Error Without Correction: Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism

Legacy Russell's manifesto for blips, snags and deviancy could prove an essential go-to emancipatory text, finds Sam Riley

Rindon Johnson, “My Daughter, Aaliyah (Norf, Norf),” 2016, courtesy of the artist

While we often understand our engagement with cyberspace to be a momentary dip, divorced from IRL existence, writer-curator Legacy Russell’s new book Glitch Feminism throws this platitude into doubt. Instead, Russell suggests, the better acronym for offline life is AFK (away from keyboard). Our connection to the digital world is all consuming: there is not “two selves, [which] operate in isolation from each other”; but rather “one continuous self, two sides of a vivacious equation looped together in a continual narrative of daily living and human existence.”

Fleshing out Russell’s 2012 article for the Cyborgology blog, Glitch Feminism offers twelve ruminations on contemporary art, music, and Instagram that constructs a cyberfeminist vision of the future. A vision intended to include the avatars of non-white and queer individuals absent from earlier digital-utopian cybertheory (looking at you, CCRU). Tying these chapters together is the recurring glitch: an artefact of disruption that exists equally both online and AFK. For the computer, the glitch appears as the “rainbow wheel of death” against a black mirror. But, in the AFK world of the body, the glitch refers to that which is perceived as error: factors deviating from a white, cisgender, heterosexual and able-bodied norm. To embrace these ‘errors’ then – to embrace the glitch – as Russell wrote back in 2012, “calls for a breaking from the hegemony of a ‘structured system’, infused with the pomp and circumstance of patriarchy.” And so, through studying the glitch in its multiple forms across the online-to-AFK continuum, you may learn how to foster a truly feminist digital politics for the future.

The latent feminist antecedent of the glitch can be seen, for example, when Russell articulates the glitch as refusal. As many writers have made clear, to gender a body is to make an assumption on its function. The refusal to fall under these assumptions becomes a glitch. “A body that pushes back at the application of pronouns,” Russell writes, “or remains indecipherable within binary assignment, is a body that refuses to perform the score. This non-performance is a glitch.” By embracing the glitch, then, one rejects the coercion to conform to a rigid essentialism.

To offer one window through which Russell articulates this, take artist E. Jane. The work of E. Jane (who often performs as their avatar MHYSA) is case in point of the glitching being. Through their use of digital platforms, E. Jane exists as multiple selves: E. Jane and MHYSA. The latter was created as a “popstar 4 the underground cyber resistance”, first appearing in E. Jane’s online artwork as an avenue to embody aspects that “white institutions tried to smother”. In this way, the glitch becomes a vehicle for rethinking the self. In 2017, MHYSA released the album fantasii. Performing music AFK for the first time, MHYSA slipped from the domain of the exclusively-online to the AFK: deconstructing the divide between the physical and the digital. E. Jane’s use of the internet illustrates one avenue for utopian freedom. By utilising their avatar, to become multiple selves and embrace malfunction, the artist fosters a push back against the status quo that perceives all othered bodies as singular. As Russell states, “Multiplicity is a liberty”.

E. Jane/MHYSA demonstrates that the internet continues to offer a radical potential, despite the corporate status of platforms that routinely co-opt and sensationalise marginalised communities. Russell is eager to note that this project is not trying to dismantle the master’s house with his own tools, but that the internet is a site to build on and build with. In a rallying cry, Russell empowers the reader to seize the means of digital imagery as an opportunity, to utilise the glitch – this internet-to-AFK liminality – to create their own freedom, to celebrate failure as a generative force.

In her introduction, Russell promises that “Glitch feminism dissents, pushing back against capitalism.” Yet, if there is an aspect of the project that leaves the reader wanting, it is that the anti-capitalist notion of glitch is not always clear. This is not to say that there isn’t an anti-capitalist kernel at the centre of a project concerned with embracing malfunction. As Russell notes, the rejection of the gender binary rejects, too, “the economy that goes along with it”. Rather that, due to the text’s brevity, malfunction’s economic politics is often absent or in the sidelines. For example: at length, we see discussion of Lil Miquela, the android Instagram influencer, whose absence of a body serves the anti-hegemonic politics of glitch feminism. Yet – to my eye at least – Lil Miquela appears less emancipatory and more in collusion, occupying the position of the late capital influencer without irony. To echo Susan Sontag: perhaps a parody of an influencer still remains an influencer.

Russell recognises this. “It could be argued,” she says, “that Lil Miquela epitomises a perverse intersection of neoliberal consumer capitalism and advocacy”. Unfortunately, Russell doesn’t offer an alternative reading of Lil Miquela to dispel this argument. Instead, the purpose of Lil Miquela as example illustrates the “new-fangled opportunity” to exist without a body online, “to push the limits of corporeal materiality and reconsider how we might (re)define the body as we have always known it” (which, for sure, is a worthwhile and subversive practice to explore but can hardly be called a critique of the political economy of capitalism). This absence is likely a symptom of the manifesto form and does not detract too much from the positive inflection of Russell’s reading. What must be remembered when reading Glitch Feminism is that the glitch is multiple: not every insight serves every aspect of glitch politics. So, while Glitch Feminism does indeed push back against capitalism, the staunchly anti-capitalist reader may be disappointed to find that the direct anti-capitalist tenet promised from the beginning is not overtly clear with every example of malfunction.

In short, Glitch Feminism is an exceptional read that excels at offering a radical politics of the body. Russell writes convincingly, poetically and with urgency. Her content is wide-ranging, highly detailed, and – importantly – hugely enjoyable to read. Yet Russell’s literary ability does not overshadow the academic, political, and philosophical side of this manifesto. Glitch Feminism has the potential to become a go-to emancipatory text, an essential guide to repurposing digital technologies as tools to reboot and restart.

Glitch Feminism by Legacy Russell is published by Verso Books

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