sense8-header

“What is Human?”: The Anti-Humanism of Sense8 By Esther Adema

The Netflix original TV show Sense8 tells the story of eight individuals (called sensates) who become psychically linked through a so-called cluster. The eight characters – Nomi, Will, Riley, Capheus, Kala, Wolfgang, Lito, and Sun – each embody a variety of experiences, genders, sexualities, and races. The characters are located all over the world: in the United States, the United Kingdom, Iceland, Kenya, India, Germany, Mexico, and South Korea –  allowing for a multitude of perspectives that are each treated with equal value. The sensates get to know each other at the same time that the audience does. Over the course of its twelve episodes, the show especially raises questions about what it means to be human and, perhaps unsurprisingly, about our connectedness to others.

Interestingly, the question of what it means to be human is settled not by classic Enlightenment Humanist values, but rather through the repudiation of such values. The interconnectedness and hive-mind of the sensates strikes at the very core of our understanding of human beings as autonomous and individual. Moreover, the experience of being a sensate is not merely psychic. Instead of being solely located in the mind, it is also located firmly in the body. It therefore appears to reject the classic mind/body split, instead showing us human beings who are interconnected and embodied.

Individual Autonomy

Though the question of individuality might seem obvious given the premise of the show, it is worth delving into the implications of the psychic link between the eight sensates. Sense8 has taken great care to establish these eight characters as individual human beings, each with their own story, their own qualities, and their own flaws. In fact, the show spends much of its first act (episodes 1-4) contextualizing the lives of these characters and only shows minimal interactions between them. The sensates are mostly surprised to suddenly find themselves connected to these other people and they barely interact on a deeper level at this point in the narrative. Instead, the show decides to outline each sensate’s life separately before moving forward with the connections between sensates. In this first act, viewers and sensates alike might feel lost, as we get to see the separate parts without being able to see or understand the whole.

In fact, it is not until the end of the fourth episode that Sense8 gives us a first proper hint of its full potential, when all eight sensates sing along to What’s Up by 4 Non Blondes.[1] From this point forward, the sensates begin to interact more and more and their lives become increasingly entangled. It is also from this point on that the lines between individual and collective become increasingly blurred. The lives and destinies of the sensates becomes so entangled as to be inseparable – a stark contrast from the first act with its mostly isolated narratives.


In classic Humanism, stemming from the Enlightenment period, the individual subject is a key component. This subject is thought to be rational, autonomous, in control of their own destiny, and possesses agency.[2] In the case of Sense8, none of these apply. Though the sensates are not necessarily irrational, the show does focus quite heavily on emotion over reason, as exemplified by the fact that the show focuses more on the emotional side of being a sensate than focusing on rational questions about how and why this is happening.[3] The sensates frequently need each other’s help, often in life-threatening situations, in which case one sensate takes over control of another sensate’s body. This indicates that they are not fully autonomous nor are they in control of their own destiny. After all, they need others to quite literally take over in order to fix their problems. This also undermines the notion of agency. Though the sensates have been quite respectful to each other when stepping in and taking over another’s body, it would be within the realm of possibility for a sensate to abuse such a power if they wanted. The sensates are thus not always in control of their own minds and bodies and could potentially even be invaded against their will.

Intra-Action

Sense8 has so far carefully steered clear of such sinister interpretations, instead choosing to focus on the positive effects of such a bond. The sensates help each other through moments of emotional as well as physical distress. Moreover, it forges a stronger connection between them. When Sun is experiencing PMS, Lito feels the same effects in his body, experiencing mood swings and sudden outbursts of anger or sadness.[4] This is something he would otherwise never have felt. Similarly, Will gains a better understanding of the acute distress of being forced to have a procedure against your will when he suddenly wakes up in Nomi’s body, who is being prepared for a lobotomy.[5] As a middle class white cisgender man, Will is arguably the most privileged of the group, whereas Nomi, a transgender woman with a transphobic family, has undoubtedly faced fears about not being in control of what happens to her own body before. Such a fear would most likely be difficult to convey through words, but when Will gets a glimpse of that feeling, it allows him to understand more in a more visceral way.

sense8-lito and sun

The sensates do not simply interact with each other, rather they “intra-act.”[6] The sensates are not separate individuals who remain autonomous and relatively unchanged through their connections. Instead, they are deeply influenced by each other’s presence in their lives. The relationships they have with others are not of secondary importance; they are shaped through their connections with each other.[7] They cannot and do not exist separately once the connection is established; they become parts of a bigger whole which constantly overlap and change each other. Their individuality thus also becomes further blurred, as their self-identities are co-constituted by everyone in their cluster.

The Mind/Body Split

The second feature of classic Enlightenment Humanism that Sense8 rejects is the mind/body split. During the Enlightenment, Descartes articulated the notion of mind as separate from body, which then became a major component of Humanism in general.[8] The mind/body split is part of a larger group of dualisms, including but not limited to culture/nature, rational/emotional and man/woman. Importantly, the first half of each dualism is traditionally seen as superior while the second half is considered inferior. Moreover, all of these dualisms are interconnected, meaning that on one side mind-culture-rational-man are paired together and on the other side we end up with body-nature-emotional-woman.[9] When one of these dualisms is undermined, the others tend to follow. As mentioned above, Sense8 foregrounds emotion at least as much as it does reason, which is further exemplified by Sun saying: “This is what life is. Fear, rage, desire…love. To stop feeling emotions, to stop wanting to feel them, is to feel death.”[10] Emotions, according to the philosophy of Sense8, are central to life and to being human.

Furthermore, for a TV show that is ostensibly about a psychic connection between eight people, Sense8 focuses quite prominently on the body. Instead of for instance having the characters read each other’s minds, their connections tend to be more grounded and more bodily than that. Lito experiencing Sun’s PMS is one of the ways in which their bodies as well as their minds are connected. The singalong to “What’s Up” by 4 Non Blondes also highlights this point: the senses – in this case hearing – are prominently involved in the cluster’s connections.

Touch is another major sense evoked by the show. This becomes especially clear in the many sex scenes spread out over the course of the season, all of which are extremely tactile as the camera tends to foreground the characters’ hands. The group sex scene in episode six serves as the clearest example of this tactility. Two initially separate scenes involving Lito and his boyfriend and Nomi and her girlfriend escalate to include Will and Wolfgang, with each of them present at multiple locations at once.[11] The cluster’s connection is thus clearly located in their bodies as well, as they are able to have sex with each other despite being in different countries and continents. The scene highlights touch to the extent that the four sensates involved appear to blend together. Their limbs become an entangled mess and they do not seem to be easily separable from one another. It also clarifies why they are called sensates: their experiences are literally grounded in the senses and in their bodies, not just in their minds.

Sense8 portrays the connection between its characters in another way. In the tenth episode, each of the sensates remembers and experiences the moment of their own birth while listening to a classical music piece performed by Riley’s father. This moment firmly connects the characters to the very bodily experience of birth. Moreover, this memory is presumably triggered by the music, as the entire cluster is first shown simply listening to the performance before their memories surface. Once again, it is a sensual experience that connects them in this moment. They feel and experience this memory in their bodies, thereby collapsing the mind/body divide. After all, Sense8 shows us here that memories, which are traditionally located in the mind, are not disconnected from the body – they are a part of it.

Moreover, the specific nature of giving birth connects the cluster firmly to the feminine and to nature. Though not all people who can give birth are necessarily female, and not all women can necessarily give birth, the ability to do so has historically been firmly linked to the feminine, as well as to the body and to nature, bringing us back to the interconnection between the dichotomies mentioned above.[12] Culture and nature are present in the same moment, through the music and the memory it triggers. It also links each of the sensates to their own location and context even as they experience this at the same time, as we are shown a variety of ways of giving birth in each of their memories. Through this scene, the sensates are therefore connected to themselves and to each other, to their bodies and their minds, to nature and culture.

Conclusion

The question that permeates Sense8 – what does it mean to be human? – is answered in an anti-Humanist way, as Sense8 strikes at the foundation of many Humanist beliefs. There are no fully autonomous subjects in this cluster, as the sensates are shaped by their intra-actions with others. Individuality and a fixed sense of self thus become unstable; instead, Sense8 shows us the collective of the cluster and the ever-changing effects each member has on the others. The show also undermines the mind/body split by locating the experience of being a sensate in the body and the senses, making the title of the show all the more appropriate. These sensual experiences that come about through a psychic connection show that their minds and their bodies are inseparable, thereby undermining the Humanist notion that mind and body are two separate entities. Mind/body and self/other cannot be so easily separated, much like the sensates are inseparable from each other.

 

Works Cited

[1] “What’s Going On?” Sense8. Writ. The Wachowskis & J. Michael Straczynski. Dir. Tom Tykwer. Netflix, 5 Jun. 2015.

[2] Just, Edyta. “Written on the Body: Love in the Nick of Time.” Theories and Methodologies. Linköping University. 26 Sep. 2016. Online lecture; Radomska, Marietta. “Feminist Theory and Biophilosophy” in Uncontainable Life: A Biophilosophy of Bioart. Linköping University Electronic Press, 2016. p. 54.

[3] Sepinwall, Alan. “Review: Netflix’s Ambitious, Uneven, and Occasionally Brilliant ‘Sense8.’ Hitfix. Hitfix, 25 Jun. 2015. Web. 20 Sep. 2016.

[4] “Art is Like Religion.” Sense8. Writ. The Wachowskis & J. Michael Straczynski. Dir. James McTeigue. Netflix, 5 Jun. 2015.

[5] “What’s Going On?”Sense8.

[6] Barad, Karen. “Nature’s Queer Performativity”. Kvinder, Køn og Forskning – Sociologisk Institut -Københavns Universitet 12 (2012): 25-53. Web. 26 Aug. 2016. p. 32.

[7]Idem. p. 32; “Feminist Theory and Biophilosophy.” p. 59.

[8] “Feminist Theory and Biophilosophy.” p. 33, 54; Weinstein, Jami. “Why Human/Nonhuman Animals Studies Matters to Gender Studies.” Theories and Methodologies. Linköping University. 9 Sep. 2016. Lecture.

[9] “Why Human/Nonhuman Animals Studies Matters to Gender Studies.”; Weinstein, Jami. “Transgenres Part I: Language, Species, and Evolution”Lambda Nordica 4 (2011). p. 87-8.

[10] “Just Turn the Wheel and the Future Changes.” Sense8. Writ. The Wachowskis & J. Michael Straczynski. Dir. Tom Tykwer. 5 Jun. 2015.

[11] “Demons.” Sense8. Writ. The Wachowskis & J. Michael Straczynski. Dir. The Wachowskis. 5 Jun.2015.

[12] “Why Human/Nonhuman Animals Studies Matters to Gender Studies.”