Hauser & McClelland, “Vernacular Rhetoric and Social Movements”

Hauser & McClelland. “Vernacular Rhetoric and Social Movements” (24 pages)

Hauser and McClelland take a closer examination at how social movements studies have understood the make-up and rhetoric of social movements. As they point it, it has historically been the case that, “in the communication of rhetoric, studies of social movements mostly have focused on the discourse of leaders, on single events, or on movement strategies” (25). Of course, the focus on these aspects of the social movement are not insignificant, but they only offer a partial view of “what caused the movement, what it means to those involved and what it aspires to achieve” (25). Hauser and McClelland, instead, advocate for a view of social movements that take into account the writing and rhetoric of the rank-and-file. As they write, it is often the case that “ignoring the rank-and-file voices in the rhetorical criticism of social movements is problematic. It leads to a skewed picture of the public sphere by defining it in terms of privileged voices” (25). As they argue, “a mature understand of movement rhetoric must take into account the nature and persuasive power of its vernacular rhetoric” (25).

Street rhetoric, in fact, often violated the “norms of civility and decorum appropriate for the podium” that is often of focus in neo-Aristotelian models of studying social movements. “Street rhetoric placed greater stress on the drama of dissident performance to provide radical and radicalizing critiques of power” that is often unseen when observing these movements in neo-Aristotelian frameworks of discourse. Moreover, the move to understand vernacular rhetoric of social movements also dislodges a historical interest in rhetorical artifacts rather than explaining rhetorical processes. For Hauser and McClelland, an adequate theory of vernacular rhetoric—that is, rhetoric focused on the distinct language and performances that inscribe the everyday interactions of counter public, discourse communities—would involve four characteristics that account for the production of rhetorically salient meaning: vernacular discourses…

  1. …are Polyvocal: “it reflects a variety of voices that enter a discourse in which everyday objects, acts, and expression…are symbolic re-presentations of social reality. Each of these presentations is freighted with particular authorial intention, situated in a present as symbols of the past, and able to communicate messages open to varied interpretations and reinterpretations by social actors themselves and rhetorical critics” (30). The authors draw a connection to Bakhtin’s heteroglossia: “discrepancies among possible meanings create a series of dialectical movements in which the powerful and the powerless contest for relational position and voice” (30).
  2. …appear under the surface—not always in full view of the ‘official discourse’: “Discourse of the everyday often appear in juxtaposition to their ‘official’ counterparts, but not necessarily in ways that are recognized as contrary or resistant by those in power” “Their utterly unremarkable character makes the eye and ear detect what it is prepared to detect. An expression of respect is heard as respect by the person addressed, while those who are subordinate hear the sarcasm lurking at the compliment’s edge” (31). Which allows for…
  3. …interrogate ‘official discourses: “The centrifugal force of official discourse is countered by the decentering rhetoric of the everyday that pushes everything to the edges where power can be denaturalized and contested” (32). As the authors write, this breaks from Foucault’s concept of the panoptic society: these vernacular spaces “rub up against one another in fundamentally different ways that can produce genuinely new alternative to existing power structures” (32).
  4. …performs power in mundane ways: “by the very way we move through the city—walking in crosswalks and on sidewalks, avoiding ‘touristy’ areas when we are ‘locals,’ and generally following the ‘official discourse’ on how to properly move through a landscape area—we enact vernacular performances that either uphold the status quo or blatantly disregard” (32). “Such performances necessarily impact larger understandings of how to interact with strangers…As such, everyday performances are continually connected to our larger social, political and communal understandings of how we create and sustain meaning. Vernacular rhetorics offer insight into how such understanding continually shape power structures as we know them” (33).

Hauser and McClelland also note the ways the ambiguity of discourse is a resource in how bonds are maintained among members of movements who may be operating at the edges of multiple discourse communities. While the authors write that “at the level of participant discourse, social movements have precise habits of speaking that utilize a vernacular for understanding the reference world and framing meaningful identification with those in it” (33), they also note that, within their notion of multi-vocality, vernacular discourse is highly intertextual performances.

They conclude succinctly: “vernacular rhetoric inherently displace the movement leader’s monopoly on authority. Their constitutive nature is directly tied to the agency of a movement’s rank-and-file by repositioning them from followers into agents actively involved in constructing social meaning apart from the leaders. Symbolic performance in social movements, as in all communication, is determined dynamically through active participation in vernacular rhetorics” (44).


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