The phallic signifier, as representative of a full enjoyment that sutures the gap between the Imaginary and Symbolic orders, is the signifier lacking from the metonymic chain of desire. Precisely through this absence, the phallus structures the object-cause of subjective desire, with the consequence of engendering the circular aim of the drive beyond signification itself. Undertaking a Lacanian interpretation of racism, and racial enjoyment, Derek Hook describes the racist subject as externalizing the fundamental lack of phallic authority, the (impossible) possession of the objet petit a, onto the racialized Other. The 1962 film Pressure Point narratively explores the story of a Black psychoanalyst in his analysis of a white fascist criminal whose uncovered childhood traumas result in the phenomenon Hook writes on. The analysand, as witness to his drunkard father’s mistreatment of his mother and wild sexual exploits, associates the paternal function with an obscene possession of jouissance. This association results in the analysand’s ambivalent relation to his father, developing in a mimetic relationship with phallic authority, as the patient desires to possess the father’s jouissance, and yet is anxious of its destructive quality. Thus, Pressure Point‘s depiction of the subject’s relation to phallic authority is perfectly reflective of Sigmund Freud’s myth of the parricidal primal horde of brothers in Totem and Taboo. The question still remains: how does the patient displace this parricidal drive onto the figures of the racialized Other and the (white) woman? Is there any fundamental difference in the way he violates the two figures? Furthermore, how is the film’s safely satisfying ending undermined by its own filmic slippages? The former question functions similarly to the analyst’s analysis of the patient, while the latter confronts how the film’s neoliberal conclusion is underwritten by its filmic necessitation of a harsh truth that the film, and the (white) Symbolic Order more broadly, disavows.
The film’s illustration of the analysand’s primal trauma, as connected with his larger mimetic relationship with the phallic signifier, is his experience being harassed by his father with a slab of raw liver, and consequently “blacking out,” in his father’s butchery. The analysand’s major childhood anxiety is directed towards raw meat, the object that figures as the phallic authority of the father. The unsettling nature of raw meat, in its grotesque formlessness and indestructible quality that contribute to its potential for dissection and consumption, is grounded on an affectively ambivalent relation to it. As a metaphor for the Real, raw meat is the monstrous de-subjectivized body, the no-body, that is, quite literally, in us more than us. Nonetheless, this infinitely malleable feature marks raw meat as an object of consumption, and thus enjoyment. To become-butcher, and to be able to wield and penetrate the raw meat, is, for the analysand in Pressure Point, to become-Father, and to claim phallic authority, suturing lack. The primal trauma of the analysand, however, refuses this claim to the phallic emblem, as once his father rubs the raw liver in his face, exposing his skin to the primordial slime of the Real and making him “black out” (shot 1), the meat remains petrified in his psyche as an anxiogenic object. This anxiogenic quality, however, strengthens the analysand’s desire to claim the Father’s meat, which is not merely object, but object-cause of desire.
Displacing a parricidal hatred of his father who he admires, then, the analysand, as a child, is shown in Pressure Point to indulge in an Orientalist fantasy, where he is positioned as an Eastern potentate surrounded by Black(ened) slaves who do the deed of executing his mother with the foot of an elephant. Why does this fantasy indulge in the murder of the mother? Precisely because the analysand’s father indulges in his jouissance, the enjoyment the analysand desires, instead of caring for the sickly mother. Accordingly the analysand-as-child must (in some deeply intimate and bodily ways) care for his mother. As a child, forced to renounce the desired jouissance of his father to, ironically, take his role as the caretaker of his mother, the analysand blames his lack on the mother’s demands of him instead of on his father’s mistreatment of the family. This fantasy is more complex when considering the Imaginary Black(ened) slaves that function to murder the mother. The slaves, shirtless and physically strong, as compared to the fragile analysand-as-child, are a clearly eroticized image of masculine authority (shot 2). This allows them to be the ones who enact phallic authority and physically hold down the mother; however, this act is framed as being necessitated by the slaves’ subordination to the child potentate. So, in this way, the Black(ened) slaves are figured, in the fantasy of the analysand-as-child, as possessors of illicit enjoyment, and therefore, through this possession, are to be useful to the child potentate in enacting the enjoyment he desires but cannot partake in, though he himself enjoys the cruel subordination of the Black(ened) slaves. Similarly to the Father’s raw meat, then, the Black becomes psychically associated with some Thing emanating the anxiogenic vitality of the destructive Real, and also with a Thing to be enjoyed (consumed, dissected, marked) due to this very (non)essence. This can be clearly shown in the end of the fantasy, where the murderous elephant foot (of the phallic Black) (shot 3) sharply cuts to the raw meat being butchered by the analysand’s father (shot 4).
Interpreting the parallel nature of the phallic emblem of raw meat and the analysand’s image of the Black in Pressure Point speaks clearly to Hortense Spiller’s delineation between “flesh” and “body” in her timeless essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe.” Spillers reads the Trans-Atlantic slave trade as a theft of the (Black) body that then violently severs “the captive body from its motive will, its active desire” (67). Therefore, the captive body is reduced to flesh, what comes retroactively prior to the subjectivized body of will. The (subjectivized) body is the form of the desiring subject, able to positioned, and thus petrified (aphanisis), in the discourse of the Symbolic. The flesh, however, is that which “does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse” (Ibid), and is thus figured by Spillers as of a primordial (non)essence, filled and bound to jouissance, similarly to Pressure Point‘s raw meat. The Black captive, reduced to flesh, is a Thing-for-the-captor, removed of subjective desire and of Symbolic positionality (which is crucial to Spillers’ understanding of the Black female captor being “ungendered” by slavery’s enjoyment of her flesh). The reduction of the Black captive body to flesh produces the Black, in the (white) Symbolic, as possessors of pure enjoyment, in an imago of physical/sexual prowess tied to the labor of slavery, and as that to be enjoyed, through externalized acts of torture and hence “undecipherable markings on the captive body” (Ibid). Spillers’ conception of the Black as marked flesh in the (white) Symbolic speaks to Pressure Point‘s sketch of the analysand-as-child’s image of Black(ened) subjects, as linked to the Father’s intolerable (and desired) raw meat, and finally as linked to the analysand’s conscious adult life, where he positions the Black to be violently annihilated.
In the analysand-as-child’s foundational racial fantasy, the Black(ened) slaves are forced to labor for the child potentate (to murder his white mother) using their (illusory) claim to phallic authority, which their eroticized physicality is emblematic of. As the flesh of pure enjoyment, the Black is thus associated, in the psyche of the analysand, with vast physical and sexual prowess. This Imaginary prowess is, while an intermediary enjoyment for the analysand-as-child in its function to kill his mother, also undoubtedly a source of the analysand’s jealousy, and hatred, of the Black, demonstrating racism’s feature of being a response to “the perceived theft of enjoyment” (Hook, “Racism and Jouissance,” 3). Due to Pressure Point portraying only two female characters, both white women, it is important to note that the imago of the Black-as-phallus has always traditionally been the Black male as the defiler of the white woman. Whether as depicted in one of modern cinema’s founding films, the white supremacist D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation, or as seen in the long history of Black men lynched or executed due to false accusations of the rape of a white woman, the (white) Symbolic has often necessitated that, as Frantz Fanon writes, “[w]hoever says rape says Negro” (Black Skin, White Masks, 166). In Pressure Point, the Black-as-phallus is (phatasmatically) used to hold down and murder the analysand’s white mother (who is the first of two female characters in the film) (shot 5), a murder fantasy which is described by the analyst as forming the analysand’s aggressive sexual desires. The second female character in the film is, notably, the white woman who is the bartender’s wife in the flashback scene precipitated by the analysand narrating the cruel “game” of tic-tac-toe he played in a bar in the past. One cannot forget that this “game” ends with the analysand stripping the bartender’s wife and sadistically inscribing the “game” onto her bare body, a scene of Symbolic rape (shot 6). Can the terrorized woman in this scene be equated to the terrorized Black who is figured as flesh? As the violated subject of an oppressive Symbolic Order, yes; however, the victimization (enjoyment) of the Black is inseparable from the Black-as-phallus, and the Black’s capacity to claim an illicit enjoyment. This is clearly exemplified when the analysand, prior to verbalizing the tic-tac-toe memory to the Black analysand, smiles smugly and asks, with reference to the “real game” of tic-tac-toe, “You ever play it?” As David Marriott notes, there remains a hierarchical dissimilarity between the suffering of the white woman and the Black in this scene, and in the (white) Symbolic more generally. The analysand understands this, and takes enjoyment in slyly mentioning it, “catch[ing] the black man up into this sexual gaming as both persecutor and persecuted” (Haunted Life: Visual Culture and Black Modernity, 79). The particular white mythology of the Black man as the rapist of the white woman is symptomatic of the radical violence enacted by the (white) Symbolic Order, condensing the Black body into bare flesh, marked as indestructibly anxiogenic, and simultaneously enjoyed through vicious denigration.
Pressure Point focuses mainly on the racist psyche of the singular character of the analysand, who is described as pathological in his hatred; however, the film directly contradicts this described “pathological” nature of racism in both the depiction of the anti-Black colleagues of the Black analyst, and its corollary portrayal of the rapid growth of white fascist organizations. The tumorous growth of fascist organizations may lead us instead to the word “pathogenic” to describe racism, but the Black analyst’s anti-Black colleagues seem to assent to the analyst’s lie of being “cured” without any racist “pathogenic transmission.” Instead, occluding their psyche is the discourse of the (white) Symbolic itself, necessitating no need for a pathogen. Moreover, in a scene where the analysand rants on the founding anti-blackness of America, asking the Black analyst why he concedes allegiance to the nation-state whilst condemning the analysand’s own similar fictive ideology, the analyst, in a voiceover, states “Right then and there, I knew what I was frightened of.” What is the analyst frightened of if not that he knows the irreparable cruelty of American anti-blackness all too well, and thus, in at least one way, mutually understands something with the analysand, a person he vehemently despises. Both analyst and analysand understand this – that the cruelty of the American Symbolic is irreparable precisely because, as historicized with relation to the rupture of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, “the ruling episteme that releases the dynamics of naming and valuation, remains grounded in the originating metaphors of captivity and mutilation so that it is as if neither time nor history, nor historiography and its topics, shows movement” (Spillers, 68).
As shown, Pressure Point has no trouble implying the psychic petrification of the subject to the master signifier of whiteness, but the ending’s all-too-gratifying ending devours its key observations. The film ends with the Black analyst declaring allegiance to America in a dramatic rant directed towards the analysand, contradicting his earlier fear and authoritatively praising an illusory democratic center of America that he believes is bound to “defeat” the white fascists of the country. The film’s ending further validates this declared American “defeat” of fascism when, in a flash-forward, the Black analyst, now older, tells a fellow analyst what happened to his (now) ex-analysand: after leaving prison, he beat an old man to death, was put on death row, and was executed. Ergo, the American justice system, one of the many repressive state apparatuses in the country that is founded on brute anti-blackness, is restored to its Imaginarily pure function in Pressure Point, and the threat of the unbridled jouissance of racism is abolished by the Law. What is at stake in reading Pressure Point is identifying the film’s disavowed knowledge of the longue durée of slavery, and the resultant gratuitous violence of anti-Blackness that remains the essence of the (white) Symbolic Order, and thus at the impermeable psychic core of America. Pressure Point‘s ending refers us ultimately to the mistake of all visions of politics that project a future where, as also faultily promoted by Sheldon George, society can perform a “traversal of the fantasy of race” (“From Alienation to Cynicism: Race and the Lacanian Unconscious,” 371). Society cannot escape race just as it cannot escape the psychic externalization of jouissance onto the Other. Incompatibility is the kernel of societal relations, and the absence of the phallus, in its illusory status as the ownership of pure Symbolic authority, will always render the Black as raw meat, bare flesh, and, ultimately, no-body.