Art / Books

A Conversation with Legacy Russell

Cover design by Elizabeth Karp-Evans (Pacific)

Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, forthcoming from Verso Books, describes “glitch” as both an error, a “failure to function,” and thus an area of opportunity as well as an undoing. In this conversation, we attempt to flesh out parts of the whole for Filthy Dreams…

Jessica Caroline: Your first chapter GLITCH REFUSES begins with artist E. Jane’s 2016 piece NOPE (a manifesto), followed by a critique of Walt Whitman’s being of multitudes in Song of Myself. There are traces here of Malcolm X and the power of non-alignment—of participation on one’s own terms. This chapter bears semblance to McKenzie Wark’s Hacker Manifesto–the idea of a collective based on difference rather than a coercive unity–only that account was more concerned with class, while your project is more intersectional in its scope….      

Why did you decide to deliver your ideas in the form of a manifesto?  And do you also find links between the concepts of “hack” and “glitch”?

Legacy Russell: Manifestos allow for a certain kind of clarity, drive, and purposefulness when setting forth specific demands. The structure of a manifesto actually lends to a lot of range; it supports a bigger imagination than a traditional narrative text. As manifestos typically aim to reach toward a world as it should be, it means that within the structure of the manifesto we can dream beyond the confines of what we might be limited by in our day to day. This is fantastic and urgent. There are plenty of connections between “hack” and “glitch”—yes! Glitch feminism asks us to “hack the code of gender,” thinking critically about where error can be applied strategically toward building new systems that we can thrive within. 

JC: GLITCH IS COSMIC continues the theme of the vastness of the self. Sadie Plant, among other early onset cyberfeminists, understood that it wasn’t up to our own desire or identity to define the emergence of self-organizing systems. They also understood that the virtual had material realities. The virtual is a means of engineering affect, in which we don’t merely go to some metaphoric zone, but we really do “go there” materially. I think this gets close, but perhaps falls short in some way of your notion of the cosmic self.

Juliana Huxtable’s 2019 exhibition INTERFERTILITY INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX: SNATCH THE CALF BACK at Reena Spaulings presented a series of interspecies portraiture—fantastical, “toxic,” or bioengineered bodies that are hyperbolic assemblages of pansexed avatar/shaman/deity/cyborg/mutant/snake/mermaid, alongside propaganda posters that in a way haunt the chaos of today in terms of activism, conspiracy, and outrage. Huxtable has not escaped the meat, so to speak, but is rather becoming the meat, presenting phallic yet femme forms as livestock, as sacrificial cattle with forlorn expressions, subject to cruelty (“the beastiality behind your beef”). Can you elaborate more on the idea of “cosmic corporeality” and how we can conceive of this imagery by Huxtable as the embodiment of glitch?

LR: Juliana Huxtable’s engagement of furry culture and what she’s called her “fursona” in her work as a way of challenging constructs of identity is one that brings together different notions of “readership” regarding bodies and how they are built. On the one hand, this body of work pushes us further to think about how the definitions of human and animal trigger certain binaries—like civilized versus wild—and how these troubled categories are deeply gendered and racialized with complex historical roots. On the other hand, there is a uniquely erotic component here in embodying that which we consider “beastly” or “monstrous,” a way of communing or coming closer to a “wildness” that is performed through fetish and fantasy. This aspect of things surfaces questions of biopower, capital, and control. I think here of Donna Haraway’s complicated proposition of “companion species” and her saying that animals are signifiers of otherness, “fleshly material-semiotic presences in the body of technoscience.” Huxtable’s use of animals as a trope, tool, embodiment is indeed an arrow—it points us in different directions, it signifies otherness, it makes known and visible certain tensions that otherwise might go unseen or unspoken, and in doing so, helps us better understand that what we embody or perform as we expand ourselves cosmically is always—must always be—political. 

JC: In GLITCH IS REMIX you write:

To revolutionize technologies toward an application that truly celebrates glitched bodies, perhaps the only course of action is to remix from within, specifically programming with the unseen or illegible in mind as a form of activism. To “advocate for the user,” in Okoye’s words, one must innovate, encode, engineer the error into the machine, as a remix rendering the machine unrecognizable to itself, prompting its failure as a radical act.

You point out, in tandem with Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, that “breaking shit” is a kind of corrective. Is this idea of engineering techno economic failure a kind of radical left accelerationism?

LR: No. Glitch feminism isn’t asking to speed up capitalist processes to determine their breaking point. Accelerationism, while some might argue has its advantages, is ultimately violent. It requires enacting violence by the sheer brutal force and speed it manifests as in order to get to the “next level” of change. What UX Designer Florence Okoye argues for is “advocat[ing] for the user”—this is not an argument toward breaking the user along with the systems the user operates within. Accelerationist methodologies have the potential to cancel everything, even the things we might want to keep and protect—that’s the nature of that sort of high-octane vortex of speed-as-progress. Glitch feminism celebrates the spaces in-between, the bodies that cannot be read, the identities we build for and by ourselves as we work to take up space and expand our range; it is in no way an agent of capitalism, nor does it argue to use capitalism as a strategic tool. Rather, it refuses it and refuses the accelerationist co-opting of our bodies as a core driver of a capitalist engine and economy. Breaking systems that are already broken toward this end is therefore a radical and necessary catalyst toward generative change.

JC: Can you elaborate on the chapter GLITCH IS VIRUS, where you discuss “tearing it all down,” the corruption of data, machinic anarchy, and breakage as a beginning? How would you address any potential misreadings of this as a gesture of violence and or aggression?

LR: This book is about embodying error. It is about saying that if we don’t fit, that is the thing that will be the spoke in the wheel, that will push the machine to its breaking point, and that that is urgent and necessary. It is about living in a society that puts Black people, queer people, femme people at the brink of constant precarity re: physical death and social death. So when it says in the text “tear it all down,” it’s about precisely that—abolishing the supremacy of systems and the gender binary (which is inherently racialized and has racist roots historically re: definition who is and is not considered human, woman, masculine/feminine, etc.) as a part of that. Glitch feminism rejects an assimilationist strategy into a society that quite literally does not value our lives, is not sustainable nor acceptable, that needs to end. Refusing that is in no way “violent”—it’s our human right. The violence comes from those who actively work to keep the conditions of survival from being possible and put us in the position of having to refuse in the first place. 

JC: GLITCH ENCRYPTS conceives of gender as a “hyperobject” in terms of being “big and diffuse… a geopolitical territory. It is a foundational framework, built and lived on. Unable to see its edges, we are forced to live within it as a world in and of itself.”

Like your work, Timothy Morton can be read as poetic collage, but where he extends from Björk, Derrida, Shelley, Wordsworth, you remix Lucille Clifton, Ocean Vuong, T Fleischmann, among others, into your cyber landscape. Morton’s account of intimacy and the uncanny, where the particular confronts the universal with respect to ecology, what you call the “anti-body,” is something more malleable, abstract, generative yet ghostly and haunted… 

Does your analogy of anti-bodies follow in the intersectional sense that race and class are hyperobjects of sorts too? 

LR: Yes. Race, class, and gender are all constructs with colonial histories and roots—and they are all hyperobjects, absolutely. They are systems that are so mammoth and insidious that it is difficult to see the “edges” of them, which makes it challenging to process that there are limits to these constructs, places where they end, and, as an extension of this, worlds beyond them that we can occupy and really live within. Because we struggle to see beyond these hyperobjects, they become entrenched in our systems, assumed to be neutral and natural, when they are anything but. These are constructs intended to exercise power and violence over people, intended to alienate individuals from themselves, from one another, and from their own empowerment. When we are convinced that these systems are “too big” to overthrow, that is when we find ourselves feeling hopeless, overwhelmed, where we succumb to the narrative that we as individuals cannot manifest collective change in our collective work and care. This is simply not real, but is the product of living within hyperobjects that enact violence onto us and, too, encourage us to protect systems of supremacy as a means of maintaining control over other people, setting them apart from ourselves. We need new visions that challenge this as a position. Glitch feminism helps us do this work together, both on- and offline.

JC: Can you elaborate on this notion of how online and offline collaboration happens? Any examples?

LR: You can see this in the Arab Spring uprisings, the ongoing #MeToo dialogue, the Black Lives Matter movement, the interrogation of state-sanctioned monuments as symbols of supremacy and imperialism, how TikTok is being used as a tool of advocacy against the prison industrial complex—these are all examples of how the online and offline loop are strengthened and how the communities we build online travel out into the world to revolutionize it. Within Glitch Feminism, we talk about artists who help us traverse this loop as Black people and queer people—this, too, is an example of how the online and Away From Keyboard pathway continues to be an essential one, as the digital continues to provide a meeting place and a site of care and congregation, most especially when our bodies are not always safe in the streets.

JC: Not sure where you would draw the line in terms of the particular, but you got me thinking about how the approach of American Artist, as a kind of “hyperobjective” style, finds gaps in the system to disperse the self across search engines, in a way turning the self into a hyper-sticky “gooey” cosmological object… taking over the white interface and extending outward Videodrome-style? 

LR: In American Artist’s essay “Black Gooey Universe,” they write: “[In 1983] Lisa was the first commercial computer to include a GUI [a graphical user interface]. Before this, computer monitors appeared black, a color native to screens at the time, upon which lines of code were input in green or white characters. Between the Xerox Alto and Apple Lisa, the negative space of the screen began to appear white, replacing the black command-line interface used on computers prior to that. The Apple Lisa outsold the black-screened Apple II of 1977, offering buyers the ability to point and click on “folders” and “windows” in white space reminiscent of blank paper sheets.” Artist reminds us that machinic bias and the “skins” machines wear are shaped by those who build the machines. These gendered and raced materials need to be interrogated as such, and we need to consider what historical tropes are being underscored with machine binaries that don blackness versus whiteness, deploying whiteness as a mark of progress or ascendancy as our technologies are modernized and updated. 

JC: In GLITCH IS SKIN and GLITCH MOBILIZES, you describe the virtual as a transcendent space in which we can make mistakes, initiate, and/or practice anarchist movements. You cite Shawné Michaelain Holloway’s work as more interactive and confrontational, baiting participants with an emphasis on discomfort and shifting power dynamics. In a recent interview with Holloway, she discusses her social media usage as “a way to organize our ego in a useful manner.”  At present, we are seeing a lot of hyper-punitive behavior online, alongside corporate platitudes, virtue signaling, conspiracy peddling. However, “checking out” for the purpose of self-preservation doesn’t seem a viable option for many, especially given it’s a way for underrepresented artists without gallery representation to present their work. How do you navigate the demand for productivity with social media as another layer of labor? While social media can facilitate the circulation of information for social justice, do you see a way to bypass the reinforcement of an overarching neoliberal project that absorbs emancipatory efforts and values into aesthetics? 

LR: You’re asking about whether or not people front on the Internet and whether people aestheticize their politics. The answer is—yes, absolutely, they do. However this happens away from our screens, as well as online. When someone wears the T-shirt but hasn’t been to the event, or if they get a tattoo of a revolutionary quote but don’t really participate in a broader discourse of political, cultural, social change—all of these things are the same things as what you’re calling “absorb[ing] emancipatory efforts and values into aesthetics.” I think we can blame it on the “neoliberal project,” which feels conveniently evasive and opaque, or we can recognize that as participants in these systems, we need to hold one another and ourselves accountable for moments where politic is performed rather than enacted. Posting a black square is not a radical act of solidarity, nor allyship; how these “stands” are taken really requires more complex literacy regarding impact and outcomes, asking questions about what is rendered invisible when there are these sort of collective “takeovers” that, in their very material, work against the movement it is claiming to support. The same goes for the memeification of Breonna Taylor’s murder—privileged people posting pictures of their salads with the hashtag or a Wheel of Fortune board with her name spelled out. Aesthetics are violent in and of themselves, but gameifying physical death alongside the reality of social death that Black people, queer people, femme-identifying people, trans people face daily is one of the most terrifying twists of “emancipatory efforts,” where the forum encourages the remixing of different punchlines in lieu of truly demanding of the state a tangible and concrete recognition of—accountability for—a life stolen. We deserve better.

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