The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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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.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Hey, What's Going On (With Sense8 Perception)

I said I was going to write about the orgy scenes in Sense8. This is what came out instead.

Damn it, I don't even LIKE the orgy scenes that much.

I don't really like sex scenes in general if I'm being honest. I tend to find them intrusive, boring, alienating... all the things that I'm assuming most directors don't want their sex scenes to be. They tend to be most interesting to me at their most weird--the werewolf scene from the bizarre Francis Ford Coppola version of the Dracula, for example. For the most part, though, they leave me cold.

Sense8's somewhat infamous orgy scenes are better than most, because they're so damn queer, so I'm not quite as bewildered, frustrated, and alienated as I typically am with The Straights and their boring boning. They're strange enough, and maybe just sexy enough, for me to not want to speed past them constantly like I do with practically all other such scenes. And yet, they're still not really as interesting to me as... well... all the other stuff there is to talk about with Sense8.

So framing this set of articles around the orgy scenes was a pretty transparent ploy, an attempt to get people to read some weird technical meditations in the hopes of it all building to a point where the orgy scenes turned out to have this great narrative weight tying everything together. Their hopes and mine--I really did hope I could deliver on this premise, link it all together, tie it up with a bow, and give it the same treatment as the Star Wars book.

But as the draft version of this testifies, the production of this series of articles on Sense8 hit snag after snag, from the recording process onward. During just this one section I was interrupted and lost my train of thought not once but twice, and then between each article the show was first canceled then sort of un-canceled, making my whole frame--"Sense8 is the Future of Television!"--seem pretty ridiculous. And beyond everything else was the fact that the hooks, both the Future of TV thing and the orgy thing, weren't necessarily things I cared about as anything other than a vehicle to sell more esoteric interests.

Here's the thing, though.

No one read these fucking articles anyway.

Not only was this whole writing process a massive pain, it turned out vanishingly few people cared about the results! Turns out the venn diagram of "people who care about Sense8" and "people who care about the development of hypermedia" prominently includes me, some fraction of my existing (tiny) reader base, and absolutely no one else, and all the click baiting on earth can't actually change that.

This was supposed to be an article on Sense8 orgy scenes that was actually about hypermedia and phenomenology and a bunch of other weird stuff.

Now it's just about the weird stuff, because if no one's going to read these articles anyway I may as well go full on bizarre. To do that, all I need to do is ask what should seem like a straightforward question:

How do sensates actually experience the world?

I don't actually have a specific answer to this--I don't think that there's necessarily a clear answer within the show, and I don't exactly have a ton of phenomenological theory to hand to make sense of the question. These are fundamentally fictional beings with speculative experiences, after all, so theory isn't really equipped to explain their interaction with the world. I have a ton of questions, though, and I think maybe asking those questions is, itself, interesting.

For example: isn't the show kind of ambiguous about the position of sensates in space when "visiting" each other? We see them move separately when visiting, engage with the world, and so on, but we're also given suggestions that this is merely a useful abstraction to make the experiences coherent in a film medium.

Take Sun's escape from prison, for example. There's a fascinating set of shots where we see, in sequence, members of the cluster toss the keys of the guard to each other then to Sun. These shots are intercut with scenes of Sun tossing the keys up in the air to herself. It seems like the sensates, when they're acting on each other in the environment, are in some sense acting on themselves, with the individual present behaving in ways that transform those actions into coherent single-person acts. Coherent enough, anyway--from outside it must seem pretty odd!

But how literally does Sun experience her clustermates passing the keys to her? Does she experience it as having the keys tossed to her, not experiencing the semi-autonomous zombie movement of her body at all? Does she toss the keys to herself semi-conscious of a symbolic layer to her perceptions, a kind of fantasy that she acts out as well as she can with her single body? And how much of this is mere filmic shorthand? It can't be all of it because otherwise why intercut the two alternate takes on the same action, but might it weave abstract shorthand in and out?

The reason I keep chewing on this strange issue is because of an idea coming from phenomenology that knowledge stemming from our perspective-in-space is kind of a big deal. It's our engagement with space, in phenomenology, that lets us makes sense of the world, but also it is our positionality that occludes our full knowledge of what's around us. That insight into physical space and perception is paralleled in a bunch of theory with a sort of extension into how much knowledge we can have generally about the world. what's our ability to create a theory of being, an ontology, if our physical perspective is limited? This influences things like object oriented ontology, which is often focused on entities and whole systems that have experiential states we can't access or comprehend but that exist as actors, as entities with agency to act on the world and on us (or through us).

None of this is really something the show gets into directly, which is fine. I think it's still sort of there as subtext and I think it's something it gets into in terms of how different knowlege bases affect perceptions of reality. I mean, it has to deal with this to an extent because the sensates share their skills, taking advantage of an eightfold expanded knowledge base. Will, for example, enters into situations where other characters see just random enemies, and parses out body language, intentionality, and possible lines of attack. 

So the sensates have the ability to have, if not a separate embodied perspective (maybe--we'll come back to this), the ability to have multiple levels of interpretation of the physical world at the same time. While sometimes knowledge from someone like Will must be communicated verbally, they can also take over each others' bodies directly allowing for an inherently multiplied and fragmented phenomenology, a fragmented experience of the world.

This is a place where the sensates are truly alien from good old Homo Sapiens. They can, in effect, act in ways that are counter to their actual perception. They can act in ways that anticipate aspects of reality that they as individuals CAN'T observe, because other members of the cluster MAY observe those particular details. Their behavior is radically different from ours--which, like, obviously yeah, but I think it is interesting how the show grapples with the fact that their perceptions are like a sixth sense in a way, relying on information intake that any one individual couldn't rely on.

I don't know that the show is always successful in exploring this alien phenomenology but that's kind of ok. China Mieville has talked before about the impossibility of depicting the alien, an impossibility that exists on a pure, definitional level. The truly alien is by nature unrepresentable, as its otherness would dissolve if it could be comprehended. Or so the logic goes. The goal, Mieville says, is to recognize that inevitable representational failure and find ways to fail better, or more interestingly.

I don't know that I'm totally sold on this for various reasons. I think the underlying notion there is that the material reality of our bodies, our interaction with space, our place within space, and so on, shape our abilities to form thoughts to an extent that to imagine a radically different engagement with reality would require us to neurologically model a physical form radically different than our own. I don't know that that's as strictly impossible as Mieville suggests--that there's such a division between alien/not alien. Like, I'm sure Mieville has better theoretical grounding here, that's just the reality of him being someone much better read and much smarter than me. Nevertheless, having not read tons and tons of poststructuralist theory, I would like to naively hope we can model other states of being simply because those states are so common. Living in other states of material experience is so common, across gender, across ability, across neurological states, that it seems pretty important to be able to model those things.

Which, hey, if we're defining the Alien as the unmodelable, maybe the possibility there is that we're more alike than different in the end. So, Sense8 might turn out to have the right end of the philosophical stick in the end after all.

But the point I'm laboring toward with all of this is that if we're modeling the alien then, yeah, the goal here isn't necessarily succeed but to develop new methods of failing better. At its best, that's what Sense8 does. The result of how Sense8 operates is that sometimes the show must portray events that are not going to be comprehensible to the viewers just on an experience level, and then ALSO having to represent that experience in a visual medium, resulting in a bunch of visual shorthands where the literal and figurative have a weird relationship to each other. Moments like the key tossing scene are strange and kind of inexplicable, and the very interpolation of shots of Sun tossing the keys to herself suggests that they're interested in playing in this weird ambiguous space. Or were, before the series was cancelled then sort of uncancelled in the form of what'll inevitably be an insufficient made for TV movie.

There's sequences, as a result, where things don't necessarily make a whole lot of sense. Take a scene early on in season 2 while Will is still drugged up and fighting Whispers. If Riley is holding Will, for example, Riley can't get up to get a box of drugs that they're using to keep him sedated. Yet Kala appears and manipulates that physical object. This, absent psychic powers, is a clearly impossible action that we have to kind of fill in gaps for, extrapolating what MIGHT be happening in real terms despite the fact that our sparing human intellects assume the most ingratiating posture of defeat whenever we have to actually model the experience of being a sensate. This sense of being inhabited by others who are not-other, and through their agency taking actions that otherwise make little to no sense... it's wild shit and it's pretty cool to see them attempt to grapple with how you'd experience something like this. Like, is Riley's body being ridden by Kala there, while Riley "visits" Will and holds him within purely notional sensate space? Maybe! It makes some sense! But man that's weird.

It's weird in part because even once we impose a kind of external framework for what is literally happening in these scenes, we're still left with the question of how each member of a cluster is experiencing what we're observing and rationalizing. If Riley is visiting with Will, while Kala is riding Riley's body in order to administer medical aid to Will... what does Riley actually see? Does she see through the eyes of her own body? Through Will's? Or does she somehow see through the eyes of a spectral Riley that hovers by Will and views Kala standing where Riley's body stands? Is she seeing the room from an angle that no physical eye, no physical sense organ, actually perceives?

This is where the orgies come in.

What we're seeing in the big queer orgy scenes in Sense8 is something figurative but also literal. It's figurative in the sense that these people aren't all in the same place, so it must be nonliteral to an extent. But by the same token the sensates perceive each other as standing in certain places, or lying, or kneeling, or whatever, plenty of positions to choose from, and they seem to have some sort of physiological response to this perceptual fantasy.

It doesn't make sense for them to be actually sort of projected and physically manipulating those members (ha ha) of the cluster that aren't physically proximate, because there's no amount of empathy that can cause you to astrally fucking project, though. Even within the kind of dubious science of the show, that just doesn't make much sense. There's nothing that would allow you to take light into your eyes... from two feet to your left. Aside from like... a really dorky hat with mirrors in it. I guess.

I know it's kind of ridiculous to apply stringent rules to... well, to Sense8, a series always kind of on the edge of self parody, but I think for the sake of pulling out interesting stuff about phenomenon and perspective we can assume certain minimal rules of physics still apply. Imposing some assumed physical laws on the narrative space actually opens up interpretive possibilities rather than just sort of descending into the typical morass of nitpicking and plot hole searching (which you all know I'm less than fond of). So, I think we can rule out the idea that they're physically taking in light from two feet to the left. They must be perceiving things in some other way.

And again, the sensates do seem to be able to affect each other physiologically, so that perception has an impact on reality. I don't really have the background in biology to explain what exactly is going on there, but the narrative laws seem to suggest that it's possible, because you're being figuratively projected, to act out fantasies that are... well, basically sexting I guess. Ultra vivid sexting. RP with an Oculus Rift where the people don't look like either Ken dolls or the Boy Mayor of Second Life.

But if you're inhabiting someone else's body temporarily, while visiting, within this ultra vivid sexting technology, do you... see yourself from the outside?

Imagine Sun is visiting Lito. Lito looks left, and sees Sun there.

Does Sun see herself through Lito's eyes, or does she take on a kind of impossible perspective and see Lito? OR, does Sun see Lito in her spacial context and Lito see Sun within his context? Does Sun potentially see Lito and a context that is a projection of what Lito anticipates the world would be like from Sun's perspective? Does Lito's brain carry out an operation of closure where he's taking visible material and inferring space from Sun's projected point of view? Weren't we talking about orgies? Let's talk about closure instead.

Closure's a process where the human mind fills in notional shapes through available data. The human mind is amazingly good at doing things like projecting where two lines will meet and visualizing the resultant complete line segment. You can take a series of pac mans... pac... men? and arrange them in a triangle with their mouths facing inward and the human mind will generate from that a closed shape, a triangle made of the negative space between the three foreground beloved abstract game mascots.

Is it possible that what the sensates are doing is taking the physical sensation of the body they're visiting, and then producing a visual and auditory feedback based on what that body has access to in the environment, creating a virtual, anticipated space? If the sapient mind cannot perceive light from a different physical perspective, might the sensorient mind be evolved to extend closure to the point where Riley can see Will and Kala (in Riley's body) from a perspective generated from some beefed up closure system, an imagined position drawn from Will and Riley's body's sense organs and filtered through the eight fold processing power of a sensate cluster?

I mean!

Holy shit!

Has anyone involved in the show thought this through in this much detail?

I have no idea.

But man is it interesting, in part because of how it opens a window into a mindbending alien neurology and perceptual framework! Like, take the orgies again:

Basically a sensate orgy wouldn't just be that you're experiencing refracted pleasure, though I'm sure it would involve that, multiple beings having their pleasure build and reverberate across several consciousnesses and subjectivities, each body contributing to the din. It's not just that the pleasure is being mirrored back and forth. It's also that the pleasure is taken place within a kin of mystified field where AND THEN SOMEONE SHOWED UP TO DELIVER A FUCKING FUTON TO THE HOUSE. This is one of the most abstract forms of cockblocking I can imagine! But to try to retrieve my thought process, I think where I was going with this was that the fantasy space of the sensate orgy may very well be not just highly physiologically stimulating but a space where the individual, through the multiple contradictory stimuli, ends up in this incredible fractured state, virtually embodied in multiple ways simultaneously!

There's a major scene in season 2 where Lito gives a speech at a pride parade with a large screen behind him, which, since the screen is projecting Lito being filmed in front of the screen, results in a refraction, Lito backed by delayed and mirrored versions of himself.

I think that may be something like what it is to be a sensate. There's constantly this possibility of stepping outside yourself through the intervention of one of these you/not you people, the possibility of seeing yourself from outside yourself. There is, as well, some ambiguity about whether or not you can attain a third person perspective, how possible it is to become third-person, and through the intervention of the film medium we see this strange dissociation where the characters appear to take on a third person perspective to their own bodies. 

What really interests me is specifically the fact that like it takes place in this strange dissociative state where you're potentially perceiving yourself perceiving others (perceiving yourself). This is probably really strange, in a really interesting way. It's worth plugging into and exploring--there's more to it than just the sexy stuff. Which, just weird sexy magic fantasies are totally fine too! but I think we can explore the radical alienness of this and get something cool out of it.

And it is particularly interesting in the context of a hypernarrative, where multiple perspectives [might be/could have been/should have been/are] given equal weight within a somewhat arbitrarily ordered narrative, one that itself demands closure from the audience in the form of reworking and manipulation of the raw material in order to draw out particular threads. 

It's for these questions, these weird narrative possibilities, these formal oddities and geeky speculations, that I still love and defend Sense8, in the face of its lack of a large scale fandom, the bitterly predictable indifference from straight people, its problems narratively and creatively and financially. As I recently argued in a different context, there's real value to media that gives us the opportunity to geek out like this, and so at the close of my writing on Sense8 I can only feel satisfied that despite all the horseshit that I went through in writing these articles, I geeked out as hard as I could.

And hey, in the end I still managed to talk about the orgies anyway.

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