Histories of Violence: Living with Disappearance

THIS IS THE 18th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Allen Feldman, who is a professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. His latest book is Archives of the Insensible: Of War, Photopolitics, and Dead Memory (University of Chicago Press, 2015).


BRAD EVANS: Your work has rigorously pursued the sensory and aesthetical dimensions of violence. What about these aspects of violence commands your attention as a critical thinker?

ALLEN FELDMAN: The most cogent ethnographers of violence, which in my view includes visual artists such as Berlin Dada in the aftermath of World War I, Juan Genovés engaging the Franco regime, and Gerhard Richter in the aftermath of the murder/suicide of imprisoned Baader-Meinhof members, were never in search of violence — rather violence found them. This encounter gave them no choice but to strive to depict state force in a manner that transgresses its culturally entrenched, visual, linguistic, and sonic vocabularies. This search for alternative grammars of violence is also my project, which is decisively mediated by narratives of inflicted and experienced violence by Irish Republican hunger strikers, black South African mothers in search of their disappeared, tortured ANC activists, and the AIDS-affected homeless in New York City.

Working with the sensory and anesthetizing nature of these grammars, in my recent book Archives of the Insensible I explore the emergent dematerialization of the consequences of violence described as a war against the critical witnessing of war. Consider the self-immunizing discourse of collateral damage, the juridical indemnification of racialized preemptive police murder, and the spatially elongated kill chains of drone “crowd killings.” I first encountered this type of state violence in 1993 when analyzing the transcripts of the trial of the police who beat Rodney King. I understood how the defense’s editing of the video and police commentary aided and abetted the dematerialization of police violence by casting King as “aggressive” in being “drugged,” hence bestial and, thus by inference, insensate. The defense’s editing of the video choreographed King’s dissected body into weaponized gestural fragments. In other words, King was bestial and drug-crazed to the extent that he could not feel and therefore could resist the baton blows enabling his impending assault on the police.

This racial tropology reappeared in the police characterization of Michael Brown in Ferguson as “bulking up” and as “demonic.” King’s animalistic anesthesia to pain retroactively established the sanitized and almost “humanitarian” application of “reasonable force” by the police. It was the fictionalized visual acuity of the police in retrospectively assessing the impact of their violence through a reedited version of the bystander’s video that severed them from the material actuality of their assault. This positioned King as the auteur of violence as confirmed by the jury’s exoneration of the police. The police inflicted cultural anesthesia on King, deleting his sensorial experience of pain and terror and reincarnating their violence as his aggression in a perverse minstrel show impersonation — the police played King playing them.

Cultural anesthesia stratifies and preempts the capacity to publicly circulate the sensory experience of violence along lines of race, class, gender, religion, and ethnicity. Such state practice prepares the sociocultural conditions of political apperception — the violence of politically blanking out violence and the collective capacity for its public witness and seditious de-justification. This pattern of deleting sensorial difference and the dissimulating planting of originary violence onto the Black, Muslim, or immigrant body, informs the current structure of counterinsurgent governance linking Trump anti-immigrant rallies, and torture at Abu Ghraib to the judicial murder of African Americans.

More recently you have undertaken research on political disappearance. How can we understand this phenomenon from the perspective of embodiment?

Political regimes of disappearance have become ubiquitous traversing counterinsurgencies in South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Bosnia, Cambodia, Kashmir, Nepal, Sri Lanka, American extraordinary renditions as well as the barely discernible elongated kill chains by which asylum seekers invisibly drown in murderous vessels in the Mediterranean — for they too are victims of structural disappearance that extends from their displacement by war to human trafficking to inhospitable EU borders. My interest in regimes of disappearance diverges from the legal and human rights discussion by asking what new forms of executive power emerge from this practice? I call the “embodied” and visual conditions of the politically disappeared “appearing under erasure.” As Simone Weil describes:

It will surely kill, or it will possibly kill, or perhaps it merely hangs over the being it can kill at any and every moment […] it turns man into stone. From the power of transforming a man into a thing precedes another power, otherwise prodigious, the power of turning a man into a thing while he is still alive. He is alive, he has a soul; and yet, he is a thing […] Still breathing, he is nothing but matter, still thinking he can think nothing.

Practices and campaigns of enforced or involuntary disappearance are historically linked to the spatial and visual logic of genocide. Following Hannah Arendt, I contend that enforced disappearance attacks the right of its victims to appear on the earth and classifies persons and populations as improper for cohabitation on the terrestrial surface of the planet. A nomos of the earth is advanced through enactments that void the diversity of cohabitation. In removing the disappeared from the terrestrial surface the executive power expansively virtualizes itself through the programmed immateriality of an absence — the deletion of the somatic materiality and biographical gravity of the vanished. Here the executive power delimits its dominion — not over the amassed corporeality of a body politic, nor even over the disfigured backs of the subjugated, but over the ephemeral historical dust, and faded footprint of the absentee and deportee.

However, while genocidal operations can become public events through infrastructural mobilization and official manifestos of national cleansing, in contrast, enforced disappearance (in the state disavowal of these abductions) is frequently accidentalized, randomized, and rendered acausal by a power committed to the disappearance of its disappearances. Both the missing and the act of abduction are literally placed under erasure, not completely voided, but subsumed under the quasi-opacity of a public retraction that can be re-scripted as a nondescript mishap inflicted upon those who henceforth will become nondescript.

Disappearance and its aftermaths can be designed to simulate the non-exemplary accident in order to inhibit the capacity of political and legal witness to catch its causality in the act. Disappearance provisions an alibi, in its sense of an elsewhere, by removing any terrestrial trace of the internal deportee and denying any rationality to their abrupt absence. The alibi is thus extended by the state’s claim that the disappeared voluntarily abdicated their lives and their survivors for an elsewhere where they remain perpetually incommunicado — this is the u-topia of the disappeared, the nonplace of their mostly wall-less confinement, a counter-geography of interminable displacement without end. The missing are suspended within the interstitially of abduction, detention, decertified death, and the official denial as having actually occurred.

Too often the focus on disappearance attends to the body of the victim. But what does it mean to live with disappearance?

By instating a public secret, what we might term the regime of vanishment consciously simulates a structural indifference and anesthesiology that morbidly envelops the survivor-families as much as the subtracted. The affective-sensorial experience of survivors of the disappeared is also excommunicated through a form of cultural anesthesia, that I term the loss of loss — survivors of the disappeared frequently cannot speak publicly about their loss while a regime of vanishment is in power. The police, the public prosecutors, and the courts extend the stigma of culpability to the petitioning families, who are criminalized for recalling those who have become politically uninheritable.

In the exhumations performed by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the survivors of the disappeared grasped at any material fragment of usually incinerated remains as a fossil of the withdrawn persona; as if they required, not only proof of their abduction and execution, but of a prior life before the spirit was rendered bone to paraphrase Hegel. In the documentary film Nostalgia for the Light, a Chilean woman whose brother was abducted by the Pinochet regime searches for decades through the Atacama Desert where political prisoners were incarcerated, summarily executed, and secretly buried. She eventually recognizes, authenticates, and eulogizes a detached half-buried foot preserved by desert aridity and encased in a recognizable sock, as belonging to her brother. The entire persona of the missing is reincarnated in their ruined remnants. This investment in stranded fragments of history is not readily programmed into official and totalizing forms of commemoration by social institutions like transitional justice or museums of the disappeared.

I am taken by the idea of the disappearance of disappearance. Can you explain this in more detail?

The disappearance of disappearance captures social torsions that Orlando Patterson associates with slavery, in particular social death and natal alienation (in this case cloaking both the disappeared and their affected peers, families, and related survivors). The disappeared and their affected families undergo a living death that, beyond any biological certainty, is a politically enforced de-animation of life without its documented termination as described earlier by Weil. Social death in Patterson is bound to natal alienation where the disappeared are forcefully estranged from their natality in all of its bio-symbolic nuances that have been explicated by Arendt. Natal alienation removes the disappeared from the locus of their birth as kin, subjects, and citizens, from their ascendants, descendants, and from the generic biopolitical condition of natio that constitutes the civil subject in the nation-state.

For Arendt, natality is not just biological, but the ability to bring something new into the world, to initiate the unprecedented and the unrepeated, and this potentiality too is denied the disappeared and their stranded survivors. The missing are not only abducted and vanished for what they have done and said or for who they are (and many times not even that), but for what they can politically become. If, as Judith Butler asserts, unwilled proximity and unchosen cohabitation are preconditions of our political existence, enforced and disavowed disappearance interdicts the possibility of the political through the banishment of present and future political interlocutors from the earth.

When we think about disappearance, we are invariably drawn to the notion of absence. Under these conditions, the archive of the victim’s life becomes important in the attempt to rehumanize the body that is no longer present. What aesthetic challenges does society face in this endeavor?

I cannot speak directly for the survivors of the disappeared as any generalization concerning the archival would run roughshod over the heterogeneity of their desire for the disappeared who live on within and between the survivors in a time that is uniquely their own, and which can never be completely socialized or ordered by institutions of justice, commemoration, and reconciliation. I can observe, that in many post-conflict societies the survivors are repeatedly assaulted by the archival drive of the imperative for some form of closure, turning the page on a past that was not well lived. The cutting edge of “putting behind” this past is twofold, in that it both prescribes a futurity of certitude — reconciliation, post-conflict reparations, and other peace dividends — and also consigns the disappeared to a petrified and sealed, yet never fully knowable past, now preemptively foreclosed by the rush to archive.

To memorialize, to archive, is to reduce the legacy and inheritance of enforced disappearance to pure readability. This is an attempt to reverse the loss of loss rather than to ethically learn from its irretrievability — a lesson the survivors coexist with daily. The legibility of victims promoted by memorialization and archivization insists on the convergence of the missing with a transmittable surplus — productivity, information, the control of space and time and moral calculability. For the archive, as a collectivizing monument, will inevitably betray the injured, the disappeared, and the dead in functioning like a machine that renders their unique suffering and that of their survivors exchangeable and commensurable. I would infer, without any empirical verification, that for their survivors the horror of collective commemoration of the disappeared is the leveling of the particularity and singular difference of their lost one and of the known particulars of their abduction, possible execution, and subsequent bodily disposal.

To homogenize the missing as a class, to make equivalence through monumentalization is to reenact the reductive collectivizing logic of enforced disappearance in its very condemnation. It could be likened to the inversion of the anonymized mass grave of the missing that turns it upside down and inside out, erecting a pyramidal structure of historical mummification. To memorialize the disappeared renders the missing, their survivors, and the perpetrators anachronisms. I would think that would be unacceptable for survivors who sustained over years and decades the “hauntology” of those under erasure in their search for accountability and an end to political impunity. For Derrida: “If the readability of a legacy were given, natural, transparent, univocal, if it did not call for and at the same time defy interpretation, we would never have anything to inherit from it […] One always inherits from a secret.”


Artwork detail by Chantal Meza from the “State of Terror” series. For more on the artist’s work see: www.chantal-meza.com.


Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.