Across the global South during the Cold War, US-sponsored regimes “disappeared” thousands of people through imprisonment, murder, and torture to stem the tide of Communism. This essay turns to disappearance as a case study for opening up a new direction in the historical study of violence. Rather than focusing on what violence did in the past—its causes and consequences—I present an ontological method for analyzing the reality of terror, for tackling the question of what violence was. In the 1970s, the reality of disappearance shifted across time and place, emerging as a human rights violation in Europe, then as a biomedical syndrome, and finally as a “haunting” in Argentina. These multiple realities were constituted through material practices along postcolonial networks, from forensic analysis of gravesites to psychological work with survivors. This essay traces how these practices fixed the reality of disappearance—the kind of “thing” it was—which determined the meaning of justice in the wake of terror. Ontology raises pressing questions about how violence’s reality gets made today and who has the right to speak for victims, like the disappeared, who cannot speak for themselves.
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