Glitching the Master’s House: Legacy Russell and Momtaza Mehri in Conversation
The author of Glitch Feminism on correcting the cyberfeminist canon, the Black trauma at the root of memes and why online space is still ‘real’
The author of Glitch Feminism on correcting the cyberfeminist canon, the Black trauma at the root of memes and why online space is still ‘real’
Creatively generating value for digital platforms that we don’t own is a predicament felt most acutely by the socially disempowered. New York-born writer, artist and curator Legacy Russell interrogates how digital natives grapple with, manoeuvre around and unsettle this existential contradiction. Glitch Feminism, published by Verso Books in September, is Russell’s manifesto, expanding on a term she first coined in 2012. From early forays into tweenage chat rooms to the ingenuity of digital communities sustained by the Black, queer, gender non-conforming and othered, Glitch Feminism charts ways of resisting the intense embodiment and corporeality demanded of us by what Russell terms the ‘violent socio-cultural machine’. Described as ‘a strategy of non-performance’, a glitch is something to aspire to. It is what many of us already are. Interweaving memoir, poetry and critical theory, Russell analyses the productively disruptive works of artists including manuel arturo abreu, Kia LaBeija and Tabita Rezaire.
For those of us who came of age contending with the idea of the digital realm as a heady space for fluidity and emancipatory collectivity, Glitch Feminism uncompromisingly lays out the stakes.
I spoke to Russell with Bob Marley’s ‘Babylon System’ (1979) ringing in my head. (‘We refuse to be / what you wanted us to be.’)
Momtaza Mehri: There is a deeply personal and moving aspect to your framing of glitch feminism. The idea of coming of age online, with all the trials and tribulations of that particular experience, felt familiar to those of us considered digital natives. Of course, some of us have had an antagonistic relationship with the internet as a space where we have encountered so much of what disturbs and haunts us.
Legacy Russell: For me, the creative practices that are included in the book and the discussions about what the internet can do have to do with finding sustainable modes of collectivizing. Of course, 100 percent, there are things that exist on the internet that are toxic and unhealthy. But I recognize, too, that those things are just reflections of the world at large.
MM: I appreciate how you pointedly resist the on/offline binary – between AFK [away from keyboard] and URL. That increasingly seems like a very dated way of looking at things.
LR: Nathan Jurgenson was the theorist who first wrote about AFK in relation to what he calls ‘digital dualism’.
He was the first person to publish ‘Glitch Feminism Manifesto’ [in the online journal The Society Pages, in 2012] and it’s his work around the problems of the term IRL and the false notion of ‘digital dualism’ that I was expanding upon in my thinking of glitch feminism.
The primary thing is to not allow the internet to be relegated as a fantasy space. Nor to cynically dismiss it as a place where violence is happening and ignore the broader problems of the world.
I wanted to look at practices that are rooted in, inspired by and speaking through digital culture, but driven specifically by queer people and people of colour as this is an underrecognized part of these histories as they’re told within and outside of institutional spaces. The artists celebrated in the book are important and inspiring and it feels urgent to draw attention to them. Very often, Black, queer or femme-identified artists are not recognized for their work when they’re young. Across a trans politic, the discourse is about making sure that trans folx get their roses while they’re still alive. This book is about making space for those who have been historically excluded from an art canon. It’s about course correcting.
The broader goal of glitch feminism is to recognize that bodies not intended to survive and exist across these current systems are the ones that will push this world to its breaking point. And that’s a good thing.
MM: How does this tie into your ideas around opacity as something helpful or productive?
LR: The idea of the glitch pushes back against the speed at which images of Black bodies and queer bodies are consumed online. This question of opacity is urgent because it is a strategic tool, a form of encryption: a way of mediating how we are seen and asking questions about for whom those images are shown and circulated.
Oftentimes, cisgendered white-identified and white-presenting people are recognized as the forward thinkers in discourse about cyberculture. That’s very problematic, because there have been many, many people of colour and queer-identified people who have done and are doing this work actively, including artists such as the late Mark Aguhar, manuel arturo abreu, E. Jane and SHAWNÉ MICHAELAIN HOLLOWAY. Yet, the romanticized discourse around the 1990s and, in particular, the birth of cyberfeminism as it continues to dictate a contemporary narrative, often prioritizes white women as the core contributors.
MM: I’m struck by your writing on the paradox of using platforms that grossly sensationalize and capitalize on POC, female-identifying and queer bodies and our pain as a means of advancing urgent political-cultural dialogue about our struggle. It made me remember a Jacques Derrida quote [from Of Grammatology, 1967]: ‘One always inhabits [the structures one wants to destroy], and all the more when one does not suspect it.’
You describe this as one of the greatest shared existential crises of our time. I would definitely agree with that.
LR: To be honest, I feel like those contradictions didn’t start with the internet. Oftentimes, it’s convenient to pin that narrative on social media. In the questions you sent me ahead of our conversation, you mentioned blackfishing – white people confusingly putting on blackness online – but there is a long and complicated history of borrowing from, thieving from, Black culture in a very particular and very violent way.
As a tool, the internet has given us a place to congregate, which is important in a different way than it is for a white, cisgendered, straight person. It’s important to recognize that. It has allowed us survival and coping mechanisms: being able to dialogue, collectivize and congregate without the same type of harm that has presented out in the world when we’re walking down the street.
Of course, it’s important to think about how these spaces operate at the level of the algorithm and who is designing them. I’ve been really encouraged over these last five to ten years to see a great rise in conversations about the architects of online spaces: who are they? How is that power distributed? How can it be distributed differently? Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression  and André Brock Jr.’s Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures  do important work in connecting some of these dots.
MM: During these ongoing Black Lives Matter uprisings, the social-media landscape has been flaring up with activists sharing resources. Seeing threads disseminating information on encryption and how to identify the kind of riot-control techniques refined by the police, it’s never lost on me that this is also another space of surveillance. It’s part of the simultaneous empowerment and disempowerment that Black people face in cyberspace, which of course mimics what is experienced offline; it’s never divorced from what happens when we walk out on the streets.
[In her article ‘Lynching, Visuality and the Un/Making of Blackness’, 2006] the academic Leigh Raiford reads against the history of how activists used lynching photography as both testimony and rallying call; an intentionally destabilizing transformation of meaning. Raiford likens possessing the archive of that material to the old saying about holding a tiger by the tail: you can’t hold onto it, but you can’t let it go either. That’s the bind.
LR: It’s this whole idea, as Audre Lorde proposed, that the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house, right? I think that’s something to pay attention to, but I also think, within that, as we have seen, there are different interventions. What does it mean to produce one’s own images and to flood these platforms with different types of representation than they were built for?
TikTok, for example, has become a really important site for critical discourse that pushes back at certain ideas about race and gender. Younger people are having these discussions that are happening in very short form, but are widely circulated, which allows us to have a different type of presence across these conversations about blackness and queerness.
There are complicated components of this that glitch feminism is not looking to resolve. The idea of the glitch is a vehicle to think through what it means to operate, exist and be empowered as an active intervention in the world. Thinking across history, that which does not fit or has not had space made for it is often marked as a threat.
MM: We come up against the violence of legibility, its restrictive logics.
LR: Legibility comes up a lot in this discussion. Oftentimes, in lectures that I’ve given and classes that I’ve taught, there is a white man in the room, who gets very angry about not understanding. To some degree, Glitch Feminism as a text and tool is encrypted in its own right, it is meant to be used and seen by those who need it as an agent towards change and survival.
[Laughs] I find that very interesting when that happens because it’s no fault of that individual: it’s built into certain systems. If you’re raised in a world where you are told all the time that you can have everything, when you come up against something that refuses you access, I’m sure it’s very upsetting.
As a Black queer woman, that is the lived experience we’ve grown up with – moments where our access is denied, where we are gate-kept out of certain systems. I’m also thinking of trans identity and the violence that trans people, trans Black women in particular, experience – even in these past weeks. That’s something which needs to remain at the forefront of all of our discourse and dialogue: ways that we can actively, collectively, refuse to be read.
MM: The demand for legibility leans towards a colonial impulse of taxonomy and categorization. That’s something that, in itself, has to be resisted, if only for the disastrous effects of what it’s done to bodies. What it’s done to nations. What it’s done to peoples.
LR: The concept of assimilation is about finding ways to render oneself readable to a place, a society, a particular culture. With questions of nationhood, as people come into different spaces, they’re being asked to assimilate as an act of allegiance, which means letting go of things that might not be readable to those who are local or native to that space. That is such a deep violence.
MM: Would I be correct in thinking that refusal is a core tenet in the world of glitch feminism: as an ideal, an aspiration, a strategy of non-performance?
LR: Absolutely. In E. Jane’s NOPE (a manifesto) , they say: ‘We need Utopian demands, we need culture that loves us.’ How can we refuse or actively take a stand against a space that doesn’t love us, a world that has not been built for us to survive within?
MM: I was also thinking of refusal in my own digital life and how, sometimes, it can feel like we unnecessarily feed the grinding discourse machine. Failure to react might be a success of its own kind.
There’s also a lot to be said for how digital echo chambers operate for people who are already marginalized or maligned in public discourse. The echo chamber can be a space for a different kind of collective knowledge, a space where you can ask questions without your right to exist being questioned. People are challenged every day when they walk out of the house; they’re challenged on every other level.
LR: Part of being online is also thinking about how to exist within the world. That is something really important to keep as a primary mantra, especially through a moment like right now.
MM: I want to ask you about your video essay Black Meme . It’s a roll-call of imagery, from police-brutality victim Rodney King, drag queen Pepper LaBeija, the teenager Trayvon Martin, killed by Florida police in 2012, and fictional attorney Annalise Keating [from the television series How to Get Away with Murder, 2014–20].
LR: Black Meme is the subject of my second book, which I’m currently writing. As I research, I create these video essays. I have been thinking about how ‘mimetic blackness’ shows us that, although the construct of the meme is considered something contemporary, in actuality, it has very deep roots. The goal of Black Meme is to allow for a better understanding of how viral content and mimetic content is based on, and driven by, blackness across visual culture.
The video of King being beaten by the Los Angeles police in 1991 is known as the first viral video. When we talk about viral videos of kittens, it’s all well and good, but virality often travels along the line of Black trauma. You mentioned lynching photographs: it could be argued that, in the early 1900s, these were a material form of meme. It set the stage for the GIFs we are sending around now.
MM: I’m thinking of how the image of [the rapper] Lil Mama crying on The Breakfast Club radio show [2010–ongoing] was displaced into a funny viral meme. It’s that vertigo-inducing seesaw between the tragic and the comical, vulnerability and bravado. You incorporate readings of artists such as Juliana Huxtable and critics like The White Pube, who tow that very fine line.
LR: I think it goes without saying that many of the artists in the book have built their careers in and on digital space. They found community in those spaces and built out creative practices.
I was speaking recently to abreu and S*an D. Henry-Smith, two phenomenal poets, writers and thinkers. All of us were reflecting on the idea that, in this moment of pandemic lockdown and social distancing, so many of our deep friendships have existed on the internet.
The idea of playing and experimenting is a part of that, too. That is something that resonates deeply with me, in terms of my own growth as a queer Black woman. Being a person of colour and existing out in the world, often we do not have the privilege of experimenting and figuring out how complex our range might be. We are encouraged to shrink ourselves, to flatten ourselves and assimilate or code-switch. Digital space is a place where, perhaps, some of that can be more fluid and gentler.
MM: Part of what personally drew me into cultivating these spaces was the possibility of intramural debates. You could see these intellectual tussles happening between various strands of Black political thought, which the media, generally, doesn’t reflect.
LR: Absolutely. That is something, obviously, which we lack in our media landscape, for a variety of reasons.
The other thing that kept cropping up as I was writing Glitch Feminism was the idea of poetry: thinking about ways in which text can be made uniquely Black and queer, and what the languages of that are.
Lucille Clifton, for example, has been such an inspiration. Her poetry is very rarely situated alongside discussions of cyberculture, yet the questions that she asked through her work – about ways to collectivize and to find your voice – echo a lot of the concerns that we are talking about here. The book includes many poets who have done a lot of that work, thinking about what a glitch is: glitching their own bodies; glitching language.
MM: I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of the poet and activist Essex Hemphill as an especially perceptive cyber-theorist.
LR: Incredible. Literally. But that link is so thinly theorized out in the world. Part of the work Glitch Feminism aims to do is to centralize some of that thinking, to create a throughline, to recognize that these different folks have been in dialogue with each other all along. That’s the goal of thinking about what art history is: it’s an active gatekeeping – and the idea is to hold the doors open. Because it feels as urgent as ever to do that work now.
This article first appeared in frieze issue 213 with the headline 'The idea of the glitch pushes back against the speed at which images of Black bodies and queer bodies are consumed online.'
Main image: Legacy Russell, #GLITCHFEMINISM, 2018, video still. Courtesy: the artist