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Forging Collectivities Through Embodied Spectatorship: Sense8, Resistance, and Radical Imagination

Sun, November 12, 8:00 to 9:45am, Hyatt Regency Chicago, Field, Third Floor West Tower


The Wachowskis’ Netflix series Sense8 explores imaginative forms connection via the trope of supernatural “sensates” who discover that they are psychically and corporeally bonded to a “cluster” of people spread around the world. Though they do not know each other, the sensates quickly put their shared knowledge and skillsets together to help each other out of tough personal situations. By the end of the first season, however, they all realize that, as a result of being perceived as less than human, they are being hunted down and need to resist together. Sense8 doesn’t just narrativize the assistance the sensates provide one another, often in place of biological family support. Instead, through the Wachowskis’ cinematography, editing, and sound design, the series visually and sonically renders this kinship palpable for viewers.

These connections reflect and reconfigure the many ways people find themselves connected to each other in the 21st century via digital network technologies. They also model and invite a particular form of spectatorship--an embodied, haptic, intersubjective mode of spectatorship--that recalls the theorizations of feminist phenomenological film scholars over the past few decades. Through its construction of sensate connections, the series actively gives form to spectatorial feelings of being both “here” and “there,” being both the subject and object of tactile desire, and opening ourselves, as Vivian Sobchack has written, to being “diffusely” and “ambivalently” the characters’ bodies, the film’s body, and our own body. This paper asks how the form of embodied spectatorship thematized and invited by Sense8 has been used (and could be used in the future) to forge collectivities, collectivities that could form the base of political action. How are struggles toward self-definition (“I”) intertwined with the struggles toward collective definition (“we”)? What is the relationship between defining bodies as bounded and sovereign (e.g., “my body, my choice”) and bodies as intersubjective, intersection, and inextricable? Understanding Sense8 to be very much a work in progress (only one season and one Christmas special have been released so far), we both analyze what the series has achieved on this front so far and, acknowledging its reliance on Western colonial conceptions of multicultural unity, speculate how it might adapt in the future so as to provide a more decolonial approach to resistance that addresses geographical, racial, and class-based differences.

As two feminist, queer, and anti-racist media historians, we ground our analyses of Sense8’s exploration of embodied spectatorship as a path to collective imagination in histories of similar cultural projects. Moving not just into the future but also into the past, then, we write a genealogy of cultural projects in avant-garde feminist filmmaking, queer fan vidding, Afrofuturist writing, and trans YouTube video production that have in related ways harnessed their media’s potential to engage audiences in acts of radical imagination. In doing so, what to many viewers at first appeared so new, strange, and unprecedented gains a history. This history allows us to approach the series as but one entry in the building of contemporary archives of resistance.


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