We Belong

Alexandro Segade on Sense8

J. Michael Straczynski, Lana Wachowski, and Lilly Wachowski, Sense8, 2015–. GIF from a TV show on Netflix. Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton).

PRIDE MONTH 2017 was momentous, and contentious, for reasons big and small. June’s Facebook pages were littered with rainbow “pride” emoticons, and I used mine for everything. At the same time, a debate about the rainbow flag’s ability to represent its varied constituencies swept through comments, asking if Gilbert Baker’s 1978 creation had become co-opted as a corporate logo, needful of additional black and brown stripes to better address those banded together under the LGBTQIA banner. Often unspoken but nevertheless felt was the shared posttraumatic stress of knowing that a year before, the largest single-shooter mass murder in American history had taken place in a Latino gay bar in Orlando, Florida. Trump, who used “the specter of Orlando” to support his xenophobic presidential campaign, presided over a White House which, unlike its predecessor, made no official mention of Pride Month, even as our popularity made Stonewall’s remembrance a legit semi-holiday, with sponsorship from T-Mobile.

And then there was the saga of Sense8 (2015–). Before I could click on the rainbow-colored button for season two of the sci-fi soap opera, I was alerted to the show’s cancelation, announced by Netflix on June 1, the first day of Pride Month, an irony noted by its outraged queer fanbase, who immediately leapt into action, with, among other social-media agitations, a petition. Quoting Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton), the transgender lesbian hacktivist protagonist, Sense8 fans tweeted, “I am also a we.”

That we, it seemed, had not included enough Is. Actor Brian J. Smith, who plays Will Gorski, a midwestern cop psychically linked to Nomi and six others around the world, explained: “The show would have continued if only the viewership justified the expense,” which was rumored to be around eleven million dollars an episode. The producers responded on Tumblr: “[w]e wish we could #BringBackSense8 for you… [w]e’ve thought long and hard here at Netflix to try to make it work but unfortunately we can’t… [h]ope you’ll stay close with your cluster around the world.”

Another utopian project, failed. Or so it seemed. Because a group was getting organized, under the collective identity @Global_Cluster, channeling its energies into a coordinated campaign that included a schedule of daily actions, tweeting, emailing, and even calling (on the phone!) Netflix CEO Reed Hastings as well as AmazonVideo, the Emmys, and E! Online. Explicit in their critique was the fan-feeling that Netflix neglected to promote Sense8 in the first place, and that this was the result of an implicit bias against the show, whose principal subject is intersectionality and minority representation. After a sustained effort, on June 29, Netflix announced (with the hashtag #WeAreTheGlobalCluster) a two-hour special planned for 2018, promising to wrap up the series, which had been left in the middle of a cliffhanger. “By myself there was nothing I could do,” wrote cocreator Lana Wachowski in a letter posted on Twitter. “But just as the characters in our show discover that they are not alone, I too have learned that I am not alone. I am also a we.”

One half of the sibling filmmaking duo The Wachowskis, best known for The Matrix (1999), Lana Wachowski has long been a “we.” Sense8, an extended meditation on we-ness created by the Wachowskis and collaborator J. Michael Straczynski, tells the story of the psycellium, a psychic internet populated by Homo Sensorium, a species of nonsingular subjects divided into “clusters” of eight people.

While most television is built on interwoven character arcs, Sense8’s characters are woven into one another, and in representing this slippage among identities, the Wachowskis developed a filmic language motivated by the episodic nature of television. With meticulous camerawork and painstaking continuity, the filmmakers stitched together performers on location across the world, without using CG animation or green screen. Lana Wachowski came out as trans in 2012; her sister Lilly Wachowski took time off to focus on her own transition, in 2016. In both content and form, Sense8 makes transitions—across borders and bodies—the special effect, offering a trans experience for the viewer.

 Wu Tsang and Fred Moten, We hold where study, 2017, two-channel HD video, color, sound, 18 minutes 56 seconds. Installation view, Kunsthalle Münster. Boychild and Ligia Lewis.

One could trace a queer genealogy for the productive conflation of identities through use of transitions in experimental film, from Jack Smith’s gender- and body-blurring Flaming Creatures (1963) to The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye (Marie Losier, 2011), a feature-length montage exploring the subjects’ Pandrogeny Project, a recombination of selves into a third entity. Like the Wachowskis, Wu Tsang is a filmmaker who identifies as trans who also employs the transition as a site of cathexis. Tsang has often used science fiction as a method for exploration, as in her ongoing project A Day in the Life of Bliss, set in a dystopian near-future, in which an underground, gender-and-race nonconforming pop star (played by Boychild) emerges into higher consciousness when she discovers she has two hearts. In Tsang’s recent video installation We hold where study, 2017, two channels are projected side by side with an overlapping area in the center. On the right, an LED-lit warehouse serves as location for a duet by Ligia Lewis and Jonathan Gonzalez, while the left depicts another movement piece performed by Boychild and Josh Johnson in a grassy field as the sky turns from day to night. In the center, where the two channels meet, colors, places, and bodies merge, the transitional space becoming an entanglement.

Sense8’s protagonist is also an “entanglement,” a phrase uttered in psychometric flashback by Angelica (Daryl Hannah), the ecologist “mother” of the cluster. While precedent for Sense8 can be found in Octavia E. Butler’s Mind of My Mind (1977), in which a psychic family combines mental powers to topple their oppressive patriarch, the term “entanglement” is here borrowed from quantum physics, explored at length in Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007): “[A]n entanglement can be understood as a generalization of a superposition of more than one particle,” she writes, noting that entanglements “make connections between entities that do not appear to be proximate in space and time.”

Artist A. K. Burns, in a recent panel at the New Museum, proposed the term Quantum Feminism to consider how “an understanding of bodies as sensory systems can be a starting point for discussions around ethics and ‘entangled relations of difference.’ ” In Sense8, the cluster’s members are entangled in a shared sensory system, their minds superposed particles at a distance. Nomi, holed up in a hideout with her lover Amanita (Freema Agyeman), appears to be talking to herself when discussing strategy with two members of her cluster, Riley (Tuppence Middleton) in London, and Kala (Tina Desai) in Mumbai. Sun (Doona Bae), a corporate executive and expert martial artist framed for embezzlement by her brother and held in a Korean prison, comes to the rescue when members of her cluster find themselves in danger, taking over their body and beating up bad guys. When someone attempts a hit on Sun, we see all eight characters, in their own locations, gasping for breath, intercut with shots of them swinging from the noose: Their entanglement is a source of vulnerability as well as strength. Entanglement is further complicated when Berlin-based criminal Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), on his way to a clandestine meeting with a sinister sensate from another cluster, appears skulking in the background, distracting the members of his cluster as he tries to go unnoticed. Entanglement means Wolfgang can never be alone: What follows is a sixteen-person fight scene whose choreography is diffracted across the globe.

J. Michael Straczynski, Lana Wachowski, and Lilly Wachowski, Sense8, 2015–. Still from a TV show on Netflix.

Diffraction, Barad writes, “can serve as a useful counterpoint to reflection: both are optical phenomena, but whereas the metaphor of reflection reflects the themes of mirroring and sameness, diffraction is marked by patterns of difference.” The Wachowskis follow this mode in their editing, when, in an over-the-shoulder shot, Will and Riley see each other’s faces in a mirror. And when Mexican film star Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) is confronted on the red carpet by a reporter inquiring about his closeted past, his clustermate Capheus (Toby Onwumere) is questioned in Kenya by another reporter about his idolization of 1980s action star Jean-Claude Van Damme, whose likeness is painted on the matutu he drives. In both cases, the reporters imply that the difference between actor and acted makes identification impossible: Gay people cannot represent straight people; a person of one race cannot be surrogate for another. Triggered by this normative protocol, the cluster flashes back, in montage, to moments of sex, violence, and other shared intimacies. As each character appears at the microphone, in Lito’s and Capheus’s places, their voices echo, “Am I what you see, or what I have seen?” The confused reporters say they are just trying to understand. Lito and Capheus answer simultaneously, “You are not trying to understand anything because labels are the opposite of understanding.” “Labels” are a form of representation reflecting sameness. Like the rainbow flag motif, Sense8’s cluster is a pattern constituted by a spectrum of differences.

Lana Wachowski came out as transgender during promotion for Cloud Atlas (2012), an earlier experiment in depicting trans-identity. Like Sense8, Cloud Atlas was a sprawling fantasy with a diverse ensemble: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Ben Wishaw, and Doona Bae portrayed an array of genders and ethnicities across an interconnected multiverse. Cloud Atlas was compromised by the film’s use of makeup and digital effects to signify race; perhaps more significant than the ambitious film itself was the fact that an out transwoman was the codirector of a one-hundred-million-dollar science-fiction blockbuster.

The intersectionality intended in Cloud Atlas found more satisfying form in Sense8, whose global ambitions are palpable from the credit sequence, spanning the production’s locations: Berlin, Chicago, London, Mexico City, Mumbai, Nairobi, San Francisco, and Seoul. Opening with time-lapse shots of monuments intercut with animals, nature, folk dancers, public art and street vendors, the documentarylike footage is queerly punctuated: a bearded couple with pierced tongues licking an ice-cream cone; a handmade, rainbow-striped sign reads kindness is sexy. A choir vocalizes ominously over this overblown multicultural spectacle, flying dangerously close to the twin fires of appropriation and stereotype, landing on a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Like San Francisco itself, the cluster is ensnared in the economies and technologies of late capitalism: Kala and Capheus contend with a multinational pharmaceutical company that produces AIDS medication; Nomi stages the death of her data body to nullify the digital traces of her illegal activities; Will, “woke” by his rebirth into sensacity, is rejected by fellow cops when he confronts institutional racism; Lito frets about his value as an international commodity when his action-star career is threatened by leaked pictures of him with his boyfriend; and Icelandic DJ Riley spins EDM, the ubiquitous soundtrack of neoliberal globalism, at massive raves. A shadowy NGO, the Biologic Preservation Organization, stalks the cluster. Like a posthuman International Monetary Fund, BPO was founded with the intention of helping sensates use their powers for the greater good, but, embroiled in its own institutional struggles, instead uses its resources to control sensates’ ability to connect with one another. BPO lobotomizes dissident sensates, concerned their telepathic empathy could make them resistant to the world order’s governing bodies.

J. Michael Straczynski, Lana Wachowski, and Lilly Wachowski, Sense8, 2015–. GIF from a TV show on Netflix.

Hardt and Negri’s “alternative to the global political body of capital,” the multitude comprises “productive flesh” emerging “from the queer politics of ACT-UP and Queer Nation to the globalization demonstrations at Seattle and Genoa.” These movements appear “monstrous” to traditional political hierarchies on the left, as “bodies become blended” across space. Resistant to essentialism, informed by queer activism, the multitude’s complex identity politics find embodiment in Sense8’s cluster through scenes of group sex: Lito, naked in Mexico, appears over Will, doing a bench press in Chicago, kissing him; Wolfgang is joined in the sauna by astral forms of Nomi, Lito, and Will, a huddle of steamy, muscular shoulders, as Kala looks on. Lito and Nomi are, in the actual world of the story, in their own apartments, fucking their same-sex partners, Hernando (Alfonso Herrera) and Amanita, who are themselves drawn into the ménage as nondiegetic bodies join them in their beds. The script sets up these characters with attention to their sexual orientations, but now the camera shows these positions as mutable in this liminal realm of the psycellium, where sexual fantasy is sex act.

The sex scenes in Sense8 are a manifesto for the flesh of the multitude, a site of political potential compounded with boundless sexual pleasure. The show’s revolutionary sex positivity stands in stark contrast to HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011–) and Westworld (2016–), which routinely punish LGBT characters with brutal deaths, use same-sex frisson as a prelude to violence, rape women to further the plot, and stage orgies as lurid backdrops populated with nameless extras. FX’s series Legion (2017–), an X-Men spinoff created by Noah Hawley, shares with Sense8 an interest in depicting a permeable psyche, using stylish art direction and nonlinear structures to create an innovative psychedelic storytelling to depict its eponymous “reality bender,” David Haller (Dan Stevens). Legion’s supporting cast of outlandish mutants dislocate identity: A man travels peoples’ memories, a woman swaps bodies with a touch, a white man and Native American woman share a body, a shapeshifting psychic parasite lives in David’s mind. While both Legion and Sense8 use telepathy to explore intersubjectivity, the Legion of the title refers specifically to David’s legion of superpowers, not his cadre of superfriends. He is the chosen one, his status as a straight white male hero set awkwardly against the villains, who just happen to be gay. For all its flash and cleverness, Legion refuses the radicality that animates Sense8. This is the distinction between the character and the cluster, or, to willfully overstate my case, via Hardt and Negri, the empire and multitude.

J. Michael Straczynski, Lana Wachowski, and Lilly Wachowski, Sense8, 2015–. GIF from a TV show on Netflix.

Like Hardt and Negri’s multitude, Sense8 is indebted to queer politics, framed with a consideration of the impact of AIDS. In the first episode, when Nomi and Amanita attend an interpretive dance set to a soundtrack of testimonials about the AIDS crisis, Nomi’s psychic abilities manifest, her nonbiological sensate mother Angelica’s apparition joining on stage. Like sex, the psycellium is a locus of potential danger that can be managed, through consent, and pharmaceuticals: In season two, a black pill blocking sensate powers is introduced. A kind of psychic PreP, the pill’s value is immediately recognized by the cluster, who make their own generic version to protect themselves from BPO, the drug’s manufacturers. Without the blocker, their only safeguard against unwanted psychic intrusion is the use of opiates, and Will, stalked by a BPO upper-management type, spends much of the second season in a drug-induced stupor. With the black pill, Will regains control of his life, much like Capheus’s mother, her vitality restored by access to HIV meds.

In writing about Sense8, I have been talking with a cluster of friends who also watched the show, among them Tsang, Malik Gaines, Vishal Jugdeo, Jeanne Liotta, Tavia Nyong’o, Martine Syms, and Matt Wolf. Although we all regretted its cancelation, we also admitted to our own ambivalences. Syms noted you could be crying one second, cringing the next, and wondered if the show’ insistence on ethics is also what made it, at times, so corny. Wolf sees the philosophical notion of an identity constituted by multiplicity as both very deep and kinda cheesy. Nyong’o clocked the uneven treatment of the characters, particularly those shot on locations in non-Western countries, especially regarding depictions of sexuality. Gaines pointed to inconsistencies: If sensates don’t need language, why are they talking to each other all the time, in English? And for a show built on a premise of empathy, Liotta pointed out, there was sure a high body count of faceless security guards. Jugdeo pointed out that the Wachowskis’ P.L.U.R.-inflected taste—epitomized in the global montage of the cluster singing along to 4 Non Blonde’s “What’s Up?” (1992)—is anachronistically ’90s. Tsang hadn’t yet watched season two, but felt a transperson directing a multimillion dollar sci-fi show starring a trans actor playing a trans character (Jamie Clayton’s Nomi) was obviously awesome. And while I often wondered at the environmental footprint of a work shot around the world, we all agreed that whatever the reasons, Sense8’s failure was a troubling sign. The Wachowskis’ vision may have been unsustainable from a production standpoint, but in this moment of fracturing coalitions on the left and rising nationalist xenophobia everywhere else, its abrupt end felt as much about a rejection of intersectionality.

Which brings us back to Pride. In season one, Nomi, riding in San Francisco Pride with Dykes on Bikes, has a seizure that leads to her psychic connection with her cluster, setting the plot in motion. In season two, Lito, despite fears it will end his career, accepts an invitation to São Paulo Pride, appearing on-stage before an enormous crowd, the actor’s image multiplied on giant screens. As his boyfriend Hernando, beard painted rainbow, looks on tearfully, Lito confesses, “All of my life I have had to pretend to be something I wasn’t, and to become what I wanted to become I couldn’t be what I am… I am a gay man! Why did I have to be so afraid to say that? Because I know that people are afraid of people that are different from them.” As he speaks, Lito’s cluster—people that are different from him—join the Brazilian revelers, dancing ecstatically to anthemic electronica. The sequence ends with Lito, in rainbow speedo, trust-falling into the massive crowd. Yes, Pride is contested: In some contexts it’s too radical, in others, too normative, but the ethical position of Sense8 begins with the self-determination it symbolically enacts. For the sake of the collective, Sense8 suggests, one must accept, and care for, one’s self. But the work does not end there: To also be a we, that I must confront its fear of other Is. This isn’t a popular sentiment right now, but in the moment of “Peak TV,” we can at least celebrate the activities of minoritarian viewers as they agitate for their entanglements to be diffracted, like Lito at Pride, across a multitude of screens.

Alexandro Segade is an artist based in New York.

Sense8 seasons one and two are currently available for streaming on Netflix.