Reliquary for the Digital in Nine Key Words ξ or D. or □ / Code, Distribution, Program / Omari Weekes, Mary Zaborskis, Stephen Yeager


Left Column (Mary Zaborskis and Omari Weekes) 

How do racialized and queer subjects persist within / against / in spite of programs designed to suppress, erase, or assimilate that very persistence? Is the temporality of persistence in excess of or absorbed by culturally-sanctioned programs and codes for normality and respectability? Nevertheless she persisted, but whose persistence gets recognized and acknowledged, and whose is a Sisyphean state of liminality, loss, and concessions?

What if our archives reify the codes of conduct that Black life often refuses? As scholars like Katherine McKittrick, Saidiya Hartman, and C. Riley Snorton have argued, our apprehensions of the archive are often too determined by what is legible, knowable, and capturable—adjectives stuck to objects and people by way of racist, sexist, and anti-queer institutions. Colleges and universities distribute intelligibility as they see fit, forcing that which has often resisted decipherment for the purposes of safety and comfort (e.g., Black interiority, Black organizing, Black conviviality) to be made accessible via algorithms, search engines, and metadata. What is at stake when we codify bringing the darkness into the light as an always already ethical practice? What if we were to consider what the last line of Toni Morrison’s Beloved urges us to ponder over—that perhaps there are stories that are not the ones to pass on?


Right Column (Stephen Yeager)

Perhaps it is not itself a whole, and somewhere there is something more to it. Perhaps it has come loose, unattached. Perhaps the flesh was eaten off of something, perhaps it withered and died. Perhaps a seed germinated. If we attended to its persistence then we would discover what it does and does not do. But perhaps these discoveries would mislead us.

A program was originally a notice displayed in public (the prefix pro- meaning “before” and gramma meaning “words,” as in “grammar”). The “program” of a recital or play publicly displays the sequence of events that will make up the performance, so that the audience can know what will happen and the performers can know what to do. So similarly is a program literally pro-scriptive, communicating and mandating a plan in the same, unified gesture. A computer program similarly defines and publicizes—to those  empowered to access and interpret its underlying code—the series of operations that will follow when that program is executed. The structure of these operations typically follows the logic of hierarchy, to only activate lower-level subroutines when higher-level subroutines determine they are necessary: “IF condition X arises, THEN perform action Y, UNTIL condition Z arises.” Public programs similarly organize and divide human activity as a mechanism of control, and such operations are heavily dependent upon the infrastructure of communications media that can “program” the members of that public to respond to emergent circumstances in accordance with pre-defined patterns of thought and action.

The rise of distribution (commonly contrasted with hierarchy) as the overarching structure of control diagrams in telephony networks may be rooted in the transition from “circuit switching” to “packet switching.” When phone networks were first built, operators manipulated wires to establish a single electrical circuit connecting callers to each other. Hence the high cost of long distance: the wires could not carry more than one call at a time, and the further the distance the more wires were taken up. Eventually digital technologies were developed that converted signals into packets of information, which go across wires piecemeal to be reassembled on the other side. This meant there was no longer any need to have a single shared apparatus of wires; the task of transmission could be distributed across multiple overlapping networks. The result was the deregulation of telecommunications and the end of the Bell monopoly.

In the Roman Republic, citizens were organized into voting units called tribus (“tribes”), a name that appears to be closely related to the verb tribuo (“to divide or share”). By the end of the classical period the word tribus had lost its more specific civic sense to become more like our modern word “tribe.” The word’s evolution from a name for one unit of a larger whole into a name for an isolated group antagonistic towards outsiders reflects the slow dissolution of central authority in Rome into the more contingent networks of affiliation that would characterize power in Latin-Christian Europe until the modern era. This loss of a shared, collective center is the implicit aim of “distribution” as a philosophy of network architecture.

When the center returned to Europe it did so through the Church, and more precisely the office of the papacy. In the later Middle Ages the papal curia was an appellate court for all of Europe, whose protocols recorded decisions binding plaintiffs, defendants, and their successors to follow them. The laboratory of this bureaucracy was the law school at the University of the Bologna, and at the heart of the curriculum was the corpus iuris civilis (“body of civil law”) of late Roman legal texts, which incidentally contains important attestations of the Greek loan words πρόγραμμα (program) andπρωτόκολλον (protocol). One of the most important texts in this corpus was the Codex Iustinianus compiled at the order of the emperor Justinian I (482-565 CE). This “codex” is the original legal code, whose systematic structure of organization (developed for ease of reference) appears to be the reason the term became a synonym for “cipher” in the nineteenth century.

“Codex” meanwhile means simply “book,” and it is derived from caudex (“block of wood,” as reflects the wooden covers of early codices). A caudex was also a tree trunk or, by analogy, a block of wood to which slaves were bound as a form of punishment. Seutonius says that the first Roman to keep papyrus scrolls bound between two wooden blocks in the manner of a book was Julius Caesar, who also used a simple cipher for his private correspondence.1 Kittler paraphrases this history in the course of a brief essay on the term “code,” which argues that a “philosophy of code” governs our current historical epoch. He muses: “perhaps code means nothing more than codex did at one time: the law of precisely that empire that holds us in subjection and forbids us even to articulate this sentence.”2

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  1. Seutonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, trans. J.C. Rolfe (Oxford: Loeb Classical Library, 1913), Jul. 56, 79.
  2. Freidrich Kittler, “Code (or, How You Can Write Something Differently),” in Software Studies: A Lexicon, ed. Matthew Fuller (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), 40-47, 45.
Omari Weekes
Omari Weekes is an assistant professor of English and American Ethnic Studies at Willamette University. He is also Willamette's current Faculty Fellow for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. His current book project, Lurid Affinities: Sex and the Spirit in Contemporary Black Literature explores how Black writers in the late 20th century register deviance and spirituality not as antipodal ideas but as imbricated components of Black life. His writing has appeared in The Black Scholar, n+1, The Point, Literary Hub, and other venues.
Mary Zaborskis
Mary Zaborskis is an Assistant Professor of American Studies and Gender Studies at Penn State Harrisburg. She works at the intersection of queer, critical race, and childhood studies in twentieth-century and contemporary American literature and culture. Her work has appeared in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, WSQ, and Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. She is a series editor at Public Books, where she edits the Shoptalk and Quizzical features.
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.