Rhetoric & Public Affairs 3.4 (2000) 682-684
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Vernacular Voices: The Rhetorics of Publics and Public Spheres
Vernacular Voices: The Rhetorics of Publics and Public Spheres. By Gerard A. Hauser. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999; pp. vii+335. $45.00.
Hauser's book represents an ambitious effort to "explore the discursive dimensions of publics, public spheres, and public opinion" (11). Synthesizing writings from a diversity of disciplines, he argues that existing approaches to the public discount its rhetorical nature. Instead, he posits "a plurality of publics located in the multiple arenas of a reticulate public sphere in which strangers develop and express public opinions by engaging one another through vernacular rhetoric" (12). He offers a rhetorical model to understand how the public works in actually existing democracies. Such a model is "discourse based," derives its critical norms from actual discursive practices, "emphasizes indeterminate bracketing of discursive exchanges," and "values communication that is conducive . . . to the formation of shared judgments" (61-63). According to Hauser,
A rhetorical model would require openness to those conditions that produce a plurality of spheres within the Public Sphere. . . . A rhetorical model of public spheres not only expects participants to have interests but regards them as essential for the exercise of prudent judgments on public problems. . . . [A] rhetorical model abandons the search for generalizable arguments. Its concern is for how the dialogue within any given public sphere mounts appeals that lead participants to understand their interests and make prudent judgments. Finally, a rhetorical model recognizes that civil society's defining conditions of interdependence and diversity require that communicative partners share a common reference world (55-56).
As a result, Hauser's concern is with "mundane transactions of words and gestures that allow us to negotiate our way through our quotidian encounters. They are not formal exchanges of the podium; they are vernacular expressions of who we are, what we need and hope for, what we are willing to accept, and our commitment to reciprocity" (11).
To develop this model, the first four chapters of the book explore the history of the concept of the public, the role of rhetoric in the public sphere, and how one's understanding of public opinion is influenced by a rhetorical approach. After the general chapters, Hauser moves to case studies of the role of vernacular rhetoric in the emergence and alterations of publics. His first case study explores the role of narrative and historicity in Poland and Yugoslavia. He then moves to an analysis of the controversy surrounding the Meese Commission's report on pornography. His case studies end with two analyses of presidential politics: Carter's handling of the Iranian hostage crisis and Roosevelt's opening of an epistolary public sphere.
Although the book provides a valuable overview of extant research and makes clear the centrality of rhetoric to the study of publics, I have two main concerns. First, the central concept of vernacular rhetoric is not systematically defined. [End Page 682] Second, although the first four chapters set up a compelling theoretical framework for the study of vernacular rhetoric and a reticulate public sphere, the case studies do little to advance the theory.
The book's title, Vernacular Voices, points the reader to the central role this concept plays in Hauser's theory. However, it takes a bit of effort to develop a working understanding of this concept. Chapter three provides a contextual glimpse of the role of vernacular voices, when Hauser writes:
Members of pluralistic societies belong to several, perhaps many, overlapping discursive arenas in which they experience the polyphony of concurrent conversations as vernacular languages that rub against one another, instigating dialogues. . . . Vernacular discourses are, however, more than merely polyphonous expressions of local interest and understanding. They are protean. Their coconstitution of relata and relationship brings these multiple spheres into existence and gives them definition as discursive domains.
Vernacular exchanges both lack and transcend the force of official authority. As common expressions of those who participate in their conversational space, vernacular discourses reflect their speakers' sense of historicity (67).