Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Avery Slater reviews Passwords

Brian LennonPasswords: Philology, Security, Authentication. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2018. 229 pp.

Review by Avery Slater

1 January 2020

Passwords: Philology, Security, Authentication explores surprising and important connections among the humanities, the sciences of computation, and the problem of “authentication” across these disciplines. Across this study, Lennon reorients readers to the genealogy of the digital humanities (DH). Setting aside the familiar story of DH as a novel, cutting-edge pursuit, he invites us instead to view DH as only the most recent chapter in a much longer history. Beginning from philology’s origins, Lennon recounts how this textual science first diverges from and then re-converges with military cryptanalysis. According to Lennon, the emergence of DH as a supposedly novel field of inquiry can best be attributed to “STEM discipline boosterism,” as university administrators increasingly “weaponize” university research (p. xi). 

This book begins with the period from 2001-2008—between the “war on terror” and the subprime-mortgage financial collapse—attributing importance to its framing of the present state of DH. This period of “brutality, bootlicking, and bank fraud” (p. x), as Lennon argues, give us a lens to examine the last fourteen hundred years of cryptology and philology—disciplines whose reciprocal engagement across time is this book’s larger subject.  

Lennon’s innovation in this book is to recast the modern-day project of DH as “resurgent philology,” (p. xii) “computational philology,” (p. xiii), and cryptophilology flourishing “alongside imperial jingoism and war” (p. xiii). Lennon tracks, with forensic levels of detail, how this “cryptophilology” has catered to US security agencies that fund technologies of information retrieval from humanistic sources. The book’s argumentative scaffolding skillfully links classical ideas of philology to wider “practices of authentication” and security. Chapter 1 proceeds from the Biblical story of the “shibboleth” to modern-day “dictionary attacks” by hackers, tracing the coevolution of security and insecurity through the concept of the password. Lennon counterbalances technological “passwords” with meditations on the methodologies developed by scholars like Edward Said whose “revisionist philology” warns us against positivist scientism and technocratic expertise equating “the security of truth with the security of the state” (p. 17).

Chapter 2 casts a wide historical net, gathering fascinating examples of “cryptophilology”: from Abbasid cryptography to Renaissance authorship hoaxes; from Egyptology to the French Bureau du Chiffre; from early secular humanistic protocols of manuscript authentication to the rise of cryptanalysts closely associated with wartime activities; from Alberti’s fifteenth-century De componendis cyfris to Thomas Jefferson, Athanasius Kircher, and Joachim Becher; from European philological orientalism to nineteenth-century stylistic analyses of Shakespeare and the Bible. Lennon insightfully argues that the idea of “two cultures,” first promulgated by C. P. Snow, does not apply as neatly to the humanistic and scientific versions of textual analysis as one might assume. Two subsequent chapters focus on the early history of machine translation and stylometrics, explaining how these endeavors fit into the larger category of cryptophilology. Lennon’s account of Cold War machine translation foregrounds its early rhetoric of “postwar internationalism,” while focusing on “the historical concurrence of secularization, nationalism, and empire” (p. 54). Chapter Three tracks MT (machine translation) from Warren Weaver’s early “Translation” memorandum to the later ALPAC report that resulted in MT’s defunding. 

Chapter Four offers a fascinating and illuminating intellectual history of the use of computers in lexicography—in the creation of electronic dictionaries and concordances—as well as tracking the ways in which postwar stylistic analysis moved toward launching “automated authorship studies” (p. 90). Of particular interest is Lennon’s discussion of Roberto Busa’s Index Thomisticus, as well as his elegant reframing of debates around stylistics and “computational philology” that drew in such scholars as Stanley Fish. This chapter’s argument trenchantly concludes with the contemporary recrudescence of authorship attribution, now turned authorship profiling for the security state. The chapter ends by questioning the “historical amnesia” of DH practitioners as institutional inheritors of the cryptophilogists. As Lennon suggests, many DH-resisting humanists include those “whose long memory of conscription into war has generated something far more nuanced than ‘flat contempt’ for ‘number’” (p. 123). What, then, is the most recent relationship between DH and the war-machine?

The final chapter of Passwords “The Digital Humanities and National Security” is a compellingly argued riposte against DH triumphalism, critiquing the hidden politics behind its outsized hold over the imagination of funding bodies. Lennon deftly moves the reader through the rise and fall in public opinion of the digital humanities, drawing out the overlooked ties to the security state that went largely unnoticed until quite recently. In this final, must-read chapter, Lennon contextualizes DH politics by drawing salient parallels to comparative literature debates that have linked area-studies notions of world literature to State Department counterinsurgency efforts. As Lennon reminds us, “The contact zone between philology as a practice of literary study and area studies as a militarized social science has always been a hot zone for such introspection” (p. 144). This book concludes by narrating the recent, symptomatic silence surrounding attempts to create meaningful, online debate concerning the ethics of DH projects receiving military funding. This strong, memorable, and timely conclusion to the monograph gives Lennon’s Passwords a powerful claim on how we will continue “professing literature” into the technologically mediated future.