Glitch Feminism by Legacy Russell

Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto by Legacy Russell cover. Photo via Verso Books.

By Pauline Nguyen

Legacy Russell opens Glitch Feminism, a part-manifesto, part-art criticism essay collection, by bringing us back to her early teens growing up in New York City. At twelve years old, she christens herself with the online username “LuvPunk12” — a cyborgic meeting of worlds: an “away from keyboard” (AFK) reality and an online digital reality. In reading Russell’s personal history as a Black queer femme experimenting with their selfdom, we’re thrown back to our own first forays into the internet, from first usernames to direct messaging platforms — all existing alongside our AFK names and relations.

Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto by Legacy Russell. Photograph by Pauline Nguyen.

Published in fall 2020, Glitch Feminism is a pocket-sized book and a fairly quick read. The twelve short chapters all circle back to Russell’s central argument: to embrace glitch, as failure and refusal, is to move towards possibilities for other ways of being, worlding, and collectivity beyond the logics of the gender binary, capitalism, and neoliberalism. Russell, who’s a celebrated curator, spotlights contemporary artists who they argue are putting glitch feminism into practice. Russell emphasizes queer, trans, and Black artists such as Juliana Huxtable, Kia LaBeija, and Shawné Michaelain Holloway. Glitch Feminism embeds itself into the realms of art, criticism and curation, queer and feminist thought, Black studies, digital cultures and new media, and critiques of capitalism.

Legacy Russell, author portrait by Andreas Laszlo Konrath. Courtesy of Verso Books.

Glitch Feminism continues the legacies of cyberfeminism and cyborg feminism by evoking questions of how the complexities of embodiment, so entwined with experiences of gender, queerness, and racialization, extend into digital realms. How can glitch, which at its core is refusal, be reworked as something wonderful in our feminist, queer, and anti-racist utopic envisioning and collective mobilizations? What does it mean to embody glitch, to embody malfunction?

How can glitch, which at its core is refusal, be reworked as something wonderful in our feminist, queer, and anti-racist utopic envisioning and collective mobilizations?

Glitch Feminism firmly maintains that digital, online worlds are as real as AFK, offline worlds. The belief that “in real life” (IRL) is solely physical and AFK is to discount the very realness of our online selves and interactions. In fact, as Russell demonstrates, the digital realm and the online realm are deeply intertwined, the boundary between them dissolving, with us travelling seamlessly through this expansive, multidimensional reality. As such, the bridge between the two is bountiful with productive refusals and potential for world-building — beyond the gender binary and its restrictive categorizations, resisting surveillance capitalism, through the queering of digital space.[1] Alongside this grounding argument is the understanding that all technology is architected by people under neoliberal capitalism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy; thus, it is never neutral, always political. This continuity between online and offline spaces means that we can program errors, breakdowns, viruses into the fabric of such multidimensional worlds.

The White Pube, Instagram post, courtesy of The White Pube.

As a conceptual framework, glitch reconfigures the typically pejorative way we view failure, brokenness, and the refusal to function. Instead, as Russell convincingly invites us to do, glitch should be welcomed — “the error a passageway” to constructing better worlds.[2] This is because, and here Russell situates glitch feminism in queer-of-colour theory by quoting José Esteban Muñoz: “…this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing.”[3] Russell draws on Shaadi Devereaux’s analysis of social media as a tool for marginalized women to reach each other, build collective support, and engage in conversation where they might usually be excluded in AFK domains.[4] To break, to dismantle, to fail fantastically in the face of a machine that expects us to keep carrying on as if it isn’t stifling and isn’t programmed to reward some and marginalize others. It is to carve fissures in existing, oppressive systems and its limitations on who we might be and what realms we might inhabit.

As discussed in the chapter “Glitch is Cosmic,” we as embodied beings are multitudinous and constantly becoming, never static and singular in our identities. A person’s virtual avatar is as real in cyberspace, or the “digital real,” as their offline self.[5] We can travel beyond what we typically think of as a body (that becomes gendered) to consider our virtual selves. To break through the confines of what counts as a body is to destabilize the dualistic delineations of normativity imposed upon bodies, including binary gender categories. If the body is “inconceivably vast” like the cosmos, then to queer is to expand potential for being, because, recalling Russell’s reference to Muñoz, there are gaps that must be filled, a queer ethos of yearning for more.[6] To glitch is to disrupt systems, sledgehammering holes into taken-for-granted logics of oppression — a queering in itself. Glitch is queer, queer is cosmic.

Victoria Sin, Performance at “Glitch @ Night” organized by Legacy Russell as part of Post – Cyber Feminist International, 2017, ICA London, courtesy of ICA London, photograph by Mark Blower.

The chapter themes seamlessly flow into each other and consistently circle back to the core ideas of productive refusal, expanding definitions of embodiment, and queer futurity. The chapter “Glitch is Remix” continues along the lines of disrupting what it means to have a body. Here, Russell faces the question of data and surveillance capitalism head-on by bringing in examples that glitch biometric technology and experiment with strategic visibility. This is key because visibility can be dangerous, especially for those considered non-normative or non-conforming under white supremacist, heteropatriarchal capitalism. The epigraph to the chapter “Glitch Ghosts” is a line by poet Richard Siken: “Imagine being useless.”[7] To be useless to the system, to skirt the line between legibility and illegibility (to whom?) and render oneself unreadable to surveillance technology, to evade the oppressiveness of naming and categorization when being is cosmic: Russell brings light to these issues through the lens of refusal.

Russell thoughtfully frames every chapter around case studies of artists, writers, and fellow cyborgs who practice refusal and embody glitch — a perfect brew of glitch feminist theory and praxis. The extensive epigraphs at the very start of the book plus the ones that open each chapter take the form of both quotes and images, introducing us to those who’ve engaged with the themes at hand before Russell: Etheridge Knight, Mark Aguhar, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Ocean Vuong, E. Jane, T. Fleischmann, and so on. These spotlights and epigraphs certainly shine in Glitch Feminism, acting as Russell’s odes to fellow feminist, queer, trans, and racialized disruptors who’ve impacted their work.

Lil Miquela, courtesy of Brud.

There are some aspects to watch out for when reading this firecracker of a book, many of which have to do with who the target readers might be. The level of audience familiarity with online culture and human-computer interaction that Russell assumes is quite high. From terms like “avatar” and “GIF” to the opening lines where Russell tells us her first online username, this little book doesn’t devote time to defining what she means. The introduction works (and really well at that) for some readers because it thrives on relatability — the quick recognition that LuvPunk12 is a name Russell used on the Web. In a similar vein, other terms that are arguably academic are not unpacked either, such as “digital affect” and “living archive.” Glitch Feminism isn’t marketed as an academic text, though it does bare some academic framing. So, who is this book for? Will those born into the era of networked digital media read Glitch Feminism with an existing understanding of feminism, critical theory, and new media? (Even TikTok is mentioned.)

Glitch Feminism is a monumental publication in its (re)framing of glitch as feminist and as the power of “no.” It’s a timely release with well-chosen artists spotlighted (Russell is a curator after all!), with Russell’s art criticism angle bringing a fresh focus to thinking about the space of potential between intersectionality, data capitalism, and digital technology. Many of the themes Russell brings up greatly overlap with trans literature, such as the dilemma of visibility, (il)legibility, ethics of the archive and (mis)labelling, and the body; there is room here to further bring trans perspectives into Glitch Feminism. These essays hold great relevance to women and gender studies, queer and trans studies, anti-racism, critical encounters with archives, digital humanities, contemporary art, new media and visual/screen cultures, community-engaged arts, and so forth. If you’re interested in any of these areas or looking to read an intersectional take on embodiment, what it means to have a body in a digital age, and what it means to be connected, Glitch Feminism is highly recommended. Embodiment is time and time again positioned as parallel to glitch — both are ongoing, both hold potential for expansion and reconceptualization in tandem with each other: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a body. And one is not born, but rather becomes, a glitch”.[8]

[1] Legacy Russell. Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto (London: Verso, 2020), 47.

[2] Russell, 113.

[3] Russell, 22.

[4] Russell, 125-126.

[5] Russell, 124.

[6] Russell, 41.

[7] Russell, 63.

[8] Russell, 145.

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