Making the Absent Tangible: The Hauntological Cinema of Sorry to Bother You

Dr Alex Simpson1

1Department of Security Studies and Criminology, Faculty of Arts, Macquarie University

Analysing Boots Riley’s directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You (2018), this paper examines how fiction can be employed to reach beyond the limits of empiricism, giving form to obfuscated experiences and subjugated knowledges. To this end, the paper reads Riley’s film hauntologically, concerned, as it is, with critiquing the legitimacy of our present ontological enclosures by drawing attention to the ignored but active influence of absences in our lives. As Fisher (2013, p. 52) explains, hauntology is “the proper temporal mode for a history made up of gaps, erased names and sudden abductions”. Hauntological art, therefore, gives presence to absences: it re-presents liminal spectres to index these temporal disjunctures that slip through the world as it appears around us.

As this paper argues, by operating beyond the limits of empiricism, radical fictions, like Sorry to Bother You, present audiences with a richer, ‘anti-realist’ visual imaginary that functions to promote a new, positive imagination. By circumventing empirical trappings of ‘certainty’ and ‘objectivity’, fiction facilitates a new way of seeing that challenges legacy constructions of order and knowledge designed to ignore our unpaid debts to colonial violence. Through this lens, cinema becomes the art of the spectre, exposing audiences to the fractures and confabulations of capitalist realism, providing a glimpse of the traumatic void we repress beneath this ‘reality’, revealing how we are not ‘present’ but living through a ‘time out of joint’, what Miller (2013, p. 114) describes as a “future-past called RIGHT NOW”. Here, hauntological cinema can be employed to enrich the speculative project of the social sciences by reanimating lost futures that had been dispirited away under capitalist realism.


Dr Alex Simpson is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Macquarie University. His research stretches across the themes of class, gender, embodiment and organisational practice to examine the embedded, and often hidden, cultures of finance. Alex is also engaged in the use of film and cinema to find new meaning, and which speaks to empirical and theoretical accounts of representation. Alex has been the recipient of ESRC funding and was awarded the 2018 SAGE Prize for Innovation and Excellence.


Dec 09 2021