I had been meaning to write about the Netflix original series Sense8 for some time now, especially after it was unexpectedly cancelled a few weeks ago and my Facebook feed became filled with rants against its discontinuation (mostly from my students; they are after all my barometers of what to watch out for in current pop culture).
By all accounts it was one of the most innovative series out there in terms of form and substance. Helmed by the Wachowskis, the dynamic directing duo behind The Matrix trilogy, nothing less could be expected. With my curiosity piqued I downloaded the two completed season for a well-deserved binge-watch session during those precious days of doing nothing between the end of classes and the university commencement exercises.
It is immediately clear why the series was such a hit with millennial audience. It is sleek and well-made, with engagingdialogue, Wachowski-trademark action scenes, and gorgeousscene photography. But more than this, of course, are the series’ characters and their stories: eight people around the world who discover that they are psychically connected to each other, can feel, think, and even do what the others can feel, think, and do.
We first meet these eight as they are living dull, sometimes even downward-spiral, lives. Will Gorkin is a good cop whose retired policeman father’s slow drinking of himself to death is a depressing preview of what Will’s own future might hold. Berliner Wolfgang comes from a family of gangsters and thieves; not knowing any other life he reluctantly follows suit. We first meet Kala, from Bombay, in the midst of wedding preparations to a man she does not love, though her entire family (and her family’s astrologers) all say they are a perfect match. Capheus, who lives in squalor in Nairobi, lives a dead-end, if happy-go-lucky, existence as a matatu bus driver. All these predictably change when they are “born” into their “sensate”abilities.
Sense8 follows a long thematic line in fiction of social outsiders coming together to become more than they were as individuals. Today we see strains of this in the X-Men, and 80s childhood favorites like The Goonies.
Perhaps the most well-known literary grandparent to such narratives is Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human, the 1953 novella that followed the fate of seven youths who, at one point in their lives or another, as a group formed the new species called Homo gestalt. Individually, they would be considered the detritus of normal society: a teenaged idiot, a runaway, twins who couldn’t speak, and Baby – a hideous-looking infant who didn’t seem to physically grow any older. But as Homo gestalt, they were capable of the most extraordinary things, from manipulating minds to building world-changing technology.
Like Sturgeon, the writers of Sense8 imagine the existence of a different human species called Homo sensorium. But unlike Sturgeon, whose main concern was the moral mooring of any cutting-edge human endeavor (More Than Human was written during the Cold War), Sense8 tackles patently twenty-first century themes.
Immediately obvious is the theme of difference, primarily the difference in human species, but also issues of identity, recognition, and tolerance. Indeed, Sense8 has been lauded for their groundbreaking portrayal of members of the LGBTQ community, and of multiculturalism and ethnic diversity.
In true Wachoswki style, the series offers some subversive moments. In an early episode, the sensate Nomi, a transgender woman, is challenged by a fellow member of the LGBTQ community over her proposal to do away with gender labels. This showed not only that, as a social construct, gender is now undergoing radical re-thinking, but that this process is also fraught with contradiction even within the community that is spearheading such changes in thought. In another, Kala takes on female roles in patriarchal but modernizing India. In a dialogue that many Filipinas may find familiar, she questions the persistently placed premium upon marriage and children despite women’s efforts to be educated and prepare for professional life.
These moments do not necessarily have to come with verbal rumination; an extended sequence portraying the physical birth of the sensates (whether in a high-tech hospital with complete amenities or in a home in rural Mexico with a football game on the television) showed simulated vaginas and infants’ heads coming out from them.
Considering how ordinarily scenes of killing and violence (which are not any less bloody) are depicted in movies and TV series, this gives cause to wonder why depictions of giving birth that shows what happens below the navel are still so rare and exceptional.
The venue that Sense8 provided for discussion of these liberal-democratic themes is needed, and indeed is probably the apparent take-away for many of its viewers. But there is another important thematic direction this series opens that offers a more radical imagining of present society beyond the limits of typical liberal-democratic discourse.
This direction takes up the possibilities of collective life/living. Mention “collective life” to any bourgeois liberal and they will surely recoil. In bourgeois discourse nothing seems more anathema to precious individuality than being subsumed under a collective, which is seen as inevitably resulting in bleak, unnegotiable uniformity. They need only to conjure images of marching North Korean soldiers to raise this bogey-fear, which has also made its way to artistic depictions of “socialist” futures (think 1984 or District 13 in The Hunger Games).
But Sense8 (like More Than Human) allows us a peek into a collective way of life that not only (1) is essential and beneficial for common growth, and (2) is able to gear itself towards and accomplish goals that would have been impossible individually, but more importantly, (3) enhances individual quirks and expressions.
If not for the collective, small-time bus driver Capheus would not have been able to stand up against local warlords and inspire a political movement. If not for the collective, closeted gay actor Lito would not have not come out, making his relationship with his boyfriend Hernando more meaningful than ever before. In fact, the only thing that was giving Lito misery in his new-found acceptance of himself was corporatized media which, despite its flashiness, merely perpetuated outdated social narratives.
Writing about More Than Human, Slavoj Zizek asks, “Does this weird collective not recall Marx’s claim that, in a communist society, the freedom of all will be grounded in the freedom of every individual?”, something that could also persuasively be said about Sense8. In capitalist society, after all, unbridled individualism could only result in the hopeless reproduction of the desire for the unattainable standards of living set by thewealthiest one percent. But a society, or a different mode of production, wherein one no longer worries about where the material essentials for survival (food, clothing, water, electricity)will come from will indeed be that which “opens up the field for authentic idiosyncrasies.”
Free from worrying about being fired from your job or being able to afford school, free from the pressure to catch up with what we see in glossy magazines and TV commercials, we come upon what Fredric Jameson calls “a Utopia of misfits and oddballs, in which the constraints for uniformization and conformity have been removed, and human beings grow like wild plants…”
It is thus no surprise that the series characters, when they are reinforced by the collective, are more able to freely interrogate and challenge seeming entrenched social norms.
The sensates are more able to scrutinize the power of law, to explore the uses and limits of political engagement, as well as the deployment of violence. In the scene where Sun ponders revenge upon her traitorous brother Joong-Ki, the sensates come to her reflective aid.
In a radical de-coupling of the issue of morality and killing, Capheus tells her that there should be no room in her heart for hate, while Wolfgang says that the world is better off without men like her brother. They are also more able to explore unconventional family and kinship arrangements, while gaining the confidence to enrich their relationships with people even outside the sensate collective. Look at how nurturing Lito, Hernando, and Dani are as a trio, and how enviable Nomi and Amanita’s relationship is to each other, as well as to the latter’s mother and three dads.
Which brings us to one final point about the proposal for collective life Sense8 lays down. As in the series, we do not have to wait for socialism to be upon us to practice collective forms of living. At the very least collectives can now serve as formidable defenses against antagonists who are just as eager to harness group power against just causes (for example, why workplaces need unions, why farmers practice collective bungkalan against landlords, etc.). At the most these are the steps by which we can begin to imagine, and work towards, a more equitable future.
The groundbreaking story and visuals of Sense8 that seek to make acceptable, and ultimately normalize, a freer appreciation of gender, spiritual, cultural, and ethnic diversity can only be even more profoundly expanded if seen within a socialist perspective.