by Ayten Tartici
Published by The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2013 | 432 pages
Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” is comprised of a helpful and even playful metaphor for breaking down gender constructions and the nature/culture binary. Beatriz Preciado’s Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era is, on the other hand, the realization of the notion hyperbolized in Haraway’s essay: a manifesto written by and for cyborgs (of sorts). Above all, the work is a piece of critical theory that concerns the impact synthetic hormones and the pornography industry have on gender. Testo Junkie is comprised of personal narrative, historical research, and dense theory. The biographical impetus for the book was Preciado’s experience of using testosterone every day for one year. S/he has written:
I’m not taking testosterone to change myself into a man, nor as a physical strategy of transsexualism; 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 post-pornographic, add a molecular prostheses to my low-tech transgendered identity composed of dildos, texts, and moving images.
The book is appropriately described on the jacket as the “riveting continuation of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality.” With Preciado’s graphic narratives of sexual encounters and hormonal changes happening in her/his body, Testo Junkie is the hypermodern form of Foucault’s groundbreaking book.
Preciado is known for her/his work in gender and sexuality studies, and has authored other books on these subjects, including (not surprisingly) Manifesto contrasexual and Pornotopia: Architecture and Sexuality in Playboy During the Cold War. S/he teaches at Université Paris VIII. Not unlike Pornotopia, Testo Junkie includes rich historical research; in this case, on the rise of pharmaceutical companies and their experimental trials with hormone treatment, often on the poor or disadvantaged. Preciado investigates the motivations of this research and development, and their consequences, sometimes intended, often unforeseen. Her/his analysis is multiperceptual, capturing the ways in which these drugs were intended for normative purposes, and also the ways they can be deployed to violently transgress those same coersions. Throughout s/he reminds us of the connection between past and present, utilizing graphic sexual descriptions to illustrate the physiological and mental transformations s/he undergoes with every dose of testosterone, as well as those we ourselves are subject to in our postindustrial world (GMOs and industrial agriculture, hyper processed foods, perpetual saturation in electromagnetic radiation, and more). These different parts—historical research, social theory, and diary entries of her/his exploits—are woven together in the book and interspersed with transitional subheadings to suggest that the political, historical, and personal are one.
As a social critic of gender binaries and institutional power, Preciado is uncompromising. In true manifesto fashion, s/he attacks the dominant pharmocopornographic society in which “a conflicting multiplicity of power-knowledge regimes is operating simultaneously on different organs, tearing the body apart,” and further claims that the state “draws its pleasure from the production and control of our pornogore subjectivity.” Preciado’s arguments are not entirely incorrect, but they are certainly zealous, and readers may find themselves overwhelmed and unconvinced by many of Preciado’s dogged provocations.
The historical research on display here is arguably the most engaging aspect of Testo Junkie. Preciado documents cases of nefarious behavior on the part of physicians and pharmaceutical companies, one example being their testing of poorly studied birth control medications on women living in a slum housing project in Puerto Rico, “the United States’ biggest pharmacological backyard” (these women being the most cost efficient way to obtain the study subjects necessary to obtain FDA approval of investigational drugs). It is even argued that these study subjects were part of a eugenics project to sterilize and cleanse the slums. Preciado also includes histories of the development of laboratory hormone isolation techniques, sex-change operations for hermaphrodites, self-experimentation with drugs by scientists, and other related topics. These sections are well-cited, buttressing her/his larger assertions about political and pharmaceutical control of citizens.
As lucid and objective as the historical research sections prove, they are often followed by textual renditions of sex scenes of extreme graphicness (think Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac). Like Nymphomaniac character Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsborough), who tells the story of her many sexual encounters to a stranger that takes her in for a night, Preciado is unabashedly sexually aggressive both in her/his encounters as well as in the minutely detailed recounting of those encounters in Testo Junkie. While Preciado is critical of the pharmacopornographic regimes, s/he describes what could only be considered pornographic scenes from her/his sex life. The book opens with Preciado’s description of her/him recording a self-made pornographic video of masturbatory vaginal and anal penetration, and few sexual details are omitted. From this beginning scene on, the diaristic sections are written as if directed—like a letter—to Preciado’s friend or lover who had recently died. All of these sections are similar in form as well: graphically sexual while icily abstract, jumping in time and obscuring the nature of her/his relationships with various women). The purpose of these sections is not clear, but they function as representative of hyper-modern subjectivity, revealing the embodied experiences of a testosterone induced trans/post gender.
These sections are the most challenging and controversial, and not principally because of the graphic sexual nature. In using testosterone and describing her/his own increasing masculine tendencies, sexual aggression (even desires to rape), and objectification of women’s bodies, we witness Preciado’s transformation into a shockingly radical anti-feminist, passionately renouncing all feminine characteristics that remain within her/him: “Under my skin, the monster of the female cultural program is awakening… Testosterone isn’t enough to modify this sensory filter. Fuck Beauvoir. Fuck feminism. Fuck love.” In attempting to break down the gender binary, there are many moments in Preciado’s sexual encounters and perspective in which s/he seems to only be reversing, and subsequently reinforcing, the gender binary. This matter, immensely problematic without question, is nevertheless simultaneously what makes Testo Junkie such an astonishing text on gender theory.
If Testo Junkie is anything, it is ambitious. Preciado’s combination of wide-ranging, meticulous historical research with radical experimentations of form and biology are simply confounding, quite possibly unique within the scholarly literature. With a force that is almost dizzying, Preciado wages a war against conventional conceptions of gender and the body, both rhetorically through her/his writing and materially by means of her/his body. Remaining critical of pharmaceutical companies and their attempts at bodily control, Preciado mis/reappropriates their products to liberate her/his body and sexuality, figuratively taking the wheel and giving a middle finger to what s/he considers an oppressive pharmacopornographic society. Testo Junkie, truly at the avant-garde of radicalism, makes for an audacious ride indeed.
Deborah Harris-Moore is a lecturer in the Writing Program at University of California, Santa Barbara. Her book, Media and the Rhetoric of Body Perfection: Cosmetic Surgery, Weight Loss, and Beauty in Popular Culture (released January 2014, Ashgate Publishing) explores the cultural obsession with perfection and the transformation imperatives advertised by the media, especially in the West. She has also published on topics such as composition pedagogy and plagiarism software.