Books

Books

Passwords: Philology, Security, Authentication (2018)

Forthcoming, Harvard University Press. These versions of jacket and catalog copy are not identical to that which will be used. While not without their own compromises, they do also represent the book, possibly more effectively for certain readers.

1

Today we regard cryptology, the mathematical and technical science of ciphers and codes, and philology, the humanistic study of natural or human languages, as separate domains of activity. But the contiguity, even intimacy of these two domains is a historical fact with an institutional history. From the earliest documented techniques for the statistical analysis of text and experiments with mechanized literary analysis, to electromechanical and electronic code-breaking and machine translation, early literary data processing, and the computational philology of late twentieth-century humanities computing and early twenty-first-century digital humanities, what Brian Lennon calls “crypto-philology” has flourished alongside imperial jingoism and war — and occasionally served them. Lennon argues that while computing’s humanistic applications are as historically important as its mathematical and technical origins, they are no less marked and no less constrained by the priorities of national security agencies and institutions devoted to both offensive signals intelligence and mass surveillance. The convergence of philology with cryptology, Lennon suggests, is embodied in the password, an artifact of the linguistic history of computing that each of us uses every day, today, to secure access to personal data and other resources. The password is a site where philology and cryptology, and their contiguous histories, meet in everyday life, as the natural-language dictionary, that pre-eminent product of the philologist’s scholarly labor, becomes an instrument of the hacker’s exploit.

2

Type a search query into a web browser. Lists upon lists of results appear, with links leading to even more information. Much of the work of gathering, ordering, and presenting this data is automated. Machines of all kinds have long been used to process data, but computers make it easier to do so without clear purposes or goals, as well as for purposes that are deliberately obscured. In Passwords, Brian Lennon asks us to consider who collects and processes cultural data, today, and how (and why) they go about doing so.

Today we regard cryptology, the mathematical science of ciphers and codes, and philology, the humanistic study of natural or human languages and documents, as two separate domains. But from the earliest documented techniques for the statistical analysis of text, to electromechanical and electronic code-breaking and machine translation, reading has been long been imagined as an automated counting procedure revealing a secret message in a text. While computation played a significant role in the emergence of literary criticism in the United States, it also provided the first U.S. military cryptanalysts with their tools and techniques.

Lennon argues that while computing’s humanistic applications are as important as its mathematical origins, they are no less marked by the priorities of national security institutions devoted to signals intelligence and mass surveillance. The convergence of philology with cryptology, Lennon suggests, is embodied in the password, a linguistic object linked to a mathematical procedure that each of us uses many times a day to secure access to personal data and other resources.

In Babel’s Shadow: Multilingual Literatures, Monolingual States (2010)

Book cover for In Babel's Shadow

Lennon, Brian. In Babel’s Shadow: Multilingual Literatures, Monolingual States. The University of Minnesota Press, 2010

It may surprise some to read that this book has its origin in new media studies. Certainly, I have parted ways with the gadget lovers, in an area in which complacently energy-dependent boosterism, in the equation of what is new with what needs attention, is in some ways still a critical norm. Still, in formulating a limit for contemporary literary book publication, and so for the criticism dependent on it, I have tried to describe a need for electronic literature, as an archive and engine of forms of textual culture that book culture today really does block — from visibility, and in that, from both critical and archival presence. This has meant backing up from the “new” in new media, on the one hand, and stepping up to the end of printed books, on the other — working a fold in the disciplinary temporality of new media studies, at the very limit of the literary-capitalist print culture through which academic literary and new media studies still reproduce themselves, today.

UMP site

Project MUSE

Reviews and Commentary:

City: An Essay (2002)

Book cover for City: An Essay

Lennon, Brian. City: An Essay. The University of Georgia Press, 2002, 2011. Winner of Associated Writing Programs Award Series in Creative Nonfiction for 2000

I CONFESS THAT I HAVE NO IDEA what Kierkegaard (or his persona, Constantin Constantius) meant by “repetition.” Here, however, I mean to say that successive iterations of one single event multiply its existing points of entry. I was born: on the eastmost fringe of the City, in an enclave at the foot of the Airport, and I learned to sleep through the scream of jets, which I knew traveled over the ocean. My earliest awareness of the City: at the station, where I waited with my mother, in the idling car, for my father. At one end of the block: “the creek” — a tract of spongy undeveloped land, beyond which stretched the runways. From the creek: the frogs that filled our yards; Gina Ragazza, two doors down, pressed sharpened sticks through their bodies — twitch, twitch — as airliners floated roaring overhead.

UGAP site

Reviews and commentary:

  • The Georgia Review 57.2 (Summer 2003)
  • Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 5.2 (2003)
  • Boston Review 28.1 (February/March, 2003)
  • Quarterly West 55 (Fall/Winter 2002–2003)
  • Hyde Park Review of Books 1.3 (Fall 2002)
  • Rain Taxi 7.2 (Summer 2002)
  • Columbia Spectator, July 31, 2002
  • Publishers Weekly, March 18, 2002
  • Booklist, January 2002