Ghosting on the Binary Body

Read this excerpt from 'Glitch Feminism', author and theorist Legacy Russell's forthcoming book about digital subversion.

The scaling of the economy of gender features most prominently across discussions surrounding “big data.” For example, every forty-eight hours online we as a global community generate as much information as was generated in written history from the beginning of civilization until 2003 (1). This data we generate triggers monumental questions about mass surveillance and how the information tied to our digital selves can be used to track our every movements. Our Internet search histories, social media habits, and modes of online communication — what sociologist David Lyon calls “factual fragments”— expose our innermost thoughts, anxieties, plans, desires, and goals (2). Gender binary is a part of this engine: a body read online as male/female, masculine/ feminine fulfils a target demographic for advertising and marketing. Google Ads explains gleefully to its users, “With demographic targeting in Google Ads, you can reach a specific set of potential customers who are likely to be within a particular age range, gender, parental status, or household income. For instance, if you run a fitness studio exclusively for women, demographic targeting could help you avoid showing your ads to men. (3)” 

Lyon identifies “disappearing bodies” as a “basic problem of modernity,” citing that the increase of surveillance correlates directly with the “growing difficulties of embodied surveillance that watches visible bodies.” This is not always restricted to the easy monitoring of a physical self but also comes from the tracking of “personal traces” such as when we use our bank cards, the scraping of our travel data, our mobile phone signals. Lyons’s concept of disappearing bodies speaks to the reality of an increasingly networked world, where online exchange and interaction is now just as, if not more, common than physical AFK interaction. On the Internet we go to the bank, we pay our student loans, we speak to our friends, we read news and learn about the world. 

With these various modes of online engagement, we leave traces of ourselves scattered across the digital landscape, vulnerable to be tracked and traded for profit. This presents a darkly modern paradox: as bodies disappear within the everyday interactions of the Internet, that which we might have assumed as inherently private—our physical bodies—remain at risk of becoming increasingly public, the abstracted fragments of our online selves making moves independent of those chosen of our own volition. 

How can ghosting on the binary body help us keep safe our factual fragments as we fight to maintain our abstract bodies, our cosmic selves? 

There is a long legacy to the attempts to split the body into autonomous parts. However, glitch feminism demands that we look at it another way, through the vision of another ghost—the ghost in the machine. The continuity between online and AFK selfdom problematizes the proposition of digital dualism. With this in mind, we can deepen our understanding of digital dualism further by reaching back to the idea of “the ghost in the machine,” a term coined in 1949 by the philosopher Gilbert Ryle. 

The ghost in the machine presupposed that the mind and body were somehow separate entities, operating autonomously. Those critical of this position pointed out that the “ghost” of our minds ought not to be made distinct from the “machine” of our physical selves, as the loop between the two is a crucial component of what makes us human—it is what gives us life. Artist Cécile B. Evans “argues that in today’s society, where drones are used for warfare and romantic relationships begin online, we can no longer distinguish between the so-called real and the virtual.”

As the body in its contemporary context—and the machines it engages— become increasingly difficult to splice, this offers an opportunity to see that the machine is a material through which we process our bodily experience. And, as such, bodies navigating digital space are as much computational as they are flesh. Still, the movement of our data within a gendered economy is not self- determined. In the world we live in today, a body that refuses binary is one that is regularly reminded that, standing in-between, it is at threat of ceasing to exist in its failure to be recognized and categorized by the normative hegemony of the mainstream. 


Extract from Glitch Feminism, released via Verso Books on 29 September. 

1. M. G. Siegler, “Eric Schmidt: Every Two Days We Create
as Much Information as We Did Up to 2003,” TechCrunch,
August 5, 2010,
2. David Lyon, Surveillance Society: Monitoring Everyday
Life, Buckingham, UK: Open University Press, 2012, p. 2.
3. “About Demographic Targeting,” Google Ads Help, support.

24 September 2020