I hesitate to write this for fear of merely adding to the deafening roar of social media chatter about this incident. Yet another opinion about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars? Just what the world does not need! Nevertheless, perhaps we can cut through all the celebrity gossip and virtue-signalling that has proliferated online around this episode, in order to ask ourselves what it might teach us about the spectacle of love today. Smith’s own words invite this: in attempting to explain his actions, he declared that ‘love makes you do crazy things!’. Indeed it does Will. But which kind of love was this, and which craziness?

In the recent issue of La Cause du désir, Fabian Fajnwaks reminds us that in his very last teachings, Lacan developed a theory of love quite different from the one associated with the period of the primacy of the symbolic.[1] From love as an attempted exchange of lacks via the mediation of the phallus, and thus as the manque-à-être’s essentially narcissistic attempt to receive a compensatory being from the Other, Fanjwaks shows that, especially with the Borromean clinic, Lacan moved towards love as a topology of connexité[2] between two knowledges at the level of the real unconscious, and thus a kind of liaison made from the failure of the symbolic unconscious to write the sexual relation. Using these helpful coordinates, where might we locate the love that seems to have inspired Will Smith to commit his very public form of career suicide?

At first glance, Lacan’s famous definition of love as ‘giving what you do not have to someone who doesn’t want it’ seems to retain some purchase.[3] This early aphorism of course pivots on the dialectic between being and having the phallus, and, emerging from Lacan’s logification of the Oedipus Complex, implies a rather traditional distribution of gender roles.

Relatedly, we can see that the crass (and not very funny) joke made by Rock at Jada Pinkett Smith’s expense touched on the failure of what Joan Rivière called the feminine masquerade, insofar as he targeted the absence of that fetishized trait of femininity: hair. Playing to his audience of cinephiles, Rock’s joke referenced the 1997 film GI Jane, and thus the military ‘buzz cut’ the actress Demi Moore adopted to depict the first woman to complete special ops training in the US army. So, he compared Pinkett Smith to a woman who, shorn of the masquerade that is femininity, looks like a man and thereby competes with men on their terrain, successfully moreover (recall that Rivière was interested in the use of masquerade made by increasingly empowered women as a strategy in the face of male anxiety). In this sense, Rock was stirring up what Judith Butler famously called gender trouble. Sensing this, it is possible that Will Smith detected an allusion in Rock’s joke to the question of ‘who wears the trousers’ in a marriage whose difficulties, including Pinkett’s affair, have been publicly paraded through her popular Red Table Talk show.

Following Rock’s quip, there was a tell-tale moment of hesitation reminiscent of Lacan’s ecrit on Logical Time where a similar moment reveals the structure of the combinatory in which the prisoners find themselves.[4] Playing along with what has become a convention at the Oscar’s – that of enduring malicious mockery at the hands of the host, something pioneered by British comedian Ricky Gervais – Will Smith initially laughed at Rock’s joke. However, in a second logical moment of comprehending, this completely evaporated when he saw the look on his wife’s face. Subtracting himself from the social contract Freud showed is involved in jokes, Smith seemed to feel compelled to show the world, but above all his wife, that he is more dedicated to the One supposedly formed by the Two of their couple than the Third implied by the Oscars audience of which they were a part. And to show that in that couple she might be the phallus for him, but he has it. For as many have observed (some admiringly), Smith’s moment to conclude, culminating in striking another smaller, weaker man, had the appearance of a crude chivalry: he was being a ‘real man’ by standing up for his wife’s honour, as if the social codes of Medieval courtly love remained a currency today.

But do they? To return to Fajnwak’s excellent article, it concludes in the following way: “We are in an epoque which, more than ever, seems informed of the inexistence of a sexual relation which could be written, but which seeks to fill the hole through surplus jouissance”.[5] Phallic desire, raised to an art in courtly love, was a treatment of and defence against jouissance, but what seems to have been literally staged[6] by these actors is but a hollow semblant of that. The harder and more violently one tries to incarnate the old chivalric codes of yesteryear, when it was believed the Other existed, the more one’s acting(out) comes across as hammy and unconvincing. And as a celebrity clearly being enjoyed by the market more than she enjoys it, Pinkett Smith seems unable to forego the jouissance of a commodified intimacy, exposed for public consumption: adept at that use of masquerade which involves showing everything, she made sure to devote the next episode of the Red Table Talk show to the ‘deep healing’ needed by the Smith family following the Oscars incident. This led to viewing figures rivaled only by the episode in which the couple had discussed her affair … A confessional, quasi-‘therapeutic’ approach to the non-relation becomes the very style of an attempted love relation.

If Smith was by his own account motivated by l’amour, what he struck was not only Chris Rock’s face, but arguably l’amur: the wall that offers a surface of inscription for the sexual relation yet simultaneously ensures that relation will not cease not to be written. In the era of the rise to the zenith of the object a on the market, it is clearly difficult not to keep banging one’s head against the wall of this love that countenances no lack.

[1] Fajnwaks, F, ‘L’amour après l’amour: un amour reel?’, La Cause du desire, No. 110, March 2022, pp.65-76.

[2] This is a topological term that in English would usually refer to connected subspaces. The key point, clearest in set theory, is that a connection is a is not the same as a ‘union’ or intersection that would bring elements into the same ‘neighbourhood’.

[3] This was posited in Seminar V but developed more fully in Seminar VIII.

[4] Lacan, J., ‘Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty’, Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), pp.161-175.

[5] Fajnwaks, op. cit., p.76.

[6] Staged to the extent that it might be more accurate to depict Smith’s slap as an acting-out, staged for an Other, than a passage to the act by which he attempted to leave the scene.