Audiences and vernacular rhetoric.

Author:Smith, Christina M.
Position:Essay

Scholarly interest in the creation, circulation, and contestation of vernacular rhetoric has increased dramatically with the growth of new media. The opportunity for previously marginalized groups to disseminate their message has expanded because new media forms offer ways to gain access, albeit constrained and controlled, to the public sphere. Pamela Conners astutely notes in her article, however that any circulation of vernacular rhetoric must be viewed in concert with the institutional structures that inform its production and enable its consumption. Conners' article provides readers with a provocative example of the strategic deployment of vernacular communication in the service of institutional goals.

Specifically, Conners argues that the institutional appropriation of vernacular expression on the part of labor organizations ultimately functions to interrupt the potential of vernacular laborer discourse for coalition-building among not only low-wage workers, but the wider working public as well. Commenting on the use of low-wage workers as institutionally framed and narrated subjects in a series of seven short YouTube videos intended to highlight the plight of minimum wage laborers, she notes, "... the videos invoke a vernacular performance that subjugates the workers' own participation in the labor movement," thus demonstrating "... how online participatory media can disable marginalized voices even as it actively creates a space meant to empower them" (43, 55).

In discussing the videos, Conners details the two primary frames constructed by the AFL-CIO and ACORN to shape and influence audience interpretation of the productions. First is the frame of "appeals to pity". Addressing examples pulled from visual and textual representations in which the subjects lament their precarious positions in society, Conners suggests the subjects are consequently rendered "sad and helpless." The workers' "... voices function as pawns in service of the institutional narrative, rather than as voices summoning solidarity." (49). Second, Conners illustrates the frame of "fairness" with references to the descriptions by the videos' subjects of their inability to achieve the American Dream. She offers the view that institutions' use of these frames in presentations of vernacular performances "articulates the powerlessness of the workers, accentuates their difference from the audience members, and isolates them from the organizations acting on their behalf"...

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