Let the whole goddamn thing short-circuit
How Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism Reclaims Techno-Optimism
Techno-Optimism as Techno-Babble
When I use the term techno-optimist, I’m specifically referring to an attitude that readily reduces our social ills to problems easily fixed by technology. Solving the greatest political crises of our time is a simple matter, according to the techno optimist, who endlessly refrains that “we only need the right technology”. Perhaps the most egregious example of a techno optimist can be found in the figure of Elon Musk, the ready and willing mouthpiece of capitalist ideology who seems possessed of the ardent belief that enough money and enough ‘innovation’ (whatever this means) can solve any problem. My biggest concern with such techno optimist accounts, is their uncritical belief in the liberatory power of technology. Contemporary technologies are tools, tools that may contain the power to liberate, but which also possess the capacity to reinforce and reinvigorate oppressive structures of power. My issue with the techno optimists, then, is their unwillingness to note how technologies can serve as sites of intensification for many of our political problems, often more easily than they can serve as sites of liberation. Many of the great supporters of techno optimism are those who through their own ignorance, or ego, are completely unable to articulate the precise issues with the technologies they champion. Often out of a misguided desire to free us from whatever constraints they see upon us, the techno optimist is often forced into the practise of apologism for the failures of technology to deliver us from these very constraints. The biggest issue with techno optimism, then, is the way in which it often fails to understand the very political dimensions of the technology it champions.
Last year’s publication of Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, was, all things considered, a rather timely affair given the mass exodus into digital space forced upon us by the pandemic. Approaching the text, I was wary as to whether or not it would contain little more than the same techno optimist platitudes, pretty and poetic language that simply lacked any substance or weight. I had been burned by many such texts before. But what I found within Russell’s project was an account of techno optimism that did not leave its critical faculties at the door, but which centrally refused to reduce the technological dimension of our current political problematics into a dead fatalism. What I found was a short critical work that acknowledges the radical potential of technology, while simultaneously presenting a deep, nuanced awareness of its current shortcomings, as well as our need to overcome them.
A glitch is an error, a mistake, a failure to function. Within technoculture, a glitch is part of machinic anxiety…
Russell’s account of the digital approaches it as a site rife with potential for radical resistance. Drawing on many rich feminist traditions, her work acts to reinvigorate the notion of cyberspace. Curator, writer, and artist, Russell’s work demonstrates a deft ability to traverse the boundaries of many disciplines — deploying examples from art alongside more traditional critical writings — all the while refusing to hierarchically organise these. The manifesto is replete with philosophical references, references which it is often — due to the constraints of both its genre, and condensed length — unable to fully explore. But this should not be taken as an accusation of superficiality, Glitch Feminism works as all good manifesti should: as an appetiser, as that which creates hunger. Its references, citations, and the texts to which it gestures may be a more filling meal that the manifesto itself — but as an amuse bouche, Glitch Feminism did not disappoint.
The very notion of the glitch is a flexible one. Each of the manifesto’s short chapters introduces us to a new element of this central concept. We learn that the glitch refuses, ghosts, encrypts, mobilizes, and survives; Just as we learn that it is cosmic, throws shade, is error, is antibody, is skin, is virus, and is remix. The manifesto centres this notion of glitch precisely because of the productive tensions at play within this concept. Central to this concept is the notion of movement, particularly the understanding that a glitch is a kind of unsanctioned movement that through its presence can change the direction of pre-existing trajectories or block automated procedures entirely. Glitch reintroduces movement into static space. In this sense, the text echoes the project of Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology, wherein she seeks to reinvigorate the notion of space.[i] Glitch Feminism is rich in powerful visual and metaphoric language, though never takes these metaphors further than they need to go. At its inception, the very notion of producing a praxis from a glitch is an act of refusal, it is a refusal to repeat, to partake, to extend, and to accept. Though there are perhaps moments within the text that I would cautiously describe as overly optimistic — such as a few suggestive phrases that seem to figure the oppressed as beyond power in a way that I think is less than productive — Russell is clear that the notion of the glitch is more than a mere abstraction of oneself from the machinery of exploitation and oppression. The central thrust of the manifesto is that an exploration of digital spaces, particularly the kinds of experimentation these spaces enable, can equip us with transformative perspectives that can be carried over into our AFK lives.
the digital skins we develop and dawn online, help us understand who we are with greater nuance. Thus, we used glitch as a vehicle to rethink our physical selves.
Glitch becomes the motivating concept for the project due to the number of ways in which this notion of the failure, the unprecedented, and the unpredictable lend themselves to a particular kind of artistic and creative engagement with contemporary political problematics. This is why I described this project as optimism, precisely because it refuses to abandon the dimension of creativity and play within the field of identity. Many accounts that stress this notion of creative engagement with identity often ignore power, becoming overly optimistic in the sense that they then fail to understand how this creative play is conditioned by the matrices of power. The recognition of these power dynamics within Glitch Feminism, alongside its continued commitment to creative engagement, is what imbues this manifesto with its optimism; but this is an optimism that retains its critical edge.
At its most fundamental level, the notion of a praxis founded upon the glitch is a form of plural political movement that finds its root in disruption. We could suggest that a summary of the project of Glitch Feminism would be to critically and precisely disrupt the conditions of our world in order to produce a new one. Once more echoing the many expressions of this production of a new world not as an ideal luxury, but as a necessity to secure and promote the liveability of marginalised lives,[ii] Russell’s project continues to reflect its optimism in refusing to give up hope that a new world is possible. This is perhaps most clearly expressed in her discussion of a glitch as remix.
Despite the supremacy of the original recording, still, we rise.
Movement within the manifesto is continuously treated as the acknowledgement of ongoing processes of subjectification. Drawing upon the manifold traditions of critical and artistic theory that understand the self not as a settled object or pregiven entity,[iii] but instead as an ongoing activity, Glitch Feminism seeks to found a new vernacular upon which this notion of process can be more explicitly made visible. Part of the problem, according to the manifesto, is the continual ways in which we allow ourselves to be settled into neat readymade categories. Though I am somewhat suspicious that we can completely dispense with category thinking altogether, I agree with the spirit of the project insofar as it seeks to acknowledge the dynamic, ongoing, and creative elements of subject production.
One of my main reservations, or fears, going into this text was the expectation had as to its on digital space. In general, I regard digital space as under theorised within many critical treatments. The vast majority of discussions are underdeveloped, either regarding digital spaces as realms of pure liberty, or regarding them with incredible suspicion and paranoia. My worry was that this text would overly indulge in a fantasy of hope, disregarding the ways in which the digital serves as a rich site for the repetition of exploitative and oppressive arrangements of power. Broadly speaking, technology is the extension of various capacities and that information technologies can and are often turned to exploitive ends is a surprisingly underdeveloped perspective beyond those treatments that indulge in a hermeneutics of suspicion. Of course, the popular correctives for this suspicion are the very techno optimist perspectives that are such worry for me. Given is being the general terrain of things, I think my worry in approaching Glitch Feminism was well founded. What I found so refreshing about this manifesto, then, was the nuance with which its account of the digital presented it as a rich site of potential resistance, whilst also acknowledging that the very praxis for which it is calling requires disruption of digital space. We do not have a binary account whereby digital space and real space are counterposed to one another, with our praxis there by being to interrupted the real with the digital. Instead, the glitch is an interruption into spatiality more generally.
The glitch is a passage through which the body traverses towards liberation, a tear in the fabric of the digital.
The project explores the manifold ways in which appearance and identity become intermingled. Particularly given its focus on the virtual environments of the Internet, the question of appearance is a highly pressing one. The technologies of the Internet, particularly social media, provide an array of tools for the manipulation of ones own image, and the images of others. What Russell keenly highlights is the plentiful ways in which the relationship between the recognised and the recogniser can become disrupted, and this is essential to the notion of glitch.
Several fundamental ideas are targeted by this notion of the glitch. Chief among these is that of the body, which Russell astutely highlights as a coercive social and cultural architecture. But her critical rejection of embodiment should not be taken as a kind of commitment to abstraction or as some kind of regressive dualism. Instead, her project is fundamentally a reimagining of embodiment — and this is perhaps where the phenomenological once more demonstrates its salience. What so fascinates Russell is the legibility of the body, its ability to be categorised, organised, named, and recognised. She introduces the notion of the glitched body, a body that does not fit within the normative hierarchy of contemporary hegemonic condition. Though, again, we may be somewhat wary of her reading of particular bodies as excluded and therefore de facto beyond power itself — Russell’s reading of the excluded body as itself a kind of error helpfully articulates how normative power, through producing a hierarchical alignment, enacts a kind of problematisation of those it subordinates. As a feminist project, Glitch Feminism specifically targets gender and biological sex as cultural impositions that are placed upon bodies, impositions that ah baked into our very notion of embodiment. In this sense, the manifesto calls for a complete renegotiation of our notion of body.
Russell invokes Timothy Morton’s notion of the hyperobject in her analysis of gender, arguing that as this kind of object gender becomes so big it acquires a kind of invisibility. This kind of invisibility is granted to it through the acquisition of a normative force, embedding itself within the ordinary everyday, common sense experience with which we navigate the public networks and spaces of our world. Gender as a system of categorisation becomes a foundational framework, a geopolitical territory upon which we live and build. Through the specific invocation of the hyperobject, Russell is able to furnish us with a rich spatialized metaphor wherein gender becomes a territory, a spatial limitation. Through this use of Morton’s work, the manifesto is able to conceptualise it’s project as a deterritorialization of the body, with this requiring a renegotiation of space and an insistence on the dynamism of physical form.
This “normative ordinary” is a violence, suggesting a natural order in lieu of a most unnatural system of control.
Part of the manifesto’s ability to reclaim techno optimism in a productive way that refuses to repeat some of its more naive elements is the grounding of Russell’s work within marginalised perspectives. Whilst all the time refusing to allow these perspectives to be reduced into neat standpoints, Glitch Feminism entails a scathing critique of those preceding, and contemporary, movements and praxeis that repeat — knowingly or otherwise — hegemonic arrangements of power. The contributions of femme, queer, and black folks are not treated as mere ancillaries to a greater political project, but the greater political project is itself grounded within the perspectives of the marginalia. Russell remains crucially mindful of hegemonic power, and refuses to allow it’s organisations to condition her praxis, refreshingly refusing to repeat the subordination of particular subjectivities through treating their concerns as subordinate within the grand scheme of Her political project. It is precisely through theorising the situation of the ‘outsider’, or the excluded, without allowing that perspective to be reduced into a mere position or a tokenising perspective, that the manifesto is able to provide such a rich synthesis of theoretical and artistic materials.
Part of this realisation of the radical commitment to the inclusion of marginalised perspectives, is the thorough rejection of utilitarian and meritocratic language. Russell Has no invested interest in arguing for the utility or usefulness of particular kinds of bodies, particularly bodies that are widely devalued due to their perceived lack of ability.[iv] Instead, Russell sets out to explore how the deliberate non productivity of certain bodies can allow them to be productive in other ways. This is to say that these bodies refuse to contribute to the meritocratic elements of the hegemonic power she has been discussing, and how this refusal itself contributes to a project of resistance. This is where the notion of the glitch as an interruption is explicitly understood as a non performative.
Despite the enjoyment, both creative and critical, brought to me by this text, I encountered several points twitch I reacted with reservation, trepidation, or concern. Given my philosophical interests in questions of identity, praxis, and power — some of the elements of the manifesto were distinctly underdeveloped. These issues centred around Russell’s use of concepts such as performativity; agency and power; and an absence of conversation with phenomenology.
Russell’s project describe the glitch as a strategy of non-performance. Whilst her presentation of this idea seems to understand the notion of performance in terms of action, with non-performance thereby presented as a refusal to act in a particular way, philosophical accounts of performativity may enable us to approach the notion of action as enacted with slightly more nuance. Performative language, as discussed by Austin and Butler, is language that enacts a particular state of affairs. A performative is not merely a descriptive vector of language but through being uttered changes the set of social affairs. Performativity thereby understands language as an active activity rather than purely descriptive.
Traversing through these origins, we can also arrive at an understanding of glitch as a mode of non-performance: the “failure to perform,” an outright refusal, a “nope” in its own right, expertly executed by machine.
Most famously for feminism, performativity played a core role in Butler’s Gender Trouble — wherein she presented a performative theory of gender.[v] According to this account, gender is not the origin point or the cause of various kinds of gendered behaviours. Instead, these behaviours are performatives that constitute a sense of a gendered core from which they follow. Performativity is thereby a complicated component of subject production; it reflects deeper questions about freedom an agency within a field of power rather than a superficial or mere choice. Butler, following from Foucault, understand political power as ever conditioning our possibilities for action (though never quite fully determining them) — and from this conditioning arises complicated political questions about possibility resistance. What I fear Russell’s flattening of performativity could engender is a loss of nuance with respect to our notion of subject production. There are several points in the manifesto where she seems to speak of true selves and authentic selves, but the text holds little space for discussing what these things mean outside of being constituted by an individual’s choice. To perform in the sense of a performative is not to assume a false identity, it is not to exercise total agency over who one is, but is instead the understanding that one’s actions within a political and social field condition how one appears to others, and how one is recognised as a person (or how this recognition fails).
But Russell appears to be arguing for a non-performative, a term I most associate with the work of Sara Ahmed.[vi] Ahmed presents much anti-racist language as non-performative, not because it resists power or refuses to partake in power, but because of the ways in which it repeats power. Ahmed’s account of the non-performative stresses how certain kinds of speech act can be seen as a substitute for various kinds of action, particularly with respect to anti-racism she is highlighting how certain utterances of anti-racist belief are seen as a substitute for anti-racist practise and action. In this sense the non-performative is when one speaks rather than acts, whereas performativity is an action of speech. The notion, then, of a non-performative at work within the manifesto does not seem to be reflective of Ahmed’s account. Russell Appears to want to use this notion as a much more productive one, but perhaps in invoking performative language as she does the waters become slightly muddier than they need to be.
For my body, then, subversion came via digital remix, searching for those sites of experimentation where I could explore my true self…
Though the text does a fantastic job of describing the need to problematize and mobilised the glitch against the conditions of physical and digital space, where in the logics of oppression are writ large, the way in which these logics condition actions is not fully explored. Because of this, the text at certain points comes dangerously close to an oversimplification, presenting political resistance as if it were an easy choice to make. Part of the complexity when discussing concepts of resistance, is the capacity for systems of power to reproduce themselves and to reappropriate sites of potential resistance. Because of this, resistance is not as easy as simply choosing to resist, one must more fully theorise how power is working in order to understand how resistance can function. Though this insight is not entirely absent from the manifesto, it is, in places, pushed to the background.
It is the very back rounding of this complexity that allows the text to engage in the optimism it wishes to produce. I would perhaps argue that the relative absence of this complexity contributes to those moments in the text that I found to be overly optimistic. It is not, therefore, that Glitch Feminism fails to account for power, it is clear that Russell understands both theoretically and through lived experience how power functions, but that the text perhaps overly stresses the possibility of resistance whilst leaving the notion of power as condition underdeveloped.
At several points in the text, Russell appears to gesture toward a desire for individual agency to serve as a kind of ground for the manifold ways in which one appears. Though multiplicity is an important notion for the concept itself with which she is working, through repeatedly valorising an individual’s ability to choose as central I am wondering if there is an implication beyond a mere stress of lived experience, and something more grounded in a kind of techno fantasist illusion. The technologies that she is critically examining appear to offer us tools of control with respect to our appearances, and the identity’s that they allow us to wear or to discard. It is not a shocking claim to suggest that the way in which one is able to appear online can be more finely tuned and manipulated than the ways in which we can appear in person. Indeed, there is extensive literature on the social consequences of anonymity online which is which is far more widespread than in person. We can see this expressed in many common sense accounts of trolling behaviours as swimming from ability of anonymity, and the possibility of an empathic distance produced through technology. Yet, despite the existence of these tools their Contacts continue to matter. As Russell herself notes, although perhaps not as extensively as I may have wished, many social media fora are privately owned. This observation is to remind us as to the nature of the spaces, and to remind us of the obscured power dynamics inscribed into their structures. though we possess various tools of manipulation and control over our appearances, those tools are provided to us by the very space a glitch feminist practise must disrupt. Russell is undoubtedly aware of this to some degree, due to her critique of the gender identification options presented on Facebook. yet, despite this awareness, I am unsure if her criticism goes far enough.
Facebook’s fifty-eight gender options (and three pronouns, lest we forget!), first made available for users in 2014, was not a radical gesture — it was neoliberalism at its finest.
Butler’s own philosophical work contributes to a broad and complicated tradition of philosophical and other scholarly work that troubles naive notions of identity. These theoretical approaches understand individual selves as deeply interconnected, troubling any notion we have of totally individual and sovereign agency. There are certain parts of Glitch Feminism that still seemed to hold out some desire to achieve this kind of sovereign agency, an agency which is not only an impossibility for any subject, but an agency that causes harm through its pursuit. The mythology of sovereign agency paints a rather desirable picture, the individual who entirely masters themselves, who determines themselves entirely and who is disconnected from the distortive influences of others. It is the product of enlightenment and renaissance thinking, written into the foundations of liberalism in many ways. the sovereign individual perhaps more than any other political concept forms the core of the western political imagination.
But, as has been the subject of much historical and contemporary critique, this notion of the individual seems to suppress the interrelated and interpersonal dimensions of human experience that are far from superficial appendages to a sovereign core but seem to be constitutive of who we are to a fundamental degree. There are a host of thinkers we may consider here,[vii] each with slightly different apprehensions as to what a critique of sovereign agency might mean, but a common thread connecting this tradition is that the pursuit of this sovereign individuality does not merely ignore certain aspects of human existence but through this ignorance causes harm.
This is reflected, more broadly, in the text’s latent utopianism. Glitch Feminism Engages in the Noble task of seeking to build a better world, a task that I think is crucially important for reinvigorating our political imagination. But, insofar as the project imagines utopia as one grounded on an individualistic agency, it fails to imagine it’s way beyond the constraints of our contemporary condition. This failure of imagination does appear to inform certain parts of the texts more evocative description, but also seems to run counter to the very core notion of the glitch. Glitch as a failure to meet and reproduce the standards of hegemonic power, entails discovery failed to be a subject. Russell does not necessarily describe this in these exact terms, but her discussion of bodies that fail to be bodies, because they fail to meet a particular standard of embodiment, amounts to a very similar point. Bodies of colour Presented in the text as sites of fertile ‘failure’, as loci of exclusion that can help us to challenge modalities of subject production. Through their failure to meet the mould, these bodies can help to break it. This is to suggest that the text continually aligns itself as running contrary to hegemonic power, a course that is necessary if this power is to be unpicked, resisted, and dismantled. The manifold ways in which the text provokes thinking to this end are engaging and evocative, but at the level of agency perhaps do not go far enough.
My own previous work on identity and its politics, have centred their spatiality, seeking to articulate a phenomenology of recognition, embedded within public spaces. Russell’s use of spatial language was thereby extremely poignant from my perspective, as it understood (or at least gestured towards) fundamental issues of appearance and performativity. Russell’s text demonstrated a critical acknowledgement as to how the ways in which we appear before others shapes selfhood. Her treatment of these issues is primarily, I think, an aesthetic one — undoubtedly an important dimension when considering the mediating force of social media, and for cultivating a sense of the self as a work of art. This is where I think her project is perhaps most able to become further critical contributions from the field of phenomenology.
The manifesto continually speaks about the importance of our digital appearances, treating these as sites of both depression and potential places of play. As previously mentioned, the manifesto is more interested in stressing the potential liberations we can achieve through these technologies rather than exploring the limits and conditions they impose upon our engagements with them. Part of considering these limits would involve a phenomenological consideration as to the conditions of appearance online. Fundamental questions about how online spaces shape our subjective experiences of them, how they shape our ability to recognise ourselves and others, and how they determine in advance the ways in which we can appear to others within them, these are the kinds of considerations that and applied phenomenology of digital space would engage with. Undoubtedly, this is a huge undertaking. My discussion of it here should not be taken as a criticism of the manifesto itself, but a consideration as to where a productive dialogue might be found. This is something I find highly interesting, particularly with respect to my own research — work that I hope to have the opportunity to continue doing in the future.
In sum, Glitch Feminism presents an engaging and challenging project. It refreshingly refuses to accept any of the ideological fatal isms currently available to us, instead holding out hope that novelty is possible, that new conditions and new worlds are possible. Though, as I have noted above, there are certain aspects of the project that are philosophically underdeveloped, the manifesto — in my view — fundamentally achieves what it set out to do. Through uniting a commitment to radical politics, an awareness of the structural and lived dimensions of oppression, and a relentless optimism for the future the text presents a refreshing perspective on our current technological condition.
Fundamentally, one of the greatest strengths of this manifesto is its refusal to abandon its creativity. Perhaps such a contribution could only have been provided by an artist, one who possesses not only the critical language but also an interest in creative play. Pessimism is easy, in many ways. All it requires is the acceptance of things as they are, almost implicitly containing the desire to give up. What is difficult, is to present an optimism that does not quickly dissolve into pure fantasy. It is precisely the optimism that I encountered within Glitch Feminism, and it is an optimism that I shall be carrying with me into further, critical work.
The glitch is an activist prayer, a call to action, as we work towards fantastic failure…
[i] Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).
[ii] We can think here of theorists such as Judith Butler (see: Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso Books, 2006).), Thalia Bettcher (see: Bettcher, Talia Mae, ‘Trans Identities and First-Person Authority’, in You’ve Changed: Sex Reassignment and Personal Identity, ed. by Laurie Shrage (Oxford University Press, 2009).), and Giorgio Agamben (see: Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics Series), trans. by Daniel Heller-Roazen, 2nd edn (Stanford, CA, United States: Stanford University Press, 1998).).
[iii] I am thinking most explicitly here of Michel Foucault, see: Michel Foucault, ‘The Subject and Power’, Critical Inquiry, 8.4 (1982), 777–95.
[iv] Ahmed conducts an intellectual history of use, see: Sara Ahmed, What’s the Use? (UK: Duke University Press, 2019).
[v] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1990).
[vi] Ahmed, Sara, ‘The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism’ (presented at the Text and Terrain: Legal Studies in Gender and Sexuality, University of Kent, 2004) <https://www.kent.ac.uk/clgs/documents/pdfs/Ahmed_sarah_clgscolloq25-09-04.pdf>.
[vii] A few names might include Hannah Arendt (see: Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 1st edn (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).), Emmanuel Levinas (see: Emmanuel Levinas, The Levinas Reader, ed. by Seán Hand (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989).), and Patchen Markell (see: Patchen Markell, Bound by Recognition (Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003).).
Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics Series), trans. by Daniel Heller-Roazen, 2nd edn (Stanford, CA, United States: Stanford University Press, 1998)
Ahmed, Sara, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006)
Ahmed, Sara, ‘The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism’ (presented at the Text and Terrain: Legal Studies in Gender and Sexuality, University of Kent, 2004) <https://www.kent.ac.uk/clgs/documents/pdfs/Ahmed_sarah_clgscolloq25-09-04.pdf>
Ahmed, Sara, What’s the Use? (UK: Duke University Press, 2019)
Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition, 1st edn (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)
Bettcher, Talia Mae, ‘Trans Identities and First-Person Authority’, in You’ve Changed: Sex Reassignment and Personal Identity, ed. by Laurie Shrage (Oxford University Press, 2009)
Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1990)
— — — , Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso Books, 2006)
Foucault, Michel, ‘The Subject and Power’, Critical Inquiry, 8.4 (1982), 777–95
Levinas, Emmanuel, The Levinas Reader, ed. by Seán Hand (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989)
Markell, Patchen, Bound by Recognition (Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003)
Russell, Legacy, Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto (Verso Books, 2020) <https://rbdigital.rbdigital.com> [accessed 6 April 2021]