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  • Born of Trauma:Akira and Capitalist Modes of Destruction
  • Thomas Lamarre (bio)

Images of atomic destruction and nuclear apocalypse abound in popular culture, familiar mushroom clouds that leave in their wake the wholesale destruction of cities, towns, and lands. Mass culture seems to thrive on repeating the threat of world annihilation, and the scope of destruction seems continually to escalate: planets, even solar systems, disintegrate in the blink of an eye; entire populations vanish.

We confront in such images a compulsion to repeat what terrifies us, but repetition of the terror of world annihilation also numbs us to it, and larger doses of destruction become necessary: increases in magnitude and intensity, in the scale and the quality of destruction and its imaging. Ultimately, the repetition and escalation promise to inure us to mass destruction, producing a desire to get ever closer to it and at the same time making anything less [End Page 131] than mass destruction feel a relief, a "victory." Images of global annihilation imply a mixture of habituation, fascination, and addiction.

Trauma, and in particular psychoanalytic questions about traumatic repetition, provides a way to grapple with these different dimensions of our engagement with images of large-scale destruction. Dominick LaCapra, for instance, returns to Freud's discussion of "working-through" (mourning) and "acting out" (melancholia) to think about different ways of repeating trauma. "In acting-out," he writes, "one has a mimetic relation to the past which is regenerated or relived as if it were fully present rather than represented in memory and inscription."1 In other words, we repeat the traumatic event without any sense of historical or critical distance from it, precisely because the event remains incomprehensible.

In this conceptualization, the repetitious escalation of violence in the imaging of nuclear destruction entails an acting out of our historically traumatic relation to weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), and especially the atomic bomb. We face today a proliferation of scenarios that replay our fascination with WMDs in the lineage of the bomb—starships blasting planetary systems out of existence, battles for survival in postapocalyptic worlds. But do these scenarios allow us any critical or historical distance from the trauma of nuclear destruction (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and nuclear escalation (the nuclear testing and arms race of the Cold War)? We must ask if this apparent acting out of trauma affords any possibilities for working through it. This question remains urgent. With many nuclear weapons still poised for launch and with a gradual breakdown of responsibility in chains of command, nuclear holocaust is as much and maybe more of a danger today than ever before.

In Otomo Katsuhiro's manga and anime versions of Akira, I find possibilities for a historically grounded engagement with this trauma. There is, in Akira, a contrast between two modes of repetition of the trauma of the atomic bomb: a constitutive mode and a generative mode. Constitutive repetition is associated with national identity, the developmental state, and industrial society, while generative trauma is associated with the global city and empire, information society, and disaster capital. Yet Akira does not merely contrast these two modes; it imagines a historical passage from one [End Page 132] to the other, in their close association with historical modes of production and destruction and with socioeconomic configurations of war and capital.

The distinction between constitutive repetition and generative repetition differs from that which LaCapra draws between acting out (melancholia) and working through (mourning). Although mourning, unlike melancholia, "involves introjection through a relation to the past that recognizes its difference from the present," acting out and working through are "intimately linked but distinguishable processes."2 In fact, acting out may create the conditions under which working through a past trauma becomes possible. Similarly, in Akira, constitutive repetition creates the conditions for generative repetition. Yet the passage is not like that from melancholia to mourning. Akira does not propose a working through, or mourning, of Japan's history of nuclear trauma. Instead it takes the intensification of acting out of nuclear destruction as the basic condition for the passage into a new era and a new world, a world that eerily anticipates and speaks directly to current configurations of war and...