Reliquary for the Digital in Nine Key Words γ or X. or □ / On the Protocols of Hortense Spillers / Omari Weekes

If “protocol,” a word denoting the systems of rules that govern the operation and organization of various groups and institutions, comes with a set of associations that range from rigidity to convention, the work of Black feminist literary critic Hortense Spillers provides much-needed elasticity to the term. Spillers’ work, which engages structuralism, poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, and other literary and cultural theories, exposes how these schools of criticism can resonate within readings of Black literature and life even if they were developed without Black people in mind. Though a meticulous reading of the emergent protocols of Black studies in Spillers’ scholarship goes beyond the scope of this short essay, tracking the deployment of the term “protocol” across a few essays in the collection of her work, Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture, showcases the play at the heart of establishing the protocols of Black Studies almost at the same time that those protocols are scrutinized both from within the field and from outside of it.

“Peter’s Pan: Eating in the Diaspora,” the introduction to the volume, sutures a few different essays into one protracted meditation on the past, present, and future trajectories of Spillers’ own scholarship. In that essay, “protocol” refers to the cultivation of a space between the unbridled self-advocacy of Black activism outside of the university and the institutional constraints of working within it. As she argues, “Suddenly a curricular object, ‘Black Studies’ was the name in the morning of a set of impulses that had been called the ‘movement’ only the night before. It is not customary that a studies protocol discloses either its provenance or its whereabouts. By the time it teaches us, it has already acquired the sanction of repetition, the authority of repression, and the blessings of time and mimesis so that, effectually, such a protocol now belongs to the smooth natural order of the cultural.”1 Here, Spillers liberates “protocol” from its own stodgy connotations in order to emphasize the play that she enacted as one of the progenitors of a field of literary criticism that came out of the untidy flourishes and “pre-theoretical” contributions of Black thinkers during and since enslavement and would need to be systematized in order to be made legible to tenure committees. Much in accordance with Derrida’s claims that play constitutes “the disruption of presence” and “the interplay of absence and presence,” Spillers characterizes the protocols of Black studies as doing the playful work of decentering the structural presence(s) of literary criticism and rupturing the orthodoxies of critique’s protocols—a protocol of decentered protocols, so to speak.2 By intervening in the space between the work of Black intellectuals before Black Studies and those coming after it, Spillers’ writing navigated through an anxiety around what an enterprise coming out of the Black Power movement could be when faced with the stultifying machine of the university.

Spillers’ most well-known essay, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” tarries through this anxiety by unsettling, developing, and theorizing the category of the Human. In taking Black women as the entry point into our consideration of that category, the incoherently coherent discourses of slavery, an institution that appraised Black people as both superhuman and non-human, demand a protocol of reading that makes sense of the disjuncture between Blackness and the Human as more than mere entropy. Spillers’ insistence on how slavery’s violences continue to encumber upon those living in the afterlife of slavery provides us with an episteme of racial relations that refuses specificity and parochialism, what scholars like Sharon Patricia Holland have argued has often been a majoritarian critique of the field of African American studies.

The meta-discourse around critical fields in that introduction make way for “Black, White, and in Color or Learning to Paint: Toward an Intramural Protocol of Reading,” which presents an example of how new interpretive methods for attending to Black literature move us into new realms of knowledge production. Here, an “intramural protocol of reading” refers to the discomfiting recognition within the reader that our interpretive skills are shaped by our personal library of experiences. In a dexterous reading of a brief scene of Carnival in Bourneville—the imagined Caribbean community of Paule Marshall’s The Chosen Places, The Timeless People—Spillers cautions especially African American readers to be cognizant of how their ideological assumptions, forged in a timespace external to the diasporic location of Marshall’s novel, will inflect upon their interpretation of the social relations being narrated. In essence, a shared Blackness between reader and character does not unlock all of the text’s meaning. Some of the vexed intimacies that emerge in that novel (a closeted character who could be read as a source of white queer contagion and the violences that are levied against Black women, for instance) are formed in the backstairs of a Caribbean community in crisis and flux and would need to be read as such. Spillers reads the novel for a set of speculations that come into being through “an elaboration and complication of competing, overlapping, and complementary discourses.”3  In attending to how a clashing of African-Caribbean and European sensibilities foment a distinctive libidinal economy—a protocol of intimate relations rooted in the place in which they emerge—Spillers invites us to read novels for the chaos that they are rather than for the unitary wholes that we want them to be.

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  1. Spillers, Hortense. “Peter’s Pans: Eating in the Diaspora.” In Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture, 1-64. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003): 3.
  2. Ibid., 292.
  3. Spillers, Hortense. “Black, White and in Color, or Learning How to Paint: Toward an Intramural Protocol of Reading.” In Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture, 277-300. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003): 279.