On Embodying The Ecstatic And Catastrophic Error Of Glitch Feminism: Book Review

The literary debut from writer and curator Legacy Russell glitches defaults and blurs the boundary between the digital and physical, triumphantly positing alternative frameworks for the future.

This story originally appeared on Forbes.

Even without the use of social media, VR headsets, neural implants, or evil robot overlords, each and every one of us lives in a simulation, a reality interface composed in our minds. We bind these individual simulations together through consensus, shared agreements about reality. You see spoon, I see spoon. And because we generally agree on the function of that spoon, we call this process “reality.”

But since the turn of the century—accelerating dramatically during the last decade—reality (consensus) has been changing. On a vaster scale than any other period in recorded history, consensus fragmented; visible most evidently in political discourse in the latter half of the 2010s. But the dissolution of civility and good faith in the political sphere is only one symptom of a larger phenomenon. There is, simultaneously, a raw power in the opportunity to embrace and build new realities forged within the novel interconnectivity of digital spaces—the chance to understand and uplift realities no longer predicated on the absolutism of binary systems and vestigial colonial frameworks.

In Glitch Feminism, Legacy Russell reveals how this opportunity is embodied in—and catalyzed by—the glitch, through the lens of groundbreaking and experimental artists and artworks that demand “new frameworks and new visions of fantastic futures.”

Throughout human history, prevailing consensus has been wielded as a cudgel to marginalize, define, other, and contain. “When we gender a body, we are making assumptions about the body’s function, its sociopolitical condition, its fixity,” Russell writes. “When the body is determined as a male or female individual, the body performs gender as its score, guided by a set of rules and requirements that validate and verify the humanity of that individual. 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 nonperformance is a glitch. The glitch is a form of refusal.”

As a term, “glitch” is entwined with technology, and only came into use in the mid-twentieth century. But as technology has increasingly come to influence human societies worldwide, cyberspace is now “real.” Russell rejects digital dualism, which seeks to qualitatively separate digital life from the physical—what many have traditionally referred to as IRL, though here Russell instead opts for “AFK” (“away from keyboard”) as a more accurate descriptor of non-digital activities. As such, Russell makes the case that the glitch should no longer be understood exclusively as a feature of the digital, but a structure of feeling that has application across (and in the interconnection of) both digital and AFK realms.

Put simply: this threading of cyberspace into the fabric of AFK reality has afforded us new languages for troubling accepted notions of what reality is, and moreover affords us opportunities for reimagining and reclamation: the glitch. “Through the digital, we make new worlds and dare to modify our own. Through the digital, the body ‘in glitch’ finds its genesis. Embracing the glitch is therefore a participatory action that challenges the status quo. It creates a homeland for those traversing the complex channels of gender’s diaspora.”

Part of the project of Russell’s manifesto then is to highlight the rebellious practitioners who have perturbed rigid realities through the creation, refinement, and remixing of emerging languages and modalities. By day, Russell is Associate Curator of Exhibitions at The Studio Museum in Harlem, and her curatorial precision asserts itself in Glitch Feminism. The manifesto is divided into twelve sections, each of which intends “to pose an alternative after-effect” that celebrates “the slipperiness of gender in our weird and wild wander.”

We are presented the work of artists including manuel arturo abreu, Mark Aguhar, American Artist, Frank Benson, boychild, shawné michaelain holloway, Juliana Huxtable, E. Jane, Rindon Johnson, Kia LaBeija, Lil Miquela, Sondra Perry, Tabita Rezaire, Victoria Sin, and The White Pube. Their use of digital tools glitch expectation. Rather than accepting projected default identities, these practitioners use constructs as entry points—be they entry points to “throw shade,” to “encrypt,” to “mobilize,” or otherwise. Their work embraces the glitch as fundamental space-making, subverting and superseding cultural frameworks that have historically foregrounded white, straight, able-bodied cisgendered people.

These artists not only embrace the novel opportunity of cyberspace as a forum for public art and expression, but in fact offer launch points that invite other artists to join in the glitch. In this way, the book itself glitches established canon, demanding readers reconsider the loci of artistic innovation in the 21st Century.

Glitch Feminism is a rallying cry, a recapturing of cyberfeminism oriented to include and spotlight the many queer and non-white voices who in their practice live out the awesome potential of an enmeshed digital feminism: the glitch. In a full embrace of the potential of the manifesto form, Russell weaves together the work of these artists with poetic language that dances from play to scholarship, music to contemplation, pain to jubilance. Glitch Feminism is a groundbreaking text for its underlying assertion, yes, but the deftness with which Russell wields language is artwork in itself. Like the vibrant contrast of the book’s cover, Glitch Feminism is a bright declaration, an ecstatic embrace of the new futures that lurk just behind hegemonic defaults. “If this is a spatial battle,” Russell writes, “let us become anarachitecture.”

The author is not just asking readers to recognize the latent possibilities in our looped digital-AFK reality, but to internalize them, to use them as the unprecedented tools they are. By the book’s close, you can almost hear the gleeful sizzle of short-circuiting.

“As glitch feminists, we will search in the darkness for the gates, seek the ways to bring them down and kill their keepers,” Russell writes. “Let’s be beatific in our leaky and limitless contagion. Usurp the body. Become your avatar. Be the glitch.”


GLITCH FEMINISM: A MANIFESTO

By Legacy Russell

192 pp. Verso Books. $15.