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Dear Boots, Thank You For Bothering Us!

Robert K. Beshara | Journal: Commons | General Issue [10] | Issues | Dec 2018

According to Lacanian theorist Todd McGowan, “The fundamental antagonism…is the antagonism between the individual and the social order.”[1] This fundamental antagonism can take more than one form depending on the coordinates of the Symbolic order. In capitalism (the dominant Symbolic order in most parts of the world for over five centuries), the fundamental antagonism usually manifests as sexual difference (i.e., masculine v. feminine), class difference (i.e., the bourgeoisie v. the proletariat), and/or racial difference (i.e., White v. POC). This difference is a difference regarding power following Foucault’s logic: “Where there is power, there is resistance.”[2]

Coloniality (i.e., post-colonial capitalism) is constituted by an intersectionality of differences, which can fruitfully materialize as a resistance movement. In other words, coloniality retains the ideology of colonialism but dispenses with (most of) its material colonies. To put it another way, “colonial difference”[3] as an ideological fantasy is the fundamental antagonism of our time, which explains the varying types of Radical movements (e.g., The #MeToo Movement, We are the 99%, and Black Lives Matter). These Radical movements we are seeing today are coming together, or intersecting, in their resistance to the Symbolic order’s abuse of power through sexist, classist, and racist violence and oppression respectively.

The above-mentioned is the zeitgeist, or the socio-cultural context, informing Boots Riley’s masterpiece Sorry To Bother You.[4] The dystopian satire is an exemplar of what McGowan calls “a cinema of intersection”[5] or a cinema facilitating “a traumatic encounter with the gaze” and, I would emphatically add, the Voice. According to the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, “At the scopic level, we are no longer at the level of demand, but of desire, of the desire of the Other. It is the same at the level of the invocatory drive, which is the closest to the experience of the unconscious.”[6] The Voice is the form that the objet petit a (the object-cause of desire) takes in the invocatory drive.

In the case of Sorry To Bother You, the Other (Whiteness), on behalf of the Symbolic order (coloniality), invokes us (through the White Voice) to ideologically and fantasmatically enjoy consuming products (like the film) without thinking about the fundamental antagonism—or the intersecting structural and material (sexual, class, and racial) differences—that is inherent in the post-colonial capitalist system. This perverse enjoyment (which positions us consumers/spectators as false beings) is symptomatic of the prevalence of coloniality as an unconscious style of thinking in the so-called post-colonial era—that is, global capitalism.

The two vital traumatic encounters with the Real that we experience as spectators in the film can be categorized in terms of two moments that are constitutive of subjectivity, namely “alienation” and “separation.”[7] (1) When Cassius Green—potentially a reference both to Muhammad Ali before finding his true being as a Radical Muslim and to selling out since ‘green’ is a reference to money—finds (and surrenders to) his White Voice, he is quickly promoted in RegalView to “power caller”—i.e., a rich and successful telemarketer who has no moral dilemmas about literally selling anything, be it slave labor (e.g., Worry Free) or even his own Black soul. Mr. _______ is a soulless Black man who tells Green that as a power caller he has to use his “White voice at all times.” The White Voice is alienating both for the character and the spectators because it functions literally like demonic possession, wherein an alien from outside is speaking through Cassius—think of the homonym: ‘cash us.’ The alien is the Other (Whiteness), his discourse is coloniality, and the outside is Green’s unconscious (coloniality/Whiteness), which is split from Cassius’s being.

On Democracy Now!,[8] Riley told Amy Goodman and Juan González that:

the white voice doesn’t really exist. White people don’t even have it. They use it, and it’s a performance. There’s a performance of whiteness that is all about saying that everything is OK, you’ve got your bills paid, and that—and, you know, this kind of smooth and easy thing.

The White Voice does not exist because it is an objet a (or lost object), which can only exist in fantasy. In other words, Whiteness is an ideological fantasy, which supports the discourse of post-colonial capitalism. The main function of Whiteness is suturing the fundamental antagonism at the heart of coloniality: that is, the “colonial difference between the ego conquistador and the ego conquistado.”[9]

In Riley’s words:

we live in a system that necessitates poverty. It must have a certain number of unemployed people to exist. And there’s an—but the explanation is that it’s nothing to do the economic system, it’s everything to do with poor people, and these racist tropes come. So the white voice is almost a reaction to that.[10]

What makes our encounter (as spectators) with the Real of coloniality traumatic in the case of Sorry To Bother You is that the White Voice “intrudes on [our] safe distance from the events on the screen and makes evident [our] involvement in these events.”[11] To put it another way, we experience being guilty of either racist enjoyment or racial indifference because we realize our unconscious complicity with both the discourse of coloniality and the fantasy of Whiteness in addition to a general lack of commitment when it comes to anti-colonial struggles (e.g., anti-racism).

This experience of perverse enjoyment reaches its peak during the second traumatic encounter with the Real in the film: (2) when Green accidentally comes across suffering Equisapiens—enslaved Black laborers who have been genetically modified by Steve Lift (the CEO of Worry Free) to have “horsepower.” The Equisapiens are a nod to the Minotaurs from the myth of Atlantis; perhaps Riley is implying that the US is nearing its own self-destruction à la Atlantis. What renders our encounter as spectators with the Equisapiens so traumatic—aside from the element of surprise—is the fact that it is a direct encounter with the Real of racism.

The trope of the Black man as a sub-human or super-human monster was a key feature of slavery as an apparatus. Unfortunately, that trope remains a central component of the New Jim Crow apparatus, only now it is unconscious. The trope of the Black monster is certainly a major factor in police brutality against Black folks who are perceived in many cases to be unrealistically “bigger” and “more physically threatening”—“even when unarmed.”[12]  This unconscious racist trope even scares Green, who has also internalized it because “the unconscious is the Other’s discourse.[13]

This moment of Cassius encountering his internalized racism exemplifies separation, wherein he experiences being dominated by the objet a (power) as the Other’s (Lift’s) desire. This encounter follows Cassius’s sniffing of the faux cocaine, which will unbeknownst to him eventually transform him into an Equisapien. In other words, he will be forced to subjectify his worst fears, the fear of being (seen/heard as) a monster. It is also worth noting that Lift tries to tempt Cassius not only with an offer he cannot refuse—after all, Lift is holding a gun while offering a considerable sum of money to Cassius. Lift is also envious of the Equisapien’s penis size. This classic case of penis envy speaks to the tension between the Symbolic phallus ($) and the Imaginary phallus (penis).

Returning to the question of power and of resistance, Lift—potentially a reference to Steve Jobs’s dictatorial leadership of Apple and his use of child laborers in China—attempts to convince Green to become a fake Equisapien messiah (a pseudo Martin Luther King Jr.) to the Worry Free workforce in order to give them false (or Liberal) hope for $100,000,000. Lift also refers to the Equisapiens’ virility thus reinforcing the racist trope of the Black monster. The conclusion of this exchange is twofold: (a) Green was presented with an illusion of choice, which is a metaphor for capitalism itself because ultimately Lift tricked him into becoming an Equisapien anyhow. (b) Power has nothing to do with force (i.e., virility or physical strength) and everything to do with Symbolic power, which is why Lacan always emphasized that the phallus is not a penis, but a signifier like $ or “a symbol of the lack.”[14] Why does a king wear a crown?

But Riley shows that there is a third moment beyond alienation and separation, which is more powerful: the traversal of fantasy, wherein the subject (Cassius Green) subjectifies the cause of his desire (the objet a). When Cassius Green metamorphoses into an Equisapien, he subjectifies his monstrosity, which is the ugly face of coloniality/Whiteness, in service of a collective struggle and not just personal gain. In conclusion, the Real phallus is the resistance of the people depicted towards the end of the film: an uprising of the intersecting proletariat (diverse humans working for RegalView and Equaspaiens laboring for Worry Free) against the bourgeoisie and their leader Lift, who is probably killed after the film ends in reference to the Terror of the French Revolution.

Dear Boots, thank you for bothering us. Spectators need to be disturbed if they are to change. And the world will not change unless we change. In sum, we cannot be neutral in the face of oppression because we are subjectively interpellated by the dialectic of desire-enjoyment, which functions ideologically in a specific way in the context of global capitalism.


1. McGowan, T, Psychoanalytic Film Theory and The Rules of the Game (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 34-35 [↑]

2. Foucault, M., The History of Sexuality. Volume I: An introduction, trans. R. Hurley, (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1978), 95 [↑]

3. Maldonado-Torres, N., “On the Coloniality of Being: Contributions to the Development of a Concept,” Cultural Studies, 21:2-3 (2007): 245 [↑]

4. Riley, B. (Director),  Sorry To Bother You [Motion picture] (USA: Annapurna Pictures, 2018) [↑]

5. McGowan, T., The Real Gaze: Film theory after Lacan, (Albany: State University off New York Press, 2007), 159 [↑]

6. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, trans. A. Sheridan (London, UK: Karnac, 1973/2004), 104 [↑]

7. Fink, B., A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 194 [↑]

8. Democracy Now!, Boots Riley’s Dystopian Satire ‘Sorry to Bother You? Is an Anti-Capitalist Rallying Cry for Workers [Video file] (July 17 2018) Retrieved from https://www.democracynow.org/2018/7/17/sorry_to_bother_you_boots_rileys [↑]

9. Maldonado-Torres, N., “On the Coloniality of Being: Contributions to the Development of a Concept,” Cultural Studies, 21:2-3(2007): 245, emphasis in original. [↑]

10. Democracy Now!, Boots Riley’s Dystopian Satire ‘Sorry to Bother You? Is an Anti-Capitalist Rallying Cry for Workers [Video file] (2018, July 17) Retrieved from https://www.democracynow.org/2018/7/17/sorry_to_bother_you_boots_rileys [↑]

11. McGowan, T, Psychoanalytic Film Theory and The Rules of the Game, (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 75 [↑]

12. Wilson, J. P., Hugenberg, K., & Rule, N. O., “Racial Bias in Judgments of Physical Size and Formidability: From Size to Threat”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(1) (2017), 59. [↑]

13. Lacan, Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, trans. B. Finks (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 1966/2006), 20, emphasis in original [↑]

14. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, trans. A. Sheridan (London, UK: Karnac, 1973/2004), 103 [↑]

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