The first images of the blasted cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as with those of the camps of the Third Reich, had to be extracted from a campaign of military erasure. The American Occupation Force (AOF) in Japan controlled all images of the horrors, designating them military secrets. Censorship left only the spectacle of the mushroom cloud to fill the ocular void, and its awesome sight played in the world's media with a manic round of repetition-compulsion-a pathology familiar to us at least since Challenger or Zapruder. The cloud then became an icon standing in for the awful truth on the ground. The military's double strategy of erasure and replacement drew the battle-lines for a longer struggle over how and on what terms we remember the bombings.
This is the frame narrative for Toronto artist Kyo Maclear's Beclouded Visions: Hiroshima-Nagasaki and the Art of Witness (SUNY, 213 pages, US $19.95 paper, ISBN: 0-791440060), a book composed of prose pulses drafted in a plurivocality of styles-now literary journalism, now theoretical explication, now political oratory. In the course of the book-an engaging and ambitious work whose prose at times is stretched to capacity-we tour an archipelago of memorial artworks, stations of trauma from Hiroshima, Auschwitz, AIDS, Chile. and follow Maclear's interrogative imperative: "How will we come to understand that which links the injustices of history to the gesture of art?"
The American Occupation of Japan created a visual black hole: the AOF sent the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission to do a top-secret photographic survey of casualties, permitted a Japanese film crew to shoot a documentary called Effects of the Atomic Bomb and then seized the results (the crew hid a copy and released it after the American withdrawal), and used a press code to control every representation of conditions in the bombed-out cities. This empty frame was the context for the dissemination of the official version. For Maclear, the nation-girding, televisual American epics that filled it up are an unearthly genre, a recombinant hybrid of military-scientific apparatus with the objective stylings of documentary film-making, the two sharing a common semiotic code and ideological limit. This "technocratic vision" is incapable of addressing mass trauma without reducing it to allegorical triviality: Victims Redeemed in Peaceful Order. "What eye," she asks, "but that of a machine, a camera, could safely gaze upon this calamitous spectacle with such calm tranquility?"
In response to this totalizing failure, Beclouded Visions is an exhortation, a call to ethical life, to resistance in the form of counter-memories. Maclear ties an Enlightenment project-"a constant widening of what can be perceived and known"-to a "utopian" politics devoted to "our capacity to imagine what cannot yet be." The memorials analyzed in this book serve this project by resisting narrative and social closure; they are partial, incapable, fragile, abstract, fictional, difficult, stylistically excessive, impermanent, indecipherable, unimportant, invisible, strange, and otherwise marginal. They are ghosts, says Maclear, citing Derrida. These spectres, the uneasy dead, haunt us: they lay claim to our conscience and call us to an ethical community founded on absence, "a space where contradictions can be maintained without a hastened rush for conclusions or harmony." Maclear's book calls on its readers to "guard otherness", to attend to the constitutive fissures of the contemporary world.