Book Notes: Can the Monster Speak? by Paul Preciado

His speech, which challenged the very bedrock of psychoanalytic thought and accused psychoanalysis of upholding harmful regimes of ‘difference’, got him booed off the stage before he could get through even a quarter of it.

Book Notes: Can the Monster Speak? by Paul Preciado
Can the Monster Speak?

Preciado, Paul B. 2021. Can the Monster Speak? A Report to an Academy of Psychoanalysts. Translated by Frank Wynne. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions.


In 2019, Paul Preciado, philosopher and trans man, gave a speech before École de la Cause Freudienne (School of the Freudian Cause), a society of Lacanian psychoanalysts.  His speech, which challenged the very bedrock of psychoanalytic thought and accused psychoanalysis of upholding harmful regimes of ‘difference’, got him booed off the stage before he could get through even a quarter of it.  The speech in complete form was later published as a small book via Fitzcarraldo editions, translated from the French by Frank Wynne.  I picked it up because I realised how little I knew about transgenderism and gender and sexual identity beyond the heteronormative.  Below are some of the things I learned.

The regime of difference

Early on, Preciado sets up the idea that the ‘regime of sex, gender and sexual difference’, which many assume to be axiomatic, is actually an epistemology; moreover, it is a relatively recently-constructed one.  All gender is fabricated; every human being/body deserves a place beyond the ‘patriarchal-colonial law’: ‘the law of sexual difference.’  Preciado claims that the anyone’s adoption of femininity / masculinity is no less fabricated than his.  Here, his ideas are similar to those of Judith Butler, who wrote that gender ‘is a kind of imitation that produces the very notion of the original as an effect and consequence of the imitation itself. (Butler, Imitation and Gender Insubordination, 1993).  These ideas echo Baudrillard’s of simulacra — we think the images we come into contact with are original, but they are in fact copies of copies, endlessly recurring.  This is why Preciado, who is very much influenced by postmodern modes of meaning-making, calls the regime of difference an epistemology — he wants to draw attention to its conscious construction as a paradigm, and paradigms can shift, as I will discuss later.

Who gets to be human?

Preciado, following Thomas Laqueur (Making Sex, 2003) explores the idea that before the 19th century, ‘woman did not exist either anatomically or politically in terms of sovereign subjectivity’.  Instead, it was believed that women, following from Hippocrates and Galen, through to Vesalius, shared the anatomy of men, except inverted.  The vagina was an inverted penis; the ovaries were internalised testes. ‘There were no women. There were only potential mothers.’  These ideas allowed woman to be minoritised, rendered subaltern (in the sense that Spivak would use it).  This rendering, in a world in which subalterns are defined by lack via deficit narratives, heterosexuality becomes a political regime.  The opposite of lack is having, which creates advantage and the presumption of desired normality.  Preciado says:

I do not believe that heterosexuality is a sexual practice or a sexual identity but, like Monique Wittig, a political regime that reduces the sum total of the living human body and its psychic energy to its reproductive potential, a position of discursive and institutional power. Epistemologically and politically, the psychoanalyst is a binary heterosexual body... until proven otherwise.

All of this creates a ‘cage’. Preciado uses the cage in the sense that he had to find a way out of the epistemology he was expected to buy into.  I think this text’s most revolutionary revelation is that Preciado didn’t want to stop being a woman or start becoming a man so much as try to escape from the confines of gender altogether.  He talks of an acute desire to find a ‘way out’.

In terms of ‘ways out’, Preciado’s conceit of the ‘cage’ is interesting.  He draws parallels between himself and the ape Red Peter from Kafka’s ‘Report to an Academy’.  Red Peter is a ‘civilised’ ape who, having learned human language, appears before an academy of scientists to explain what human evolution has meant to him.  It has, in short, meant that he has had to forget his life as an ape, living within the constraints of putatively emancipated colonial European humanism.  Preciado notes:

“ But the most interesting thing in Red Peter’s monologue is that Kafka does not present this process of humanization as a story of emancipation or of liberation from animality, but rather as a critique of colonial European humanism and its anthropological taxonomies. Once captured, the ape says he had no choice: if he did not wish to die locked up in a cage, he had to accept the ‘cage’ of human subjectivity”.

Analogously, Preciado calls his state of being a trans man a ‘cage’, too.  Because of this, he is framed by European colonial hegemony as a monster in much the same terms as Red Peter.

Yet it is not just the transgender person who is caged.  In fact, he argues, we all are.  We allow ourselves to be ‘deceived’ in terms of ‘“sexual liberation”’ (quotation marks Preciado’s), because even feminists adhere to the ostensive axiom that men must remain men and women women.  But this is not real liberation, because what makes a ‘man’ is so rigidly defined, meaning that this 'regime of sexual difference’ limits perception. How to escape the cage?  I will outline this later, but first I’ll summarise one of the chief architects of the cage: Freudian psychoanalysis.

The Freud Problem

Laying into Freudian and Lacanian thought was never going to go down very well when your audience at École de la Cause Freudienne is full of Lacanian psychoanalysts. But lay into Freud Preciado does: Freudian psychoanalysis, he says, appears at the crystallisation of the epistemology of racial and sexual difference.  Psychoanalysis is the means by which harmful binary regimes are formed and perpetuated, because Freudian psychoanalysis teaches that man is full of evil libidinal desires that can’t be trusted.   Freud claimed that he had discovered primitive and chaotic impulses under the surfaces.  He had unearthed hidden dangerous instinctual drives, which were animal and sexual in nature.  These could be accessed via analysis of dreams, which would reveal the subconscious.  The subconscious is a that barrier prevents these hidden from emerging.  This means that any desires falling outside the regime are pathological and unacceptable as a result.   Like Deleuze and Guattari, Preciado desire is a real and productive force of which one should not be ashamed of it.  Far from being a ‘deviant fetish’, being transgender is ‘a new epistemology of sexual being, beyond the dichotomy of manwoman, penis-vagina, penetrator-penetrated.’

Escaping the cage

Like Haraway in A Cyborg Manifesto, Preciado creates a posthuman figure to escape the confines of white European colonial hegemony. However, Preciado moves from the image of the monstrous, civilised ape to becoming the monster himself, by means of testosterone injections.  This idea of moving beyond the human is one Deleuze and Guattari are very interested in; particularly in Capitalism and Schizophrenia.  The segmented life of the human needs to go schizo if it is to cross boundaries and escape the capitalist-realist machine of manufactured desire.

The cage is total, though; it is almost impossible to see a way out.  The philosopher must design thought experiments as a way out.  For Haraway, it’s via the utilisation of Cyborg Theory.  Preciado takes this furthest; his thought experiment becomes a reality.  He fundamentally crosses barriers: he ‘become schizo’, after Deleuze and Guattari’s sense of the term.  The ‘way out’ in this case, for Preciado, was testosterone.  The way out, he notes, is a ‘tunnel that must be dug by hand.’   And this relies on completely reformulating the ways we see bodies.  Ironically, the only way to change things is to be a part of the very power structures one wishes to dismantle; this is why Preciado is ‘demanding a place in the binary gender regime.’  As Haraway wryly points out: ‘blasphemy is not apostasy’.

A New Paradigm

Ultimately, Preciado turns to paradigms, quoting Latour: paradigms ‘allow new facts to emerge.’  They, like the ‘runway of an airport’, make it possible for certain facts to land’.  They are ‘discourse worlds’, not ‘worlds of immutable meaning’.  The paradigm must shift, and it must start with psychoanalysis.  I’ll leave Preciado to have the final words here:

A transition in clinical practice would entail a shift in position: the object of study becomes the subject, while the person who, until now, has been the subject agrees to submit to a process of study, questioning and experimentation. The former subject agrees to change. The subject/object duality (both clinically and epistemologically) disappears and is replaced by a new relationship, one that conjointly leads to mutation and to becoming other. It will be about strength and mutation rather than power and knowledge. It will entail learning together, and healing our wounds, abandoning the techniques of violence and devising a new approach to the reproduction of life on a planetary scale.
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'Book notes' are relatively rough reflections on books I've read recently that have stuck with me.  They summarise the ideas that meant something to me at the time and aren't exhaustive.