Sept/Oct/Nov 2013

Bodies of Work

Two books of autofiction examine the sexual politics of the postporn era

Johanna Fateman


At the beginning of Beatriz Preciado's Testo Junkie, the first-person narrator, BP, takes testosterone. It's not the first time BP has self-administered the clear gel, a fifty-milligram dose squeezed from a small silver packet and absorbed instantly into the skin, but now, fresh grief crystallizes the project: It's the evening s/he* learns a dear friend, GD, is dead. "I'm not taking testosterone to change myself into a man or as a physical strategy of transsexualism," Preciado writes. "I take it to foil what society wanted to make of me, so that I can write, fuck, feel a form of pleasure that is postpornographic, add a molecular prostheses to my low-tech transgender identity composed of dildos, texts, and moving images; I do it to avenge your death."

Over the course of nearly a year, Preciado records the effects of this self-styled drug protocol, details a major love affair, and formulates an apocalyptic theory of a new epoch. The ritual application of Testogel structures the book, establishes its euphoric, nihilistic tone, and dramatizes the pharmaceutical production of subjectivity Preciado theorizes in its pages. Published in 2008 in the author's native Spanish (as well as in French), Testo Junkie is an arresting hybrid work: a philosophical treatise and a literary homage embedded in a sexually explicit drug diary addressed to a ghost. (Full disclosure: I've written essays for Preciado's US publisher, the Feminist Press.)

In Preciado's barely veiled fiction, initials denote distilled representations of real people: GD is author Guillaume Dustan, a consummate autofictionist who died of a drug overdose in 2005. He was "the ultimate French representative of a form of written sexual insurrection," Preciado writes, a hero of a tradition s/he hopes to carry on. Another of the book's compelling characters, VD, is Preciado's lover, the feminist writer Virginie Despentes, best known for her rape-revenge novel Baise-moi (1999) and for codirecting its controversial film adaptation. In Testo Junkie, we see Despentes working on a new book, the brilliant philosophical memoir King Kong Theory (2010). Preciado reads VD's chapters as she finishes them, and recognizes in her text "the voice that excites me," "the aristocratic brain of a futuristic she-wolf lodged in the body of a hooker." Their passionate relationship is the context for Preciado's most lyric passages, the ones in which we see BP's emotional extremes, and the fucking that grounds the theory.

Besides the sex scenes between BP and VD, and the author's account of reorganizing books while peaking on testosterone, my favorite part of Testo Junkie might be Preciado's observation that the 1963 DialPak birth-control-pill dispenser, with its concentric circles and its pills in their cells, resembles a tiny panopticon. It's a trippy visual echo, a trace of penal innovation appearing in a "memory aid" for female self-regulation. For Preciado, the ultraconvenient dispenser is an icon of what s/he calls the "pharmacopornographic regime," our own era in which the drug and porn industries reign, dealing their supremely profitable normative products.

Preciado charts the era's emergence convincingly, building a seductive, immersive argument from invented terms and exhaustive historical research. As prohibitions against nonprocreative sex practices withered, and pornography began its ascent, everything shifted: "Sex, the so-called sexual organs, pleasure and impotence, joy and horror, are moved to the center of technopolitical management as soon as the possibility of drawing profit from orgasmic force comes into play." "Orgasmic force," Preciado asserts, supplants "workforce" in an economy where porn is the model for every cultural industry and all e-commerce, where biopolitical agents (like hormones, Prozac, and Viagra) are quietly absorbed into the bloodstreams of compliant bodies, eager to become normal men and women.

Preciado updates Foucault, Judith Butler, too, and taunts the theorists of post-Fordist capitalism for their desexualized characterizations of immaterial labor. In contrast to their dry notions, s/he identifies a new economic goal, only partly metaphoric: to make "the subject an inexhaustible supply of planetary ejaculation that can be transformed into abstraction and digital data—into capital." BP fucks, makes porn, and gets high in a first-person illustration of the book's argument; s/he is a sexual worker different from the masses only in the off-label and unsanctioned use of Testogel. Really, any of us could serve as a case study: According to Preciado, we're all plugged into the "global circuit of excitation-frustration-excitation," and in collective denial that "behind the economy of the steam engine and Fordism hid and emerged the giant war-porn-drug-prison industrial complex." It might sound crazy, but I buy it.

Preciado's prose is psychedelic, hyperbolic maybe, but exciting, persuasive, and even consoling. Its imaginative force, however dystopic, was a respite from the unnerving realism of American author Marie Calloway's what purpose did i serve in your life—another strange and tough work of autofiction, which I finished before picking up Testo Junkie. You could say these two books share the closeness of things that at first appear to be opposites. Preciado switches expertly between abstract theory and intimate memoir, while Calloway writes simply. Her unelevated language can seem bland—especially when it captures the rote dialogue of sexual negotiations—and the abject adventures she narrates provide an unsettling contrast to Preciado's triumphant exploits. But both authors investigate our postpornographic moment, deploying a distinctive "I" as they use, critique, and reappropriate porn's vernacular to dramatic effect.

If, as Preciado writes, "femininity, far from being nature, is the quality of the orgasmic force when it can be converted into merchandise, into an object of economic exchange, into work," we see, in Calloway's book, a young woman poorly compensated. I don't mean for sex work per se, though she does trade sex for money sometimes. "I need money for BareMinerals foundation and MAC lipstick and soy lattes and pizza," Calloway writes in a blankly sarcastic explanation, a Kathy Acker–ish rendition of a girl under capitalism. "If I earn money I will no longer be a financial burden on my parents; I will be productive and accomplish something. I will be a commodity, and I will be in demand and valuable. I am so beautiful and young that men will pay three hundred dollars to have sex with me." It's funny, really—except that the story proceeds into a graphic account of a rough john and concludes, "I collapsed onto the floor and curled up into the fetal position and began to hyperventilate and sob."

Calloway's first-person narrator, also called Marie Calloway, is a bold young writer intent on positioning herself within an avant-garde. Sexual daring merges with literary ambition in her book's short pieces, whose sum resembles a coming-of-age novel. As she swerves between vacant reportage and raw inner dialogue, she pairs her prose with careful assemblages—impressionistic narratives constructed from selfies, partially redacted screen caps of webcam sex sessions, and Facebook messages, e-mails, and text appropriated from (mostly cruel) online commentary about her. A distinct sensibility emerges, one well suited to her performance of a girl who has "been watching pornography regularly since elementary school" and keeps her diary online. But while Calloway's project may arise from the scary new marketplace of Internet confessions, not everyone with a racy Tumblr is as dead set on being a Writer.

She starts her book with a quotation from Sexual Politics (1970), Kate Millett's groundbreaking second-wave text. "Because of our social circumstances, male and female are really two different cultures and their life experiences are utterly different," Calloway's epigraph reads. In her radical work, Millett mines the pornographic genius of Lawrence, Miller, Mailer, and Genet, and argues with acerbic grace that sex acts are formed by their political context. The invocation of this classic feminist analysis—though it took me off guard—is an elegant setup to Calloway's literary experiment. Via Millett we're reminded that avant-garde writers have historically provoked charges of obscenity and ineptitude, and that we're still in want of ruthless counters to men's historical monopoly on what sex is and what it means.

The book begins with Marie at age eighteen, in Portland, Oregon, meeting with a stranger to lose her virginity, and ends with her at twenty-two, in New York City, in the wake of a hotel-room three-way with a Facebook acquaintance and his friend. In between, she chronicles a disappointing trip to Detroit to visit an Internet love, and a liaison with a BDSM top. The fascinating core of the book consists of two stories in which she seeks to associate herself with male characters in a New York cultural milieu she's set her sights on from afar.

In the first, "adrien brody," the actor's name is a pseudonym for a much lesser celebrity, a forty-year-old intellectual whom Marie approaches like a sociologist with a crush. She compliments his writing in an e-mail ("especially your essay on pornography") and propositions him shortly after engaging him in a correspondence. He assents, and she sends him photos of herself in thigh-high socks. She's "curious," she writes, "to see how someone who seemed so dignified and cerebral would respond to a young girl sending sexy photos of herself to him over the Internet."

Click to enlarge

Laurie Simmons, Long House (Red Bathroom), 2004, Cibachrome print, 48 x 60".

It's the longest story in Calloway's collection: She describes their tryst, a few days during her visit to New York, in great detail. They take Adderall, have sex, and talk a lot. Sleeping with Adrien, her "intellectual idol," is partially the disillusioning experiment she likely sought. After "he moved to rub his cock between my breasts," she surmises that"serious intellectuals are the same as thirteen-year-old boys." Marie is validated by his attention, though, and when she confides to him that she was "afraid he saw me as commodifying and exploiting myself on Facebook, like he was constantly writing about," he assures her she's not the object of his highbrow blogging. "I'm not talking about people who are aware of it," he says.

Self-awareness is a quality she longs to be credited with. In the story's final paragraph, Calloway switches to the third person to theorize her own work. "She is sure enough of herself to confront and even invite misunderstanding," she writes. But, while gambling that her work's purposeful ambiguity will lead "beyond the deceptive surfaces of exhibitionism," she knows—or she's about to find out—what she's up against as a young woman who shows so much. The initial publication of "adrien brody" on novelist Tao Lin's website Muumuu House heralded Calloway's arrival in the New York literary scene—as an author, but also as a phenomenon. Brody was recognizable to insiders, and the ethics of Calloway's exposure were questioned, often within broader attacks on her sexual morality and provincial assessments of her craft.

At the start of her story "jeremy lin" (whose title character is based transparently on Tao Lin), she's at the center of this blogospheric microscandal as she enters into an uneasy mentorship with the slightly older Alt-Lit figure. Obsessed with the comments accumulating on literary sites, and receiving rape and death threats via e-mail, Marie relies heavily on Jeremy's encouragement.

In a dramatic counter to the Internet insults that Calloway reproduces in her story—two of which cast her work as Penthouse Letters fare—Jeremy compares her writing to that of Good Morning, Midnight, Jean Rhys's stunning 1939 novel. When Marie meets him IRL in New York, he chides her for setting aside his recommendation and wonders if she's uninterested in reading writers similar to herself. "I started it but, I don't know," she shrugs. "I like writers like Raymond Carver and Tolstoy and Joyce Maynard."

Rhys is, in some ways, an apt comparison. Like Calloway, she intercuts realistic dialogue with cynical jabs, and the two writers share a sense of feminine desolation, the terror of an object tracking her value in the mirror. And yet Marie's not that into her. She aspires to something bigger. The self-deprecating writer tells Jeremy in an e-mail, "I think a lot about politics, but I'm not confident enough to write about those sorts of things directly, only indirectly through fiction. Maybe I'm not intelligent enough, either." The put-down is hard to take at face value from a character who's already proved her artistic bravado, and who, in her pursuit of the opportunity Jeremy represents, does not pretend to look for art tips. Marie claims to like his writing, but she's frank: "Before you published my stories, my interest in you was sort of 'sociological'; I was more interested in you as a sort of cultural entity than as a writer or person."

Maybe, actually, it's Lin's druggy Paul (Taipei's autofictional stand-in for the author)—a sensitive narrator of mood and the minutiae of consciousness—who resembles Rhys's beautifully written, panicky Sasha, reaching for the tube of luminal on the nightstand and drinking all that Pernod. For all her apparent angst, Calloway seems to be doing something more conceptual. She's not really a Rhys or a Lin, but more of an Acker, a Sophie Calle—or a Dustan. Testo Junkie's first epigraph, from Dustan's 1996 novel, In My Room, could have been written by Calloway: "I live in a world where plenty of things I thought impossible are possible." In this novel knit from sexual encounters at the dawn of antiretroviral therapy, Dustan describes his gay, HIV-infected universe of sex, clubbing, drugs, and techno music without sentimentality. As in Calloway's work, the breezy detachment of his reflections can be shattering. Whether she's licking semen and vomit from a towel and posting her bruises on Facebook, or he's barebacking in a sex club, neither author explains too much, or cares to put us at ease.

Midway through Testo, BP recalls a fight with GD that illuminates the defining tensions of the book: Preciado's struggle with its form and break with the past. An editor as well as a friend and hero, GD scolds BP at a café when s/he proposes a book about "the history of radical feminist lesbians . . . the petroleuses, transvestites, and transsexuals around which the political sex movement in France arose." "You say," BP accuses GD's ghost, replaying the painful exchange, "you thought . . . that for me it was all about fucking, but now you realize that I'm like all the other lesbians, ready to become the political nurse for anyone I meet." He's enraging, and yet this thing that he disdains—the lesbian political nurse—is, in fact, the role BP wants to shake. Like Dustan, Preciado insists on the pleasure, rather than the correctness, of revolt, but finds s/he is at an intellectual impasse. "What kind of feminist am I today," BP asks, "a feminist hooked on testosterone, or a transgender body hooked on feminism?"

More important, how can Preciado live up to Dustan's ideal and deliver a work "all about fucking"? BP is lucky—sex and theory seem to blend naturally in Testo's writing, in part thanks to VD. "Her pelvis is glued to mine, her vulva connected to mine, our organs gnawing each other like the muzzles of two dogs that recognize each other," Preciado recounts in a typically vivid passage. "As we screw, I feel as if my entire political history, all my years of feminism, are moving directly toward the center of her body and flowing into it, as if her skin provided their only real niche."

Things are more difficult for Marie, of course. For her, fucking's not a communion with a radical muse. She's a heterosexual masochist in the wake of the third wave, one who feels neither the shame nor the empowerment she's supposed to choose between. So what purpose is a more difficult read, a moving task, and very different from the fast-paced pleasure of Preciado's magnum opus. Millett's once-bold thesis that sex is a "charged microcosm" of culture is a supposition of both these books, and Dustan's a radical precedent for both of these authors. Neither of them will be your political nurse as they subject their bodies to novel philosophical experiments: They deliver their mixed results ruthlessly—maybe slightly, excitingly, before their time.

*S/he is Preciado's preferred pronoun.

Johanna Fateman is a musician, writer, and the owner of Seagull Salon in New York City. She is currently working on a book about Andrea Dworkin.

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