Fold of the Future

Legacy Russell. Photo: Mina Alyeshmerni

In her first book, Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, writer and curator Legacy Russell argues that our online identities can be tools for emancipation. Glitch Feminism portrays the online avatar as a laboratory where Black, queer, and gender-nonconforming artists have explored, experimented, and ultimately expanded notions of the self.

By creating online identities that do not conform to society’s expectation of the body, the book asserts, Black, queer, and gender-nonconforming people can introduce glitches into the binary software of gender. “We will be not ‘single beings,’” Russell writes, “but be every single being and every single avatar, expanding to a rageful full range that makes this gendered engine screech to a halt.”

For Bookforum, I exchanged emails with Russell on disrupting gender, the false split between online and IRL, and the commodification of the self.

What is glitch feminism and who is it for?

Glitch Feminism notes that the gendered body is a construct and points toward the creative application of the digital as a means of exploring new configurations of the body. It asks us to embody error as a disruption to gender binary, as a resistance to the normative. It denotes gender as a radicalized categorization.

Glitch Feminism is for us, by us. For Black people and queer people and most especially for those artists, writers, and thinkers within its pages that every single person should know about, as they’re changing the world. The book celebrates artists like manuel arturo abreu, Shawné Michaelain Holloway, E. Jane, and Victoria Sin in the work they each do toward the project of dismantling body binary.

As a writer, curator, and art historian I want to actively commit to writing us into the history of art and cyberculture, as contributors to an ever-vibrant canon. We are in a triggering moment in the world where visibility for queer people and Black people is at an all-time high—both through and beyond the art world—yet empowered representation still remains in limbo.

How does the glitch function as an emancipatory tactic?

Glitch is an active refusal. It is a mode of non-performance within a social, cultural machine. To quote the artist E. Jane, it’s the act of saying “NOPE.” As a Black femme queer, I am the glitch. I was born a glitch and will die a glitch. That’s the entire point of glitch feminism—that we are living daily in a culture that will eat us alive but doesn’t love us. To embody error and to celebrate the breaking of a broken culture via our very presence is a radical act. Tear it all down.

So many bodies that continue to rise do so despite and in face of the very devastating reality that these systems were set up to take our femme-identified lives, queer lives, Black lives. So many of us—Black, queer, femme bodies—weren’t meant to survive within a normative world order. Still thriving, we are evidence of system failure. We are the glitch. In breaking the machine, we restructure it.

In Glitch Feminism you write, “We will not be ‘single beings’ but be every single being.” What does this look like in everyday life?

The question of multiplicity is a question about who has the right to range and what being range-full can even look like. As the mainstream translates Black histories and queer histories there is a flattening of a selfhood that occurs, one that shifts the reading of Blackness and queerness. This is a violence that manifests in social death driven by institutionalized systems, as well as in the literal death of Black and queer people, who live every day at a heightened level of vulnerability to harm. Black people and queer people deserve a gorgeous, complex, multifaceted, ecstatic existence. What this looks like is having the right to live with variance. To grow and change, to grow up and grow old, to be untranslatable without being marked as a threat and then feared, and to have every single part of that being be recognized as 100 percent safe and OK.

How does glitch feminism relate to the more ordinary role-playing we all do online?

Being an identity that people don’t care about or understand—that the machine of society cannot process and therefore actively does not protect is not “role-playing.” It is the lived experience of Black and queer people. Playing, congregating, dialoguing, collectivizing, on the internet for Black people and queer people is an empowered act.

Any person who has ever lived knows that we perform different selves depending on where we go, who we are with and who is watching. This didn’t come about because of the internet. Code-switching is a coping and survival mechanism and very much so part of being a human trying to navigate the systems of capitalism. Quit blaming the internet—it’s a false polemic.

There is no such thing as “real life” as distinct from the internet—the digital is real life. To propose otherwise positions the work we do online as being fantasy. IRL is a construct and fetish. What is happening online is real AF—it is absolutely not a fantasy. While the landscape of the digital has been used to imagine and propose new futures, it has also been used to blueprint and build them, both on screens and away from them.

How do we experiment with our identities online without supporting social-media platforms owned by exploitive tech companies?

We have to keep reminding ourselves that technology is never neutral, that it is not democratic, and that strategic application of technology in our ordinary everyday is in fact a radical act that will have short- and long-term resonance as this history continues to unfold. Digital material that allows us to move, commune, explore, learn, engage, resist, refuse also implicates us in some of the greatest violence of our time. This likely will be one of the greatest crises of conscience across generations. We’re all bound up in this complicated medium, complicit in the theft of our own data. There is no simple solution, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep talking about it, strategizing, remixing, innovating and looking for ways to build new channels across these technologies. What will the broader impact of this be? We’ll have to stay tuned.

Some of the negative resonances that you are talking about are already playing out now, in real time. And capitalism has taken the next step, profiting off of our identities and personal relationships.

If you are a Black, queer, or female-identified person you should be very familiar in seeing your entire identity turned into a product and sold back to you from the moment you are born, until the moment you die—that is a core spoke in the wheel of capitalism. A certain type of accelerationist approach might argue that the sheer speed of this, while violent, is pushing toward the breaking of things altogether, perhaps giving way to new pathways and possibilities. I don’t know if I’m convinced. Resisting and refusing within the internet will require us to be part of the designing of these different technologies—not solely be the users of them once they’ve already been created. Just as this world in its current form wasn’t built to love Black people and queer people, neither was the internet. We’ve brought to these technologies a deep structural, social, cultural, and emotional intelligence that isn’t always there at the start. The question now is how we can be recognized for these contributions, and have this labor, this creativity, made visible in all its victories.

On the final pages of Glitch Feminism, you write: “We pave the way for the kaleidoscopic future we want.” What does this glitched, kaleidoscopic future look like to you?

First, it exists in a future where the terrorism of state-sanctioned policies that put our lives at risk, make us vulnerable, and, in many cases, ultimately kill us, are no longer part of the ordinary every day. Outside of this, I’m looking to build new worlds for that little version of me, that kid in chatrooms in the 1990s who was trying to flex her very Black and very queer and very soft-femme self because she couldn’t see herself in the world away from the screen. The joyful risks, pleasures, propositions, adventures and avatars that are put forward in Glitch Feminism are for that kid, and for all those folx who have come of age in an era of the internet that have turned to the screen to live, and live gorgeously, as an active refusal of a world condition that normalizes, neutralizes, denies, our death. To quote poet Lucille Clifton: “Won’t you celebrate with me?”

Mikkel Rosengaard is a writer based in New York.