May 20, 2024

The Equisapien Encounter – Reading Enrique Dussel In Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You”, Part 1 (Conor Ramón Rasmusen)

The following is the first of a two-part installment. This article contains spoilers for the film Sorry to Bother You.

When Boots Riley’s film Sorry To Bother You burst into U.S. theatres this past July, reviewers exclaimed that it was “going off the rails” and “crazy” but was absolutely adored by its viewers. While Riley’s film is both deeply conceptual and simultaneously materially critical of the exploitative nature of racism and capitalism, few have drawn the connection between Sorry to Bother You and the work of the 83-year old Mexican-Argentinian philosopher and theorist Enrique Dussel. It may seem unnatural to examine the film with a Dusselian analysis, yet the connection between the “absurdist dark comedy with magical realism and science fiction, inspired by the world of telemarketing” and the philosophical work of Dussel is indispensible to understand the philosophical ground on which the climax of the movie takes place.

In this essay I will examine how Enrique Dussel’s conception of the “irrational praxis of violence” located in the Amerindian encounter provides a theoretical framework to understand the flows of logic present in the Equisapien encounter in Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You (136). It is from this “encounter” which is based in a lengthy conversation between Mr. Lift and the protagonist, Cassius Green, that we are able to see Green not only reject the logics of modernity presented to him, but practice what I will call a rational praxis of violence. This rational praxis of violence birthed in the underside of the Equisapien encounter provides the moral framework in which to understand the subjectivity of the Equisapiens as well as their various acts of restorative violence.

To best understand the full depth of Dussel’s work on the Amerindian encounter we first must historicize the intellectual life of the philosopher. Dussel himself has noted that in his early life in Argentina he intellectually identified more strongly with Western culture rather than with a distinct Latin American one:  “The philosophy that we studied set out from the Greeks, in whom we saw our most remote lineage. The Amerindian World had no presence in our studies, and none of our professors would have been able to able to articulate the origin of philosophy with reference to indigenous peoples” (28). Interestingly, it was when Dussel finally crossed the Atlantic to study in Europe in 1957 that he was not met as a fellow European, but rather, he notes that he and his colleagues “discovered ourselves to be Latin American” (ibid.).

While this initial jolt of encounter may have startled him, decolonial political theorist George Ciccariello-Maher in his book Decolonizing Dialectics (108) as well as others have noted that it was his engagement with the work of Emmanuel Levinas that truly awoke him from his “ontological slumber” (20-21).

The importance of the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, specifically his work Totality and Infinity, cannot be understated in the early work of Dussel. For Levinas, the encounter of the I and the Other provide the core to his philosophical work. These two identities are not co-constitutive, but rather come from radical opposites and therefore should not be able to make any claim against one another. The encounter should “not form a totality [which] can hence be produced within the general economy of being only as proceeding from the I to the other, as a face to face, delineating a distance in depth–that of a conversation, of goodness, of Desire” (39). The encounter and the ability to see the face of the Other without totalizing it thus becomes the birth of ethics and just relationship. Dussel, interacting with this work, began to conceive of his Philosophy of Liberation.

In his Philosophy of Liberation, Dussel importantly noted the conquering logic(s) that were present. “Spatially central, the ego cogito constituted the periphery and asked itself, along with Fernández de Oviedo, ‘Are the Amerindians human beings?’ that is, Are they Europeans, and therefore rational beings?” (3) Dussel’s deep connection to the Levinasian concept of exteriority undergirded the philosophical work that he was seeking to create at the time, one that saw the periphery in ontological defiance to the center. In response to the dominating violence of the center (Europe and later the United States), Dussel’s Philosophy of Liberation seeks to depict a “metaphysics… demanded by revolutionary praxis” (15).

Whereas the ego cogito is prefigured by the ego conquero, Dussel locates the possibility of a philosophy of liberation “Only [in] the praxis of oppressed peoples of the periphery, of the woman violated by masculine ideology” (ibid.). This mode of doing philosophy centers not the theoretical concerns of philosophers alone, but rather bases itself on the daily, lived realities of those in the peripheries. As I have previously noted, for Levinas seeing the face of the other is of central importance. The face for Levinas is something that is purely theoretical, but for Dussel it is something far more material. Theorist Ciccariello-Maher in his article “Decolonial realism: Ethics, politics and dialectics in Fanon and Dussel” writes:

What is crucial is that Dussel refuses Levinasian abstraction and insists on formulating these positions concretely which becomes evident in what is, for him, the paradigmatic case of exteriority: hunger […] Thus, the ‘face’, for Levinas the absolute basis for a universal openness towards alterity is for Dussel neither absolute nor universal, but reveals a people before it reveals an individual’ (12).

By focusing on the concrete material conditions of the “the hungry” we are able to see the movement of Dussel’s own thinking from someone who has moved from identifying as a European in 1957 to a deeper level of consciousness and focusing his writings not on those in the Western cannon, but rather global movements of philosophy and the impacts of colonialism, neocolonialism and dependency theory in the early 1970’s.

Dussel’s concrete material philosophy therefore demands a charting of his own intellectual history onto larger social and philosophical movements as they were developing. Decolonial philosopher Nelson Maldonado-Torres stressed in a lecture in Barcelona that the timing of work on the “encounter” was directly connected to the Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano’s work on coloniality. Quijano writing in the late 80’s noted the approaching date of the 500-year “anniversary” of Christopher Columbus coming to the “New World.” This “anniversary” served as an incredibly important marker to the Latin American Left of the day, as Maldonado-Torres notes: “Latin American intellectuals and indigenous intellectuals are already looking at 1992 and many indigenous activists in the world are waiting. Are you going to celebrate that? […] What kind of indecent ideas and discourses with the hegemonic majority come up with to celebrate this anniversary?”

While Dussel was invited to give a series of lectures in Frankfurt, Germany to “commemorate” the occasion, this commemoration turned more into a ruthless critique of modernity. Dussel took to task the types of theoretical frameworks that were deployed to totalize the so-called “invention of the Americas” as something inside of the project of modernity, rather than the violent experience of encounter that created it. He writes, “According to O’Gorman’s completely Eurocentric thesis, the invention of America meant that, “America was invented in the image and likeness of Europe since America could not actualize in itself any other form of becoming human” (32). By challenging some of these core European assumptions about the encounter, Dussel’s detailing of the movements of logic in his work The Invention of the Americas is essential for unpacking the climax in Sorry To Bother You.

In an interview with the New York Times Magazine, Boots Riley stressed his challenges about finding someone in the film industry who would take his project seriously. “Trying to get somebody to read your script and you’re a musician?” he asked. “That’s the last person whose script you’re gonna read!” Hoping to draw attention to the project, Riley finally published the screenplay for the film through McSweeney’s, which is a local publisher based in San Francisco.

The first page of the manuscript begins, “Kind people, I require your assistance.” Riley goes on to finish the request to the reader saying, “please do anything you can to help publicize this account. If you know any Hollywood executives, slap the banana daiquiri out of their hand, shove this in their face, and tell them that the human race is counting on them.” Eventually, the film was able to materialize and became one of the most talked about films at Sundance film festival.

Sorry To Bother You follows Cassius Green (played by Lakeith Stanfield) from his first day as a telemarketer at RegalView. After failing on his first few calls, another older black man, Langston (played by Danny Glover), suggests that if he employees a white voice he would be able to be more successful at soliciting. This white voice is not as much about pitch or tone but rather selling a state of mind:  “It’s about sounding like you don’t have a care. Like your bills are paid and you’re happy about your future and you’re about to jump in your Ferrari when you get off this call… Like you don’t need this money, like you’ve never been fired, only laid off. Its not what all white people sound like–there ain’t no real white voice, but it’s what they wish they sounded like.”

It is clear that this scene demonstrates Riley’s understanding of the social construction of whiteness as something that is essential to success as defined inside of U.S. capitalism.

As Cassius perfects white voice, he begins to come into conflict with his artist/activist girlfriend Detroit (played by Tessa Thompson). This conflict is based on their differing approaches to a strike that has been organized by a salter (union organizer) Squeeze (played by Steven Yeun). While Cassius was initially supportive of the strike and joined in its first action, after being promoted to the mythical status of Power Caller he distances himself from the strikers.

In the film, Power Callers are seen as titans of industry. Power Callers are not selling encyclopedias, as was Cassius’s responsibility when he first started working at RegalView, but now they are selling weapons and slave labor from the nefarious WorryFree company. WorryFree, run by techbro Steve Lift (played by Armie Hammer), houses and feeds people in exchange for their unpaid labor. In the film, there are numerous connections between WorryFree and slave labor. After Cassius repeatedly crosses the picket line and continues to sell WorryFree’s services to clients around the world for millions of dollars, Detroit is forced to break things off between her and Cassius.

On the day of the opening night of Detroit’s art exhibit titled “The New F*** You” (a homage to a song by Riley’s band The Street Sweeper Social Club), Cassius is told by his boss about a party at Mr. Lift’s house:  “I know it sounds like I’m asking, but actually, I’m demanding. You have to come. As you know, Steve Lift is the CEO of WorryFree. He throws a yearly party and it’s the kind of party that kings wish they got invited to. Puffy can’t even get an invite. Steve Lift wants to speak to our new star. That’s you.” His indispensability has completely disrupted the possibility for meaningful connection between him and his friends. After an awkward exchange with Detroit during her exhibit, Cassius ends up at Mr. Lift’s party.

Cassius is violently tokenized throughout the whole party culminating in Mr. Lift forcing Cassius to rap in front of the whole party. After feeling deeply ashamed about this performance, Cassius is invited downstairs where Mr. Lift has a proposition for Cassius. It is during this business proposition that clear connections between the logic of Mr. Lift and the totalizing logic of modernity are most apparent.

Dussel’s conception of modernity is incredibly critical of the Eurocentric understanding put forward by both Hegel and Habermas. Dussel takes to task the uncritical non-dialectical thinking present in both of their works. Hegel’s concept of world history is “the self realization of God, as a theodicy of reason and of liberty, and the process of Enlightenment” (20). His understanding of world history is one that demonstrates the dialectical movement of thought as internalized inside of the West.

This internal European dialectic means that “Europe is the end of universal history” (ibid.). Dussel, as a Latin American and a true dialectical thinker, is deeply critical of this notion, as well as Habermas’s notion of subjectivity, which states, “the key historical events for the implantation to the principle of subjectivity are the Reformation and the Enlightenment and the French Revolution” (25).

Dussel’s critique of the Eurocentrism of this understanding instead locates modernity as developing in 1492:  “Whereas modernity gestated in the free, creative medieval European cities, it came to birth in Europe’s confrontation with the Other” (12). By undermining the internal European dialectical movement, modernity then is spawned during the encounter in 1492 through the violent force of European logic’s attempts to totalize the “irrationality” of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. This understanding of modernity then takes a much more violent and political conception of progress than the definition as provided by Hegel and Habermas.

This claim that the conquest is “for the good of all” and of “great benefit” for the dominated, vanquished one, perfectly expressed the myth of modernity. One defines one’s own culture as superior and more developed and the other as inferior, crude, barbaric, and culpably immature […] Even the violence inflicted on the Other is said to serve the emancipation, utility and well-being of the barbarian who is civilized, developed, or modernized. This after the innocent Other’s victimization, the myth of modernity declares the Other the culpable cause of that victimization and absolves the modern subject of any guilt for the victimizing act (Philosophy of Liberation, 64).


Conor Ramón Rasmusen is a graduate student of Christian Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. His current work focuses decolonial ethics, theology, and the end of the world. He is currently writing his thesis on decolonial theory, violence, and the Zapatistas.


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