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Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s Cinematic Pedagogy of Dissent

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

Session Submission Type: Paper Session: Traditional Format


For the past century, cinema has been a paradigmatic tool of political articulation, education, and resistance. Cinematic aesthetics and the worlds they represent have the power to teach us about our desires for other times, spaces, bodies, and possibilities. As queer, trans, of color, and feminist scholar-activists, we continually draw energy and imagination from our cinematic encounters, which have always been speculative in nature. Cinematic sounds and images move forward in time--and in so doing, promise to us an approaching, if unknown, horizon. Science fiction and fantasy cinema may therefore be especially sustaining to the concrete utopian urge (Muñoz, 2009) for liberatory modes of knowing, feeling, and becoming. As Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha remind us in Octavia’s Brood (2015), science fiction is the ideal “exploring ground” (279) for social justice, precisely because both require imagining other worlds.

In keeping with ASA 2017’s attention to the histories and cultures of Chicago, this panel considers and critiques the spectacular imagination of Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s cinematic science fiction oeuvre. Despite their undeniable cultural influence and emergence as history’s first transgender major motion picture directors, there has been surprisingly little academic attention to the importance of the Wachowskis. This panel asserts that the Wachowskis have made immense contributions to what Kara Keeling (2007) calls the “biopolitics of the cinematic,” (20), creating work exemplary for studying the (re)production of micromechanisms of power. Following David Valentine’s analysis in Imagining Transgender (2007), papers in this panel investigate the Wachowksis’ work as emblematic of the white and Western worldview through which “transgender” has concatenated, teaching viewers “how to look” from a trans-informed perspective. From their local studio base in Ravenswood, the Chicago-born sisters have crafted a directorial legacy (Bound, The Matrix Trilogy, V for Vendetta, Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas, Jupiter Ascending, Sense8) that places transgender art at the very center of how Western popular culture communicates the look and feel of historically/geographically situated “dissent.”

Commonly understood as a rhetorical or political term, “dissent” is rooted etymologically in the experience of feeling or sensing differently than others--a “difference in sentiment” that is especially resonant with transgender phenomenology. This panel argues that the Wachowskis’ work supplies us with a distinctly pedagogical aesthetics of dissent, grounded in trans subjectivity and operating through the delimitation of imposed realities. Spiralling out from a central analysis of Sense8, we investigate the Wachowskis’ art as at once utopian and yet incomplete, radical and yet bounded, ground-breaking and yet dismissed, deeply personal and yet open to multiple forms of co-optation. We hope to illustrate the importance their work has had in our queer and transgender lives while maintaining a critical focus on what it does not address and what forms of hegemony it replicates. As those who also “differ in sentiment,” we hope to explore what the Wachowskis’ archive might offer us now, at this moment of extreme trepidation for queer and trans people in the US. 

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