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Reviewed by:
  • Passwords: Philology, Security, Authentication by Brian Lennon
  • Michael Dillon
Brian Lennon. Passwords: Philology, Security, Authentication. Cambridge: The Belknap P of Harvard UP, 2018. 232 pp.

This book is situated at the heart of the conflict that now pervades and brutally divides the politics and culture of the American Republic as the 21st century begins to show its age: "Oh Brave New world that has such people in it." It is cast, largely, as an American book written for an American audience, most especially those fighting the culture wars that threaten the existence of the Humanities in American Universities, as they do in the United Kingdom, for example, as well. Lennon is too acute a participant observer, however, to allow that impression to last very long. He knows that the fight concerns the formalization and rationalization of the Humanities, Literature and Textual analysis now driven by digitalisation and computer science in alliance with academic entrepreneurs who see this as a means of claiming social relevance in their bid to garner research money and institutional power within the Academy and elsewhere. Lennon also has an historical sensibility. "History," he says, "offers some help here" (xiv). It does. Help, that is, in reminding us just how deep, how initiatory and extensive historically, has been the alliance of textual analysis with the ambitions of government and the powers of formalization. "We might begin by recalling that the first electromechanical and electronic computers were constructed for two two quite different applications," he says, "one computational in the primary sense… and another that was as textual as it was anything else (the manipulation of symbolic cipher systems used to encipher natural-language written texts, by the Bombe and Colossus machines at Bletchley Park)" (xiv).

The title of the book summarizes Lennon's wide range of interest: "Passwords: Philology, Security, Authentication." I think the book works best, however, as a stimulus to step out of the 20th and 21st centuries as well as out of the regional context of the North Atlantic basin. A widening gyre of concern already motivates it and I would spin that further. The book calls for—and to a degree, calls upon—other related genealogies concerning the very engines of formalisation and rationalisation that lie behind Lennon's [End Page 596] concerns (see, for example, Paul Livingston, The Politics of Logic [2014]). The crisis of the Humanities in the United States is a crisis of the Western idea of The University, while the crisis of that ideal is a crisis of the very Humanism that helped inspire it in the first place, although it was always already a creature of power relations: first Church and Empire, then Kingship and State, now Capital and its techno-scientific military economies (See Walter Ruegg, ed., A History of the University in Europe, Volumes 1-4 [1992-2010]). Tempted as it is to list these in order of supercession, they comprise, instead, a complex palimpsestuous interplay in which different orders of power relations, not least those of Religion and Onto-theology as well as Politics and Economics, overlay, and leach into, one another in ways that profoundly complicate the simple telling of them. These crises entail what Edmund Husserl called The Crisis of European Sciences, although they were no more exclusively European than the crisis of the Humanities is exclusively American. Husserl was of course originally a mathematician and while he himself concluded in The Philosophy of Arithmetic (2003) that his project there failed, Derrida also attacked him in respect of in The Problem of Genesis in Husserl's Philosophy (1953-54) and the persistent metaphysics that lay behind in Edmund Husserl's "Origins of Geometry": An Introduction (1962). Heidegger took a different philosophical tack, of course in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (1977). From the late 19th through to the late 20th centuries, these and other authors too numerous to cite conducted an impassioned debate about numeration that remains unresolved. In consequence, there are more complicated genealogies behind the problematics raised by Lennon. I am sure that he knows this and I am not criticizing him for their absence. He gestures towards them in references for...


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