Reliquary for the Digital in Nine Key Words ω or XI. or E. or 5. or □ / The Protocol of Concluding / Elizabeth Reich


This cluster is the result of collaboration around a protocol  (please see the Introduction for more on the protocol) that imposed disciplinary dissonance and organized randomized forms for reiterated engagement with ideas, objects, approaches, art, and scholarship by other contributors. It has also been shaped by necessity and scarcity in the academe, as well as the capaciousness of the space and focus of ASAP/J, where I pitched this project in my capacity as contributing editor. My initial idea was to build a conversation around Stephen Yeager’s new work on medievalism’s new media through soliciting short pieces on any objects of the present by humanities scholars. These scholars would each also address a key term related to computing from a set Stephen would create. Stephen’s project matters to me because it historicizes and reconceptualizes as continuities what the academy has long maintained as divisions among disciplines, technologies, and socio-political life. To me, resisting these divisions is one way of laying bare the University’s role outside the academy in justifying and sustaining the more harmful neoliberal divisions built on these disciplinary ones – using professors, students, and state money for education as agents for precluding, occluding, and delegitimizing efforts to fight global inequities and power.

The University and the Undercommons in Protocol

The University has its undercommons, as Stefano Harney and Fred Moten have so poetically and forcefully described, a place where many of us work or stay or live because we have been pushed out of the small still-common places at the University or in the nation or globe. This is an active place of resistance to the University and its reproduction, as well as an incubator for broader forms of resistance. The term “commons” has referred variously to many spaces, but it especially has been used to denote those place organized by law that were common or unregulated prior to legislation, regulation, and privatization of land and peoples’ relationships to it. Because these “common” spaces remained still identifiable geographically, culturally, and  perhaps even economically in their uses even after the efforts of the state’s jurisprudence, these places received or maintained names that represented their commonness as the gift of the law rather than its theft. The privatization of time, space, and land is different philosophically from the maintenance of the commons as common by the state and/or the holding common by a state that is also socialist/communist. I have nevertheless roughly condensed the two here because: 1) the notion of the common in stark contradistinction to anything else is still largely a product, in both situations, of a purportedly “modern” moment at which rule and regulation began to organize time and land differently. The commons that remain are vestiges of efforts to incorporate as well as render invisible through a discursive and juridical preservation that which was inherently unincorporated. The discursive invention of “the commons” marked the beginning – or perhaps conclusion – of that which a commons was supposed to provide; 2) the relationship between the state and neoliberal power and privatization in the globe, even and sometimes in particular, in the most professedly anticapitalist (and therefore philosophically commonly-held) system of land and property distribution continues to narrow dramatically with the effects of increased global trade and neoliberal structural adjustment.

So the undercommons of the University that Harney and Moten describe and within which and about which this cluster coheres. These undercommons are all at once a real, an imaginary, and a sought-after space that, despite its harsh conditions (which are material and felt), contain and provide for an undoing of its precarity or supplementality through operations like the Black Planning, Black Study, and the Fugitivity it hides, supports, and celebrates. The place and its methods are anti-disciplinary, in part because the disciplinarity of the University has created the place; and also because many of us there have been unable to operate or register in even the most basic ways within disciplinarity. Nonetheless, we do – however much we would choose not to as a means of resistance – still reproduce some of the discourse and discipline(s) we would resist. We continue to Study and Plan and hope that the kinds of haptics or otherwise practices will move us beyond this state of contradiction. I offer this detail about the undercommons – or at least the best parts of it (because the truly lonely places below the University, if they are even fully in the undercommons, are quite awful) – because I cannot disarticulate from that location the protocol or products of this cluster. And I believe that it is important to explain as clearly as I can how and why this academic publication has been created, what I know about its limitations and the ways in which it may impose them on you even if we contributors would wish it wouldn’t. This imperative feels particularly urgent here where both the founding idea and protocol for the cluster at once embodies and methodologically rehearses the tensions between the university and the undercommons, starting with the period, periodization, and discourse of the founding of the University itself.

The protocols for the cluster were therefore bound to reproduce an undercommons in various ways, one of which regards the idea of protocol itself, which I have come to understand more richly through this project. (For a description of the common and salient terms and forms of resistance and exploration in the nine key-word contributions (here, here, and here) that resulted from the initial protocol and its iterations, please see the Introduction and look in these essays themselves. Alternatively, read through the materials that came from the protocols these original pieces generated: short reflections by groupings of the key-word pieces by Stephen Yeager, Francisco Robles, Mary Zaborskis, Omari Weeks, and John Landreville; and material by Steven Shaviro and Jen Reich and Cynthia Quarrie that engaged directly with Jen Reich’s art pieces, as well as her pieces and artist statementthemselves.

Undercommon Protocols, Tunnels, and Rabbit Holes

By way of conclusion, I want to describe and discuss protocol and its relationship to something harder to define—anxiety1—which I believe is nonetheless inseparable from protocol (at the least in its relationship to temporality and pragmatics). And I want to then return—as this issue must as well—to the University and its nature as an institution that was designed to perform a structural relationship to its socio-political world that is also anxious. My thoughts here are also, to be frank, among my more cogent responses to my own surprise at what I found while researching, exploring, and writing about Black code for my keyword essay. While I knew that the HBO show Lovecraft Country (the object of my essay) is a text that proliferates meaning and invites (as well as depicts) searches that may be endless (though the indefinite temporality of each search is not always evident when beginning), I was still surprised by how many additional rabbit holes to endless searching I found as I traveled down more obvious rabbit holes. I struggled in writing not to get really lost.

I write “rabbit holes” because it is idiomatic, but the “holes” in Lovecraft are not rabbit ones nor are they merely metaphorical: one of the primary motifs and methods for travel, searching, and excavation in the show is human-built tunnels that go between domiciles and provide openings to the above-ground. A drawing of the tunnels in the show does not depict their connections to other places, but rather presents them as an awful root system for the unnatural generic heterotopic house of horror movies (and one of the genres mixed into as well as referenced by Lovecraft is horror). In Lovecraft, the tunnels were allegedly created for efficiency of movement by extraordinarily powerful, violent, and virulently racist White supremacists. Across the show, it becomes a set of givens that the tunnels often do not deliver the traveler to their intended destination. The tunnels are means for escape as well as transit. They are variable and have many qualities that may or may not be selected for or manipulated during a particular trip. I don’t know if the tunnels proliferated or reiterated across the series or if I merely felt that they did because I kept understanding their qualities differently; and I also don’t know how many of the proverbial rabbit holes I started down in my work were within or opened by the tunnels and the work they did in the show, and how many remained outside of this particular network. I did come to determine that Lovecraft’s tunnels were specifically earthy. They were stable in their difference from the above-ground and precarious in their maintenance of air and other forms of needed safety underground. The tunnels’ routes were both physical and metaphysical. Some were at times continuous in the present of the diegesis while others were temporally unpredictable, providing for or spontaneously inaugurating time-travel. They also were created in the fiction of the show to enable quick travel between places that were in fact geographically far apart, and which would in the above-ground physics require a very different quantity of time to travel. This means, therefore, that the tunnels were inherently temporal vehicles outside of the time most of us observe, even if they didn’t always appear to be.

I describe these tunnels in detail and in particular their relationship to time and White supremacy (in the show) because while my various anxieties (and forms of the same) about the University, academic publishing, this cluster and editing, and my own essay and rabbit hole temporalities are germane to my discussion of protocol, I also want to draw a clear connection between the tunnels as imaginative and discursive renderings and what can happen and may be in the undercommons. While the undercommons has perhaps some static qualities—of being metaphorically (and sometimes literally) below or in the bowls of the university, as well as comprised of those connected to the university but not fully embraced, or even able to stay, within it—it is most definitely not a still place. It is ontologically temporally unbound because of its impossible relationship to the epistemological structures that create University, capitalist socio-political, and state time(s); and sometimes when you go into it (or suddenly recognize that you are there), you do not end up where you would hope, or even anywhere you might know. And, especially, I am not sure that it would exist if it were not for the violences (and their ongoingness, too) of the conditions that created the University, especially but not only the translatlantic slave trade and indigenous genocide.

In short, where there are tunnels in, from, or leading to the undercommons of the University, I cannot completely disarticulate them from my experience of the tunnels in Lovecraft or any of the other phenomena and features I have described above. I believe now in ways I had not completely understood despite some of my worser experiences “below,” that the undercommons can be a very anxious place and time. And that is my illustration of the argument I am going to make more systematically and concretely about protocol.

The Protocol That Iterated and Became My Process

Though as a scholar I argue broadly the human, nonhuman, and technological are bound together (if distinct at all) and although I write on new media and various aspects and consequences of its specific technologies and metaphysics, I also am relatively ignorant about how computers and computing work. I often assume that areas I do not know much about are completely foreign from any thing I have ever understood – an assumption that operates despite its opposition to all of my scholarly assessments and beliefs – so I tend to stay away from even the vocabularies associated with the area I have decided I do not understand. I say this only to explain the depth to which it never would have occurred to me that all of us engage in and create protocols every day, and not just in a metaphoric sense. I also never would have believed that things I might feel could truly correspond to computer programs or computerized activity without extensive translation and comparison of dissimilar things. More simply, I now fancy that I feel like a computer and make things like one, too. Discourse and epistemology occlude not only our understanding of these truths but, at least in my case, also my experiencing of them as true.

What I have learned through my experience here, however, are two features of protocols I want to relate to my above discussion of disciplinarity and the University: 1) Though Wendy Chun’s 2005 book Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics, to which Yeager’s long essay refers, persuaded me (as I began reading in New Media Studies around the year of its release) that protocols are means of enforcement, I now understand the protocological in terms of its anxious – or anticipatory – function. Protocols are procedures we create in hopes of managing futures we can only narrowly predict and after the fact describe. I initially understood books like Control to offer analysis and arguments about how new media was repressive and also reorganized individual and collective resistance without betraying these organizing features or their effects. Now I have come to think of New Media Studies as a field developed in response to a widespread social anxiety, an anticipatory dread about an imaginary unstructured freedom that we never would have or could have had, but which we have come to believe (because we accept the epistemologies of autonomy, governance, the freemarket, etc.) might be curtailed. Our anxious protocols obscure apprehension of the truth that our belief we could have this freedom was never viable; so we do not see the foreclosure or narrowing of our freedoms as supported by the protocols (and New Media Studies) we run, thinking these may protect what we have left. 2) Running a protocol will usually require the protocol to be run again. So what happened to the protocological experiment of this cluster was, in a sense, predictable to those who understand why and how protocol functions. I would not have known because I was happily focused on the simple fact that I had come up with a protocol I knew to be an actual protocol in the context of computing and new media terms like protocol – and that it could be considered in collaboration with others who might or might not work on new media to produce scholarly and artistic discussion and aesthetics and publications.

Given the above, it should not have been a surprise that what happened when I gathered the initial contributions for this project and began working on them in an editorial conversation was not what I had initially planned. I decided that adding more contributors would be useful and solicited more pieces with the same protocol of asking them to write from their area of expertise on an art, object, or inquiry from the present while considering one of twelve key new media terms provided by Stephen. Along with the term, I offered a brief word on Stephen’s project and explained that he would, in accordance with my original plan, write a brief response to each piece engaging via a methodology related to the argument he was making about new media and medievalism. What I did in soliciting new contributions was “iterate” the initial protocol. The first protocol had produced something that just didn’t seem like enough, so I ran it again, with mostly the same conditions as before. Then I ran it again. Then I saw that part two of the plan, that Stephen respond to each piece, would no longer be appropriate or realistic. So I changed that protocol. A contributor dropped out and I accepted two more, and then one of those dropped out at the same time as I realized I should solicit art or an artist to engage with the scholars or be one of them.

The artist’s presence, the work she offered, and her questions about how to present this work—as well as whether she should also have a keyword (she did choose one)—and how or what to use the keyword for, necessitated that I reconsider the shape of the project, if not its nature, design, and protocols. I also was asked to provide additional protocols for the integration and presentation of the art pieces in relation to the cluster of keyword essays. I recognized that I either needed additional protocols or to change those protocols now in progress (which were the new ones regarding part two, in particular) in order to foster further connections between the multiplying pieces, which simultaneously were continuing to change dialogue resulting from my ongoing editing and my circulation of some of the photos of the artist’s work from which she would choose what to add. The project had grown more than three-times the size I had thought it might be, and so I asked that Stephen also coedit with me. This changed protocols as well, and I also was now assigned work (by Stephen) with protocols I had not designed. It is clear that the structural elements of the project shaped its form and vice versa, and that all of these aspects of the cluster not only organized but also co-created its content and meanings (described in more detail in the Introduction).

Lesson on A Final Iteration

Through this experience, and as editor for the products of the protocols and this cluster as a whole, I have come to realize that my process mirrored the nature of protocol and also provided evidence of qualities and affects of protocol as a formal structure that I would not have thought inhered in it.

Or there cannot or may not be affect in protocol. It depends on the epistemology through which we (choose to) understand the protocological. The determination may also be affected by whether or not the protocol is provided by or run for or operational within: the ranks or systems of the super-structural; the undercommons; bodies that articulate conscious feelings of embodiment and count as embodied beings within the natural* world; interpersonal relationships; the domain of the philosophical; etc. This list is part of an effort to unsettle the hegemony of thoughts about the protocological for purposes of recognizing both that the conditional and future are always now and are being implemented as well as defining the methods of implementation and the possibilities for implementing them. But this list is not intended to abstract the idea of a protocol into something so general or generalizable that it loses its meaning as a precise and prescribed operation, one that we can automate in various ways and via the technological. In fact, it is in the fundamental meaning of protocol as plan and/or operation that I again understand (in one register that I am here arguing really matters) the protocological as resistant and fugitive, pre-emptive, responsive, necessary to iterate, and also a praxis of survival that survives by virtue of its defined operations. This understanding of protocol and operation and planning as overlapping corresponds to and is also antithetical to what Moten describes as the “run-away operations” and Black Planning of the undercommons and Black Ops, aesthetic irruption, and a collective, underground movement by way of essentialism. The same understanding has a similar paradoxical relationship to Black sound, what Ashon Crawley calls Noise, and to the creation of “otherwise possibilities” and the undoing of disciplinarity that I advocate for at the beginning of this conclusion. So we may use protocols as resistance. We may also use protocols to read for the many protocols that reflect the oppressive conditions that have incited the creation of bolstering, hegemonic protocols that their designers believe to be resistant to their oppression, which they are unfortunately unable to accurately identify in the particular structures in which they operate. Their lack of clarity of vision is in part, if not in a great part, due to the operations of the University.

During what we term the “middle ages,” but which is not in the middle of any of even the dominant timelines that shape hegemonic epistemologies and fields of study (including history*) as they are taught in the University, teaching shifted from a charismatic mode toward more interactive, text-based learning. This shift brought about a small democratization of knowledge and perhaps the movement toward a particular form of secularism and/or separation of the religious and religious ritual from the informational and analytical and, particularly, scientific. Sylvia Wynter (whom Stephen quotes in his essay on medievalism) along with numerous others has shown the manifold ways in which these separations were falsified, did not occur, were inaccurately attributed to times and places earlier or later, or were simply perceived effects of an existing epistemology that claimed but never effected them; or, even, have no meaning in relationship to what they purport to do to or with fields and practices only invented as such retrospectively and once they no longer existed or would or could no longer come into existence. The University as an institution was designed primarily to reproduce itself while alleging that it possesses and was designed to share the tools to critique the socio-political and structural systems in which it is embedded The materiality and institutionalization of the structures that produced the University as this particular institutional form are found first, and in similar form, in the Middle Ages. It seems right, then, that to question or resist the protocols of the University today would include a robust conversation about how to mediate and remediate scholarship in relation to the medieval. We hope we have contributed to that work here.

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  1. Despite an intense urge, I am not going to define anxiety or discuss its psychoanalytic meanings and contexts. I hope that the word will be loosely and provisionally apprehended in its general, colloquial usage as a kind of anticipatory feeling, state, or activity (or all three of these) defined in particular by its obligation or compulsion to reproduce itself; though I hope to also imagine anxiety as a shared positionality or even socio-political relationship to the structures that support the social and its institutions.
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.