The rhetorical tradition began with, and has remained linked to, the public discourse of official forums. Aristotle named these deliberative, forensic, and epideictic rhetoric. Although these first appeared as genres and later included additional forms of address, such as the sermon and the essay, the distinctive focus of rhetorical theory and criticism into the mid-twentieth century remained on speaking and writing. With some notable exceptions, these genres were typically delivered in an official site, such as a legislative chamber, or by a person who was in a position of power, such as the leader of a movement. They are captured by the category of “public address.” From the mid-1960s this category was challenged on a number of fronts, such as its inability to account for protest rhetoric, the rhetoric of new media, or that of marginalized groups, which became subjects of inquiry among rhetoricians. In the mid-1990s, this challenge was extended theoretically and critically to reconsider excluded voices without access to official sites, voices that are not in positions of leadership, or whose modes of expression do not take the form of public address or formal essay, by considering them as they were manifested in vernacular exchanges, or vernacular rhetoric.
Vernacular rhetoric is variously understood as deliberation and opinion formation reflecting the rhetoric of the everyday (Hauser 1999), rhetoric of the people (McGee 1975), mundane rhetorical performances within a culture that shape it as a culture (Ono & Sloop 1995), and a critique of culture and a mode of resistance that makes power relations visible (Calafell & Delgado 2004; Hauser 2006; Holling 2006; Ono & Sloop 1995; Sloop & Ono 1997). Irrespective of these differences, those who study vernacular rhetoric examine “texts” that are outside power, and often as they interact with power. They contain the voices of citizens who do not hold office, do not have access to official forums, and whose expression of opinions and sentiments exerts influence more through its logic of circulation than as a significant official statement.
Usually vernacular rhetoric consists of discourses that circulate within a particular group or community, such as a street gang. It may also include the range of expression outside power directed to pervasive concerns and issues or signal events, such as how lay people discuss euthanasia. And it may include artistic expression and images that reflect commitments and sentiments of some identifiable social unit, such as an identity group, a social movement, or a significant cross-section of a nation as these are expressed in the public sphere (Finnegan & Kang 2004).
Study of vernacular modes of expression has opened rhetoric studies to areas heretofore ignored by the discipline. Vernacular rhetoric does not necessarily frame issues in the same way as authority, often uses different topoi, and is commonly expressed through alternative media, such as the Internet (Holling 2006), visual images (Calafell & Delgado 2004), the body (Hauser 2006), or other means of materiality to make different arguments from those expressed in official public spheres by the elite voices of the empowered. These differences are important for what they reveal about dimensions of human experience; invention and expression of community, subjectivity, and identity; and resistance and aspiration as they are expressed by people in their everyday lives, often in hush harbors, sometimes under conditions of overt oppression, but always drawn from the community. Sometimes they may reflect and circulate the ideas of authority figures, sometimes they may influence the expression of authority figures (Hauser 1999), but sometimes the ideas and sentiments circulating in everyday discourse may frame life’s realities in ways that are quite different from, and are a critique of, those of authority (Sloop and Ono 1997). Regardless of how they relate to official expressions, they are an essential voice in a social dialogue that shapes a human world of values, ideas, beliefs, emotions, celebrations, and actions.
Within this frame, studies of vernacular rhetoric are an extension of the mid-twentieth century shift in rhetoric study’s focus from producing influential communication to exploring rhetoric as a social practice (Burke 1969). This line of thought argued that society could not be understood without taking into account how humans use symbols – speaking and writing primarily but not exclusively – to shape social realities, which, in turn, constitute a human world. Because the rhetorical perspective toward language use always considers it as addressed, theorizing rhetoric as a social practice means it must be regarded as a performance that is always enacted ensemble.
The shift from production to social performance has had the significant consequence of decentering the privileged position of the speech or the essay as the focus of rhetoric scholars. In this respect, those who study vernacular rhetoric join a number of other schools within the discipline in addressing major questions now to the fore in rhetoric studies: how do we establish social identification through our modes of social discourse; what do our modes of rhetorical exchange reveal about a shared sense of identity and a shared reality; how does ensemble performance, which shifts from “an audience” addressed to “a public” that forms through networks of everyday rhetorical exchanges, challenge the definition and locus of agency, subjectivity, public memory, identity, and epistemology?
In addition to these questions, there are major challenges facing the study of vernacular rhetoric that are, to some degree, sui generis. How is a text constructed when the discourse, unlike a speech or a diary, is not continuous? The evidence of vernacular rhetoric is often like archeological shards that must be pieced together from fragments of significant symbolic performances. Does vernacular rhetoric have a logic or multiple logics of circulation? Must such logic(s) necessarily challenge those of official voices? This question is central to critique of vernacular rhetoric, since some, following Ono and Sloop (1997), always regard it as already “outlaw” rhetoric, while others, following Hauser (1999), regard it as an exchange out of power that, while constitutive of community, is often a mode of citizen deliberation that is not necessarily a mode of resistance.
Finally, what are the methodological implications that accompany studying vernacular rhetoric? The humanities have traditionally deployed methodologies suited to textual analysis of specific artifacts, such as the painting, the drama, or the public address. Although vernacular rhetoric may take these forms, it is more commonly found in everyday exchanges that require participant observation if not ethnographic methods. Combining non-traditional methods with traditional methods poses intellectual challenges, but also opens an avenue to bringing the humanities to the street.
- Burke, K. (1969). A rhetoric of motives. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Calafell, B. M., & Delgado, F. (2004). Reading Latino/a images: Interrogating Americanos. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 21, 1–21.
- Finnegan, C., & Kang, J. (2004). “Sighting” the public: Iconoclasm and public sphere theory. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 90, 377–402.
- Hauser, G. A. (1999). Vernacular voices: The rhetoric of publics and public spheres. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
- Hauser, G. A. (2006). Demonstrative displays of dissident rhetoric: The case of Prisoner 885/63. In Prelli (ed.), The rhetoric of display. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, pp. 229– 254.
- Holling, M. A. (2006). Forming oppositional social concord to California’s Proposition 187 and squelching social discord in the vernacular space of CHICLE. Communication and Critical Cultural Studies, 3, 202–222.
- McGee, M. C. (1975). In search of “the people”: A rhetorical alternative. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 61, 235–249.
- Ono, K. A., & Sloop, J. M. (1995). The critique of vernacular discourse. Communication Monographs, 62, 19–46.
- Sloop, J. M., & Ono, K. A. (1997). Out-law discourse: The critical politics of material judgment. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 30, 50–69.