- Passwords: Philology, Security, Authentication
[End Page 82]
The main philosophical tradition of thought about language in the West, Umberto Eco wrote before the turn of the millennium, is a “dream that has run now for almost two thousand years.”1 It is a dream of perfectible representation—not the same as perfect representation—which Eco told us had submerged what he called the “pedestrian” account of the flood in Genesis 10:5 in the dramatic and tragic account of Babel in Genesis 11:1, received as a story of human punishment by a vengeful, if wise, God.2
Essentially, Eco implied, it was an anti-philological dream: the image of a perfected state in which historical time, and along with time, change—in language, in the history of language, in the order of things managed and maintained by language—might come to cease.
Philology is a secular countertradition to this main philosophical tradition—which is also secular, but also more rationalistic than historicist in its intellectual temperaments, in ways that will leave these two traditions incompatible, even incommensurable. But that is not to say unconfusable, or unconfused. Insofar as we might describe that main tradition—it is a cultural tradition, not merely a “philosophical” one—as a tradition that either presumes or attempts to establish a certain security, in the face of time and change and their confusions, including linguistic confusion and an attendant ordinal confusion, we might say also that philology’s practices and operations, which are so often practices of authentication, enter into conflict with the history, the historicity, and the historiography for which philology stands or stands in, or which it operates.
Three arguments will be left mostly implicit in what follows, as framing a larger project of which this essay is a segment. First, conflict between the philological and the anti-philological imaginations of language is a conflict that structured twentieth-century global cultural history. Second, that conflict has a permanent, non-soluble character. And third, it is an interesting conflict because it is non-soluble, all hopes and dreams of the new digital philologists (and anti-philologists) notwithstanding. I draw here on a little book published by Jean Baudrillard in 2000 titled Mots de passe (Passwords), which served as a recapitulation in keywords of Baudrillard’s body of work to that point.3 The organizing conceit of this text juxtaposes what I will call the philologically figurative connotation of “le mot de passe” / “password” with the technical denotation also invoked by the volume’s title.4 Some of the segments of Mots de passe (“La séduction,” “La transparence du mal,” “Le crime parfait”) served as oblique précis of eponymous works or editorial assemblages published under Baudrillard’s name in the past; others (“L’objet,” “La valeur,” “Le virtuel”) deployed keywords as such. Together, they provide an index to the matrix of intellectual motives, trajectories, and transitions that took Baudrillard from the early French structuralism and autocritical Marxism of Le système des objets (1968, The System of Objects) and Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe (1972, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign) to the anthropological break with Marxism in La société de consommation (1970, The Consumer Society) and Le miroir [End Page 83] de la production (1973, The Mirror of Production) and the “posthistorical” studies of simulation, hyperreality, and terror that brought Baudrillard North American fame in sometimes awkward translation.
The technical denotation of “le mot de passe” is its quotidian sense, raised to a difficult public awareness, in and since 2012, by a series of both massive and well-publicized intrusions aimed at Web 2.0 and social media services mostly based in the United States but operating on networks imagined as worlded or worlding space.5 It was this series of attacks, accompanied by increasingly severe admonition of “lusers” by those in the know, that finally introduced a counter-discourse at odds with the wave of enthusiasm for consumer utility or cloud computing that a new generation of IT pundits and consultants rode to power in the late 2000s, as the survivors of the dotcom crash reorganized their data service...