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  • Possibilities in a Neoliberal World:Masculine Authority and Love in Affliction
  • Stacy Denton (bio)

the critique of neoliberalism that has been taken up in the 2000s, at least by prominent scholars in academia, highlights the impact of changing socioeconomic structures on people and communities. David Harvey defines neoliberalism as "a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade," leading to the colonization of people and places so that the few can perpetually accumulate at the expense of the majority (Brief History of Neoliberalism 2–3). For many critics of this system, the difference between neoliberalism and earlier capitalist ideologies is that it seems to "have brought the logic of the market to bear on seemingly every facet of social life, rather than just economic life . . ." (Braedly and Luxton 7). Indeed, films such as Affliction (1998) highlight the extent to which neoliberalism impacts the ways that individuals and communities see themselves and their potential, whether this potential is measured economically or on a deeply personal level.

Within a framework that instills the belief that there is universal and equal access to a supposed free market, the level of one's individual success is understood as a marker of personal aptitude rather than a systemic outcome. For those people who appear as failures within such a neoliberal system, such as the male working-class rural characters in Affliction, the inability to succeed economically becomes internalized as a personal failure and can emerge in destructive ways in relationships within their community. Thus, it is easy to see how the implied and obvious violence of the film's main character, Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte), is an extension of the rage and desperation experienced within a world that largely dismisses his validity. And although the film explores the depth to which such damage runs for its male characters in particular, it also uses its working-class rural characters' experience of love to illustrate how the indignities experienced within a seemingly abstract economic structure can impact both men and women in their most private moments of life. In Affliction, the experience of "love"—the thing that is commonly viewed as existing outside of the social realities of a given time and place—is used to highlight and critique the consequences of a neoliberal rhetoric that structures the everyday experience of our present world.

In Affliction, love is not an escape from social frustration but the arena in which such frustrations are acted out, something that can be best seen in the relationship between Wade and his father, Glen (James Coburn), a violent drunk who seeks to diminish those around him in order to gain power and control. However, more than the site of an oedipal struggle as some reviewers have maintained (Bruzzi), the violent relationship between father and son [End Page 19] can be read as part of a larger struggle within their community—an extension of the damage inflicted upon it by those outside interests who have, as announced in the closing moments of the film, molded it into a mere "economic zone" that exists between two larger towns. In this way, the control over a particular community for the economic gain of those more powerful sets a parallel to men such as Wade whose violent relationships to those around him—his father, his girlfriend, his friends—are an attempt to assert control over the conditions of his life set forth by the very neoliberal processes asserting their presence throughout the film.

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Figure 1.

Attempting to gain male authority in a neoliberal world: Wade White-house (Nick Nolte) and Glen Whitehouse (James Coburn) in Affliction (1998).

Like Russell Banks's 1984 novel from which it was adapted, the narrative of Affliction is directed through Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), the only upwardly mobile sibling raised in an abusive family in the working-class, rural town of Lawford, New Hampshire. The narrative tells a story of a disgruntled man, Rolfe's brother, Wade Whitehouse, who seems to perpetually lose everything, personally and...


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pp. 19-37
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