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Although the exact meaning can shift depending on context, the word glitch always gestures to a problem. It is a short-lived technical fault; an undetected error. To most, the glitch is a nuisance. For curator and writer Legacy Russell, the glitch is a glorious invitation, and the subject of her just-released debut book, Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto. Russell defines the glitch as a creative strategy informed by and for queer, trans, and nonbinary communities of color that are systematically oppressed by white capitalist heteropatriarchal forces. In a 2012 essay titled “Digital Dualism and the Glitch Feminism Manifesto” for the online journal The Society Pages, Russell builds on her interpretation of the term, encapsulating a worldview in which the online space can offer the keys to liberation.
Russell’s original article was partly informed by a 2011 essay by theorist Nathan Jurgenson, also published by The Society Pages, in which he termed the phrase “digital dualism.” For Jurgenson, the term describes a cultural belief in the divide between online and IRL spaces—the digital world understood as “unreal” in contrast to the physical world. Jurgenson argues against the idea that our online selves are separate, inauthentic constructions bearing no impact on our real lives, and instead points to our digital personas as actualized facets of our personhood. He signals these slippages by replacing IRL with AFK (away from keyboard), implying a continuity between digital and physical.1 Jurgenson’s critique encouraged Russell’s gesticulating thoughts around digital play and self-actualization. Born and raised in New York City, Russell spent her formative years roaming the internet “as a digital Orlando, shapeshifting, time-traveling, genderfucking as [she] saw fit.”2 The internet held her experiments, and she was able to stretch the limits of her Blackness, queerness, and femmeness in ways that were not possible away from the keyboard.
Fusing memoir and Black feminist theory, Russell’s book draws parallels between technological error and the ways people are coded as “faulty” if they are unwilling to assimilate into hegemonic culture. The glitch is presented as a political framework, an elastic term used to describe a revolt against the status quo. It is refusal, nonperformance, malfunction. The book dares us to embrace the failures that upset the systems of race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, and more. The internet plays an essential role in accelerating these deliberate disruptions, providing an expansive forum for new worlds and futures: “Glitch feminism demands an occupation of the digital as a means of world-building.”3
Despite Russell’s reverence for the possibilities of an online world, Glitch Feminism reminds us that the same binary-obsessed oppressive social systems running amok AFK— anti-Blackness, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism—have also spilled into the digital sphere. She moves beyond the utopian visions of ’90s cyberfeminists like Sadie Plant and VNS Matrix, who sought to transcend the limits imposed by patriarchy and sexism through the intersection of art and technology. Their efforts towards a liberatory internet were marred by their own exclusions: the centering of white cis womanhood further marginalized the cyber experiences of queer people, trans people, and people of color.4 In contrast, Glitch Feminism presents the online world as a complicated in-between space that holds the capacity for both revolution and oppression. The glitch reminds us that while we can use the digital to architect our dreams towards freedom, we cannot ignore the hegemonic forces designing those same technological systems.
The radical potential of the ’90s internet has been replaced with corporatized platforms rigged to mine our data and control our browser searches. These corporations feign neutrality and objectivity in their algorithmic processes, with instances of blatant racism or sexism dismissed as “errors.” The Facebooks and the Googles want us to believe their tools are external to their processes. But, as researcher and professor Dr. Safiya Umoja Noble states in her book Algorithms of Oppression (2018), these errors “demonstrate how racism and sexism are part of the architecture and language of technology, an issue that needs attention and remediation.”5 Moreover, when looking at the prejudices embedded in technology, we shouldn’t stall at scrutinizing the biases of individuals like Mark Zuckerberg, companies like Amazon, or “tools” like facial recognition software. We need to reflect on the social conditions enabling such inequalities. In addition to Algorithms, recent books like Race After Technology (2019) by Ruha Benjamin and Dark Matters (2015) by Simone Browne link discriminatory technological systems to a larger American history of surveillance and anti-Blackness.
Russell doesn’t spend too much time unpacking these dynamics, but she does situate her theory within a digital landscape warped by the prejudices of the tech sector. Every click means something: “On- and offline, the boxes we tick, the forms we complete, the profiles we build—none are neutral. Every part of ourselves we mark with an X.”6 What is a glitch to do? Short- circuit the whole thing. Russell is most interested in how the glitch can expand our understanding of the body, especially as it relates to race, gender, and sexuality. In lieu of itemized actionables, she catalogues how her theory operates across a range of creative practices “that help us imagine new possibilities of what a body can do.”7 If we cannot fully remove ourselves from the systems overriding our existence, the least we can do is agitate the dominant structures until their mechanisms are rendered obsolete. In this way, the glitch makes most sense as a metaphor for rebellion—inciting a breakdown of oppressive online and offline systems that move us towards rhizomatic conceptions of the body.
As Russell explained to the online magazine Topical Cream, “The glitch for me is a point of interest because mechanical glitches force us to think about the space between body and machine… It makes us think about how our bodies are, or are not, able to operate across different systems.”8 In the past, I’ve fetishized the gulf between body and machine. Although particular to our 21st-century existence, this overemphasis on division articulates a history of socially-imposed binaries, from spirit and physical, to white and nonwhite, to masculine and feminine. For Russell and many others, the binary is a hackable code, an outmoded system causing more harm than good. In calling for the refusal of its machinations, she describes in-betweenness as the crux of our being. Inhabiting the logic of error means reveling in the multiplicity of selfhood, and making space for alternate modes of relation. The digital sphere can aid in this multiplicity, becoming a “passage through which the body traverses toward liberation.”9
Russell positions her discussions of the glitch alongside works by an interdisciplinary roster of contemporary artists, from E. Jane and Shawné Michaelain Holloway to Sondra Perry and Anaïs Duplan. The artists highlighted by Russell build a robust scaffolding around her manifesto, offering examples of creative practices informed by the glitchy porousness of cyberspace. For instance, in her chapter “Glitch Throws Shade,” Russell discusses artist, writer, and performer Juliana Huxtable as someone who has spent the last few years molding and remolding our ideas of identity and expression via irreverent self-portraits, text-based inkjet prints, and poetry. For a recent example, look to Ari 2 (2019), a self-portrait from her solo exhibition at Reena Spaulings Fine Art. Awash in decadent Technicolor, the portrait presents Huxtable as a Mermaid-esque figure leaning seductively on a chair, as if caught in the middle of a striptease. Her back is decorated with contrasting animal prints and via digital manipulation, her legs swirl into a thick serpentine tail that overtakes the bottom of the print.
Other portraits from the Spaulings exhibition show Huxtable as a half-cow or a half-bat, images that reference furry subculture and its specific practice of crafting personalized animal identities (“fursonas”), usually in the form of online avatars.10 What Huxtable finds compelling about furries is that their interest in anthropomorphized animals expresses a fertile in-between space that naughtily tests the limits of “natural” social archetypes. In a similar way, Huxtable’s fursonas seek to undermine our definitions of race, gender, and intimacy.11 In using the materials of the internet to push the body to its preposterous extremes, Huxtable satirizes our stifled expressions of identity and self. Her fursonas tap into anxieties around civility and savagery—binaries rooted in the same gendered and racialized tropes criticized by Russell. Echoing glitch feminism’s demand to dismantle and rewrite our ideas of the body, Huxtable’s fursonas are (as she wrote in a recent press release) “AN INVITATION TO MURDER THE / ROMANTIC / PURITANICAL / COHESION OF / OF THE BODY.”12
One artist not mentioned in Russell’s book who embodies the glitch is multimedia conceptual artist, theorist, and writer Mandy Harris Williams. Her Instagram account @idealblackfemale disrupts the aestheticizing scroll encouraged by social media, and investigates not only what images we are given, but also what we like, comment on, and share. A few years ago, Williams began noticing the gaps in her Insta explore page—dark-skinned Afro-descended women were routinely erased from algorithmic feeds. This lead to Williams’ creation of the #BrownUpYourFeed hashtag. Coupling micro social media essays that blur the critical and confessional with images ranging from selfies to text excerpts to memes, Williams makes visible what private companies like Instagram go out of their way to hide. Her interventions continually ask, as she phrases it, “How does the history of algorithms tell us what is acceptable; what is popular; what is desirable; what is meaningful; what is deserving of attention?”13 Williams takes apart the machine, further inhabiting what Russell calls “a mutiny in the form of strategic occupation.”14
Russell contends that the online space offers an abundant panoply of selves, personas, and avatars which together provide an alternative world where the self is found through constant metamorphosis. While admitting our digital spaces are awed, she believes “online communities can create space to talk back to toxic, binary tropes of masculinity/femininity,”15 and other hegemonic constructions. To celebrate identity as a multiplicitous movement is to reject the gendered body as a classifiable container. Rejecting the binary entails a process of dematerialization, or a willingness to transcend the normative body. This process begins with the glitch which “pushes the machine to its breaking point by refusing to function for it, refusing to uphold its function.” Russell would rather submit to “frame- work[s] of failure”16 where the self is allowed room to become without threat or fear. Approaching the digital as a space for imaginative worldbuilding aids in the abstraction of gender, and thus the systems overdetermining what a body can do.
Glitch Feminism is at its best during these moments, when Russell reveals the gender binary as an “economic performance,” assigning highest value to those who “labor under its coercion” without question or complaint.17 In the same way we’re starting to understand corporatized social media as a nefarious tool for financial gain, we need to view gender as an equally dubious technology wielded for profit. Our attempts to classify and codify it (via attitudes, dress, laws, online forms, etc.) severely limit the vast potential of expression and relation. Thus, a strike against gender doubles as a strike against the economic systems that bolster and reinforce it. Though Glitch Feminism may belatedly tap into conversations that have been ongoing for years, the text provides an introductory map for those seeking to hack the automated codes of being.
At the Glitch Feminism virtual book launch hosted by MoMA PS1 and Verso Books on September 29th, one of the panelists, sociology doctoral candidate and writer Zoé Samudzi, quoted a prescient line from “Racialized Fantasies on the Internet,” an essay by scholar and writer Christina Elizabeth Sharpe: “The virtual reality of race in cyberspace begins to expose it as an already virtual construct in real life.”18 This sentiment resonates throughout Glitch Feminism: in troubling the lines between body and machine, Russell asserts the machine is an extension of us. We have always been run by social systems. In Russell’s utopian vision of the glitch, naming the inauthentic, unrealities of living is the first step towards a freedom built on error and revolt.
Allison Noelle Conner writes about film and literature. She lives in Los Angeles.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 22.