‘Geographies of material culture’: 2020’s online module

Dear followthethings.com shoppers

Due to imagined popular demand, we’re posting this year’s revamped ‘module behind the website’ – Geographies of Material Culture at the University of Exeter – week by week between now and the end of the year.

Why? Because we’ve had to totally redesign this longstanding beast for online pedagogical purposes this summer. The in-person module had virtually no lectures, lots of group table-work and meetings, lots of office hour queues, and was a virus-spreading liability.

The module is organised around 10 provocative ‘follow the thing’ films, short and long, each with a newly published, or updated, followthethings.com page documenting its making, discussion and impacts. Where previously, we have tasked our students with researching new pages, this year’s students are analysing them, looking for patterns, lessons from and for ‘follow the thing’ trade justice filmmakers to follow.

What we will be publishing here each week are the ‘asynchronous’ elements of the module we’re running this term at the University of Exeter: the set work that it’s 80 students are getting through each week to prep for a weekly, live, ‘synchronous’ Zoom session (which are just between us, thanks!). These posts will be published when our students are done with them You’ll be one week behind.

We hope you like what we’re up, how we’re doing this digitally. There are pluses and minuses, and being able to share this new approach to our work is – we hope – one of the former!

We start today with the module outline. Week 1’s post will follow later today.

Shop safe everyone

Ian et al x


Module questions

Who makes our stuff? How are our lives interconnected, intertwined with factory, farm and other supply chain workers around the world? What responsibilities do we have for the pay and working conditions of the people who make things for us? What responsibilities do other people have? What happens when filmmakers show us these connections and provoke these conversations? What impacts can ‘follow the thing’ films and activism have on us – its audiences – its participants, corporations, and policy-makers? How are connections, ethics and responsibilities conveyed, how to they ‘hit home’ and how are they deflected? How does this drama unfold in offline and online worlds? What happens to us when we watch and read about them?

Connection with research

This module is part of an ongoing ‘follow the things’ research project. This began in the 1990s with my PhD research on tropical fruit that was, at the time, the latest thing to hit UK supermarkets.

Watch this short film to get a sense of this project’s origins and how its teaching and research come together.

The first time I referred to this research as a ‘follow the thing’ project was in this article. If you have some time before the start of term, please read it.

  • Cook et al, I. (2004) Follow the thing: papaya. Antipode, 36(4), 642-664 [read here]

This is still quite an oddly written article. Rather than being inspired by other journal articles, it was inspired by experiments in ‘follow the thing’ art and filmmaking. These more richly conveyed the kinds of connective, relational, and bitty stories in my notebooks than anything I had read. I wanted this ‘filmic writing’ to leave readers thinking about what I had written long after they had finished that essay or sat that exam!

Then, as ‘follow the thing’ film-making, art, activism and journalism mushroomed in the following years, I turned my research attention to those films, that art work, and related work to piece together and study the ‘follow the thing’ genre as a whole. And to ask of it all of the questions listed above.

The research was published though a piece of art-activism itself: the spoof shopping website followthethings.com. It’s the module’s textbook and ‘mothership’. You will get to know it extremely well this term!

The story of the module

This module has been running more or less as long as many of you have been alive! It was first taught at the University of Birmingham in 1999, where it ran every year until 2006. In 2007, I moved to Exeter and have taught it here every year (with one exception) since then. It changes every time.

The module and the followthethings.com website are very closely related. More or less every page on the website began as a research task that I gave to a small group of students taking the module. All are credited as authors.

2019 saw the beginning of the end of this research stage of the ‘follow the things’ project, and the start of its new analysis stage whose aim is to find the patterns in this genre of work. This analysis will shape the writing of a Handbook of follow the things activism, with lots of short chapters grouped together in sections that outline the genre’s Examples, Intentions, Tactics, Responses and Impacts.

Sample ‘Example’ page from the ‘follow the things’ handbook, with ‘Intentions’, ‘Tactics’, ‘Responses’ and ‘Impacts listed under ‘Ingredients’ in the left hand column. Each of these ingredients will have its own two page spread too.

I’m writing this book for people who make this kind of work, to help them to learn lessons from what’s been made before, and to help them to create new work that furthers the cause of ethical trade and/or trade justice. The module, the website and the book are not only about this activism, they are this activism.

New for 2020-2021!

This year’s Geographies of Material Culture module has been totally revamped to go with this flow, and with the flow of the digital curriculum that’s become necessary in these freaky Coronavirus times.

Its teaching and learning will be based around 10 Examples of ‘follow the things’ activism – all of which are films or related to films – and their followthethings.com pages.

Its coursework will encourage you critically examine relations between the Intentions, Tactics, Responses and Impacts within and across these 10 examples, and related followthethings.com pages.

Week by week

The films that we’ll be watching and reading about this term have been chosen to take us deeper and deeper into the arguments we need to understand to answer the module’s questions about ethical trade, trade justice and our potentials to challenge and shape how the international economy works. Here’s how I’m hoping that they will do this, and where the coursework fits in.

Term 1:

Week 1: Introduction

We start the module with a very short film called Handprint that encourages consumers to think about the hidden workforce that helps them to get dressed every day.

+ formative coursework set
Week 2: Commodity Fetishism

Next we examine the ways in which corporations hide the work that goes into making the things we buy from them. The advert we study is a notorious and very recent example of a ‘Woke-washing’: Nike’s 30th Anniversary ‘Just Do It’ ad featuring Colin Kaepernick.

+ Essay 1 set
Week 3: Labour

What’s being hidden by the fetishism of commodities? The labour that goes into making them. This week’s work is based on our first full-length documentary film – Maquilapolis – which provides a vivid sense of the lives, labour and agency of women making TVs and other goods in a ‘city of factories’ in Mexico.

Week 4: Empathy

What happens when you meet someone who has made (or grown) something that is important to you? This week’s work is based on a TV documentary called Jamelia: whose hair is it anyway? which follows the British singer as she travels the world to find the woman whose hair she wore as an extension on a TV programme.

+ formative coursework deadline*
Week 5: Responsibility

This week’s film – The True Cost – brings together the lives of ‘Tier 1’ workers (who create raw materials), ‘Tier 2’ workers (who make finished goods), fashion designers, retailers and consumers. It questions who is responsible for social and environmental exploitation in garment supply chains. Hint: it’s not (only) the ‘guilty consumer’…

Week 6: reading week
Week 7: Class action

What if the harms done to supply chain workers’ health were illegal, and corporations could be sued for damages? This week’s film – Bananas!* – follows a court case in Los Angeles in which South American banana plantation workers sued Dole Foods for forcing them to use a pesticide that was known to make men impotent.

+ Essay 1 deadline*
Week 8: Corporate fightback

Who can corporations call when filmmakers threaten to undermine their carefully constructed corporate images by following their things? Why not hire a specialist public relation company to mount a campaign to discredit their work? That’s what Dole did with Bananas!* So this week we’ll be watching its sequel, Big Boys Gone Bananas.

+ Essay 2 set
Week 9: Union Organising

Many films featuring supply chain workers in the Global South paint them as passive victims of capitalist forces and appeal to wealthy / western audiences to ‘do something’ to help. But what if films focused on supply chain workers as active, powerful agents who can shape their own futures? This week’s film – Udita! – follows Bangladeshi garment workers as they unionise in the wake of the Rana Plaza factory collapse.

Week 10: Labour Activism

This week continues the theme of worker organising in the Global South but shifts from film to music. We’ll listen to the activist work done by a group of former garment workers in Cambodia who became members of the Messenger Band. They write and perform songs based on interviews with garment and sex workers to spread the news of their struggles and rights through pop culture, performance and education.

Week 11: Waste

Our final film turns around and faces in the other direction: away from the origins of our things and towards their destinations, as waste. Here, we’ll watch a film called Plastic China which focuses on the lives of people who process the plastic waste we throw into our green bins. How, by whom and where is this recycled? And what can a film about this do?

Week 12: Conclusion

This is the week where we try to tie the threads together from each week’s work to help you to make some more detailed plans about Essay 2 which you can write over the holidays.


COVID disclaimer: all commitments and dates listed above assume that I don’t get sick this term.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Week 1: Handprint. | the back office

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