Border Crossings

by Alexandra Pugh

King Kong Theory

Virginie Despentes, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020

An Apartment on Uranus

Paul B. Preciado, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020

Virginie Despentes and Paul B. Preciado were in a relationship from 2005 until 2014. Despentes is a writer and filmmaker, and first achieved notoriety with Baise-moi (literally ‘fuck me’), a 1993 novel about two women’s murderous rampage across France. The novel and its subsequent film adaptation, which Despentes co-directed with the former porn actress Coralie Trinh Thi, caused outrage with their explicit representations of sex and violence. Since the turn of the century, however, Despentes has moved in from the literary and cinematic margins: she has published numerous commercially successful novels, won literary prizes, and become something of a feminist icon, particularly among young women in France. Preciado, on the other hand, is a philosopher, queer theorist, curator, and self-proclaimed gender dissident. He is best known for Testo Junkie, a dense, heady text in which he argues that desire is fabricated today by the pharmaceutical and pornographic industries. Testo Junkie is a work of autotheory, combining critical theory with an intimately autobiographical account of Preciado’s use of black-market testosterone. A former student of Jacques Derrida, Preciado’s work is informed by the likes of Michel Foucault, Silvia Federici, and Donna Haraway.

While Despentes and Preciado differ in terms of the form and register of their output, their bodies of work are inextricable. Preciado is credited as a ‘gender advisor’ on Despentes’ 2009 documentary Mutantes: Punk Porn Feminism and appears as an interviewee in the film. In 2015, Despentes conceded that a charismatic lesbian character in her novel Apocalypse Baby was partly inspired by Preciado. Despentes in turn features in Testo Junkie, in which Preciado refers to her as ‘VD’ and charts the early years of their relationship. He impresses upon readers the intensity of his bond with VD: ‘VD does everything in the most desirable way … VD is an absolutely perfect being.’ He watches VD writing her books in his presence, and even attributes to her a certain influence over his gender identity: ‘[VD] induces me to produce a form of femininity I’ve never allowed myself. Not an essential femininity … but rather, a kind of “masculine femininity”’. VD and Despentes are not one and the same, nor can Testo Junkie be read as straightforward autobiography. The personal relationship between Despentes and Preciado has, nonetheless, had a clear impact on their work and their thought.

In 2020, in the space of just a few months, Fitzcarraldo Editions published new English translations of King Kong Theory by Despentes and An Apartment on Uranus by Preciado. King Kong Theory, originally released in French in 2006, is a memoir-cum-manifesto that deals with issues including rape, sex work, and pornography. An Apartment on Uranus, translated into English mere months after its French publication, is a collection of articles that Preciado wrote between 2013 and 2018, mainly for the French newspaper Libération. The articles cover topics such as biopolitics, neo-fascism, and transphobia, and are presented alongside a tender, perspicacious preface by Despentes. An ode to Preciado’s vision, to the ‘joyful arrogance’ of his thinking, the preface attests to the still-intimate nature of his now-platonic relationship with Despentes. The thread that connects Despentes and Preciado — personally, creatively, intellectually — thus surfaces once again in this recent work.

Reading King Kong Theory and An Apartment in translation is a reminder that the relationship between Despentes and Preciado was always conducted across different languages. Despentes is French, Preciado is Spanish, and to varying degrees they both speak French, Spanish, and English. In the preface to An Apartment, Despentes describes how she proofread Preciado’s articles to check his French even after their breakup — ‘we both know they could very easily have done that at Libération but it’s a way of maintaining a bond.’ It was also a way of repaying a favour, since Preciado translated Despentes’ King Kong Theory from French into Spanish in 2007. Multilingualism is a vector for affection here; translating or proofreading the work of someone dear is itself an act of love. Where a professional translator works at a remove from the genesis of the words on the page, Despentes and Preciado have special insight into the context and thought processes that have produced their respective work. They have acted as caretakers and communicators of each other’s ideas, affectively implicated in the texts that they have helped to convey.

The delicacy of the process of translation is made particularly apparent in the case of King Kong Theory, which has been translated into English twice now: the new English edition, translated by Frank Wynne, supersedes an earlier, clumsier translation by Stéphanie Benson. While the opening line to King Kong Theory has become iconic in France (it was parodied recently in a text by Chloé Delaume, another French feminist writer), the line has proved a challenge for Despentes’ English translators. In French, King Kong Theory begins:

‘J’écris de chez les moches, pour les moches’

Here’s Benson’s translation:

‘I am writing as an ugly one for the ugly ones’

And Wynne’s:

‘I write from the realms of the ugly, for the ugly’

In English, clearly, Despentes’ use of an adjective-as-collective-noun is problematic. Yet Wynne is more familiar with Despentes’ style, having translated a number of her novels, and his bold rendering of ‘the realms of the ugly’ captures the emphasis on positionality and plurality that we find in the French. Benson, in contrast, transforms ‘les moches’ into a singular ‘ugly one’ and denies the possibility that Despentes is writing not as an ugly one, or as an ugly person, but as an ugly woman (‘moche’ takes the same form in French whether it qualifies a masculine or feminine noun).

Wynne’s high-quality, widely available translation of King Kong Theory will surely boost Despentes’ reputation as a feminist thinker in the English-speaking world. Though Despentes has been known for years in France as a successful and vocal writer and filmmaker, she had not received much Anglophone attention until recently. This changed with her Vernon Subutex trilogy, which (translated by Wynne) was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. Vernon Subutex tells the story of a homeless former record store owner (the eponymous Vernon), whose DJ sets attract a community of followers that form a microcosm of French society. Vernon Subutex is highly readable and, unlike Baise-moi, highly marketable; it has earned Despentes comparisons to French literary greats like Balzac and Zola for its incisive commentary on contemporary France. The critical acclaim that Vernon Subutex has received, and its international commercial success, have heightened interest in Despentes’ origin story and her feminism. Hence, King Kong Theory was translated into English for a second time.

Preciado, for his part, has long had a profile in the English-speaking world, due perhaps to the positioning of his academic work. He dialogues with Anglophone theorists, like Judith Butler and Jack Halberstam, and completed his PhD in the United States. Preciado’s profile, however, seems increasingly to extend beyond academia: since the beginning of 2020 he has been interviewed by Vice and appeared in a miniseries produced by Gucci (yes, really). Preciado’s interests in performance and curating have always necessitated engagement with non-academic audiences, though his increasing fame perhaps reflects a swell of mainstream interest in trans perspectives. Like Despentes, Preciado has a growing audience on both sides of the Atlantic; this is both exploited and furthered by the English translation of An Apartment, coming so soon after its French publication.

That Preciado is gaining traction outside academia might also have to do with the form of his recent work. The short articles and conversational tone of An Apartment are highly accessible in comparison to the heft and theoretical complexity of Testo Junkie. Preciado’s frequent imperatives, rhetorical questions and direct second-person addresses make An Apartment a persuasive, engaging text. In Preciado’s introduction, for example, he implores the reader to submit to his emancipatory vision:

‘Do you really believe that you are male or female, that we are homosexual or heterosexual, intersex or trans? Do these distinctions worry you? Do you trust them? … But if homosexuality and heterosexuality, intersexuality and transsexuality, do not exist, then who are we? How do we love? Imagine it.’

‘Imagine it.’ This command might sum up Preciado’s project in An Apartment. As readers, we are carried along by Preciado’s enthusiasm, his arrogance even, the torrent of questions that he poses and the force of his thought. When he asks us to think differently, to ‘imagine’ differently, we realise that we might also be differently. Preciado posits imagination not as a realm removed from reality, but as a source of meaning and experience, and a catalyst for change.

Despentes picks up on this in her preface, in which she addresses Preciado directly. ‘That’s your speciality,’ she writes, ‘telling people stories they never imagined – and convincing them it’s reasonable to want to see them come true.’ In this formulation, Preciado’s philosophy becomes a compelling, accessible form of storytelling. Preciado echoes this idea in his interview with Vice, when asked about how he would describe his work:

‘I consider philosophy a form of fiction … Philosophy is like a fictional mock-up of reality that aims not just to describe what there is, but also to transform it by the very act of description.’

Not only does Preciado tell stories through his philosophy, he self-consciously imbues it with performative political force. His philosophical project unites theory and imagination on the one hand, with praxis and transformation on the other.

As this suggests, Preciado’s work is generically hybrid; like King Kong Theory, An Apartment combines theory, socio-political commentary, and autobiography. The autobiographical inflection of An Apartment also means that the articles within it provide a chronicle of Preciado’s transition from Beatriz to Paul. ‘In this sense,’ Preciado writes in his introduction to the text, ‘these columns have at least two authors’. That some were published under the name of Beatriz, and some under the name of Paul, makes visible a multiplicity ‘that is usually erased under the unicity of the author’s name’; An Apartment serves ‘as a witness of the crossing’. In fact, both An Apartment and King Kong Theory stage various forms of border crossing: between the personal and literary lives of their authors, between French and English, between genres and between genders. These crossings do not, however, traverse a border between the two sides of any given binary. They function more as wanders or meanders, or as Despentes puts it in her preface to An Apartment, as expositions of ‘in-between-ness as the place of life’.

In King Kong Theory and An Apartment, Despentes and Preciado also meander into otherworldly spaces, crossing and thus undermining the boundaries between the human and the nonhuman, the earthly and the mythic. After Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who in 1864 coined the term ‘Uranian’ ‘to designate what he called relations of the “third sex”’, Preciado imagines for himself an apartment on the planet Uranus. Here, he hopes to live ‘free of the modern power taxonomies of race, gender, class or disability’. In King Kong Theory, Despentes in turn makes her way to Skull Island, home of the eponymous giant ape. In this remote habitat, King Kong is able to exist ‘beyond female, beyond male … on the cusp between man and animal … Hybrid, before the enforced binary.’ In Despentes’ telling, Skull Island is a site of continuous variation where uncountable, mutating genders and species might flourish; it is uncontained by artificial binaries. These settings — Skull Island and the planet Uranus — signal Despentes and Preciado’s shared belief in the possibility of alternative worlds, in which the hierarchies of gender and species no longer exist.

Preciado goes so far as to reframe animality as a subversive quality, arguing that certain groups’ association with the nonhuman should be reappropriated. For Preciado, disrupting the human/animal hierarchy is a means of disrupting the oppressive systems of knowledge that created and sustain it:

‘It’s no longer a question of demanding our (homosexuals’ and blacks’) membership in humanity by denying the primate … We must reject the classifications [such as “human” and “animal”] that form colonial epistemology. We must embrace the animality to which we are constantly compared.’

Radically, Preciado is saying that having one’s humanity acknowledged need not be an end goal: embracing associations with the nonhuman is a means of surpassing hegemonic epistemologies and subverting historic hierarchies. Yet this passage testifies to Preciado’s problematic tendency to draw reductive equivalences between different marginalised groups. His bracketed explanation that ‘our’ refers to ‘homosexuals’ and blacks’’ is inappropriate: firstly, because Preciado is not Black, and secondly, because these communities (though clearly, one might belong to both) have not been associated with the nonhuman in the same way nor to the same extent. This inappropriate equivalence is more pronounced in the original French text, in which Preciado’s brackets explain that he is speaking not only for ‘homosexuals and blacks’, but for trans people, disabled people and women as well. I need hardly state that these groups, insofar as they are distinguishable, have not had their humanity denied by way of comparison to ‘the primate’ in equivalent ways. It is impossible to know whether the impetus for the amendment to the English version of this passage came from its translator, Charlotte Mandell, from the publishers, or even from Preciado himself. Perhaps he thought better of his propensity to identify with groups to which he does not belong, in the period between An Apartment’s French and English publications. Or perhaps Mandell, or Fitzcarraldo Editions, felt that Preciado’s elision of particularities was a vestige of French universalism that would not pass muster in an Anglophone context.

Of course, cross-identification between different groups and individuals is not problematic per se and might well elicit empathy and solidarity. In Preciado’s case, however, the tendency to cross-identify becomes excessively expansive, and he draws reductive equivalences with unsettling regularity. In his introduction, he states: ‘I put on a terminological coat when I write, like a migrant who needs a warm coat to survive the winter’. The forms of crossing in Preciado’s work exist on a different plane to the literal, national border crossings of a (freezing) migrant. In a 2014 article included in An Apartment, Preciado describes how he was unable to open a newspaper after fighting with Despentes about their breakup. ‘As if addressed to us both, the headline read: “Israel-Hamas: Is This War?” The truce did not last in Gaza. Fighting started up again…’ This is extraordinarily self-involved. Preciado and Despentes are not Israel and Hamas; their relationship is not Gaza.

In King Kong Theory, Despentes veers momentarily into similar waters, writing that the ‘Madonna-whore dichotomy is directly traced on the female body, like borders on a map of Africa’. This is an implicit reference to Freud’s description of female sexuality as a ‘dark continent’; Despentes seeks to send up the complicity between patriarchy and colonialism. Yet she elides the specificities of colonial violence — again, the female body is not Africa. The other tensions that arise in King Kong Theory, however, prove more productive than they do problematic. One such tension is generated in the chapter about Despentes’ rape, when she admits to having previously harboured a rape fantasy. This is not a theoretical dead end, nor a misogynistic double bind. Rather, this passage makes the reader question the conditions in which women have learned to eroticise their own submission, and it makes clear the difference between fantasy and consent. It is exhilarating to read something so frank, to witness an author permitting herself to embrace dark drives and to acknowledge the ambiguous recesses of her subjectivity. In King Kong Theory, Despentes gives herself space to be contradictory. She generates tensions that might well be irresolvable, but nonetheless drive her (and our) thinking forward.

Regardless of the reductive comparisons and the challenges of translation, both Despentes and Preciado now belong to a new generation of public intellectuals. As such, they are increasingly prominent both within and beyond academia; their work crosses languages, pushes the boundaries of genre, gender, and species, and is imbued with world-making force. Given the recent translations of their work for an English-speaking audience, it is also notable that Despentes and Preciado cross the borders of the nation, in terms of their literary and philosophical influences and the intellectual traditions in which they work. King Kong Theory includes a bibliography whose entries span France (Artaud, Beauvoir, Sartre), Britain (Wollstonecraft, Woolf) and the US (Butler, Haraway, Solanas). Preciado’s thinking is indebted to French poststructuralism and semiology, but he refracts these ideas through an Anglo-American lens with an emphasis on performance and the queer. Despentes and Preciado complicate the idea of ‘French theory’ and undermine its mythos; read together, their most recently translated works leave no border uncrossed.

ALEXANDRA PUGH is doing a PhD on French feminist literature at King’s College London. She moonlights as a dating expert on a local radio show.

Art by Izzy Fergusson