“Architects are needed. Architects of beauty who fashion jouissance — a very subtle material.”

— Luce Irigaray, “The Fecundity of the Caress”

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ONE MORNING in the fall of 2005, when I was in the 10th grade, a classmate called Audrey quietly handed me a lumpy wrapped package. We were in art history and were meant to be doing quiet reflection, writing about the strange composition of Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ — irrepressibly genital, dramatically foreshortened — massively projected on the pull-down screen. “Open it,” Audrey whispered. It was my birthday.

Inside, a small purple … thing. I wasn’t quite sure what it was: three or four inches long, silicone and ridged, the shape of a finger permanently fixed in a come-hither, or a stumpy, nubby hook. “It’s a massager,” she said, exasperated, and a bit disappointed when I didn’t react. “Because you’re so stressed.” Of course I’m stressed, I remember thinking. I’m determined to be salutatorian. Audrey encouraged me to take it out of the packaging — which I did — and slide in the small battery. The thing whirred to life, as loud as a hairdryer or weedwhacker. Loud enough that our teacher came over from her desk, stood over me, and said tightly that she’d prefer I not bring a vibrator to her class. Of course, I was mortified. Less that I’d taken it out in class and pressed it firmly, naïvely, into my palm, than that I didn’t know what it was, that I’d been so oblivious, so unworldly, so provincial, so vanilla. I didn’t know Audrey well — she’d slept over at my house a few times. We’d shared my small bed and, before we fell asleep, she told me stories about the barn she worked at after school; about how, after everyone else had left, she watched the stable boy “do” the trainer in a horse stall; how the stable boy greedily stared at Audrey the whole time, as she peeped out, in plain sight, from behind the hay baler. Of course, I was scandalized. Audrey’s experiences were so far from mine, we could have been from different planets (she, perhaps, from Mars, me from Pluto — lagging, underdeveloped, frigid). In other words, she was the closest thing in my life to a countersexual — a wildly capacious term Paul B. Preciado uses to describe someone who, among other aims, situates her body outside of stale binaries (woman/man, gay/straight, trans/cis, kink/vanilla) and instead opens herself toward new detours in, and technologies of, sexual pleasures.

To be fair, that’s not quite right. To borrow from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, just as the politics of the ass are not the same as the politics of the asshole, so the politics of the vibrator are not the same as politics of the dildo; but they’re not totally separate either. As Preciado asks in his 2000 Countersexual Manifesto (which now finally appears in English translation, published by Columbia University Press in December 2018): “Is the dildo genealogically linked to the penis through a logic of imitation or, rather, to the pleasure repression-production technologies of the chastity belt and the clitoral vibrator?” Prefiguring Preciado’s work in Testo Junkie, Countersexual Manifesto toggles between high theoretical descriptions of the utopic possibilities made available in a society in which sexuality is taken off leash, and “reading exercises” and “countersexual reversal practices” — what he calls dildotectonics. (Some of these reversal practices include, but are certainly not limited to, practices titled: “Practice I: Ron Athey’s Solar Anus, Iteration of a Dildo onto a Pair of Stilettos, Followed by Anal Self-Penetration,” or “Practice III: How to Pleasure a Dildo-Head, Iteration of a Dildo onto a Head.”) Over and above the specificity of these practices, dildotectonics is a counterscience that seeks to undermine hegemonic sex/gender. The dildotectonic goal is “to locate the technologies of resistance (which, by extension, we will call ‘dildotechnia’) and moments of rupture in the body-pleasure-profit-body chain of production within straight and queer sexual cultures.” Dildotectonics is, in this sense, double-ended: if we change the way we conceive of the dildo, we can change the way we encounter it as a sexual object. At the same time, changing the encounter with the dildo changes the possibilities of the dildo.

And so the possibilities of the dildo are at the center of this text. For Preciado, the dildo is a technology of sex, sure, but also of deconstruction: the dildo reveals the supplemental constructedness that characterizes all sex, in much the same way that drag calls attention to the construction of gender through artifice and imitation. Preciado reads the dildo as both literal and figurative, tracing its technological genealogy from its roots in treatment for female hysterics to its use in intersex sex-reassignment and vaginoplasty. But the dildo also figures for the plasticity of our bodies, of what parts (alone or in unison) can be, or become, “sexual” or an “organ.” The dildo expands where, when, and how we might experience bodies, desire, fantasy, and touch. “The dildo, as a reference of power and sexual arousal, betrays the anatomical organ by moving into other signifying spaces (organic and inorganic, male and female) that are resexualized by dint of their semantic proximity,” Preciado explains. “From that moment on, anything can become a dildo. All is dildo. Even the penis.”

The argument that “all is dildo,” opens, I think, the finest promise of countersexuality: refabricating the body, growing the sites and nodes of sexual pleasure until they are beyond all notions of centrality. “Transforming any body (organic or inorganic, human or not) into a possible pleasure center defers the origin, troubles the center,” Preciado explains. “The genitals must be deterritorialized. Therefore, all is dildo. And all becomes orifice.” The dildo, both as sexual and architectural practice, can change the way our bodies experience space, proximity, distance. When “all is dildo,” who, how, and when we fuck becomes multiple and manifold, troubling the boundary between body and dildo. But this multiplicity engenders its own questions. Does the body or the dildo experience pleasure? Where does that pleasure come from? Who, or what, attains it? What are the potential architectures of the countersexual body?

Through written prior to both Testo Junkie (2008) and Pornotopia (2014) — written, in fact, while Preciado was pursuing a PhD in architecture at Princeton, and simultaneously writing the dissertation that would become Pornotopia Countersexual Manifesto’s delayed publication gives the text a feeling of belatedness and nostalgia. Many of the artists and scholars Preciado cites — Pat Califia, Ron Athey, Del LaGrace Volcano — were contemporaries, not today’s theory luminaries. This is not to say that the text isn’t relevant, or that it’s aged poorly — it is, and it hasn’t — but rather, that in the cut between 2002 and 2018, neoliberalization has repackaged the margins such that our moment is perhaps one of counter-countersexuality: love is love, it gets better, love trumps hate. Marriage for all has been legalized (even if some bakers are off the hook from baking gay cakes for us). We trans people have had our tipping moment, and our popular television show. No doubt, this narrative of progress effaces increasingly brutal realities for low-income, food-insecure, and underemployed queer/trans folks. The brunt of this bleak reality falls most heavily on the shoulders of transfeminine people of color (see, for instance, Eric A. Stanley’s 2011 “Near Life Queer Death: Overkill and Ontological Capture,” and Calvin Warren’s 2017 “Onticide: Afro-pessimism, Gay N***** #1, and Surplus Violence”). But after the decade-and-a-half break between its composition and its English translation, it’s difficult not to read Preciado’s book with morose hindsight, now that we have seen the aughts plowing over, gentrifying, and juice bar-ing anything counter or sexual. Which is to say: We’ve commodified alterity, tamped and pulped it into homogeneity, yoked together the homo and the normative, the homo and the national.

This makes for a strange read. If Testo Junkie is a work of loss, Countersexual Manifesto is a utopian cry to manifest revolutionary change in the face of necropolitical practices and planetary destruction. The strangeness comes from the difficulty of reading utopian writing in the present, from the struggle to not be a bit embarrassed by dazzling hopefulness given the horrors of the last two decades. Retrospectively, we read that utopian vision as a kind of loss in this text.

One limitation of the book is both structural and practical. By introducing his manifesto writing before the theoretical writing that underpins it, Preciado dilutes the excitement of his political program. Likewise, by making the scale so big in this work — bodies! sex! technology! — he provides a utopian vision with very little in the way of specificity or concrete action. Not unlike José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia, Preciado’s Countersexual Manifesto is concerned with world-building. In that way, it bears out some of the same frustrations that attend Muñoz’s work. Fundamentally, their positions seem, I would think, to most queers, and hopefully many non-queers, too, indisputable — the here and now is a prison house (in Muñoz’s terms); the heterosexual regime produces gender and heterosexuality, but affirms it as natural; it demarcates what sex acts are appropriate and proper, which parts of the body might be considered sexual (as Preciado argues). Contra those two positions, this is crudely, as I understand it, what queer means: the desire, or consent, to not have one’s gender, sexuality, or orientation(s) line up; the desire to exist in the breaks, interruptions, intermissions, and fissures. Signing on to the utopian project is easy, but neither Preciado’s text nor Muñoz’s offers much more than a disappointing variant on hope: look toward the queer horizon, imagine other ways of fucking and being fucked. There’s a real pleasure and exuberance to Preciado’s writing; but the book’s somewhat deflated conclusion — that the new queer sexuality is already being shaped by, as Preciado writes, “grafts, dildos, implants, drugs, hormones … so many other prostheses, so many other gender production zones” — undercuts the urgency and importance of agency to the project of countersexuality. Don’t get me wrong: reading both utopic texts, I have fun, but don’t quite get there.

And maybe that’s — at least in part — the point: shifting our center of sexuality away from the normatively genital, away from the orgasm, away from whatever “getting there” might look like in theory. Preciado is most compelling when his manifesto explores the architectures of countersexuality — the orifices to be filled, the bodies to be rebuilt, the spaces to be created and desecrated — when he seeks to answer the fundamentally architectural question: “Can we imagine a world beyond this metaphysics of gonadic binarism?” It is in these moments that the multiple threads Preciado works with — prosthetics, fabrication, pre-fab design — are not untangled, but productively jumbled, revealing the workings and logics, in all of these technologies, of industrial-colonial capitalism and postindustrial neoliberal late capitalism. Here, Preciado brings the pragmatics of architecture — how to build, where, with what — to bear on queer theory’s more undetermined program for world-building. While his project ultimately remains speculative, part of the promise of the manifesto is this simple point: if what we’re faced with is an architectural challenge, we can develop the technologies to redraw and rescale and revise — to innovate.

In “The Daddy Dialectic,” Jordy Rosenberg argues that the circularity of Marx’s Capital — however frustrating, or confusing, or dispiriting — is a fundamental part of its pedagogy. Concluding by way of taking us back to the beginning of capitalism as a transition out of feudalism, Marx reminds us that it wasn’t always this way, and in doing so make us understand that things can change. “[H]istory does not matter as the fiction of a forward-moving telos,” Rosenberg explains. “History matters only as a backward-facing reflection so that you can see one simple thing. Things were once different. Not better, but different. And so they might be again, and this time we have to have the wild belief that they could be better-different, not just differently-awful-different.” Within the frame of Preciado’s dildotectonics, we might say that sexual technology has changed; but we, too, are challenged to change, to rethink, and counter the sexual structures and their attendant technologies that seem the most natural. As Preciado shows us, those structures and ways of inhabiting the sexual body are just as technological, just as dildonic, as everything else.

With his utopian project, Preciado might be answering Irigaray’s call, in “The Fecundity of the Caress,” for architects of beauty to fashion the very subtle material of jouissance. What’s compelling about Preciado’s argument is that this architecture doesn’t have to be beautiful and this jouissance doesn’t have to be subtle. Perhaps, too, in the countersexual society Preciado envisions, to be an architect means using the same tool — the dildo — not only for construction, but also for deconstruction.

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RL Goldberg is a PhD candidate in English and Humanistic Studies at Princeton. They work on trans theory, phenomenology, and 20th-century American literature.