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.