- Missing Images of Genocide and Creation in Cambodia
Survivors feel compelled to search for meaning and understanding of the past as a duty and heritage to be passed down to future generations. However, this transmission becomes problematic when the mourning process is blocked by the denial and opposition of those who perpetrated the crimes. The prohibition on knowing, coupled with the concomitant impossibility of speaking and imagining, then makes working through the past difficult. The trauma, both personal and collective, may then affect future generations, which suffer the psychological consequences of events they did not experience themselves. This is why postmemory is currently an important political and social issue in Cambodia, particularly since 45 percent of the population was born after the genocide.
Kamtech and the Erasure of Images
Much more than mass murder, genocide aims to annihilate everything that constitutes human being as such, in flesh, identity, and ancestry. In this sense, the term kamtech, which is recurrent in the records of s-21, the former Phnom Penh high-school-turned-extermination center, reveals the core ideology of the Khmer Rouge. It means not simply “to kill” but to destroy or smash to smithereens, leaving no trace. In the most recent film by Rithy Panh, Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell (2012), Duch, the s-21 prison chief, specifies that “kamtech means to destroy the name, image, body, everything.”1 We must therefore understand this term to mean the [End Page 87] complete elimination of humanity in the victims. To leave nothing of their life nor of their death. To erase death itself.
Indeed, this genocide has been so effectively erased in Cambodia that the majority of its perpetrators have gone unpunished and the youth of today know nothing of the genocide that caused almost two million deaths between April 17, 1975 and January 7, 1979. This erasure involved not only the secret killing of a quarter of the population but also the destruction of the country’s visual and cultural heritage. In the totalitarian ideology of the Khmer Rouge, a tabula rasa of the past had to be created, resulting notably in the destruction of images, archives, films. and family photographs. Yet the absence of images creates a void, a doubt. Even today, some young Cambodians refuse to believe that mass murder took place. They demand to “see” the images so that they can finally “believe.”
The Missing Other or the Return of the Repressed
Images play a vital role in the memorial process since they represent both a trace and a record—a visual writing in the broadest sense. Yet the only images recorded during the genocide were Khmer Rouge propaganda films, which destroy the imaginary. These misleading images act as a screen, making it impossible to work through the past. I propose to draw a parallel between the mechanisms for manipulating visual memory implemented by the Khmer Rouge and the mechanisms of repression in psychoanalysis. Repression is understood to be a representation that cannot be accessed, imagined, or verbalized by the subject. It is formed in two stages. In one of his earliest works, Project for a Scientific Psychology (1895), Freud refers to the “Proton pseudos” as the absence of adequate representation.2 He borrows this term from Aristotle, who used it to mean the “first lie.” This impossibility of representation is the first “lack.”
However, this first lack generates the need for another representation, which is inadequate. It is this inadequate representation that constitutes repression. Since these two stages form a single process, the stage involving repression enables the creation of a “screen memory,” which is the second lack, or more precisely, the secondary lack. Freud called this second stage Nachträglich, which Lacan translated as “après-coup” and is generally referred to in English as “deferred action” or “retroaction.”
To return to the Khmer Rouge, the first lack is the absence of images [End Page 88] of the genocide. There are, of course, thousands of s-21 photographs and many propaganda films and documents, but these were all produced by the Khmer Rouge themselves. The only existing representations of the genocide, and of s-21 in particular, are the...