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The Politics of Memory

How is Violence Remembered? Between Remembering and Forgetting

Text by Lea Hensch (Freie Universität Berlin)

Image by Leela Ryan

The following essay addresses the ontological dimension of memory and remembrance and shows how collective memories of mass violence are socially constructed through different memory practices. Using the example of the politics of memory in Cambodia after the fall of the Khmer Rouge between 1979 and 1993, this essay strives to shed light upon some theoretical insights of psychological anthropology. In this context, the question of how memories are conveyed and the relationship between remembering and forgetting is emphasised. Furthermore, it will be made clear that remembering and forgetting are parts of certain social and political processes as well as practices and that the past is often a contested place. The example used, will illustrate the ways in which memories of the past can be used in the present to enforce and legitimise certain interests of a state, a group, or an individual. In this context, memories become a political act and cannot be trusted as "objective" history[1]. Accordingly, this essay underscores the importance of considering the different dimensions of memory when researching memory and remembrance. There is not only one memory - therefore different voices of memory must be integrated within research and more attention must be paid to the politics of memory and to the processes of appropriation, intersecting discourses and conflicting interests.


Psychological anthropology has only recently begun addressing the repercussions of mass violence. The discipline’s focus on different levels of human ontology, such as collective representations and socio-political processes, social experience, or memory, makes it ideally suitable for such an inquiry. This essay aims to provide suggestions for a more intensive study of the politics of memory, focusing on the ontological dimension of memory and remembrance, which form a central aspect of Alexander L. Hinton and Devon E. Hinton's trauma ontology (ed. 2014, 2/ 23-25). Particular emphasis will be placed on how collective memories of mass violence are socially constructed. In this context, the question of how memory is mediated and the relationship between remembering and forgetting arises because memories, despite their reference to the past, are always deployed in the present (Argenti and Schramm 2009, 1). How do practices use the idiom of memory to create socially accepted facts that have the power to legitimise, move, or silence (White 2017, 24)? Due to the practical nature of psychological anthropology, this essay will not only build a theoretical understanding but insights will be applied to the politics of memory in post-genocide Cambodia.

Anthropological Perspectives on Social and Political Dimensions of the Memory of Violence

Nietzsche writes that "only that which never ceases to hurt stays in the memory” and thus laid the foundation for a theory of remembering and forgetting that particularly emphasises the significance of suffering and pain in the relationship between past and present (Nietzsche 1957, 5, quoted from Argenti and Schramm 2009, 8). Since then, there has been a growing interest in this topic amongst scholars from many different disciplines. The interdisciplinary dialogue has developed increasingly, transcending the boundaries between humanities and natural sciences. Yet this also leads to tensions, due to different basic assumptions, methods and epistemological interests (Erll 2017, 89).

For example, the anthropologists and researchers Nicolas Argenti and Katharina Schramm address the relationship between violence and memory in their book “Remembering Violence: Anthropological Perspectives on Intergenerational Transmission, discussing the merits of psychological versus sociological models” (2009). Among other things, they critically examine Western[2] psychological theories of the memory of violence and the resulting trauma[3] (Taylor 2017, 128). The two authors present how classical theorists, caregivers, and postmodern literary theorists who espouse the PTSD model and the trauma paradigm pursue the theory of traumatic silence. The theory emphasises the central role of silence in the response to violence that manifest in people who experienced violence. According to this view, trauma automatically evokes amnesia in memory and erases itself the moment it occurs. Another assumption in this regard is that traumatic experiences can only recur as identical re-enactments (Argenti and Schramm 2009, 9-14; Taylor 2017, 131). The described model of traumatic silence and repetition is supported by most positivist medical research as well as by most postmodern literary but should not be taken for granted. Scholars such as Laurence J. Kirmayer (1996) and Marc Augé (2004) advocate for a sociological understanding of trauma and challenge the assumption that forgetting represents a failure of memory. Instead, they argue that forgetting is rather part of social and political processes. Susannah Radstone and Katharine Hodgkins' model of social memory is interesting in this context. According to this model, forgetting and remembering are not individual pathologies, but collective processes of identity formation and representation (Argenti and Schramm 2009, 8/14). Argenti and Schramm take this approach further in relation to the trauma paradigm, claiming that not all cultures and societies deal with memories of trauma in the same way. In this sense, silence does not necessarily imply pathology. As a result, trauma studies must examine the specific social, political, and economic factors and consider how trauma memories are integrated at the collective level (Taylor 2017, 130). Through their argument, the two authors aim to illustrate that the memory of violence, especially traumatic memory, always has a social dimension, as successors of Maurice Halbwachs also tried to show (White 2017, 21).

Briefly summarized, Maurice Halbwachs' theory on collective memory assumes that individual memories are socially conditioned. According to this view, it is not the individual mind that primarily organizes memory, but shared memory frameworks that are present in any social grouping. Halbwachs claims that the organization of memory is a fundamental concern of any human society. Since individuals are social beings, they remember and forget according to the memory frames and practices of the groups to which they belong. Moreover, collective memory is guided by the group's underlying needs and concerns in the present, and this can lead to a reconstruction, selection, and distortion of reality (Erll 2017, 12-14; Brockmeier 2002, 23).

However, not only the social dimension should be considered, but also, as will become clear later in the case of Cambodia, the political dimension of remembering (which varies depending on the position of the social actors and their circumstances), because traumatic violence is often the result of political struggles. As a result, research must not apply a single "grand narrative" such as the PTSD model, but must include different interpretations and voices, and note that remembering traumatic experiences is not only about the past. As Argenti and Schramm put it, ‘[h]ere, more than ever we are reminded that remembering is oriented not toward the past, but to coming to terms with the past in a present that is continuously troubled by it’ (Argenti and Schramm 2009, 17; Taylor 2017, 130).

It should be noted on the one hand, that individual memory is never free from the imprint of culture and society in which the individual is embedded. Conversely, memory is not a simple, unmediated reproduction of the past, but rather a selective re-creation. Whereby the meaning and representation of the past depend on the contemporary social context, aspirations, and beliefs of the remembering community or individual. The recreations of the past produced by memory are partial, unstable, often contested and prone to becoming sites of struggle. In other words, the past never remains the same but is filtered, restructured, and selected according to one's conscious and unconscious needs (and interests) in the present. This gives rise to the need, also for psychological anthropology, to pay increased attention to the politics of memory, or rather the processes of appropriation, conflicting interests, and intersecting discourses (Argenti and Schramm 2009, 2; Taylor 2017, 130; Alvarez et al. 2012, 855). As noted, the past is always a contested place, and remembering violence (especially at the collective level) is not (only) a pathology but often a political act. Different groups, individuals, governments, and institutions vie to conceive a narrative of the past that legitimizes their actions, power, or intentions; that acknowledges or denies experiences, losses, and suffering associated with mass murder; that asserts or denies the right to moral outrage and legal redress over the crime (Hinton and O'Neill 2009, 5; Argenti and Schramm 2009, 19-20).

For the case study of Cambodia, however, not only narratives as "memory practices" are relevant, but also other cultural artefacts such as monuments and landscapes, as Gabriela B. Alvarez et al. (2012) present in their article "Memory and the everyday landscape of violence in post-genocide Cambodia". The article addresses the politics of memory in post-genocide Cambodia and outlines the ways in which commemoration is often used as a tool to create, reinvent, or erase a collective memory and official history. It is used to justify contemporary forms of political presence and social representation.

Ultimately, social memory is always a site of struggle between the voices of the dominant and those of the marginalised. Characterised by competing ideologies, the selective remembering and forgetting of certain events, depends on political and social exigencies. As a consequence, the study of social memory is inevitably linked to questions of unequal access to a society's political and economic resources and power. Different memories compete for the monopoly of preserving the past, and there is never just one memory, nor one way to remember (Taylor 2017, 130; Alvarez et al. 2012, 856). Scholars, regardless of discipline, take note!

Insights in the Politics of Memory in Cambodia

I will now apply some of the lessons learned to the politics of memory in Cambodia between 1979 and 1993. This is not a complete analysis, but rather an opportunity to emphasise the need to consider and include the different dimensions of memory in research on memory and commemoration.

After Cambodia was embroiled in a devastating civil war between 1970 and 1975, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, came to power in April 1975 and established Democratic Kampuchea (DK). Under DK, genocide was set in motion, killing nearly a quarter of the country's population. Even when the Khmer Rouge was overthrown by a Vietnamese invasion in 1979 and the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) was declared, the suffering did not end. Many lived for years in difficult conditions in refugee camps or faced extreme economic hardship (Eng, Hinton and Hinton 2014, 214; Guillou 2012, 5-6).

Unlike Cambodia, which was decimated by the Khmer Rouge, the era under the Khmer Rouge was not to be forgotten but to be turned into a monument to give legitimacy to the PRK. As the PRK (and its Vietnamese supporters) faced internal and external problems, it was forced to represent its actions through politics of memory and the erasure of responsibility (Alvarez et al. 2012, 859/867). Consequently, the PRK tied the writing of history to its own priorities and needs, demonising the Khmer Rouge between 1979 and 1993[4]. Memories and narratives about DK were channelled to fit the demonising politics of the regime and its Vietnamese supporters. Positive memories of this period were inadmissible (Chandler 2008, 354/358). It was not only to legitimise the PRK's rule that memories were directed in a certain direction. Throughout the 1980s, the PRK and Vietnamese troops fought DK forces and thousands of soldiers died. To justify this, the PRK sought to perpetuate memories of DK horrors. To this end, starting in 1983, the annual Day of Hate was staged to commemorate the atrocities committed under the DK. Ceremonies were held to remind audiences that the legitimacy of the PRK was based on the fact that Cambodians, with the help of Vietnam, drove the Khmer Rouge from power and ‘saved Cambodia from genocide’. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that the PRK did not address issues of collective or individual responsibility for events under the DK and rather sought to bury parts of the past, erasing certain memories. For example, in early 1979, the PRK and its Vietnamese mentors decided to prosecute Pol Pot and Ieng Sary for genocide in hopes of gaining international recognition and to close the DK issue. Cambodian and Vietnamese legal experts worked together to ensure that only these two men were indicted[5] (Chandler 2008, 359). This was partly because many top PRK officials were former Khmer Rouge. In addition, many more people who served under the DK resumed their pre-revolutionary lives and were often rewarded with administrative posts as a result (Chandler 2008, 361-363).

In addition, under pressure from the Vietnamese government, two official sites were established during this period - the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide Crimes and the Killing Fields. Both sites served as evidence of the Khmer Rouge genocide. This "proof" was desperately needed by the PRK and its Vietnamese supporters, as the PRK's national and international legitimacy depended on the exposure of the Khmer Rouge violence and the continued production and conservation of a coherent memory of the past (Chandler 2008, 356; Alvarez et al. 2012, 860). Both memorials did and still do, reinforce a political message, reflecting the goals of the PRK and solidifying certain narratives of political legitimacy. Other narratives, which do not conform to the official narratives, are excluded. Moreover, the "privileging" of both sites belies the ubiquity of former "security centers" and mass graves, as Alvarez et al. show in their article. They believe that the emphasis on both sites serves to frame the genocide in time and space. Through this, memories of the violence that are outside of this time and space are suppressed and erased. This in turn serves the government's political use of memory. Nowadays, both sites are not aimed at locals who have a personal connection to the memory, but at foreign tourists. They serve to promote economic profit and political messaging. Moreover, the physical manifestation of innocence and guilt creates an illusory justice that works by simultaneously concealing and selling the genocide (Alvarez et al. 2012, 862/867).

It is also interesting to note that, according to authors such as Manning or Alvarez, the international tribunal set up in 2006 and sponsored by the United Nations to deal with the Khmer Rouge regime, in a legal sense strategically organizes memories to bring about "national reconciliation and justice". For example, it reconstructs memories in clear contrasts between guilt and innocence. In addition, the court process is selective; some periods are designated as worthy of institutional memory, but others are not, making clear that the court is a political means of addressing past violence. According to Manning, the court's prosecution and subsequent strategies of reconciliation and justice are the dominant framework today which dictates what can and cannot be said about the Khmer Rouge period (Alvarez et al. 2012, 826; Manning 2012, 167-168). It is interesting to note at this point that other authors who have dealt with memory in Cambodia, such as the historian Chandler, who was among other things Senior Advisor at the Center for Khmer Studies in Siem Reap and a USAID consultant evaluating Cambodia's democracy and governance programs, do not view the court and its "politics of memory" critically, but mainly as a contribution to reconciliation in the country (Chandler 2008). The extent to which the court can contribute to reconciliation and possibly to overcoming trauma experienced by many Cambodians cannot yet be assessed. However, psychological anthropology is ideally suited to examine this and other contexts of mass violence more closely in the years to come.


Memory cannot be trusted, therefore it must be researched - not as a record of the past, but in the present. A present in which memories are used to enforce certain interests of a group, a state or an individual. This becomes clear when looking at the politics of memory in Cambodia. In this essay, I illustrated how memories of mass violence are socially constructed through different memory practices and, how the past becomes a contested site of the present and the future. Memories of violence, especially at a collective level are - at least in the case of Cambodia - a political act and only partly pathological. Research on the topic of memories of violence must listen to and represent different voices of memory. This helps to make visible memories that have been suppressed or almost erased by, for example, state-building projects, and to counteract the partisan, hegemonic discourse of memory.


[1] Through the reality-constituting power of representation and into the shapedness and narrativity of historiography, notions of history as a monolithic 'collective singular' (Reinhart Koselleck) and as objectively given have been undermined. Cultural studies of memory combines an interest in history with the insights of postmodern theorizing by asking how social groups continually produce pasts anew through processes of signification (Erll 2017, 13).

[2] The term "Western" was used by the authors. They write: “This volume raises questions as to whether the trauma paradigm is to be understood as an empirical description of a universal human psychic response to violence, as a Western culture–bound syndrome, as a folk model of suffering, as a social movement, or as a global discourse as manifold in its interpretations as it is pervasive in its reach” (Argenti& Schramm 2009: 4).

[3] It is important that when we talk about trauma, we should do so in a way “[...] that both acknowledges the dramatic and life-altering nature of experiences that push people to the very precipice of ontological alienation, and at the same time recognizes that processes of retethering are complex, variable, idiosyncratic, temporally extended, malleable, and may not always look like healing according to dominant models of recovery” (Lester 2013: 755). [4] Examples include the PRK's erection of genocide memorials or calling the Khmer Rouge "genocidal" and "fascist" in order to draw comparisons with Hitler's Germany and downplay the socialist qualities of the DK (Chandler 2008: 360). [5] They ensured for example “[...] that the Cambodian ‘people’s assessors’ who would endorse the verdict were people with ‘a profound animus vis a vis Pol Pot–Ieng Sary’ [and] that a relevant law to justify the tribunal was in place” (Chandler 2008, 359).


Alvarez, Gabriela B., Colucci, Alex R. and James A. Tyner. 2012. “Memory and the everyday landscape of violence in post-genocide Cambodia.” Social & Cultural Geography 13 (8): 853-871.

Argenti, Nicolas and Katharina Schramm. 2009. “Introduction.” In Remembering Violence: Anthropological Perspectives on Intergenerational Transmission, edited by Argenti, Nicolas and Katharina Schramm, 1-27. New York: Berghahn Books.

Brockmeier, Jens. 2002. “Remembering and Forgetting. Narrative as Cultural Memory.” Culture & Psychology 8 (1): 15-43. %2F135 4067X0281002

Chandler, David. 2008. “Cambodia Deals with its Past: Collective Memory, Demonisation and Induced Amnesia.” Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions 9 (2): 355-369.

Eng, Kok-Thay, Hinton, Alexander L. and Devon E. Hinton. 2014. “Key Idioms of Distress and PTSD among Rural Cambodians.” In Genocide and Mass Violence: Memory, Symptom, and Recovery, edited by Hinton, Alexander L. and Devon E. Hinton, 212-241. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Erll, Astrid. 2017. Kollektives Gedächtnis und Erinnerungskulturen. Eine Einführung (3. Edition). Stuttgart: Springer-Verlag.

Guillou, Anne Y. 2012. “An Alternative Memory of the Khmer Rouge Genocide: The Dead of the Mass Graves and the Land Guardian Spirits [Neak ta].” South East Asia Research 20 (2): 207-226.

Hinton, Alexander L. and Devon E. Hinton. 2014. “An Anthropology of the Effects of Genocide and Mass Violence.” In Genocide and Mass Violence: Memory, Symptom, and Recovery, edited by Hinton, Alexander L. and Devon E. Hinton, 1-42. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hinton, Alexander L. and Kevin Lewis O’Neill. 2009. Genocide, Truth, Memory, and Representation. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Lester, Rebecca. 2013. “Back from the edge of existence: A critical anthropology of trauma.” Transcultural Psychiatry 50 (5): 753–762.

Manning, Peter. 2012. “Governing Memory. Justice, Reconciliation and Outreach at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.” Memory Studies 5 (2): 165–181.

Taylor, Christopher C. 2017. “Mass violence, trauma, and their children.” Reviews in Anthropology 46 (2-3): 125-145.

White, Geoffrey. 2017. “Violent memories/memory violence.” Reviews in Anthropology 46 (1): 19-34.

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