Glitching Bodies in Queer (Digital) Anthropology

by Luise Erbentraut _

It is now almost two years since I began the fieldwork for my Master’s thesis on Virtual YouTubers, so called VTubers and their self-representation. In conclusion of the thesis, I consider the glitch as a figure to think about post-human embodiments. Specifically, the glitch helps me to argue that virtual embodiments move along the contours of the human and thus do not (yet) move away from those contours completely. I focused on three VTubers in particular: CodeMiko, AI Angel and Miquela Sousa. Revisiting my field now after having completed my master`s thesis, I notice that the VTubers have updated their bodies again. CodeMiko, for example, has been given impressively detailed hair. AI Angelica, on the other hand, now wears an air-filter mask to protect herself in a parallel dimension encoded by ChatGPT, while video chatting on Omegle, and I too have returned from a conference freshly inspired and updated with new thoughts. For this blog post, I revisit the question of the body and the glitch, by focusing on a video by CodeMiko, who claims the glitch for herself. I pose the question of how the concept of the glitch helps us to understand (digital) bodies in feminist and queer anthropology?

First, however, a glitch is a concept that describes concrete phenomena and practices. In its Yiddish origin, the term refers to a movement that causes an error (Russell 2020, 28–29). In contemporary gaming culture, it refers to an error that can occur within the virtual environment, but also in the practice of actively seeking out these errors to acquire them for one’s own advantage within the game (Rivero and Gutiérrez 2019, 158). Legacy Russell (2020) uses this abstract definition as a starting point to proclaim her manifesto of Glitch Feminism, arguing for an engagement with digital bodies in order to question the notion of the body as such. In her concept of glitch, the body remains a term for matter whose idea has no form (ibid. 8). For CodeMiko, the glitch is part of her self-description and lived practice. This enlivened relation between the glitch and her body as practice is what she puts together in videos such as the following one.

[Dislaimer: The video contains graphic violent and suggestive scenes which some may find disturbing.]

Source: CodeMiko. 2021. ‘The Best CodeMiko Bugs and Glitches!!’ YouTube. 6 October 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bZw_JNCwM8o

Her body becomes a flow of data, rotating on its own axis as if detached from its surroundings, partially interrupted, flickering, wandering, stuck – we see a body that escapes its corporeality in a variety of ways. There is a tension between the glitch as part of the virtual embodiment and the implicit rupture of the (virtual) body. The ambivalence of the glitch as a form of embodiment and rupture of the body is accompanied by the friction between many different situational glitches and the glitch as a concept of the singular. In this way, CodeMiko also focuses on different concepts of the body within the virtual, digital, but also on the possibilities of breaking through notions of the body as such.

[00:02:42’’-00:02:48’’] – (Dis-)Embodiment

Source: CodeMiko. 2021. ‘The Best CodeMiko Bugs and Glitches!!’ YouTube.
6 October 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bZw_JNCwM8o

For example, when her body disappears and in its place, we see illuminated numbers moving in their virtual environment, only to be replaced by the body in the next moment. CodeMiko’s body punctuated by numbers illuminates the relationship between embodiment, disembodiment and the role of information therein. The scene is reminiscent of how Katherine Hayles (1999) conceives of the physicality between humans and machines. Central to her view is the understanding of information as a disembodied entity. In Hayles’ reading, the fluidity of information relates different materialities to each other and assembles the body (ibid.). In so far as CodeMiko’s body is pierced by information and that the information flows through her body in a suggestive way, the scene sustains Hayles’ concept. On the other hand, CodeMiko’s glitching body illustrates the relationship between disembodiment and embodiment beyond: Her body is also given a form by the information that later manifests itself in the body again. In this way the glitch illuminates that information cannot flow uninfluenced of any materiality. In CodeMiko’s glitching body, information is part of her material-semiotic configuration, but only insofar as it directs and sustains the embodiment.

[00:04:44’’- 00:05:02’’] – (Im-)material

Source: CodeMiko. 2021. ‘The Best CodeMiko Bugs and Glitches!!’ YouTube.
6 October 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bZw_JNCwM8o

A moment later, her body disappears again. This time it disappears completely, but flickers back into existence the next millisecond, sometimes slightly displaced in space. By breaking with existence in time, her glitching body invites us not to think of the body independently of spatio-temporal dimensions. Instead, the flickering emphasises the spatio-temporal materialisation of the body as a dis/continuity. This idea of the spatio-temporal entanglement of matter and its semiotic correlations with a focus on dis/continuity goes back to concepts employed by Karen Barad (2007). Her point of departure is the quantum as the smallest unit that unifies the opposition of continuity and discontinuity through its leap (ibid. 179ff.). On the basis of the figure of the quantum, she builds the concept of intra-action, through which entities influence each other mutually. In consequence, Barad criticises the idea of embodiment as implicitly taking the boundaries of the body for granted. In her view, the idea of embodiment builds upon the opposition of inside and outside and therefore reinforces other dichotomies. Instead of a confrontation between inside and outside, however, CodeMiko’s fragmentary body also shows itself to be constantly interrupted in space-time. The inside of the body dissolves into transparency, the outside exposes itself.

[00:03:14’’-00:03:22’’] – (In-)Corporeal

Source: CodeMiko. 2021. ‘The Best CodeMiko Bugs and Glitches!!’YouTube.6 October 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bZw_JNCwM8o

Elsewhere, CodeMiko’s fragmented body is entangled in red lines that stretch around her like a scaffolding. She humorously underscores the irritation with the words: “I guess this is my bikini then” (00:03:14’’- 00:03:18’’). This way, her glitching body points towards the interwovenness of inside and outside, but also highlights the question of the semiotic-material relationship of the body and its specific relationship to language. The question of the inside and outside of the permeable body is thus directed at the body as a surface on which language is inscribed. Elisabeth Grosz (1994) presents a way of thinking about the body in this way. Instead of thinking about embodiment as a pre-set boundary of the body, Grosz endeavours the notion of the corporeal and conceives it under the figure of the Möbius strip (ibid. 36): the materiality of the body intertwines with materially effective language, turning the body into an inscribing surface and the other way around (ibid.). CodeMiko’s glitching body spreads out as a surface of corporeal and corporeally effective twists: Initially partial, abstract, unformatted. Her body experiences order through the abstract form semiotically established as a bikini. Another scene illustrates the relevance of thinking about bodies as semiotically-materially twisted surfaces even a little more.

[00:02:18’’-00:02:38’’] – In*Corporeal

Source: CodeMiko. 2021. ‘The Best CodeMiko Bugs and Glitches!!’ YouTube.
6 October 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bZw_JNCwM8o

Here, a glitch causes CodeMiko’s legs to cross in such a way that they open up a sexualised scope for interpretation, which CodeMiko in turn accentuates by rendering them in pink and blue lighting, reminiscent of the colours of the bisexual flag (2’22”-2’24”). Her interviewee, Moistcr1tical, states: “You’re creating like a new vagina with like the vertex of your two legs crossing” (2’31”-2’36”) and CodeMiko confirms: “pretty much” (2’36”-2’37”). In this respect, the display of her legs shows the body as a surface of material-semiotic twists that manifest themselves in sexed bodies as interface (Grosz 1994, 58), but goes one step further: through the idea of the creation of a new vagina, it shows how linguistic inscription of sexed bodies eludes a specific notion of the sexed body. Insofar as ‘vagina’ is exposed within the scene as an idea and corporeality which has no biologically essential form, the scene is also active in the concern of glitch feminism, but the crucial point here is another: The word is on the one hand exposed as an idea and at the same time sexes the semiotic-material glitch. This way, CodeMiko’s glitch also points towards the difference between taking matter and the corporeality of the body seriously (or especially not too serious) and biological essentialism, which understands sex (and gender) as naturally determined by the body. This differentiation is a significant one for how we think about lived bodies in situational semiotic-material entanglements, especially when doing feminist and queer anthropology.

Glitching Bodies and Queer Anthropology

In order to take seriously the significance of the difference between the body’s matter and form, and to elaborate on biological essentialism, I start by summarizing. First, I return to the point that in Russel’s (2020) call to use the disruption to think the body as a construction and interpretive authority. Russel (2020) refers to the basic assumption that the body is an idea whose matter has no form. In doing so, she takes a radical counter position to biological essentialism and draws attention to the construction of gender and the body more generally. In CodeMiko’s video, however, it becomes clear that it is precisely the form of the idea and the idea of the form of the body that makes the glitch recognisable as such. The glitch is part of her semiotic-material body, but not as a singular concept. Instead, glitches occur more or less unexpectedly, challenging the body as dis-embodiment, in-corporeality, or im-materiality. An analysis that does not address both facets of the body, for fear of falling into the trap of biological essentialism, would reduce the complexity of glitching bodies to a basic assumption that does not do them justice. The multiple forms that the glitch takes in her video thus challenge the concept of the body, but to the extent that CodeMiko shows the concept of the body and the body as such can be thought of in myriad ways. Her compilation highlights a point inherent in anthropological, ethnographic work: to understand a concept not as a universal singularity, but in its situational contexts. A glitch is not just a challenge to a particular concept of the body. Glitches, as multiplicity, challenge specific ways of thinking, forms and bodies in particular situations and thus how semiotic-material relations are understood within them. The tension between the universal concept of the glitch, and the multiple glitches call to mind what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1990) once described as tension between “universalizing” and “minoritizing” (ibid. 1). Where the tension between universalizing and minoritizing helps us to understand the emergence of the queer, the same tension helps us to understand glitches as a digital form of actively queering bodies. CodeMiko’s video underscores that it is also necessary to take the idea of the form of the body seriously in order to perform glitch feminism. As a compilation, the glitches call for a queer (digital) anthropology of the glitch.

References

Barad, Karen Michelle. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.

Eve Kosofsky, Sedgwick. 1990. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Grosz, Elisabeth. 1994. Volatile Bodies. Toward a Corporeal Feminism. St Leonards: Allen & Urwin.

Hayles, N. Katherine. 1999. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rivero, Edward, and Kris D. Gutiérrez. 2019. ‘“You Know What’s Glitching?”’ In The Routledge Handbook of Digital Literacies in Early Childhood, edited by Ola Erstad, Rosie Flewitt, Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer, and Íris Susana Pires Pereira, 158–68. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203730638-12.

Russell, Legacy. 2020. Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto. London; New York: Verso.


About the author

Luise Erbentraut (she/it) holds an undergraduate degree in philosophy and social- and cultural anthropology as well as a graduate degree in social- and cultural anthropology (both at Freie Universität Berlin). The demiwoman academic is interested in the intersections of queer feminist anthropology, STS and critical posthumanisms and works within entanglements of the self beyond the human.



Cite this blog post
editorial team (2023, August 2). Glitching Bodies in Queer (Digital) Anthropology. AnthroDesires. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/b7vb

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