The material presence of the past

This article deals with the material presence of the past and the recent call in the human sciences for a "return to things." This renewed interest in things signals a rejection of constructivism and textualism and the longing for what is "real," where "regaining" the object is conceived as a means for re-establishing contact with reality. In the context of this turn, we might wish to reconsider the (ontological) status of relics of the past and their function in mediating relations between the organic and the inorganic, between people and things, and among various kinds of things themselves for reconceptualizing the study of the past. I argue that the future will depend on whether and how various scholars interested in the past manage to modify their understanding of the material remnants of the past, that is, things as well as human, animal, and plant remains. In discussing this problem I will refer to Martin Heidegger's distinction between an object and a thing, to Bruno Latour's idea of the agency of things and object-oriented democracy, and to Don Ihde's material hermeneutics. To illustrate my argument I will focus on some examples of the ambivalent status of the disappeared person (dead or alive) in Argentina, which resists the oppositional structure of present versus absent. In this context, the disappeared body is a paradigm of the past itself, which is both continuous with the present and discontinuous from it, which simultaneously is and is not. Since there are no adequate terms to analyze the "contradictory" or anomalous status of the present-absent dichotomy, I look for them outside the binary oppositions conventionally used to conceptualize the present-absent relationship in our thinking about the past. For this purpose I employ Algirdas Julien Greimas's semiotic square.