround it. How do you represent absence? How do you mourn without a grave? How do you remember the unknown? How do you punish without proof? The specific purpose of this edited volume is to understand the rapid transnational circulation and transformation of a concept that was originally associated with a specific phenomenon that took place in a particular historical and geographical context: the Latin American detenidos-desaparecidos, or detained-disappeared, during the Cold War. Is it useful to compare the political prisoners that disappeared in the ESMA in Buenos Aires during the seventies and eighties with the twenty-first century North-African and Middle-Eastern refugees that drown in the Mediterranean Sea on their way to Europe, or the Mexican women that are being murdered in Ciudad Juarez? What are, if any, the common characteristics of the times, spaces, and [End Page 229] types of violence that generate, and have generated, disappearances? It is precisely the apparent parallel between past and present that underlines the urgency of conceptualizing the use and meaning of a phenomenon as broad as disappearance.
The first chapter by Élisabeth Anstett1 with the telling title “Comparación no es Razón” (Comparison is not Reason) immediately warns the reader of the possible dangers of terminological exportations, such as historical anachronism and revisionism. By pointing to the instrumentalization of victims’ voices on the global post-conflict “market” as another risk, Anstett connects to Gatti’s argument in the introduction of the book on how the transnational circulation of the category of disappearance contributes to the creation of a prototype of victim. According to Gatti, this prototype responds to certain juridical, esthetical, psychosocial, political, and historical expectations that match with international transitional justice practices. Anstett states that despite the fact that comparing different types of disappearances can be revealing—for example by drawing the attention to forgotten groups of victims—it can also, and maybe even foremost, be confusing. Making a comparison between the detenidos-desaparecidos of the Southern Cone and the disappeared of the Spanish Civil War would, as Anstett argues, draw attention away from the specific sociological context in which the violence took place and the particular political relations between victims and perpetrators that characterize it. Daniel Feierstein differentiates between various historical uses of disappearance linked to different genocidal contexts and agrees with Anstett on the danger of anachronism.2 He makes an interesting reflection related to the above-mentioned victim-prototype by putting forward the Argentinean aparecidos, or ex-disappeared, whose mere existence challenges the dominant idea of the eternally absent disappeared that forms the basis of the activism of family members and human rights defenders.
A common thread through this edited volume is the question on how the transnational circulation of regional and local experiences creates certain ideas on who are “good” victims and on how these ideas shape the desirable representation of the disappeared. With examples from the Colombian case, Alejandro Castillejo Cuéllar and César Augusto Muñoz Marín demonstrate how certain types of representation of the disappeared have traveled the world through transitional justice instruments.3 This partly responds to Virginia Vecchioli’s inquiry on how the transnational identification between families of victims of different cases is constructed.4 Both Vecchioli and Cecilia Sosa5 point to the centrality of blood ties and family values in constructing a [End Page 230] moral community of victims that appeal to transnational feelings of empathy...