Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto by Legacy Russell and Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire by Professor Jack Halberstam are two texts that you would not initially draw comparisons between. Russell’s primary focus is on the digital world, whereas Halberstam’s is on the natural. These two worlds have traditionally occupied separate sides of the natural/digital binary, its variations including the wild/logic, natural/unnatural, and real/unreal. By the very nature of binaries, this has led to one side being valued over the other. Therefore, despite, or rather because of, their apparent differences, it is important to review these two texts together, to bring dichotomous sides together, in order to effectively disrupt it. Otherwise, if we did not read these two supposedly polarised texts together, we would be upholding the division and its intrinsic power imbalance. This would have wider implications, as the natural/digital opposition in its many forms parallels the male/female, hetero/homo, white/non-white, and useful/useless binaries that oppress and subjugate those that do not conform to the Western ideal of white heteronormative patriarchal capitalism. However, you do not have to profoundly examine these texts to see that there are strong connections. Firstly, both reject the traditional opposition between the natural world and digital world. In the preface of his text, Halberstam rejects the binary between wildness and logic as a colonial production used to justify white oppression over non-white individuals for capitalist gain. Russell also rejects the separation of the real (e.g., natural) and unreal (e.g., digital) by demonstrating how experiences and activity within digital spaces can influence change in the ‘real’ world. Secondly, Halberstam utilises the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of ‘wild’, as ‘(of persons) Resisting control or restraint, unruly, restive; flighty, thoughtless; reckless, careless; fig. not according to rule, irregular; erratic; unsteady’[i], to draw wildness away from its traditionally environmental space, and into a form of resistance. This resistance is the basis of Russell’s Glitch Feminism, which she defines as ‘an error, a mistake, a failure to function.’[ii] Thus, Wild Things and Glitch Feminism are connected through resistance; resistance through failure that can enact change.
Feminism has had resistance as a means to enact social change at its core for decades. In Britain, the Suffragette’s initial activity ranged from tax refusal; boycotting the 1911 census; to hunger strikes within prisons, in protest of the government’s denial of the women as political prisoners.[iii] This activity of resistance through failure to function eventually led to British women gaining the vote in 1918. Contemporary feminist theorists have continued this tradition of resistance as a means to enact change. For example, Hélène Cixous employs resistance through her concept of écriture féminine to reject and rewrite the dominant patriarchal narrative that excludes women.[iv] However, The Laugh of the Medusa characterises the Black Other as dangerous in order to demonstrate the internalised horror of the unknown, that is of women. Here, Cixous uses the Black body unconsensually to further her argument against the patriarchal oppression of women. In this text, the Black body is simply an Othered tool of white feminist theory as Cixous affirms the perception of the Black body as frighteningly unknown and subsequently dangerous, for the benefit of white women. This reveals a propensity of feminist theory to uphold white heteronormative and capitalist ideals, as its desire to usurp and subsequently establish itself as the dominant narrative opposes the enactment of change through a failure to function. In contrast, both Russell and Halberstam expand feminist theory as their texts fail to perpetuate normative ontologies by centring Black queer bodies. For example, Halberstam draws on Eve Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet but fails to function as a perpetuator of its white-centred history of sexuality, and instead explores the experience of Black queer bodies. Similarly, Russell’s theory of Glitch Feminism occupies a predominantly digital space that was created to uphold white-normative capitalism. Yet, through digital spaces, Russell argues that the Black queer body is able to occupy a multitude of selves that fail to align with normative ontologies. Therefore, Russel and Halberstam’s contributions to feminist theory open the field up to resist white hetero-normative capitalist narratives through failure, which subsequently allows for the creation of alternative ontologies that centre, but do not confine, Black queer bodies.
Russell started her work on Glitch Feminism in 2012 with The Society Pages’ online publication of ‘Digital Dualism and the Glitch Feminism Manifesto’[v]. In this work, Russell proposes Glitch Feminism as a critique of the established binaries of the digital and ‘real’, where being AFK (Away From Keyboard) is valued over digital existence. This rigid opposition, Russell argues, is a parallel of the male/female gender binary which, as a structured patriarchal system, categorises bodies through the voyeuristic mainstream and marginalises those that are female-identifying. This categorisation results in a necessary splitting of self as, for Russell, bodies are continuous geographies that are imbued with meaning. When this meaning is dictated by the gender binary, the self must fracture as it cannot exist entirely within such rigid categories. In response, Russell takes the digital concept of a glitch, a computer system error, as a form of resistance against such structured systems. In ‘Digital Dualism and Glitch Feminism Manifesto’, Russell characterises this Glitch as a digital orgasm which bridges the gap between the digital and AFK, effectively breaking down the binary as the failure of the digital allows for meditation on the choice of embodied revolution offline. Thus, for Russell, Glitch is a form of foreplay, in which the individual plays with themselves sexually, through pornography, sexting and virtual chat fantasies, and in terms of self as it is within the Glitch that the body is free to explore selfdoms beyond categorisation.
Russell’s most recent work, Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, extends her initial critiques of established binaries to condemn societies’ weaponization of gender, racialization, and capitalism. In response, Russell proffers Glitch, a resistance through failure to white heteronormative capitalist systems, as a form of liberation. She begins Chapter 01, ‘Glitch Refuses’, with the 2016 piece NOPE (a manifesto) by artist E. Jane. This piece exemplifies the malfunction of Glitch, which occurs when you embrace refusal. Russell’s definition of Glitch as a malfunction, an error, is strikingly similar to ‘the break’ Halberstam proposes in his essay ‘The Wild Beyond: With and For The Undercommons’, which Russell references in Chapter 09, ‘Glitch is a Virus’[vi]. This concept of the computer virus, which destroys systems and through their destruction creates space for change, mirrors Halberstam’s proposal of breakage, of failure, as a means for alternatives to normative ontologies of white heteronormative capitalism to emerge.
Halberstam’s essay ‘The Wild Beyond: With and For The Undercommons’ was published in 2013 as an introduction to Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s text The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study[vii]. In this essay, Halberstam introduces Harney and Moten’s concept of the undercommons as Black people, indigenous peoples, queer people, and poor people who are irrevocably broken. Halberstam argues that this brokenness is enforced by society, which deems the undercommons deserving of brokenness, yet the existence of this brokenness is simultaneously denied. The answer to this paradox? Destruction. By breaking the structure of society that limits and oppresses the undercommons, they are able to access a space that Harney and Moten refer to as the wild beyond. The undercommons, Halberstam argues, by way of Harney and Moten, can exist in this space which fails to adhere to rule, to order, to the systems of oppression. Yet, Halberstam highlights the necessity of refusal as a means to destroy, which facilitates the undercommons’ arrival to the wild beyond. Halberstam exemplifies this refusal as a refusal of the call to order; a refusal of interpellation, a failure to function which creates continuous dissonance in the place of normative order.
In his most recent work, Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire, Halberstam extends his concept of refusal, or failure, to function as a means to access the wild beyond, to a form of resistant wildness that is itself imbued with failure. Halberstam acknowledges in his Introduction that wildness has historically served the order of things, as Black queer individuals have had wildness in terms of savagery and Otherness used against them to maintain the violent mastery of white heteronormative capitalism. Yet, Halberstam reconceptualises wildness’ historical proximity to the dominant system as an opportunity for unmaking and rebuilding. He argues that as wildness was created using colonial tools, it can, much like a virus, appropriate these tools in order to dismantle the system from within, thus causing a failure that results in the freedom of liberated creation.
Therefore, both the wild and Glitch are conceptualised as viruses that can destroy systems and create new liberations in their place. However, just as the digital is put in opposition to AFK, the wild is placed within a colonial binary opposite logic. Here, in contrast to the white queer body, Black Otherness and sexualities that deviate from the established hetero/homo binary occupy wildness. These Black queer bodies, which initially lack agency of consent regarding hypervisibility as they are surveyed and profiled into a single self of primitiveness, are subsequently rendered illegible through violent exclusion. Nonetheless, Halberstam argues that as the wild is uncategorised and exists beyond white heteronormative systems, these ‘deviant’ sexualities and the Black body can be liberated from a defined personhood and embrace a multiplicity of selves within illegibility.
Similarly, for Russell, visibility AFK and digitally leads to confining definitions. In Chapter 05, ‘Glitch is Error’, she identifies boxes we tick and the autofill option on digital forms as an act of self-categorisation that benefits few but the data-harvesting giants who profit from (the use of) our personal data. Here, to Glitch between categories and binaries is a necessary act of resistance as to fail at definition, to become illegible, is to become useless to the capitalist-driven algorithm. Therefore, this unmeaning is a death on the system which seeks to confine bodies into singular publicly consumable selves.
Within Glitch Feminism, the individual can choose their illegibility, to Glitch consensually, however Russell acknowledges that it is also a state which is enforced by white heteronormative systems, much like the secrecy attributed to Black queer bodies in Halberstam’s text. Russell argues that technology reflects the society that produces it, and subsequently reproduces its systems of oppression. For example, Russell references Google’s image-recognition algorithm which, in 2015, confused Black users with gorillas. Here, Black bodies are non-consensually Glitched as they do not align with white-normative algorithms and thus cannot be programmed, falling back into the colonial binary of wild/logic, with Black bodies on the marginalised side of animalistic wildness. In contrast, Halberstam proposes consensual visibility through the artist Nick Cave. He argues that Cave’s suits remake the physical closet, traditionally a space of confinement for the Black queer body, as a space where it is safely visible and consents to be so. Russell argues that the digital is the ultimate space to escape singular embodiment, as online platforms provide the opportunity to play with your selfhood. Russell draws on boychild’s performances to demonstrate how, through borrowing machinic material in a ‘cyborgian’[viii] error, the artist is able to embody digital selves AFK. Thus, Cave’s suits, that are a wild array of fabric and technology found from vintage children’s toys, emphasise the sense of digital play surrounding the self. Halberstam argues that they also appropriate the tools of oppression in relation to the Black queer body (that of primitiveness and secrecy) to world build as they allow the Black queer body to escape the markers of violence and violent, enabling multiplicity of selves through self/re-definition.
Therefore, Russell and Halberstam employ the wild and the Glitch as a form of resistance against white heteronormative capitalist systems. They argue that by destroying these systems through consensual illegibility and self/re-definition, Black queer bodies can embody a liberated and revolutionary multitude of selves. Nevertheless, despite criticising the capitalist exploitation of bodies, Russell does not engage with non-human exploitation. For Halberstam, we live within an age of ‘zombie humanism’[ix] where animals are kept in proximity to people to assert their own humanity. This domestication, Halberstam argues, occurs due to the capitalist drive to own, and consume, and the animal involved exists only as objects for display, as extensions of the human body, or as future food, meaning they occupy a living death. Halberstam extends this zombified mode of living under capitalism to low-income, often non-white, individuals who are pushed into a living death by the middle-class white people that gentrify neighbourhoods. This occurs due to the language of species being entangled with the language of race, as colonial classifications that produced the wild/logic binary were utilised to master the natural world, including the racially diverse. In the introduction to Glitch, Russell speaks of her own experience growing up and seeing her non-white community being priced out of their homes by white, upwardly mobile, families. Nonetheless, Russell’s human-centric focus arguably leads her to overlook capitalist exploitation of the non-human that, Halberstam argues, is the basis for the oppression of Black individuals. Yet, whilst Glitch Feminism positions itself as a revolution for the future, Halberstam’s concept of wildness is limited by ‘temporal foreshortening’[x] which, despite reflecting our looming ecological crisis, does not allow for any future. This constant present, therefore, prevents the embodiment of multiple selves as they are fixed within a singular temporality, which contradicts the purpose of the wild as liberational.
Halberstam and Russell’s conceptualisation of resistance through failure to function as a virus effectively breaks down the natural/digital binary. This is because viruses exist both digitally, as computer viruses, and naturally/AFK, as infectious agents that affect all life-forms. Here, the virus fails to function within the natural/digital binary as it connects two supposedly oppositional sides by existing in both. Like any virus, this failure is replicated and infects the racialised hetero/homo, useless/useful, and wild/logic binaries. Black queer bodies have historically been violently confined to wildness, with white bodies that conform to the normative hetero/homo binary occupying logic. Halberstam resists, or fails to uphold, the wild/logic binary, which oppresses the wild by violently confining it to illegibility, by characterising the wild as an uncategorised space existing beyond white heteronormative systems. Halberstam argues that this failure to function within the normative structure allows Black queer bodies to escape defined personhood as they are able to embrace a multiplicity of selves within illegibility, thus effectively disrupting the power imbalance of the wild/logic binary. Russell utilises this embracement of illegibility as a failure to function in order to disrupt the capitalist-driven useful/useless binary. She argues that to self-categorise within digital forms and autofill options, to define ourselves within a singular identity, benefits companies who profit off our personal data, thus making us useful. However, Russell disrupts the capitalist-driven useful/useless binary by choosing illegibility, by choosing to be useless, by choosing to Glitch, thus allowing for a multiplicity of selves. This is a death on the system, as it cannot function without our publicly singular consumable selves. Yet, enforced illegibility exists in the digital world as much as AFK. Digital algorithms are established by and catered to white heteronormative systems, which perpetuates both the wild/logic and useful/useless binaries as Black queer bodies are unknown, rendering them inherently useless and subsequently excluded as they are unconsensually Glitched. Yet, Halberstam exemplifies the work of Nick Cave, whose suits fail to function within the racialised wild/logic binary that enforces illegibility on those that deviate from hetero/homonormativity, by embracing consensual visibility of the Black queer body. These suits combine the tools of oppression historically used against the Black queer body (e.g., definitions of wildness) and technology from children’s toys. This supports Russell’s argument that digital spaces allow for the escape of singular embodiment through the play with selfhood, but that combining the digital and natural/AFK (such as in boychild’s ‘cyborgian’[xi] performances) allows for the embodiment of these multiple selves AFK. Therefore, by failing to uphold the digital/natural binary, the Black queer body can play with and embody a multiplicity of selves that fail to function within other normative binaries, and thus establish alternative ontologies. Yet, there are instances when these binaries are upheld and alternative discourses denied as Russell’s human-centric focus arguably upholds the wild/logic binary, with animals on the side of wild, and humans on the side of logic. Furthermore, Halberstam’s temporal foreshortening prevents future embodiments of the multiple selves that failure creates, effectively denying the liberational alternatives. Nonetheless, by combining the natural and digital worlds, Halberstam and Russell demonstrate a tradition of resistance via the failure to function within normative binaries through the wild and Glitch. Unlike traditional feminist theory, which tends to uphold white heteronormative capitalist sovereignty by seeking to establish itself as the dominant narrative, Halberstam and Russell’s resistance through failure to function establishes alternative ontologies for the Black queer body that liberate it from a defined singularity under white heteronormative capitalist sovereignty, and instead allow for a revolutionary embodiment of multiple selves.
Alice Musgrove recently completed their undergraduate degree in English Literature at Bath Spa University, UK. Their research interests include intersectional, Queer, Modernist literatures as well as the interrogation of abjection as a cultural tradition, and the establishment of alternative ontologies.
[i] Oxford English Dictionary, accessed 14th December 2021, https://www.oed.com (log- in required).
[ii] Legacy Russell, Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto (London: Verso, 2020), 7.
[iii] ‘Start of the Suffragette Movement’, UK Parliament, accessed 17th March 2022, https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/overview/startsuffragette-/
[iv] Hélène Cixous, ‘The Laugh of The Medusa’, translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1, no. 4 (1976): 875-893, https://doi.org/10.1086/493306
[v] Legacy Russell, ‘Digital Dualism and The Glitch Feminism Manifesto’, The Society Pages, published 10th December 2012, https://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2012/12/10/digital-dualism-and-the-glitch-feminism-manifesto/
[vi] Russell, Glitch Feminism, 112.
[vii] Jack Halberstam, ‘The Wild Beyond: With and For The Undercommons’ in The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013), 3-12
[viii] Russell, Glitch Feminism, 45.
[ix] Jack Halberstam, Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2020), 108.
[x] Halberstam, Wild Things, 179.
[xi] Russell, Glitch Feminism, 45.