Putting words to work: the politics of labor's vernacular.

Author:Conners, Pamela
Position:Essay

In 1932, the radio show Vox Pop took its name from its mission to put the voices of the people on the radio. Its emphasis on the everyday citizen took many forms, including quiz shows, interviews, and human interest stories--all of which variably represented and defined the notion of "the people" in a democratic republic. Perhaps the most dramatic attempt to authentically capture the average citizen's perspective on the pressing issues of the day came in the form of surprise "person on the street" interviews. While on air, broadcast personalities dropped microphones out of windows and asked people questions that ranged from the political to the personal to the absurd (Loviglio 2005). The impromptu nature of these interviews, however, belied the extent to which the interviewer and the institution still control the sociopolitical perspective through which the interviewee's words are interpreted. By prompting the people to answer certain questions while employing the ability to frame those answers with commentary from the broadcasters, radio executives recognized that they could construct narratives in support of business interests from the unscripted voices of everyday Americans.

As shows like Vox Pop illustrate, institutions sometimes intentionally engage the vernacular in pursuit of a political agenda. Be it the rise of audience participation shows on the radio in the 1930s or the proliferation of participatory media on the Internet, institutions' efforts to present or perform speech by everyday people suggests that the vernacular has commercial and political appeal. In presenting audience participation shows, radio stations often sought to advance a faith in democracy and capitalism through the performance of democratic access to the airwaves. Similarly, digital participatory media find value in the presentation of amateur media content produced by individuals and groups with no necessary connection to a specific organization. As the online video website YouTube states: "The community is truly in control on YouTube and they determine what is popular on the site"(YouTube, "Fact Sheet"). The website explicitly asks its consumers to see themselves as the producers of the content, untainted by institutional influence.

The media practice of valuing the vernacular as primary to shaping public culture and political perspectives has created opportunities for marginalized communities to effectively publicize and circulate their dissenting voices in pursuit of change (Howard 2008). The resistive power of the vernacular, however, must be reconsidered when institutions seek to deliberately invoke a vernacular performance--such as "person on the street" interviews--in order to advance a particular political agenda. In this paper, I explore the implications of this strategic vernacular engagement for the transgressive potential of the vernacular voice. More specifically, I seek to determine what happens to the narrative tradition and agency of communities when their vernacular expressions are intentionally provoked and deployed by institutions as a means to achieve political ends.

This dynamic is illustrated through an examination of how institutions use an online setting to frame the voices of workers as they recount their life and work experiences. The emergent relationship between the sovereign and the resistant vernacular presents interesting challenges for the communicative traditions of workers. The analysis in this paper examines how low-wage workers are represented in YouTube videos as a part of the Living Wage campaign and discusses the implications of that representation. Unlike past moments in labor history when American culture reflected a celebration of the worker as an agent of change and the foundation of production, the YouTube videos point to a diminishment of the workers' voices and participation in the labor movement. I argue that the AFL-CIO and ACORN's choice to circulate the voices of workers on the Internet in service of the Living Wage campaign demonstrates how the strategic deployment of the vernacular can undermine the very tradition it attempts to engage. In other words, the provoked performance of workers' voices subverts the authority of the vernacular as well as its power to engender community.

This paper begins with a summary of the entwined relationship between vernacular and institutional discourses and the ensuing struggle over authority, power, and agency. I then review the cultural salience of labor's vernacular voices in the United States to situate an analysis of worker testimonials posted online during the 2006 midterm elections. The AFL-CIO and ACORN's Living Wage video series on YouTube offers a rich text for illustrating the symbolic interplay between a labor vernacular and a labor organization in a contemporary online context. The analysis then examines the particular constraints of YouTube and the other institutional frames through which the vernacular actors are interpreted.1 Finally, I conclude with an exploration of the rhetorical nature of the workers' appeals and the way in which those appeals create a pitiable image of both the individuals appearing in the videos as well as the broader community the AFLCIO and ACORN suggest they represent.

Vernacular (Re)presentations

Scholars across disciplines have explored the cultural significance and social power of the vernacular voice. Folklorists have aimed to celebrate and examine the narrative traditions of non-institutionalized discourses--the voices and spirit of groups of people that solidify communities and express identities. Similarly, communication scholars have called for critical attention to the cultural and political implications of the vernacular's circulation in the public sphere. The vernacular, paradoxically, can be both liberated and oppressed through its confrontation with institutionalized, and often dominant, discourses. Scholars have considered how the mediation of vernacular has both enabled and challenged its circulation and transgressive power. These studies offer important insights into the way in which identities and communities are shaped through vernacular culture--a culture that is inevitably intertwined with its institutional foil. (2)

The vernacular, much like folklore, reflects the shared rhetorical and cultural practices of discourse communities that maintain consistencies and continuities across time and space (Georges and Jones 1995). The vernacular exists, not in and of itself, but rather is recognizable through its difference from institutional discursive practices. While a distinction between vernacular and institutions provides a useful vocabulary for characterizing different spheres of cultural performance, most scholars recognize their inability--particularly in a thoroughly mediated age--to isolate one from the influence of the other. As John Dorst observed on the cusp of the digital age, in a very practical sense, folklore cannot be interpreted separately from the apparatuses that enable its circulation (1990). (3) The vernacular must be understood as hybrid--its emergence stems from the distinctive authority it attains from being noticeably alternative to the institutional expression (Howard 2005).

Through vernacular discourse, individuals consciously or unconsciously align themselves with culturally specific groups organized around common experiences. A shared linguistic style or a recurring narrative pattern often serves as a marker of membership in a vernacular community. Folklorist Archie Green identified one such community through discourse about work, which he characterized as laborlore (1993; 2001). Studies of laborlore point to the ways in which this occupational vernacular builds solidarity among those who relate to one another through their expression at work and about work (Korson 1960; Green 2001). Green's examination of work culture illustrates how workers' self-expressions ensured connections in the workplace and beyond it. The circulation of laborlore also instills in "individuals a sense of dignity on the job and within their movement (Green 2001; 50)." Moreover, workers' stories and songs often function to help workers make sense of the relationship between their labor, capitalism, and society (Gillespie 1980). Thus, laborlore may construct social bonds among workers as well as engender particular perspectives about the cultural and political structures that make the conditions of their work.

Even though scholars of laborlore have often focused on particular industries' vernacular practices, the examination of a working vernacular need not be occupationally specific. The folkloric nature of these expressions lies in the extent to which they build upon shared experiences that resonate with others within but also across industries. Whether through songs, jokes, theatre performances, traditions, or social action, workers developed cultural connections with one another through their symbolic interaction. Evolving over time and across physical and discursive spaces, lore draws upon its historically and contextually constructed meaning to ensure some consistency in its style and/or content while simultaneously resonating with different individuals who adopt and adapt the vernacular to fit their specific cultural and social situation. In this way, folklore--and particularly laborlore--is consistently relatable and identifiable insofar as it reflects shared experience even though it is essentially fluid in nature.

This dynamism ensures that the meaning, interpretation, authority, and power of vernacular expression shift depending on the context of its emergence. Particularly in a mass-mediated age, the interaction between the vernacular and its institutional forms within which it circulates and against which it becomes recognizable affects how audiences perceive the vernacular agents as well as the broader community with whom they may be associated. Studies have...

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