Two Modes of Neo-Liberal Subjectivity

Watched the flick Thumbsucker yesterday. It was pretty good and I recommend it, especially for Cult Studs types.


I wish I had seen something like that when I was a teenager. There are definite resonances between my life trajectory and the coming-of-age story of the main character, Justin. For him it is New York University to do TV Journalism for me it was Curtin University to do writing. Except I was never a ‘loser’ in the same way as Justin. I was a second-rower in the school’s 1st XV, but I was in the school’s senior debate team that made it to the state semi-finals… I was more concerned with my fellow school mates’ complete nonawareness of their privilege.

Anyway, the thing that has annoyed me about most reviews of the film is the utter misreading of the wooden sign in Justin’s father’s sport store manager’s office. The sign is a maxim: “Winners treat every practice like it’s a game.” There are two ways to read this sign and they relate to the two dominant modes of masculine neo-liberal subjectivity.

There is the obvious way it can be read, what one reviewer called the ‘alpha-male adage’, where ‘winners’ are the ones that put their all into every activity. In neo-liberal society there is no practice, everything is part of a big game and winners take all. Therefore you must put in 110% effort at every opportunity. Work! Work! Work! This is the neo-liberal subject that is hyper-stimulated at every turn; they operate as hyper-productive ‘worker bees’ for capital. This is the subject that ‘just does it’ and maximises.

There is the less obvious way it can be read. In a sense it can be called the ‘Pierre Bourdieu’ version. ‘Practice’ is meant in the anthropological sense of structured human activity. Winners have to decipher the rules (structure) of the game for every practice (human activity). This is the sometimes manipulative self-actualizing neo-liberal subject who maximizes outcomes by orchestrating the game to his or her advantage. It is the subject who figures out the rules of maximisation and facilitates the production of a kind of maximized simulacrum; hence the essentially fake nature of Justin’s NYU undergarduate application. Know the rules and don’t play the game (in it), but play the (entire) game itself.

The radical disjunction between father and son in this scene (with the sign) is telling. Both characters demonstrate various mixtures of these two modes of neo-liberal subjectivity. Importantly, the film realises there have actually been two generations since the Baby Boomers who are becoming adults. If the first generation — herald by the moniker Gen X — was the first post-Fordist, post-industrial generation of Western societies, then this film is about the second generation of neoliberal subjects.

Father is slightly more complex than the meathead he is made out to be by various reviews (I am basing this assessment on the often overlooked scene in the garage where he raises the possibility that he gave up sport to be with his wife, rather than the assumed view that he is a failed sports star due to injury, ie he faked the severity of his injury to have a family). The superficial image of the father is that all he can do is maximize his productivity in the hope he might be a winner. Of course, the complexity is that he turned away from the winner’s life; he played the (entire) game. Now he is a ‘loser’; signaled by his continual defeat at the hands of the orthodontist (bizarrely it is played by Keanu Reeves!!) in various local town sporting competitions. He is no longer a ‘player’.

Son, on the other hand, is pursuing an activity that he feels he would be good at, rather than a life he feels will be good for him. This is the inverse of the father. It signals the coming-to-fruition, rather than coming-to-age, of the pre-adult Justin. I literally mean fruition in the sense he can be harvested by the neo-liberal talent scouts. He played the game and discovered that the game started to play him (arrogant, etc). Interestingly, nothing is mentioned of the lies that got him into university…

The split in these masculine neo-liberal subjectivities is important in the wake of the PreFix event and relates to something Mel Gregg has been discussing on her blog. It seems as if we were given the tools at the PreFix event to enable us to be winners of the second order, the ‘player’ model. I’m not sure if this is necessarily a good thing.