on becoming a subject & Paul B. Preciado's "Can the Monster Speak?"
Blackness—the extended movement of a specific upheaval, an ongoing irruption that anarranges every line—is a strain that pressures the assumption of equivalence between personhood and subjectivity. While subjectivity is defined by the subject’s possession of itself and its objects, it is troubled by a dispossessive force objects exert such that this subject seems to be possessed—infused, deformed—by the object it possesses.
—Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition
I’ll begin from a very simple, very controversial proposition: life necessarily exceeds all attempts to represent it. It is a massive tangle of sensation and communication, laceration and closeness, estrangement and loss that forms the backdrop to everything we say and do, what we call living. And apparatuses have never ceased to attempt to represent it.
This is the environment that Paul B. Preciado finds himself within, compelled by necessity and an all-too-familiar desperation to deliver an intervention to an institution foundational in the establishment and enforcement of gender normativity. We could waste precious time attempting to situate this encounter, this attempt at dialogue, within a series of dialectics—is Preciado Hegel’s slave? Is he Fanon’s? The answer is simpler than either of the two, and shares both strategic and stylistic characteristics with Fanon’s own response. Preciado is not struggling for recognition—luckily, it turns out, because he is shouted down, verbally abused, and humiliated by the 3,500 assembled members of the Freudian Academy. Instead, contrary to even his own self-presentation (but who wouldn’t buy precious time by pretending to open a dialogue where conflict is concerned?), Preciado is staging a confrontation. From the very beginning of this “report” it is apparent that he has understood, to a painstaking degree, the sheer non-existence with which the assembled analysts regard him, the half-presence and complacency they seem to expect of him. That is to say, even if his audience is committed to responding to his injunction, to collecting its thoughts, its century-long traditions, treatises, and prescriptions—even if the Academy levels its entire accumulated history, called to account, against Preciado, it will fail to find its target. By virtue of being able to stage the confrontation at all, and by virtue of the questions it opens, the fault lines it exposes, Preciado has won.
Those fault lines are revealed to cut through ancient social and historical formations, and to undermine the borders that run through each of us, which brings me to a second proposition: the reduction that representation performs on life is not accidental, and it is not random. On the contrary, there are entire bodies of technical knowledge, entire global architectures of manipulation, which both create and destroy lives in order to transform them into subjects. Any expression of difference must be integrated into this general system of possession, of self-possession and possession of one’s environment, and anything that attempts to escape, or proves unassimilable to this massive network of apparatuses will be eradicated. Sandy Stone describes the early university gender clinics, foundational in the construction of transness as a medical category, in The Empire Strikes Back:1
The Stanford clinic was in the business of helping people, among its other agendas, as its members understood the term. Therefore the final decisions of eligibility for gender reassignment were made by the staff on the basis of an individual sense of the "appropriateness of the individual to their gender of choice". The clinic took on the additional role of "grooming clinic" or "charm school" because, according to the judgment of the staff, the men who presented as wanting to be women didn't always "behave like" women. Stanford recognized that gender roles could be learned, to an extent. Their involvement with the grooming clinics was an effort to produce not simply anatomically legible females, but women, i.e., gendered females. As Norman Fisk remarked, "I now admit very candidly that... in the early phases we were avowedly seeking candidates who would have the best chance for success." In practice this meant that the candidates for surgery were evaluated on the basis of their performance in the gender of choice. The criteria constituted a fully acculturated, consensual definition of gender, and at the site of their enactment we can locate an actual instance of an apparatus of the production of gender.
This is what brings Preciado to clarify, after describing his desire to transition as a desperate search for a way out, that transitioning does not imply freedom: “I did not experience freedom as a child in Franco’s Spain, nor later when I was a lesbian in New York, nor do I experience it now that I am, as they say, a trans man.” Escape does not free the fugitive from the law, even when it allows him to live beyond it, or at least outside of its reach. But more on that later.
What transition (understood as movement, flight, migration) does is open a narrow gateway through which life can be seen, if often not accessed. Midway through his address to the Academy, Preciado extends this promise to them:
To put it in the simplest possible terms: all of you here, eminent members of the Ecole de la Cause Freudienne, could be homosexual or become “trans.” Any one of you, anyone who deigned to dive into the kaleidoscope of their own desire and their own body, into their reservoir of nervous tension, into their own memory, might find an exhilarating excitement, a free energy that could lead them to live differently, to change, to be different, to be, so to speak, radically alive.
This deserves pause. What was doubtlessly interpreted (if even heard) by the members of the Academy as an affront, an attempt to shock or unsettle them, was entirely genuine, and entirely true. Beneath all of the noise, the assertions that any set of pre-existing practices have claims on naturalness or inevitability, that transness, for example, is something rooted in innate biological or psychological abnormality, there lie decisions. I did not wake up—as much as I might have wished to—with my testosterone and estrogen levels adjusted without my participation in their adjustment. This seems like a banality, and it is, but that should not undercut its importance. We all choose to be trans—justification, through Sandy Stone’s “obligatory transsexual file” or any number of telltale “signs,” comes later. Whether we are responding to necessity or want (as if the two are extricable) is completely irrelevant. (I am aware that this amounts to saying that none of us chose to be trans, which is also true, though in my opinion far more trivial.)
And so we trace our steps back into childhood, to detach the cords that confession—whether that of the analyst or its modern equivalent in a much more diffuse practice of self-identification—lodged in our memory. “Why were things as they were? What was it in my child’s body that predetermined my whole life? You could scratch yourself until you bleed and not find an answer. You could split your head open on the steel bars of gender and not discover the reason.” Moving forward, less a direction than a positive velocity in any given direction, requires us to have done with the past, the accumulated weight of our own history, our guilt, self-hatred, timidity, and fear. But this is not as simple as finding a way out—it requires a deeper engagement with this past, and transitively with our present, than we have ever attempted before. Returning to Preciado: “I would like to avoid the heroic account of my transition. There was nothing heroic in it… The only thing that was heroic was the desire to live, the force with which the desire to change manifested, and still continues to manifest itself through me.”
A third proposition, in beat with the text, woven into it in too many places to count: “to be, so to speak, radically alive” is an ethical disposition, which is to say a political one. Life and politics are entirely inseparable. The “political,” to be clear, does not refer to the practice of government, the public square where the continued existence of populations enters into debate, or even “common” laws or regulation. The political is marked by a degree of intensity and rupture. In the specific case of transness, that means, as Preciado notes, “to live beyond the patriarchal-colonial law, to live beyond the law of sexual difference, to live beyond sexual and gender violence”—something that may only be possible in brief intervals today, for a select few, but which will one day (a day which is always at hand) be possible for all of us. That life in common beyond the law is what this entire global system of governance can only ever delay.
But where does this new way of living come from? How do we live differently? This is where Preciado’s address to the Academy is lacking, in no small part because it nominally concerns psychoanalysis before all else, and a full elaboration of a new politics would give the game away. But other issues arise within the bounds of the “discussion” itself, and demand, at the very least, an inventory of our options. The WHO, we are told, now recognizes forms of gender variance as medically sound. The very same institutions who killed and medicalized us for decades now voice their approval of those who are allowed to reclaim the status of human. But it would be a mistake to view this development as a terminal crisis that strikes at the foundations of gender normativity itself. Can we imagine a WHO whose integral function is not the management of bodies and populations, the identification and policing of normativity, no matter how diffuse? This is not to say that new ways of living are somehow counterproductive to a life free from the negotiation of gender and sexual normativity—the opposite is the case—but simply to say that a life whose bounds are still determined by the apparatuses it seeks to avoid is not free. And if any lessons are to be learned from decades of constant crisis, it is that we cannot count on this destabilization to result in anything but finer and finer mechanisms of manipulation. If “we are in the process of abandoning” what Preciado calls, in reference to Felix Guattari’s integrated world capitalism, “the integrated global capitalist regime,” it is only to finally be done with the last vestiges of discipline in favor of uninhibited control.
If what Preciado recognizes as a line of escape proves an even-firmer integration of gender variance into a system of soft, manageable subversions, how can we retain what transgressive and revolutionary elements he locates in transness? How can we even imagine free life in the wake of an advancing wave of control? Near the end of his address, Preciado situates his speech on the horizon of a constantly-vanishing history of queer and trans life and death. “Many of my predecessors died and continue to die to this day, murdered, raped, beaten, incarcerated, medicalized… or they lived and are living their difference in secret. This is my heritage, and it is with the strength that I draw from all their silenced voices, though in my own name only, that I address you today.” I would like to propose a slight shift in our retrieval of the past—without occluding the catastrophic history that queer and trans life inhabits, in which it often figures as a latent monstrosity threatening an order that never ceases to brutalize it, I would like to ask whether this is all we can speak in the name of, or even all that can speak of its own accord. Beneath the death and silence that marks the archived history of gender and sexual deviance there are entire histories of happiness. “The past carries with it a secret index by which it is referred to redemption”—and that index is made up of every single figure, every memory and scrap of history we wrench from the hands of those who would erase us.