Reliquary for the Digital in Nine Key Words α or I. or A. or 1. or □ / Introduction: The Reliquary in Time / Elizabeth Reich

This reliquary houses scholarly and artistic work on and from the present, though a reliquary is a protective structure from the past that mediates a sacred viewing. The problems of mediation, perspective, and protection for our important objects, are addressed by the collection in the reliquary, though the epistemological structures that prescribe the reliquary are ones we can’t fully remove from its modes of revelation and presentation. These are signs and successes of the history* that survived through suppression of the histories that formed it, and which has now become a dominant, oppressive structure itself. As discursive forms, the pieces within the reliquary are also exemplars of how our methods retroactively determine what we can discover and produce as forms of study, art, and the sacred, for display. All of the pieces here critique in some form the violence that has produced the University and its study, though using the tools provided by the University (even if through its undercommons). The art and analyses that comprise this collection also offer alternative ontologies, new or underrepresented epistemologies, and many also explore the praxis of the counter-futures Kwodo Eshun argues are already co-present with us.

In her interview with scholar Cynthia Quarrie, artist Jen Reich noted that her recent body of work might be all but impossible to display in the dimensions available to art, display, and viewing today. Perhaps a something like reliquary might provide the right scale and apparatus for housing and presenting the tiny sculptures whose photographic representations appear here. Co-editor Stephen Yeager and I were moved by the need for the reliquary Reich and Quarrie described, its imaginative formation as a collaborate solution from the past for a truly contemporary problem of how to make and show art from within the intense pressures imposed by the current economic, geographic, biopolitical, gendered, and racial crises in Detroit and the United States today, where Reich lives and works. We also hoped that the three-dimensional space, even if only imaginary or recreated through a four dimensional and participatory engagement with the digital and academic publishing, would provide room for the dimensionality of movement and time(s) we wished to animate here in this cluster in so many different ways.

The problems of making recourse to a reliquary here are taken up, at least obliquely, by the collection as a whole; and more pointedly, by Yeager’s longer essay, “Medieval Forms and Digital Formats.” The fact of the reliquary as a surviving phenomenon and the work it does to the pieces within, as its own oppressive structure that, in its formation, has surely overrepresented and suppressed equally viable alternative forms and histories of preservation, of making sacred, and of visual mediation. In addition, there is a value in exploring what kind of media form, if any, a reliquary might be, especially if it is reduced to a partially two-dimensional concept or imagined form rather than embodied in its traditional three-dimensional shape. Or perhaps the reliquary may be both media and mediation, and, in addition, a kind of protocol or program itself as we hope to offer it here as a mode and method for care-driven and quantifiably rather than qualitatively contained engagement with the cluster.

This particular reliquary presents nine essays that engage key words about the digital, along with six additional complementary written pieces, three of which contain two pieces, bringing the total to another nine—or eleven if you include this Introduction and the Conclusion, which also act as forms of housing and containment—and a range of photographs of sculptures and an original video piece. The works collected altogether are also the reliquary itself, along with our editorial labor, the protocols that have shaped it and the contributions, the ASAP/J publication, format, site, and platform, and, depending on your philosophical perspective, your engagement(s) here. The reliquary and its offerings, by living and ongoing design, have been shaped through a collaborative, dialogic, as well as asynchronous and divergent conversation inaugurated by a single protocol and organized along the away and afterwards both by the nature of the content itself and also through additional collaborative processes.

Some words on writing, the contributors, and history*, before concluding introducing. In his essay, “The Index Has No Referent: on Saturation and Hierarchy,” John Landreville describes his concept of “weird flesh,” which I believe is a useful one for consideration in this Introduction and the cluster broadly, and which also evokes the ritual and impure, and intersects unexpectedly with discussions of the “flesh” in Black Studies as well as notions embodiment and performativity central to Queer Studies and Mary Zaborski’s essay on drag kids, “Distributing Gender.” If you read the Interview by (Jen) Reich and Quarrie or simply view Reich’s sculptures or video you will certainly find a number of forms of weird flesh there, including a visceral discussion of viscera and human and non-human tissue that had almost become human. Reconsiderations of epistemologies and the problem of the human also recur in many of the articles, along with questions about the potentially-human body in time and resistant and collectivist ways of being embodied to register and/or act on sociopolitical dissent and/or transmit important knowledge Francisco Robles’s essay, “Control,” Issraa Faiz’s “Vernacular Memory and the Program in Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust,” Omari Weeks’s “On the Protocols of Hortense Spillers,” and my piece, “Code, the Black Shibboleth, and Demonic Cartography in Lovecraft Country” particularly engage these ideas and problematics of embodiment and the (non)human, perhaps in part because our four pieces are those most shaped by our disciplinary commitment to Black Studies. Shakti Jaising’s essay, From Roma to Parasite: Structure versus Process,” and Kevin Balls’, “Towards the Afro Ludens,” and Steven Shaviro’s “ENDLESS JANUARY: Moses Sumney’s “Me in 20 Years”” present three yet different approaches to similar questions of what kinds of bodies can appear or be registered in relationship to time, mediation, and power through material also at the intersection of critical race studies as well. This weird flesh and its primary veins of thought—or at least the ones I have found most pronounced—were not the plan, though I am not surprised by them given the contributors fields and broader works. But I have been somewhat awed by how the focus on computing terminology as a protocol, and Yeager’s work on medievalism as a inciting thought and later text, have resulted in a project that has a kind of materiality that reminds me of the thin layers of skin or possibly the dimensionally, and often diagonally or windingly connected and interconnected and usually multiply connected tissues, organs, and structures of an organic animal body.

Of course any writing can be made to take a shape, or represent one, but in this case the project and protocols of the writing and the act of thinking and creating and collaborating in the writing and rewriting and commenting on writing is what has become the viscera and made the dimensionality here.

The inciting approach to the historical is described in Stephen Yeager’s essay, “Medieval Forms and New Media Formats,” which, along with his other contributions describe how the cumulative, literal weight of the history* at the University delimits both the parameters of thought and the apparatus of its organization. He argues there that the unprecedented advances in media technology have only ever bound us more tightly to this problematic precedent. The initial protocol of offering twelve key terms for contributors to choose from and then engaging their writings in Yeager’s conversation between new media and the medieval was reiterated and then new protocol were added to its outcomes. The new programs intensified the older one’s emphasis on collaboration, arbitrariness, and the artistic and/or poetic.

Because of the many ways the cluster engages with the historical, and in particular because Yeager’s primary essay and disciplinarity emerge out of his language and legal studies from time (and set of locations) that at least as much if not much more than many others marks the success and supremacy of what will become dominant cultural, racial, religious, methodological, juridical, epistemological, and discursive regimes of power today, we want to conclude by pointing to one of the fundamentally fallacies in the operative construction of “history” and what it may occlude. We have already noted that the historical becomes such through its suppression of histories; and the excavation of history is delimited in advance by the methods we use and have made into methodology, just as the objects we might fight are further legible to us only withing the discourses we have developed with which to translate and supplement their materiality. Another fault in “history” as a concept is its established location in the past, where it can never be when we consider it and only is because of our inventions of time*.

An expanded version of Zaborski’s essay on the life-times and futures excluded from Drag Kids, which would include also a discussion of how time can drag or simply does for different subjects*, Saidiya Hartman’s idea of “critical fabulation” as a practice for recovering and repairing histories not recorded and Kwodo Eshun’s sketch of the search for a counter-history by people from the future provide what are not only ideas but also ongoing praxis for resisting the violence of history today. The imperative to recognize the counter-futures already here, and live in the what Ashon Crawley has called the “otherwise possibilities” already occurring and build new ones together is a commitment for all of us gathered by this cluster that is also a reliquary. We can’t yet shed the apparatus of the historical or its effects and the fact that our subjectivities and what we know how to say and think and perhaps be are already seriously circumscribed by the same apparatuses, but we can offer the whole of what we know to point to and our best effort at being in conversation in the present to produce a new portals to alternative forms and flows of what is becoming and may be in time.

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Elizabeth Reich
Elizabeth Reich is Assistant Professor of Film Studies in the Department of English at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research focuses on the intersections of Black Studies, digital media, Afrofuturism, and social movements in historical, global, and transnational contexts. She is author of Militant Visions: Black Soldiers, Internationalism and the Transformation of American Cinema and her co-edited collection, Justice in Time: Critical Afrofuturism and the Struggle for Black Freedom, is under contract at University of Minnesota Press. She is currently working on a coedited special issue of Film Criticism, “Black Film Feminisms” and is also coeditor of “New Approaches to Cinematic Identification,” a special issue of Film Criticism. Her next monograph is on time and reparation, and recent essays have appeared in ASAP Journal, Film Criticism, Screen, Post45, ASAP/J, World Records Journal, and African American Review. Liz is a contributing editor to ASAP/J and serves on the editorial board of Film Criticism.