Rhetorics of Risk in American Homeownership
AuthorColombini, Crystal Broch
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Rhetorics of Risk in American Homeownership, taking the post-2007 mortgage crisis and its problematic rhetorics of blame as a motivating exigence, investigates historical and contemporary economic discourses relevant to homeownership, with close attention to rhetorical constructions of risk. Building a theoretical lens that combines insights from rhetorical studies of risk, such as those undertaken by J. Blake Scott, with rhetorical critiques of political economy, such as that offered by James Arnt Aune, I illuminate risk logics as dynamic rhetorical resources that serve, in changing and adaptive ways, to shape notions of future certainty and uncertainty in accordance with the needs of a contemporary neoliberal political economy, where market mentalities infuse all aspects of social life. This lens, which draws on John Poulakos' sophistic notion of to dynaton to locate the rhetorical force of risk in its ability to evoke and hierarchize multiple possible futures, aids me in discerning and critiquing risk logics at several sites: the long-standing tradition of American presidential homeownership promotion, where risk-based rhetorical strategies forge oppositional and dissociative relationships between risk, the economy, and homeownership; the rhetorical practices of the mortgage lending industry, where the language of risk evaluates, persuades, and shapes the identities of consumers; the contentious conversations among prominent economists in the years leading up to the crisis, where some analysts attempted to draw attention to incubating risk and others used a variety of risk-negating rhetorical appeals to insist that the market was safe and rational; and finally, the efforts on behalf of financial education so characteristic of post-crisis response, which have rhetorically magnified risks of illiteracy to authorize new initiatives in consumer education, without properly addressing failures of regulation. Throughout, I argue that risk discourses prompt consumption, authorize deregulation, create paradigms of affordability, and castigate consumers who fail to uphold neoliberalism's expectations of self-governance. By situating Rhetorics of Risk in American Homeownership at the intersection of rhetorical risk studies and the rhetorical critique of political economy, I bring together two theoretical traditions that have heretofore worked independently and thus been bereft of the mutually beneficial insights that juxtaposition can present. Just as it extends rhetoric of risk scholarship by investigating the under-explored terrain of risk logics in economics, it extends the rhetorical critique of political economy by drawing attention to risk logics not only as surface features of conversation, but as meaningful in sustaining participation in economic institutions and encouraging the adoption of neoliberal economic worldviews. This study contributes to broader academic conversations on risk by drawing attention to the rhetorical ways that risk logics are produced and maintained: finally, it has pragmatic implications where it presents decision makers with a more fully developed understanding of the persuasive trajectories that inform and influence economic risk decisions in a context like homeownership.