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Brendan Hawkins
Dr. Kathleen Yancey
Digital Revolutions
25 September 2017
Sense 8 and Virtual Empathy
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Sense8 , a Netflix series released in the last few years, quickly bounces viewers among
locations across the globe to introduce the main characters. They were all born at the same time
in eight locations as disparate as India, Kenya, Iceland, and Mexico. These main characters, as
the season continues, figure out that they are unique. They are all psychically connected to one
another, allowing them to see through each others eyes, feel (emotionally and bodily) what
others feel, and talk to each other. However, this connection is not completely psychic, as the
communicators occupy both environments simultaneously. When they talk to each other, they
talk in the environment they occupy also. For instance, when A and B talk, they see each other
and the others environment yet also talk in their home environment. We would see person B
carrying on a seemingly one-sided conversation. While this series presents an interesting drama
with some thrilling action scenes for spice, being sensate is an exercise in what Bolter and
Grusin may call virtual empathy (243-254), which constitutes a radical departure from
Enlightenment Cartesian notions that knowledge and selfhood are disembodied. The sensate
experience allows this virtual empathy through Remediations keywords, immediacy and
hypermediacy.
In virtual reality, the viewer mimics the role of film director, constituting a shift of
control that enables the viewer to explore (248). The agency that virtual reality allows can
give viewers a sample of others lives. However, their term viewer is not quite accurate, as the
high level of participation during the shift of control indicates that viewer should instead be
participant. There is an agency in virtual empathy because of that participatory action. Virtual
reality, writes Bolter and Grusin, surpasses hypertext or remediated alphabetic mediums in its
ability to let participants interact with environments they would otherwise not be able to
accesslike taking a walk in someone elses shoes. Virtual reality surpasses these media
because it allows an embodied participation with the subject on a level that enmeshes
perspectives of subject and object. It is that enmeshing that leads to a virtual empathy through
the ability to see and be as another would.
Bolter and Grusin note the pervasiveness of Cartesian epistemology in Western cultures.
This epistemology, which seeks the real or knowledge of self through the erasure of self, is
shaken by the embodied nature of virtual empathy. The Cartesian self are shaken by remediation
in its embodied-ness; yet, if we pay attention to his logic, we can see that he was already mired
in the tensions between immediacy and hypermediacy. Bolter and Grusin quote Descartes, who
aims to gain knowledge of his selfhood through an erasure of sense perception: I will now shut
my eyes, stop my ears, and withdraw all my senses. I will eliminate from my thoughts all images
of bodily things (qtd. Bolter and Grusin 250). His efforts to understand his selfhood through a
reduction of sense faculties is paradoxical because he concentrates on them more in his efforts to
reduce them. He worries about the immediacy or transparency of his selfhood; yet, the
immediacy of selfhoodif attainableis done so through a preoccupation with hypermediation.
Virtual empathy seems at odds with the Cartesian self, but the Cartesian self is also already
embattled in remediation, suggesting that material questions of selfhood were already at stake.

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See also https://www.netflix.com/sense8/.
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Further, it is through a juxtaposition or outright rejection of Cartesian self that Bolter and
Grusin discuss the mediated body. They assert, Empathy is so highly regarded today as a means
of knowing presumably because empathy is everything that traditional, Enlightenment reason
was not: immediate, embodied, emotional, and culturally determined (246). Because Sense 8 is
immediate, visceral, and culturally situated, it is a representation of virtual empathy through its
ability to more closely achieve the real, though it is still (to Bolter and Grusins point)
hypermediated. Sense8 builds immediacy as the sensate encounter each others lives and
environments. Notably, they learn several new languages immediately as their sensate ability
triggers. For instance, Sun controls Capheuss body to help him fend of muggers. Sun views the
world from Capheuss eyes and controls his response to it. Their sensate ability allows them
perspective, but they also transcend viewership. Thus, their sensate ability also functions as
hypermediation, because they are simultaneously empathizing with another while maintaining
consciousness of their own bodies and of their connection as one of the cluster of sensate.
Remediation has tensions between the desire to achieve unmediated realities and the
hypermediated environments that, ironically, attempt to offer that immediacy. In the case above,
real experiences with others through virtual reality, which can lead to virtual empathy, are
immediate because technologies foster this experience. Yet this immediacy can function because
media would have to intersect to grant a participant this experience. Films like Back to the
Future and Big depict empathy through ego-shifting characters who reaffirm the cultural
importance of empathy, according to Bolter and Grusin (247). Sense8 continues that tradition
by depicting an immediacy that is, yes, hypermediated. The series affirms their contention that
virtual reality, as both immediate and hypermediated, constitutes a redefinition of selfhood and
other. Virtual realitys ability to allow participants to embody anothers perspective allows for
a radical departure from Cartesian definitions of selfhood.

Works Cited
Bolter, Jay, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press, 2000.
Wachowski, Lana, Wachowski, Lilly, and J. Michael Straczynski, creators. Sense8. Anarchos
Production, Javelin Productions, Studio JMS, and Georgeville Television, 2016.