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A Defiant Manifesto for “Glitch Feminism”

While glitches are often cast as something to be worried about, Legacy Russell asks whether we can apply a logic of using error and mistakes as a way of opening up space.

Legacy Russell, “#GLITCHFEMINISM (still)” (2018), video essay (image courtesy Legacy Russell)

In 2012, Legacy Russell wrote about glitch feminism and digital dualism for The Society Pages, arguably at a time when our conception of the internet and how our identities were shaped by it were much more simplistic. Strands of that paper — and much more — have found their way into Glitch Feminism, Russell’s manifesto for a politics of refusing the status quo.

Glitch Feminism moves through various, sometimes familiar narratives — identity as formed through the Internet rather than in spite of, the growth of surveillance capitalism, the hierarchies of visibility created through technology, etc — with playfulness and irreverence, to consider whether the aberrations or errors which are often cast as something to be fixed are actually emancipatory. Here, glitch is positioned as a “machinic mutiny,” a kind of non-perfomance which creates space for marginalized people to form their own identities.

The cover of Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, by Legacy Russell (Verso, 2020)

Glitch Feminism seems to have some common lineage with cyberfeminism, as theorized by Sadie Plant or in Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto (which Russell acknowledges but doesn’t delve into) — it starts from the slippage between AFK [away from keyboard] and online, approaching the body as a political site. Where cyberfeminism asks if we can simply transcend our bodies through cyberspace, Russell tells the reader that we can transcend our bodies altogether.

In the introduction, Russell lays out how her childhood — growing up in a gentrifying New York, feeling herself pass through “middle school heteronormativity” — shaped her experiences of the Internet, a liberatory space where she could be anyone (and was anyone at all). “What the world AFK offered was not enough. I wanted — demanded — more.”

Glitch Feminism is structured into ten chapters, all of which bear headings like “GLITCH THROWS SHADE” or “GLITCH REFUSES.” Russell draws out the underpinnings of the work of various artists —  such as E.Jane, Juliana Huxtable, and Victoria Sin — as a way of examining how to create alternate, possible futures.

Tabita Rezaire, “Afro – Cyber Resistance (still)” (2014),  video, TRT: 18:26 (image courtesy the artist)

A particularly compelling element is Russell’s discussion of surveillance capitalism and ghosts in the machine, which looks at which populations are hyper-surveilled and yet made invisible. The chapter “GLITCH GHOSTS” acts as a companion to Mark Fisher’s conception of hauntology, but  goes many steps further. She writes about how fragments of our lives which we once assumed to be private — the search for a gym near us, our shameful purchases — could be rendered public, and points out that “the machine is a material through which we process our bodily experiences.” So often, narratives around technology and how we live through it position it as something outside of ourselves, an add-on that we have the option of opting out of. But this isn’t the case anymore — our lives were mediated through our experiences of technology, even bound up with them.

shawné michaelain holloway, “mirror-mirror_(newGen_TechEdit)blackbitch2.png” (2015, paris) (image courtesy the artist)

While glitches are often cast as something to be worried about — a thing which needs a fix — Russell asks whether we can apply this logic, of using error and mistakes as a way of opening up space, to the rest of our lives. For the author, glitch isn’t a proper noun but “an action ongoing” — it’s the way that certain kinds of bodies and lives are viewed as aberrations, but soldier on regardless, taking up more space to “ghost the binary body.”

Russell is concerned with how race, gender and sexuality influence and affect the way that our identities are performed, but she’s not in search of a simple answer or an easy way out. She asks whether we can free ourselves from our bodies, not just on the Internet, in a forum or on our phones, but all the time. She asks, “Who defines the material of the body? Who gives it value — and why?”

Throughout, Russell is decisive and defiant. What is radical and genuinely exciting is the conviction that she has in glitch feminism as a political project outside of the mainstream, as a form of collective joy and identity making.

Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto (Verso, 2020), by Legacy Russell, is now available on Bookshop.

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