On the Border of Understanding

July 2, 2018
A gauzy black and white photo of a woman, framed from the shoulder blades up from behind, her head slightly dipped forward

This text speaks of simplism. Inspired by the rhetorical language of manipulation of reality, it fulfills the function of a scenography that pretends to make believe it is working for “good citizens.” The surface that supports this text is a wandering through the reading of Wittgenstein and Jung.

 “To use language is to put a technique into practice.”—Ludwig Wittgenstein

“Philosophy is like psychoanalysis.”—Ludwig Wittgenstein

* * *

Wittgenstein, during his lifetime, feared being wrongly understood.

Marie-Louise von Franz, Jung’s student, asserts that Jung was misunderstood after his time. “Psychoanalysis is not a technique,” she explains.

Jerome Stonborought, Wittgenstein’s nephew, comments on more or less accurate descriptions of his uncle: “inasmuch as motivations of the soul can be captured by words . . .” 

* * * 


I wanted to write on the language of disappearance, but I was interrupted by my own attempt to understand something.

Being slow or fast in understanding is only a glimpse, but the matter is that I must count in time, and that I must count on time, forced to think in terms of fast and slow without wanting to: vision of possibilities occupied by these two. But once I realize I will not be understood, I can continue in my clarity.

It’s often said of certain people that they will be understood in one hundred years, but what is not said is that a person can be also misunderstood in one hundred years. However, being understood is not a matter of years but rather of loneliness and the fate of meeting those who might understand.

Would we read Wittgenstein today without Bertrand Russell?

Now, let’s get back to appearing and being disappeared. I wanted to make this essay as little fluid as possible, it is being interrupted by different ideas, I wanted to capture disturbing interruptions of something fluid, such as being, such as one person’s life, followed by another life. Here, a little game for you: Imagine you are reading this text, you start getting into its mood and ideas and you “flow with it,” until it unexpectedly detours from its trajectory. What do you do then? You don’t understand. Now, replace this detouring by human life that is unexpectedly diverted from its continuation. I am trying to illustrate the nature of enforced disappearance. Then, after reading apparently disconnected paragraphs, try to connect them together. Let’s see what happens to us.

I am trying to illustrate the nature of enforced disappearance.

According to Wittgenstein, “to understand a sentence means to understand a language.” Can we take inspiration from here and say “to understand a person means to understand all persons”?

“We can’t know the meaning of any sentence if we don’t know the meaning of the language” (Wittgenstein). True. Let’s say, we can’t know the meaning of disappear if we don’t know the meaning of exist. We need to know the totality of a phenomenon and to put particles into relation. Can we also say “we cannot know the meaning of any conflict if we do not know the totality of a conflict”?

My quest was to understand the phenomenon of enforced disappearance that I originally wanted to write about, but distracted by my own thinking, I reach for references used and references being reproduced. References to those who make others disappear. According to dictionaries, a synonym of disappear is dematerialize. In Latin America, thousands of persons are violently dematerialized, they apparently vanish every year. It’s rather a strange expression, “apparently vanish,” because they do vanish, their appearing in the world vanishes, but the idea of them continues existing.

Desaparecer in Spanish has Latin roots, and translates to quitar de la vista (take away from view). A human being is not visible anymore. With the prefix of des-, his/her existence and visibility is denied. His parere (Latin for apparition) in this world is denied.

In Latin America, thousands of persons are violently dematerialized, they apparently vanish every year.

If we want to change a phenomenon, it helps to change its references. Enforced disappearance means that someone’s existence is postponed, because the person is neither alive nor dead. He is not, but his not being can’t be proven.

But a reference can also mean the lack of reference. On a linguistic level, that would mean a poor vocabulary. Our possibilities of language are our definitions of reality. Poverty always meets poverty, either in language or on the continent.

The problem of the reference is scenario. Was the situation that bad before Felipe Calderón, when he involved the military in randomly kidnapping supposed criminals in order to ensure the “safe” passage of drugs by means of privileging certain cartels and eliminating others or, to put it another way, by monopolizing the Mexican drug market while claiming its elimination on the international stage?

What happened is that the drug dealer, with a reference to impoverishment overlapped by quick economic success, had to change his profession.

Since quickness wins over slowness in a language game, many people went from no longer safe drug trafficking to other, safer trafficking, such as organs or people. It’s safer, since there is no national army involved in forcibly disappearing participants in this business. Following the linguistic logic of the War on Drugs, I am trying to imagine headlines such as War on Organs. Or War on People. Would that make sense linguistically? Why does War on Drugs seem to make sense?

Who is at war with whom?

“No one will understand it, even though I think it’s crystal clear,” says Wittgenstein about the Tractatus. I am curious: Why aren’t crystal-clear things understood? Is it the language behind this misunderstanding, or something precisely beyond language?

Those who feared being forcibly disappeared or detained by the state now forcibly disappear either on behalf of the state, or on their own behalf. Does that mean their reference clashed over another reference? Is there a War on Reference?

Former drug dealers and current organ traffickers realize their own lack of comprehension and go on, for there is no way out of certain economies, certain comprehensions.


There are hordes of corpses under our language. We talk about corpses as if we were walking above them, until someone finds a crack in soil we walk on, digs and digs, and finds a mass grave. I am looking for a crack in language.

There is even a governmental institution giving “Attention to victims,” as it became so common to be its victim. That, too, is a sophisticated term. While it asserts that relatives are also victims as they suffer the disappearance of their family members, it creates the illusion that a victim might be able to gain access to this system providing attention, which he cannot.

There are hordes of corpses under our language. I am looking for a crack in language.

From August 1995 until 2015, there were more than 57,000 reports filed for persons disappeared. This number speaks of those disappeared who were reported; however, we do not have numbers of persons localized, dead or alive, because that is information provided by the government, that is to say, information not provided, neither of those who were not reported, as many people still do not have resources to report, or fear to do so.

There has been an immense growth in the figures of disappearance in Mexico. From 662 registered in 2007, gradually growing to 3,805 in 2016.

There were 855 clandestine graves registered in Mexico between January 2007 and September 2016, with 1,548 corpses. Only 796 of them were identified. That was the initial information.

Later, this information was completed by other registers of the same period, arriving at 1,143 clandestine graves with 3,230 corpses or human remains. Is this the final number?

While writing this text, the number of disappeared augmented, corpses multiplied, violence is becoming more violent. Only the numbers are witness to these times.

One cannot pretend to solve a problem without the correct language to describe it, attempting to approach its complexity.

And there is one more thing that bothers me: “There is a true way of saying the truth and a false way of saying the truth,” says Wittgenstein.

Mexico City

Author note: Most of the citations of Wittgenstein may be consulted in Últimas conversaciones, trans. Oets Kolk Bouwsma (Ediciones Sígueme, 2004). The figures concerning enforced disappearance may be consulted at the website of the CMDPDH (Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de Derechos Humanos).

Photo by Christian Morales

Lucia Duero is a Slovak-born writer and literary translator residing in Mexico City. Her work has been published in numerous magazines in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Latin America, and the United States. Her translation of the Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku’s Lunes en Siete Días into Spanish won the II Marcelo Reyes Translation Award. Her poetic novel, El Problema Principal (The principal problem), is forthcoming in Spain (Ediciones Amargord).