:: Article

The Body is a Kind of Grammar

By Joshua Calladine-Jones.

Tectonic plates in Iceland, photo by sikeri via Wikimedia Commons.

The histories of difference and oppression are contained in the body as contours of joy, suffering, and ultimately liberation. By life, or by death, liberation comes. The body that’s defined is defined because of what it’s not. Separate. Surprising. Abnormal. By not corresponding with the assigned expectations, the body is assigned another meaning, a meaning according to whom it belongs. Odd. Queer. Freakish. The body of the non-conformist is the body of an aberration, an elephant in the room, a monster. But the monster is not another, the monster, to somebody, is I. The monster speaks. Then that I is a monster who speaks to you.

Je Suis un Monstre qui Vous Parle is Paul B. Preciado’s 2020 work. It’s derived from his 2019 speech given at the forty-ninth annual conference of the École de la Cause Freudienne before three-thousand-five-hundred gathered psychoanalysts. Delivered in November that year, the speech was published online in fragments translated from smartphone recordings of the event. In one video, the audience laughs and applauds as Preciado points out the hypocrisy of this conference on Women in Psychoanalysis as if women were a kind of exotic specimen, a body not-the-norm. Throughout there is heckling, there is giggling, and above all, continuous anxious silence.

In 2021, Preciado’s speech sees publication into English, in a translation as transparent as possible by Frank Wynne. Esteemed as he is, Wynne seems to take a liberty in giving a question for his title, diverging from the French. He seems to take it from Gayatri Spivak, whose 2008 work Can The Subaltern Speak? inserted itself into the canon of postcolonial literature. And Preciado, in outlining his position as a trans-body, a fluid in a rigid world, often leans on the comparison of the colonial subject, robbed of any utterance but those of their oppressors, a discourse mirrored in Spivak’s work. At times, any excerpt from the translated speech might have been plucked from Spivak: “Thus, when confronted with the questions, Can the subaltern speak? And can the subaltern (as woman) speak?, our efforts to give the subaltern a voice in history will be doubly open to the dangers run by Freud’s discourse.”

Can the monster (i.e. Preciado) speak? At first, this new title seems to be an inquiry, like Spivak’s: is it possible that the monster really speaks? Are they permitted to? Does the monster possess a mouth? Does this monster, like Rotpeter of Kafka’s Report to an Academy (from which Preciado takes his subtitle) possess a personal language? Only after a handful of glances does the meaning change. Wynne’s choice represents Preciado on the stage before the gathered crowd. And it becomes a request: may the monster, please, after so long, be permitted to get a word in of his own?

Preciado, resident philosopher at the Centre Pompidou, is a skilled rhetorician and distinctly anti-histrionic in his presentation of the facts of his experience (his qualia, as it were). He discusses his formative years in Burgos, Northern Spain, as candidly as his years of transition. The book, which could easily have lapsed into a study of an object, becomes the document in which the object argues to be recognised: that the trans-individual be considered valid as a person, not an illness. This method of presentation is crucial for Preciado to retain a confrontational power in a situation that might ordinarily demand the reverse. Subject-Object. Analyst-Analysand. His language is a hybrid of confessional and pseudo-scientific, mimicking and working through the complicated lexicon of psychoanalysis. But Preciado is aware of this and, like Rotpeter, expresses that much learning and imitation is required of the parrot, not before it can speak, but before it knows what it wants to say.

I speak with no animosity. I myself underwent psychoanalysis for seventeen years with various analysts. Freudian, Klienian, Lacanian, Guattarian… Everything I express here, I do so not as an ‘outsider’, but as a body of psychoanalysis, a monster of the analyst’s couch.

It’s from within that Preciado intends to question the standards of psychoanalysis, as of heteronormativity overall. But inventing a new paradigm is heretical. It establishes itself, or is silently established, against the establishment. Preciado, keenly aware of this in comparisons with Ptolemy and Copernicus, speaks of a new language, of the potential of a reinvented mutant grammar. It may seem a weighty comparison to make to the Copernican shift away from geocentrism, but from a subjective position, the shift in understanding the body and its categories of gender is just as tectonic. The body demands a new comprehension, a language that reflects it. The body is a kind of grammar.

But to place oneself, to live outside an epistemic and political regime, when a new cognitive framework, a new map of what it means to live, has not yet been collectively agreed is extremely difficult: in the process of transition, I did not reach the place where I set out to go. It is not easy to invent a new language, to invent all the terms of a new grammar. It is a vast, collective task. But however insignificant a single life might seem, no-one would dare say that the effort was not worthwhile.

As a trans man, Preciado is at odds with the practice of psychoanalysis by definition, if he wishes to present himself as a sane and well-adapted subject. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, he points out, still classifies gender dysphoria as an illness (in the DSM-5, as of 2013). Though it doesn’t go so far with gender non-conformity in general, the boundary between what can and cannot be considered ill is thin at best. But Preciado isn’t present at the conference to discuss the experience of being unwell. He’s there to refute the understanding of gender in terms of pathology and normativity altogether. His speech, political in its implications, differs from a manifesto in its direct confrontation with the enemy, its sharing of the plan, of the conspiracy.

I am not asking homosexual psychoanalysts to come out of the closet. It is heteronormative psychoanalysts who urgently need to come out of the closet of the norm.

The gender binary is outdated. Preciado illustrates the fallacy of its permanence with comparisons to prior modes. The one-sex model was prominent from Antiquity through to the Renaissance, in which only the male body was considered the standard. Galen had argued that the female body was literally a reproductive inversion of the male body, with the genitals the wrong way around: a distortion of the single model. Michel de Montaigne had seen little problem in a group of women he encountered in his travels who dressed and presented themselves as men. It wasn’t, Preciado reminds us, until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the two-sex model gained traction, along with movements towards what would become modern feminism. That such movements arose in parallel to increasing gender division is evidence of its own symptoms and the preemptive drive towards a less divided model. Or at least one in which gender divisions don’t arbitrate social status. Sex and gender are by no means fixed, as the multiplicity of physical variations in every person can attest.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, new medical and visual techniques gradually gave rise to an ‘aesthetics of anatomical difference’ which opposes the anatomy of the penis with that of the vagina; the ovaries with the testicles; the production of sperm and uterine reproduction; chromosomes X and Y; but also the male productive work to female reproductive domesticity.

But worse still, Preciado argues, is the consequence of forcing an outdated model on a population to whom it’s no longer relevant. While it might be possible to argue that historical necessity brings about change, if the new perspective is ignored, the gender binary then outlasts its own obsolescence. What could be pushed aside, endures. And what Preciado states, speaking of his own experience on both sides of the line, is true: normative masculinity is a kind of invisibility cloak. Maybe, to take his logic further, it’s a Γύγου Δακτύλιος (a Ring of Gyges), a Glauconian shield. This Platonic justice is only justice to those who are seen. And behind it, the wearer can, to a significant degree, act with impunity, with deniability.

The existence of a movement like #metoo is both a testament to this and an argument against it. Where misdemeanours are concealed, is where the victims stand by to call them out. To no surprise, the victim-perpetrator binary that this generates mirrors the male-female, superior-inferior, oppressor-oppressed model. All while, behind the shield, oppressions of diverse kinds continue—industrial oppressions, class oppressions, sexual oppressions—making the shield just as much a curtain: a veil.

The powerful constantly promise freedom, but how could they give subalterns something that they themselves do not know? A paradox: they who bind are as imprisoned as they whose movements are hobbled by the knotted ropes.

The situation is pervasive and insidious in the way that all who operate according to the gender binary enforce not only their own oppression but that of others. Preciado articulates this with aphoristic precision. If the trans body, the queer body, the female body, the racialised body, the abnormal body, the insane body are assigned difference by their contrast to the norm, the norm must exist in a default state of boundaries entirely its own. Boundaries to keep the others out, to keep the self, in. This, Preciado argues, is behind the gender binary’s creaky and unsound engineering. On both sides, the operators are trapped by the mechanisms. The outsiders, looking in, see the insiders equally trapped, and hear the groaning machine. The monster speaks, and the sound is the noise of the apparatus at work. But those who hear the grinding of those gears with discomfort tend to have been listening all along.


Joshua Calladine-Jones is a writer and the literary-critic-in-residence at Festival spisovatelů Praha. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Minor Literature[s], The Stinging Fly, Freedom, The Anarchist Library, and Literární.cz. His short collection, Constructions, is to be published by tall-lighthouse in 2021.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 12th, 2021.