An Apartment on Uranus


Arts & Culture

A montage of the solar system, including the Galilean satellites. Image courtesy of NASA. Map pin courtesy of Kilroy 2525 (CC0) on Wikimedia Commons.

As the years passed, I learned to think of dreams as an integral part of life. There are dreams that, because of their sensory intensity, their realism or precisely their lack of realism, deserve to be introduced into autobiography, just as much as events that were actually lived through. Life begins and ends in the unconscious; the actions we carry out while fully lucid are only little islands in an archipelago of dreams. No existence can be completely rendered in its happiness or its madness without taking into account oneiric experiences. It’s Calderón de la Barca’s maxim reversed: it’s not a matter of thinking that life is a dream, but rather of realizing that dreams are also a form of life. It is just as strange to think, like the Egyptians, that dreams are cosmic channels through which the souls of ancestors pass in order to communicate with us, as to claim, as some of the neurosciences do, that dreams are a “cut-and-paste” of elements experienced by the brain during waking life, elements that return in the dream’s REM phase, while our eyes move beneath our eyelids, as if they were watching. Closed and sleeping, eyes continue to see. Therefore, it is more appropriate to say that the human psyche never stops creating and dealing with reality, sometimes in dreams, sometimes in waking life.

Whereas over the course of the past few months my waking life has been, to use the euphemistic Catalan expression, “good, so long as we don’t go into details,” my oneiric life has had the power of a novel by Ursula K. Le Guin. During one of my recent dreams, I was talking with the artist Dominique González-Foerster about my problem of geographic dislocation: after years of a nomadic life, it is hard for me to decide on a place to live in the world. While we were having this conversation, we were watching the planets spin slowly in their orbits, as if we were two giant children and the solar system were a Calder mobile. I was explaining to her that, for now, in order to avoid the conflict that the decision entailed, I had rented an apartment on each planet, but that I didn’t spend more than a month on any one of them, and that this situation was economically and physically unsustainable. Probably because she is the creator of the Exotourisme project, Dominique in this dream was an expert on extraterrestrial real-estate management. “If I were you, I’d have an apartment on Mars and I’d keep a pied-à-terre on Saturn,” she was saying, showing a great deal of pragmatism, “but I’d get rid of the Uranus apartment. It’s much too far away.”

Awake, I don’t know much about astronomy; I don’t have the slightest idea of the positions or distances of the different planets in the solar system. But I consulted the Wikipedia page on Uranus: it is in fact one of the most distant planets from Earth. Only Neptune, Pluto, and the dwarf planets Haumea, Makemake, and Eris are farther away. I read that Uranus was the first planet discovered with the help of a telescope, eight years before the French Revolution. With the help of a lens he himself had made, the astronomer and musician William Herschel observed it one night in March in a clear sky, from the garden of his house at 19 New King Street, in the city of Bath. Since he didn’t yet know if it was a huge star or a tailless comet, they say that Herschel called it “Georgium Sidus,” the Georgian Star, to console King George III for the loss of the British colonies in America: England had lost a continent, but the King had gained a planet. Thanks to Uranus, Herschel was able to live on a generous royal pension of two hundred pounds a year. Because of Uranus, he abandoned both music and the city of Bath, where he was a chapel organist and director of public concerts, and settled in Windsor so that the King could be sure of his new conquest by observing it through a telescope. Because of Uranus, they say, Herschel went mad, and spent the rest of his life building the largest telescope of the eighteenth century, which the English called “the monster.” Because of Uranus, they say, Herschel never played the oboe again. He died at the age of eighty-four: the number of years it takes for Uranus to go around the sun. They say that the tube of his telescope was so wide that the family used it as a dining hall at his funeral.

Uranus is what astrophysicists call a “gas giant.” Made up of ice, methane, and ammonia, it is the coldest planet in the solar system, with winds that can exceed nine hundred kilometers per hour. In short, the living conditions are not especially suitable. So Dominique was right: I should leave the Uranus apartment.

But dream functions like a virus. From that night forward, while I’m awake, the sensation of having an apartment on Uranus increases, and I am more and more convinced that the place I should live is over there.

For the Greeks, as for me in this dream, Uranus was the solid roof of the world, the limit of the celestial vault. Uranus was regarded as the house of the gods in many Greek invocation rituals. In mythology, Uranus is the son that Gaia, the Earth, conceived alone, without insemination or coition. Greek mythology is at once a kind of retro sci-fi story anticipating in a do-it-yourself way the technologies of reproduction and bodily transformation that will appear throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; and at the same time a kitschy TV series in which the characters give themselves over to an unimaginable number of relationships outside the law. Thus Gaia married her son Uranus, a Titan often represented in the middle of a cloud of stars, like a sort of Tom of Finland dancing with other muscle-bound guys in a techno club on Mount Olympus. From the incestuous and ultimately not very heterosexual relationships between heaven and earth, the first generation of Titans were born, including Oceanus (Water), Chronos (Time), and Mnemosyne (Memory) … Uranus was both the son of the Earth and the father of all the others. We don’t quite know what Uranus’s problem was, but the truth is that he was not a good father: either he forced his children to remain in Gaia’s womb, or he threw them into Tartarus as soon as they were born. So Gaia convinced one of her children to carry out a contraceptive operation. You can see in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence the representation that Giorgio Vasari made in the sixteenth century of Chronos castrating his father Uranus with a scythe. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, emerged from Uranus’s amputated genital organs … which could imply that love comes from the disjunction of the body’s genital organs, from the displacement and externalization of genital force.

This form of nonheterosexual conception, cited in Plato’s Symposium, was the inspiration for the German lawyer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs to come up with the word Uranian [Urning] in 1864 to designate what he called relations of the “third sex.” In order to explain men’s attraction to other men, Ulrichs, after Plato, cut subjectivity in half, separated the soul from the body, and imagined a combination of souls and bodies that authorized him to reclaim dignity for those who loved against the law. The segmentation of soul and body reproduces in the domain of experience the binary epistemology of sexual difference: there are only two options. Uranians are not, Ulrich writes, sick or criminal, but feminine souls enclosed in masculine bodies attracted to masculine souls.

This is not a bad idea to legitimize a form of love that, at the time, could get you hanged in England or in Prussia, and that, today, remains illegal in seventy-four countries and is subject to the death penalty in thirteen, including Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran, and Qatar; a form of love that constitutes a common motive for violence in family, society, and police in most Western democracies.

Ulrichs does not make this statement as a lawyer or scientist: he is speaking in the first person. He does not say “there are Uranians,” but “I am a Uranian.” He asserts this, in Latin, on August 18, 1867, after having been condemned to prison and after his books have been banned by an assembly of five hundred jurists, members of the German Parliament, and a Bavarian prince—an ideal audience for such confessions. Until then, Ulrichs had hidden behind the pseudonym “Numa Numantius.” But from that day on, he speaks in his own name, he dares to taint the name of his father. In his diary, Ulrichs confesses he was terrified, and that, just before walking onto the stage of the Grand Hall of the Odeon Theater in Munich, he had been thinking about running away, never to return. But he says he suddenly remembered the words of the Swiss writer Heinrich Hössli, who a few years before had defended sodomites (though not, however, speaking in his own name): “Two ways lie before me,” Hössli wrote, “to write this book and expose myself to persecution, or not to write it and be full of guilt until the day I am buried. Of course I have encountered the temptation to stop writing … But before my eyes appeared the images of the persecuted and the wretched prospect of such children who have not yet been born, and I thought of the unhappy mothers at their cradles, rocking their cursed yet innocent children! And then I saw our judges with their eyes blindfolded. Finally, I imagined my gravedigger slipping the cover of my coffin over my cold face. Then, before I submitted, the imperious desire to stand up and defend the oppressed truth possessed me … And so I continued to write with my eyes resolutely averted from those who have worked for my destruction. I do not have to choose between remaining silent or speaking. I say to myself: speak or be judged!”

Ulrichs writes in his journal that the judges and Parliamentarians seated in Munich’s Odeon Hall cried out, as they listened to his speech, like an angry crowd: End the meeting! End the meeting! But he also notes that one or two voices were raised to say: Let him continue! In the midst of a chaotic tumult, the President left the theater, but some Parliamentarians remained. Ulrichs’s voice trembled. They listened.

But what does it mean to speak for those who have been refused access to reason and knowledge, for us who have been regarded as mentally ill? With what voice can we speak? Can the jaguar or the cyborg lend us their voices? To speak is to invent the language of the crossing, to project one’s voice into an interstellar expedition: to translate our difference into the language of the norm; while we continue, in secret, to practice a strange lingo that the law does not understand.

So Ulrichs was the first European citizen to declare publicly that he wanted to have an apartment on Uranus. He was the first mentally ill person, the first sexual criminal to stand up and denounce the categories that labeled him as sexually and criminally diseased.

He did not say, “I am not a sodomite.” On the contrary, he defended the right to practice sodomy between men, calling for a reorganization of the systems of signs, for a change of the political rituals that defined the social recognition of a body as healthy or sick, legal or illegal. He invented a new language and a new scene of enunciation. In each of Ulrichs’s words addressed from Uranus to the Munich jurists resounds the violence generated by the dualist epistemology of the West. The entire universe cut in half and solely in half. Everything is heads or tails in this system of knowledge. We are human or animal. Man or woman. Living or dead. We are the colonizer or the colonized. Living organism or machine. We have been divided by the norm. Cut in half and forced to remain on one side or the other of the rift. What we call “subjectivity” is only the scar that, over the multiplicity of all that we could have been, covers the wound of this fracture. It is over this scar that property, family, and inheritance were founded. Over this scar, names are written and sexual identities asserted.

On May 6, 1868, Karl Maria Kertbeny, an activist and defender of the rights of sexual minorities, sent a handwritten letter to Ulrichs in which for the first time he used the word homosexual to refer to what his friend called “Uranians.” Against the antisodomy law promulgated in Prussia, Kertbeny defended the idea that sexual practices between people of the same sex were as “natural” as the practices of those he calls—also for the first time—“heterosexuals.” For Kertbeny, homosexuality and heterosexuality were just two natural ways of loving. For medical jurisprudence at the end of the nineteenth century, however, homosexuality would be reclassified as a disease, a deviation, and a crime.

I am not speaking of history here. I am speaking to you of your lives, of mine, of today. While the notion of Uranianism has gone somewhat astray in the archives of literature, Kertbeny’s concepts would become authentic biopolitical techniques of dealing with sexuality and reproduction over the course of the twentieth century, to such an extent that most of you continue to use them to refer to your own identity, as if they were descriptive categories. Homosexuality would remain listed until 1975 in Western psychiatric manuals as a sexual disease. This remains a central notion, not only in the discourse of clinical psychology, but also in the political languages of Western democracies.

When the notion of homosexuality disappeared from psychiatric manuals, the notions of intersexuality and transsexuality appear as new pathologies for which medicine, pharmacology, and law suggest remedies. Each body born in a hospital in the West is examined and subjected to the protocols of evaluation of gender normality invented in the fifties in the United States by the doctors John Money and John and Joan Hampson: if the baby’s body does not comply with the visual criteria of sexual difference, it will be submitted to a battery of operations of “sexual reassignment.” In the same way, with a few minor exceptions, neither scientific discourse nor the law in most Western democracies recognizes the possibility of inscribing a body as a member of human society unless it is assigned either masculine or feminine gender. Transsexuality and intersexuality are described as psychosomatic pathologies, and not as the symptoms of the inadequacy of the politico-visual system of sexual differentiation when faced with the complexity of life.

How can you, how can we, organize an entire system of visibility, representation, right of self-determination, and political recognition if we follow such categories? Do you really believe you are male or female, that we are homosexual or heterosexual, intersexed or transsexual? Do these distinctions worry you? Do you trust them? Does the very meaning of your human identity depend on them? If you feel your throat constricting when you hear one of these words, do not silence it. It’s the multiplicity of the cosmos that is trying to pierce through your chest, as if it were the tube of a Herschel telescope.

Let me tell you that homosexuality and heterosexuality do not exist outside of a dualistic, hierarchical epistemology that aims at preserving the domination of the paterfamilias over the reproduction of life. Homosexuality and heterosexuality, intersexuality and transsexuality do not exist outside of a colonial, capitalist epistemology, which privileges the sexual practices of reproduction as a strategy for managing the population and the reproduction of labor, but also the reproduction of the population of consumers. It is capital, not life, that is being reproduced. These categories are the map imposed by authority, not the territory of life. But if homosexuality and heterosexuality, intersexuality and transsexuality, do not exist, then who are we? How do we love? Imagine it.

Then, I remember my dream and I understand that my trans condition is a new form of Uranism. I am not a man and I am not a woman and I am not heterosexual I am not homosexual I am not bisexual. I am a dissident of the sex-gender system. I am the multiplicity of the cosmos trapped in a binary political and epistemological system, shouting in front of you. I am a Uranian confined inside the limits of techno-scientific capitalism.

Like Ulrichs, I am bringing no news from the margins; instead, I bring you a piece of horizon. I come with news of Uranus, which is neither the realm of God nor the sewer. Quite the contrary. I was assigned a female sex at birth. They said I was lesbian. I decided to self-administer regular doses of testosterone. I never thought I was a man. I never thought I was a woman. I was several. I didn’t think of myself as transsexual. I wanted to experiment with testosterone. I love its viscosity, the unpredictability of the changes it causes, the intensity of the emotions it provokes forty-eight hours after taking it. And, if the injections are regular, its ability to undo your identity, to make organic layers of the body emerge that otherwise would have remained invisible. Here as everywhere, what matters is the measure: the dosage, the rhythm of injections, the order of them, the cadence. I wanted to become unrecognizable. I wasn’t asking medical institutions for testosterone as hormone therapy to cure “gender dysphoria.” I wanted to function with testosterone, to experience the intensity of my desire through it, to multiply my faces by metamorphosing my subjectivity, creating a body that was a revolutionary machine. I undid the mask of femininity that society had plastered onto my face until my identity documents became ridiculous, obsolete. Then, with no way out, I agreed to identify myself as a transsexual, as a “mentally ill person,” so that the medico-legal system would acknowledge me as a living human body. I paid with my body for the name I bear.

By making the decision to construct my subjectivity with testosterone, the way the shaman constructs his with plants, I take on the negativity of my time, a negativity I am forced to represent and against which I can fight only from this paradoxical incarnation, which is to be a trans man in the twenty-first century, a feminist bearing the name of a man in the #MeToo movement, an atheist of the hetero-patriarchal system turned into a consumer of the pharmacopornographic industry. My existence as a trans man constitutes at once the acme of the sexual ancien régime and the beginning of its collapse, the climax of its normative progression and the signal of a proliferation still to come.

I have come to talk to you—to you and to the dead, or rather, to those who live as if they were already dead—but I have come especially to talk to the cursed, innocent children who are yet to be born. Uranians are the survivors of a systematic, political attempt at infanticide: we have survived the attempt to kill in us, while we were not yet adults, and while we could not defend ourselves, the radical multiplicity of life and the desire to change the names of all things. Are you dead? Will they be born tomorrow? I congratulate you, belatedly or in advance.

I bring you news of the crossing, which is the realm of neither God nor the sewer. Quite the contrary. Do not be afraid, do not be excited, I have not come to explain anything morbid. I have not come to tell you what a transsexual is, or how to change your sex, or at what precise instant a transition is good or bad. Because none of that would be true, no truer than the ray of afternoon sun falling on a certain spot on the planet and changing according to the place from which it is seen. No truer than that the slow orbit described by Uranus as it revolves above the Earth is yellow. I cannot tell you everything that goes on when you take testosterone, or what that does in your body. Take the trouble to administer the necessary doses of knowledge to yourself, as many as your taste for risk allows you.

I have not come for that. As my indigenous Chilean mother Pedro Lemebel said, I do not know why I come, but I am here. In this Uranian apartment that overlooks the gardens of Athens. And I’ll stay a while. At the crossroads. Because intersection is the only place that exists. There are no opposite shores. We are always at the crossing of paths. And it is from this crossroad that I address you, like the monster who has learned the language of humans.

I no longer need, like Ulrichs, to assert that I am a masculine soul enclosed in a woman’s body. I have no soul and no body. I have an apartment on Uranus, which certainly places me far from most earthlings, but not so far that you can’t come see me. Even if only in dream …

—Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell


Paul B. Preciado is a writer, philosopher, curator, and one of the leading thinkers in the study of gender and sexual politics. He is the author of Pornotopia, for which he was awarded the Sade Prize in France, and other books. He lives in Paris and is Associated Philosopher to the Centre Pompidou.

Charlotte Mandell is an American literary translator. She has translated many works of poetry, fiction, and philosophy from French to English, including work by Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, Jules Verne, Guy de Maupassant, Marcel Proust, Maurice Blanchot, Antoine de Baecque, Abdelwahab Meddeb, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Jean-Luc Nancy, Matias Énard, and Jonathan Littell.

Excerpted from An Apartment on Uranus: Chronicles of the Crossing, by Paul B. Preciado, translated by Charlotte Mandell. Reprinted with permission from Semiotext(e), distributed by The MIT Press. Copyright 2020.