Glitter: A Methodology of Following the Material
by: Rebecca Coleman , May 15, 2019
by: Rebecca Coleman , May 15, 2019
‘To approach objects like stickers, Hello Kitty, and glitter solely in terms of their significations doesn’t tell us much about how they move girls or what happens affectively when they instead move boys or fail to move girls, what they do to bodies’ (Swindle 2011: 31).
‘Vital materialists will thus try to linger in those moments during which they find themselves fascinated by objects, taking them as clues to the material vitality that they share with them’ (Bennett 2010: 17).
Methodologies of ‘following the object’ have been significant in a range of social science work for the past three decades (see, for example, Appadurai 1986; Lash & Lury 2007; Knowles 2014). While coming from different disciplinary backgrounds and having different aims, what these approaches share is an attempt to trouble what Arjun Appadurai describes as the ‘powerful contemporary tendency … to regard the world of things as inert and mute, set in motion and animated, indeed knowable, only by persons and their words’ (1986: 4). For Appadurai, any attempt to correct or reverse this tendency is necessarily a methodological one, for he suggests that ‘even though from a theoretical point of view human actors encode things with significance, from a methodological point of view it is the things-in-motion that illuminate their human and social context’, (1985: 5, emphasis in the original). Indeed, he argues that ‘we have to follow the things themselves, for their meanings are inscribed in their forms, their uses, their trajectories’ (Appadurai 1986: 5).
In this short piece that aims to contribute to feminist new materialist methodologies and practice research, particularly in the social sciences, I focus on a recent argument by Jane Bennett that intersects with Appadurai’s approach in its understanding of things as having the capacity to ‘act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own’ (2010: viii). Furthermore, as Appadurai highlights the significance of a methodology of ‘follow[ing] the things themselves’, Bennett develops a methodology of ‘following the scent of a nonhuman, thingly power, the material agency of natural bodies and technological artefacts’:
Here I mean ‘to follow’ in the sense in which Jacques Derrida develops it in the context of his mediation on animals. Derrida points to the intimacy between being and following: to be (anything, anyone) is always to be following (something, someone), always to be in response to call from something, however nonhuman it may be’ (2010: xiii).
I take up and develop these insights into both the liveliness of things and that methodologies of following are a productive means of responding to this liveliness of things. I do this through following a specific ‘thing’: glitter, and outlining some indicative routes via which glitter might be followed, drawing attention to its material properties and the affects it elicits. Here, I understand both glitter and a methodology of following in a material rather than metaphorical sense; that is, the aim is to literally follow glitter, to see where it goes and what it does, methodologically, politically, affectively. I understand following glitter both in terms of a methodology that is responsive to the liveliness of objects and materials, and also as particularly appropriate to glitter as a material; a collection of tiny reflective or shiny pieces of plastic, or more recently biodegradable materials, one of its properties is its tendency to disperse, spread and scatter.
In following glitter in these ways, I also attempt to draw attention to the often overlooked participation of materials in the processes of research, in Barbara Bolt’s words, the ‘materiality of matter lies at the core of creative practice’ (2013: 5). Bolt notes that, nevertheless, ‘[t]he material facts of artistic practice appear so self-evident and integral to our understanding of art that it might seem unremarkable to frame them in terms of the material turn’ (2013: 5). While Bolt’s focus is on art, I take inspiration from it and see research as a creative practice. I consider both the integral role that materials play in research, and what happens when they take centre stage in reflections of research methodologies–a focus that is not typical in social science research although, as this volume demonstrates, is gaining traction. For Bolt, ‘materials’ refer to a wide range of ‘bodies that enable art to come into being–the material bodies of artists and theorists, the matter of the medium, the technologies of production and the immaterial bodies of knowledge that form discourse around art’ (2015: 7). In this paper, glitter is the primary material at stake. However, as I will show, this materiality connects, assembles and intra-acts (Barad 2007) with other materials, including furniture and floors, suitcases and bags, and human bodies, and sets off a series of affects including pleasure and enchantment, irritation and frustration.
One way to start to explicate my methodology of following the material of glitter is to locate its beginnings in two collaging workshops that I conducted with 13-14-year-old girls in the art room at a secondary school in south east London in July 2016. These workshops were part of a wider project where I’ve been attempting to develop methods for engaging futures (e.g. Coleman 2017). Drawing on previous feminist new materialist research with teenage girls that involved image-making (Coleman 2009), as well as experiments with academics and practitioners at different new materialist events that included collaging. In the workshops, the girls collaged imaginations of their futures (see Coleman in preparation). Collaging is an accessible and (usually) enjoyable method for working with materials and for exploring the relations between bodies, images and temporality. Different materials and temporalities may be assembled together on one page, and the practice is often familiar and unthreatening as it is common in childhood as well as in popular culture and art.
From a range of materials–magazines, paper, post-it notes, pens, crayons, stamps and ink, foam letters and other craft materials–in these workshops, glitter emerged as particularly significant.
It became a popular material as it was passed around the table. It moved from the collages themselves to human bodies and the classroom, as we and it became covered in it.
Most of this was accidental, but it was also sometimes deliberate.
Following the material of glitter in these workshops can be understood in terms of the ‘lingering’ that, in one of the epigraphs, Bennett (2010) identifies as key to vital materialism. The young women participating seemed to become enthused by it. I too became fascinated with glitter and its movement around the space of the classroom–and beyond. The glitter followed me. After the workshops on the bus to work with a large bag and a suitcase of materials and completed collages, I noticed that glitter clung to my clothes and body. When I reached into my bag to get a notebook out in a meeting with colleagues, I noticed that the book was also smeared in glitter. Transferring the materials and collages from the bag and suitcase into another bag in my office, I noticed the residue of glitter in the bag and suitcase; a feature the owner of the suitcase commented on upon its return, even after I had tried to clean it off. As a material, then, glitter literally gets everywhere. It sticks to that which it might and might not be intended to.
Taking into account this quality of glitter to get everywhere indicates that following the material can take many different routes; as Caroline Knowles puts it in setting out her methodology for following the global paths of flip-flops, ‘[a]t all points the trail splintered and moved off in many directions. I could only follow one of them. Thus, even in following a single object, there are unaccountable potential trails to take into account’ (2014: 16). Knowles’ comments here point to methodological decisions regarding how a material is followed along a particular route out of many potential ones. Traditionally, a sociological account would emphasise the human researcher as the sole or primary agent in making decisions. However, a new materialist approach emphasises not only the agency of humans but also of matter, materials and objects. That is, the material of glitter itself has agency–is alive, animated–and participates in methodological decision-making. As I, as a researcher, selected tubes of glitter to include in the range of materials for the girls to potentially work with–a selection process with its own history that perhaps predisposed me to glitter–the glitter selected me to notice and follow it (see also Despret 2004). It had a particular vibrancy that forced me to take notice of it.
In introducing her conception of vital materials, Bennett discusses how a range of items lying in a gutter–glove, pollen, rat, cap, stick–commanded attention in its own right, as existents in excess of their association with human meanings, habits, or projects’ (2010: 4). As she goes on to explain, being ‘struck’ by these items facilitated an understanding of their ‘thing-power’: ‘At the very least, it provoked affects in me’ (Bennett 2010: 4). In one way, Bennett’s approach here can be seen to reinforce the status of the human in that they produced affects ‘in her’. However, taking seriously her claim that the things are ‘in excess of’ their ties with humans–they have an existence beyond or in spite of humans–involves ‘a cultivated, patient, sensory attentiveness to nonhuman forces operating outside and inside the human body’ (Bennett 2010: xiv). In terms of methodological decision-making, materials play a role as well as the humans. The things are vibrant and alive. They are affective (at the least). Indeed, to return to the workshops, glitter emerged as a particularly significant material out of a range of other materials. It did this in part because of its capacity to engage and occupy the girls working in the classroom in a way that other materials did not. The affective relations between the girls and the glitter, then, are not uni-directional, working from the human to the material. As much as the girls chose the glitter, the glitter chose them.
That there is this affective relation between glitter and these girls is perhaps not surprising. Glitter has a particular purchase in mainstream girls’ culture. Mary Celeste Kearney, for example, argues that ‘sparkle is so ubiquitous in mainstream girls’ culture–and so absent in boys’ (2015: 263)–it vies with pink as the primary signifier of youthful femininity. Thus, girlhood’s visual landscape, presented in far more subdued ways just 10 years ago, is now dominated by sparkly brilliance’ (Kearney 2015: 263). Understood in these terms, glitter might be an engaging material because of its familiarity and its association with celebrity, glamour and wealth. Glitter sparkles. One way to ‘follow the material’ then, is to track the relationships between the specific workshops I conducted and the mainstream girls culture that Kearney points to. Indeed, other examples in this vein might include vagazzling–popularised by the American actor Jennifer Love Hewitt (2010) and the cast of the British reality television series, The Only Way is Essex (TOWIE).
However, it is not only in mainstream girls culture that glitter is vibrantly significant. Another way to follow the material of glitter is to consider its importance in alternative and protest cultures, and especially those concerned with LGBTQ rights (e.g. Cagle 2000; Galli 2016). In these cases the vibrancy of glitter is not so much enchanting and absorbing as it was for the girls in the workshops, as annoying and irritating. For example, glitter bombings of Republican politicians including candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gringrich in the 2012 US Presidential Election, and of ex-Labour MP George Galloway in late 2016 were designed to disrupt and exasperate. Romney pressed charges against a Colorado student who glitter bombed him in protest against his ‘general political philosophy’ (Coffman 2012).
After his encounter with a glitter bomb, Gingrich opined that ‘Glitter bombing is clearly an assault and should be treated as such. When someone reaches into a bag and throws something at you, how do you know if it is acid or something that stains permanently or something that can blind you? People have every right to their beliefs but no right to assault others’ (Izadi 2015). Galloway also framed his glitter bombing in terms of an ‘attack’ on him. He tweeted that:
Galloway went on to say that he ‘needed a good shower’ (@georgegalloway, 01.29, 23 November 2016) to rid himself of the material and feel better, while one of the reports of a glitter bombing of Romney describes how ‘a gay rights activist who said he was from the group ‘Glitterati’ threw a cup of glitter over the former Massachusetts governor. The glitter poured over his hair, stuck to his face and shimmered from his navy blazer’ (Izadi 2015).
Source: YouTube: Mitt Romney glitter bombing by US Army soldier Sam Richards, part of Occupy Minneapolis Glitterati protesters in Eagan, MN, 1st February 2012. Creative Commons license. Published by Occupy MNTV.
In proposing a feminist new materialist methodology of ‘following the material’, this short piece has pointed to the movement of glitter across different socio-cultural spaces: specific classrooms, bodies, mainstream girls’ culture, LGBTQ protests. These cases are clearly distinct and involve the generation of different affects: enchantment, irritation, anger. In following the material, though, what is constant in these diverse examples is the vibrancy of glitter–its ‘thing-power’. One of the implications of this methodological focus on glitter is that the emphasis is not so much on what glitter ‘is’ as what, as a material, it might do. As a vibrant material, glitter ‘does’. Indeed, to return to the epigraph from Monica Swindle, an approach to glitter that concentrates on signification ‘doesn’t tell us much’ about its affectivity, what it does to bodies and how bodies may be affected differently by it. In following glitter, specific workshops in which girls collaged imaginations of their futures, wider mainstream girls’ cultures and LGBTQ protests have been drawn together. This assemblage of humans and non-humans, activism and celebrity culture, identities and embodiments comes together through glitter. As with any assemblage, it is partial, temporary and changing.
The different examples I have discussed here, then, are only indicative of what glitter might do and where and how it might be followed. I’ve followed glitter in just a few ways. There are other places to follow it, including its movement to early-childhood art (Osgood 2019), bodies (e.g. make-up, clothes, bikinis, vagazelling, vagina glitter bombs, see Coleman in preparation), consumer culture (e.g. the Ship Your Enemies Glitter website, among others) and the wider environment (e.g. seas, fish, landfill, see e.g. Gabbatiss 2017; Parker 2017; Osgood 2019). Other assemblages are also possible, indeed probable. Following glitter to these and other places necessitates the attempt to ‘linger in’ the vitality of its materiality and affects, asking questions such as: What does it do in these places? What affects does it elicit? What kinds of bodies, spaces, naturecultures does it assemble with and help to constitute?
These questions emerge from a methodology of following the material; that is from both taking seriously a mundane and ubiquitous material such as glitter and noticing where it goes, where it gains traction, where and how it generates affects, and what these are and do. The methodology of following briefly sketched here, then, aims both to demonstrate the productiveness of feminist new materialist approaches to social science methodologies, and to flesh out a potential way in which a methodology of literally following a material might open up feminist new materialists research.
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