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Imaging Disaster: Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japan’s Great Earthquake of 1923
Imaging Disaster: Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japan’s Great Earthquake of 1923
Gennifer Weisenfeld
University of California Press, 2012
400 pp., $65.00

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Makoto Fujimura


Learning How to See

Japan's response to disaster.

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A passage from Weisenfeld's chapter "Disasters as Spectacles" suggests the outlines of her approach:

The mass media produced a frame of reference for the public imagination of disaster. Artists adorned that frame. … Modernity was itself an ongoing spectacle of new technology, from the weapons of war to the burgeoning metropolis, which, together with the dynamo of capitalism, produced its own kind of "creative destruction."

Even in this short paragraph, her words are pregnant with meaning, and invite visual discourse. She is creating a matrix of visual evidence—historically and culturally specific responses to a particular disaster—but she is also reweaving the fragmented elements of our common journey, from media, art, technology, and weapons to the Wasteland of the city. Her book is full of such coalescing, forcing the reader to rediscover history with vigor and energy.

Great historians like Peter Brown and Luke Timothy Johnson bring imagination to the investigation of facts. Their words explore a range of possibilities rather than constricting interpretation. Weisenfeld shares this generative trait. She is apparently a popular teacher at Duke; I can see students responding to her immense effort to synthesize a socio-aesthetic journey and a historical survey in a single narrative. In Imaging Disaster, she is able to release the potential of classroom teaching of history into an expansive journey for readers.

The ramifications of this type of intriguing visual scholarship are immense. First, a visual medium can in itself be a valid mode of narrative, adding to the layer of available factual data. In other words, visual training— in how to see—can be a viable means of training young minds for distinctive scholarship, just as much as any other method. Second, art education is not valuable only as a way to train a young artist; Weisenfeld's approach shows that art education can elevate our rational discourse, leading to inductive reasoning skills that can be of enormous value to scholarship. Third, in an educational setting like Duke, professors such as Weisenfeld are teaching not only history but also visual intelligence, training young thinkers in a broader diction of how we may draw upon history to understand ourselves and our time.

Imaging Disaster also probes deeply into the psyche of post-disaster culture, fiercely (but carefully) surveying what to expect after a major disaster. This book, therefore, needs to be translated into Japanese and given to every official dealing with the aftermath of the 3/11 tsunami, as a cautionary visual tale about what they can expect during the ongoing recovery process. Though written before the cataclysmic events of 3/11, Imaging Disaster's objective look at the past may pave the way for a deeper understanding of trauma.

Art, of course, provides a specific directive, and Weisenfeld has noted that she began her scholarship with research on the Rato group, an avant-garde art movement that developed during the 1920s. As an artist, I wish she had included in her book more images of the art of that period, and perhaps dedicated a chapter to the relationship between avant-garde visual arts and the larger context of the book. In addition, this book did not answer the questions that it beckoned me to explore as I opened it. I kept looking for clues in the images that might foretell the growth of nationalism that led to the Asia-Pacific war. I kept trying to understand the context of the immense and myopic vision that led to the war. In neither effort was I satisfied. To be fair, these are outside the scope of the author's efforts. But the visual narrative of the book is unquestionably truncated when it abruptly presents Hiroshima as an "epilogue." Perhaps that last chapter should have been omitted. The cataclysmic events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or of the Holocaust or other paradigm-shifting destructions of humanity, cannot be treated as "epilogues."

But this critique, which arises from my deep Ground Zero consciousness, cannot stop me from marveling at what this book and this scholar bring to our bi-cultural dialogue. For me, it was enormously personal and resonant to realize that Weisenfeld's book exists because of visual data and evidence that were only achievable after the 1920s. Only in this century did it become possible to measure earthquakes seismographically—a type of visual data. My revelation was this: my father, as a pioneer in acoustics research, depended on the technological advances that allowed visual interpretation of auditory data.

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