Genocide and Effacement: A Conference on Cambodia, a Painting, and Ways of Knowing

In December 2010, I participated in a conference in Paris entitled, “Cambodge, Le Génocide Effacé.” Cambodia, The Genocide Effaced. The metaphor here is powerful and operates on several levels, ones that take us from the act itself to the ways we think about genocide, including the origin of the term and the work of the man who coined it, Raphael Lemkin.

Upon a first glance, the conference title invokes the obvious violence of genocide as an attempt to “expunge,” “erase,” or “obliterate” a group of people. To efface something is literally to  “remove the face” (ef- [out] + -face [face/appearance]) and is etymologically derived from the twelfth century old French word esfacier, “to wipe out, destroy.”

This essay explores the interlinkages of genocide and effacement as well one of the acts against effacement, reclamation, a key subtext of the conference. In doing so, it traces the outlines of Lemkin’s work and the emergence of the field that now recognizes him as its father, genocide studies. Many of the issues of effacement with which Lemkin grappled, ranging from the mechanisms of mass murder to cultural destruction, were foregrounded in the conference. In the backdrop was a project of reclamation centered around the arts and a number of assumptions about our ways of knowing about genocide.

I. Lemkin and the Mechanisms of Mass Murder

The conference, held at Université Paris 8 on the outskirts of the city, took place in an auditorium filled with faculty, students, scholars, and quite a few first and second generation Cambodian-French. The discussion ranged from the theoretical and abstract to the very concrete stories of survivors, who described in painful detail their suffering under the Khmer Rouge, a group of revolutionaries who attempted to radically transform Cambodian society when they took power in April 1975. Buddhism was banned, families split apart, work and livelihood collectivized, community structure revamped, and freedom of speech, movement, and choice dramatically curtailed. Everyone had to work long hours, often on stavation rations. Those who had suspect class backgrounds or displayed signs of subversion were eradicated.

In the end, almost a quarter of Cambodia’s population perished from disease, starvation, overwork, and mass murder. Members of the audience described the atmosphere of fear and terror in which they were engulfed and how, before or after the genocide, they fled to refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian border in the hope of gaining asylum in another land. France, France, which had colonized Cambodia in 1863, opened its doors to many of these refugees. The Cambodian diaspora shaped the conference in many ways. Indeed, one of the two organizers, Soko Phay Vakalis, an art critic and professor at Paris 8, was a part of this diaspora, having moved to France in 1976.

The two and a half day conference was comprised of an opening forum on the first night followed by half-day sessions on “The Mechanisms of Genocide,” “Art against Effacement,” “Genocide and its Effects,” and “From Genocide to Justice.” I particpated in the first session on “The Mechanisms of Genocide,” which directly took up genocidal effacement in its most obvious sense, the process by which groups of human beings are exterminated.

Not surprisingly, this issue figured prominently in the work of Raphael Lemkin, a Polish jurist who himself had fled abroad to escape genocide, immigrating to the United States in 1941 Born in 1900, Lemkin took an interest in mass murder from a young age. In his unpublished autobiography, Lemkin recalls how, as a youth, he read Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis and was struck by Nero’s casual laughter as Christians were thrown to the lions.

Even as he read and wondered why a group of human beings could be slaughtered so easily, he heard real-life stories of violent pogroms in nearby areas of Poland and of mass extermination of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey. When Turkish war criminals who had been arrested after the genocide were suddenly released, Lemkin wondered “Why is a man punished when he kills another man? Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of a single individual?”

There was no easy answer. Lemkin states that it was at this point he began to strongly believe a law must be passed banning such “racial or religious murder.” His resolve was only enhanced when, after enrolling in law school in the 1920s, his law school professors explained that such violence was permitted because of the principle of state sovereignty.

In the United States, Lemkin completed his groundbreaking Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944), which included a chapter on genocide, the first time the term was used in print. “New conceptions require new terms,” Lemkin explained. “By ‘genocide’ we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group. This new word, coined by the author to denote an old practice in its modern development, is made from the ancient Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing).”

Having introduced the concept of genocide, Lemkin next turned toward his life-long goal of making it a crime. In 1945, he began drafting a resolution (“on the soft sofa in the Delgates Lounge”) that was a subsequently introduced at the UN. After much debate, bargaining, compromise, and modification, the UNGC was passed on December 9, 1948 and ratified roughly three years later.

Lemkin continued to read widely about genocide. During the decade prior to his death in August 1959, Lemkin set out to write a grand history of genocide. It was never published. Lemkin was a systematic man and his approach to his history shows it. He created a topical template and applied it to each case. Much of it focused on the mechanisms of genocide. Thus he began with “1. Background-historical” information before turning to “2. Conditions leading to the genocide,” “3. Methods and techniques of genocide,” “4. The genocidists,” and “5. Propaganda.” The last items on his template focus on victims and bystanders, including “6. Response of Victims,” “7. Responses of outsider groups,” and “8. Aftermaths.”

Lemkin and his work were largely forgotten after his death. Indeed, it is said that only a handful of people came to his funeral. While some of his unpublished work has been lost, much of it survived thanks to colleagues, friends, and family members. These materials were later donated to the American Jewish Archives (AJA) in Cincinnati (in 1965 and 1983), the American Jewish Historical Society which is now located in New York (in 1975), the New York Public Library (in 1982), and a few other, smaller locations.

As the dates of these donations suggest, interest in Lemkin and the mechanisms of genocide was slow to emerge and, coincidently or not, loosely followed the contours of the emergence of Holocaust and genocide studies. The first donation in 1965 occurred just after the 1961 publication of Raul Hilberg’s groundbreaking The Destruction of the European Jews and the trial of the Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichman, who was the subject of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). These two studies, which both foreground the role of bureaucracy and state structures, provided some of the earliest theorizing about the mechanisms of mass murder.

By the time of the donation to the American Jewish Historical Society in 1975, the field of Holocaust studies was emerging with a particular focus on issues of memory. Even as Holocaust studies began to mature, the first books in the nascent field of genocides studies, including Leo Kuper’s groundbreaking Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century (1981), were just beginning to be published by the time of the 1982 and 1985 donations.

Both Holocaust and Genocide Studies have extensive literatures now, ones that explore the mechanisms of genocidal effacement. Within Holocaust studies, a key debate emerged between “intentionalists” and  “functionalists,” with the former viewing the Holocaust as a top-down process driven by ideology and central planning. Functionalists, in turn, view the Holocaust as a much more stochastic process influenced by the actions of lower-level groups and institutional strutures.

This debate has resonated within genocide studies as well, which has been heavily influenced by the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (UNGC). Lemkin regarded the passage and later ratification of this document as the culmination of his life work. Indeed, he sometimes introduced himself as the “founder of the Genocide Convention” and the epitaph on his gravestone reads, “The Father of the Genocide Convention.” Many scholars now refer to him as the “father of genocide studies.”

The UNGC defined genocide as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such.” The intentionalist emphasis of this definition, which stressed state-sponsored intent and was written in the shadow of the Holocaust, was a strong influence on first-generation scholarship in the field of genocide studies.

Meanwhile, Lemkin remained a largely forgotten man. It was only in the mid-to-late 1990s, after genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia and the publication of Samantha Power’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (2002), which foregrounded Lemkin and drew on his archives, that interest in Lemkin began to rise sharply. In the same year that Power’s book was published, an edited collection, Pioneers of Genocide Studies, recognized Lemkin as the “father of genocide studies” and published an excerpt from his autobiography, “Totally Unofficial Man: The Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin” – even if this chapter was just one of a number of first-generation reminiscences about the origins of the field of genocide studies.

But the momentum was there and interest in Lemkin continued to grow both with the emergence of a gloal genocide prevention movement, particularly in the aftermath of Darfur, and new scholarship which revisited Lemkin’s unpublished writings on genocide.

Interestingly, in Axis Rule, Lemkin himself defined genocide in a manner that differed from the UNGC, viewing it as a “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of the essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” This definition encompassed not just the physical effacement of a group, but also a communal effacement involving the “disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups.”

While Lemkin’s 1944 definition was heavily influenced by Nazi policy in occupied territories, he also opened the door to the exploration of colonial and imperial genocides that predated the Holocaust. During the last decade, a number of scholars, particularly historians, have drawn inspiration from this thread in Lemkin’s work to explore the relationship of genocide to empire, colonialism, imperialism, and settler societies.
II. Cultural Effacement

If the conference was concerned partly with effacement in this sort of physical sense, it also foregrounded cultural destruction. The conference opened with a videotaped interview with Vann Nath, a Cambodian artist who survived incarceration at S-21, a Khmer Rouge interrogation and torture center where almost all of the more than 12,000 inmates were executed. He spoke of his experiences and his use of art after the genocide. The opening continued with a dialogue with the French feminist literary critic and writer, Hélène Cixous, a film about S-21 by Rithy Panh, and a discussion of cinema and the archive.

These authors were featured in or contributed to a special magazine issue linked to the conference, “Cambodia, Memory of the Extreme,” that included essays on fine arts, cinema, theater, and literature. The magazine cover featured Hommage (Jayavarman VII), a painting by Séra, a French-Cambodian artist, which was also featured in a campus gallery exhibition of related works by artists of Cambodian descent. During a reception held there after the opening, Séra did a performance art piece, using watercolors and charcoal pens to paint while bending over a large canvas stretched out on the gallery floor, a crowd of over 100 people surrouding him.

Hommage was hung prominently in the gallery. Playing on a common Cambodian image, Hommage featured the silhouette of a featureless Buddha-like figure, sitting cross-legged, oulined by white that dripped into a hazy backdrop of light and dark green. A single spot of red could be seen behind one of figure’s armless shoulders.

Séra had picked a potent image for Cambodians. Jayavarman VII is a legendary Buddhist ruler who greatly expanded the borders of the Khmer empire even as he launched building projects, including Angkor Thom and the Bayon, which are part of the famous Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia.

If Jayavarman is widely celebrated in Cambodian art and culture as a symbol of the country’s past greatness, the figure in Hommage has a decidedly different feel, almost ghost-like as streaks of paint dribbled down from the white silhouette, like rain or tears. Instead of celebrating construction and glory, Hommage suggests disintegration and decline. Effacement.

* * *

After the the opening and exhibition, I had dinner with the two co-organizers of the conference, Pierre Bayard and Soko Phay Vakalis, both of whom teach at Paris 8, and asked how they had selected the conference title. They noted that many students knew nothing about what happened in Cambodia, in part because the international community ignored the genocide during the 1980s, when Cold War politics led the United States, Thailand, China, and their allies to back the Khmer Rouge, who were fighting a guerrilla war against the Vietnamese-backed government that had overthrown the Khmer Rouge in early January 1979.

In this odd situation, in which a genocidal regime was propped back up and even given Cambodia’s seat at the United Nations for several years, the Khmer Rouge crimes were often diplomatically referred to as simply “the unfortunate events of the past.” It was only in the early 1990s, after the signing of a post-Cold War peace agreement and UN-sponsored elections, that people began to speak of Cambodia and seeking justice for the Khmer Rouge, the topic of the last session of the conference.

Eventually, our converation turned to Séra. Hommage, Vakalis, who has written about Séra as well as art, genocide, and memory more broadly, noted how the painting operated on a variety of levels, with the white outline suggesting the spirits of the dead and the dissipating figure suggesting decline. Indeed, Vakalis said that when she discussed the image with students in Cambodia, many became upset; some even said the image was insulting to Cambodia.

The Khmer Rouge past also lies in the background of Hommage and other works by Séra. Born in 1961 in Cambodia, Séra’s family fled to Paris with his French in 1975. His father was killed by the Khmer Rouge the following year, a death that echos in his work. Indeed, when I later asked Séra about the figure in Hommage, he looked at me and said, “It’s a boy. It’s me.” Upon a closer look at Hommage, a wide band of light green is visible, cutting across the figures torso and the dark green haze, as if the figure were bound, strapped to the past.

A grant proposal that Vakalis wrote to fund the conference and exhibition as well as related workshops notes, “Sera (Phousera ING) was born in 1961 to a Cambodian father and a French mother. He has ceaselessly interrogated the grief-stricken memory of Cambodian history through his various artistic practices: drawing, painting, sculpture and graphic novels (bandes dessineés). His work evokes and pays homage to the nameless dead and ‘disappeared’ of mass crimes.”

The proposal expands upon the larger themes of the conference and the related exhibitions, arguing that there is a critical need for Cambodian artists like Vann Nath to transform “direct memory” into “cultural memory” though media like art, cinema, and literature) “so that our society can preserve and rehabitate the past – even [if] painful – in today’s discussion.” This would also be facilitated by “creation workshops” at which Vann Nath and Séra would lead young Cambodian artists in making art objects at the Bophana Center, located in Phnom Penh. The results of these workshops were profiled in a documentary shown in a back room at the opening exhibition. The urgency of the proposal was well founded: Vann Nath died, after a long illness, in on September 5, 2011.

III. Genocide and Effacement

Effacement, then, operated on several levels at the conference. Beyond the first, and most obvious sense, of the physical effacement of the victims, the conference highlighted cultural effacement, both through the conference and the related exhibitions and publications. In doing so, it invoked the idea of culture as a glue that, once unstuck, destroys group identity. This was similar to Lemkin’s view that genocide is an assault on “the genius of a people,” a notion that invokes another anthropological concept of culture that emphasizes cultural achievements, such as art, myth, and religion, and a “folk spirit” (volkgeist), which gives a group its particular identity. Lemkin’s template details some of the different aspects of this process of cultural destruction:


desecration and destruction of cultural syumbols (books, objects of art,

religious relics, etc.)


destruction of cultural leadership

destruction of cultural centers (cities, churches, monastaries, schools, libraries)

prohibitions of cultural activities or codes of behavior

forceful conversion


While cultural genocide was largely written out of the UNGC, echoes of it survived in a clause of Article 2 that includes “Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group,” a dimension of genocide that allows the next generation of the victim group to live while effacing their cultural heritage. Most recently, this form of genocide has surfaced in relation to debates about the settler policies which forcibly removed the children of First Nations peoples in Canada and the “Stolen Generations” in Australia.

On yet another level, the conference was concerned with combatting effacement through cultural reclamation. One of the panels at the conference, during which Soko gave the first paper, was called “Art against Effacement,” an idea that was very much at the center of the proceedings. As the proposal for the project, which was entitled “The Sharing of Memory and Creation,” noted, “The aim of this project is artistic collaboration on the subjects of memory and violence, and [to] promote diversity of Cambodian cultural expressions . . . [b]efore the next dissapearance of  a ‘direct memory” – witnesses and survivors, Vann Nath is old and will die one day . . . so that our society can preserve and rehabilitate the past.”

The conference, then, involved a double resistance to effacement: the attempt to reclaim memory and culture through the art of survivors and the endeavor to transmit the memory of the past to future generations both through activities like “creation workshops” and through promoting the art of the next generation. To this end, the proceedings also included talks and performances by young French-Cambodian artists whose work dealt with the genocide. The ten-page program included a photo of a young man, his face mostly in shadow, holding up an exhibition painting, and a list of “films of memory,” many of which were to be screened during the month following the conference.

Yet another form of effacement, the conceptual erasures of political acts and even academic thought, was also in the background of the conference. The act of definition is paradoxical, constructing a way of understanding that trods upon potentially relevent aspects that are pushed into the shadows.

Cultural genocide is a case-in-point. Included in the early drafts of the UNGC, it was more or less written out of the Convention and thus, for many years, the discussion of genocide. The long and contentious debates about the Stolen Generations and the Children of First Nations Peoples illustrates part of the reason why: there were vested political interests in preventing a situation in which (neo)colonial policies of the past could be defined as genocidal and thus be subject to condemnation and, perhaps, legal redress.

Such decisions have widespread consequences: groups of people are left unprotected and our ways of knowing unfold with a gap, though one that can rarely be fully closed. Academia is directly implicated in this process, as it asserts judgments of truth and falsity through its discursive habits and social practices, including conferences that must, like all of our knowledge, foreground and background while asserting a set of intellectual priorities.

The field of genocide studies is particularly contentious, beset by a potential tension between scholarship and activism that was embodied by Lemkin. Thus, members of academic associations in genocide studies bicker over who does more “pure” scholarship and who fights for the victims and scholarly debates unfold over which cases should or should not be considered genocide. A canon of cases has emerged, headed by the triumverate of the Holocaust and the Armenian and Rwandan genocides (the Cambodian genocide is frequently invoked within scholarly discussions even if it has been effaced from much public memory), one that again foregrounds certain moments of recent history and backgrounds other events. In the United States, slavery and the genocide of Native Americans remain largely in the shadows of the discussion. The fact that we speak of the genocide of indigenous peoples as a whole as opposed to the destruction of specific “indigenous” groups at particular moments of time is revealing in this regard and in a sense reproduces the social death of so many peoples by subsuming their complex identities in a reductive category – just like cultural reductionism.

The field of genocide studies has been shifting of late, reconsidering its biases and preconceptions through the lens of what might be called “critical genocide studies.” As part of this reexamination, there has been a turn to reconsider the UN Genocide Convention as a product of its time – in part, as noted earlier, by revisting Lemkin’s alternative approach.

Written in the aftermath of the Nazi atrocities, the UNGC defined genocide in a manner that foregrounded state-sponsored mass death, and by implication the 20th century in which it took place, and ignored genocidal histories that proceeded along a different path, often involving long-term structural violence that continued to destroy a group long after the genocide had allegedly ended. The long-term disempowerment and structural violence Native Americans have endured again highlights this point.

As the acts of reclamation at the Paris conference illustrate, genocidal effacement is rarely complete. The past carries forward into the present, a sort of cultural nachträglichkeit to invoke Freud’s concept of deferred action in which memory of the past is reinvested with meaning in the present. This process of nachträglichkeit was also evident at the conference, where the understanding of the past was being rearticulated through art and other media, the transmission of “direct memory,” and the experience of second-generation survivors. Hommage is again revealing in this regard, as the ghost-like figure sits outlined against a murky backdrop, at once asserting a present past that is impermanent and ephemeral and always in danger of being effaced.


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