BOOKS: notes on Paul B. Preciado’s AN APARTMENT ON URANUS

As a longtime journalist and interviewer, I’ve always loved reading Q&As, so of course my favorite feature in the New York Times Book Review is the column called “By the Book.” And my favorite standard question that authors get asked is “What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned from a book recently?”

For me, the answer right now would be learning from Paul B. Preciado’s An Apartment on Uranus: Chronicles of the Crossing about the Silent University created by and for refugees in an occupied house in Athens.

In the hall, they speak almost as many languages as there are people. A chain of translators explains the functioning of this university created in London in 2012 by the artist Ahmet Ögüt and set up since then in (among other places) Stockholm, Hamburg and Amman. The phrase “everyone has the right to teach” resounds a dozen times, in Urdu, Farsi, Arabic, French, Kurdish, English, Spanish, Greek. Thought of as an autonomous platform for exchange of knowledge between migrants, this university allows those who know something and those who want to learn it to meet, regardless of academic accreditation or institutional recognition of titles, language spoken, or processes of acquisition of residence or nationality. Someone says, “Ever since I asked for asylum, I’ve had nothing. The only thing I have is time, and during this time, I could learn and teach.” It’s during this seemingly dead time of administrative delay that the exiled artist Hiwa K learned to play classical guitar, taking classes with Paco Peña in England—the reply from the English government never arrived, but Hiwa K plays flamenco as if he were born in Córdoba. Here are some of the courses on offer at the Silent University: Iraqi history, Kurdish literature, Herodotus and the civilization of the Medes, the foundations of political asylum according to the 1951 convention, how to start up your own company, history of food as revealed in the visual arts, Arabic calligraphy… By having his status as political citizen denied, the migrant in exile is reduced to passivity and to “silence.” By acknowledging the migrant as subject of knowledge, the Silent University seeks to activate a new global citizenship.

That’s only one of numerous passages that leapt out at me from Preciado’s book, which is a collection of essays he wrote for the legendary left-wing French daily newspaper Libération and other European publications between 2013 and 2018. Preciado is a widely respected academic, philosopher, and cultural commentator whose 2008 book Testo Junkie (published in an English translation by Bruce Benderson in 2013) blew my mind. Like Testo Junkie, An Apartment in Uranus is a kind of intellectual memoir that takes the form of commenting with poetic incisiveness on everything that meets the author’s eagle-eyed gaze during a specific period of time – in this case, the time it took to acquire a legal name change to reflect Preciado’s correct gender identity.

Preciado draws on deep draughts of history and wide-ranging readings to produce astonishing outbursts of original thinking on a vast array of topics that Susan Sontag would admire and envy.

On the origins of transgender identity:

The German lawyer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs…came up with the word “Uranian” [Urning] in 1864 to designate what he called relations of the “third sex.” … What does it mean to speak for those who have been refused access to reason and knowledge, for us who have been regarded as mentally ill? With what voice can we speak? Can the jaguar or the cyborg lend us their voices? To speak is to invent the language of the crossing, to project one’s voice into an interstellar expedition: to translate our difference into the language of the norm; while we continue, in secret, to practice a strange lingo that the law does not understand.

            So Ulrichs was the first European citizen to declare publicly that he wanted to have an apartment on Uranus. He was the first mentally ill person, the first sexual criminal to stand up and denounce the categories that labeled him as sexually and criminally diseased.

On consumerism vs. citizenship:

We are not going to play the disciplinary state against the neoliberal market. Those two have already come to an agreement: in the new Europe, the market is the only government motivation, the State becomes a punitive arm whose sole function will be to recreate the fiction of national identity through security-inspired terror. We do not want to define ourselves either as cognitive workers or as pharmaco-pornographic consumers. We are not Facebook, or Shell, or Google, or Nestle, or Pfizer-Wyeth. We do not want to produce French goods any more than we want to produce British goods. We do not want to produce. We are the living decentralized network. We refuse a citizenship defined by our labor force or our reproductive force. We want a total citizenship defined by the sharing of technologies, fluids, seeds, water, knowledge…They say the new clean war will be carried out by drones. We want to make love with drones. Our insurrection is peace, total feeling. They say crisis. We say revolution.

Along the same lines, this hilarious analysis of Candy Crush:

The key to success for Candy Crush lies precisely in its defects: the childlike, inoffensive nature (there’s no violence or sex), the constant beginning-again (there are up to 410 levels), along with the absence of specific cultural content that could arouse acceptance or rejection. Chastity, idiocy and disinterestedness are the conditions for the globalization of dependence…The apps that can be downloaded from Facebook, Google Play or Apple Store are the new operators of subjectivity. We should be aware of the fact that when we download an app, we don’t install it simply on our mobile phone, but directly onto our cognitive apparatus. While René Schérer teaches us that pedagogical disciplines developed during modernity have served to set the masturbating hand to writing and working, we now understand that the new digital disciplines set the assembly-line hand that used to write and work to masturbate the screen of cognitive capitalism.

Speaking of masturbation, Preciado comes to the defense of sex work:

Making and selling weapons: work. Putting someone to death by applying capital punishment: work. Torturing an animal in a lab: work. Jacking off a penis by hand to provoke an ejaculation: crime! How can we comprehend that our democratic, neoliberal societies refuse to consider sexual services work? … The sex worker does not put her body on sale, but, like the chiropractor, the actor or the publicist, transforms her somatic, cognitive resources into a lively force of production. Like chiropractors, sex workers use their muscles, they give head with their mouths with the same precision that the chiropractor manipulates the client’s skeletal-muscular system. Like actors, sex workers’ practice stems from their ability to dramatize a scene of desire. Like publicists, sex workers’ work consists of creating specific forms of pleasure through communication and social relations. Like any work, sex work is the result of a cooperation between living subjects based on the production of symbols, language and emotions.

On the origins of queer theory:

Queer theory, a punk phrase invented by Teresa de Lauretis in 1990 (theory of the abnormal, knowledge of deviants, as if to say: a theory of madness created by the mad to denounce the horrors of the civilization of sanity), was the result not just of the feminist reading of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, but also of a “pragmatic turning point” in understanding the production of gender identities. In 1954, the linguist John Austin stated that there was a difference between constative and performative utterances. The former describe reality; the latter seek to transform it.

On being praised as courageous:

Today you are granting me the privilege of talking about “my” courage to be me after making me bear the burden of exclusion and shame throughout my entire childhood.

            When I received this invitation to speak of the courage to be me, at first my ego purred as if it were being offered a full-page ad for which it would be both the product and the consumer. I saw myself already awarded a medal, a hero…then the memory of oppression attacked me and erased all complacency….

So keep your courage for yourselves. For your marriages and your divorces, your infidelities and your lies, your families, your maternity, your children and grandchildren. Keep the courage you need to maintain the norm. The cold blood to lend your bodies to the constant process of regulated repetition. Courage, like violence and silence, like force and order, is on your side. On the contrary, I claim today the legendary lack of courage of Virginia Woolf and Klaus Mann, of Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich, of Angela Davis and Fred Moten, of Kathy Acker and Annie Sprinkle, of June Jordan and Pedro Lemebel, of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Gregg Bordowitz, of Guillaume Dustan and Amelia Baggs, of Judith Butler and Dean Spade.

            But since I love you, my courageous equals, I hope you will lack courage in turn. I hope you will no longer have the strength of reiterate the norm, no longer have the energy to fabricate identity, to lose faith in what your identity documents say about you. And once you’ve lost all courage, weary with joy, I hope you will invent other and unknown uses of your body. Because I love you, I desire you to be weak and contemptible. Because fragility, and not courage, is what brings about revolution.

On recognizing a body of scholars, artists and thinkers little-celebrated in the West:

I am going to Beirut to attend the inauguration of Home Works 7, a ten-day forum of cultural practices organized by Ashkal Alwan…Around the exhibition over 300 people gather every day in seminars, conferences, workshops or performances. Rasha Salti, Joana Hadjithomas, Khalil Joreige, Walid Raad, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Bassam El Baroni, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Ahmed Badry, Walid Sadek, Christine Tohme, Marwan Hamdan, Akram Zaatari, Ahmad Ghossein, Leen Hashem, Haytham el-Wardany, Ayman Nahle, Arjuna Neuman, Rabih Mroué, Manal Khader, Lina Majdalanie, Marwa Arsanios, Bouchra Ouizguen, Nahla Chahal…The artist renaissance of the Middle East.

On school:

School functions according to an essentialist anthropology. The idiot is an idiot, the queer is a queer. School is the most brutal and manipulative of the factories of heterosexuality.

On changing his legal name and gender identity:

I feel as I’ve embarked on a sort of epistemological astral journey, or in an experience at the threshold of semiotic-legal death. I am leaving the biopolitical and historical fiction that I was embodying—the femininity that the binary sex-gender system at the end of the twentieth century constructed in a Francoist society that relied on a medico-legal system for which the notion of trans-sexuality did not exist—and I am observing from the outside the physical destruction and administrative, legal construction of a new biopolitical fiction where my body is denied as well as acknowledged as “masculine.” There is coercion and agency. Subjection and distortion of the norm. I myself signed the authorization to destroy my birth certificate; I also signed the request to issue a new one. Like a monster who has learned how to speak, I am seated in the center of the baroque administrative machine that produces the truth of sex, and I am touching all its keys at once, until the system enters a blackout phase. I feel a certain dizziness.

On the faux-intimacy of videoconferencing:

We look at each other and I wonder where this gaze is, wonder how it is possible to look at each other when what the eyes see are not other eyes but eyes on a screen. I watch her as she looks at a map on her screen. It is impossible to say at what instant her eyes stop seeing me, at what instant she has replaced my image with another. Our screens look at each other. Our screens love each other. When that happens, we are properly speaking neither here nor there.

On psychedelics and evolution:

Terence McKenna, ethnobotanist and theoretician of the prematurely vanished rave culture, stated that we are monkeys whose neural cortex exploded after the accidental consumption of the hallucinogenic mushroom Psilocybe cubensis. If that were true, the time has undoubtedly come for us to take another dose.

On San Francisco:

Entering [the women’s sex-toy emporium] Good Vibrations with Annie Sprinkle is like entering a football museum with Lionel Messi. All the sex-toys seem to vibrate as she walks by…We arrive in San Francisco: the streets undulate like the backs of seals turned to the ocean, the stately modernist and Victorian houses mingle with others reminiscent of garages, barns and ranches. We pass through the Castro and see Harvey Milk’s house. This city is the city of the “Summer of Love,” the Compton riots, the place where gender dissidence became a political movement, the place people said had the most sex workers and gender activists per square foot. Annie Sprinkle tells me that San Francisco is “the clitoris of America,” the tiniest and most powerful organ in the country: 121 ultra-electrified square kilometers from which the silicon networks that connect the world emanate. Once there was gold fever; now it’s cybernetic fever. Sex and technology. Sun and dollars. Activism and neoliberalism. Innovation and control. Google, Adobe, Cisco, eBay, Facebook, Tesla, Twitter… 121 square kilometers that concentrate one-third of the risk-capital of the United States.

On what history teaches us about the inexhaustible creativity of human brutality:

History teaches us that the most absurd, most brutal thing has always been politically conceivable: it was possible in ancient Greece to build a democratic system (which we still admire today) that excluded women, children, slaves and foreigners; it was possible to exterminate the native populations of the Atlantic islands and the American continent; it was possible to construct the economic system of the plantation in which the white 15 per cent of the population subjected 85 per cent of the population captured in Africa to slavery; it was possible to settle in Algeria and call idiotic the population that was born there; it was possible to expel the Palestinians from their own homes; it was possible to say to women that if they did not give birth they did not exist; it was possible to build a wall in the middle of Berlin to divide the West from the East, the good from the bad; it was possible to convince people that sex is the work of the devil.

On strategies used to wipe out indigenous populations:

During the nineteenth century, over 40 million bison were killed in North America. These sublime, imposing herbivores were sacrificed neither for their meat nor for their skins. Their flesh rotted in the sun and only their ground-up bones were used as fertilizer for the new colonized lands. The bison massacre was thought up by the federal government, then carried out by the army and by thousands of anonymous colonists—anyone who owned a rifle—as a way to displace the native peoples by starving them to death, since their food and way of life depended entirely on the ritual buffalo hunt. Colonel Sheridan applied an old rule from the art of war: “Destroying the enemy’s resources is the most effective, certain way to finish him off.” By 1890 there remained only 750 bison, who found refuge in Yellowstone Park—which allowed the race to survive ’til today. In 1890, the native populations had been almost completely exterminated or enclosed in federally controlled reservations. No doubt to symbolically atone the sin of the genocide and compensate for a debt that can’t be repaid, a little while ago, President Obama made the bison the national mammal of the United States.

On public protests:

These days [September 2017], in Catalonia, what is surprising is the citizens’ co-operation with the organization of a process of peaceful insurrection. Opposing the law courts and the police station, thousands of people are gathering to speak and sing. A wave of metallic noises resounds through the streets at ten o’clock every night. In all cities “casserolades” are being organized (people bang on casseroles—pots—from their windows, or on tables, at outdoor cafés) to protest against the detention of the fourteen political prisoners. Leaning on the balcony of a building in the Gothic quarter, I’m getting a lesson in democratic culture given by a neighbor to a tourist. When the tourists sitting on the first-floor terrace complain that the noise from the demonstrations is disturbing them, the third-floor neighbor replies: “If the rights of the people who live here don’t interest you, what are you doing here? You should go find a pot in your kitchen and join us.”

Steeped in academic writing, Preciado periodically succumbs to prose so jargon-clotted as to become hilariously incomprehensible: “For the subaltern, speaking implies not simply resisting the violence of the hegemonic performative, but above all imagining dissident theaters where the production of a different performative force can be possible. Inventing a new scene of enunciation, as Jacques Rancière would say. Disidentifying oneself in order to reconstruct the subjectivity damaged by the dominant performative language.” But that happens rarely in this volume. All things considered, it’s most remarkable how lucidly and generously Preciado shares his nuanced perceptions. 

On monuments and celebrations:

The most beautiful commemorations are those celebrated by invisible revolutions, the transformations without beginning-date or expiry date. Who celebrates the grass when it grows? The sky changing color? Who celebrates reading a book? Learning a new gesture? Who celebrates the last instant of happiness before a sudden death? We have to forget birthdays. We have to forget landmarks and let relics fall. To celebrate all our other possible births.

By the way, a PDF of the entire book is available (for the moment, anyway) online — click here.

I don’t read a lot of academic writing this intellectually challenging and yet aesthetically satisfying. Are there other authors this good I should know about?