Damn, I was gonna avoid this altogether, because celebrity culture annoys the hell out of me. I dreaded the inevitable proliferation of commentary about this incident, for the same reason I avoid talking about Donald Trump — I don’t want to give narcissists or celebrity culture any oxygen. But I have to admit that my own repulsion ignores the fact that most people do get caught up in these transient spectacles whether I like it or not. How could they not? We’re all plugged into the oligarchic artificial ‘reality’ grid . . . whether we like it or not. Helloooooo, Jean Baudrillard!
On the other hand, given that this will be a hot topic, whether I like it or not, therein is an opportunity to take advantage of this concentration of attention to critique or disrupt the kinds of shared social certainties that give rise to these spectacles.
So here goes!
I don’t watch the Oscars. Most of what comes out of Hollywood is unadulterated shit; and I frankly don’t care about the personal lives of its denizens. I have a hard enough time in my dotage keeping up with our own rather staid existence.
It was only the day after the Oscars that I learned about the slap, and of course my mental knee jerked about all the things that are far more important. The slap will be news for a week, then the next distractive spectacle will displace it, and meanwhile Flint still has poisonous water, kids are still in Border Patrol cages, the Thwaites Glacier is melting, and two nuclear armed powers are measuring their national dicks against each other.
But I’ll take a middle ground today between the fugacious and the catastrophic, and examine how an actor committed assault and battery — with accompanying and fashionably edgy street dialogue — in a way that was invented by actors, writers, producers, and directors. In other words, this incident was just more Hollywood shit! It was method acting.
The problem with Hollywood shit is that in a culture which is homogenized by mass media — as American culture has increasingly been for a century now — is that Hollywood shit (and social media shit, yada yada yada . . . I’ll use “Hollywood” here as a kind of general signifier) is insanely influential in our formation from womb to tomb. And because the production of said shit is motivated in a competitive environment by the desire to accumulate money, Hollywood shit — even most of the Hollywood shit that purports to answer to higher purposes — is inevitably a race not to the top, but to the bottom. Hollywood shit is designed to appeal to our basest appetites for shit. That is, it inevitably plays to our appetites for ever more unrestrained vice.
You can search the internet for “the movies’ best slaps,” and right now the search parameter will yield plenty of references to this week’s Ocsars slap; but it will also provide many examples of “the slap” as a film trope that’s been around since movies were in their infancy. The contexts change. I grew up with The Three Stooges, an incessant slap-fest played for laughs; and the most common slaps in my childhood film repertoire were from offended women, guys challenging other guys to a duel, and men “correcting” (often “humorously”) uppity women. In the taxonomy of slaps, the Oscars slap is probably a “bitch slap,” defined by Merriam-Webster as “to slap (someone) angrily, usually as an expression of dominance, contempt, or disrespect.” Relying solely on my personal memory, which is less reliable with each passing year, I first remember this term “bitch slap” being used by pimps. They’d slap their “bitches” to keep them in line (displaying dominance); but the meaning migrated — as these things do — into man on man confrontations wherein slapping a man, as opposed to punching him, was . . . well, “an expression of dominance and contempt,” treating him like a bitch. Some uses of “bitch slap” refer to women fighting women, where the terms simultaneously serves as a put-down of women as “bitches,” and a put-down of men who slap, because they are hitting like “bitches.”
Smith “bitch slapped” Rock, the provocation being Rock’s unseemly joke about Smith’s spouse, which is part of a man-code that Hollywood perpetuates for profit. “You don’t talk about my woman!” Failing to respond would be a net loss of probative masculinity, and so in this zero-sum code, the dominance display (before millions of viewers) was required to preserve that probative masculinity. Smith had to make Rock his bitch.
Some have wondered if Smith would have responded in the same way had the offender been The Rock (the wrestling and stage name for Dwayne Johnson). I doubt it, but I don’t care. My point is that this was a culturally-coded, Hollywood-fueled performance by a Hollywood person before millions of Hollywood-addled spectators. The tasteless joke which precipitated the probative masculinity dominance display was also a reference to a well-known (and hideously shitty) Hollywood film (see further down).
Probative masculinity has been a film trope from the get-go, the film industry appearing on the heels of a restoration-of-masculinity movement promoted by former President Theodore Roosevelt, who feared a loss of imperial masculinity when the frontier had been conquered and there were no more Indians to kill (he himself resorted to killing Cubans to prove his manliness).
There’s a dialectic between entertainment commodities and culture, of course, and culture still occasionally applies the brakes out of concern for many people’s aversion to unrestrained vice. Similarly, there is a dialectic between culture, entertainment media, and class perspectives (the business and managerial class’s perspectives holding sway in Hollywood, because the deciders, managers, and most of the performers are themselves enclosed in a kind of class bubble, believing the world to be made in their image).
As to applying the brakes, we might look back at the fifties when I was a kid and white America was still drunk on the idea that they’d saved the world in the Great Just War, and the main “influencer” (or propagandists, Hollywood has always been the US Ministry of Culture and Propaganda) was Disney. I was actually born in San Diego almost literally in the shadow of Disneyland. The hegemonic idea of manhood, wherein all legitimate violence was corralled, still carried with it a kind of sexual noblesse oblige, as well as an honor code of sorts. First strike (we might call it “Shock and Awe”) violence was never sanctioned by Hollywood’s Ministry of Propaganda. The good man had to be prepared to use violence, but only as a kind of last resort and never against the weak. Hollywood (and Disney), of course, set up every manly scenario so there was a clear “last resort” provocation, whereupon the man, virtuously reluctant to use violence, had no other choice before he unleashed all that masculine hoodoo on the evildoer (generally with a gun). Fistfights were common, sometimes as virtuous violence, but also as a kind of rough-n-tough male bonding ritual. Bad guys never won fistfights, or gunfights. Virtue and skill were deuteronomically welded together.
In the wake of Vietnam, as the just war narrative unraveled, a lot of this had changed. I won’t go into that here (I addressed this in some detail in Borderline); but the Hollywood production that stands out for me is the film Born Losers (1967), which was part of the Billy Jack franchise. Billy Jack — half Navajo (it was cool then to be “part-Indian”), a hapkido expert, and a Vietnam Green Beret veteran — actually shoots an evildoer as a kind of preemptive warning to others. Total violation of “the code.” It went downhill from there, with The Wild Bunch (1968) and shit like Dirty Harry (1971) and Death Wish (1974). In other words, probative male violence was being valorized in progressively more individualistic, pre-emptive, and fascistic/nihilistic forms. (My one brush with Hollywood as a technical advisor was actually on a dreadful male-revenge fantasy-flick.) The jus ad bellum and jus in bello sensibilities of 1950s male violence had disappeared. Heroic common good criteria were displaced by the fantasy one-man-army (the bad motherfucker) who I critiqued in Borderline using Man on Fire (2004), a torture-justifying narrative (conveniently corresponding to the American post-9–11 employment of “enhanced interrogation”) which also featured a black protagonist in the trope/role of The Dangerous Veteran.
As liberal racial equity orientations and liberal feminism came to hold sway in the Hollywood/culture dialectic, we saw not a diminution of pre-emptive and non-proportional violence, but the application of the exact same (formerly white male) tropes in blackface and drag.
One of those films was the execrable GI Jane (1997), the referent for Chris Rock’s joke provoking the Oscars slap. In GI Jane, the female protagonist goes through a Hollywood version of SEAL training, overcoming the glass ceiling of elite male violence, which earns her the right to kill Arabs with the big boys. I wrote about this film and eight others in Tough Gynes, a book about “violent women in film as honorary men,” so I won’t belabor that theme here, except to say that violence remains saleable.
Violent probative masculinity can be for grrrlz too. Liberal feminism rocks!
It’s not just a mere marketability issue. What we’ve seen with the progressive intensification of violence and the progressively more graphic representations thereof is not dissimilar to the porn-escalation dynamic or a drug addiction. Once an audience is inured to a representation of violence, the trope loses it initial kick, and something edgier and more powerful has to be produced to get that initial kick, that erection, that euphoric rush again. Culture gets dragged along in its own escalation dynamic, and the vicious cycle endures.
Violence, however, still requires a moral grammar of justification, even when that tail is wagging the dog. That is to say, actual justice by most lights ought to be the dog, and violence the tail. But when violence sells, the stories are constructed with violence as the principal product, and the justification is built around it post hoc. Zombies work well here. If you want to feature a protagonist who is “a bad motherfucker” capable of unrestrained violence, what better than hundreds, or thousands, of inhuman humans against which said protagonist can dress up like the one-man-army and display his or her lethal skill set? (Don’t even get me started on guns as props and gasoline-enhanced explosions!)
On television alone, the average American kid will witness 200,000 acts of violence before he or she reaches eighteen. Forty-six percent of those violent acts are on cartoons! Sixty-seven percent of those violent acts are accompanied by humor. In films, PG-13 rated films actually contain more gun violence than R-rated films. R-rated films can at least rely on gratuitous sex as a draw in lieu of gratuitous violence, I suppose.
I don’t oppose violence in stories. Violence has been part of storytelling for as long as stories have been told. I daresay violence is imbricated into actually-existing social life. It’s the dog-waggery, the gratuitous violence I’m on about here, the individualistic and probative trope, and the escalation dynamic that routinizes violence almost as a personal rite of passage. The shift from wanting to become a good person (or a good man) to wanting to become “a bad motherfucker.”
The Oscars slap was a performance, as was the tearful apology later. Performers are by definition attention-seekers, apart from the technê, poiesis, and epistêmê of their craft.The culture of the spectacle is the culture of performance.
Performance has even captured philosophy, promoted by the likes of the neo-Nietzschean Judith Butler. The error of her universalizing pretensions, which she disingenuously denies, does not change the fact that she actually is reflecting something real, albeit less than universal, something situated in this period in the “developed” world, and concentrated in the plastic bubble of the academy where the rest of the world never penetrates. Credit where it’s due, I guess. “Performativity” was concentrated in the dynamic between entertainment commodities and culture way before Butler.
Hollywood and television invented Judith Butler, just as it heated and hammered you and me. I could riff here on will-to-power as an atmospheric gas, but I’ll return instead to Will Smith and his “spontaneous” slap.
How could violence, even comparatively mild violent performances like the slap, not become unmoored from any common sense of the good, when the entire capitalist epoch has been the progressive and propagandistic apotheosis of individualistic “freedom as pure spontaneity of the will,” as David Bentley Hart so eloquently puts it? We’ve been on the train to nihilism for five centuries; it’s just arriving at its destination, accelerated on its last, vulgar, pseudo-Nietzschean leg of the journey by “improved technology.”
He knew the slap would “go viral.” He was plugged in.
For some the slap was just the latest momentary diversion. For some, it led to hand wringing about the end of civilization (worry not, the Thwaites Glacier will handle that part for us). For many, it was yet another indeterminate ethical debate (another kind of algorithmic diversion).
To me, as I may have mentioned, it was just more Hollywood shit.