The Feminist Killjoy Handbook is out in the world! Bringing it out into the world has taken time – and my blog has been quiet during that time. I am glad to share its arrival here. Please do order the book from independent bookstores, many of whom have got behind the handbook: you can find a list here. If you do read the book, share a picture on twitter (using the hashtag #wearefeministkilljoys). It means so much to me to know the handbook is in your hands.
We launched the book at an event in Rich Mix, London, on Thursday, March 2nd 2023. It was electrifying and emotional to be with so many people – killjoys, colleagues, affect aliens, trouble makers, friends. Each of us can be all of the above! And we filled the room with our killjoy solidarity. And, it gave me a chance to think more about what I mean by killjoy solidarity. Killjoy solidarity is how I sign my letters, in Killjoy Solidarity, Sara, kiss, kiss. But it means much more than a way of signing or signing off. For me, killjoy solidarity is the solidarity we express in the face of what we come up against. In the handbook I offer what I call killjoy truths, or hard worn wisdoms, what we know because of what keeps coming up. Let me share the last truth offered in the book, which probably best explains what I mean by killjoy solidarity.
Killjoy Truth: The More We Come up Against, the More We Need More.
The more we need more. Sometimes, being feminist killjoy, can feel like coming up against it, the very world you oppose. Killing joy, naming the problem, becoming the problem, can make us feel alone, shattered, scared. I think of a student who wrote to me from a very painful place, giving me a trigger warning for the content she was to share. At the end of her letter, she said “My killjoy shoulder is next to yours and we are a crowd. I cannot see it at the moment, but I know it’s there.’ I love the idea of a killjoy shoulder, becoming feminist killjoys as how we lean on each other.
We cannot always see a killjoy crowd. But we know it’s there. And we are here.
That’s one reason I wrote The Feminist Killjoy Handbook, to say, we are here. Although I have written about feminist killjoys before, the handbook is first book I gave them of their own. I made their book a handbook, because I think of it as a hand, a helping hand, an outstretched hand, perhaps also a killjoy shoulder, or a handle, how we hold on to something. A history can be a handle. It can help to know that where we are, others have been. When we travel with feminist killjoys, going where they have been, feminist killjoys become our companion. We need this companionship.
Killing joy can take so much out of us, the energy and time required to name the problem, let alone to become one. My emphasis in the handbook is also on what killing joy can give back to us. Whilst being a feminist killjoy can be messy, and confusing, it can also lead to moments of clarity and illumination, sharpening our edges, our sense of the point, of purpose. In addition to killjoy truths (those hard worn wisdoms), I offer killjoy equations (what is revealing and quirky about our knowledge) killjoy commitments (the wills and won’ts of being a feminist killjoy) and killjoy maxims (the dos and don’ts). In the second chapter, I also offer some killjoy survival tips; my first tip to surviving as a feminist killjoy is to become one.
To become a feminist killjoy is to get in the way of happiness or just get in the way. We killjoy because we speak back, because we use words like sexism or transphobia or ableism or racism or homophobia to describe our experience, because we refuse to polish ourselves, to cover over the injustices with a smile. We don’t even have to say anything to killjoy. Some of us, black people and people of colour, can killjoy just by entering the room because our bodies are reminders of histories that get in the way of the occupation of space. We can killjoy because of how we mourn, or who we do not mourn, or who we do mourn. We can killjoy because of what we will not celebrate; national holidays that mark colonial conquest or the birth of a monarch, for instance. We can killjoy become we refuse to laugh at jokes designed to cause offense. We can killjoy by asking to be addressed by the right pronouns or by correcting people if they use the wrong ones. We can killjoy by asking to change a room because the room they booked is not accessible, again.
Killjoy Truth: We have to Keep Saying It Because They Keep Doing It
Note that negativity often derives from a judgement: as if we are only doing something or saying something or being something to cause unhappiness or to make things more difficult for others. Killing joy becomes a world making project when we refuse to be redirected from an action by that judgement. We make a commitment: if saying what we say, doing what we do, being who we are, causes unhappiness, that is what we are willing to cause.
Killjoy Commitment: I am willing to cause unhappiness.
But it can be hard, precisely because the negativity of a judgment sticks to us, because eyes start rolling before we even say anything or do anything as if to say, she would say that.
Killjoy Equation: Rolling Eyes = Feminist Pedagogy
She would say that; we did say that.
Even if we say it, killjoy solidarity can be hard to do. I learnt so much about killjoy solidarity by talking to those who did not receive it. I am thinking of the conversations I had with students and early career lecturers who, having made complaints about sexual harassment by academics, did not receive solidarity they expected from other feminists, often senior feminists. Why? It seemed that those senior feminists did not want to know about something that would be inconvenient for them, which would get in the way of their work or compromise their investments in persons, institutions or projects.
Killjoy Commitment: I am willing to be inconvenienced.
It is not so much that killjoys threaten other people’s investments in persons, institutions, or projects. We become killjoys because we threaten other people’s investments in persons, institutions or projects. And “other people” can include other feminists. And “other people” can include ourselves. Killjoy solidarity can also be the work we have to do in order to be able to hear another person’s killjoy story. We need to be prepared for our own joy to be killed, our progression slowed, if that is what it takes.
So yes, the negativity of the judgement can stick to us. It can slow us down, make our lives more difficult.
I think also of the negativity of words such as queer, which have historically been used as insults, and that are full of vitality and energy because of that. Reclaiming the feminist killjoy is a queer project. A killjoy party, a queer party, is a protest. I wanted to have a party, also a protest, to launch the book because of how many of us are under attack, our claims to personhood dismissed as “identity politics,” our critiques as “cancel culture,” our lives treated not only as light and whimsical, lifestyles, but as endangering others, as recruiting them. These attacks, which are relentless, designed to crush spirits, are directed especially to trans people right now. I express my killjoy solidarity to you, today and every day. It can be exhausting having to fight for existence.
Killjoy Truth: When you have to fight for existence, fighting can become an existence.
And so, we need each other. We need to become each other’s resources. Feminism can or should be such a resource. But what goes under the name of feminism, at least in the UK right now is anti-queer as well as anti-trans, willing to use categories such as sex or nature or natal to exclude some of us, categories that many of us have long critiqued. We say no to this. That no is louder when we say it together. A book can be a no to this. We keep writing, keeping fighting, knowing that we are sending our work out into the hostile environment that we critique.
We say no even when we know it is hard to get through.
We say no together, to make room for each other.
I am glad to be embarking now on a book tour, which we are calling Feminist Killjoys on Tour (you can find some of the events listed here).
If I am near you, come by and let us share some #killjoy solidarity. I want to say thanks, too. I left my post, my profession, my life really, back in 2016. I am profoundly grateful to all of the readers who have stayed with me because you have made it possible to dedicate my time to writing, to become a killjoy writer.
For me #killjoy solidarity is also how we thank each other for what we help make possible for each other.
I think of the feminist killjoy as a shared resource for living strangerwise. Strangerwise, is an odd world for an old wisdom, the wisdom of strangers, those who in being estranged from worlds, notice them, those who in being estranged worlds, remake them.
In fighting for room, we make something for ourselves.
Killjoy Truth: To make something is to make it possible.
Possibility can still be a fight because we have to dismantle the systems that make so much, even so many, impossible. Still, this truth is closest to what I call killjoy joy. Killjoy joy is how it feels to be involved together in crafting different worlds. We need joy to survive killing joy. We find joy in killing joy. I think of all the letters sent to me by feminist killjoys, how we reached each other. I think of what I have learnt from picking the figure of the feminist killjoy up all those years ago, and putting her to work. When I think these thoughts, I feel killjoy joy. Perhaps we find killjoy joy in resistance, killjoy joy in combining our forces, killjoy joy in experimenting with life, opening up how to be, who to be, through each other, with each other. Killjoy joy is its own special kind of joy.
A lifework: the entire or principal activity over a person’s lifetime or career. To be a feminist is to make feminism your lifework. I am deeply indebted to bell hooks for teaching me this – and so much else, besides. I write this post in dedication to bell.
When bell hooks died, I couldn’t bring myself to write about her, what her work meant to me, to the students I have taught over many years, to those with whom I share a political project and community. I read what others wrote, grateful that for some of us grief does not take away the capacity for description. For me, it takes time for words to come, to get to a point when I can say something about losing someone. You can lose someone with meeting them. Or, you can meet someone through what they gave to the world.
Words are coming out because of what you gave to the world. In Talking Back: Thinking Feminism, Thinking Black, hooks wrote of writing as “a way to capture speech, to hold on to it, keep it close. And so, I wrote down bits and pieces of conversations, confessing in cheap diaries that soon fell apart from too much handling, expressing the intensity of my sorrow, the anguish of speech, for I was always saying the wrong thing, asking the wrong questions. I could not confine my speech to the necessary corners and concerns of life. I hid these writings under my bed, in pillow stuffings, among faded underwear” (1988, 6-7). In writing, by writing, bell hooks refuses to be confined. She spreads her words, herself, all over the place.
All that intensity, it goes somewhere. The pages fall apart from “too much handling.” The paper is cheap, the material she has available. She makes do; she gets through. The pages wear out because of how they matter. To write is how she spills out, spills over, the intensity of sorrow, filling it up, stuffing it where she can, where she is, the places she has, under the bed, in the pillow cases, among her underwear, under, in, among; hidden with delicates, her other things. In putting her writing there, her thoughts and feelings tumbling out, what she hears, “bits and pieces of conversations,” she exceeds the space she has been given, the concerns she is supposed to have, allowed to have, the corners, the edges of the room.
We are asking the wrong questions when we question a world that gives us such little room.
There is much beauty in bell hooks’s writing about writing, in her description of what is wearing about the work, about the words. And, there is pain, too.
hooks writes of how you can be caught out by others who think they have found something out about you by finding your words. She mentions how her sisters would find her writing and end up “poking fun” at her (7). She describes leaving her writing out as like putting out “newly cleaned laundry out in the air for everyone to see” (7). Note she does not talk about dirty laundry, that expression often used for the public disclosure of secrets. This is cleaned laundry; it is hanging out there because of labour that has already been undertaken. When writing is labouring, it is what we do to get stuff out there, to get ourselves out there. There is still exposure of something, of someone, in the action of airing, making your interior world available for others to see.
To spread yourself out can be to go back in time, to pull yourself out by pulling on those who came before. hooks describes how as a Black girl she had to stand her ground, defy parental authority, by speaking back. She also describes how she claimed her writer-identity, “One of the many reasons I chose to write under the pseudonym bell hooks, a family name (mother to Sarah Oldham, grandmother to Rosa Bell Oldham, great-grandmother to me” (9). Penning your own name can be how you claim a Black feminist inheritance. Defiant speech, too. Elsewhere, hooks describes how her grandmother was “known for her snappy and bold tongue” (1996, 152). Writing can be writing back but also writing from, to be snappy as to recover a history.
In Talking Back, hooks also writes about memory, sharing a memory of how her mother remembered, “I remembered my mother’s hope chest with its wonderful odour of cedar and thought about her taking the most precious items and placing them there for safe keeping. Certain memories were for me a similar treasure. I want to place them somewhere for safe keeping” (158). Smell can travel through time; we remember something by smelling it. And an object can hold our memories, keep them for us, so we can return to them. For hooks, memories are not always clear or even true. She tells us she remembers “a wagon that my brother and I shared as a child” (158). But then she tells us her mother says, “there had never been any wagon. That we had shared a red wheelbarrow.”
A wagon, a red wheelbarrow. The question isn’t which one was it. Objects acquire different colours and shapes, depending. And writing too; how objects acquire different colours and shapes, depending. You might be a red wheel barrow or a wagon. The question isn’t which one. Sometimes, in loosening our hold on things, also ourselves, we bring them to life. In a conversation with Gloria Steinem, bell hooks describes how she is surrounded by her own precious objects, feminist objects. They are the first things she sees when she wakes up. She says “the objects in my life call out to me.” And then she says she has “Audre Lorde’s ‘Litany for Survival’ facing me when I get out of bed; I have so many beautiful images of women face me as I go about my day”.
Feminism becomes how you create your own horizon, how you surround yourself with images that reflect back to you something precious and true about the live you are living or that life you have lived.
A story of survival, of persistence, also love.
Writing, too, hooks shows us, can be how we surround ourselves.
We write ourselves into existence. We write, in company. And we write back against a world that in one way or another makes it hard for us to exist on our own terms. When I think of what it takes to write back, who it takes, I think of how many came before us who laid out paths we could follow. And I think of you. It can be good hap to find you there. Sometimes, it takes my breath away when I think of how easily we can miss each other.
We write because we are missing something. We write to help us find each other. In reflecting back on her life-saving book Feminism is For Everybody, bell hooks tells us how her commitment to feminism grew over a lifetime. The preface to the second edition begins, “Engaged with feminist theory and practice for more than forty years, I am proud to testify that each year of my life my commitment to feminist movement, to challenging and changing patriarchy has become more intense” (vii). I like how you didn’t write “the feminist movement,” but “feminist movement.” Without the “the,” we can hear the movement. I think of the encouragement you give us in sharing this testimony. You teach me that we can find a way through the violence of this world by sustaining our commitment to changing it. To sustain – even intensify – our commitments to feminism is a political achievement given that what we try to challenge and to change, others defend, others who have the resources to turn their defence into an instruction. To express your feminist commitments has life implications – you end up at odds with so much and so many. You also taught me that to be “at odds” is not simply about what is painful and difficult – it is also an opening, an invitation even. That is how you defined queer after all, “being at odds.” What might seem like the negative task of critique, naming what we oppose, showing how violence is implicated in the most cherished of cultural forms, is thus an affirmative task of creating room so that we can live our lives in another way.
In telling this story of her lifelong commitment to feminism as a politics of changing the world, bell hooks addresses us, her audience. She notes that her books were “rarely reviewed,” but still “found an audience.” She describes how she is “awed” that her work “still finds readers, still educates for critical consciousness” (viii). When feminist books are not reviewed by the newspapers with wide circulation or displayed in the front of the bookshops because they are too dissident, how do we find them? hooks suggests her own books were found by “word of mouth” and through “course adoptions.” I found bell hooks through the latter. Her work was assigned in a class I took in 1992 (the teacher who assigned bell hooks was Chris Weedon, thank you Chris for that assignment). Any so by word of mouth or by being taught in feminist classrooms, bell hooks’ books found their readers and saved our lives.
How we find bell hooks is not unrelated to what she has to teach us. Finding feminism is not about following the conventional paths that lead to reward and recognition. Your definition of feminism is “the movement to end sexism, sexual exploitation and sexual oppression” (2000, 33). From this definition, we learn so much. Feminism is necessary because of what has not ended: sexism, sexual exploitation, and sexual oppression. And for hooks, “sexism, sexual exploitation and sexual oppression” cannot be separated from white supremacy and capitalism. That is why, you keep naming it, what you oppose. In Outlaw Culture, hooks made use of the term “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” an impressive eighteen times! No wonder you have given me so much killjoy inspiration! You named it, nailed it, every time!
There can be costs to nailing it. I think again of hooks awe that her books found their readers. There is a story we can glimpse here of what bell hooks did not do to “find” her audience. In a public dialogue with Marci Blackman, Shola Lynch and Janet Mock at the New School in 2019, hooks says, “I say to my students: Decolonize. But there’s also that price for decolonization. You’re not gonna have the wealth. You’re not gonna be getting your Genius award funded by the militaristic, imperialist MacArthur people.” hooks clarifies that she is not speaking against those individuals who accept these awards but rather pointing to how to decolonise our dependency is to create our own standards for living. To receive funding or prizes or fellowships from organisations whose power derives from the system you critique is to accept a limitation. Even if you think of yourself as working the system it can be hard not to end up working for the system.
You taught me that to change the system we have to stop it from working. I think of that price, the price we pay for the work we do.
Feminism too can end up being the avoidance of that price. We have to find another way through feminism. I think of how bell hooks’s critiques of white feminism gave us so many tools, for instance, her critique of Betty Friedan’s solution to the unhappiness of the housewife, the “problem that has no name” (except of course, you named it). You write, “She did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions” (2000, 1–2). And you taught me how to “do feminist theory” by reflecting on what happens when we “do feminism.” You write, “a group of white feminist activists who do not know one another may be present at a meeting to discuss feminist theory. They may feel they are bonded on the basis of shared womanhood, but the atmosphere will noticeably change when a woman of colour enters the room. The white women will become tense, no longer relaxed, no longer celebratory” (2000, 56). In this description there is so much insight into everything. A woman of colour just has to enter the room for the atmosphere becomes tense. Atmospheres – they seem intangible mostly. But when you become the cause of tension, an atmosphere can be experienced as a wall. The woman of colour comes to be felt as apart from the group, getting in the way of a presumably organic solidarity.
There are many ways we can be removed from the conversation. That removal creates a feeling of unity. That some feminist spaces are experienced as more unified might be a measure of how many are missing from them. You taught me to notice who is missing, which is how we become killjoys, getting in the way of the occupation of space.
You taught me to be willing to get in the way.
You taught me to teach.
Teaching is how we learn, but also how we do the work of transformation. You write of teaching as how we model social change, and as “the practice of freedom…that enables us to live life fully and freely” (1988, 72). I always taught your work. I taught your work in every year I taught, watching students be transformed by your work. We often read your article, “Eating the Other.” I had drawn upon it in one of my first books, Strange Encounters, in an oddly titled chapter, “Going Strange, Going Native.” This is your description, “The commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (1992, 21). Ethnicity becomes spice is perhaps one of the most perfect descriptions of how racism operates in consumer culture! You taught me in this piece how to theorise whiteness, how it becomes not only absence but neutral, a dull dish, how people of colour become spice, adding something, flavour even, added on, that goes on.
I kept being taught by you.
Did I tell you that?
I did not communicate directly with bell hooks. I did send bell hooks a message once by writing to her publishers South End in 2009. I wrote, “I know you have published works by one of our contemporary scholars and activists whom I most admire: bell hooks. I myself am a feminist of color working in and from the British and Australian context. I have been very influenced by bell hooks’ work, especially in my book Strange Encounters (2000), which drew on her wonderful critique of the exoticizing of otherness. It has been such a privilege and pleasure to work with her work.” They told me they passed this letter on to you, but I don’t know for sure if they did. And I wished I had written to you again. But then I think there was a sense in communicating to you through writing not addressed to you but to “feminist movement.”
We are that movement.
It was when I wroteLiving a Feminist Life that I felt the fullness of my debt to you. That book had your handprints all over it, signs of what I could do because of what you had laboured to show, what you had left out for us to see. I remember putting your name on the top of the list of scholars who I would love to endorse that book never imagining you might say yes. When I first saw your words about my work I almost fell out of my chair. I was profoundly moved to know that you had read my work let alone that you had endorsed it.
And then my publisher put a sentence from you on the front of the book!
It said, “everyone should read this book.”
I still feel overwhelmed when I see the cover of Living a Feminist Life. Because I see it and I see your name. I see it and I see you. I am about to send out another book, The Feminist Killjoy Handbook, also addressed to feminist movement. You appear all over this book, in the chapter on surviving as a killjoy, the feminist killjoy as poet, the feminist killjoy as activist. I dedicate that last chapter to you.
There are many ways we communicate in writing our love for the world we are bold enough to want for each other.
Thank you bell, for what you helped me to see.
To be bold enough to want.
In killjoy solidarity,
hooks, bell (2014). Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Second Edition. London: Pluto Press.
hooks, bell (2006). Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. New York: Routledge.
hooks, bell (2000). Feminist Theory: from Margin to Centre. London: Pluto Press.
hooks, bell (1996). “Inspired Eccentricity: Sarah and Gus Oldham” in Sharon Sloan Fiffer and Steve Fiffer (eds), Family: American Writers Remember Their Own (ed.), New York: Vintage Books.
hooks, bell (1992). Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press.
hooks, bell (1988). Talking Back: Thinking Feminism, Thinking Black. Boston: South End Press.
I am often asked how my arguments about complaint activism relate to the projects of transformative and restorative justice as well as abolitionist feminism. In an answer to one such question, I spoke of my caution in using some of these terms to describe some of this work because I had heard of how they can be misused in institutional settings. But I also said that complaint activism “has much more kinship with these other projects including abolitionist projects than it might appear at first” because you are thinking about “how to have accountability, how to deprive people of institutional power, and thus how to build relationships that are about enabling some people to get into, and stay in, institutions that would otherwise remain inaccessible.” I also noted that even if I did not use these terms, the “kinship” between the projects would become obvious “further along the line.”
In this post, I want to go a little further along that line by considering the figure of the complainer as carceral feminist. In my conclusion, I will turn to the important new book Abolition. Feminism. Now, by Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Erica R. Meiners and Beth E. Richie to explore the kinship between abolitionist feminism as they describe it and the work of complaint collectives formed to get complaints about harassment and bullying through the systems designed to stop them.
Let me begin with my own implication. I have been called a carceral feminist because of the support I gave to students who made a collective complaint about sexual harassment and (probably more importantly) because I gave that support inpublic. During the enquires into sexual harassment that led me to resign, and after I resigned, I was sent many letters and messages, overheard many conversations on social media and in person, and read public posts calling me a carceral feminist. Sometimes the accusation came with a psychological profile: that I envied the professors who were the objects of complaint, that I wanted what they had, their students, their centre, for myself. In one public post, I was described as an all-powerful, punishing and vindictive person who had singlehandedly tried to destroy another professor’s professional and personal life. So, I recognize the figure of the complainer as carceral feminist from being assigned her. And, I know how it feels to be called something you oppose because of how you oppose something.
As soon as I began the research, I found that I had company. So many people I spoke to who made or supported a formal complaint (especially when the complaints were about sexual harassment or sexual misconduct by academics) had been called carceral feminists. Why? Making a formal complaint at a university is not the same thing as calling the police. It is not about sending people to prison. So why does this figure appear when formal complaints are being made? What is she doing?
Let’s assume in the first instance that formal complaints are treated as carceral because they can lead to an investigative and disciplinary process, and, at least potentially, to a penalty being enforced by an authority. The figure of the complainer as a carceral feminist might be exercised to imply that the point of a complaint is punishment or penalty. In her brilliant book We do this ‘Til we Free us, Mariame Kaba differentiates punishment from consequences. For Kaba, punishment means “inflicting cruelty and suffering on people.” In contrast, “Powerful people stepping down from their jobs are consequences, not punishment. Why? Because we should have boundaries. And because the shit you did was wrong and you having power is a privilege. That means we can take that away from you. You don’t have power anymore.”
Kaba’s work is an invitation to ask hard questions about the nature of institutional power. You have institutional power when the position you are given by an institution gives you power over others. In the sixth chapter of Complaint! I consider institutional power in terms of who “holds the door” to the institution, who can determine not only who gets into the institution, but who progresses through it. Those who abuse power often represent themselves as generous, as willing and able to open the door for others. In a gift is lodged a threat to shut the door on anyone who will not do what they want them to do.
How, then, do we deprive someone of institutional power? It is precisely because some people have that power that it is hard to deprive them of it. If to deprive someone of institutional power is an institutional outcome, then to deprive someone of institutional power has to involve the institution in some way; it is a commitment to an institutional process of some kind. But having institutional power also means you can mobilize the institution’s own resources to stop those who are trying to stop you from abusing that power. Those who “hold the door” to the institution can and do shut that door on those who complain.
This is why to complain about an abuse of power is to learn about power: complaint as feminist pedagogy.
I want to stress at the outset that most people I spoke to did not want to punish the person or persons they were complaining about and if anything explained their reluctance to complain as concern about what the consequences would be for those they were complaining about. Why complain, then? Most people I spoke to complained about conduct for the simple reason that they wanted it to stop. A student who complained about the most senior member of her department said she “wanted to prevent other students from having to go through such practice.” Wanting the behaviour to stop is also about wanted what happened to you not to happen to others. This is why I describe complaint as nonreproductive labour, the work you have to do to stop the same things from happening, in other words, to stop the reproduction of an inheritance.
We are learning something about consequences – to stop someone often requires stopping the system from working.
What then is the framing of a complaint as about punishment rather than consequences doing?
Let’s take an example. I spoke to an academic who supported a collective of students who made a complaint about the conduct of a lecturer in her department. She describes the process, “a student, a young student, who came and said to me that this guy had seduced her basically. And then in conversation with another woman she found out he had done the same to her. And then it snow-balled and then we found out there were ten women, he was just going through one woman after another after another after another.” The professor defended his own conduct thus, “He come up to me and said, ‘it’s a perk of the job.’” I could believe it. He actually said it to me. It was not hearsay; this is a perk of the job. I can’t remember my response, but I was flabbergasted.” We need to learn from how “perk of the job” can be mobilized as a defence against a complaint about sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. The implication is that having sex with your students is like having a company car; what you are entitled to because of what you do.
A complaint can then be interpreted as a contradiction of an entitlement: the right to use or to have something. To deprive someone of power is to deprive them of what they experience as theirs. The women who made the complaint were quickly framed as motivated by a desire to punish. As the professor I spoke to describes, “The women: they were set up as a witch-hunt, hysterical, you can hear it can’t you, and as if they were out to get this guy.”
To deprive someone of power is understood by those with power as punishment.
As soon as you try to deprive someone of power, you will be identified as motivated by a desire for power. That identification is often used because it often succeeds. In this case, the complaint was not upheld and the lecturer returned to his post with minor adjustments to supervisory arrangements.
The framing of complaint as punishment can be a way of avoiding consequences.
It is convenient to pathologize the complainer as having a will to power.
Madeline Lane-McKinley has offered an important critique of what the framing of complaint as carceral is doing. She describes how the one who complains, “will be told you are putting someone else on trial. This is precisely what enables sexual abusers, for instance, to claim they are being witch-hunted, while mobilizing a witch-hunt themselves.” Lane-McKinley identifies a “carceral anti-feminism,” which names “all feminism carceral.”
When appeals to other forms of justice are made, this identification of feminist complaint as carceral is kept in place. Complaints can be framed as the failure to resolve the situation by other more positive means. I think of one student who was sexually assaulted by a professor. In consultation with the students’ union, she submitted an informal complaint. It was sent to a dean who told her she should “just have a cup of tea with him to sort it out.” Another student told me how it took repeated complaints by her and other students about the conduct of a professor before those complaints got uptake. And after the complaint got uptake, and a disciplinary process began, she was told by a colleague that “she should have used restorative justice,” with restorative justice being indexed weakly rather like that “cup of tea,” a loose and light signifier of reconciliation.
Note the suggestion “she should have used restorative justice,” was not made by someone speaking from or on behalf of an institution. It was made by a feminist colleague. In a recent virtual panel on transformative justice, a survivor described how the language of transformative justice was “misused” as “a network of support” for her abuser. As many feminists know, the system is already designed as a support system for abusers. What we also need to know is that support is being enacted by the use of critical feminist language. I remember how we were told after the enquiries took place that we should have used transformative justice. That term was not just used weakly, it was divorced from its radical history. When you are told you should have used transformative justice in cases where those who have abused power have refused and still refuse to recognize the harm they caused, transformative justice is used as a way of avoiding accountability, the opposite way to how it is used by our communities as a demand for accountability.
The very argument that complaint = carceral feminism can justify a certain kind of relation to the institution that I would summarize as institutional quietism. I think of this problem as at least in part a problem of white feminism. Of course, it remains important and necessary to critique carceral feminism as white feminism – as Alison Phipps for instance has done. I am not offering these observations to contradict that critique. And yet, it still needs to be said: I have had a number of conversations with Black feminists and feminists of colour about being called carceral feminists by white feminists. White feminists justify their withdrawal of support from those who complain by using that very equation complaint = carceral feminism. In case this seems odd or surprising, remember there is a long history of Black women and women of colour being identified by white feminists as angry, punishing, mean and hostile. If the carceral feminist can be turned into a psychological profile, it can also become a racial profile. In an earlier post on the figure of the white friend, I noted how that white feminists often push Black women and women of colour to be more positive or conciliatory, a gesture that can sweep over racism and racial harassment as if it was a misunderstanding or a miscommunication, to protect their white colleagues or even themselves. White feminists might even suggest to those of us who are initiating or supporting complaints about bullying or harassment read such-and-such Black feminist on forgiveness (I know this because it happened to me). In my lecture, After Complaint I noted that many of the concepts we develop to critique how power works can be used to mask how power works. I suggested that “our terms,” can become screens, assertions of the right of some to occupy time and space.
Along with a critique of complaint as carceral feminism goes a certain kind of institutional fatalism (there is no point in complaining if the whole institution is going down or there is no point in complaining if the point is to bring it down). But of course, some have to complain in order to be able to get into the institution, to move through them, or to do their work. Institutional fatalism is only useful to those whose relation to the institution is not under threat or those who don’t need to complain to access the building. If not complaining or not “rocking the boat,” can be about how some people protect the good relations they have to those who allocate resources, as I argued in “Complaint as a Queer Method,” only some of us have such relations in the first place. In other words, the action that is avoided by the critique of complaints as carceral feminism would threaten a more positive relation to the institution.
Being against complaints as carceral as a matter of principle allows some people to present themselves as being oppositional without having to do anything or to give anything up.
Please note, I am not saying that not complaining is only about protecting a positive relation to the institution. There are many reasons not to complain including a lack of trust in the institution (as I will discuss in due course), or an unwillingness to commit to a process that is designed to remain confidential and internal to the institution. I am rather pointing to how a critique of carceral feminism can be used to mask the protection of a positive relation to the institution by enabling it to be expressed as if it was a radical stance rather than institutional complicity.
If the critique of the complainer as carceral feminist is used by those who are critical of the institution, the institution not only benefits from but often shares that critique. In one instance, a senior administrator explained the decision not to appoint someone with expertise in sexual harassment or equality to head an enquiry into sexual misconduct by a professor because they “did not want to be seen to be conducting a witch-hunt.” The professor was, unsurprising, cleared of any wrong doing by an enquiry led by someone who was sympathetic to him. A formal process is framed as a potential witch hunt by those given responsibility for conducting that process; consequences are avoided by being treated as punishment.
Is the push to be conciliatory another technique for avoiding consequences? I think back to the dean who told one student to “have a cup of tea” with the lecturer who had assaulted her. In the UK, the first stage of a formal complaint process is informal – and if your complaint is about an abuse of power you are encouraged to resolve the complaint in the department or unit where the abuse of power occurred. You are encouraged to identify that informality of the process in positive terms. I think of two students who met with administrators about their complaint. They describe what happened,
Student 1: They didn’t record it or take any notes. I think there were one or two lines written.
Student 2: It was very odd.
Student 1: You did feel it was a kind of cosy chat.
Student 2: Very odd; very odd.
Student 1: They were sort of wrapping the conversation up, because it had gone on, and I said this is us making a formal complaint and there was shift in the atmosphere. And I said we do want to follow it up as a complaint.
Informality can be used as a way of trying to discourage an informal complaint from becoming formal; turning a complaint into a casual conversation that can be more easily wrapped up. It is then as if the complainer is requiring an adherence to rules and conventions, or as if the formality necessary to make a complaint is itself a form of antagonism (not having a “cosy chat,” not being friendly). A formal complaint would become what someone makes because they are being unfriendly. Note how when the students make clear that they are making a formal complaint there is a “change of atmosphere.”
When universities direct those who are considering complaint to use more informal or less formal methods, they seem to do so to minimize harm and to demand compliance with the effort to restore the status quo. In one case, I talked to an academic who had make complaint, as had other members of her department about bullying by the head of the department. She described how they were invited to mediation, “the Pro-Vice Chancellor then said I am going to give you this gift, I have arranged for you to go to this hotel, and I have arranged for this person, a negotiator, to sit with you and sort this out. I had been bullied and called in so many times by this guy; I just thought I am not going to mediation meeting with this person.” Being invited to enter mediation is represented as a gift. The gift is proximity to the person who is being abusive, you are being asked to be in the same room as him, to sit with him, as if all you need to resolve the problem is time and proximity. The use of seemingly more positive methods such as mediation by institutions often translates into those who abuse power being given more opportunities to express themselves.
I am not saying that there is no place for mediation in conflict resolution. But abuse is not conflict, although it is often framed as such by institutions. In Complaint! I share many instances of how harassment and bullying are treated as conflicts between parties that can be resolved by mediation, as different viewpoints that ought to be heard, as if you are hearing different sides of the same story. I shared examples of sexual and physical assaults being described as styles of communication (one head of department who assaulted a colleague in a corridor was described in the report that cleared him of wrong doing as having “a direct style of management”). When assaults and other abuses of power are treated as styles of communication, complaints can be framed as misunderstandings (“it didn’t mean anything” is a common retort for a reason). More or better communication is then turned into a solution.
In making communication the solution, individuals become the problem. Talking about harm or hurt can be a way of not talking about institutional power. Talking about trauma can be a way of not talking about structure. I noticed how quickly during the enquiries where I used to work the term “vicarious trauma,” began to be floated around (popping up in dialogue and documents), as if we are a collective had traumatized each other rather than been infuriated by the institutional response to the complaints. I recall how the only support I was offered was therapy – including in the final communication from the Warden after I resigned. Even if that offer was motivated by a genuine concern for my wellbeing, you can see the problem: we become the location of the problem, yet again.
To locate a problem is to become the location of a problem.
Those who don’t become the problem are protected. Institutions in protecting themselves protect those whom they have already given power. In other words, they are protecting their investment. You don’t have to go through a complaint to know that institutions will do what they can to protect their investments. In fact, it is because of what some people know about institutions that they decide not to complain. If you don’t trust the institution, why would you go through a complaints process? This is an important question. But we also need to ask: what if the lack of trust in the institution is precisely what is being used by those with institutional power?
Those given power by institutions have a concerted interest in making them untrustworthy.
I talked to a group of students informally. They described to me how they were dissuaded from lodging a complaint about sexual harassment. They were told by academics in the department that any complaint would be repurposed by senior management as a tool to be used against “radical academics,” that the complaint would become a carceral tool in the sense of being used punitively to close them down. This was a very successful method: for the students to express what they felt, a political allegiance to the academics, being on the same side, against the same things, required them not to complain about the conduct of those academics even though they objected to that conduct.
Many of those who complain share this concern that their complaint will be used by hostile management to justify decisions that those they themselves would not make. Damn it, I share this concern! Having said this, my study of complaint also taught me that management can use any data in any way – positive data can be used to create the impression there is no problem (and if there is no positive data, institutions will create it, or use existing data very selectively) and negative data can be used to justify the withdrawal of support (and if there is no negative data, institutions will create it, or use existing data very selectively). What is important to note is that the concern about the use of the negative data of complaint is in turn instrumentalized. If that concern is used to stop complaints, it is also used to enable the conduct that the complaints, if they had been made, would have tried to stop. And then, those who do make formal complaints about harassment or bullying by academics are treated as managers, disciplining “radical academics,” trying to stop them from expressing themselves freely.
The implication that to complain is to become the manager or to call the manager invites potential complainers to see themselves in the terms they often oppose. The figure of the complainer as carceral feminist is closely related to the figure of the complainer as manager explored in chapter 5 of Complaint! These figures help explain what might seem at first like a curious finding: the use of the word neoliberal to dismiss complaints and, in particular, student complaints. One student who made a complaint about harassment by a professor in her ma program said, “My complaint was called neoliberal.” Her complaint was called neoliberal by other students in the program. The other students also said that the complainers “needed to be in ‘solidarity’ with those whose education was now being disrupted, not the other way around.” Neoliberalism can be mobilized to judge those who complain as motivated by self-interest. Not complaining about harassment from a professor then becomes judged as being in the collective interest, a way of holding on to the professor by keeping silent about his abusive behaviour. Note if complaint is framed as punishment because it would deprive someone of power, the complainer becomes a stranger, depriving others of what they want, in this case, the professor. You can be punished for that consequence. The student was also told it was questionable to complain, as to complain is to “turn to the institution” and to “seek support” from it. In other words, entering into an institutional process by submitting a formal complaint is framed in advance as institutional complicity. Some academics position themselves as working against the neoliberal institution, refusing to comply with its bureaucratic impositions. This positioning is convenient because it allows abuses of power to be framed as non-compliant, rebellious or radical.
Those with institutional power often represent themselves as against institutions.
The designation of complaint as neoliberal can be used to imply that to make a complaint is to behave like, or to become, a consumer. Another student who made a complaint about bullying and harassment from a professor in her ma program said, “The idea that would come up is that I was somehow being a very neoliberal person, the idea of the student as a stakeholder.” When a student making a complaint about harassment is treated as a student acting as a stakeholder, treating education as an investment, the university as a business, complaints about harassment are made akin to not liking a product. Complaints about harassment can be minimized and managed when filtered as consumer preference. She added, “Maybe I am just a perfect neoliberal subject. Or maybe I am a person who doesn’t want to be abused.” What is striking is what she is revealing: how not wanting to be abused, complaining about abusive behaviour, can be judged as being “a perfect neoliberal subject.” We need to learn from how neoliberalism can be used to picture the person who does not want to be abused and who acts accordingly.
I think the designation of the complainer as neoliberal is useful because so many of us working within educational institutions would make (or have made) critiques of neoliberalism as damaging institutions. If a complaint is designated as neoliberal, the complainer can be identified as damaging universities not because they damage their reputation, which would be a neoliberal model of damage, but because they threaten progressive educational values or even the idea of the university as a public good. One student who put in a complaint about harassment was told, “You are going to ruin any chance for this innovative work continuing.” The effort to stop a complaint can be justified as giving support to innovative work. We might think of institutional violence as happening over there, enacted by those who would or could direct that violence toward us, as critical thinkers, say, subversive intellectuals, even, but that violence is right here, closer to home, in the warm and fuzzy zone of collegiality, in commitments to innovation, radicality, or criticality, in the desire to protect a project or a program.
In most instances, the diagnosis of the complainer as neoliberal happens retrospectively, but it can also be made in advance in an effort to justify the conduct (and thus to stop complaints). An undergraduate student was persuaded to enter a sexual relationship with a senior man professor: “The first time he touched me he closed his office door. I thought it was strange that he closed the door. We weren’t doing anything wrong. I pondered, Why hide this? He informed me that the university’s ‘sex panic’ was the reason: predatory neoliberal policies encroaching on our freedoms. I nodded. The door remained closed after that.” Here the closed door is deemed necessary because of “neoliberalism policies” as well as “sex panic,” a term that associates neoliberalism with a narrow, moralizing, feminist agenda. Policies are treated as the police. It is implied that the door is closed because of how certain forms of conduct (such as having sex with your students, that perk of the job) have made rights into wrongs.
Feminism can thus be treated as part of a managerial and diplomacy regime that is imposed upon others to restrict their freedom. Equality can be dismissed very easily as audit culture, as tick boxes, as administration, as bureaucracy, as that which can distract us from creative and critical work and can even stop us from doing that work. I think the word neoliberal also becomes attached to other words, including feminist, prude, uptight, moralizing, killjoy, and policing. If these words seem far apart, remember neoliberalism is used to picture the complainer as individualistic. Being a prude, uptight, and moralizing can thus be part of that same picture: the person who is unwilling to give herself to others or to participate in a shared culture is judged as putting herself first. A complaint can then be treated as an imposition of will, as forcing your viewpoint upon others, depriving them of what they experience as theirs.
Force can then be framed as originating with the complaint, even when the complaint is about violence. The figure of the complainer is treated as a symptom of a more generalized structure of violence, whether institutional, managerial, neoliberal or carceral. When complaints against academics are made, they can pass themselves off very quickly as the ones being forced, being forced out or being forced into compliance by a disciplinary regime. The complainers are then treated not as protesting violence, but as enforcing it; the complainers become not only the managers, but the police, or the prison guards. I think this passing is successful because many academics identify themselves as potentially harmed by a disciplinary apparatus because of who they are or the beliefs they hold. If you have had an experience of the institution coming down on you, you might be sympathetic to those who frame complaints made against them as the institution coming down on them.
I am using the word passing deliberately here. Passing often works because it approximates something real. Of course, we do know that complaints can be used to discipline academics for their minority views or status. It might be on these grounds alone that we could say that complaints can be carceral feminism. But there is a but! I also know of instances where complaints against minoritized academics have been dismissed as an exercise of institutional power in problematic ways. In one example, a man of color left his post after complaints by students about harassment and bullying. His departure was publicly represented by his supporters as being a result of a complaint made by a single white student who didn’t like how he expressed himself. I spoke informally to the students who were involved in the complaint process. I learned from them that complaints were made not by one student but by a group of students, including students of color, and related to Islamophobia and racial harassment as well as sexual harassment and bullying. This is how the use of the figure of the privileged white complainer, we could even call her Karen, can stop students of color from being heard; it can stop complaints about racial harassment from being heard.
A complaint against a minoritized person is not always an exercise of power against that person because of their minority status. As many of us know too well, institutions reward abusive behaviour, often strategically misrecognizing harassment and bullying as expressive, eccentric, or even as signs of genius. Those of us who are not straight, cis white men are more likely to have doors opened to us when we reinforce those same patterns of behaviour. I do know of cases of complaints made against queer academics that are motivated by homophobia and received uptake given the hyper-surveillance of non-normative bodies. But I also know of cases where queer academics have framed complaints about their conduct as homophobia to deflect attention from abusive patterns of behaviour.
It is hard to tell the difference between those who pass themselves off as disciplined for dissidence and those who are disciplined for dissidence.
We also need to remember that many, even most, of those who repeatedly harass, or bully other people can and do frame complaints against them as motived, malicious or oppressive. They can then position themselves as minoritized by virtue of being the object of a complaint. I recently read an article that listed examples of academics who had been disciplined by universities for “not fitting,” with their regimes. In that list, a known harasser (I say known as the complaint file is in the public domain) was casually positioned next to a Palestinian academic who lost his tenure because of his critiques of Israel. That adjacency is telling us something.
That it is hard to tell the difference between those who pass themselves off as disciplined for dissidence and those who are disciplined for dissidence can be instrumentalised.
Even though feminism can be associated with neoliberalism as well as managerialism, it is worth noting that some feminists can be persuaded by this reframing of complaint as a disciplinary technique used against dissident academics. I have read many letters of support written by feminists on behalf of colleagues who have been accused of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct. We need to understand how this can happen. I think of one case. Multiple complaints were made by students against an academic man (who had a leading role in the national union), which included allegations of rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, and sexual harassment. Despite the number and severity of allegations, he was still able to convince many of his colleagues that he was the one being harassed. I spoke informally to the group who worked together to make those complaints. A professor said, “His narrative was apparently that he was being accused of making sexist comments and the ‘feminazis,’ us, were out to get him.” The case against him was also described as a witch hunt. This use of such terms will be familiar to feminists: we only need to consider how quickly #MeToo was framed in this way, as a persecution of innocent men by a feminist mob.
The lecturer also received support from feminist colleagues who wrote letters on his behalf without even hearing from the students who had made the complaints. Some of these feminists have public roles in challenging the culture of sexual harassment (for example in leading campaigns against the use of NDAs). And yet behind closed doors, they were given their support to those accused of sexual harassment. The professor I spoke to explains: “Many colleagues, about sixty-eight to seventy, came forward on his behalf to suggest that really, he was a ‘good guy,’ just a regular ‘Northern Cheeky Chappie,’ maybe a bit of a rough diamond. . . . They had no idea of what he was being accused of, other than what he offered up to them as his own narrative.” These exact descriptions, “rough diamond,” a “Northern Cheeky Chappie,” were used by academics (including feminist academics) in letters of support submitted on his behalf. We can hear what they are doing. They are intended as rebuttals. They are used to imply that the complaints derive from a failure of those who complained to appreciate how he was expressing himself. They are used to imply that the failure to appreciate how he was expressing himself was a form of snobbery or class prejudice. An early career academic from a working-class background described to me how enraging it was to be positioned as middle class, as if “working-class women never complained,” as if working-class women did not have their own militant feminist history and were not themselves instrumental in the battle to recognize sexual harassment as a hostile environment in the workplace in the first place.
I cannot overstate how painful and triggering it is when feminist colleagues who speak out against sexual harassment in public give their support to serial harassers when called upon to do so without even hearing from those who complained. Those who complain about harassment often end up feeling all the more stranded—they are all the more stranded—because the solidarity they expected to receive from those with whom they share an allegiance is withdrawn from them and given to those whose violence required them to complain in the first place. I think again of the survivor who shared how the language of transformative justice was “misused” to create “a network of support” for her abuser. I think of her; I thank her.
A critique of the misuses of the language of transformative justice can be understood as a contribution to the project of transformative justice.
We need to know that support for those who abuse power is being justified by the misuse of the language of transformative justice. We need to explain it. We need to contest it. And we need to create our own support systems.
Let’s return to Mariame Kaba’s description of consequences as depriving someone with institutional power. Those who complain come to know first hard about how hard it is to deprive someone of power in part through learning about what complaints do not do, where they do not go. Complaints procedures are atomising: most institutions do not allow collective complaints for a reason. We are made smaller by being kept apart. Confidentiality can also lead to isolation – you are not supposed to talk to anyone about your complaint or you are only supposed to talk to those with an institutional position. You can end up having to hold so much in. This is why I think of complaint activism as the work of getting complaints out.
The work of complaint teaches you how the system works. I think of one of the woman professors who participated in the complaint collective that was dismissed as a witch hunt. I was interested in where she ended up. She said, “By the end I just wanted to put a flame to the whole thing.” Going through what appears to be a purely bureaucratic or formal process, a tiresome, painful, difficult process, can be very politicizing, and sometimes then, energizing. Some of the strongest critiques of institutions come from those who have tried to make use of formal complaints to challenge abuses of power. When you make a complaint, you might not necessarily begin by thinking of yourself as part of a movement nor as a critic of the institution let alone as trying “to dismantle the master’s house” to evoke the title of Audre Lorde’s important essay. But that is where many who make complaints end up.
There is hope in this trajectory.
It is here that I can hear the kinship between the work of such complaint collectives and the abolitionist feminist project. Consider Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Erica R. Meiners and Beth E. Richie’s recent book, Abolition. Feminism. Now. I love how, in this book, they do not just write about abolitionist feminism but from it or even as it, creating a living feminist archive of a movement that is happening now, that is urgent, necessary, now.
Here is just one of their descriptions of abolitionist feminism:
For us, abolition feminism is political work that embraces this both/and perspective, moving beyond binary “either/or” logic and the shallowness of reforms. We recognize the relationality of state and individual violence and thus frame our resistance accordingly: supporting survivors and holding perpetrators accountable, working locally and internationally, building communities while responding to immediate needs. We work alongside people who are incarcerated while we demand their release. We mobilize in outrage against the rape of another woman and reject increased policing as the response. We support and build sustainable and long-term cultural and political shifts to end ableism and transphobia, while proliferating different “in the moment” responses when harm does happen. Sometimes messy and risky, these collective practices of creativity and reflection shape new are static identifiers but rather political methods and practices.
What I find so powerful about this description is how resistance is framed as a response to the relationality of state and individual violence. We have to find ways of responding that do not involve the expansion of reliance on institutions that cause harm such as the police or prisons. This does not mean abandoning accountability, but demanding it, being inventive, creating our own resources to try and bring an end to violence. Transformative justice is the work we do to create those resources. This is also how I understand the work of complaint collectives: it is about how we create and share resources, how we identify violence, including institutional violence, the violence of how institutions respond to violence, how we mobilize against it, how we work out how to bring an end to it by working together.
That work is also about showing how solutions are often problems given new forms. As Davis, Dent, Meiners and Richie also describe, “As new formulations surface, others fade; networks and groups proudly identify as feminist, queer, crip, Black, and/or abolitionist. Rattled by their demands and sometimes simply their formation, dominant institutions struggle to contain and manage these movements. But yet another “diversity committee” or another “equity officer” are inevitably failed efforts to contain these insurgent demands.” Complaint collectives are often formed because of how institutions try to manage complaints, often through positive injunctions such as diversity. To create a complaint collective is to work through the institution, but also against it, creating pockets in which we can breathe, as well as new relationships and alliances along the way. We imagine other kinds of institutions in the act of complaining about what happens in institutions, which are often also complaint about institutions, the kinds of institutions we have. Complaints can be a repurposing of negativity, a push to dismantle the institution from the inside out. From abolitionist feminism and from working in a complaint collective, I have learnt that a dismantling project is a building project.
In today’s lecture, I will reflect back on my project on complaint, and in particular, my method of listening to complaint, listening as learning about violence. I was inspired to do this research after taking part in a series of enquiries into sexual harassment that had been prompted by a collective complaint lodged by students. I began working with the students in 2013, left my post and profession in 2016, started gathering testimonials in 2017 and published Complaint! in 2021. I am giving you the timeline because time matters, because during this time, almost a decade now, I have been immersed in complaint. I wrote the book from that immersion.
I describe my method as becoming a feminist ear. One academic wrote to me, “I want the complaint to go somewhere, rather than round and round in my head.” When a complaint goes round and round in your head, it can feel like a lot of movement not to get very far. To become a feminist ear is to give complaints somewhere to go. In time, I began to be addressed as a feminist ear. A student sent me a message. “I am writing because I need a feminist ear. Perhaps you can use this complaint in your work.” To become a feminist ear is not only to be willing to receive complaints but to make use of them, to do something with them, to make them work or to make them part of our work.
Before I turn to discussing my project on complaint, let me say a little about how I came to the idea of feminist ears. I first introduced this idea in my book, Living a Feminist Life. I was writing about the feminist film, A Question of Silence (Gorris, 1982). I was writing about snap, those moments you can’t take it anymore, when you lose it; I call snap a “moment with a history.” In this film the character Janine, a psychiatrist, is a feminist ear; she is listening to the stories of women who between them had murdered a man; she is listening to what they say, but also to silence, what is not or cannot be said. We listen with her, also through her, to sexism, the sounds of it, how women are not heard, how so often women might as well not be there, as secretaries, as wives, perhaps also professors, blanked when we say something, blanked because we say something. I will return later to how blanking can be used as a method for stopping complaints. The film shows how a feminist hearing is a shared action. Janine in hearing these other women’s stories, their complaints, begins to hear how she herself is not heard. She begins to see how she herself has disappeared from her own story, her life, her marriage, how her life is organised around him, his words, his work, his world.
It was only after I went to see this film during a feminist festival in London that I began to use the expression feminist ears. I was so struck by how loud the audience was especially during the scene when a man is congratulated after saying the exact same thing a woman secretary had just said – only to be ignored. The groan of the audience really hit me, that sound of recognition, of relief even. Why relief? So often we can’t quite put a finger on it, sexism say, or racism, even when we come up against it, even when it stops us from doing something, from being something, it is hard to show, to share what we know. It can be a relief to witness collectively what so often works by not being quite so visible or audible. The loudness of the audience was matched by the scene toward the end of the film in the courtroom, when Janine pronounces the women sane only to be met with the judge’s incredulity. The women in the courtroom begin to laugh, louder and louder still, because they can hear what the patriarchal judge cannot.
Feminism: we hear what each other can hear.
Feminism: we hear each other hear how we are not heard.
Feminism: we are louder not only when we are heard together, but when we hear together.
So, when I say that my method in researching complaint was to become a feminist ear, this becoming was not mine alone.
I spoke to a lecturer about what happened when she returned after long term sick leave. She is neuroatypical, she needs time, she needs space, to return to her work, to do her work. But the complaint takes so much time, so much work: “there are like four channels of complaint going on at the same time. But interestingly none of these people seem to be crossing over.” You have to speak to all these people who are not speaking to each other. She speaks to a physician from occupational health, “I think his sense was that if I was well enough to stamp my foot and complain then I was well enough to work.” Because she could hear how she was being heard, we too have the opportunity to hear something; how a complaint is audible as a tantrum; how the complainer is cast as spoiled; how a grievance is heard as a grudge. She describes what happened in the meeting, “[the physician] had to write a report on whether he thought I was fit for work, or what my problems were…he was shocked I think that I complained to him in the room face-to-face. He was dictating the letter to the computer, which was automatically typing it and I think he was astonished that I said I am not going to sign it.” I think of her refusal to sign that letter, to agree with how he expressed her complaint back to her, the words he reads out loud, his words, the computer automatically typing those words, his words; the different ways you can be made to disappear from your own story.
It is worth nothing here that complaint can be an expression of grief, pain, or dissatisfaction; something that is a cause of a protest or outcry, a bodily ailment, or a formal allegation. The latter sense of complaint as formal allegation brings up these other more affective and embodied senses. To complain you have to become expressive, the word express comes from press; to press out. Think of how she has to keep saying no, no even to how her no is recorded. It can be hard to keep saying no if you don’t feel you have a right to keep saying it, “There is something else which is something to do with being a young female academic from a working-class background: part of me felt that I wasn’t entitled to make the complaint – that this is how hard it is for everybody, and this is how hard it should be.” If part of her felt she was not entitled to complain, she has to fight all the more, she has to fight against that part of herself, that inheritance of a classed as well as gendered history; she has to fight to express her complaint in her own terms, she has to fight for what she needs to do her work.
To listen to complaint is to learn from those who are listening, to learn from those who have to fight to get into institutions, fight to be accommodated by them.
Feminist Ear as an Institutional Tactic
I mentioned earlier that this project was inspired by working with students who had put forward a collective complaint. I first met with the students in our department’s meeting room. They told me what had been going on. It was so much to take in. If to be a feminist ear is to take it in, a complaint is to let it out. Just after the meeting with the students, a feminist colleague came to my office. I told her some of what the students told me. She burst into tears. She said something like, “after all of our work this still happens.” There is so much feminist grief in this still, that the same things happen, still, despite everything, all that work, feminist work, our work, to try to change the culture of sexual harassment. We need time, also space, to express this grief, to turn it out and, sometimes, to turn it into complaint.
In the weeks following that first meeting, more students came to my office to talk to me. In an endnote in chapter 6, a little hidden, but it is there, I quote from a student “we’re all concerned that your office has become something of an emergency drop-in centre for women in various states of crisis. I hope you’re alright”. I am still touched by their concern. The students did not come to me because I had any special training or skills. I didn’t and I don’t. They came to me because I said I was willing to listen. They came to me because they had so few places to go. They came to me because the institution had already failed to hear their complaint.
It was a very noisy time. In one ear, I was hearing the institutional story of how well it was handling complaints, the story of equality and diversity, about what the university was committed to doing; I was receiving letters about how the university was going for an ATHENA bronze award for gender equality, would you like to participate Sara, we could use your expertise, Sara. In the other ear, I was hearing more and more complaints, more and more about violence, about institutional complicity, about previous enquiries that had not go anywhere; writing unanswered letters asking for a public acknowledgement that these enquiries had happened, asking for discussions of what they revealed, how sexual harassment had become part of the institutional culture. In one ear, in the other ear; the feminist ear is the other ear. If we can see through the glossy image of diversity, we can also hear through it, the buzz of it, to what is not being said, to what is not being done.
Becoming a feminist ear meant not only hearing the students’ complaints, it meant sharing the work. It meant becoming part of their collective. Their collective became ours. I think of that ours as the promise of feminism, ours not as a possession, but as an invitation to combine our forces. I am grateful that the students I worked with Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, Alice Corble, with support from Heidi Hasbrouck, Chryssa Sdrolia and others, wrote about what the work they began as students in one of the two conclusions of the book. In the conclusion to their conclusion, they write about how they “moved something,” how “things are no longer as they were.” To move something within institutions can be to move so much. And it can take so much.
I decided to undertake this research before I resigned but I did not begin the research until after. My resignation, which I posted about on my blog, was widely reported in the national media. Whilst I found the exposure difficult, I was also moved and inspired by how many people got in touch with me to express solidarity, rage and care. I received messages from many different people telling me about what happened when they complained. I heard from others who had left their posts and professions as a result of a complaint. One story coming out can lead to more stories coming out. By resigning from my post, I had made myself more accessible as a feminist ear. Having become a feminist ear within my own institution, I could turn my ear outward, toward others working in other institutions.
To become a feminist ear is not only to learn how complaints are stalled, it is to be involved in the effort to get them moving again. This is why I understand the feminist ear as an institutional tactic. Hearing is not enough. One academic describes “I had a hearing …but I think it was just to placate me.” To placate is to calm or to sooth. Hearings can be used to draw a line as if to have heard a complaint is to have dealt with it. We should be suspicious if organizations (or individuals for that matter) utter the words, “I hear you,” before we say anything. Hearing can be about appearing to hear, which is how a hearing can be a disappearing, a complaint is let out only to be turned into steam, puff, puff.
By feminist ear as institutional tactic, I am pointing to how we have to dismantle the barriers that stop complaints from going anywhere, institutional barriers, the walls, the doors, that render so much of what is said, what is done, invisible and inaudible. If you have to dismantle barriers to get complaints out, complaints can make you even more conscious of those barriers; the walls, the doors. In my research into diversity work, I had noticed how walls kept coming up. One diversity practitioner described her job as a “banging your head on the wall job.” When the wall keeps its place, it is you that ends up sore. And what happens to the wall? All you seem to have done is scratch the surface. One lecturer described the work of complaint, “It was like a little bird scratching away at something and it wasn’t really having any effect. It was just really small, small; small and behind closed doors.” A complaint can feel like scratching away; a little bird, all your energy going into an activity that matters so much to what you can do, who you can be, but barely seems to leave a trace.
Diversity work as scratching the surface; complaint as “little bird scratching away at something.” Scratching can give you a sense of the limits of what you can accomplish.
2. An Ear to the Door
Doors tell us where complaints happen: complaints are mostly behind closed doors. This expression “behind closed doors” can refer to the actual doors that are closed so someone can tell their story in confidence or the process of keeping something secret from a wider public. In this work, I am trying to open a door, to let out or express something that has been kept secret.
It can take time to open the door. A PhD student based in the US is being harassed by her supervisor. She is explaining to me why it was so hard to see what was going on when it was going on:
And it’s odd to think back, in this moment, this seems absolutely insane to me, but at the time it was part of the culture of the department we had. You know another professor I had met with earlier in the programme said you know that he had to keep a big wooden table between him and his female students so he would remember not to touch them and then another of our long-time male faculty is notorious for marrying student after student after student. And that was within all this rhetoric of like critical race studies, and you know, pedagogy of the oppressed, as I am recounting it to you, I just wanted to say that it is so jarring to look back on it, because it looks so very clear from this hindsight perspective.
When what you experience “at the time” is part of the culture, you don’t identify it at the time you experience it. The harassment, the misconduct, which was institutionalized, expressed in the idea that senior men would need a big wooden table order to remember not to touch women students, is happening at the same time that the rhetoric of critical work is being used as if to describe what is happening; critical race studies; pedagogy of the oppressed. If your feminist ear is an ear to the door, a feminist ear is also an ear to the past. You listen back, go over something, realising what you did not see at the time. Clarity can be jarring. (2)
Complaints tell us so much about time, the time it takes to get to it not just through it. The student is a queer woman of colour: she is from a working class-background; she is the first in her family to go to university. She has had to fight so hard to get here. Her supervisor is making her feel more and more uncomfortable, he is “pushing boundaries,” wanting to meet off campus, in coffee shops, then at his home. She uses a door to handle the situation, “I tried very hard to keep all of the meetings on campus, and to keep the door open.” She keeps the door open; an actual door at the same time as she closes other another kind of door, I call this door the door of consciousness, “I thought I would take myself down by admitting to the kind of violence he was enacting.” Take myself down: to admit to violence can feel like becoming your own killjoy, getting in the way of your own progression. To admit can mean to confess a truth as well as to let something in. Note how doors can hold a contradiction, keeping the office door open is an admission of a truth that she handles by not letting it in. Handles can stop working:
I was sitting with another colleague at another lunch another day and he started texting me these naked photos of himself and I think I just hit a critical mass of like, I just can’t handle it anymore. I said just look at this, and she was just like, you know like, completely speechless…. And then like it suddenly started to seep into me, into her, in this shared conversation about like, how horrible and violent that I am having to receive these things, right, and so that basically put a process in motion.
A handle is sometimes what we use to stop violence directed at us from seeping or leaking into us. When the handle stops working, the violence seeps not only into her but also into her colleague; into a conversation, into the space in which they were having a conversation.
When violence gets in, a complaint comes out. However, there is no switch, one in, one out. For a complaint to come out, she has to make the complaint, to bring it out, to tell the story of what happened, to keep telling it. She goes to the office responsible for handling complaints, “they were like, ‘you can file a complaint. But he’s really well loved by the university, he has a strong publication record, you are going to go through all of this emotional torment.’ It was even proposed that he could counter sue me for defamation of character. The line was essentially, you can do this, but why would you.” A warning that a complain will have dire consequences, can take the form of institutional fatalism: statements about what institutions are like, what they are as what they will be, who they love, who they will protect. In the end she does not file a formal complaint, because she knew what she was being told: that she wouldn’t get anywhere, it wouldn’t get anywhere, because he was going somewhere.
You can admit violence, but then when you try and share the story, as she did, you hear more doors being shut. An early career lecturer was being sexually harassed by a senior man professor mainly through constant verbal communications – he emailed her about wanting to suck her toes. She thought she had handled this by asking her line-manager to ask him to stop not knowing that her manager sat on that request. When a complaint is not passed on, the harassment goes on:
And then I was in a meeting with my line manager and her line manager and we were in this little office space, like a glass fish bowl type meeting room, and then the main office where all the staff desks were and he emailed me and I made a sound, eehhhhh, there’s no way to articulate it, someone’s just dragging your insides like a meat grinder, oh god this is not going to stop, and I made that sound out loud, and my line manager’s line manager said, what’s happened. And I turned my computer around and showed him and he said for fuck’s sake, how stupid do you have to be to put that in an email. You could see a look of panic on her face. Like, crap, this has not magically gone away.
That sound, that eehhhhh, pierces the meeting, that meeting taking place in the little glass room, a fishbowl, where they can all be seen. Something can become visible and audible sometimes even despite yourself; a complaint is what comes out because you can’t take it anymore, you just can’t take it anymore, your insides like a meat-grinder; a complaint as how you are turned inside out. Note how the problem once heard is implied to be not so much the harassment but that there was evidence of it (“for fuck’s sake how stupid do you have to be to put that in an email”). A sound becomes a complaint because it brings to the surface a violence that is already in the room but otherwise would not have to be faced.
To hear with a feminist ear is to hear the different ways a complaint can be expressed. A complaint does not necessarily involve filling in a form or even an intentional action. A complaint can be expressed without words. In Living a Feminist Life, I also focused on how we find meaning in sound. I suggested that feminist ears can be how we hear, “the sounds of no, the complaints about violence, the refusal to laugh at sexist jokes” as speech.
The story of a complaint can begin with we do not do or say, because we show, in one way or another, we are not willing to go along with something. A postgraduate student attends an away day,
They were making jokes, jokes that were horrific, they were doing it in a very small space in front of staff, and nobody was saying anything. And it felt like my reaction to it was out of kilter with everyone else. They were talking about “milking bitches.” I still can’t quite get to the bottom of where the jokes were coming from. Nobody was saying anything about it: people were just laughing along. You start to stand out in that way; you are just not playing along.
To experience such jokes as offensive is to become alienated not only from them but the laughter that surrounds them, giving them somewhere to go. She is hearing with a feminist ear. And in hearing sexism, she feels “out of kilter with everyone else.” Not participating in something can means it sound louder; remember, clarity can be jarring.
A feminist ear is not just how you receive complaints but how you express them.
Our bodies can say no, before we do.
If you don’t laugh, you stand out. Maybe some people laugh not to stand out. When you stand out, you become the target. In other words, when you don’t participate in violence, it can be channelled in your direction.Later in the day, she is having a conversation with someone about her PhD, and he “leant across the table or physically came forward, he was slightly ajar to me, he was really close, and he said “oh my god I can see you ovulating.” Sexism: how you are reduced to your body. Sexism: how you are stopped from having a conversation. The student who made these comments is quickly defended by a member of staff “[he] started to lean on me; immediately he said to me, oh you know what he’s like, he’s got a really strange sense of humour, he didn’t mean anything by it, and the implication was I was being a bit over-sensitive and that I couldn’t take a joke.” The staff member by leaning in this way, positions himself with the harasser, telling her to keep taking it, that it doesn’t mean what she thinks it means, that it doesn’t mean anything, so that if she has a problem, the problem is her.
Harassment can be the effort to stop you identifying harassment, which means that those who identify harassment are harassed all the more. A senior lecturer has been bullied by her head of department over many years. She attends a meeting:
He started to yell, and I stood up…you go out of the office and then to the left is a little passage way to the door. I went up to the front door and it has two locks that you have turn in two different directions and I had all my bags on me and then up behind me came a pair of hands, and pulled my hands off the lock. He then wrapped his arm around me and so I was constrained with my arms by my sides. And I didn’t know what to do. I thought if I try to go to the front door again, he may grab me again.
The lock that turns in two different directions; it is hard to know which way it turns, which way to turn; the hands that come up, pulling her hands off the lock, the lock becomes a hand, a hand a lock, what stops her from getting out. She does get out, but it was hard. She submits a complaint. He is suspended during a formal enquiry. What does the enquiry find? In the report the assault is described as “on par with a handshake.” On par, on par equals equal. A physical assault is turned into a friendly greeting. The deputy head of resources read that sentence out to her in a meeting,
[He] read two paragraphs orally that you can read in the extract I sent you. He read that what he had done ‘was on par with a handshake,’ that was the conclusion, and he that he going to be returned to his position as Head of Department.
He is returned, she is removed. I think of the administrator reading out that description of the physical assault on her, to her. I think of how you can be hit by words. The violence of an action is removed by how it is described. There is so much violence in this removal of violence. When violence is shut out by description, description becomes a door. And it is not just violence that is shut out, she is shut out, the one who tried to bring the violence out from behind closed doors.
3. Hearing the Machine, clunk, clunk
In listen to those who complain, I have had my ear to the door, to hear how complaints are contained is to learn how the institution works, what I call institutional mechanics.
An MA student was considering whether to complain. Her story began with how she questioned the syllabus, “he left anyone who wasn’t a white man essentially until the end of the course.” “I brought this up and he said, well, last year there were no women on the syllabus so be happy with what you get.” It turned out that he had only added women to the end of the course after students in previous years had complained. When she has an essay tutorial with the Professor, she tells him she wants to wrote her essay on gender and race. He says, “if you write on those fucking topics you are going to fucking fail my course, you haven’t fucking understood anything I have been talking about if you think those are the correct questions for this course.” When you ask the wrong questions, you witness the violence of correction: “But then he says, wait, you know what, your so fucking old, your grades don’t really matter, you’re not going to have a career in academia, so write whatever it is that you wanted, it doesn’t fucking matter.” She hears herself being written off. The complainer, who is questioning the syllabus, becomes the feminist who has got the questions wrong; becomes the old woman who might as well be wrong, a hag as well as a nag, who is too old for it matter whether she gets it wrong, because she can’t proceed, she won’t proceed.
In the end, she decides to make a formal complaint because she “wanted to prevent other students from having to go through such practice.” Complaint can be thought of as non-reproductive labour: what you have to stop what happened to you from happening to others, to stop the same things happening. When she tells the convenor of the MA programme that she is intending to complain, she is warned, be careful he is an important man.” A warning is a judgement about who is important as well as a direction. She goes ahead with the complaint. And she “sacrificed the references.” In reference to the prospect of doing a PhD, she said, “that door is closed.” That door is closed, references can be doors, how some are stopped from progressing. When the door is closed on her complaint, and also on her, she will not be there, bringing to the institution what she might have brought to it, the door is kept open for him so he can keep doing what he has been doing where he has been doing it. Doors can be the “master’s tools,” to evoke Audre Lorde, telling us something about who gets in, what they do when they get in, as well as how some become trespassers, whether or not they get in.
To make a complaint within the institutions is to notice the door, because of how it closes, because of how you are stopped, the slam of the door, the clunk, clunk of the institutional machine. Sometimes you can feel that door slam. At other times, it can be hard to tell how you are stopped. It is almost like there is nothing there. I call this blanking. A woman of colour post-doctoral researcher based in the US is blanked during a meeting about her complaint about racial discrimination “From the very beginning I get into the room the provost doesn’t look at me during the entire meeting. It was like this weird thing: she is actually going to pretend I am not in the room.” It is weird but it can work, they don’t acknowledge, they pretend you are not there, then you are not there, and your complaint disappears when you do. An indigenous academic based in Canada is trying to make a formal complaint after her tenure case was sabotaged by a senior white manager. Despite numerous attempts to initiate an enquiry, she does not get anywhere “I had to send an email to her with the subject line in all capital letters with an exclamation point, my final email to her after 7 months. THIS IS A GRIEVANCE! THIS IS A GRIEVANCE! And her obligation under the university rules and the process is that she has to put it forward. She did not. She did not put it forward.” Sometimes you have to shout because you are not heard.
If you have to shout to be heard, you are heard as shouting.
I will return later to how she expresses her complaint in another way. You can be stopped by how you are heard. You can be stopped by how you are questioned. A trans student of colour make a complaint about sexual harassment and transphobic harassment from their supervisor who kept asking them deeply intrusive questions about their gender and genitals. Questions can be hammering; for some to be is to be in question. These questions were laced in the language of concern for the welfare of the student predicated on judgements that they would be endangered if they conducted research in their home country. Racist judgements are often about the location of danger “over there” in a Brown or Black elsewhere. Transphobic judgements are often about the location of danger “in here,” in the body of the trans person: as if to be trans is to incite the violence against you. When they complain, what happens? They said, “people were just trying to evaluate whether he was right to believe there would be some sort of physical danger to me because of my gender identity… as if to say he was right to be concerned.” The same questions that led you to complain are asked because you complain. These questions make the concern right or even into a right; a right to be concerned. A right to be concerned is how violence is enacted, a violence premised on suspicion that some are not who they say they are, that some have no right to be where they are.
The complainer becomes a stranger, not from here, not really from here, the one who does not belong here. And yet, consider how diversity is figured as an open door, minorities welcome, come in, come in. Just because they welcome you it does not mean they expect you to turn up. A woman of colour described her department as a revolving door: women and minorities enter, only to head right out again, whoosh, whoosh. We can be kept out by what we find out when we get in. People of colour are assumed to enter the diversity door however we enter the institution. And that door can be shut at any point. The door can be shut to stop us getting in. The door can be shut because we get in. A Black woman academic was racially harassed and bullied by a white woman who was her head of department,
I think what she wanted to do was to maintain her position as the director, and I was supposed to be some pleb; you know what I mean, she had to be the boss, and I had to be the servant type of thing, that was how her particular version of white supremacy worked, so not just belittling my academic credentials and academic capabilities but also belittling me in front of the students; belittling me in front of administrators.
How do you know it’s about race? That’s a question we often get asked. Racism is how we know it’s about race; that wall, whiteness, or let’s call it what it is, as she has, white supremacy, we come to know intimately as it is what keeps coming up. To have got there, a black woman in a white institution, a lecturer, a senior lecturer, on her way to becoming a professor, she is now a professor; is to be understood as getting above herself. To belittle someone, to make them little, can function as a command: be little! And that command is being sent not only to her, but to those who are deemed to share the status of being subordinate: students; administrators. She said: “I had put down that I would like to work towards becoming a professor and she just laughed in my face.” That laugher can be the sound of a door slammed. Some of us in becoming professors become trespassers; you are being told you need permission to enter by being told you do not have permission.
Harassment does not just take place behind closed doors it takes place around the doors we sometimes call promotion. I am listening to an indigenous woman academic. I have already shared what happened when she tried to make a complaint after a senior manager sabotaged her tenure case. When you are harassed and bullied, when doors are closed, nay, slammed, making it hard to get anywhere, it can be history you are up against; thrown up against. Complaints take us back, back further still, to histories that are still:
There is a genealogy of experience, a genealogy of consciousness in my body that is now at this stage traumatised beyond the capacity to go to the university. There’s a legacy, a genealogy and I haven’t really opened that door too widely as I have been so focused on my experience in the last seven years.
To be traumatised is to hold a history in a body; you can be easily shattered. There is only so much you can take on because there is only so much you can take in. We can inherit closed doors, a trauma can be inherited by being made inaccessible, all that happened that was too hard or too painful to reveal. Decolonial feminist work, Black feminist work; feminist of colour work is often about opening these doors; the door to what came before; colonial as well as patriarchal legacies; harassment as the hardening of that history, a history of who gets to do what; who is deemed entitled to whom.
When the door is shut on her complaint, she makes use of the door:
I took everything off my door, my posters, my activism; my pamphlets. I smudged everything all around the building. I knew I was going to war; I did a war ritual in our tradition. I pulled down the curtain. I pulled on a mask, my people we have a mask…and I never opened my door for a year. I just let it be a crack. And only my students could come in. I would not let a single person come in to my office who I had not already invited there for a whole year.
A closed door be a complaint, a way of refusing what the institutions demands from you, a way of refusing to disappear. She still does her work; she still teaches her students. She uses the door to shut out what she can, who she can. She takes herself off the door; she depersonalises it. And she pulls down the blinds and she pulls on a mask, the mask of her people, connecting her fight to the battles that came before, because for her this is a war.
Conclusion: Opening our Ears, hear, here
Our battles are not the same battles. But there are many battles happening behind closed doors. Behind closed doors: that is where complaints are often found, so that is where you might find us too, those of us for whom the institution is not built; and what we bring with us, who we bring us, the worlds that would not be here if some of us were not here; the data we hold, our bodies, our memories, the more we have to spill, the tighter the hold.
Consider how many complaints end up in the containers we sometimes call filing cabinets. One student said her complaint was “shoved in a box.” Another student describes how complaints end up in the “the complaint graveyard.” When our complaints are filed away, or binned or buried, we too are filed away, or binned or buried. It is not just “institutions” that contain complaints. Many people I have spoken to had been told by feminist colleagues or colleagues with whom they had a political allegiance, to hush, hush, to keep quiet about their complaints to protect the reputation of a professor or a programme. I’ve heard that hush, hush. I think back to an event we organized on sexism in 2014. Some of the students from our collective spoke in public about the work they had been doing on sexual harassment. Afterwards, a feminist colleague expressed concern to me in private that to go public about the problem would lead to people overlooking the critical feminist work that had been done at the college.
There is a cautionary tale here. If we are silent about sexual harassment to protect the feminist reputation of a university, we are not working for a feminist university.
Working for a feminist university is a project because we are not there yet.
To get there we need to get our complaints out, not keep them behind closed doors. I call this work complaint activism, how we find different ways to express our complaints, to release them from their containers. A queer feminist student based in India described their work to make violence more visible as the work of complaint, “We complained through posters that there is gendered discrimination. We performed complaint through spoken word poem recital.” They took on a role as student representative on an internal committee that dealt with complaints. They made complaints in the classroom. When they challenged a professor who made offensive comments, they stood their ground “Before I could complain, he complained. The complaint was addressed behind closed doors with other professors.” Despite the doors, they kept complaining in one way or another. They become, in their words, “a nuisance for the admin,” an institutional killjoy.
I think too of a disabled student who talked me through a complaint she made about the failure of the university to make reasonable accommodations. She told me how she came to use complaint as an activist tool not only to push the university, but also other public institutions, to be as accessible as they claimed to be. From her, I also learnt how a complaint can lead those who are near them to hear them. She told me how after a particularly difficult meeting, a meeting can be what you feel the wall coming down, a file suddenly appeared, “a load of documents turned up on the student’s union fax machine and we don’t know where they came from, they were historical documents about students who had to leave.” She speculates that a secretary was doing “their own little bit of direct action,” releasing those documents to support her complaint, an act of sabotage as well as solidarity. If the student I spoke to hadn’t made her complaint, that file would have stayed put; dusty, buried. The file included hand-written letters from past students who had complained. A complaint file, that bin, that graveyard, can be lively, reminding us that others have been here before.
We can meet in an action without meeting in person.
Earlier I suggested that a feminist ear can be an ear to the past, we hear something we could not admit at the time. In opening that ear, also door, it is not only our own complaints that come out, other people’s complaints come too. Perhaps that is why we are told to keep a lid on it. One student who participated in a complaint about sexual harassment describes “The scale of the response was so extreme, in a way, compared to what we were complaining about. Now on reflection I guess it was because there were hundreds of complaints, they had suppressed that they did not want to have a lid lifted on it.” To complain is to lift a lid; the more complaints are suppressed, the more spill out. It can be explosive, what comes out.
A complaint collective can be behind an explosion. A complaint collective can be what you need to survive it. This student was part of such a collective, a group of four students who began working together so that one student who was harassed, you have heard from her, it was she who was targeted after she did not laugh at sexist jokes, would not have to make a complaint on her own. The students in supporting her began to talk to each other. “A group of us began to connect up, and we found out there was a much richer history of [this student] acting inappropriately toward women.” Sharing notes is how you recognize that an incident, an event, a one-off, has a longer history; a structure not just an event. The more you challenge structures, the more you come up against them, “I think there’s this assumption that when you put in a complaint in an academic setting everyone is very convivial, but actually things were being said that were being passed back to us, that there was a real physical aggressive threat that these men were starting to build up, and things had been said like, we might get a brick through our window or we might get our hand pounded in iron.” Threats of violence are used to try and stop those who are complaining from complaining. That violence is often hidden by assumptions of conviviality or by the closed doors of confidentiality. Threats of violence toward an us (“our window,” “our hand”) are also being “passed back to” an us. A complaint collective can be what you need for violence to be witnessed by others. A complaint collective can be what you need to withstand this violence. The more force applied to stop a complaint from being made, the more you need more, to witness and withstand that force.
The more you need more.
There is so much silence about violence. Silence about violence is violence. We have to shatter that container. This is why I place such a strong emphasis on the sound of the work in the work, the puff, puff, the clunk, clunk, the whoosh, whoosh, the hush, hush, that tells us something about how the machine is working. To hear with a feminist ear is also to listen for the sound of release, that eehhhhh, of complaints coming out, how they end up as letters on the wall. The scratches that seemed to show the limits of what we could accomplish, can be testimony, what we leave behind. I think of the little bird, scratching can be not just an effect on a surface can be the sound of labour.
Scratching on the wall. Knocking on the door. I hear Audre Lorde knocking on a door. In an interview with Adrienne Rich, Lorde describes her fascination with a poem “The Listener,” a poem about a traveller who rides a horse up to the door of an apparently empty house. The poem in Lorde’s words ,
He knocks at the door and nobody answers. ‘Is there anybody there?’ he said. …and he has a feeling that there really is somebody in there. And then he turns his horse and he says, ‘Tell them I came,’ and nobody answered. ‘That I kept my word.’ I used to recite that poem to myself all the time. It was one of my favorites. And if you’d asked me, what is it about, I don’t think I could have told you. But this was the first cause of my own writing, my need to say things I couldn’t say otherwise, when I couldn’t find other poems to serve.”
It is important to follow Lorde, to go where she goes. When we are fascinated by something we do not always know why. Lorde keep reciting the poem; she says “it imprinted on her.” I think of that imprint: the print of a poem on a person. To knock on the door is to turn up, to keep turning up, to find new forms of expression. We knock on the door not to demand entry but to cause a disturbance, to disturb the spirits who linger here because of the violence that has not been dealt with.
I wrote about this passage in Lorde quite a long time before I read it out loud. When I read it out loud in a lecture, I knocked on the table, my wooden desk, making this sound, as I just as I did then, so my audience could hear it. And it was only then that I remembered. it. In Living a Feminist life, I wrote about some of my experiences of growing up with a violent father. I cut one paragraph out because it was too close to the bone. It is a door story. It is a door story. I grew up with a father who was physically violent. One time when he lost his temper, I managed to get away. I ran down the hall and locked myself in the bathroom. I crouched in the shower, which had a glass door, which I pulled shut. My father kicked the door of the bathroom down. He then pulled the glass door open. I was scared it would shatter. Maybe that it is why, so many years later, I was attuned to the sound of shattering. He then kicked me, he kicked the door down, he kicked me. Maybe that is why, so many years later, I was attuned to the door; listening to it and not just through it. Even now, when someone knocks loudly on a door, any door, I feel panic. In other words, that knock is a trigger. It was only when I made the knock sound so an audience could hear it, that I was taken back. Sometimes, we can only hear something in our own story when we share it with someone else. I think I needed to a close a door, not to hear the knock, not be triggered, so I could keep listening to complaints. But then, when we share complaints with others, that door opens, and with it, a space between us (3).
A door opens and with it a space between us. One of the sentences in Living a Feminist Life is,
The histories that bring us to feminism are the histories that leave us fragile.
This sentence can be rearticulated as a question of hearing, the kind of hearing that lets something in, however shattering, whatever the consequences.
What makes it possible to hear complaint makes it hard to hear complaint.
Many of us come to work against violence because of our own experiences of it. When we work against violence, including institutional violence, the violence of how institutions respond to violence, which we can only do together, we become part of each other’s survival. Audre Lorde said that for some of us, “survival is not an academic skill.” For some of us, surviving the academy is not an academic skill. I think of all the writing on the academy, which helped me to survive it, to keep chipping away at the walls and the doors, even from afar, work by Black feminists, indigenous feminists, feminists of colour. I thank M. Jacqui Alexander, Avtar Brah, Sirma Bilge, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Gail Lewis, Audre Lorde, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Heidi Mirza, Aileen Moreton Robinson, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Malinda Smith, Shirley Anne Tate, Zoe Todd, Eve Tuck, Chelsea Watego, and so many others, for so many wisdoms, hard worn wisdoms.
To turn up is to turn up for each other saying not “knock, knock, who is there?” but “knock, knock, we are here.”
We knock so you can hear we are here. Thank you.
(1) This is the spoken text of a lecture, “Feminist Ears, Listening to Complaint, Learning about Violence,” that I gave for the conference, Making Feminist Universities, Rosario, Argentina on May 26th 2022 (with minor edits made only for clarity). You can watch the lecture in Spanish here. I gave a slightly different version of the lecture at University of Iceland on Tuesday, May 24, which you can watch for a limited time here. Most of the testimonies shared with me were given by academics and students based in the UK. For the purpose of this lecture, I provided the national location when the person was not based in the UK. I will be developing the idea of the feminist ear as shared action in the introduction to The Complainer’s Handbook. In this handbook, which follows on from The Feminist Killjoy Handbook (forthcoming with Penguin Press in Spring, 2023), I will engage with these stories of complaint in a different manner than I did in my monograph, Complaint!. I will also connect them with other public accounts of making complaints across a range of institutions and workplaces.
(2) I will be picking on the significance of complaint as a “jarring” experience in The Complainer’s Handbook. The word jarring was also crucial to my account of feminist snap in Living a Feminist Life.
(3) In The Feminist Killjoy Handbook, I turn to the significance of how and when I heard that knock in my consideration of the feminist killjoy as poet.
You might have a fight on your hands.* You might have to fight for room, room to be, room to do, room to do your work without being questioned or being put under surveillance. You might have to fight to find a safe path through life, a way of progressing, of getting through, without having to give up yourself or your desires. A fight can be how we acquire wisdom: we know so much from trying to transform the worlds that do not accommodate us. But that fight can also be just damn hard; when you have to fight for an existence you can end up feeling fighting is your existence. And so, we need each other: we need to become each other’s resources. When I think of complaint as a queer method, I am pointing to this history of how we had to fight for room; and how by taking up that fight, we became each other’s resources. We have queer programmes, spaces, events not just because they are nice things to have, though they are that, what a relief, but because we need them to survive institutions that are not built for us.
In my recent book Complaint! I thus describe complaint as counter-institutional work; to create spaces within institutions we so often end up working against them. I was inspired to do the research by my own experience of supporting students who made a collective complaint about sexual harassment. The students I worked with became my complaint collective. I am grateful that they, Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, Alice Corble, with support from Heidi Hasbrouck, Chryssa Sdrolia and others, wrote one of the two conclusions of the book about the work they began as students. In the conclusion to their conclusion, they write about how they “moved something,” how “things are no longer as they were.” To move something within institutions can be to move so much. And it can take so much.
I introduced the idea of “complaint as a queer method,” in my conclusion. So today, I want to say a little more about what I mean by this. By complaint I included not only the formal mechanisms but also complaint in its more affective and embodied senses. I was especially interested in how some of us are heard as complaining, as being negative as well as saying something as negative. To be heard as complaining is not to be heard. This is the opening sentence of the book, deliberately strongly worded. Listen to this description by a lesbian academic,
if you have a situation and you make a complaint, then you are the woman who complains, the lesbian who complains. And then of course you get witch-hunted, you get scapegoated, you become the troublesome uppity woman; you become the woman who does not fit; you become everything the bully accuses you off, because nobody is listening to you. And you don’t like to hear yourself talking like that but you end up being in that situation, again. You can hear them saying, “oh there you go.”
We both laughed when she said this, recognising that each other recognised the dynamic. We hear each other in the wear and the tear of the words we share, what it is like to come up against the same thing, over and over again.
Complaint seems to catch how those who challenge power become sites of negation, the complainer as container of negative affect, a leaky container, speaking out as spilling over. Negation can be quite a sensation. Think also of the word queer. We reclaim that word that has been used as an insult or as a smear not by trying to separate ourselves from the negativity, but by re-purposing it as tool. Complaint too can be a re-purposing of negativity as a tool.
By “complaint as queer method,” I am also thinking of my own method of listening to those who complain, as well as how that listening is a way of gathering and holding data only to let it spill. My method is all about ears: not queer eye for the straight guy but queer ears for my queer peers.
Complaints as Coming Out Stories
Complaints are made confidential as soon as they are lodged. They happen “behind closed doors,” which is why there are so many doors in these stories.
Perhaps a queer ear is an ear to the door, we listen not just through the door, but to the door. It was very early on in the research that I noticed how doors kept coming up, actual doors, doors with difficult to use handles, revolving doors, doors as figures of speech to signify what you can and cannot do, where you can and cannot go. That expression “behind closed doors” can refer to actual doors that are closed so someone can tell their story in confidence. It can also mean the process of keeping something secret from a wider public.
In the book, I am trying to open a door, to let out or express something that has been kept secret. It can take time to open the door. A student is being harassed by her supervisor. She’s a queer woman of colour: she is from a working class-background; she is the first in her family to go to university. She’s had to fight really hard to get here. She knows something is not right. Her supervisor keeps pushing the boundaries, wanting to meet off campus, then at coffee shops, then at his home. She tries to handle the situation, “I tried very hard to keep all of the meetings on campus, and to keep the door open.” She keeps the door open; an actual door at the same time as she closes other another kind of door, we might call this door the door of consciousness, “I thought I would take myself down by admitting to the kind of violence he was enacting.” Take myself down: to admit to violence can feel like becoming your own killjoy, getting in the way of your own progression. To admit can mean to confess a truth as well as to let something in. Note how doors can hold a contradiction, keeping the office door open is an admission of a truth that she handles by not letting it in. Handles can stop working:
I was sitting with another colleague at another lunch another day and he started texting me these naked photos of himself and I think I just hit a critical mass of like, I just can’t handle it anymore. I said just look at this, and she was just like, you know like, completely speechless…. And then like it suddenly started to seep into me, into her, in this shared conversation about like, how horrible and violent that I am having to receive these things, right, and so that basically put a process in motion.
A handle is sometimes what we use to stop violence directed at us from seeping or leaking into us. When the handle stops working, the violence seeps not only into her but also into her colleague, into a conversation, into the space in which they are having that conversation. When complaints are about something, directed toward an object, what they are about is hard to contain. Objects shatter. Complaints can queer time as well as space, they end up all over the place, as we do.
When violence gets in, a complaint comes out. However, there is no switch, one in, one out. For a complaint to come out, she has to make the complaint, to keeping making it, “I think I started to believe that if I came out with this in a public way, that my own career would suffer.” Her use of the language of coming out, her reference to “in a public way,” teaches how when complaints travel, going further away from us, they take something of ourselves with them. To come out with a complaint is to send it out into the same world the complaint is about. Hence the title of the second part of the book “the immanence of complaint.” Judith Butler asked back in 1991, “Is the subject who is out free of subjection and finally in the clear?” I think we know that answer is no. Butler extends, “conventionally one comes out of the closet…so we are out of the closet and into what? What new unbounded spatiality, the room, the den, the basement, the attic, the house, the bar, the university.” Butler then evokes another enclosure with a door, Kafka’s door, a door that seems to promise something, an opening, “fresh air,” the “light of illumination that never arrives.”
To come out in the form of a complaint about something that happened is also not to be in the clear, to come out with a complaint is to “come into” the same world that won’t admit so much and so many. You might admit what happened, but then when you try and share the story, as this student did, you hear more doors being shut. To come into is to come to, you bring the complaint to someone, a person, an office. She goes to the office responsible for handling complaints, “they were like, ‘you can file a complaint. But he’s really well loved by the university, he has a strong publication record, you are going to go through all of this emotional torment.’ It was even proposed that he could counter sue me for defamation of character. The line was essentially, you can do this, but why would you.” A warning that a complaint will have dire consequences can take the form of institutional fatalism: statements about what institutions are like, what they are as what they will be, who they will love, who they will protect.
In the end she did not file a formal complaint because she knew what she was being told: that she wouldn’t get anywhere, it wouldn’t get anywhere, because he was going somewhere.
What is the relationship between institutional fatalism and what I have called queer fatalism? Queer fatalism is the assumption that to be queer is to hurtle toward a miserable fate, that to be queer, a life treated as a lifestyle, is to put yourself in harm’s way, so that if shit happens, and let’s face it, shit happens, it is what you have brought on yourself. Being warned not to complain is to be told to straighten yourself out, to align yourself with the institution, to value what it values, to love who it loves, to protect who it protects, in order not to deprive yourself of a brightly lit path. It is not surprising, then, that a complaint can have a queer trajectory.
If you leave that path, if you complain not just about somebody who is loved and protected but that system of protection, what then? You open the door of consciousness only to find another door is shut. That is how doors tell us about time, the time of repetition, what we keep having to do, the points we keep having to make. It can take time and also work for a complaint to come out. Queer and trans folk know coming out is not a one-time event; you have to keep coming out because of how the world presumes a certain kind of body, you might have to correct pronouns being used for your partner or for yourself; coming out as that tiring work of correction, correction is often heard as complaint, as negative, assertive, demanding. If you have to keep coming out with it, in or out can feel more like round and about. I think of how Ahmed Ibrahim disrupts this framing of inside/outside by revisiting the closet in a powerful reflection of queer lives and archives in Egypt. Ibrahim uses the language of seepage, how queerness seeps out, complicating any distinction between inside and outside.
There are many seepages in stories of complaint.
An early career lecturer was being sexually harassed by a senior man professor mainly through constant verbal communications – he emailed her about wanting to suck her toes. She thought she had handled this by asking her line-manager to ask him to stop not knowing that her manager sat on that request. When a complaint is not passed on, the harassment goes on
And then I was in a meeting with my line manager and her line manager and we were in this little office space, like a glass fish bowl type meeting room, and then the main office where all the staff desks were and he emailed me and I made a sound, eehhhhh, there’s no way to articulate it, someone’s just dragging your insides like a meat grinder, oh god this is not going to stop, and I made that sound out loud, and my line manager’s line manager said, what’s happened. And I turned my computer around and showed him and he said for fuck’s sake, how stupid do you have to be to put that in an email. You could see a look of panic on her face. Like, crap, this has not magically gone away.
That sound, that eehhhhh, pierces the meeting, that meeting taking place in the little glass room, a fishbowl, where they can all be seen. Something can become visible and audible sometimes even despite yourself; a complaint is what comes out because you can’t take it anymore, you just can’t take it anymore, your insides like a meat-grinder; a complaint as how you are turned inside out. Note how the problem once heard is implied to be not so much the harassment but that there was evidence of it (“for fuck’s sake how stupid do you have to be to put that in an email”). A sound becomes a complaint because it brings to the surface a violence that is in the room but would not otherwise have to be faced. Her line manager’s line manager, now alerted, witnessed being alerted, initiates a formal process. She uses the word imploded to describe what happened next. She attends another meeting
And this meeting dragged on and on and it was sort of, going through all the points and my boss wasn’t in it, wasn’t party to it, and it became clear at this point that something is going on beyond what I am involved in. That was the first time I realized the level of mess that is accompanying this. The professor disappeared; he was suddenly not there anymore. Whether he had been suspended or whether he quit, I never knew. But the story he had told to my colleagues was that he had been forced out by me. You’ve heard all of this a thousand times.
A story can be familiar. We have heard it before because it has happened before. Even though she did not initiate the complaint, she was described by him as having forced him out, and there was no way for her to challenge the narrative. Her colleagues begin to refer to her as the woman who forced a man out of his job because he said he wanted to suck her toes. In practice confidentiality, which is often justified as necessary to protect those who complain, means that those with more connections have more control over how the complaint is framed. The story of what happens to a complaint can be the same story complaints are about: who controls the situation, who controls the narrative.
Complaints as Stories about Institutions
I wanted to being with these two stories of how complaints come out, these rather messy, queer stories. The institutional story of complaint is rather different. On paper, perhaps this is the institutional story, a complaint can be pictured as a flow-chart, with straight lines and pointy arrows, giving the would-be complainer a clear route. If you would picture a complaint from a complainer’s point of view, it would be rather more like this, it’s a mess, what a tangle, once you are in it, you can’t work out how to get out of it.
And if that mess is a picture of a complaint, it can also be a picture of your life, a life can be what unravels. The early career lecturer whose complaint came out as a sound described, “It is like being trapped in some kind of weird dream where you know you jump from one section to another because you never know the narrative.” Making a complaint can feel like becoming a character in someone else’s story. You know what is happening is not what is supposed to be happening but you still don’t know what is happening. I remember this from my own experience: you are having all these conversations, meetings after meetings, but most people you are working with don’t even know about what is going on; you have to keep going back to your other job, your day job; and that world, that is supposed to be the real world, the upright, brightly-lit world, feels increasingly unreal; topsy-turvy; upside down. A complaint can queer your relation to the institution, and I mean queer in the old sense of odd; words that are everywhere in my data are odd, weird, strange, surreal, bizarre, disorientating.
The lack of clarity becomes the world you inhabit. One academic made a complaint about bullying by her head of department did so in part as her university had developed new policies and complaint procedures. She describes them as “window dressing,” and said “they did not mean what they said.” Policy can be the organisation appears from the front. When you complain, you begin to see through an appearance. This is why I describe complaint as a phenomenology of the institution: you bring to the front what often recedes into the background. You go back. To complain is certainly to go back in time, you have to go over what is not over, complaints have a queer temporality, which would be well described by Elizabeth Freeman’s term, temporal drag, complaints go on, meetings drag on; on and on. To complain is to go back in a spatial sense, you see what is “behind the back,” to reuse terms from my book, Queer Phenomenology.
Another academic tried to use policies in her complaint about plagiarism and racism also to discover, “the policies are not meant.” We could call these policies non-performative. She added, “I was told it was now a formal process. I had to look at all the policies. I found there was this fog. It was constant. Every time I found clarity – isn’t it supposed to happen in accordance with policy blah blah-blah – this has been around ten years, isn’t this supposed to happen, and they would be like no.” To be told “no” is to be told that however long a policy has been around it is not going to determine what happens.
Even if the policies are not being followed, they still exist on paper. She described policies that don’t exist on paper as “shadow policies.” She used that term to account for her white academics in her department ended up with more research time than academics of colour, despite official commitments to equity because of these backdoor deals they made that appeared to be about securing one thing but ended up giving them another more valued thing that allowed them to do the more valued things.
A shadow is the dark area where light from a source is blocked due to an opaque object. The term “shadow policies” is telling us something about where decisions are made, the unlit areas of a room, as well as how they are made. The first part of the book, Institutional Mechanics, explores the gap between what is supposed to happen when you make a complaint and what does happen. To complain is to find a gap between the university as it appears on paper, policies that exist but are not followed, the paper university, diversity and equality as what they keep saying, and the university as it is, policies that do not exist but are followed, inequalities as what they keep doing.
You find a gap, mind a gap, fall right into it.
This gap in telling us something about complaint is telling us something about the university. This was why it was important for me to show what those who complain know. I spoke to an early lecturer about a complaint she made about the failure of her university to adjust her workload after she returned from long term sick leave. She is neuroatypical, and she needs time to return to work, to do her work. Even though she has evidence that the university has not followed its own policies and procedures, her complaint does not get anywhere. Let me share with you her description of what it feels like to do this work:
It was like a little bird scratching away at something and it wasn’t really having any effect. It was just really small, small; small, and behind closed doors. I think people maybe feel that because of the nature of the complaint, and you are off work so they have to be polite and not talk about it and so much of their politeness is because they don’t want to say something. And maybe [it is] to do with being in an institution and the way they are built; long corridors, doors with locks on them, windows with blinds that come down, it seems to sort of imbue every part of it with a cloistered feeling, there is no air, it feels suffocating.
A complaint as something that you are doing can acquire exteriority, becoming a thing in the world; scratching away; a little bird, all your energy going into an activity that matters so much to what you can do, who you can be, but barely seems to leave a trace; the more you try, the smaller it becomes, you become, smaller; smaller still. I think of those birds scratching away, and I think back to how diversity work was described to me by a practitioner as a “banging your head against the brick wall job.” When the wall keeps its place, it is you that ends up sore. And what happens to the wall? All you seem to have done is scratch the surface. Scratching can give you a sense of the limits of what you can accomplish.
When I heard the little birds in her story, my queer ears pricked up. In my book on the uses of use, What’s the Use, I used this image of queer use, how things can be used in ways that were not intended, by those who were not intended.
The birds turn the post-box into a nest. This is a rather happy hopeful image. Usually, when we turn up in institutions not built for us, we are told, get back in your own box, go back, go home.
If a complaint is a little bird scratching a way at something, a complaint is trying to create an almost/nest in a hostile environment. Why evoke the term “hostile environment”? Many harassment policies use the term “hostile environment,” for the creation of a work culture that is undermining and degrading to a person or persons. In the UK, the term “hostile environment” has since been used by government as the name of a policy on illegal immigration. The use of a term that was already definitional of workplace harassment for policy teaches us how harassment become a national policy. The category of “illegal immigrant” is a racializing category; you can be brown or black and born here and still be told to go back, go home, yes that was a message sent out on a van; racial harassment as a national policy, the right to interrogate those who appear not from here.
A right to interrogate those who appear not from here, the right to interrogate some because of how they appear. A trans student of colour make a complaint about sexual harassment and transphobic harassment from their supervisor who kept asking them deeply intrusive questions about their gender and genitals. Questions can be hammering; for some to be is to be in question. These questions were laced in the language of concern for the welfare of the student predicated on judgments that they would be endangered if they conducted research in their home country. Racist judgments are often about the location of danger “over there” in a brown or black elsewhere. Transphobic judgments are often about the location of danger “in here,” in the body of a trans person: as if to be trans is to incite the violence against you. When they complain, what happens? They said, “people were just trying to evaluate whether he was right to believe there would be some sort of physical danger to me because of my gender identity… as if to say he was right to be concerned.” The same intrusive questions that led you to complain are asked because you complain. Right to be concerned becomes a right to be concerned. So much harassment today is enacted as a right to be concerned. We have a right to be concerned about immigration (as “citizens”); we have a right to be concerned about sex-based rights (as “adult human females”). A right to be concerned is how violence is enacted, a violence premised on suspicion that some are not who they say they are, that some have no right to be where they are, that some have no right to be.
Complaints about hostile environments are made in hostile environments. A woman of colour talked to me about a conversation she had with her head of department. She is trying to explain to him why students of colour do not feel they can make complaints about racism,
He said he was sympathetic because of Brexit and started talking about Muslim students being attacked on the bus. I said the department is reproducing a culture that isn’t inclusive no matter how sympathetic you are. If you had an experience on the bus you are not going to come back to the department and tell them about it, are you, if it’s the same department where when you have a cup of tea, the white people go to a different part of the room. It seems a complaint about racism can be received sympathetically if racism is elsewhere, outside, on the streets, in the bus.
The Head of Department’s statement of sympathy, his performance of sympathy, is directed toward racism that is over there. But seeing racism there can be how you don’t see it here, how you enact it here (white people going to different parts of the room). Racism can be what stops a complaint about racism.
I think of how policies can be what appears, what stops us from seeing what is going on. Diversity too can be what appears, what stops us from seeing what is going on, how it goes on. The organization might appear welcoming, diversity as an open door, come in come in, minorities welcome. Just because they welcome you it does not mean they expect you to turn up. Perhaps you open the door only to end up in a hostile environment otherwise known as the diversity committee. This woman of colour academic describes, “I was on the equality and diversity group in the university. And as soon as I started mentioning things to do with race, they changed the portfolio of who could be on the committee and I was dropped.” If you are dropped from the diversity committee for mentioning things to do with race, the diversity committee is how you don’t mention things to do with race. Another time, she is writing a paper for a special issue of a journal on decolonizing her discipline. She receives feedback from a white editor , “the response of the editor was ‘needs to be toned down, not enough scholarly input to back up the claims they are making.’ Basically, get back in your box, and if you want to decolonize, we’ll do it on our terms.” Being dropped from the diversity committee for “mentioning things to do with race” is continuous with being told to tone it down on the decolonizing special issue. Whiteness can be just as occupying of spaces when they are designated decolonial, I sometimes call this decolonial whiteness.
“Get back in your own box.” I think back to the post-box that has become a nest. There could have been another sign on that box, birds welcome!
Diversity is that sign. That sign would be non-performative, if the post-box was still in use because the birds would be dislodged by the letters, a nest destroyed before it could be created. All those questions, what are you, where are you from, instructions, tone it down, they function as letters in the box, piling up until there is no room left, no room to breathe, to nest, to be. If diversity is that sign, diversity obscures the hostility of an environment.
“An Important Man” (and other stories of reproduction)
An MA student was considering whether to complain about the conduct of a professor. She had already questioned his syllabus which was all white men until week ten. One time she has an essay tutorial with him, she tells him she wants to wrote her essay on gender and race. He says, “if you write on those fucking topics you are going to fucking fail my course, you haven’t fucking understood anything I have been talking about if you think those are the correct questions for this course.” When you ask the wrong questions, you witness the violence of correction. “But then he says, wait, you know what, your so fucking old, your grades don’t really matter, you’re not going to have a career in academia, so right whatever essay you wanted to write; you are going to fail, but it doesn’t matter right, you’re not here to get a good grade, you are not here for a career, your obviously here because you want to learn, so write whatever it is that you wanted, it doesn’t fucking matter.” She hears herself being written off. The complainer, who is questioning the syllabus, becomes the feminist who has got the questions wrong; becomes the old woman who might as well be wrong, a hag as well as a nag, because she can’t proceed, she won’t proceed.
She decides to make a formal complaint because she “wanted to prevent other students from having to go through such practice.” Complaint can be thought of as non-reproductive labour: the work you have to do to stop the same things from happening, to stop the reproduction of an inheritance. When she tells the convenor of the MA programme that she is intending to complain, she receives a warning, “be careful he is an important man.” A warning is a judgement as well as a direction. She goes ahead with the complaint. And she “sacrificed the references.” In reference to the prospect of doing a PhD, she said, “that door is closed.” That door is closed, references can be doors, how some are stopped from progressing. When the door is closed on her complaint, and also on her, she will not be there, bringing to the institution what she might have brought to it, the door is kept open for him so he can keep doing what he has been doing where he has been doing it, behind closed doors.
The figure of the “important man” is teaching us about how institutions work, for whom they work. A retired academic told me how her application for promotion to professor, was “put in the bin.” The university decided to award only one professorship during the promotion process, “So who did get put forward? And of course, it was a man far less qualified by any of the women who had applied…the Head of Department’s argument was that he had very important contacts, very important contacts in the community…in order to keep this guy they had to give him the promotion because they didn’t want to lose him.” They didn’t want to lose him: a door is opened to him because of who he brings with him.
Importance is often predicated on connections. To progress you might be told you need to have or to make the right connections. You might be told not to complain about an important man because you need a reference from him. Or you be might be told to refer to an important man. The more a path is used, the more a path is used. The more he is cited, the more he is cited. We learn not just who to cite, but how to cite. Sarah Franklin has explored sexism in the academy by discussing Professor P’s rather extreme response to one of her essays, a feminist essay on Durkheim; his scrawling marks made mostly with red pen all over her essay turned it into a bloody document. Franklin shows how sexism can be “a means of reproduction” that works by “prohibition or cultivation to select a path – for example by blocking a conversation or an argument when it flows in the ‘wrong’ direction, or enabling the ‘right’ kinds of thinking or critique by creating spaces for them to move into.”
Prohibition or cultivation. Prohibition is an obvious door story, how you are stopped from doing something by being denied entry for doing it, you might end up without a career path if you don’t follow the right path, disciplinary or otherwise. A path, a line. I think of how even decolonizing special issues can require “toeing the line,” recall how a woman of colour was told to “tone it down,” maybe she was being told not just to remove herself from her text but to cite right, cite white. Cultivation is also a door story, a less obvious door story, but a door story nevertheless; what you are told you need to do in order not to have a door closed on you. Earlier I suggested warnings not to complain can be how you are told to align yourself with the institution. Warnings not to complain are part of a cluster of speech acts we sometimes call career advice.
Career advice = straightening device.
Not complaining becomes about developing a more positive attitude to the institution and its legacies. A woman of colour academic describes,
There’s an agreement between people not to rock the boat. People would talk about the institution as a kind of legacy project and would imply that you just didn’t understand how the institution was formed. The implication was that you have to be respectful of how this place was organised and what its traditions were essentially. And if you were not abiding by that it was because you had not been there for ten years.
When a legacy become a project, it signals a relationship to what has been received from the past, think of the words she uses, “respectful,” “abiding,” also “understanding.” The implication is that to complain is to provide evidence that you have not been in an institution long enough to understand it, to respect it, how its organised, its traditions.
You become a complainer when you have not or not yet internalized the norms of the institution. I noted in my introduction that the figure of the complainer becomes a container of negative affect. Negation is also a relation to the institution. You become a complainer when you fail to reproduce an institutional legacy. Remember the woman of colour who was dropped from the diversity committee for mentioning things to do with race? All you have to do is use the word race to be heard as complaining; that word can be evidence you have not internalized the norms of the institution. She explains, “whenever you raise something, the response is that you are not one of them.” A complaint seems to amplify what makes you not fit, picking up what you are not.
The complainer becomes a stranger. You don’t have to make a complaint to become a complainer. I spoke to a lesbian academic who became the first woman to be head of her department, let alone the first lesbian. One time she is introduced by a student as a lesbian head of department, “there was some discussion of that with colleagues, like I had some banner to fly, pushing students to get involved with this.” Just being called a lesbian head of department can be heard as pushing an agenda. Some are judged as being pushy, as rocking the boat, imposing themselves just by virtue of not being or doing more of the same. Being called a lesbian academic is akin to “raising something,” like a flag.
When you raise something, or something is raised about you, it is treated as evidence you do not belong here or you are not meant to be here. Belonging can be expressed as kin and kind. Another academic describes an incident,
It was really weird. It was in the school office, and he started talking about one of my classes, and he said, “The external examiner said something,” and I said, “I don’t actually agree with the external examiner” . . . and he said, “Well fuck you, you don’t fucking know anything, the external examiner is a major professor, fuck off, who the fuck do you think you are talking about him like that in front of other people.” . . . I later found out that the external examiner was one of his closest friends. So I went to the head of school and I said this happened, and she said, “You know, [he] is like the naughty uncle of the school. That’s just how he is, you just have to let it go.”
Friendship networks, family connections. The naughty uncle appears here as a figure, as familiar, but also as an instruction to her: to let it go, not to complain, to accept the shouting and abusing behaviour, because that is what families are like, because that’s what families do. The complainer becomes not us but also not family. To be “one of them,” or not “not one of them,” you have to be in relation to “an important man,” to become his relative. I think of how one post-doctoral researcher was unable to get anyone to support her complaint about her mentors. One student said to her, “I have been here since I was seventeen years old. I grew up with them. I can’t do anything.” To progress as a student becomes akin to growing up, complaining becomes something you cannot do. What you cannot do is what protects them. I communicated with an academic whose work plagiarized by a colleague. The chair told her to “keep quiet about it because they were a family.” He “kept reminding me a lesbian, that [he] has a wife and child.” She could hear what she was being told, that by complaining she would damage not just him but his family. Perhaps that reminder is being addressed to her as somebody assumed not to have a family in need of protection. The protection of a person becomes a protection of their relations.
When I think about protection, I hear silence. When I think back to my experience of complaint, I hear silence. Silence can be a wall. I think of our efforts over three years to try and get the university to acknowledge the problem of sexual harassment. We could not even get an acknowledgement in public that these enquiries had taken place. It was like they never happened, which was, I have no doubt, the effect they were looking for. The very first mention of them in public was in fact a post on my blog, written just after I resigned, which is probably telling you something about why I resigned. The university treated my resignation posts as a leak, making a mess, causing damage. But it was not just the university that treated my disclosure as damaging. A feminist colleague described my action as “unprofessional,” because it caused “a fall-out which damages us all now and in the future.” We are learning what it means to be professional. To be professional is to be willing to keep the institution’s secrets. It is important to note then that silence is not just something enforced by management or marketing departments, silence can be performed as loyalty, turned into a duty by our own colleagues, including feminist colleagues, silence to protect important people, silence to protect resources, silence to protect reputation, individual, institutional, silence as promotion, how you maximize your chances of going further or getting more from the institution.
In other words, if the story of “an important man” is a story of who is protected and promoted, it is a story of how many get enlisted into doing that work. An early career lecturer talked about why people don’t tend to make complaints in her university because of who would receive them, “People don’t want to rock the boat with [senior academics], because they are so important and they bring in this grant money and their names really matter.” Not wanting to rock the boat can be part of an effort to maintain good relations to those who are more important because of how they bring in more resources. So much violence is enabled and reproduced because people do not think they can “rock the boat,” which means there is so much violence in “keeping things steady” or in “steadying.” When you complain, especially in public, you are then judged as trying to make the whole thing unsteady, as damaging “us all,” and by “us all” translate those for whom the institution means more resources. Audre Lorde told us this would happen. She said that those who are resourced by the master’s house will find those who try to dismantle it, even those who just question what he does in there, threatening.
If to complain is to hear silence, to complain is also to hear the clunk, clunk of the institutional machinery, how the system is working by stopping those who try to stop it from working. We know how institutions reproduce themselves when we try to intervene in their reproduction. When you make a complaint, you might not necessarily begin by thinking of yourself as part of a movement nor as a critic of the institution let alone as trying “to dismantle the master’s house” to evoke the title of Audre Lorde’s important essay. But that is where many who make complaints end up. There is hope in this trajectory.
Conclusion: No, and Other Queer Tales
The title of the third part of the book is, “If These Doors Could Talk.” In listening to doors, I have been learning about power, how the door that is kept open to some is the same door shut on others. The image on the front of Complaint! is by the artist Rachel Whiteread. I love how the double doors are an assembly, telling us about time, as well as space, how they resemble funerary slabs, telling us something about who is departed. Doors have stories to tell, they can be how we tell our stories. Doors have queer uses. Remember the birds who turned a post-box into a nest? I think of these birds as our queer kin, they turned an opening intended for letters into a door, a queer door, way of getting into and out of a box. A queer door can be how we make room for ourselves. I think back to Judith Butler’s discussion of coming out as coming into a bounded space such as a basement or university. There was a door in that story. In Undoing Gender (2004), Butler tells another door story; she talks about being in the basement of her house “having locked the door,” and in the “smoke filled” airless room, finding books that once belonged to her parents, or at last passed through their hands, philosophy books that ignited her desire. Spaces that might seem like closets, or containers, can be where queer things can happen, where we pick something up that gives us somewhere else to go.
A shut door, a room. I am listening to an indigenous academic. She told me how she could hardly manage to get to campus after a sustained campaign of bullying and harassment from white faculty, including a concerted effort by a senior manager, another important man, no doubt, to sabotage her tenure case as well as the tenure cases of other indigenous academics. When doors are closed, nay, slammed in your face, it can be history you are up against. Her complaint goes nowhere. So she found another way of taking them on,
I took everything off my door, my posters, my activism; my pamphlets. I smudged everything all around the building. I knew I was going to war; I did a war ritual in our tradition. I pulled down the curtain. I pulled on a mask, my people we have a mask…and I never opened my door for a year. I just let it be a crack. And only my students could come in. I would not let a single person come in to my office who I had not already invited there for a whole year.
Closing the door is how she says no to the institution that demands access to her, whilst taking so much something from her. She closes the door to the institution by withdrawing herself, her commitments, from it. She still does her work; she still teaches her students. She uses the door to shut out what she can, who she can. She takes herself off the door; she depersonalises it. She pulls down the blinds. She pulls on a mask, the mask of her people, connecting her fight to the battles that came before, because, quite frankly, for her, this is a war.
Our battles are not the same battles. But there are many battles happening behind closed doors. Behind closed doors: that is where complaints are often found, so that is where you might find us too, those of us for whom the institution is not built; and what we bring with us, who we bring us, the worlds that would not be here if some of us were not here, our bodies, our memories, the more we have to spill, the tighter the hold. The more we have to spill. Many complaints end up in containers otherwise known as filing cabinets.
That filing cabinet can be thought of as an institutional closet. What is buried here is what the institution does not want revealed. We too can be buried here; our lives can be the details of their documents. One student said her complaint was “shoved in a box.” Another student describes how complaints end up in the “the complaint graveyard.” Perhaps filing cabinets are where complaints go to die.
If complaints end up in the institutional closet, the work of complaint includes the work of getting complaints out. A disabled student was not getting anywhere with her complaint about the failure of the university to make reasonable accommodations. And then a file suddenly appears, “a load of documents turned up on the student’s union fax machine and we don’t know where they came from, they were historical documents about students who had to leave.” The documents including a hand-written letter to a human rights charity by a former student who had cancer, and who was trying to get the university to let her finish her degree part-time. She speculates that a secretary was doing “their own little bit of direct action,” releasing those documents as a way of giving support to her complaint that she was not supposed to give. It is not surprising that a secretary can become a saboteur; secretary derives from secrets, the secretary is a keeper of secrets. If the student I spoke to hadn’t made her complaint, that letter would have stayed put, the file too; dusty, buried. So many are involved in pulling something out, pulling something off. A complaint made in the present can release complaints from the past.
We can meet in an action without meeting in person. I think of all the different actions in the book, I call them complaint activisms – students and academics who performed their complaints, who turned complaints into posters, put them on leaflets or as expressed them as graffiti on books or on walls. Complaints can be sneaky as well as leaky. When it is made hard to get complaints out, complaints can be the sound of a release, eehhhhh. This is why I have placed such a strong emphasis on the sound of the work in the work, not just the clunk, clunk of the institutional machine, but the groans and moans of what we keep coming up against. The doors slam. So, we knock on the door. We knock on the door not to demand entry but to create a disturbance. I hear Audre Lorde knocking on a door, telling us something’s up. In an interview with Adrienne Rich, Lorde describes her fascination with a poem “The Listener,” a poem about a traveller who rides a horse up to the door of an apparently empty house,
He knocks at the door and nobody answers. ‘Is there anybody there?’ he said and he has a feeling that there really is somebody in there. And then he turns his horse and he says, ‘Tell them I came,’ and nobody answered. ‘That I kept my word.’ I used to recite that poem to myself all the time. It was one of my favorites. And if you’d asked me, what is it about, I don’t think I could have told you. But this was the first cause of my own writing, my need to say things I couldn’t say otherwise, when I couldn’t find other poems to serve.
It is important to follow Lorde, to go where she goes. When we are fascinated by something we do not always know why. Lorde keep reciting the poem; she says “it imprinted on her.” I think of that imprint: the print of a poem on a person. The point is not in the answer, whether someone answers, but in the knock; the knock is the action. You might be knocking on the door of consciousness, trying to hear something, to admit what we have shut out, the violence that can make it so hard to focus or function. Or you might be knocking on the door of the master’s house because you know that house is haunted. To knock on that door, to make that sound, not “knock, knock, who is there?” but “knock, knock, we are here,” is to disturb the spirits who linger here because of the violence that has not been dealt with.
Scratching too can be not just a mark, but a sound, the sound of labour, the little bird scratching away. We hear that scratching as speech, as spillage, as testimony, different ways of getting messages out. Those scratches, that scramble of letters, eehhhhh, can be how we get our complaints on the wall. I think of how, after I left my post, students put words from my work on the wall.
Yes, they were taken down. But they cannot stop them from having been there.
And I think of how, by resigning, saying no in public, people came to me with their complaints. I became part of a collective, a complaint collective, we are assembled before you.
Earlier I shared a picture of what a complaint looks like.
Perhaps this image is a queer map of the organization, telling us all the places we have been to try and get our complaints through. The more we don’t get through, the more we have to do. Yes, this is hard, exhausting, also shattering. But think of this: each line might be a conversation, one that you had to have, a conversation that can open a door, just a little, just enough, so that someone else can enter, can hear something. Each line might be time, the time it takes to get somewhere, time as a queer line, going round and about as how you find things out. Each line might be a path, the places you go, the unlit rooms, the shadows, the doorways, a line as a lead, who you find on your way there. Each line might take us back, how we learn there are more, how we hear of others who complained before. Each line can be thrown forward, a leak as a lead, how those who come after you can pick something up, because of what you tried to do, even though you did not get through, even though all you seemed to do was scratch the surface. What you left behind they find. That we find each other through complaint is a finding. That complaints are made is how we come to know something happened here, what happened here: no as a trail, another queer tale.
*I have given different versions of this lecture “Complaint as a Queer Method,” over the last 2 years. This is the most recent version given as a zoom lecture (the 28th Annual Margaret Laurence Lecture Department of Gender and Social Justice, Trent University, March 10, 2022). The video is linked in the opening sentence. I have edited the spoken version only for clarification. I will be developing the framework of “complaint as a queer method” in The Complainer’s Handbook.
I have been listening to stories of complaint. I have been collecting complaints. To collect can mean to go to a place and bring somebody back or to bring things together from different times or places. To bring somebody back, to bring us together, to collect complaints is to create a complaint collective. One student said toward the end of sharing her story, “another straw to the bale.” I replied, “it’s a stuffed bale.” Complaint! is stuffed full of our stories. Those who complain about abuses of power, about inequalities and injustices, have so much to say because we have so much to do. I am now speaking “after complaint,” by which I mean after the book, not the work, the work of complaint is, of course, ongoing. The book itself came after so much, after my experience of supporting students who complained, after leaving my post, my profession, because of what happened when we complained, after listening to many of you talk about your complaints and the work you do. Despite all these afters, I still feel that I am in complaint, that complaint has remained present, that the time of complaint is now, urgent and necessary. I have not, I will not, leave complaint behind. And yet, it is hard for me to think about complaint without thinking about leaving. What happens to us, and to our complaints, when we leave the institutions in which we made them? What happens if we cannot leave, if we cannot open a door or walk down a corridor without a sharp reminder of what happened there, of what happened then?
I am speaking to a woman about her experiences as a postgraduate student. She is no longer working in the university sector, what happened when she complained about sexual harassment by another student, led her to see that the university as it was, was not what she wished it to be, was not where she wished to work. We are getting ready to leave the conversation. And, she said to me, “I know that you get it. And I know you will do something with it.” I am still moved by her trust. I said to her “It’s a shared project.” And then I said, “Even if you leave, I left too, that kind of experience you take with you, wherever you go.” And then she said, “it never leaves you.” And then she said it again, with a different, stronger, emphasis, “It will never ever leave you.” Complaints, some of them, those that lead you to confront the institution, don’t leave you, not now, not ever, never.
Many of the stories of complaint I share in the book are in one way or another stories of leaving. A senior lecturer said, “I can’t leave and they know that. I am not employable elsewhere. I don’t have monographs. I haven’t been Head of Department.” Her story was a story of not being able to leave because the experiences that led her to complaint, being bullied by her head of department, and her experience of complaint, watching him get away with it, stopped her from being able to do the kind of work that might have given her that option. Some people only complain because they are leaving or because they know they can leave, which tells you what they know about complaint. One postgraduate student said, “I would never want to file a complaint without knowing I could leave. Retaliation is real. People can do stuff to you whether it is recorded or not.” So much of what happens when you complain, so much that is real, is hard to evidence. You could end up with nowhere to go without anyone knowing how or why that happened. Or maybe they are not going to let you leave. Another postgraduate student said, “it was a three-hour meeting that was just trying to shut us down. The line I really remember was ‘we are not going to leave until we get this sorted’ because we were treated like unruly girls who needing disciplining.” They are going to make you sort it out by treating you as the ones who need to be sorted out. Or maybe when you complain you watch them trying to make you leave. A professor said, “And that’s what they wanted: they wanted to take me out totally, so that I would leave, tail between my legs.” Taking you out can be what a complaint ends up being about A senior lecturer said, she could hear them saying something without saying anything, “oh be gone from here, ‘you problem,’ you leave, get out and then you take that with you.” They want you to leave on the assumption that the problem will go away when you do.
If we leave, and some of us leave, we take our complaints with us. But the problems don’t go away when we do. We become recorders, even when we are gone, we can tell you what is going on. In my conclusion I describe complaints as our noisy companions. We can become our complaints, and perhaps also each other’s. Today, I want to reflect back on the research with you, speaking after the book but not after the work. I will interweave stories from my own experience of complaint, with stories from the research and from sharing the research.
I want to open with the question of when, the question of time, of timing. When does a complaint begin? How to begin the story of complaint? How to tell that story? On paper, this is the institutional story, a complaint is pictured as a flow-chart, with straight lines and pointy arrows, giving the would-be complainer a clear route through.
Things are not always as they appear. I suggested in the book that if we were to picture a complaint it would more like this, it’s a mess, a tangle, you can get in, but you can’t work out how to get out.
Perhaps if this is a picture of complaint, it is also a picture of time and also of a life, what a life can become in the time of complaint. A complaint is like a bag that gets heavier in time, the longer it takes the more it weighs. One student who complained about harassment from a professor described, “it is my theory they have been putting in the long finger and pulling this out, dragging this out over unacceptable periods of time, to try and tire me out so that I will just give up.” Time can be used as a tool, to tire us out, so that we will retire our complaints. Or it might be the time a complaint takes is time as some of us don’t have. I think of how an international student made her complaint at the same time her visa was running out “Ten days before my visa was about to run out, I applied for a new visa. And they were like how can we give her a visa she is on probation. You have to have good standing to get a visa and they were like this complaint thing is open.” The more precarious you are, the more you risk losing your footing. A student with a chronic illness described how “the complaint hinged on them not giving me the time. I said you should have given me more time, more than a week, to do all this paper work. You can’t then get pissed off with me when I don’t do the paperwork and moreover you can’t do that for a PhD student who is registered disabled.” The ableism that leads you to complain, not being given the additional time you need can be reencountered when you complain, not being given the additional time you need. The failure to recognise that some of us have less time, or that some of us need more time, can be how a door is shut. That is why if the book is about institutions, it is about who is missing from them.
What if the door, one of the central motifs of the book, is also telling us about time? The image on the front of Complaint! is called Double Doors, by the artist Rachel Whiteread. Here is a description of the work, “Look carefully—this work is more complicated than it seems. These are not doors; instead, they capture the space created by doors. Whiteread made plaster casts of both sides of two doors, then assembled the casts back-to-back. The finished work combines the spaces on either side of a threshold—fusing entrance and exit into one solid form. The pale doors suggest the ambiguous emotions attached to coming and going and, in the way they resemble funerary slabs, maybe even the fleeting passage of life.” I love how her doors are an assembly, evoking time as well as space, passing, passing through, passing by, passages, comings and goings. I think it matters that the doors resemble “funerary slabs,” doors pointing to graves, doors telling us about who is departed.
It was very early on in the research that I noticed how doors kept coming up, actual doors, doors with difficult to use handles, revolving doors. A student who made a complaint about the conduct of a professor on her MA said of the prospect of doing a PhD, “that door is closed.” That is quite an ordinary expression. I noticed the door in the expression because of how doors had already come up. We often make use of doors to explain what we cannot do, where we cannot go, a future can be shut like a door. That doors are everywhere in complaint is telling us something about complaint. We are more likely to notice doors when we can’t open them. Doors can be the master’s tools, to evoke Audre Lorde, how some get in, how other’s become trespassers. When complaints are made confidential, they happen “behind closed doors.” That expression can refer to the actual doors that are closed so someone can tell their story in confidence. It can also mean the process of keeping something secret from a wider public. In the book then, I am opening a door, trying to let out or express something that has been kept secret.
It can take time to open the door. A postgraduate student is being harassed by her supervisor. She’s a queer woman of colour: she is from a working class-background; she is the first person in her family to go to university. She has had to fight really hard to get here. She knows something is not right, she is feeling more and more uncomfortable: he keeps pushing boundaries, wanting to meet off campus, then in coffee shops, then at his house. She tries to handle the situation, “I tried very hard to keep all of the meetings on campus, and to keep the door open.” She keeps the door open; an actual door at the same time as she closes other another kind of door, we might call this door the door of consciousness. She describes “I thought I would take myself down by admitting to the kind of violence he was enacting.” Take myself down: to admit to violence can feel like becoming your own killjoy, getting in the way of your own progression. To admit can mean to confess a truth as well as to let something in. Note how doors can hold a contradiction, keeping the office door open is an admission of a truth that she handles by not letting it in. But handles can stop working,
I was sitting with another colleague at another lunch another day and he started texting me these naked photos of himself and I think I just hit a critical mass of like, I just can’t handle it anymore. I said just look at this, and she was just like, you know like, completely speechless…. And then like it suddenly started to seep into me, into her, in this shared conversation about like, how horrible and violent that I am having to receive these things, right, and so that basically put a process in motion.
For a complaint to come out the violence has to get in. And when the violence gets in, it gets not only into her but into her colleague; into the conversation, into the room in which they are having that conversation. This is why even when complaints are directed toward something, they are hard to contain.
The time of complaint does not feel like a straight line, complaints go everywhere, they get everywhere. Complaints can queer time as well as space, you end up all over the place. Complaints can follow you home.
You can open the door of consciousness, also your life, and then what? Opening a door is never completed by one action. You might admit what happened, but then when you try and share the story, as she did, you will hear more doors being shut. She goes to the office responsible for handling complaints, “they were like, ‘you can file a complaint. But he’s really well loved by the university, he has a strong publication record, you are going to go through all of this emotional torment.’ It was even proposed that he could counter sue me for defamation of character. The line was essentially, you can do this, but why would you.” A warning that a complain will have dire consequences, that to complain is to hurtle toward a miserable fate, can take the form of institutional fatalism: statements about what institutions are like, what they are as what they will be, who they love, who they will protect. In the end she does not file a formal complaint, she knew what she was being told: that she wouldn’t get anywhere, it wouldn’t get anywhere, because he was going somewhere. The door shut on her complaint is kept open for him. That is how doors, tell us about time, the time of repetition, what we keep having to do, the points we keep having to make.
Doors can be shut by appearing to be open. Consider how diversity is often figured as an open door, come in, come in, minorities welcome. Just because they welcome you, it does not mean they expect you to turn up. One university turned the “open door” of diversity, we can call this door the diversity door, into a project of attaching photographs of Black and minority ethic students and staff to door panels across the campus. BME students and staff are pictured not even as going through the door but as on the door. A woman of colour described her department as a revolving door, women and minorities enter only to head out again, whoosh, whoosh. We can be kept out by what we find out when we get in. Maybe diversity too is a tale about time, comings and goings, how when some of us enter, we quickly leave again.
I think back to that complaint procedure, that flow chart, flow, flow, away we go. So often when we try and follow procedures, use policies, we encounter an obstruction. One academic made a complaint about bullying by her head of department did so in part as her university had developed new policies and complaint procedures, only to realise “they did not mean what they said.” She describes them as “window dressing.” Complaint procedures can be rather like diversity, then; window dressing, door dressing. I spoke to two students who made a complaint at an institution that had developed new complaints procedures intended to create a more positive welcoming environment for the complainer. That was not what they experienced, “The tone was horrendous. It was basically like ‘tutt’ stop it (accompanied by hand gesture), that sort of attitude; like that tutt if you could make that noise it was in there somewhere.” When you make a complaint, you hear that “tutt, tutt,” as if you are an irritating fly they are trying to brush away, a complaint as what they will away, a complaint met by a go away. What comes at you is not revealed to others. Escalation of force is not only a consequence of a complaint; it is often used as a method to stop complaints. It is not just time that becomes heavy, you feel the weight of an institution come down on you. Escalation can also be used to discredit those who complain. An international student, described escalation as “a deliberate strategy. Because it is so extreme, people think that either the person is saying something is being extreme and therefore irrational and a drama queen, or the person has done something and they are not saying that was so extreme that elicited the extreme reaction.” What is not revealed to others is often what is most harmful and violent about the complaint process. And then you can be the one who appears extreme, making something out of nothing.
When we complain we often experience what does not appear, and what appears is not what we experience. We mind a gap, we find a gap, we fall right into it. An early career lecturer is returning after long term sick leave. She is neuroatypical and she is not given the time she needs to return to work, to do her work, “there are like four channels of complaint going on at the same time. But interestingly none of these people seem to be crossing over. You duplicate the complaint at different times, emails, phone calls, occupational health; the union. It is generating all this material and all this paper work but actually nothing seems to shift. It’s just a file, actually.” You have to keep telling the same story because different people are not talking to reach other, falling into the gaps can mean more and more work. Making a complaint can mean going over and over something, the same point, a sore point. All that work, all those conversations, all that time, and the complaint ends up in a file.
A file, a filing cabinet. Another student described where her complaint ended up as “the complaint graveyard.” Perhaps a filing cabinet is another door, a funerary slab, where a complaint goes to die. But even if our complaints end up in files, which means we too end up in files, bits and pieces of our lives can be the details in a document, they are not only there. Our bodies store what institutions file away. One senior academic describes “you have a lot of strain and mental anguish which comes out in different ways, and the way that mine came out was in my back. That was when I started having this really bad back problem.” The less backing you have, the more weight you have to bear. A back can bear the burden of the weight of a complaint. A back can tell the story of what is required to do this work. Our bodies tell the time of complaint.
The time it takes, the time we are in. I was finishing this book in the time of a pandemic. The times you are in, the work we do in the times we are in. I was interviewed recently by Adrija Dey for Wasafiri. She asked me about the pandemic, and in answering her question, I mentioned filing cabinets. Let me share what I said,
I finished Complaint! at a time of mass trauma and loss. I have no doubt that the affective reality of our times is in the book, how could it not be? To write in some situations we need to let them in. I wrote this book with a sense of urgency and responsibility. In the introduction I write that I did not want to become a filing cabinet; we have too many of them already. I did not want the stories that had been shared with me before the pandemic to sit with me, to pile up, during it. I wanted, I needed, to get them out, to give these stories of complaint, these complaints, somewhere to go. Writing this book was thus very orientating. It gave me a focus, a rather fierce focus at that. I had a sense of a point and a purpose. But it became painful and hard when I sent the book in. I felt its absence deeply.
I still do.
When I think of the where of complaint, I think first of where I worked. Mostly when you are involved in a complaint, you are still at work; you are still doing your work. The work I did was to support a collective complaint that had already been put forward by students. I first met with the students in our department’s meeting room. They told me what had been going on, and for how long. It was so much to take in. When I think about leaving post, why it became necessary, I think of that room. I would keep entering it, because it was my department’s meeting room, a much-used room. I would keep going by it, because it was the first room on the corridor after the administrator’s room; I went by it to get to my office. We would have other meetings in that room, academic meetings, papers shuffling, papers and persons being rearranged. The room was occupied by a history that felt as tangible as the walls. I could not just turn up at the same old meetings, doing the same old things.
I think too of my office. Just after the meeting with the students, a feminist colleague came to my office. I told her some of what the students told me. She burst into tears. She said something like, “after all of our work this still happens.” There is so much feminist grief in this still, that the same things happen, still, despite everything, all that work, feminist work, our work, to try to change the culture of sexual harassment. We need time, also space, to express this grief, to turn it out, and, sometimes, to turn it into complaint.
In the weeks following that first meeting, more students came to talk to me. They came into my office. In an endnote in chapter 6, a little hidden, but it is there, I quote from a student “we’re all concerned that your office has become something of an emergency drop-in centre for women in various states of crisis. I hope you’re alright”. We share the work we share concern. The students did not come to me because I had any special training or skills. I didn’t and I don’t. They came to me because I was willing to listen. They came because they had so few places to go. I became a feminist ear because of the failure of the institution to listen to their complaints, to take them seriously. To become a feminist ear is to find a way to get the complaints moving again. I am grateful that the students I worked with became my complaint collective and that they, Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, Alice Corble, with support from Heidi Hasbrouck, Chryssa Sdrolia and others, wrote about what they did, how the “moved something,” in one of the conclusions to the book.
We gave each other room. We give each other room. As I did the research, I was conscious of rooms, how to give a testimony is to give it from somewhere. I talked to a student when she was at work. She was in a room, a seminar room. And she started telling me about a very difficult meeting that took place, to use her words, “in this exact room.” Being “in this exact room,” the same room, it matters. You end up telling the story of complaint in the same place you made the complaint.
Immanence, we are in it, even when we are trying to get out of it. Complaints can make us more conscious of what we are in, of the rooms we are in. Earlier I described the experiences of a neurotypical lecturer whose complaint that she needed more time took so much time, generating all this material that ended up in a file. Let me share with you her description of what it feels like to do this work,
It was like a little bird scratching away at something and it wasn’t really having any effect. It was just really small, small; small and behind closed doors. I think people maybe feel that because of the nature of the complaint, and you are off work so they have to be polite and not talk about it and so much of their politeness is because they don’t want to say something. And maybe [it is] to do with being in an institution and the way they are built; long corridors, doors with locks on them, windows with blinds that come down, it seems to sort of imbue every part of it with a cloistered feeling, there is no air, it feels suffocating.
A complaint as something you are doing can acquire exteriority, becoming a thing in the world; scratching away; a little bird, all your energy going into an activity that matters so much to what you can do, who you can be, but barely seems to leave a trace; the more you try, the smaller it becomes, you become, smaller; smaller still. A complaint becomes a magnifying glass: so much appears, so many details are picked up by an attention; the geography of a place, the building, the long corridors, the locked doors, the windows with blinds that come down, less light, less room. To fight for room can be how you become more conscious of what little room you have. I think of those birds scratching away and I think of diversity work, described to me by a practitioner as a “banging your head on the wall job.” When the wall keeps its place, it is you that ends up sore. And what happens to the wall? All you seem to have done is scratching the surface. Scratching can give you a sense of the limits of what you can accomplish.
A sense of the limits of what you can accomplish is a sense of the institution. Note how a complaint becomes a magnifying glass: so much appears, so many details are picked up by an attention; the geography of a place, the building, the long corridors, the locked doors, the windows with blinds that come down, less light, less room. She also said, “I was just frightened and I just allowed myself to go through it very privately and I hit all those doors along the way, and just came out very guarded by it.” That there are so many doors in these stories is telling us something; you notice doors when you hit them rather than going through them. A door becomes part of the story, her story, as well as the story of her complaint, behind closed doors, how she goes through the process privately, hitting the doors, how she becomes guarded. Doors tell us not only about when of complaint but the where of it, the immanence of complaint, how complaints are made in the institutions they are about, how they are stopped by those same institutions.
The environment in which you make the complaint becomes part of the problem. Complaints about hostile environments are made in hostile environments. Many harassment policies use this term for the creation of a work culture that is undermining and degrading to a person or persons. In the UK, the term “hostile environment” has since been used by government as the name of a policy on illegal immigration. The use of a term that was already definitional of work place harassment for policy teaches us how harassment become a national policy. The category of “illegal immigrant” is a racializing category; you can be brown or black and born here and still be told to go back, go home, yes that was a message sent out on a van; racial harassment as a national policy, the right to interrogate those who appear not from here.
You might open the door only to find a hostile environment otherwise known as the diversity committee. A woman of colour describes, “I was on the equality and diversity group in the university. And as soon as I started mentioning things to do with race, they changed the portfolio of who could be on the committee and I was dropped.” You just have to say race to be heard as a complainer, dropped for being too negative, unhelpful. If you are dropped from a diversity committee for mentioning things to do with race, diversity is a way of not mentioning things to do with race. Another time, she is writing a paper for a special issue of a journal on decolonizing her discipline. She receives feedback from a white editor, “the response of the editor was ‘needs to be toned down, not enough scholarly input to back up the claims they are making.’ Basically, get back in your box, and if you want to decolonize, we’ll do it on our terms.” Being dropped from the diversity committee for “mentioning things to do with race” is continuous with being told to tone it down on the decolonizing special issue. The more we refuse the instructions, the more they are issued, don’t use that word, tone it down, remove yourself from your text; cite right, cite white.
She also told me about a conversation she had with her head of department. She is trying to explain to him why students of colour do not feel they can make complaints about racism,
He said he was sympathetic because of Brexit and started talking about Muslim students being attacked on the bus. I said the department is reproducing a culture that isn’t inclusive no matter how sympathetic you are. If you had an experience on the bus you are not going to come back to the department and tell them about it, are you, if it’s the same department where when you have a cup of tea, the white people go to a different part of the room.
It seems a complaint about racism can be received sympathetically if racism is elsewhere, outside, on the streets, in the bus. The Head of Department’s statement of sympathy, his performance of sympathy, is directed toward racism that is over there. But seeing racism there can be how you don’t see it here, how you enact it here (white people going to different parts of the room). Racism can be what stops a complaint about racism.
Complaints about hostile environments are made in hostile environments. A trans student made an informal complaint that their department “had made it a hostile environment for [them] as a trans student.” The complaint came about after the student had questioned the department’s sponsoring of a trans-hostile group on campus. The student was asked to attend a meeting in which the complaint was treated as “a difference in opinion on this topic.” They said, “[It was] as if I was having some kind of tantrum for not getting my way rather than it being a fundamental issue about existence.” Their complaint went nowhere—it did not get uptake or initiate a formal process. A student who was part of the trans-hostile group made a countercomplaint about the trans student for harassment and bullying. Her complaint was directed against an individual who made a complaint about an environment. And her complaint got uptake; a disciplinary process was initiated and was dropped only at the very final stage. Whether or not a complaint gets uptake can depend on the extent to which the environment of the institution in which the complaint is made is made part of the problem. When you make the environment part of the problem, your complaint becomes more of a problem.
What then about the environments in which I shared this material? One time, pre-pandemic, I gave a lecture in person. Students came up to me after. They told me about the students who could not be there because just the week before there had been a town hall meeting in that same lecture theatre, a town hall meeting, which had been very difficult, very painful. The people I was trying to reach, those who had been through it, what I was trying to describe, would not be there because of where I was saying it. Now, each time I speak, I think of this, just now, I think of this, all of the people who cannot be with us because of what we are trying to address and where we are trying to address it. I think of the where of complaint and I think of who is not here.
Why complain? I didn’t ask those I spoke to this question, but many in giving me stories of the complaints they made answered this question. A Black woman professor describes:
It was something I had to do because of my politics. A wrong had been done. I had to make sure it had been put right even at my own personal expense it turned out. I’d still do that again. I’d do it for another person, not for me, if the same thing happened I would do it again.
For many complaints don’t feel like something you could do, or even as a choice you make, but what you have to do, given your politics, your commitments. She would complain again not for herself but for another person despite what happened to her; perhaps even because of what happened to her. You do not want those who come after to go through what you went through.
To intervene in something wrong requires noticing it. You have to keep noticing it when it keeps happening. Noticing can be about recognising how universities are occupied by many histories that can leave some with no room. A woman of colour explained to why she made a complaint about bullying and harassment from senior white men. She described how the senior white men belittled the work of students and more junior colleagues, how they kept making sexist, ableist and racist comments. This is one comment “I’m from London and London is just ripe for ethnic cleansing.” She described how people laughed and how the laughter filled the room.” She commented on these comments, “These were the sort of things being aired.” Even the air is occupied. She decided to complain because “she wanted it recorded, “and “the culture was being reproduced for new PhD students.” You have to record what you do not want to reproduce.
This is why I think of complaint as non-reproductive labour, the work you have to do to stop the reproduction of an inheritance, to stop the same things from happening. She gathered statements from around twenty people in her department. A complaint can be a collective. A meeting is set up in response to her complaint. At that meeting she was described by the head of human resources as “having a chip on her shoulder,” “they treated the submission as an act of arrogance on my part.” A grievance is heard as a grudge, a “we” turned into a me. She added, “whenever you raise something, the response is that you are not one of them.” A complaint seems to amplify what makes you not fit, picking up what you are not. A complainer becomes a stranger, a trespasser, a foreigner, not from here, not really from here, not. A stranger can be dismissed. She explains what happens, “it was all swept under the carpet and exactly the same things continued.” When those who try to stop a culture from being reproduced are stopped, a culture is being reproduced. The disappearance of the complaint, and the complainer (she left the department), creates the impression that reproduction is smooth and seamless. But the complainers, we know what is under the carpet; how much gets brushed away to keep things as they are.
In sharing complaints, I am making complaints. I have thus come up against the exact same mechanisms I was describing, I have heard that sweep, sweep, that whoosh whoosh. One time, I was about to give a lecture in a university, and I was sent a direct message on twitter. It was a warning that the person who had invited me, was using the invitation as a screen and that he himself had been the object of many complaints about sexual harassment. The message came to me just before the lecture. I went ahead with it, against my killjoy judgement, because I did not want to let people down, those who were coming to listen. After the lecture, there was a dinner. The professor began speaking to me, leaning on me, telling me how teaching was erotic, how students wanted to have sex with the professors, so what could they do. I felt the hand of a feminist colleague on my arm, not a disciplining hand, but a hand that said, I know you need to get out of here. I got out of there. I felt sick at how I had let myself be used like that.
Mind you, as a scholar of colour, I am used to being used by organizations. We are often invited to speak to institutions of whiteness about diversity, because whatever we say, however critical we are, they know we will go away again, whoosh, whoosh.
Another time I gave a lecture that included a discussion of nodding as a non-performative, nodding as appearing to agree to something, nodding as a way of not bringing something into effect. The lecture was funded centrally so there were a number of senior managers in attendance. They were seated toward the front of the lecture theatre. Afterwards some students came up to me (thank you to all the students who come up to me!). They had been seated behind the senior managers. The students observed that the senior managers had been nodding throughout my lecture including nodding during my discussion of nodding as non-performative. The students were at the tail end of a long and difficult complaint. And they told me that the management had enacted the same tactics that I was describing in the lecture. Nodding can be about recognising a problem insofar as the problem is safely construed as being somewhere else or as coming from someone else. If you can nod at the critique of nodding, then you can appear to recognise the problem of appearing to recognise a problem.
Our critiques of non-performative gestures can be received by non-performative gestures. A woman of colour I interviewed, described how white feminists would constantly refer to my work, claiming it, even the critiques of whiteness, as if they were not implicated in it. She joked “We can ask them to put on a non-performative badge. That’s you, we are talking about you!” Even then, they would probably nod, and not get it. I appreciated reading, Helena Lui’s critique of this white feminist gesture: “Have you heard of Sara Ahmed? You’d love her!’ This laboured pronouncement from white scholars can feel like another violence. It is as though we, as women of color, are seen as one and the same. Professing their love for Ahmed is as though they are professing love to me, all while closing the door of academia in my face.” An empty gesture, a laboured pronouncement.
We can be invited, cited, as individuals, but remember sometimes they find it hard to tell us apart, and still have doors shut upon us. They claim our work as a way of not doing the work. Another woman of colour who wrote to me about complaints and she and her colleagues had made. She said “There’s another man on my campus who has been the subject of complaint from women who has a “feminist killjoy” sign on his door. When one of the women he had harmed told him that seeing the sign on his door after everything he had done made her uncomfortable, he filed a civility complaint against her to the chair. I don’t know how any of this is possible.” I don’t know it is possible. But we need to know that it is possible. I think of how feminist killjoy can end up as a sign on a door. Those who abuse the power can and do use the terms we have to critique that abuse of power, our terms becoming screens, assertions of their right to occupy time and space. We can say, you are doing this, appropriating the feminist killjoy for your own ends, and he might look over his shoulder, assuming you are talking about someone else, or if he does see himself, defend himself, so that we become uncivil, the problem for pointing out the problem, all over again.
It is not just that those of us who embody diversity end up on the door. Our critiques of diversity end up on the door. My book Complaint! could end up on that damn door, that funerary slab. Or it could end up in a complaint file. A student attended one of my lectures in which I had shared our stories of complaint. She wrote to me some time after,
One of the worst parts was the tribunal at the end, where we were cross-examined by my supervisor’s lawyer, without any guidelines in place to regulate what could be asked. This turned out badly for many reasons. However, what I thought might be of interest was that me and the other complainants were asked by the lawyer, suspiciously, if we read ‘feminist theory’(!) and specifically whether we’d attended your lecture xxx on complaint. The implication was that we’d somehow all got together after the lecture and workshop to plot a complaint, although the process had in fact begun far earlier. The university team had to collect other people’s tweets about your lecture and work to demonstrate that my tweet was not unusual.
Attendance at a lecture on complaint can be used as evidence against a complainant. We know it can because it was. We are learning the different ways complainers are made into strangers, trespassers, complaints as originating with outsiders, and not with those who are having to do the work because of what happened in the institutions in which they work. A complaint is used as evidence of a feminist plot. I can be a feminist plot. A lecture can be a feminist pot. A book can be. You can be. We can be. Feminism is often treated as infection, what causes a complaint to spread. Yet doors are used to stop complaints from shared, to stop us knowing about each other, or learning from each other. It takes a political movement to open those doors. What is represented as an organic process is often dependent on political work. We have to organise because of what we come up against, and then we are dismissed because we organize. How we are dismissed is evidence of the work we need to do and why we are doing it.
If it takes a political movement to open the doors, it takes a political movement to survive the consequences. We are that movement. When I think about why, why I did this research, that movement that comes to mind. Why is who, who I am writing to. I am writing to you, you know who you are, those who complain for a more just world. Audre Lorde once said that for some “survival is not an academic skill.” For some surviving the academy is not an academic skill. I think of the writing, that helped me survive the academy, to find my way through it, work by Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Aileen Moreton Robinson, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, bell hooks, thank you bell, Gloria Anzaldua, Avtar Brah, Gail Lewis, and many others. We have so many behind us, so many to carry with us, to what we need to do.
We need to transform institutions to survive them. But we still need to survive the institutions we are trying to transform. I am writing to those for whom survival is a project. We end up having to push hard against institutions, to organise, to form collectives, because of how our complaints are stopped from getting out or how we are stopped from getting through. And those who do most of this kind of work are often those who are most precarious, the least supported. I wanted to thank you, acknowledge you, the work you do. I still do.
Conclusion: Complaint Collectives
Earlier I suggested that opening the door is not completed by one action. We have to keep opening it, because of how it keeps getting shut. A shut door can be a wall. When I think back to my experience of complaint, what was hardest about it, I think of silence. Silence can be loud, when you know what is not being said. Silence can be a wall. I think how hard we had to work to try and get an acknowledgement by the universities of what was going on, all these enquires into sexual harassment that showed how sexual harassment had become normalised, part of the institutional culture. I think of our efforts over three years to try and get the university to acknowledge the problem of sexual harassment. We could not even get an acknowledgement in public that these enquiries had taken place. It was like they never happened, which was, I have no doubt, the effect they were looking for. The first mention in public of these enquiries was a post on my blog shared just after my resignation. That it telling you something about why I resigned. The university treated my resignation and posts as a leak, making a mess, causing damage. But, it was not just the university that treated my disclosure as damaging. A feminist colleague described my action as “unprofessional,” because it caused “a fall-out which damages us all now and in the future.” We are learning what it means to be professional. To be professional is to be willing to keep the institution’s secrets, to keep a lid on it, which in this case meant to keep the enquiries secret, what they revealed secret, the harassment, secret, how it was institutionalised, secret.
Silence is not just something enforced by management or marketing departments, silence can be performed as loyalty, turned into a duty by our own colleagues, including our feminist colleagues, silence to protect professors, silence to protect resources, silence as promotion, how you maximise your chances of going further or getting more from the institution. And if complaints get out, particularly if those complaints relate to the conduct of senior members of a university, that silence is converted very quickly into discourse, letters of defence, letters upon letters, defences of colleagues, defences of procedures, of departments, of disciplines, of universities. Some of the most difficult material in this book is about collegiality, that warm and fuzzy zone of good relation, how collegiality is used to close the door on complaints and those who make them. One student described “they have each other’s backs.”
Backs can be doors. We are up against it. The more we come up against it, the more we need more. The more we need more. When we launched the book, we assembled as a complaint collective. It was so important to gather as a collective, to bear witness to the labour of complaint, each other’s labour, our labour. I then had a series of conversations about the work of complaint with complaint activists, which mostly happened behind closed doors. Sometimes we use doors to shut the institution out. I think of the testimony shared with me by indigenous woman academic. She told me how she could hardly manage to get to campus after a sustained campaign of bullying and harassment from white faculty, including a concerted effort by a senior manager to sabotage her tenure case as well as the tenure cases of other indigenous academics. When you are harassed and bullied, when doors are closed, nay, slammed, making it hard to get anywhere, it can be history you are up against; thrown up against. Complaints can take us back further, further still, to histories that are still,
There is a genealogy of experience, a genealogy of consciousness in my body that is now at this stage traumatised beyond the capacity to go to the university. There’s a legacy, a genealogy and I haven’t really opened that door too widely as I have been so focused on my experience in the last 7 years.
To be traumatised is to hold a history in a body; you can be easily shattered. There is only so much you can take on because there is only so much you can take in. Earlier I used the expression “the door of consciousness,” to describe how we sometimes shut violence out, perhaps because it is too difficult to deal with, perhaps to hold onto something we fear losing, perhaps to focus or function. We can inherit closed doors, a trauma can be inherited by being made inaccessible, all that happened that was too hard, too painful to reveal. Decolonial feminist work, Black feminist work; feminist of colour work is often about opening these doors; the door to what came before; colonial as well as patriarchal legacies; harassment as the hardening of that history, a history of who gets to do what; who is deemed entitled to what; who is deemed entitled to whom. A complaint can be necessary: what you have to do to go on. But you still have to work out what you can take on. She went on by taking them on,
I took everything off my door, my posters, my activism; my pamphlets. I smudged everything all around the building. I knew I was going to war; I did a war ritual in our tradition. I pulled down the curtain. I pulled on a mask, my people we have a mask…and I never opened my door for a year. I just let it be a crack. And only my students could come in. I would not let a single person come in to my office who I had not already invited there for a whole year.
Closing the door can be a survival strategy. She closes the door to the institution by withdrawing herself, her commitments, from it. She still does her work; she still teaches her students. She uses the door to shut out what she can, who she can. She takes herself off the door; she depersonalises it. She pulls down the blinds. She pulls on a mask, the mask of her people, connecting her fight to the battles that came before, because, quite frankly, for her, this is a war.
This is a war. Our battles are not the same battles. But there are many battles happening behind closed doors. Behind closed doors: that is where complaints are often found, so that is where you might find us too, those of us for whom the institution is not built; and what we bring with us, who we bring us, the worlds that would not be here if some of us were not here, the data we have, our bodies, our memories, perhaps the more we have to spill, the tighter the hold. A door, a funerary slab, a filing cabinet. Sometimes, to get it out, the complaints, the data of them, in them, we have to be inventive. I learnt so much from the creativity of student led complaint activism. I think of all the different actions in the book – students who performed their complaints, who turned complaints into posters, or put them on leaflets or as expressed them as graffiti on walls. I think of how complaint can be how we find out about earlier complaints, how complaint can be a way of communicating in time. One researcher who complained about harassment and bullying from her married mentors received a secret letter in her post-box from someone who had complained about them earlier. I think of how a student who complained about the failure of her university to make reasonable accommodations finds documents on a fax machine, about earlier cases about other students. She speculates that a secretary had released those documents, an act of sabotage, an act of solidarity.
We meet in an action without meeting in person. I think of the lecturer who described her complaint as a little bird scratching away at something. She resigned and turned her resignation letter into a performance, “I wrote a two-page letter and it was really important to me to put everything in there that I felt so that it was down on paper. I asked for a meeting with the Dean. I read the letter out in a performative kind of way just to have some kind of event.” She gets it down on paper. She performs it. She still wanted to do more: “I just thought I am not the kind of person who would put my resignation letter on the wall, but I just wonder what it is that made me feel that I am not that kind of person because inside I am that kind of person, I just couldn’t quite get it out.” That is what complaints are about; how we help each other get it out, how we get our letters on the wall. The year after I left, students put words from my work on the wall.
Yes, they were taken down. But they cannot stop them from having been there.
I think of the when of complaint, also where, also why, I think of how our complaints have many lives, after-lives, and how complaint collectives do not always assemble in the same time or place. The academic who described her complaint as a little bird scratching away at something, came to a lecture in which I shared her testimony. She wrote to me, “it was only after the lecture that I realised how undignified these complaint processes are, and how yes, my dignity was stripped. In my dealings with the union, they had advised me at the time that my dignity at work had been breached, but that word did little then for me, as it felt like another procedural piece of jargon – but when I felt a swell of pride at the lecture, indeed, when I felt a sense of dignity about it all, I realised that this must have been somewhat lost.” Words can lose meaning, doing little for us, becoming empty. In forming complaint collectives, we find that the words make sense, or change sense, in time. We reclaim them, yes, our dignity was breached, yes, that is not how it should be, not for us, not for anyone. If we lost something of ourselves in the work, we find ourselves there too, also each other, however weary, however worn, we said no, we had a go. Little bird, scratching away, what you left behind, others can find, scratches, dents in the wall, our names, our words, our work. Complaint can feel like a lot of work not to accomplish very much. Only so much can matter so much. Only so much can be more than you know. Thank you.
(1). I gave two slightly different versions of “After Complaint” as virtual public lectures in 2022. It was challenging and emotional to give this lecture and I have decided to share it now in written form rather the present it again. This is a modified version for my blog.
Content Warning: The following post includes a discussion of transphobia and transmisogyny.
How has gender become a map of a moment? Why do so many movements present themselves as against gender? In a recent article, Judith Butler shows how the difficulty of giving an account of the anti-gender movement tells us something about how that movement works: “Anti-gender movement mobilizes a range of rhetorical strategies from across the political spectrum to maximize the fear of infiltration and destruction that comes from a diverse set of economic and social forces. It does not strive for consistency, for its incoherence is part of its power.” Butler’s article is primarily about the uses of a range of rhetorical strategies by authoritarian regimes. They show how the term “gender” ends up being treated as a “foreign invasion” and how fields of academic inquiry including gender studies, queer theory, and critical race theory, have come to be represented as “destructive forces” that threaten the breakdown of social institutions, including marriage, the family, the nation, civilization, “even man himself.”
Many feminist scholars are writing about the mobilization of anti-gender rhetoric across the globe. Butler is thus participating in a wider feminist conversation that is urgent and necessary because the states are so high. As Butler articulates, the “principal aim of the movement is to reverse progressive legislation won in the last decades by both LGBTQI and feminist movements.” In this account of the anti-gender movement, Butler does not reference in the large part what has become known as “gender critical” feminism. In the conclusion, however, Butler suggests that “it makes no sense for ‘gender critical’ feminists’ to ally with reactionary powers in targeting trans, non-binary, and genderqueer people.” They then lodge an invitation or an appeal, “Let’s all get truly critical now, for this is no time for any of the targets of this movement to be turning against one another. The time for anti-fascist solidarity is now.” In this article, Butler does not call “gender critical feminists” fascists but invites them not to be in alliance with fascism by making trans, non-binary and genderqueer people their target.
Butler’s invitation is also, perhaps, a provocation. It is, admittedly, rather hard to read Butler’s article and not to notice how many of the rhetorical strategies used by gender critical feminists, with all their inconsistencies, are similar (and, in some instances, even the same) as those used by fascist or authoritarian regimes, again, with all their inconsistencies. Did gender critical feminist readers notice their own arguments in Butler’s picture of the anti-gender movement? If “gender critical” feminists saw themselves in the picture being drawn, Butler’s invitation might have also functioned as a mirror. The point might be then that “gender critical feminists” in seeing themselves reflected in this piece, did not like what they saw. That, in itself, is rather promising. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, dismissals of Butler’s article followed very quickly. One “gender critical” feminist tweeted, “I just think it would help everyone if someone sat down with Judith Butler and patiently explained what gender is.” Another “gender critical” ally tweeted, “it reads as though Butler has just started looking into these issues and is mostly relying on twitter and Tumblr.” One way of not confronting what you see when you don’t like what you see, of not learning from a reflection the need for self-reflection, is to smash the mirror.
It is hard not to read these tweets and laugh. Butler has over decades given so many of us, within and beyond the academy, vital critical tools to make sense of the complexity of our gendered and social lives. Perhaps we do need to laugh. The laughter is also a groan because the voices of “gender critical” feminists have been so amplified by the mainstream media that there are now so many distortions that it would be hard for someone new to feminism to see clearly what is going on. Many “gender critical” feminists are themselves highly critical of who they call “academic feminists” including those of us who have been part of the development and consolidation of Women and Gender Studies programmes in the UK. One “gender critical feminist” made a joke at a Women’s Place Conference, that most academic feminists are not academics and not feminists. You could hear the hum of agreement in the audience. The dismissal is not surprising; Gender Studies programmes tend to be shaped by work in Queer Studies and Trans Studies although there is much more work to be done so that theorisations of sex and gender from Transgender Studies are not added on to Gender Studies but worked from. Throughout this post, I place “gender critical” in quotation marks as most of the most critical work on sex and gender within the academy is happening in the very spaces, Gender Studies, Queer Studies and Transgender Studies, many “gender critical” feminists oppose.
I am grateful to have spent so much of my career as an academic feminist (or probably to be more accurate a feminist academic) and by this I am not just referenced the years I spent as a lecturer in Women and Gender Studies, or the time I dedicated with feminist colleagues to developing new equality policies or to finding new ways to confront old problems of harassment and bullying in universities. I am referring to the fact that I have been systematically engaged in reading feminist literatures since I took my first feminist course in Women’s Writing in 1988. When you dedicate your life to feminism, you acquire many resources. Butler in appealing to us to participate in anti-fascist solidarity is making use of these resources. If we follow Butler’s lead, we can hear that there is more to the invitation. Butler is calling to feminists not to make trans, non-binary and gender queer people their target as this would amount to “targets of this movement” in effect “turning against each other.” To turn against each other would be to turn against ourselves. Butler is encouraging us to witness in the urgency of these times that the movement “against gender” is an anti-feminist movement.
In this post, my task is modest. I want to show how and why “gender critical” feminism becomes, or can be understood as, a gender conservative movement. If feminism gives us the resources to challenge anti-feminism, then feminism gives us the resources to challenge “gender critical feminism,” to hold up that mirror and to show its reflection. In my new project on common sense, I hope to show how gender conservative feminisms are part of the not-so-new conservative common sense, which has reweaponised “reality” as a “war against the woke,” that is, as an effort to restore racial as well as gendered hierarchies by demonizing those who question them. I will also show how much of the harassment enacted by “gender critical” feminists is made invisible by appearing to take the form of opening a debate.
When you enter the gender critical world as a feminist who is not used to being in that world, it is deeply disorientating. Let’s take the social media world. In this post, I am going to quote from tweets, which will appear as italicised sentences (I will later quote from academic articles and trade books). You enter, and you will encounter twitter handles with purple and green, the suffragette colours. On the same handles, you will find utterances like, Sex not Gender or Sex is Real. You might see statements like, I stand with, and the name of such and such person who has been targeted apparently for saying something like, Sex is real. You will encounter words like adult human female, or natal woman, or even biological woman. You will encounter claims that you know have been central to patriarchal logics, for instance, women are oppressed because of their biology.
How to make sense of this?
It is hard to make sense of this.
We know that feminists have disagreed about how to understand sex and gender as social categories; we inherit them, we did not invent them. We know that part of the work of feminism is to contest that inheritance. Even the “sex-gender distinction” was not invented by feminists; it was introduced to feminism by the work of sexologists such as John Money.  If you are a reader of feminist literature, you will know that many feminists have problematised that distinction, precisely because of how it placed “sex” outside of history. Take for instance the work of Ann Oakley. Her classic, Sex, Gender and Society certainly made use of the sex-gender distinction, drawing on the work of Robert Stoller, with sex referring to biological differences, visible difference of genitalia, difference in procreative function and gender referring to “a matter of culture” and the social classification of people into “masculine” and “feminine”’ (16). However, in Oakley’s later work, she offers a strong critique of this same distinction. In “A Brief History of Gender,” Oakley writes: “the distinction between sex and gender does not call into question how society constructs the natural body itself” and “sex is no more natural than gender given that our speaking of both is mediated by our existence as social beings” (30). Or we could think of the work of historical materialist Christine Delphy who argues that “gender precedes sex.” She writes: “we have continued to think of gender in terms of sex: to see it as a social dichotomy determined by a natural dichotomy” (1993, 3).  Whatever we think of the feminist critique of the sex-gender distinction, most feminists will know that the categories with which we organise our lives, how we refer to our bodies and ourselves, are not neutral; the terms we use to describe ourselves, are implicated in the worlds we are questioning, which is why such descriptions are provisional as well as political.
So, why are these terms being used not only as if they are simple descriptions but as if that very usage has something to do with feminism? If the “gender critical” feminist landscape is littered with phrases like sex is real, sex not gender, we need to ask what they are doing. Let’s call them catch phrases, words or expressions that are used repeatedly and conveniently to represent or characterize a person, group, idea, or point of view. These phrases are a way of signalling an allegiance to a political movement that has its primarily velocity, it seems, in a virtual space. They are relatively new ways of using old terms. Nevertheless, despite being relatively new, to encounter these phrases is to be given a snap shot of a history. To start to try and make sense of them by starting with them, would be like turning up in the middle of a conversation, hearing a reaction, and not knowing what came before that provoked a reaction. And yet, many use these phrases as if the point of them is whether or not we can say them. They are turned into stories. Force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?But it (and with it, the term cisgender) can’t be forced on to women like me who regard questioning gender roles, while advocating on behalf of our sex, as the whole point of feminism. You might feel an outage, as well as disbelief that this is the case: we can’t even say sex is real! That phrase when used in the way is doing what it is designed to do, provoke outrage. And the outrage is how a story is carried forward, acquiring momentum. The statement that people have been forced out of the jobs for saying that sex is real is not only false (if you look at any specific instance, that is not why people are forced out of jobs, the sentence cannot be detached from a wider context), but by circulating, it acquires substance, an impression of being true achieved by virtue of its repetition. Sex is real has become a catch phrase in recent times (just like sex-based rights became a catch phrase in recent times – a quick search of the internet shows that it only began to be regularly used by feminists in 2018). Sex is real is an assertion within a horizon of assertions. Sex is real. Sex is material. Sex is immutable. Sex is biology. Sex is objective. Sex is science. With these assertation about what sex is, come counter-implications about what gender is not. Gender is not real. Gender is immaterial. Gender is subjective. Gender is stereotypes. Gender is ideology.
We learn about terms from what they are used to do; a story is being told in certain terms for a reason. The feminist mantra becomes sex not gender because of who is associated with gender. Judith Butler has taught us that the incoherence of the arguments of anti-gender movements are doing something. The more arguments against something are incoherent, the more what they are against becomes vague. And the vaguer the target, the more are caught up by it: gender identity, the idea of gender, teaching gender, gender studies, trans people are not only collapsed into each other, but in being so, become all the more menacing. Another way of putting this, would be to say that the term gender has become sticky; the more gender moves around, the more are stuck to it. If trans people are associated with gender, and gender is treated as immaterial, trans people or trans identities become immaterial. All you need to put on your handle is Sex is Real to indicate an attachment or an allegiance to a series of positions that do not have to be made explicit: being trans is ideology not science, feeling not fact, immaterial not material, subjective not objective. The terms themselves can end up doing this work of de-legitimating or “de-realising” trans people. This can be done in more or less subtle ways. When a “gender critical” feminist network was set up, it was described as being concerned with “how sexed bodies matter,” and with critiquing “constraining stereotypes of gender.” Once we have learnt what sex and gender have been routinely used to do, who they have become associated and not associated with, we can understand what is going on here. But it won’t be obvious to some what is going on here. One of our tasks is to try and make it more obvious.
It is not only that the terms “sex” and “gender” are being used to de-realise and de-legitimate trans people, but the project of trans inclusion can be framed as feminist exclusion, as if trans people are replacing us by replacing our terms with theirs. “If we replace ‘sex’ with ‘gender’ as a way of thinking about ourselves, it will be harder to tackle sex-based oppression.” So, the implicit story is that if we accept trans people, sex will be replaced, or even women will be replaced or we will lose the terms we need to talk about our history. A phrase can bring with it a history of associations. “If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased.” Firstly, the sentence implies that such and such people are saying sex is not real. I don’t know anyone who would say sex is not real although I know most feminists are aware, to borrow the title of an important book by Marilyn Frye of “the politics of reality,” and that what is real, at least when we are talking about how human beings organise and understand ourselves, is complex and mediated. We will return to this. But let’s interrogate firstly the claim that unless sex is real, we cannot talk about women globally.
There are many feminists who have challenged this very idea that we can talk about “the lived reality” of “women globally.” I want to stress here that these challenges are not new. Anyone who knows feminist history, will know that even the category of “women” has always been contested by feminists; it has rarely been what brought us together. That the category of women has been so contested has something to do with what the category of sex brings with it (although there is more to it).
Some had to insist that they were women. We can think of Sojourner Truth, speaking as a Black woman and former slave, at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851 saying, “Ain’t I a Woman?” As Angela Davis notes, Truth in her speech referred to the strength of her own body, her labouring body, to challenge the “weaker sex” arguments made against the suffragettes (1981, 61, see also hooks 1987).
Some had to insist they were not women. We can think of Monique Wittig, speaking as a lesbian feminist to the Modern Language Association conference in New York in 1978, saying “lesbians are not women.” This audacious claim was necessary for Wittig to show how the very category of “women” has historically functioned as a heterosexual injunction, how “women” came to exist, or was required to exist, in relation to men. 
The fact that a single term “sex” does not bring us all together might even have been the reason we enter in conversations with each other to work out what we have in common, however we come to define ourselves. Although there are many different viewpoints within feminism about the status of categories like sex and gender, critiques of the very idea of biological sex have been consistently made. Black feminists, for instance, have challenged not only the category of “women,” but also the naturalness of sex and gender. As Che Gossett powerfully summarises, “from the Combahee River Collective (a collective of Black feminists meeting since 1974) and its critique of biological essentialism as a “dangerous and reactionary basis upon which to build a politic” to trans genealogies of Black feminism — Black feminism as always already trans — many writers have problematized and troubled the categories of binary gender and of binary, medically assigned sex.” Even feminist traditions assumed to be untroubled by the category of sex such as radical feminism have in fact been so. Andrea Dworkin’s Woman Hating, for instance, offers a radical feminist challenge to what she calls “the traditional biology of sexual difference” based on “two discrete biological sexes” (1972: 181, 186).
I will return to this critical feminist history of questioning the category of sex as it will help me to explain how critiquing gender but not sex leads in the direction of gender conservatism. To point to this feminist history is to get in the way of the story being told as a story of the erasure of sex. In fact, it is this critical feminist history that has to be erased in order to tell the story as a story of the erasure of sex.
The claim that sex has been erased is not only endlessly repeated and given a cause (queer theory, trans ideology, trans people, gender queer people, non binary people, people with blue hair, snowflake students; yes, the more there are, the more of a menace), but is often the basis of another even stronger claim of prohibition. The story goes something like this: we have to say sex is real, because gender (that fiction, that feeling, that ideology) has been imposed upon us, which means we are not being allowed to talk about sex or to talk about women (the slide, to make this point again, matters, the story being told is that women would disappear if sex is not material or if biological sex is not immutable). A claim to prohibition also involves a claim that somebody is being prohibited by somebody: so, the story goes, it is because such and such group has an agenda that we are not allowed to talk about what we want or need to talk about. Historically, feminists have often been positioned as those who are imposing restrictions upon others because they have an agenda or because that’s their agenda (we can’t call women darling! We have to say Ms! We can’t use men to describe everyone!). In fact, anyone involved in trying to challenge norms and conventions to enable them to be more accommodating, we will know how quickly you will be judged as imposing restrictions on the freedom of others. A norm is a restriction that can feel like freedom to those it enables. To challenge a norm is thus almost always treated as restricting other people’s freedoms.
It is not only a bitter irony that tactics so often used against feminists are being used against trans people by “gender critical” feminists. It is telling us something about “gender critical” feminists that they are willing to use these tactics. Why has sex has become a tactic, not just a position but a project? By using sex as if sex was natural, material, and gender as if it was not, some people become “not,” not natural, immaterial, not real even, unreal. Danger can be located in the “not.” When sex is used tactically, turned into a project, trans people are treated not only as not natural, as immaterial, but as being powerful and dangerous.
In my own work, I have focused a lot on stranger danger, how some bodies become “matter out of place,” and how danger (and violence) is located in those who are deemed not to belong. Stranger danger is about how danger is located in the outsider. I have focused primarily on racism. Stranger danger often works by making violence intrinsic or expressive of a group (so if someone from a Muslim background commits violence, this violence becomes expressive of Islam). Stranger danger is a well-oiled machine: it works so well from being used so often. Much transphobic harassment works through the logics of stranger danger: trans people are positioned as strangers not only as “out of place,” but as threatening those who are “in place.” Just think about the use of terms like “gender extremism,” which work to creating a menace, a vague sense of menace, borrowing perhaps from racializing discourses (extremism as a term always tends to stick to some bodies more than others). Note the common use of terms like “the trans lobby,” or even “the trans Taliban” to imply a powerful agent that is behind this or that action. Transphobia does not mean that a necessarily person feels personal animosity towards, or fear of, trans people. They may or may not: that is not the point. Transphobia describes the process whereby trans people are constructed as dangerous, as those who are to-be-feared. If stranger danger works to locate danger in those deemed outsiders, often by inflating the power of those whose exclusion is deemed necessary, it also creates the figure of the endangered, most often a child. Contemporary transphobia works to suggest or imply that trans people are endangering children (One headline reads, Are you transphobic? Me neither, we’re just worried about our children).
Stranger danger also creates a line, a boundary, between inside and outside that is seen as necessary for protection. This is how some can be judged as imposing on others; sometime by virtue of existing in the way they do. A category too can be assumed to be closed; a door can be used to close the category “woman,” for instance. It is important to add that closures however much they are justified as natural or necessary still depend upon actions; the creation of new terms if the old ones are being drawn in a way that includes those you don’t want to include (woman becomes adult human female). This is how opening a debate in certain terms can be how some are shut out. Of course, we should not enter a debate in those terms.
Gender too can be turned into a stranger (yes, a category of thought can be treated as a stranger), framed as an imposition on nature or biological reality (women become natal women). Part of the transformation of gender into the stranger, is the treatment of sex, often biological sex, as nature or as natal or even as native as if these categories are not themselves product of labour, as if we do not have a hand in making and shaping them  When the category of gender becomes a stranger, those who are assumed to rely on a category for their existence become strangers too. A category is turned into a conspiracy. As case in point would be how the group LGB Alliance finds the use of “gender” by Stonewall, for instance, as evidence of a conspiracy to erase sex and with it same-sex attraction. So, if people talk about being attracted to people of the “same gender,” that can then be read as a conspiracy to force lesbians to have sex with trans women (who are really “biological men”). It is hard to imagine that anyone concerned with equality and social justice can take such viewpoints as evidence of anything but bigotry. But they can and do, they even publish newspaper articles based on them.
The distinction between sex and gender, remember, has only been made relatively recently. It is a line we sometimes draw for convenience. It is a line that some feminists have used and other feminists have challenged (some of these feminists are the same feminists). In the UK, in the law, sex and gender tend to be used interchangeably. If a person who has the protected characteristic of gender reassignment (to use the terms from then 2010 Equality Act), then they have changed sex. To follow words is to learn from them. Gender is often used rather than sex in ordinary discourse. I remember when I first came out as a lesbian in 2001, a member of my wider family using that term “same gender.” He said, “so what, you fell in love with someone of the same gender.” In fact, it is hard not to notice how gender is sometimes used rather than sex on equal opportunities forms to refer to “men” and “women.” My own suspicion that people often use “gender” as a kind of polite way of not talking about sex, which evokes bodies and desires in a way that gender does not. I think in everyday life, many use sex and gender vaguely. And they may do so because sex and gender are vague, which is why any attempt to be clear about what they are, to create a line, takes us further away from everyday use. The idea that gender is being imposed by trans activists is not just plain wrong (a mistake that is easily evidenced by following the word across space and through time), it is strategic. It allows the figure of the “trans extremist,” to circulate as those who are imposing that restriction. In other words, the idea that gender is being forced upon us by a trans lobby is repeated because it allows the fight for equality for trans people to be framed as the formation of an industry. It allows trans people to be positioned as holding or wielding a power they do not have.
There is no clearer evidence of transphobia than the use of terms like “trans extremist” or “trans lobby.” Of course, if you even use terms such as transphobia to describe these discursive mechanisms you will be judged as trying to impose a restriction on free speech, to return to an earlier point. There is another point I want to make here. I have already noted that words like “extremism” stick to some more than others. Remember: the vaguer the target the more can be caught by it. A stick becomes a slide. The trans extremist becomes the gender identity extremist. The gender identity extremist’s do not seek trans equality, the public are onboard with equality for all. The master manipulation has been to turn it into a trans supremecy [sic]. A propaganda machine together with institutional capture has rendered it dangerous to speak of reality. And then the gender identity extremist becomes the gender extremist. The pressure is so severe in gender extremist circles that using sex-based pronouns is considered hateful and treated as a hate incident. People who announce their pronouns are pandering to this extremism. The term “gender” itself comes to carry the implication of extremism without the need to use the word extremist. Indeed, making gender itself extreme can be linked to how gender is made immaterial and even then, can be the basis of a call to stop trans people from existing at all. So, a “gender critical” feminist at the recent LGB Alliance conference objected to the use of the term “gender extremist” because she said the term implied being trans was not, in itself, an extremist position. For her, it is extremist to say that trans people exist. For her, trans people do not exist. She said this. When she this, she was applauded by the audience. We need to hear the violence of that applause. “Gender critical” feminism, however diverse and incoherent, gives this kind of hate speech somewhere to go.
The speech acts that are represented as the most prohibited are often the most promoted; this is true of racism as well as transphobia. To say, sex is real or the stronger statement I am not allowed to sex is real, or I was targeted for saying sex is real, and you will end up being a platform; the more you say it, the more platforms you will be given. You will not only be promoted and platformed, you will be protected, with that protection usually taking the form of a defence of free speech or academic freedom. In other words the prohibited is incited. And those who understandably feel unsafe or harmed by these views, not only from how they are expressed but how they are incited, will typically have their concerns disregarded as immaterial.
This is how seemingly simple utterances like Sex is Real or Sex Not Gender can be snap shots of a longer history, a violent history, a history of how some people are made dangerous, or how some people are made to disappear. To participate in this discursive regime, to use those catch phrases, to position yourself as being silenced because of that use, is to be involved in a project that is making it harder for trans people, non-binary people, gender queer and gender non-conforming people, to survive on their own terms. It is to be involved in a project that contradicts the aspiration for trans, queer and feminist liberation from coercive sex-gender regimes. Yes, I say trans, queer and feminist liberation because our liberations point in the same direction.
I noted earlier that the terms that have been questioned by feminists can only be elevated into catchphrases, as if they embody truths, by erasing so much of a more critical feminist history. In other words, the project of removing trans people from feminism has ended up removing feminism, too. Let’s return to Andrea Dworkin’s radical feminist critique of the biology of sexual difference. She expands further: “Hormone and chromosome research, attempts to develop new means of human reproduction (life created in, or considerably supported by, the scientist’s laboratory), work with transsexuals, and studies of formation of gender identity in children provide basic information which challenges the notion that there are two discrete biological sexes. That information threatens to transform the traditional biology of sex difference into the radical biology of sex similarity. That is not to say that there is one sex, but that there are many. The evidence which is germane here is simple. The words ‘male’ and ‘female,’ ‘man” and ‘woman,’ are used only because as yet there are no others” (175-6). Dworkin argued that a transsexual in a culture of “male-female discreteness” is in “a state of emergency,” and stated that transsexuals should have access to hormones and surgery because they have a “right to survival on his or her own terms” (176). If Dworkin did imagine that transsexuals might disappear in some projected future, this was only in the context of her view that discrete sexes would also disappear. Whatever we think of her androgynous solution, we learn from Dworkin that radical feminism, a feminism that is feminist at root, must have a radical model of sex and biology.
I think again of Dworkin’s emphasis on survival, on the right of trans people to survive on their own terms. I think of Audre Lorde’s words (1978, 31): “Some of us were never meant to survive.” Audre Lorde (1984, 112) also suggests that “those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women” know that survival “is not an academic skill.” Perhaps if those “outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women,” those who have to fight for survival, were those whose theories of sex and gender mattered, who were being heard for how they were interrogating the terms, questioning what was acceptable, we would not be here, having to do this, having to say this.
Survival within a coercive sex-gender system can be an ambitious project for some people, including trans people as well as queer people. So much of our politics derives from what we need to do to survive a system that is not intended for us. Perhaps to survive a system we have to dismantle it, the master’s house, to borrow again from Audre Lorde, to chip away at its foundations. We can begin to understand why gender critical feminism ends up as gender conservative and indeed as socially conservative, not dismantling the master’s house, but becoming his tool. If gender creates the effect of two discrete biological sexes, to make sex into a cause would be to reproduce the system we are trying to dismantle. In other words, to critique gender but leave “sex” in place, or treat “sex” as if it was outside of a man-made history, would be to preserve the system by turning its effect into our cause. To argue that spaces should be for different “sexes” is, in other words, is to replicate a sex-gender system. When “sex” is enlisted to do things, “sex” is organising rather than originating. To use “sex” as if it is the origin of the organisation is to disguise the organisation; and that, too, is how the sex-gender system works. And this is how as soon as sex is treated as outside of history, gender norms, somatic norms, this is how women are, men are, who they are, what they are, will be exercised and made to disappear. And this is why we are now witnessing increasingly conservative judgements about women and men in terms of what they are like or how they appear being made in the name of feminism.
These judgements are organized around the assumption that you can always tell the difference between men and women by how they appear. Here are some quotes from trade books by “gender critical” feminists. “Human beings generally, including children, have the capacity to pick out the biological sex of others from visual appearances alone, most of the time. The capacity to correctly sex other people most of the time is grounded in a cognitive heuristic, and obviously not infallible.” This is very old-fashioned and simplistic understanding of the nature of social perception, which does not seem to be informed by any engagement with the critical or feminist literature. The author then writes, “it is disingenuous of our critics to suggest that the only means humans have of identifying other people’s sex is by the ‘checking of genitalia’, and that this is what is needed to maintain sex-separated spaces. If this were true, dating would never get off the ground (and neither would sexism).” I can’t quite believe that somebody could claim that sexism would not “get off the ground” unless you could see the difference between women and men. Feminists have shown how sexism is about the consolidation of that very distinction. The stability of perception points not to nature but to history. Ideology is history turned into nature.
Another writer describes the ability to judge the sex of another person as “exquisite,” a word that suggests not just precision but beauty. These are the author’s exact words, “Since evolution has equipped humans with the ability to recognize other people’s sex, almost instantaneously and with exquisite accuracy, very few trans people ‘pass’ as their desired sex. And so to see them as that sex, everyone else must discount what their senses are telling them.” This is like reading a bad version of evolutionary psychology (are there other versions? probably not). Feminism is a pedagogy of the senses: we learn just how our senses are trained, what are senses our telling us, from our political effort to unlearn them. Those who appear to confound the senses, to create confusion (are you a boy or a girl, who are you, what are you?) are those who fail to reproduce a history. Queer and trans feminisms find in that failure, a revolutionary potential. We learn not to make assumptions. We ask each other how to address each other –to ask not to assume is not only kind but key to our liberation. To be not at home in a word or a world is not only how we come to know that word or world, it is how we open up other possibilities for arranging ourselves and our worlds differently.
When we treat sex as natural, we don’t see the norms through which we see the world, including other bodies with whom we share a world.  That’s how norms work, by not appearing as norms. So much violence follows the norms we do not see, which also means there is so much violence we do not see. So many bodies, our bodies, will end up appearing wrong, strange, odd, out of place, because they do not line up. Many cis women as well as trans women have been told they are out of line; told they have entered the wrong room; told they are not really women because of how they do or do not appear. Of course, much of the violence I am describing here is a product of the sex-gender system. This is why the feminist project is to challenge that system. Instead, some “gender critical” feminists have justified the violence against those who are gender non-conforming as necessary to protect women. They write, “Given the occasional fallibility of our capacity to sex others, arguing for same-sex spaces for females, such as bathrooms, dormitories, and changing rooms, means that sometimes, females in those spaces will be missexed; and sometimes, males in those spaces will not be perceived as such. We see the former as a regrettable cost that has to be balanced against, and is nonetheless smaller than, the greater harms to females, should women-only space effectively become unisex via a policy of self-ID.” The argument for “same-sex spaces” requires those who use facilities to be become the police. To enforce the boundary of same sex spaces is then to enforce the boundary of womanhood. Sarah Franklin has usefully described “gender critical” feminists as “feminist Brexiteers.” She writes:
Promising to protect the sanctity of the female toilet as the guarantor of gendered justice is, like the Brexiteer’s promise to save the United Kingdom from economic ruin, a symptom of reactionary panic and confusion. It is not a remotely credible promise, but an embittered form of nostalgia driven by myopic indignation. Like the Brexit leaders who promised to ‘take back control’ of the nation’s borders, feminism’s Brexiteers promising to rescue true womanhood are using gender as a proxy for a past they imagine they have lost, an identity they feel is threatened, and a battle in which they see themselves as both victims and as visionaries.
Like all nostalgia, the nostalgia of “gender critical” feminism misses the point, what they want to return to, did not exist in the way being imagined. It is nostalgia for a lost object that can give the impression that the object was real. A nostalgia for what is lost can turn quickly into a promise of protection. There is a connection, then, between that promise of returning a lost object, policing and violence. Protection is often justified as protecting women from violence. For many women, protection is violence. Violence against gender non-conforming women, cis or trans, is deemed a cost of a system of policing that is presumed to follow from biological sex. And note as well how the regrettable cost sends a message to those who bear that cost, who are stopped, questioned, and harassed. Perhaps you are also being told, that if you don’t want to be in harm’s way, you should change your ways, that if you don’t want to be questioned about your right to be in a women’s space or facility, you should try to appear more like women are meant to appear. This is an argument for gender normativity even if it is not put in those terms, a claim that it would be safer and thus better for girls to be girls (and for us to be able to tell that the girls are girls) and boys to be boys (and for us to be able to tell that the boys are boys).
One “gender critical” scholar cites in her book a blog that suggests that preferred pronouns are like a date drug. The suggestion is that if those who do not conform to a narrow idea of how women appear asked to be addressed as “she,” then this is confusing to the senses, making other women’s reactions sluggish. The writer of the blog suggests trans women intentionally use that sensory confusion to take advantage of cis women. The stereotype of the trans woman as sexual predator is a deeply disturbing and explicit form of transmisogyny. I suspect some “gender critical” feminists would not go along with it. But that association between trans women with danger to cis women can be preserved without using this stereotype – and can even be preserved by appearing to challenge it. Although the book author does not go along with blog author’s assumption that trans women are sexual predators (she even describes it as fearmongering), she still cites the blog as a credible source thus lending it credibility as source. And she still preserves the core assumption of the blog that compliance with preferred pronouns would be dangerous for women. The cognitive disadvantage for those who try and comply with pronouns will be the same. When talking about “cognitive disadvantage” she is talking about physical danger. Something that slows down the cognitive processes of women in relation to potential aggressors may turn out to have very serious ramifications for them. Note the danger here is implied to follow from compliance, by complying with preferred pronouns (pushed by “trans activism” to use the term used by this author in the same paragraph), women will be at a disadvantage, suffering very serious ramifications for their health, safety or well-being.
This association of compliance with preferred pronouns and danger suggests that safety depends upon clarity, that bodies need to line up, or be accurately sexed. Those who are not clearly men or women, who do appear how “he” or “she” should appear, are in other words, dangerous. Any demand that people clearly be men or women, let us be clear, is the patriarchal world view. But from the view that sex is material, that biological sex is immutable, comes a requirement that bodies line up, to appear as men or women. Biological sex is used to create a social line, that we have the right, even moral duty, to enforce. Any costs become regrettable. In such a world view, deviation is seen as dangerous, even deadly. This is how, by treating the idea of two distinct biological sexes not as the product of the sex-gender system, but as before it and beyond it, “gender critical” feminists tighten rather than loosen the hold of that system on our bodies. To breathe in feminism we have to loosen this hold.
Beauvoir, Simone de (1997). The Second Sex, trans. by H.M.Parshley. London: Vintage Books.
Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.
Davis, Angela (1983). Women, Race and Class. New York: Ballantine Books.
Delphy, Christine (1993). “Rethinking Sex and Gender,” Women’s Studies International Forum, 16, 1: 1-9.
Dworkin, Andrea (1972). Woman Hating. New York: E.P.Dutton.
Franklin, Sarah. 2001. “Biologization Revisited: Kinship Theory in the Context of the new Biologies,” in Sarah Franklin and Susan McKinnon eds, Relative Values: Reconfiguring Kinship Studies. Durham: Duke University Press.
Franklin, Sarah (forthcoming). “Gender as a Proxy: Diagnosing and Resisting Carceral Genderisms,” European Journal of Women’s Studies,
Germon, Jennifer (2009). Gender: A Genealogy of an Idea. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
hooks, bell. 1987. Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism. Pluto Press.
Lorde, Audre. 1978. Black Unicorn. New York: Norton.
 A contribution to the book produced by the Conservative Common-Sense Group discusses attacks on Britain as attacks “not in a physical sense, but in a philosophical, ideological and historical sense.” In addition to how immigration has rendered people feeling like strangers in their own country, or how activists are challenging how British history is narrated, there are vague references to the gender agenda. Words that have been universally understood for millennia, such as ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are now emotionally charged and dangerous. The fictions of binary sex and racial purity exist in close proximity, which is also how policing the borders of sex can be about policing the borders of the nation. See Franklin (forthcoming) for a discussion of how anti-gender feminism can be understood as feminism’s Brexit.
 For an explanation of my citation policy please see my earlier post, Killjoy Commitments. I am not citing individual authors by name as I have no wish to enter into a dialogue with “gender critical” feminists. I am just offering instead a diagnostic of how the effort to exclude trans people from feminism (and with it from the many public services that trans people, especially trans women, may need to survive) has led to the contradiction of core feminist principles. I know from experience that “gender critical” feminists if they read this, will caricature and dismiss my work. That is of no concern to me.
 For a discussion of how the “sex-gender” distinction was imported into Gender Studies (via the work of John Money on intersex communities) see Jennifer Gorman (2007). Gorman also explores the link between Gayle Rubin’s model of the “sex-gender system” and Money’s work.
 This reversal was also performed by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), which drew on many other feminist theorists to show how physical and sexed bodies are shaped right from the very beginning (or even before a beginning) by social norms and values.
 The history of the word “woman” teaches us how the categories that secure personhood are bound up with a history of ownership: “woman” is derived from a compound of wif (wife) and man (human being); woman as wife-man also suggesting woman as female servant. The history of woman is impossible to disentangle from the history of wife: the female human as not only in relation to man but as for man (woman as there for, and therefore, being for). Wittig argues lesbians are not women because “women” is being in relation to men. Wittig calls the lesbian an “escapee” from this system.
 Stranger danger can be dangerous. It can be dangerous to those deemed strangers: those who tend to be treated as dangerous are often those who are most vulnerable to violence. But it can be dangerous because of where it does not locate danger: here, at home, in the family. Women for instance are much more at risk when they are home. Stranger danger is how the violence that is close to home is often overlooked.
 I began working on the uses of stranger danger as a frame in my second book, Strange Encounters. Most of my work has been on stranger danger as a technique of racialisation. A crucial aspect of stranger making is that the stranger, however singular as a figure comes to stand for a group. It is crucial to understand how this work in the media reporting of violence. Take anti-Muslim racism: if a Muslim person commits an act of violence, that violence becomes expressive of the violence of Muslims (which quickly then becomes an argument against immigration or for increased securitisation and so on). Much transphobic reporting works to make an instance of violence made by a trans person as expressive of the violence of a group (which quickly then becomes an argument against “gender ideology,” or allowing trans people to live in accordance with the gender identity and so on).
 As Sarah Franklin has noted, biology can refer to both a “body of authoritative knowledge (as in the science of reproductive biology) and a set of phenomena” (2001, 303). Biology can thus refer both to studies of living organisms and to the living organisms themselves. This confusion of different senses of biology is evident in some of the wider discourse, which has had the effect of treating “a body of authoritative knowledge” as if corresponds to a set of phenomena.
 If gender is a moving target, so too is transphobia. At this present moment, “biology” and “biological sex” are the main terms in use. At other times it is not biology but “socialisation” that is used: trans women cannot be women because they were socialised as men and benefited from male privilege. Here it is the social rather than the biological that becomes what is immutable: as if socialisation goes one way, relates only to one category (sex) and is not contested and disputed in everyday life depending on how one might not embody or not embody that category. Feminism itself depends on the failure of socialisation to bring about willing gendered subjects. Another typical argument is that “transgenderism” as a set of medical practices depends on essentialist notions of gender because it corrects gender nonconforming behaviours and is shaped by a heterosexist imperative. Of course there has been decades of scholarship by trans theorists that is critical of how gender and hetero norms become an apparatus of truth within medical institutions; that has shown how in order to gain access to surgery and hormones, trans subjects have to tell a narrative that is legible to authorities by using gender scripts: from Sandy Stone’s wonderful “The Empire Strikes Back: A Post-Transsexual Manifesto” ( 2006) to more recent work by Dean Spade (2006) and Riki Wilchins (2014). This work shows how not to be accommodated by a gender system (which requires you to “stay with” an assignment made by authorities at birth) can involve becoming more vigilant and reflexive about that system (although it is very important not to expect those who are not accommodated by a system to become pioneers or transgressors of norms, either). I think what is going on in anti-trans feminist work is the desire to exclude and police the boundaries of “women” on whatever basis can be found (hence the target is a moving target).
 I put it the following way in an earlier post, You are Oppressing Us! “There cannot be a dialogue when some at the table are in effect or intent arguing for the elimination of others at the table. When you have “dialogue or debate” with those who wish to eliminate you from the conversation (because they do not recognise what is necessary for your survival or because they don’t even think your existence is possible), then “dialogue and debate” becomes another technique of elimination. A refusal to have some dialogues and some debates can thus be a key tactic for survival.”
 Those who are not at home, come to know categories more intimately, which is why some of the most important work on gender, sex and sexuality is coming out of trans studies. Can I also add that to dismiss “identity” and “emotions” as somehow immaterial relative to “sex” is to forget so much previous feminist work. I have even heard a gender critical feminist say she doesn’t believe in gender because that’s about feelings and she is a materialist! There is a huge and important literature that teaches how emotions, how we feel in relation to objects and others, are physical, visceral as well as being about judgment; how we come to know about ourselves as well as worlds. If your body does not feel right, if you feel wrong, it takes a huge amount of work, a difficult transition, to get to a point to where things feel right. I am myself a cis woman, but I have learning so much from trans people’s accounts of transition and of the emotional and physical nature of this process. On what it means to feel wrong, or how wrong feels, I do think of my own experience of heterosexuality. I think of the work it took, how long it took, to let my bodily feeling “this is wrong,” however powerful, palpable, to lead me to change my situation. Sometimes feelings can be traumatic, because you realise from them just how much you have to do to rearrange yourself, your life, so you can breathe, even if there is joy and hope and possibility in that rearrangement. To dismiss other people’s feelings about gender as immaterial, as I have heard people do, is deeply unethical as well as anti-feminist.
 Gender and sex work habitually, as a series of background assumptions. This is why phenomenology is so useful for feminism. Phenomenology also helps us to think about how bodies are shaped through habits, ways of acting that are repeated over time. Simone de Beauvoir or Iris Marion Young are feminist philosophers who have shown how we become women through in relation to our bodies. Biology matters, yes, but biology is always part of our historical situation. For Beauvoir, “woman is not a fixed reality, but a becoming.” For Beauvoir, the “body is our grasp on the world and an outline for our projects.” What this means is that yes, Beauvoir does acknowledge the body and its limits. She might even talk about women’s bodies as having such and such qualities, but as she describes “they do not carry their meaning in themselves.” Even matter is made to matter. We can thus denaturalise the category of “biological sex” and talk about our lived experiences as gendered beings (in fact, we have more, not less, to talk about when we don’t bracket sex as if was outside the social or the cultural domain). We can talk about physical and fragile bodies, aging bodies; and yes, we can still talk about women’s bodies without presuming in advance who is and is not “women.”
 A project is thus to show the norm, make it appear. This has been important linguistically. Man is operating as the norm when you say a woman bus driver but not a man bus-driver. Man is often unmarked, so we mark the man as norm, we begin to say, if we need to say anything, the man bus driver. Whiteness is often the default, which means that when race is mentioned, it is used to refer to people of colour. We mark the unmarked by making it appear. The word “cis” is another attempt to mark the unmarked, to make a norm be visible. Saying “cis” is a slur is a bit like saying “white” is a slur, or “man” or “heterosexual.” That people do respond to being positioned in that way is telling us something about how norms work.
I want to express my deep appreciation for all you who are doing the work of complaint, chipping away at the walls of the institution, knocking on the doors, causing disturbance; unburying, rebuilding.
My apologies for those who could not make that time. We did not record the launch because we know how hard it can be to bring histories of violence and trauma into the room.
Thank you to everyone who came along, and to Chandra Frank, Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, Sirma Bilge and Heidi Mirza for your beautiful and wise and moving contributions.
I am sharing the words I prepared and read out. There are more thanks to follow.
We launch this book, Complaint! an ode to complaint collectives, as a complaint collective. Let me introduce myself as a member of this collective by giving a you a complaint bio. As a feminist killjoy, to give a full complaint bio, would be to tell too many too long stories. So, I summarise: to be a feminist killjoy, to be willing to receive this assignment, is to become a complainer, heard as negative for not wanting to reproduce the same thing, heard as destructive for the same reason. When I was a PhD student, I often complained about how critical theory was being taught around a very narrow body of work (all white men, basically), though not by using formal complaints procedures, but rather informally in what I said in seminars and out of them. I am still complaining about that! In my first job, I complained about how race was being talked about, or not being talked about. One time I sent an email to the Dean after he had said during a meeting that race was too difficult to deal with, an email that led to my name being put forward for a new race equality group that was formed to write a new race equality policy. A complaint, whether made formally or not, can lead you to become a diversity worker. I wasn’t until my second and last job as an academic that I participated in a formal complaint, and that, well that led me here.
Now that we are here, I want to say thank you. I want to thank all of you who have shaped this book. I think of this book as a thank you note. This book was only possible because of how many of you shared with me your stories of complaint, and in sharing stories, shared so much wisdom, institutional wisdom, hard worn wisdom. I want to thank all of you who engaged with this work on complaint, becoming part of a virtual complaint collective, whether by chatting in person to me after I gave talks or by sending emails, or by tweeting to me and with me, sometimes using my project hashtag, #complaintasfeministpedagogy, by sharing with me informally anecdotes and stories, some of which are in the book, all of which are in the work. I want to thank my publisher Duke for providing yet again a home for my work although I would also like to use this moment to say to Duke that you need to recognise the Duke Workers Union. I want to thank Joje and the team in Critical Gender Studies at UC San Diego for hosting this event, for the time and the care, so we can share the work, again, creating another complaint collective. Thanks to all of you who are listening, and to all the people we bring with us when we are listening. Thank you: Chandra, Leila, Tiffany, Sirma and Heidi, for being on this panel, for being part of this complaint collective. And I want to thank my queer family, Sarah, Poppy and Bluebell, this in order of size and age, but not importance, I promise you Bluebell, for the good hap of being together, for the love and the care in living our feminist lives. Sarah, you have taught me so much about what it means to hammer away at institutions, to try and rebuild them by changing their meaning and purpose, what they are for, who they are for.
A book can be a thank you note. This book is the first I began as an independent scholar. That I had left my post made it possible for me to do this work at least in the way I did it. To receive these stories, to be a feminist ear, I needed to be somewhere else, not in the institution even if I am still on it and not fully out of it. I suspect even if I had not left the institution, I would have had to find support for this research somewhere else. A complaint collective can be that somewhere else, how we find the support to confront institutions that often work by withdrawing support from those who confront them. So many of those whose stories I share in the book were led, sometimes by making a formal complaint, sometimes not, into a direct confrontation with institutions, and by institutions I include not just senior administrators and managers but also colleagues and peers. In the research, I thus needed to guarantee the anonymity of all participants. In sharing these stories, they had to be separated from those who gave them. I think of this separation as a limitation. I say this not with regret, there are always limits, we decide what to give up when we make decisions. But I wanted to acknowledge it here.
It was important that the story of the complaint that led to the research was not told by me. I mentioned earlier that my first involvement in a formal complaint process led to this research. I supported a group of PhD students who had already made a collective complaint. I joined their group, their group became ours, ours, that promising feminist word, not a possession, but an invitation. It was important that the students themselves, some of who are now early career academics, others who are lighting feminist fires elsewhere, to tell their story in their own terms. I was just so honoured that the first conclusion of the book was written by Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, Alice Corble with support from Heidi Hasbrouck and Chryssa Sdrolia and others.
Thank you so much Heidi, Sirma, Leila, Tiffany, Chandra, for being here, for being part of this complaint collective, and to all of you in the audience, listening, for being here, for being part of this collective. I want to share some thoughts about how the book is itself a complaint collective. And to do that I am going to read two paragraphs from my conclusion:
I think of the first time I presented this material. I was standing on a stage, and the lights were out. I could hear an audience, the sounds, the groans, sometimes laughter, but I could not see anyone. The words: they were so heavy. I was conscious of the weight of them, of the pain in them. And as I read the words that had been shared with me, knowing the words were also behind me, lit up as text, I had a strong sense, a shivering feeling, of the person who shared those words saying them to me, of you as you said them, of you being there to say them. I felt you there, all of you, because you were there, helping me withstand the pressure I felt to do the best I could, to share the words so they could be picked up, heard by others who might have been there, in that painful place, that difficult place (complaint can be a place), so your words could do something, so your words could go somewhere. And each time I have presented this work, the feeling has been the same, of you being there with me. Maybe to keep doing it, to keep saying it, that is what I needed, for you to be there with me.
I am aware that if these stories have been hard to share (to share an experience that is hard is hard), this book might have been hard to read, hard on you, readers. I know some of you will have picked this book up because of experiences you have had that are hard, experiences that led you to complain, experiences of complaint. You might have had moments of recognition, painful and profound, as I did when I listened to these testimonies. It can help to share something painful, although not always, and not only. One academic said to me at the end of our dialogue, “It’s really helpful talking to you. It reminds me that I am not alone.” It was helpful for me to talk to you too. A complaint collective: how we remind ourselves we are not alone. We need reminders. My hope is that this book can be a reminder: we are not alone. We sound louder when we are heard together; we are louder.
I have chosen to read these words from my conclusion because they are about how being part of a complaint collective made it possible for me to do this work, to keep doing it, to keep sharing it. When I say this book is a complaint collective it might sound like I am talking about the collectivity as being in it. And I am not “not” talking about that. The book is a collection of stories, to collect is to create a collective. I am talking about complaint collectives as much to point to the process as to what it brings into effect. I am pointing to what it takes to get here, to get to it, this, what it takes, who it takes, the time, the labour, the listening, the learning, the meeting up, the going back, the checking in, the speaking, the hearing, the encountering, the reencountering. This is why complaint never felt like a research object. I was in it. And I was in it with you, those who shared your stories with me. And that helped me so much. I felt part of something, at a time when I might otherwise have felt very alone. I am so grateful.
In my conclusion to the book, I suggest that “complaint offers a fresh lens, which is also an old and weathered lens, on collectivity itself.” I just want to say a little more about what I mean by that. I talk in the book about the queer temporality of complaint, we are going back over something because it is not over, we are trying to deal with something because it has not been dealt with. To complain is to be willing to look afresh at something with which we are already familiar, too familiar even, something we have had to endure. You might have to keep complaining because they keep booking inaccessible rooms. You have to keep saying it because they keep doing it. But if you keep saying it, you become an institutional killjoy, getting in the way, standing out, becoming the problem, all over again. Having the eye of the institution land on you, being under scrutiny, treated as suspicious, can be very frightening. So many of the stories shared in this book are stories of institutional violence, that is the violence that comes back at you when you complain about violence. We need a collective to witness this violence, to say, yes, this is happening, this is wrong. We also need a collective to withstand the violence because so often the point of it is to make it hard to hold your ground.
The harder it is to get through, the more we have to do. The harder it is to get through, the more we need more.
To witness, to withstand. As I was listening to testimonies, bearing witness, witnessing your witnessing, I was given energy, even hope. I call it a weary hope, a hope that is close to what is wearing, to what wears us down, to what we have to withstand. I came to feel in my bones what it takes, what it will take, to lift the weight, the weight of a history, how so many of us have to do so much, risk so much, to build more just or less hostile worlds. It is so important that we honour that work, to value it, recognise it. So much of that work is happening behind closed doors. And that is where so much harassment also happens: behind closed doors. When harassment is a structure more than an event, how some are worn down or work out by what they have to do to be somewhere, or what they have to put up with to stay somewhere, a structure is how you close something, a possibility, an opening, or how you stop someone, without needing a damn door. The more you try to bring that out, the violence of how some are stopped, the more doors are shut, nay slammed, in your face. In other words, we encounter what we complain about because we complain. Complaints, that history of harsh encounters, can end up hidden by the same structures they attempt to redress.
I think of where complaints end up, behind those doors, in those files, in that complaint graveyard. I think of all that is also there with them. So much is there. We too can be there. The places that complaints are buried, are holders of many histories, histories of profound pain and loss, of violence, yes, but also histories of struggle, or refusal, those who say no to it, who won’t go along with it, who won’t take any more of it. It is not surprising then that to complain is to find out so much, you put yourself in touch with a history, you find stuff out about yourself, what you will and won’t take, but also other people, about institutions, about power. You might find out about other complaints, earlier complaints. In the book you will read about secret letters in post-boxes, file mysteriously appearing on fax machines, graffiti on books left by one to be picked up later by another. To complain can also be how you learn to notice a burial in a story, a story you might have been told before about someone who had complained before. The more complaints are contained, the more inventive we need to become to get them out. We might turn a complaint that is treated as hostile, perhaps by being perceived as a threat to free speech or academic freedom, into a protest against hostile environments. Transphobia is a hostile environment. I express my solidarity to all students protesting hostile environments.
A complaint in the present can unsettle past complaints, if they are dusty, they are not done. Even complaints that have been buried can come out. To complain can be how we keep not just our own complaints alive but other people’s complaints. An old and weathered lens: we can be a collective without being in the same time or in the same place. An old and weathered lens: we meet in an action without meeting in a person. I think of Audre Lorde. I always think of Lorde. I think of how Lorde describes poetry, in a poem, Power, how poetry is about not letting our power “lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire.” Perhaps complaint can be connected wire, allowing something to pass between us, like electricity, snap, snap, sizzle, a complaint as how we keep a connection alive. It might not always feel like that. You might feel like you did not get very far. You might feel disconnected. But you know what; we know what. You said no, you had a go. Who knows what you stirred up? Who knows who can pick that no up? We pick each other up. Piece by piece, a shattering can become a movement. A sharp piece, an illumination. A complaint can be clarifying; it can be how you clarify your project and your politics. It can be how you find your people. It is how I found my people. Thank you.
I feel so moved to have brought Complaint! to the world by creating a complaint collective. Thank you to everyone who was there, who shared thoughts and feelings on the chat, stories on our shared document, as well as responses during and after the panel. I was so touched to hear and read responses from participants in the research, for the tenderness of your testimonies. I am glad of how if we hand our stories to each other, they can come back to us.
Thanks to everyone for bearing witness, for withstanding, for being the more we need.
We enact what we aim for. Nothing less will do. We share our pain, our fury, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We can do that only when we trust each other, when we promise each other to learn from each other, when we create room for each other, giving each other permission to enter and also to leave, to try and also to retreat, to express ourselves when we can or not when we cannot. We become part of each other’s survival.
I am empowered to have been on this journey with you.
There will be a virtual launch event for the book on October 20th 6-7.30 pm (BST) and 10-11.30am (PST), which I am co-organising with Leila Whitley and Tiffany Page. The launch is kindly hosted by Critical Gender Studies/Ethnic Studies, UC San Diego. The registration link is here.
In addition, during November and December, I will be available for informal conversations to talk about Complaint! (the book and the work). If you are interested, please do get in touch with me using the contact form on my website. Priority is given to student-led activist groups working on sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and gender based violence, homophobia and transphobia, racism and racial harassment, decolonizing initiatives, ableism and accessibility.
Complaint! is out! I feel like adding some exclamation points!!!!!!!
Thank as ever to my complaint collective for keeping me going. By complaint collective I am referring first to the group I worked with before I resigned from my post and second to the many people I communicated with about their experiences of complaint, whose words, work and wisdoms I share in the book.
Complaint! has two conclusions. I am so honoured that the first conclusion is written by my complaint collective in the first sense. Let me share the introduction to the concluding part of the book to celebrate its arrival.
In killjoy solidarity,
If it can be difficult to know how to start the story of a complaint because it is difficult to know when a complaint starts, it can be difficult to know how to end that story because it is difficult to know when a complaint ends. The kinds of complaints I have discussed in this book do not have a point that, once reached, means we are post-complaint or after complaint. When a complaint is taken through a formal process, the end of that process—you might have received a letter, a decision, although sometimes you don’t even get that, you are left hanging—is not necessarily the end of the complaint. To end the story of a complaint can be to cut it off at some arbitrary point. Perhaps the story ends when we no longer have the time or energy to keep telling it.
There are so many ways of telling the story of complaint. There are so many threads to pull from the stories I have collected. The second chapter of each part of the book thus far has had a concluding section. The titles of those conclusions tell their own story: “Sensitive Information,” “Letters in the Box,” and “Distance from Complaint.” Before I turn to the conclusions of the book, let me to return to these concluding sections. Each offered an explanation of how complaints are contained or end up in containers. That complaints contain “sensitive information” or “sticky data” might be why they end up in containers (chapter 2). In other words, complaints are contained because of what they threaten to reveal. Some become complainers because of what they are trying to reveal. Complaints we express in our own way, in our own terms, can end up contained in the spaces in which they were made or which they were about (chapter 4). Or it might be that doors are closed on complaints, and on those who make them, in order to open the door for others. An open door can be predicated on keeping distance from complaint (chapter 6). Those who complain can end up with nowhere to go. To explain how complaints are contained is thus to explain how institutions are reproduced, how the paths that can be followed are made narrower by stopping those who are trying to question how things are going or who are trying to go a different way.
Even if a complaint is contained or those who complain end up without a path to follow, a complaint might still go somewhere. Complaints might go somewhere because of how they affect those whom they come into contact with. If you leave because of a complaint, you do not just leave the problem behind. The effort you made to deal with that problem, even if you did not seem to get anywhere, becomes part of the institution, part of its history; however hidden, it happened. It might be that the story gets out, the information you gathered gets out, either accidentally or through a deliberate action. We will hear of such accidents and actions in due course. But what can be leaked as a result of complaint is more than information. What we have to do to gather that information, the work of complaint, is even harder to contain. Complaint is an outward-facing action: it involves people, many people, some of whom do not even meet. That involvement matters.
This book ends with two concluding chapters. The first was written by members of the collective I was privileged to join, Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, and Alice Corble, with support from Heidi Hasbrouck, Chryssa Sdrolia, and others. Not everyone who was part of our collective is named as an author, but given that writing about the work of complaint is a continuation of the work, everyone who was part of the collective has shaped the writing. It is important to them, to us, and it is important for this book that they get to tell the story, in their own terms, in their own way. I learn so much from how they describe a “we” being formed, light, even tenuous, out of differences, each person having their own story of getting to a point that is shared. If we have to combine our forces in order to get anywhere, that combination has a history, that combination has a life of its own; even telling the story can be another way of combining forces.
In chapter 8, I return to the stories I have collected for this book, which include many instances of students and academics working together to get complaints through the system. I show how those who complain often end up politicized by complaint, becoming complaint activists, pressing against organizations, using their time and resources, even wasting their time and resources, to keep complaints alive. The last section of chapter 8—perhaps it is the conclusion of the conclusion—is titled “Survival and Haunting.” We can think back to, think with, the image of the complaint graveyard. Even the complaints that end up there, buried, under the ground, have gone somewhere. What has been put away can come back. To tell stories of complaint, leaky, ghostly, haunting, is to be reminded of what can be inherited from actions that did not seem to succeed. We do not always know where complaints will go.
I knew we were going to lose you. You told us in so many words. You have such a way with words that I had to work hard not to be distracted by their beauty from the devastation of what you were telling us. When I heard you had died, I was just so lost.
What if the person you lose is the one who could best describe that loss for you?
When we lose a person, we lose the words they might have shared in a future they will not have. I have no words for saying how it feels to say these words: that Lauren Berlant has died. That you have died. I have no words, but then I do, no words are words, edging for something, connecting us to someone. I still can’t bring myself to believe it. I want belief to lag behind, take your time coming, take your time. Your presence has been so orientating for me, a landmark, like that distinctly shaped tree, or that tower you can see, nearby or in the distance that allows you to know which way you are facing, which tells you how to get to where you need to go. I feel disorientated, without a compass, without you being here. I am not sure how to find my way around.
We muddle through. You taught me to attend to what we do to muddle through. Your words are still guiding me. I am grateful for all of them. I could read just a few of your words and know they were yours. You have a style like no other, sentences that are crisp but with curious combinations, crisp and opaque, coming at you and escaping from you at the very same time. You have a way of capturing details, of fine tuning amidst the fuzz or the buzz or the chaos so you could hear the singularity of a note, sharp, painfully clear. You found in the materials of the everyday so much to think with, turning things around, giving a different angle on them so they glimmer or flicker, or a different angle on ourselves so we glimmer or flicker. I have never met or read anyone so able to explain the difficulty we have giving up attachments, even when we provide evidence ourselves of how they are not working, and yet alive to the potential for rearranging things, turning slips into starting points for another story, whilst we are in a muddle, in the middle of something that does not, even will not, acquire the shape of an event.
Nor have I read or met anyone who was so interested in other people, so curious about their histories, what brought them to their work, what they brought into their work, or someone with such profound fidelity to the task of reflection, to sustaining reflection on our shared worlds, feelings, thoughts, attachments, so that what might have, at first glance, seemed solid, a norm say, becomes spongier, looser, lighter. Sometimes, as someone who is shy, unless I am in a formal setting where I know the rules, someone with strong boundaries, maybe too strong, but we do what we can to live the best we can, it made me nervous, the directness of your attention, worried about what you might see or not see in me. I was at the same time grateful for it and for the time you gave me. Gratitude can be near grief, a sense of how much someone gives as a sense of how much you could lose; could lose, will lose. You asked, “I am a love theorist, how did that happen?” I think I know how it happened. A love theorist, a loving theorist, a theorist of love and loss and relationships that end up, as we do, in unexpected places.
As we do. The first time I encountered you, saw your name, read words you had written, yes, that can be enough to encounter a person, was on a piece of paper that had been put in my pigeon hole by a colleague, who was later to become my life partner (you were around during that becoming!), Sarah Franklin. I love that: that I first saw your name, read your words, because of a piece of paper that had been put in my mail box by a friend of yours. Relationships can have priority; they can be how we find each other’s words. Sarah had photocopied your CFP for a special issue on intimacy and circulated it to all members of the department. I emailed you. I suggested I could write a paper on intimacy and autobiography. I was writing, at the time, a chapter for my book Strange Encounters that took me near intimacy but was not on it. I was a very junior lecturer at this time, I had only just finished by PhD, my first book based on the PhD had yet to come out, which meant I was still trying to bend myself to fit any opening, any opportunity. I hoped near would be near enough. You explained that what I proposed was not what you had in mind. I can’t remember the words you used, but it was something like, it is a bit obvious to approach intimacy through autobiography. Our first exchanges were a little tense, funnily enough, as I explained why I thought autobiography could provide an unexpected angle on intimacy precisely because that is where intimacy is expected to be found. I did not know then how attending to the obvious (as well as attending to expectations of where something or someone is assumed to be) would become what I did or how I would follow a thought.
I think there were some tensions between us in the years that followed. There are signs of it in some of our writing. The introduction of Cruel Optimism, for example, positioned me as interested in emotion and not affect. Although I had been critical of the uses of the distinction between emotion and affect, much of my work has been about promises, atmospheres, sticky objects, affective economies, how histories get under our skin, and has thus been in the terrain of what is sometimes called “affect theory.” I referred to your argument in my introduction to the second edition of The Cultural Politics of Emotion, as an example of how affect and emotion are given distinct trajectories (and even objects). We never spoke to each other about this; I wish we had. Much later when you were writing the paper, “Sex in the Event of Happiness,” which I think will appear in your next book (I am so glad I can say this, Lauren Berlant’ s next book!) you did ask me if we could brainstorm together because “your work is troubling me (in a good way)” which was a reference, I assume, to The Promise of Happiness. I wasn’t around when you messaged me, we did not get to brainstorm. We will not get to brainstorm.
Despite these troublings and tensions, there was so much we came to share in our work. Perhaps this despite is misplaced. Troublings and tensions can be how we are in relation. To be in relation, as you taught, is the joy (also inconvenience) of being with someone you are not.
But I have in thinking of tensions fast forwarded. Let me go back.
Our first communications were, from memory, in 1996. And then we invited you to be a keynote speaker at the Transformations: Thinking Through Feminism conference in July 1997. This was the first major international conference for the Centre for Women’s Studies at Lancaster University; it was such an important event in the life of that Centre. You spoke in the first plenary session, and the first time I saw you, you were already on a podium. You were wearing a leather mini skirt, if I recall correctly, and I just remember thinking wow, you were so stylish and cool. I was totally intimidated when we had our first in person conversations if the truth be known, and you said something about it, I can’t quite remember the words, but perhaps that we had those tense exchanges led you to think I might be a little fiercer than I tend to present (my feminist killjoy self, however, is furious as well as fierce, it is just only some occasions when she comes out). Later, I was to learn, you got that, you got it, you got me, how I could take on the assignment of a feminist killjoy not despite being shy, anxious and sensitive, but because of it; the armour we use, has its story, which is our story, hardness comes to matter for those who experience themselves as too easily hurt.
Later, I was to learn what a good reader you were not just of texts but of people.
And you held the room with a lecture on “The Subject of True Feeling: Pain, Privacy and Politics,” from which I still learn so much. That was the first time I heard you lecture. I have since heard many more. I loved how you stood (some call it the tree pose), how you laughed, how you filled the room, yet also seemed to create room for others. The questions you asked in that lecture, which we published as a paper in our edited book, remain so important: “What happens to questions of managing difference or alterity or resources in collective life when feeling bad becomes evidence for a structural condition of injustice? What does it mean for the theory and practice of social transformation, when feeling good becomes evidence of justice’s triumphs?” After that you came to Lancaster again for a conference on Testimonial Cultures and Feminist Agendas in 1999, organised by myself and Jackie Stacey, and you gave another extraordinary lecture, “Trauma and Ineloquence,” which we published in the journal Cultural Values. One sentence I remember, “Symptoms that condense history are like dead metaphors, challenging their readers to make them live.” You helped me to question how trauma becomes an expectation of delivery for the negated, the subordinated, but also in that questioning, to imagine another way of receiving somebody’s trauma, of making a dead metaphor live.
A new millennium brought with it plans to bring you back to Lancaster. Sarah Franklin took the lead in a proposal for a Leverhulme Visiting Professorship. And then in the summers of 2001 and 2002 you came for extended periods of time, participating in a series of more and less formal events loosely organised under the rubric, “Feelings in Public.” Between 1997 and 2002, then, you were around so much, around at a time I was working on The Cultural Politics of Emotion, around at the time I decided to write about happiness – a decision which I am sure was inspired by our conversations as well as my experience of doing empirical research on diversity and racism. Writing about happiness led me to the feminist killjoy, led me to do the work of changing my work so that it would less bound by the university, less caught up in the dynamics that keeps our work in the university, which is also how I ended up on it, working on the university, on institutions with their manifold histories.
Thinking back, to the good hap of that, you being around there, then, I can see how much my own work on emotion and affect was enabled by being in dialogue with you, and the mark you left on all of us working in Gender Studies and Cultural Studies in the UK. In an endnote to The Cultural Politics of Emotion I wrote, “I am very indebted to Lauren Berlant, whose insightful questions, ‘when do norms become forms,’ has provided the inspiration for my work.”
To inspire, can mean not only to uplift or encourage, but to enable to breathe, to give air. The life you breathed into my work is all over my work. In Queer Phenomenology, I cited your co-authored piece, “Sex in Public,” with the wonderful description of queer worlds, the “queer world is a space of entrances, exits, unsystematized lines of acquaintance, projecting horizons, typifying examples, alternate routes, blockages, incommensurate geographies” (2005: 198). In The Promise of Happiness, I borrowed your delightfully crisp expression “the foggy fantasy of happiness,” and also your idea of objects as “clusters of promises.” In Willful Subjects, I drew upon your essay “Slow Death,” in accounting for snap, suggesting that we “cannot see the slower times of bearing or making do” and also draw on your description of the problem of how will becomes the problem. As you wrote in Queen of America goes to Washington City, which is still my favourite of your books: “In the new good life imagined by the contracting state, the capitalist requirement that there be a population of poorly remunerated laborers-in-waiting or those who cobble together temporary work is not deemed part of a structural problem but rather a problem of will and ingenuity” (2004: 4). I came back to your work in Living a Feminist Life, a number of times, thinking with your idea of cruel optimism, wondering who gets to diagnose when a life is working or not working, and also your explanation of a situation, “a state of things in which something that will perhaps matter is unfolding amidst the usual activity of life.”
Yes, you teach me how to describe what is happening, the usual activity of life, how to notice what will perhaps matter as it unfolds, to notice an unfolding as a way of holding something, lightly.
What we create is fragile because we need it to survive.
We did meet up over the years. You came to London. I remember cooking you and our partners some vegetable curries. And then I came to Chicago a few times, one time to give a lecture for your programme, another to give a lecture at another university. I think that first time was in 2013. You were such a generous host. The other time was in 2015 – the last time we met in person. We met at your hairdressers then hang out for a bit. I was in the middle of supporting students who had made a collective complaint about sexual harassment that led me to leave not just my post but our profession – I told you about that. We have in our work and in our different ways, tried to account for the toxicity and violence of institutions, to think about how to handle it. Handles can turn thoughts into care. When I left my post, I also left Facebook, which is where we usually communicated, so there was a time, almost two years in fact, when we were not in touch. I regret that. When we got back in touch, you told me you hoped I felt freer. I said I was getting there. It can be hard to put it behind you; the institution can find you. But researching complaint was helping me, I said.
Which brings me to complaint. I always expected in my work on complaint to engage directly with The Female Complaint, your middle book in your wondrous trilogy. I learned so much from that book about complaint as a genre with a loose hold. But I didn’t because Complaint! ended up being led by those I spoke to, my complaint collective. They became my theorists. So, I didn’t do what I usually do, follow complaint around, follow the word around, a following that would have led me to your work, to a proper engagement with it.
I emailed you about it. I wanted you to know that I missed the encounter we might have had; the dialogue we were both, I suspect, waiting for. You understood what I was telling you. You wrote, “I’m gathering you’re telling me that you barely think with the female complaint. It’s a shame for me because we have for so long been interlocutors. We should interview each other like old times when it comes out. Would you like to? I can totes arrange it.” I was sad for that “shame for me,” but I understood it. I said yes, yes to that dialogue. Then you got more and more ill. You still sent me Lauren messages (Lauren messages are not only messages Lauren sent but messages that were so expressive of Lauren). The last message you sent me was on June 11th the same month you died. You wrote that you were writing me from “pain hell.” You wrote that you had seen my book, Complaint! in the Duke University Press catalogue. You made a Lauren quip about how Duke had used an author photo for me (and why they hadn’t for you), and then said, “so excited to get a copy. Meanwhile thank you for thinking with me as I do with you. It means a lot.”
It means a lot. I think you were telling me that there are many ways to be in dialogue and that we hadn’t missed it. A dialogue can be what we are in, a space, a zone, an intimacy.
“I didn’t think it would turn out this way” (Lauren on intimacy’s secret epitaph).
We can be in a dialogue without having one.
We are in dialogue. This is how it is turning out.
I emailed you back and said I would send you one of my first copies, my author copies, with an inscription. I will still send it to you, of course.
This is an endnote in the book: “My emphasis on the affective nature of complaint connects with Lauren Berlant’s (2008) consideration of female complaint. Berlant describes complaint as “a way of archiving experience, turning experience into evidence and evidence into argument and argument into convention and convention into cliché, clichés so powerful they can hold a person her entire life” (227). My discussion is more about feminist than female complaint. Feminist complaint can also “hold a person her entire life,” although perhaps less through convention and cliché. With thanks to Lauren Berlant for the inspiration of her work.” I wrote this note without realising you had changed your pronouns. If there is a second printing, I will ask to change her to their, to honour your preferences and your work.
I know we are in dialogue. I know that you were writing fiercely from and through “pain hell” with your Lauren dedication, and that there are more books on their way because of that. But I wish I could have more dialogues with you in person, to hear your laughter, the sound of your voice, to feel you there with me.
I am writing this letter to you. I know it is important to say to each other what we mean to each other. We cannot always do that. Sometimes, we know the importance of something when it is no longer possible. I am sharing this letter on my blog, Lauren because you taught me that if you write through a feeling, with it, you share it. We create an assembly, grief-stricken, yes, but all the better, all the sharper, lovelier, even, for having known each other, found each other, in words, in persons. In the shattering, queer losses, queer lives, creating new shapes; glimmering, flickering.
I wrote to you once last time after you died.
“I can’t believe you are not here anymore. I came back to Facebook as I remembered we messaged just so I could hear you. I can always hear you in your writing, no one else sounds like you. I’ll miss you so much but I will keep learning from you Lauren. I promise xxx”.
Lauren, I promise. I promise to keep learning from you. To think with you, to stay in touch, to be in dialogue.