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Ana Menéndez – The future of narrative (1)

Morgen, woensdag 6 april, geeft de Cubaans-Amerikaanse auteur Ana Menéndez de Tweede Cola Debrotlezing in de Openbare Bibliotheek van Amsterdam. In The Poets and Writer’s Magazine, May-June 2009, verscheen een tekst die zij in 2008 met regelmaat in Egypte heeft gepresenteerd, ‘The future of narrative’; we plaatsen die hier in 4 afleveringen.

by Ana Menéndez

There’s a story I like to tell about a story Umberto Eco tells that tells us everything we need to know about story.

It starts with 40,000 tons of nuclear waste sitting in temporary storage in the United States. That much regular garbage is daunting enough. That much hot garbage presents a major technical and ethical dilemma. The government doesn’t know quite what to do with it.

Some years ago, The Department of Energy proposed burying the radioactive waste under Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But even if they could persuade the public that the material would pose no hazard in the immediate future, scientists still had to ensure that the material would pose no hazard into the distant future: The garbage would be radioactive and deadly for the next 10,000 years. How to warn future generations to stay away from the mountain?

As Eco writes in The Search for The Perfect Language, the linguist Thomas A. Sebeok was hired in 1981 by the office of Nuclear Waste Isolation to come up with a solution.
Sebeok immediately ruled out any kind of written warning. There was no permanent language to warn human beings 10,000 years into the future to “Keep Out.” Words are abstract things, deeply rooted in the contemporary and dependent on context to transmit meaning. Just a few generations after the last Pharaoh, the knowledge of hieroglyphic writing had disappeared.

Sebeok ruled out other forms of permanent communication: noise and electrical signals needed a power supply; smells don’t last; and ideograms, like words, lose their meaning over time.

The only solution Sebeok could offer was for the U.S. to establish a kind of “Atomic Priesthood” — a select group of scientists aided by legend-makers whose job it would be to transmit the warning of the deadly waste from generation to generation through story-telling. Over time, the mechanics of the message would surely change, time and culture shaping the translation. But the meaning – Danger – would be preserved and transmitted as taboo from the distant past.

The Atomic Priesthood never came to be. And the Department of Energy is still battling environmentalists over the issue of nuclear waste disposal. What remains of that story is the enduring nature of story-telling itself.

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