Contemporary American Literature: Encryption

Course Number: ENGL 140
Prerequisites: Writing 2, or 50, or 109, or English 10 or upper-division standing
General Education Areas Fulfilled: Writing Requirement, GE Area G Requirement
Catalog Course Entry: ENGL 140
Quarter: Spring 2016
Instructor:
Day(s): MW
Time: 3:30pm - 4:45pm
Location: GIRV 1119
Description:

This experimental course will consider a number of works of contemporary American fiction through the critical lens of encryption. Encryption is a process by which information is encoded in a form that is no longer directly readable. Encrypted information requires a “key” to reveal its original structure and meaning. In the age of digital information propagated through networks, encryption and de-encryption has become the dominant paradigm of meaning extraction, rather than, for example, access. Encrypted information is readily accessible, but not readily decodable. What might it mean to consider literature, a much older technology of encoding and decoding, through this lens? How have events and periods of American history been encrypted in narrative form, and what does its decryption, as a reading practice, tell us about either identity as a function of information sharing, or reading itself? We'll begin by reading Neil Stephenson's epic adventure novel about encryption and decryption techniques in both World War II and the modern dot-com startup era, Cryptonomicon. We will then move into more experimental territory with Don Dilillo's postmodern exploration of the assassination of JFK, Libra. This will then lead us to a speculative reading of Toni Morrison's equally postmodern novel about encrypting and decrypting the traumas of slavery, Beloved. Our final novel will be Mark Danielewski's bizarre, algorithmic work that recodes all of American history in a database-like form of poetics, Only Revolutions. Interspesed with these challenging works will be short stories, theoretical texts, and films that explore the concepts and practices of encryption, coding, and hacking.