Reliquary for the Digital in Nine Key Words ζ or B. or □ / Protocol, Control, Permutation / Francisco Robles and Stephen Yeager


LEFT COLUMN (Stephen Yeager)
The membranes mark it as an extracted growth, or something shed, or a plastic tool that either age or fire has robbed of its industrial gleam. It seems in any event to be the remnant of some unfolding, which hides inside it clues about its origins and one-time purpose.

In his influential book Protocol, Alexander Galloway has designated protocol a key component of the internet’s structure which is amenable to distribution and antagonistic to hierarchy.1 The screeching “handshake” protocols of dial-up modem connections did not only define the speed and format of data transfers but also conveyed information about the modems themselves, as for example the protocols signalled by the handshakes had specified the maximum drift frequencies and maximum power outputs that the hardware should allow. These protocols and standards were themselves produced by the laboratory protocols of R&D at Bell Labs, which applied time-tested scientific methodologies to discover what happened when these maximums were exceeded. Any “protocol” that makes insufficient recourse to the sum totality of the embodied histories and practices behind it is incomplete at best, and may in fact just be an improvisation in disguise.

As Galloway observes, protocol is also a form of control, a term whose theoretical resonances situate it at the intersection of structure, organization, and periodization. Galloway identifies Kittler’s 1800 and Foucault’s Classical eighteenth century as two descriptions of a single era of sovereignty, while Kittler’s 1900 and Foucault’s modernity are an era of discipline.2 Following Deleuze’s “Postscript on Control Societies,” Galloway asks whether digital technology has begun a third, new era of control via distribution.3 The term “control” itself derives from another medieval documentary format, in this case the second set of books kept by an auditor named the “counter-roll” in medieval French and in Latin.4 This original sense continues in the office of “city controller,” which typically monitors the use of public funds, and also in the “control” of a science experiment. To be “in control” in this original sense is to have full access to all of the books, and to know what the real data actually says. A “control society” in these terms, then, is not so much one where “knowledge is power” as it is one in which this phrase is axiomatic, and so the pursuit of hidden knowledge shapes the strategies of all actors for gaining, sharing, and/or challenging power.

Permutation combines the prefix per- (“thoroughly”) with mutatio (“change”) to mean simply an alteration, substitution, or exchange. The mathematical protocols that defined this term more specifically as the enumerated possible orderings of a given set did not arise until the seventeenth century.5 The concept has become a key one in not only game theory but also in media arts, especially digital interactive fiction.6 It also has a long-standing presence in experimental poetry, including for example the “Typewriter Poems” of bpNichol.7

The connection between the mystical creation of permutations in the medieval kabbala and the affordances of the digital computer is a major theme in Umberto Eco’s prophetic novel Foucault’s Pendulum (1988), in which a character named Belbo owns a word processor that he names after the kabbalist Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia (1240-91 CE). Over the course of the novel, Belbo and his friends use Abulafia’s computational power to weave a disparate set of occult superstitions and conspiracy theories—not least of which concern the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion which are the subject of Eco’s later novel The Prague Cemetery (2010)—into a single narrative encompassing all of history, in a game they call The Plan. An alliance of paleoconservatives, science skeptics, fascists, and charlatans come to believe in the truth of this Plan, and as a consequence they kidnap and murder Belbo.

Belbo’s name is only one of the novel’s homages to Eco’s fellow medievalist-novelist, JRR Tolkien. In The Fellowship of the Ring, there is a scene where the nine companions wish to enter the mines of Moria, but they are puzzled by the inscription around the door: “speak, friend, and enter.” Eventually they realize that this is a straightforward handshake protocol: “say the word ‘friend’ and the door will open.”8 Eco’s novel begins with his own version of the same “riddle”: Causabon, the novel’s narrator, tries to access a set of files on Abulafia and he receives the prompt: “Do you know the password?” Remembering the namesake of the computer, he prints out a full list of the 722 permutations of the 6 letters of the name of God: IAHVEH. None of them are the password. Finally, in frustration, Causabon answers the prompt honestly: “No.” This is the correct answer, and he is granted access to the files.9 No task is more difficult to the historian or critic than the obvious, surface-level interpretation of objects ready to hand: transparency is so unexpected that when it occurs it seems like a trick.

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RIGHT COLUMN (Francisco Robles)

To me, one of Jen Reich’s sculptures looks like a set of lungs. Maybe that’s a covidetermined reading, or maybe it really is a set of lungs. These wire lungs can’t collect air, can’t expand and contract or sustain human life, but air moves through them pretty easily. Human structures do provide housing for other creatures, other fauna and flora, and I’m reminded of sunken boats that have become reefs, or of houses whose exteriors develop tiny points of ingress, which birds, beetles, spiders, rats, salamanders, squirrels, raccoons, and possums take advantage of. The wires are like the first stages of a spider’s web, with its wide outlines and anchoring threads, or of the type of nest some birds build, with guiding sticks and long strands of harder material shaping the form that the nest will become.

When it’s flipped, though, Reich’s sculpture looks like a wire angel, or a bird in mid-flight (this reminds me that a friend kept calling COVID, Corvid). Another angle makes it look like a dragon sniffing the ground. Lungs or flight. Indeterminacy gets a new description in Kevin Ball’s essay, when he notes that “Thompson’s intervention, in the interstices of the false binary of Human and Computer, is his exploration of the speculative modality that is the Problem: the creative composition of the pieces, positional excerpts of play rendered as enigma.” Positions posed as problems, as permutations derived from specific games but as applicable in other games and their own open-ended permutations.

When the sculpture is dipped into that resin-like substance, that brown-yellow stretches from wire to wire, a spreading and filling and dripping marked by a perfect protocol (nature’s mathematics) that can only ever make its appearance as randomness (in our universe, even symmetry can appear as random!). At the very end of his essay, Omari Weekes says that “Spillers invites us to read novels for the chaos that they are rather than for the unitary wholes we want them to be.” Weekes, with Spillers, suggests an approach to reading that openly admits to moving with the work it considers, a critical approach that understands reading (and writing about reading) as a committed, expansive, and knowledge-oriented encounter. A learnedness dedicated to unlearning how we’ve often done reading, which makes it an unlearning that sees possibilities expanding in wonderful fractals (thank you Mayra Santos-Febres and José Arturo Ballester Panelli and Electric Marronage).

Both Spillers and Jacques Derrida end their most famous essays with sentences on “monstrosity,” arguing for protocols that offer different ideas of control and its formal possibilities—importantly, refusing control as pure restriction or as a function of normativity. Derrida and Spillers suggest that what too often gets called monstrous (“a species of the non-species,” says Derrida) is in fact a permutation we haven’t yet considered, a permutation whose enigmas are uncontrollable and wonderful.

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  1. Alexander R. Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2004).
  2. Galloway, Protocol, p. 18; citing Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1978); Friedrich Kittler, Discourse Networks 1800 / 1900, trans. Michael Metteer and Chris Cullens (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990).
  3. Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societies,” in Negotiations, 1972-1990, trans. Martin Joughin (New York, 1995), pp. 177-182.
  4. See also Chun, Control and Freedom, p. 4.
  5. OED Online, “Permutation s.v.,” def. 3.b.
  6. Nick Montfort, Twisty Little Passages (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005).
  7. bpNichol, The Alphabet Game, ed. Lori Emerson and Darren Wershler-Henry (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2007).
  8. JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (Boston: Harper Collins, 2007), pp. 397-401.
  9. Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum, trans. William Weaver (New York: Harvest, 2007), pp. 28-43.
Francisco E. Robles
Francisco E. Robles is Assistant Professor of English, Latino Studies, and Gender Studies at the University of Notre Dame. His writing appears in: Killing the Buddha; Post45: Contemporaries; MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States; Post45: Peer Reviewed; the New Mexico Historical Review; sxsalon; and in Decolonizing Latinx Masculinities (edited by Frederick Luis Aldama and Arturo Aldama).
Stephen Yeager
Stephen Yeager is an associate professor of English at Concordia University in Montreal. His co-edited collection Old Media and the Medieval Concept is the first volume in the “Media Before 1800” series at Concordia University Press. His current book project Data, Games, Networks, Realms: The Forms of Digital Culture traces the interrelationship between the embodied apparatus of medieval organizations and the conceptual frameworks of digital platforms. His writing has appeared in Critical Inquiry, English Language Notes, Traditio, Gothic Studies, Arthuriana, The Chaucer Review, and The Yearbook of Langland Studies.