Category Archives: Vernacular Theory

Vital Vernacular, Say What?

Let it be known that I was deliberate in naming this site. Sure, it’s got some nifty alliteration, and you might even say “fancy” word choice. But what does it really mean?

Let’s begin with the word “vital.” In a medical sense, vital refers to one of the many bodily functions that keep us alive and well, as when the doctor says, “your vitals are looking good.” The term vital is also used to describe anything that is critical, essential, and especially important.

Certainly, the vital or “vitality” I’m talking about relates to the medical definition, and should be considered important. However, the vital mentioned here is more in tune with an inexorable zest for life, a desire to tackle the day, and the unshakeable feeling of being awake and truly alive. This vital speaks to writer and mythologist, Joseph Campbell’s theory that beyond finding meaning in life, we seek to feel alive; that is, we desire to feel “vital.”

Example of Illich’s “convivial” tools

What about that other peculiar word, “vernacular?” Most of us look at the word and immediately think of regional dialects and patterns of speech, or of domestic, functional architecture. Yet here, I’m using vernacular in its original sense, a meaning that philosopher and priest, Ivan Illich reminded us about more than 30 years ago. Here, vernacular refers to those domestic, homemade, homespun, non-commodity and off-market human activities that make use of common resources to construct vibrant, self-determined, convivial communities.

Vernacular activities happen every day and are all around us. Our neighbor might brew her own beer and share the products of her work as gifts to friends and family; our friend might keep a garden for use in his kitchen, and invite neighbors to share in the surplus of the harvest; our colleague might knit afghans, scarves, and sweaters for family members living in the Northeast in preparation of the inevitable cold that ushers in each year.

I’m aware that all of these activities could be dismissed as mere hobby. However, from my experience, engaging in these domestic, vernacular activities is something that’s gratifying in an of itself.  No need to spend a lot of money to experience this type of gratification.  Not only that, many of these activities directly satisfy basic needs like thirst, hunger, and social bonding.

By the looks of things, we spend a great deal of time and money consuming mass-produced commodities and services rendered by credentialed specialists.  Yet in this era of gross inequality, it’s clear that not everyone has equal access to these goods and services.  Nor will they ever.

Vernacular activity, on the other hand, is open to all who are willing and able to do and make.  It asks us not what institutions and governments can do for us, but what we can do for ourselves and important others.  In this way, vernacular activity beckons us to attune to those customs and traditions that make up thriving human and nonhuman communities.


Pin It