Sense8 is perhaps the most Wachowski thing ever created.
I suppose after putting this forward I should present my bonafides. There are only two Wachowski feature films or TV shows I haven’t watched: Speed Racer and Work in Progress. The latter I found out about while researching this article. I would even be willing to defend Jupiter Ascending as a work of art. Unironically.
So when I say that this strange television show represents the clearest iteration of the concerns that have haunted the Wachowski’s work since at least when they started work on Bound, I’m not entirely talking bullshit.
Sense8 deals with the themes of self-doubt and identity that fueled Jupiter Ascending and the Matrix movies. It addresses the concerns about the corrosive impact of capitalism that cast a shadow over every Wachowski project arguably as far back as Assassins. It addresses ideas regarding found family and particularly found family in queer contexts such as what we see in The Matrix and in Bound. And it’s a crime story. And a Science Fiction story. And it’s a story about a small group of people trying to fight against a vast and oppressive system they have to dismantle. This is all well trodden ground for the Wachowskis. And while all of these thematic concerns appear in greater or lesser extents within other Wachowski films, it is in Sense8 that they find their fullest and most complete realization. And in the process what the Wachowskis give us is nothing short of a proposal – a plan – a line of flight out of capitalism.
The modular self
The idea that people are modular, or dividual, arises in the Matrix quite a lot. Neo sits in a chair and he knows Kung Fu. Neo is not The One – until he is. Neo is Thomas Anderson – until he is not. Neo knows kung fu. The Matrix engaged freely with the idea that self could be disrupted; it suggested that self was plastic and could be shaped by external pressures.
I have talked before about how self can be seen as a product of external force and in the Matrix this is shown clearly as Morpheus and Smith each try to shape Neo into the form they desire. The Matrix also hints at the requirement that this loosening of the Cogito, this rejection of individuality qua that which cannot be divided, depends on an idea of plasticity of the self that requires external forces acting upon the subject.
But where the Matrix saw this in a very cybernetic way, both in the sense of mechanical intervention and in the sense of Neo’s changing self-perception being the direct response of a close feedback loop mechanism, Sense8 takes a somewhat different approach. Neo is given the “kung fu” module, but its integration depends on him showing Morpheus. He becomes The One as a feedback response to getting shot by Smith, with his ability to come to this self-knowledge predicated on every event that happened to him before. Each step in the shaping of Neo’s self follows the other. The sense of self of the Sensate cluster is exploded when they have their second birth but the knowledge and skill they need, the change to how they see themselves, arrives at need. Leto has to protect Daniela and so Wolfgang is there. Both Neo and the Sensate cluster experience a plasticity of self. But Neo’s is one made of interlocking parts that must follow some logic. The sensates self-image is fluid. Furthermore Sense8 interrogates the idea of modularity-of-self as being affected by an aware external agency. Whispers attempts to force specific being upon other sensates (atomization, marginalization, otherness) but he is thoroughly repudiated. He cannot force these behaviours because the nature of the sensates, is fluid, it responds to his pressure not by being reformed into some new solid shape but by flowing around and away from the source of pressure.
Throughout the extended period where Will and Riley are hiding from Whispers, they fluctuate between a conspiratorial anti-ocularity and deliberate visibility in order to manipulate Whispers. Whispers expects them to run and hide, to use blockers and to remain conspiratorial. Instead they entrap him with the gap between what he sees and what he believes. Will assumes the identity of the junkie, of the broken man, and he and Riley sell this assumption to Whispers as if it was really what they were and not, instead, a shell hiding the true movement of their conspiracy into a different direction.
Morpheus hands Neo a red pill and he goes down the rabbit hole. Later Neo is implanted with skills and knowledge. The sensates are born together, twice, and grow into being together. They are plastic but they are plastic in the way of a vine always climbing toward the sun, not the way of a bonsai tree, carefully shaped by a commanding will. We see this fluidity arise too in the way that Sense8 treats sex and sexual desire. When we meet the sensates, we see each as having specific and delineated desires, sexualities, sexual identities. Leto is gay. Nomi is a lesbian. Kala is straight.
But there are cracks in these boxes. The first appears when Will and Riley look in the mirror and each sees themself as the other. Other cracks come from outside the sensate cluster. Daniela’s insertion into Leto and Hernando’s carefully private life is disruptive, but the entire thing is built upon a sincere and mutual desire. They enjoy her gaze as much as she enjoys gazing. The problems only appear when others look at the triad and become judgmental. Slowly, the desire of the cluster becomes more polymorphous. We get those psychic orgies that made Sense8 famous, and it’s worth noting that most of these orgiastic moments involve the participation of people from without the cluster, whether Hernando, Amanita or someone else.
Of course Sense8 was not the first time the Wachowskis played around with the power of the orgiastic – the orgy in the Matrix: Reloaded remains one of the most memorable scenes in the film but in Sense8 it wasn’t just, “look at this beautiful field of hot, wet bodies.” It was, instead, “look at how the boundaries of desire dissolve, look at how these people melt and flow into each other.” The orgies in Sense8 are these pressing and claustrophobic scenes of abstraction: hands and asses, breasts and necks all pressing inward, a writhing mass of desiring flesh that often obscures faciality. This deployment of sexuality demonstrates how, in their desire, the sensates transform and flow into and around each other.
When looking at Sense8 as an escape plan, it’s essential to understand that it asks us to be sensates. We must be able to flow freely between conspiratoriality and a deliberate sort of visibility. We must be plastic like the vine climbing to the sun. We should deny being bound within specific labels, sorted and essentialized to be sold to, but should instead be able to mingle freely, to flow and to transform ourselves such that we are able to be who we need to be in any given moment.
But it’s not enough to be like water or like a vine. It isn’t enough to recognize the plasticity of our condition and to lean into it, to gain power through amorphousness. Because, as we’ve already described at length, the other essential part of dividuality, of the idea that the self can be divided and added to, is that the boundaries of the self extend beyond the skin of a person and into the community. Returning to that Mbiti quote, “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.”
Community and conspiracy
Let’s turn our attention away from the sensates for a moment and instead look at the people around them. Because Sense8 does something over and over again with the people who aren’t living a life of total plasticity in each others heads that is very surprising. It shows them willingly becoming accomplices. Of course the easiest example of this is the role that Daniella plays in Lito’s life. Even though her presence, and her telephone, complicate his life, Daniella is always a willing conspirator, an accomplice to him. She gives of herself freely and he does so in return. There is nothing but will that binds Lito to Daniella. In fact, his willing of her into his life is a little surprising at times considering the risk of complication she constantly presents. And yet she stays and gives of her talent. When we see her taking over as his agent, making calls, using her connections to book Lito into events there’s no thought of renumeration. When he rescues her from her abusive ex-husband it is equally not a matter of transaction but of community. She does what she does for Lito because they are community. He does what he does for her because they are community. It isn’t debt and obligation; it is recognition that they are one and the same.
The show does this again with the gradual, fumbling and stuttering seduction of Rajan. There are moments where the poor dork is framed as if we expect a turn toward betrayal, or of failing to understand Kala’s increasingly complex life, or of some other sort of conflict that doesn’t arise. Instead, he gives everything to her. And when we think Rajan has no more to give, he gives more of himself still. And again Sense8 drives this idea home with Bug.
Bug: Where's Mike? Nomi: It's me. I'm Mike. Bug: Oh, shit. Fuck. Right, totally forgot. I'm a fucking idiot. Of course it's you, buddy! Course it's you. Not you like the old you. Like a new hot version of you. Shit, Mike. You're a total fox! I would do you! I would. I would totally - I mean, not like, not in a degrading way like that sounded, but total compliment.
Our introduction to Bug isn’t very hopeful. While he’s open to Nomi and her changing circumstances, he still manages to deadname her because Bug is a bit of a dumbass. But he’s a dumbass with a trunk full of very hard-to-get computer gear that he just straight-up gives away. When Nomi needs somewhere to hide she turns to Bug and he’s enthusiastic to help. And again and again when she needs somebody to help her with the tech end of the sensate conspiracy, Bug is right there, willing to help, willing to listen, and what we initially take as a kind of creepy horniness from him turns out to be simply the awkward way that Bug expresses his selfless love for Nomi. Bug is never the sort of sexual partner to Nomi and Amanita that Daniela is to Lito and Hernando and I think that’s important. The show subverts our expectation of that mirroring with Bug’s kind of off-putting initial reaction but then shows us a validation that community, while grounded in desire, is grounded in desire to be a community and not just in the desire to fuck. Note carefully that the desire is to be the community, not to be an individual within it because that distinction is, perhaps more than anything else, what Sense8 is trying to drive home. A community exists not when “men, originally separated, get together,” as De Beauvoir put it but rather when people recognize that they desire to be together. And it’s important first that this desire to be together is complimentary. Each person within the community brings their talent to the fold but it is not lacking in redundancy: Nomi and Bug are both hackers; Wolfgang and Sun both know how to fight; Capheus and Will are both diplomats. But each gives freely to the members of their community and each, in turn, is given to freely: willfully and without thought of remuneration.
But you can’t win on love alone and that’s also something Sense8 understands. Being a community is necessary to escaping capitalism but likewise it is necessary to be a conspiracy. And one thing a conspiracy must understand, intimately, is the eye of the counter-insurgent who watches for them. Whispers is the panopticon manifest and is a far more chilling antagonist than Smith in the Matrix for the singularity of his gaze.
Smith hates the smell of humanity so much that he blinds himself. He takes out his earpiece so he can conspire with Morpheus. Whispers never looks away – he is ever-watchful.
And so the sensates conspire against him. They surveil him in turn; they discover who his masters are, they allow him to lead them to his masters and then they blow every one of the bastards up with a rocket launcher. This is somewhat of a Chekov’s rocket launcher, this tool of broad, cacophonous, destruction appears before when Wolfgang needs to dispose of his more personal enemies. Sense8 is a show built on bones of love and desire, and it isn’t a show that is happy about violence. Sun is haunted by her violence. Capheus is forced into situations of violence and pretty obviously hates it. Will rejects the mantle of state-sponsored violence. Nomi flees it. But for all that these people don’t want to be violent, for all they don’t want to have enemies, they are willing to be ruthless to remove them. Sun deploys ruthlessness like a sharp claw against her awful brother and in any other show Wolfgang would probably have ended up dying in order to achieve absolution of his sins.
Instead Sense8 is very comfortable saying that while we might not choose our enemies, we can choose to be done with them. And how does an insurgent group, just eight ring leaders each operating with the collaboration of a small cell of accomplices, overthrow a far bigger enemy? With conspiracy, cunning and a willingness to do literally anything to end the threat of the enemy. Sense8 reminds us of how important it is to recognize the possibility of a different world. The last scene of the series, after the delightfully self-indulgent wedding at the Eiffel tower which I may be the only extant fan of, tells us perfectly well where the sensates want to be and what they want to do with their time.
Bataille’s accursed share must be used for something and if it isn’t waging war, it’s going to be towering works of art and vast and indulgent exercises in debauch. Better the latter than the former, says the end of Sense8. But to get there, to get to the big party where everybody revels in their plasticity to become anything, to discover the sensual limits and to explore the possibilities of being, we have to fight. And we must remember that too. The Tiqqun collective reminds us that, “evasion is only a simple escape: it leaves the prison intact. We must have desertion, a flight that at the same time obliterates the whole prison.” And obliteration of the prison – be that the prison of Whispers’ panopticonic gaze or the imaginary bounds of the capitalist-realist condition, will require the sort of conceptual violence that obliterates our bonds as fully as Wolfgang obliterates that helicopter. If there were no enemies there’d be no need to talk of liberation. We could all go and have a party on the Eiffel tower.