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Peter Rehberg


Wu Tsang, „Wildness“, 2012

Wu Tsang, „Wildness“, 2012

When authors write about themselves, they assume a dual position as both author and subject of their texts. In the process, their selves are both confirmed in the voice of narration, and also reworked through the inherently fictional character of writing. But what happens when the subject of the text – the author – is undergoing radical biological transformation in addition to those already taking place in the process of recording one’s thoughts and emotions? In the following, Peter Rehberg focuses on writers who have used the autofictional form to document a transfiguration of their actual anatomy: pregnancy in one instance, transitioning in the other. How do these memoirs inform the ways in which we understand the inherent flexibility of language, as well as our bodies?

At the beginning of this book, I took testosterone (instead of providing a commentary on Hegel, Heidegger, Simone de Beauvoir, or Butler); I wanted to decapitate myself, cut off my head that had been molded by a program of gender, dissect part of the molecular model that resides in me. This book is the trace left by that cut. Paul B. Preciado, Testo Junkie

Nurtured by the media-technological conditions of the internet, “autofiction” has emerged in recent years as an increasingly popular literary genre. [1] At first glance, the phenomenon may seem to reflect the propensity for navel-gazing of a narcissistic selfie culture, enthroning the “I” as the narrative’s privileged point of reference. Yet the label’s “fiction” component is a programmatic indication of the tension, enacted in the work of writing, between authenticity and imagination: What does it mean when the writer’s very self is made part of a fictional narrative? Does it act as the all-powerful fulcrum of an invented world? Or are we to imagine that, quite the contrary, it is only in a context of anterior fictions that an I comes into being?

Both scenarios – fiction as figment of fantasy or as absorption of existing narratives – raise the question: In which sense do these constellations still constitute an I? In the face of a fictional world that does not provide the self with a reflection of its position, the I can no longer assert its truth. When the I is incapable of giving an account of its reality, it risks losing its credibility. In the second scenario – assuming that the self does not produce the fictions of itself but is always already surrounded by them – the I likewise takes the stand under conditions that give rise to doubts concerning its authority. The self is then always already secondary to the fictionality of the textual, an effect.

These two variants of the attempt to make sense of the tension inherent in the category of autofiction have been realized at different moments in literary history as techniques serving diverse interests. They mark quite fundamental possibilities of literary production. One use to which the autofiction-as-figment-of-fantasy variant patently lends itself is to rely on the first-person perspective in order to maintain the narrative’s intimacy and pledge of authenticity, but without submitting to the confessional requirement of autobiography. By the same token, autofiction can become a basic literary artifice; the writer mines his or her own experiences for literature, but they become sayable only under the veiling guise of fiction. On the other hand, the hypothesis that the fictionality of linguistic communication is anterior to the emergence of the “I” has played an important role in studies in the history of discourse and postmodern and deconstructivist theories. Rather than being the director of the production of meaning, the I is the medium in which the particular historical conditions of the production of subjectivity manifest themselves.

Victoria Sin, „If I Had the Words to Tell You We Wouldn’t Be Here Now“, 2019

Victoria Sin, „If I Had the Words to Tell You We Wouldn’t Be Here Now“, 2019

In the past four decades, writers have taken the contradiction intrinsic to the conjunction of “auto” and “fiction” revealed by these interpretations and leveraged it for a queer project. One benchmark in contemporary queer autofiction is the work of the gay French writer Hervé Guibert, [2] best known for his AIDS novel To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life (1990). The text dramatizes the sense of helplessness among HIV patients in the Western world in the 1980s, when they were dependent for their survival on developments in and decisions made by the pharmaceutical industry. The book also functions as a roman à clef of the French cultural scene. Celebrities like Michel Foucault and the actress Isabelle Adjani make appearances, only thinly disguised. Yet although Guibert resorted to the literary artifice of a fictional portrayal, including changed names, the confessional pressure pervading his text is so strong that flagging it as fiction is a largely ineffective distraction. His “novel” caused a scandal because, six years after Foucault’s passing in 1984, it publicly and prominently identified AIDS as the cause of his death, a fact that the press had suppressed at the urging of Foucault’s family. Guibert’s text owes its popularity at least in part to the tacit understanding between author and audience that fiction serves as a pretext that allows the “truth” to be spoken.

Needless to say, this very nexus between truth and sexuality and the subjectivity effects it generates was the central concern in Foucault’s studies toward a history of sexuality. Yet Foucault never wrote about homosexuality in the first-person perspective. Guibert, by contrast, used the fig-leaf of autofiction to take the sexual confessional register to extremes. A parodic deconstruction of a questionable confessional paradigm does not seem to have been his primary objective. His approach instead resembles Rosa von Praunheim’s strategy of outing prominent figures in the early 1990s: the emergency situation precipitated by AIDS makes the confessional disclosure of sexual subjectivity an ethical and political imperative. Shattering the ideological fiction of universal heterosexuality that prevails in the media and in public debate is a necessary stratagem in the fight against the forms of discrimination that fiction sustains.

Other writers have devised approaches more in line with Foucault’s thinking; early examples include Robert Glück, Bruce Boone, and Dodie Bellamy, who founded the New Narrative movement in the late 1970s. [3] In their writings, the text’s I is always already framed by fictionality because language, understood in structuralist terms, prescribes the conditions under which the articulation of an I can take place. In the poststructuralist perspective, however, these linguistic and cultural forms cannot be taken to be media of a neutral knowledge: they are inevitably steeped in power relations. Although the I loses its autonomy as a critical agent in the face of the omnipresence of this structure, it can become a locus of critique – as the scene where the fact of its being a fabrication is exhibited as well. The discourse of the I then always goes hand in hand with a critical inquiry into the reality of that I. Instead of flirting with the gravitas of a confessional mode authenticated by the act of saying “I,” the text takes advantage of the disappointment over an I that cannot be considered the text’s reliable source and origin. At this point, strategies such as pastiche, parody, and irony – modes of expression signaling inauthenticity and a citational nature that are regarded as characteristic of postmodernism in general [4] – take on particular significance.

Caio Amado Soares, „Club Splendida“, 2019

Caio Amado Soares, „Club Splendida“, 2019

For sexual and gender minorities like the queer writers of the New Narrative movement, this juncture beckons with productive possibilities. They are aware that, as Foucault and Judith Butler have conclusively demonstrated, their objective could not possibly be to align themselves with the existing categories of knowledge about sexuality and gender – a queer project, after all, is defined by the epistemological break with offers of identity such as “heterosexuality” or, for that matter, “homosexuality.” Comparison of today’s autofictional literature to its forerunners from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, however, reveals a significant shift. The two texts to be discussed at some length in the following – Paul B. Preciado’s Testo Junkie and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts [5] – do not merely stage queerness as a destabilization of the subject’s linguistic positioning. Rather, the morphology of the body and its affects constitute a central point of reference for autofictional writing. Testo Junkie and The Argonauts may be read as protocols of physical changes: of a self-authorized hormone treatment in one case, of pregnancy in the other. Preciado writes about his self-experiment with hormones: “I put a fifty-milligram dose of Testogel on my skin, so that I can begin to write this book.” [6] As autofictional projects, the texts home in on the materiality of the body as a vehicle for the articulation of queerness. “On the inside,” Nelson observes about herself and her partner, “we were two human animals undergoing transformations beside each other, bearing each other loose witness.” [7]

The texts are body protocols that register the repercussions of hormonal changes. “This book is a […] voluntary intoxication protocol, which concerns the body and affects of BP.” [8] It is an undertaking that arguably has antecedents in the notes in which Sigmund Freud, Ernst Jünger, and Walter Benjamin recorded their experiments with drugs. So where do Preciado’s and Nelson’s projects fit into the larger autofiction paradigm? Testo Junkie combines reflections on cultural history and theory with autofictional passages. In his earlier theoretical writings, Preciado had drawn attention to a limitation of Butler’s discourse on gender and sex. Although Butler thinks of not just gender but also “biological sex” as performative, noting that its significance and cohesiveness are likewise established by practices of signification, she does not explain how the performativity paradigm can help us understand concrete morphological phenomena such as the physical changes in HIV patients or transgender individuals undergoing hormone treatment. Is the operation of hormones performative as well?

This is where Preciado’s project intervenes, expanding the scope of critique beyond the labor of conceptual thought by including what he identifies as the “pharmacopornographic” complex in his analysis of power. “A philosophy that doesn’t use the body as an active platform of technovital transformation is spinning in neutral. Ideas aren’t enough.” [9] As in the experiments of the New Narrative writers, the point of autofiction is not to verify an I in the text; rather, the I is a prism that brings the power effects that impact the body into focus. “The goal of contemporary critical theory would be to unravel our condition as pharmacopornographic workers/consumers” [10] – a condition shaped by gender and sexuality conceived not just as a discursive framework, but also as biochemical code. [11] This is the repertoire of signifiers that, in Preciado, make up the toolbox for the construction and critique of subjectivity. [12]

Josephine Pryde, „It's Not My Body“, 2011

Josephine Pryde, „It's Not My Body“, 2011

Autofiction is a necessity for this undertaking insofar as the writing subject cannot rely on an existing and credible knowledge discourse as it embarks on the experimental practice of setting ideas and hormones in motion. Preciado recalls the histories of hormone treatment and of pornography and its interpretations, but only to strip these formations of knowledge and representation of the authority to define the constitution of the writing subject: “If the reader sees this text as an uninterrupted series of philosophical reflections, accounts of hormone administration, and detailed records of sexual practices without the solutions provided by continuity, it is simply because this is the mode on which subjectivity is constructed and deconstructed.” [13]

To put it in the categories proposed by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Preciado’s autofictional articulation remains stuck in the register of paranoia, without any prospect of moving on to the reparative mode as an alternative form of relation to the world. No code of intimacy is deployed, not even – especially not – when it comes to emotions. “I’m not interested in my emotions insomuch as their being mine, belonging only, uniquely, to me.” [14] In stylistic and temperamental terms, the result is a rapturous discourse of toughness and the phallic. “Then, an extraordinary lucidity settles in, gradually, accompanied by an explosion of the desire to fuck, walk, go out everywhere in the city.” [15]

Such radical self-experimentation is beyond the purview of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. She writes: “I guess I wasn’t ready to lose sight of my own me yet, as for so long, writing has been the only place I have felt it plausible to find it (whatever ‘it’ is).” [16] For a queer and feminist position, writing has promised to offer a place of belonging for the self that had no home elsewhere in social reality. Nelson has no intention of trading it for Preciado’s queer homelessness.

Still, her project is akin to Preciado’s – to which she makes explicit reference [17] – in that it similarly places physical changes at the center of an autofictional writing process. [18] Her pregnancy and her partner Harry’s transition from female to male are the two experiences around which her exploration of the discourses that affix gendered attributes to the body pivots. Her text juxtaposes the trans position of hormone treatment with testosterone and the cis position of her own being pregnant. What are the consequences of this intimate constellation? Nelson, too, initially seeks to confront the discursive framework sustaining myths about, say, femininity and motherhood, about “the pregnant woman who thinks. Which is really just a pumped-up version of that more general oxymoron, a woman who thinks.” [19]

Nelson recognizes that discourses about gender, far from becoming operable for feminist and queer projects as potential anchors of identification and sources of relief for the subject, turn out to be sources of violence, as Preciado demonstrates. Yet this alienation effect does not result in the ego being upgraded into a paranoid theater of struggle. Nelson’s text tacks a conciliatory course, inspired by Sedgwick’s proposal to privilege the particular over the universal. The critique of systems of knowledge about gender and sexuality makes room for an affective life that is said to be significant in its singularity: “I’ve always also thought it a little romantic – the romance of letting an individual experience of desire take precedence over a categorical one.” [20] The logical conclusion of this line of thinking is that “I don’t want to represent anything.” [21] In social situations like checking into a hotel, the queer couple is frequently confronted with people’s confusion over whether Nelson is a pregnant lesbian woman partnered to a trans man, whether theirs is a homosexual or a heterosexual relationship. Nelson’s narrative capitalizes on this confusion, defying and transcending the imperative of gender and sexual categorization by insisting on the singularity of her relationship with Harry. Her writing is the protocol of a way of life that insists that it can escape the forms of power and knowledge bound up with a history of sexuality.

Gerry Bibby, „Auto Fictions“, 2016

Gerry Bibby, „Auto Fictions“, 2016

In this sense, Nelson’s is not just an epistemological, but also an affective and aesthetic project. With reference, again, to Sedgwick, we might say: unlike Preciado, Nelson regards a reparative relation to the world as a possibility. Where the former sternly tallies up the heteronormative forms of violence, the latter charts a queer writing that credits aesthetic practices with the power to bring about a different world. “Rather than a philosopher or a pluralizer, I may be more of an empiricist, insofar as my aim is not to rediscover the eternal or the universal, but to find the conditions under which something new is produced (creativeness).” [22] The primary aesthetic point of reference for Nelson’s writing practice is poetry, as she notes in a discussion of her longstanding affection for the American poet James Schuyler’s work.

Nelson’s autofiction, like Preciado’s, intends to uncover the forces that determine the text’s subject, forces that manifest themselves both linguistically and physically. But then autofiction, in Nelson, also strives to wrest a poetic energy from language that provides the queer subject with a non-paranoid affective position in the world. This strategy concerns the relation to the world mediated by gender and sexuality as well. In this respect, her partner’s transition is a precarious project for Nelson; implicit in it is a promise of happiness whose fulfillment is far from guaranteed: “What if, once you made these big external changes, you still felt just as ill at ease in your body, in the world?” [23] That is why Nelson claims the reparative effects of aesthetic strategies also for the prosthetic remodeling of the body. As she describes it, her partner’s transition, unlike Preciado’s, is not a self-experiment conceived as a political act but a journey that may lead to individual happiness – not unlike a pregnancy? Be that as it may, the parallel she draws between pregnancy and testosterone treatment works both ways: while the former is deconstructed with a view to the latter, the transition from female to male is assessed by comparison to the process of pregnancy as a potential form of self-fulfillment.

Although the malleability of the body is the point of departure for Nelson’s no less than for Preciado’s experimental writing, the two queer autofictional projects it propels pursue widely different social and political objectives. Nelson’s individualizing poetic intention unfolds in an imagined space that she initially envisions without addressees. One aspect of her approach, she remarks early on in her text, is “learning to address no one.” [24] A social and political understanding of the discourse takes the back seat to the need to give room to an intimate voice that does justice to the particularity of her relationship with her partner Harry and her son Iggy. Nothing could be further from Preciado’s project than the vision of a queer nuclear family striving to be realized by way of textual poetry. Sexual and affective encounters pave his way toward a transformation of the testo-self. Yet these experiences never make themselves at home in the intimate space of language, feelings, and bodies, never settle into a new sense of reassurance. “Writing is the place where my secret addiction resides, at the same time as the stage on which my addiction seals a pact with the multitude.” [25] Preciado affirms his disassociation from his body as well as his linguistic non-belonging, which fuel his rapturous labor on language and the body. As he sees it, they are the prerequisite for any possible social and political change – “what I think is an impending pansexual revolution: the crumbling of sexual identity into a multiplicity of desires, practices, and aesthetics, the invention of new molecular sensibilities, new forms of collective living.” [26]

To conclude, these two examples of contemporary queer writing represent two very different projects: Nelson compensates for the alienation from a heteronormative symbolic construction of the gendered and sexual subject with an affective politics of the body. Preciado, by contrast, harnesses the same alienation to advance the expropriation of gender and sexual identity.

Translation: Gerrit Jackson

Image credits: 1. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin; 2. Courtesy of Chi-Wen Gallery, photo: Ivy Tzai; 3. Courtesy of Caio Amado Soares and Chisenhale Gallery, London; 4. Courtesy of the artist and Taylor Macklin, Zurich


[1]See Alex Kitnick, “I, etcetera,” in: October 166, Fall 2018, pp. 41, 47.
[2]Hervé Guibert, To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, trans. Linda Coverdale, New York: Atheneum, 1991; Compassion Protocol, trans. James Kirkup, New York: G. Braziller, 1994.
[3]See Kitnick, p. 43.
[4]See, for example, the discussion of pastiche and parody in Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham, NC/London: Duke University Press, 1992.
[5]See Paul B. Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, trans. Bruce Benderson, New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2013, pp. 55, 414–15, 420–21; Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts, Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2015, p. 81.
[6]Preciado, p. 16.
[7]Nelson, p. 103.
[8]Preciado, p. 11.
[9]Ibid., p. 359.
[10]Ibid., p. 49.
[11]Ibid., pp. 373–74.
[12]Ibid., pp. 39–41.
[13]Ibid., p. 12.
[14]Ibid., p. 11.
[15]Ibid., p. 21.
[16]Nelson, p. 58.
[17]See Nelson, p. 138.
[18]See Kitnick, p. 51.
[19]Nelson, p. 113.
[20]Ibid., p. 10.
[21]Ibid., p. 120.
[22]Ibid., p. 128.
[23]Ibid., p. 64.
[24]Ibid., p. 6.
[25]Preciado, p. 56.
[26]Ibid., p. 83.