Reterritorialization and Overcoding – the creative bankruptcy of reaction

If we wanted to put a pin in the beginnings of the resurgence of the far-right it would likely be 2013. Within art this was marked by two principal social conflicts in which the outline of the nascent reactionary movement can be seen. The first was the release of Depression Quest and the second was the inauguration of the first Sad Puppies campaign. Both of these events, in 2013, seemed minor. Depression Quest was a Twine game – effectively the indiest of all indy game platforms. Zoë Quinn was, at the time, a very minor figure in gaming. Depression Quest was a browser game that also attracted some attention via Steam Greenlight but considering Greenlight’s history of lax acceptance standards and vast panoply of games available, this is hardly something that should have stood out above the noise. However Quinn’s meditation on illness received some critical attention and this led to sour grapes with an ex-boyfriend in what became the initial casus belli for the Breitbart-affiliated Gamergate movement.

Simultaneously, Larry Correia struggled to get his novels onto the Hugo ballot and in the process of what largely seems to have been a self-promotion effort fomented the arm of the same reactionary forces behind Gamergate into science fiction and fantasy literature. The decade that followed subsequently saw the mainstreaming of neoreactionary ideology – which shaped what E.L. Sandifer described in Neoreaction A Basilisk as, “an entirely sympathetic anger that people with power are making obvious and elementary errors,” into a tool for fascist entry via the very same platforms (again, Breitbart was central). This then metastasized into the Trumpism and the alt-right: the modern anglosphere Fascist movement that then dominated the half decade starting in 2016.

But it might be somewhat puzzling why, with the obvious movement of fascism in the sphere of politics at this time (Breitbart was also heavily involved in the Tea Party movement,) I am choosing to peg this resurgence to such specifically artistic indicators.

This is because I think it’s important to situate the extent to which fascism is an aesthetic movement.

Fascism as an aesthetic

Fascism has been rather unique among ideologies in how difficult it is to pin down. There are three definitions that are often passed around: the definition provided by Umberto Eco’s Ur-Fascist essay, Lawrence Britt’s 14 Characteristics of Fascism, and Roger Griffin’s, “palingenetic form of populist ultranationalism.” Of these, Britt’s description is probably the least-useful. Britt wasn’t any particular expert and it seems to have been, in my eyes, something of an attempt to correct what he may have seen as deficiencies in Eco’s definition. However if this is the so I think Britt over-corrected as I find Eco’s argument in the Ur-Fascism essay far more relevant to understanding the phenomenon. Griffin’s definition of fascism certainly holds the quality of precision and conciseness that you would expect from a political scientist and an historian and I do want to stress that this lens is critical to understanding fascism but it aims more at the ultimate consequence of what fascists coordinating tend to do to a political milieu than at the underlying project of a fascist qua fascist.

I think this helps explain the longevity of Eco’s description of Fascism; Eco, an artist and semiotician, realized something critical about fascism that Griffin missed. Fascism is largely an aesthetic position. “Even though political regimes can be overthrown, and ideologies can be criticized and disowned, behind a regime and its ideology there is always a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives,” Eco says, and these cultural habits, these obscure instincts and unfathomable drives aren’t a political program exactly, they’re not an ethic nor even an anti-ethic. Rather, as I discussed in my essay on the concept of degeneracy, much of what underpins fascism is a sense of what is beautiful and, more critically, what is ugly. The fascist is, at the root of it all, somebody with an exceptionally powerful revulsion for ugliness and a very specific set of criteria for what makes something ugly.

The fascist is a narcissist par excellence. In fact the only thing a fascist sees beauty in is himself. All of Eco’s 14 points on ur-fascism extend logically from this point of absolute narcissism. The fascist constructs an irreconcilable dualism of self and other and associates all beauty with the self, all ugliness with the other. He loves the cult of tradition because he sees himself in the approving eyes of his ancestors. And from the cult of tradition, Eco rightly points out the rejection of modernity follows. Eco describes how fascism is irrational and unable to withstand systemic critique. The irrationality is, yet again, an inevitable result of the fascist’s solipsism. Any input that destabilizes the duality of absolute self and absolute other must be expelled regardless of whether or not it is reasonable. The syncretism of fascism and its instability in the face of critical scrutiny follows from its irrationality and fascism’s fear of diversity is an immediate property of fascist solipsism again. When we then look at Eco’s description of fascist nationalism this appears again in a remarkable form when we consider the idea of the nation as an imagined community.

Terrible Imagined Communities

When I discussed the idea that there was no such thing as a total community I was largely pointing toward the idea of the imagined community. There is an abstraction to “the genre community,” “the gaming community,” or even to, “Canada,” that belies that these attempts at total communities are fictions notwithstanding ideological differences. It is relevant that there is no room for nazis and their victims in one community, but it’s just as relevant that there will be no true encounter between me and, “Joe from Canada, I think he lives in Vancouver, or maybe it was Halifax?” If a community is predicated upon some sort of group interaction, an imagined community is one where that group interaction has become so vague, so abstract, that it is effectively fully alienated from the people within it. In the sixth and seventh Theses on the genesis of the terrible communities, Tiqqun say:

The Word advances, prudently, filling the spaces between singular solitudes, it swells human numbers in groups, pushing them together against the prevailing winds - effort unites them. This is almost an exodus. Almost. But no pact holds them together, except the spontaneity  of smiles, inevitable cruelty, and accidents of passion.

This passage, similar to that of migrating birds, with murmurs of shifting pain, little by little gives form to the terrible communities.

We can see how these terrible communities, these enclosing and entrapping spaces, these prisons that must be deserted all at once as a spontaneous and total jailbreak, arise as imagined communities. Nations and fandoms alike are held together by, “smiles, cruelty and accidents of passion.” These things are traps. They capture people and create artificial in-groups and out-groups. And it is only a very short slip from, “this is mine,” to, “this is me.”

Fandoms and nations alike both point toward the cancerous undifferentiated bodies that Deleuze and Guattari warn of in November 28, 1947: How Do You Make Yourself a Body Without Organs? “take a stifling body of subjectification, which makes a freeing all the more unlikely by forbidding any remaining distinction between subjects. Even if we consider given social formations, or a given stratic apparatus within a formation, we must say that every one of them has a BwO ready to gnaw, proliferate, cover, and invade the entire social field, entering into relations of violence and rivalry as well as alliance and complicity,” and they provide that carcinogenic ground for these cancerous bodies without organs in part by forming themselves as an imagined space where idealized others are just like me. If I like Star Wars – if Star Wars is mine – if Star Wars is me – if Star Wars is him too – then he is also me. As Bataille said, “a man who finds himself among others is irritated because he does not know why he is not one of the others.” A person who is making a cancerous body without organs has fallen fully into this trap. His sense of his own potential is ready to cover and invade the entire social field – this idea that anybody might not be just like me becomes such a psychic violence to him that he will countenance any cruelty in order to respond to it.

This is entirely an aesthetic action. There’s no sense of the good in any of this. There isn’t even a twisted rejection of the good here. No virtue is possible nor any universalism to build a deontological frame beyond the universalism of, “it is good because it is me,” or, “it is bad because it is not me.” There is no consideration of utility nor is there a question of ambiguity or uncertainty. Just a boot on a neck, a hand holding down a head, a brutish force to clear the line of the fascist’s sight of anything that might offend him.

The incapability of loving destruction

The fascist is incapable of loving destruction for precisely this reason. The fascist cannot destroy what he loves because he only loves himself. This sort of self-annihilation is inimical to the cancerous, metastasizing nature of fascist ideologies. But this has dire (though unsurprising) consequences for the fascist aesthetic. Artistic creation, authentic artistic expression, is bound indelibly to loving destruction. To create art you must identify the thing you love and utterly destroy it in order to create it anew. What has never lived cannot be reborn, and this rising and falling creative cycle is essential to the introduction of the novel, the creative spark arises when the sparks of love and destruction glow together. And this means that the fascist can recognize what he sees as beauty but cannot contribute to its creation. He is all that is beautiful to himself. There is no purer fascist artistic statement than to stand, alone, in a box in which all six walls are covered entirely in mirrors: an endless self recursion without change or derivation. A universe filled with the self. Just like Agent Smith. Fascism mutilates artistic capability because of this solipsism. And so the fascist steals.

We all know the struggle: you like a thing and then the Nazis roll in and take the thing over. People get disgusted with all the Nazis hanging around and then all that’s left surrounding the thing are the Nazis. They did it with solar diagrams. They did it with esotericism. They did it with Norse mythology. They did it with Pepe the Frog. They even try to take the Hammer and Sickle from the left through their hollow, loveless appropriations. Over and over again we see the same pattern.

We must momentarily step back and discuss some basic semiotics. A form of communication, such as an artwork, contains two central components: a signifier and a signified. The signified is the thing communicated, the signifier is the thing that carries that communication. Saussure, who did much of the groundwork for this idea, posited that the relationship between a signifier and a signified was somewhat arbitrary. The value of a signification depended on two relations: the relation between the specific signifier and the specific signified and the relation between the signification and other significations within the system. In economic terms Saussure described these relations as the exchange value of a quantity of currency for bread and the relationship between a quantity of currency and a different quantity of the same currency.

This helps to situate how words relate etymologically to each other and, in turn, how aesthetic concepts relate to each other into a system. But it still makes signification a remarkably arbitrary process. As Lyotard says while describing the development of lexical systems, “Signification would thus find itself pushed out beyond the system of significative units, inasmuch as it could embody any one of these units, then abandon it, only to invest another, without ever seeming to be frozen in an invariant set of oppositions.”

Discourse, Figure is fascinated with the role art, especially visual art, impacts signification, attempting to course correct from Saussure’s preference for the word by giving preference to the image as a signifier. Lyotard presents a view of visual art that allows for the encoding of vast quantities of meaning. But even this doesn’t escape the ultimately arbitrary character of signification.

The picture is such an inefficient trompe l'oeil that it requires the eye to access the truth, and it is, in a sense, nothing more than a call to the eye to be acknowledged. Even if the picture resembles nothing (and it really does resemble nothing, even when it is figurative, since its visible function is to give the given), the eye takes back from it the right it had given up in order to allow the picture to be: the right to believe itself the place from which the world-even in the process of manifesting itself-is seen manifesting itself, manifests its manifestation.

This disconnect between the signifier and the signified is the flaw via which fascism sneaks into art. Fascism is incapable of creating new permutations of meaning but it has become very adept at precisely one artistic act: overcoding a chain of signification with the body of the despot, which is, ultimately a solipsistic reflection of the fascist’s own self-image. Standing alone in his box of mirrors, the fascist says, “Yes me, me me; also me.” Fascism swarms into the infected signifier and attempts then to crowd out any competing signified objects besides itself. The solar cross of Buddhism is no longer a symbol of the radiant beauty of the dharma. It just means the body of the despot. The hammer and the sickle no longer a symbol of the alliance of farmer and factory worker. It just means the body of the despot. The anthropomorphic frog is no longer a symbol for unashamed and sybaritic self-enjoyment (“feels good man”) – it just means the body of the despot.

There’s a story that gets passed around anti-fascist circles: a Nazi bellies up to the bar at a punk rock club and orders a drink. He isn’t bothering anyone except by presenting fascist images on his clothes. The bartender pulls out a baseball bat and chases the Nazi off. A bystander asks the bartender why he chased away the Nazi and the bartender explains that any bar that doesn’t chase away the first Nazi will become a Nazi bar in time, that the Nazi population will grow and as it does it will push the limits of the offense it can cause. Eventually, inevitably, the Nazis will become violent and then all you have left is a Nazi club.

The Dead Kennedys hinted at this too with Nazi Punks Fuck Off – where they proposed that the Nazi punks weren’t really any different than the hegemonic coaches, businessmen and cops who run the imperial core. “When you ape the cops it ain’t anarchy.” They were just stealing a style they didn’t understand. “Trash a bank if you’ve got real balls.” The painful truth is that when Nazis are allowed to overcode a signifier with themselves it is exceedingly difficult to recover that symbol. While some Buddhists and Jainists may be frustrated about the theft of the Swastika you still can’t trust somebody flying it just because they say they’re Buddhist. Matt Furie held a funeral for Pepe the Frog. It can be frustrating to watch as Nazis spread all over this symbol or that – but this just makes the urgency to push back against any attempt to overcode a symbol with fascist solipsism all the greater.

I’ve talked before about the idea of art as a field in which ownership of intellectual property denotes ownership. This is something of a related phenomenon to overcoding. In overcoding a signifying chain is overlaid with a new signified object. In territorialization boundaries are drawn around signifying blocks and we are told these things belong together, these are the boundaries that should not be crossed. Overcoding disregards territorialized boundaries but then it spills out and covers the territory. It puts up walls and guards at the gates and says, “only I may enter here.” It over-writes old boundaries in the process of reifying ones that suit the overcoder. It proceeds like Tetsuo from Akira, like Smith from the Matrix, replacing everything in its path with more of the same, creating a deadening monotony. It isn’t that every reterritorialization is fascist – when I talked about this phenomenon in The Millers vs the Machines I mentioned how it recreated boundaries, not that those boundaries were cancerous or solipsistic; nor is every consumptive fan community doomed to fascism. But it’s important that we recognize that these movements, the walling off of the collective intellectual commons behind boundaries of ownership, the construction of an identity that mistakes an object of desire for the self, and a desire to make things, “like me,” are the ingredients from which fascism arises.

Fascism is difficult to define because it doesn’t have just one origin or just one manifestation. The paranoia of Agent Smith or of nazi punks aping cops can arise out of any social field; but the social field created by capitalism is particularly vulnerable to the manifestation of fascism because it creates fertile preconditions for the arising of this phenomenon.


If we are to resist fascism in the aesthetic field it cannot be by a counter-move of engaging in a pitched battle over staked territories already subsumed. The fascist incorporation of all into the body of the despot leaves a stink that can’t be washed out. We can start by refusing to cede new territory to the fascists – by showing them the door with a baseball bat in hand but this isn’t always easy to do in the art world, in online spaces, in places where the territories are conceptual rather than points on a field of earth. But this doesn’t mean that resistance is a problem even in these circumstances.

Engage willingly with cycles of creation and loving destruction. These cycles exist. We can enter them. And the fascist, trapped in self-love, cannot follow here. Be a thief, as they say, “be gay, do crimes.” Go out beyond the territories you know and return with treasure. Break the jewels you return with to microscopically fine sparkling dust and then reconstitute new gems from it, imbued with both your own being and your love of the other. Make art like making love – not a process of dialectics where two become one but a scizzing movement where two become many. Love your fate and love your resistance to it. Break rules. Break taboos. Be degenerate and deviant. Be a monster. Remember you are not on moral ground and so disregard the ethical imperatives and instead create a beauty that fascists cannot tolerate. Show that beauty to the world to inoculate them against fascist solipsism. Love the other. Don’t become a singularity holding everything in, trying to own the world. Instead allow yourself to be the wandering point dancing across little pools of nothing; be willing to shed identities and to assume them but tend the identities you assume. Avoid paranoia. Since there is no universal community, create communities that are like the sack of humanity unpicked and sewn back up with the moon inside, be alien and strange and beautiful and terrible and evangelize a vision of the world that loves difference, that is unafraid of cycles of birth and death and birth and death. Find the power in your beauty and your assumption of it but wield that power not to make everything like you but rather to make everything unlike you – to make everything strange.

That is the aesthetic ground upon which we fight.

That is the aesthetic ground upon which we win.

Nice Strawman Ben

The conviction of Derek Chauvin in the extra-judicial execution of George Floyd has led to a moment with regard to prison abolition. Of course one of the principal attacks levied at prison abolitionists is, “Aha! Surely that means you think Derek Chauvin shouldn’t be in jail.” This is an old and favourite rhetorical tool of conservatives, liberals and all other people who want to oppose transformative change within society. Let’s look at one of them.

Ben Burgis opposes prison abolition. Mr. Burgis is a lecturer in philosophy at Georgia State University Perimeter College who writes for Jacobin and Quillette (yes that Quillette) and who writes books of political philosophy directed toward responding against conservative rhetoric through the use of formal logic. However it appears he forgot that the strawman is a failure of logic because he has constructed a remarkable one in his (ugh) Socratic dialog with the prison abolitionist.

The central position he takes is that prison abolitionists want to defer the moment of abolition into the future – that we are furthermore happy to see prison used now – and that any program to abolish the prison must be fully articulated before we bring out the wrecking ball. He does this through a cringe-inducing dialog script that I would expect from a C-graded undergraduate rather than somebody holding a doctorate. However in making his argument against prison abolition into a fiction he has moved it into my territory as an art critic. So let’s examine some of these lines:

Me {Ben}: “So, for example, you don’t think Derek Chauvin should be put it in prison? Because it seems to me that locking up murderous cops would be a really good first step toward correcting some of the crazy power imbalances between cops and ordinary people we’ve got right now…but if you’re an abolitionist about prisons, I assume you disagree?”
PA {Prison Abolitionist}: “No, don’t be ridiculous. I still want to lock up Chauvin. It’s not like abolitionists want to let everyone out of prison immediately. That’s a caricature.”

Here Ben establishes the parameters of the argument. The argument must center around the immediate task of what is to be done with this specific delinquent. The argument must further center around whether the prison abolitionist is fully consistent in their views when confronted with our protagonist. He has situated this within the genre of the Socratic dialog, positioning the Prison Abolitionist as one of Socrates’ interlocutors, and himself as the Gadfly of Athens. Charming.

Of course Ben misses the point here. I don’t want Chauvin locked up. Nor do I want him executed. I want Chauvin to never have been. And as the past is inaccessible to me, my principal objective, and the principal objective of most prison abolitionists is to bring about the world where no more Chauvins arise. Since Ben is well-versed in philosophy, I’m going to call this bad faith in a very specific meaning of the word. Ben’s argument is a flight from the position of his freedom. He’s free to imagine a world without Derek Chauvins, free to imagine somewhere beyond the prison. But he runs from it because the ambiguity of the situation terrifies him, and Ben cannot tolerate ambiguity:

Me again later: “Hmm. I still love Angela Davis but the only part of that book that was relevant to this discussion was pretty bad. The last chapter was the only one about alternatives to prisons and it was just astonishingly hand-wave-y.”
PA: “What do you mean?”
Me: “Well, for example, she talked about ways to reduce crime in the long term but she never exactly said whether she believes interpersonal violence would ever literally be reduced to zero, and if not what should be done with remaining offenders.”
PA: “You probably would have been just as dismissive about the movement to abolish slavery in the 19th century.”
Me: “Excuse me?”
PA: “You heard me. People can never imagine what radical change will look like until it’s happened.”
Me: “You don’t think 19th century abolitionists knew about wage labor when they were talking about abolishing slavery?”
PA: “Maybe they did. But what as socialists you and I agree is the next historical step after that — abolishing wage labor? Didn’t Marx say that we shouldn’t write detailed recipes for the cookshops of the future?”
Me: “Marx was wrong. He was right about most subjects but he was wrong about this one. When you don’t write those detailed recipes, the people you’re trying to convince will be understandably skeptical about whether they’ll have anything to eat in that future. The good thing, though, is that lots of people have written recipes. I wrote a quick one here. Bhaskar Sunkara wrote a more detailed version in the first chapter of his book The Socialist Manifesto. David Schweickart wrote a super-rigorous book-length one you can read here and…”

I cannot look at this section as anything other than an expression of fear. He’s terrified that, in Davis’ vision of the future, there would not be a perfect solution to violence but let’s be real here: there is not, now, a perfect solution to violence. In fact, in the United States, one of the greatest vectors of violence is the police force. Burgis, in this dialog, demands perfection of the critic before he will countenance the destruction of the established system. And furthermore, he acts as if no proposals had been put forward. This is categorically untrue. And I don’t even need to go to communism to find strong arguments for abolition. I don’t need Marx to make this case.

Me: “So why do you call yourself an ‘abolitionist’?”
PA: “Because I want to abolish prisons.”
PA: “It’s not my job to educate you.”

I suppose, since your protagonist in this little play wants to play dumb, that it is my job to educate you about what it means to be an abolitionist, and I know you’re a philosophy instructor. You’re published in zero books so I’m going to assume you read Fisher. I mean with how extensively your book borrows from Exiting the Vampire Castle I would assume we could skip the 101 stuff. Even so, I’m a bit apprehensive by the weakness of your Socratic dialog so, just to be safe, let’s talk about Foucault for a second.

“This delinquency, with its specificity, is a result of the system; but it also becomes a part and an instrument of it. So that one should speak of an ensemble whose three terms (police-prison-delinquency) support one another and form a circuit that is never interrupted. Police surveillance provides the prison with offenders, which the prison transforms into delinquents, the targets and auxiliaries of police supervision, which regularly send back a certain number of them to prison,” he says in Discipline and Punish. Foucault demonstrated in this book how the carcerial is constructed of an interlocking system of power relations that both create the police officer and that create the delinquent – the lens through which we view the subject who undertakes crime. As this is an uninterrupted system, the abolition of one depends upon and must necessarily be constructed of the abolition of all three. Chauvin exists because the carcerial exists. So to say that the carcerial must exist so that Chauvin may be punished is circular logic. Chauvin is a product of the carcerial just like every cop and every criminal processed through its ministrations. Doubly so being a delinquent-police officer. I want to tear down the prison because it creates Derek Chauvins.

Furthermore your “prison minimalism” has another word: Reform. And Foucault rightly points out that efforts to reform the prison began immediately upon the formation of the prison. The effort to reform the prison is, in fact, a principal vector of its functioning. And so we cannot reform. That will merely perpetuate the carcerial and all the cruelty it creates.

Tiqqun understood the stakes. In Theses on the Terrible Community, they said:

Evasion is like the opening of a blocked door: initially it gives an impression of not seeing as far: we stop looking at the horizon and begin putting into place the details for getting out.
But 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. Properly speaking, there is no individual desertion. Each deserter takes with him a little of the group’s fighting spirit. By simply existing he is an active challenge to the social order: and all the relationships he enters are contaminated by the radicality of his situation.

We must have a mass desertion of the prison. Not tomorrow. Not in the future. Today! This very minute! Right this second! We must vacate the cells, pull down the police forces, smash the prison and end its panopticism, we must break the cycle of arrest-delinquency-release-collaboration. You might say I’m being a revolutionary firebrand (I am) you might say I’m being unrealistic (I am not). And I don’t need to depend on revolution to declare the prison obsolete. In fact I can look to one of the most famous critiques of Discipline and Punish to do just that. So let’s turn our attention to what Deleuze had to say about the episteme we occupy.

On prisons, and other disciplinary institutions, he said, “everyone knows that these institutions are finished, whatever the length of their expiration periods… These are the societies of control which are in the process of replacing the disciplinary societies.” Deleuze is explicit in his postscript that the days of the disciplinary societies that gave rise to the prison are ended and that we already have new epistemic tools for dealing with such problems.

“Controls are a modulation,” he tells us and he proceeds to describe Guattari’s keycard-controlled city: the nightmare whereby at any arbitrary moment access to this place or that could be withdrawn like an unwanted module of a complicated machine. Of course this is a nightmare, but is it a worse nightmare than the one we want to wake from? The nightmare of the panopticon and the cellular instruction toward docility that mark the carcerial? I think not. But you are so incurious in your dialog that you imagine there is no alternative.

Of course it sometimes seems to be that this is true and there is no alternative. It’s terrifying to imagine yourself so radically free that the prison could be deserted. And there will almost certainly be violence. Only less so once the guns have been taken from the police and the prison guards. Less so when the social field has been reordered such that the people who would use violence to impose their will upon another do not have the sanction of a state and its monopoly to prop them up.

“The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again,” Fisher said, and this is a kernel of revolutionary optimism we revolutionaries cling to. I have shown you it’s possible to imagine the world without the prison, and if it’s a nightmare I have given you it is at least a gentler one than the nightmare we are all currently live within. It is the duty of all of us to break out, this minute, all at once. And so long as people remain trapped in this nightmare, we abolitionists and revolutionaries will call for the wrecking ball. Release the terrified grip you have on the devil you know: freedom, real radical freedom, is terrifying. I know. It scares me too. Heavens knows it scared Sartre. But what frightens me far more is the idea that people would rather this familiar cruelty than the possibility of anything better.

Sense8: An escape plan from capitalism

And with one image I ensure that any homophobes who missed my relentlessly bisexual bent rage-quit my blog.

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

Modularity of knowledge in the Matrix

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.

On enemies

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.