Atomic Light (Shadow Optics) (review)
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Reviewed by
Akira Mizuta Lippit, Atomic Light (Shadow Optics). Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005. x+193pp. US$20.00 (pbk).

I read in the news the other day about a mortuary tablet someone left behind on a train in Tokyo. And though the tablet should have been very important for the bereaved family, no one showed up to get it back. Amazingly, this is not a rare occurrence; lately a number of mortuary tablets have been left behind on trains in Japan. This goes beyond individual cases; it is a postmodern cultural structure producing an increasing number of lost mortuary tablets. In [End Page 129] the same way that the donation of bodies for medical purposes helped develop the science of anatomy and the practice of autopsies, it is plausible that the more systematic funerals get, the less attached the bereaved families feel to their loved ones. What David Prill described in his black-humour funeral novel, The Unnatural (1994), clearly predicted what is going on right now. At this point, we might recall Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963–1964), which clarifies the process whereby the fascist imperative came to deprive people of moral panic and instead endowed them with a kind of industrial logic they had only to follow as part of a huge Ferris wheel of history. As Arendt's first husband, Gunther Anderson, pointed out in We Sons of Eichmann: Open Letter to Klaus Eichmann (1964), we are all Eichmann's children living the banality of evil that was embodied in Nazi body politics and later naturalised in global capitalism. Today's astonishingly well organised system of morticians seems to advance the art of forgetting death rather than the ritual of memento mori.

I begin with these recent observations about the death industry because this post-Eichmann logic applies perfectly to Akira Mizuta Lippit's insightful book Atomic Light (Shadow Optics), which traces the paradoxical way visual technology came to express the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and transfigure the impact into the tropes of invisibility or transparency. Of course, readers unfamiliar with modern Japanese culture and literature might be puzzled by the author's initial analogy between the atomic bombings in 1945 and Lafcadio Hearn's legendary horror story 'Hōichi the Earless', originally published in 1904, the year of Hearn's death, and incorporated into Kwaidan (Kobayashi Japan 1964). Nonetheless, this analogy makes sense given Lippit's critical interests. He is interested in the historical moments that fall between two worlds, two universes, or more precisely, between two separate orders of things like life and death, visibility and invisibility, and even exteriority and interiority. 'Hōichi the Earless' is the story of a blind monk and biwa lute player who is transformed into an invisible man with a thousand prayers inscribed on the whole surface of his body, prayers which protect him from assault by the ghosts of the ancient Heike clan who are attracted by his playing. These are the dead warriors, courtiers and children who perished in the 1185 Battle of Dan no ura, a critical historical moment in which the Heike, including the child emperor Antoku, were annihilated at the hands of their enemy, the Genji clan. Lippit proposes that just in the way Hoichi hovers between 'visibility and invisibility, outside and inside, life and death' (4), the destruction of the visual order by atomic light and force in 1945 has haunted Japanese visual culture, suspending the Japanese between two worlds. I find this assumption very convincing, [End Page 130] for while the United States continues to condemn the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and cast the atomic bomb as a kind of peaceful super-weapon that brought an end to the Second World War, Japan has suffered in many ways from radiation effects the Americans knew little about during the war. This is not just the difference between two ways of thinking but between two worlds, or in Lippit's terms two orders of things – a gap that may be impossible to conquer. This difference is supported by the Smithsonian Institution's opportunistic erasure of their 1995...