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.