Complaint as Testimony

Today I sent Complaint! to my publishers! It has been an intense experience, getting this book ready to send out into the world. Earlier this year I shared the opening paragraphs from my conclusion, Complaint Collectives. I noted in that opening how much I have been helped by doing this research, how listening to other people’s experiences of complaint has helped me to come to terms with my own experiences. I cannot separate, I would not separate, how I have been affected by this work from what I have learned from doing it.

As I was getting the book ready to send off, to send away, and this is true both this time and the first time when I sent in a draft, I have felt the weight of the work, of it, in it, much more heavily. Sometimes it is only when something begins to leave us or when we begin to leave a situation that we really experience it. I noted this once about whiteness, the point was really about tiredness, how you come to realise how tiring it is, all that whiteness, when you leave that “sea of whiteness” that is so much of British academia. Yes, it can be a relief! A relief can make you realise the costs of being in something.  I think I have felt the weight of this work, sad, heavy, as it is leaving me and before it can get to you. Of course, these are difficult times, times of immense loss, for so many. When the situation is sad, be sad. A feeling can embody a truth. We can feel the truth in our bones.

I know who I am writing for. I am writing for those who feel the truth in their bones. I am writing for those who have been in that place, that difficult place, complaint can be a place; I am writing to those for whom complaints of this kind, complaints about abuses of power, complaints about institutional violences, are companions. I am not writing to try and convince somebody else of something else. The expression “preaching to the converted” misses so much as it implies, well I hear this implication, that there is no point in speaking to those who “get it” and that the task of communication is to persuade others who do not “get it” to “get it.” If you don’t “get it,” the truth of these stories, in them, this book won’t be for you. I am not interested in the task of persuasion or conversion. There are so many points in speaking to those who do not need to be convinced by a story we are telling. We need to share our truths, magnify them, recognize them, be there with them. I need this book to be there with them, to be with you.

Thank you again, everyone who shared their stories of complaint with me. Thank you again, our complaint collective for all you pulled out and how you helped me pull through.

To mark the moment, I am sharing a section, “Complaint as Testimony” from the introduction.

Yours in killjoy solidarity,

Sara x

Complaint as Testimony

How we hear stories of complaint matters. How to describe what I was hearing? When I first imagined the project, I thought I would conduct semi-structured interviews using similar sorts of questions that I had prepared for my earlier study of diversity. I remember arriving for my first interview with the first person who had contacted me. I had my prepared questions typed out neatly. This was an in-person interview and I was conducted at the university where she was now based. I realised very quickly, in the first minutes of that first interview to be exact, that the questions I had prepared were not going to work. Complaints tend to be too messy even for a loose series of questions.  From the second interview onward, I asked people just one opening and very general question: I asked people to share the experiences that led them to consider making a complaint as well as their experiences of making a complaint if that is what they went on to make. I wanted the stories to come out, fall out, in whatever order they came out. We then had time for a dialogue, a to-and-fro that was possible because I too had an experience of complaint.

Over time I came to think of the spoken words less as an interview and more as testimony. A testimony can refer to an oral or written statement given in a court of law. The purpose of a testimony in such a setting is to provide evidence; testimony is used to establish what happened; the facts of the matter or the truth. Testimony is also what is required to identify an injustice, a harm or a wrong. Shoshana Felman describes “the process of testimony” as “bearing witness to a crisis or trauma” (1992, 3). The accounts given to me had the mood of testimony, solemn statements about a crisis or trauma.  Making a complaint is often necessary because of a crisis or trauma. The complaint often becomes part of the crisis or trauma.  A complaint testimonial can teach us the non- exteriority of complaint to its object.  In making a complaint you have already been called upon to testify, to give evidence.  To testify to a complaint is to testify to testimony, or to what Shoshana Felman calls “the process of testimony.” To testify to complaint is a double testimony.  You are testifying to an experience of testifying although you are also testifying to more than that experience.

Testimony was thus in the accounts as well as being how they took form.  And what has been so important to the process of receiving these statements as testimony is receiving them together. To hear these accounts as testimony is to hear how they combine to allow us to bear witness to an experience, to show what they reveal, to bring out what is usually hidden given how complaints are made confidential.  I too was called upon to bear witness. And that I was called upon to bear witness is to point to the many ethical dilemmas of conducting research on complaint. To testify to a complaint, to what happened that led you to complain, to what happened when you complained, is almost always to testify to a traumatic experience. I was never not conscious of this. I was aware throughout that enabling people to share painful experiences was risky and complicated. How would it affect the person testifying, where would sharing the story leave them? How would it affect me given my own experience of complaint was so entangled with the trauma of having had to leave my post? And, what responsibility did I have to those who shared an experience of complaint not only as a researcher but as a fellow human being?  Ethics requires keeping the question of ethics alive.

Most of the people I spoke to were speaking about past experiences. To speak about a past trauma can be to make that trauma present.  One post-doctoral researcher began her testimony by saying, “what I remember is how it felt.” A memory can be of a feeling; a memory can be a feeling. In remembering, we make the past present; we make present. The past can enter the room in and with that feeling. I had, I have, an immense responsibility in creating a time and space that felt as safe as possible for each person I spoke to. It did not always feel right; I did not always get it right. An effort can be what matters and that effort was shared. I think of the dialogues that followed each testimony as how we shared that effort by sharing reflections on what it does, how it feels, to go through complaint.  Going through complaint can heighten your sense of responsibility as it can heighten your sense of fragility, you are aware of hard it can be, also how important it can be, what is hard is close to what is important, to share such shattering experiences.

Being shattered is not always a place from which we can speak. I did not talk to everyone who asked to talk to me. In some instances, people asked to talk to me in the middle of a complaint process. Mostly I explained why this would not be a good idea and offered to be in touch more informally instead. In one case I decided not to receive a testimony from someone who wanted to speak to me because I felt she needed the kind of support I was not in a position to give. I was conscious of what I could not provide, therapy or practical guidance. It was clear to me the limits of what I could do.  I was an ear. That was my task. That was the point, to receive.  But, of course, even if reception was the point, it was not the end point. I was being called upon not only to receive stories but to share them. It was very important, then, that if complaints were given to me that I send them back out in a different form than the form in which they were given but in a way that was true to how they were given. I did not want people to share their complaints with me only for me to sit on them. I did not want to become a filing cabinet. We have too many of them already.

Testimonies were given to me, so that I could pass them on to you, readers, audiences, complainers. I had to find a way to pass them on in confidence. So much of the material I share in this book is confidential – many of those with whom I have communicated would fear the consequences for their lives and careers if they were recognizable from the data, whether or not they signed confidentiality or non-disclosure agreements. This book offers fragments from many different testimonies.  A fragment is a sharp piece of something.  Each quote is a sharp piece of illumination. A complaint can be shattering, like a broken jug, we can be left in pieces. In the book I pick up these pieces not to create the illusion of some unbroken thing but so that we can learn from the sharpness of each piece, how they fit together.

A fragment of a story, a fragment as a story. How do we tell such stories? So many of those I spoke to spoke about what it meant to share the story. It can be hard to know where to begin. It can be hard to know where to begin a story of complaint because it is hard to know when a complaint begins. Let me share the opening words from a testimony offered by senior researcher who made a complaint about bullying and harassment:

It is always so complex and so difficult and so upsetting still; even just knowing where to start is. And it’s funny even just starting, I can feel emotion coming out, and all I want to do is I want to start crying. And I am also going to have to present a good front, professional and corrected, and know I just can’t let it affect me, and I am going to have to talk about this as something that is detached. And I think why I am putting so much effort into presenting something that is so much part of me.

Emotion comes out in telling the story; emotion makes it hard to tell the story. You make an effort to present something because it has become part of you, because it matters to you, to what you can do, who you can be, but how it matters makes it hard to present.

How do you pull yourself together to share an experience if an experience is of breaking apart? You talk about why you need to pull yourself together; you talk about how you pull yourself together. There are moments still, of falling apart, when something gets under your skin. She describes receiving the results of an independent investigation:

The conclusion of their report was that I participated actively in the conflict and that I monopolised the work. This word monopolised: I had so much rage and anger. Not only did they abandon me, but they made it my fault for monopolizing the work. And this is it: this thing I have it inside me in my head all the time: I monopolised, monopolised, monopolised. The word stops me from doing anything, from writing something, writing a text, writing an article. What am I doing: am I monopolising things again; how dare I even enjoy what I do now, who do I think I am, I am nothing, I am worthless my work might be good but I am not, and I have completely internalised this in a way that is very, very; very damaging.

How we feel in a situation can be how we learn about a situation. We learn from what gets under our skin. The word “monopolised” gets under her skin; when it sticks to her, she becomes stuck, unable to write, to do her work. Words carry a charge; you can end up being made to feel that you are the problem; that the problem is you.

Words can chip at your sense of self, of your own worth. Words can carry the weight of injustices; they can transmit a history. To internalise such a history can be damaging, “very, very, damaging.” The words we use to tell the story of complaint can be the same words that get under our skin, words like “monopolized.” A black feminist student told me that the word that got to her was “unreasonable.” There were many words that could have stuck; she was conscious they perceived her as an angry black woman, but it was that word that got under her skin, leading her to question herself: “I am constantly questioning am I being unreasonable?” Even if the word does not fit, it can make you question whether you fit. We can share the experience of words getting under our skin, even if the words that do that or go there are different words. An indigenous academic who described the racism she encountered from white settler colleagues described a word used by the chair of her department:

 My chair constantly uses this word, in many things that she speaks about but in particular in my annual review and other meetings, she uses this word, often, inappropriate, her qualifier, at my interactions. It causes me to put this big lens upon myself, how I am in inappropriate, what does that mean, what does she see, how is that being defined?

You can hear how you are being heard in the repetition of the word, inappropriate. And that hearing can be a lens on how you view yourself, you can feel inappropriate, or ask yourself am I being inappropriate or you can ask what does it mean to be so; how is she defining it, how is she defining you. In listening to those who make complaints, I am listening to how different words can get under our skin:  monopolized; unreasonable; inappropriate.

To acquire a feminist ear is to become attuned to the sharpness of such words; how they point, to whom they point. To be heard as complaining is often to become attuned to sound, to how we sound, how we are heard as sounding, to how words sound, stories too. Many of those I spoke to conveyed to me a concern about how long they were taking to tell the story; I knew this because of how often people apologised for the length of the time they were taking. I kept saying, take your time; take the time you need to tell me what you need to tell me. Many of those I spoke to told me that they had to keep abbreviating, to keep shortening the story, because the story was always going to require more time than we could take given how much time it would take to tell the story. One person used the expression “to cut a long story short,” seven times in her account; there is much cutting, so much shortening, so much consciousness of length, of time, energy too.

Another person described how she went through multiple complaints by going through them with me. You make or have multiple complaints if you encounter multiple situations you need to complain about. But even if you know this, that the multiplicity is a measure of what you come up against, you can be conscious about how it sounds; how you sound:

I’d changed quite a lot between the first time and this time. I know I sound like the people who had fifteenth car crashes, then this happened then this happened. It gets to the point, I have never told this story before, like the whole story, because I know I sound like that person and I don’t trust the space to sound like that person.

The whole story can be a story of crashing through. There is crashing in the story, waves after waves that I can hear, that transmit something, something difficult, painful; traumatic. We might need a space to tell that story, the whole story, the story of a complaint, a space that is safe because we know how it can sound, how we can sound; you can feel that you are the car crash, a complaint as how you are crashing through life. The word complaint too can sound like a crash, a collision, the loud sound of something breaking into pieces. The word complaint derives from old French, complaindre, to lament, an expression of sorrow and grief. Lament is from Latin, lamentum, “wailing, moaning; weeping.” Complaint seems to catch how those who challenge power become sites of negation: to complain as to become a container of negative affect, a leaky container, speaking out as spilling over. We can hear something because of its intensity. The exclamation point in the title of Complaint! is a way of showing what I am hearing, how a complaint is heard as intensity, an emphasis, a sharp point, a sore point, a raising of the voice, a shrieking, a shattering.

Negation is quite a sensation. The word complaint shares the same root as the word plague, to strike, to lament by beating the breast. Complaint can be sick speech. A body can be what is stricken. If in the book I approach the communications shared with me, oral and written, as testimonies, I also approach complaint as testimony in other ways, complaint as how we give expression to something. If a body can express a complaint, a body can be a complaint testimony. The word express comes from press; to express as to press out. I learn from the sense evolution of the word expression. It came to mean to put into words or to speak one’s mind via the intermediary sense of how clay “under pressure takes the form of an image.” Expression can be the shape something takes in being pressed out. My approach to the material collected in this book is to attend to its shape, to listen to what is pressed out, what spills, what seeps, what weeps. In Complaint! I hear spillage as speech.

If attending to spillage can be a method, spillage can be a connection between works. I think of Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugivity, her ode to the work and wisdom of Hortense Spillers. Gumbs attends to Spillers’ words with love and care, to what spills, to words that spill, to liquid that spills out from a container, to being somebody who spills things. Spillage can be a breaking, of a container, a narrative, a turning of phrases so that “doors opened and everyone came through” (2016, x1). Spillage can be, then, the slow labour of getting out of something. A story too can be what spills, which is to say, a story can be the work of getting out of something or of getting a story out.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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6 Responses to Complaint as Testimony

  1. Yifat Moon says:

    You are so brave Sara, there is so much to learn from you. Those of us who encountered abuse of power can tell that justice is only there for the powerful, not for the powerless.

  2. Helen Colley says:

    Wonderful work, testimony and testament are so vital for the many being forced to complain – this book will do so much good (though it would never qualify for “impact” in REF terms!). When you talk about fragments and putting them back together, it makes me think of that Japanese traction. When repairing a broken or, for example, the crack is lined with gold, to make it visible and beautiful as part of the history of the artefact, rather than an ugly scar. In putting fragments of complaint together in this book, your perform a similar act – that both makes the cracks/complaints visible, but also makes them useful, strong, powerful, valid. Thank you.

  3. Pingback: A Mess as a Queer Map | feministkilljoys

  4. A fellow complainer says:

    Thank you so much Sara for so many things. I’ve been admiring your work and influenced by your work for ages but this latest work is the most powerful one. It helps me to go through this very difficult period of time as a complainer. The word getting to me is “biased” as I am not complaining for something I experienced personally, rather I chose to complain together with a co-worker at my institution. I chose to help her to make her voices heard, and she has complaint as well but instead got punished. I questioned myself whether I was indeed biased, as after all what I stand on is based on what she told me. Listening to your lecture on complaint and reading your words resonate with all the frustrations, anger and pains I sensed during this time I tried to stand together with her. I want to share your words with every single person in the world and make them listen and see. But I know only those who choose to listen and believe will be affected. Still I’m grateful for what you do for all of us.

    • Thank you so much fellow complainer for your kind words. It is important to me that the words – words that come out of the experiences of many – can reach people and that they resonate and help.

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