Pop Quiz: Paul B. Preciado on the Bruce Jenner interview

Pop Quiz: Paul B. Preciado on the Bruce Jenner interview

Bruce Jenner: The Interview. Publicity still from an episode of 20/20 aired on ABC on April 24, 2015. Bruce Jenner and Diane Sawyer.

As Diane Sawyer’s much-publicized interview with Bruce Jenner on April 24th illustrates, gender continues to be both highly individuated and highly regulated—“troubled,” to cite Judith Butler’s prescient queer proclamation—subject to a complex rehearsal of disciplinary patterns and emancipatory narratives that continue to seduce and evade pure cognition. In an effort to briefly think recent mediations of transgender bodies, we invited Paul B. Preciado, author of Testo Junkie: sex, drugs, and biopolitics in the pharmacopornographic era (2013) and a curator of the controversial MACBA exhibition “La bestia y el soberano” (The Beast and the Sovereign), to respond to an Pop Quiz about the Jenner interview. (In keeping with his current self-identification, Jenner is referred to by the male pronoun.)

Bruce Jenner has been careful to separate his struggle with gender identity from struggles over sexual orientation. He’s also made clear that he doesn’t consider himself a “spokesperson” for trans experience. Where and how do you think Bruce Jenner’s “coming out” story and the attention it has received engages the current landscape of queer and trans politics?

The media frenzy around Bruce Jenner’s trans coming out shows that we are immersed in a binary gender regime where the possibility of moving between or outside gender conventions is still seen as a political transgression. We have to think about media (including social media) as a set of technologies that can be normalizing but that can also be critically reappropriated for resistance. Jenner is trying to find recognition within the dominant public sphere and this requires media normalization. This is why he is looking for a tactical recognition as a “good American parent” in an effort to resist oppressive transphobic discourse. Transsexuality threatens the stability of the heterosexual reproductive family, and so Jenner has to present himself in public as “asexual,” and speak about the well being of his family as his primary concern.

The transgender subject’s free use of the sexual body represents a threat to the heteronormative political management of desire. This regime always attempts to capture the transgender subject within its binary sexual economy, ideally as heterosexual—since the transgender subject unsettles the very possibility of this normative divide. Not only does this subject trouble the naturalized representation of the body within the visual epistemology of sexual difference (as an assemblage of visual signifiers), but so does its public gender performance—just look at all the crazy tweets concerning Jenner’s dress, as if a dress is like a terrorist’s “technology” when used by a body to whom male gender has been assigned at birth!

To cite Jacques Ranciere’s theory of democratic representation, I think we need to “invent a new scene of enunciation.” We need to radically reorganize the field of gender recognition within the public sphere.

How do you think Jenner’s early image as a paragon of Cold War–era masculinity—“the world’s greatest athlete,” the second Wheaties spokesperson—intersects with his current status as the “most famous openly transgender person in America”?

There is a discursive tradition that presents the M2F transgender subject as someone moving from a sovereign form of masculinity (often represented by sport or the military) to become a female media icon, as if both ends of the gender binary should be emphasized to make the transition part of a heroic act. Therefore, if the possibility of transitioning could question the binary logic, the act of perfectly embodying the extremes enables an ultimate naturalization of male and female positions. This is the case of Bruce Jenner as well as of others before in the twentieth century, starting with Christine Jorgensen in the 1950s (her transition was told as the transformation of an ex-GI into a “blonde beauty”) and with tennis player Renée Richards in the 1970s.

How does Jenner trouble or embody what you’ve termed pharmacopornographic era politics and labor? Is his interview with Diane Sawyer a consolidation of contemporary techniques of the body? How might we trace a trajectory from the early publicity around Christine Jorgensen’s transition sixty-plus years ago?

I understand the displacement from the disciplinary biopolitical regime of the nineteenth century (in which the notions of heterosexuality and homosexuality were invented) to the pharmacopornographic regime that emerges after WWII (where notions such as gender, transgender, and intersexuality are invented) as a shift within Foucault’s “apparatuses of verification,” or, to put it in Deleuze & Guattari’s terms, in “machines of semiotization”—of production of meaning. Whereas science and the law were once the main apparatus of verification, the market and the media have become the new machines of semiotization. This does not mean that science and law have lost all interpellating power, but rather that this performative force is now articulated with new technologies in the production of subjectivity.

As with Jorgensen, who in 1952 became one of the most photographed women in America, only comparable to Marilyn Monroe, what Jenner’s public transgender campaign shows is that the production of the “truth” of gender has become an affair of media management. We are now in the domain of the pharmacopornographic production of gender: Gender is both constructed through biotechnologies (such as hormones or surgery) but also through multimedia techniques. In other words, gender does not exist prior to its multimedia display. It is through the media’s disclosure and representation that the truth of Jenner’s gender is produced.

This is why a primetime interview is as important as surgery or hormones. Diane Sawyer’s encounter with Jenner could be read as just short of a media sex-reassignment operation. This act of political sex reassignment is not happening in the clinic or in court but on a TV stage and through responses on social media. Jenner’s interview brings together many historical narratives: on one hand, the rhetoric of legal and medical confession (which was already at work in the nineteenth century; see the case of Herculine Barbin described by Foucault in 1980) now staged within the framework of the TV interview. On the other hand, the codes of the freak show are reworked within the intimate “tête-à-tête” (seen by millions of viewers) between two women.

There is no linear relationship between the improvement of transgender civil rights and the advent of higher degrees of trans visibility in the mainstream media. Jenner’s jump to the front pages of magazines and to primetime TV is a paradoxical political displacement. It is at once a strategic move for recognition and a process of media surveillance and gender control. Nevertheless, it is within this narrow regulatory framework that Jenner must negotiate his new identity—by trying to rework abjection into political agency.

We need to see how the gender technologies that are producing Jenner’s transformation are the very same that most “cis” heterosexual women used in the West—at least after the 1950s: hormones (such as the pill), makeup, performance, sometimes surgery. The only difference is that transgender bodies are not yet fully recognized as political subjects within the binary gender regime. We could compare our gender regime to a highly orthodox theological one in which the idea of God can’t be questioned. In our contemporary, high-tech society, questioning the binary gender norm is our heresy. Genderqueer bodies are the new heretics.