Backwards and Forwards with the Atomic Priesthood

Dennis Duncan

It’s always nice to present a challenge to that frustrating binarism that seeks to separate science from the humanities, and after last month’s article on literary Darwinism, I’m happy to throw out another of these pleasantly inclusive phrases: nuclear semiotics. It’s a term that has been in use for a couple of decades now, and it represents the fact that since the early 1980s, figures in the nuclear industry have become extremely interested in the science of signs. Specifically they are interested in how best to signify that those sites where nuclear waste is buried underground represent catastrophic radiation risks if tampered with. The problem, of course, is that the risk which these sites present is one which endures into the almost unimaginable future. How do you write ‘Don’t dig here’ in a format which will still be meaningful in hundreds of thousands of years – far, far longer than the lifespan of any language we know? In addressing this question, nuclear semiotics sits as a rather pragmatic adjunct to ecocriticism, one that’s in bed with exactly the type of business which the environmental movement considers with extreme suspicion.

The foundational statement for nuclear semiotics is the 1984 paper ‘Communication Measures to Bridge Ten Millennia’, a rather extraordinary and highly readable document, commissioned by the US Office of Nuclear Waste Isolation and produced by Thomas Sebeok, the pre-eminent academic semiotician in the US. ‘Communication Measures’ comes in strikingly official covers, with a reassuring stamp informing us that, as of 2006, this information is ‘publicly releasable’. The content, however, is anything but the dry officialese we might therefore expect. Sebeok offers a brief and very good introduction to semiotics, a discussion of German Expressionist painting, some grumbling about mistranslations of Hesiod, finally arriving in the last few pages at his main hypothesis: how a message might be passed on for 10,000 years. Before we come to this, however, a little groundwork will be necessary, and this is where contemporary literature comes in, since by looking at a number of recent editions of the Bible – Manga Bibles, slang Bibles, etc. – we can see exactly those features which Sebeok felt were most likely to enable a message to circulate several millennia after its original composition.

How should we signify sites where nuclear waste is buried in a format which will still be meaningful in hundreds of thousands of years? [Image by Tim Collins under a CC-BY license]

One of the notable things about Bible translation is its complex and shifting relationship to re-translation. Retranslation, as a rule, is something that we’re not particularly comfortable with today, not just with the Bible, but in general: it’s usually considered to be a practice best avoided, useful only in special circumstances such as the translation of a so-called ‘minor’ language text into another minor language, using a major language as an intermediary. But this discomfort only makes itself felt at certain historical moments. It is apparently not there, for example, in the late ninth century when King Alfred is intensely relaxed about the way that the scriptures trace a path from Hebrew through Greek then Latin into contemporary languages:

Then I remembered how the law was first known in Hebrew, and again, when the Greeks had learnt it, they translated the whole of it into their own language, and all other books besides. And again the Romans, when they had learnt it, they translated the whole of it from learned interpreters into their own language. And also all other Christian nations translated a part of them into their own language. (5-6)

And five hundred years later, Wycliffe’s Bible follows the same principle, using the Latin text as its source. But a century or so after this, around the beginning of the sixteenth century, the emphasis shifts to translation ‘from original tongues’ – first generation translation – with translators learning Greek and Hebrew, and a scholarly industry in textual recension springing up whereby editors attempt to recompose the best possible ‘original’ from the various fragments available.

But in spite of this turn towards the earliest possible sources, biblical retranslation is in fact alive and well in our time. There are Bibles such as the New European Version, which takes the King James Version and the American Standard Version as its sources and paraphrases them in modern English. And then of course there are the various slang Bibles which seem to garner headlines every few years. Last year it was Luke’s gospel in Jamaican patois (Jiizas – di Buk We Luuk Rait bout Im), but before that we’ve had, among others, Jamie Stuart’s A Glasgow Bible (1997) and Rob Lacey’s Street Bible (2002). Here’s how these two render the opening verses of Genesis, ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and earth’:

It wis a lang time ago, right enough – thoosans and thoosans o years since. There wis nuthin whaur the earth is the noo – absolutely nuthin at aw.

‘Weel noo,’ God says tae himsel wan day, ‘I’ll fix a wee bit dod o land – doon there.’ (2)

First off, nothing.  No light, no time, no substance, no matter.  Second off, God starts it all up and WHAP!  Stuff everywhere! (27)

Strictly speaking, of course, these are retellings rather than retranslations, but the important thing, in terms of Sebeok’s argument, is that they are not derived directly from Hebrew and Greek. The message of the Bible, in its most general form, endures through second or third generation renderings, without recourse to ‘original tongues’.

The last decade has also seen the appearance of two different Manga Bibles in English. One of these, Siku’s Manga Bible: Raw (2007), was written in English and trumpets a tenuous adherence to the Today’s New International Version; the other Manga Bible, a five volume series produced by the Japanese Bible Society, is actually translated into English from Japanese and is based on a first generation Japanese translation. Thus, when we read these stories in English, they have a provenance which King Alfred could never have imagined, where the passage from Hebrew and Greek into English excludes Latin but takes in Japanese.

The last decade has seen the appearance of two different Manga Bibles in English [Image by Micah Danao under a CC-BY license]

The fact that, when we speak of these Manga texts, it is probably best to say that we are reading ‘stories’ and not ‘reading the Bible’ is an important one. What the Manga adaptations do is to distil the Bible into its rawest narrative. They take only what can be aligned to a highly formalised set of narrative conventions, leaving out the rest, and occasionally adding embellishments such as this little touch of comedy when Noah loses count of the animals as they load two-by-two onto the ark:

Manga adaptations: distilling the Bible to its rawest narrative [Siku, The Manga Bible: From Genesis to Revelation (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2007), p. 19] [Image used under fair dealing provisions]

In these raw Bibles, we find no proverbs or poetry, no begats or multiple gospels. They extract only the stories. In Sebeok’s terms they take the folkloric aspect of the Bible, and this distillation of message into narrative demonstrates his first recommendation for communication across deep time.

Returning to the problem of marking nuclear waste sites then, Sebeok proposes that ‘information be launched and artificially passed on into the short-term and long-term future with the supplementary aid of folkloristic devices, in particular a combination of an artificially created and nurtured ritual-and-legend’ (24). That is, rather than simply stating what the sites are and why they’re dangerous, if a high-level warning about the location could be encoded into a myth or myth system, this message would be more likely to be passed on, not only between generations, but from one language to another. The ‘Keep Out’ message then should be inserted into folklore, an act which would be:

tantamount to laying a ‘false trail’, meaning that the uninitiated will be steered away from the hazardous site for reasons other than the scientific knowledge of the possibility of radiation and its implications; essentially, the reason would be accumulated superstition to shun a certain area permanently (24).

Not everybody would be fed the folkloric version, however, as Sebeok recommends that the ‘actual “truth”’ about the nature of the radioactive site should be entrusted to ‘a commission of knowledgeable physicists, experts in radiation sickness, anthropologists, linguists, psychologists, semioticians, and whatever additional expertise may be called for now and in the future’ (24). Sebeok’s somewhat provocative title for these illuminati is the ‘atomic priesthood’.

There are further recommendations about redundancy – that is to say that the message stands a better chance of survival if it is encoded in multiple forms: multiple languages, like the Rosetta Stone or the polyglot Bibles of the early modern period; and non-linguistic forms – sculptural or architectural forms intended to signify the ‘Stay Away’ message, such as these images proposed by the architect Michael Brill in another report from the early 1990s entitled ‘Site Design to Mark the Dangers of Nuclear Waste for 10,000 Years’. Here is one called ‘Spike Field’ (pl. 7):

[Source] [Image used under fair dealing provisions]

and another entitled ‘Landscape of Thorns’ (pl. 2) :

[Source] [Image used under fair dealing provisions]

Sebeok’s final recommendation is one which he terms the ‘relay system’, by which, essentially, he means successive retranslations, so that every few generations the message in its popular, folkloric form is updated into contemporary idiom. Responsibility for ensuring that these retranslations occur should rest, of course, with the priesthood:

The ‘atomic priesthood’ would be charged with the added responsibility of seeing to it that our behest [concerning the folkloric relay system] is to be heeded – if not for legal reasons, then for moral reasons, with perhaps the veiled threat that to ignore the mandate would be tantamount to inviting some sort of supernatural retribution (27).

The terminology is almost mischievous: a ‘priesthood’ must inculcate a system of ‘ritual-and-legend’ in the wider public, using the ‘veiled threat’ of ‘supernatural retribution’ where necessary. ‘Communication Measures’ is fascinating both for the insight it provides into the contemporary technological problem of nuclear waste management, and for its reading of the history of Christianity, from the successive retranslations of the central text, the use of awe-inspiring architecture, the establishment of an elite – a priesthood who are guardians of the true message – and the encoding of a lower-definition message in folklore.

To a certain extent Sebeok underplays all this – he doesn’t mention the Bible explicitly, and suggests that he chose the phrase ‘atomic priesthood’ merely for ‘dramatic emphasis’ (24). Yet in the similar reports which came after ‘Communication Measures’, no one was fooled: the textual history of Christianity became one of the central paradigms of the emerging field of nuclear semiotics. Thus we find, for example, a report on the history of the Vatican archive commissioned by the Nordic nuclear safety body (Pasztor and Hora, 1991).

Nuclear semiotics: does mythology offer the most effective method of communicating danger across millennia? [Image by Fergal of Claddagh under a CC-BY-NC-SA license]

But perhaps the most astonishing and explicit reference to the power of the religious text to achieve the goals of the nuclear semioticians comes from the Norwegian Professor of Law, Knut Selmer, in his remarks at a 1991 conference in Oslo on ‘Transmittal of Information Over Extremely Long Periods of Time’, quoted by Susan Garfield in the Nuclear Guardianship Library’s review of the conference:

It is my suggestion that the only possible way to influence human activity in a very distant future goes through religion. One must approach the leading circles of the great world religions, and persuade them that we are under an obligation to warn our distant descendants of the deadly dangers which we are creating in the environment. The danger symbols must be included in the set of holy symbols of each religion. The obligation to seek information and act upon it must be embodied in the central axioms. If the message could be given a form which was common to the world religions and which formed part of their rites and practices, one might hope that the message would survive and motivate people in a distant future (n. pag.).

Whether they will, or would, or did, of course we can’t know. But the documents of the nuclear semioticians, in whose bibliographies geological and archaeological surveys rub shoulders with Quine and Panofsky, Kant and Bishop Berkeley, remind us how petty and meaningless – dangerous even – the casual distinction between science and humanities is. And for the aversion of atomic catastrophe, we might consider how it is that the laws of a desert people nearly 3000 years ago are still available to us in Manga form, translated from the Japanese.

CITATION: Dennis Duncan, “Backwards and Forwards with the Atomic Priesthood,” Alluvium, Vol. 1, No. 2 (2012): n. pag. Web. 1 July 2012,

Dr Dennis Duncan is a lecturer in English Literature at Birkbeck, University of London. He is preparing a monograph on Translation and the Oulipo (2014) and is editor of the forthcoming Tom McCarthy: Critical Essays (Gylphi, 2012).

Works Cited:

Brill, Michael. Site Design to Mark the Dangers of Nuclear Waste for 10,000 Years (Buffalo: The Buffalo Organization for Social and Technological Innovation, 1991).

Garfield, Susan. ‘Oslo Conference Suggests that World Religions Carry Nuclear Waste Danger Warnings into the Far Future’ (Nuclear Guardianship Library, 1992) [accessed 29 June 2012].

Jensen, Mikael. Conservation and Retrieval of Information: Elements of a Strategy to Inform Future Societies about Nuclear Waste Repositories (Roskilde: NKS, 1993).

Lacey, Rob. The Street Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002).

Manga Bible, 5 vols (Tyndale House, 2006-11).

Pasztor, Suzanne and Stephen Hora. The Vatican Archives: A Study of its History and Administration (Roskilde: NKS, 1991).

Sebeok, Thomas. Communication Measures to Bridge Ten Millennia (Columbus, OH: Office for Nuclear Waste Isolation, 1984).

Siku. The Manga Bible: Raw (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2007).

Stuart, Jamie. A Glasgow Bible (Edinburgh: St Andrew, 1997).

Sweet, Henry (ed.). King Alfred’s West-Saxon Version of Gregory’s Pastoral Care (London: Early English Text Society, 1871).

Please feel free to comment.

2 Replies to “Backwards and Forwards with the Atomic Priesthood”

  1. What a tremendous article!
    I'd like to pull a conference question trick if I may: "Have you read… Riddley Walker?" Russell Hoban's 1980 novel seems to have quite a lot to say to the concept of an atomic priesthood.
    Apologies to any Hobanites present, but this is perforce going to be a whistlestop account: Riddley Walker is set in Northern Kent some thousands of years after a nuclear holocaust. Society is essentially stone-age: communities live in fortified settlements. The relevance to Dennis's article lies in the fact that central to society are a set of myths, the Eusa story being the most important, telling how Eusa split the "addom":

    18. Eusa had thay Nos. uv thay Master Chaynjis. He run them thru the Power Ring he mayd the 1 Big 1. Eusa put the 1 Big 1 in barms then him & Mr Clevver droppit so much barms thay kilt as menne uv thear oan as thay kilt enemes.

    The Eusa story incorporates Christian myth. As Hoban says in the first paragraph of his acknowledgements:

    On March 14th, 1974 I visited Canterbury Cathedral for the first time and saw Dr E. W. Tristram's reconstruction of the fifteenth-century wall painting, The Legend of Saint Eustace. This book was begun on May 14th, 1974 and completed on November 5th, 1979.

    The myth of Saint Eustace might have been an inspiration to Hoban, but it's not relevant to the holocaust. It is nevertheless spliced with a telling of armageddon. The story is told by Eusa people – the most powerful people in society who run a roadshow telling the story through puppets based very closely on Punch and Judy – and each community has 'connexion' men – Riddley is one – who interpret the stories and 'tel' people who interpet the signs.
    What I think is most interesting here is that Hoban's speculative fiction works through this very idea of an atomic priesthood – the Eusa men – and what I think he grasped – indeed, made structural to society – was the shifting nature of interpretation. His own myths were hybridised, but the reader is left to imagine when the various stories joined with each other – there are remnants of computer science and atomic science as well as the story of Saint Eustace and that of Punch and Judy (I think the latter is used to illustrate that cultural hierarchiesdon't mean a jot in the wake of the apocalypse – stories survive, breed, mutate and orders will be upturned – low forms will be as resilient as high). But interpretation also changes, from community to community. The myth has no fixed meaning. There are connexion men and tel women.
    The local legend where I come from – Wearside – illustrates the cultural contingency of interpretation, I think. The Lambton Worm tells of how the Norman lord's son John Lambton, skipping church one morning, fishes a strange, evil-looking worm from the river Wear. He chucks it down a well and forgets about it. He goes off the crusades and while he's away the worm grows and grows, leaves the well and terrorises the locale. On his return John Lambton seeks the advice of a witch who tells him how to slay the worm: he should make a suit of armour covered in spikes so that when the worm tries to smother him it slices itself into pieces. These are washed down the river and the worm is defeated. John doesn't follow the witch's final piece of advice and so the family is cursed, but tht's another story.
    I think that this legend offers numerous interpretations. Surtees, a local historian, writing in the early 19th century, suggests that the worm is a symbol for Danish invaders who came up the Wear in longboats adorned with dragon-heads. There are articles arguing for a literalist cryptozoological reading – the "Nessie as a prehistoric refugee" argument – and while this might seem daft  there were snakes in Wearside, and monsters: giant boars, with which other local myths concern themselves. There is clearly a Christian morality element to it, and we wouldn't be good Freudians if we didn't pick up some penis stuff, but perhaps the fact that the worm emerges from a well to kill people indicates something more like a warning: the drinking water here is not good. Stay away. Perhaps.
    Which would be interesting, because it indicates precisely the difficulty to which Sebeok was addressing himself: the shifting nature of semiotics. The serpent meant bad news in the 14th century. Today? It's a sideshow. We've nixed it round these parts. It's a Ken Russell party-piece (I refer milearned friends to Russell's The Lair of the White Worm).
    I think these indicate a couple of things: that the intentional splicing of myth onto extant religious myths might not be that effective through deep-time because it privileges religious myth – and couldn't we conceive of a future in which Akira or Astroboy is more dominat than Jesus? That the kind of symbols sought would need to be somehow resistant to interpretation and that coming up with these from within our semiotic system is perhaps a doomed endeavour.
    I may have just reinvented in slapdash fashion a small spoke on a large wheel – to my shame, I know nothing more than the existence of reader-reception theory and Stanley Fish's Interpretive Communities – but I wanted to respond to a highly enjoable piece.
    PS Since I started the response, someone has pointed me at the following film:

  2. Thanks for that really interesting response, Mark. That's the second time in 24 hours that someone's mentioned Riddley Walker to me, so I really need to bump it to the top of my To Read list.
    Regarding the way that symbols and myths resist control and can be interpreted in different ways, there's also the problem that, if you mark a site as hallowed, ancient, supernaturally dangerous, you might end up attracting people who wouldn't otherwise have been interested in digging there. The pyramids often get wheeled out as an example. The Human Interference Task Force, of which Sebeok was consultant semiotician, also included a behavioural psychologist, Percy Tannenbaum, who writes about the problem in this document – another remarkable piece of research. As he puts it, "certain individuals are attracted to danger, particularly danger associated with challenge" (39). Maybe the best bet – something which the Michael Madsen film discusses – is not to label the sites at all.
    Or maybe the solution lies in "radiation cats". This submission to a German journal of semiotics in 1984 suggests creating a species of cat that would change colour when exposed to radiation. The cat as canary.

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