Necessary Errors



THE 1990s WERE A TIME of great techno-cultural promise. But despite the radical potential of the early internet, the decade gave rise to the increasing consolidation of power in the hands of men. Artists and theorists updated feminism to account for the social changes wrought by the internet and the systematic erasure of women in tech. In the Global North, this amorphous movement came to be known as cyberfeminism, and ran the gamut from the raucous, and often filthily funny, “Girls Gone Wired” ethos of Australian collective VNS Matrix to dry-mouthed academic treatises that were rather more joyless. Cyberfeminism’s theoretical touchstones included both Donna Haraway’s 1985 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” and Shulamith Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex (1970), which advocated for destroying biological reproduction through technology. Although contemporaneous with early third wave feminism, cyberfeminism didn’t prioritize intersectionality so much as the intersection of art and technology. And while VNS Matrix’s Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century (1991) didn’t explicitly exclude trans people—it wasn’t quite surf-and-TERF—it certainly foregrounded conceptions of cis girlhood.

So, yeah, sex is terribly uncool, but have you ever heard of glitch feminism? Simply put, it’s a cyberfeminism that centers queer, trans, and nonbinary people of color, and describes our particular experience of the internet. Grounded in the Black feminist tradition, it responds to Web 2.0, wherein the radical liberatory potential of the early-’90s internet has been replaced by a corporatized space structured by the same capitalist, hetero-patriarchal dynamics that organize society at large.

Legacy Russell. Photo: Mina Alyeshmerni
Legacy Russell. Photo: Mina Alyeshmerni

Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism takes Walt Whitman’s “I am large, I contain multitudes,” as a kind of fugal subject, expanding glitch feminism in scope with each repetition. The “I” might well refer to the overall cyberfeminist project: even while recognizing that movement’s limitations, Russell positions glitch feminism as a successor of sorts. That positioning reads as primarily a gesture of homage rather than an alliance based on shared ideas or lineage. One firm connection is a mutual belief that tech, digital, and internet spheres might be spaces for radical imagination and liberation.

A refusal to be pinned down extends to the form of the book itself, which variously presents itself as a work of media theory, memoir, and manifesto, while primarily existing in the third register. This can result in some frustratingly unfulfilled promises. For example, the introduction states, “This text will travel from an exploration of glitch as a word to its reapplication within the context of (cyber)feminism, to a history of cyberfeminism itself, challenging who has been made most visible in these narratives.” Exciting, and necessary! But we never arrive at either the history of cyberfeminism—beyond a few lines in the first chapter—or any reapplication within it. Similarly, none of the other techno-feminist movements that have sprung up in the decades since cyberfeminism 1.0 receive an acknowledgment here. The book is structured into twelve chapters, each of which gesture at a definition of the glitch. Glitch is the body that troubles cishet white normativity; it is the failure to conform to any binary. Glitch is the cosmic, viral antibody; it refuses, throws shade, ghosts, encrypts. It can also be satisfyingly viscous and tactile, with language that, at times, echoes VNS Matrix: “Perhaps we want the break, we want to fail. We strive for oozing, challenging bodies full of seams. We want wild, amorous, monstrous bodies.”

Yet whereas VNS Matrix and their early cyberfeminist cohort were coders, hackers, and technologists, glitch feminism takes technology primarily as an aestheticized metaphor. That’s not necessarily a failing, even if it does lead to some meandering. “The glitch is a tool: it is socio-cultural malware,” Russell writes. Glitch Feminism, unfortunately, sometimes feels more like poeticized vaporware. That feeling lessens in the book’s last third, when Russell addresses the racialized construction of gender. She throws out a number of intriguing provocations: that gender should be understood as an economic performance, and that “the open-ended question of the body is one of the greatest of our time.” I often wanted Russell to complicate and deepen these ideas, because some are strikingly original. I wish, for instance, that she had elaborated on her assertion that the racial bias built into surveillance systems—which are especially bad at recognizing nonwhite faces—means that queer and trans POC can evade digital policing and become ghosts to the machine.

Still, there is some luminous, and even incandescent prose here, particularly when Russell talks about her early experiments with identity construction online and the gentrification of her hometown. The systematic erasure of queer nightlife in the ’90s is convincingly linked to the creation of white cyberspace; Russell develops this connection further in a consideration of the performance artist named boychild. New York may be a tertiary character in this narrative, but it’s the kind of extra that leaps from the background in discussions of the East Village or parties like GUSH or Papi Juice. At its best, Glitch Feminism has that same comforting “for us by us” feel.

Above all, glitch feminism emphasizes the power of representation—the indexical gesture that says this exists; we exist. The book is a gorgeous document of a number of mostly Black trans, queer, and gender-nonconforming artists working today, from E. Jane and Juliana Huxtable to Shawné Michaelain Holloway and American Artist. Would this book have felt radical if it came out ten years ago? Absolutely. In 2020, it’s mostly saying the loud part out loud. You know what? I still love this song. Turn it up, and, as Russell writes, “let the whole goddamn thing short-circuit.”

Rahel Aima is a writer in Brooklyn.

An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated that Wu Tsang's work is discussed in the book.