Kylan Rice is a PhD student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studies nineteenth-century literature. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Colorado State University. His poems and prose can be found at Kenyon Review, The Seattle Review, and elsewhere. His book reviews have been published by Colorado Review, West Branch, Carolina Quarterly, The Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin, and elsewhere. He has scholarship forthcoming in Women’s Studies.
Zach Savich: “Cryptography” starts with a fact, followed by a “perhaps.” Could you discuss the relationship between research and wondering, facts and perhaps, in this piece? When you were writing it, how did you think about its balance of representation and speculation?
Kylan Rice: In the case you’ve cited, I believe I owe this particular speculation to Nicholas Rescher’s research on Leibniz’s cryptography machine, footnoted in the preceding sentence. But in broader terms, I think that “critical fabulation” (to mis-use Sadiya Hartman’s phrase) is one of the special possibilities afforded by the intimacies of research, as well as the genre of the essay. Increasingly fascinated, you lean in closer to your object of study, aided perhaps by a speculum or lens, from which reduced, researched distance you can overhear your object’s tinier, metabolic sounds. And you begin to fathom where the thing at hand really starts and stops, its limits, and there in that knowledge empty space starts to gather and funnel and widen out around the object, a kind of reverse focusing. And if you allow your eye to wander, it turns out what surrounds the object isn’t empty at all, but a thickness, a solid flesh, as the philosopher Merleau-Ponty envisioned it. In fact, what surrounds your object, its background, its context, its fleshy entanglements, is the medium that supports its existence. Speculation is a kind of ultrasound, or sonar looking-around, the scanning of a radius to determine something’s place and nature.
I have been thinking lately about what language does to facts, which is to say, to reality. I have been thinking about what it means to say something simply, as straightforwardly as possible (unlike these responses). It seems to me what language does is always make what is given (what is a given) more complex, sometimes more complicated than it needs to be. A kind of encryption. But in that complication, that labyrinth, there crop up unexplored passages and possibilities. So I think to put a fact in language is somehow always to speculate on it—but perhaps in the economic sense of speculation, in which a profit, an excess, comes of trading on it.
ZS: “But if the world is encrypted, who is its cryptographer? And why? What is there to hide?” the essay asks. Among other things, it explores ways in which reading a code makes us part of a code–rather than eliminating it. Is the point of a code to get a message through?
KR: The primary function of a code is the opposite of communication. A code enforces privacy, eyes-only. It exists because a secret exists. The effect of secret-keeping is conspiracy, which, etymologically, means to “breathe together.” At the high price of almost total exclusion, a code describes an intimacy. To make a Freudian leap, and keeping with the intimacies at play in my essay, this coupled breathing is the site of life and sex, of eros and daemonic force, the only instinct opposing the death drive, which is embedded in all things and which pulls all things back into quiescence—but it is also a site of shame, ashamed because the couple, domestic, closeted away, fails to participate in the public sphere, the wider world.
Is it possible to say that there would be no life without code? That life is encrypted, down to the microcellular level? That politics with its laws and prescriptions is always thanopolitics, deathly in that it militates against intimacy and privacy, deathly in its decryptions? Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. Against clear delineations, strict borders, the vital world encrypts itself—something there is—the crypt in fact the cradle of life.
But what, then, to make of the fact that the code, at least for Leibniz, is inherently political, reserved for princes? Remember that for Leibniz, cryptography was simply the obverse of algebra, which was, in its turn, simply a way of describing a rational, harmonizing, essentially musical universe. Hence his use of the clavichord’s keyboard in the design for his machine. Maybe we shouldn’t fully trust a philosopher who saw the world as solvable, as soluble, and in many ways hierarchical. What is solid and alive and elusive in a world that can be decoded? One of the aims of this essay was to show how the endless task of encryption and decryption always gets away from the code-master. The code breaks the code-making and -breaking machine. The cryptographic act becomes a spore, a different kind of communication or communicability, a contagion or vector, more deeply entangling.
ZS: The essay’s narration is companioned by K, by Joyce, by Emerson, by Leibniz, by many figures and phrases. Perhaps, we see the essay’s voice largely through these relations. How do you think about what constitutes the “personal” (or “the speaker”) in this essay?
KR: Perhaps one of the central insights of “Cryptography” is that the world and the lives in it are indissolubly entangled. Every voice is a choral voice. Though plural, I wonder if it is useful to think of the chorus in the Greek tragedy as the most personal voice: it is the chorus who rejoices, who mourns, who reacts with earnest emotion to the action of the play, whose reactions mark narrative progress. But the chorus also resides curiously outside of the drama, on the periphery of the story, disabled but vocal, witnessing and feeling and paralyzed by all. In the face of the world’s complexity, which is just to say our increasing, mediated access to what has always been an unsolvable knot of events and desires and violences, logistics and flows of energy and matter—in the face of all this, I wonder sometimes if to sing in chorus is not simply all we can do (a chorus is precisely what I am), but also our holiest goal.
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Cryptography Kylan Rice