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

por Jenny Sundén
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.

*Extracto. Leer texto completo.

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