Boundary Issues

An Apartment on Uranus: Chronicles of the Crossing BY Paul B. Preciado. Semiotext(e) / Foreign Agents. 264 pages. $16.

In 2008, Paul B. Preciado published Testo Junkie, which is, among other things, an influential account of his illegal self-administration of testosterone gel. Stints of heady Foucauldian theory are interspersed with powerful memoiristic passages: He writes elegiacally to a friend who recently died, begins a potent affair with the French feminist writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes, and lyrically describes the effects of testosterone on his body and mind. With a lofty sense of ritual and menace, he compares the packets of gel to “dissected scarabs, poison bullets extracted from a corpse, fetuses of an unknown species, vampire teeth capable of flying at your throat just for your having looked at them.” The sensation the drug gives him, he says, is a “feeling of strength, like a pyramid revealed by a sandstorm.” His project is not just to speculate about the ways that the gender binary functions as a tool of political control but to undermine this power dynamic on the site of his own body. It’s a thrilling and often well-executed idea, though Preciado’s digressions on his gender rebelliousness can carry a hint of sophomoric self-aggrandizement. At times, his writing feels like an artifact from an era before it became fashionable for trans writers to be as self-deprecating as people whose humanity is already taken for granted.

Paul B. Preciado. Photo: Marie Rouge
Paul B. Preciado. Photo: Marie Rouge

In Preciado’s new book, An Apartment on Uranus, he envisions, in a long introduction, a utopian world that has been freed from the restrictive structures of traditional gender and sexuality. The remainder of the book does not have quite as coherent a sensibility as its opening chapter: It’s a collection of essays he wrote from 2013 to 2018, mostly as a columnist at the French newspaper Libération. The columns are short and omnivorous, commenting breathlessly on the revolutionary spirit of the Athens neighborhood Exarcheia, or on the way testosterone alters his vocal cords, or on the neoliberal values of museum exhibitions in New York City, or on the Catalan independence movement, or on the rights of sex workers. As in his other writing, Preciado is spirited and dramatic. The game Candy Crush, he writes in one essay, is masturbatory in nature, the ultimate capitalist vessel for misplaced libidinal energy, but “the players never win anything: when they finish one level, it’s the screen that has the orgasm.” Elsewhere, he begins to list statistics about breakups and soon reveals that he is using them to soothe himself after the dissolution of his partnership with Despentes (who provides the book’s preface). He pores over his journals and calculates that they “made love 60 percent of the days, with 90 percent satisfaction in the first three years, 76 percent the next two, and just 17 percent during the last few years.”

If this all sounds like a lot of subject matter to deal with in one volume, it is. Preciado’s analysis of the weighty topics he tackles can feel cursory, not just because the essays are short but also because Preciado leans heavily on abstraction and repetition. His animating idea—that many boundaries and categories are negative political tools that should be undermined—is sound enough, but when applied axiomatically to so many topics, its energy starts to flag. Some of the connections Preciado draws are tenuous, such as when he writes, of the bond between humans and dogs: “Perhaps it’s the sole proof that a global radical democratic transformation is possible. That transfeminism, decolonization, and the reconciliation dreamed of by Mandela . . . are possible.”

Overstating the significance of human-canine relationships is fairly harmless, but other associations that Preciado draws feel more insidious. He is interested, with good reason, in borders, and the implications of migrants’ exclusion from the category of citizenship. But in expressing this concern, he flattens some important distinctions. In “Identity in Transit,” he compares the experience of undocumented refugees to his struggles as a trans man who has changed the name and gender markers on his official documents and subsequently faces confusion as he crosses borders. He is not wrong when he writes that “the absence of legal recognition or biocultural support denies sovereignty to trans and migrant bodies, and situates them in a position of very high social vulnerability.” But his argument loses power when he likens himself, a successful Western European academic who chooses to travel, to people risking their lives to flee their countries. There is a temptation to universalize both the trans experience and the migrant experience, expanding those categories by showing how much they resemble other experiences. In practice, though, their legibility depends on specificity: Every form of discrimination has its own granular details. Expressing solidarity with a group does not necessitate identifying with it.

Over the course of the book, Preciado’s habit of identifying with groups he is not part of becomes a frustrating tic. He declares that, in his search for a masculine name to replace his old one, he has chosen “Marcos,” referencing Subcomandante Marcos, the nom de guerre of Zapatista spokesperson Rafael Sebastián Guillén Vicente. The imaginary aspects of Marcos, he argues, parallels his own shaping of his identity as a trans person. “Not so remote from the Subcomandante,” he writes, “I live in another political space where the same theatrical, shamanic forces are used to question the stability of the name and the truths of the face as the ultimate referents of personal identity: the transsexual, transgender, drag-king and drag-queen and non-binary cultures.” His blithe use of the name did not go unchecked at the time of his announcement: In the book’s introduction, he acknowledges that the Zapatistas’ reaction was negative. As a concession, he changes his mind about going by Marcos, but he nevertheless includes the essay in An Apartment on Uranus. This episode is not an outlier, either—at another point in the book, he calls himself “an unlikely cross between Freddie Gray and Caitlin Jenner.”

It seems that the price of Preciado’s gift of mining his own life to animate his theory is his carelessness in wielding the self to describe more serious plights than those he faces. This is one of the potential pitfalls of autotheory in general: the possibility that writers will misjudge the limitations of their own perspectives. In trans circles, for example, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts has been criticized, despite its formal elegance, because Nelson adopts the trope of using her partner’s trans identity as a vehicle for her own narrative, likening her pregnancy to his transition. Her argument is that even common and seemingly mundane experiences are more queer than they seem.

But to queer everything is to sap meaning from queerness. Pregnancy is not the same as transitioning, nor is transitioning the same as retreating from Syria as a refugee. The similarities exist, but they’re less compelling than the particularities. People have the capacity, one hopes, to view the lives of others as more than just metaphors that illuminate their own individual existence.

Crispin Long is a copy editor for and a freelance writer.