A Sense of Place

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I have been reading James Tyner’s book, The Killing of Cambodia: Geography, Genocide and the Unmasking of Space.

It is well established that in defining Year Zero, the Khmer Rouge wanting to arbitrarily re-start the Cambodian clock, with no reference to history or the outside world. This was done as foundation context for the necessary revolution.

The KR enrolled time in the revolutionary cause.

Tyner discusses the meaning of ‘revolution’.

‘The word revolution has two dominant meanings. On the one hand, revolution (or political revolution) refers to any and all instances in which a state or political regime is overthrown and thereby transformed by a popular movement.

According to this usage, Cambodia reveals a series of revolutions. The Khmer Issaraks, the Viet Minh-trained Khmer resistance groups, as well as the Paris-educated Khmer Rouge all initiated revolutions. Targets were variously identifiedas the French colonial authorities, the monarchy (as embodied by Sihanouk), the Lon Nol/ Sirik Matak government, and the United States. The formation of a unified revolutionary movement in Cambodia, however, was always precarious. Although a common interest revolved around a basic desire to rid the country of French dominance (an anti-colonial movement), revolutionaries were always divided in terms of ideological approach. The Communist movement, for example, did not initially attract much popular support.

It was not until the devastation wrought by the American bombing and the removal of Sihanouk by Lon Nol that people rallied in large numbers to the Khmer Rouge. This is a point that bears emphasis because the Khmer Rouge never felt that they represented the interests of the population. And in fact they never did‘. (Tyner, 2008: 87)

On the other hand, on the second meaning of revolution:

The communist revolution engineered by the Khmer Rouge was neither a populist uprising nor a spontaneous grass-roots movement … Rather the ascension of Saloth Sar and is colleagues represents an elitist movement that coopted the grievances of the masses‘. (Tyner, 2008: 88)

The revolution was not an internal, spontaneous affair – but rather it was a totally manufactured one.

Tyner adds to the ‘time‘ context by taking a unique view of the Khmer Rouge Genocide from the point of view of ‘space‘.

He notes how the KR redefined place to both disorient the population and create a basis for the new order of Democratic Kampuchea. They eliminated existing provincial names, and used compass orientation to divide the country for administrative purposes.

Thus, the Khmer Rouge also enrolled space into their revolutionary cause.

And the population lost all sense of time and place.

Khmer Rouge: 1977-1979. Division of the Country, Democratic Kampuchea. Yale University.

Tyner’s book does one of the best jobs that I have come across of analysing the historical context for the Genocide, in very detailed and referenced political, social and cultural terms. It is a reference work in its own right.

However, the reason for this post is because he uses the ground-breaking analysis of place vs. placelessness from Edward Relph.

Relph developed a seven-fold typology in an attempt to flesh out the various experiences of being an insider or outsider. This typology has implications for anyone exploring photography with any kind of geographic context – in other words, most of us.

Tyner summarises Relph’s work succinctly, and I reproduce his comments here.

‘First there is “existential outsideness” in which all places assume the same meaningless identify and are distinguishable only by their superficial qualities. According to Relph, this is the position that fascinates poets and novelists, who often are intrigued by a “sense of unreality of the world, and of not belonging.”

A second relationship entails “objective outsideness” in which all places are viewed scientifically and passively. Objective outsiderness involves a deep separation of person and place, and has a long tradition in academic geography as well as that of military planning and politics. Such a position reduces places either to the single dimension of location or to a space of located objects and activities.

Incidental outsideness” constitutes a third relationship between experience and place. Here, places are experienced little more than backgrounds for activities and thus, the experience of place is even detached than that of objective outsiderness. Relph provides the example of business persons going from city to city merely to attend conferences and meetings. Place is secondary to the activities at hand; indeed, the identity of the place is little more than a background for the conduct of other functions.”

A fourth relationship is that of “vicarious insideness” in which places experienced in second hand way. Relph explains that through paintings or poetry we “enter” into other worlds and other places. Often feelings towards these places are most pronounced when the depiction of specific place corresponds with experiences of familiar places.

Fifth, “behaviourist insidedness” involves the deliberate attendance to the appearance of a place. Here one perceives and conceives of a place as a set of objects, views, and activities.

Sixth, “empathetic insidedness” occurs when one understands a place to be rich in meaning. Such a position demands a willingness to be open to the significance of a place, to know and respect its symbols.

Lastly, according to Relph, “existential insideness” constitutes the most fundamental and “intense”. Experiencing a place as an existential insider, one experiences place without deliberate conscious reflection, yet all the while knowing that the place is full of significance’. (Tyner, 2008: 142)

In Tyner’s view, the Khmer Rouge leadership were objective outsiders, and were not at all insiders or empathetic. Their geographic regions were deliberately designed to destroy previous sense of place and country. And the 4 year plan was totally unrealistic – it was a detailed, all-encompassing list of targets for the population to achieve, without strategies or executional detail. When things started to fail, instead of changing the plan, the Khmer Rouge turned on their own people as failing to support the revolution. The regime started to consume itself.

Geography was remapped without reference to history, obliterating everything the population knew of everyday landscape and experience, in an effort to force revolution and concentrate all energies on the needs of the Organisation (Angkar).

‘The map was devoid of humanity, with no meanings’. (Tyner, 2008: 143)

This elimination of place and sense of belonging was a fundamental and deliberate Khmer Rouge strategy. The same thinking was behind the use of standardised clothing, common living facilities, separation of families, communal meals – and even rules on sex.

I have alluded elsewhere to the apparently timeless nature of some of my aftermath photographs.

Relph adds to this the idea of placelessness, which in some of my traces work I have also implied, though not consistently.

However, in both cases I was more focused on photographic execution than on the philosophical and strategic context.

I will explore these ideas of time and space further for the BRLSI installation.

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Header: Mick Yates. 2019. Home.

GENOCIDE STUDIES PROGRAM, Yale University. Undated. Maps of Cambodia. Available at: https://gsp.yale.edu/related-websites/cambodian-genocide?page=5 (accessed 10/07/2019).

RELPH, Edward. 1976. Place and Placelessness. 2008 Edition. London: Sage.

TYNER, James A. 2008. The Killing of Cambodia: Geography, Genocide and the Unmasking of Space. Abingdon: Routledge.