Old Cages, New Bodies, New Scrutiny

Paul B. Preciado, Can the Monster Speak?

Fitzcarraldo Editions, 128pp, £8.99, ISBN 9781913097585

reviewed by A.V. Marraccini

Paul B. Preciado’s Can The Monster Speak? is the text of a lecture delivered pre-pandemic to the L'École de la Cause freudienne in Paris in 2019. I should say partially delivered; Preciado was heckled off the stage, called ‘Hitler’ by a woman in the audience, and subjected to jeers and boos before he could finish. It was partially filmed, and circulated online in choppy parts, like an illicit porno for anti-Lacanian theory kids everywhere. The importance of Lacan here cannot be overstated; Frank Wynne, the volume’s translator, emphasises the force of the Lacanian psychoanalytic establishment in Francophone discourse in a useful endnote. Preciado, in laying bare the historically constructed epistemological cage of binary gender initially codified by Freud and reified by Lacan and generations of students, gives an archaeology of knowledge that is deft enough to position him as his own cohort’s answer to Foucault. Like Foucault, Preciado employs the historical to show how critical theory can in turn dissect, explode, and become the political.

Indeed, Preciado’s star is rising — though arguably not quickly enough in the Anglophone world. This is not helped along by the backwards transphobia of a depressingly large segment of the UK feminist professoriate. Yet, Preciado, in what is otherwise a brilliant self-autopsy as mutant for the creation of a future, better, hybrid world, has in the process shot himself in the foot for the American reader in particular. The nature of the problem is this: in characterising the trans body — his own — as a subaltern, and as a colonised space, he re-inscribes the violence of the colonial language he otherwise fights to cast off. He says, in the course of one related thematic passage:

The migrant has lost the nation state. The refugee has lost their house. The trans person loses their body. The border is part of them and cuts through them. Usurps and overthrows them.

The trans body is to the epistemology of sexual difference what the American continents were to the Spanish empire: a place of such richness and culture that it beggared the imperial imagination. A place of mining and extermination of life. Our trans organs are to the heteropatriarchal system what the Potosi silver mines were to the patriarchal-colonial unconscious. . .

Everyone is talking about indigeneity and critical race theory, particularly in America and its theoretical-academic circles, with a new and long overdue urgency. Preciado, who in his last book, An Apartment On Uranus, made good use of Achille Mbembe’s ‘necropolitics’, is obviously familiar with the terms at stake and the injustices they portend. The problem is not the trans body as a subaltern per se. Nor is it the trans body as a colony. The problem is when he equalises the (very real, but nonetheless non-comparable) suffering of his personal trans body with the genocide of Mesoamerican indigenous peoples during Spanish colonial rule. He then proceeds to call the trans body, in relation to normative heteropatriachal anatomy, ‘Africa . . . a territory to be carved up and handed over to the highest bidder.’

This frankly Conradian turn to generalisation of the subaltern presents a major problem. Preciado’s arguments that the hierarchies, binaries, and implicit structural violence psychoanalysis and its arbiters have done to society are crystalline; a perfect ringing riposte to his hostile audience. Yet in engaging in a careless slippage with the nature of colonised bodily suffering as mapped onto the (still white, still European) subject self, he has virtually guaranteed that the talk of the newly-revived seminar circuit will be these lines in particular, and not the argumentation that they are intended to serve. To an Anglophone reader of current theory, they are frankly, cringeworthy. Like Preciado, I too want a liberatory way out, a tunnel from the oppressive cage of gendered bodily category writ into the modern nation-state and its institutions. But one cannot call for intersectional liberation and at the same time say the trans body is the entire continent of Africa, every dead Aztec, or indeed, the experience of the living, generic, refugee.

This insensitivity is particularly puzzling because Preciado is, throughout the lecture, an otherwise exquisitely sensitive voice for the othered subject. I genuinely believe as a reader and a critic that his work will become crucial for whatever framework we emerge into as we shed the boundaries of the gender binary and enact feminisms of economy, scientific knowledge, and indeed, even the epistemological frames for our own discussions of this same knowledge. I want him to become required reading outside of the inevitable firestorm that these excerpts will create. Yet I also believe he needs more deeply critical readers to hold him to account, because his work is so vividly formed and timely. Preciado has stood before an audience who found his very existence an aberration and come away with a triumphant text, but he has a ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’-type problem. Now he just needs a tougher first reader, one who is willing to say ‘look again’, ‘see the how you are replicating the framework you seek to destroy here’, and most crucially sometimes, ‘No’. Important theoretical interventions deserve no less.

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