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Codes, Ciphers, and the Spy Thriller

Although codes have existed for thousands of years, modern cryptography did not emerge until the beginning of the twentieth century, when new communication technologies made possible the invention of mechanical code-making and code-breaking systems. While Friedrich Kittler suggests, in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, that the development of such systems and their use by intelligence agencies made the spy herself an obsolete dimension of modern espionage, the persistence of the spy-hero alongside sophisticated coding and decoding techniques is a key characteristic of the genre in popular as well as high cultural texts of the modernist period. From John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) to Ian Fleming’s From Russia, with Love (1957), a fascination with codes, coded messages, and code-cracking has featured prominently in modern fictional representations of the factual, but mysterious world of spies and spy organizations. This panel seeks to explore the extent to which codes can be understood as a language of modernism. As the secret language of the world’s “second oldest profession,” codes and ciphers are superbly transgressive, linguistically and epistemologically liminal, occupying the shadowy thresholds between opposing structures of power, language, and knowledge. Yet the spy thriller, the preeminent literary venue for modern cryptography and an immensely popular genre, is often seen as formally conventional, even formulaic. How do the generic conventions of the spy thriller interact with the codes that play such an important role in their stories of suspense and intrigue? What can codes tell us about the relationship between the spy thriller and literary modernism? And what can the presence of codes, a highly experimental form of language, in the spy thriller tell us about the status of linguistic experimentation in European culture during the historical period associated with modernism? We welcome papers examining any aspect of codes and code-breaking in the spy thriller in any media (film, literature, radio, advertising, pulp magazines, etc.), ranging chronologically from the earliest instances of the spy genre to its contemporary incarnations.

Conference Location: Montreal, Canada
Conference Starts: November 05, 2009
Conference Ends: November 08, 2009

CFP Submission Deadline: May 04, 2009

For more information, contact: Colin Gillis and Patrick Belk

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