Book Review

Can the monster speak? by Paul B. Preciado

arguments to make the world better in language that can only make it worse

cw: anti-intellectualism, suicide ideation (from me), discussion of bigotry/prejudice esp. transphobia/queerphobia

Sometimes I read a book that is interesting but confusing. Sometimes the confusing books are confusing because of their message or because of their ideas, but rarely (to be honest), because I don’t read science and most ideas that people have are fundamentally simple things as – and we must remember this, we must, we must, we must – we humans are little more than monkeys with the gift/curse of langauge.

This book was confusing for me for one very simple reason: it used language throughout I did not understand.

What is epistemiology?

What is an epistemological method?

What is Lacanian psychotherapy and how is it different from Freud’s much more famous version?

There are maybe simple answers to all of these questions, but they are not to be found in this book.

I am 34 years old (I knooooow, kill me right now ammaright?). I have absolutely no interest in or need for learning new words in a language I have spoken for over 3 decades.

When learning vocabulary in additional language, exposure to a word or a phrase used in a context where one understands other words provides a window into comprehension, right? I persisted through Can the monster speak? presuming that with repeated exposure and a plethora of context clues, I would eventually come to understand what “epistemological” means.

I have finished the book, and I still have no idea.

I would love to be able to say that this is my fault because I’m a dumb dumb loser moron piece of shit, but I’m actually almost ok/good kind of with words, as can be attested to by those times when i was a) highly commended in the forward prizes for poetry and b) quoted in the New Yorker (a publication that is even more prestigious in the United States of America than The New Statesman & Spectator (a British magazine for landlords who ski) is over here.)

What this means then, is that Can the monster speak? is a text that offers simple ideas – that trans lives are valid lives, that binary ideas of gender are not only retrogressive but also ahistorical and only a product of rightwing protestant capitalism – but expresses them in such a way and with such a level of detail and language used that for me – someone who 100% agrees with Preciado here – I found the text almost impenetrable and – for want of a better word – gratingly annoying.

I get that, I understand that, speaking to those who do not agree with us in the language comfortable to and familiar to those who do not agree with us is absolutely a solid technique for potentially changing minds and thus saving lives, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

It’s often pointed out that feeling is more powerful than fact, that emotion moves more than reason. And it’s absolutely right. When was the last time anyone was persuaded to do anything good???

Preciado’s text was originally presented as a speech to a french institution of Lacanian psychotherapists, which – as far as I could tell – is a deeply transphobic and homophobic organisation, so Preciado speaking as a queer trans person was provocative from the off.

Preciado was, apparently, kinda forced off the stage by the end of the speech, which refutes – in the smug, grating language of the academician (which is, presumably, the language that would be used by all the bigots in the room when medicalising and prognosticating (is that a word? and does it mean the same as diagnosing?) and essentially dismissing the lives of other people as less valid than their own?) key tenets of these bigots’ bigoted ideas. If I understood right?

I don’t know what is to be achieved by delivering a speech in incredibly academic language (language near-impenetrable to a pedestrian reader (maybe it’s Frank Wynne’s translation rather than Preciado’s text at fault, but I’ve got no idea, do I?)) to a room full of people who essentially dispute the validity of your existence. I suppose there is some genuine bravery in that, perhaps, but it’s an I don’t know, it’s an eurgh self indulgent I don’t know I suppose it is a kind of bravery a kind of bravery I think it is but I don’t know.

I agree with Preciado’s central ideas because they are simple and they are clear and they are human and hopeful and positive and kind, rather than controlling, aggressive, cruel and fascistic, as are the ideas that are being argued against.

I can’t imagine the dry academic style of this text is going to change anyone’s mind: I wouldn’t, for example, read an entire book written like this if it was arguing something I fundamentally opposed, and I can’t imagine many other people in the world would, either.

Maybe there are weird creeps in the world who will stop being transphobic when confronted with the discovery that trans people can be intellectuals, too, that debating club type rhetoric and arguments can be used to argue for progressive points. But, really, are there?

The bigoted right throw out hideous bullshit about all kinds of minority coded people, and they always do it with cruel and nasty pushes for weird emotional response.

They don’t do it by appealling to reason, because there’s no fucking reason at all that justifies bigotry of any kind. The right, the scum on the right, don’t fucking try to persuade us that actually, no, we are wrong and here are ten peer reviewed reasons why we do all deserve to be executed for any slight variance from orthodox Protestant hetero capitalist patriarchy.

Let’s be an internet fucking cliche for a second and think of that over quoted Audre Lorde line about tools and big houses.

Can the monster speak? is formed totally from the master’s tools; the language and the format of something like this is an inherently conservative and elitist form, and elitist forms are tied into a sense of perpetuation of their own elitism.

This is an establishment form, and using it – even when arguing against current establishment practices and ideologies – is an act of maintaining those systems, forms and styles.

It’s not where you’ve been but where you are that sets your class and cultural perspective, and regardless of Preciado’s personal history, this is a person who has lived and worked within establishment institutions for decades: you don’t get invited to give a speech in this setting, or write a speech in this style, if you are a true outsider voice.

What Preciado writes about is important, is relevant and is something that should be standardised and mainstreamed as forms of knowledge and thinking that the wider populace is exposed to.

But writing like this is easy to dismiss as something that has nothing to do with the ways in which non-academics express themselves and communicate ideas.

Maybe I was too dumb to read this essay. Maybe Frank Wynne was too intellectual to render the translation literate to someone with only two (tbf mediocre) degrees, or maybe Preciado has been within the establishment for so long that he’s forgotten how to communicate to people outside of it.

For me, this is a book that will change no one’s mind, much as I can’t imagine its original performance changed the mind of anyone who was in the room to hear it.

I agree with what Preciado is saying, and I of course believe that every effort to persuade bigots to recognise mutual humanity always comes from a hopeful and solution-oriented perspective; but I just didn’t think this was an excellent book… is 10 years old! Celebrate by sharing this post – or others – with friends (if you have any), family (if you have any), lovers (which I presume you have because this website isn’t for children), or by donating to the site via the below link so that I can maybe take a day off work some time and enjoy being alive for a few hours.

1 comment on “Can the monster speak? by Paul B. Preciado

  1. Pingback: Black American Psycho by Ernest Baker – Triumph Of The Now

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: