CAMBODIA: MEMORY, ATROCITY AND AFFECT

POLS 703

CAMBODIA: MEMORY, ATROCITY AND AFFECT

by Alvin Lim

In 2005, just as America was reeling from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, I embarked on a line
of flight from a quotidian life in Singapore, arriving in Phnom Penh to begin a new career as a
philosophy lecturer at Pannasastra University. Several months earlier I had resigned from my
excruciating human resources job at Singapore Airlines. So, it was as a Singaporean suffering
from ennui that I encountered several sites of memory of atrocity in Cambodia, some of which I
shall discuss in this essay. The organization of this paper is not what Gilles Deleuze and Félix
Guattari (1987) would describe as aborescent, but is instead rhizomatic – its nodes crystallize
encounters I have and have not had with collective memories of atrocity (p. 21). This exploration
transverses time and space, and explores the political significance of sensory affects ranging
from the visual to the gustatory.

A Visit to Tuol Sleng

Under Pol Pot, the Tuol Svay Prey High School was transformed into S-21, the core of
Democratic Kampuchea’s internal surveillance and disciplinary apparatus. The former high
school’s classrooms were crudely transformed and deployed as prison cells and torture
chambers. During the Vietnamese occupation, S-21 was transformed into a genocide museum,
which has since become one of Phnom Penh’s most popular tourist destinations.
Any visit to a memory site of atrocity raises the question of visitor’s ambiguous identity as a
witness to the past or as a voyeur of the other’s pain. Philip Gourevitch (1998) confronted this
dilemma when he visited Rwanda’s Nyarubuye genocide memorial, where the murdered victims
were left unburied as a potent means of commemoration of their atrocious ends:

The dead at Nyarubuye were, I’m afraid, beautiful. There was no getting around it. The
skeleton is a beautiful thing. The randomness of the fallen forms, the strange tranquility
of their rude exposure, the skull here, the arm bent in some uninterpretable gesture there
– these things were beautiful, and their beauty only added to the affront of the place. I
couldn’t settle on any meaningful response: revulsion, alarm, sorrow, grief, shame,
incomprehension, sure, but nothing truly meaningful. I just looked, and I took
photographs, because I wondered whether I could really see what I was seeing while I
saw it, and I wanted also an excuse to look a bit more closely (p. 19).
Sven Lindqvist (1992), another explorer of historical pain, connects memory sites of atrocity to
the European project of colonialism. Noting that the Victorian liberal theorist Herbert Spenser
had applauded the extermination of those troublesome human populations that stood in the way
of the civilizing projects of Western colonialism (pp. 8-9), Lindqvist observes that:
The idea of extermination lies no farther from the heart of humanism than Buchenwald
lies from the Goethehaus in Weimar. That insight has been completely repressed, even by
Germans, who have been made sole scapegoats for ideas of extermination that are
actually a common European heritage (p. 9).
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