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Disappeared Is Said in the Negative: The Radical Questioning of the Concept of Disappearance and Its Usefulness

Theory & ResearchMexico has, up to date, 115,062 people reported as being disappeared. The problem is evident but raises many questions. Who counts as disappeared? How do we count disappearance? Who counts as “disappeared” and who not? Is every absence a disappearance? How valid is it to invoke disappearance in the case of absences? What do we understand when we hear that “people can disappear”?

Guadalajara, Mexico. At least eight people from the same place of business were reported as “disappeared”. The reports did not coincide in time, nor profile, and it was not until the cases were brought together that it became apparent that the only coincidence between them was the place of work. 

How should we approach society in its present state? What are the markers we should pay attention to in order to explain what we have not been able to understand about social functioning? With so many crises and conflicts, it is not clear whether social sciences in their classical form are capable of explaining what we need. 

Our proposal is to approach something that seems to directly attack this possibility of giving meaning to the world. Disappearance is a negative node of society and its structures. Nowadays, disappearance is no longer an accident in the evolution of a society, but repetition and integration have led it to become a constitutive part of it. Today, it is transversally present in spaces and societies that do not respond to authoritarian regimes or dictatorships, as was the case when the term was first used. What has changed? This text problematizes the sufficiency of the conceptual frameworks to work with the disappearance of persons and proposes an alternative by focusing on the negative dynamics of expansion and overflow. 

In Mexico, about seven women disappear every day; workers disappear from their workplaces; migrants disappear while trying to migrate to the United States; bodies disappear from state-run morgues; names disappear from the lists of missing persons. People disappear. And they do it in every imaginable way. It happens, but not always for the same reasons. There are patterns and consistencies, but the differences seem to be greater than the similarities.

Mexico has, up to date, 115,062 people reported as being disappeared, regardless of their current status; of these: 103,048 people remain disappeared or “unaccounted for”, according to data from the National Register of Missing and Disappeared Persons (RNPDNO)[1]. On 12 June 2023, it was announced that the database would be restructured. The reason for the restructuring, according to President López Obrador, was because the figures regarding disappearances must be known “very well, and accurately; that must be the starting point”. A recount “was considered necessary and it is being done” (López Obrador, quoted in Martínez 2023). The problem is evident but raises many questions. To know what very well? Who counts as disappeared? How do we count disappearance? With formal missing person reports? With a roll call of the entire population census? Who counts as “disappeared” and who not? Is every absence a disappearance? How valid is it to invoke disappearance in the case of absences? What do we understand when we hear that “people can disappear”? 

Disappearance is everywhere. In Mexico, no matter where you are, there are people disappearing. From the cases of the so-called Dirty War of the 1970s[2], to the eight people disappeared from a call centre in Guadalajara in 2023[3]; but we also hear about it through television series, newscasts, talk shows, and in the morning press conferences of President López Obrador[4]. At the same time, we are faced with more than 2,000 clandestine mass graves throughout the country. We are faced with refrigerated trailers adapted into clandestine morgues; we are faced with a bureaucratization of absence and doubt; with government agents of different levels colluding in cases; and with the dissolution of bodies and forced labour camps[5]. In Mexico this all happens with a macabre creativity that seems to be continually renewing itself in search of new horizons, and a response is needed. Calling it “the phenomenon of disappearance” is a temporary way out. What is this schizoid, almost hallucinatory quality of the “power” of becoming a disappeared person?

The problem is that we try to view all these situations from the same point of view: “forced disappearance of persons and disappearance committed by private individuals”. This is a legal framework that responds to a very specific reality: that of the Southern Cone 50 years ago, and its regimes. Even if it intends to include non-state actors, the configuration of the normative register is the same. 

But it turns out that excessive “creativity” overwhelms the concept of disappearance. It goes beyond explanation. Everything and nothing now seem to have become a disappearance. The response of most academics has been to explain: the concept, the phenomenon, the thing, the structure. That works, for a moment; disappearances quickly once again become something more. Disappearance is something that happens in many places beyond the Southern Hemisphere, and in each case the relations between violence and ordinary lives, between lives and the state, and between these lives themselves are different. In different times and places, the meaning of “disappeared” and “disappearance” can differ greatly. It is both different and the same, and that is how it must be assumed.

If we ask any person in Argentina or Uruguay[6] there is probably a clear answer that distinguishes the state as responsible, and the political opposition as victims. The “power to disappear” someone would be considered to belong to a repressive state, a military dictatorship, or a totalitarian regime against a politically active, organized, left-wing subject. In other words, it was well-defined political violence.

That response would be linked to very clear images such as the Siluetazo of 1983, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo walking in circles, the large-format photographs with the face and identifying details of a relative[7]; specific groups — the police, the army and the task forces[8] on the one hand, and organized groups, armed groups, unions, and guerrillas, on the other; and even to places, methods, and strategies. Names such as Videla or Massera8 probably make a lot of sense in a context in which the term “disappearing device” was deployed with clear objectives and was part of defined control networks.

These images, these groups, and these places respond to a web of relationships in which the verb “to disappear” is part of a continuum of violence that is opaque, but more or less well defined. It is notable political violence exercised by the state against perceived threats. It is a moment in which political violence is manifest, clear, and distinct.

Those first disappeared were victims of a “low intensity war” [9] It was the state that committed the disappearance against those it considered its enemies, and it was the mothers and grandmothers, the relatives, who adopted the word and gave it a place in the world of the victims by calling them desaparecidos. In that sense, the typological proposal of the Uruguayan sociologist Gabriel Gatti (2019, 20) helps to establish this as a starting concept: desaparecido originario (“original disappeared”). 

When we refer to the forcefully disappeared, we do so in its repressive form: from this point on we shall refer to the desaparecido originario. Thus, the disappeared in Mexico in the 1970s fall under this logic, although they would not be fully disappeared in the same sense, which is the basis for the second category.

The second category is the one that Gatti proposes to understand as the desaparecido como tipo ideal (disappeared as an ideal type). This category is the one we find in courts and tribunals, but also in humanitarianism and welfarism. It should not be rejected, but rather treated with care. Even so, it is the most widespread and discussed case situation. In the first instance, it operates under the model of the United Nations. 

When we speak of the disappeared as an ideal type, we are talking about the positive, generalized descriptions that are applied as explanatory models about the world and intended to be referential. Thus, the claim that all disappearance is defined by the search, or by certain features, is part of this.[10] However, there is a very big problem with this model regarding conceptual stabilization. In this sense, it is a positive definition that is often useful, but limited to practical fields that do not necessarily contribute to understanding a world in constant evolution. 

The third category is the closest to our interests. The nuevas desapariciones (new disappearances), written in the plural because of their diversity and the difficulty of establishing any homogenization. They are divided into two subcategories with categorical differences. The first such subcategory is what the author calls desaparecidos locales (local disappearances) and the second desaparecidos sociales (social disappearances). In this case we speak of a dynamization of the original functional categories, which are adopted in apparently unconnected contexts. Here, we must consider that these disappearances are not adaptable in toto with forced disappearance, even though they have similar characteristics and are necessarily an evolution of them. The most problematic characteristic of these disappearances is that they do not necessarily involve agents of the state, nor repression or direct violence, nor a designed plan for elimination; sometimes, not even the absence of those for whom the disappearance is predicated. This is why the proposed generalizations must accurately relate to their referent. The problem is that “disappeared” and “disappearance” are no longer part of the conceptual frameworks of the original meaning. So, what is the reference?

The terms “disappeared” and violent “disappearance” have travelled the world and have settled in different spaces and contexts that are not necessarily identical. Today, disappeared is the migrant who loses all their rights and any legal trace because they are illegally in a foreign territory; but it is also the woman who is recruited for the trafficking networks that operate around the world. Disappeared can take many forms.

Thus, we must broaden the discussion on disappearance and ask the question: has disappearance transcended the political apparatus and spread into society? The first impulse is to turn to legal typology and its closed concept. According to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (United Nations 2010), we understand “enforced disappearance” to mean:

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. 

It works, but the very nature of the legal typology forces us to comply with characteristics to approve the epithet. Hence “enforced disappearance” can only be stated when everything fits. However, disappearance as a whole phenomenon goes beyond any foresight. 

The monolithic concept proves to be insufficient at this point. Therefore, we discuss: first, the dialectical character of the term “disappearance”; then, the processes of giving meaning within the framework of this overflow, and its incorporation into everyday life. As a starting point, we can refer to the question posed by the Chilean philosopher Adolfo Vera: “Will it be necessary to always register the thought of disappearance under a certain context within which it will donate its negative power, and reveal the fruits of its destiny of destruction?” (Vera 2017, 51).

As we see, speaking of disappearance is not something we can do in a completely definite sense. It is something that appears to be overflowing, exceeded, elusive. Gabriel Gatti and María Martínez (2020) said: “today that example (of Argentina in 1974) seems to have been too short, too limited, because with the category many more things are thought about and qualified: miserable lives, marginalized existences, invisible subjects”. If the use of the word “disappeared” were broader, we could assume and consider it, instead of denying it. 

The problem is that disappearance does not have the limits or objectivities that other phenomena have, even if they are part of the repertoire of present-day violence. Disappearance seems to be something else. And if it is so obscure and nebulous, why does it serve to explain and inhabit the world? At what point did a category that abbreviates its sense of the absurd become useful to confront the world? The proposal of the negative dialectic is pertinent in this sense, for what we see is disappearance overwhelming the concept. 

In his Negative Dialectics, Theodor Adorno (2004, 130–31) writing of the “ontologization of history” (although we could speak of positive science and juridical thought) says: “Time itself, and thus transiency, is both absolutized and transfigured as eternal by the existential ontological drafts. The concept of existence as the essentiality of transience, the temporality of temporal things, keeps existence away by naming it”. This problem is the one we face with the focus on the conceptualization of something that is clearly overflowing. 

We must question the very concept of disappearance and see if it is one that is pertinent to defend. Is it feasible to make “disappeared” or “disappearance” tools to understand a world full of places outside the norm, of dislocated identities, of mourners, of runaways, of the abandoned, of waste, of outcasts, of the precarious, of the vulnerable? The affirmative answer depends on the very negation of the concept. 

The negative dialectic seeks to emphasize the moment of non-affirmation. This happens when there is neither a clear existence nor an explicit object to be able to approach it. Contradiction and the moment of antagonism is what we should see. This is what we talk about when we try “to point out that empty place of disappearance and how to think about it without annulling its impossible representation” (Gatti 2017). We have to talk about it without annulling its impossibility. That is, disappearance is a process of absurdization of the world that confronts everyday and political structures with others that should not be possible.

Think, for example, of the political regimes in which disappearance as a form first emerged. Its first public enunciation took place in Argentina during the military dictatorship. In that situation, the state functioned from a presupposition of internal war in which it had a moral justification to destroy “sedition”. The technology of repression, in particular, and the apparatus of disappearance, in toto, functioned as tools destined for a specific purpose. Ultimately, the state of emergency in which the country found itself made the horror of disappearance direct. It was neither morally nor politically justifiable and went against the limits of what was politically possible in a regime of exception. With it, a possibility outside the horizon of understanding opened up. From this framework, it expanded and was transformed in many other places it reached.

In the midst of these transformations, the authoritarian framework that seemed to lend it some meaning, or to contain it, was lost. Such is the case of Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina. What happened there was a complete siege of a city by foreign forces. The situation responded to a conflict between different regions that was fuelled by inflamed nationalism. Victims were massacred and systematically disappeared. However, there was no “repression” there, nor a political regime that ceased to recognize its inhabitants as citizens, nor a particular group; it was something closer to full-fledged genocide. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, disappearance responds to different power structures than in Argentina. Although there are similarities, reading it as a state device with social legitimacy would be a mistake. This is an assertion we must be wary of. 

The problem is that when we affirm a concept, such as the one established by the statement, we typify what we are talking about. In the words of the US philosopher Susan Buck-Morss, referencing Adorno, the proposal is to affirm “neither concept nor reality in itself. Instead, [to posit] each in critical reference to its other” (1977, 63). In other words, maintain as constant tension and not conceptual positivity. 

Otherwise, disappearance would become a closed device of managing state violence that determines a reality in an ahistorical sense and without a worldly referent. So far, it seems clear that the legal category is not enough, and we need to broaden the fields of meaning in which we find ourselves. However, when one concept is denied, it is a natural consequence to immediately resort to another. Conceptual buildings, like typological proposals, betray us without notice. 

Disappearance is what it is because it operates by breaking schemes of possibility. Ultimately, what is relevant, at this level, is not that it happens, but how it happens. The question would then be: “what structures are broken to manifest the presence of a given power?” That is why we cannot think of disappearance and the disappeared as given structures, but as a dynamic of crisis of the structures of the socially comprehensible. In the end, in the framework of the rule of law and modern democracies, disappearance attacks one of its foundations: the political subject. If the political subject has the power to disappear, what sense does the rest of the world have?

This process is one of the threads that binds all disappearances, however different their causes may be, but the betrayal of this idea is clear. The conformation of disappearance as an ideal type takes the form of a discourse of horror at the same time that it assumes the place of the idea of justice. Disappearance cannot only be that specific device, but also manifests itself as part of the political framework in which it is possible. Thus, justice is exchanged for an institutionalization of horror: revictimization, bureaucratization, forensic crisis, palliative measures that do not address the roots of the phenomenon. At this moment, the concept of disappearance has surpassed itself. 

What remains is to stop emphasizing positivities and to focus on the tension. We must understand that the negative dialectic, as a method and perspective, is not opposed to the concept, but to its reification. The problem is that theory easily forgets things and tries to attract what is more fundamental, as if it were about transcendental concepts. 

If the character of the idea of disappearance is dialectical and assumes at its core its own impossibility, why is it that when we say “disappeared”, we can face an inexplicable absence in different cases? Why does this name, this word, work? The conceptual relevance of disappearance resides in the fact that it condenses structural violence united under the halo of meaninglessness. It is in this meaninglessness that we see what the mere fact of thinking about structural violence does not resolve. Disappearance threatens the construction of meaning to the extent that it itself escapes autonomous explanations. To speak of disappearance, then, allows us to rehearse a categorical expansion as long as it is understood from its provisionality. Therefore, to say “disappeared” implies the negation of a determinable object.

Now, what is this “non-meaning”? Does it have an existence in itself as a precondition of possibility or does it appear as an effect of disappearance? This aims at understanding how it is placed in terms of concreteness in discourse. So it is a nominative problem. The positions in this respect are twofold: either (1) non-meaning predates disappearance, and disappearance makes it manifest — which implies that disappearing is a way of naming the places that seem to absolutely reject designation and the epithet is resorted to as a resource to recover some sense — or (2) non-meaning is a product of disappearance since it is a form of violence that breaks the schemes of intelligibility, expelling the subject from them.

In the first case, we are placed in a crisis scenario with generalized violence in which absence is linked to the impossibility of understanding: if we do not know where something is, we have to assume that its absence is a product of violence, even if we cannot explain what happened. This case is understandable in the framework of disappearance as a control device or tool. It is a tension between the executor of the disappearance who only cares about “taking the individual or group out of the game” and the society that notices that absence and gives it meaning as it can. The second case shows a rather counter-intuitive movement in a logical sense, but consequent in a temporal sense. Once it has been assumed that the disappearance has been named and has been consolidated either as a device or as a name for that inexplicable violence, it has become something in itself. This is not possible a priori, but is a consequence of the manipulation of meaning in a dispute to make comprehensible the elimination of the subject and the gap that remains. 

Thus, the epistemological shift is in postulating disappearance as a structuring node of political and social relations, and not only as a technique or repressive device; since “the multiplicities of the new modalities of power in societies of disappearance are expressed in diverse and singular devices with variable characters and intensities” (Barbossa 2016, 53). That is, we speak of a political system that finds in the political subject the possibility of being replaced by absence. At some point in recent history, the societal structure acquired the possibility of making its participants disappear. 

Jonneffer Barbossa (2016, 51) provides some insight: “Disappearing societies designate, simultaneously, networks of multiple modalities of power and the expressive diagram of new patterns of governance in times of cyber-financial capitalism”. This is why the question has to be understood, and we are not talking about one of the many things we can concretely point to: “this is”. We speak of a form of social configuration from the mechanisms of administration of power that is not specified or objectified in a way that can be understood. It is not a noticeable object, but rather a way in which relations are structured; it is sustained tension.

Therefore, what the immanence of disappearance in the political framework shows is that it does not affirm anything, but rather mobilizes the different modalities of power over bodies. The proposal is to consider disappearance as a kind of index for the interpretation of these societies in which it occurs. 

We can think that disappearance has undergone a process of incorporation that confuses it with daily life by making it “routine”. It is a part of the management of current power in such a way that we can think of disappearance without being conflicted by its inherent contradiction. Disappearance became something like the name we give to the routine management of available bodies and of the political subject that can become absent or abandoned. 

In Mexico, as well as in the rest of the world, people disappear — and now people know that disappearing is possible. Both positions are necessary for the dispersion of meaning sought by this violence. Thus, this allows us to think that disappearance is no longer an accident in the evolution of a society, but that its repetition and integration have led it to become a constitutive part of it.



Adorno, T. (2004 [1966]), Negative Dialectics, translated by E. B. Ashton, London and New York: Taylor & Francis.

Barbossa, J. (2016), “Sociedades de la desaparición”, paper presented on 28 September 2016 as part of the theme Gubernamentalidad y Subjetivación at the II Jornadas Transdisciplinares de Estudios en Gubernamentalidad “Prácticas de subjetivación y derivas de la gubermentalidad” conference in Santiago, Chile.

Buck-Morss, Susan (1977), The Origin of Negative Dialectics, New York: The Free Press.

Fazio, Carlos (2016), Estado de emergencia, Mexico City: Grijalbo.

——— (2017), Desapariciones: usos locales, circulaciones globales, Bogotá: Siglo del Hombre Editores, Universidad de los Andes.

Longoni, Ana (2007), “El Siluetazo y su legado”, Territorio Teatral, available at http://territorioteatral.org.ar/html.2/articulos/n2_01.html. Last accessed on 14 March 2024.

Martínez, César (2023), “AMLO anuncia nuevo censo ‘confiable’ de personas desaparecidas”, A dónde van los desaparecidos, 9 June, available at https://adondevanlosdesaparecidos.org/2023/06/09/amlo-anuncia-nuevo-censo-confiable-sobre-personas-desaparecidas/.

Martínez, María, and Gabriel Gatti (2020), “The Exceeded Disappearance: Introduction”, Athenea Digital, vol. 20, no. 3, special issue, available at https://atheneadigital.net/article/view/v20-3-martinez-gati/2874-pdf-es. Last accessed on 14 March 2024.

National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons in Argentina (n.d.), “El Grupo de Tareas 3.3.2”, available at http://www.desaparecidos.org/arg/conadep/nuncamas/128.html. Last accessed on 14 March 2024.

Roca, Sebastián (1983), El Caso Massera, secretos de una conspiración, Buenos Aires: Triptico.

Sánchez, Gervasio (2011), Desaparecidos, Barcelona: Editorial Blume.

United Nations (2010), “International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance”, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), adopted 23 December, available at https://www.ohchr.org/en/instruments-mechanisms/instruments/international-convention-protection-all-persons-enforced. Last accessed on 14 March 2024.

Vera, Adolfo (2017), Arte y desaparición, Valparaíso, Chile: Editorial UV de la Universidad de Valparaíso.

ZonaDocs (2023), “Confirma Fiscalía de Jalisco hallazgo sin vida de los ocho jóvenes desaparecidos en call center”, 6 June, available at https://www.zonadocs.mx/2023/06/06/confirma-fiscalia-hallazgo-sin-vida-de-los-ocho-jovenes-desaparecidos-en-call-center/.Last accessed on 14 March 2024.


  1. 1

     The way in which these given numbers are gathered is being questioned since it was cut in half by a presidential mandate. For a more extensive discussion of this issue, see A dónde van los desaparecidos (2024) reports on the subject. 

  2. 2

     This period is generally understood to span the mid-1960s to the end of the 1980s and refers to a covert “war” against the civilian population organized by armed groups and guerrillas.

  3. 3

     For a more extensive discussion of this issue, see the ZonaDocs (2023) reports on the subject.

  4. 4

    Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), president of Mexico since 2018, adopted a communication policy that includes a daily morning press conference. Here, he addresses issues of national interest, as well as open questions from the public. The value of these morning conferences has been questioned because of the inconsistency of the data offered by the same federal agencies. 

  5. 5

    Each of the examples in this brief list was taken from the investigative journalism project A dónde (lle)van (a) los desaparecidos. Their work is available at https://adondevanlosdesaparecidos.org

  6. 6

    Both cases are necessary moments to talk about the forced disappearance of people. In Argentina, from 1976 to 1983, the military junta headed by Rafael Videla was in power. During this period, one of objectives of the armed forces was the elimination of dissidents, which entailed a systematic strategy of repression.

  7. 7

    These are different moments in the formation of a popular movement around the disappearance of people in Argentina. For further information, see Longoni (2007).

  8. 8

    Rafael Videla and Eduardo Massera were two Argentine military officers involved in the military junta (with the former becoming president), and who were responsible for repression between 1976 and 1983. For an in-depth discussion of the case, see Sebastián Roca (1983). 

  9. 9

    A counter-insurgency strategy traced back to the manuals of the Escuela de las Américas. Its objectives were the dismantling of revolutionary movements, the overthrow of governments that did not conform to US development plans, and the prevention of the outbreak of alternative processes. For a discussion of this in Mexico, see Carlos Fazio (2016).

  10. 10

    For further discussion, see the work of Gervasio Sánchez (2011).

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