Warnings

Listening to those who have made or tried to make formal complaints about abuses of power within institutions is teaching me about institutional mechanics; how institutions work; how different parts fit together. The testimonies I have gathered zoom in on processes that are usually obscure, if perceived only dimly perceived, because of how institutions work. The accounts I have heard have helped me to make sense of the concrete ways we are directed along institutional paths, those well-traveled paths that are assumed to lead to better or happier outcomes, as well as how we are directed away from other paths.

Complaints are “other paths.”

In this post I consider the implications of how those who are considering whether to make a complaint are often warned about the consequences of complaining.  I will share with you some examples of the different kinds of warnings received by would-be-complainers.  By evoking the figure of a would-be-complainer I am thinking not simply of persons but of times. To be a would-be-complainer is to be in a time of consideration; the time of consideration is an important part of what I described in an earlier post as the time of complaint. Many things can happen during this time that influence how or whether someone proceeds to a formal complaint.

When you have to consider whether to make a complaint about bullying or harassment because you have been harassed or bullied you have to go through a difficult and life-consuming process. Experiences of the difficulty of making a complaint are often shared at this time such that when you are considering whether to make a complaint you often become even more conscious of the difficulty of making a complaint. You might decide not to go through with a complaint not despite but because of what happened to you. Being harassed or bullied is already painful and difficult and can leave you with a sense that you do not have the resources you need to take a complaint forward. This is why: the experiences that lead you to complaint are often the same experiences that stop you from making a complaint.

A would-be-complainer is someone who is in midst of this process; in the middle of it; right in the thick of it. A would-be-complainer might have taken some steps in the direction of a formal complaint by making an informal disclosure to a line manager, supervisor or peer (1). From my study I have learnt that it is at this point that many people are cautioned or discouraged from complaining. And they are often discouraged by the use of warnings.

Warnings are familiar: we know what to do with them. A warning could be thought of as an ominous sign; a sign of a danger-to-come. A warning can be an instruction.

Stop! Danger ahead!

Take this sign.

Danger Stairs

Such a sign is affective: it can fill you with the alarm of what could happen if you went that way: you could topple right over.  Even if the danger being evoked points to a future, the point of a warning is to grab someone’s attention in the present. A warning tells you “it is alarming” by making you feel alarmed. A warning in telling you what to feel is also telling you what to do: to change direction; to find another route. Warnings are only useful to the extent they give you enough time to modify your behaviour. Warnings are how we learn what (as well as who) to avoid. The usefulness of warnings is thus restricted in terms of timing, a warning that is given too late, before you venture somewhere that is deemed dangerous, might as well not be given at all. And given that warnings are often about safety, they might even evoke the danger of death, the right response is to respond quickly, not to think or to hesitate but to act.

Danger of Death

A warning tells us how to approach something: as an emergency. I think of warnings and I think of slamming the brakes, an expression that can literally mean stepping on the brakes of a vehicle to slow it down as quickly as possible but can also mean by extension to slow down or stop whatever one is doing. I think of a warning and I hear a screech.

Warnings litter the landscape as signs, as exclamation points, points that tell us when to stop or start, or when to be concerned.

Exclamation Point

And warnings are also spoken; they can even be how we speak to each other with concern; notes of caution given as everyday wisdom. In thinking about warnings – a thinking that was prompted because of how and how often warnings came up in my complaint data – I was rather surprised that I had not written about warnings before. So much of my work especially Queer Phenomenology (2006) and The Promise of Happiness (2010) has been about techniques of direction – how we are directed toward some paths, towards some things and not others. Happy objects circulate as promises; we are directed toward things that are anticipated to cause happiness (anticipatory causality). I now realise warnings can also be understood as promises: if the point of a warning is to avoid what is deemed dangerous, you are also receiving a promise (of safety or even happiness). I began to realise that the speech act that had so intrigued me, “I just want you to be happy,” often said by a parent to a child can be heard as a warning. The speech act appears to give the child freedom to do whatever makes them happy, and yet is often said in frustration, which is to say or as if to say, “so don’t do that,” because that is deemed the cause of unhappiness. A warning can thus be made without being made explicit: warnings are how we learn “don’t do that.”

Warnings might be useful because they articulate a “no” predicated not on some abstract rule but on someone’s own health and safety.  We need to tease out the implications of the usefulness of warnings: useful to whom, useful for what?

We learn from the mere fact that would-be-complainers are warned about complaining that complaints are deemed dangerous. (2) Simply put, complaints are anticipated to compromise the health, safety or happiness of those who make them. Warnings can come from many sources –from supervisors, from administrators, from senior managers but also from friends and peers. Warnings can be offered with quite different intonations; from caring and concerned, cautious and ambivalent, dramatic and fearful, to aggressive and threatening. A would-be complainer is often surrounded by warnings, which means that you are surrounded by alarm, concern, caution and fear for your future, which is why even considering complaint can feel like you are risking toppling right over.

Danger Stairs

Let’s start with the softer warnings; those spoken in the language of care and concern. A concern about the consequences of complaint is often expressed as “thinking about your career.” One student describes: “I ended up going back to the chair, and saying, look, this is harassment and I am going to file a complaint. And his response was essentially, ‘well we are just thinking about your career, how this will affect you in the future.’” Another student describes: “I was also told that if I made a formal complaint, this was the Head of Department, I had to think about my career.”  The implication is that to proceed with a formal complaint is not to think about your career. Being advised not to complain is thus offered as career advice. Your career is evoked as a companion who needs to be looked after; maybe your career is a plant that needs watering so that it does not wither away. If your career would wither as a consequence of complaint, then a complaint is figured in advance as carelessness, as negligence, as not looking after yourself.

We are often encouraged to think of our careers as having an exteriority, as what you have to care for in order to have somewhere to go. You might be told to do something “because it would be good for your cv.” For those who are institutionally precarious, who have a fight on their hands to become established, a career is a not-quite-formed and thus all-the-more fragile thing; a career is what can be easily broken. The more precarious you are the more you support you need to secure a foothold. If you do not take heed of a warning, that is, if you are not stopped from complaining, you are understood not only as having damaged your own future (a career becomes like a shattered jug, broken because you carelessly left it too close to the edge) but as having failed to protect the investment that others have made in you (the scholarship, mentorship or support you might have relied upon along the way). A complaint becomes a failure to protect an investment.

If we treat warnings about complaint as part of a wider cluster of speech acts that go under the heading “career advice” they teach us about how we are taught to approach careers. You might be advised to approach your career strategically, which in practical terms means doing what would maximize your chances to go somewhere or to get somewhere. To be strategic is the requirement to select from a range of possibilities open to you that which would enable you to go further. Being strategic can thus also mean not going in a certain direction. I have heard again and again from students, and also from colleagues, how they were directed away from certain kinds of work, away from certain stances, away from words even, don’t do a feminist project, that won’t get you very far, don’t do race, that’s too narrow, race and gender are often framed as too narrow, the universal is given width, breadth, as well as speed, faster, lighter.  As academics of colour we learn from what happens when we use the word race. You hear alarm bells: you can feel like you are constantly being warned. Don’t say that, translating into, don’t do that, or even, don’t be that.

We can and we do refuse the instructions. But we do need to listen to them, to learn from what they are asking.

Warnings that are expressed out of concern for one’s career do not always feel like concern; in the cases above, it was quite clear to the students that the concern for their careers was masking something else (such as concern for departments or colleagues). Whether warnings feel concerned for the welfare of those being warned seems to depend not so much on the words used, or how they are used, but on the kinds of relationships we have with each other. One junior academic who had an experience of unfair and unequal treatment in her department was warned by a senior woman of colour not to complain. She describes: “This was a professor who I really trust and who did probably have my best interests at heart and she said to me at that point, don’t put in a grievance, you are a young academic, and if you do that now you are going to be known as someone who puts in grievances, you are going to be known as someone who puts in complaints, so just let it go, and work out something informally.” The language in this warning is familiar. Warnings about the costs of complaint often evoke the figure of the complainer as who you do not want to become; to become a complainer is to be slowed by how you are known. But this early career academic sensed this professor “had her best interests at heart.”  I sensed her trust come out of political allegiance as well as recognition of political struggle; of the work it takes to be a senior woman of colour at a university; how some have to battle their way to create spaces (and have careers) in institutions that are not built for them (3).

I have been thinking about this: how if you have to battle the institutions of patriarchal whiteness to establish yourself you might become warier about being worn, warier about complaining, and how that wariness can end up being passed on as advice to others.

In this instance the early career researcher did not proceed with a complaint.  And in not complaining she became conscious of the costs of not complaining (4): “Looking back on that, I don’t believe in regret, but I definitely believe in complaining, even when it’s a bad outcome, just creating that record of what happened. When something really bad happens, and you don’t complain but you do something informally within the institution you are really implicated in letting go of what happened even if that thing is just to you.” Not complaining can mean you let go of what happened and thus come to feel implicated in what was not resolved. We learn from such accounts, however they leave us, how individuals are presumed to benefit from not complaining; from not addressing certain kinds of problems as institutional problems. If you benefit from not complaining you also become implicated – or come to feel implicated – in how that problem is reproduced. This is one of the reasons that a decision not to complain can be so complicated: you are considering whether to benefit from not addressing the cause of harm. If we have to complain because of a structure (what gives unfair advantage to some), sometimes it is because of that same structure that you don’t complain. Not complaining can be an effort not to be further disadvantaged by that structure by leaving it in place.

If warnings are used to discourage a course of action they can also function as more positive directives: in being discouraged from complaining you are being encouraged not to complain. Indeed one academic described how not complaining becomes a default setting: “the default academia thing, the university thing: it will be fine, if we do wait, don’t make a fuss.” It is interesting how complaining is evoked as making a fuss, or as making something bigger than it needs to be or as impatience. Not making a complaint becomes a form of virtue or even a style of good citizenship: patience is tied to a positive outlook as if waiting is what would make something fine, as if the best way to approach a wrong is to wait for it to right itself. The flip-side of a warning is thus that promise, an institutional version of what I called “the promise of happiness,” a promise that if you don’t complain you will go further.

Sometimes you can be given permission to complain and be warned about the consequences of complaint at the very same time. In one instance a postgraduate student was considering making a complaint against her supervisor who had sexually harassed her. She had concrete evidence – he had sent her photos of his genitals.

She goes to the office that handles such complaints. And what happens?

They were like, “you can file a complaint.” But then the same narrative “not much is going to happen: 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.

What she calls “the same narrative” is also skepticism that there is any point in following a complaint procedure (by those responsible for the administration of procedures). There is a sense that even if you file a complaint what will happen is “not much” no matter what evidence you have in a file.  There is a certain kind of fatalism operating here; we might call this a procedural fatalism. We can relate procedural fatalism to what I called in an earlier post, institutional fatalism, a sense that this is how institutions work so there is no point in trying to change how they work; or a sense that sexual harassment is everywhere so there is no point in trying to change it here. That fatalism can be performed through warnings is instructive: after all warning are about how you can avoid certain consequences. It is implied that institutions are what they are, such that whatever they will be, they will be. This disbelief that something would happen operates as recognition of what or who is valued by the university: it is because of what such-and-such professor is worth to the organisation that it is presumed not much will happen; in other words, the confidence that not much will happen is a confidence that not much will happen to him. A prediction that the consequences of complaint will be dire (not only that you would experience emotional torment but that you could render yourself even more precarious further down the line) is also an expectation that those who are institutionally valued will retain their value no matter; no matter whom.

So if a complaint is deemed in advance as dangerous, a complaint can also be framed as pointless, as what will not stop the reproduction of the same thing. This is important: because it might be that someone would proceed to complaint even if it might cause damage if they sensed there was a point to that damage, that a cost would bring some benefit.  And note you can be told that “you can do this” whilst being warned about doing this. Warnings can operate in the realm of the “would” rather than the “could.” Warnings can be translated into questions you end up having to ask yourself: you could complain but why would you? A warning becomes about what you would not do if you wanted to protect yourself; your career and your happiness.

Sometimes you can be told you should make a complaint and be warned about complaining at the very same time. A woman student, who was sexually assaulted by a male academic, describes a warning she receives from a female research assistant:

She told me that if I wanted to make an official complaint (which I should), she would support me. Yet, she also told me about her own experience of sexual harassment by another professor in another school and warned me about what would happen and what would not. Especially considering this professor’s image in the school, she said I should have been ready for the possibility that many people wouldn’t even believe me and would accuse me of misunderstanding his open-mindedness and intimacy.

A warning about “what would happen” can be predicated on what has happened. And a warning about “what would happen” can even be offered as feminist knowledge about how sexism operates as a belief system – a knowledge of how much is invested in the professor and his image and how that investment means he will be protected from facing consequences of his actions (turning even an assault into a fault of perception, a misunderstanding of his “open-mindedness and intimacy”). I think it is important that a warning can be offered in the style of a report: the person who warns you can do so by reporting on beliefs she does not hold and even on beliefs she might oppose. We learn from how even a wealth of feminist knowledge can be transformed into a warning. Even as she is told she should complain and that she will receive the support of the one who is giving the warning if she does complain, she is told to “ready” herself for the consequences. In fact warnings are telling you to be more concerned with consequences than with anything else. And so, if we accumulate more evidence that she will not be believed that evidence can be used as a technique of redirection; she can be given even more reasons not to complain.

A warning is a technique of redirection when you are directed away from a path that your commitments would otherwise lead you to. One academic described how she and a number of other colleagues decided to make a formal complaint about bullying from a head of department. Whichever way they turned – to human resources, to the union, to other colleagues– they were discouraged from taking that route. We learn not simply from the fact that complaints are discouraged but how they are discouraged and by whom they are discouraged. She describes: “Every time we tried to initiate a formal enquiry someone would stop us and say it is not a good idea to do that. Someone from the union, someone from HR or someone from the university, they would frighten you with the process, I think that’s what they do. They would say most complaints they go on for a year, the people are so resentful by the end of it they don’t want to work in the place and nothing ever happens: and that’s the union.” I started this post by noting that the process of making a complaint can be difficult and that consciousness of that difficulty can make people reluctant to complain for understandable reasons. We are now learning how evidence of the difficulty of a process can be used as a technique for stopping someone from entering or completing that process.

Note again the function of fatalism: a sense that what will happen, will happen; the past can be used like an arrow that points to a miserable outcome. You are being told the likely consequences of complaint before you proceed: that complaints have lead people to leave or to want to leave (“people are so resentful by the end of it they don’t want to work in the place and nothing happens”) is used as a prediction of what will happen if you complain: that complaint will lead you to leave. We might note here that predictions can have truth value (people do leave as a consequence of complaint) and function as directives (don’t complain unless you want to leave); indeed warnings might be useful to those trying to stop a complaint or trying not to address a problem raised by a complaint because they contain a kernel of truth.

Predictions of dire futures for complainers are also statements or even convictions about the very nature of institutions. Or we could say a conviction is how a judgement is converted into a prediction: this is what will happen because this is what such-and-such institution is like. And so: to proceed with a complaint requires going against other people’s convictions. No wonder then: warnings can feel like walls.

In this example, the union is one of the many actors who tried to stop the complaints from being turned into a formal enquiry (5). She describes further: “We keep putting in complaints but our union constantly discouraged us going down the formal complaint route. We were wondering whether to put in an official grievance and the union kept discouraging us and discouraging us. It was like they were on the side of the university: it felt like that to us; I don’t know what was going on there. You would meet with the union leader and he would say things like ‘it’s their sandpit they can decide who is going to play in it.’” The union’s effort to stop a formal complaint or grievance is experienced as siding with the organisation. You can be left unsure about what is going on, but still feel a wall built from how different actors are siding together; siding as stopping. A warning becomes an alignment; how different actors seem to be invested in the same thing, stopping a complaint from going forward.

Judgments about what institutions are like are not just descriptions: they are ways of viewing the organisation; ways of considering who or what an organisation is for.  Just think of how at that meeting the head of the union shares his view of the university: “it’s their sandpit they can decide who is going to play in it.” Warnings can also be about reproducing a view of an organization. In this instance the discouragement of a complaint about bullying is an endorsement of bullying, treating the university as a sandpit that is owned; decisions made about who gets to play as how conduct is justified as right or even a right. Indeed such a view is how a bully is given permission to bully; as if to say, those who are heads can do what they like. Warnings about complaint can offer not just predictions of bad consequences for those who make complaints; they can function as endorsements of the conduct that complaints are put forward to challenge. Institutional fatalism could even be thought of as a useful tool for those who wish to assert their power within institutions: it is how certain kinds of behaviour are deemed natural and inevitable; as just the nature of the game. A complainer becomes by fault and default the one who does not know the rules of the game.

We could even speculate that warnings operate as extensions of bullying and harassment. Indeed bullying and harassment often work by making it costly to identify certain kinds of conduct as problematic. It becomes easier to go along with something because it is made harder to challenge something. If you complain about bullying you are bullied all the more; if you complain about harassment you are harassed all the more. It is not surprising then that warnings about the difficulty of complaint can be used as threats; I will call this institutional bullying. (6)

A threat is not necessarily made at the outset – a warning often becomes a threat somewhere down the line, when a warning fails to stop someone from going ahead with a complaint. When a warning becomes a threat, it is usually apparent to the recipient that the threat was there all along; the threat has just come out into the open. (7) One student describes what happened when she and a group of postgraduate students tried to make a complaint about harassment from other students: “I was repeatedly told that ‘rocking the boat’ or ‘making waves’ would affect my career in the future and that I would ruin the department for everyone else. I was told if I did put in a complaint I would never be able to work in the university and that is was likely I wouldn’t get a job elsewhere.” I will return to the descriptions “rocking the boats,” and “making waves” in due course – these are such common descriptions from my interviews. We are already familiar with how complaint is framed as self-damage. This statement shows how damage caused by complaint can be as much about the anticipation of damage to a department or institution; you would ruin your career but you would also ruin a department. Perhaps a warning is about how your own happiness is made dependent on the extent to which you are willing to protect the happiness of an institution.

This student describes how the pressure not to complain was exerted: “In just one day I was subjected to eight hours of grueling meetings and questioning, almost designed to break me and stop me from taking the complaint any further.” You can stop people from doing something by making it harder for them to do something.  Stopping someone becomes part of the design. She describes how at a certain point in the meeting, the head of department made reference to her source of funding. To be reminded of how she was dependent upon the department for resources is to be told by the head of a department how they have the power to make her topple right over.

Danger Stairs

When a warning becomes a threat you are being told not just that a complaint will damage your career but that if you complain they will damage your career.

Even when threats are made more explicit they are rarely made fully explicit in part because such threats are against policy and procedure. But a threat does not need to be made fully explicit to be made. You don’t have to say: I will take your funding away if you proceed with a complaint; you can just casually mention the source of funding in a meeting. You cannot always tell when someone is telling you that making a complaint will damage your career or whether they are really telling you they will damage your career if you complain. Whether a warning is really a threat might seem to depend upon whether someone is in the position to cause damage. It is important for me to note that you can threaten to damage someone’s career or indeed damage someone’s career without necessarily having what we might call institutional power (such as the power to secure or withdraw funding). One common tactic is the spreading of rumours about those who make complaints.  The figure of the malicious complainer has an institutional life for a reason. That figure can circulate and cause damage; if you become her you are less likely to have a place to go.

When we think of how warnings can be threats, we also learning more about how power operates within institutional settings through the control or routing of information or data. Let me share with you another quote from this interview:

All this time everyone had said to us informally, different students and staff members, had said to us don’t do this, you’ll ruin your career, you’ll be making waves and no one likes you to make waves, you’ve just got to laugh it off, this will last for ever in your career if you do this you’ll be known as the person who made a fuss, and complained. At this point, we really realised that, like oh shit, we started to realise that we could actually get kicked out because of this, we could lose our jobs because of this, and the university was making it quite clear that they are a really big institution and we are four PhD students with not very much power or resources.

A complaint is heard as making waves: as stopping things from being steady. Keeping things steady is here the requirement to make something light; to laugh it off; to grin and bear it. A complaint is implied to be what sticks – it might not be on your CV; but you will always be known for it. A complaint is sticky data. You will become not only a complainer but a complaint in the sense of a minor but irritating ailment or condition. The implication here is that rocking as a motion is more dangerous for those with less stable footing. Warnings are thus used to heighten your consciousness of the precarity of your situation. They are also being used to put people in place; to tell you who is bigger and who is smaller (they are bigger; you are smaller) or who will prevail and who will not (they will prevail; you will not). In other words, warnings can be how some are put in their place by being told how easy it would be for them to lose their footing.

Danger Stairs

Maybe the complainer topples over or is told she would topple over in order to keep something in place (and something can be someone).  When an MA student made a complaint about the conduct of the most senior member of the department she was told by the convener of the programme: “be careful he is an important man.” A warning not to proceed is a statement about who is important. Importance is not just a judgment it is a direction. A professor becomes a conductor; information, energy and resources travel through him. I would describe his becoming as institutional funneling; paths become narrower and narrower at the exit points; you have to go through him to get anywhere.

The student went ahead with a complaint.  In her terms, 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 function as doors, mechanisms that enable an opening or closing, how it is made possible for some to progress, others not.  Reference are letters sent out that might reach their destination; they are how some are enabled by their connections, how some gather speed and velocity, more and more, faster and faster, “he is an important man.” References can be being withheld or they can offer faint praise: when praise is faint a no is being expressed, a no can be how someone has nowhere to go.

Many do not make complaints because they feel they cannot afford to lose the references.  All you need is to be reminded that you need a reference to be warned about the consequences of complaint. A reference can be what you need to have a future in the academy. Another student describes: “you can’t complain against your supervisor, you can’t be that PhD student if you lodged an official complaint against your supervisors, these are the people you are going to rely on….as one academic said to me; your supervisor is not just for your PhD it’s for your life.” If a supervisor is for your life, a complaint against a supervisor could be the end of a life. A complaint can thus be framed in advance as career suicide, institutional death; how you would reach the end of the line.

Warnings can thus quickly become punishments when they fail, when they do not succeed in stopping someone from making a complaint. And punishments can also be converted into warnings; when the consequences of a complaint are made dire, those consequences can be used to warn others not to go in that direction.

However, not all punishments are spectacular or dramatic. A punishment for complaint can entail the withdrawal of support: to withdraw support is enough to stop someone from going somewhere.  A complaint teaches us how power can work through what might seem a light touch; the mere lifting of a supportive hand can function as the heaviest of weights. Not being supported as much as you would have been supported if you had not complained can be how you are stopped.  Power manifests as the withdrawal of support for those who show how power manifests.

It is important for me to note that if I have ended my discussion with how warnings can be used as threats that is not where I started. Some warnings are offered as career advice; they are intended to direct people along a path that would enable them to progress in their careers. This is in itself a key finding: we learn from concerns and how they meet. We are learning that concern for someone’s career progression can be expressed as advise not to complain about the harassment and bullying that person has experienced. This means that: a concern for someone’s career progression is the same concern that stops harassment and bullying from being addressed. And this also means that: a concern for someone’s career progression is the same concern that protects those who harass and bully others from complaint. These are deeply concerning meetings of concerns.  A meeting can be the point we need to uncover. Although warnings do not come from the same place they can point in the same direction, rather like an arrow that has been crossed out indicating a direction you are not supposed to take: don’t go that way.

Turn left is prohibited. Traffic sign with crossed out arrow to

Let me return to my starting point. Listening to those who have made or tried to make formal complaints about abuses of power is teaching me about institutional mechanics; how institutions work; how different parts fit together. By institutional mechanics I am referring to the mechanics of power.

Making it costly to complain about an abuse of power is an abuse of power.

I want to conclude with some notes of caution about the implications of my own analysis. When I noted that the difficulty of a complaint process can be used to stop complaints I need that note to be a note to self: to remind myself that as a researcher I need to take care and be diligent. Because I too have been documenting a difficulty it is possible that my own work could be used as a warning to others. The possibility that our documents of difficulty can be used as warnings does not negate our responsibility to share what we find. We still need to describe people’s experiences of these difficulties because those experiences are too often hidden from view. An allusion to difficulty is an emptying out of an experience.

However it is given these difficulties that it is important not to turn complaint into a duty. To make a complaint a duty would be to perform another injustice – it would be to require those who have experienced bullying and harassment to do the work of trying to change the institutions that enable bullying and harassment in the first place.

We know that the costs of complaint are higher for those who are most precarious.

We know that those who most need to complain are often those who can least afford to complain.

We have to work to distribute the costs of complaint.

We do the work because there is work to do.

And so: what to do?

This is my view: one of our most important tasks as feminists is to ensure that making a complaint does not mean closing the door. That ensuring is work. We need to do this work together: a complaint requires a feminist collective. We need to provide the references. We need to be the connections. We need not make light of a difficult situation nor under-describe the difficulty of complaint out of concern for discouraging others. Support might be about not encouraging or discouraging an action. It is because complaints are difficult that we need to become a support system. From necessity, from the need to support those who are having to make life more difficult for themselves to address difficulties that are shared, comes so much feminist creativity and invention.

Notes

1) In the UK if a student makes an informal disclosure to a member of staff and then proceeds to a formal complaint, the informal disclosure is treated as the first step of a formal complaint. This can mean that a student embarks on a formal complaint before they think of themselves as doing so. I will be exploring the connection between informality and formality in the wider project.

2) I say “deemed dangerous” cautiously. One issue that came up with my earlier empirical project on diversity is the role of perception in creating institutional realities. So if you are perceived to be a problem then it is made more difficult for you to proceed (or alternatively if you are perceived to have potential a way is cleared that enables your progression). So if a complaint is perceived as being dangerous that perception can structure what is going on in such a way that making a complaint can endanger the one who complains (because of how they are treated). Perceptions matter.

3) I will return to the costs of not complaining in future posts. Many of those I have interviewed talked about these costs in reflecting on the times they did not complain.

4) There is a complexity here that I am passing over relating to the vulnerability of political trust in institutional contexts, which I hope to return to in future posts. I have also collected stories of how those who complain are not supported by those with whom they shared a political allegiance. I also have stories of those who have been bullied by those with whom they shared a political allegiance. I will be working out how best to handle, to care for and to share, these stories.

5) We need a much fuller investigation of the role of unions in enquiries on bullying and harassment than I will be able to provide in my study. Some people I spoke to did have positive experiences with their union, but I have been struck by just how many people described their union as unsupportive or even as part of the problem. In some cases, staff experienced the union as too aligned with management and in other cases union representatives were friends with harassers/bullies and worked to protect them. Some staff I have spoken to in the UK have identified the problem as a “macho culture” in unions.

6) Please see this report on the extent of bullying within universities in the UK. I will be developing my analysis of institutional bullying (and institutional harassment) in future posts. I will address how bullying and harassment can also be extended by the use of complaint procedures: those who identify a problem with bullying or harassment often have complaints procedures used against them. I will also talk about the misuse of mediation to address the problem of bullying and harassment: a situation where one person is wielding direct power over others by the use of threats and other forms of intimidation is treated as a conflict of viewpoints (so the bully or harasser is given legitimacy as someone with a viewpoint), often leading to a tactic support of bullying and harassment.

7) I think popular culture is full of examples of warnings that could be threats or warnings that become threats or warnings that we learn to hear as threats when we refuse to be warned. The story, “The Willful Child  is a warning: a warning to a child to obey her mother becomes a threat to a child who disobeys her mother. I am sensing this story will help me in approaching complaint: a complaint is like that arm that keeps coming out of the grave. I am trying to catch the arm when it is still rising.

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Queer Use

I am sharing my lecture Queer Use that I have given a number of times over the past two years for Sexual Cultures Research Group, Queen Mary, CLAGS at CUNY, UC Berkeley, qUCL, Melbourne University and most recently LGBTQ+@cam, Cambridge University.

It has been important to me to give this talk Queer Use to centers and programmes dedicated to LGBTQ studies: we need to have spaces to do our work, to create shelters so that we can be disruptive! Thanks so much to all those who came along. This version is the one I gave most recently. The lecture draws primarily from my forthcoming book, What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use, which will be published by Duke University Press in 2019, but there are also a few examples from the chapter on Lesbian Feminism in Living a Feminist Life (2017). I have added references but I have not amended the text. I am very grateful to everyone who listened, asked questions and shared stories about queer uses of all sorts of things!

When I gave my paper for LGBTQ+@cam I was very glad my queer family was with me.  I dedicated my lecture to them, to Sarah and Poppy.

Sara Ahmed, Queer Use, Lecture presented at LGBTQ+@cam, Cambridge, November 7, 2018.

I want to start my consideration of queer use by attending to uses of queer. Queer: a word with a history; a word that has been flung like a stone; picked up and hurled at us, a word we can claim for us. Queer: odd, strange, unseemly, disturbed, disturbing. Queer: a feeling, a sick feeling; feeling queer as feeling nauseous.  In older uses of queer – queer to describe anything that is noticeable because it is odd – queer and fragility were often companions. In one of George Eliot’s essays, “Three Months in Weimar” the narrator describes the sound of an old piano thus: “it’s tones now so queer and feeble like those of an invalided old woman whose voice could once make a heartbeat with fond passion” (1884, 91-2). Feeble, frail, invalid, incapacitate, falter, weak, tearful, worn; tear; wear; queer too, queer is there, too. These proximities tell a story. A queer life might how we get in touch with things at the very point at which they, or we, are worn or worn down; those moments when we break or break down, when we shatter under the weight of history. The sounds of an old piano evoking the sound of an invalided old woman: could this evocation vibrate with affection? Could a queer heart beat with passion for what is wavering and quavering?

That some of us can live our lives by assuming that word “queer,” by even saying “yes” to that word  shows how a past use is not exhaustive of a word or a thing however exhausted a word or thing.  As Judith Butler notes in Excitable Speech: “An aesthetic enactment of an injurious word may both use the word and mention it, that is use the word to produce certain effects, but also at the same time make reference to that very use, calling attention to it as a citation, situating that use within a citational legacy, making that use into an explicit discursive item to be reflected on rather than a taken for granted operation of ordinary language” (1997, 99). We can disrupt the meaning of an insult by making its usage audible as a history that does not decide, once and for all, what a word can do.  To queer use might be to make use audible, to listen to use; to bring to the front what ordinarily recedes into the background.

Sometimes words are reused as if they can be cut off from their history, when an insult is thrown out for instance, and reaches its target, but is defended as just banter, as something you can, should, make light of. If we reuse the word queer we hold onto the weight; the baggage.  Eve Sedgwick suggests that what makes queer a “politically potent term” is how it cleaves to “childhood scenes of shame” (1993, 4). Queer acquires force and vitality precisely because we refuse to use the word to make light of a history. To recycle or reuse a word is to reorientate one’s relation to a scene that holds its place, as memory, as container, however leaky.

Queer as reused; reuse as queer use. In today’s lecture I will be drawing on arguments from a book I have recently completed, What’s the Use. In the book, I follow use around, the way I followed happiness in The Promise of Happiness, and the will in Willful Subjects. Use is a small word with a big history, a busy word; use has had and does have many uses. Following use has allowed me to connect bodies of work that are usually assumed to be distinct such as literatures in design, psychology and biology that make use of use to explain the acquisition of form. Following use has allowed me to explore how worlds are shaped, as it were, from the bottom up.

Uses of Use

In this section I want to meditation on use as biography, a way of telling a story of things.   Use when used as a verb can mean: to employ for some purpose, to expend or consume; to treat or behave toward; to take unfair advantage of or exploit; to habituate or accustom. Use is a relation as well as an activity that often points beyond something even when use is about something: to use something points to what something is “for.” Some objects are made in order to be used. We might call these objects designed objects. What they are for brings them into existence. A cup is made in order that I have something to drink from; it is shaped this way, with a hole as its heart, empty, so that it can be filled by liquid.  We might summarise the implied relation as “for is before.” However even if something is shaped around what it is for, that is not the end of the story. As Howard Risatti notes in A Theory of Craft

Use need not correspond to intended function. Most if not all objects can have a use, or, more accurately be made useable by being put to use. A sledgehammer can pound or it can be used as a paperweight or lever. A handsaw can cut a board and be used as straight-edge or to make music. A chair can be sat in and used to prop open a door. These uses make them “useful objects” but since they are unrelated to the intended purpose and function for which these objects were made, knowing these uses doesn’t necessarily reveal much about these objects.

Use can correspond to intended function, but use does not necessarily correspond to an intended function. This not (not necessarily) is an opening.  I am not so sure if uses are quite as unrevealing about things as Risatti implies at least here (“knowing these uses doesn’t necessarily reveal much about these objects”). I am being told something about the qualities of a sledgehammer that it can used to be a paperweight. That a sledgehammer can be used as a paperweight tells me about the heaviness of the sledgehammer. Something cannot be used for anything, which means that use is a restriction of possibility that is material. Nevertheless there is something queer about use; intentions do not exhaust possibilities. The keys that are used to unlock a door can be used as a toy, perhaps because they are shiny and sliver; perhaps because they jangle.  Queer uses, when things are used for purposes other than the ones for which they were intended, still reference the qualities of a thing; queer uses may linger on those qualities, rendering them all the more lively.

Queer use might also be understood as improper use; queer use as perversion. The word perversion can refer not only to deviate from what is true or right but to the improper use of something. We would not call the child who turns the key into a toy a pervert, even if that is not what a key is for; the child is expected to play with things. But a boy who plays with the wrong toy, a toy hoover for instance that is intended for a girl (the fact that toy hoovers even exist is of course deeply concerning), might be understood as perverted or at least as on the way to perversion. Correcting the boy’s use of the toy is about correcting more than behaviour in relation to a toy; it is about correcting how the boy is boy.  The figure of the pervert comes up as the one whose misuse of things is a form of self-revelation.

Note also Rissati’s argument that use makes something usable, which implies that a possibility follows an actuality, a reversal of a usual sequence. Use seems to have a strange temporality. Use can also make something used.  When we think of something as being used, we might also think of buying something second-hand.   Like this book – it is a book on hands that was handy. A used book is usually cheaper than a new book. The more signs of usage = less value unless the user is esteemed, when the value of a person can rub off on the value of a thing. Marx discusses wear and tear in relation to machines: “The material wear and tear of a machine is of two kinds. The one arises from use, as coins wear away by circulating, the other from non-use, as a sword rusts when left in its scabbard” ([1867] 1990, 528).  Marx showed how machinery intensifies rather than saves labour: you have to get the most of the machine before it wears out, a wearing that is passed on to workers, wearing as passing on and passing out; used as used up.

Wear and tear in this economy is the loss of value determined by the extraction of value.  To value use might require a change of values. We might value worn things, broken things, for the life they lived, for how they show what they know: the scratch as pedagogy, the wrinkle as expression. To value use would not be to romanticize what is preserved as a historical record: signs of life can be signs of exhaustion, which is to say, signs of life can be signs of how a life has been extinguished. Perhaps we can think of use as a record of the fragility of a life. In writing about use, I have deliberately made use of “used books.”

Usedbook

A book on hands that was handy

With this book in my hands I can tell others have been here before. I think of the reader who circled the word grief. I cannot trace you but you left a trace.

Use leaves traces in places.

Something might be in use or out of use.  When something breaks, it might be taken out of use rather like this cup, which has lost its handle.

broken_mug

It is a rather sad parting.

When we think of something in use, we might think of a sign on a door:  occupied.

Occupied toilet

This sign tells us that the toilet is in use.

It tells us that we cannot use the toilet until whoever is using the toilet is finished. Use often comes with instructions that are about maintaining bodily and social boundaries. Sometimes instructions are about who is allowed to use what for what. Take this image.  

Constant Use

The sign is another kind of use instruction.

It makes a claim that the door is in constant use in order to justify that instruction: keep clear! If you were to park a car or a bike in front of the door, you would become an obstruction. Becoming an obstruction describes the fate that awaits some uses and users.

Or take this image of a post box.

Post-box

This sign politely asks the would-be poster not to use the post box by posting a letter into the box.

If the toilet was occupied because it was in use, the post box is out of use because it is occupied. Although of course from another point of view, it is in use. The post box has provided a home for nesting birds. Intended functionality can mean who something is for, not just what something is for. This means that: something can be used by those for which it was not intended. Queer use: when something is used by those for whom it was intended.

Can I add here that it was when I was writing my conclusion to the book that I realised that others have used “queer use” in this way : as we can note in this article from 1899 referring to the queer use for cloisters. One wonders if the queer use for cloisters might extend beyond where they store their machines.

If we go back to a post-box that it can become a nest still tells us something about the nature of object; what allows the box to be used to post letters, that slips is how the birds can enter. If a change of function does not require a change of form, a change of function does require a sign, “please do not use,” to stop what would be usual: posting a letter through the box.  The sign, we assume, is temporary. That box will come back into use as a post box when it ceases to be a nest.

Back into use: use can involve comings and goings.   Take the example of the well-trodden path. The path exists because people have used it. Use involves contact and friction, the tread of feet smooths the surface; the path is becoming smoother, easier to follow.

.Used Path 2

The more a path is used the more a path is used.

How strange that this sentence makes sense. Without use a path can disappear, becoming overgrown, bumpy; unusable.    

Unused Path

Like this path, we know it is a path because of a sign but you can hardly see the sign for the leaves.

Use can be necessary for preservation. Use it, or lose it: this is not only a mantra in personal training; it can become a philosophy of life. Not using; not being.

If not using can mean not being, use becomes useful as a technique. You can stop something from existing by making it harder to use. Use can also be a frame: a pad might appear unused because the pencil marks have been erased. Frames of use have uses. For example, many uses of land were not counted as uses because land use in Western culture was understood in terms of cultivation. The labour theory of property was also a theory of use. John Locke’s Two Treatises, made extensive use of use:  “it cannot be supposed [the land] should remain common and uncultivated” such that “he gave it to the use of the industrious and rational” ([1689] 1824, 149). Use is defined here as or restricted to agriculture and cultivation. Land that has not been cultivated becomes wasteland, unused, and thus available to be appropriated.   Edward Said was attuned to this use of use; he described how Palestine was rendered “a whole territory essentially unused, unappreciated, misunderstood . . . to be made useful, appreciated, understandable” (1979, 31, emphasis Said’s).  

You can declare something unused or ensure something becomes unused as the grounds for justifying an appropriation.

Used paths have many stories to tell. A path can appear like a line on a landscape. But a path can also be a route through life. Collectivity can be acquired as direction; the more a path is traveled upon the clearer it becomes. A path can be cared for, kept clear, maintained.

Used Path 2

Heterosexuality: a path that is kept clear.

That straight path is maintained not only by the frequency of use, and a frequency can be an invitation, but by an elaborate support system.  When it is harder to proceed, when a path is harder to follow, you might be discouraged; you might try and find another route.

Unused Path

A consciousness of the need to make more of an effort can be a disincentive.

Just think of how we can be dissuaded by perpetual reminders of how hard something would be. Deviation is hard. Deviation is made hard.

Use can ease the passage of things. William James cites the work of Dumont to make sense of habit:  “Everyone knows how a garment having been worn a certain time clings better to the shape of the body than when it was new. A lock works better after being used some time; at the outset a certain force was required to overcome certain roughness in the mechanism.”([1819] 1950: 105, emphasis mine). A garment becomes more attuned to the body the more the garment is worn. I will return to the well-used garment in due course.  The example of the lock and the key suggests that it is through use that things become easier to use.   If use takes time use saves time; less effort is required to complete an action.

The idea that use keeps something alive, or that use makes something easier to use, is supplemented by another idea central to the emergence of modern biology: that use in making something stronger, and disuse, in making something weaker, shapes the very form of life. For example, Lamarck the French naturalist who first used the word biology in its modern sense, offered a law of use and disuse: “a more frequent and continuous use of any organ gradually strengthens, develops and enlarges that organ, and gives it a power proportional to the length of time it has been so used; while the permanent disuse of any organ imperceptibly weakens and deteriorates it, and progressively diminishes its functional capacity, until it finally disappears.”  These acquired modifications for Lamarck can be inherited, what we called simply use inheritance.  Lamarck’s famous example is the giraffe’s neck, although he only uses this example once. For Lamarck the giraffe’s neck grows longer not through volition but as an effect of repeated efforts that become directional. He describes: “efforts in a particular direction, when they are sustained or habitually made by certain parts of a living body, for the satisfaction of needs established by nature or environment, cause an enlargement of the parts and the acquisition of a size and shape that they would not have obtained if these efforts had not become the normal activities of the animal exerting them” (Lamarck ([1809]1914, 123, emphasis mine). When an effort becomes normal, a form is acquired.  When such form is acquired, less effort is needed; the giraffe does not have to reach so high to reach the foliage.  Use inheritance translates as: the lessoning the effort required to survive within an environment.

 We can pause here and pull out some of the queer implications of Lamarck’s argument. If norms become forms, forms lag behind norms.  Stephen Gould also suggests that the lag between behavioral change and formal change accounts for some of the “oddest” and most “curious” of animal inventions. Gould’s examples include Flamingos which dwell in hypersaline lakes:  “few creatures can tolerate the unusual environments of these saline deserts” (24). The Flamingos have an unusual way of feeding “with their heads upside down” (25). This “flip flop” is described as “complete and comprehensive” not only in form but also in motion (32). The action is also described as “topsy-turvy” (32). Gould concludes that a “peculiar reversal in behavior has engendered a complex inversion of form” (32).  Queer use could also reference such inversions; how things end up the wrong way up: “An organism enters a new environment with its old form suited to other styles of life. The behavioral innovation establishes a discordance between new function and inherited form” (36-37). A temporal discordance between past and present is manifest as discordance between form and function.  Forms can be understood as “temporal drag” to use Elizabeth Freeman’s (2010) terms: the visceral “pull of the past on the present.” When forms drag behind functions that dragging is expressed queerly in “imperfections and odd solutions cobbled together from parts on hand” (The Flamingo’s Smile, 37).

I will return to lingering forms and odd solutions in due course. Lamarck does imply that a use for something would bring it into existence. This was one of the reasons Charles Darwin was rather disparaging about Lamarck’s work because of the implication he heard (rightly or wrongly) that organism will what they need into existence.   We can find evidence of Darwin’s disparagement in another used book; Darwin’s personal copy of Lamarck’s Historie Naturale. He wrote in the margins: “because use improves an organ – wishing for it, or its use, produces it!!! Oh.” Despite how Darwin and Lamarck appear to deviate at least from Darwin’s point of view on this question of use, Darwin himself often represents natural selection and the law of use and disuse as working together.  And it is interesting to note that Darwin offers a reuse of the architect metaphor, despite how this metaphor risks the implication of design:

Let an architect be compelled to build an edifice with uncut stones, fallen from a precipice. The shape of each fragment may be called accidental; yet the shape of each has been determined by the force of gravity, the nature of the rock, and the slope of the precipice,—events and circumstances, all of which depend on natural laws; but there is no relation between these laws and the purpose for which each fragment is used by the builder….The shape of the fragments of stone at the base of our precipice may be called accidental, but this is not strictly correct; for the shape of each depends on a long sequence of events, all obeying natural laws…. But in regard to the use to which the fragments may be put, their shape may be strictly said to be accidental. ([1859] 2009, 118-9).

An architect can be a builder who makes use of stones without cutting them in order to fit a design. The stones are thrown up, or available, according to natural laws. These stones were not made in order to be used, like a cup is shaped so that it can be filled by water. If the shape of a stone is determined by a long sequence of events, it is an accident that the shape of this stone fits the shape of the hole in the wall.   You are more likely to use a stone that happens to fit that space; use as hap, use as happenstance, use as, even, happy. I will return to Darwin’s happy use of the architect metaphor in due course.

The Institutional as Usual

My task in this section is to thicken the account of use offered thus far by thinking about the institutional as usual. We learn about the institutional from those who are trying to transform institutions. In an earlier project I talked to diversity workers about their work. And going back to the data I have realised how diversity work requires becoming conscious of use. Diversity workers are trying to transform institutional habits, not to follow the well-used paths; not to go the way things flow.

Of course at another level diversity seems to be the things are flowing, a rather well travelled path.

Diversity Arrow

Diversity can be used as an arrow even, which can be an instruction: go that way!

The ease with which diversity travels might be why diversity work is hard work.  One diversity worker describes how diversity “is a big shiny apple” with a rotten core, “it all looks wonderful but the inequalities aren’t being addressed.”  The word diversity is used more because it does less; diversity becomes a sign of the difficulty of getting through. This same practitioner described her own work thus: “it’s a banging your head against a brick wall job.”   A job description becomes a wall description. If you keep banging your head against the brick wall, but the wall keeps its place, it is you that gets sore. And what happens to the wall?   All you seemed to have done is scratched the surface.

Scratched school wall

This is what diversity work often feels like: scratching the surface, scratching at the surface.

Doing diversity work means you collect wall stories; the wall becomes data; condensed information about institutions. Let me share with you a wall story:

 When I was first here there was a policy that you had to have three people on every panel who had been diversity trained. But then there was a decision early on when I was here, that it should be everybody, all panel members, at least internal people. They took that decision at the equality and diversity committee which several members of SMT were present at. But then the director of Human Resources found out about it and decided we didn’t have the resources to support it, and it went to council with that taken out and council were told that they were happy to have just three members, only a person on council who was an external member of the diversity committee went ballistic – and I am not kidding went ballistic – and said the minutes didn’t reflect what  had happened in the meeting because the minutes said the decision was different to what actually happened (and I didn’t take the minutes by the way). And so they had to take it through and reverse it. And the Council decision was that all people should be trained. And despite that I have then sat in meetings where they have just continued saying that it has to be just 3 people on the panel. And I said but no Council changed their view and I can give you the minutes and they just look at me as if I am saying something really stupid, this went on for ages, even though the Council minutes definitely said all panel members should be trained. And to be honest sometimes you just give up.

It seems as if there is an institutional decision. Individuals within the institution must act as if the decision has been made for it to have been made. If they do not, it has not. A decision made in present about the future is overridden by the momentum of the past : the past becomes a well-worn path, what usually happens, still happens. In this case, the head of personnel did not need to take the decision out of the minutes for the decision not to bring something into effect.   I have called this dynamic “non-performativity”: when naming something does not bring something into effect, or when something is named in order not to bring something into effect.

The wall: that which keeps standing.  The wall is a finding.  Let me summarise the finding: what stops movement moves.  In other words, the mechanisms for stopping something are mobile, which means when we witness the movement we can miss the mechanism. This is important as organisations are good at moving things around; creating evidence you are doing something is not the same thing as doing something. This is why I have called diversity workers institutional plumbers: they have to work out not only where something is blocked but how it is blocked. In our example, what stopped something from happening could have been the removal of the policy from the minutes; it could have been the failure to notice this removal; but it wasn’t. It was the way in which those within the institution acted after the policy had been agreed.

Agreeing to something can be another way of stopping something from happening.  

A diversity policy can come into existence without coming into use.   I noted earlier how a sign is often used to make a transition from something being in and out of use, such as in this case of the post-box. Institutions are also postal systems.  Maybe the diversity worker deposits the policy in the post-box because she assumes the box is in use.  The post-box that is not in use might have another function: to stop a policy from going through the whole system. The policy becomes dusty, rather like Marx’s rusty sword; from rusty to dusty. A policy can become unusable by not being used.

Consider too all the energy this practitioner expended on developing a policy that did not do anything. The story of how the wall keeps standing is the same story as the story of how a diversity worker becomes shattered; as she says “sometimes you just give up.”   May be you end up feeling used up, limp, spent rather like this tube of toothpaste.

Used up toothpaste

As if you have nothing left to give.

Or you might fly off the handle, to recall that broken cup.

broken_mug

To fly off the handle can mean to snap or to lose your temper.

Or maybe you feel like you are losing it. To lose a handle on things can mean to lose yourself; you become the one who cannot handle it.

You don’t have to say anything to be heard as breaking something. Another practitioner describes: “you know, you go through that in these sorts of jobs where you go to say something and you can just see people going ‘oh here she goes.’”  We both laughed, recognising that each other recognised that scene. The feminist killjoy, that leaky container, comes up here; she comes up in what we hear. We hear each other in the wear and the tear of the words we share; we hear what it is like to come up against the same thing over and over again.  We imagine the eyes rolling as if to say: well she would say that.  It was from experiences like this that I developed my equation: rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy.

I think it is important to note that the policy that was stopped by not being used was a policy about how academic appointments are made.  Appointment panels thus become places to go, if you want to learn more about how institutions are reproduced; how decisions are made about who is “appointable.” A person in a diversity training session I attended shared that people in her department used an unofficial criteria for appointability of whether someone was “the kind of person you can take down to the pub”. They wanted someone who can inhabit those spaces with them, being with as being like; someone they can relate to, drink with.  I remember one time a woman of color was being considered for a job, she worked on race and sexuality, and someone said in a departmental meeting with concern, “but we already have Sara,” is if having one of us was more than enough. There was a murmured consensus that she replicated me, even though our work was different. There was no such concern about other areas. Concern; no concern; how things stay the same by seeing others as the same.

I want to go back to my discussion of uses of use. An institution is an environment. Environments are dynamic; it is because environments change that uses change. An institution, however, is also a container technology.   You reproduce something by stabilizing the requirements for what you need to survive or thrive in environment.  When a requirement is stabilised it does not need to be made explicit. Use becomes a question of fit. Remember Darwin’s use of the architect metaphor? The builder uses the stone that happens to fit. Institutions too are built. It can appear as if the moment of use is hap: that this person is selected because they just happens to fit the requirements rather like a stone is selected because it just happens to be the same shape and size as the hole in the wall.   Hap can be used ideologically: as if they here because they happened to fit rather than they fit because of how the structure was built. 

A structure: the gradual removal of hap from use in the determination of a requirement. In Lamarck’s model, use becomes inheritance, in shaping form it lessens of effort required to do something within an environment. When you fit, and fitting here is formal, a question of form, you inherit the lessening of effort.  It is not just the constancy of use that eases a passage. Some have more paths laid out more clearly in front of them because they already fit a requirement.  For as before acquires a new resonance here: when a world is built for some, they come before others.

Not Fitting

People do come to inhabit organizations that are not intended for them; you can make the cut without fitting.    If you arrive into an organization that is not built for you, you experience this for as tight or as tightening. If you are the one for whom an institution is intended for is loose; the institution appears as open because it is open to you.     This is why I think of an institution as an old garment:  it has acquired the shape of those who tend to wear it such that it is easier to wear if you have that shape.  And this is why I think of privilege as an energy saving device; less effort is required to pass through when a world has been assembled around you. If you arrive with dubious origins, you are not expected to be there, so in getting there you have already disagreed with an expectation of who you are and what you can do, then an institution is the wrong shape.

Annette Kuhn describes how as a working-class girl in a grammar school she feels “conspicuously out of place.” She describes this sense of being out of place by giving us a biography of her school uniform; how by the time her ill-fitting uniform came to fit, it had become “shabby” and “scruffy.” The word “wear” originally derives from the Germanic word for clothing. It then acquires a secondary sense of “use up, gradually damage” from the effect of continued use on clothes. It is not just that when something is used more it fits better. If you cannot afford to keep buying new clothes, scruffiness becomes a sign of not fitting.

Not fitting can be about the body you have, about your own requirements.  When you don’t meet the requirements you become to borrow Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s important term, a misfit. She describes being a person with a disability in an ablest institution as like being a “square peg in round hole” (2011, 592).(1)  Fitting becomes work for those who do not fit; you have to push, push, push; and sometimes no amount of pushing will get you in.

You can be a misfit given what has become routine. An organisation that organises long meetings without any breaks assumes a body that can be seated without breaks. If someone arrives who cannot maintain this position, they do not meet the requirements.  If you lay down during the meeting you would throw the meeting into crisis.

A social justice project might require throwing meetings into crisis.

Perhaps because organisations are trying to avoid such crises, misfits often end up on the same committees (otherwise known as the diversity committee). We might end up on diversity committee because of whom we are not: not white, not cis, not able-bodied, not man, not straight. The more nots you are the more committees you end up on! We can be misfits even on these committees. A 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.” I noted earlier that diversity might be used more because it does less. The word race might be used less because it does more.  Any use of the word race is thus an overuse.  She added: “whenever you raise something, the response is that you are not one of them.” Not one of them: using words like race seems to amplify what makes you not fit, picking up what you are not.  Perhaps a not is heard as shouting, as insistence, a stress point, a sore point, an exclamation point.

Sometimes turning up is enough to bring a history up, a history that gets in the way of an occupation of space. A door is closed because of who enters.  At other times the door seems to be open, you might even be welcomed. Think of how diversity is often represented as an open door or as a tag line, minorities welcome; come in, come in, tag-line, tagged on; tag along. Just because they welcome you it doesn’t mean they expect you to turn up.  A woman of colour describes her department as a revolving door, women and minority stuff enter only to head right out again: whoosh; whoosh.

Revolving Door

You can be kept out by what you find out when you get in.

The nuclear family, as an institution can appear to be open, perhaps you are the queer aunties, come in, come in. But heterosexuality can also become an occupation, filling the room, water in a cup, full, fuller still, no room, no room; greetings, statements, heterosexuality given casually for children as projections of the future, even my dog Poppy has been given such an assignment (if only Poppy could meet Tommy, they could be boyfriend and girlfriend). It can feel like you are watching yourself disappear: watching your own life unravel, thread by thread. No one has willed or intended your disappearance. They are kind, they are welcoming. Just slowly, just slowly, as talk of family, of heterosexuality as the future, of lives that you do not live, just slowly, just slowly, you disappear.

I think back to our post-box.  There could be another sign on that post-box: “birds welcome.”

Birds Welcome

A sign can be a non-performative. 

This sign teaches us how we can “not do” things with words. Because if the post-box was in use, the birds would be dislodged by the letters, a nest destroyed before it could be created. You can stop others from using a space by how that space is being used.  I noted earlier that use is a restriction of possibility that is material. You can use the paper for some things and not others because of the material qualities of paper. But it is not just that use is a restriction of possibility that is material. Restrictions can also become material through use. What is material to some, leaving you with no room, no room to breathe, to nest, to be, can be what does not matter to others because it does not get in the way of their occupation of space; it might even enable their occupation.

You can turn up and find a space is already occupied.  You turn up at a hotel with your girlfriend and you say you have booked a room. They catch you in a glance and they hesitate. A hesitation can speak volumes. This reservation says your booking is for a double bed, is that right madam? Eyebrows are raised; a glance slides over the two of you, catching enough detail. Are you, sure madam? Yes that’s right; a double bed. You have to say it, again; you have to say it, again, firmly. I mentioned earlier my equation rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy. I have another one.

Raised eyebrows = lesbian feminist pedagogy

Really, are you sure?  This happens again and again; you almost come to expect it, the necessity of being firm just to receive what you have requested. Disbelief follows you wherever you go; still. One time after a querying, are you sure madam, are you sure, madam, you enter the room; twin beds. Do you go down; do you try again? It can be trying. Sometimes it is too trying, it is too much, and you pull your two little beds together; you find other ways of huddling.

Queer use: another way of huddling, of keeping each other warm.

For some to be is to be in question. Is that your sister or your husband? That was a question asked to me by a neighbour once. Who are you? What are you? Where are you from? As a brown woman living in the UK I am used to being asked that question. Where are you from? Where are you really from? It as a way of being told you are not from here; brown, not from here, not here, not. These questions can dislodge you, you come to wait for them; waiting to be dislodged changes your relation to a lodge.

A lodge can be about how you are received. You might walk into a seminar room with a white man; you are both professors. But you feel the gaze land upon him: plop, plop.  You don’t appear as professor because you are not how a professor usually appears.  And he is addressed as the professor.  If you were to say “hey I am a Professor too” you would be heard as drawing attention to yourself.  Diversity work: how you end up appearing as drawing attention to yourself. You stick out like a sore thumb. It can then be assumed you are talking walls because you are sore.  A lecturer who I interviewed for my complaint project describes: “I have been told I have a chip on my shoulder, that I’ve got a chip on my shoulder because I am Jewish, that I have a chip on my shoulder because I am foreign, living in this country and you’re upset about Brexit, or because your gay and you are just looking for the problems. And you start thinking am I looking for these problems, I just turn it inwards is it me, is it my fault: I lie awake at night thinking is it actually a problem with me here.” Chip, chip: if we chip away at the old block no wonder they keep finding that chip on our shoulders. The more nots you are the more chips they find!

But it can be hammering and you can end up feeling that the problem is with you. That feeling I would add is a feeling of structure; how you are stopped from doing something; from being something.

What you have to say or do in order not to be passed over can be heard as a complaint about being passed over. And sometimes we do indeed have to complain about what or who is passed over. When I shared the reasons for my resignation, in protest at the failure of the institution to deal with sexual harassment, I became quite quickly the cause of damage, what a mess Sara, look how much work you have created.

Leaky Pipe

I became a leaky pipe: drip, drip.

Organisations will try and contain that damage; public relations works as damage limitation. And this is how diversity often takes institutional form; damage limitation. There is hope here; they cannot mop up all of our mess. One spillage can lead to more coming out; can lead, does lead. A leak can be a lead. After I shared my reasons for my resignation, many people shared with me their own stories, their own institutional battles.

Just loosen the screw a little bit, a tiny little bit, and you might have an explosion. We need more explosions.

Conclusion: Queer Vandalism

Damage limitation: this is how organisations end up using paper, paper as papering over; to paper over the cracks, the leaks; the means by which blemishes on an institutional record are not recorded. Perhaps these blemishes become ours; we become damaged goods.

Paper too can be papered over. In Queer Phenomenology (2016) I called into a question a fantasy of a “paperless philosophy” as part of a critique of how philosophy might be orientated toward a certain kind of body, one for whom materiality would be an unnecessary distraction, one who has time freed for contemplation by how others do the paper work, the domestic work, the care work, diversity work.

Paper matters. Paper can also be queer; paper can be used queerly. I am reminded of Homi Bhabha’s discussion of uses of the Bible in “Signs Taken for Wonders.”   Bhabha cites the Missionary Register from 1817:  “Still [every Indian] would gladly receive a bible. Any why? That he may store it up as a curiosity, sell it for a few pice, or use it for wastepaper. Such it is well known has been the common fate of those Bibles distributed in this place. Some are seen laid up as curiosities, by those who cannot read them: some have been bartered in the markets; and others have been thrown into the snuff-shops, and used as wrapping paper” (1985, 163-4), The Bible in not been properly read is willfully destroyed; the Bible becomes a curiosity; reused or usable for other purposes, wrapping paper, waste paper.

Of course the missionaries narrate the fate of the Bible in the colonies as a result of the inability of the natives to be able to digest it: “It is true, that such of the Natives as can read, have leisure enough to read the whole Bible; but they are so indolent, so fond of eating and sleeping, or so lost in their vicious pursuits, that unless something at once brief, simple, and powerful be presented, it will not be likely to be read by them, and, if read, it will not be likely to arrest their torpid and sensual minds” (1817, 186). If racism is used as an explanation of the failure of digestion, rendering the racial other a queer subject (“vicious pursuits” “torpid and sensual minds”), racism is used because of the failure of the colonial mission to transform the minds of the colonized into willing vessels.

The demand to use something properly is a demand to revere what has been given by the colonizer. Empire as gift comes with use instructions.  If not to be subjected to the will of the colonizer is to queer use or even to become queer through misuse (perversion as self-revelation), to queer use is to live in proximity to violence.  To queer use is to linger on the material qualities of that which you are supposed to pass over; it is to recover a potential from materials that have been left behind, all the things you can do with paper if you refuse the instructions.  That recovery can be dangerous.  The creativity of queer use becomes an act of destruction, whether intended or not; not digesting something, spitting it out; putting it about.

Queer use in other words can be understood as vandalism: “the willful destruction of what is venerable and beautiful.” Earlier I described diversity workers as institutional plumbers. We might from this description assume that diversity workers are appointed to unblock the system. But a blockage can be how the system is working.   The system is working by stopping those are trying to transform the system.    This means that: to transform a system we have to stop the system from working.  When you stop the machine from working, you damage the machine. The plumber might need to be a vandal, or we might have to pass as a plumber (fixing the leak) to become a vandal (making it bigger). We might have to throw a wrench in the works or become, to use Sarah Franklin’s (2015) terms “wenches in the works,” throw our bodies into the system trying to stop the same old bodies from being assembled, doing the same old things. The “wench in the works” has a queer kinship with the feminist killjoy, a kinship of figures can be a kinship of persons, as non-reproductive agents; those who are trying to stop what usually happens from happening.

We might need to become quite willing to become an obstruction. Protest too is framed as vandalism: not only as damage to property but as motivated by a desire to cause damage.

Constant Use

We have might have to park our bodies in front of that gate.

We can become obstructions by virtue of existing or by questioning the virtue of an existence. Even to open up a question about how to live, how to love, can be framed as damage.  Queer as snap, snap: as if you are cutting up the family with a pair of scissors just by arranging your life in a different way.

Not following something as destroying something: no wonder they find us to be destructive.

So much is reproduced by the requirement to follow. Within the academy you might be asked to follow the well-trodden paths of citation; to cite properly as to cite those deemed to have already the most influence. The more a path is used the more a path is used.   

Used Path 2

The more he is cited the more he is cited.

A path is kept clear through work; occupation depends upon erasure; such and such white man might become an originator of a concept, an idea as becoming seminal, by removing traces of those who were here before.  Indigenous feminists, black feminists and feminists of colour have crafted new routes by what or who we refuse to let disappear: I think of work by Zoe Todd (2016), Eve Tuck (2018) and Alexis Pauline Gumbs (2016).  Speaking of whiteness in the academy or of colonialism as the context in which Enlightenment philosophy happened is to bring up the scandal of the vandal. Decolonizing the curriculum as a project has been framed as an act of vandalism, a willful destruction of our universals; knocking off the heads of statues, snapping at the thrones of the philosopher kings.

If throwing open the question of how to live or who to read is deemed damaging, we are willing to cause damage, to turn that judgement into a project.  And vandalism becomes a tactic when we have to cut a message off from a body, when a message if traced to a source would compromise the source. If organisations try and contain what would damage their reputation, we find other ways to get information out. We might need to use guerrilla tactics, and we have a feminist and queer histories to draw upon; write names of harassers on books or on walls.

Scratched school wall

Yes, the scratches, we are back to those scratches.

What is treated as damage can be a message sent out: we can reach each other through what seems mere scratch and scribble.

The requirement to be inventive is not just a matter of communication. Audre Lorde in her poem “A Litany for Survival” evokes “those of us,” who “love in doorways coming and going in the hours between dawns” (1988: 31). You might have to use the less used paths, turn a doorway into a meeting place; you might have to try to slide by undetected because being seen is dangerous when you are seen as dangerous.   Queer use can be a matter of survival, becoming fainter as your best chance of being at all.

And so: there are queer possibilities not only in use, how materials can be picked up when we refuse an instruction, but in not being of use. A much used book might give us a glimpse of other fainter trails. There is a discussion in Origins of vestigial organs, as parts that are no longer useful but linger however dwindled such as the small eye of the blind mole; these parts are sometimes called left overs. Vestigiality is the retention of structures or attributes of ancestral species that have lost their functionality; another version of the strange temporality of use. Let me quote from Origins: “Rudimentary parts, as it is generally admitted, are apt to be highly variable… their variability seems to result from their uselessness, and consequently from natural selection having had no power to check deviations in their structure” ([1859] 2009, 118-9, my emphasis).

Uselessness: it can be a deadly assignment. I think we know this, a history of whom and what is discarded, how the fragments are swept up and away. We can pick up these pieces. We can find other ways of telling the history of use and uselessness, hearing a queer potential in a sentence from a much-used book. That potential: not being selected is not to be checked; to have more room to roam, to vary, to deviate; to proliferate. If queer use can be about survival, followed the less well used path in order not to be detected, queer use can also be about creativity, the variations that are possible when you are not selected or rewarded for going the right way. But: not being selected can also mean not being supported. And so: we create our own support systems, queer handles; how we hold on; how a life can go on, when we are shattered, because we are shattered.  No wonder then: the stories of the exhaustion of inhabiting worlds that do not accommodate us, the stories of the weary and the worn, the teary and the torn, are the same stories as the stories of inventiveness, of creating something, of making something.

I think of Lorde. I always think of Lorde. Audre Lorde spoke of herself as a writer when she was dying. She wrote: “I am going to write fire until it comes out of my ears, my eyes, my noseholes–everywhere. Until it’s every breath I breathe. I’m going to go out like a fucking meteor!” (1978: 76-77).

And so she did

And so she did

She goes out, she makes something. She calls this capacity to make things through heat “the erotic.”  Lorde describes : “There is a difference between painting a black fence and writing a poem, but only one of quantity. And there is, for me, no difference between writing a good poem and moving into sunlight against the body of a woman I love” (1984: 58). Words flicker with life, like sunlight on her body.

A love poem

A lover as poem

We can break open a container to make things. We watch the words spill. They spill all over you. I think too of Cherrie Moraga’s poem “The Welder.” Moraga speaks of heat being used to shape new elements, to create “the intimacy of steel melting, the fire that makes sculpture of your lives, builds buildings” (1981: 219).  We have to build our own buildings, when the world does not accommodate our desires. When you are blocked, when your very existence is prohibited or viewed with general suspicion or even just raised eyebrows (yes they are pedagogy), you have to come up with your own systems for getting things through.

How inventive

Quite something

Not from nothing

Something from something

A kitchen table becomes a publishing house

A door-way becomes a meeting place

 A post-box becomes a nest

Can this be a queer inheritance; how we inherit from past struggles to exist; small modifications, the widening of a passageway or an opening just enough to enable more to get by or to get through; a sociability as worn as wisdom, secret passages, meeting places, shelters, passing information down a line about where to go, what to do? So much can happen from a struggle to be, from the friction of being rubbed up the wrong way; inversions, beaks that end up the wrong way up, what we cobble together out of necessity from parts at hand.

 How odd that from necessity we might become alive to possibility; how odd, how queer.

Post-box

We can make this image our queer teacher.

It teaches us that it is possible for those deemed strangers to take up residence in spaces that have been assumed as belonging to others. The post-box could have remained in use; the nest destroyed before it was completed; the birds displaced. A history of use is a history of such displacements, many violent, displacements that are often unrecognised because of how things remain occupied. It is because of this occupation, this settling of history, this weight; that queer use requires more than an act of affirming the queerness of use. Queer use is the work we have to do to queer use.

Queer use is work; it is hard and painstaking work; it is collective and creative work; it is diversity work.

This image has something else to teach us: creating a shelter and disrupting usage can refer to the same action.  Thank you.

**********************************************************************************

(1) My book is deeply indebted to Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s work on misfitting as well as to other scholars in disability studies who have offered some of the most important critiques of the “uses of use” (and in particular of usability) including Aimi Hamraie, Jay Dolmage, Margaret Price, Tanya Titchkosky and Alison Kafer.

References

Butler, Judith (1997). Excitable Speech: On The Politics of the Performative. London: Routledge.

Darwin, Charles (1868). The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, Vol 1 and 2. London: John Murray.

————————-[1859] 2009. Origin of the Species. 6th Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press.

Eliot, George  (1884).  Essays and Leaves from a Notebook. Edinburgh: Blackwood.

Franklin, Sarah (2015). “Sexism as a Means of Reproduction,” New Formations, 86: 14-33.

Freeman, Elizabeth (2010). Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Durham: Duke University Press.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie  (2011). “Misfits: A Feminist Materialist Disability Concept,” Hypatia: A  Journal of Feminist Philosophy. 26(3): 591-609.

Gould, Stephen  (1985). The Flamingo’s Smile: Reflections in Natural History. New York: W.W. Norton.

Gumbs, Alexis Pauline (2016). Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity. Durham: Duke University Press.

James, William ([1890] 1950). The Principles of Psychology, Volume 1. New York, Dover Publications.

Kuhn, Annette [1995] (2002). Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination. London: Verso.

Lamarck, Jean Baptiste [1809] (1914). Zoological Philosophy. Trans Hugh Samuel Roger Elliot. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Locke, John  [1689] (1824). Two Treatises of Government. London: C and J. Rivington.

Lorde, Audre (1988). A Burst of Light, Essays. Ithaca, New York: Firebrand Books.

——————–(1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg: The

Crossing Press.

———————-(1978). Black Unicorn. New Rork: W.W.Norton.

Morago, Cherrie (1981). “The Welder,” in Cherrie Morago and Gloria Anzaldúa  (eds). A Bridge Called by Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour.  Watertown: Persephone Press. p.219.

Risatti, Howard (2007). A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression. University of North Carolina Press.

Said, Edward (1979). “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims,” Social Text, 1: 7-58.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (1993). “Queer Performativity: Henry James’s The Art of the Novel.” GLQ: 1, 1: 1-14.

Todd, Zoe (2016). “An Indigenous Feminist’s Take On The Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word For Colonialism,” Journal of Historical Sociology. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/johs.12124. Np.

Tuck, Eve (2018). “Losing Patience for the Task of Convincing Settlers to Pay Attention to Indigenous Ideas,” in Linda Tuhiwai, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (eds), Indigenous and Decolonizing Studies in Education,  New York: Routledge.  pp. 13-16.

 

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What’s the Use?

I have been away from my blog for such a long time! Over the summer I revised my manuscript What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use, which I sent back to my publishers at the end of August. I have been working on the uses of use since 2013. The project has been with me through thick and thin. I put my use folder away whilst I working on Living a Feminist Life and engaged in the institutional battles that so informed the tone and timbre of that text. I picked up my use project again in 2016, and it did feel like I was picking up some rather shattered pieces.  I have picked up so much by following use around. All being well, the book should be out in late 2019, with Duke University Press, my publisher-companion. Together we are creating a killjoy library!

Since then I have been transcribing interviews for my complaint research. I have been listening and learning. That is my task. I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility as a care-taker for the stories I have collected. I had been expecting to be sharing new posts on complaint by now but I realised I needed more time to process all I am hearing. I need to sit with and to be with the stories. So I am giving myself more time. I hope to post new work on complaint on this blog in December of this year. My first post will be on warnings.

This term I will be giving two lectures on Queer Use and three lectures from my research into complaint. Details are here.

In the meantime, I am sharing a few words drawn from my introduction and conclusion about the question that is the title of my book.

What’s the Use?

 The title of this book is a use expression, one that seems to point to the pointlessness of doing something. This expression often has an intonation of exasperation. What’s the use, what’s the point? Said in this way, “what’s the use” operates as a rhetorical question, what we ask when we have reached a conclusion; there is no use. I imagine hands flung in the air expressing the withdrawal of a commitment to some difficult task. I hear a drawn out sigh; the sound of giving up on something that had previously been pursued. We might be more likely to say “what’s the use” when the uselessness of something had not been apparent right from the beginning; when we have given up on something that we had expected to be useful such that to become exasperated can point not only to what, that which is now deemed pointless, but also to who, those who had assumed something had a point. It seems appropriate to ask about use, what it means to use something or to find a use for something, with such a moment of exasperation; a moment when we lose it, rather than use it.

“What’s the use, what’s the point of saying that?” This is the question asked by a character Peggy in the last segment of Virginia Woolf’s novel, The Years, first published in 1937. Peggy is having what we might call a feminist killjoy moment; she is interrupting a family gathering with this question, posed sharply, pointedly. Her Aunt Eleanor has already suggested to Peggy the she should enjoy herself: “‘But we’re enjoying ourselves’ said Eleanor, ‘Come and enjoy yourself too’” ([1937]2012, 264). Peggy does not obey her command. She seems alienated from happiness by making happiness into a question: “What does she mean by ‘happiness,’ by ‘freedom’” Peggy asked herself, lapsing against the wall again” (265). Happiness for Peggy seems unjust: “How can one be ‘happy,’ she asked herself. In a world bursting with misery” (266). She is listening to scraps of conversation, to laughter bubbling away at the surface. Perhaps she can hear what is being said because she does find happiness convincing. It is then that she asks the question, “What’s the use, what’s the point of saying that?”  Once she asks this question which she addresses to her brother (the discussion is about him), she is overwhelmed by bad feeling: “She looked at her brother. A feeling of animosity possessed her. He was still smiling but his smile smoothed itself out as she looked at him. ‘What’s the use, she said facing him. You’ll marry. You’ll have children. What’ll you do then? Write little books to make money” (268). Peggy flounders; describing her own words as “personal” when “she had meant to say something impersonal” (268). The question of use becomes a personal question; a question about how a person lives their life. Once Peggy has started on this path, she has to keep going: “‘You’ll write one book, then another little book,’ she said viciously, ‘instead of living differently, differently’” (268).

Her utterance is too sharp; she regrets it. This wrinkle in the smile of the occasion is passed over; the conversation is smoothed out again, which means Peggy’s question is passed over, just as she is. This question “what’s the use” is often articulated by Woolf’s characters at the moment they seem to be losing it. It is a question posed by sisters, such as Peggy, who are interrupting the flow of a conversation about the lives of men. Or it is a question posed by wives, such as when Mrs Flushing asks Wilfrid in The Voyage Out “What’s the use of talking? What’s the use —?” Once talking is replaced by a dash, we might think of the dash as anything, “She ceased.” She ceased implies not only that she stops talking but that she stops being. The wife becomes the one who ceases; for whom the questioning of use is a questioning of being. One thinks here also of Mrs Dalloway, who also watches herself disappear in becoming wife, becoming mother (Woolf [1925] 1996). Mrs Thornbury follows Mrs Flushing by also asking a question to Wilfrid not to his wife, “because it was useless to speak to his wife.” To become useless: not to be addressed. Perhaps to be defined in relation to men, as sisters, as wives, is to be deemed useful to them, but not to others.

When you question the point of something the point seems to be how quickly you can be removed from the conversation. Maybe, she removes herself. The question “what’s the use?” allows Woolf to throw life up as a question, to ask about the point of anything by asking about the point of something. It is question Woolf poses to herself, a question she poses about her own writing. In a letter to Margaret Llewellyn Davies, Woolf writes: “My dear Margaret what’s the use of my writing novels” (cited in Bell 1972, 29). The question of use matters to a woman writer as a question of confidence, a question of whether the books she sends out can enable a way of “living differently” to borrow Peggy’s terms. It implies that that some things we do, things we are used to or are told to get used to, are in the way of a feminist project of living differently. The woman writer is trying to craft an existence, to write, to make something, in a world in which she is usually cast as sister or wife.  It is not surprising that when the world is not used to you, when you appear as unusual, use becomes what you question.

———————————————————–

We might challenge how functionalism becomes fatalism; how (for some) for is treated as before, how some are given an end before they even begin. But in challenging how the requirement to be useful can be imposed upon us, we open up a conversation about usefulness and how it might matter. I think again of Audre Lorde who especially in her later work spoke often of her desire to be useful to others. She speaks too of her desire for her own death to be a useful death (1988, 53). She writes of how she thought about death, about how to die (as well how to live): “rather than just fall into death any old way, by default, according to someone else’s rules” (53). Not falling into death, not going the same way others are going, as things have gone before, requires asking questions. Usefulness here is about asking questions about how to do something; how to be something. She notes that you have no choice; mortality is the condition of having to die. But mortality acquires a different meaning for those whose existence is not supported: “We have all to die at least once. Making that death useful would be winning for me. I wasn’t supposed to exist anyway, not in any meaningful way in this fucked-up whiteboy’s world” (53).

Usefulness might matter more for those who are not “supposed to exist.” Usefulness becomes then a political address; a way of facing outwards, toward others. Audre Lorde teaches us that we need to keep the question of use alive not because use does not matter but because it does. What’s the use? I noted in my introduction how this question can sound like exasperation, giving up on the point of something. I considered how for Virginia Woolf that question, what’s the use? however difficult, throws everything into question. To make use a question is to inherit a feminist and queer project of living differently. Asking the point of use might be an address to. To be useful can be a way of addressing a world; a multiple plural to, to that faces many directions; to that can animate a life, too.

Animation: queer use as the work you have to do to be. The more you are blocked the more you have to try to find a way through. The less support you have the more support you need. We might become each other’s resources, we prop each other up, because we understand how diminishing it can be to have fight for an existence, to have to fight, even, to enter a room. Perhaps the harder it is to be, the more use you have for use.

References

Bell, Quentin (1972). Virginia Woolf: A Biography. Hogarth Press.

Lorde, Audre (1988). A Burst of Light, Essays. Ithaca, New York: Firebrand Books.

Woolf, Virginia  [1937]  (2012) [1937] The Years and Between the Acts. Wordsworth Classics.

————————  [1925]  (1996). Mrs Dalloway. Wordsworth Editions.

 

 

 

 

 

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Refusal, Resignation and Complaint

I am sharing the last lecture I presented this academic year. I gave the lecture as part of the third Colonial Repercussions symposium curated by Nikita Dhawan for Akademie der Künste, June 23-24, 2018. It was helpful to share my work on diversity, complaint and use and to stretch myself somewhat by thinking of the hope of “no.” It was a delight to listen to reflections on colonial repercussions and planetary humanism by black feminists, feminists of colour and postcolonial scholars including Angela Davis and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. You can listen to the presentations here. I have resisted the temptation to add to the lecture – I am sharing what I presented. You can listen to more detailed presentations from my research into “the uses of use” here  and from complaint here.

Whilst in Berlin I also read from Living a Feminist Life for a stand-alone event organised by Iris Rajanayagam for xart splitta. I want to thank all of those attended and especially those who shared some of their own experiences during the discussion.

Over the next two months I will be taking a break from my blog as I complete the finishing touches on my book, What’s the Use: On the Uses of Use.

I wish all you killjoys out there the hottest of feminist summers!

No! Refusal, Resignation and Complaint, Lecture presented by Sara Ahmed at Colonial Repercussions conference, Berlin, June 23 2018.

On March 10 2014 a panel Why Isn’t My Professor Black? took place at University College, London with Black British scholars William Ackah, Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman, Deborah Gabriel, Lisa Amanda Palmer, Nathan Richards and Shirley Tate (1). Why isn’t my Professor Black: what a necessary and urgent question! At the end of the panel, a member of the audience asked another necessary and urgent question about the UCL’s continued use of Francis Galton’s name. Galton as you probably know coined the word eugenics described by him as a science of improvement. Galton bequeathed funds to UCL (then London University) for a Professorship as well as Department of Eugenics.  The UCL has removed the word Eugenics (they replaced it with genetics) but they have kept Galton’s name. The provost of the UCL at the panel justified the continued use of Galton’s name by saying “in my defence, I inherited him.” A use can be explained and defended as inheritance.

There has since been a wider and meaningful discussion of the role of Galton’s legacy at UCL.  This questioning of a legacy was represented to the wider public as the Galton Must Fall Campaign. Whilst we might support such a campaign if it did indeed exist there was no such campaign; it was in fact invented to discredit the questioning of a legacy as censorship and vandalism.  When it was pointed out that such a campaign did not exist, the newspaper made some small amendments clarifying that such a campaign “has yet to materialise.” What is clarifying is how discrediting works. To discredit the questioning of a legacy is to discredit the questioner. Even posing a question or making a history questionable is framed as vandalism, “a willful destruction of the venerable and beautiful.” A judgement can be turned into a project.  If questioning what is received as inheritance is understood as damaging institutions, we need to damage institutions.

So much of the work we do is dealing with the consequences of the work we do.  In my lecture today I want to talk about “no” as work : as the work you have to do in order not to reproduce an inheritance. We might think of no as expressive. The word express comes from press. It implies something that is squeezed out.  To get a no out you have to do more than say no; a no needs somewhere to go. My talk will be concerned with we can call diversity work, the ordinary and painstaking work of working on institutions so they are more accommodating. I will be talking today specifically about working on universities: although I am no longer at a university I am still working on it. It might seem like an odd choice for an event on utopianism, desire and hope, to be talking about doing this kind of institutional work; the kind that often does not seem to get us very far. But for me it is from our small efforts to make room that we register the full force of what we are up against. Maybe what I will be offering today is a killjoy utopianism, a willingness to inhabit what seems negative as an insistence that worlds can be otherwise. We are willing to be there, in the wear and tear, for as long as it takes.

I will be drawing today on arguments from a book I have recently completed, What’s the Use: On the Uses of Use. In the book, I follow use around, the way I followed happiness in The Promise of Happiness, and will in Willful Subjects. And I have followed use right back into the university, as a way of thinking about how universities are built. We might recall how the use of Galton’s name is justified as inheritance. I will also be drawing on data I collected in project on diversity, first presented in my book, On Being Included as well as new material from my current research on complaint in which I have been talking to students, academics and administrators about their experience of making complaints within universities.

Uses of Use

To transform institutions requires becoming conscious of how they are built. We can think of this consciousness as consciousness of use. So I am start with use.  To start with use is to start small: use is a small word with a lot of work to do; Rita Felski has described use as “work-man like” (2003, 5).  Use when used as a verb can mean: to employ for some purpose, to expend or consume; to treat or behave toward; to take unfair advantage of or exploit; to habituate or accustom. Use is a relation as well as an activity that often points beyond something even when use is about something: to use something points to what something is “for.” Some objects are made in order to be used.  What they are for brings them into existence. Even if something is shaped around what it is for, that is not the end of the story. As Howard Risatti notes in A Theory of Craft:

 Use need not correspond to intended function. Most if not all objects can have a use, or, more accurately be made useable by being put to use. A sledgehammer can pound or it can be used as a paperweight or lever. A handsaw can cut a board and be used as straight-edge or to make music. A chair can be sat in and used to prop open a door. These uses make them “useful objects” but since they are unrelated to the intended purpose and function for which these objects were made, knowing these uses doesn’t necessarily reveal much about these objects (2007, 26).

Use can correspond to intended function, but use does not necessarily correspond to an intended function. This not is an opening. I am not so sure if uses are quite as unrevealing about things as Risatti implies at least here. I am being told something about the qualities of a sledgehammer that it can be used as a paperweight. That a sledgehammer can be used as a paperweight tells me about the heaviness of the sledgehammer. Something cannot be used for anything.  Use is a restriction of possibility that is material. Nevertheless there is something queer about use; intentions do not exhaust possibilities.

Risatti implies that use makes something usable. Use also makes something used. Wear and tear usually means a depreciation of value.  I think of the surface of a table, worn, scratched.  Marx suggests that when a table is exchanged, it ceases to be a mundane object, “an ordinary sensuous thing.” To use the table is to bring it back to earth.

We can think of the marks left by use not as the erosion of value but as testimony.

The table testifies to a history.

scratched top of an old wooden table

Marx discusses wear and tear in relation to machines: “The material wear and tear of a machine is of two kinds. The one arises from use, as coins wear away by circulating, the other from non-use, as a sword rusts when left in its scabbard” ([1867] 1990, 528).  Machinery intensifies rather than saves labour: you have to get the most of the machine before it wears out, a wearing that is passed on to workers, wearing out as passing on and passing out; used as used up.

A worn thing might eventually break.  When something breaks from use it might be taken out of use, rather like this cup, which has lost its handle.

It is a rather sad parting.

broken_mug

When we think of something in use, we might think of a sign on a door:  occupied.

This sign tells us that the toilet is in use.

Occupied toilet

It tells us that we cannot use the toilet until whoever is using the toilet is finished using the toilet. Use often comes with instructions that are about maintaining personal and social boundaries.   

Or take this image of a post box.

Post-box

There is a sign that politely asks the would-be poster not to use the post box by posting a letter into the box. In the previous image the toilet was occupied because it was in use. In this case the post box is out of use because it is occupied. Although of course from another point of view, it is in use. The post box has provided a home for nesting birds. Intended functionality can mean who something is for, not just what something is for. Which means that: something can be used by those for whom it was not intended. A change of function does require a sign, “please do not use,” to stop what would be usual, that is, to stop a person from posting a letter through the box.  The sign, we assume, is temporary. That box will come back into use as a post box when it ceases to be a nest.

Back into use: use can involve comings and goings.  Take the example of the well-trodden path. The path exists in part because people have used it. Use involves contact and friction, the tread of feet smooths the surface; the path is becoming smoother, easier to follow.

The more a path is used the more a path is used.

Used Path 2

How strange this sentence makes sense.

Without use a path might disappear, becoming overgrown, bumpy; unusable.  Like this path; we know it is a path because of a sign.

But you can hardly see the sign for the leaves.

Unused Path

A path can appear as a line on a landscape. A path can also be a route through life. Heterosexuality can be a path; an easing of a passage, a clearing of a way forward. To deviate from that path can be hard. When it is harder to proceed, when a path is harder to follow, you might be discouraged; you might try and find another route. Think of how you can be dissuaded by perpetual reminders of how hard something would be. Deviation is hard. Deviation is made hard.

So much is reproduced by the requirement to follow. In the academy you might be asked to follow the well-trodden paths of citation; to cite properly as to cite those deemed to have already the most influence.  The more a path is used the more a path is used.   

The more he is cited the more he is cited.

Used Path 2

A path is kept clear through work; occupation depends upon erasure; such and such white man might become an originator of a concept, an idea as becoming seminal, by removing traces of those who were here before. When use leaves traces in places, occupation can involve the removal of those traces (2).

On Being Stopped

Diversity work is the work of trying to transform institutions by opening them up to populations that have hitherto been excluded; diversity work as deviating from the well-used paths, as not going the way things are flowing.   And yet at another level diversity seems to be a rather well-used path, an arrow even, which can be an instruction and thus a direction:

Go that way!

Diversity Arrow

The ease with which diversity travels might be why diversity work is hard work.  One diversity worker describes diversity as “a big shiny apple”: “it all looks wonderful but the inequalities aren’t being addressed.” The word diversity might be used more because it does less.  Diversity can be a sign of the difficulty of getting through.  This practitioner described her own work thus “it’s a banging your head against a brick wall job.”  

A job description becomes a wall description.

Wall Job

If you keep banging your head against the brick wall, but the wall keeps its place, it is you that gets sore. What happens to the wall?   All you seemed to have done is scratched the surface. This is what diversity work often feels like:

Scratching the surface, scratching at the surface.

Scratched wall 3

Let me share with you an example of an encounter with an institutional wall. The example is from a practitioner who developed a new policy on appointments.   This is the story:

When I was first here there was a policy that you had to have three people on every panel who had been diversity trained. But then there was a decision early on when I was here, that it should be everybody, all panel members, at least internal people. They took that decision at the equality and diversity committee which several members of SMT were present at. But then the director of Human Resources found out about it and decided we didn’t have the resources to support it, and it went to council with that taken out and council were told that they were happy to have just three members, only a person on council who was an external member of the diversity committee went ballistic – and I am not kidding went ballistic – and said the minutes didn’t reflect what  had happened in the meeting because the minutes said the decision was different to what actually happened (and I didn’t take the minutes by the way). And so they had to take it through and reverse it. And the Council decision was that all people should be trained. And despite that I have then sat in meetings where they have just continued saying that it has to be just 3 people on the panel. And I said but no Council changed their view and I can give you the minutes and they just look at me as if I am saying something really stupid, this went on for ages, even though the Council minutes definitely said all panel members should be trained. And to be honest sometimes you just give up.

A decision has been made. That decision can be overridden by the momentum of the past:  the past becomes a well-worn path, what usually happens still happens.  Note that the head of human resources did not need to take the policy out of the minutes for the policy not to come into effect.   I have called this dynamic “non-performativity,” when naming something does not bring something into effect, or when something is named in order not to bring something into effect.

The wall: that which keeps standing. The wall is a finding.   Let me summarise the finding: what stops movement moves.  If we witness the movement we might miss the mechanism.  I think this is important as organisations are good at moving things around: creating evidence of doing something is not the same thing as doing something. In our example, what stopped something from happening could have been the removal of the policy from the minutes; it could have been the failure to notice this removal; but it wasn’t. It was the way in which those within the institution acted after the policy had been agreed.   Agreeing to something can be another way of stopping something from happening.

A diversity policy can come into existence without coming into use.  I noted earlier how a sign is often used to make a transition from something being in and out of use, such as in this case of the post-box. Institutions are also postal systems.  Maybe the diversity worker deposits the policy in the post-box because she assumes the box is in use.

The post-box that is not in use might have another function: it might stop the policy from going through the whole system.

Post-box

The policy becomes dusty, rather like Marx’s rusty sword; from rusty to dusty. A policy can become unusable by not being used.

Consider too all the energy this practitioner expended on developing a policy that did not do anything. The story of how the wall keeps standing is the same story as the story of how a diversity worker becomes shattered; as she says “sometimes you just give up.” 

Maybe she ends up feeling used up, limp, spent rather like this tube of toothpaste; with nothing left to give.

Toothpaste

Or maybe she flies off the handle, to recall that broken cup.

The expression flying off the handle can mean to snap or lose your temper.

broken_mug

Another practitioner describes: “you know, you go through that in these sorts of jobs where you go to say something and you can just see people going ‘oh here she goes.’”  We both laughed, recognising that each other recognised that scene. The feminist killjoy, that leaky container, comes up here; she comes up in what we hear. We hear each other in the wear and the tear of the words we share; we hear what it is like to come up against the same thing over and over again.  We imagine the eyes rolling as if to say: well she would say that.  It was from experiences like this that I developed my equation: rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy.

A wall can be what you encounter because of what you are trying to do. Making a complaint can also involve coming up against walls. If a policy appears to create a path, a path can be how you are stopped from getting though. Complaints procedures are often pictured as paths, as flow-charts;

flow, flow, away we go, arrows, which give the would-be complainant a route through.

Flow chart

I spoke to an administrator about her work in supporting students through the complaints process:

So your first stage would require the complainant to try and resolve it informally, which is really difficult in some situations and which is where it might get stuck in a department…And so it takes a really tenacious complaining student to say, no, I am being blocked. So you can imagine that something on paper that looks very linear is actually very circular a lot of the time and I think that’s the problem, students get discouraged and get demoralised and feel hard done by, and nothing’s getting resolved and then they are in a murky place and they can’t get out.

A complaint is not simply an outcome of a no, a complaint requires you to keep saying no along the way. And what is required to keep a complaint going – such as confidence and tenacity – might be what is negated by the very experiences that led you to complain.

Complaints can be stopped by the use of warnings.   A warning can function like a singular exclamation point; we know what they are telling us to do from how they are used:

Stop! Danger ahead!

Exclamation Point

One student describes: “I was repeatedly told that ‘rocking the boat’ or ‘making waves’ would affect my career in the future and that I would ruin the department for everyone else. I was told if I did put in a complaint I would never be able to work in the university and that is was likely I wouldn’t get a job elsewhere.” Complaining is framed as self-damage as well as damage to others, ruining a department, no less. This student describes how the pressure not to complain was exerted : “In just one day I was subjected to eight hours of grueling meetings and questioning, almost designed to break me and stop me from taking the complaint any further.”   You don’t have to prevent people from doing something you just make it harder for them to do something.

Remember: deviation is hard. Deviation is made hard.

Complaints can be stopped by the appearance of being heard. An academic describes what followed when students made a complaint about the behaviour of professors at research events. A meeting is set up: “they said they would have an open meeting but it was just about calming [the students] down.” The example of the diversity policy that did not come into use implied that an organisation can say yes to a new policy when there is not enough behind that yes to bring something about.  Perhaps an organisation can allow a no to be expressed when that no has nowhere to go.  Venting is used as technique of preventing something more explosive from happening: you let a complaint be expressed in order that it can be contained.  Once the students have vented their frustrations, getting the complaint out of their system, the complaint is out of the system.

This mechanism functions like a pressure relief valve that releases enough pressure so that it does not build up and cause an explosion.

Pressure Valve

If you do keep going with a complaint where do they end up? Thus I have received numerous accounts of complaints that are lodged and still nothing happens. Perhaps complaints sit there, rather like that diversity policy.

The post-box becomes a filing cabinet; a complaint is filed away.

Filing Cabinet

Files can also function as bins; how things are discarded. One student describes: “it just gets shoved in the box.” Another student describes: “I feel like my complaint has gone into the complaint graveyard.” A filing cabinet as a graveyard, maybe there is a ghostly promise in that.  When a complaint is filed away or binned those who complain can end up feeling that they too are filed away or binned.

Closing the Door

Sometimes a complaint is registered because of who you are not. A not can also be about where you have to go. You might end up on a diversity committee because of whom you are not: not men, not white, not cis, not straight, not able-bodied. The more nots you are the more committees you end up on!  Even you agree to be on the committee they can still find you disagreeable. A 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.” I noted earlier that diversity might be used more because it does less. The word race might be used less because it does more.  The word race carries a complaint; race as a refusal of the smile of diversity. Any use of the word race is thus an overuse. She added : “whenever you raise something, the response is that you are not one of them.” Not one of them: a complaint seems to amplify what makes you not fit, picking up what you are not. Perhaps a not is heard as shouting, as insistence, a stress point, a sore point.

A complaint: when “a not” becomes an exclamation point.

Exclamation Point

A complaint can be how you are received.  A complaint can be what you have to make because of how a university is occupied. She told me how she set up writing group in her department and how the meetings become dominated by senior men:  “What I found in each of the meetings were senior men who were bullying everyone in the room.” The bullying took that form of constant belittling of the work of more junior academics as well as postgraduate students:  “The first session someone was being just really abusive about someone’s PhD saying it was rubbish.”  Racist comments are made: “I’m from London and London is just ripe for ethnic cleansing.” She described how people laughed, how the laughter filled the room. She commented on these comments: “These were the sorts of things being aired.” These were the sorts of things; sentences as sentencing; violence thrown out as how some are thrown out.

Aired: even the air can be occupied.

She decides to make a complaint because she “wanted it recorded,” and because “the culture was being reproduced for new PhD students.”   A complaint becomes a recording device; you have to record what you do not want to reproduce.  She gathered statements from around twenty people in her department. A complaint can be a feminist collective. A complaint can be evidence of a no that is shared.  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,” as if she complains because she has a personal grudge. She adds: “they treated the submission as an act of arrogance on my part.” It is as if she put a complaint forward as a way of putting herself forward; a complaint is treated as self-promotional. Her complaint goes nowhere.  When those who try to stop a culture from being reproduced are stopped, a culture is being reproduced. She describes the department as a revolving door: women and minorities arrive only to head right back out again; whoosh, whoosh.

You might have to get out because of what you find out when you get in.

Revolving Door

Doors are not only physical things that swing on hinges (though they are that) they are mechanisms that enable an opening or closing. Diversity is often represented as an open door; minorities welcome, come in, come in; diversity as a tag-line, tag along; tagged on.

Come in, come in: I think back to our post-box.  

There could be another sign on that post-box: “birds welcome.”

Birds Welcome

The sign, “birds welcome” would be a non-performative if the post-box was still in use because the birds would be dislodged by the letters, the nest destroyed before it could be created. I suggested earlier that use is a restriction of possibility that is material. You can use paper for some things and not others because of the material qualities of paper. Restrictions can also become material through use. The letters in the box, the words that are thrown out; they become materials, they pile up; they stop others from making use of something. What is material to some, leaving you with no room, no room to breathe, to nest, to be, can be what does not matter to others because it does not get in the way of their occupation of space; it might even enable their occupation. You can stop others from using a space by how a space is being used, by what a space is being used for; for as door.

A door can be what stops you from getting in. A door can also be what stops you from getting out.  I am speaking to an academic about the first complaint she made when she was a student. One of her lecturers on her course had been making her feel uncomfortable. One time she enters his room:

And then one afternoon, I went into his office to talk to him about something, it was an office a bit like this but without any glass, with a door that opened inwards and opened on a latch, and he pushed me up against the back of a door and tried to kiss me and I pushed him away, it was an instinctive pushed him away, and tried to get out of the room and it was a horrible moment because I realised I couldn’t actually, it was very difficult to operate the latch.

A door without glass, solid, can’t be seen through, a door as what you are pushed against, the latch that won’t upon, getting stuck, trying to get out; the work you have do to get out. She did get out of his room, but it was hard. Behind closed doors; harassment happens there, out of view, in secret. A door is shut on her. The same door is shut on a complaint. She submitted an informal complaint, a letter, detailing the assault. Where does her complaint go? Her letter ends up with the Dean. And what did he do?  “The Dean basically told me I should sit down and have a cup of tea with this guy to sort it out.” The response to a complaint about harassment is to minimize harassment as if what occurred is just a minor squabble between two parties, something that can sorted out by a cup of tea, that English signifier of reconciliation.  To formalize a complaint would become a failure, her failure, to resolve the situation more amicably.

Would become, would have become: she did not proceed to a formal complaint.  Her complaint was stopped; he was not.  I say her complaint was stopped rather than she was stopped because she did go on to have a career, she is now a professor. But her experience stayed with her. She describes: “I thought I got a first because of academic merit, but then after this happened I remember thinking but hang on, maybe not, maybe this was some sort of ruse to try and keep me in the institution so he could keep the contact going…it starts undermining your own sense of your academic merit, the quality of your work and all that kind of stuff.” Being harassed by a lecturer damages your sense of self-worth, intellectual worth; leading you to question yourself, doubt yourself. Her complaint was stopped, she was not, but she carries that history with her.

What happened to him?   She tells us: “He was a known harasser; there were lots of stories told about him. I had a friend who was very vulnerable, he took advantage of that, she ended up taking her own life.” She ended up taking her own life; so much more pain, so much more damage at the edges of one woman’s story of damage. He went on; he was allowed to go on, when her complaint, and for all we know there were others too, we do not know how many said no, did not stop him. He has since retired; much respected by his peers; no blemish on his record.  The damage carried by those who did complain or would complain if they could complain, carried around like baggage, slow, heavy, down. To hear complaint is to hear from those weighed down by a history that has not left a trace in the official records.  No blemish on his record, no trace in the official records: the organisation shares an interest in stopping what is recorded by a complaint from getting out.

Shares an interest: a complaint can be stopped because of what is shared.  When an MA student made an informal complaint about the conduct of the most senior member of her department she was told by the convener of the programme “be careful he is an important man.”  Be careful: a warning not to proceed is a statement about who is important. Importance is not just a judgment it is a direction. The more a path is used the more a path is used. The more he is connected the more he is connected.  The more he is connected the more others are invested in that connection. A professor becomes a conductor; information, energy, resources travel through him.  I think of this becoming as institutional funneling; paths become narrower and narrower at the exit points; you have to go through him to get anywhere. Uses of use, a restriction of possibility that has become material, uses of use, a narrowing of the routes, the more a path is used the less paths there are to use: more going through less.

The student did go ahead with a complaint.   In her terms, she “sacrificed the references.” In reference to the prospect of doing a PhD she said: “that door is closed.”  That door is closed: references too can function as doors, mechanisms that enable an opening or closing, how it is made possible for some to progress, others not.  Reference systems are how some are enabled by their connections, how some gather speed and velocity, more and more, faster and faster, “he is an important man.” Many do not make complaints because they feel they cannot afford to lose the references, not complaining as a way of keeping a door open. So much of our political work is the work we do to ensure that making a complaint does not mean closing a door.

Conclusion: A Leak is a Lead

We are willing to be there, in the wear and tear, for as long as it takes. You have to work to keep going, to keep a complaint going.

In giving my ear to complaint, I am learning and listening with hope, to hope. By this I do not mean I feel hopeful or those I have spoken to feel hopeful though we might do; we can do. To persist with a complaint is hopeful despite the negation because you have to insist there’s a point to persist. To persist with a complaint requires a refusal of institutional fatalism, that sense that is just how things are; that abuses of power even when fatal, are inevitable, same old, same old, same old bodies, doing the same old things. You persist because you sense what is possible; that spaces can be freed up when they are inhabited differently. Perhaps this image can be a pointer.

This image teaches us what is possible (3).

Post-box

The birds could have been treated as trespassers, ejected or displaced. A history of use is a history of such displacements, many violent, displacements that often disappear because of how things remain occupied.

To make room for others so often requires work, hard work, pain-staking work, collective work. To fight for room is to fight for a possibility that has been restricted by use. A complaint: when you have to fight for a possibility. My project on complaint was inspired by my own experiences of  working on multiple enquiries into sexual harassment and sexual misconduct, which is to say my project was inspired by students: this work is for you.

After three years I eventually resigned. I know it has taken me a long time in this talk for me to talk about resignation, although not as long as it took me to resign. And it is still difficult for me to talk about my resignation in public, so please bear with me, the details will be absent, but at least I am present. I resigned because I had had enough, and because I did not want to stay silent about what had been going on. Resignation is another way of saying no to system; you withdraw your labour, your body, yourself. The word resignation can seem to suggest giving up, reconciling yourself to your fate, to resign yourself to something. I hear the word resignation and I hear a long drawn out sigh. But resignation can be how you refuse to resign yourself to a situation. Perhaps you are giving up on something, a belief that you can do the work here, but you are holding onto something, a belief in that work.

What appears to be giving up can be a refusal to give in.

I resigned in part because of the silence about what was going on. To get information out sometimes you need to get out. There is no point in being silent about resigning if you are resigning to protest silence. When I shared my reasons for resigning I became the cause of damage

I became a leaky pipe: drip, drip.

Leaky Pipe

Just loosen the screw a little bit, a tiny, tiny little bit, and more and more will come out. It can be explosive what comes out. We need more explosions. Organisations will try and contain that damage. The response in other words is damage limitation. This is how diversity often takes institutional form: damage limitation. Happy shiny policies will be put in place, holes left by departures will be filled without reference to what went on before; a blot becomes something to be wiped up: mopping up a mess.

But there is hope here: they cannot mop up all of the mess.

A leak can be a lead. A leak can be a feminist lead.

Mopping up

It might seem that complaints that do not get anywhere disappear without a trace like that unused path:

Hard to find, harder to follow.

Unused Path

But in saying no, we keep a history alive; we do not let go. Even complaints that do not seem to get anywhere lead us to each other.

Feminist memory can become a counter-institutional project; we have to find ways of creating paths for others to follow, to leave traces in places.   We refuse to let a refusal disappear. You hold on by passing a refusal on. An indigenous student made an informal complaint about white supremacy in her classroom: using that kind of term for what is here can get you in serious trouble; she knew that but she was willing to do that. She became in her terms “an indigenous feminist monster,” and she is now completing her PhD off campus.  She said that “an unexpected little gift,” was how other students could come to her: “they know you are out there and they can reach out to you.”  Even what, who, has been binned can acquire a new life.  The complaints in the graveyard can come back to haunt institutions.

It is a promise.

When you are stopped you have to find other methods of getting information out. It is not just that we have exhausted the usual procedures or that we are exhausted by them; though many of us have and are.  We have also learnt that working “in house,” too often ends up being a restoration project, polishing the furniture so it appears less damaged; a labour I have called with reference to the uses of diversity, “institutional polishing” (4). In house, the master’s house: we can remember Audre Lorde: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (1984). Of course we have limited options, and we use the tools available to us.  Sometimes we do what is required: we might even be willing to be diversity, to smile, to help with the creation of a shinier reflection. But we have to be careful not to lose ourselves in that reflection.

We do not want to polish away the scratches; they are testimony.   Yes those scratches; we are back to those scratches. We can reach each other through what appears as damage, mere scratch and scribble.

Feminism becomes writing on the wall; we were here, we did not get used it.

Scratched wall 3

This post is dedicated to my wonderful colleague and friend Rumana Begum. Thank you for helping me to keep going.

Notes

  1. I highly recommend you listen to this brilliant panel. These are the conversations we need to be having and these are the voices we need to hear.
  2. In the book I explore occupation and use in colonial projects with reference to Locke’s restriction of use of the land to agriculture (use is a way of framing an activity such that not all uses appear as uses) and the designation of land as unused or wasted (drawing on Edward Said’s (1979) discussion of Zionism), as well as educational projects predicated on “emptying” the minds of the colonized to create “a useful class.”
  3. In the book I discuss the image under the rubric of queer use. Queer use can refer to how we can use things in ways that were not intended or how things can be used by those for whom they were not intended. I suggest that it is not enough simply to affirm the queerness of use: to queer use is to have a fight on your hands precisely because of how restrictions have become material.
  4. I first discussed diversity as a way of polishing the surface so that organisations “appear happy” in On Being Included (2012) and then more recently in the middle section”Diversity Work” of Living a Feminist Life (2017). In The Promise of Happiness (2010) I also explore polishing in relation to the work of creating the appearance of happy families. Institutional polishing can be related to what Alison Phipps has usefully called institutional airbrushing, where the “impact of disclosure is projected in market terms” (2018, np). By polishing I am referring to the activity of marketing alongside other forms of labour within organisations that is often performed by academic themselves. I will be exploring how professional norms of conduct are predicated on silence and “keeping a lid on it.” My research on complaint is teaching me how academics (including feminist academics) also tend to identify complaints as potential damage to an organisation’s reputation and thus become invested in stopping complaints from getting out.

 

References

Felski, Rita (2013) “Introduction,” New Literary History, Special Issue on Use, 44, 4: v-x11.

Lorde, Audre (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg: The Crossing Press.

Marx, Karl (1990). [1867] Capital: Volume 1 Trans. Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin Classics.

Phipps, Alison (2018). “Reckoning Up: Sexual Harassment and Violence in the Neoliberal University,” Gender and Education, ISSN 0954-0253.

Risatti, Howard (2007). A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression. University of North Carolina Press.

Said, Edward (1979). “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims,” Social Text, 1: 7-58.

 

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The Time of Complaint

Two years ago today I shared my reasons for resigning from my post. I resigned in protest at the failure of my college to address sexual harassment as an institutional problem. I resigned because the costs of doing that work were too high. And I have been thinking as I have been listening to those who have been involved in the time-consuming, life-consuming, process of making complaints about time; about the time of complaint. It takes so much time to get a complaint through the system, which is why so many complaints end up being about the system. And it takes so much time to recover from making a complaint, especially when, and when “when” is often it does not seem special, you encounter those walls; you do not get through.

It has been two years since I made the reasons for my resignation public. And I still have a sense of rage and injustice, also tiredness and sadness, from doing that work with others and from knowing what was left undismantled despite that work. It might be receding – I don’t wake up every morning writing furious letters in my head. But I still have those letters handy: it is almost as if they are there waiting in the background, ready to come out. I just have to read something, notice something, perhaps a passing reference to what happened, or yet another appropriation of the work we did, and those letters start writing themselves again.

And: you can find it upsetting that you still find it upsetting.

If the work of complaint takes time, it takes time to recover from the work of complaint.

A willfulness maxim: don’t get over it when it is not over.

It is not over.

And what makes it “not over” is not just about how you feel; it is not just about how a complaint has etched its way into your consciousness like wrinkles; time given form as expression. It is not over because what you complained about is not over.

If you complain about harassment you are harassed. Harassment is a means by which a complaint about harassment is stopped. Those who are not stopped from complaining are often harassed all the more.

It is thus hard to untangle the slow time of complaint from the slow time of harassment.  So many of the accusations that have been hurled against me in public as well as in private have been hurled against many other feminists. We can share accusations: you are a bully, the real harasser, a feminazi; you are punishing and puritanical. You are accused of wanting their jobs for yourself. You are called neoliberal feminists if you use internal disciplinary procedures, as colluding with management; you are accused of conducting a vigilante campaign or a witch hunt when you have exhausted those internal procedures.

If you try to stop harassment you come up against what enables that harassment. The accusations that are thrown out; they might seem pointless and careless but they are pointed and careful. They are part of a system; a system works by making it costly to expose how a system works.

I think it is important for us to share this: that the harassment does not end just because a complaint has ended, however a complaint has ended. I still receive hate mail because of my involvement in a complaint about sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. You can refuse to open letters, you can discard comments posted to your blog, you can ignore messages received, but that work of refusal is still work. You can even be affected by the work you do in trying not to be affected. It has taken me a long time to be less affected by doing this work. Even if you understand and can explain where these communications come from, they can be wearing. You can feel worn. When I left my post I did experience a loss of confidence, a sense of no longer being sure of myself or others. If confidence can be taken in time, restoring confidence takes time.

The time it takes to recover from a complaint; the time it takes to make a complaint; so much time taken. But remember the time of not complaining about harassment is the slow time of harassment; the time it takes to complain is time worth taking.

About time: so many of my interviews with those who have made complaints have been about time. I have learnt that the time taken to make a complaint can be used to disqualify a complaint. One member of staff made a complaint about bullying from her head of department. The experience of bullying had been devastating, and she suffered from depression as a result. It took her a long time to get to the point where she could write a complaint. She describes what happened once she was able to put her complaint in, “I basically did it when I was able to, because I was just really unwell for a significant period of time. And I put in the complaint and the response that I got was from the deputy VC. He said that he couldn’t process my complaint because I had taken too long to lodge it.” A complaint: it can take too long.

And we know this: some experiences are so devastating that it takes a long time to process them. Which might mean that: the more devastated you are the less likely you are to get through.

The experiences that lead you to make a complaint can stop a complaint from being recognised as a complaint.

Time can be used as a tool: if organizations can disqualify complaints because they take too long to make, organizations can also take too long to respond to complaints. One student described how the university took seven months to respond to her complaints, and then another seven months to respond to her response to their response to her complaint: “it is my theory they 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.”  Exhaustion can be not just the effect but the point of a complaint process.

Exhaustion as a management technique: you tire people out so they are too tired to address what makes them too tired.

When the organisation takes a long time, you are left waiting. One member of staff who complained about bullying used this analogy: waiting for the next response to her complaint was like waiting for a bill to come through the door. You do not know whether the next bill will be the one that breaks you. You don’t know, so waiting can feel like breaking. The longer it takes to receive a response, the longer you are on high alert; anxiety about what might happen can be enough to make a complaint impossible to sustain.

At other times, everything might seem to speed up: you are behind; you can’t catch up. I spoke to two students who made a complaint about sexual harassment. They talked of how slow the organisation was to respond to their communications at every step of the process but how they themselves were still expected to be quick: “they gave us a tiny time-scale” and “short-deadlines.” They described how: “that’s not part of the procedure they are just making it up as they go along.” Deadlines, however made up, can be how you are stopped: if you do not make it in time you do not make it.

The slow time of waiting; the fast time of deadlines: too slow, too fast. Other times you have a sense of coming up against the same thing; the time of repetition, round and round. Sometimes also: up and down.  At times you might feel like you are getting somewhere, you might feel encouraged, but then, something happens or nothing happens; nothing is something.

Round and round, up and down.

I think back to the time it took for me to realise that I had to leave. I have called that realization snap: the moment you realise what you cannot do, that something has broken, a bond to an institution, or a belief that you can make an institution more accommodating. If snap can be experienced as a moment, the moment you do not take it anymore, that moment has a history. It was quite a long time after the enquiries took place that I realised I had to leave. What I found most difficult was the silence, the very loud silence that felt rather like calm waters over a sunken ship. As the ripples lessened, as if nothing had happened, as if the enquiries had not even taken place, as if not talking about it meant it was gone, I knew my days were numbered.

You can realise you have to leave. But it can still take time to leave.

I first asked for unpaid leave. I wrote to my head of department in March 2016: “It is my preference to make it under the category of ‘special leave’ and to put on the form that the reasons for taking the leave are to help me deal with the corrosive effects of working for three years on sexual harassment cases at the college. I know the form goes nowhere but in a file but it strikes me that everywhere we are asked not to name the problem, so at least on my own form I can name the problem. And it is true: it is the reason.” I put the reason on the form. What happens: it is not that nothing happens.  I get leave. But the form is filed away.

My leave is agreed but there is no mention of the reasons.

No mention of the reasons for leave are the reasons for leaving.

Leaving: maybe that too was something that took time before it could took place, something that happened, gradually, slowly.

We can exit a situation as we begin to realise that our efforts to transform a situation are not getting anywhere.

The time it takes to make a complaint; the time it takes to leave.

I think back now to those three years, draining, how they were draining. I think of myself as breaking a little each day, each day in my own way.

Mostly when you are involved in a complaint you are still doing your other work, as a student, as a teacher, an administrator. You are doing the work of complaint alongside doing your work.

Alongside, side-by-side.

One time just after I testified in one of the enquiries I had to go and give a lecture on the idea of race. It is always emotional to give this lecture; an idea is not abstraction; you can embody an idea. This time I am shaking. Everything pours out.

Words: they can spill out, shattering.

Another time just before I testified at another enquiry, I saw someone who I had heard stuff about; I knew his role in what happened. I feel physically sick. Another time I see him at an event. A colleague told me I turned white. It takes a lot to turn a brown girl white.

I feel sick.

In my last proper day at work we had a departmental meeting. A caring and well-meaning colleague got my resignation on the agenda – he got sexual harassment on the agenda. It is mentioned along with another item. The other item is picked up. I hear it being passed over. I hear sexual harassment being passed over. I rush out the room and I am sick in the toilets.

I now think of that vomiting as a feminist act: all that came up, all that I refused to digest.

Guts can be feminist friends.

We are supposed to cope, and if we don’t cope, we are not supposed to admit to not coping, because that would be a sign of weakness; being unprofessional.

I can tell you this now, with confidence: I did not cope. I could not cope. I would not cope.

They will you give you words to explain the act of not coping. I have been learning from listening to complainers how the term “vicarious trauma” is floated around very quickly when large scale enquiries into problems such as sexual harassment take place. I would not deny that it can be traumatizing to hear about other people’s trauma. But you hear what that diagnosis might be doing in an institutional setting. It can be used to imply a complaint is like an infection, spreading from body to body, organically: how she infects herself, how she infects others; complaining as not only not coping, but as being too easily affected by others. A complaint becoming a complaint in another sense: as a bodily condition, an ailment, an illness.

You can sense the utility of such a frame: it allows the institution to disappear.

Making complaints requires we give other explanations for why we make complaints.

What I found difficult to cope with was not what I learnt from students, however hard it was to hear what happened to many of the students I spoke to, but what I learnt about the institution from its response to the harassment. What was hard was the complicity, the silence. The institutional response to harassment – don’t talk about it, turn away from it, protect our reputation whatever the cost – was how the harassment was enabled in the first place. To be silent was to be part of the institutional silence.

Why should we cope with this? Why would we cope with this?

We are supposed to cope; to hold ourselves together. What if holding ourselves together is how the information is held? What if coping is containing? What if the very techniques for coping with violence are the same techniques for reducing the significance of violence?

A complaint: when we let out, spill out, what we are supposed to contain.

A complaint: when we transform what we do not cope with into a protest at what we are supposed to cope with.

Not coping: it can feel like a failure; you can feel like a failure. It can feel like you have lost the handle. Maybe we need to fly off the handle. And maybe not coping is an action. And maybe not coping is how we create a collective. That collective might be fragile but it is also feminist and furious.

——————————–

These thoughts are dedicated to my complaint collective. Thank you.

We carry what matters with us.

 

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Confrontation?

I am sharing the introduction I gave for a panel discussion Confrontation? Doing Feminist and Anti-Racist Work in Institutions. I have amended it slightly and added a few observations I didn’t have time to include on the day. I learnt so much from the panel and from the combined reflections offered by Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, Heidi Mirza, Lola Olufemi and Monica Moreno Figueroa. Together they asked us to think about who does the work of confronting institutions (and who does not) and also to consider how those who end up having to confront institutions are often those who have already been made precarious by institutions. We talked about the exhaustion of doing this kind of work, and how making lasting political change might involve small steps taken over a long time. We reflected too on the importance of not allowing institutions to swallow us up and of developing our own survival strategies, which might include taking breaks or holding on to our friendships and relationships that matter to us and that exist outside of the institutions in which we work. We reflected on how confrontation can sometimes operate as a masculinist style of doing institutional or political work; and how there are different ways of doing that work not all of which will be recognised as confrontational.

I want to thank Leila, Tiffany, Heidi, Lola and Monica: they reminded me that however hard it is to try to transform institutions we find each other by doing the work.

Introduction, “Confrontation? Doing Feminist and Anti-Racist Work in Institutions,” May 1 2018, Cambridge University.

I am pleased to introduce and chair our panel on Confrontation? Doing Feminist and Anti-Racist Work in Institutions. To start off I want to say something about why we have made confrontation our leading question in opening up a discussion about doing institutional work. Being in an institution can be hard work especially when institutions are not built for us. It might be the work you have to do to get here or to enter a room because you do not have the right background or the right body. It might be the work you have to do to stay in the room because of what you find when you arrive. So much feminist and anti-racist work is the work of trying to transform institutions so they are more accommodating. That work includes the work we have to do to show what we already know; how difficult and hostile institutions are or can be; how white, how male-dominated; how racist, how sexist and so on.

Institutions do not always reveal themselves. I remember when I first became head of Women’s Studies at Lancaster University in 2000 and I began to attend faculty and university meetings. I began to hear how whiteness was justified. I already knew the university was white; I was I had got used to that whiteness even though it was wearing. But I began to hear how senior managers defended the whiteness of the university. These conversations, or perhaps we should call them defences, were happening because the Race Relations Amendment Act was about to come into force. The university was going to have to deal with the question of race: a conversation can be compliance. In one meeting a senior manager said we could not do anything about whiteness as whiteness is just about geography. In another meeting a Dean said race was too difficult to deal with. I was the only person of colour at that meeting and a newbie killjoy: I did not quite have the confidence at the time to confront him. But I sent him an email saying no, you are reproducing the problem by making it something that is too difficult to deal with. A no can become a career trajectory. I ended up on the newly formed race equality committee and from that point on I was always on such committees; diversity committees became my institutional house, where I ended up hanging out. We often up on such committees because of who are not: not men, not white, not straight, not able-bodied, not cis. The more nots you are the more committees you end up on!

And yet it is wearing: the work you have to do in order to be accommodated can make it even harder to be accommodated.

It is interesting to me now that it was trying to confront whiteness that led me on that path. Yes the diversity path might be difficult and it can slow your progression, and it can be how others are freed from that requirement to do the institutional work. But it also an interesting path: you find out a lot about institutions when you follow this route. The conversations we had as a group of academics and administrators have stayed with me; conversations about what words to use, what words not to use in writing a race equality policy.

We learn from where our words end up. We learn too from where documents end up. Our race equality document ended up being ranked by the ECU (Equality Challenge Unit) as excellent (along with many other documents I would add). And the university was able to use the policy as evidence that it was good at race equality. I will always remember the experience of being at a university meeting – we had a new vice chancellor and he was enthusiastic about equality as new vice chancellors tend to be. He waved the letter and said well done, we are good at equality. That an organisation can be, to use Heidi Mirza’s (2017) powerful terms “hideously white” and be judged as good at race equality was a very important political lesson. Policies can be useful because they create an impression of doing something without necessarily doing anything. It was a disheartening process but I learnt from it: when you confront the institution with what it has failed to do, you can still end up being used as evidence of what has been done.

Of course people of colour are often used as evidence; we appear in their brochures so they can appear diverse. And we are supposed to smile. Just by not smiling we are perceived as being too confrontational. Or to use certain words, words such as racism, whiteness, white supremacy, can mean being heard as confrontational and as intent on causing damage. In fact you don’t have to say or to do anything to be judged as confrontational. To be a person of colour in white institutions is to become “the race person”: you are always given this assignment. Confrontation can then be how you are received; you can be heard as confrontational, whatever you do or say, because of what you bring up by turning up. You have to try hard not to appear confrontational when that is how you already appear: diversity work can be the work you have to do to counter how you appear.

My own experience of doing diversity led me to a research project in which I talked to diversity practitioners about their work. One practitioner spoke to me about not using terms that were in her terms “more confrontational,” to enable her to have more conversations with more staff across the university. So she used the word diversity because it was a happier, lighter and more positive word. She sensed she could travel further by indicating in advance what she was not willing to confront. Different practitioners had different strategies; another practitioner refused to use the word diversity because she understood it as a “cop out,” a word that was so light that it would allow institution to pass over what inequalities that she wanted to address.

I learnt so much from listening to practitioners about strategy, about how we do the work we do. And there is a lot of work to do. We have assembled a panel of those who are “doing the work” including the work of trying to transforming Cambridge. This work can be exhausting – “a banging your head against the brick wall job” as one practitioner described to me – equality work as wall work. But given what we come up against, the work also requires creativity and persistence. I think it is important we value the work for what it teaches us. So I am going to introduce you to the panel by naming just some of the institutional work each member of the panel has been doing. I introduce Dr Monica Moreno Figueroa who is Senior Lecturer in Sociology here at Cambridge, who is leading the Decolonizing Cambridge initiative and is also one of Cambridge’s two Race Inclusion Champions; I introduce Lola Olufemi who is Women’s Officer at CUSU and has also been centrally involved in Decolonizing Cambridge as well as other campaigns such as Breaking the Silence, on preventing harassment and sexual misconduct. The remaining panellists were all members of the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths. I introduce Dr Tiffany Page who is now a lecturer in Sociology at Cambridge and a founding member of the 1752 group, a research and lobby group working to end sexual misconduct in Higher Education; I introduce Dr Leila Whitley who is visiting Cambridge Sociology from University of Konstanz where she is a post-doctoral researcher working on “the displacement of harm,” how institutions turn the harm caused by sexual assault into harm against institutions and who is also on the Advisory Board of the 1752 group; and I introduce Professor Heidi Mirza who is an Emeritus Professor and has been creating spaces for Black British feminism wherever she has been including the Institute for Education and Goldsmiths.

The CFR is somewhat of a shared thread and I want to say a little about the work we did because if we pull that thread we end up here. The CFR was set up in 2013, which happened to be the same year I was asked to attend a meeting with students about sexual harassment and sexual misconduct.(1) The same year: I think the energy and the feel of the CFR was shaped by the immediacy and urgency of what became a shared and collective project, a project that was led and shaped by students activists: a project of trying to bring an end to harassment, misconduct and bullying that was here, not over there, somewhere else, but here, in the same place we were working. The CFR became a kind of feminist shelter, a place to go to recover from the fight we had on our hands, which was a fight, even, to recognise that there was a problem, and that it was an institutional problem; to have a conversation about the problem.

A feminist shelter: so much of our work is the work of supporting each other given what we are trying to confront.

Looking back on this incredibly intense period I realise again the significance of what might seem obvious: the harder it is to get through the more you have to do.

And the harder it is to get through the more conscious you have to become about how you will be received. I will give just one example. We drafted a letter to the Warden, which was a call for action, which was eventually sent on September 30 2015. I was looking at the first drafts of the letter. What is interesting if unsurprising was how the more confrontational language was gradually edited out. So an early draft contained the sentence, “This constellation of abusive practices and associated complicities constitutes an institutional culture and we have not seen enough leadership to challenge that culture.” In the version that was eventually sent, that sentence was removed. The references to leadership that remained were as follows: We are writing this letter to call for strong leadership to challenge the problem of sexual harassment”; “We urge that the college respond by taking leadership in the campaign against sexual harassment at Universities.  In fact, it would be a much greater risk to college’s reputation as a progressive and critical institution if this opportunity for leadership is not seized.” We removed the description of leadership in terms of failure for strategic reasons; we wanted the letter to be more appealing. So what remains is an appeal to leadership that uses the terms that were already used by the university as a measure of its own success (“a progressive and critical institution”).

We all probably have experience of doing the work of editing out our more confrontational language. Wouldn’t you love it if all of our first drafts could be housed together: a “first draft archive” would be a killjoy archive for sure! We do this work of editing out the more confrontational language because we sense the less confrontational we are the further we will get. If we edit words out of letters, what else do we edit out? Can what be who: who gets edited out in that process? Does it work: do you go further by being less confrontational? Can you use their terms to acquire the resources and then use the resources to confront the institution in your own terms? Or if you receive resources from the institution does it become more difficult to confront the institution because you have something to lose?

These are life questions, institutional questions; these are our questions. Sometimes doing the work of confrontation is too much to sustain, in other words, the work can get in the way of living a feminist life. Another way of trying to confront an institution is to leave it. When I resigned from my post I resigned in feminist protest and because I had “had enough.” These reasons are the same reason; if you protest because of what you have had to put up with a protest is how you signal what you are no longer willing to put up with. I needed to give out a signal. There is not much point in being silent about why you are protesting when you are protesting silence.

When I shared my reasons for resigning from my post – in protest at the failure of the institution to address sexual harassment as an institutional problem – I quickly became the cause of damageI became a leaky pipe, drip, drip. Organisations will try and contain that damage. The response in other words is damage limitation. This is how diversity often takes institutional form: damage limitation. Happy shiny policies will be put in place; holes left by departures filled without reference to what went on before. Indeed there is often a blur of activity after an exposure of a problem. One academic who participated in a collective complaint about a culture of harassment at her former university describes how: “[the university] now has a very nice patch on its intranet telling staff what happened and it all looks cleaner than clean because of all the action they have taken in the past six months and frankly they haven’t addressed the situation at all.” Cleaning up, a complaint becomes a mess, something to be mopped up and away often by the appearance of doing something. Even new complaint procedures, however important, can be used in this way: as evidence of what is being done; as a distraction from what is not being done.

But there is hope here: they cannot mop up all the mess. When you lift the lid, more and more come out. It can be explosive, what comes out. Of course this is why professional norms of conduct are about keeping a lid on it; silence as institutional loyalty, silence in case of institutional damage.

And yes much of this data if released would be damaging to an organisation’s reputation. If it would be, it should be. No wonder it is hard to release that data. To release that data often requires using alternative methods, because following the usual procedures is often how we are stopped from getting information out. And so we might: write names of harassers in books; distribute leaflets; gather in protest to reclaim spaces that have become unavailable because of how they are used. We often end up doing this kind of work because we have exhausted the usual procedures. To use alternative methods has costs: those who use such methods are often disciplined for not working in the right way.  I have examined public statements and confidential letters that assume this disciplinary form: where not following the usual procedures has been identified as damaging organisations and even in some cases as damaging feminism. One letter written by a feminist academic recommended for instance that rather than making a public disclosure a better route would have been to call a meeting in order to avoid “a fall-out which damages us all now and in the future.” We have a problem when another meeting is imagined as a solution. If there is a fall-out, it is because stuff needs to come out.

The implication is that any damage to the institution would be damage to “us all.”

Is this the risk of the institutionalization of feminism: becoming us all?

I want to learn from the fact that it is even possible that some feminists would recommend not speaking out about the role of the institution in enabling and participating in harassment. Personally: I would think of this work as part of our job description. It might be that for some feminists to become part of an institution requires loyalty, expressed as the need to protect the organisation from anything that could damage its reputation. Or a concern might be that if feminist projects are resourced by an institution to speak out about the institutional violence would be to compromise those resources.  So a feminist project ends up being defending the organisation from being compromised. Or a concern might be that if the information gets out, it will become inflated possibly by being taken up by third parties in a sensationalist way, thus allowing others to overlook the feminist work being done within that institution.

I do want to understand the concerns.

But I still think we have a problem.

We have a problem when silence about violence becomes a way of holding onto feminism.

And problems can be pedagogy: by not confronting a problem a problem is reproduced. Too often working in house ends up being a restoration project, polishing the furniture so it appears less damaged. I have called this work with reference to uses of diversity “institutional polishing.” In house, the master’s house: we can remember Audre Lorde (1984) warning, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Of course we have limited options, and sometimes we have to use the tools available to us, chipping away at the walls the best we can. Sometimes we do what is required: we might even be willing to reflect the good image the institution has of itself back to itself, talking about the institution as being critical and progressive for instance. But you have to be careful not to lose yourself in the reflection.

We have to be careful not to lose ourselves in the reflection.

Today we want to talk as openly as we can about doing the work, feminist and anti-racist work, the work of exposing the problem, of becoming the problem, about what it feels like; the risks and the compromises; to talk about what we might find and what we might lose along the way (and what can be who, who we might find, who we might lose). If one way of stopping confrontation is to increase the costs of confrontation, then to do the work, the work that can be characterised as confrontational because of what it refuses not to reveal, requires finding ways to share these costs. Today’s event is also a launch for a new network, which we are describing as a counter-institutional feminist network, FFF. It came out of our experiences of fighting for feminism. The network is open to anyone who in fighting for feminism has to fight against institutions; anyone who has had to confront what others do not want revealed.

What we fight against can be how we are for; what we are for; feminism as for.

Thank you.

(1) This work was led by students and began much earlier than 2013 when a number of members of staff became involved in the project. So much of the collective labour of trying to bring an end to harassment and bullying is invisible and is performed by students and early career academics. We need to recognise and value this work as well as consider its costs.

References

Lorde, Audre (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg: The Crossing Press.

Mirza, Heidi (2017). “‘One in a million’: A journey of a post-colonial woman of colour in the white academy,” in Deborah Gabriel and Shirley Anne Tate (eds).  Inside the Ivory Tower: Narratives of Women of colour surviving and thriving in academia. Trentham.

 

 

 

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Notes on Feminist Survival

I am sharing some words I gave recently at a vigil. There are no notes or references; these are spoken words. I will have more to share soon.

Solidarity with my fellow killjoys, with those marching for a different life.

Notes on Feminist Survival, On the Occasion of the Reclaim the Night March, King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, March 11 2018.

As I am speaking to you in a chapel it seems right to begin with Lorde. She is often where I begin. Audre Lorde in her extraordinary poem “A Litany of Survival,” speaks of those who were “never meant to survive,” those for whom survival requires creativity and work, those for whom survival is politically ambitious. Let me share a few lines from this poem:

For those of us who live at the shoreline

standing upon the constant edges of decision

crucial and alone

for those of us who cannot indulge the passing dreams of choice

who love in doorways coming and going in the hours between dawns

Through the art of light description Lorde evokes for us a “those of us,” a those of us who live and love on the edges, in doorways, shadows, those of us who fall like shadows fall; the fallen; those for whom coming into full view would be dangerous, those for whom survival might require not coming out in the full light of day.

We can begin to hear a claim: that survival for some requires crafting a life from shattering experiences, the kind of experiences that might leave you fragile, close to the edge, “at the shoreline.” It is because we are fragile that we have to fight – sometimes for life. Lorde insists that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” She is speaking from her own experience of battling with cancer, of being given a prognosis that her cancer had spread to her liver.  She compares battling cancer to living with anti-black racism, a comparison that is deeply effective, teaching us how racism can be experienced as an attack on the body. Lorde refused not to fight for life.

It is rebellious to fight for life when you have been given a deadly assignment.

Feminism: we are fighting for our lives. And we are fighting against a system. A system can be upheld by violence. It might be the violence that follows being seen as a girl or woman, why are you not smiling love, comments thrown out as how you are thrown out; or physical or sexual violence at home or on the streets. The violence does things; you might retreat from the world, taking up less and less space, you might feel less, that you worth less. It might be the violence that follows not being legible as woman: are you a boy or a girl, the question that drips with hostility; the violence that insists you must be legible as one or the other. It might be the violence that follows not getting it right, not acting like you should, not walking right, not speaking right; not liking the right things because that is not what girl or a boy is supposed to like, or to be or to do, a violence that punishes deviation from a norm.

Deviation is hard. Deviation is made hard.

Violence hovers around the deviant. You stand out from what is around and about.

When you are black or brown in a sea of whiteness; you become noticeable.

It might be the violence of having insults thrown at you or being asked, again and again, and questions can be wearing, for some to be is to be in question: Where are you from? Where are you really from? The questions are assertions in disguise: as if to say brown, black, is not from here, not here, not.

It might the violence that follows being seen as women together, lesbians, as if by not being in relation to men you are not being at all. It might be the violence of how you become understood as causing the violence directed against you as if by being who you are you have provoked that reaction. It might be the violence of how when you point out violence you are understood as causing the loss of something, harmony or peace, the way when women of colour point our racism we are heard as being divisive. It might be the violence of having to point out that rooms are inaccessible because they keep booking rooms that are inaccessible, of having to fight just to enter a room. It might be the violence of how much work you have to do to make it possible to exist, until you feel your existence is nothing but work.  It might be the violence of not being able to turn to anyone to escape violence, because you are poor, or because you fear they will take away your children; or that you would be forced to leave because do not have the right papers. Intersectionality can mean this: how structures intersect; how vulnerability to violence is distributed unequally. bell hooks calls it what it is “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”

Those who experience the violence of a system are those who know that system most intimately. We know so much from when we stopped, from what we are not allowed to do or be. Those who are enabled by a system often will and do deny its very existence. So much of our struggle is a struggle to expose the violence of the system. I want to think of that struggle to expose violence as snap, what I call simply feminist snap. We probably all have had experiences of snapping; snapping is an everyday experience even if we do not snap every day. Feminism too is everyday; feminism is what we are doing by living our lives in a feminist way. A snap often comes from what is wearing. Maybe you are trying to put up with it, the constant belittling of your existence, sexist jokes, racist jokes, they are not funny, so we do not laugh. We cannot always afford to express ourselves: sexism and racism can make it costly to name sexism and racism. But it is constant and you are getting tired, annoyed, frustrated, not snapping can be hard work; not challenging what undermines your existence can undermine your existence. But then you reach a point, when you just can’t take it anymore, you have had enough, in the end it can be something small that is too much and you snap.

Snapping can be what comes out when you have had enough but it can also how you are heard. In my work I have explored, reclaimed, and affirmed the figure of the feminist killjoy, the one who gets in the way of happiness or who just gets in the way. The feminist killjoy is snappy: she is heard as shouting however she speaks, because of the point she makes, the words she uses, words like sexism, words like racism, just to make these points, use these words, is to be heard as shouting, abrasive, as if by opening your mouth you are breaking something. If pointing out racism and sexism is to cause unhappiness, we are quite willing to cause unhappiness. We become mouthy when they don’t like what comes out of our mouths.

And sometimes, we do need to break something, an idea of who we are, or who we will be, in order to make our lives possible.  We might have to break a bond, it might be a family bond or a bond to a person or some we or another. A bond can be violent. What can make living with violence hard is how hard it is even to imagine or think the possibility of its overcoming; you might be isolated; you might be materially dependent; you might be down, made to think and feel you are beneath that person; you might be attached to that person, or believe that person when they say they will change; you might have become part of that person, have your life so interwoven with that person that it is hard to imagine what would be left of you if you left. And in spite of all of that, there can be a point, a breaking point, when it is “too much” and what did not seem possible becomes necessary. She fights back; she speaks out. She has places to go because other women have been there.

A bond of fate, a fatal bond. Gender can be a fatal bond.

No wonder that leaving a situation of violence can feel like snap: a bond of fate has indeed been broken.

She has places to go; we have places to go because others have been there. It is important when we gather together as women and non-binary people to think of the history that precedes us and that make it possible for us to be here; to keep up the fight, to reclaim the night. I think of Black feminists and feminists of colour scholar-activists working in the UK who made it possible for me to be here, Gail Lewis, Avtar Brah, Heidi Mirza, Ann Phoenix, to name a few, there are so many more because so many came before, I think of my mother Maureen, my sisters Tanya and Tamina, my auntie Gulzar Bano, a Muslim feminist who was the first woman who talked to me about feminism, she was also a poet who taught me what you could do with words; my partner Sarah and my dog Poppy. All of us: we all bring others with us. We bring our histories with us, each of us, different histories that have allowed us to be in this room, and a room can be what you inhabit but it can also be an activity; to make room with each other, for each other. There are so many who are not with us. It is right for us to mourn our losses, to count our losses, to express our grief for those who did not make it; who were taken too soon, far too soon.  I think of Saba Mahmood, who died yesterday; a feminist of colour academic, a comrade. I thank you for all you gave us, all you left for us: I thank you for your words, wisdom and warmth. Feminists of colour working in the academy; we have paths to follow because of what you created.

A vigil: to stay awake with a person who is dying; to mark or to mourn, to make a protest, to pray; to count our losses, to count her as loss, or, to borrow the name of a recent campaign in response to police violence against black women, can I acknowledge here the important work of Kimberle Crenshaw and Andrea Ritchie, to say her name.

To say her name; to say their name. We have to fight to bring violence to attention. Feminist snap can also be thought of as an alternative communication system. Sometimes it is too risky to expose the violence of the system. It can be hard, for instance to speak out about violence that happens in Universities. I left my own post at a university because I was not willing to be silent about sexual harassment, because I did not want to reproduce what was not being addressed. When you are precarious it can be even harder to make a complaint about violence; you might not feel you have a secure enough footing. When speaking out is too risky, we have to find other ways for the violence to become manifest. We might need to use guerrilla tactics, and we have a feminist and queer history to draw upon; you can write names of harassers on books; graffiti on walls, turn bodies into art. Or to evoke a recent action by feminist direction group Sisters Uncut, we can put red ink in the water so that the centre of a city seems flooded by blood. They cut, we bleed. The riskier it is to snap, the more inventive we become. We have to occupy the building, stop the traffic; point out how business is usual is violence as usual.

Snap to it: a gathering can be snap. Feminism, queer and trans histories are histories of those who have combined forces, gathered in protest, just as we are doing; we are part of that history. We keep a history alive by gathering in this way; we receive energy from others, those who came before us. I think of the Stonewall riots. An interview with Sylvia Rivera has been recently released in which she discusses what happened on that day. Say her name: Sylvia Rivera as a trans woman of colour tends not to be remembered in how those events are remembered. In her account, snap comes up.  It was a day like other days for those who gathered at the bar, gays, dykes, sex workers, drag queens; a racially diverse army of the willingly perverse; an army that is used to living with police violence; an army for whom violence is usual. Rivera says: “This is what we learned to live with at that time. We had to live with it.” But something happens on that day. “We had to live with it until that day.  And then, I don’t know if it was the customers or it was the police. It just [snaps fingers], everything clicked.”  The snapping of fingers, that sound, snap, snap, allows Rivera to convey the sensation of things falling into place, when suddenly, or it seems sudden but it took a long time, a collective comes out with a “no,” a collective that is fragile, fabulous, full, furious:  “Everybody just like, Why the fuck are we doing all this for?   Oh, it was so exciting. It was like, Wow, we’re doing it. We’re doing it. We’re fucking their nerves.”

A snap can be catchy, igniting a crowd, all those years of frustration, pain, all that is wearing, coming out, getting out, claiming the freedom to be what they have tried to stop you from being. It is electric, snap, snap; sizzle, so much comes out when you tip something over. To make snap a part of how we tell the story of political movements is to show how exhaustion and rebellion can come from the same place; how those who are exhausted by the violence of a system come to revolt against that violence, how even when snap comes from sap, from being tired out, from being depleted, snap can reboot; snap can boost.

Snapping, that moment when the pressure has built up and tipped over, can be the basis of a revolt, a revolt against what we are asked to put up with. We fight for what is necessary.  If we started with Lorde, we can end with her too. Audre Lorde often spoke of what is necessary. Poetry she suggests is not a luxury but necessary; as necessary as bread. Possibilities are necessary. Audre Lorde often spoke of how she started writing because of a need to create what is not there. She said “what I leave behind has a life of its own.”  Writing was for Lorde an unflinchingly optimistic gesture, an optimism that comes out of rather than at the expense of a profound recognition of the difficulty of survival. She also spoke of motherhood as a kind of black feminist optimism: raising Black children “in the mouth of a racist, sexist suicidal dragon,” raising children with the hope that their dreams “will not reflect the death of ours.”

So that their dreams will not reflect the death of ours: we have to fight not to reproduce an inheritance, but that fight might also be how we keep holding onto a dream, passing it on so that it lives after we are gone.  We fight because we dream for a more just world. Perhaps then it is the very struggle against injustice that gives us the resources we need to build more just worlds. These resources might include a certain willingness to cause trouble, to kill joy, yes, to be misfits and warriors, but they also involve humour, laughter, dance, eating and drinking, all the ways we have to nourish ourselves and each other. We have to do what we can, when we can, to use Lorde’s words again, to be “vigilant for the smallest opportunity to make a change.” A vigil can be vigilance, observant, attentive; vigilance as persistence. By asking us to be “vigilant for the smallest opportunity for change” Lorde is addressing you directly: do what you can, when you can, where you can.

We are addressing each other too. When we speak to someone, we open the possibility of a return address; to and fro. Feminism: to and fro, a dialogue, a dance, a chance, what we have to do to be.

Thank you.

 

 

 

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Opening the File

I have just completed the first twenty interviews for my complaint project (1). I have spoken to students, former students, administrators, junior academics, senior academics and retired academics. I have heard about ableism, ageism, classism, transphobia, homophobia, sexism, racism, sexual harassment, and sexual misconduct. I have been given many accounts of bullying and abusive behavior. I have listened to people who have been devastated by their experiences; I have heard accounts of depression, stress and illness. I have heard from people who have lost their jobs, houses, partners; I have heard about experiences of becoming isolated from friends and colleagues as a consequence of making a complaint or of supporting those who have made complaints. I have heard from people who left the academy as a consequence of their experiences.  I have spoken to those who made complaints only because they were leaving their jobs or programmes – I will return to the relationship between being able to complain and leaving in due course. I have spoken to those who decided not to go ahead with formal complaints, and I have learnt so much from their reasons. I have spoken to those who have had formal complaints procedures used against them because they have challenged, or have been understood to have challenged, those with authority within institutions. I have heard harrowing accounts of institutional violence, of how just how much weight can and will be thrown against those who try to identify a problem, or who are perceived in some way as being a problem, whether they made formal complaints or not.

It has been a privilege to receive these accounts. I understand my task as being to give these complaints somewhere to go, to be an ear, to learn as to learn to hear. I will be thinking as I go along how best to take care of them.

In the research I have decided not to separate student complaints from staff complaints (the latter are usually called grievances). This means I am pulling together what is filed apart. Filing together has become key to my method. Many of those I have spoken to have shared with me their confidential files. I will return to files. They matter.

I have learnt from how much I have learnt by listening to people’s experience of the complaint process. By this I mean: I have learnt how making a complaint means acquiring wisdom, what I would call institutional wisdom. To make a complaint is to learn how organisations and departments that appear on the surface to be committed to equality and progressive values turn out to be deeply hierarchical and traditional once you dig deeper; that a complaint often requires digging deeper tells us something. When you make a complaint you often learn about the gap between how some people represent themselves (as being, say, progressive or feminist) and how they act; you learn so much from who gives you support and who does not (2). I am thus not generating data on complaint but receiving data that has already been collected by those who are making complaints. It is like being offered a series of snap-shots of institutions; zooming in on what is usually passed over.

As I have been doing the research, I have been revisiting my own institutional history, thinking about how I would assemble my own complaint biography; the times I did speak out, the times I didn’t. I have been remembering experiences I had in my first academic post. I remember especially one term when I was still a junior lecturer in Women’s Studies but was acting head of department. Until that term I had an impression of this organisation as a friendly and feminist space. Well if Women’s Studies was a feminist bubble, becoming head of department meant that bubble burst. I began to attend faculty meetings. I shared some more of these experiences in the introduction to On Being Included (2012), experiences of hearing how senior managers talked about race in faculty meetings (for example saying whiteness was just about geography). These were experiences of becoming a complainer, firing off emails; you can’t say that, you are reproducing whiteness by naturalizing whiteness. In fact it was making a complaint that led to me ending up on the race equality committee.  And complaint followed being on that committee, complaints about what you cannot do under the rubric of diversity.

I attended another meeting in the top room of the fanciest building on campus. I remember going into that room and seeing all these paintings of white men on the walls. They were modern in style but traditional in content. I remember women coming around in uniforms serving tea and cakes. But the thing I really remember: the secretary and the chair of the board engaging in sexual innuendo throughout the meeting. I remember people laughing. I remember feeling so shocked in part by how it seemed to be business as usual. Sexual jokes, sexual banter; portraits of white men, former VCs reminded you of who the university is for, women serving coffee: yes my feminist bubble had burst. All these different elements combine; thick, becoming wall.

It is not that a complaint is the only way we take such snap-shots of institutional life. I didn’t complain then; I didn’t say anything, though perhaps I expressed my feelings in some way, a no as sinking into the chair, as trying to disappear. A complaint might be how you begin to recognise something through the gradual forming of a no, until you can come out with it. It is through opposing something that it becomes clearer; when we are in agreement so much recedes.

Sometimes to do the work we have to do we put what we encounter to one side. One woman senior manager I spoke to attended a meeting with other senior managers. She was the only woman around the table; she was used to this; you get used to this. She is doing her job as they are. But then one man makes a sexist and sexualizing comment. She described how the comment became a bonding moment between men: how the atmosphere in the room changed, laughter, interest, as if they had been brought to attention. After expressing her feelings to me, of rage, alienation, disappointment, also of sadness, she said: “you file it under ‘don’t go there.’” And that is what we do, often, to keep going, filing as how we put to one side what is hardest to handle so that we can do our jobs.

I have been thinking about this: our everyday ways of coping with stuff and how much that requires putting things to one side. I think sometimes in the past I have tried to put whiteness in a file, to imagine it wasn’t there, all around, as surround. And then of course something happens and what you knew was there becomes all the more there; it can hit you all the more, what is there, the more you try not to notice what is there.

Complaint as noticing: in making a complaint you zoom in on such experiences, such as the times you are told that the university is not a place for someone like you. I don’t think you make those experiences bigger than they are – though you will be told you are doing just that; you will be told not to make such a big deal of it. It is more that you refuse to file those experiences away (even if you have filed them before): you refuse to reduce their significance, to make them smaller than they are. I am not saying that a complaint reveals everything about an institution or that what comes into view is the whole view. But a complaint often brings into view what an organisation does not want revealed. When you complain you refuse not to reveal something. This is why a complaint can feel like something spilling out, out of files, out of containers.

Files: they are part of institutional life.  And there are many files in a complaint. If we follow complaints, we might end up in files. Files themselves have their own journeys: they might travel, be passed around from person to person or between departments; they might be stationary, and end up in a cabinet. Although a file is supposed to be how you can locate an item, filing as the ordering of documents so they are handy, filing often seems to be how things go missing. I have learnt of one case where a file that contained all the documents from a large scale enquiry into sexual harassment mysteriously went missing; I have been tempted to call this phenomena strategic inefficiency. A history can go missing; missing files, missing cases, and also then: missing people. We do not know how many are missing. One academic described their experience of complaint as surreal in part because of how documents seemed to travel in mysterious ways, suddenly appearing in files without an explanation of how they got there.

Files: things are not always as they seem.

Files could be thought of as houses as well as housed: they contain documents; they might be stored in cabinets. If diversity work is often “doing the document,” to quote from a practitioner, so too is complaint. One student began her testimony by showing me a folder of all her complaint documents: it was full; it was stuffed. Others have sent me copies of documents before we talked. These documents are often long, just as many accounts shared with me have been long; a complaint biography is long and messy because a complaint is long and messy. One student told me her formal complaint was as long as her MA dissertation. Think of the work of this; think of the time this took. One academic who wrote a 64 page complaint, which did not go anywhere, understood her complaint as its own kind of achievement. She said: “I am very proud of that complaint, it was a lot of work, a huge amount of work, and even though it didn’t go anywhere, I am still happy that I made it…. Just having this clear chronology of what happened was helpful for my mental health, and for understanding what went down. I am glad that it exists for me, and that if any questions are raised I have it and also that I did lodge a grievance, I had a go, I did try, and for the record that matters to me.” A complaint can be a record of a struggle, and records can have uses whatever happens.  After all, difficult experiences are difficult to recall; writing a chronology can be a way of remembering. And even if the complaint does not get anywhere, it does not mean a complaint does not reveal to the one who made it that they made it.

But when a file becomes a destination we have a problem. If a complaint is filed away the problem that the complaint addresses has not been addressed. Many have shared with me a sense of despair that their complaints end up in files. One student who made a complaint about disability discrimination suggested it “just gets shoved in the box.” Perhaps a file becomes a bin: to be filed as how something is discarded. I spoke to another student who decided not to proceed with a formal complaint about sexual harassment. She said she did not want her complaint to “become a note in his file.” Some complaints are not made because people do not want their experiences to be noted and that’s it, to be filed, and that’s it. If the file is the destination of many complaints, files might need to form     part of our explanation of why many complaints are not made. (2)

And: when a complaint is filed away or binned those who complain can end up feeling they too are filed away or binned. We need to remember that a complaint is a record of what happens to a person, they often come about because of difficult, painful, and traumatic experiences. Complaints are personal. Complaints are also institutional records; they are records of what happens in an institution. Complaints are institutional. The personal is institutional. To file a complaint can mean to become alienated from your own history, a history that can be difficult, painful and traumatic.

And yet complaints are filed. What would happen if we opened the files? What would come out? And by “opening the files” I am thinking not just of the files lodged in institutions but our own files, we might call them mental, I think they are material; the places we have deposited some of our most difficult experiences.

Opening the files could be thought of as enabling a conversation between complaints. Confidential files are usually kept apart. When we open them together what will we notice? A complaint could acquire a companion: perhaps these folders, files, and documents, will talk to each other. Perhaps they will have something to say to each other. In placing what is filed apart together we can assemble a shared history; we can listen for patterns and resonances. Of course even when we put them together they cannot be released. To research complaints requires that we maintain the confidentiality that surrounds them. We have to have the conversation as best we can; we have to show what complaints know whilst removing any traces that could identify sources.

Feminism is what is possible when those with a complaint speak to each other, learn from each other. It is a collective feminist task: opening files, pulling out documents, pulling out memories. What comes out is what the project is about.

1) I am expecting to do 5-10 more interviews. I have also collected a number of written testimonies.

2) Support will be a key concern in the project: I will ask how support can be provided and what we learn from the failure of support to be provided.

3)  I will address in due course why developing new complaint procedures is important but also why better procedures won’t necessarily get at the problem. What I have learnt thus far is that the work of containing a complaint is the same work as the work of reproducing culture. We have to understand the problem otherwise the solution will be the problem given new form.

 

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Diversity Work as Complaint

In my previous post I suggested that making a complaint can be a form of diversity work. You might have to complain in order to progress within an organisation. When a complaint is necessary in order for you to progress, a complaint can be an obstacle to your progression. I have spoken to many academics who have made complaints because they did not receive a promotion and who understood not being promoted as a result of structural impediments such as ableism, racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. A structure can be what slows you down.  And note that to make a formal complaint is to enter into a difficult and time-consuming project. You can be slowed down even more by having to address what slows you down (1).

A complaint is also diversity work in the sense that a complaint teaches you about an organisation; you learn about the culture of an organisation from how a complaint is treated especially if a complaint is about the culture of an organisation.

I think we can also reverse my formulation: diversity work as complaint. I have been using diversity work in two senses: the work we do to transform an institution and the work we do when we do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution. These two senses can meet in a body: those who do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution are often given the task of transforming these norms. A complaint is another way these senses of diversity work meet; it is what you are doing when you challenge the norms that govern institutional life either as an explicit task you have given yourself or by virtue of how you appear.

A complaint can be a catalogue of instances. You are sent a “calls for paper” in advance of it being circulated. It refers only to white men. This is not unusual; it is business as usual. You point it out as usual. You have to keep saying it because they keep doing it. A concerned response, yes, you are quite right, we will amend it. The “calls for paper” is then circulated. It still only refers to white men. You are at a meeting with staff and students. You are the only woman of colour professor at the meeting. This is not surprising: you are the only woman of colour professor in the department. And you are the only professor not referred to as professor. If you were to ask to be referred to as professor, you would be heard as being self-promotional, as insisting on your dues. You are giving a talk on whiteness. A white man is in the audience and responds, but you’re a Professor. You can hear the implications of this but, but look at you Professor Ahmed, see how far you have come. How easily we can become poster children for diversity, how easily we can be held  up as proof that women of colour are not held up. You are giving a talk on racism. A white woman comes up to you afterwards and puts her arm next to yours. We are almost the same colour, she says. You wouldn’t know you were any different from me, she says. It is as if talking about racism creates a difference that would not otherwise be there. I do not say anything. I have let my arm do the talking. You are invited to give a lecture at a university. The lecture is advertised as part of the university’s diversity programme. They do not advertise it as a research event, despite being asked to do so a number of times by the woman of colour who invited you. Diversity and research are treated as two different tracks, such that in doing diversity, or being diversity, you fall off, you might even be pushed off, the research track, the track that leads further up the organization, the track that eases and enables a progression.

These examples are more than a catalogue of instances. They are a catalogue of the university. They teach us how a university is built. We become diversity workers, when we try to dismantle the structures that are not built to accommodate us.  We also become complainers. Asking for women and people of colour to be added to a reference list or a syllabus is heard as complaint, using words like whiteness or racism is heard as complaint, asking to be referred to by the right title is heard not only as self-promotional but also as a complaint; indeed a complaint is often heard as self-promotional.

Complaint: a word can bring up a history. The word complaint derives from old French, complaindre, to lament, a lament, an expression of sorrow and grief, from Latin, lamentum, “wailing, moaning; weeping.” Wailing, moaning; weeping: as feminists of colour, we are often heard this way, whatever we say, however we say it; hysterical, killjoys, over-reacting, sensitive, easily hurt, angry, as if we do not get over it because we have not got over ourselves. A complaint can be how diversity work is registered whether or not a complaint is made. One time at a reception a white male professor (who was also a senior manager) came up to me and asked me rather crossly why I was always “going on” about being a feminist killjoy. He murmured something about there being lots of women in senior management at the college (he didn’t mention that all the senior management were white). The implication was: there was nothing to complain about; we should be happy and grateful for the support given to our own progression.

Summary: complaint as ingratitude.

In an earlier post, Feminist Complaint, which I wrote before I began my project on complaint, I noted how to be heard as complaining is not to be heard. Listening to those who have made complaints has allowed me to understand more about how complaints are heard. I am beginning to appreciate how hearing as such is a mechanism: how a complaint about an organisation is heard as how an organisation works. A complaint can be considered a technology of hearing. I want to pick up here up on four key terms from my earlier post on complaint as diversity work: firstly complaints are heard as negative, as whining or moaning about a state of affairs that you could just as easily accept. This is how a complaint is a killjoy genre: no wonder I am writing about complaints! Secondly (and relatedly) a complaint is heard as destructive even if those who make complaints understand themselves to be contributing to a conversation or to be involved in a shared process of culture change. We learn so much from this: any attempt to modify something is judged as trying to destroy something. A complaint might be teaching us about the investment in things staying the same or being as they are. Another crucial aspect of how complaints are heard is magnification: a complaint is heard as calling for more than is being called for. Once heard this way, a complaint can be dismissed as too extreme to be considered as part of a constructive process (2). A complaint can then be treated as self-referential, as being about the complainer. A complaint becomes the expression of a failure to be properly integrated into the culture of an institution.

How does considering complaint as a technology of hearing help us to make sense of the work of diversity work? Let’s take “decolonising the curriculum” as an example. Decolonising the curriculum usually involves staff and students in conversation with each other about what is being taught and what is not being taught. It involves trying to reflect on how histories of colonialism shape the syllabus by informing decisions about the syllabus. But when treated as complaint, decolonising the curriculum is understood as 1) a failure to appreciate history 2) an attempt to destroy what is of inherent or universal value 3) a will to bring to an end what or even who already exists 4) as coming from militant students (in particular from BAME students) who by complaining are demonstrating that they are not integrated properly and who are promoting themselves by imposing their own agenda upon others.

If this sounds familiar it is because it is familiar.

Take for example the coverage of the SOAS decolonising the curriculum project. The SOAS campaign is a good example of diversity work; of how questioning what is taught is about thinking about the history of an institution;  breathing life into that institution. A helpful post describing the campaign begins with the history of SOAS itself: “the School of Oriental Studies began as a colonial project in 1916 to deepen Europe’s understanding of the Global South. “Africa” was eventually added to the schools name in 1938. With the 100th year of SOAS coming up, it’s important to assess the colonial origins of the institution and look ahead to the ways in which the school is developing.” The post further describes: “One of the key aspects of this campaign is for us to examine the ways in which Western philosophy puts a specific conception of Man at the centre. This enables the myth of ‘universal truth’ as being a body of knowledge that has dictated the current colonial structure of the world we live in today.”

Oriental studies: one might think here of Edward Said’s Orientalism. For Said “the Orient is an integral part of European material civilisation and culture…a mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and styles” (1978: 2, emphasis Said’s). A university can be a supporting institution; where ideas circulate and are held. We can think of how that support can work as a referencing system; Orientalists who have the authority and expertise cite Orientalists. A citational chain is created. Just take the work of James Mill, a utilitarian philosopher. After he published his History of British India, he was offered a role in the East India Company (his son John Stuart Mill also had an administrative role in the company). How did Mill become an authority on India? He tells you himself: “A duly qualified man can obtain more knowledge of India in one year in his closet in England than he could obtain during the course of the longest life, by the use of his eyes and ears in India” ([1818] 1997, 4). Mill considers himself an authority on India because he had never been to India. He learns about India from other books written by Orientalist scholars; knowledge becomes a system of references in which the others are the objects, not subjects, spoken about, not spoken to. I think of that closet in England as a container technology; how empire is “at home” through the restriction of the circulation of knowledge about “the others.”

We acquire knowledge about knowledge from learning this history. We learn so much about utilitarian philosophy from the history of the East India Company, for instance. How is the project of decolonising the curriculum represented in wider public discourse? It is certainly not framed as learning more from more. Let’s take this article from The Telegraph. It describes the campaign as follows:  “students at a prestigious London university are demanding that figures such as Plato, Descartes and Immanuel Kant should be largely dropped from the curriculum because they are white.”  This framing is very useful: it demonstrates for us how hearing complaint works. The students asked for no such thing; they did not ask for any philosophers to be removed from the syllabus (let alone “because they were white”). They asked for more philosophy from outside the West to be included; and they asked for more discussion of the colonial contexts that shaped eighteenth and nineteenth century European philosophy.  Asking about, say, the role of racism in Enlightenment philosophy teaches us more not less about that philosophy.  When you don’t put racism in brackets (as if what Kant had to say about Africa had nothing to do with his universalism or his educational or moral philosophy), you learn more about philosophy as well as the world.

Decolonising the curriculum is a chance to learn more about a history that is not simply behind is. But that is not how the work of decolonising the curriculum is framed; it is framed as a willful attempt to damage what should be revered.  A complaint about a canon is framed as the failure to revere the canon. Indeed a complaint teaches us about what (and who) becomes an object of reverence.

We learn also: it can be made compulsory to revere something.  A complainer has to refuse this compulsion.

One academic I interviewed described what she called “a culture of not complaining” in her former university. This might not sound much like academic culture: surely academics complain rather a lot? Maybe they complain about somethings but not others. Maybe you are allowed to complain about the weather or even bad management; a complaint can then become a bond; when a grievance can be shared it is allowed to be expressed. Maybe complaining is permitted when it creates a sense of sharing something, however negative. But what if you want to complain about what is being shared? This academic explained the “culture of not complaining” as being a result of what she called “a legacy project.” She spoke of how her colleagues described the institution’s history as what you would come to respect if you were there long enough.  The would-be-complainer is positioned as a kind of newbie: a complaint is implied to be a result of someone not having been in an organisation long enough to appreciate its history. A complaint becomes a symptom of impatience: as if with patience you would have eventually come to revere that which you question.

Speaking of questions: even asking a question about the value of something can be heard as attempting to destroy its value, like chipping away at a statue, or as being a result of what you have failed to appreciate. Questions can be heard as complaints when there is so much you are not supposed to question. This is how students who question what they are being taught are heard as being destructive, as if questioning is itself a form of impertinance.

The history of empire too is a kind of legacy project. So often empire is evoked today as a moral project just as it was during the period of imperial expansion; empire as a gift, as bringing others into modernity, as bringing law and order and railways, not a history of violence and conquest, of the appropriation of labour, that is, of people; and of land and resources. Even to speak of empire in less than glowing terms is deemed to compromise a legacy. In my book, The Promise of Happiness (2010) I considered the figure of the melancholic migrant as the one who is deemed to compromise the nation because of the failure to let go of memories of racism, as if memories of racism (rather than racism itself) are what stops participation in the national game. A complaint is framed not only as a result of the failure to be integrated but as being what would prevent a future integration; a complaint as what you must give up to get on or to get along.

Those who try to offer another kind of account of the history of empire are discredited. To be less than positive about the legacy of European imperialism is to be heard as being negative. Negation becomes property; as if complainers are being negative because they have a negative being. We are back to how complaint is judged as self-expression and thus as self-promotion.  When we ask for more people of colour to be added to a syllabus, we are often heard as talking about ourselves, as if we are only concerned with being missing ourselves, or with being added ourselves. Identity politics is used whenever those deemed strangers, as not belonging, question how worlds are constructed whether what is questioned is a building, a syllabus, a meeting, or a programme.

And if a critique is heard as being about those who make the critique, the object being critiqued disappears. Or a critique is heard as a willful act of trying to destroy that object. You just have to say that a canon might not be the simply expression of quality or worth, and they hear relativism as if you are going to teach Shakespeare alongside a cereal packet (how could you do that to Shakespeare!). You might ask for more philosophies from outside the West to be taught on the syllabus, and they hear you as calling for the removal of white philosophers; they make use of white as an adjective as if it attaches simply to who. You can hear how being heard as making a complaint matters: to hear a complaint is to hear somebody as trying to destroy something, complaint as vandalism, but also trying to bring an end to somebody, as censoring who, as leading to less of who. In fact students are asking for more not less; more context to what is taught, more to be taught than the narrowness of the world as seen from a viewing point, a point that disappears as point by being treated as universal.

We need to make explicit what is at stake here: when decolonising the curriculum is treated as vandalism, those who call for decolonising the curriculum are treated as vandals, and they are singled out and targeted and disciplined as such (3). How diversity work is heard as complaint is really about this: the disciplining of those deemed complainers, the attempt to make them pay for having complained at all.

And so: a complaint also becomes about the cost of making a complaint.

I want to return in conclusion to what we learn from Said. To study Orientalism is to study not only how others are viewed but the power relations at stake in the production of that view. At one point Said does share the stakes of his study. He notes: “Much of the personal investment in this study derives from my awareness of being an “Oriental” as a child growing up in two British colonies. All of my education, in those colonies (Palestine and Egypt) and in the United States, has been Western, and yet that deep early awareness has persisted. In many ways my study of 0rientalism has been an attempt to inventory the traces upon me, the Oriental subject, of the culture whose domination has been so powerful a factor in the life of all Orientals” (1978, 25, emphasis added). To inventory the traces is to register how domination works; how domination impresses upon those who, as subjects, have been rendered objects.

When the objects dare to speak?

How are they heard?

As complaint; as complainers; as complaining.

(1) I will be addressing complaint in relation to promotion in due course. I have gathered some rather extraordinary testimonies that have deepened my understanding of how power works through relative speed: how some are enabled to progress more quickly; how others are slowed down.

(2) Please note that I am not assuming that what is heard as extreme (or as more extreme than it is) is extreme. Such judgements are often dependent upon the norms that complaints are challenging. Also note the implication of my argument for an understanding of censorship. A position or viewpoint can be censored – can cease to be expressible in certain forum – by how it is heard. Indeed censorship can happen by identifying a viewpoint as censoring as we can witness in how decolonising the curriculum is framed as an attempt to censor – to stop philosophers from being taught – even when no one involved in the campaign articulated such a view.  Following complaints is teaching me the mechanics of how the most dominant can represent themselves as the most censored.

(3) We can witness how the framing of decolonising the curriculum as vandalism involved the singling out and targeting of BAME student activists in the more recent media reports of decolonising the curriculum at Cambridge. Listen to Lola Olufemi for her powerful reflections on these techniques, and also for how she relates the task of decolonising the curriculum to the work of feminist killjoys.

 

References

Mill, James [1818] (1997). History of British India, London: Routledge.

Said, Edward (1978). Orientalism. London: Routledge.

 

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Complaint as Diversity Work

I am listening to those who have made complaints (1).  I am learning about institutions. Indeed what is striking is just how much my study of complaint follows on from my earlier study of diversity work.

I want to make being stricken an opportunity for thought.

How and why would complaint bring me back to the data I collected on diversity work?

In the introduction to On Being Included (2012) I reflected on my experience of conducting interviews with diversity practitioners. In the UK, diversity practitioners are typically housed in human resources departments; though some universities do have separate units for equality and diversity. Diversity workers often have to speak in the language of their employment; diversity as human resource. I noted how most of my interviews started with that language; happy talk of diversity as what the university is doing even being. But over the course of the interview, the happier languages wore out, and a quite different picture of the institution came into view.

I am still learning from the time it took for what was wearing to be shared.

Being a diversity practitioner means you are in effect appointed by an employer to transform the employer. It is a difficult position. One practitioner described the job as a “banging your head against the brick wall job.” Even if you are appointed by an institution to transform the institution, it does not mean the institution is willing to be transformed. In fact, many practitioners encounter resistance to their work; diversity is work because of that resistance. You have to find ways to get through because you are blocked. This is why I called diversity workers institutional plumbers; they have to work out where the blockage is or what stops something (for example a new policy) from moving through the system.

A wall is what you come up against because of what you are trying to do. The data I collected was thus full of walls; although it was not until after I completed the research that I noticed them.

Starting with complaint is starting from a different point. I have noted that a complaint is not a starting point, but it is how my conversations start. So the interviews are not about the happy languages wearing out. They are full of what is wearing right from the beginning.

Stories of complaint are often stories about the exhaustion of a process. Indeed, “exhausted” is even referenced in policies: “After the internal University processes have been exhausted, complainants have the opportunity to have their complaint independently reviewed by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA).” When the processes have been exhausted a person probably has been too. One interviewee described her complaint as an “energy zapper.”

I noted in earlier posts how a complaint about harassment can lead to more harassment. The more you complain about bullying the more you are bullied. Much of the behaviour that surrounds a complaint is not supposed to happen; it is not the official procedure. Many institutions have what I would call complaint pride, which is rather like diversity pride: about how an organisation would like to appear. Complaint pride takes the form of statements about wanting to learn from complaints; complaint pride is expressed as being willing to listen. I wonder if a fantasy of an open ear might operate in a similar way to a fantasy of an open door, as if anyone can get in when in fact they cannot.

The gap between what is supposed to happen and what does happen is densely populated. Diversity workers inhabit that gap. A complaint inhabits that gap too, which is to say, those who make complaints know all about what is not supposed to happen.

If a complaint is a record of what is wearing, it does not mean that in making a complaint someone is already worn down. Sometimes you might complain because you are tired of putting up with something that you do not think should be happening at all. Or you might make a complaint because you have a sense of optimism about how things could happen differently. One student talked of how she participated in a group complaint because she wanted to be part of a constructive process. She describes how they wanted “a positive outcome for the community.” She noted: “I think there’s this assumption that when you put in a complaint in an academic setting everyone is very convivial.” An experience can be what leads you to give up an assumption. An academic spoke of how she made a complaint because she was enthusiastic about her new job; because she had a sense of what she could do by bringing a problem to attention. She described herself as “bright eyed and bushy tailed,”  at that point, before things started to unravel. Even if you think of a complaint as constructive, it does not mean a complaint is received that way. In fact my research thus far has shown that complaints tend to be treated as destructive. A complaint biography often involves the experience of the costs of how you are treated.

Another academic described to me how she participated in a complaint because she “wanted to help” the institution deal with a problem that had already been recognised because there had been other cases in which the problem came up. But the complaint was still treated as a problem; just as it had in the other cases. This is important because the organisation had developed new procedures as a result of earlier cases. The conduct surrounding the complaint had not been changed by a change to the procedure (2). A wall can be a matter of conduct. Conduct refers not simply to behavior; conduct derives from “leading.” Conduct is how a group is directed.

A complaint teaches about institutional direction because a complaint is often treated as misdirection by the institution. Another way of saying this: to locate a problem is to become the location of a problem. Diversity work: becoming the location of a problem. The accounts of becoming the problem in this study are descriptions of institutional violence. One person spoke of how “the viciousness started to kick in.” The institutional response to complaint is to treat the complaint not necessarily as malicious (although many complaint policies do in fact include warnings about malicious complaints) but as being motivated in some problematic way: as if the complainer has some other agenda such as a desire to target others or to damage the university or to elevate themselves. Simply put: the efforts to stop a complaint include attempts to discredit the complainer. Indeed many of those I have spoken to have spoken of how they became the complained about; a complaint can be redirected to the complainer; as if she says something is wrong because something is wrong with her (3).

The figure of the complainer has an institutional life. This figure circulates in advance of a complaint. In fact many warnings about complaint evoke the risk of becoming the complainer. As Leila Whitley and Tiffany Page have noted, “When a woman files an objection to sexual harassment she becomes in the language of the institution a woman who complains, and by extension a complainer” (2015, 43). This extension can be costly: to become a complainer is to be slowed down.  Or at least that is how complaints are framed: as a slowing down. The frame has uses. Warnings about the costs of making a complaint cam function as attempts to stop a complaint from being made. As one interviewee describes “at every stage it was about stopping the complaint from going any further.”

No wonder I was reminded of my earlier project on diversity work: walls come up because of what you are trying to do.  The organisation might appear to be warm and inclusive. Making a complaint often means coming to know just how much that inclusion is a fantasy.

A complaint: things are not as they appear.

I have also been learning how organisations will do what they can to cover over a complaint often by using reports and techniques that appear to be about redressing the situation (4). For example a department commissioned a review after an enquiry, which had been initiated by multiple complaints about harassment. The review presented the department as a warm and inclusive environment. The person who wrote this review did not talk to the students who made the complaints. You can preserve a fantasy of the department as inclusive by not included those who would challenge that fantasy.

Maintaining a view of the institution as inclusive might mean not including those who do not share this view.

Erased from memory, a complaint can become like an unused path; it is harder to follow, becoming faint, becoming fainter, until it disappears. You can hardly see the sign for the trees. A complaint can be covered by new growth; new policies; new statements of commitment; action plans, reports.

Unused Path

I have more stories to collect; more paths to follow, however faint.

And: writing about complaint now feels right. More and more complaints about sexual harassment and sexual violence are coming out.  We know that the suppression of complaints is an effect of work, concerted and combined work by multiple parties. When the suppression fails, a complaint gets out; an invitation is made too, to others to share their complaints, too. That invitation can be pressure: it can hard to get it out; to speak out; not all of us can do it. I write this post in dedication to those who have experiences they would complain about but cannot complain because of their experiences.

And as you would expect, when complaints come out, the techniques for dismissing complaints become routine; talk of a “sexual inquisition”; critiques of moral panics and puritanical feminists; attempts to discredit those who complain; as if this about fashion or revenge or fragility or hurt.

You have to persist with it: a complaint requires dealing with the consequences of complaint.

Feminism: living with consequences.

A complaint: when a collective is necessary to bring something about.

Complaint as diversity work: what we have to do to dismantle the structures that do not accommodate us.

We are with you; we hear you.

Feminism is about giving a complaint somewhere to go.

Who knows what else will spill out when we do not keep a lid on it.

(1) So far I have completed 10 interviews and have collected 9 written statements. I have also had many informal conversations about complaint that are informing my work.

(2) I am not suggesting that changing procedures does not matter, but rather that a change to procedure has to involve a conversation about why the procedure needs to be changed that involves all staff and students; it needs to be understand as part of a culture change rather than as culture change.  Non-performativity helps me to describe how a procedure can be changed in order not to bring something else about. What is required is much harder work than a change to procedure.

(3) See note 1 on the misuse of complaint from my post, Cutting Yourself Off. If a person of colour makes a complaint because of racism, a person of colour can be complained about because of racism. My aim will be to address this complexity whilst recognizing that complexity can be misused (I called this “the misuse of the misuse of complaint”) as another way of discrediting those who make complaints because of an abuse of power (as if their complaint masks a will to power).

(4) In On Being Included (2012) I explored how techniques to redress racism – such as race equality policies – can be used as techniques for concealing racism. We learn from this: techniques used to redress inequalities can be used by those who benefit from inequalities.

 

References

Whitley, Leila and Tiffany Page (2015). “Sexism at the Centre: Locating the Problem of Sexual Harrassment,” New Formations. 86: 34-53.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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