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  • Rhetorical Circulation in Late CapitalismNeoliberalism and the Overdetermination of Affective Energy
  • Catherine Chaput

In the world we have known since the nineteenth century, a series of governmental rationalities overlap, lean on each other, challenge each other, and struggle with each other: art of government according to truth, art of government according to the rationality of the sovereign state, and art of government according to the rationality of economic agents, and more generally, according to the rationality of the governed themselves. And it is all these different arts of government, all these different types of ways of calculating, rationalizing, and regulating the art of government which, overlapping with each other, broadly speaking constitute the object of political debate.

Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics

Critical rhetoricians interested in the power dynamics between rhetoric and capitalism have established for themselves the ambitious task of explaining how multiple, intertwined rationalities govern individual and collective [End Page 1] behavior in relationship to the ever-shifting logics of capitalism. Approaches to this complicated directive frequently envision rhetoric as a mediating force among agentive subjects who act within well-defined political economic landscapes. Wedded to a political-communicative model wherein appropriate rhetorical choices persuade those with authority to distribute disputed political and economic rights, rhetorical theory becomes a sophisticated handbook for discovering topoi and executing decorous statements. This focus, according to Ronald Walter Greene, results in a "permanent anxiety over the meaning and potential of rhetorical agency" that positions rhetoricians as "moral entrepreneurs scolding, correcting, and encouraging the body politic" (2004, 188, 189). Committing themselves to endless debates about correct responses in situated spaces, rhetorical theories that underscore agency lose site of the world in flux and of our participation in that world's unpredictable unfoldings. Alternatively, Greene suggests rethinking rhetorical theory through a materialist-communicative model wherein the immaterial labor of communication produces value. Conceptualizing discursive practices as a form of labor rather than a form of political signification sidesteps anxiety about well-chosen language and emphasizes the life-affirming activity involved in deciphering issues, inventing paths through those issues, and communicating new ideas to others. In short, Greene's materialist model challenges critical rhetoricians to end their perennial search for a discursive key to the storehouse of political economic goods (a practice propelled by liberal democratic hopes) so that they can begin to invent analyses and modes of production better suited to the contours of contemporary neoliberalism.

Unlike liberalism's clearly assigned spaces for public life and private life or work time and leisure time, neoliberal spaces bear few obvious markers. The neoliberal landscape consists of blurred boundaries that fold into one another: information flows almost instantaneously, commodities and people transgress national boundaries, time accelerates, space collapses, and distinctions between such classic demarcations as agent and subject or politics and economics erode. Facilitated by dramatic changes in our sociopolitical boundaries, economic neoliberalism, what James Arnt Aune calls "economic correctness" (2001), reigns throughout vast uneven terrains opened up from the imploded borders of our liberal world. While economics does indeed rule the neoliberal landscape, it does not do so according to uncompromising rationalism. Political and cultural practices flowing into the previously segregated spaces of economics enable market rule through logics that operate entirely outside the rational-irrational divide. Economic neoliberalism moves from situation to situation, disregarding spatial boundaries between the political, economic, [End Page 2] and cultural realms as well as their attendant modes of persuasion, wearing away at the rhetorical linkages between appropriate discursive choices and agentive power.

Regardless of the particularities of neoliberalism's spaces, structures, and governing practices, many rhetoricians continue to mediate among different worldviews based on outmoded liberal gauges. Some rhetorical theorists, for instance, maintain that the problematics of neoliberalism result from an imbalance between reason and passion. Even though the most ardent supporters of neoliberal practices hold firmly to a belief in its scientific rationality, rhetorical theorists often argue that passion overpowers reason in neoliberal discourse. The rhetorical form that sustains this disequilibrium is, according to Bradford Vivian, neoliberal epideictic. Based on an impassioned identification, epideictic texts "unite an otherwise fractured citizenry in a dynamic affective experience" (Vivian 2006, 15). Epideictic rhetoric functions didactically to unite the public...


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