Glitch Feminism: An Interview With Legacy Russell
by Russell Bennetts
Legacy Russell is a writer, artist and cultural producer. Her first book Glitch Feminism is forthcoming from Verso. A version of this interview first appeared in the chapter “Distracted to Attention: On Digital Reading” in The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online (OR Books, 2017).
The digital today offers conditions of distraction far beyond those envisioned by Benjamin in 1936. Can you see radical potential in this?
In his inimitable way, Benjamin was calling Duhamel out for being classist. Duhamel typecasts the moviegoer as being devoid of depth. He pigeonholes the experience of cinema as base, an experience incapable of being elevated. I think fondly on Frank O’Hara’s “Ave Maria” here, and his call to arms:
Mothers of America
let your kids go to the movies!
get them out of the house so they won’t know what you’re up to
it’s true that fresh air is good for the body
but what about the soul
that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images
This captures the essence of the life-long cultural romance so many of us have with the moving image and new media (including the internet) as primary material. To lovingly reapply the words of Grace Miceli, we are all, regardless of gender identification, “Girls At Night On The Internet”.
Benjamin writes that “A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it . . . [and] . . . [i]n contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.” To take things a few steps further, the digital mass has the potential to be neither male nor female — it rejects the violence of these binaries — and is neither absorbed, nor distracted.
A digital mass reproduces. A digital mass memes. A digital mass mutates. A digital mass glitches.
My writing deals with the manner with which digital platforms allow for images, information and data to be reproduced, modified and critiqued in a fractal fashion. I first wrote on Glitch Feminism in 2013, with an interest in exploring these ideas; #GlitchFeminism aims to use the digital as a means of resisting the hegemony of the corporeal. Within this, to some degree, is a line of inquiry concerned with what capacity we apply “the real” as a means of undermining innovation — holding onto things that already exist, rather than investing in a future imagination. It’s in the latter that there is political potential. I wonder if it was that potential for future imagination that so frightened Duhamel about the cinema; regardless, there is certainly a parallel line of cultural anxiety that resurfaces when people today disparage the digital.
Alongside this disparagement, our culture continues to fetishise print.
People always fetishise objects they can hold and touch. It’s some combination of nostalgia as well this eternal desire to be closer to the artist or author. Producing via the digital does a lot to widen the reach of reading material and broadens the forum wherein people are able to participate in ongoing critical discourse. The poet and activist Essex Hemphill spoke in 1995 about “cyberspace” saying, “. . . I stand at the threshold of cyberspace and wonder, is it possible that I am unwelcome here, too? Will I be allowed to construct a virtual reality that empowers me? Can invisible men see their own reflections?” I think these are incredibly relevant questions to contemplate when approaching this idea of the digital, and what problems it presents (holding up a mirror to an already flawed society), and works to resolve (perhaps providing opportunities for the invisible to become visible). There’s a conflict here.
We fetishise print because it exists in the realm of the real that we are familiar with; we associate reality as being commensurate with all things tangible. However, there are many things that aren’t tangible that are still real. Thus, there isn’t a need to let go of print, but rather there’s a need to consider what else is possible. Platforms likeNewHive or Inkitt have become places to experiment with this, a history that is quite literally being written as it happens.
Not letting go entirely, but is there perhaps a need to tear down print’s aura?
No. I love the aura. I love breaking the spine of a book, folding down its pages, writing in the margins. These are rituals that I have built into my experience of reading, thinking, processing. Can’t the digital have an aura, too, though?
Yes, and it’s an aura always already improvised. No bound book can be (near-magically) altered using Cascading Style Sheets. And the online is more tactile than the prevailing control machine propagates. Returning to your work, why do you believe that online literary criticism should embrace the glitch?
Glitch is ultimately a metaphor that can be mobilised across disciplines. For this reason, it is incredibly useful as a critical tool. While the word “glitch” hails from the realm of technoculture, the theorising of glitch — especially as it relates to Glitch Feminism — reclaims the initial “error” of glitch as a term. Glitch itself is a mechanism of feedback and critique; to apply it to literary criticism therefore presents an opportunity to reconsider what it means to dismantle the vehicle of critique within the literary world. If glitch within the histories of cyber/feminisms and the internet demands new configurations of the body as we know it, as realised via the material of the digital, then one has to ask: what would glitch demand within the history of literary criticism?
What, then, is intrinsically feminist about the glitch?
Nothing. Glitch Feminism isn’t exclusively about glitching feminism, but rather about presenting an opportunity to make visible new configurations of the corporeal, with such modes of experimentation beginning online, and then entering out into the world. “The glitch” within the history of feminism is that feminism still clings to the binaries of man/woman and male/female, and so is rooted in that which is assigned at birth, not the journey that takes place thereafter. To quote Simone de Beauvoir, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Glitch is synonymous with that idea of “becom[ing]” and making room within feminisms for wandering bodies — what I like to call “Digital Orlandos” (referencing Virginia Woolf’s problematic discourse of fantasy as it relates to experimentations within and across gender identifications), bodies that reject the singularity of assignment, be it online, or out in the world. Bodies existing within hyphenated identities.
Many insist on the binary of meatspace/virtual space. How does the IRL (In Real Life) critic differ from the online persona?
I take issue with this idea of “IRL” because it seems to suggest that things happening online are somehow not “real” — this idea of “real” is flawed. I prefer AFK (Away From Keyboard) which makes clearer the fact that things happening online and offline are part of a continuous loop. The constant obsession with the “real” says more about the audience than it does about the producers of content (i.e. writers online, artists online, etc.); people are uncomfortable with things they cannot touch, with things they cannot co-exist directly alongside. It requires them to reconsider space, time and reality in ways that most are simply unprepared to.
And this ties into your critique of digital dualism.
Certainly. Digital dualism, a term coined by Nathan Jurgenson in 2011, refers to the separation of the “digital” from the “real” and those who are digital dualists believe that what takes place online is somehow separate from that which takes place away from the computer. Glitch Feminists believe that digital dualism is an artificial construct. The idea of “glitch” really pinpoints the potential for identities expressed online to be part of a process of stepping into the world at large, with a continuous loop between the two.
We’re constantly slammed with the narrative of an online persona lacking accountability, that people online say things without considering impact — this would be looking at online forums and comment threads as negative spaces, or spaces inclined towards threat or violence.
The much-derided comments section.
Well, this narrative is, in my opinion, a bunch of nonsense intended to demarcate the digital as a space one should fear exclusively. The fact is, what we call “trolling” online always also exists away from the computer, and the potential for threat and violence doesn’t dissolve when conversations are taken offline; people say and do harm within the arena of criticism whether they’re working in the office of a top print publication or rather writing from the comfort of their own home, sounding off on the internet.
How about the view of criticism as a phallocentric-fest? Since the first VIDA Count in 2010, orchestrated by Erin Belieu and Cate Marvin, there have actually been some noticeable improvements in the glaring gender disparities traditionally seen within the pages of leading publications. I’m thinking about positive editorial changes made at places like Harper’s and the New Republic over the past few years. One wonders whether the internet has helped to open up the game, as it were, applying increased pressure upon older print journals and magazines.
The history of criticism is indeed deeply biased, as it is co-dependent on the existence of the art or literary canon, and the idea of the canon exists within a white, heteronormative, hegemonic, trajectory. While the internet is far from perfect, and certainly reflects many of the flaws of that which takes place offline, the importance of it is, in part, that it provides an opportunity to shatter the structure of The Critic and The Canon.
Voices that traditionally would not be heard within the realm of criticism are able to speak up and, yes, talk back. For example, offline, there really aren’t many critics of colour. Chris Jackson is the most visible name at the moment, I would say. However, online has given rise to a proliferation of many brilliant voices: Uzoamaka Maduka, Hannah Black, Doreen St. Felix, Michael Arceneaux, Roxane Gay. And there are many more. Via the avenue of Glitch Feminism, I am much more interested in how the internet can help us realise new potential for that which takes place away from the computer and how digital space is political space, providing us an opportunity to challenge the status quo.
Are you here suggesting an evolution of fourth-wave feminism?
The “waves” of feminism don’t necessarily fit perfectly for the periods within which they are applied — there are always exceptions, and they have always been retroactive in application — they gaze backwards, rather than reflecting the current moment or anticipating the near future. As such, they always seem to be slightly off-base. Denoting progress within the trajectory of feminism via the demarcation of “waves” allows us to clean up history, making it more linear and thus more digestible. For example, if you surf these waves, the history therein seems to suggest that race and queerness weren’t part of the conversation until the arrival of third-wave feminism, when in reality there were people of colour and/or queer people within the discourse of feminism throughout — for example, Sojourner Truth, a woman of colour, gave her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech in 1851, or there’s Lorraine Hansbury, a queer playwright of colour, who wrote A Raisin in the Sun in 1959. Thus, the way these things work is, in my opinion, far more complex and intertwined.
I don’t think fourth-wave feminism really knows what it is yet, as it has been named while we’re all essentially standing in the centre of it. Many might argue that actually what the world is hoping for is not an evolution within a fourth-wave of feminism — a wave that has yet to be truly understood or placed snugly within the annals of history — but rather an evolution of all and any feminisms that have lead us to where we stand right now.
In my 2013 essay “Elsewhere, After the Flood: Glitch Feminism and the Genesis of Glitch Body Politic” I wrote about “the real problem, the core prison,” being “the body itself. A body identified as female will never be equal, as the permissions involved in making this so would require male-identifying bodies . . . to systematically relinquish aspects of their privilege and provide reparation . . .” Thus, what I am suggesting is that we take pause to identify within our cultural consciousness the opportunities available to challenge the body as a social architecture, to figure out ways — via the digital, and elsewhere — to go beyond that which is physical, and to explore new (re)formations of embodiment. The house of gender and how we plan for it needs to be dismantled, and then built back up; we can’t do our work as critics today while living inside it.
Have online literary journals embraced intersectionality enough?
Definitely not. There is a lot more to be done to bring hyphenated identities and intersections between race, class and gender to the forefront. I give so many props to publications like Pank, Apogee, Gigantic, BOMB Magazine‘s BOMB Daily, Two Serious Ladies, the New Inquiry — and Berfrois, too! Each of these publications, in their own respect, continue to make a commitment to engaging a broader spectrum of “literary”, setting a high bar for other peer journals.
Who do you consider to be the first feminist literary critic?
Lilith. Li Qingzhao. Hildegard of Bingen. Christine de Pizan. Take your pick.
Legacy Russell is a writer and curator. Born and raised in New York City, she is the Associate Curator of Exhibitions at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Recent exhibitions include Projects 110 : Michael Armitage, organized with Thelma Golden and The Studio Museum in Harlem at MoMA (2019); Dozie Kanu : Function (2019), Chloë Bass : Wayfinding (2019), Radical Reading Room (2019) at The Studio Museum in Harlem; and MOOD : Studio Museum Artists in Residence 2018-19 (2019) at MoMA PS1. Russell’s ongoing academic work and research focuses on gender, performance, digital selfdom, internet idolatry, and new media ritual. She is Visual Arts Editor of Apogee Journal, a Contributing Editor for BOMB Magazine online, and a Senior Editor at Berfrois. Russell is the recipient of the Thoma Foundation 2019 Arts Writing Award in Digital Art and a 2020 Rauschenberg Residency Fellow. Her first book, Glitch Feminism, is forthcoming from Verso Books in Fall 2020. www.legacyrussell.com | Instagram: @ellerustle | Twitter: @legacyrussell