The klap heard around the world

Jeremy Gordin says our attention was fixed on Will Smith at the Oscars this week, even as starvation made its return to SA

If you have a moment, here’s one of my favourite poems, written by Kenneth Rexroth, an American poet [i].


Here I sit, reading the Stoic
Latin of Tacitus.
Tiberius sinks in senile
Gloom as Aeneas sank
In the smoky throat of Hades;
And the prose glitters like
A tray of dental instruments.
The toss head president,
Deep in his private catacomb,
Is preparing to pull
The trigger. His secretaries
Make speeches. In ten years
The art of communication
Will be more limited.
The wheel, the lever, the incline,
May survive, and perhaps,
The alphabet. At the moment
The intellectual
Advance guard is agitated
Over the relation
Between the Accumulation
Of Capital and the
Systematic Derangement of
The Senses, and the Right
To Homosexuality.

Besides mentioning his love for clear, precise, and sharp language (viz., Latin), we realize that Rexroth is warning the reader about the deterioration of language – and therefore of “thinking” and therefore also of “civilization” – he’s talking about language’s descent into the obfuscating morass of what we’d today call Woke parlance; and this poem, by the way, was probably written in the late 1950s [ii].

But there are other kinds of “communication” – besides written language per se – that also affect thought, understanding, our reception of knowledge, and our relationship with the world. One of these, dating from the invention of the Kinetoscope in 1891 to the remarkable technological achievements of recent years, is the cinema.

It's pretty trite (isn’t it?) to point out that, no matter how many books or newspaper articles one might read, one’s knowledge of certain people and events is willy-nilly drawn from movies; movies are so much more striking, immediate, and “easier to understand” than the written word.

What does one really know about cops in the US? If I think about it, my major pieces of “knowledge” are drawn from the Bad Boys [iii] and Die Hard series. What do I really know about modern Russian hitmen – those ex-soldiers and/or former jailbirds, replete with tattoos and steel-cutting accents? You (and I) probably know them best from movies made in Hollywood.

And (again, I know this is a trite observation) flowing from Hollywood’s international hegemony, coupled with the new social media technologies (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, etc.), we – whether we like it or not – must contend with the “celebrity phenomenon,” in terms of which people such as Will Smith are thrust into our consciousness.

So, when one Oscar awards presenter, Chris Rock, made fun of Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith’s [iv] shaved hairstyle, the result of alopecia, by comparing her to G.I. Jane, the titular character of a 1997 film who has a close-shaven buzz cut, Smith climbed onstage and slapped Rock, and once he was back in his seat, yelled at Rock from across the Dolby Theatre, “Keep my wife's name out your fucking mouth” – we are compelled to read about the ensuing brouhaha and all the tedious codswallop emanating therefrom.

E.g., “Comedian Tiffany Haddish said after the ceremony that she found the moment Smith stood up for Jada Pinkett Smith incredibly touching. ‘When I saw a Black man stand up for his wife, that meant so much to me,’ she told People magazine”.

Other codswallop included Smith apologizing to “the Academy” and to viewers [v] later in the evening, tearfully noting that [fellow actor Denzel] Washington had warned him, “At your highest moment, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you”.

Now, I don’t have anything against what some [vi] might call “culture” – I watch and enjoy movies of all kinds – and I’m glad Satan has returned to general parlance. I thought he’d been expelled as a serious contender for non-fictional conversations in the 18th century or thereabouts. But must I be exposed to such obscene and quarter-witted carryings-on? [vii]

Obscene? Yes. Bear in mind that the reasons for which Smith is considered “of importance” are (in no particular order) that, as mentioned, the devil apparently approached him; he bitch-slapped [viii] some oke; in his later apology he opined “Violence in all of its forms is poisonous and destructive”; and that he received an Oscar for his role in the movie King Richard (described by Movieguide.org, “the family guide to movies and entertainment,” as “beautiful, heartfelt and inspiring” with “a strong Christian, moral, pro-family worldview …”).

Now then, at the very moments that Smith et al were given pole position on the world’s media and communication apparatuses, the people of Ukraine were, and still are, being subjected to appalling (and unnecessary) violence – real violence that kills and maims people, many of whom belong to families – and the so-called great powers might also be teetering on the edge of some sort of nuclear confrontation.

And at the very moments that we were asked to think about Smith et al, we read two days ago – courtesy of Daily Maverick’s Estelle Ellis – “that in the past 15 months, 14 children under the age of five starved to death in Nelson Mandela Bay and another 216 new cases of severe acute malnutrition were confirmed in the Eastern Cape’s biggest metro, where more than 16,000 families were left without aid because of a bureaucratic bungle by the provincial Department of Social Development.

“Another 188 children received in-patient treatment at the metro’s hospitals for severe acute malnutrition and in February 11 children were hospitalised with severe acute malnutrition”.

Ellis continued: “The impact of dire food shortages, including a shortage of nutritious food in communities, is, however, much larger. The University of Cape Town’s Child Institute estimates that 48% of child hospital deaths in South Africa are associated with moderate or severe acute malnutrition”.

So, I ask: Would it be incorrect for me to conclude that Satan has had far more pressing business than talking to Will Smith; that, besides Hebrew [ix], it seems Satan speaks fluent Russian [x]; and that Satan seems to care little for human beings?

And wouldn’t I be correct to conclude that largely forgotten Marshall McLuhan was spot-on when he told us to study with eagle eyes the media in, or on which, we receive our messages (“The medium is the message” [xi])?

Even the mighty BBC advertised on the feed at the bottom of the screen the headline of a story from its news site: “What Will Smith's slap says about him – and us”.

I didn’t read the story so don’t know what conclusions the BBC reporter reached. But what the slap told me about Smith is that he’s clearly something of a prize axxhole.

And what it told me about “us” is that we need to watch out for much of the communication foisted on us these days – because it’s dangerous and obscene; it distracts us from and effectively belittles those things and events that we ought to know about if we want to be grown-up and compassionate human beings.

Also, Smith et al are dead boring. I’d almost rather listen to some shmuck explaining how government plans to reignite South Africa’s economy – which is, if you think about, a real bitch-slap. But let me hush up now; I feel as though the devil is drawing near.


[i] Rexroth, 1905-1982, is generally remembered as a central figure in the so-called San Francisco Renaissance of the 1950s and 60s; and though he did not consider himself a Beat poet and disliked the association, he was dubbed the “Father of the Beats” by Time magazine (to which Rexroth responded, “an entomologist is not a bug”). Lawrence Ferlinghetti recalled that Rexroth self-identified as a philosophical anarchist, regularly associated with other anarchists in North Beach (San Francisco), and sold Italian anarchist newspapers at the City Lights Bookstore – to which, many years later, and just by the way, Jeremy Gordin paid many visits and spent much money by way of paying homage to Ferlinghetti, Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg, et al.

[ii] I can’t find the date of the poem’s original publication; but I’m guessing that it comes from one of Rexroth’s collections of the late 1950s. The version I have is taken from Penguin Modern Poets 9 (1967).

Interestingly, Rexroth’s inclusion of “the Right to Homosexuality” among the phrases that he is clearly suggesting are jargon-esque, cant, and over-Woke would probably result – has probably already resulted – in his poetry not being studied in western universities these days.

[iii] Which features, among others, one Will Smith. Fancy that.

[iv] “Vot sort of name is dis?” my granny would have asked.

[v] Not to Rock – this came a day or so later.

[vi] Including, gadzooks, my children – for whom I laboured long and hard to provide “a good education” ...

[vii] I could switch off, but then I’d have to switch off every communication tool within reach, and how then would I know what’s happening in the big, wide world?

[viii] I understand this is the appropriate terminology – though I prefer snotklap.

[ix] The Hebrew term śāṭān is a generic noun meaning “accuser” or “adversary” and gets his first big role in the Book of Job.

[x] As attested to by Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov in The Master and Margarita, written in the Soviet Union between 1928 and 1940 during Stalin’s regime.

[xi] Wikipedia: In his Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published in 1964, McLuhan proposes that a communication medium itself, not the messages it carries, should be the primary focus of study. … The content of the medium is a message that can be easily grasped, and [but?] the character of the medium is another message which can be easily overlooked. … Taking the movie as an example, he argued that the way this medium played with conceptions of speed and time transformed “the world of sequence and connections into the world of creative configuration and structure”. Therefore, the message of the movie medium is this transition from “lineal connections” to “configurations”.