Paul B. Preciado: “One day we’ll see assigning gender at birth as brutal”
The punk trans philosopher on the future of gender, how to declare a uterus strike, and what it’s like on the other side of the binary.
Photo by Paco Freire/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Homosexuality and heterosexuality do not exist. Your uterus does not belong to you. Feminism must be liberated from the “tyranny” of identity politics. These are just a few tenets from punk trans philosopher Paul B. Preciado’s urgent new collection of essays, An Apartment on Uranus. Part memoir, part theory, and exactly what we need now.
His cult classic Countersexual Manifesto, meanwhile, was hailed as the “most significant theory of the body and power since Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble", by American queer theorist Jack Halberstam. In An Apartment on Uranus, Paul traces his transition from Beatriz into Paul B. Situating his personal experience in a wider discourse of political and cultural transition, he touches on themes as varied as the rise of the Right in Europe, the role museums will have to play in the forthcoming cultural revolution and the societal maltreatment of trans children.
True to the assertion of Paul's friend and former partner, the French feminist novelist Virginie Despentes, that the places he settles in always resemble “monastic cells,” Paul was in his empty flat in Paris when we caught up over email, furnished with only a desk and a chair. We chatted about the end of the sex difference regime, how to declare a uterus strike and what it’s like on the other side of the gender binary.
"Gender transitioning [...] gives you a completely different view of power relationships and struggles. I used to be harassed as a masculine woman or a lesbian; now I’m just left alone or even complimented."
What does it mean to be renamed?
I always thought the question of having or not having the right to a name was political, but through the process of getting a new name, I understood that it was much more than that. It was a poetic revolution for me. When I started being called 'Paul', I had to relearn to hear and recognise my name. It was like becoming a newborn and learning to speak again. My senses were transformed.
After a brief trial with a Zapatista name, the “absurdly commonplace” Paul came to you in a dream. Tell me about that experience.
I wanted to keep my old name Beatriz, which, for me, was neither male nor female, and just be referred to with a male pronoun. This created a grammatical strike among my friends, especially among people I was working with at the [Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art]. So even before changing my gender legally, I decided to look for a new name.
It was a crazy adventure. I asked my friends to look for names, but I realised that the names they wanted for me were impossible. They meant too much for them and were too difficult to carry; it was too much responsibility. So I ended up doing a shamanic ritual. The shaman told me that the name would come to me in my dreams. That it was an ordinary night on a bed, made it even more difficult to take seriously. But it was a strong dream. In it, a publishing house found the secret poetry of Marx. I offered to edit the work, and written on the cover of the book was “Complete works of Marx including the poetry, edited by Paul B. Preciado”. I woke up and called the shaman. She said, “It’s your name,” and I accepted. It was disrupting, but beautiful.
Your friend and former partner, Virginie Despentes, writes that after transitioning, men treat you better and women shower you with gratuitous attention. What’s it like on the other side of the binary?
Virginie is exaggerating! Women just relate to me as they relate to cis-males. Gender transitioning displaces the value of your body within the social space and gives you a completely different view of the power relationships and struggles. I used to be harassed as a masculine woman or a lesbian; now I’m just left alone or even complimented. This is really unsettling, especially because I have the memory of my own history of oppression, of being raised as a girl and insulted as a lesbian.
White masculinity is even more powerful than we imagine. Its power is an assumption of universality, which is the opposite of being invisible or being exposed. But as soon as you speak up as a trans man, you immediately lose all of those privileges -- even worse, you are the object of rejection and punishment for not being a 'natural man'. This political rollercoaster is everyday life for me.
"The #MeToo movement; the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans struggles; the gender-fluid and non-binary movements are ways of leaving behind the old regime and moving into a new one."
Sexuality is not fixed, yet sexual identity and orientation are widely considered to be fact, rather than social constructs. How can we stop categorising people?
Identity is probably the most embedded categorical system within Western culture. This is not something that we can get rid of in a single generation. This is a historical project. But because we’re transitioning from being a society which is organised by sexual difference, I see a rich, rapid increase of practices of de-identification that I welcome not only as strategies of rebellion and disobedience, but also as experimental models for social transformation. This is what’s happening with people who identify as non-binary. Once you’re non-binary, all other gender identity categories collapse. It’s almost like conceptual art. I would start by implementing “The Day without Gender” in schools, hospitals, homes, museums, etc.
What’s happening right now with our culture’s gender/sexuality transition?
We’re moving from a binary gender and sexuality regime to a new and different regime that has yet to be named. We could call it the non-binary gender regime. I see this as an unavoidable displacement, and its signs are already here. Now it seems scientifically impossible to affirm that there are just two sexes and genders.
How long will the transition take?
It might take several years, even decades. The #MeToo movement; the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans struggles; the gender-fluid and non-binary movements are ways of leaving behind the old regime and moving into a new one.
In “Declaring a Uterus Strike,” you call for an end to the idea that women have to be mothers. You argue that to be treated as “entire citizens,” women should stop reproducing. Why suggest abstinence among your list of sexual solutions for overcoming reproduction — and what about clitoral sex and cunninlingus ?
By abstinence, I meant abstaining from penetration with sperm. But you’re absolutely right, if I do a new edition of the book, I’ll include clitoral sex and cunnilingus (if you’ll allow me to).
"It’s crucial to invent new terminology and grammar. The words male, female, hetero, and homo, are outdated. We need new words which aren’t connected with identity politics."
How do you describe your writing?
I consider philosophy a form of fiction that has a special position in relation to what we call “reality” and the political. Philosophy is like a fictional mock-up of reality that aims not just to describe what there is, but also to transform it by the very act of description. What I do is fictional philosophy, and I’m also writing a couple of texts for the theatre. One day, I’ll also get into philosophical fiction.
You use a lot of terminology with revolutionary undertones. "The genital hierarchy," "techno-bourgeois," "necroconsumption," "the ancien sex-gender régime," etc. How necessary is the creation of new language for bringing about social transformation?
Precisely because we’re living through this shift in thinking, it’s crucial to invent new terminology and grammar. The words male, female, hetero, and homo, are outdated. We need new words which aren’t connected with identity politics. For instance, we could say “clitoridian” sexuality instead of straight and lesbian. This conceptual shift that we’ll go through is so enormous that 70% of the words that we use to define human subjectivity and social relationships will have to change. This is the task of our time, to de-patriarchalise and decolonise the classification systems that have constructed sexual, gender and race distinctions within colonial capitalism — almost everything!
Will we ever stop assigning sex at birth?
My contention is that we’ll stop assigning sex at birth in the next 20-30 years. That's not because suddenly the medical and legal institutions will become feminist, but because the scientific community will have to face that if one out of every 1000-1500 babies being born (six babies each day in the US) has to be 'declared' intersexed, the taxonomy that we’re using to classify living human bodies is not working. Ideally, we should move to a much more open form of thinking where the shape and form of genitalia, as well as the fact of possessing a reproducing uterus or not, can’t be the condition for assigning gender at birth. One day we'll see assigning gender at birth as brutal and unjustified as assigning religion at birth.