From Peirce to Rithy Panh. This article examines how documentary film might be seen as a way of exploring a semieotic account of memory. It argues that memory is to be considered as something that is active and communicable within a social context. This is explored through an engagement with Rithy Panh’s S21 : The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003), which highlights the dialogical nature of memory and the interconnection between infrasubjective and intersubjective memory. These connections are created through both the overall narrative structure and individual formal strategies within the frame and composition. Memory is thus reconfigured as not something that is absolutely private. Rather, it is now part of a wider social dialogue that needs to take place in the aftermath of genocide.

Keywords : Memory, semeiosis, dialogue, dissent, genocide.





This article, which is loosely based on my recent monograph on the semeiotic representation of the self within documentary practice, attempts to view the work of Franco-Kampuchean filmmaker, Rithy Panh, as a further inquiry into how memory contributes to the development of the self. Nevertheless, it would seem counter-intuitive to draw connections between documentary representation of memory with Peircean semeiotic, even more so when much of pragmatism seems to be future orientated. Indeed, in one of Peirce’s most influential essays, the pragmatic maxim was expressed in the following terms: “Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object” (EP1: 132). At first glance, there would seem to be little room for either personal or collective memory. Nonetheless, in a later essay, appropriately entitled Pragmatism (EP 2: 398 – 433), written at a time when pragmatism and sign theory were becoming increasingly more integrated, Peirce also produces a new definition that is more grounded within everyday experience, and it is now linked to a notion of habit that exceeds mere word-definitions.[i] Peirce’s passage is worth quoting in full:


I do not deny that a concept, proposition, or argument may be a logical interpretant […] The concept which is a logical interpretant is only imperfectly so. It somewhat partakes of the nature of a verbal definition, and is as inferior to the habit, and much in the same way, as a verbal definition is inferior to the real definition. The deliberately formed, self-analyzing habit,– self-analyzing because formed by the aid of exercises that nourished it,–is the living definition, the veritable and final logical interpretant. Consequently, the most perfect account of a concept that words can convey will consist in a description of the kind of action which that concept is calculated to produce”


Furthermore, Peirce’s allusion to “an analysis of the exercises that nourished it” strongly hints at the role of memory within anthroposemeiosis that is active, self-corrective and hence self-controlled. Peirce’s reworking of the pragmatic maxim is also accompanied by a lengthy discussion about collateral experience. Although there is not the space to describe his examples in detail, it should be noted that Peirce is keen to give examples where observation and memory of past experience are part of our understanding and the production of new interpretants within novel situations and cannot be explained solely through semantics or taxonomy. Instead, “previous” knowledge of contemporary personalities, sensuous experience of colour and human experience inform our understanding of others (EP2. 404 – 407). This knowledge is now reworked within the context of the present.


Without even attempting to describe the many changes in Peirce’s semeiotic, it might be apparent here that a notion of habit brings us away from something which is largely conceptual and abstract towards something which is more temporal and embodied, based within the world of lived experience shared by sign users — a historical lifeworld dominated by “men and their conversations” (CP 8.112). Increasingly, this is also incorporated within a rhetoric of signs (EP 2: 326) that includes somatic signs and signs of feeling that locate human lebenswelt within (but distinct) from other non-human umwelts.


This might also inform how we interpret other passages which describe the relationship between inter-subjectivity and intra-subjectivity. We are told the following about human sociality:


When one reasons, it is the critical self that one is trying to persuade; and all though whatsoever is a sign, and is mostly in the nature of language. The second thing to remember us that a man’s circle of society (however widely or narrowly this phrase may be understood), is a sort of loosely compacted person, in some respects of higher rank than the person in an individual organism (CP 5.421).


This is passage has been the object of analysis in the pioneering work on Peirce’s notion of the semeiotic self (Wiley 2005: 51; Colapietro 1989 90 -91). At the risk of simplification, a view of the self is presented that is developmental and continuous. The self is both subject and object in the sense that past and emerging selves are in conversation with one another in what is potentially a two way-process – hence the implicit role of memory within anthroposemeiosis. Elsewhere, we are told that “All thinking is dialogic in form. Yourself of one instant appeals to our deeper self for his assent” (CP 6.338) and also that such a dialogue occurs between “different stages of the ego” (CP 4.6).


But the role of memory is implicitly present in many of his well-known passages that deal with the theme of inwardness in a fashion that contrasts with Cartesian intuition. Colapietro has emphasised the dramatic nature of the inner world “where imaginary dramas with potentially real consequences take place” (1989: 117). This would also imply that memory can be seen as something which is part of our sociality and is therefore as dramatic as the many forms of alterity that arise in our encounters with others. Elsewhere, Peirce even states that “memory supplies a knowledge of the past by a sort of brute force, a quite binary action, without any reasoning” (CP 2.86), which has led Brunson to remark that “the beginnings of memory in perception are indexical, rather than iconic; that is memory does not copy” (Brunson 2007: 78n47).  This would also suggest that memory contains something that is not that different from what elsewhere is called the “Outer Clash” associated with the recalcitrance and resistance of Secondness (EP1: 233). It also hints an account of memory which is not reducible to some form of copy or an instantiation of correspondence theory. Instead, memory is coloured by the categories of Peirce’s phenomenology – the qualitative immediacy of Firstness, the resistance and clash of Secondness, and the mediation of Thirdness. Arguably, such an account is marked by process and experimentation, whereby genuine inquiry takes experience seriously. Implicitly, this highlights memory as a something which is not purely private, and because it is accessible to others, it is also a part of the justification of our beliefs that necessarily takes place in our encounters with other inquirers.


Furthermore, as I have recently argued in more detail, experimentalism and anti-authoritarianism feature strongly in Peirce’s early anti-Cartesian essays (Tsang 2013: 41/73-74). Very briefly, we are warned of the dangers of taking other people’s testimony at face value (EP1: 20)  — as well as the twin dangers of both authoritarian regimes and our acquiescence with easily digestible aprioristic ideas (EP1: 117-119). As others have argued at length (Anderson 1997; Talisse 2007; Rauch 1993), Peirce’s arguments against arbitrary authority remain entirely relevant today.


This is especially true of the work of the Franco-Kampuchean filmmaker Rithy Panh. His entire oeuvre has been concerned with the aftermath of genocide and the recovery of selfhood through dialogue and memory work. [ii] That is to say, his account of dialogue presupposes a unique human capacity to distinguish truth from falsehood, so that no sections of society are excluded from dialogue and memory work — irrespective of however unpalatable their behaviour or ideology might be. As Panh himself has stated: “Victims need the perpetrators to make the memory from their side, to try to make the memory complete as possible” (Thrupkaew 2004 — also see Panh 2003: 87).


The urgency of Panh’s agonistic account of dialogue is very much a result of the violence of recent Kampuchean history, dominated by different forms of what Peirce originally called “the method of authority” (EP 1: 117). Kampuchea was a principle victim of America’s interference in South-East Asia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. 540,000 tons of American bombs brought about the deaths of over 150,000 people, resulting in the displacement of tens of thousands of ordinary Kampucheans that would also lead to the emergence of the Khmer Rouge. Furthermore, direct violence associated with dictatorial regimes was also succeeded by the economic violence of neo-liberalism. This figures strongly in The Land of the Wandering Souls (2003) and Paper Cannot Wrap Up the Embers (2007) which respectively describe the impact of global communication and sex tourism.


It should also be noted that Panh was directly affected by the calamitous events described in his work. He was only eleven years old when the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, and he lost all of his immediate family, including his uncle in the notorious S21 interrogation centre in Phnom Penh, before fleeing to France. This would also suggest that Panh’s position is that of the implicated participant rather than the neutral observer. Instead, Panh’s entire work can be seen as a constant attempt to link personal and collective memory. For instance, the personal is almost abstracted in his latest autobiographical film , the Missing Picture (2013) using clay figurines as stand ins for his personal memories, while public figures and places are personalised in Duch, The Master of the Forges of Hell  (2011) and S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003). The latter film is the principal object of my analysis, which, for the sake of brevity, I shall abbreviate to S21.


Panh’s films can also be seen as part of a larger project to restore and reconstruct the memory of the traumatised self in both collective and individual terms. In an interview with the French actress Juliette Binoche, Panh states the following:


The main problem of poor people is to do with identity: how to recover their identity, their memory, following colonisation and following genocide for Cambodia? No NGO can help with that. Everything has to happen at the collective level of consciousness. A people must have self-respect. If it acquires an identity, it can have a strong memory, a history, an education and it can strive to define its aims, to live as an integral whole (Baecque  2005).[iii]


This also hints at the fact that in Panh’s work, memory cannot be reduced to individual psychology or what has come to be known as subjectivity. Instead, memory work might be now reconceived as a part of a social dialogue that contributes to democratisation.


Initially however, I would also like to draw the reader’s attention to a particular incident at the end of an earlier film, which might inform how we interpret Panh’s account of semeiotic memory. In 1996 Panh made a film called Bophana a Cambodian Tragedy which was dedicated to the memory of a woman who died in the Tuol Sleng detention centre. It relied heavily on readings of the letters and testimonials of a woman who was murdered here. At this stage of Panh’s career, memory is initially presented within the parameters of individual subjectivity and is dependent on individual interviews and illustrative cutaways. Of particular interest to us is a later sequence in which two of the main characters from S21 make an appearance; Houy, an ex-guard, is confronted by Nath, the official prison painter and one of the handful of living survivors.


We know from Panh’s own account (2003: 48–49) that the meeting between Nath and Houy was not pre-planned. Panh had already shot some footage of Nath on his own painting and had sent him home in order to avoid an uncomfortable meeting between the two men. The idea was to continue using the same methodology he had used throughout this earlier film, interviewing single witnesses about their past experiences rather than filming interaction between different people. However, despite Panh’s efforts, Nath decided to come in on that day, initially staying in the background before approaching and greeting the torturer. The meeting between the two men was indeed almost amicable. Even when shown Nath’s paintings depicting torture, Houy presents himself as a benevolent person, who gave people chairs to sit on before they were taken away to be executed: “I did not cut their throats. I only hit five prisoners”. The words of the ex-guard are taken at face value, and the film ends somewhat inconclusively.


But it transposes that Houy’s involvement was much more intense than what he had conceded. In Panh’s own book about the making of the film, we are told the following:


For a long time Houy stated that he had not killed, and that his role was limited to noting down the names of prisoners and checking numbers just before the execution. Then he admitted having killed over 1000 people. […] I then understood that the actual number was not essential. I was now looking more at the process, what was going on in his head at the moment when the crime was carried out (Panh 2003: 207).[iv]


This suggests Panh’s account of memory is not solely concerned with the verification of individual acts committed by individuals but is primarily concerned with meaning in a way that reconnects individuals with their acts, their past and present lives, and the lifeworld of other semeiotic agents . This highlights that Panh’s interest in the agency of the self exceeds facile moralism or a desire for personal or collective vengeance. Panh has emphasised that he is interested in the feelings of the men as they undertook a series of mechanical actions on a regular basis, implying that he sees their emotions as an integral part of their reflexivity, which would have allowed them to understand the possible consequences of their behaviour. This also coincides with central concerns of semeiotic and pragmatism — to take the position of the other and place one’s self in other shoes, as it were. It is a feature of Peirce’s early anti-Cartesian work and his later transitional essay on semeiotic What is a Sign? (EP2:4-10 [1894]). Here, he describes conversation between an utterer and an interpreter, and he also refers to the importance of attentiveness to the “hearer’s experience” (EP 2: 7). This hints strongly at the importance of both personal and collective memory in our efforts to enter the experience of others, for Peirce specifically reminds us that imaginative projection involves making connections between the here and now of ordinary perception and daily conversation “with the previous experience of the hearer” (ibid.).[v]


The importance of taking the experience of others seriously has also featured strongly in recent Peircean scholarship on deliberative democracy. The political theorist, Robert Talisse, reminds us that “it is precisely our commitment to truth and reasons that makes disagreement matter. And this in turn means that questions, objections, and contestations of those with whom we disagree matter. Unless we are prepared to take disagreement seriously, we are failing to aim at truth” (Talisse 2009: 109 –also see Misak 2000: 124-136; Rauch 1993: 154). Strongly implied here is the idea that inquiry involves self-correction in the face of recalcitrant experience. This is arguably no less true for memory work as it is for our encounters with others. Both are coloured by the brute force of Secondness or what Daniel calls “an amplified moment of discordance” (Daniel 1996: 120). And as I shall attempt to demonstrate, both types of encounter – inter-subjective and intra-subjective — are inextricably and explicitly linked through the wider narrative form of the film and even within the specific formal tropes found within individual film compositions.


This can be seen in the use of reconstruction in the film, where the ex-guards were asked to repeat their actions so that both the physical and emotion environments of their past actions are re-presented rather than being merely “represented”[vi] in the distanced formal terms of either scientific positivism or the many variants of correspondence theory. Instead, representation once it is associated with memory, might be seen as a much more temporal and embodied process that is potentially limitless. That is to say, Panh’s highly experimental techniques demand that the ex-torturers become conscious of the consequences of their actions in ways which cannot be accounted for by language alone, and which is based upon a belief that their synthetic consciousness of feelings, actions, and thoughts is communicable as much to their own emergent selves as it is to the survivors of this particular detention centre and others who lived through the Khmer Rouge repression across the country.


It is also to be noted that more than half of the film features the guards on their own where the survivors Nath and Chhum Mey are conspicuously absent. Furthermore, four lengthy sequences involve real-time reconstructions of the torture techniques which were deployed by the guards when they were teenagers. This is also part of a tacit agreement between all parties to respect the position of others rather than reifying static positions. In the film we see several distinct types of infrasubjective and intrasubjective relationships. We see the survivors alone and amongst themselves, reflecting on their past selves in relation to the present and the emergent future. We also see the ex-guards social interaction amongst themselves in the present moment, as well as their reflections on their past selves in relation to the present. This is also what constantly informs the meeting of both opposed parties – which for obvious reasons is not necessarily a symmetrical relationship or an equal exchange of information. There are also different degrees of semiosis and habit change, meaning that memory work is not evenly achieved amongst all the protagonists of the film.


Panh’s notion of dialogue also involves recourse to all types of semeiotic sign in a fashion that exceeds glottocentrism. Speech (both direct and indirect), physical interaction with material objects, and the feelings and emotions of his protagonists are often present with the same sequence. This is what Panh describes as “bodily memory” (Oppenheimer 2013: 244), a world of gesture, body, and feeling that is now reconfigured as an integral part of our emerging sociality.


Nevertheless, it is with the use of anonymous black and white footage borrowed from the Khmer Rouge archive that the film begins. Images of a plump Pol Pot greeting his comrades are contrasted by printed titles that remind us of the bombing of Kampuchea on the part of America during the early 1970s, the evacuation of the city, the banning of religion, enforced labour, and the subsequent genocide and death of a fifth of Kampuchea’s population. These techniques set up the premises of much of the film — a form of memory work that is personalised but is still social in outreach because it rejects the enforcement of an ideologically based identity upon a heterogeneous population.


This would seem to be the case when degraded black and white images of peasantry working on one of the Khmer Rouge irrigation projects give way to images of a harvest set in the present day.  It would seem that this sequence might even be a gentle humanistic portrait of a rural economy on the way to gradual recovery. We are presented with idyllic images of people working in the rice fields; farming is no longer collectivised; a recently born child is being washed by a young mother who then hands the child to a contented father. In the background a smoking stove and clothes hanging from a washing line remind us that the days of forced collectivisation are long over. But it should also be noted that this farmer and father is none other than Houy, the ex-guard of the Tuol Sleng detention centre.


Regardless of whether we are acquainted or not with Houy’s on-screen appearance in Bophana: A Cambodian Tragedy, we are quickly informed of his status as a mass murderer. It is Houy’s elderly parents who now admonish him for his crimes, urging him “to become a new man as of today” and “to make an offering to the dead”. Nevertheless, Houy offers a rather depressing response to his parents’ demands that he should assume responsibility for his actions with the all too familiar cliché that he “was given orders”, he also mentions his constant headaches and heavy drinking.


Here, the sequence describes an individual who has to confront acts of violence which are no longer sanctioned by wider society. While Houy is not exonerated here or anywhere else in the film, his re-integration into society is portrayed as an extremely fraught and conflictual process whereby personal growth and agency may be delayed and deferred for long periods of time. This has also been the subject of much of Valentine’s anthropological work on traumatic memory. In his study of genocide in Sri Lanka, Valentine reminds us that “semeiosis in general, but anthroposemeiosis in particular, does not always unfold or evolve smoothly” so that “ the continued presence of violence in their lives, an indication that the foaming eddying presence of the past has yet to be fully delivered from the present into the flow of the future” (1996: 126-127).  Valentine’s observations serve as a fitting description for both the inner lives and much of the barely disguised antagonism which characterises the relationships between ex-torturer and victim. Importantly, this does not negate the agency of individuals, but it acknowledges the “unevening” of time, whereby the continuity of past, present, and future is experienced with different degrees of resolution and integration.


These contradictions can be seen in the way the camera positions the main protagonist in relation to other human figures. In formal compositional terms, we might note the highly precise framing used by Panh, where the son and mother are filmed obliquely, so that strong diagonal lines dominate the frame. This forefronts Houy’s expressions as he listens to his mother, who is smaller in scale within the frame. Equally, important here is the fact that Panh’s camera avoids direct frontality in a way that, as I shall demonstrate, contrasts strongly with the flat dimensionless and anonymous nature of official Khmer Rouge photography. Here, the positioning of the camera in the midst of a conversation about the meaning of past events, links individual psychology with wider social history. At the same time, intersubjectivity is characterised by dissymmetry as much as Houy’s intrasubjectivity is “uneven” and unresolved for the time being.


It is only after this that we are introduced to one of the few living survivors of the detention centre, Vann Nath. Nath is introduced on his own, and is shown painting a canvas representing the internment of prisoners. The sequence is shot in close up, so that the brush strokes are an extension of Nath’s personality, and the subject of the painting itself is autobiographical, portraying details of Nath’s own arrest and detention. The sequence embodies a coordination between camera and sound which is only possible because the crew are Kampuchean rather than the French crew that was employed in Bothana; A Cambodian Tragedy. The camera pans and zooms ever so slightly in response to both the tonalities and content of Nath’s softly spoken words. This can be seen as result of what Peirce originally called the quaesitum of the sign (EP2: 404), without which there can be no utterer or interpretant. It is the equivalent of an unspoken intercorporeal cultural history, which allows individual sign users to imaginatively enter the lives of others as part of an open-ended semiosic process (MacDougall 1998: 245-274 — also see Merrell 2003: 120-164;). Such a process inevitably involves both solidarity and opposition.


This can initially be seen in a more personalised face-to-face context when Nath comforts one of the very few other living survivors — Chhum Mey, who expresses guilt at having survived. The latter is overcome by grief at the sight of the building where he was tortured, and he bursts into tears. The two men enter the building and begin to look calmly through the horrific details of the archives. It is by a gradual accretion of detail that we become aware of the kind of actions Houy and others were directly involved in. Formally, we are also increasingly struck by the contrast between the static nature of the official archive photography and Panh’s fluid intimate cinematography. The former is mechanical, frontal and divorced of context while the latter is coloured by the presence of the person behind the camera as it follows bodies moving and responding both to other people and the surrounding geographical and architectural space. It is a film which avoids the direct frontality of archive prison photography. Instead, the orthogonals of the architectural space are brought into play so that vanishing points are located off-screen, almost as if to suggest a multiplicity of distinct but emerging temporal perspectives within embodied semeiosis. Such perspectives can only be seen as immersive and inter-penetrative because of the absence of an Archimedean point outside human inquiry, which would otherwise allow complete mastery over reality and an exact correspondence between image and reality.[vii]


Yet the formal representation of the film is entirely self-conscious. Much of its framing is rooted within motifs from art history, making the film an instantiation of metasemiosis, whereby the sign user is aware of the sign’ status as sign qua sign (Valentine 1996: 121; Deeley 2002: 68-109). This is very much evident in an important sequence which describes different types of visual representation. Here, Nath recounts details about his former employer Duch, the ex-head of the centre. Initially, Nath has his back to us when he is in front of his own small canvas, yet both painter and painting are dominated by a huge canvas depicting violence and destruction. We also see in the bottom left hand quarter of the frame a reproduction of a rare photo of Duch staring out at us. When Panh cuts to a close up of Nath working, the photo of Duch has been turned slightly so that we obtain a better view of him. The subject matter of Nath’s painting is then revealed—a portrait of Pol Pot, based on a reproduction of a black and white photograph which is resting on Nath’s lap. The camera moves between Nath the speaking subject, the photograph and the painted details of the portrait (fig. 1; fig. 2). These shifts between various types of representation can be seen as emblematic of the entire film, much of which consists of frames within frames in the context of a moving body. It is as if to suggest that memory and representation are coterminous, once we see representation not in the highly limited semiological terms of signifier and signified, but as something that is always embodied and temporally orientated yet non-foundational in nature. At first blush, Panh’s constant use of visual mise-en-abîme might suggest that memory is an endless series of regression into a bottomless past, but the images and words of the sequences themselves are always related to living persons and point forward and outside the frame toward a continually evolving historical lifeword.[viii]


Panh’s stylistic integration of self-consciousness and historicity can be further understood by contrasting his use of mise-en abîme with Foucault’s famous analysis of Velasquez’ canonical painting, Las Meninas. The French philosopher daringly proposed a new form of representation that, from a Peircean perspective, omits both the sign user and the object. Instead, we are told that “the profound invisibility of what one sees is invisible from the invisibility of the person seeing—despite all mirrors, reflections, imitations and portraits” (Foucault [1970] 1991: 16). Foucault thus concluded: “And representation, freed finally from the relation that was impeding it, can offer itself as representation in its pure form” (Foucault 1991: 16). But Panh’s account avoids the almost platonic formalism of the French philosopher; Instead, representation is continuous and unbound by limits, consisting of historically located acts of pragmatic knowledge, memory, and subsequent experimental clarification — which, though not immediately transparent to the individual, are intrinsically linked to the emergence of self-control and self-awareness. Paintings and photographs, which we see here and throughout the film, direct us in gradual incremental measures towards the lives of individuals within the frame and the creators of different types of material sign as much as to the wider lifeworld beyond the filmic frame.


Nevertheless, this particular sequence also reminds us of the uneven nature of dialogues between different cultures and their distinct cultural memories. Originally described by Peirce as anancastic development (EP2: 367-368), where the clash and brute reaction of Secondness was dominant, a contemporary instantiation can be seen in the anecdotes told by Nath about how his work was overseen by the ex-director of the centre – Duch. We learn that, despite his ruthlessness and cruelty in the interrogation centre, Duch was actually an educated man who read about Van Gogh and Picasso in his youth. Nath only survived because his own painting style was free from any signs of decadent modernism: his ignorance of foreign artists may have saved his life. The anecdote is also a reminder of the fact that despite the Khmer Rouge’s extreme xenophobia most of its leaders and officials had either studied abroad or had been considerably more exposed to foreign ideas than the rest of Kampuchea’s largely agrarian population, yet longstanding cultural resentment vis-à-vis the demise of the country’s civilization and empire would also fuel their murderous ultra-nationalism.


Both victim and accomplice are re-united in sequences which become increasingly more distressing. Initially, we are witness to a sentimental reunion between the ex-guards and the prison photographer Nhiem Ein. All are happy to see one another, greeting one another with warm smiles. After pleasantries have been exchanged between the ex-guards, it is Nath who now confronts them, in a way which is contrasts sharply with the bizarre pleasantries exchanged at the end of Bophana: a Cambodian Tragedy five years previously. Nath neither smiles nor attempts to be cordial. Rather than simply requiring confirmation that murderous acts took take place, he now attempts to clarify the motives of the guards, as to how and why they were capable of such acts, and the nature of the relationship between their feelings, actions and thoughts. At this stage no real progress is made and the ex-guards reverse the status of aggressor and victim. Houy likens the situation of him and his colleagues to that of “people who’ve had an accident”, while the photographer Ein makes a distinction between primary and secondary victims, whereby the staff not the prisoners belonged to the first category, “because here if you didn’t obey you were dead for sure”.[ix]


A series of confrontations begins when Nath confronts the group of ex-guards, using his paintings as testament to past acts of barbarity.[x] The camera focuses on the two major culprits Houy and Khân, who are accused by Nath of having relinquished human responsibility. Their responses are exactly what would be expected, telling us that Angkar, the central authority, made no mistakes and that young and old were enemies.


Re-enactment now becomes a major feature of this film, as we witness the guards re-enacting actions that they performed some thirty-two years previously. Furthermore, because these events cannot be distanced from the continuing trauma of the present moment, Panh’s reconstruction is something more than an externalist reproduction of a historical text where authors and filmmakers simply replicate what is already known and self-contained. Instead, it can be seen as an attempt to reconstitute an inner dialogue – which tragically did not take place amongst individuals who then tortured and murdered – in order to provide the possibilities of further social dialogue in a wider national context. Panh also explained his working methods in the following terms:

I work on the chronology of gesture. The daily gestures of crime are brought back to their original territory. Taking back the executioners to the place where they worked forces them to get back to reality and allows them to open up a bit of their memory which is often hidden under a blanket defence that they were following orders under threat of death (Panh 2003: 87).


This is seen in formal terms in the use of long interrupted takes, where the integrity of time and space is not interrupted Apart from the discreet use of composed music in two short sequences and the appropriation of Khmer Rouge songs and speeches in sequences which follow the guard’s reconstruction of their former routine, the film’s soundtrack is dominated entirely by diegetic sound. It is also a methodology which is different from the use of repetition within fiction film. Indeed, Panh has repeatedly distinguished his work as being characterised by “mise en situation”, as opposed to the more proto-typical types of “mise en scène” found across fiction films. Panh’s more improvised and experimental approach involved close interaction with the protagonists over a three year period inside and outside the confines of the detention centre and the use of multiple takes. He also states that “[i]n documentary, a second take is also a unique take. You have to have a progression in each take. When there’s no further progression, you stop” (Oppenheimer 2013: 248). This further confirms that Panh’s account of memory work is self-correcting yet highly imaginative because of its willingness to retrace the processes of behaviour of individuals whose outlook on the world is radically different from what might be seen as acceptable.


The physical space of the detention centre is initially explored when Houy is shown inspecting the prisoners’ cells in the company of another guard. This then shifts to an emphasis on material objects such as the writing desk used for recording details of the prisoners’ behaviour. A chair which was used for interrogating and torturing individual prisoners is carried into the main hall. Photographs and documents are held in the hands of the guards, as they review both individual cases, and recite the various methods of physical coercion and torture which were used to extract “information”.


It should be noted that as viewers we are aware of the artificiality of these sequences as there is no attempt on the part of Panh to mimic the use of reconstruction in more journalistic types of filmmaking. We are always aware that Panh’s “mise en situation” is a form of re-enactment that is set very much in the present day. It is here that I would like to reiterate some of the distinctions that have been made within Peircean scholarship between a thing and a semeiotic object, whereby the former is simply something that is perceived by all animates within an environment and the latter is imbued with meaning and relationships that are continually renewed within the human lebenswelt. Daniel refers to an awareness of “the relation of signification” (Valentine 1996: 122) which is premised upon a species-specific ability to “compare within experience mind-dependent and mind-independent aspects of the objective world” (Deely 2002: 109). Such distinctions also form part of emergent self-control which allows memory, as a re-enactment of the past, to eventually contribute to some form of habit change.


It is here as well that we can draw connections between the Peirce’s earlier description of the method of authority and his later work on internal anancasm. The former was inevitably associated with state enforced “cruelty” and a “general massacre” (EP 1: 117); it is only made possible through the active complicity of individuals. In S21 authentic personal growth, which Peirce also described as agapasm, has been stunted because of the ex-guards’ previous adherence to fixed ideological ends or what the philosopher called a “predestined line” (EP 2:368). In turn, the frustration of genuine personal growth leads to acts of violence against other individuals, or as Alexander Laban Hinton reminds us “killing tends to become easier when perpetrators are densensitivized to violence, internalize violent ideologies, dehumanize their victims, undergo moral restructuring so that violence becomes morally justified (Hinton 2005: 236).


This can be seen when one of the youngest of the guards called Poeuv is seen shouting and abusing imaginary prisoners. We are shocked by the ease with which he is capable of “getting back into role” after a thirty-year absence. The mature young man is visibly extremely angry as he accuses an imaginary prisoner of using his shirt to attempt suicide. Decades after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge, it is as if Pouev is not only unrepentant but remains personally offended by the existence of people he has been taught to despise. It is here as well that Panh emphasises that the memory work does not seek to obliterate opposing perspectives. Even though a projection into the world of others presumes a shared common ground, this still allows for disagreement without which the self would simply be subsumed by the other. It is for these reasons that Panh also notes that he did not follow Pouev into the cells because of respect for the victims who the ex-guard still despises:


So it was instinctive to stop, to hold the camera at the door, not to follow in. Otherwise we’d be walking over the prisoners, if you like. And would knock over into the side of the guards. This is something that I realised after shooting. I instinctively didn’t walk over the prisoners. If I had done, ‘who would I be?’(Oppenheimer 2013: 245)


It would now seem that specific ends demanded by “external sources” have become “internalised” to the extent that Pouev and others remain largely oblivious to the interventions of Nath and Rithy Panh  and old habits have become petrified despite the memory work which is enacted by all parties (also see Valentine 1996: 131; Merrell 1995:110-113).[xi]


This is all the more evident when the ex-guards speak about their former selves from the perspective of the present. After we are shown Poeuv re-enacting acts of abuse, we find out a little more about how he first joined the Khmer Rouge. The camera pans from a reproduction of a photograph of him as a teenager to the present-day Pouev, who recalls how he and other children were part of a wider institutionalised process of indoctrination. A similar juxtaposition of national political turmoil and an interiorisation (and transformation) of widely felt anger is described in a sequence where all the ex-guards are seated together. Here, they provide an account of the process by which they became loyal adherents to the Khmer Rouge and were transformed into murderers. Houy and another guard recite from their own personal biographies which they were obliged to write as a way of proving their loyalty to the authorities. The American blanket bombing is mentioned as a major factor in their joining the Khmer Rouge, and it would seem that the anger across the country during the 1970s was genuinely heart-felt and largely justified.


However, it is from this point on that we witness reconstructions of increasingly violent acts towards vulnerable human beings. Houy and Khân both recount an incident in which a prisoner was “taken to be destroyed” after unsuccessfully trying to kill himself. We are also told about the use of enforced blood transfusions that culminated in the torture of women and the forced removal of children through what was euphemistically called “arrest by kinship”. Khân also recounts his attraction for a young woman prisoner called Nay Nân and his physical abuse of her : “At the time in S21, there was no female staff. We were all boys between the ages of 13 and 14 and 22 or 23. I was furious not to be able to make love to her or touch her. It got me on edge I was full of hatred and I beat the enemy”. Despite the horrors of what is being recounted, the sequence can also be seen as evidence of a semeiotic agent finally acknowledging the suasion of a whole range of signs that are as much somatic and emotive as they are cognitive and linguistic. Even if Khân remains unable to account for how such instincts might be accommodated within a more authentic and less alienated mode of living, the sequence serves as a reminder of the existence of desires and instincts that were suppressed by the Khmer Rouge and which have been revived through memory work.


Nevertheless, the film is also marked by Nath’s continued dismay at finding few if any signs of remorse in either Khân or Houy. Nevertheless, these sequences of dialogue and memory work amongst both the ex-guards and Nath as well as between the guards themselves is contrasted by a sequence that starkly reminds us of the anonymity and mechanical nature of the Khmer Rouge archive and the ideology behind it. The camera now tracks along row upon row of black and white photographs of the faces of the dead victims of genocide. Using both track and zoom, it is finally the face of Bophana, the subject of Panh’s earlier film that is now revealed.


This highlights two things; firstly, that in contrast to the murderous ideological fanaticism of the past, some sort of social dialogue is taking place even if it is open-ended and many vast moral issues remain unresolved; secondly, it also demonstrates that Panh’s position is that of a committed and implicated semeiotic agent because the film maintains a moral distance from the justifications of the ex-guards. Because this is a view of dialogue and memory work that is processual without recourse to omniscient experts or third parties, such an account does not seek consensus between the opposing parties. Here, all individuals are constantly called to revise previously held beliefs in their encounters with other communicative agents.


The justifications of the guards are followed by an extremely horrific sequence, where they re-enact actual executions at Choeung Ek, the burial ground outside the main interrogation centre. The sequence can be seen as a revision of the slightly opaque sequence at the end of Panh’s earlier piece Bophana: a Cambodian Tragedy, but now Houy is in the company of two accomplices, whose individual faces are illuminated amidst the darkness of the night. We are reminded that Houy’s role in the executions was much more substantial than that of van driver and submissive clerk.


But Panh’s film does not end with a call for punishment or vengeance. The former would invoke the presence of a supposedly invisible third party, while the latter would reduce memory to a form of narrow psychologism. Nevertheless, the last images of the film signal where our sympathies finally lie and confirm whom this film is ultimately for. Panh’s camera cuts away from the dark pit in which the guards originally dumped the corpses of countless victims. A close-up image of Nath combing the debris of the interior of the building is held for over a minute. Suddenly, the elderly man discovers the button of a former victim in a way that was quite unexpected. A moment of revelation and light is then succeeded by an image of dust blowing in the empty building. The last title of the film ends with the words “In memory…”.


Therefore, these images and words suggest a link between inquiry and memory in a way that highlights the autonomy of the individual without neglecting the notion of a community without limits (EP1: 52). It is not a single person that the film is dedicated to but rather a wider form of memory work that exceeds the subjectivity of the individual. Nevertheless, it bears repeating that such an account is not articulated from a supposedly neutral standpoint outside human inquiry. By ending the film with an image of Nath, we are reminded of the countless Kampucheans who did not cross the threshold and become murderers despite their subjection to full-scale oppression at home and widespread indifference abroad. In this context, Peirce’s later work remains somewhat trenchant. In an essay, where he attempted to criticise forms of morality which are foundational and are imposed from the outside,[xii] Peirce also acknowledged the following: “[w]hat most influences men to self-government is intense disgust with one kind of life and warm admiration for another. Careful observation of men will show this; and those who desire to further the practice of self-government ought to shape teachings accordingly” (EP 2: 460).


This serves to hint that the film ultimately reminds us that arbitrary authority, regardless of how violent it is, is neither super-human nor invincible. This is made possible by the memory work of both perpetrators and victims whereby the unspeakable is re-enacted by individuals as a form of daily routine involving words, body, and feeling. Once the unspeakable and the unmentionable are embodied through the presence of people who we may find abject and unforgivable, a demystifying process is set in action. Such a process, painful though it may be for all involved, is a small but important step in making the reconstruction of a wider Kampuchean sense of agency an actual possibility.




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[i] Also see Short (2007: 56-59).

[ii] I am using the term “memory work”, taking more from Talisse’s notion of the need to justify our beliefs through “epistemic labor” (2009: 124-125) rather than Haug’s work (1992) on female sexuality. The issue of how a Peircean semeiotic account might help resolve some of the continuing tensions within memory studies lies beyond the scope of this article.

[iii] This is an interview between Binoche and Panh transcribed by the journalist Antoine de Baecque for the French newspaper Libération. The English translation is mine.

[iv] All translations from Panh’s book are mine.

[v] For a more detailed account of this essay, see Tsang (2013: 27-40).

[vi] Also see Cobley (2001: 225-226).

[vii] Panh’s methodology also runs in parallel with recent developments in visual anthropology which has taken much from both phenomenology and pragmatism.  Grimshaw and Ravetz, taking after the work of John Dewey, remind us that knowledge “is constituted as experience” (2009: 129 – also see Tsang 2013).

[viii] See Daniel (1996: 189) for a further account of semiosis as a form of historicity which does not obliterate individual persons.

[ix] See Panh (2003: 79–80) and Dunlop (2005: 152–170) for a further account of Ein’s self-justification.

[x] It should also be noted that we actually catch a glimpse of a Nath as a young prisoner, when the guards are flicking through old photographs.

[xi] There is not the space here to describe the technical aspects of sign degeneracy. I have attempted a brief explanation in my recent work (Tsang 2013: 22-27) which is strongly indebted to the pioneering work of Merrell (1995/2003).

[xii] Also see Misak (2000: 114-115).