Updated: May 10
Most of us have heard the saying “the personal is political.” It is such a commonplace phrase that it is easy to become desensitized to the power of its meaning. However, the reader will not miss the significance of the turn of phrase, or its innumerable possibilities, in Paul B. Preciado’s book, Testo Junkie where the narrator alters the form of their physical body as a method of evading hegemonic, neoliberal classification and commodification of the modern state.
As an autotheory text, Testo Junkie combines narrative with theoretical argument. On the theoretical end, Preciado argues that the current influence of pharmaceuticals on gender and sexual construction have reached a critical stage where sexual subjects are created via biotechnologies such as birth control and Viagra. The narrative follows the main character, BP, as they ingest unprescribed testosterone in the pursuit of reflecting their felt sexual and gender ambiguity. Through the transformation of the form of their physical body, BP’s emergent subjectivity redirects sexuality away from a system between male and female and those respective reproductive organs to an erotics of ambiguity driven by the pursuit of pleasure.
This essay considers pleasure as a way to embody the proverbial view from nowhere and realize a sexual subjecthood outside of the standards dictated and prescribed by the state.
Testo Junkie, page 13
The concept of writing as something to become “addicted” to, or as an illicit substance, dates back to ancient Greece when Socrates called it a drug. In Plato's famous dialogue, the Phaedrus, writing is presented as a new-fangled idea that many, notably Socrates, fear. This fear is based in the worry that writing will destroy, or at least dilute, the truth of speech. Writing seemed to Socrates to be a cheap repetition of speech, not authentic reality like memory. BP's experimentation with testosterone in the book Testo Junkie is a palimpsest of this history, however instead of diluting the truth of speech, BP’s addiction dilutes the truth of gender and sex.
BP, the narrator of Testo Junkie, is not to be confused with the author of the text, Preciado. As Preciado noted at a conference in 2016, "I think about myself with shame," and conversely, "the Testo Junkie narrator (who is not me), from her/his empowered theoretical yet parodic position knows less, displaying her/his nonknowing as grand narrative." BP boldly reappropriates an identity through powerful diction and sweeping theoretical knowledge in ways that the person, Preciado, asserts they do not. This fact can be extrapolated to highlight why the fictive performance of autotheory is appealing and functional for authors hailing from marginalized backgrounds, sexually or otherwise.
Autotheory writing is notable for self-referentially engaging theory with a fictionalized version of the author as narrator. Although the genre is not necessarily new, it is having a particular moment of speculative interest in feminist, queer, and literary studies. For example, scholar Robyn Wiegman lead a seminar for the MLA 2020 Conference entitled, simply, "Autotheory", and many other conferences and publications on the topic are emerging in academia. I argue that autotheory’s current trend in queer-feminist literary studies is due to its ability to skillfully expresses realities of non-normative subject voices and marginalized subjectivities that risk being overlooked. Thus Preciado's decision to document and interpret his experience through writing represents a commitment to broaden and share what counts as legitimate knowledge in philosophical and academic circles and to a readership well-versed in feminist and queer literatures. As transgender studies scholar Susan Stryker writes, transgender voices represent new kinds of experiential knowledge and oppose so-called "objective" knowledge:
Transgender studies considers the embodied experience of the speaking subject, who claims constative knowledge of the referent topic, to be a proper—indeed essential— component of the analysis of transgender phenomena; experiential knowledge is as legitimate as other, supposedly more “objective” forms of knowledge, and is in fact necessary for understanding the political dynamics of the situation being analyzed.
If more "objective" forms of knowledge are understood here to mean truth seeking based on binary oppositions, then experiential knowledge has the power to undermine such homogeneity by presenting paradoxes or pleasures henceforth uncodified. Experiential knowledge can also be related to what philosopher McKenzie Wark calls "low theory." Wark considers Testo Junkie a work of low theory because it relays what actually happens to a person in life versus theorizations. As Wark explains: "What is refreshing about low theory is that when it works it starts from actual experiences, then appropriates and adapts concepts to fit the articulation of the experience. It is always a kind of detournement or highjacking of high theory for other purposes."
Autotheory writing is an important tool for representing abstract or theoretical alternatives as material realities, which is also necessary to resisting immaterial systems of exchange value that capitalist markets rely upon. As Preciado argues, the philosophy of the contemporary bio-power era must use the tools of this materiality - "autotheory, auto-experimentation, auto-techno-penetration, pornology" - to reappropriate a hegemonic view of reality from state power. The body's materiality is a tool. It is a porous site of input and output, resistance and opportunity, and not just a locus to reproduce norms.
In this light, BP, can be said to take the politicization of the personal to the umpteenth degree by altering the form of their body with a political aim in mind. BP’s black-market acquisition and resulting addiction of testosterone is a direct response to contemporary neoliberal trends of calcification and categorization in LGBTQ identity and politics. BP notes that the term ‘queer” once had the ability to make a statement on the immoralities, ethically suspect, or exclusionary actions of the state due to its associated deviant meanings. Now, "queer" has been consumed by capitalist commodification, its subversive traction depleted.
In addition to the biochemical changes of their body, once BP begins taking testosterone, they also experience the psychological change of not fitting into an easily categorized label due to both appearing and feeling sexually indistinguishable. Though the reality of not fitting into societal norms is, again, purposeful for the narrator writes if they did attempt to transition fully or neatly into the male sex it would mean complying with the neoliberal state. Becoming "addicted" to testosterone is their strategy to undermine normative, neoliberal politics, a strategy to not participate in the policies of the neoliberal state that closely monitors and controls sexuality and gender identity. For these reasons BP says:
I don't want to change my sex, and I don't want to declare myself dysphoric about whatever it may be; I don’t want a doctor to decide how much testosterone a month is suitable for changing my voice and making me grow a beard; I don't want to have my ovaries and breasts removed. Even if I do not want to procreate, I don't want my reproductive cells to be hijacked by the state; I don't want my uterus to be confiscated by the medical-industrial complex . . . . I don't need permission from the Spanish monarchy or the French Republic to do up some testosterone. I lay claim to the irreducible plurality of my living body, not to my body as 'bare life.' but to the very materiality of my body as political site for agency and resistance.
The force of the diction in this passage is seen in in: "hijacked", "confiscated", "agency" and "resistance," and this is part of the reparative function of the narrator's writing method. By positing themself in a powerful and forceful mentality, BP liberates their identity away from melancholy or mourning typical to queer or misfit voices in literature. As licensed clinical social worker Kirsten Lentz reiterates, "the form of subjectivity modeled by the 'testo junkie' is one that refuses the interiority of mourning." BP uses diction that avows to take political circumstances head on with a confident vengeance, an ethos that attributes meaning to their stance without pity. Instead of being confined within the categorical box required to receive state and legally allotted testosterone prescriptions, BP becomes an empowered "addict" of testosterone, discrediting that very system of assigning allotment of any kind to sexuality or gender.
The decision is also a refusal of the medical-industrial complex and its pathologization of sexual fluidity. Legally an individual must be able to definitively label himself or herself sexually, otherwise they cannot have access to the biotechnologies which can alter their physicality. Currently, it is not legal to play with sex hormones to experience and experiment with the results. BP trespasses and deconstructs this restriction. For them, becoming an addict of testosterone is an act of agency, a decision to self-medicate how they want and use the biotechnologies of the contemporary state to dislodge its own entrenched categories. However, as McKenzie Wark points out, refusing the state's authority this way "risks getting caught in another disciplinary net - the one strung to catch 'addicts'." Wark expands:
What if someone wants to remain ambiguously between genders? If someone wants to take hormones for aesthetic reasons? And what is at stake in taking a drug which transforms the physical body as its direct goal and changes subjective feeling only secondarily, rather than the other way around? What, in other words, is at stake in the industrialization of the hormone?
I read the "ambiguity" that Wark draws attention to here as the pleasure that BP seeks, the undetermined space that can only be labeled "addiction" because it has no state designated label. Wark points to the stakes of the industrialization of a hormone, which I suggest is knowledge: the precise knowledge that feelings, such as pleasure, can create new subjects. The ambiguous, in-between of genders and sexualities is a blueprint of experiential knowledge that non-male and non-female subjects can be realized via the affects of pleasure. The effect of "industrialization" of gender is the opportunity for experimentation that destabilizes state power. While all addicts can be said to perform this function, Preciado reveals exactly how this process operates in relation to pharmaceuticals and sexuality, and in a Foucauldian move, readers will know that understanding how power operates decreases its control.
Testo Junkie, page 204
But what is the subjecthood of an addict? What does it look or feel like? One example comes in an opening scene of Testo Junkie, where BP documents the step-by-step process of filming themselves in a series of sexual acts. First, they carefully shave their head, then they take the hair that fell off their head and arrange a mustache on their face with glue. They then give detailed descriptions of shaving their pubic area, putting on a dildo, and then, as they document, "next I slide the dildos into the openings at the lower part of my body."
Cover photo of Testo Junkie
In this graphic scene, BP uses their body in a way that does not fit into representational norms of pleasure and sexuality. Located at the start of the text, it provides a vivid alternative to neoliberal norms and categories that the reader can expect to be developed further. BP’s actions in the scene are almost ritualistic and conducted with purpose. Such care is common among addicts, contradicting stereotypes of addicts as out of control or depraved.
In his book Pleasure Consuming Medicine: The Queer Politics of Drugs (2009), scholar of medicine Kane Race has theorized that the care addicts give to their ritualistic methods is in fact an element of the pleasure they derive. He writes "one frame that might viably inform [people using drug technologies to address their situations] is that of pleasure, a word I use to evoke careful experimentation with the givenness of life, its materialities, conditions, contingencies, and specific relations.” The scene with BP filming themselves also shows how gender subversion can be political. Illustrating what “queer” looks like in the flesh enlivens dissent to state controlled ideas of sex that vague, immaterial markets flatten. This is, of course, of BP’s primary goals.
Addiction to synthetic testosterone materializes the space between sexuality and gender by muddling, combining, and teasing apart expressions of the self while foregrounding pleasure. Kane Race calls the illicit drug user a "symbolic figure of the neoliberal state", and regulations surrounding illegal drugs mainly opportunities for the state to impose moral propriety. He urges to view drug use from the angle of pleasure of the drug user:
Rather than insisting upon a sovereign subject at the site of drug use, this approach entails a degree of attention to and curiosity about how the body is, in a given situation—the queerness of its pleasures, their irreducibility to conventional predictions, scripts, and formulations.
In other words, pleasure does not correlate to the representational norms of the state, and this incongruence reveals the queerness of the body’s pleasures.
BP is also compelled by this queer, politically subversive quality of pleasure, writing that testosterone and sex both, “put me in contact with the amorphous, with the formless, or with that which imagines a form in the place of formlessness, that which produces desire without any possible satisfaction.” For BP, pleasure is unattainable yet constantly desired, much like the ability to be uncategorizable and formless: the pleasure of not having to exist as bounded at all. As 20th century literary deconstruction theorist Jacques Derrida put it: "The recourse to dangerous experimentation with what we call "drugs" may be guided by a desire to consider this alleged boundary from both sides at once." In an embodied approach, BP tries to transcend their body's boundaries altogether to get outside of state created categories of sexual form.
BP seeks formless pleasure in gender experimentations such as taking high doses of testo gel, getting a manicure, or having exhaustive sex with their partner VD, all encounters that while idiosyncratic are ordinary. Race notes the quotidian versus scholarly aspect of the process of breaking outside of representational, categorical norms and developing authentic realities in unlikely spaces. As he writes, those who live marginalized realities, such as addicts, perform their “resistance to bionormalization in varying but mainly hidden ways implicitly and daily. BP videoing themselves performing drag and sexual acts can be considered an example of such embodied resistance. BP’s filming is so quotidian that after it is completed, they choose not to watch the video, writing: "I don't even number it. I put it into its transparent red case and write on the label, October 3, 2005." The importance is the performance itself, the brief moment when reality is just the pleasure of transgressing boundaries.
Testo Junkie, page 57
The opening scene of Testo Junkie transgresses multiple boundaries at once: the social - for the narrator is alone, the sexual - the transference of their hair from their head to a mustache muddles the clarity between male and female, the physical - in which the reproductive organs are simply labeled "openings," and finally, the truth - for the materiality of sexual categorization is so vividly disorganized that the state "truth" of categorization is no longer convincing. What emerges is a depiction of ambiguity where the narrator experiences pleasure. Preciado explains this ambiguity when writing:
This book has no other reasons for being outside the margins of uncertainty existing between me and my sex organs, all imaginary, between three languages that don't belong to me . . . between testosterone and my body, between V and my love for V. Looking into the camera again: 'This testosterone is for you, this pleasure is for you'
The repeated preposition "between" expands the ambiguous unknowable as a tangible reality. The in-betweenness that Preciado develops in the pages of Testo Junkie is at its apex in this scene where the narrator films themself, between love and despair and between lovers.
An ambiguous, formless subject could be considered emblematic of hypermodernism, a literary and cultural movement widely considered a successor to modernism and postmodernism. Both modernity and postmodernity relied upon structure to some extent, hypermodernity, on the other hand, does not construct an idea of form or bounds as necessary to its philosophy. As Alan N. Shapiro writes hypermodernism is primarily about new media and technologies that have disrupted "assumptions about and experiences of space and time." And although we are considered to be living within this new space/time already, and understood it as integrated and entangled with technology, there are not yet accurate models of time and space to understand it. As a poetics of hypermodernism, BP's quest for pleasure beyond form is one model.
It is admittedly important to point out that those marginalized by economic class or race are often incarcerated for many of the actions Preciado takes lightly, such as obtaining substances from the black market. To what extent does being a white professor with a Ph.D. from Princeton allow Preciado to be a "testo junkie"? As Kane Race point out, "It is almost always the underprivileged—those marked by class or race—that bear the brunt of the sterner form of discipline. Meanwhile, if not electing rehabilitation and treatment for themselves, the more privileged are ushered in its general direction in concerned but insistent tones." While the role of the addict and indeed any "other" is always worth examining, Preciado's form of resistance is one of privilege that may not work for all communities. Notwithstanding this limitation, becoming an addict to testosterone is a unique expression of the physical body’s potentiality beyond reproduction.
Moreover, because Testo Junkie is an interpretation of the autobiography of Preciado’s life and not directly factual, it can be appreciated from the view of fiction and its possibilities as social commentary. The text uses an autotheory writing style to focus on the narrator's physical body to dismantle the predominance of binary categories of sexuality and subjectivity. On the political level the self-reflexivity and reappropriative techniques of this writing method allow BP to critique dominant discourses in culture while using its biotechnologies. On the philosophical level the transformation that occurs of their changing physical body through use of synthetic testosterone highlights the potential for human beings' subjectivities to alter thus leaving open the question of what ontological potential can emerge. The process of writing itself is representative of using material to alter truth, and the consumption of drugs can be considered in much the same way altering the truth of “sex.”
It is not solely that that BP switches sexes that changes the conditions, it is rather their refusal to fit nicely into state-allotted categories even when experimenting with hormones that alter the materiality of their sex. A sexual subjectivity emerges that is neither male nor female but grounded rather in the feeling of pleasure that addiction provides. In this sense, BP is a "sensational subject", foregrounding the role of affect and feeling in the physical body to create a distinct consciousness. The pleasure felt is the pleasure of the ambiguity of form reflecting the ambiguity of internal formlessness and undermining a consumer culture of having to fit into certain categories of marketing and exchange.
Testo Junkie draws out the ordinary, quotidian aspects of life through thematic focus on the addict figure and by using the autotheory writing method to ultimately reject the commodification and individualism that neoliberal capitalism relies upon and realize instead an indeterminate sexual subject that cannot be sold or held in surplus. The quotidian has the possibility to either reinforce or to resist, but in this case, Preciado draws attention to the materiality and function of the physical body to cut against the immaterial value bestowed by the capitalist economic system. The end of the book features BP organizing and leading drag king workshops in various cities, an example of the reparative opportunities for non-binary sexual subjects through communal activities. They write: "I have come to understand the drag king workshop as a new practice of political therapy, part of an array of techniques of criticism, reprogramming, and psychopolitical care that we might call queeranalysis." The implication of ordinariness in Testo Junkie is that capitalism and patriarchy can be undermined through a focus on the physical body's materiality, which can create new knowledges and bring together new communities.
If Preciado's book is primarily a revelation of the industrialization of sex and gender by the neoliberal state, the book is proof that playing with these levers of systematicity in unintended ways - such as addiction - can just as easily open as foreclose future possibilities of sensation, affect, and pleasure.
About the Author:
Kim Coates is an Assistant Professor of English at Bristol Community College in Fall River, MA. She received her PhD in Cultural Analysis and Theory with an advanced certificate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality studies from Stony Brook University. Her research interests include literature and literary theory, queer feminism, and mindfulness pedagogies. She is the founder and editor of Evocations Review, a digital literary and art journal.
Butler, Judith. "Critically Queer", GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies. Vol. 1, Issue 1, 1993.
Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression A Public Feeling. Durham, Duke University Press, 2012.
Derrida, Jacques. "The Rhetoric of Drugs." In Points: Interviews, 1974-1994. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1995.
Evans, Elliot. "'Wittig and Davis, Woolf and Solanas (...) simmer within me': Queer Writing of Paul B. Preciado," Paragraph 41.3, 2018.
Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1985.
Lentz, Kirsten. "Emergent Subjectivity: The Parallel Temporalities of Psychoanalysis and Social Theory." Studies in Gender and Sexuality, vol. 17, No 5. 2016.
Preciado, Paul B. Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era. New York, The Feminist Press, 2013. Originally published in Spanish as Testo Yonqui in 2008.
Preciado, Paul B. "Testo Junkie Notes for a Psychoanalytic Forum." Studies in Gender and Sexuality, vol. 17, No 5, 2016.
Race, Kane. Pleasure Consuming Medicine: The Queer Politics of Drugs. Durham, Duke University Press, 2009.
Shapiro, Alan N. "What is hyper-modernism?", Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany, March 24th, 2016, http://www.alan-shapiro.com/what-is-hyper-modernism-by-alan-n-shapiro/ .
Stryker, Susan. "(De)Subjugated Knowledges." The Transgender Studies Reader. Ed. Susan Stryker and Stephan White. New York, Routledge, 2006.
Wark, McKenzie. General Intellects: Twenty-One Thinkers for the Twenty-first Century. London, Verso, 2017.
Wiegman, Robyn. "In the Margins with The Argonauts," Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, Vol. 23 No. 1, (2018).
 In this essay, I refer to the main character of the book "BP" with they/them pronouns because their gender identity is in flux and the author, Paul B. Preciado, with he/him pronouns because that is what he uses today.  Paul B. Preciado, "Testo Junkie Notes for a Psychoanalytic Forum," Studies in Gender and Sexuality, vol. 17, No 5, (2016): 23.  Ibid, 25.  Memoir, life writing, and autobiography share much with the genre.  Susan Stryker, "(De)Subjugated Knowledges," The Transgender Studies Reader. Ed. Susan Stryker and Stephan White. (New York: Routledge, 2006), 12.  Wark, 231.  Ibid, 347.  Preciado, Testo Junkie, 251.  Ibid.  Kirsten Lentz, "Emergent Subjectivity: The Parallel Temporalities of Psychoanalysis and Social Theory." Studies in Gender and Sexuality, vol. 17, no 5. (2016), 6.  Wark, 226.  Ibid.  Ibid, 19.  Kane Race, Pleasure Consuming Medicine: The Queer Politics of Drugs, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), x.  Race, 12.  Ibid, 185.  Jacques Derrida. "The Rhetoric of Drugs," Points: Interviews, 1974-1994. Stanford, Stanford University Press, (1995), 11.  Race, 189.  Preciado, Testo Junkie, 20.  Preciado, Testo Junkie, 20.  Alan N. Shapiro, "What is hyper-modernism?", Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany, March 24th, 2016, http://www.alan-shapiro.com/what-is-hyper-modernism-by-alan-n-shapiro/ .  Ibid.  Race, 69.  Preciado, Testo Junkie, 370.  Ibid, 378.