Orlando, My Political Biography
Biographies commemorate lives. What differentiates them with other types of commemorations – for example the ones that are emitted at family dinners or during funerals – is that they are written down. The biography makes the account of a life exist beyond the immediacy of its verbalization. It’s meant to be read, published, spread. One does not need to know, or have personally known, the represented subject in order to learn from what is being told about her*himself. Not only do biographies recount historical events contemporary to the person; they also mirror the fashion of their time with their venerated ideas and established norms. Ideally, inspiration arises when reading such a piece. One might strive to become like the honored person or have less fear to accept oneself when spotting similarities with the person whose life has been recounted, fragmented – judged interesting enough to be translated into words and transformed into fiction. A fiction which serves to build other lives into fictions. A life that, in its fictional form, contributes to the modeling of dominant narratives or the blossoming of new and underrepresented ones.
Orlando, where are you? It’s the opening scene of Orlando: my political biography, Paul B. Preciado’s first attempt at expressing his ideas through moving images. These words are printed down in capital letters on a placard that he glues on the streets at night. As if having to hide himself from the public eye and police in order to address Orlando. As if it was illegal for Orlando to even exist. But the documentary makes it clear: there are many Orlandos out there. Of all ages and nationalities, and most of them aren’t aristocrats, unlike Virginia Woolf’s. In Preciado’s documentary, Orlando is Janis Sahraoui, Orlando is Oscar Rosza Miller, Orlando is the make-up artist, Orlando is Liz Kristin, Orlando is Ruben Rizza, Orlando is Julia, Orlando is Amir Baylly, Orlando is Naellel Dariya, Orlando is Jenny Belair, Orlando is Emma, Orlando is Kori Angelis Brown, Orlando is Lilie, Orlando is Artur; Orlando is all of them and many others.
In Virginia Woolf’s novel, written in 1928, Orlando lives through multiple centuries. Around the age of thirty, while sleeping, the character shifts from male to female. It happens unavoidably, without any motif nor prediction; it unfolds organically, like aging. “It sprung upon me how I could revolutionize biography in a night” wrote Virginia Woolf in a letter to her friend and lover, Vita. In her novel, Orlando is Vita. It’s Vita’s ancestors, it’s Vita in the present and Vita in the future, all condensed to one persona, one life, one biography – a fiction that became a feminist reference. Woolf revolutionized the biography by having as a subject of reference an aristocratic woman living in the 20th century who was neither a hero, queen or traitor, but a poet. Woolf challenged the idea of one’s life being tied solely to the lived experiences of that one person. In her novel it is clear: a person is shaped by events previous to birth and following death, like the life of a drop in-between cloud and river.
“I am …. and in this film I will be Virginia Woolf’s Orlando”. That is how the characters introduce themselves in Preciado’s film, looking straight into the camera, returning their gaze to the ones of the observers. Who they are outside the piece matters; they actively participate in the storytelling by giving out personal information and anecdotes relating to their gender-identity. They will be Orlando in the film, they say. But in Preciado’s film, there is only one scene in which the fictional illusion of the character they inhabit is fully played through: when Ruben Rizza as Orlando and Castiel Emery as Sasha walk towards each other in slow-motion with a snow-covered forest in the background, accompanied by a baroque music (semper dowland semper dolens by John Dowland) and a passage of Woolf’s novel read in voice over. Sasha then leaves the scene and Orlando remains in the foreground of the deep frost, holding Woolf’s book in his hand and reading from it outloud; an assistant sets the blue screen aside and the dreamlike landscape disappears from our sight; now it’s the film studio which constitutes the background and the foreground; Orlando is taken back to his*her fictional character, in a universe shown as being the result of stylistic choices and executions – a constructed world, a political fiction.
How do you film the biography of a trans person today? Or to put it another way: how do you build an Orlandesque life, a life as a gender poet in the midst of a binary and normative society? This question is posed by Preciado after thirty minutes: couldn’t the fact that it has been placed neither at the beginning nor at the end of the film be part of the answer? The film merges documentary and mockumentary, reportage and fiction, poetry and pragmatism; archive images are cut with present-day shots; past, present and future collaborate one with another. Everything is mutable, shiftable, if not already shifting; the backstage of the studio appears throughout all the length of the film, with its tools, its lights, its cables and screens; it’s being shown in its functionality as a big playroom, a hub of creativity, a space to be transformed. “Like gender, the nation does not exist outside of collective practices, which imagine and construct it. Cross out the map, erase the first name, propose other maps and other first names whose collectively imagined fictional nature is evident. Fictions that might allow us to fabricate practices of liberty1 Preciado, B. Paul, An Apartment On Uranus, Fitzcarraldo Editions (London 2019) p.112.”
Preciado elucidates, through this cinematic construction, how being means: endlessly becoming; being Orlando means perpetually becoming Orlando, by subjecting oneself to conscious and active processes of metamorphoses, whether physically or spiritually, if not both. Becoming not only One, but multiple Ones, as uttered by one of the interviewed Orlando’s. If Biographies are meant to commemorate lives, a biography of a life that is multiple can be most accurately translated into a poem, an anagram, a backstage. This is being translated into the act of creating a story through film. Behind the camera, behind the actor, there is a stage, there is a microphone, there is the assistant helping to fix the microphone; there is a team. These individuals are being shown at work. They are not only actors, but also the tools, the means through which the story can be shown in its complete form. No illusion imposed upon that: the end piece is inseparable from the process and the process isn’t a solitary one; it is one in which mutual commitment is required. One’s biography is someone else’s too.
Orlandesque idiosyncrasy can’t be separated from the collective aspirations necessary to live in an orlandesque way. In his political biography, Preciado defines himself upon the fictional Orlando of Virginia Woolf and of the Orlandos made of flesh and consciousness – those who share similar values as him, inspire him, but also and mostly: share the same fight as him. He calls and shouts and sings in favor of liberation; liberation from anthropocentrism, from binary norms and words, from normative psychology and psychiatry; Pharmacoliberation – the right to acquire hormones without having to label oneself as suffering from a psychiatric disorder. In the film, french actor Frédéric Pierrot plays the psychiatrist – “Dr. Reine“ (Dr. Queen). The psychiatrist holds the power to distribute medication and facilitate bodily transformations. It’s interesting to think about him being the only professional actor in the film, the only one fully playing a role that does not coincide with his daily life; the only one who, like a mechanized puppet, seems to spit out premade words. Him acting the psychiatrist as opposed to the others playing a fictional version of themselves accentuates the gap existing between the antagonist universes they represent and incorporate.
Similarly, Virginie Despentes plays the judge. But the difference is that she’s not fully acting; her status as a writer who puts acts of violences into words, who by naming injustices makes them more real and thus more broadly acknowledged, gives her the legitimacy to complete the role of the judge. Indeed, the writer has a certain duty of judgment, although it’s not an institutionalized one. Woolf, too, holded this responsibility and so does Preciado today. From his books Testo Junkies to Dysphoria mundi, the author denounces the effects of what he calls “pharmacopornography”: a regulation of our bodies by the pharmaceutical and pornographical industry to make them fit in, and contribute to, the capitalist dogma. “Capitalism is an irrealism2 Preciado, B. Paul, Dysphoria Mundi, Editions Grasset (Paris 2022), p.40” he writes, contesting the notion of “capitalism realism” popularized by Mark Fisher. “Petro-sexo-racial” governances – the pillars of pharmopornographical capitalism – work against practices advocating ecological, feminist, queer, trans and antiracist transitions, he adds3ibid.
In Orlando: my Political Biography, advocates of these transitional practices are most of the time shown in atemporal, multi-functional or ethereal settings: in the forest, leaning on antique sculptures, in water. The rooms that have a precise function are the psychiatrist’s office and the court – institutions of which the settings, the decoration and symbols are fixed. They’re an obligatory stopping-off place for laws and norms to change, places in which desires of freedom are expected to be turned into rights; in this case, the right to exist as Orlando without having to ingeniously detourn institutional rules. Paradoxically, these fixed settings are the ones in which people (Pierrot and Despentes) have been required to act, fully or partly. Whereas Pierrot embodies the conservative, capitalist pharmacopornographic mindset, Despentes personifies hope and renewal. As for the film studio, it embodies the essence of transition itself.
Still, beyond having the studio as a space in which multiple universes can be created and revisited, we testify on several occasions how the “innerworld” of each individual is being influenced and shaped by the effort to understand their environment, often through literature. We see them immersed in their readings: Liberation Trans: beyond pink and blue by Leslie Feinberg, Le corps lesbien by Monique Wittig, and others. Whereas the film avoids falling into the conventional scheme of immersing the spectator into the life of an individual in the form of a typical, linear and sensational biopic, it shows its characters immersed into their own, chosen, narratives. If Masculinity and Femininity are political fictions, new fictions need to be created; the established historical discourses need to be intervened on, as it is claimed by the end.
As radical as Orlando was for the epoch of its creation, Woolf managed to imbed her character in a form of universalism that makes her*him relatable to today’s youth. There are many Orlando’s out there. But as much as they might appreciate fiction, these Orlandos don’t live inside a book; they live inside a world in which there are neither the adequate words nor structures for them to be accepted by the majority, for them to be recognized as legitimate citizens. Societal circumstances make it difficult for them to exist. It’s during her sleep that Orlando becomes female, it’s at night that Preciado displays the poster to the public, it’s in a staged court, in an imagined future, that all the Orlando’s out there are given a “global, non-binary citizenship”.
Citizenship has to be constantly re-imagined. In Une chambre à soi, Virginia Woolf named the conditions for women to succeed in writing: having a space of one’s own, having time, having money. In An Apartment on Uranus, Preciado imagines his chambre à soi to be on Uranus. I am a Uranian confined inside the limits of techno-scientific capitalism, in his words. In the same book, he recognizes, despite how much he admires Virginia Woolf, her failures: “her soul is more sensitive when she looks at the bison in the London zoo than when she observes Nelly, her governess, whom she treats like a slave”. As much as Woolf’s political fiction needs to be intervened on, Preciado’s discourse is not the end-goal, but the verbalization of a new type of biography, a transitional step towards change.
- 1Preciado, B. Paul, An Apartment On Uranus, Fitzcarraldo Editions (London 2019) p.112
- 2Preciado, B. Paul, Dysphoria Mundi, Editions Grasset (Paris 2022), p.40