How to Fuck with Your Desires

Paul B. Preciado, trans. Charlotte Mandell, An Apartment on Uranus

Fitzcarraldo Editions, 220pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781913097073

reviewed by A.V. Marraccini

Paul B. Preciado’s An Apartment on Uranus is a manifold queer utopian project against what he calls the ‘necropolitics’ of both the loosely ‘Western’ state and the requisite regimes of the body it necessitates. It is a project that’s eminently clear and accessible. The pieces that comprise the book were originally written for the French newspaper Libération, and are translated by Charlotte Mandell in an equally lucid and public-facing prose. This carries a certain irony given Preciado’s academic training with Derrida, whose Of Grammatology was translated with an eye towards intentional difficulty by Gayatri Spivak in 1976. But within austerity-bound Anglophone academic humanities, now suspicious of ‘Continental’ (and especially French-language) theory, this clarity is certainly for the best when it comes to commanding the readership such a project deserves. In academic circles, alongside his previous works Pornotopia and Testo Junkie, An Apartment on Uranus will likely secure Preciado’s nascent reputation as a key inheritor of the radical traditions of Deleuze and Foucault. That is not to say that the reader requires Derrida, Deleuze, or Foucault to read An Apartment, which, given that it is being published in the popular press for a wide audience, shows that Preciado can pull off the difficult double-facing book. For each readership, An Apartment on Uranus is essential, and essentially transformative.

The volume’s title is taken from a turn of phrase by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a German utopian thinker who used the idea of mythical ‘Uranians’ to argue for the legalisation of homosexuality in 1864. In his introductory material, Preciado explains that the structure of the book will follow his own transition to what the state defines as a male form, placing the essays in the order of their initial publication during his change (from 2013 to 2018). This liminal space of the crossing — the in-between that ruptures, by its very existence, the male/female dichotomy — is at the root of the change that he ultimately sees as the point of queer feminism. The volume’s closing essay articulates this most clearly, asserting that:

‘Queer feminism made epistemological transformation the condition of the possibility of social change. It called binary epistemology and the naturalization of genders into question by asserting that there is an irreducible multiplicity of sexes, genders and sexualities. We understand today that libidinal transformation is as important as epistemological transformation: we must modify desire. We must learn to desire sexual freedom.’

The success of the chronological placement of the Libération columns means that readers can see how Preciado gradually forms this argument for himself, as well as for his audience. In his introduction, he observes that ‘to speak is to invent the language of the crossing’, and this book is both a primer for, and written in, that new language as it grows. Though Derrida might not be the obvious antecedent here, it is from the linguistic freedom of Deconstruction that Preciado derives the imperative to render the gender binary continually sous rature. This tactic – of forming oneself and one’s philosophical point, in public and gradually — is also deeply vulnerable, and occasionally fails. This is the case with ‘Candy Crush Rehab’, where Preciado’s analysis of a mobile phone game seems overplayed. In ‘Our Bison’, when Preciado uses the American buffalo’s intentional destruction (to further the genocide of indigenous peoples) as a metaphor for the availability of generic testosterone and the control of pharmaceutical companies, he seems to flatten the subaltern he almost always tries to elevate in other pieces.

But these missteps are rare, and the exception to an otherwise incendiary yet thoughtful intervention. For essays written on deadline, Preciado’s pieces often seem both timely and timeless, some slipping into the language of incantatory or even liturgical cycles in an experimental mode as radical stylistically as it is politically. ‘Necromodenity’ for instance, reads as follows for several pages:

‘Necroeconomy, necrotruth, necroinformation, necrodiagnosis, necroontology, necroheterosexuality, necrohomosexuality, necroaffect, necroimage, necrolove. . .’

Late capitalism has already killed these institutions, Preciado argues, and now, instead of re-animating their binaries, we have to learn how to live otherwise and after. In many ways, An Apartment on Uranus is a how-to manual for existing in a world of belatedness and uncertainty, in which belatedness and uncertainty themselves are not merely negative affects or states of being, but rather tools with which to build a new and radically free epistemology. Whilst writing the essays, Preciado was director of Documenta 14, situating it partly in one of his adopted home cities, Athens. And Athens, throughout the text, becomes a locus for questioning not only European neoliberal debt policy but also stereotypical rhetorics of place. In ‘The South Does Not Exist’, Preciado draws parallels between bodies and loci, associating with the global south the devalued aspects of femininity and queerness. The North, by contrast, is ‘. . . the soul and the phallus. Sperm and currency. Machine and software. It’s the place of memory and profit. The North is the museum, the archive, the bank.’ His response is ultimately to once again explode the binary under scrutiny, concluding the piece with:

‘Athens is not a South. Kassel is not the North. Everything has a South. Language has a South. Music has a South. The body has a South. You, yourself, you have a South. The body has a South. Turn your head. Hack the vertical access. Consume the map.’

In the final essay, ‘Letter from A Trans Man to The Sexual Ancien Régime’, Preciado takes his own advice, centring at once the new linguistic-political framework accumulated throughout the course of the book and the radical subjectivity of his self, bodies and genders. The final sentence asks that we ‘. . . fuck with our own politics of desire.’

An Apartment on Uranus succeeds in that it does fuck with your desires, with your politics of desiring, as part of the act of reading it. Initially, my own desire was partially for the book to be a response to the anti-humanism of Houellebecq’s novels, but instead I realised in the course of reading that humanism itself is a loaded term that precludes feminism, and excludes animalisms and others yet to come; that the idea of call and response in critical writing is itself another binary to be overloaded by the richness of essayistic pluralisms. While there have been other important releases in trans, feminist, and queer theory recently — The Xenofeminist Manifesto and Andrea Long-Chu’s Women: A Concern come to mind — An Apartment on Uranus is a title that instantly feels out greater depths, and provides a superstructure from which other new discourse can begin.

It works because Preciado’s high-wire act on his own body also plays out on ours. It is a book about wanting things to be better and different. It is a book of philosophy, certainly, but, in that it enacts the theatre of desire for a new ordering of the body and its political-aesthetic domains, An Apartment on Uranus can also be called an act of revolutionary post-pornography in seductive prose. It wants to make you read; make you think; make you new; make you come.

A.V. Marraccini is a research associate at the Bilderfahzeuge Project, Warburg Institute, University of London. She is also an essayist and critic.