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Walking with the Ghost: Contested Silences, Memory-Making, and Cambodian/American Histories of Violence


Commemoration is highly fraught; memory and history-making are dialectical processes, constituted by the contingent relationship between what is remembered and forgotten, and what Lisa Yoneyama terms the “forgetting of forgetfulness.” Memory-making is always punctuated by acts of forgetting, the proliferation of silences that produce historical amnesias as they also produce, paradoxically perhaps, affective remnants—what Ng�, Nguyen, and Lam (2012) refer to as “the particular resonances of…wars, refugee archives of feeling, and the recursive traces of both” (673). Challenging static renderings of history, “Walking with the Ghost: Contested Silences, Memory-Making, and Cambodian/American Histories of Violence” queries the complex relationships between registers of memory regarding the Cambodian Holocaust of 1975-79 and remembrances of the preceding U.S. bombing campaigns of 1964-1973. This study challenges historical models of “tragedy” and individualized models of trauma—as damage-centered, deviance-driven, and/or invested in abjection, vulnerability, and injury—which disavow the complex humanity of Cambodian survivors and the continually intersubjective ways in which knowledge about violence and Cambodia is produced and reproduced.

I begin with an analysis of passages from my father's interview regarding the U.S. bombing of Neak Loeung, highlighting the ways experiential registers contain the potential to reproduce as well as trouble dominant Cold War logics. From here, I analyze two cases—the Documentation Center of Cambodia’s framing of its archival mission and artist-documentarian Vandy Rattana’s body of work—addressing the ways archives function to produce different claims to “historical truth” in the afterlife of violence. Following Rattana’s 2009 exhibit “Bomb Ponds”—which photographically depicts the affective pull of landscapes in conjunction with the need to listen to experiential narratives—I then center the “landscape ethnography” as one site of memory-making concerning the U.S. bombing campaigns. Expanding the notion of “living archive,” I employ a capacious understanding of the everyday, assessing how landscapes and stories-in-motion make visible the violence of Cold War histories. Centering an analysis of the multiple meanings of crossing in two oral histories, I end with an exploration of the relational affects and effects of violence and trauma as they travel across time and space. Thinking through queer temporalities, (enforced) transit, and the phenomenon of return, I grapple with notions of justice and reparation in the afterlife of historical violence, thinking reparation not as “repair”— “to fix”—but as “amends,” “to mend,” and therefore, to do the work of care.

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