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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Sense8 and Identity

What if Sense8's production and form was as diverse as its casting? As the show's rapid dance between states of cancelled and not-cancelled continues to bewilder me, I try to parse out the show's interest in difference, and some of its current limitations or failings.

This means that of the three articles I've written in this four article series on Sense8 have been published under radically different assumptions. The first one, which laid out the idea that Sense8 is the epitome of the Streaming TV Show, and in fact was the first step toward the future of TV, was written under the assumption that Sense8 would actually continue being a thing. The second was edited and published after Sense8's sudden cancellation, and grouchily asserted that Netflix's decision to can the show was monumentally stupid (and then proceeded to babble for a bit about web technology).

Now it turns out that Sense8 will, after a massive fan outcry, be getting a two hour movie to close off the cliffhanger the narrative left on. Will it be able to do so? Well, given that there's eight distinct if overlapping plotlines that they're juggling, I'm going to go out on a limb an say that no, two hours probably isn't going to cut it. But at least it can get us some resolution of the main overarching plotline which has seen the protagonists finally go head to head with the villainous BPO and the assassin Whispers. I'm feeling a complex mixture here of frustration and vindication, obviously.

Adding to this sense of vindication is the revelation that Netflix is about to introduce hypervideo technology. Sense8 might be still kinda cancelled but, god dammit, I was right about one thing: it's time for Hypervideo to come onto the media stage. Of course, it turns out that it's going to be used first as a choose your own adventure style animated show for children. Fair enough--start kids young on hypermedia, I say. They're digital natives now anyway, so hey, might as well. Is it frustrating that Netflix is going to roll out technology for manipulating the course of a streaming show as a kid's toy rather than as a more aspirational, lofty experiment, like they could have with Sense8? Absolutely. But nevertheless, hypervideo is coming, in some form or other.

But not for Sense8, it seems. So this is to be another example of Sense8 suggesting greatness, making greatness just barely visible, without quite getting there. Another example because Sense8 of course was clearly developing a language even as it moved from its first to second season and would surely have developed that language further. We barely had begun to really experience the storytelling possibilities of this setting, this mythos, these characters, this medium of Streaming TV. A two hour movie just by its nature is going to be a different beast with different storytelling requirements. While I wouldn't be surprised if some weirdness carried over--remember, these are the folks who gave us Cloud Atlas--Netflix has foreclosed some possibilities with this decision.

Not that some of the greatest potential of the show was likely to get explored the way it deserved to. In particular, the show's ability to explore diverse voices has and seemingly would always be pretty constrained. Sure, the show had diverse characters, and it deserves quite a bit of credit for that. But its perspective is very... well... Wachowski. Iconically so, for better and sometimes for worse. I'm told it's also very much a product of fellow writer J Michael Straczynski. I haven't read or seen any of his other work, so I can't comment, but I trust the folks who've told me that the show telegraphs his influence. Whatever the case, it's certainly true that every episode of season 1 is written by the Wachowski sisters and Straczynski, and every episode of season 2 is written by Lana and Straczynski. While there's a few other directors, the show as a whole is deeply a product of these three people and their auteurist vision.

I'd be the first to say that the show is only possible, to an extent, because of that vision. It shares preoccupations with the rest of the Wachowski canon, certainly, and it's hard to imagine anyone else having the audacity to produce a story like this, one whose budget requirements apparently scaled with its ambitions.

But there's something kind of weird about the limited voice of the show. While Lana and Lilly's queer identities certainly inform the show, the fact is that this show all about diverse voices written by three white Hollywood writers and I feel like it's safe to say that it carries some of those biases.

Of course, I can't necessarily state that with the confidence I'd like to. Part of the problem with assessing the issue of diversity in Sense8 is that I don't really have the positionality to know when certain issues, storylines, or characters are mishandled. Neither does any other critic, for that matter--such is the nature of a show told from 8 different perspectives in a bunch of different countries and cultures. My sense, though, is that there's certainly issues with the way things are depicted.

There's a scene early on in season 1 for example in which Will, cop and all around White Dude, has to argue with a series of black people to save a black shooting victim's life. This is dumb. I don't know what else to say about it. It comes off as deeply tone-deaf and victim-blaming, at best. And while I'm not going to rehearse the whole history of the Wachowskis and their various identity politics controversies, because I'm not really interested in going through every controversy point by point to consider the merits of each creative choice and response, and because honestly the Internet has infinite time to drag trans women for things that it'll defend Disney's Marve's Cinematic Universe for and I'm bored of that game, but I think it's fair to say that the Wachowskis have blind spots that recur in their work.

I bring all this up because of two things I find very interesting:

  1. Sometimes the blind spots result in them misreading their own stories and introducing explicit morals that the implicit action of the texts contradict.
  2. Some of these blind spots might have been compensated for by applying to the creation of Sense8 the same philosophy that (could have) led to its hypervideo reception.

Let's look at that first one quick.

There's a scene early in season 2 where we get a big speech about the need to not focus on differences. There's always going to be a problem, apparently, when we focus more on what makes us different than what makes us the same. The staging of this scene is odd, because it's a speech made by two characters at once primarily in two different contexts. The first is Lito, disgraced action movie star, defending his sexuality to a prying reporter. The second is Capheus, defending his... use of a white action movie star as an idol, to a woman asking him whether it furthers patriarchal colonialist ends. Hm.

I mean, "let's all think about what brings us together" is a beautiful sentiment, The Wachowskis. But. In the context of them constantly getting hit by criticism for their handling of identity it seems a bit... self-congratulatory, though? Defensive? And in the context of defending media from critique because aren't we all the same deep down, juxtaposing a man fighting for his livelyhood and a man fighting for the reputation of Claude Van Damme it comes across as... well, kinda gibberish.

What's really interesting though is that this speech directly contradicts much of the rest of the show. We do not see, in Nomi's storyline, a sense that her identity is not important. Nomi's trans identity is a deep part of the narrative. Her differences DRIVE her character. There's an allowance for her status as trans woman to be deeply impactful both to the plot and to individual incidents and interactions, such as fellow hacker Bug's creeper enthusiasm about Nomi being a Hot Girl Now. That's a trans woman specific experience that they are exploring. So it's not that they don't care about difference, because here they're focusing quite heavily on difference. We could make the same claim about Lito, a man working in cinema who's being unfairly ostracized and attacked for being gay. We could, in fact, make claims like this about all the characters, though the handling of that specificity seems to vary depending on the proximity of the writers to the life circumstances of the characters.

The show thus gives the lie to itself to a degree. My sense--though again, it's hard for me to judge--is that the queer shit is written much better than the race shit. My sense is that it's just not handled the same way the queer stuff is handled, with the same specificity. This is a shame, to an extent, because the real potential of the show is actually in the fact that there are these differences between characters--that in fact it's the very experience of difference that makes the show so interesting, and allows the characters to succeed in their goals.

There's a great scene midway through season 2 between Sun and Lito that is illustrative. Lito, having lost his manager and his instagram followers, comes to Sun in despair, looking for sympathy. Now, Sun at this point has escaped from prison after an attempt on her life by her brother. Her father has been killed by her brother so her brother can cover up his own crimes, and Sun, alone in the world except for her cluster, plots her brother's murder. 
Sun is not particularly receptive to Lito's plight.

But while the beginning of the scene is played humorously, the real content of the scene is the fact that it doesn't occur to Lito not to freak out and cry, but by the same token it doesn't occur to Sun to be stoic. Although there's some dodgy subtext there--Stoic Asian and Emotional Gay Latin American? Hm--I think the dynamic that emerges is interesting. Sun and Lito in some sense need each other, use each other, to explore emotional and cognitive states that are alien to them. Lito coaxes Sun into feeling, to some extent, the full weight of her dire situation. Their bond allows her to experience, through him, an alien state of mind.

What makes this work, notably, is the fact that Sun and Lito are radically different in both circumstance and psychology. They are not, fundamentally, the same person. Their differences enable them to communicate, though always at the risk of that communication failing, or being only partially successful. It's the possibility of communication across difference that makes this narrative so compelling. While it's probably a bit presumptuous to suggest that these writers have misunderstood their own text, I just don't think the lesson here is "don't we have more similarities than differences." I think it's rather the way that differences can be meaningful and a point of communication and relation (somewhat paradoxically).

Now, all of this feels very in line with all the hypertext stuff that I keep banging on about. A hypertext allows for a decentering of single narratives. It's not that we can't have ensemble cassts in other shit--you absolutely can--but the structure of the hypermedia object allows for a leveling of the narrative, a kind of collapse of hierarchies of main-character-ness, that I think is really compelling. This is Sense8 in its ideal form--a non-hierarchical exploration of eight radically different lives intersecting.

It also potentially allows for the kind of shared world fiction that I think is critical for the exploration of a kind of multipositionality and multi-identity politics, politics that doesn't reduce to a single homogenous perspectival slurry or a system of simple binaries. But that potential is limited by the limited number of voices involved in Sense8's storytelling. I think that if there is a weakness to Sense8 currently it's that it feels so much a product of the Wachowskis (and apparently Straczynski) and their auteurist vision. While it's a vision I find very interesting, it's also inherently held back a little bit from the hypertextual potential it has where we could see something that's the product of many writers who are as close to Sun or Capheus or Lito as the Wachowskis are to Nomi.

If differences are meaningful, as the show suggests, I think it could stand to extend difference from the realm of the show's thematic structure into its formal aesthetic structure as well. I don't know that this is necessarily required because of some basic incapacity to communicate across difference or for people to write compellingly outside their own experience--such a supposition would undermine the whole practice and point of art--but in the context of eight main characters I think it makes some sense to suggest that having a larger number of writers from a wide range of backgrounds tackling the content would benefit the project.

How would something like that work exactly? I have some inklings. My time with Magic the Gathering has been pretty instructive in this regard. I think that at its best Magic as shared world fiction is capable of producing really interesting multiperspectival fiction, I suppose you might say. I find the ongoing shaping of Magic's narrative to be endlessly fascinating specifically because it is so much a product of this multiplicity of voices. So, shared world fiction is a potential starting point.

I think the Magic Expanded Multiverse Project, a massive fanfic project that involved creating a canon-compliant internally consistent expansion of Magic's setting and characters, develops this to a greater extent: the concerns of any one of our authors were different from the concerns of the project as a whole. Things I might have been interested in didn't necessarily jive with other authors, and that's good because Magic's setting is an infinite multiverse of worlds, it's every setting in one setting, why would you not want it to be as varied and strange and diverse as possible?

The M:EM was so successful, notably, because it was produced collectively within a structure codifying how things became canon and how each author could use other people's characters, settings, and stories. The system simultaneously allowed individual authors or author teamups to produce their own storylines that branched in a wide variety of directions, while maintaining both quality and continuity not through a single editor but through the community democratically assessing the content. Our content was also strictly hypertextual in aggregate in the way I'm suggesting Sense8 might be--a bunch of individual stories that intersect and blend with one another in a way that doesn't demand a strict linear reading order (which admittedly has made the project kinda tricky to get into for new readers--that's something I haven't solved yet).

I think it's possible to contain a larger aesthetic set of preoccupations within the assemblage of a bunch of disparate voices, and if this show was to develop further into weirder and weirder directions I'd love to see this sense of the multiperspectival, of people with different experiences coming to the text and offering new perspectives that maybe are unified through the lens of the Wachowskis' overarching narrative, but are never sanded down to the single authorial voice.

Unfortunately what we're going to get is not an expansion of Sense8 into these weirder, wilder realms, but a two hour movie. One of the things that I think we're going to lose with that, even as we potentially gain some story resolution, is this opportunity for multiple voices to intrude into Sense8's production. The very nature of a two hour movie will demand a collapse of plot threads and also a continued focus on the vision of the Wachowskis and Straczynski. It's not the end of the world. It is a missed opportunity.

What I'd really love at this point, I think, is something like the Wachowskis' own Animatrix. For a start, anyway. The setting of Sense8 begs for multiple stories to be told, of other sensate clusters, individuals and their groups, told by a wide range of writers, supported by an infrastructure that would allow for those stories to intersect in a complex linear-agnostic dance. It begs for a format and a production model that centers difference in the same way the show's whole narrative does.

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