Complaint as Feminist Pedagogy

In the last months, I have been presenting my research on complaint in the form of three different (but connected) lectures: “Knocking on the Door: Complaints and Other Stories about Institutions,”Complaint, Diversity and Other Hostile Environments” (also here) and “Complaint as Feminist Pedagogy.” I am taking a break from giving public lectures until 2022. Complaint! comes out in September of this year (you can now read the introduction on line). Later this year, I hope to do some informal launch events for the book focusing primarily on discussions with students and academics involved in activist projects at universities. I am including below the text of my lecture, “Complaint as Feminist Pedagogy,” which was the last lecture I gave this year.  This is the unedited version (without references), written as spoken.

In killjoy solidarity to those complaining for a more just world

Sara xx

“Complaint as Feminist Pedagogy,” Lecture presented by Sara Ahmed, May 31st, 2021,  Permanent Ordinary Seminar, Bilbao.

I have been listening to stories of making complaints at universities. Let me start with a story.

I am talking to a postgraduate student about her experience of trying to make a complaint about gender-based based harassment and bullying. She had started the process by communicating her intent to complain to the chair of her department.  From him, she received a warning articulated obliquely as an expression of concern for her career: “his response was essentially, ‘well we are just thinking about your career, how will this affect you in the future.” She begins to feel a shift, the withdrawal of support: just by saying I want to file a complaint, I sense that I am being treated differently.”  She wasn’t sure whether to go through with the complaint because of what she was being told: that to complain would be to compromise her position, her career. Complaints are often treated as sticky data: if they stick to you, you fear, you are taught to fear, you will end up stuck.

Toward the end of her story, she told me about another student who had made a complaint before her: “There was a woman who had filed a complaint and she was outcast; no one goes near her.” She added: “people told me the story. It is so difficult to get my head around because at the time I was so willing to go along with it. And now there I am, recognising that if I were to move forward, I would likely be experiencing some of the same things she did.” She recognizes that to go forward with a complaint would be to go through what the woman before her went through (to go forward as to go back). “And now there I am,” and so, she came to see through it, a story she had been willing to go along with about a woman who had complained before.  If a story can be inherited as distance (“no one goes near her”), a complaint gives you proximity, an unwilled proximity, to those who have been cast out. To make a complaint can be how we acquire scepticism towards stories told about complainers, stories that are rarely told from the complainer’s point of view. Today, I will be sharing stories of complaint told from the point of view of those who have made them.  Since June 2017, I have been talking to academics and students who have made complaints at universities. I need you to know before I share their stories that many are painful and traumatic. These stories are difficult to share and I am aware they may be difficult to hear.

My project on complaints at the university is also on the university. And by “on the university” I do not just mean the university is my research site, I mean that my project is about the effort to transform universities. I was inspired by my experience of supporting a collective complaint about sexual misconduct and sexual harassment that was lodged by PhD students. Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, Alice Corble with support from Heidi Hasbrouck, Chryssa Sdrolia and others, wrote one of the conclusions of my book about the work they began whilst they were students. To write about the work is to continue the work, and I indebted to each of them, all of them, for that work. In this project I am also indebted to critiques of diversity and the university offered by Black feminists and feminists of colour such as M. Jacqui Alexander, Sirma Bilge, Heidi Mirza, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Malinda Smith, Shirley Anne Tate, and Gloria Wekker.  I think of their combined work as counterinstitutional, they teach us how universities work, for whom they work. Counterinstitutional work in feminist hands is often housework, with all the drudgery and repetition that that word implies, painstaking work, administrative work, also care work, because if we need to transform institutions to survive them, we still need to survive the institutions we are trying to transform.

Complaint as feminist pedagogy: to make a complaint within an institution is to learn about how institutions work, what I call institutional mechanics. To tell the story of a complaint made within an institution can be to tell another story about an institution. The story of complaint often counters the institution’s story of itself.  On paper, a complaint can be pictured as a flow-chart, with straight lines and pointy arrows, giving the would-be complainer a clear route through.

Things are not always as they appear. I look at this complaints procedure and I see diversity, diversity as papering over the cracks, diversity as smoothing out an appearance. The problem with procedures is not simply that they don’t determine what happens. Procedures can also be techniques, used to stop complaints. One academic describes: “I had to push them because according to their procedure there were so many days you had after submitting the complaint for it to be investigated.” She has to keep pushing them to follow the procedure because otherwise her complaints would be dropped in accordance with their procedures. Many complaints are dropped on procedural grounds because those who complain do not submit the right forms, in the right way, at the right time. The narrowing of the complaint as a genre is how many struggles are not recorded.

Even complaints that assume at some point the form of a formal complaint begin long before the use of a procedure.

Another story. A lecturer is returning after long term sick leave. She is neuroatypical, she needs time, she needs space, to return to her work, to do her work. If she has to complain to get more time, her complaint takes up more time. She describes: “there are like four channels of complaint going on at the same time. But interestingly none of these people seem to be crossing over. You duplicate the complaint at different times, emails, phone calls, occupational health; the union. It is generating all this material and all this paper work but actually nothing seems to shift. It’s just a file, actually.” I will return to how complaints end up as files or in files later. She has to keep making the same complaint to different people because they are not speaking to each other.  If we were to picture a complaint from the complainer’s point of view, it would be less of a flow, flow, away we go and rather more like this:

It is a mess, a tangle, if you get in, you can’t work out how to get out; you end up with so many dead ends, so many crossed wires. And despite all of that, all that work, nothing seems to shift.

It is worth noting here that a complaint can be an expression of grief, pain, or dissatisfaction; something that is a cause of a protest or outcry, a bodily ailment, or a formal allegation. This latter sense of complaint as formal allegation brings up these other more affective and embodied senses.  In making a formal complaint, you have to become expressive. The word express comes from press; to express as to press out. Each time the early career lecturer tries to express her complaint, she encounters a wall.  She speaks to a physician from occupational health. She has to complain to him about how he tries to express her complain: “he was shocked I think that I complained to him in the room face-to-face. He was dictating the letter to the computer, which was automatically typing it and I think he was astonished that I said I am not going to sign it.” I think of her refusal to sign that letter, to agree with how he expressed her complaint back to her: the words he reads out loud, his words, the computer automatically typing those words, his words; the different ways you can be made to disappear from your own story.

To go through a formal complaint process is to be channelled in a certain direction. You end up having to complain about how your complaint is handled, having to say “no” to how the institution records your “no.” It can be hard to keep saying no if you don’t feel you have a right to keep saying it. She describes: “There is something else which is something to do with being a young female academic from a working-class background: part of me felt that I wasn’t entitled to make the complaint – that this is how hard it is for everybody, and this is how hard it should be.” To question one’s entitlement to complain can be to question whether one has the right to expect anything other than more of the same (how hard it is, as how hard it should be). If part of her felt she was not entitled to complain, she has to fight all the more, she has to fight against that part of herself, that inheritance of a classed as well as gendered history; just as she has to fight to express her complaint in her own terms, and to fight for what she needs to do her work. She describes that work:

It was like a little bird scratching away at something and it wasn’t really having any effect. It was just really small, small; small and behind closed doors.  I think people maybe feel that because of the nature of the complaint, and you are off work so they have to be polite and not talk about it and so much of their politeness is because they don’t want to say something. And maybe [it is] to do with being in an institution and the way they are built; long corridors, doors with locks on them, windows with blinds that come down, it seems to sort of imbue every part of it with a cloistered feeling, there is no air, it feels suffocating.

It was like: note this it. A complaint as something you are doing can acquire exteriority, becoming a thing in the world; scratching away; a little bird, all your energy going into an activity that matters so much to what you can do, who you can be, but barely seems to leave a trace; the more you try, the smaller it becomes, you become, smaller; smaller still. I think of those birds scratching away and, I think of diversity work, described to me by a practitioner as a “banging your head on the wall job.” When the wall keeps its place, it is you that ends up sore. And what happens to the wall?  All you seem to have done is scratch the surface.

Scratching can give you a sense of the limits of what you can accomplish.

A complaint becomes a magnifying glass: so many details are picked up by an attention; the geography of a place, the building, the long corridors, the locked doors, the windows with blinds that come down, less light, less room.

When you have to fight for room you can become more conscious of what little room you have. I was struck by often doors came up in her testimony as well as in the testimony of others. She describes: “I was just frightened and I just allowed myself to go through it very privately and I hit all those doors along the way, and just came out very guarded by it.” You are more likely to notice doors when you hit them rather than enter them. Doors are not just physical things that swing on hinges, though they are that, they are also mechanisms that enable an opening or a closing. When a path is no longer available to us, a door becomes a figure of speech: we say, that door is closed.  Doors can be, to borrow from Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools,” teaching us how the same house is being built; how only some can enter; how others become trespassers.

From complaint we learn how the house is built.   In my book What’s the Use? I use this image as an image of queer use, how things can be used in ways that were not intended or by those for whom they were not intended.

I think of these birds rather affectionately as our queer kin; they turned a small opening intended for letters into a door, a queer door perhaps, a way of getting in and out of the box. Of course, the post box can only become a nest if it stops being used as a post-box; hence the sign “please don’t use” addressed to would-be posters. I am aware that this is a rather happy hopeful image. It is rare that we can just turn up and turn a box into a nest or a room into a shelter. For some to take up space that is not built for them often requires a world-dismantling effort. A complaint describes some of that effort.

A complaint can be the effort to be accommodated. An academic describes how she has to keep pointing out that rooms are inaccessible because they keep booking rooms that are inaccessible: “I worry about drawing attention to myself. But this is what happens when you hire a person in a wheelchair. There have been major access issues at the university.”  She spoke of “the drain, the exhaustion, the sense of why should I have to be the one who speaks out.” You have to speak out because others do not; and because you speak out others can justify their own silence; they hear you, so it becomes about you, “major access issues” become your issues.

Structures are treated as issues, made personal. Those of us who have “issues,” often end up on the diversity committee. The more issues we have, the more committees we are on. These committees can end up occupied in old ways. 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.” Yes, you just have to say the word race and you’ll be heard as complaining. Another time she is writing a paper for a special issue of a journal on decolonizing her discipline. She receives feedback from a white editor: “the response of the editor was ‘needs to be toned down, not enough scholarly input to back up the claims they are making.’ Basically, get back in your box, and if you want to decolonize, we’ll do it on our terms.” Being dropped from the diversity committee for “mentioning things to do with race” is continuous with being told to tone it down on the decolonizing special issue. Whiteness can be just as occupying of issues when they are designated decolonial. What happens if you raise issues? She describes: “whenever you raise something, the response is that you are not one of them.” A complaint seems to amplify what makes you not fit, picking up what you are not.  A complainer becomes a stranger, a foreigner, a trespasser.

A complaint can be used as evidence that you are not from here or do not belong here. A PhD student objects to how a lecturer is communicating with her – he is overly intimate. He had sent her an email from a private Hotmail account and suggested they “meet up during this or the next weekend in the evening.” She communicates to him that she found his style of communication to be inappropriate. This is his response, written in an email: “As for meeting in the evening and its combination with [personal email], this is how we do it here at the department (ask our MA students). Perhaps your department has some other norm which I do not understand. Also, your religion might be a problem.” Note the assertion of “how we do things here” as an answer to a questioning of how he is doing things there. Note the interpellation of other students into that assertion. And note how her religion – she is from a Muslim background – is used to explain her objection.

If you complain you end up confirming a judgment that has already been made, you are not from here, you do not belong here. A lesbian academic describes: “if you have a situation and you make a complaint, then you are the woman who complains, the lesbian who complains.  And then of course you get witch-hunted, you get scapegoated, you become the troublesome uppity woman; you become the woman who does not fit; you become everything the bully accuses you off, because nobody is listening to you. And you don’t like to hear yourself talking like that but you end up being in that situation, again. You can hear them saying, ‘oh there you go.” We both laughed when she said this. The feminist killjoy comes up here; she comes up in what we can 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.

We might laugh, we do laugh, but we also groan with recognition. If you are followed by rolling eyes, you are followed by eyes, you stand out; you end up under scrutiny. One time she is introduced by a student as a lesbian head of department, “there was some discussion of that with colleagues, like I had some banner to fly, pushing students to get involved with this.” Just being called a lesbian head of department can be heard as pushing an agenda. Some are judged as being pushy, imposing themselves just by virtue of not being or doing more of the same. It should not surprise us that a “pushy minority” can morph into a bully.  And, members of her department submitted an informal complaint to human resources identifying her as a bully. You can be called a bully just by being called or calling yourself a minority.

Complaints as tools to redress bullying and harassment can be turned into tools to bully and to harass. This will not be surprising to feminist audiences. We are familiar with how the tools introduced to redress power relations can be used by those who benefit from power relations. I noted earlier how formal complaints can bring with them other more affective and embodied senses of complaint. Formal complaints can end up separated or detached from those who have a complaint to make because of what they experience.  This is why it is so important not to tell the story of complaint as a story of what happens to formal complaints; formal complaints can be redirected toward those who try to challenge abuses of power, those who desire or require a modification of an existing arrangement. The complainer becomes a complaint magnet, to become a complainer is to attract complaints, to receive them as well as make them, to receive them because you make them. If you use the word race for instance you might be heard as complaining but you also more likely to be complained about. The magnetism of the figure of the complainer has much to teach us about the direction of violence. Violence is redirected toward those who identify violence and that redirection can be achieved through the very techniques we introduce to challenge the direction of violence.

The violence you complain about can be redirected toward you because you complain. A trans student of colour make a complaint about sexual harassment and transphobic harassment from their supervisor who kept asking them deeply intrusive questions about their gender and genitals. Questions can be hammering; for some to be is to be in question. These questions were laced in the language of concern for the welfare of the student predicated on judgements that they would be endangered if they conducted research in their home country. Racist judgements are often about the location of danger “over there” in a brown or black elsewhere. Transphobic judgements are often about the location of danger “in here,” in the body of the trans person: as if to be trans is to incite the violence against you. When they complain, what happens? They said: “people were just trying to evaluate whether he was right to believe there would be some sort of physical danger to me because of my gender identity… as if to say he was right to be concerned.” The same intrusive questions that led you to complain are asked when you complain or because you complain. So much harassment today is enacted as a right to be concerned. We have a right to be concerned about immigration (as “citizens”); we have a right to be concerned about sex-based rights (as “adult human females”). A right to be concerned is how violence is enacted, a violence premised on suspicion that some are not who they say they are, that some have no right to be where they are, that some have no right to be.

There are many ways we can be shut out – from institutions, from categories of personhood, from ourselves, even.  One woman of colour describes her department as a revolving door: women and minorities enter only to head right out again: whoosh, whoosh.

You can be kept out by what you find out when you get in. And yet consider how diversity is often figured as an open door, turned into a tagline; tag on, tag along; minorities welcome, come in, come in! Just because they welcome you, it does not mean they expect you to turn up.  Remember the post-box that became a nest?  There could be another sign on the post-box: “birds welcome.”

Diversity is that sign. That sign would be a non-performative if the post-box was still in use because the birds would be dislodged by the letters, a nest destroyed before it could be created. Those comments, tone it down, different ways you are told this is not your box, “get back into your own box”, judgements, “he is right to be concerned,” they function as the letters in the box; they pile up until there is no room left, no room to breathe, to nest, to be. It is not enough to open a door, to appear welcoming.  For some to be in that room requires stopping what usually happens in that room, otherwise they would be, as it were, displaced by the letters in the box. If diversity is that sign, diversity covers over the materiality of dispossession.

And so, we learn: occupation and dispossession are achieved by the same materials. Another story, more materials.  A Masters student begins her new programme with high hopes and expectations. And then “it started.”

It started I would say in the second or third lesson I had with Prof X. There were certain signs that rang alarm bells for me and my first reaction is stop being paranoid, stop being a feminazi where everything is gendered, you know, you are probably reading too much into this, you need to take a step back.

The sound of an alarm bell announces a danger in the external world even if you hear the sound inside your own head. We don’t always take heed of what we hear. She starts questioning herself rather than his behaviour.  She tells herself off; she gives herself a talking to. In questioning herself, she also exercises violent stereotypes of feminists as feminazis even though she identifies as a feminist. External judgements can be given voice as internal doubt. But she keeps noticing it, that the syllabus is occupied; how it is occupied: “he left any thinker who wasn’t a white man essentially until the end of the course.” He introduces a woman thinker as “not a very sophisticated thinker.” She comes to realise that her first impression that something was wrong was right: “and then I was like, no, no, no, no, things are wrong not just in terms of gender, things are desperately wrong with the way he is teaching full-stop.” When she realises, she was right to hear that something was wrong; those no’s come out. I think of all of those no’s, no, no, no, no, the sound of an increasing confidence in her own judgement.

The work you have to do to express “no,” is part of the story of complaint. A story of complaint can also be about how you are received because of that “no.” In Living a Feminist Life, I described sexism as received wisdom, and by that term I was referring not only to content but form; you are supposed to take it in, take the professor in, the canon, the curriculum, to ingest it, what he says, whatever he says. So, when she tells him, she wants to write her essay on gender and race, he says if you write on those fucking topics you are going to fucking fail my course, you haven’t fucking understood anything I have been talking about if you think those are the correct questions for this course.” If you ask the wrong questions, you hear the violence of correction. And then she hears how he writes her off: “But then he says, wait, you know what, you’re so fucking old, your grades don’t really matter, you’re not going to have a career in academia, so write whatever essay you wanted to write. You are going to fail, but it doesn’t matter.” The complainer becomes not only a nag but a hag, the feminist who gets the questions wrong, the old woman who might as well be wrong, who is too old for it to matter whether she got it wrong, because she can’t proceed, she won’t proceed.

In the end, she decides to make a formal complaint because she “wanted to prevent other students from having to go through such practice.”   A complaint can be understood as non-reproductive labour: the work you have to stop the reproduction of an inheritance. You have to stop the system from working, you have to throw a wrench in the works or to become, to borrow Sarah Franklin’s (2015) terms, a “wench in the works.” She goes to her course convenor who says, saying “I hear a lot of these complaints every year,” in an intonation that almost implied a yawn, as if to say: heard that before, been there, done that. She replies: “if you hear them every year why is it continuing?” To complain is often to find out about other complaints, earlier complaints. She then receives a warning, “be careful he is an important man.” A warning can be a statement about who is important. Importance is not just a judgement; it is a direction. She went ahead with a complaint. In making it she “sacrificed the references.”  In reference to the prospect of doing a PhD she said, “the door is closed.”  

References can be doors: how some are given a route through, how others are stopped from progressing. When the door is closed on her complaint, and also on her, she will not be there, bringing to the institution what she might have brought to it, the door is kept open for him. When the door is open for him, he can keep doing because what he has been doing where he has been doing it: behind closed doors.

 Complaint as feminist pedagogy: the system is working by stopping those who are trying to stop the system from working.

“That door is closed:” it would be hard to point to a single action that closed that door on her or for her. Did the closing of the door begin with her indicating she wanted to write her essays on gender and race what he calls “the wrong topics”? Did it begin by her questioning who was missing from the syllabus? Did it begin by sharing with the course leader that she had a problem with his teaching? These questions would locate the cause of the closed door in her action. And that is how so many closed doors are explained. We need to explain the closed door differently.  Doors are teaching us about how power, even when it is not simply held, is acquired. It is not only that the professor is holding the door which he can then close on the student as penalty for complaint (although that is indeed an important part of this story). Consider the lecturer who delivered the warning to the student.  She is relatively new and junior member of her department; far junior to the professor. For the door to be open to the lecturer, for her to promoted at some future point, she would need his support. In other words, the door that she closes on the student’s complaint could be understood as the same door that she, as a junior lecturer, will need to get through.  The warning she gives could thus be a warning she has received about what she needs to avoid doing in order not to compromise her trajectory. She might shut the door on the student’s complaint because otherwise she would shut the door on her own career. A door can be a deal: there is much you cannot say or do, or at least that is what you are told, in order to have a path through and up an organization.   

Complaint as feminist pedagogy: what you are told you need to do to progress further and faster in the system is what reproduces the system.

A door can be a deal. I communicated informally with a woman of colour academic. She told me how she had given her support to a white feminist colleague who had made an informal complaint about plagiarism by a senior white man: “she decided that she cannot speak publicly about the theft of her work by him. Her openness about it previously has apparently hurt his career. She fears it is hurting hers as she still needs him to be a reference for future jobs. So, a complaint made public now becomes detached from one person —literally let go, and now it is still attached to a few others but mainly me.” Her white woman colleague lets the complaint go in order to keep the door open for her own career; she needs that reference. Yes, references can be doors. But the complaint does not go away, or disappear from the public realm; it gets stuck to her, a woman of colour.  I suggested in my introduction that complaints are treated as sticky data. Not everyone who makes a complaint will be stuck by them or with them. If some people can free themselves of their own complaints, unbecoming complainers, others will remain stuck with them.

And by stuck we are talking about a door being shut. The door that is opened for some is same door that is shut on others; the same door. We could tell the story of white liberal feminism as a story of the same door. We could tell the story of the white progressive institution as a story of that door too; the same door, the diversity door. People of colour are assumed to enter the diversity door however we enter the institution. And that door can be shut at any point. The door can be shut to stop us getting in. The door can be shut because we get in. A black woman academic was racially harassed and bullied by a white woman who was her head of department. .

 I think what she wanted to do was to maintain her position as the director, and I was supposed to be some pleb; you know what I mean, she had to be the boss, and I had to be the servant type of thing, that was how her particular version of white supremacy worked, so not just belittling my academic credentials and academic capabilities but also belittling me in front of the students; belittling me in front of administrators.

How do you know it’s about race? That’s a question we often get asked. Racism is how we know it’s about race; that wall, whiteness, or let’s call it what it is, as she has, white supremacy, we come to know intimately as it is what keeps coming up. To have got there, a black woman in a white institution, a lecturer, a senior lecturer, on her way to becoming a professor, she is now a professor; is to be understood as getting above your station, above yourself; ahead of yourself. To belittle someone, to make them little, can function as a command: be little! And that command is being sent not only to her, but to those who are deemed to share the status of being subordinate: students; administrators.  She said: “I had put down that I would like to work towards becoming a professor and she just laughed in my face.” That laughter can be the sound of a door being slammed.  Some of us in becoming professors become trespassers; you are being told you need permission to enter by being told you do not have permission.

Harassment does not just behind doors, it takes place around doors, those doors we sometimes call promotion. I am listening to an indigenous woman academic. She tries to make a complaint after a senior manager sabotages her tenure case as well as the tenure cases of other indigenous academics.  When you are harassed and bullied, when doors are closed, nay, slammed, making it hard to get anywhere, it can be history you are up against; thrown up against

There is a genealogy of experience, a genealogy of consciousness in my body that is now at this stage traumatised beyond the capacity to go to the university. There’s a legacy, a genealogy and I haven’t really opened that door too widely as I have been so focused on my experience in the last 7 years.

To be traumatised is to hold a history in a body; you can be easily shattered. There is only so much you can take on because there is only so much you can take in. We can inherit closed doors, a trauma can be inherited by being made inaccessible, all that happened that was too hard, too painful to reveal.  Decolonial feminist work, black feminist work; feminist of colour work is often about opening these doors; the door to what came before; colonial as well as patriarchal legacies; harassment as the hardening of that history, a history of who gets to do what; who is deemed entitled to what; who is deemed entitled to whom. A complaint can be necessary: what you have to do to go on. But you still have to work out what you can take on. She went on by taking them on:

I took everything off my door, my posters, my activism; my pamphlets. I smudged everything all around the building. I knew I was going to war; I did a war ritual in our tradition. I pulled down the curtain. I pulled on a mask, my people we have a mask…and I never opened my door for a year. I just let it be a crack. And only my students could come in. I would not let a single person come in to my office who I had not already invited there for a whole year.

Closing a door can sometimes be a survival strategy; she closes the door to the institution by withdrawing herself, her commitments, from it. She still does her work; she still teaches her students. She uses the door to shut out what she can, who she can.  She takes herself off the door; she depersonalises it. And she pulls down the blinds and she pulls on a mask, the mask of her people, connecting her fight to the battles that came before, because, quite frankly, for her, this is a war.

Our battles are not the same battles. But there are many battles happening behind closed doors. Behind closed doors: that is where complaints are often found, so that is where you might find us too, those of us for whom the institution is not built; and what we bring with us, who we bring us, the worlds that would not be here if some of us were not here; the data we hold, our bodies, our memories; perhaps the more we have to spill, the tighter their hold.   The more we have to spill. Many complaints end up in filing cabinets; filing as filing away.  One student said of her complaint: “it just gets shoved in the box.” Another student describes: “I feel like my complaint has gone into the complaint graveyard.” When a complaint is filed away or binned or buried those who complain can end up feeling filed away or binned or buried.  Sometimes to get the materials out, we get out. When I make the reasons for my resignation public, I shared information, not very much, but enough; that there had been these enquiries.  I became a leak: drip; drip.

The university responded in the mode of damage limitation, treating information as a mess. There is hope here: they cannot mop up all of our mess.   A leak can be a lead. By becoming a leak, I became easier to find; people came to me with their complaints.  That we find each other through complaint is a finding. Posting that letter was how I became part of a collective, a complaint collective; we are assembled before you.

One lecturer who left the academy after her complaint did not get anywhere, it was she who likened complaint to a little bird scratching away at something, turned her resignation letter into a performance: “I wrote a two-page letter and it was really important to me to put everything in there that I felt so that it was down on paper. And then I asked for a meeting with the Dean. I kind of read the letter out in a performative kind of way just to have some kind of event.” We find ways to make our letters matter. She wanted to do more, to put her letter on the wall: “I just thought I am not the kind of person who would put my resignation letter on the wall, but I just wonder what it is that made me feel that I am not that kind of person because inside I am that kind of person, I just couldn’t quite get it out.” Perhaps that is what complaints are about; how we help each other to get it out.    I think of the scratches on the wall. They seemed at first to show the limits of what we could accomplish. They can also be testimony, how we get our letters on the wall.

It might take a collective effort to get the letters out. A disabled student was not getting anywhere with her complaint about the failure of the university to make reasonable accommodations. And then a file suddenly appears: “a load of documents turned up on the student’s union fax machine and we don’t know where they came from, they were historical documents about students who had to leave.”  The documents including a hand written letter to a human rights charity by a former student who had cancer, and who was trying to get the university to let her finish her degree part-time. She speculates that a secretary was doing “their own little bit of direct action,” releasing those documents as a way of giving support to her complaint that she was not supposed to give. It is not surprising that a secretary can become a saboteur; secretary derives from secrets, the secretary is a keeper of secrets, she knows that there are secret files, where they are, she knows how to release them. I thank about the student who wrote that letter. We can’t know, we won’t know what happened to her. But we can make her letter matter. If the student I spoke to hadn’t made her complaint, that letter would have stayed put; dusty, buried. We can meet in an action without meeting in person.

If direct action is required to get the complaint out, complaints can be direct action. We can become “complaint activists” making use of complaints within institutions to press against them. This student applied what she learnt from complaining at the university, to make complaints against other organizations for the failure to make reasonable adjustments. If we learn about institutions from complaint, we can apply what we learn. I have learned so much from the creativity of student-led complaint activism. A queer feminist student described to me their work to make violence more visible as the work of complaint: “We complained through posters that there is gendered discrimination. We performed complaint through spoken word poem recital.” A complaint can be a poster, a performance, a recital. They took on a role as student representative on an internal committee that dealt with complaints. The complaints committee can be one place where you do the work of complaint. The classroom is another place. A professor makes deeply offensive statements in the class. When they challenged the professor, they were asked to leave the class but stood their ground: “Before I could complain, he complained. The complaint was addressed behind closed doors with other professors.” We have learned to listen to the doors. They have something to tell us. The door is used to shut the violence in – the student is made to apologize. But they kept complaining. The more you complain about the more you are complained about.  They become, in their words, “a nuisance for the admin,” an institutional killjoy, perhaps. To let complaints out—all that negativity, what a nuisance—is to become a complaint magnet, making complaints knowing that they will come right back at you. In the final year of their studies, they “did not have the energy to continue to be complained about.” And so, they turned their complaints into a dissertation project.

So many turnings, so many complaints. Complaint activism is not simply about using formal complaints procedures to press against institutions although it is that. It is about finding different ways to express our complaints: on the walls, in the committees, the classrooms, the dissertations, on the streets.  Complaints can be expressed all over the place; they can be sneaky as well as leaky. The work of getting complaints out is also non-reproductive labour, complaints are records, they teach us something, the truth even, the truth about violence, institutional violence, the violence directed towards who identify violence, who say no to violence.

There is so much violence in the containment of violence. We have to shatter that container.

And when I think of that shattering, I hear the words of Audre Lorde.  As this is the last time, I am presenting this material before the book comes out, I want to use this time to acknowledge my profound debt to Lorde. Lorde describes how she was driving her car when she heard the news of a white policeman being acquitted for the murder of a black child. She stopped the car to express how she felt. She stopped the car and a poem came out. From Lorde I learn that sometimes to register the impact of violence we have to stop what we are doing. And to express ourselves then is not only to let violence in but to get it out. In the poem that she got out, “Power,” published in The Black Unicorn, Lorde uses an image of what poetry is not, how poetry is about not letting our power “lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire.”  To get it out, the violence out, her refusal to accept it, her words become electric, snap, snap, sizzle, making a connection to others, keeping that connection alive.

The more complaints are contained, the more we need to express them, to get them out, keep them alive; the more we need to sneak, to leak, to leave trails behind us so that others can find us. After all, as we have learnt, a complaint in the present can lead to an unburial of past complaints. I think of the complaint graveyard. I shared this image with one person that had been shared with me by another:

You have to think about the impact of doing this. Because having yet another complaint, it means that you give more credibility to the one who comes after you. When you talk about haunting you are talking about the size of the graveyard. And I think this is important. Because when you have one tombstone, one lonely little ghost, it doesn’t actually have any effect; you can have a nice cute little cemetery outside your window, but when you start having a massive one, common graveyards and so on, it becomes something else; it becomes much harder to manage.

We can and do form complaint collectives. We can and do become harder to manage. But we do not always assemble at the same time or in the same place. You might feel like a lonely little ghost, right now. Your complaint might seem to have evaporated like steam, puff; puff.  Your complaint can still be picked up or amplified by others. You might not be able to hear it now; it might not have happened yet. But those who come after can receive something from you because of what you tried to do, even though you did not get through, even though all you seemed to do was scratch the surface.  There you are, little ghosts, little birds, “scratching away,” at something, trying to create room from what has been scattered; shattered. It can just take a small opening, a tiny crack, for more to come out, no, no, no, no, an army of no’s; we are that army. A complaint can open the door to those who came before.  Thank you.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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