2. Warlike noise: code and the weaponizing of literature
W.H. Auden, “Under Which Lyre” (1946)
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Shakespeare’s texts, like the Bible, carry a surplus of meaning in the form of the transmission narratives that accompany them. The transmission narrative most relevant to Shakespeare’s emergence as information held his texts to be conduits of meaning in the face of catastrophic conflict. Throughout World War Two, military communication and intelligence practices invested in the conduit metaphor for information in ways that suited strategic planning and tactical responsiveness. Information scientists like Norbert Wiener and Vannevar Bush played major roles in the mobilization of science during World War Two, and the interdisciplinary field of cybernetics developed directly out of research on the interface between humans and machines in anti-aircraft targeting systems. Even microfilm had a vital application in military logistics as the technology of mobile libraries that could stand in for the masses of material documents required in wartime correspondence. V.D. Tate’s description of this technology’s military value, in a 1942 article in the Journal of Documentary Reproduction, equates it with a weapon because it could free up space on a cargo plane for troops and supplies, as well as provide an encyclopedic reference for technical maintenance in the field: “In modern warfare the library accompanies even the most advanced fighting forces in the field.”
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 Within the wartime epistemology that viewed documents as containers for meaning, Shakespeare’s texts were subject to various kinds of encoding and decoding. Anti-Stratfordian hobbyists had been searching for ciphers within Shakespeare’s texts since the nineteenth century, and cryptography was a long-established profession, but World War Two’s impact on cryptanalysis was to raise the stakes of analyzing documents such that human lives depended on the flow and interception of coded information. During the war, Shakespeare’s texts became code-bearing patterns of information in contexts far more consequential than the imaginations of Baconians and Oxfordians. According to Alice Brittan, “The most famous works of Shakespeare, Keats, Tennyson, Molière, Racine, and Rabelais became favorites among the Allied spies; they were easy for agents to remember, even under duress, because they were taught and studied in schools as exemplars of English or French literature.” Milton’s image of Shakespeare’s “easie numbers,” takes on new meaning in light of these uses of Shakespeare’s texts, which nonetheless depend upon the “deep impression[s]” of the texts in the national consciousness, as Brittan suggests:
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 A British agent who as a student was asked to memorize Shakespeare’s sonnet 55, or to write an essay in defense of its claim to immortality, could use the poem’s opening lines—“Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme”—to send information in defense of the country that claimed Shakespeare as its national bard. Code makers believed that the agent would recall this sonnet even in panic, because to forget was virtually an act of treason.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 We can see a type of Shakespearean code existing independently of the authorship debates, in a bibliographic strain distinguishable from, though obviously related to, the more well-known wartime recruitment of plays like Henry V and King John to bolster English patriotism.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Just as Shakespeare’s texts became a sort of informatic weapon, so did wartime information techniques come to the rescue of Shakespeare. Former U.S. Army cryptanalysis experts William and Mary Friedman became two of the most respected debunkers of anti-Stratfordian cipher theories in Shakespeare’s texts in their 1958 book The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined. Cambridge University Press’s description on the dust-jacket takes pains to establish the Friedmans as not only neutral arbiters of the authorship debate because of their dissociation from the academy, but also expert witnesses on the subjects of cryptography in light of their wartime achievements. The minds that helped break Japan’s Purple Code had found a suitable postwar challenge in theories about Shakespeare’s texts, and their book represents a form of textual and informatic rationalism confronting the irrationalism of anti-Stratfordian cipher-hunting. Cryptographic historian David Kahn uses especially vivid terms to describe the Friedmans’ encounter with the Shakespearean cryptographic imagination (to paraphrase Shawn Rosenheim’s title):
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 They pass through a surrealist landscape where logic and the events of history both resemble and do not resemble the real things, like the oozing watch of Salvador Dali, where supermen of literature outperform the most harried hacks in volume and the most thoughtful of philosophers in profundity—and then sit up nights enciphering secret messages to tell about it […].
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 If the world of Baconian ciphers looks like a Dali landscape, the world of authentically Shakespearean code must be defined by right angles, with messages squared away and objects in their proper spatial relations. Given the symbolic stakes of the Friedmans’ work, outlined here in no uncertain terms by Kahn, it is perhaps not surprising that one of the Friedmans’ biggest accolades came from the chief Shakespearean archive in the form of the 1955 Folger Shakespeare Library Prize.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The rational world of code represented by the Friedmans was also the one occupied by Bowers and Hinman during their years as cryptanalysts for the U.S. Navy from 1942 to 1945. The connections between their wartime cryptanalytical expertise and their postwar advances in compositor analysis are noted by G. Thomas Tanselle in his retrospective on “The Life and Work of Fredson Bowers.” Tanselle observes that even prior to the United States’s entry into the war, Bowers had received “secret instruction as a cryptanalyst in a naval communications intelligence group” at the University of Virginia, and during the war supervised a Naval Communications group working on Japanese ciphers. Whatever the reason, Bowers’s group was heavy with Shakespeareans, with Hinman also a member along with two other experts from the Folger Library staff (Giles Dawson and Ray O. Hummel). The congruence between Shakespearean bibliography and military cryptanalysis was only natural, in Tanselle’s account:
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 It seems appropriate that several of the scholars interested in analytical bibliography after the war, including the two leaders of the field (Bowers and Hinman), spent their wartime years performing cryptanalytic work together, for the goal of both activities is to find meaningful patterns in what at first seem to be chaotic data, and the bent of mind required for both is obviously similar.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Noting the war’s disruption of scholarly work, Jeffrey Masten takes these links further by arguing that “compositor analysis wasn’t so much suspended as produced by the war,” as part of a paranoid culture of error-detection that also encompassed the detection of supposed communists and homosexuals hiding within the ranks of U.S. government service. Responding to Tanselle’s comment about finding “meaningful patterns in […] chaotic data,” Masten asserts that
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 surely there are other questions to ask: what are the differences between intentionally produced codes disclosing the locations of Japanese warships, and the codes, or inscriptions, of seventeenth-century spellings? What if chaotic data […] is instead data that lies outside our standards for the behavior of the chaotic and ordered?
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 1 In these questions, Masten raises concerns that join the cultural construction of information with the basic principles of information theory. As a universal theory of human communication, the model proposed by Shannon and Weaver should encompass encoded reports of troop movements and imprinted words in early modern spelling with equal ease, thereby establishing that all forms of information are merely variants of the same phenomenon.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 1 Bibliography, especially in its postwar focus on compositor analysis, also shared with cybernetics a concern with human-machine interface. For cyberneticists like Wiener, the human-machine interface between a gunner and his anti-aircraft system is measurable and predictable in the same ways that the interface between an early modern compositor and the apparatuses of the press are for Hinman. Cybernetics emerged as a science at the same time that Shakespearean bibliographers made a concerted turn toward compositor analysis, the study of human-machine interface in the printing house, in order to understand the manuscripts behind Shakespeare’s Folio and quartos. Analytical bibliography, in particular, could be regarded as the study of the threshold spaces where the human meets the mechanical, and where the two function together in a complex, variable, and yet to a degree also predictable, system of textual transmission. For example, the New Bibliography’s chronicler, F.P. Wilson, wrote in 1945 that
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 it is often imperative to resort to hypothesis and conjecture, but often, as we have seen, the bibliographer reaches conclusions that are demonstrable and irreversible. The reason is that he is dealing with an Abel Jeffes or a James Roberts not in his relations with other human beings, whether of the government, or the Stationers’ Company, or the playhouse, but in his relations with a mechanical process. Strange accidents can indeed happen to type, and human error plays its part in causing them, but the accidents are often analysable and explicable with a completeness that approaches mathematical proof.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 It would have been difficult to conceive of a human relationship with a mechanical process in this way prior to cybernetics, except perhaps in analytical bibliography, which may explain why the two fields seem so congruent after the late forties. Not only is there a good fit between these domains of knowledge in terms of “bent of mind,” as Tanselle claims, but also between their technological applications. A bit of disciplinary trivia well known to Shakespearean bibliographers is that Hinman’s photographic collating device, an indispensable tool in his subsequent research on the First Folio, had its genesis in the Naval Communications group’s technique for comparing photographs of enemy fortifications to detect changes. To look through the eyepiece of a Hinman Collator (one of which still sits in the Folger’s reading room) and see a press variant blinking on and off, as though the Folio page before you was itself digital, is to become part of one human-machine interface built to decode patterns of impression left by another, the printing house of William and Isaac Jaggard.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 1 Mid-century bibliography and information theory were thus caught up in the same emergent tendency to regard texts as virtual. Their concern with the Shakespeare text as an information pattern latent in physical documents manifested itself in the profiling of hypothetical manuscript copy behind real printed books, as well as the profiling of the work habits of the compositors who read and set from that copy. Kirschenbaum points out that “for both textual scholars and information theorists the immediate post-war years were a period dedicated to codifying their respective disciplinary methodologies,” and suggests that Greg’s treatment of accidentals and substantives in his theory of copy-text editing resembles the kind of thinking occurring at the same time in information theory. Kirschenbaum reports finding no direct historical links, but I would suggest that we do not necessarily need evidence of direct communication for there to be epistemological links of consequence to textual studies and digital humanities in the present. Although the New Bibliographers were not necessarily doing information theory, they were involved in analogous textual sciences. The pattern of analogy also extends to their failures, especially their failure to account for the complex connections between what texts mean, and how acts of communication—whether editing, performance, digitization, or rare book exhibitions—generate new meanings in their reception.