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).
What memory sites like Tuol Sleng and Nyarubuye seem to show is that extermination is a
properly human, not just a common European, heritage.
A visit to the Tuol Sleng Museum for Genocidal Crime offers an unpleasant sensory overload.
From the outside, Tuol Sleng looks exactly like the French colonial-era high school that it was
prior to Pol Pot’s ascendance. Its interior, however, is anything but. The first sight that greets a
visitor to Tuol Sleng is of classrooms reconfigured as torture chambers. The sight of beds that
were repurposed into devices of pain creates a visceral shock, as do the old photographs of the
corpses of murdered interrogation subjects. These torture cells are affective machines of terror.
Elaine Scarry (1985) captures the semiological annihilation of ordinary objects that have been
transformed into instruments of torture:
Just as all aspects of the concrete structure are inevitably assimilated into the process of
torture, so too the contents of the room, its furnishings, are converted into weapons…
The room, both in its structure and its content, is converted into a weapon, deconverted,
undone. Made to participate in the annihilation of the prisoners, made to demonstrate that
everything is a weapon, the objects themselves, and with them the fact of civilization, are
annihilated: there is no wall, no window, no door, no bathtub, no refrigerator, no chair, no
bed (pp. 40-41).
This pinpoints the shock and nausea of S-21’s torture chambers: the classrooms are no longer
classrooms; the beds are no longer beds – they have been perverted and transformed into places
and instruments of pain and death. When I first saw these blood-stained non-beds, my heart
hastened its beating like the percussion of a skor, the traditional Khmer drum, so great was my
horror and disgust.
After these torture cells, one arrives at corridors of individual holding cells. The Khmer Rouge
constructed these by crudely dividing up the original classrooms: a nightmarish
reterritorialization of striated space. The tactile and visual crudeness of these prison cells, and
their claustrophobic and dim interiors, create a sensory bloc dominated by the affects of fear and
Apart from the tactile and the visual, Tuol Sleng also affects the sonorous and the olfactory.
Silence predominates these walls: even noisy tourists tend to be shocked into silence. While S-
21’s security regulations warn prisoners of the penalties of unregulated sounds, one imagines
silences punctuated by screams when S-21 was in operation.
This sonorous chill is juxtaposed with the lively soundscape just outside Tuol Sleng’s walls.
Boisterous neighborhood children use the former school grounds as their playground, and
predatory tuk tuk and motorcycle taxi drivers patiently wait outside the museum, calling out their
services to hapless tourists. I recall myself having to flee from these smirking drivers when I left
the gates of Tuol Sleng – the cacophony of their commercial appeals jarred uncomfortably with
my fresh memories of the mortuary silences of S-21’s prison and torture cells, making me feel
In the past, the museum offered a display the victims’ clothes. This would have added an
olfactory affect to the sensory bloc experienced by the visitors, generating visceral nausea. This
would have mirrored the olfactory affect of similar memory sites in Rwanda:
We made to two stops on the genocide tourism circuit: the Genocide Museum in Kigali
and a former school that had been the site of mass killings and now was a storehouse for
hundreds of preserved bodies and the clothing that used to cover them. The museum did
an excellent job of describing the story of the genocide and at the same time giving it a
personal face. The former school was impacting in how it threw death in your face. You
could smell the stench of the bodies, see the rotting tufts of hair on their heads, and see
the machete wounds deep in the skulls (Miller, 2007).
The display of the clothes of the dead mirrors similar displays of the remnants of lives of victims
in museums commemorating the Shoah. Jeffrey Ochsner (1997) cites the United States
Holocaust Memorial Museum’s poignant collections of “ordinary objects that were taken at the
death camps from those about to die – objects like shoes, hairbrushes, toothbrushes, cutlery,
scissors, and the like. These things are ordinary; indeed, they look just like similar objects that
we all own and use every day. (p. 171)” The works of Columbian artist Doris Salcedo similarly
consist of remnants of the lives of victims of atrocity. Jill Bennett (2005) elaborates:
The former series of installations comprises broken domestic furnishings into which are
embedded fragments of bone, clothing, and so on – traces of individuals who have been
driven from their homes and killed; the latter piece is constructed from a glass-windowed
chest, packed with items of clothing and concreted over (p. 51).
Ochsner argues that the affective power of the remnants of ordinary lives arises from their very
There seems to be little time or distance between these things and their owners and the
similar things that we own and ourselves. Thus, these offer the opportunity for us to
realize the similar humanity of those who were killed in the death camps and ourselves.
They can become sites for projection (linking objects), and through them we can
experience (project) a close connection to the feeling of the lives of those who died.
Although we may not have known any of those killed in the death camps, we can “share”
through these linking objects in a connection with these dead. Through the knowledge of
what these represent (objects “harvested” from people about to be killed), we can begin
to experience a partial sense of the fear they must have felt (Ochsner, 1997, p. 171).
Bennett points out that these objects have undergone a radical reterritorialization of their
The shoes, barely discernible behind the thick hewn skins, are less concrete signifiers of
their owners than objects that now cannot be grasped, touched, or brought into focus. The
fragments of clothing encased in furnishings … no longer enliven these objects; instead
they haunt them in a way that does not recall their former use, confirming instead that
these items no longer function as they once did (Bennett, 2005, p. 62).
Through their violent resituation in memory sites, these ordinary objects lose their former
functional meanings and are instead transformed into Ochsnerian linking objects: allowing the
living spectators to project onto them a sense of community with the dead.
After one has passed by the corridors of prison cells, one comes to Tuol Sleng’s displays of mugshots
of S-21’s victims. These photographs of the faces of the doomed (only a handful survived
S-21; tens of thousands of others were murdered) have a powerful visual affect, generating
emotions of grief and sorrow. While S-21 can be described as a machine of pain and death, these
interior walls of memorial photographs can be described as machines of grief and sorrow. These
images can also be usefully analyzed through Roland Barthes’ (1981) distinction between the
studium and punctum. The studium consists of the intentional field of the photographic image,
contested and negotiated between the photographer and the viewer. The punctum, on the other
hand, refers to the unintentional elements in the photographic image which “punctuate” or
“break” the studium:
This time it is not I who seek it out (as I invest the field of the studium with my sovereign
consciousness), it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an
arrow, and pierces me… A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but
also bruises me, is poignant to me) (pp. 26-27).
The studium of S-21’s mug shots hence consist in Democratic Kampuchea’s bureaucratic need to
document and discipline these alleged counterrevolutionaries. Their punctum, on the other hand,
consist in those unintentional elements – drops of blood, facial grimaces, marks on the walls –
which reveal the human horror (of their impending tortures and murders) these victims faced,
and which generate, almost three decades later, sympathy and the associated affects of sorrow
and grief in the viewers today. These intense emotions stem from the temporally frozen images
of fear and hopelessness that can be discerned on the faces of these victims. In this way the S-21
mug-shots recode the original overcoding generated by what Deleuze and Guattari describe as
the abstract machines of faciality:
The face is produced only when the head ceases to be a part of the body, when it ceases
to be coded by the body, when it ceases to have a multidimensional, polyvocal corporeal
code – when the body, head included, has been decoded and has to be overcoded by
something we shall call the Face (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p. 170).
The face hence overcodes the pre-symbolic hermeneutic of the body, allowing the transformation
of the subject into a primal frame of meaning. The S-21 mug-shot, with its studium and punctum,
recodes the face, situating it in the fateful context of eternal murder. Susan Sontag (2003)
succinctly describes the sense of nausea generated by these images:
These Cambodian women and men of all ages, including many children, photographed
from a few feet away, usually in half figure, are – as in Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas,
where Apollo’s knife is eternally about to descend – forever looking at death, forever
about to be murdered, forever wronged. And the viewer is in the same position as the
lackey behind the camera; the experience is sickening (p. 61).
The affect created by these walls of photographs can be juxtaposed with the affect created by the
wall of names at the USS Arizona memorial in Pearl Harbor. In contrast to the violence of
intense emotions created by the photographs of S-21’s victims, the stately cadences and elegant
arrangement of names at the USS Arizona memorial generate refined emotions of restrained
sorrow. This arrangement of names echoes the starkness of Maya Lin’s controversial and popular
Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Ochsner argues that the memorial’s affective power arises from its
“space of absence”, that is, “a void in which we have the simultaneous experience of both the
absence and the presence of the dead. (p. 156)” The inscription of the names of the dead on the
reflective polished walls of the memorial generates an uncanny sensation of connection between
the living viewer and the memorialized deceased:
The simultaneity of vision of the names of the dead and missing, first with images of
unknown others and then with ourselves, could not be more direct in establishing an
interpersonal connection and making the memorial a linking object. We understand, not
abstractly but rather directly, the common human nature of those who are named and
those who read the names. The directness of proper names connects us; the reflective
surface superimposes our images upon the names. Indeed, we not only see ourselves
superimposed on the names, we also see ourselves gazing out from within the wall
(Ochsner, 1997, p. 164).
Adjacent to the displays of mug-shots at Tuol Sleng is its infamous map of skulls. Created from
exhumed human remains from S-21’s mass graves, the visual and tactile affect of this osseous
collage is one of disgust and horror. It is also literally a violent cartography, which Michael
Shapiro (2009) describes as “an articulation of geographic imaginaries and antagonisms, based
on models of identity-difference (p. 18).” Through its biopolitical security apparatuses, the
xenophobic Pol Pot regime sought to purge Democratic Kampuchea of the enemy Vietnamese
and their Cambodian allies. Policing agencies like S-21 were hence created to “identify the
domestic spaces where bodies were judged to be dangerous because they are associated with
foreign antagonists (p. 19).” These spaces eventually evolved – through the extermination of
these dangerous bodies – into killing fields and mass graves. Tuol Sleng’s map of skulls is a
literal representation of this violent cartography.
The genocide memorial art of Vann Nath is also on display here. Imprisoned and tortured at S-
21, Vann Nath was spared execution because of his artistic skills: the Khmer Rouge assigned
him the task of creating portraits of Comrade Pol Pot. Following the fall of the Khmer Rouge to
the Vietnamese on January 7, 1979, Vann Nath was commissioned by the government to
document the horrors of S-21 (Ly, 2003, pp. 71-72). In the resulting series of brutal paintings,
entitled Scenes of Life at S-21, he vividly depicts bodies in pain. Given that these paintings are
displayed right next to the torture instruments they depict, they inspire in the viewer an imagined
reliving of the acts of torture, and hence an intense visceral affect of fear, disgust and horror. In
terms of affect, Scenes of Life at S-21 resembles Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib paintings.
Arthur Danto compares these favorably to the leaked Abu Ghraib photographs, which, he argues,
fail to “bring us closer to the agonies of the victims”:
Botero’s images, by contrast, establish a visceral sense of identification with the victims,
whose suffering we are compelled to internalize and make vicariously our own. As
Botero once remarked: “A painter can do things a photographer can’t do, because a
painter can make the invisible visible.” What is invisible is the felt anguish of
humiliation, and of pain. Photographs can only show what is visible; what Susan Sontag
memorably called the “pain of others” lies outside their reach. But it can be conveyed in
painting, as Botero’s Abu Ghraib series reminds us, for the limits of photography are not
the limits of art. The mystery of painting, almost forgotten since the Counter-
Reformation, lies in its power to generate a kind of illusion that has less to do with
pictorial perception than it does with feeling (Danto, 2006, p. 24).
Sontag notes that S-21’s photographed victims “remain an aggregate: anonymous victims,” and
that “even if named, unlikely to be known to ‘us’ (Sontag, 2003, p. 61).” While this is still
probably true for the typical foreign visitor to Tuol Sleng, researchers like David Chandler
(1999) have done much to excavate and reveal the identities and histories of these victims. And
what has been revealed has the power to reshape one’s response to the visual records of their
suffering and death. As Nic Dunlop (2006) explains:
“Better to destroy ten innocent people than let one enemy go free” ran a Khmer Rouge
slogan. Because of the lack of information displayed at the museum we often assume that
the prisoners of Tuol Sleng were innocent victims; the terror in the faces elicits a
response of pity from the viewer. The popular image of the Khmer Rouge in the West
was of young, fanatical murderers in black pyjamas, wielding guns. What is not
immediately apparent to most visitors to the prison is that Tuol Sleng was created for
rooting out enemies from within the party. The majority of the prisoners were from the
Khmer Rouge’s own ranks. This adds an unwelcome moral complication: among the
photographs I now faced there were interrogators as well as guards from the prison itself,
Khmer Rouge who suddenly found their roles reversed during the many purges. The
upside-down world of Tuol Sleng blurred the distinction between the guilty and the
innocent (p. 23).
It was inevitable that the fear and loathing Tuol Sleng inspired in me would be tempered by my
learning of the circumstances of the genesis of the museum. Early in their occupation of
Cambodia, the Vietnamese transformed S-21 into a genocide museum for the dual purposes of
vilifying the Khmer Rouge and promoting the Vietnamese army as a liberation force. This was
needed given the geo-political background of the Cold War: the U.S. and China were offering
diplomatic and material support to the ousted Khmer Rouge in order to oppose the Soviet-backed
Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia.
To create the Tuol Sleng genocide museum, the Vietnamese sent Ung Pech, himself a survivor of
S-21, to Poland to learn from the genocide museum at Auschwitz. Under his subsequent
directorship of Tuol Sleng, the ample evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities was collected and put
on public display. (Dunlop, 2006, pp. 183-185). The political genesis of the Tuol Sleng genocide
museum is illuminated by Pierre Nora’s (1989) account of the dialectic between memory and
history in the creation of les lieux de mémoire (places of memory):
Memory is life, borne by living societies founded in its name. It remains in permanent
evolution, open to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, unconscious of its
successive deformations, vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, susceptible to
being long dormant and periodically revived. History, on the other hand, is the
reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer (p. 8).
With many survivors of Democratic Kampuchea choosing not to share with their children their
traumatic memories, there exists this “dialectic of remembering and forgetting” in Cambodian
society of the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities. Stéphanie Gée and Im Lim (2008) observe that “many
youngsters in Cambodia still find it hard to presume true the horrors committed under the regime
of Pol Pot and his henchmen… Painful memories of the regime remain kept behind a wall of
silence in many a family.”
Institutionally, the history of Democratic Kampuchea remains excluded from the official school
curriculum, although there are plans to include it in the secondary school curriculum by the end
of 2009. As Burcu Münyas (2008) points out, “in the absence of adequate education on the
history of the Khmer Rouge period, the prevalent exposure to the horrors of the genocide at
homes, schools, museums and memorials has worked to produce fear, anger, disbelief or denial
in many Cambodian youth, sustained their myths, and has left them with several compelling
questions, such as ‘why did Khmer kill Khmer?’” (p. 413).
While my sorrow for S-21’s victims remains, it is now tinted with a greater horror at the Khmer
Rouge’s creation of a killing machine which devoured its own cadres and their families. This in
turn has shaped my response to Slavoj Žižek’s (2008) approval of the revolutionary authenticity
of the Jacobins:
Or, as Saint-Just put it succinctly elsewhere: “That which produces the general good is
always terrible.” These words should not be interpreted as a warning against the
temptation to violently impose the general good on a society, but, on the contrary, as a
bitter truth to be fully endorsed (p. 160).
The violence unleashed by the Khmer Rouge and the Jacobins on their respective societies both
amount to Benjaminian “divine violence” – the cataclysmic event “when those outside the
structured social field strike ‘blindly,’ demanding and enacting immediate justice/vengeance”
(pp. 161-162). Would Žižek be so flippant if he had actually seen the effects of this “divine
violence” in Cambodia?
Encoding Memories in Sound: A Brief Word
The 1960s and early 1970s were the heyday of Cambodian rock ’n’ roll. Tragically, most of
Cambodia’s musicians were killed by the Khmer Rouge after the revolution (Pirozzi, 2006). This
alters the affective response towards their music, which has been reterritorialized from a mode of
entertainment into a funereal soundscape of the dead.
Consider Sinn Sisamouth’s rendition of Quando My Love (2008), for example. As a Khmer
cover version of a classic Italian pop song, the immediate sonorous affect is one of amusing
kitsch. However, when one remembers Sisamouth’s terrible death at the hands of the Khmer
Rouge, the song’s sonorous affect assumes tragic and elegiac undertones: whenever I hear
Sisamouth’s rendition of this song I feel the sorrowful chill of ghostly fingers running up my
Given the comfortable fit between traditional Khmer music’s love of melody and rock ‘n’ roll’s
jaunty rhythms, it’s not surprising that the music of the murdered generation of Cambodian
musicians remains popular today, and a new generation of musicians has emerged to resurrect
the genre. For example, Dengue Fever (2008) covers a song popularized in the 1960s by Ros
Sereysothea, the female counterpart to Sinn Sisamouth, and who was also murdered by the
Khmer Rouge (Cahill, 2006).
It is useful at this point to compare the impact of viewing photographs of the dead with listening
to songs sung by the dead. In my opinion the latter contains an element of the uncanny that the
former lacks. This uncanny affect stems from the dynamic nature of sound, a living dynamism
missing in the static gaze of a photographic image. The recording of Sisamouth’s performance
preserves for the listener his living voice, making the sonorous impact all the greater.
Breakfast with the Dictator: The Gustatory and the Political
In August 2007 I accompanied a Czech political scientist to the town of Pailin on the Cambodian
border with Thailand. We were there to meet Nuon Chea, the chief ideologue of the Khmer
Rouge, for an interview. This interview was to be one of his last before his arrest the following
month on charges of crimes against humanity by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of
Cambodia, popularly known as the Khmer Rouge genocide tribunal.
For me this interview generated a unique sensory bloc. Noun Chea had suffered a stroke several
years earlier, and as such suffered bodily impediments. Underneath these, his sternness of speech
and demeanor reflected a fanatical discipline that Žižek would probably acknowledge as that of
an authentic revolutionary. I could not fail to recognize that Nuon Chea, during the period of his
leadership of Democratic Kampuchea, was most certainly not a moderate who sought
“revolution without a revolution,” that is, as Žižek explains, “a revolution deprived of the excess
in which democracy and terror coincide, a revolution respecting social rules, subordinated to
preexisting norms, a revolution in which violence is deprived of the ‘divine’ dimension and thus
reduced to a strategic intervention serving precise and limited goals. (p. 163)” Despite his
physical frailty, this octogenarian, who was accused of the extermination of almost a third of
Cambodia’s population, terrified me.
As our interview was at 6 AM, Nuon Chea invited us to join him and his family for breakfast.
Mrs. Nuon Chea had prepared a simple but extremely delicious Sino-Khmer breakfast. There
was fried chicken, sour soup with pork and preserved mustard leaves, fatty roast pork, and
generous helpings of rice. The rich flavors, and the hearty quality and quantity of the meal all
reflected plenitude, and my sense of fear clashed with, but failed to kill, my gustatory enjoyment.
I ended up having three helpings, to the delight of Mrs. Nuon Chea. Her cooking generated in me
a strong sense of nostalgia, which was interesting because this was the first time I had met her.
“Patrick” (2009), the neuroscientist who runs the Very Evolved blog, explains this sensation of
false nostalgia as “nostalgia by association.” That is, my gustatory enjoyment triggered in my
mind my childhood memories of gustatory enjoyment of family meals. As Lehrer (2007) points
out, “our senses of smell and taste are uniquely sentimental.”
This is because smell and taste are the only sense that connect directly to the
hippocampus, the center of the brain’s long-term memory. Their mark is indelible. All
our other senses (sight, touch and hearing) are first processed by the thalamus, the source
of language and the front door to consciousness. As a result, these senses are much less
efficient at summoning up our past (p. 80).
Benny Widyono (2008), the “shadow governor” of Siem Reap province under the United
Nations Transitional Authority of Cambodia, describes in his memoirs a similar gustatory
encounter with the Khmer Rouge. In September 1992 Prince Sihanouk and Princess Monique
paid a visit to the Khmer Rouge-held town of Pailin, and Mr. Widyono accompanied them. As he
At lunchtime I was invited to join a banquet of Khmer Rouge top brass in honor of the
royal couple. Khieu Samphan, Son Sann and his wife, Dr. and Mrs. Thioun Munn, and I
flanked the Prince and Princess; Pol Pot was conspicuously absent. Ieng Sary’s daughter,
who studied in London, prepared a sumptuous lunch: Khmer nouvelle cuisine, including
fine eggshells delicately filled with fluffy dried fish, chicken curry in individual bowls for
each guest with bread, and Cambodian sour soup with dried fish, all washed down with
Mouton Cadet, a Sihanouk favorite (pp. 87-88).
This gustatory enjoyment reflects plenitude, and indeed Pailin at the time was a town of plenty,
thanks to its natural riches of gem mines and lumber:
In the late afternoon I walked along the main road of the town, which was filled with
cafes selling Thai-style roast chicken, Thai beer, and whiskey. The whole atmosphere
was Thai, punctuated by glaring Thai disco music… My visit confirmed that the civilian
population under the Khmer Rouge was more comfortable than civilians in adjacent SOC
territory. Even the Khmer Rouge soldiers, who were given every chance to defect,
refused to go (Widyono, 2008, p. 89).
This plenitude is not representative of life under the Khmer Rouge, however. In September 2005,
shortly after I arrived in Phnom Penh, an entrepreneurial Cambodian opened L’histoire Café
opposite the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, offering authentic Democratic Kampuchea-era
The restaurant serves a $6 fixed-price “Unforgettable Menu” that sacrifices flavor for
historical accuracy: The main course is bland rice gruel, served in a tin bowl.
“The Khmer Rouge gave a person a bit of rice or corn mixed with water and leaves. This
kind of food a person could get only a [serving] in the noon and a [serving] in the
evening,” the menu notes. (Melamed & Sambath, 2005)
Hakpry Agnchealy, the owner’s sister, succinctly describes the gustatory affect of this
authentically revolutionary meal:
“When I ate, it made me so sad,” she said. “I do not want to eat this food again.”
(Melamed & Sambath, 2005)
L’histoire Café was shut down by the police a fortnight later (“Cambodian Police”, 2005).
I am uncertain how to properly theorize the gustatory and the olfactory. Of the five senses, the
gustatory and the olfactory offer the least avenue for conceptualization, especially when
compared with the visual or the sonorous. The gustatory and the olfactory are rooted in chemical
interactions between the world and the sense organs, and are less open than the visual, the
sonorous and the tactile to iterations of interpretation and reflection.
However the gustatory and the olfactory cannot be ignored for they offer significant impacts on
the sensory bloc and on judgment. For example, Mrs. Nuon Chea’s delicious breakfast created
for me a gustatory affect of enjoyment, which in turn created a pleasurable sensory frame which
juxtaposed directly with the fear produced by my cognizance of Nuon Chea’s deep responsibility
for the Khmer Rouge genocide.
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