“Sense8:” Part Two

This roundtable features Johanna Isaacson, Madeline Lane-McKinley, and Kenan Sharpe. See the first part of this roundtable here.|


Part Two

JI: Super Spoiler alert! Sense8 ends in a marriage plot, with the two least compelling, but most white and heteronormative characters falling in love. Riley, the Icelandic DJ who had been captured and nearly lobotomized by secret government forces, overcomes her fear of the mountains where she once lost her husband and baby in an accident, and by driving to safety, rescues Will, the police officer who has rendered himself unconscious so that the evil uber-sensate, Whispers, can’t inhabit his mind and destroy the cluster (yay plottiness!). Riley and Will are in love.  They kiss a lot.  And they end up sailing off in a boat with the rest of the sensate cluster.  Foregrounding the happy dyad of the pale DJ and the sweet cop is an odd ending to a show whose politics, if they have to be defined, are distinctly queer, reminding us of how very very difficult it is to positively represent a queer politics, let alone an anti-capitalist one, in our moment of recuperation, spectacle, the global sublime and the rest.

The show is charming, moving and sometimes silly in its attempts to represent a queer politics and sensibility.  It pioneers the depiction of a trans character, Nomi, in a consistently loving, empathetic, romantic relationship.  She and her girlfriend Amanita support and defend each other throughout the show, and we get to see some hot non-normative sex scenes as well.  Nomi, played by trans actress Jamie Clayton, is occasionally shown nude, another rarity, contributing to the demystification of trans bodies. Her near-lobotomy and the refusal of her mother to recognize her gender, condenses a history of repression and rejection. As a hacker, she is implicitly compared to Chelsea Manning, and this registers her on a larger political map.  


Lito (the Mexican actor), begins the show in the closet, hiding away Hernando, his long-suffering boyfriend, in order to preserve his career.  Daniela, one of his long string of actress beards, accidentally finds out his secret and instead of getting angry, is thrilled. She and Hernando bond in calling out Lito on his previous M.O.– dating smitten starlets until they get aggressive about sex and then dismissing them thickly with the line: “my heart belongs to another.” Running from an abusive ex-boyfriend, Daniela ends up living with the pair and we get to see a lot of previously unseen things: the tussle and negotiation of a three way relationship that isn’t perfectly balanced, a heterosocial queer relationship, a woman’s agential desire and gaze (she’s into gay porn and gets off watching Hernando and Lito having sex), and, as with Nomi, Amanita, and their circle of gay friends, an alternate family that eventually gives Lito the courage to come out.  And of course, they’re all total eye candy.


And then, of course, there’s the orgy in which the whole gang (or, weirdly, only the white contingent of the gang), transcend gender, sexual orientation, and all other hang-ups, to merge in an oh-face filled, writhing, flesh cluster that culminates in some kind of future orgasm the likes of which we mere mortals will never know.

Other queer themes and aesthetic markers appear in the show through music, the theme of AIDS, Lito’s comic experience of PMS, Kala’s wish to follow her sexual desire over her parents choice of spouse (she is pretty fixated on Russo-German gangster Wolfgang’s cock, comparing it to Ganesh’s trunk, something that seems pretty queer to me).

So the show does a lot of good, queer work and has a lot of fun doing it. But then the problem becomes, what do we do with the characters whose struggles and life-worlds don’t fit the mold of queer politics?  And why is it that these characters are eclipsed or subordinated to first-world oriented subjective desires? Although Sense8 aspires to represent varied global typologies, most of these kind of characters are just left out, especially those who do traditional forms of productive work (a problem of the Negriism in general here)—we don’t see any Chinese workers at Foxconn, feminized workers in the Maquilas, migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, etc.  The closest we get to a member of the immiserated class is a denizen of the planet of slums, Capheus, the Kenyan van driver who is driven to work for a gangster in order to buy AIDS medication for his mother.  As the only poor character in the show, you would think he would be a strongly written character.  He does get the best prop in the show, a van service he calls “Van Damme.” He frequently quotes the action hero, pointing to one of Sense8’s successful themes, the interconnection of characters and referentiality through the global culture industry.  But, there is no implied critique of this culture industry and in general, the show doesn’t seem to know what to do with Capheus.  

Capheus and all his compatriots need full communism.  They really can’t do much with the call to, you know, just be yourself, love who you love, be empathetic, work together.  Because the needs of this character are so far beyond the purview of the show’s framing, Capheus gets assigned a familiar role, becoming the child-like folksy repository of wisdom and advice to the seemingly more complex characters in the show.  Although his storyline involves him getting his mother some AIDS medicine, it’s unclear how he’s going to continue to help her, let alone the thousands of other people in his country dying from the disease.  Since the show doesn’t know how to represent his politics he ends up spending a lot of time helping his more-privileged cohort figure out their own lives — giving them pep talks, making them appreciate how glorious and precious their first world lives are, and literally becoming their chauffeur. Sitting next to the sad, waifish Riley in a plane he tells her she should be happy, just because she’s floating over the clouds.  Her reply: “I wish I could be that simple.”  

So here’s the problem: how can we create a queer representational politics that doesn’t view first world problems as complicated and third world problems as simple?  Characterizing Capheus, the character with the most dizzyingly complex problems in the show, as simple, points to a real impasse in representation.  The more you watch the show, the less accidental it seems that the non-white characters are left out of the orgy (and by association, social transformation in general).  The oddly neutered depiction of Capheus in a show that so emphasizes other characters’ sexuality underscores this problem.  This impasse is also reflected formally.  Here, a genre that once provided a sense of the novum often appears glossy and sappy, and this, along with the dated music, adds up to an aesthetic that could be called adult contemporary cyberpunk or, as Madeline puts it, globalization as Google Map.  Sadly, in the media, whenever we reach this impasse, commentators say authoritatively that it’s because the show is “deeper” than politics, meaning, I guess, it’s the way nice, middle class, first world  people feel in their hearts or something.  Says Charlotte Safavi in the Huffington Post: “Many reviews I’ve read talk about the LGBT and left-leaning politics of the show, but to me, there’s so much more going on.” I actually agree that the problem is deeper than politics as framed in our impoverished neoliberal centrist media discourse.  But this points in the direction of a deeper politics, rather than a realm outside of politics, wherever that place is.  Fredric Jameson frames the question in his essay, “Pleasure, a Political Issue” as such:

…the proper political use of pleasure must always be allegorical… the thematizing of a particular pleasure as a political issue (to fight, for example, on the terrain of the aesthetics of the city; or for certain forms of sexual liberation; or for access to certain kinds of cultural activities; or for an aesthetic transformation of social relations or a politics of the body) must always involve a dual focus, in which the local issue is meaningful and desirable in and of itself, but is also at one and the same time taken as the figure for Utopia in general, and for the systematic revolutionary transformation of society as a whole.  Without these simultaneous dimensions, the political demand becomes reduced to yet another local “issue” in the micropolitics of this or that limited group or its particular hobby or specialization, and a slogan that once satisfied, leads no further politically. (emphasis Jameson’s 73)

If the creators of Sense8 want to deliver on their tacit promise of awakening new collective sensibilities, they have to reconceptualize the show’s representational strategies. The final note of the show, the heteronormative marriage of a cop and a DJ, illustrates the problems that will arise with a queer politics that does not thematize its own partiality– its own inability to fully map simultaneity and totality.  The ultimate logic of a purely positive micropolitics will inevitability serve to uphold hierarchical logics of power rather than subvert them. 


You both stage productive readings of the utopian inflections of the series – and I appreciate Kenan’s argument about the countercultural framing of these inflections. However, the historicity ascribed to such countercultural lineages to me seems hardly apparent. Rather than the prescience or residuality of the world sixties, the historical imaginary of Sense8 seems far more structured by the total occlusion of anti-capitalist possibilities that describe ‘no alternative’ and the ‘end of history’ as the ideological premises of the end of the world sixties. This is the recuperation and absorption of the ‘60s into the cultural logics of global capital. While it seems important to trace out utopian drives at work in the series, the historicity of this utopianism is not so much reflexive of the politics of the ‘60s as that of the post-60s.

In this sense, the show’s utopianism is entirely structured by the conditions of possibility of a dominantly anti-utopian paradigm. While ‘neoliberalism’ – as an operative periodization of the contemporary historical imagination, let’s say – is often described in terms of free market utopianism, such accounts likewise demonstrate the neoliberal foreclosure of utopianism as a mode of anti-capitalist critique. Premised on the “elision between perfection and impossibility,” as Ruth Levitas suggests, political anti-utopianism “[serves] to invalidate all attempts at change… sustaining the status quo.” This anti-utopianism has as its historical basis the incorporation of “the artistic critique that flourished at the end of the 1960s,” which Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello describe of the “new spirit of capitalism.”


A node of this anti-utopianism in Sense8 is the show’s articulations of post-racial collectivity – a vision of de-individuation that is always already a fantasy of default whiteness. We can see this problem reappear throughout the series, perhaps most notably in the portrayal of police officers in Chicago. While the CPD’s corruption is indeed a part of the plot, we encounter this corruption entirely through the redemption of a white police officer, Will. Will is often placed in contrast with various minority figures, such as his partner, each of whom naturalizes the corruption that he begins to see as unending. For instance, in the first episode of the series, Will saves a black youth rather than letting him die at a crime scene, as his partner suggests. After Will takes him to an ER, a black nurse explains that the youth cannot be admitted due to hospital policy. Often when a white “sensate” encounters the problem of racial difference, a person of color is in the position of mediating and even justifying structural racism. Even in the case of Nomi, whose interracial romance with girlfriend Amanita is among the least-developed relationships in the show. Amanita is subordinated to emplotment — along for the ride, and entirely accommodating, beginning with their first sex scene. Among the othered “sensates,” most are living in a racially homogenized world — interracial conflict is nowhere on the show’s expansive global map.

Capheus, Sun Bak, Kala, and Lito are sensates whose otherness is effaced by the utopian drives of the series — precisely as homogenizing forces, which seek to affirm a notion of unity among the sensates through class identification. Lito is a celebrity film actor, Sun Bak is the daughter of a powerful businessman, and Kala is a pharmacist. While Capheus is impoverished, and struggling to pay for his mother’s AIDS medicine in Nairobi, he is also an entrepreneur and a devout fan of Jean-Claude Van Damme. These characters are relatable — and relatability is exactly the problem, as it is both a mechanism of assimilation and the primary mode of interpretation available to the viewer.


Despite the total embrace of sexual spectrality and intersubjectivity, this embrace is itself contained by the logics of non-difference and homogenization inherent to the notion of a ‘post-racial’ paradigm. Certainly we can call this post-racial fantasy ‘utopian’ – in the sense that liberalism’s “case against utopia continues to revolve around a fairly stable set of indictments,” as Kathi Weeks writes, between the “rationalist and realist rebukes” – but this is a false utopianism, reflecting the total recuperation of the politics of difference. This is the false utopianism of multiculturalism, as a regime of tokenization and cultural reification particular to the ‘post-racial’ fantasy of global collectivity. As Sara Ahmed writes, in the hegemony of multculturalism, “the desire to be seen as anti-racist is taken up as an expression of a prohibition, which is what allows racism to be articulated as a minority position, a refusal of orthodoxy.”

What the show most clearly demonstrates is a desire to forget separation. Separation appears everywhere yet nowhere in the series — as Guy Debord writes, “separation is part of the unity of the world, of the global social praxis split up into reality and image.” This amnesia is expressed in the ostensible transcendence of separation which at once unites characters — locating within them a set of inherent commonalities and universalities — and further alienates their lived experience as systemic under capital. Capheus and Sun Bok talk about their fears together, for instance, but within the narrative logic of the series it is impossible to make sense of these fears as social conditions. Instead, their conversation appeals to human nature in this desire to forget separation, as articulated in such truisms as “is it we who make the choice or the choice that makes us?” This is the ideological threshold of the series’s conception of global collectivity, as one which only further eradicates the material conditions of global capitalism.


You are both correct in critiquing the show’s elision of difference. In its zeal to represent what unites, Sense8 ends up skating over all forms of separation. I hope that a transgender Bay Area hacker and a Kenyan slum-dweller can come to share a common struggle, but this struggle cannot and should not be an identical one. San Francisco and Nairobi are not the same (and, as Jo points out, San Francisco is far from the utopia the Wachowksis fantasize it to be) and the terrain of anti-capitalist struggle looks different in each place. The show reaches towards the universal and falters by universalizing 1st world norms. In the darkness of Sense8‘s cozy embrace all things all things are grey–or rather, white. The presence of well-developed Korean, Indian, Kenyan, and Mexican characters in a mainstream US series is laudable and unique. However, Sense8 remains mostly incapable of representing these characters as anything but white, bourgeois Americans in other packages. In this way, the show reveals the dangerous homogenizing tendency present in many utopian imaginings. Instead of maintaining the necessary dialectical tension between identity and difference, it sloppily collapses them into one.  

Even though the show’s understanding of gender remains much more developed than that of race or class (Caephus is the only character who is not wealthy–where indeed are the Foxxcon workers, the migrant labourers in the Gulf states, the indigenous peoples?) even its queerness risks devolving into a form of what Karen Tongson calls “normporn“: a feel-good, guilty-pleasure micro-genre of TV that “focuses on coteries of enlightened ‘regular’ (meaning mostly heterosexual) people, in what is supposed to be a post-queer, post-racial contemporary moment that sanctions our reinvestment in the (usually bourgeois) dramas of everyday life.” Such a devolving of queerness into normalcy is, as Jo argued, what the final kiss of Riley and Will forbodes.

And what about the 60s? Does Sense8 contain a residual utopian kernel of Third Worldism, New Left radicalism, and counter-cultural experimentalism? Or does it represent the cooptation of these tendencies, as Madeline suggests? I think that one way to get to the bottom of Sense8‘s politics is through exploring its relationship to the 60s. The show is marked by the similar ambiguity that characterized the U.S. American New Left: like the latter, it remains equal parts inspiring and exasperatingly limited.

Besides Italian autonomist Marxism, the more obvious frame of reference for the show’s politics is the U.S. counterculture’s emphasis on psychic transformation, empathy, and revolution as—if we can stomach the phrase—evolution. This New Left framework is made explicit when Nomi and her girlfriend Amanita, on the run from Whispers and the police, seek refuge in Amanita’s mother’s swanky San Francisco apartment. Nomi is completely forthcoming about the visions that have taken hold of her, but her baby-boomer host reassures her that she is unfazed: she is a “child of the ‘60s,” she reminds Nomi, and back in those days “if you didn’t hear voices at least once you were doing something wrong.” Drawing on her hippy background, Amanita’s mother speculates that Nomi’s new empathetic awareness might represent some higher, more evolved state of humanity.

Certainly, in an era when the discourse of self-development and human potential has been thoroughly co-opted by US corporate culture and even Google executives receive personal mindfulness training, it is difficult to find anything worth preserving in this language. But I want to insist that the psychic transformations imagined by Sense8 supersedes rather than strengthens individualism. Nomi wonders if her condition is like Alzheimer’s—“will my sense of ‘me’ disappear?” This is indeed where being a sensate eventually leads. As Will is told by Jonas, “‘You’ are no longer just you.” Each individual sensate becomes a multitude, a collectivity.

All of this harkens back to a radically anti-individualist strain of ‘60s political thought, one that has become increasingly invisible in the wake of the recuperation of New Left concepts by the cultural industry and by management discourse. Freudian-Marxist thinkers like Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown challenged the institutional conservatism of psychoanalysis and argued that the ego which clinical practice wished to strengthen is actually an illusion. In his forgotten classic Love’s Body (1966) Brown asserted that the individual self and its unique personality are based on notions of ownership, and that one’s ‘properties’ are the original private property. The real revelation of psychoanalysis was that we are each made up of bits and pieces of the people around us, which we psychically swallow or ‘introject.’ Each individual is an ensemble. Brown wrote that the self should be abandoned alongside other forms of private property: “the solution to the problem of identity is, get lost” (161). For revolution to be possible, people must come to recognize that they are all dependent on each other as members of a single body – or a single hive mind, in our case.

Along similar lines, Brown took on the reality-principle and argued against the “Fallacy of Simple Location,” which asserts that an object or a person can only be in a single location at a single moment in time. For Brown, the functioning of the unconscious had showed that our conventional understanding of reality was false. In terms reminiscent of the cluster in Sense8, Brown posited bodily forms of identification that contradicted simple logic: “The ‘postural model’ of the body consists of ‘lines of energy,’ ‘psychic streams,’ Freud’s ‘libidinal cathexes,’ which are, like electricity, action at a distance [. . .] connecting one body with other bodies” (156). Brown’s mystical take on psychoanalysis provides one possible framework for understanding the telepathic “action at a distance” of which the eight-person cluster is capable.

A similar understanding of revolution as the bending of all limits, even the limitations set by simple logic, was expressed by another ‘60s radical, the poet Diane di Prima. The strand of the American Left represented by her work is a clear predecessor to Sense8‘s project. In Revolutionary Letters di Prima rails against western scientific rationality: “what point in this cosmology but to drain / hope of contact or change // oppressing us w/ ‘reason’” (Letter 62).  In addition to being the violent overthrow of capitalism, revolution for di Prima is the limitless amplification of the human sensorium:

learn now we see

with all our skin, smell with our eyes too

sense & sex are boundless & the call

is to be boundless in them, make the joy

now, that we want, no shape

for space & time now but the shapes we will (Letter 48).

Di Prima, like Brown, is a voluntarist: the powers unleashed by revolution must be capable of transforming not only institutions but our very psychic composition. Both believe in a form of cultural revolution that will not only eliminate the bourgeoisie as a class, but also eliminate the bourgeois within each person. This way of positing the task ahead was a central part of the ‘60s imaginary.

If we can wade through New Age-y schmaltz that this thinking evokes in us today, it should be clear that there is something worth preserving in this understanding of revolution. It attends to issues of culture, the everyday, and the psyche while radically refusing the hyper-individualism of garden-variety ‘be-the change’-ism. Sense8 draws on this ‘60s lineage by putting forward a narrative of transformation that is thoroughly invested in collective experience and enacts forms of radical solidarity.

And yet the revolution will not only be cultural. The psychological/sensual transformations imagined in Sense8 are indeed a Utopian figure – in the Jamesonian sense – pointing to a larger and more thorough desire for the transformation of social life. However, it remains solely figural, lacking in any referentiality, concreteness, or sense of history. Perhaps the Wachowskis need to update their bag of tricks, or else face the danger of being like other aging white leftists and superannuated hippies. Without the overthrow of capitalism the unleashing of the human sensorium just becomes something that tech employees do for a week each year at Burning Man. Unlike Madeline, I do not think that the world of Sense8 is one in which There Is No Alternative–the show invites us to imagine the myriad, unknown possibilities of an alternate world. But it does remain stupefied in the face of the complexities of this one. War, financial capital, neo-imperialism, infrastructure, debt–none of these are present in the show, as Jo and Madeline pointed out. Sense8 is a cautionary tale on the danger of micropolitics and all partial revolutions. Like many of the spiritually-tinged New Left currents of the ’60s, which abandoned the realm of anti-capitalist contestation for the more safe extracurricular of “transforming the self,” Sense8 uses eros as a substitute for politics. The point, however, has always been to combine them. It is to this more capacious understanding of politics – as both cultural revolution and the thoroughgoing transformation of our lived reality- that the show tries, and probably fails, to point.

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