On trans-, glitch, and gender as machinery of failure
First Monday

On trans-, glitch, and gender as machinery of failure by Jenny Sunden



Abstract
This paper develops an understanding of gender as something fundamentally technological, and as such broken. Drawing on the technological undercurrent in current posthumanist feminist theory, it puts into play a vocabulary of malfunctioning, broken, vulnerable technologies, and in particular uses the term ‘glitch’ to account for machinic failures in gender within the digital domain. As an intriguing example of the technologies of (trans)gender, the core example consists of the social media presence and public transition of Isabella Bunny Bennett — a musical performer and a member of the U.S.-based band Steam Powered Giraffe. Drawing on how glitch is understood as an accidental error and a critical potential in aesthetic practices, the article is a contribution to what recently has been coined ‘glitch feminism.’

Contents

Introduction
Posthumanist feminist theory
Technology as a forgotten trope
Glitch, trans-, and the beauty of brokenness
Trans- as malfunction and glitch
Negotiating (trans-) femininity
Glitch feminism

 


 

Introduction

Drawing on the technological undercurrent in posthumanist feminist theory, my aim in this paper is to develop an understanding of gender as something fundamentally technological. In thinking gender as technological, I put into play a vocabulary of malfunctioning, broken, vulnerable technologies. If malfunction conceptually locates gender bugs and breakdowns on a general technological level, my purpose is also to make use of the term ‘glitch’ to account for machinic failures in gender within the digital domain. As an intriguing example of technologies of gender in general, and of transgender in particular, I build my argument empirically on the social media presence and public transition of Isabella Bunny Bennett — a musical performer and a member of the steampunk robot band Steam Powered Giraffe.

I take as my point of departure the notion of technologies as always implicating their own failures and breakdowns, the fact that technologies without exception will fail. This idea resonates with Paul Virilio’s theory of the accident, his belief that technology cannot exist independent of its potential for accidents:

Malfunction and failure are not signs of improper production. On the contrary, they indicate the active production of the ‘accidental potential’ in any product. The invention of the ship implies its wreckage, the steam engine and the locomotive discover the derailment. [1]

As holding such accidental potential, every technological invention is simultaneously an invention of technological malfunction. But whereas Virilio’s interest is primarily in developing an aesthetics or an art of the accident within an increasingly accelerated modernity, my own interest is not primarily in notions of speed. Rather than stipulating that technological breakdowns happen more often when technologies move faster, I wish to stay with the idea of technology as something fundamentally broken, imperfect, and flawed, regardless of how quickly it moves.

I want to begin here, at the point of acknowledging the intrinsic brokenness of technologies, and of gender. The perfect machine does not exist, even if technological development largely is driven by a desire to create flawless, seamless, transparent systems and devices. New technologies might solve old problems, but will always bring new problems, new failures, and new ways of breaking down. Similarly, gender as technological is a fragile, instable machinery prone to breakage and breakdowns. Continuous maintenance, upgrades, and reboots might move gender in the direction of an illusion of seamless technological transparency, or even organic wholeness. But it is in the crack, the break, the glitch, that the inner workings of gender reveal themselves. This is not to say that there is a ‘truth’ of gender to be reached through failure. Neither is there a truth to be had about the inside or the depth of (other) machines through their technological vulnerability. Nonetheless, something important may be bared or disclosed, something which we can get a glimpse of in moments of failure, yet never fully grasp or understand. Or as Olga Goriunova and Alexei Shulgin [2] writes about glitches in computer software:

A glitch is a mess that is a moment, as possibility to glance at software’s inner structure, whether it is a mechanism of data compression or HTML code. Although a glitch does not reveal the true functionality of the computer, it shows the ghostly conventionality of the forms by which digital spaces are organized.

This article explores, precisely, such messy moments in gender, which simultaneously reveal the ghostly conventionality of gender norms and ideals, and the potentiality of a break with such conventions. The argument of the paper is part theoretical exploration, part analytic endeavor, and will be performed in several steps. I begin by situating my argument within the theoretical domain of posthumanist feminist theory, arguing for a reintroduction of technology as a vital element within this field. Secondly, I give brief introductions to the terms trans- and glitch, as well as to Steam Powered Giraffe and the steampunk scene [3]. Thirdly, I turn to the more analytic part of the paper and explore the notion of trans- as malfunction and glitch in Isabella’s portrayal of her transgender girl robot. I then move on to investigate her ways of negotiating (trans)femininity together with her fans. Within this section, in dialogue with research on sound production, I develop the idea of gender ‘high fidelity’ as a contrast to glitch. Finally, I discuss how this article is a contribution to what recently has been coined ‘glitch feminism’ (Russell, 2012).

 

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Posthumanist feminist theory

A feminist project of thinking gender as something deeply technological pays homage to a range of feminist discussions, but perhaps most clearly finds a home within the current field of posthumanist feminist theory (see, for example, Alaimo and Hekman, 2008; Barad, 2003, 2007; Braidotti, 2006, 2013; Wilson, 2004). The idea of the human subject as exceedingly free, autonomous, rational, exceptional (and by default male) has since the Age of Enlightenment been a powerful figure, but one which has also been increasingly challenged and critiqued. In the wake of such critical discussions — ranging from poststructuralism and postcolonial theory to corporeal feminism and queer theory — posthumanist feminist theory is one of the more recent attempts to call into question the unity and the purity of human subjectivity. Departing from how humans are intimately entangled with animals, machines, and the environment, the category of the human is revealed to be both less exceptional and less clearly bounded than previously imagined. To paraphrase Donna Haraway (1991), our bodies and those of others do not end at the skin, which makes us intimately related to a range of nonhuman others, within as well as around us. Posthumanist theory questions the primacy of human subjectivity by tuning in on the relational dimensions in the formation of bodies, subjects, and politics. This becomes particularly clear in the work of the feminist physicist and philosopher Karen Barad [4] and her definition of posthumanist theorizing: “A posthumanist account calls into question the givenness of the differential categories of ‘human’ and ‘nonhuman,’ examining the practices through which these differential boundaries are stabilized and destabilized.”

The nonhuman within posthumanism is an interesting figure, and more often than not a creature of nature. Posthumanist feminist theory is dense with, for example, animals, bacteria, and pollution. Yet nature has long been a troubling site for feminists. Within the field of feminist science studies, which in many ways acts as a forerunner to current posthumanist discussions (Ahmed, 2008), a great deal of effort has been spent on decoupling nature from the natural. This disconnection shows how nature was always something invented, produced, and reproduced, rather than discovered. Nature, then — much like culture — is something that continuously takes shape, and thus can be shaped differently. This fundamental denaturalization of nature also functions as a way of breaking the associative link between woman and nature, or woman as nature. Feminist deconstructions of the nature/culture coupling have had a tendency to involve something of a turn away from nature, to break free from the script according to which science is based on the (masculine) scientific unveiling of (female) nature (Jordanova, 1989).

Within current posthumanist feminist theory, there is instead a tendency to turn away from culture — and toward nature — in an effort to conceptualize nature differently. In this attempt to re-conceptualize nature for feminist purposes, posthumanist theory examines the material specificities of nature in ways that suggest the limits of anthropocentric cultural theory. Nature is understood as agential, as having agency in the sense of being lively, unruly, and disobedient. The matter of nature has the ability to act and provide resistance, to ‘kick back’ in ways that have consequences for how the worlds of human and nonhuman subjects can be approached and understood. An understanding of materiality as active and disobedient also means that such materiality provides certain resistance to processes of cultural imprinting and meaning making. This specific emphasis on the materiality and very force of nature as agential and unruly makes nature the privileged de-stabilizing concept within posthumanist theorizing. This, in turn, has positioned biology in general (and human-animal studies in particular) as a central, if not the most central field of inquiry (Ahmed, 2008; Sullivan, 2012).

 

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Technology as a forgotten trope

For a posthumanist feminist scholar of media and technology, this privileging of the biological is a curious move. What appears to be an almost forgotten trope within current posthumanist theory is the technological. The reason for the disappearance of the technological in recent posthumanist feminist work is most likely a consequence of an understanding of nature as the domain which holds the most promise for a rewriting of feminist theory. In making the materiality of nature the privileged site of posthumanist feminist politics, technology slips out of sight. This slipping out of sight proceeds as if there was nothing unruly or wild at heart of how technologies work. It is a slipping that simultaneously disregards a body of work that takes seriously questions of nonhuman subjects, materiality, agency, and embodiment in technological domains (Braidotti, 2013; Hayles, 1999; 2005; Suchman, 2007, 2011). The disappearance of the technological in posthumanist theory is all the more curious read against the background of the work of Donna Haraway (1991, 1997, 2007), often pointed out as foundational within posthumanism. What posthumanist feminism takes from her work is her relentless troubling of the nature/culture divide by putting in motion a range of material-semiotic actors. Examples of such actors that populate and inhabit her work are primates, onco-mice, cyborgs, and companion species, all of them sticky and intensely sensical borderland creatures in the intersections of nature, science, and technology.

If human subjects are intimately complicit and co-constituted with a range of nonhuman others, this relationality was never merely a matter of intense intimacy with creatures of nature. It is a relationality which simultaneously, and as forcefully, marks ‘our’ complicitness with technological nonhuman others. It is precisely this de-stabilization of bodily boundaries as well as of the humanness of the human body that makes posthumanist theory important for a study of gender as technological. As a co-constituting force, technology is not something that is simply added to bodies, and hence can be subtracted. Rather, bearing in mind the Cold War logics of Haraway’s cyborg, showing how info/biotechnologies were increasingly entwined with ‘our’ bodies, technology rather provides one of the ways in which bodies become viable at all. Far from being natural, pre-technological, or in any sense pure, bodies are on a fundamental level technologically produced. As such, this article is an argument for a recuperation of technology as an important destabilizing principle and co-constituting force in the making and shaping of bodies, subjects, and posthumanist theory.

Against the backdrop of this reinstatement of the technological in posthumanist theorizing, what does it mean to understand gender as something technological? In arguing for the human body as inextricably technological, this is not a body somehow unmarked by, for example, gender, sexuality, and race. Rather, when the boundaries of the body are destabilized technologically, so are the boundaries of what makes and marks a body as specific. One such boundary, which is at the forefront in this text, is gender.

On the one hand, to think gender as technological emphasizes a way of thinking gender as machinery. Much like how Judith Butler (1993) understands gender as performative, as something that can be understood in terms of a citational apparatus that operates within a heterosexual matrix, gender can be understood as analogous to technology. Technology, here, becomes a metaphor to think with. It facilitates a way of thinking gender as broken, unstable, fragile machinery, as something based on its very brokenness. Judith Halberstam’s (1998) reading of the ‘Turing test’ builds on a similar analogy between the imitative and fundamentally unstable systems of (digital) technologies and gender alike [5]. The first (and often overlooked) test that Turing offered was not to differentiate between human and machine, but between man and woman. Somewhat surprisingly, the introductory man/woman setup is treated as a mere illustration of the elements in the human/machine interface (see Hayles, 1999). Halberstam [6] argues that Turing fails to take into account the apparent relation between gender and machine performances: “both are in fact imitative systems, and the boundaries between female and male [...] are as unclear and as unstable as the boundary between human and machine intelligence.”

On the other hand, to think gender as something technological is here also — and simultaneously — a way of thinking gender as more radically, or literally technological in line with posthumanist understandings of bodily materiality. Following Haraway, metaphors do not merely operate in a symbolic domain, but tend to be sticky, material figurations that bridge the divide between the symbolic and the material (or, in her terms, the material-semiotic). Gender, then, is not merely understood as machinery, but also as literally machinic. Within this article, gender operates as a set of vulnerable technologies ranging from pharmaceuticals (hormones), prosthetics, wigs, and makeup, to intense entanglements with digital media technologies. In her rereading of the Turing test, literary theorist N. Katherine Hayles [7] shows how in the infancy of the digital computer, the contours of human subjectivity start to shift in ways that open up a space for nonhuman subjects. Interestingly, this shifting of the boundaries of the human has everything to do with gender:

If your failure to distinguish correctly between human and machine proves that machines can think, what does it prove if you fail to distinguish woman from man? Why does gender appear in this primal scene of humans meeting their evolutionary successors, intelligent machines?

According to Hayles, Turing’s inclusion of gender in his test poses a serious threat to the Enlightenment idea of the human as an utterly autonomous, rational, and unitary being. The Enlightenment subject is in obvious ways threatened already in the confusion of human and machine, since the idea of a thinking machine demarcates a possible domain of nonhuman subjects. The introduction of ‘gender’ into this picture sheds light on yet another distinction. As Hayles [8] makes clear, the safely coherent and unambiguously gendered body is “no longer a natural inevitability but a contingent production, mediated by a technology that [...] can no longer meaningfully be separated from the human subject.” It is precisely this technologically produced non-necessity of gender coherence (i.e., glitch), together with a profound interdependence, or co-constitution of gender and technology, that this paper builds on and develops.

 

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Glitch, trans-, and the beauty of brokenness

The term ‘trans’ has been subject to intense discussion within transgender studies. Susan Stryker, Paisley Currah, and Lisa Jean Moore (2008) argue for the use of the dynamic ‘trans-’ in relation to which “the hyphen matters a great deal, precisely because it marks the difference between the implied nominalism of ‘trans’ and the explicit relationality of ‘trans-’, which remains open-ended and resists premature foreclosure by attachment to any single suffix.” In this article, I mostly use the hyphenated trans- as a reminder of this open-endedness of the term as well as its critical relationality. Trans- marks an openness to several different endings, like transsexual and transgender, but also to other interpretations that refuse to distinguish between the two. A clear distinction between transsexual and transgender (in relation to which transsexual marks a medico-technological transition, whereas transgender refers to transitioning without surgery and hormone therapy), confirms a medical history of transsexuality as something decided by and controlled by medical practices (see Stone, 1993). In contrast, trans- does not distinguish between different technologies of gender. These could be imaginative, social, political, or medical. Then again, I sometimes use the unhyphenated trans of transgender, since this is the community term that operates in most of my sources. It also allows important specificity and precision in addressing Isabella, who identifies as a transgender woman. She has started hormone treatment, but has yet to decide whether she wants to alter her body surgically.

By reading trans- as gender glitch and as malfunction, I connect the field of transgender studies to posthumanist feminist theory. Susan Stryker and Aren Aizura (2013) identify work that blurs the line between human and nonhuman as increasingly common in transgender studies, pointing to the presence of trans- animal studies (see, for example, Hayward, 2008, 2010; Hird, 2006). This article provides a different blurring of the human/nonhuman boundary in rather approaching the question of trans- (as well as of gender in general) from the point of view of the technological. In a post-industrial technological landscape that Beatriz Preciado [9] calls pharmaco-pornographic, gendered bodies take shape through “the processes of a biomolecular (pharmaco) and semiotic-technical (pornographic) government of sexual subjectivity.” Her Testo Junkie is written from a body continuously altered through testosterone, putting forth a layered technological understanding of gender that shuttles between imagination and concrete materiality. In this sense, Preciado’s work offers ways of re-casting the discussion in transgender studies within a posthumanist, technological framework.

What, then, is glitch? Glitch is that moment when a CD player in a bar begins to skip, stutter, stumble, and the heightened tension in the room as the vulnerability of the playback technology becomes noticeable. Glitch is the spinning wheel on the computer screen, the delay between a command given and its execution, the kind of technological anticipation that makes us not only hold our breath, or pull out our hair, but forces us to pay attention to the materiality and fragility of new media. To Legacy Russell (2012), in her essay “Digital dualism and the glitch feminism manifesto,” glitch is also that which makes us pay attention to the materiality of our bodies in sexual terms, as our interlacing with the machine is momentarily interrupted.

The glitch is the digital orgasm, where the machine takes a sigh, a shudder, and with a jerk, spasms. These moments have been integrated into the rituals and routines of our own physical action, impacting how we interact with our own bodies, and how we explore our deepest fantasies and desires, spurred forth by these mechanized micro-seizures. The glitch is the catalyst, not the error. The glitch is the happy accident.

Etymologically, glitch possibly derives from the Yiddish word glitsh ‘slippery place’ or ‘a slip’ from glitshn ‘to slip,’ similar to the German word glitschen ‘slither,’ and related gleiten ‘to slip, slide, or glide.’ Glitching, then, suggests physical movement. It is a form of slipping and sliding, a slipping by or a slipping away. Glitch signals a slipperiness of something or someone off balance and a loss of control. As Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa (2011) points out, glitch is at its root a form of accident, but a specific form that relates to modern technology. Early usage of the term in popular media can be traced back to the space age of the 1960s, at least judging from a 1965 article in Time explaining glitches as “a spaceman’s word for irritating disturbances.” [10] A glitch refers usually to a minor malfunction, a sudden unexpected event, a surge of current or a spurious, illegitimate signal that breaks the flow of energy or information.

Glitch is an ambiguous phenomenon, holding both anxiety and beauty. As a slippage, a slip of the tongue, or a momentary slipup, a glitch is rarely a complete collapse of the machinery. The machine is still running, but the performance is poor, which also shifts the experience of the performance. As an unexpected break in the flow, glitches are often undesired, undesirable, and hence possibly anxiety inducing when they occur. It is a momentary loss of control, over technologies, systems, and devices. Glitches are a vital part of digital culture, connected to different affective tendencies. On the one side of glitch, the tendency is toward irritation, annoyance, and anxiety in the face of technologies that become stuck. But glitch is also about the other side of technology and a perceived beauty in crashing and skipping, a celebration of medium fragility coupled with a critique of media industries. This is the point of departure of the 1990s music scene around glitch (Bates, 2004; Sangild, 2004), glitch new media art (Menkman, 2011), and the use of glitches in digital games by unruly gamers (Aarseth, 2007).

There is a similar recognition and even celebration of broken technologies, of various ways of being broken, in the musical practices of Steam Powered Giraffe. Steam Powered Giraffe is a U.S.-based musical robotic pantomime troupe and consists of three core members who portray antique, late nineteenth century-ish automatons on stage, each with its own personable quirks and glitches. Until recently, they were an automaton boy band of sorts, a trio of male-bodied movement artists performing male robots. Isabella Bunny Bennett performs one of these, a clockwork copper robot named Rabbit. Recently, she came out as a transgender woman. As a consequence of this shift, the male Rabbit is being transformed into a transgender female Rabbit.

As an example of their celebration of failing technologies, the band has invited their fans to a collaborative video project that plays with the question “what’s your malfunction?” The project is introduced as a way of putting a positive spin on things that society deems undesirable, as well as an affirmative showcasing of diversity in the fandom. Within this project, Isabella approaches trans- in terms of technological malfunction [11]. I do not read this approach as an indication of cisgender (i.e., non-transgender) as functional and trans- as dysfunctional, but rather that trans- makes the inner workings of the fundamentally broken technologies of gender particularly clear. Importantly, my intention is not to romanticize trans- by turning it into a figure which is somehow by default transgressive, carrying the burden of performing and embodying a revolution in gender [12]. Rather, trans- will be used as a case that makes the technologies of gender particularly apparent, which shows how gender works along a continuum from obvious glitch to seeming transparency (what I have chosen to call gender ‘high fidelity’).

Steam Powered Giraffe have managed to create a diverse and highly affectionate following, partly due to the whimsical, retro-futurist ‘steampunk’ feel and aesthetics of the band, which makes their fan group considerably overlap with the larger transnational steampunk community. Deriving from a literary genre in the fields of science fiction and alternate history, steampunk as an aesthetic and do-it-yourself movement is heavily invested in a project of embodying and re-imagining late nineteenth century technologies and fashion. The ‘steam’ part of steampunk places these fantasies in a time of rumbling, slightly rusty, yet beautiful steam powered technologies, before electricity, before computation. At stake is an emotional and tactile investment in Victorian (loosely defined) materiality, an imaginative turn to en era with intriguing affective alliances between the vital and the mechanical (Ketabgian, 2011; Onion, 2008; Sundén, 2013, 2014). Like artistic practices utilizing glitch, steampunk is a ‘low fidelity’ movement, an aesthetic that builds on exposure of the inner workings of beautiful machine gears. Steam Powered Giraffe play into this aesthetic and imaginative repertoire of cogs and cogwheels, screws and bolts, and populate it with vital, gender-mechanical bodies.

 

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Trans- as malfunction and glitch

This is the era of online fandom, and Isabella Bunny Bennett is one of the more active in the band to communicate with fans through various social media streams. I have used material from her Tumblr, her personal YouTube video blogs, as well as posts on the official Steam Powered Giraffe Tumblr as a foundation for this paper. The period covered runs from February to September 2014. Since these posts are publicly available, I have not anonymized the user names of posters. In a previous article, I use similar material but from an earlier period, running from September 2013 when the plans to perform an in-character gender change for Rabbit was first communicated to the fans, until January 2013 when Rabbit made her first live performances as a woman (Sundén, forthcoming). In the article at hand, which chronicles a later stage in her transition, the focus in Isabella’s communication with her fans has shifted: from the ‘what if’ of an impending transformation, to an intensified transitional present.

In a heartfelt video blog, Isabella discusses how her trans- experiences are played through the technologies of the transgender girl robot:

A dual life gets exhausting. It is so hard. I can’t decide if I’m a boy or a girl. On stage, it’s different. On stage I chose to be the robot, and now I chose to be a woman. And there’s no doubt, it’s not going to come into question. I’m portraying a woman. It is a robot that has been retro fitted, and tweaked, and turned into a woman. So it is a transgender character. But it is a robot, so it doesn’t really matter [chuckles]. It’s, you know, different pieces put together, it kind of makes sense. As controversial as that is, as new of ground that we may be threading, there is a comfort in being on stage, in a dress. Having people applaud. Like it doesn’t even matter. I wish it was easier. [...] I’m not portraying a character I have nothing in common with. This is the persona I created, and it is a part of me, and it taps into that gender dysphoria. Just like the robots are commentary on various social issues that we go through, so too is Rabbit a reflection of the turmoil I go through. And the malfunctions are a reflection of that, clearly, hopefully. [13]

This post points in several directions. It shows how stage performances in some ways are easier compared to a life off-stage, which links the power of imagination and playfulness to the more painful aspects of embodying trans-. It clarifies the importance of her robot as a transitioning device, of a technological transformation that is simultaneously a transformation in gender. As a result, the malfunctioning technologies of the robot become a manner of thinking and living through the brokenness of gender.

Glitch is a struggle with binaries. Glitch in digital media is caused by lost or incorrect binary code, resulting in the damaged sound of a CD player in distress as it attempts to cope with a loss of binary information. Trans- as glitch is a similar struggle to cope with loss of binaries, of binary gender, which becomes evident in Isabella’s reflections and struggles. In the above passage, the stage has certain ease. There is liberation of sorts from the turmoil of gender organized around impossible dichotomies and impossible decisions. She knows that she wants to become a woman, and that she already is a woman. Then again, she feels she will never fully be able to become one: “To say I want to be a woman is fact. But I also acknowledge I feel I will never truly be a woman. I will always have been something more than just a gender.” [14] This stance has hurt some fans who find such utterances transmisogynistic in that they make a difference between birth bodies and trans- bodies. But to feel that one always was something other than or something more than gender is also to put stress on the binary limits of gender. It could be a way to challenge its boundaries, to say that such bounds are too tight to accommodate the many layers, glitches and inconsistencies that are at the center of how gender works (or rather, does not work). It could be a way of staying with glitch.

What becomes particularly apparent in Isabella’s social media streams is how her trans- femininity exaggerates the machinic nature of the robot. On stage, there is a character to portray, a male robot who has been retrofitted and tweaked into a female bot. She gets to wear a dress. People are applauding. At the same time, this very character is an intimate part of her, part of the struggles she is going through, which are played or channeled through the ways in which she malfunctions. She even speaks of how the malfunctions of the robot are the perfect disguise for the glitchiness of trans-, such as how she uses and attempts to work certain shifts into her voice, into the quality of tone: “The malfunctions are the perfect cover. The pitch shifts I do can sound pretty mechanical here and there — and overall I hope it’s reading as a broken machine. I think Rabbit has become much more robotic recently. I like playing up the ticks more.” [15]

Glitch within digital culture has a critical, aesthetic potential in providing programmers, circuit benders, hardware hackers, gamers, media artists, and music producers with something technologically raw and as such beautiful. Glitch simultaneously provides a point of critique of media industries and technological development. If for most people, the stuttering, stumbling CD is coupled with annoyance, such heightened tension for glitch artists rather involves a particular kind of “fragile sensibility, avant-garde experiments and a different kind of beauty” [16]. Such fragile beauty draws attention to how technological vulnerability is the ground rule, no matter how much the rhetoric surrounding technological upgrades for increased computational speed, power, and performance will have us believe otherwise. Glitch, then, is gender in its most raw, technological form. The struggle with lost or ‘incorrect’ gender binaries invites a mix of experiences; annoyance, anxiety, but also a more celebratory mode. This more affirmative mode is highly present in Isabella’s ways of emphasizing how gender malfunctions, which acknowledges, precisely, glitch gender as fragile sensibility and a different kind of beauty.

Glitch as art is about an amplification of already existing flaws, defects or errors. Instead of covering up the seams, it presents them proudly. One example is Isabella’s glitchy contrasts between her female shape and her deep voice, most comfortably covering a bass register while singing. A common concern among the fans is the quality of tone, and whether hormone treatment will alter the harmonies of Steam Powered Giraffe. Isabella has assured them that hormones will not change her voice and by extension the musicality of the band (but that voice therapy might, to a small extent). The gender glitch of her deep voice is there, cherished by her fans in ways that mainly seem to fall back on a desire to retain the harmonies of the original male trio, feeding into a nostalgic longing for an act that is no longer. Then again, for the trans- and queer contingency within the fandom, such glitches are pleasurable not primarily because they offer musical continuity, but precisely because they accentuate the glitchiness of gender.

Importantly, not everything gets to glitch in Isabella’s stage performances. If her voice is allowed to be glitchy, her breasts need to be less conspicuous it seems, at least in the eyes of her fans. In fact, there appears to be something of a dividing line between Isabella and her fans when it comes to the question of cup sizes. On several occasions, she has volunteered information about using “State of the art technoloboob[s]. They’re investments I’ve made after a number of years. I have all sorts of shapes and sizes to suit my taste for the day.” [17] The ones she often uses for in-character, stage appearances tend to be on the bigger side, leading to fan questions such as “Why such big boobies for Rabbit? c:” [18] Echoing how Beverley Skeggs (1997) understands femininity as intimately entangled with class, and respectable femininity as an ideal which has everything to do with de-sexualized bourgeois modesty, many fans argue for smaller, more respectable and modest sizes. Then again, Isabella’s answer to the above question is “They’re double ds. Not very big at all considering my manly torso.” [19] She consistently points out to her fans that things need to be proportionate, and that her broad shoulders and overall tall frame call for breasts that are in balance with the rest of her. But perhaps more than anything else, there is a powerful longing for femininity, to become a girl, to play up the glitchiness of trans- and of femininity as a vehicle for this change. In relation to this process, breasts seem to be the primary transitioning devices. “Would you mind sharing the thing(s) you’re looking forward to the most when you’re all transitioned up?” one fan asks, to which Isabella answers: “Boobs. Mostly boobs.” [20]

 

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Negotiating (trans-) femininity

Gender glitches as temporary disruptions are everywhere. Gender does not cohere. In fact, it seems to take a fair amount of violence to make materially specific bodies coincide with a particular gender, as well as with a particular desire. In her work on ‘becoming respectable,’ Beverley Skeggs [21] speaks of ideal femininity as unobtainable, since “ideal femininity requires a radical bodily transformation at which virtually every woman is bound to fail.” Put differently, the default mode of femininity is failure. In a more obviously machinic understanding, femininity is a technology of failure, and the ideal of smooth, slick, seamless, effortless femininity impossible. There will always be glitches, slippages, slips; too feminine, not feminine enough, not feminine in the right way, a never-ending struggle for everybody with femininity aspirations. There is no such thing as flawless technologies, or bodies, this is the ideal. The starting point, the very foundation, is rather always that of a broken machine.

The social media discussion of Isabella Bunny Bennett’s transition provides plenty of material not only on questions of trans- femininity, but on the technologies of femininity more generally. In one of her video blogs, Isabella notes, “Being a woman ain’t as glamorous as you want it to be.” [22] She seems almost surprised at how much work femininity takes, even the seemingly effortless kind (perhaps in particular the effortless kind). Ideal femininity needs a meticulous, fine-tuned machinery, the kind of technology that more often than not aims at its own erasure. Such an erasure is a striving to cover up its nuts and bolts, to conceal its cogs and cogwheels, screws and wires. In her gender technological shift from male to trans- female, Isabella has noted that the process of becoming woman comes with a different set of expectations. She is now perceived differently, and gets scrutinized by her fans for performing (as) a woman:

It’s like, you’re a woman now, you have different expectations on you, it’s like everyone is looking at you through that eyeglass: You’re a man and you’re portraying this woman, and hmm you’re doing a good job here, but you’re kind of fat as a woman. As a man you’re skinny, but as a woman you’re fat, and you know, it’s like, oh your hair looks this way or that way. There’s a lot of judgment, a lot of well-intentioned judgment, but there’s still just a lot of eyes on you. [23]

Performers are certainly often scrutinized by their fans, and every little change may set off an avalanche of emotions. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note the kind of reactions prompted by this particular change, as it is a change in gender. Or more to the point, it is a transformation that moves from the unmarked norm and technology of the masculine to femininity as visible, visual, subordinate deviation, and as such certainly arriving with a whole other set of expectations. This transformation is a bodily translation, which in Isabella’s case moves from a male body perceived as skinny, toward a female body that is immediately deemed ‘fat.’ Things that worked well in bodily performances through a masculine machinery — crocked nose, chiseled jawline, broad shoulders — are not as easily transferable into a more feminine shape. And it is precisely this act of translation, in which the transgender female body slips (rather than slips by), which makes some fans pause and comment on her body shape. This pause and its “as a woman you’re fat” comment, performs a break, a glitch, in the flow of ideal gender. A glitch, again, is rarely a complete technological breakdown. The machine is still running, but the performance is poor, which alters the experience of the performance. Similarly, this shift in the audience feeds back into Isabella’s experience in a manner that alters her experience:

The biggest problem for me is that my body doesn’t feel feminine at all. I feel mannish, and when I put that layer of femininity on, while I can reach, almost taste, what life like a woman would be, ultimately it falls short. Ultimately, at the end of the day, through the sweat and strain, you feel your body, and it is not feminine. [24]

While there is certain pleasure for Isabella in the glitchiness of (trans-) gender, in particular as she plays it through the mechanical body of the robot, such glitches are in other ways nothing but uncomfortable. Gender glitch, here, produces a gap, a disruption, between the technologies of gender as ‘layer,’ and a specific body whose materiality ‘kicks back’ in relation to cultural scripts of gender coherence.

Gender glitch holds profound ambiguity. When Isabella speaks about playing up the ticks more, to accentuate the glitchiness of trans-, it is precisely the kind of gender glitch that turns glitch into an art form. Gender glitch art is the kind of gender performances that consciously break the flow of gender, that proudly stage the many ways in which gender is broken, and can be broken. It celebrates contrasts, inconsistencies, irregularities and imperfections. Then again, the kind of gender glitches that happen all the time, accidentally, may rather be experienced as uncomfortable discrepancies from a desire, or an ideal. For Isabella, it is the unobtainable ideal of femininity, of feeling feminine, of looking good — as a woman — and the difficulty of translating physically in gender technological terms. This is not to say that the accident in any easy sense can be separated from an aesthetics of the accidental. The difference may be that between an accidentally smeared lipstick and a smear as an ironic, glitchy comment, which in the end might be difficult to tell apart. My point is rather that there are many ways in which gender glitches, or gets to glitch, some applauded, whereas others (probably most) are rather subject of critique.

Some fans have been critical of Isabella’s/Rabbit’s transition, mainly because of an affective nostalgic bond to the ‘original’ male Rabbit, but a majority has been very supportive of and inspired by a change they understand as profoundly transformative. As a response to Isabella’s video blogs where she voices her anxieties and struggles with gender technological translation and transformation, many have provided words of support, often of the kind “as soon as I read/heard that you were a woman you became a woman. I look at you and you are a woman. And a beautiful woman at that.” [25] They emphasize how she is already a girl, always feminine, and that trans- femininity is no more glitchy than femininity in general. There are even those who do not only see a girl when they look at Isabella, but who thought she was a girl to begin with:

pallore-m said: I remember this first time when I listened a.k.a. watched SPG music video for the first time, and one of my acquaintances told me ‘You know, Bunny is trans,’ and I looked closer said ‘Awww, she’s such a cute girl, why would she want to become a man? She’s too feminine besides ...’. A-a-and then they told me how things really were. I’m still a bit embarrassed. Just saying!

Isabella: I’ll take the compliment! :) [26]

This quote addresses the question of passing — of being able to slip by rather than slip — which within a gender technological framework could be thought of as gender ‘high fidelity.’ The notion of high fidelity in the technologies of music production and playback is, simply put, a striving toward finding new ways in which the medium erases itself. An yet, every attempt to erase the technology have merely re-introduced its presence in new ways: “The music industry has spent over a hundred years creating devices that allegedly have higher and higher fidelity, but new technologies have merely introduced new glitches.” [27] Emily Thompson (1995) traces the history of how ‘fidelity’ has been imagined in relation to the shifting use of the phonograph, showing that faithfulness to the source, and truthful representation were early interpretations. Since the 1890s, and when the phonograph became a source of music rather than simply a transmitter of words, quality of tone has been the primary criterion and selling point for new playback technologies. In a landscape of new media and digital sound production, this striving often translates as a desire to cover or remove ‘noise,’ to clear the channel.

Gender is always noisy. Noise is that which disrupts a clean, supposedly faithful signal, that which betrays the pitch perfect ideal of cisgender normativity. Cisgender is the opposite of trans-, a gender machinery which seemingly effortlessly makes and shapes bodies along the lines of gender binaries and hetero-normal desires. If to glitch is to slip, to stutter, to stumble, gender high fidelity is to slip by unnoticed. To pass — as a woman — is to be able to slip by. And such slipping by is only possible if the technologies of (trans-) gender are rendered invisible. High fidelity is the ideal of seamless technological transparency. As such, high fidelity gender strives toward impossibly seamless perfection along the lines of equally impossibly pure femininity and masculinity. Gender as high fidelity is a transparent gender experience that transcends mediation, which performs an act of forgetting about the technologies of gender (which make such an erasure possible in the first place). The fidelity in high fidelity is, partly, about being faithful to something originary, something un-technological or non-technological. But this originary scene — in sound production as well as in gender — is an original that never was. No body (or medium) are ever technologically untouched, originary, natural.

High fidelity is a powerful ideal. Isabella expresses a strong desire to be a girl, and yet thinking this stage will never be reached. She talks about the slowness of bodily transformation, of hormones kicking in. She speaks of always having had feminine qualities, and yet not feeling feminine enough. Glitch is about the other side of technology, of gender and other devices not functioning. Glitch is that which betrays the fidelity of gender, it is the beauty and simultaneously the sadness and pain of crashing and skipping, which ultimately emphasizes the fragility of gender. As such, high fidelity does not only bring about rebellious glitch practices, but also significant sadness in not being able to embody the ideal.

 

++++++++++

Glitch feminism

In the wake of decades of feminists theorizing the digital, Legacy Russell (2012) proposes “the turning of a new radicality [by] coining the term ‘Glitch Feminism.’” [28] Like cyberfeminism of the 1990s (Braidotti, 1996; Plant, 1997; Stone, 1995), glitch feminism to Russell is a feminism for the digital age, which “acknowledges the value of visuality, and the revolutionary role that digital practice has in expanding the construction, deconstruction, and re-presentation of the female-identifying corpus.” Glitch feminism in Russell’s interpretation clearly resonates with the kind of feminism that this article contributes to. Her glitch feminism recognizes the critical potential in the disruption of information systems and social systems alike. It also pays attention to the materiality of bodies as they momentarily break away from the machine. In glitching between binaries, glitch feminism problematizes not only the diehard divide between virtual and real, immaterial and material, but also that between man and woman, in ways that reminisce of Donna Haraway’s (1991) cyborg figure.

At the same time, when reading Russell’s online think pieces on glitch feminism, I cannot help but wonder: who or what gets to glitch between man and woman, and how? Russell (2012) argues that glitch feminism is not gender specific, “it is for all bodies that exist somewhere before arrival upon a final concretized identity,” and yet the recurring, privileged glitch subject has, as the above quote shows, a female-identifying body. It is of course not unusual within feminist thinking to be open to everybody, yet privileging those bodies identified as female. To say female-identified bodies is also an opening up to feminist thinking that is inclusive of trans- feminine bodies. Russell acknowledges how the slipping and sliding between categories and identifications in glitch feminism is “a nod toward trans politic,” but one “that extends beyond the notion of ‘trans’ as fixed to modifying notions of assigned sex, the psychology of gender, and the histories of self-naming, but rather trans as a means of extrapolating liminal variations of self.” (Russell, 2013, emphasis in original). This means that in the very moment when there is an opening for a radical trans- feminism, in and through thinking feminism and femininity with glitch, this opening seems to be abandoned for a more general use of trans-. Trans- is understood, first and foremost, in the sense of being a Latin noun or prefix, meaning ‘across,’ ‘beyond’ or ‘on the opposite side.’ As a consequence, the argument thus slides from trans- as a particular corporeality to a line of thinking that moves across or beyond this very particularity.

I have worked with glitch, gender, and feminism in this article in ways related to Russell’s work, yet quite different. I agree with Russell that there are good reasons, as a feminist, to turn “the gloomy implication of glitch on its ear,” in order to see how errors in social and technological systems alike carry political potentials. Then again, my understanding of gender in relation to glitch is not only a possibility of critiquing the system by sliding between identifications. My main argument is, rather, that gender itself is characterized by glitch, by malfunction, in its basic mechanisms. An understanding of gender as glitchy at the core, and transgender as something that makes such glitchiness all the more obvious, places trans- at the center of glitch feminism and gender theory. Importantly, within this framework, trans- is not merely a mode of moving across or beyond categories. Trans- is rather seen as a key to understand gender as machinery of failure. Such machinery of gender strings together gender experiences in feedback loops of longing and desire. Gender glitch, as something broken and as a loss of control over objects, bodies, and significance, holds both beauty and sadness, political explosiveness and pain.

In discussing the public transition of Isabella/Rabbit, I have hoped to show that there may be a simultaneous desire to play up the ticks, emphasize the glitches, of gender and other technologies, and to blend in, to slip by unnoticed. Some glitches are allowed to be played up more than others, and specifically those that are experienced as deliberate exaggerations. Then again, there is a fine line between ‘to slip’ (to stutter, to stumble) and ‘to slip by,’ between obvious glitch and seeming non-glitch, and it is a line that is constantly in motion. As Rosa Menkman [29] has it, “To think with glitch is to straddle a gap between non-sense and knowledge.” What would happen, I wonder, if we dwelled for a glitch moment in that space of non-sense, a space in which bodies would not be immediately meaningful, or knowable? The language of glitch is a language of the nonhuman, of the technological other, and as such incomprehensible. Nonetheless, what I have attempted in this article is to critically consider (trans)gender as glitch in that very crack between the knowable and the unknowable. The promise of glitch gender is precisely that it can never be fully known, never fully controlled, and by slipping away always retaining an element of something out-of-control, a disruption and a disturbance in ways of knowing and thinking. The promise of glitch is the fact that there is something unruly — or agential — at the very core of how gender works technologically.

The unruliness of the technological nonhuman — as an intimate part of what it means to be human — carries a potential of critiquing and as such transforming both social and technological systems. Glitch as critical disruption and interruption is in this sense also a transformation of the system that is being disrupted. What would happen if we considered how glitch as a critique of (gender) norms, tend to become embedded in such norms, as part of their variation? “Every form of glitch, whether breaking a flow or designed to look like it breaks a flow, will eventually become a new fashion,” Menkman [30] argues, pointing at the critical potential of glitch to alter the norms of technological cultures. The glitch music scene has moved from the domain of edgy underground music practices to that of mainstream music production. What started out as a critique of the high fidelity ideal of the music industry has become an established way of making the supposedly clean, clear, pure digital sound noisier, dirtier, warmer (Kelly, 2009). Gender glitch holds a similar potential — to infiltrate, make dirty, and ultimately put pressure on the norms of pure gender high fidelity. But there is an important difference between a CD in distress and human distress, even when understood technologically. A CD might sound as if it is hurting (and perhaps from the point of view of the CD it does, but this we will never know). The brokenness of gender hurts.

By way of ending, I would like to clarify the contribution of this paper to posthumanist feminist theory. I have argued that in the wake of a turn away from culture and toward nature as the privileged site of inquiry, technology has become something of a lost trope within posthumanist theorizing. While being and intimate part of the work of important forerunners to the formations of this field, such as Donna Haraway and N. Katherine Hayles, technology as principle of disturbance and infiltration in the very formation of human subjects and bodies has slipped out of sight. To think the matter of nature as the most unruly, and as such as the most interesting for posthumanist feminist theory, does not only ignore the unruliness of technologies. This privileging of nature simultaneously seems to ignore the increasingly troubled boundary between biology and computation, body and code, or body as code (see Smelik and Lykke, 2008). Following a logic according to which technologies implicate their own failures, I have used glitch as an example of the unruliness of the technological other within. Similar to how nature functions in posthumanist theory, technological malfunctions and instabilities are understood as examples of a technological agency of sorts, as a way for the machinery of gender to ‘kick back’ in relation to cultural inscriptions of gender coherence. Gender breakdowns, or inconsistencies, open up a domain of nonhuman agency at heart of how gender operates. End of article

 

About the author

Jenny Sundén is Professor of Gender Studies at Södertörn University, Sweden. Her research interests are primarily in digital media studies, cultural studies, feminist theory, affect theory, and game cultures. She is the author of Material virtualities: Approaching online textual embodiment (Peter Lang, 2003) and Gender and sexuality in online game cultures: Passionate play (Routledge 2012, with Malin Sveningsson).
E-mail: jenny [dot] sunden [at] sh [dot] se

 

Notes

1. Lotringer and Virilio, 2005, p. 2.

2. Goriunova and Shulgin, 2008, p. 114.

3. This article is part of the research project Clockwork, corsets, and brass: The politics and dreams of steampunk cultures, financed by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (Swedish Foundation for the Humanities and Social Sciences).

4. Barad, 2003, p. 808.

5. The famous Turing test first appears in the classic article “Computing machinery and intelligence” by British mathematician Alan Turing (1950). The Turing test, or, in Turing’s words “the imitation game,” is commonly referred to as a blind test in which a person by computational means communicates with two other units: one human and one machine. The task of the machine is to ‘pass’ as human (while the human tries to be as truthfully human as possible). If the person being tested cannot differentiate between the human and the machine, this would prove that machines are intelligent, according to Turing.

6. Halberstam, 1998, p. 71.

7. Hayles, 1999, p. ixx.

8. Hayles, 1999, p. xiii.

9. Preciado, 2013, p. 33–34.

10. “Space: the Glitch & the Gemini,” Time (5 November 1965), at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,901786,00.html, accessed 13 February 2015.

11. Posted 21 February 2014: http://officialsteampoweredgiraffe.tumblr.com/post/77413098155/whats-your-malfunction-music-video-project, accessed 13 February 2015.

12. Cf., Raun, 2012, pp. 89 ff.

13. Posted 24 February 2014. “Rabbit reimagined: The gender game (YouTube companion video),” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FufFZy1ku-Q, 37.40-39.20 and 52.20-53.13, accessed 30 September 2014.

14. Posted 23 August 2014: http://bunnybennett.tumblr.com/post/95600253575/so-im-actually-curious-ms-bennett-when-did-you, accessed 13 February 2015.

15. Posted 2 March 2014: http://sprocketsandgears.tumblr.com/post/78310926525/hey-bunny-first-of-all-loving-female-rabbit-so-much, accessed 13 February 2015. Isabella deleted her personal tumblr in April 2014, and started a new one in May 2014. I am here linking to a reblog of the original quote.

16. Sangild, 2004, p. 257.

17. Posted 28 February 2014: http://thespine-walter.tumblr.com/post/78147093832/hey-bunny-i-was-wondering-how-you-do-your-boobs-I, accessed 13 February 2015. This is a reblog of the original quote, see note 15.

18. Posted 17 March 2014: http://silencexloud.tumblr.com/post/79927178689/why-such-big-boobies-for-rabbit-c, accessed 13 February 2015. This is a reblog of the original quote, see note 5.

19. Ibid., accessed 13 February 2015.

20. Posted 1 August 2014: http://bunnybennett.tumblr.com/post/93501734010/would-you-mind-sharing-the-thing-s-youre-looking, accessed 13 February 2015.

21. Skeggs, 1997, p. 82.

22. Posted 18 July 2014: “Bunny Bennett Transition MtF VBlog #1 — First Day of Meds,” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORVusIjxheU&feature=youtu.be, 8.12, accessed 13 February 2015.

23. Posted 25 August 2014: “Transition blog #2. 1 month and 1 week on hormones,” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVEblFI5_q0, 13.54-14.31, accessed 13 February 2015.

24. Posted 24 February 2014: “Rabbit Reimagined: The Gender Game (YouTube Companion Video),” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FufFZy1ku-Q, 33.26-34.05, accessed 30 September 2014.

25. Posted 1 March 2014: https://www.youtube.com/all_comments?v=FufFZy1ku-Q, accessed 30 September 2014.

26. Posted 14 August 2014: http://bunnybennett.tumblr.com/post/94742840060/i-remember-this-first-time-when-i-listened-a-k-a, accessed 13 February 2015.

27. Bates, 2004, p. 275.

28. Russell’s articles are online pieces without page numbers.

29. Menkman, 2011, p. 66.

30. Menkman, 2011, p. 8.

 

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Editorial history

Received 3 March 2015; accepted 24 March 2015.


Creative Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

On trans-, glitch, and gender as machinery of failure
by Jenny Sundén.
First Monday, Volume 20, Number 4 - 6 April 2015
http://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/5895/4416
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v20i4.5895





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