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When Your Words Are Someone Else's Money: Rhetorical Circulation, Affect, and Late Capitalism

This dissertation seeks a corrective to rhetorical circulation analytics: where they follow the text, this project follows the capital. I present a new theory and analytical model of rhetorical circulation (Chapters 1-2) then revise both through a qualitative test case (Chapters 4-6). Building from Trimbur’s Marxist model of rhetorical circulation, I position rhetorical exchange as the infrastructure of late capitalism, and I argue neoliberalism reproduces itself by circulating and producing affective capital through rhetoric. In a neoliberal economy, texts reach global audiences instantaneously, dealing out different consequences to different populations. The subsumption of life under capital creates a neoliberal subjectivity that positions the lives of subjects (their attention, time, energy) as raw material for late capitalists (Harvey). Expanding on Massumi, Hardt, and Negri, I characterize this raw material as “affective capital.” Seeing affect as capital positions rhetoric in the market economy. Because affective capital is rooted in bodied experience, I investigate how everyday, ambient, seemingly innocuous rhetorical encounters habituate subjects to neoliberalism and late capitalism. I test the explanatory power of this model on the digital communication fora of three fantasy football leagues. Through qualitative analysis, I situate the bodied experiences of rhetors and audiences as the hyperlocal ground from which analysts scale out and in, exposing layers of material consequence created by rhetorical exchange. Rhetorical exchanges in league fora, despite being extraction points for data harvesting, are often experienced as ambient. Users made an affective investment in rhetorical exchange, that investment transformed into social, cultural, and, ultimately, affective value. Instead of monetary or fixed capital, I label these forms “corporeal capital,” as they only exist when stored in the body. An exchange is a point where the circulation of information commodities and capital can be productive for rhetors and audiences, and when it is, late capitalists make extraction points out of rhetorical exchange, creating an infrastructure of rhetorical exchange in order to extract affective value out of the continual circulation of commodities. Rhetorical production becomes the production of capital, a force occurring in everyday, ambient moments with unfolding consequences so broad that they can affect the valuation of populations.
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