May 22, 2024

The Equisapien Encounter – Reading Enrique Dussel In Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You”, Part 2 (Conor Ramón Rasmusen)

The following is the second piece in a two-part installment. The first can be found here. This article contains spoilers for the film Sorry to Bother You.

As Cassius is invited downstairs to hear a business proposition from Mr. Lift, there can be a direct connection drawn between this scene in the film and what Ph.D. student Rafael Vizcaíno calls “economies of innocence.” It is important to note the positionality of the characters to understand the flows present in these economic transactions. As the CEO of WorryFree, Mr. Lift here could be understood as the type of “rational actor” that could embody Dussel’s understanding of the European colonizers.

Dussel notes that “the word ‘modernity’ carries two ambiguous significations.  For its first and positive conceptual content modernity signifies rational emancipation” (136). Mr. Lift manifests this type of rational emancipation from ethics through his whole-hearted support of capitalist logic. We can see this stance demonstrated through his retort that WorryFree was “providing jobs, we’re saving the economy.” This therefore locates Cassius on the underside of this exchange as someone who could be read as “irrational” or not operating inside of European logics.

For Dussel, the second ambiguous signification of modernity can be clearly charted onto the dialogue and actions that are seen in the conversations between Mr. Lift, Cassius and the introduction of the Equisapiens. Dussel states that while the first conceptual understanding of modernity is true, the second understanding of modernity must be read in lockstep with it. He calls this type of modernity the “negative mythic.”

It is this negative mythic understanding of modernity that “justifies an irrational praxis of violence.” From the powerful (read Mr. Lift here) against the “uncivilized” (read Cassius and the Equisapiens here), we are able to understand the characters’ positionality and can now unpack how the flows of logic in the scene demonstrate an irrational praxis of violence.

Mr. Lift invites Cassius to snort a line of cocaine before telling him that he should sit down to watch a brief documentary about the future of WorryFree. While Cassius is less interested about the film itself as he is about the financial opportunity that further partnership with WorryFree provides, before the presentation starts Cassius asks to use the bathroom. Mr. Lift seems hesitant but then says, “Fine, It’s the jade-colored door on your right. Hurry back.”

Once Cassius enters through the door he quickly encounters what looks to be a monstrous half-human half-horse thing: an Equisapien. Cassius is incredibly frightened, screams, and then runs out of the door. Once outside, Mr. Lift meets him shouting. Cassius had apparently entered the olive door and not the jade door.

While for Mr. Lift this error is incomprehensible, he uses the chaos to his advantage saying that seeing the Equisapiens is just a big misunderstanding and that the presentation will explain everything. While he says this, he pulls out a gun, clearly indicating that Cassius has no choice but to listen to the presentation.

Dussel notes that the first and second step of establishing the negative mythic qualities of modernity are that “(a) Modern civilization understands itself as most developed and superior, since it lacks awareness of its own ideological Eurocentrism. (b) This superiority obliges it to develop the most primitive, uneducated barbarous extremes” (136). Mr. Lift here is demonstrating these two characteristics almost patently in this conversation with Cassius.

Cassius is rightfully scared after seeing the Equisapien, yet for Mr. Lift there is nothing to fear because it is just a big misunderstanding. This use of the word “misunderstanding” demonstrates the type of ontological ground upon which Mr. Lift centers his positionality as a CEO. He quickly dismisses Cassius’s fear and ignorance in choosing the wrong colored door because he knows better and realizes that it is his duty to “educate.” His Eurocentrism is present here because in this brief exchange he notes himself to be “developed and superior” and therefore understands what he should and shouldn’t fear, whereas Cassius in Mr. Lift’s mind cannot fathom a moral choice.

By using the term “misunderstanding,” he denotes a striking ontological difference between himself and Cassius:  not as equals that can engage in mutual dialogue, but rather Mr. Lift constructs himself as the sole possessor of knowledge and therefore unrequited power. Because he is the rational one, it is his role to develop the thinking of Cassius. It is in the encounter with the Equisapiens that Cassius and Mr. Lift most clearly demonstrate that they are polar opposites in the irrationality of the violence of modernity.

After holding Cassius at gunpoint during the documentary presentation, which depicts the creation of Equisapiens as the next stage of productivity promising to usher in a new stage of profitability for WorryFree, Mr. Lift turns to Cassius and says, “I just didn’t want you to think I was crazy or something. I’m doing this to help turn a profit–it’s not irrational.” This absurdist logic is only possible in the violent colonizing mentality of modernity.

To literally breed a new species from humans just to further exploit them represents the highest level of delusion, yet Mr. Lift follows perfectly with Dussel’s next step in understanding modernity. Dussel writes, “this development out to follow Europe’s since development is unilineal according to the uncritically accepted development fallacy.”  According to Mr. Lift, breeding a new creature perfectly continues along the lines of European and Western capitalist logic, which is in need for cheap and productive labor. Abolishing this labor shortage by any means necessary is therefore something that is clearly rational in capitalism’s logic.

The complete lack of ethic thought for the Other is justified for the logics of capitalism that are inherent in modernity. For Cassius, this “rational” logic is completely distant even after watching the documentary presentation. He is trapped here, not interested in anything that the totalizing logic of modernity has to offer, yet held by the violent force of gun that Mr. Lift has aimed at Cassius during the entire scene. Dussel notes that, “Modern praxis must exercise violence only as a last resort, in order to destroy the obstacles impeding modernization” (472).

While Mr. Lift does not kill Cassius, the gun as a representative of the force of modernity and is strikingly similar to what Eduardo Galeano in his book Open Veins notes as, “The Sign of Cross on the Hilt of the Sword” (21). The imagery both for Galeano and in Sorry to Bother You is striking:  either accept the colonizing logic, whether that be the Equisapien labor force or Christianity, or perish. With the gun still firmly pointed at Cassius, it is clear that he has little agency against Mr. Lift’s ridiculous ideas and must continue to be subjected to the violent praxis of modernity.

Cassius, clearly afraid for his life and wanting to leave calmly, states, “I understand and I would like to leave now. Please.” But Mr. Lift is having none of this. He forces Cassius to uncomfortably sit through his proposal of how he plans to control the Equisapiens to realize their fullest economic value. “They’ll develop their own identity and customs. They may wish to rebel, organize. We need someone to represent WorryFree’s interests. Someone they can relate to… An Equisapien Martin Luther King. One that we control. One that we create. We want to frame the discussion. Give them a hero.”

Mr. Lift trying to convince Cassius to take the role of the Equisapien Martin Luther King to mitigate the type of revolutionary action that is possible for the Equisapiens can be seen as an attempt to limit the oppressed’s “opposition to the civilizing process” (472). This is a preventative step to make sure that the Equisapiens are not able to seriously challenge the modernizing logic of Mr. Lift and therefore limits any possibility of freedom or ethics for the Equisapiens. Not only has Mr. Lift foreclosed on Cassius’s autonomy, but he also seeks to define the Equisapiens’ existence from the beginning.

By installing an “Equisapien Martin Luther King,” Mr. Lift is able to maintain the innocence of WorryFree over and against the possible rebellious Equisapien response. This maintenance of innocence is essential to the project of modernity because it allows for its logic to remain pure and intact. By attempting to create a spy inside of the Equisapiens, Mr. Lift is making sure that he will continue to be read as innocent. Lift’s proposal to instill Cassius as a false leader would thereby ensure that there would be no serious confrontation that could question his power or authority.

The scene ends with Cassius convincing Mr. Lift that he needs to go home and think about the proposal. Instead of following the movement of the totalizing logic of modernity, Cassius reveals the evil plot to the world appearing with videos of the Equisapiens on multiple news channels.

Dussel importantly notes that unmasking the false innocence of modernity for what is it is, violent praxis, is essential to overcome it. He writes, “This overcoming of emancipatory reason as a liberating reason is possible only when both enlightened reason’s Eurocentrism and the developmentalist fallacy of the hegemonic process of modernization are unmasked” (473).

Contrary to liberal belief however, simply unmasking these issues is not enough to solve them. Only direct action can do that. After the videos of the Equisapiens are released, WorryFree’s stock rises quickly and with bipartisan support (there is an image in the film of a triumphant Mr. Lift on Wall Street surrounded by many smiling Democrats and Republicans).

Squeeze, Cassius’s organizer friend, importantly notes that simply unmasking social issues without a plan to solve them simply creates apathy in the public and actually allows the issues to scale up in their intensity. Squeeze says, “It’s not that people don’t care. People think that there’s nothing they can do. We have to show them.”

Cassius, realizing this is correct, quickly rejoins the strikers and thinks to utilize his high school friends who were on the football team (the team comically appear throughout the film practicing at all hours of the day even though they graduated several years ago), as well as the Equisapiens. After holding off the initial line of strike breakers with the football players, more riot police are called in to the strike hell-bent on breaking the picket line.

The Equisapiens show up just in time to save the day and fight off the riot police. The embrace of the Equisapiens in this scene mirrors Dussel’s own methodology of resisting modernity, “when one pronounces innocent the victims of modernity (the Equisapiens) by affirming their alterity as identity in the exteriority.”

Instead of trying to control the actions of the Equisapiens in the interest of capitalistic modernizing logic, Cassius embraces them in their alterity. Cassius is not the only one who recognizes their alterity. The Equisapiens do so themselves.

Although the Equisapiens are often seen as abominable objects throughout the film, the decolonial turn of Dussel and Fanon as well require us to see them instead as subjects. Political theorist John Holloway keenly notes that, “the beginning is not the word, but the scream” (1). Rejecting the false rationality of modernity requires that the Equisapien subjects, who are viewed as irrational by the totalizing violence of Mr. Lift and capitalism itself, assert themselves antagonistically against the very ontological and political chains that attempt to pacify them.

Here a turn to Frantz Fanon’s text Black Skins, White Masks is essential to see the type of ontological relegation into which Mr. Lift attempts to place the Equisapiens and the manner in which the Equisapiens assert their own ontological independence against this violent categorization. Fanon’s own challenging of the ontological violence of white supremacy causes him to formulate “a decolonized and open ended master-slave dialectic in which universal reconciliation is infinitely deferred” (50).

Against the violence of rationality and white supremacy, Fanon understands that his ontological self is not determined inside of himself but rather through the ontological violence of whiteness: “The white gaze, the only valid one, is already dissecting me. I am fixed. Once their microtomes are sharpened, the Whites objectively cut sections of my reality. I have been betrayed. I sense, I see in this white gaze that it’s the arrival not of a new man, but of a new type of man, a new species” (95).

Fanon quickly realized that as white supremacy had created him into a new species, it simultaneously rejected his rationality. “So, they were countering my irrationality with rationality, my rationality with the ‘true rationality” (111). The categorization of Fanon from a human being to an alternative species in the logics of white supremacy echo true with the type of logic that Mr. Lift exercised against the Equisapiens throughout the film.

In a similar manner to Fanon’s struggle against the violence of the white gaze, the Equisapiens recognize themselves as in “the zone of nonbeing” (xii). “This zone of nonbeing is a realm inhabited by the subterranean beings.” (58). For Fanon, as for the Equisapiens, the only option to assert one’s ontological position is the act of explosion. For Fanon, the shout against the totalizing violence of whiteness creates the ontological ground in which he can assert his own personhood.

Similarly, for the Equisapiens, their joining of the strikers demonstrate their ontological and social resistance against the modernistic logics of Mr. Lift and WorryFree. Cassius importantly sees the Equisapiens and recognizes their innocence against the colonizing logic of modernity and therefore deeply respects their autonomy and Otherness by not replicating violent patterns of totalization. The scene closes with Squeeze telling the Equisapiens, “Same struggle. Same fight,” which as an act of solidarity locates both the strikers and the Equisapiens against the totalizing modern logic embodied by Mr. Lift and WorryFree.

Normally, this would be where the movie ends. Justice is restored and hope for a better tomorrow wins out. But when Cassius turns into an Equisapien (turns out the cocaine that Mr. Lift offered Cassius wasn’t actually cocaine, but the special serum that turns a human into an Equisapien), this type of traditional happy ending is thrown into chaos.

Riley resists a happy, prepackaged logic that is usually present in movies while still believing that the film has a happy ending. He detailed why he chose to write the ending as he did in an interview saying, “I think that it is a happy ending, but it’s a different kind of happy ending. It’s one that says nobody gets out of this clean and there’s no way we can’t be affected by this world.”

Although violence has been a common appearance throughout the film, the ending certainly punctuates this point. We see a group of Equisapiens, led by Cassius, break into Mr. Lift’s house with the clear intention of killing him. The shock of this scene is indeed intense.

Devyn Springer, in his excellent essay on the film, notes the importance of violence in the film. He asserts, “Here, Riley ruptures the idea that violence must rest within the dichotomy of avoidance or fetishization, and instead uses the final scenes to reclaim and transform it into a tool of emancipation […] wherein the subjects of the video he shared—possibly the most marginalized folks in the entire society of this film—violently save the day.”

In lieu of the irrational praxis of violence found inside of modernity, the revolutionary Equisapien violence could then be considered a rational praxis of violence as it actively destroys the colonizing logic that is found inside of modernity as represented by Mr. Lift. Riley smashes the hegemony of thought which sees only nonviolent means of protest as “legitimate”, and thereby forces the viewer to not take sides based upon violence or non-violence but rather reframe the conversation about what is a just, truly rational praxis of violence.

Returning to Fanon, one is able to see his connection from ontological autonomy in Black Skins to his conception of decolonizing violence found in Wretched of the Earth. Early on in the book Fanon notes that, “Decolonization is always a violent event. At whatever level we study it […] Decolonization is quite simply the substitution of one “species” of mankind by another” (1).

By seeing the continuation of ontological decolonization as only possible in lockstep with political decolonization, the violence in the final scene makes perfect sense as the Equisapiens continue to assert their Otherness against the totalizing violence of Mr. Lift. By choosing to include this final scene, Riley is countering the sacrificial myth trope found in Dussel’s conception of modernity by proposing a type of violence that is in fact restorative.

While many published film reviews saw this to be a strange and off-putting end to the film, for Riley it is the best possible outcome. He has stated in an interview that the end is indeed happy because no matter what, “the point is you keep fighting. And that’s the happy ending.”

Riley’s brutal honestly in depicting racist and capitalist logic as manifested in the character of Mr. Lift and its colonizing efforts turn this film into not only an enjoyable artistic experience, but also one that causes the viewer to deeply and critically think about the everyday violence inside of contemporary society.

By locating the climax of the film onto Dussel’s identifications with different aspects of modernity, we are able to see Riley not only challenge the logics of racism and capitalism but also directly take on the types of power found in modernity. Power separated from the base of the masses is for Riley something that is unstable and should be challenged through the embrace of the invisiblized in society. It is only through mutual respect between one another that the marginalized and oppressed in society can create the conditions for their own liberation.

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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