Fluid Selves: Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism
Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto
(Verso Books, 2020)
In recent decades, the dominance of a Western gaze in the visual arts has led to a resurgence in discourse against a hegemonizing canon, one which has existed at the expense of historically marginalized voices, those of women, the LGBTQI and BIPOC communities, as well as ostensibly peripheral places that have often been left out of the history of art. This idea that visual culture has been sanctified into such a Western canon, by articulating a monolithic point of view, has increasingly been challenged. There’s been a resistance to it with multiplicity and diversity veering away from such existing power structures and hierarchies.
In her inspired and dense manifesto, Legacy Russell deploys an array of strategies that allow for a different, shifting self, one that is centered around the notion of glitch feminism. “A glitch is an error, a mistake, a failure to function” that is to be embraced. As she writes, “Black people invent ways to create space through rupture.” This space, borne out of failure and accident, is often the result of malfunctions within the digital realm. It could be seen as a blueprint for what we are capable of becoming, our potential, allowing us to reinvent our humanity away from any sense of fixed identities. Resisting the “flattening” or “othering” of the body, which can be traced back to the history of race, gender, and sexuality that came to define America, Russell argues that “glitch is celebrated as a vehicle of refusal, a strategy of non-performance.” It also gives us a blueprint on how to embrace our multiplicity. Glitching is action, what Russell describes as “activism that unfolds with a boundless extravagance.” She goes on to say, “As glitched bodies travel outward through every space, we affirm and celebrate the infinite failure of arrival at any place. Far beyond fixity, we find ourselves in outer space, exploring the breadth of cosmic corporeality.” Re-imagining boundaries, or breaking them, is a central theme that runs throughout this book.
We could evoke some forerunners to Russell's project: Donna Haraway and Annemarie Mol, for example, initiated far-reaching studies in terms of anthropologies of the natural world and the body. They did this so as to obliterate, or at least critique, the traditional distinction between nature and culture. What it means to be human was increasingly addressed by rejecting troubled cis-gendered categories of woman and man. These authors came to the conclusion that social boundaries had to decenter human beings according to ecological, scientific, and social norms, away from traditional anthropocentric normative notions of what it means to be human. Cybernetics, in particular, became a way to conceive of an extension of the self by eschewing traditional representations of the body and mind. There is no doubt that there has been an inspired legacy, one that thinks of the human being and the body in different terms.
By espousing the radical spirit that defines manifestos, Russell’s book marks a break from such ideas, neither affirming the primacy of a technological utopia nor rejecting it. Glitch Feminism is rooted in autobiography, in which the author traces her sense of self-discovery thanks to the Internet. This helps her realize that “glitch,” her defining experience of chance disruption, malfunction, and error—the unknown and the unpredictable—constructs our gendered and sexual spaces, a realm in which cyberspace and the world away from the keyboard (“AFK”) are not in opposition to one another but porous.
To my mind, a significant virtue of the book is Russell’s exposition of the vanishing divide between “real” and virtual life. The Internet has become a tool for marginalized people, including those who live away from urban centers, to reinvent themselves. The way in which our lives are influenced, shaped, and created by the virtual constitutes one line of questioning. (The manifesto contains the seeds of multiple ideas; each of the twelve chapters is a potential book in itself.) Among contemporary thinkers of the post-human condition, such as N. Katherine Hayles, Humberto Maturana, and Francisco Varela, there was a recognition that our subjective experience is allowed to stretch beyond the boundaries of an embodied existence. A postmodernist generation has rejected the notion of a natural self. Instead, it thinks of a co-dependence between humans and intelligent machines, thus erasing the divide between bodily existence, AI, and technology. (This “technological” strand of post-humanism, including the changing notion of subjectivity through technology’s capacity to extend our biological boundaries, originates with Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, one antecedent to Russell’s post-gendered order.)
Our lives are conducive to different forms of awareness, spaces for freedoms that stem from processes that fall outside the purview of introspection and analysis; Russell’s manifesto enjoins us to pursue such expressions of glitch, as they are embedded in the work of artists such as E. Jane, Victoria Sin, American Artist, Juliana Huxtable, Sondra Perry, and others. Common to many of these artists is the realization that virtual technologies have become a tool to launch new modes of figuration for their shifting identities. According to Russell, “deploying the Internet as a creative material, glitch feminism looks first through the lens of artists who, in their work and research, offered solutions to this troubled material of the body.”
It is encouraging to see that much contemporary art espouses and stretches these notions. Works by these artists underscore the boundaries of Western notions of aesthetics, which is defined in terms of a historical canon, one that benefits certain voices at the expense of others. If works of art are seen as inherently ideological—a particular gaze that is shaped by the subject’s background, their grasp of an aesthetic object within the bounds of a given cultural framework—today’s shifting ground allows for other modes of visuality to come to the fore. John Berger, Linda Nochlin, and more recently Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, have all revealed such implied biases. Russell, for her part, offers new possibilities away from the canon that originally defined aesthetics as a field of study, by transforming the failure to be recognized into a form of ideological and artistic affirmation.
Her strategy provides a form of resistance for people who have been ignored or sidelined by society for generations. It also becomes a reflection on the world order that was imposed on such “marginal” people over the last centuries. As she writes, “a body that pushes back at the application of pronouns, or remains indecipherable within binary assignment, is a body that refuses to perform the score. This non-performance is a glitch. This glitch is a form of refusal.”
What really resonated with me was the work of Shawné Michaelain Holloway. Russell alludes to it in a chapter aptly titled “Glitch is Skin.” We can allow for our bodies to extend; one strategy involves devising multiple, imaginative reflections of ourselves, and the projection of our self through the medium of digital media. By adapting and reinventing various as seen through a mirrored reflection, Holloway “establishes a micro-archive of her own cosmic corporeality; the varied faces of blackness and queerness are mediated by the digital skin of Holloway’s changeable avatars.” Such endeavours were instigated by Carrie Mae Weems in the photographic series “Mirror Mirror” (1987). These mirrored images reflect our vulnerabilities, our fantasies, our sense of freedom and alienation, our ability to construct a different self in these playground spaces.
Another virtue of Russell’s manifesto is its discourse away from ontology. It avoids talking about fixed essences and definitions, affirming instead the fluidity of gender. The emphasis here is on aspects of the self, eschewing definitions through the description of different modes of being, as delineated by the coder and activist Florence Okoye—a discourse that defines a community of networks, of language, of thoughts. In this sense, the digital becomes a tool for expanding the self through a cultivation “of meaningful and complex collaborative communities beyond our screens… the production of these selves, the digital skins we develop and don online, help us understand who we are with greater nuance and helps us, with a bit of luck, to glitch through another, greater self.” Who we are is inscribed within a utopia, a transgression. Glitching allows us to explore and express our interests and ambitions, mapping out the possibilities of who we are, away from conventional cis-gendered definitions. In the end, our identity is elusive. The world lives within us, and creating and refashioning our identity along novel lines is a way of escaping our solitude.
There is a tension within Glitch Feminism: starting with a conception of the self as something that was historically impregnated with notions of self-reliance—an American celebration of the individual—Russell ends up with a discourse about community and network-based actors in which people are no longer prisoners of their own bodies. Through the extension of what bodies are and can be, they end up feeling empowered and connected. There is this affirmation that it is possible to create spaces for transgression within neoliberal societies, in diverse communities where the asymmetric relations between people and their identities exist in opposition to traditional binary terms. She writes, “Perhaps, then, as we work towards ghosting the binary body, we also work toward dissolving ourselves, making the boundaries that delineate where we begin and end, and the points where we touch and come into contact with the world, disappear completely.”
As I write these notes, I contemplate from my window the seemingly inalterable mountains of the Swiss Bernese Oberland. Vanishing, slippery, melting glaciers are covered in snow. It occurs to me that “glitch” is probably related to the German “Gletscher” for glacier, which implies “slipping” and “sliding”—an unlikely metaphor for our fluid states of being, for the possibilities of stretching ourselves into the territory of desire, as we watch our dreams vanish in the face of the precarity of life.
Glitch Feminism was published during a bleak year of pandemics and political upheaval. As reactionary political and social forces encourage inertia, or even try to undo the dreams of change, this manifesto is a voice for hope; hope that comes from Black and Queer communities that have been sidelined for too long but are now rising. Legacy Russell enjoins us to know our radical selves, not to shy away from complex issues, from our dreams and aspirations: from the possibility that our imagination could give us the tools to envisage a different reality, the possibility of a more fluid, liminal, and ultimately expanded, self.