Review of Passwords: Philology, Security, Authentication | Leonardo/ISAST

Review of Passwords: Philology, Security, Authentication

Passwords: Philology, Security, Authentication
by Brian Lennon

The Belknap Press by Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA., 2018

232 pp. Trade, $39.95
ISBN: 9780674980761.

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
August 2018

This highly stimulating book is in the first place a new and innovative take on the well-known two cultures debate. Yet rather than stressing the added value of bridging the gap between the two major strands – arts and sciences, alpha and beta – that came out from Western modernization and secularization since the Renaissance, Lennon argues that in some cases – that of philology, the humanist study of language, and that of cryptology, the mathematical and technical science of codes and ciphers –, the two cultures gap is much smaller than we often think. Not only because philology and cryptology have a lot in common, as Passwords makes very clear, but also because we systematically forget about their union. There is indeed a widely shared refusal to acknowledge the common history of much “cryptophilogy”, a concept that refers both to the obfuscated historical roots of contemporary forms of philology, today often gathered under the umbrella of digital humanities, and the almost routine intimacy of philology with cryptophilogy. For Lennon, this oblivion is anything but a coincidence or an accidental flaw in the discipline self-construction and positioning, it is instead the result of a deliberate, politically and ideologically determined will to make the links between philology and cryptology, that is, in today’s term, the industrial-military complex of security and intelligence industries as dramatically reinforced, yet not exclusively, after 9/11.

Written during the – now already contested and fading?– triumph of the digital humanities, Passwords can be read as a continuation and update of books such as Robin Winks’s Cloak and Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939–1961 (1987), which discloses the role of many (but mainly Yale) language scholars and graduates in the attempts to mechanically decipher and decode human language messages. But one may think also, although from a very different point of view, of Mark McGurl’s The Program Era (2011), which hints at the role of the CIA in the funding of creative writing programs as part of a larger propaganda policy in favor of the “free world”. Lennon’s book goes however much farther, since he discloses a much longer and almost essential relationship between the humanist study of language –be it the attempt to discover the correct form and thus the real meaning of a message that seems impure, coded, strange, or simply difficult if not impossible to understand, or the attempt to ascertain the universal language that lies underneath or beyond each individual language– and cryptology. To the extent that it also includes non-Western ancestors of philology as well as many “forgotten” encounters between the work of philologists and that of cryptologists, the story Lennon reconstructs is very convincing.

Lennon clearly discloses that much philological labor was immediately put into the service of surveillance and intelligence work, which in turn determined the way in which philological research was structured and oriented. Next to the well-known examples of code-cracking during the World Wars and other conflicts, Lennon mainly focuses on three cases: automatic translation, stylometrics, and digital humanities. In the two first cases, he carefully details the critical debates that have accompanied these (unsuccessful) attempts to transform humanist philology into a fully automatized and mechanically performed method delivering the truth on hidden meanings and unattributed authorship. He highlights the temptation to move into the direction of cryptology, both from the point of view of the humanists (always in need of funding and in certain cases also of personal and social recognition) and from that of the surveillance and intelligence services (chiefly interested in issues of code-cracking and authorship attribution). At the same time, he also brings to the fore the errors and dead ends of this temptation, which puts between brackets the complexity of human language and the inevitable necessity of interpretation. The real target of Lennon’s analysis is however the digital humanities hype, whose ambitions and utopias are criticized in various ways: first because this new discipline does not succeed in defining itself (it remains a buzz word, whose limits are becoming more and more apparent), second because it seems to repeat all the errors that have been made by all those who instrumentalize the humanist study of language in the name of “real science”; third, and perhaps most of all, because it does not ask any questions on the way its methods and results are directly and openly used by a state that gives so much priority to surveillance and security that there is no longer room for privacy, individual freedom and democratic debate.

Lennon’s book ends with a discussion of the non-debate that followed the recent initiative by Matthew Kirschenbaum, a leading voice in the critical study of digital culture, to launch a public dispute on the question “Should DHers accept military/defense funding?” Few answers were submitted, and none of them proved sufficiently strong or interesting to continue the conversation. What this semi-silence actually means is of course not clear, perhaps because the funding in question is not direct but indirect (Digital Humanities does not have to be funded by defense or military sources to be used by them: Who knows what happens what research funded by Google of Facebook?). The cryptophilological tropism of all philology since the beginning of the discipline makes is plausible to suppose that a lot of research is actually used for surveillance and intelligence aims, while the no less traditional obfuscation of the link between philology and cryptology also suggests that non-debates are the rule, not the exception. Lennon leaves to the reader how to interpret the silence that surrounds Kirschenbaum’s question, but he does not hide the contrast between the radical decades of the 1960s and 70s, which witnessed an increasing unease with – if not blatant refusal of – the instrumentalization of philology for surveillance and intelligence aims and the much current indifference, which he sees as a tragic surrender of humanist values.