Performing Digital Illegibility – Tanvi Kanchan

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By: Tanvi Kanchan

Performing digital illegibility

A reflection on the in-between

“A body that pushes back at the application of pronouns, or remains indecipherable within binary assignment, is a body that refuses to perform the score. This nonperformance is a glitch. This glitch is a form of refusal. Within glitch feminism, glitch is celebrated as a vehicle of refusal, a strategy of nonperformance.”

Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto (2020), Legacy Russell, p.8

What in-between spaces do we inhabit and what fissures do we cleave open when we perform deliberate acts of digital illegibility through subversive performances of gender, sexuality, aesthetics, and languages? Can we subvert digital systems that seek to discipline, categorise, and regulate us?

“I think the negotiations that I do on a social media platform is so similar to the negotiations that I do on a daily basis [as a queer/trans person] in life itself. Because there are so many things that you’re in conflict with, but then you still have to make do. For example, if I’m also a very anti-capitalist person, but then at the end of the day, I’m also feeding into the capitalistic logics of society, you know. So there’s this constant conflict that I’m making… I’m trying to find, trying to draw my line, how much I can make peace with and how much is a total no-go.”

Conversation with Z, 2023

I’m on a train from London to Bath. The internet on my phone is spotty. I ask to connect to the train Wi-Fi and it redirects me to a sign-up page. I sigh. The ask is transactional; I knew I would have to pay in some way for the pleasure of getting online, if not in money (my train fare notwithstanding). The form wants to know my name. It wants to know my age. It really wants to know my gender, and whether I live in the UK. It’s going to need an email address from me, sorry, if I really want to get online.

I’m not in the mood to comply. Refusal is already bubbling up through my throat, and my fingers pause over the keyboard, twitching and annoyed. So I don’t. The name I put down is nonsense, a keysmash; the surname is too. My date of birth becomes the 1st of April, 2004, nowhere close to my real one. (I know all the system really needs to know is that I’m above eighteen. I feed it what it wants, but give it nothing of value.) There are only two options for gender – man, woman – I pick one at random. My email address is an old one formed during my pre-teen online flash game heydays, a combination of the words ‘game’, ‘master’, and a string of numbers. It doesn’t really matter.

The system is satisfied. I answered its questions. It lets me get online. I feel, for a moment, triumphant at my refusal, my participation in the system in order to subvert it. I then immediately feel silly. It’s just a web form for a Wi-Fi connection. It’s not a big deal. It doesn’t really matter.

“Well, being trans and being queer means… (laughs). Well, I think of it in a certain way. It’s like when you are playing a game. Some simple options are handed out to you. OK, well, how far do you want this slider? Like, four or five sliders are given to you. How do you want to manage your life and how do you want to customise your life, if you will. Being queer feels like living life on advanced settings. It’s so many things you have to check and options, and you have to manually reset and set and check and think about what you have never thought about in life, which many people don’t have to think about in life. Because it’s already taken care of for them. It’s already good for them. Why do they want to change? But I don’t blame them for not wanting to change it. But I also can because they – they did not want anybody to access those advanced options. So yeah, that’s how I kind of view queerness. It’s kind of this juggling of, like, multiple sliders. Like I want this much, and I want that much… I want to breathe this much air. I want to walk like this. I want to talk like this. Things that people don’t really have to think about because it is prescribed to them.”

Conversation with R, 2023

Legacy Russell looks at glitch feminism as a form of dissent, as a refusal, as a “pushing back” against capitalism. Glitches, she says, can “show us the machinic limitations”, give us a “sense of where we might hack further in pointed undoing”.1 If to glitch against the system deliberately is to hack, then to hack is to queer. Reappropriating Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s words, it is to “open [up the] mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning”.2 Its potential lies, as Cathy Cohen reminds us, “in its ability to create a space in opposition to dominant norms”.3 To queer our digital presence is to enact “a body that is inherently fluid, a body emancipated from ever being asked to register its traces online”. It is to “render [ourselves] useless as a subject of capital’s regime of mining and profiting from data”.4 It is to resist categorisation by becoming, if not invisible, then at least indecipherable; illegible; unreadable to the system whose goal is to extract, to define, determine, categorise and exploit.

In the grand scheme of things, my refusal on the train ride was trivial; a moment of childish stubbornness rather than conscious political praxis. It reminds me of what @park_slope_arsonist, an online comedian whom I’ve been following for many years, always says: I love to lie online. Why wouldn’t you lie online? she asks. Why wouldn’t you confound, contradict, create a persona that may or may not have anything to do with who you are when you’re not online?

I wanted to get online – something stood in the way – I resented it for standing in the way – I messed with it in turn, while still getting what I wanted out of it. But perhaps these small moments of refusal, of a lack of compliance, pave the way for more deliberate acts of illegibility, of gaming the system to escape it, of thwarting surveillance. A month before I was on that train to Bath, I was back home in India, attempting to organise a Palestine solidarity reading circle with some friends while evading governmental scrutiny and a police shutdown, which had increased manifold for anything Palestine-related over the last several months. We planned to spread the word about the reading circle online (carefully). There existed a thin space where we could play with this. It had to be immediately obvious what this was about to those we wanted there, without tipping our hand in a way that was legible to those we didn’t want there. We had to play in the space of symbols and icons. A poppy in the colours of the Palestinian flag. A watermelon against the background. A reading circle that was about “solidarity”, without explicit mention of any word or phrase that would tip off content moderators, cops, or right-wing troublemakers. A piece of digital ephemera that would expire after a period of time, and not subsist in perpetuity.

“I guess with [platforms like] Instagram, it actually doubles your chances of being moderated in a particular way, because it’s image and text. So you have to be careful on both fronts of like, what will be seen as offensive or what will be seen as not meeting the guidelines. However, people are innately deeply creative when they want to share something. And, of course, again, that goes both ways in the good, bad, whatever. I think people have kind of learned that they have to be creative. And there’s a combination of creative and careful that is being played with, constantly both in words and in image, in order for content to be seen, important content to be seen, important content to reach the right people. But I think because it shifts so fast, it’s also a steep learning curve because the learning curve doesn’t end. Like we have to keep up with all the things that are being looked at and seen as offensive or inappropriate.”

Conversation with A, 2023

In Sayan Bhattacharyya’s piece on Epistemically Produced Illegibility, they point out how material in non-Western languages that are nonetheless presented in Roman script suffer a sort of invisibilisation. “Data that is epistemically heterogeneous,” they say, “can become illegible within a representational scheme that enforces standardization.”5 They argue that our knowledge production structures need to be interrogated and reformed, to account for these oversights.

It strikes me as a sort of epistemic injustice, drawing on Miranda Fricker’s work.6 It reminds me of Causevic and Sengupta’s argument that the internet itself is built on a sort of digital epistemic injustice. They remind us that the “knowledges of the majority of the world – women, people of color, LGBTIQ+ folks, indigenous communities, and most of the Global South – have been marginalized, undermined, exploited, or ignored by historical and contemporary structures of power and privilege,” and that “nowhere is this more starkly obvious – and simultaneously hidden – than in the digital worlds of the internet”.7

Their arguments ring true to me. There’s a stark disparity: we undoubtedly live in an age of digital colonialism, a devaluing of knowledge that is not Western, not normative. But I also want to ask: what if we were to use epistemic illegibility as a way to hack a system that commodifies and co-opts?

“We’ve created a kind of liminal space where people just get to be themselves and get to create their own selves and get to understand themselves in the context of who they are, and understand their identity in the context of their experience, and not vice versa. It gives birth to a very beautiful chaos, in the middle of Instagram posts that are like very ‘Get Ready With Me’ and like, ‘girls, you should do this’ and ‘boys, you should do that’.”

Conversation with L, 2023

What if digital epistemic illegibility became a way to resist and subvert, to slip between the cracks of a system that never existed for us in the first place? Drawing on James C. Scott’s Seeing Like A State,8 I want to ask, what happens to digital knowledge production when queer and trans communities refuse legibility so as to become more ungovernable? What if we game the algorithm, refuse its discipline, dare to exist beyond its logics?

It’s a difficult trick to pull off. I might do all my browsing on incognito tabs and I might have spent a lot of time trying to confound the system so that it never serves me a relevant ad, but I’m still trying to subvert a system that wields massive amounts of control over me. It decides who I reach, how I reach them; it decides if I’m too much; it decides if I deserve the platform I have; it decides whether my reach is suspended. It decides whether to call the police. It decides whether to muzzle, to amplify, to dampen, or to simply leave me alone. More importantly, I’m trying to game a system with tools that are also available to those with oppositional political interests – tools that they can also harness towards their own interests.

“What happens is Indian trolls are very clever that way, they make homophobic, transphobic posts in regional languages [in English script]. And robots don’t understand the most nuanced transphobic insults that are there in Bengali. I have seen so many posts about me, which are in Bengali, which are trolling me. I have reported them time and again. I have also asked for – you know, there is an option of subjective review, by a person. That has also happened and I’ve got the reply that this doesn’t go into our community guidelines. And I’m like, you fucker, you do not even know my language, how would you even do it? Or you’re using Google Translate or you are a person who is not… I don’t know how they do it. There are thousands of languages in India itself. And I feel that language plays a very important role in it. Since it is easier to address things if they are in English, because I’ll get a lot of eyeballs. But when they’re done in regional languages, it’s very difficult. And also, you know, weird way that it is, I don’t know what happens, what goes on, behind the workings of these platforms, but there are more reported posts being taken down when the person who is posting is a marginalised person.”

Conversation with E, 2023

I’m also trying to game a system that would sooner curtail and fail me than it would those who bring it eyeballs and thus revenue whilst sticking to the status quo. In India, authoritarian governmental aims dovetail with corporate moderation measures. The right-wing Hindu nationalist government is aware of the mobilising and organising power of social media as a site for dissent; they saw it in action during the 2020-2021 farmers’ protests. Social media platforms must now comply with content take-down notices from the government, or risk being held legally and financially liable.9 India is too big of a profit-making market for social media companies to not comply.10

As such, platforms censor marginalised users – particularly Dalit Bahujan Adivasi (DBA) and Muslim users – and take down their content disproportionately, or ignore their reports of hate speech and discrimination, with such experiences heightening at the intersection of caste, class, race, gender and sexuality.11 Platforms are more likely to take down the accounts and posts of DBA users calling out casteism or presenting dissenting views, than they are to curb the users spreading such bigotry. Contextual ignorance is a defence these platforms simply cannot claim anymore – by now, we all know that polarised reactions and content deliver the most attention and engagement, and thus bring these platforms the most money. It’s simply not in these platforms’ financial interest to curb such a windfall, and their lines of censorship align along state-corporate lines of power and surveillance.

“No one sees people saying Jai Shri Ram and giving us gaalis as hate speech, you know, like, that’s not something that they understand as hate speech or like, even would conceive of that as such… What we are doing is more hate speech in the eyes of Instagram, than what the comments are.”

Conversation with N, 2023

And yet, we continue to be illegible. We hack. We glitch. We resist and subvert, we deliberately obfuscate, we poison the system with ‘bad data’, we perform invisibility in open sight, and we blur and muddy the waters, signalling to those we care to signal to, and turning away from those we don’t. As Russell reminds us, “glitch moves, but glitch also blocks. It incites movement while simultaneously creating an obstacle. Glitch prompts and glitch prevents. With this, glitch becomes a catalyst, opening up new pathways, allowing us to seize on new directions”. To perform digital illegibility, then, is to “celebrate failure as a generative force, a new way to take on the world”.12 To become digitally illegible is to become force and obstacle all at once, all together, in a system that would rather you did not exist, or if you did, that such existence would only serve its interests. It becomes a way to exist in a world that commodifies and co-opts. We do it because to do so is to hack the system, and to queer it, and to play in that space of dissonances and resonances that Sedgwick talks about, to revel in those “lapses and excesses of meaning.” We do it because we can, and we do it because we must.

Conversation snippets come from research interviews conducted in early 2023 for my doctoral fieldwork.


Tanvi Kanchan is a PhD candidate and graduate teaching assistant in the Department of Politics and International Studies at SOAS University of London. Their research sits at the intersection of gender, sexuality, nation-statehood, political economy, and digital media. They hold an MA in International Journalisms from SOAS University of London, and a BMM in Journalism from University of Mumbai. They are Co-Managing Editor of the CHASE AHRC DiSCo (Digital Studies Collective) Journal and work as a tutor with The Brilliant Club. They have previously worked in research communications and as a journalist covering gender, sexuality, politics, music and culture, and digital justice.


  1. Legacy Russell, Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto (London and New York: Verso, 2020), 102. ↩︎
  2. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Tendencies (London: Routledge, 1994), 7. ↩︎
  3. Cathy Cohen, “Punks, bulldaggers, and welfare queens: The radical potential of queer politics?,” GLQ 3 (1997): 438. ↩︎
  4. Russell, Glitch Feminism, 123. ↩︎
  5. Sayan Bhattacharyya, “Epistemically produced illegibility,” in Global debates in the digital humanities, eds. Domenico Fiormonte, Sukanta Chaudhari and Paola Ricaurte (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2022). ↩︎
  6. Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the ethics of knowing (Oxford University Press, 2007). ↩︎
  7. Azar Causevic and Anasuya Sengupta, “Whose knowledge is online? Practices of epistemic justice for a digital new deal,” A Digital New Deal: Visions of Justice in a Post-Covid World (2020). ↩︎
  8. James C. Scott, Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998). ↩︎
  9. Katitza Rodriguez, Sasha Mathew and Christoph Schmon, “India’s strict rules for online intermediaries undermine freedom of expression,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, April 7, 2021. ↩︎
  10. Kumar Sambhav, Nayantara Ranganathan and Shreegireesh Jalihal, “Inside Facebook and BJP’s world of ghost advertisers,” Al Jazeera, March 15, 2022. ↩︎
  11. Anirban Kapil Baishya, Darshana Sreedhar Mini and Thenmozhi Soundararajan, “The anti-caste alter-network: equality labs and anti-caste activism in the US,” Communication, Culture and Critique 16, no. 2 (2023): 99-106.; Shakuntala Banaji and Ramnath Bhat, Social media and hate (London and New York: Routledge, 2022); Nilesh Christopher, “TikTok is fuelling India’s deadly hate speech epidemic,” Wired, August 12, 2019.; Thenmozhi
    Soundararajan, Abishek Kumar, Priya Nair and Josh Greely, “Facebook India: Towards the tipping point of violence”, Equality Labs, USA, 2019. ↩︎
  12. Russell, Glitch Feminism, 30. ↩︎

🪩 back to the ball 🪩