The differing roots and uses of the term “vernacular” are fascinating to me. Taken from the Latin vernaculus, the OED traces the original meaning from the seventeenth century as pertaining to the “domestic, native, indigenous.” In the mid-nineteenth century, it was applied in opposition to the monumental in a curious definition:
6. Of arts, or features of these: Native or peculiar to a particular country or locality. spec. in vernacular architecture, architecture concerned with ordinary domestic and functional buildings rather than the essentially monumental.
The differentiation doesn’t hold up well under stress. Blowing up mountains seems fairly indigenous to South Dakota. The crowds that come participate in their own sort of tourist vernacular: they photograph these things. The more monumental something is, the more we feel authorized and perhaps even compelled to photograph it. In short, such sites create a tourist “vernacular.” The terms are slippery at best, but those who undertake these pilgrimages to the middle of nowhere are theoroi bringing back the “evidence” of witnessing in the form of souvenirs, and in snapshots which establish their position within the scene. Thus, vernacular architecture (the commonplace) is unsuited in fulfilling the memorial function—to create a sense of shared (domestic or vernacular) memory, witnesses rely on the monumental.
Krista directed me to Shiny, Pointy, and Tall. It seems that I’m not the only one who is struck by how some objects, like the Crazy Horse Monument, drive people to photograph them. This monument exists primarily in the minds of the spectators; there isn’t much there. But with enough props, and enough imagination, you can see that horse riding off into the sunset. It’s all in how you frame it.
*In an odd coincidence, I notice that the SPE Mid Atlantic Conference is themed as “Vernacular Spectacular”. I wish I were closer to Philadelphia, John Waters is the keynote and I’d love to go!