Paul B. Preciado has had enough of our world and wants, as the title of his latest book suggests, to escape to Uranus. The planet provided Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, all the way back in 1864, with a name for members of the ‘third sex’: Uranians, masculine souls in feminine bodies, feminine souls in masculine bodies. Preciado begins by conjuring up this episode of speculative fantasy from the history of sexuality, announcing that ‘my trans condition is a new form of Uranism’ in order to dream of a world beyond our current imaginations of gender and sexuality, and the ‘limits of techno-scientific capitalism’ that constrain them.
Alas, we soon crash-land back into prosaic Planet Earth. An Apartment on Uranus consists of newspaper columns written by Preciado from 2013 to 2018, reassembled to function as a chronicle of the decade that has just ended. If the meaning of a decade is a fiction we impose upon it with the benefit of retrospect, then Preciado’s form is a way of reading one person’s experience of history as it unfolds in real time.
For Preciado, this was a decade that was full of revolutionary hope, until, suddenly, it wasn’t. As the columns flit past, the recent history of Europe appears like an animation produced by flicking images sketched on the pages of a book. Occupy, the Indignados, the manufacture by the EU and the IMF of the Greek debt crisis, the equally manufactured migration crisis, the Catalan independence movement, the election of Donald Trump. If it seemed for a while that ‘the foundations of a postcapitalist world were being invented before our eyes’, those foundations soon crumbled. It turns out that ‘we… instead are progressively regressing to the beginning of the twentieth century, as if Europe desires, in an ultimate melancholic delirium, to relive its colonial past, returning to an era from before the independence movements’. Yet who ‘we’ are, who is experiencing this historical regression, is something else that has become uncertain.
The book is also the chronicle of a more personal story, a record of the transition from Beatriz to Paul B. While Preciado’s experiments in self-administering testosterone informed the speculative theorising of 2008’s Testo Junkie, in 2014 he began what he calls ‘a medical-psychiatric sex change procedure’ whose effects are recorded here: vocal cords thickening, constant inspections in airports, requesting permission to legally change one’s name. For Preciado, the historical and the personal are not separate stories: he is convinced that it is ‘processes of transition that best allow us to understand the political shift with which we are confronted worldwide’. ‘Sex change and migration’, he writes, ‘are two practices that, by calling into question the political and legal architecture of patriarchal colonialism, of sexual difference and racial hierarchy, of family and nation-state, place a living human body inside the limits of citizenship, even of what we understand by “humanity”.’ Inasmuch as any collection of occasional columns can retrospectively acquire a thesis, this is it.
If An Apartment on Uranus is an exercise in chronicling time, it’s also an exercise in style. As this glimpse at how he equates migration and gender transition suggests, in this book Preciado ‘put[s] on a terminological coat’, of a ‘rudimentary critical vocabulary… of somatopolitical dissidence’. This ‘proliferation of new critical terms is essential: it acts as a solvent on normative languages, as an antidote to dominant categories’. Allow me a spray of that solvent, and take a deep breath: ‘A process of gender change in a society dominated by the scientific-mercantile axiom of the binary sex-gender-sexuality regime – where social, labour, emotional, economic, gestational, etc. spaces are segmented in terms of masculinity of femininity, heterosexuality or homosexuality – implies crossing a border that may be, along with that of race, the most violent of political borders invented by humanity.’ Exhale. This style, this terminological coat, isn’t thrown on in service of analytical thinking or metaphorical illumination; it’s an outfit for proliferation pure and simple, and the proliferation of technical terms, heroically managed out of French by Charlotte Mandell, aims at dissolving the borders of language, and thus the borders of reality.
This faith in proliferation over analysis is why the list emerges across the book as one of Preciado’s signature forms. One column is simply a list of all the new terms Preciado can coin by prefixing the term ‘necro’: necroeconomy, necrotruth, necroinformation, etc. Another lists all the things we need to do to get to Uranus: ‘Don’t produce anything. Change your sex. Become your professor’s teacher.’ But mostly proliferation seeps into the grain of the book’s prose, as theoretical terms spawn each other like the technologically gestated progeny of Judith Butler and Michel Foucault.
Lists can break apart categories of thought, they can mock technical vocabulary, but they can also produce false equivalences and erase differences. Everything on a list becomes part of the same category by virtue of being on that list. And if Uranus is a world beyond difference, this is not the world in which we live now. It is Preciado’s addiction to lists that produces the book’s persistent equation of trans people with migrants. As Preciado, who curated the public programme at Documenta 14, flies from a biennale in Norway to a cultural forum in Lebanon, he lists again and again the ways in which ‘[i]n politico-legal terms, the status of the trans person is comparable to that of the migrant, the exile or the refugee’. Notice the work of the list, effacing the differences between three legal categories that, however unjust they may be, can be the difference between life and death for the objects of Preciado’s imagination. Given the controversy that surrounded Documenta 14’s move to Athens so that the artworld could ‘learn’ from it (‘disaster tourism’ was one of the harsher judgements), it is hard not to be struck by the fact that no amount of speculative theorising or public programming, however well-intentioned, can proliferate away the real differences between artworld administrators and those they identify with. Documenta 14 was bailed out quicker than any Greek government; its curators flew on to the next biennale while camps of migrants remained.
Preciado can do more than list; he can do more than proliferate the critical vocabulary of others. Part of what makes his style so frustrating is not just that it can’t realise its intentions; it’s also that it takes space away from the very good writer Preciado can be. There is more to be learned about transitioning when hormones are described as ‘sculpting my body like a microscopic chisel working from within’, than from an infinite list of necroportmonteaus – if I may add one of my own. The ‘binary sex-gender-sexuality regime’ really crumbles when Preciado tells us of being asked, as a seven-year-old child, to draw a family: ‘I drew myself married to my best friend Marta, with three children and many dogs and cats. I had already imagined a sexual utopia…’ Like all of us, it turns out, Preciado was born on Uranus and dragged down to earth against his will. The language of that fall from grace won’t get us home, but at least Preciado helps us imagine what might.
An Apartment on Uranus, by Paul B. Preciado, translated by Charlotte Mandell | Fitzcarraldo Editions, £12.99 (softcover)
From the March 2020 issue of ArtReview