Sorry to Bother You and the Sins of Political Art

The release of Boots Riley’s terrific Sorry to Bother You could not have arrived at a better time. The communist’s take on neoliberalism run amok captures our moment; unfortunately, this mimetic impulse is also the film’s downfall. The best committed works are still committed, and suffer the same fate all political art does. Despite my desire to, I will not relitigate the larger theoretical debate between autonomous vs. committed art. My preference for the former is well-known, and one only need to read Adorno to understand why. Instead, here I simply want to argue against commitment on a more concrete level. Working from Adorno and the late Mark Fisher, it becomes obvious that in late capitalism there is no form of art more internally inconsistent than the committed work. It lies, cheats, and betrays the very movement it purports to help. Riley sells his brilliance down the river, abandoning his film.

Before diving into critiques of the film, however, I want to first defend the film from its ostensible supporters. On Twitter, I saw the film approvingly called “communist agitprop.” For a moment, let us put aside the fact that this is a movie about unionization—a far cry from communism. That modern discourse cannot differentiate between critiques of capitalism and communism is fascinating, though of little use to us here. But how ignorant one must be to use propaganda as a compliment! Tendentious works attempt to banish form from content—this being impossible, they then reveal their own stupidity. Form always speaks; it is at its loudest and most destructive when artists try to silence it. Riley’s interest in technique saves the film from this fate. Like Eisenstein’s Old and New, it refuses to be what its supporters wish it were.

It is in these formal characteristics, however, that the film’s contradictions become evident. Put simply: the story and message oppose each other. We must unionize, the film screams. We must unionize and fight and free ourselves from a violent system constructed by a select few. But the plot moves along according the desires of the director, forcing the characters to his will, mimicking the relationship between the individual and capital. The plot contains nothing that might be considered unnecessary—it is a tight totality, one without the out-of-place individual components that in autonomous works force the mediations in which knowledge is produced. Furthermore, the ostensibly happy ending betrays itself. They have unionized, but little is different; the jobs are the same and the houses are the same and the people are the same. The only difference is that some of them drive Maserati’s and the rest can pay their rent. Earlier in the film, it is claimed that if they can stop the strikebreakers the entire world will join their fight. Considering the CEO of Worry Free still lives safely in his home—it requires Cassius turning into a horse-human hybrid to change this—and the call center still operates, this appears not to have happened. Unless, of course, this is the utopia Riley imagines; everything is the same, only slightly different. If this is the case, it is particularly worrisome. Is the left so impoverished that we can only imagine a slightly less malevolent capitalism? In Riley’s world, the ice caps still melt and the hills still burn and the third world still starves. Healthcare and other benefits are a right, not a revolution.

I can hear the objections already; that I am being unkind, that Riley is attempting to offer a portrait of our world and how to improve it, not a vision of utopia. To that, I might reply that of all the arts, film must be most skeptical of mimesis. The medium was born of an impulse to capture the world as it is; that it cannot do so is its one redemptive feature. The dialectic of film is that it is always an index and always not one. The index is a sign that represents something that exists without necessarily mimicking it. Smoke is an index in relation to fire, as is the footstep to the shoe. Film stock captures the light of something; it is this light capture that we then see projected. The footstep reveals the existence of a shoe, but implies a corresponding foot and leg and person. The film purports that what it is an index of is a portion of the world we exist in. However, this is a lie. Outside what the camera captures, there is nothing but lights and people and paintings. In short, it captures a construction while using its inherent qualities to insist that what is seen is real. Mimesis in film insists that the mirror image is actually real and so denies itself. To point this out directly—as Brecht did in Kuhle Wampe and Godard did often—is undialectic in the extreme. It positions the film as the one real film, the one index that does not lie. As an edited construction, of course, this is itself a lie. Instead, the best films, those that achieve the status of art, reveal their falsity without ever drawing attention to it, reinstating the mediations others lack. In its formal elements, Sorry to Bother You works towards doing so. The ever-changing photograph becomes a comment on film’s malleability. The white person voice is not only constructed through editing but also a construction within the plot, an important doubling. Thus, the plot’s claim to reality is invalidated by the film’s forms. In his insistence on saying something, Riley submits himself to the very sin that his artistry opposes. Mimesis in this medium can only come about through extreme focus on its dialectical opposite: capturing the essence of society.

It is worth noting briefly that the reality the film claims to capture bears little resemblance to the world as it is. This is most evident in how the film portrays Steve Lift, the CEO of WorryFree, as well as how money moves and how the poor relax. Lift is an incompetent party boy, hosting orgies filled with cocaine and models while his advisors develop serums that alter the human genome. This, admittedly, captures part of our reality. If the past year has revealed anything, it is that Mark Zuckerburg and Elon Musk are not the best and brightest, nor do they surround themselves with such. But Adorno’s critique of Brecht’s portrayal of fascism as a lowly street gang resonates; in prioritizing the humor of the fascist’s incompetence, the playwright obfuscates the horror. Idiocy loses its humor when millions suffer under it. Furthermore, Lift is at least weird in the way of the old aristocracy—such weirdness can produce its antidote in future generations, just as the French bourgeoisie produced Sade. Our tech overlords are sadly generic—straightedge idiots who stumbled into billions.

Furthermore, the central conceit of the film—that RegalView sells weapons and slaves to mega-corporations through cold calling—offers an almost benevolent view of late capitalism. In this world, deals aren’t done through nepotism and back room meetings but in the same way people buy insurance. It is meant to be absurd, but in doing so offers an inaccurate portrait that it insists is real. The true horror of late capitalism is that it commoditizes what was in previous generations the last refuge of humanity. Platonic, romantic, and familial relationships have become defined by the exchange value in the same way coats and tires are. The film’s capitalism rings false, having been scrubbed of its real threat.

Within the film, the debauchery of the rich is juxtaposed—intentionally or otherwise—with the healthy sex lives of the poor. They sleep with their lovers and those they have strong feelings for. They smoke blunts and drink whiskey but never overdue either. There’s no fucking strangers for the sake of fucking or snorting coke or shooting heroin. Riley has fallen into the same trap as Benjamin and Brecht, among others, believing that there is something more inherently pure about the poor. The truth, however, is that if anything the oppressed are more susceptible to an ideology of distraction. Healthy sex lives are the province of those who do not feel a boot upon their neck at all times. This is not to say the poor are unable to understand healthy and unhealthy, nor that the bourgeoisie are more noble. Both things are self-evidently false. But to believe the oppressed have some special knowledge because they are the oppressed is dehumanizing; it is the logic of noble savagery retrofitted for the capitalist era. We see this when the poor suddenly become rich—an overwhelming amount of the time, they reveal an ideological stupidity equal or greater to even the oldest of money.

Before concluding, I want to touch briefly on the final reason committed works betray themselves. It is because their very existence is a capitulation to the violent logic of the world. In our society, everything must mean something, must have a reason for its existence. Autonomous works defy this dictum; they exist for themselves, saying nothing except that they are there. In doing so, they offer not only the negative image of our world but the suggestion of another, better one. In their silent passivity, they say more than otherwise possible. Committed works, on the other hand, reinforce capitalism’s logic. They say that art exists to “say something”; they constantly justify themselves to the ruling system. They are inherently positivist, unable to escape the belief that only what is visible and provable exists. This is why they become tools for the capitalist system. As Fisher notes, in the contemporary era the independent and alternative niches are the mainstream. “Nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV.” There is nothing capitalism loves more than artistic protest against it. To quote Fisher again—though he was talking about Wall-E—“the film performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with immunity.” In a world in which there is no real viable alternative to the capitalist system, watching the system critique itself is the highest form of protest. Indeed, Sorry to Bother You takes this a step further. Consumption on its own is not bad, it says, but inequalities within consumption. Fetishizing the Maserati is fine, as long as everyone can get one. Ignore that it gets 12 MPG, that the act of turning it on is violence against the millions who will suffer from climate change. It feels good, and so it is good. They got it through unionizing, and if you unionize you’ll get the same, but only as long as nothing really changes. Capitalism is bad, but there’s no replacement so why don’t we just make it better? Committed art attacks its autonomous counterpart through its very existence. It says that good art sets out to say something, and retreating from the system is unacceptable cowardice. Capital nods along silently, smiling with each barrage and play-acting pain for the masses. But look closer—the blood is fake and the cuts are shallow. Everyone knows the system is rigged; superficial self-sabotage negates outside influence. The culture industry knows it is violence, and for that reason it can inflict it with impunity.

Lies We Choose to Believe*

One of the few times I complimented the South while in the South, I was talking to my mother. I was remarking on the Southern storytelling tradition. What I was saying—probably wondering why such a backward region produced such great storytellers—is less important than my mother’s response. She said that the South is a Romantic culture, a place that believes that stories can evoke more truth than available in the individual words themselves or in what actually happened. In this vein, the South creates a past that may or may not correspond to actual history, but nonetheless lives on in the cultural imaginary. This past, then, only becomes real when it is told or thought, and so the past comes into existence in the present, bearing down on those doing the speaking or thinking. Looking at three of Faulkner’s novels: The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom!, and Light in August, we see the Old South push upon characters in three different ways—as a repressed memory that violently imposes itself on the present, as an ever unfolding line that ensnares those who attempt to unwind it, and as an image that drives the seer into madness. In examining these moments, I hope to understand why the South becomes an obsession for these characters, and work toward an impressionistic answer to the question that has haunted me, and I believe haunts Quentin Compson: How can we hate and love the South at the same time?

To begin with, let us look at Quentin’s portion of The Sound and the Fury. In the novel, the old south is ostensibly dead, or at least on it’s deathbed. Yet nonetheless it presses upon Quentin, making itself real in the present. Events from the past that Quentin is remembering interrupt things that are actually happening in the present—while Quentin is staring at Shreve, Faulkner writes, “he went on, nursing a book, a little shapeless, fatly intent. The street lamps do you think so because one of our forefathers was a governor and three were generals and Mother’s weren’t…Jason I must go away you keep the others I’ll take Jason” (Faulkner The Sound and the Fury 101). As he watches Shreve, the words of his father and mother echo, which then brings to mind a moment from his past until he is back in that moment, the words being remembered as spoken in the present even as they exist in the past. Quentin’s obsession with the past causes it to intrude on the present.

Much of what Quentin remembers his father saying relates to conceptions of virginity, and particularly his sister’s virginity. Still obsessed with the old southern belief that a woman’s worth is defined by her virginity, Quentin tries to tell his father that it was he who slept with Caddie, believing that claiming it could somehow make it true and put him in a special hell with her, where he could protect her. This belief suggests that he sees the past as something malleable, something that can be changed after it has happened as long as it is remembered in a new way. Part of the reason for this is because, as Faulkner’s prose reveals, Quentin experiences the past in the present as vividly as it was in the moment it actually occurred. And part of it is that, ostensibly if one remembers something, then it happened or exists in someway—although this obviously is not actually the case, as individuals remember falsehoods and stories and things that exist only in their minds. However, this is not the entirety of why Quentin believes that the past can be changed in the present, and remembered past can differ from history. To fully grasp why Quentin believes what he believes, we must pivot to two different books, including one in which the Compson clan is absent: Light in August and Absalom, Absalom!.

It is admittedly counter-intuitive to examine a character through a book he is not in. However, it is nonetheless apt. In Light in August, Reverend Gail Hightower is paralyzed by images of his grandfather fighting in the Civil War. His mammie, Cynthie, tells him that his grandfather killed many union soldiers, and even rode into the garrisoned city of Jefferson to conduct a daring raid. The imagery sticks with Hightower, haunting him. He imagines that he is partly his grandfather, and died 20 years before he was born, when his grandfather was shot in Jefferson. This belief shapes his entire life—he works to get posted in the city, and even when he is removed from his position, he continues to live there, even risking his life to stay. The past he is told, the one he dreams of, effects his present, even becoming part of it—at times he speaks of his grandfather’s actions as if they are in the present. Furthermore, he is unable to “get religion and that galloping cavalry and his dead grandfather shot from the galloping horse untangled from each other” (Faulkner Light in August 62). He tells the congregation, and himself, about the noble death of his grandfather, how there was no looting of Jefferson even as it burned. However, as Hightower admits at the end, Cynthie told him his grandfather was “killed in somebody’s else’s henhouse wid a han’full of feathers” (Faulkner Light in August 485). The past he believes is true usurps true history for most of his life, the latter only coming into the reader’s evidence at the end of the novel. Indeed, one could argue that his imagined history is in some ways true, at least in that it was this history that dictates his actions, how he thinks, and how people treat him throughout his life.

However, in true Faulknerian fashion, Hightower’s understanding of his grandfather’s history is not this simple. We know Hightower was told that his grandfather was shot in the henhouse during his childhood, since his mammie told him it. He has kept both pasts in his mind—his father being shot off his horse in the street, and being shot with a shotgun by the wife of the confederate soldier—because for a hero, their “physical passing becomes rumor with a thousand faces before the breath is out of them, lest the paradoxical truth outrage itself” (Faulkner Light in August 484). He says that he believes Cinthy’s story because even if she made it up, “even fact cannot stand with it” (Faulkner Light in August 484). What matters is not which happened, or even what Hightower thinks happened, but what Hightower believes happened, which is both pasts. When talking to the congregation, his grandfather was shot off his horse, but when talking to his wife on the train, his grandfather was shot in the henhouse. Neither death may be accurate, but because he believes both, they both are, in some way. The past is not history, not an accurate representation of what happened, but what people remember happening. Indeed, the same moment in history can have several contradictory pasts.

This, then, starts to offer an understanding of the past that explains Quentin’s belief that if he can claim Caddie’s virginity to his father, then he might be able to protect her in some way after the fact. Hightower lives his entire life believing these two pasts about his father, and hence both become true in some way, shaping his life as well as the lives of those around him. As he says, he is the “debaucher and murderer of my grandson’s wife, since I could neither let my grandson live or die” (Faulkner Light in August 491). His obsessions with these pasts shape not only his life, but also his wife’s and the community’s. Furthermore, these false pasts manifest themselves in the present, overwhelming Hightower, taking control of him and making it so he cannot live his own life, but instead only a life dictated by said pasts.

Unlike Light in August, Quentin is very much present in Absalom, Absalom!. Much of the novel is people recounting the story of Thomas Sutpen to him and vice-versa. He is at the center of this novel that is obsessed with the relationship between history and its retelling as the past. As the novel unfolds, the same story—the rise and fall of Sutpen’s Hundred—is told from several different perspectives. Sutpen’s sister-in-law, Rosa Coldfield, tells Quentin some of it, his father tells him what his father told him, and Quentin and his roommate Shreve discuss it. As this constant talk about the South happens, the dialogue is peppered with “perhaps” and “maybe.” Partly this is because they are talking about the thoughts that other people had, and it is impossible to say for sure what is in someone else’s head. However, it is also because though it is one history they are retelling, it is several pasts.

For example, part of the derailment of the Sutpen dynasty comes when Thomas Sutpen refuses to let his daughter marry Charles Bon, causing Bon and Henry Sutpen, Thomas’ son, to run off. Jason Compson tells Quentin that it was because Charles Bon was Judith’s sister, only for Quentin to learn from Rosa that Charles Bon was part black, and it was this that stopped the marriage—Rosa does not even suspect incest. As the book draws to a close, Quentin and Shreve come to the idea that it was Bon’s black blood that stopped the act of incest from occurring by causing Henry to shoot Bon to stop the marriage. As Bon tells Henry, “so it’s the miscegenation, not the incest, which you can’t bear” (Faulkner Absalom, Absalom! 285). The discussion continues, and Bon taunts Henry that he is not his brother, but “the n****r that’s going to sleep with your sister” (Faulkner Absalom, Absalom 285). The two pasts merge into one, yet still stay as two. To Mr. Compson, incest is the central issue that causes the impasse. To Rosa Coldfield, it is miscegenation. But to Shreve and Quentin, it is both. The pasts imagined by Mr. Compson and Rosa bear down on the boys, pushing them into creating their own past that holds both of these other pasts to be true, regardless of what the historical record says.

From Light in August and Absalom, Absalom!, it has become more clear why Quentin Compson might understand the past as something able to be modified in the present—the past in Faulkner is something separate from history, something linked to memory, community, and the individual and hence constructed in the present and then put onto history from such a vantage point. In such an understanding of the past, it makes sense that Quentin believes that if he is able to claim Caddy’s virginity to his father the claim will somehow become true. However, in doing so we have strayed from the questions that inspired the essay. Let us return to them. In Faulkner, much as in life, the past of the South—how it wants to be remembered, not its actual history—imposes itself on those from there. It is inescapable, pressing constantly upon the mind. Reverend Hightower becomes so obsessed with the death of his grandfather that, as he says, “for fifty years I have not even been clay: I have been a single instant of darkness in which a horse galloped and a gun crashed” (Faulkner Light in August 491). His entire life can be reduced to a single moment not in history, but in the past. Similarly, when Shreve is talking, Faulkner says “he had no listener…then suddenly he had no talker either…because now neither of them was there. They were both in Carolina and the time was forty-six years ago and it was not even four now but compounded still further, since now both of them were Henry Sutpen and both of them were Bon…” (Faulkner Absalom, Absalom! 280). And, as mentioned above, in The Sound and the Fury the prose of the past jumps into the present, interrupting Quentin’s thoughts about where he is to refocus on where he is from.

The South’s past is reliant on memory, and pushes upon those tasked with remembering it. It exists only in the minds of those in the community. Through individuals describing what happened in in the temporal past, the imagined past is created in the present, and then is mapped onto history. The South has to obsess those who carry it with them for its history to live. The implication of this process, however, is that the South’s past is always personal, in that it says something about who created it. This, then, starts to explain why these characters are obsessed with the pasts they and those around them create—it is a way of learning about themselves. And it also starts to explain why it is impossible for Quentin to hate the South, nor not hate it. It is the reason why Absalom, Absalom! concludes with that striking paragraph:

I Dont hate it,” Quentin said quickly, at once, immediately; “I dont hate it,” he said I dont hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!

(Faulkner Absalom, Absalom 303).

How can one not hate something that tells one about oneself even when one looks outward? And yet how can you despise something of your own creation? For those of us from the South, it is not that the south is part of us, just where we are from, something that can be disavowed and cleanly analyzed. The south is us, for we construct it. There is a dialectical relationship with the South’s past: it consumes and swallows those who live in it and those who try and escape it, yet it is those same people that it consumes that create it.

When I was younger, I could not eat in the rural South. Whether at a Chili’s in Dothan, Alabama or an unnamed barbeque shack in Arapahoe, North Carolina, the smell of food would make me nauseous. If I tried to eat, I would throw up. At the time, I figured it was fear of getting food poisoning. Now, however, I realize that it was a different form of anxiety. I hated these places, hated them with all my heart, hated them as only someone deluding themself can hate. I hated them because though they were ostensibly different from what I was used to, I recognized myself in them. They were from another time, stuck in the past, and whispered that I was no different, that I was equally stuck, no matter how much I fought it. In identifying them as relics, I admitted that I too thought of the South’s past, and I too am unable to escape it. If they are relics, so am I.

The individual in the South, however, does not exist alone. There is always a community around them. If the South’s past is created by individuals remembering the past in the present, and the individuals are part of a community, then it stands to reason that the community has some relationship to the past, complicating the process discussed above. Returning to Faulkner’s novels, both of the characters analyzed above are simultaneously part of the community and outsiders in some way.[2] Reverend Hightower, of course, is a pariah in Jefferson, almost an exile who never left. Quentin leaves the South, putting both literal and metaphorical distance between himself and his community. The act of creating the South’s past falls upon those who are not entirely within the community.[3] If in the creation of a Southern past there are always remnants of the individual doing the creating, then it becomes clear why this is the case. It is a way of re-inserting oneself into the community.

Here, it is important to clarify that though it first appears that Reverend Hightower is made an outsider by his obsession with the past, in fact his outsider status begins much earlier. His father was an old man by the time Hightower was born, and “though born and bred and dwelling in an age and land where to own slaves was less expensive not to own them, he would neither eat food grown and cooked by, nor sleep in a bed prepared by, a negro slave” (Faulkner Light in August 467). He is a soldier in the confederacy and a man in the South, yet also a firm abolitionist, putting him at odds with most of his contemporaries. The result is that Hightower “grew to manhood among phantoms, and side by side with a ghost” (Faulkner Light in August 474). This does not sound like the upbringing of someone deeply rooted in the society of his contemporaries.

Both Reverend Hightower and Quentin are outsiders, then, and use construction of the South’s past as a way to place themselves back within the community they are exterior to. This is often manifested in the stories themselves. When he arrives in Jefferson, Reverend Hightower talks such that “the dogma he was supposed to preach all full of galloping cavalry and defeat and glory” (Faulkner Light in August 63). His story about his family’s past becomes a fable about the community and humanity, putting him in the community’s history—which the community resents him for doing. Furthermore, he thinks that he “skipped a generation…I had no father and that I had already died one night twenty years before I saw light” (Faulkner Light in August 478). In bringing forth the past in the present, he can imagine himself as his grandfather, a garrulous man who shared values with many other Southerners, rather than as the son of his semi-outcast father, one who still has a soft spot for the plot of African-Americans in the south.

Similarly, in Quentin and Mr. Compson’s stories, General Compson (Jason Compson’s father) plays a large role, both as supplier of information and as Thomas Sutpen’s best friend. Throughout the story, they take pains to emphasize General Compson’s standing in the community— he is able to get people out of jail, loan money, and eventually becomes a higher-up in the Confederate Army. If they are telling stories about the community, and they or their forbearers are in the stories, then in a way they are in the community.

However, the act of telling the past inserts the individual into the community in another way. One final personal anecdote may clarify. Though I am from the South, one would be hard-pressed to find another Southerner who would identify me as “Southern,” or as part of the region’s lineage. I am Jewish and cosmopolitan, with no Southern accent and a disdain for the region’s ideology and history. But when I construct a past of the South, it is one that provokes certain temporal questions in the writers it produces. As someone interested in those questions, I can then position myself as part of this South that shares a history but not a past with the other South. In this, I then assert a claim to membership within the community. Quentin does much the same—the characters in his South are interested in the same questions of miscegenation and incest that he is, and if their thinking is produced by the community’s beliefs, and they think of the same questions as Quentin, then he is produced by the community and its beliefs and hence part of it. Reverend Hightower does something similar, though slightly different. In Light in August Faulkner describes how after the war “men returned home with their eyes stubbornly reverted toward what they refused to believe was dead,” namely the South they once knew (Faulkner Light in August 474). Reverend Hightower, in his obsession with his grandfather’s history and fighting spirit, becomes another one of these men, joining the community. Constructing a past of the South allows individuals who might be excluded based on the actual history to imagine themselves as part of the community.

Finally, we have come to something resembling an understanding of the relationship between the South’s past and individuals in Faulkner. It is a symbiotic relationship—the past cannot exist without these individuals, and the individuals need to create the past to claim a position within the community. It is no wonder they become obsessed with the past—it is their only grasp on those around them. Without it, they would have to disavow the region. But to do that would be to go too far. Instead, they create their own version of the region through their telling of the past, knowing quite well that it differs from actual history. They love the former and hate the latter, but are unable to separate the two, seeing them as one, confusing them, making their denials confirmations and their confirmations denials, until it is all one big neurosis, history and the past bleeding into each other like they had made a blood pact to torture these characters that can never be undone even when Quentin is at the bottom of the river and Reverend Hightower is bleeding on the ground of his house and Caddy is exiled and everyone is dead or crazy except for Shreve practicing surgery in Alberta and maybe occasionally thinking of his suicidal freshman roommate who was hounded by the very past he created into self-destruction and thinking that this is the cost of the south, this is its disease that it destroys the very people who work to create it, chewing up storytellers until there is nothing left of them but empty shells and broken minds. He hates it, he hates it for that and its racism and its absurdity. He does not exist; I hate it and left it and will return more obsessed than when I left.

*This title is adapted from John Moreland’s song “Lies I Choose to Believe”

[2] In fact, even the more peripheral characters interested in the South’s past are in some ways outsiders. Rosa Coldfield lives alone and has almost her entire life, and was raised by an abolitionist father who starved to death rather than help the confederacy. Mr. Compson is an alcoholic and failed classicist. Finally Shreve, who is at times less invested in the act of constructing pasts than Quentin, is Canadian. He is fully the outsider, and is thus able to construct pasts with Quentin without being swallowed by the act, without drowning in the subtle undulations of Mississippi history.

[3] One can see something similar in The Hamlet, where it is Ratliff who tells many of the stories and hence creates the past. Though he is ostensibly part of the community, his job as a travelling salesman takes him away from it for long periods of time.