Complaint Collectives

Killjoys and complainers,

I have been away from my blog for such a long time! I wasn’t expecting to be away from it for so long, but such are the times. I have been working on my book Complaint! Today, I am sending a draft to my publisher. It is just a small step but the book is making its way slowly into the world.

What a privilege it has been to work on complaint! I am so grateful to everyone who has shared their stories with me. It has been so very helpful to have this book project to focus on during these times, to keep my bearings by listening and working through these stories.

I am going to take a break and then I will be back. In the meantime, I am sharing a few paragraphs from the conclusion.

As this book is so much about the sound of complaint, I also spoke these words for you.

In killjoy solidarity,

Sara xx



In this book I have assembled a complaint collective. This book is a complaint collective. My task in conclusion is to reflect on how complaint collectives work; how we assemble ourselves. I have collected together different people’s experiences of complaint sharing with you, some of you, I expect, are complainers too, as much as I can of what has shared with me. A collective is a collection of stories, of experiences but also more than that, more than a collection.

I think of the first time I presented this material.[1] I was standing on a stage, and the lights were out. I could hear an audience, the sounds, the groans, sometimes laughter, but I could not see anyone. The words: they were so heavy. I was conscious of the weight of them; the pain in them. And as I read the words that had been shared with me, knowing the words were also behind me, lit up as text, I had a strong sense, a shivering feeling, of the person who shared those words saying them to me, of you as you said them, of you being there to say them. I felt you there, all of you, because you were there, helping me withstand the pressure I felt under to do the best I could do, to share the words so they could be picked up, heard by others who might have been there too; that painful place, that difficult place; complaint can be a place; so your words could do something; so your words could go somewhere. And each time I presented this work, the feeling has been the same, of you being there with me. Maybe to keep doing it, to keep saying it, that is what I needed, for you to be there with me. A complaint collective can be a feeling we have of being there for each other, with each other, because of what we have been through. We recognise each other from what we have been through; we even know each other. It can be hard to convey in writing how much that feeling matters.

A collective can be a support system, what we need, who we need, to keep a complaint going. Over the past years friends as well as strangers have expressed concern, worry even, for my welfare, because of my choice to stay close to scenes of institutional violence, the same scenes that led me to leave my post and a profession that I had loved. I too questioned myself about this: why stay so proximate to what has been so hard, and yes, so painful?  Pain can have clarity. It is clear to me that I have, and how I have, been supported by doing this work. It has helped me come to terms with happened, to pick up the pieces of a shattered academic career, yes I do understand that career to have ended as a direct result of my participation in a complaint; to make and to understand the connections between what happened to me and what happened to others. And that the research has supported me has also taught me; if a complaint collective is what I have assembled, a complaint collective is how I have learnt. Learnt is one of the most used words in this book for a reason.

In sharing your words, more words have been shared with me; so many people have come up to me after lectures and seminars telling me stories of complaint. A collective: we combine; how we combine. That combination can be a matter of hearing. I listened to each account and I listened again, transcribing, reflecting, thinking; feeling. And in listening to you, becoming a feminist ear as I described in my introduction, I also put my ear to the doors of the institution, there are many reasons doors keep coming up as I explained in part 3, listening out for what is usually kept inaudible, who is made inaudible, hearing about conversations that mostly happen behind closed doors. I was able to hear the sound of institutional machinery that clunk; clunk, from those who have tried to stop the machine from working, from those who came to understand how it works; for whom it works. When I think of the collective assembled here, I think institutional wisdom. I think of how much we come to know by combining our forces, our energies. I think of how much we come to know because of the difficulties we had getting through.

The difficulties we had getting through: we have been hearing how complaint means committing yourself, your time, your energy, your being, to a course of action that often leads you away from the work you want to do even if you complain in order to do the work you want to do (as many do). Trying to address an institutional problem often means inhabiting the institution all the more. Inhabitance can involve re-entry: you re-enter the institution through the back door; you find out about doors, secret doors, trapdoors: how you can be shut in; how you can be shut out. You learn about processes, procedures, policies, you point out what they fail to do, pointing to, pointing out; you fill in more and more forms; forms become norms; files become futures; filing cabinets become graves.

Filing Cabinet

So many complaints end up there: filed. When complaints are filed, they are buried. When complaints are buried, those who complain can end up feeling that they too have been buried.

Sometimes we bury our own complaints, trying not to remember what was hardest to handle. Or we might bury a complaint because it is exhausting to keep making it. A postgraduate student told me how when she started the process of making a complaint, other people kept expressing concern. She described how that concern can “rob you of your own complexity. It reduces you to one story, one narrative, and a victim one at that.” When you have to keep telling the story of a complaint, it can end up feeling like another way of being dominated. A story about what happened to you can end up being a story about what somebody else did. She added “it was almost like, I got muted out. I got removed from my own story as it became his story or their story about him.”

Sometimes in order not to be removed from our stories we bury them.

A burial of a story can be necessary.  A burial is an important part of the story. To tell the story of a burial is to unbury a story. I could only write this book, pull it together, because complaints did not stay buried. I think of this book as an unburial and I think again of the arm that is still rising in the Grimm story, The Willful Child. In this book I have tried to catch complaints at that moment of suspension; a complaint as an arm still rising, still coming out of the ground; not yet done, not yet beaten. To tell the story of a complaint is how the complaint comes out from where it has been buried. The sound of the book is not just the sound of institutional machinery, that clunk; clunk, but the sound of the effort of coming up, of what we bring when we bring something up; who too, who we bring up. The physical effort, you can hear it, the wear and the tear, the groans, the moans. One academic said she could hear herself moaning when she was telling me about the different complaints she had made at different times. She said, “I am moaning now, I can feel that whining in my voice [makes whining sound].” I said, “we have plenty to moan about.” We can hear it in our own voices; we can hear it in each other’s voices. We can hear it because we feel it; the sound of how hard we have had to push; how hard we keep having to push. I think of that push as collective, a complaint collective.

I am aware that if these stories have been hard to share, to share an experience that is hard is hard, that this book might have been hard to read, hard on you, readers. I know some of you will have picked up this book because of experiences you have had that are hard, experiences that led you to complain, experiences of complaint. You might have had moments of recognition, painful and profound, as I did when I listened to these testimonies.  It can help to share something painful, although not always and not only. One academic said to me at the end of our dialogue, “It’s really helpful talking to you. It reminds me that I am not alone.” It was helpful for me to talk to you too. A complaint collective: how we remind ourselves we are not alone. We need reminders.

My hope is that this book can be a reminder: we are not alone. We sound louder when we are heard together; we are louder. In this conclusion, I reflect on the significance of how complaints can lead you to find out about other complaints (and thus to find others who complained). Complaint offers a fresh lens, which is also an old and weathered lens, on collectivity itself.

[i] I am referring here to the lecture, “On Complaint” presented at the Wheeler Centre, Melbourne, on October 28, 2018. I had presented material from the project before, but this was the first time I presented a lecture based entirely on the testimonies I had collected. Previously I had shared the material with the scaffolding drawn from my project on the uses of use (Ahmed, 2019). It made a difference to present complaint as complaint: without the scaffolding, I felt much more exposed.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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