- "The Homo Depot" and Other Works:Critiquing Vernacular Video
"RevSpitz" is an activist who posts amateur videos on YouTube centered on two issues: abortion and homosexuality. Most of his videos have fewer than one hundred views. A few have in the thousands. One of RevSpitz's lesser-known pieces is entitled "Home Depot Chairman Frank Blake Continues Showing Support for Gay Marriage."1 The video begins with a stark black screen as a melancholy piano plays. Then text fades in slowly, the simple white letters stating, "This Month Home Depot Chairman Frank Blake told shareholders that his company would continue to support gay marriage activists and gay activities." The text fades, and after a moment, the Home Depot logo appears. The classic orange and white logo, however, has been altered to read: "The Homo Depot." For the following two minutes, the piano plays while the video displays a series of images of a gay pride parade, the covers of children's books about having same-sex parents, and text of quotations from the Bible.
Observing the "The Homo Depot" in terms of RevSpitz's other videos on YouTube—he has produced more than one hundred—it is [End Page 191] clear that he has developed a unified video style. Not unique in its form, however, his video work is very much part of a popular tradition in amateur online video in which professionally recorded music is set to a moving collage of images found online. As part of this larger tradition, "The Homo Depot" is a powerful example of what Lawrence Lessig has lauded as "read/write culture" and what Henry Jenkins describes as "convergence culture."2 Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler dubs the phenomenon of recombinant culture a "new folk culture" that encourages "a wider practice of active personal engagement in the telling and retelling of basic cultural themes." For Benkler, this practice "offers new avenues for freedom."3
Any self-conscious social critic has to wonder how to reconcile the new freedoms of this folk culture with the fact that "The Homo Depot" video has transformed the logo of what we might simply think of as an unsympathetic corporate power, Home Depot, to voice hate. As social critics, how do we approach amateur media that resists the liberal tolerance that is often (if not always) found in mainstream culture?
Heather Hendershot has already attacked this problem in terms of institutional Christian media. Seeking to apply social criticism to a media industry "that has been invisible to many of the researchers interested in the progressive potential of popular culture," she calls on social critics to consider "what it would mean to 'resist' mainstream culture from a conservative political position."4 This challenge is made only more salient as the locations of such media resistance move from professional (if low-budget) productions to the actual "folk" or, more properly, "vernacular" media that now form a sizable portion of the overall media landscape. With the growth of this vernacular video, our consideration of it must also be tempered by Hendershot's question: How should the social critic engage networked folk as they resist from the Right?
Although it is difficult to advocate against the underdog in the struggle between powerful commercial institutions and everyday consumers, it is also unacceptable to leave intolerance in these new forms of media uncritiqued. In this short essay, I suggest that a conception of vernacular authority can aid us toward this end.5 The concept of vernacular authority does not celebrate the vernacular or folk unreflectively, because it acknowledges the power of the everyday as a neutral force. In my use, vernacular authority is a specific kind of attempt to garner power through discourse. Vernacular authority is asserted whenever noninstitutional processes participate in the emergence of conditions that support assertions, beliefs, or practices. Just another avenue through which to seek power, vernacular authority is neither just nor unjust. It is neutral. As such, particular expressions can be assessed by making distinctions between more and less appropriate deployments of this authority. [End Page 192]
To exemplify this theoretical conception, the rest of this essay briefly explores conservative Christian vernacular videos posted to YouTube...