Glitch Feminism, by Legacy Russell, is a powerful manifesto that challenges gender binaries as well as other binaries including hegemonic understandings of our relationship to our bodies and cyberspace. Part critical theory, part art theory, art history, and contemporary art survey, I don’t think I’ve been so deeply entranced by reading a text like this in some time, maybe ever. I also know, that to really understand it, I’ll have to reread it a few more times but I’m attempting to review it anyway, so here goes:
Russell puts forth “Glitch” as a foundation for this manifesto and within this space, Russell finds transgressive and transformative value rather than failure or error, as a Glitch might be typically read. This error space is a space of becoming, a fluid space of multiplicity where bodies and identities are free to be abstract, free to be visible or invisible, free to reject norms or embrace them, free to fail and make mistakes, free to perform and adorn themselves, free to corrupt, remake and build anew, free to mobilize. Russell also confronts the idea of “in real life” or “IRL” as an outdated understanding of our relationship to cyberspace, putting forth (new to me) language, “away from keyboard/afk”, and thoughtful analysis that better describes the reality of our circular relationship to physical and cyber space. In this manifesto, Black Women and LGBTQ+ communities are the pioneers and leaders. Through the work of these leaders, most often artists, Russell is able to clearly explain and illuminate each idea, no matter how little or how much you know about this kind of theory or the art world at large.
Part of what I love about this book is its extreme accessibility given the weight of the ideas within it. I may not be the best judge because these are areas I have deep interest in, but my perception of the reading is you don’t have to know that much about art, theory, gender studies, or even the internet to understand this text. Russell does an exemplary job of laying out her arguments clearly so anyone might be able to take them up. Unlike some academic texts the reading is not so dense I have to put it down every other page to look something up or process/understand what I just read. Rather, I found myself putting the text down every chapter so I could process the ideas themselves, parsing my understanding and feelings to better grasp what I was reading, and the arguments being put forth (and occasionally to look up the artists’ work if I didn’t know it). The difference is extraordinary and refreshing.
I feel deeply disadvantaged to be trying to review such a brilliant text. Although I was raised in a very progressive household (so much so that I did not understand that sexual preference was even a thing until I moved into a rural space where I was required to keep my mother’s sexuality a secret) where preference and expression of all kind was encouraged, I am myself a straight cis able-bodied woman (white Latina if that information is important to you). Like Russell, I came of age with the birth of the internet, building GeoCities fan sites, using AIM to converse with classmates and strangers, and learning that you could build an identity of sorts in cyberspace. However, my experience there was relatively limited. Unlike my twin sister, I never had a myspace or livejournal and I resisted online spaces for a long time. As I’ve gotten older my relationship to social media has shifted: I use spaces like Instagram to communicate my work as an artist and my life in general, especially now that I have moved away from my former AFK community with those that I no longer see day to day unless I engage cyberspace. Newer platforms like “clubhouse” which supposedly reflect reality more straightforwardly are still daunting for me, though fun places to explore.
The thing is, like so many others who fit the dominant narrative (straight cis able bodied white people), I never have to consider what these spaces might mean to others, what possibilities they might hold unless I want to. Granted, cyberfeminism takes into account the space that can be made for women online and the important role women have in technology – but I’d argue as a white woman that engagement in those spaces is more choice than necessity, a privilege that my health and safety does not rely on, as it might not be for Black women, other women of color, queer people (and others that don’t fall within the dominant narrative). For that reason, I think this book is crucial for all. For those who identify with the text and those that don’t.
If you don’t identify with the text, and you find yourself resisting the ideas, I hope you’ll give it time and space. In chapter 5, “Glitch is Error”, I found myself really pulling away. Much of this chapter is about the definitions we are required to take part in, AFK or online, and the ways this defining might be a violence against the possibilities of ourselves. One of Russell’s most powerful moments of memory is included in this chapter, as well as very powerful work by artist Micha Cardenas. I think I was probably resistant because I feel that defining ourselves out loud to others can often be a powerful tool, both for our own selves and representation at large and I was having trouble reconciling that with what I was reading. I knew my resistance to this chapter would color the rest of my reading, so I paused afterward and scribbled numerous notes onto the page. Eventually I came to a conclusion that worked for me; it is not that we should remain or be undefined, it is that we should be the creators of our definitions and be able to remain flexible about them – motion is key.
Who knows if that is what I should be taking away from it, and maybe next time I read it there will be a different thought or conclusion, but I believe that any text that forces you to think hard about your own ideas and presuppositions is a worthwhile read, especially if it includes beautiful art and brilliant writing.