Legacy Russell
Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto
Verso, 2020
178 pages

Reviewed by Hannah Hopkins

Michelle Gibbons writes that “When you look “under the hood” [of digital algorithms] what you tend to find is not anything like a tidy, self-contained engine, but rather vast, sprawling, masses of interconnected systems” (2021).  Digital technologies make things happen near, at, with, and without humans; machinations mediating between vibrant human users and sprawling code. The bright space between human bodies and more-than-human code is a shifty, refractive one: our dynamic online identities are increasingly imbricated with what we think of as “real life,” and “real lives” are more and more animated by hosts of digital tools and infrastructures. It’s the non-neutrality of these systems that sets the course for Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism, an incisive, intersectional interrogation of cyberfeminist politics and art and manifesto. Through the rupture of the glitch — here, an error or break that is “celebrated as a vehicle of refusal” — Russell theorizes glitch feminism that is “a consensual diaspora toward multiplicity that arms us as tools, carries us as devices, sustains us as technology while urging us to persist, survive, stay alive.”  As Russell challenges the dominant historiography of white hegemonic cyberfeminism, the glitch constitutes a new kind of story about cyberspace’s dance with the analog.

To anyone familiar with blogs and message boards that allow users to communicate with a simple username, Russell’s characterization of online life as a “digital native phishing through […] cybernated landscapes with a dawning awareness, a shyly exercised power” is a resonant one. In these spaces, bodies are transformed and transformational early sites of the glitch. It is in her early explorations of the “storytelling and shapeshifting” of what online identities could mean that Russell first draws a contrast to her life AFK, away from the keyboard. She writes that as a “young body: Black, female-identifying, femme, queer,” online space offered malleability that “incessant white heteronormative observation” AFK simply couldn’t. Glitch feminism looks “at the notion of glitch-as-error with its genesis in the realm of the machine and the digital and [considers] how it can be reapplied to inform the way we see the AFK world, shaping how we might participate in it toward greater agency for and by ourselves.” Glitch feminism is an opening, an invitation to “[occupy] the digital as a means of world-building” given the volume and velocity of “the ongoing (r)evolution of bodies that can inevitably move and shift faster than AFK mores or the societies that produce them.” Here, Russell captures what it means to build and perform identity in mediated space: the glitch opens up new worlds that are made manifest AFK and are yet impossible to disentangle from life online. 

In each of Glitch Feminism’s twelve chapters, Russell’s work as an artist and curator takes center stage. Russell devotes each chapter to a different activation of the glitch in glitch feminism, a case study of interdisciplinary artists who through their works recast notions of the binary body and chart a course “through wayward worlds toward new frameworks and new visions of fantastic futures” both online and AFK. The loop of the co-constitutive digital and AFK space invites the glitch feminist to, in Russell’s words, “inject our positive irregularities […] as errata, activating new architecture through these malfunctions, seeking out and celebrating the slipperiness of gender in our weird and wild wonder.” Weird and wild indeed: Russell’s activations of the glitch throughout the text are capacious, boundary-pushing, and often even joyful. In framing Glitch Femiminsm as a manifesto itself, Russell underscores the urgency of glitch feminism as a radical act of inhabiting and refiguring both AFK and online space, particularly as those spaces are dominated by white cis heteropatriarchy that pushes all other life to the margins.

Getting at glitch feminism in Russell’s twelve dimensions feels something like surfing the web. Where so many of our digital—and subsequently, AFK—experiences are shaped by increasingly narrow personalized algorithms and exclusionary filter bubbles, there’s something powerful about coming to meet the glitch from such an explosive array of angles. Whether in recounting her own experience “slipping in and out of digital skins” or demonstrating artists’ interrogations of the same, Russell casts the glitch as “a vehicle to rethink our physical selves” and an indicator of the overwhelming, violent whiteness at the center of algorithmic technologies and the white cyberfeminist tools available for theorizing those technologies. 

As Glitch Feminism “problematizes the construct of the body,” it also “[calls] out the historical construction of gender as it intersects with a historical construction of race.” The right to name, claim, and control “these things called “bodies” has never been meted out equally.” The same is true of the historical whiteness of cyberfeminism, a project that particularly in its early days “was regularly championed and fetishized as one of white womanhood” first and foremost. Russell does away with the idea that early cyberfeminism was a de facto inclusive or liberatory stance. The artists that Russell weaves through each chapter are often the very “queer people, trans people, and people of color” that white women cyberfeminists who, in the late 1990s and forward, erased as they mobilized a politics of “feminist “sisterhood” toward the purpose of increasing white range.” The whitewashing of cyberfeminist histories serves an exclusive end, and part of what makes Glitch Feminism so compelling is that “the work of blackness in expanding feminism — and, by extension, cyberfeminism — remains an essential precursor for glitch politics.” Russell cites that contemporary cyberfeminism “remains a philosophical partner [to] discourse on glitch: it looks to online space as a means of world-building” that casts a new vision for what “mainstream” AFK life could be. 

Some of Russell’s most exciting glitch theory comes in the fourth chapter, “Glitch Ghosts.” Here, she draws out the tripartite process for “ghosting on the binary body,” an act of refusal and turning away, “[abandoning] the binary body as a failed idea” that no longer serves life AFK or elsewhere. To ghost on the binary body, we must acknowledge that “the relationship between the idea of the body and gender as a construct” is so damaging as to require a way out; next, we must remember that “we have agency either to consent or refuse” our relationship to the body and gender; and finally, we must “claim our continuous range as multitudinous selves.” For Russell, this ghosting is inherently productive: that in so doing, “we also work toward dissolving ourselves [and as such] perhaps our factual fragments can be scrambled, rendered unreadable.” In later chapters, the radical decolonial and anticapitalist act of ghosting on the binary body creates the conditions of possibility for “[becoming] dangerous data,” or errors in motion.

Glitch feminism sees the vast potential for remix and reimagining of what a body can be and do in digital space. Russell writes that cyberspace has “many worlds, and within those worlds, vastly different understandings of what utopia might look like or become — and for whom.” The multiplicity of worlds available in cyberspace is a complicated dance of accumulation and invisibility: data collected at alarmingly fast rates, data tracking and tracing our bodies, and the glitch refusals that call into question something different, something new. “The Internet is an immersive institutional edifice,” Russell argues. “One that reflects and surrounds. There is no fixed entry-point: it is everywhere, all around us.” Even as the Internet is this ambient condition for being, glitch feminism teaches that “we are not one but many bodies.” The revolutionary potential of glitch feminism is right on the surface: though the glitch, “we will find life, joy, and longevity in breaking what needs to be broken. We will be persistent in our failure to perform in pursuit of a future that does not want us, enduring in our refusal to protect the idea, the institution of ‘body’ that alienates us.”