[updated: see here]
Axel has asked me to provide a more concise definition of vernacular creativity so he can link to it, so here is a chunk from my recently submitted confirmation document that deals with what I mean by the phrase, and what I think it can do:
The Idea of Vernacular Creativity
This thesis examines the cultural implications of an emergent reconfiguration of the modes of production and consumption of media content: distributed, user-generated, non-commercial content creation, which I have organised under the conceptual framework of ‘vernacular creativity’. In the study, vernacular creativity describes creative practices that emerge from highly particular and non-elite social contexts and communicative conventions, mediated and transformed when brought into relationship with digital distribution, consumption and network technologies. The concept is intended to be both explanatory – encompassing a range of practices that are collected under different names, drawn from different discursive traditions (economics, mass communication, arts and music) – and to act as the key heuristic driver of the study – keeping the analytical focus firmly on the people who are supposedly empowered by new relations of production, consumption and distribution of creative content.
In settling on the term ‘vernacular creativity’, my intention is not to create neologisms, but to find a comprehensible terminology adequate to signify the conceptual territory of this study. The territory that ‘vernacular creativity’ describes, as a field of cultural practice, crosses over pre-existing categories derived from either structuralist accounts of society (high culture-popular culture), the cultural industries (artist/professional-amateur), or economics (paid-unpaid production), without being subservient to the discourses associated with any of these paradigms.
The most familiar meaning of the term vernacular is that of vernacular speech, thought, or expression, usually applied to the native speech of a populace as against the official language (for example, English in the Middle Ages), but now used to distinguish everyday language from institutional of official modes of expression. In the United States, the term is sometimes used especially to refer to African-American or ‘native’ people, marking a distinction between dominant or hegemonic cultures and minority or subordinate groups. See, for example, Houston Baker?s Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory) (Baker, 1984). Thomas McLaughlin has also employed the term as a call to recognize the specificity and heterogeneity of the philosophical frameworks and knowledges of non-elite Western (sub)cultures (e.g. the new age movement, or particular occupations), as in his Street Smarts and Critical Theory: Listening to the Vernacular (McLaughlin, 1996). Beyond linguistic expression, there is vernacular architecture – an architecture of the people – characterised by buildings that are customarily owner- or community-built, or whose style represents ‘low’ or ‘folk’ culture rather than institutionalised or ‘high’ architecture. In ‘developing’ communities the emphasis is on buildings that utilise available or traditional, rather than imported, resources and methods (Brunskill, 2000; Oliver, 1997).
Building on this history, then, the term ‘vernacular creativity’ describes not only the mode or aesthetic of ordinary, everyday cultural production, but also its source field in terms of political economy and social structures, and the non-institutional modes of its distribution. Therefore, vernacular creativity is to be understood as, firstly, a field of cultural practices that are conceptually aligned because of their embeddedness in the everyday and because of their ordinariness; and, secondly, fields that are sociologically aligned because they are practices that are indigenous to ‘ordinary’ people in specific contexts and not to artistic or creative professions (while bearing in mind the long history of flows between art, the professions, and the everyday).
For anyone interested in reading what my PhD is about in a bit more detail (or chasing up any of the references in the passage above), you can read the confirmation document in its entirety here (pdf). It’s not as precise and careful as I’d like, but it had to be done by the deadline, so consider it public alpha – (gentle) feedback and suggestions very welcome.