Complaint as a Queer Method

You might have a fight on your hands.* You might have to fight for room, room to be, room to do, room to do your work without being questioned or being put under surveillance.  You might have to fight to find a safe path through life, a way of progressing, of getting through, without having to give up yourself or your desires. A fight can be how we acquire wisdom: we know so much from trying to transform the worlds that do not accommodate us. But that fight can also be just damn hard; when you have to fight for an existence you can end up feeling fighting is your existence. And so, we need each other: we need to become each other’s resources. When I think of complaint as a queer method, I am pointing to this history of how we had to fight for room; and how by taking up that fight, we became each other’s resources.  We have queer programmes, spaces, events not just because they are nice things to have, though they are that, what a relief, but because we need them to survive institutions that are not built for us.

In my recent book Complaint! I thus describe complaint as counter-institutional work; to create spaces within institutions we so often end up working against them. I was inspired to do the research by my own experience of supporting students who made a collective complaint about sexual harassment. The students I worked with became my complaint collective.  I am grateful that they, Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, Alice Corble, with support from Heidi Hasbrouck, Chryssa Sdrolia and others, wrote one of the two conclusions of the book about the work they began as students. In the conclusion to their conclusion, they write about how they “moved something,” how “things are no longer as they were.” To move something within institutions can be to move so much. And it can take so much.

I introduced the idea of “complaint as a queer method,” in my conclusion. So today, I want to say a little more about what I mean by this. By complaint I included not only the formal mechanisms but also complaint in its more affective and embodied senses. I was especially interested in how some of us are heard as complaining, as being negative as well as saying something as negative.  To be heard as complaining is not to be heard. This is the opening sentence of the book, deliberately strongly worded. Listen to this description by a lesbian academic,

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, recognising that each other recognised the dynamic. We hear each other in the wear and the tear of the words we share, what it is like to come up against the same thing, over and over again.

Complaint seems to catch how those who challenge power become sites of negation, the complainer as container of negative affect, a leaky container, speaking out as spilling over. Negation can be quite a sensation. Think also of the word queer. We reclaim that word that has been used as an insult or as a smear not by trying to separate ourselves from the negativity, but by re-purposing it as tool. Complaint too can be a re-purposing of negativity as a tool.  

By “complaint as queer method,” I am also thinking of my own method of listening to those who complain, as well as how that listening is a way of gathering and holding data only to let it spill. My method is all about ears: not queer eye for the straight guy but queer ears for my queer peers.

Complaints as Coming Out Stories

Complaints are made confidential as soon as they are lodged.  They happen “behind closed doors,” which is why there are so many doors in these stories.

Perhaps a queer ear is an ear to the door, we listen not just through the door, but to the door. It was very early on in the research that I noticed how doors kept coming up, actual doors, doors with difficult to use handles, revolving doors, doors as figures of speech to signify what you can and cannot do, where you can and cannot go. That expression “behind closed doors” can refer to actual doors that are closed so someone can tell their story in confidence. It can also mean the process of keeping something secret from a wider public.

In the book, I am trying to open a door, to let out or express something that has been kept secret. It can take time to open the door. A student is being harassed by her supervisor. She’s a queer woman of colour: she is from a working class-background; she is the first in her family to go to university. She’s had to fight really hard to get here. She knows something is not right. Her supervisor keeps pushing the boundaries, wanting to meet off campus, then at coffee shops, then at his home. She tries to handle the situation, “I tried very hard to keep all of the meetings on campus, and to keep the door open.” She keeps the door open; an actual door at the same time as she closes other another kind of door, we might call this door the door of consciousness, “I thought I would take myself down by admitting to the kind of violence he was enacting.” Take myself down: to admit to violence can feel like becoming your own killjoy, getting in the way of your own progression.  To admit can mean to confess a truth as well as to let something in.  Note how doors can hold a contradiction, keeping the office door open is an admission of a truth that she handles by not letting it in.  Handles can stop working:

I was sitting with another colleague at another lunch another day and he started texting me these naked photos of himself and I think I just hit a critical mass of like, I just can’t handle it anymore. I said just look at this, and she was just like, you know like, completely speechless…. And then like it suddenly started to seep into me, into her, in this shared conversation about like, how horrible and violent that I am having to receive these things, right, and so that basically put a process in motion.

A handle is sometimes what we use to stop violence directed at us from seeping or leaking into us. When the handle stops working, the violence seeps not only into her but also into her colleague, into a conversation, into the space in which they are having that conversation. When complaints are about something, directed toward an object, what they are about is hard to contain. Objects shatter. Complaints can queer time as well as space, they end up all over the place, as we do.

When violence gets in, a complaint comes out. However, there is no switch, one in, one out. For a complaint to come out, she has to make the complaint, to keeping making it, “I think I started to believe that if I came out with this in a public way, that my own career would suffer.” Her use of the language of coming out, her reference to “in a public way,” teaches how when complaints travel, going further away from us, they take something of ourselves with them. To come out with a complaint is to send it out into the same world the complaint is about. Hence the title of the second part of the book “the immanence of complaint.” Judith Butler  asked back in 1991, “Is the subject who is out free of subjection and finally in the clear?” I think we know that answer is no. Butler extends, “conventionally one comes out of the closet…so we are out of the closet and into what? What new unbounded spatiality, the room, the den, the basement, the attic, the house, the bar, the university.” Butler then evokes another enclosure with a door, Kafka’s door, a door that seems to promise something, an opening, “fresh air,” the “light of illumination that never arrives.”

To come out in the form of a complaint about something that happened is also not to be in the clear, to come out with a complaint is to “come into” the same world that won’t admit so much and so many. You might admit what happened, but then when you try and share the story, as this student did, you hear more doors being shut. To come into is to come to, you bring the complaint to someone, a person, an office. She goes to the office responsible for handling complaints, “they were like, ‘you can file a complaint. But he’s really well loved by the university, he has a strong publication record, you are going to go through all of this emotional torment.’ It was even proposed that he could counter sue me for defamation of character. The line was essentially, you can do this, but why would you.”  A warning that a complaint will have dire consequences can take the form of institutional fatalism: statements about what institutions are like, what they are as what they will be, who they will love, who they will protect.

In the end she did not file a formal complaint because she knew what she was being told: that she wouldn’t get anywhere, it wouldn’t get anywhere, because he was going somewhere.

What is the relationship between institutional fatalism and what I have called queer fatalism?  Queer fatalism is the assumption that to be queer is to hurtle toward a miserable fate, that to be queer, a life treated as a lifestyle, is to put yourself in harm’s way, so that if shit happens, and let’s face it, shit happens, it is what you have brought on yourself. Being warned not to complain is to be told to straighten yourself out, to align yourself with the institution, to value what it values, to love who it loves, to protect who it protects, in order not to deprive yourself of a brightly lit path. It is not surprising, then, that a complaint can have a queer trajectory.

If you leave that path, if you complain not just about somebody who is loved and protected but that system of protection, what then?  You open the door of consciousness only to find another door is shut. That is how doors tell us about time, the time of repetition, what we keep having to do, the points we keep having to make. It can take time and also work for a complaint to come out. Queer and trans folk know coming out is not a one-time event; you have to keep coming out because of how the world presumes a certain kind of body, you might have to correct pronouns being used for your partner or for yourself; coming out as that tiring work of correction, correction is often heard as complaint, as negative, assertive, demanding.  If you have to keep coming out with it, in or out can feel more like round and about.  I think of how Ahmed Ibrahim disrupts this framing of inside/outside by revisiting the closet in a powerful reflection of queer lives and archives in Egypt. Ibrahim uses the language of seepage, how queerness seeps out, complicating any distinction between inside and outside.

There are many seepages in stories of complaint.

An early career lecturer was being sexually harassed by a senior man professor mainly through constant verbal communications – he emailed her about wanting to suck her toes. She thought she had handled this by asking her line-manager to ask him to stop not knowing that her manager sat on that request. When a complaint is not passed on, the harassment goes on

And then I was in a meeting with my line manager and her line manager and we were in this little office space, like a glass fish bowl type meeting room, and then the main office where all the staff desks were and he emailed me and I made a sound, eehhhhh, there’s no way to articulate it, someone’s just dragging your insides like a meat grinder, oh god this is not going to stop, and I made that sound out loud, and my line manager’s line manager said, what’s happened. And I turned my computer around and showed him and he said for fuck’s sake, how stupid do you have to be to put that in an email. You could see a look of panic on her face. Like, crap, this has not magically gone away.

That sound, that eehhhhh, pierces the meeting, that meeting taking place in the little glass room, a fishbowl, where they can all be seen. Something can become visible and audible sometimes even despite yourself; a complaint is what comes out because you can’t take it anymore, you just can’t take it anymore, your insides like a meat-grinder; a complaint as how you are turned inside out. Note how the problem once heard is implied to be not so much the harassment but that there was evidence of it (“for fuck’s sake how stupid do you have to be to put that in an email”).  A sound becomes a complaint because it brings to the surface a violence that is in the room but would not otherwise have to be faced.  Her line manager’s line manager, now alerted, witnessed being alerted, initiates a formal process. She uses the word imploded to describe what happened next. She attends another meeting

And this meeting dragged on and on and it was sort of, going through all the points and my boss wasn’t in it, wasn’t party to it, and it became clear at this point that something is going on beyond what I am involved in. That was the first time I realized the level of mess that is accompanying this. The professor disappeared; he was suddenly not there anymore. Whether he had been suspended or whether he quit, I never knew. But the story he had told to my colleagues was that he had been forced out by me. You’ve heard all of this a thousand times.

A story can be familiar. We have heard it before because it has happened before. Even though she did not initiate the complaint, she was described by him as having forced him out, and there was no way for her to challenge the narrative. Her colleagues begin to refer to her as the woman who forced a man out of his job because he said he wanted to suck her toes. In practice confidentiality, which is often justified as necessary to protect those who complain, means that those with more connections have more control over how the complaint is framed. The story of what happens to a complaint can be the same story complaints are about: who controls the situation, who controls the narrative.

Complaints as Stories about Institutions

I wanted to being with these two stories of how complaints come out, these rather messy, queer stories. The institutional story of complaint is rather different.  On paper, perhaps this is the institutional story, a complaint can be pictured as a flow-chart, with straight lines and pointy arrows, giving the would-be complainer a clear route.  If you would picture a complaint from a complainer’s point of view, it would be rather more like this, it’s a mess, what a tangle, once you are in it, you can’t work out how to get out of it.

And if that mess is a picture of a complaint, it can also be a picture of your life, a life can be what unravels. The early career lecturer whose complaint came out as a sound described, “It is like being trapped in some kind of weird dream where you know you jump from one section to another because you never know the narrative.” Making a complaint can feel like becoming a character in someone else’s story.  You know what is happening is not what is supposed to be happening but you still don’t know what is happening. I remember this from my own experience: you are having all these conversations, meetings after meetings, but most people you are working with don’t even know about what is going on; you have to keep going back to your other job, your day job; and that world, that is supposed to be the real world, the upright, brightly-lit world, feels increasingly unreal; topsy-turvy; upside down. A complaint can queer your relation to the institution, and I mean queer in the old sense of odd; words that are everywhere in my data are odd, weird, strange, surreal, bizarre, disorientating.

The lack of clarity becomes the world you inhabit. One academic made a complaint about bullying by her head of department did so in part as her university had developed new policies and complaint procedures. She describes them as “window dressing,” and said “they did not mean what they said.”  Policy can be the organisation appears from the front. When you complain, you begin to see through an appearance. This is why I describe complaint as a phenomenology of the institution: you bring to the front what often recedes into the background. You go back. To complain is certainly to go back in time, you have to go over what is not over, complaints have a queer temporality, which would be well described by Elizabeth Freeman’s term, temporal drag, complaints go on, meetings drag on; on and on. To complain is to go back in a spatial sense, you see what is “behind the back,” to reuse terms from my book, Queer Phenomenology.  

Another academic tried to use policies in her complaint about plagiarism and racism also to discover, “the policies are not meant.” We could call these policies non-performative. She added, “I was told it was now a formal process. I had to look at all the policies. I found there was this fog. It was constant. Every time I found clarity – isn’t it supposed to happen in accordance with policy blah blah-blah – this has been around ten years, isn’t this supposed to happen, and they would be like no.” To be told “no” is to be told that however long a policy has been around it is not going to determine what happens.

Even if the policies are not being followed, they still exist on paper.  She described policies that don’t exist on paper as “shadow policies.”  She used that term to account for her white academics in her department ended up with more research time than academics of colour, despite official commitments to equity because of these backdoor deals they made that appeared to be about securing one thing but ended up giving them another more valued thing that allowed them to do the more valued things.

A shadow is the dark area where light from a source is blocked due to an opaque object. The term “shadow policies” is telling us something about where decisions are made, the unlit areas of a room, as well as how they are made. The first part of the book, Institutional Mechanics, explores the gap between what is supposed to happen when you make a complaint and what does happen. To complain is to find a gap between the university as it appears on paper, policies that exist but are not followed, the paper university, diversity and equality as what they keep saying, and the university as it is, policies that do not exist but are followed, inequalities as what they keep doing.

You find a gap, mind a gap, fall right into it.

This gap in telling us something about complaint is telling us something about the university. This was why it was important for me to show what those who complain know. I spoke to an early lecturer about a complaint she made about the failure of her university to adjust her workload after she returned from long term sick leave. She is neuroatypical, and she needs time to return to work, to do her work. Even though she has evidence that the university has not followed its own policies and procedures, her complaint does not get anywhere. Let me share with you her description of what it feels like to do this 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.

A complaint as something that 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 back to how diversity work was described to me by a practitioner as a “banging your head against the brick 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.

When I heard the little birds in her story, my queer ears pricked up.  In my book on the uses of use, What’s the Use, I used this image of queer use, how things can be used in ways that were not intended, by those who were not intended.

The birds turn the post-box into a nest. This is a rather happy hopeful image.  Usually, when we turn up in institutions not built for us, we are told, get back in your own box, go back, go home.

If a complaint is a little bird scratching a way at something, a complaint is trying to create an almost/nest in a hostile environment.  Why evoke the term “hostile environment”? Many harassment policies use the term “hostile environment,” for the creation of a work culture that is undermining and degrading to a person or persons. In the UK, the term “hostile environment” has since been used by government as the name of a policy on illegal immigration. The use of a term that was already definitional of workplace harassment for policy teaches us how harassment become a national policy. The category of “illegal immigrant” is a racializing category; you can be brown or black and born here and still be told to go back, go home, yes that was a message sent out on a van; racial harassment as a national policy, the right to interrogate those who appear not from here.

A right to interrogate those who appear not from here, the right to interrogate some because of how they appear. 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 judgments that they would be endangered if they conducted research in their home country. Racist judgments are often about the location of danger “over there” in a brown or black elsewhere. Transphobic judgments are often about the location of danger “in here,” in the body of a 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 because you complain. Right to be concerned becomes a right to be concerned. 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.

Complaints about hostile environments are made in hostile environments. A woman of colour talked to me about a conversation she had with her head of department. She is trying to explain to him why students of colour do not feel they can make complaints about racism,

He said he was sympathetic because of Brexit and started talking about Muslim students being attacked on the bus. I said the department is reproducing a culture that isn’t inclusive no matter how sympathetic you are. If you had an experience on the bus you are not going to come back to the department and tell them about it, are you, if it’s the same department where when you have a cup of tea, the white people go to a different part of the room. It seems a complaint about racism can be received sympathetically if racism is elsewhere, outside, on the streets, in the bus.

The Head of Department’s statement of sympathy, his performance of sympathy, is directed toward racism that is over there. But seeing racism there can be how you don’t see it here, how you enact it here (white people going to different parts of the room). Racism can be what stops a complaint about racism.

I think of how policies can be what appears, what stops us from seeing what is going on. Diversity too can be what appears, what stops us from seeing what is going on, how it goes on. The organization might appear welcoming, diversity as an open door, come in come in, minorities welcome. Just because they welcome you it does not mean they expect you to turn up. Perhaps you open the door only to end up in a hostile environment otherwise known as the diversity committee. This 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.” If you are dropped from the diversity committee for mentioning things to do with race, the diversity committee is how you don’t mention things to do with race. 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 spaces when they are designated decolonial, I sometimes call this decolonial whiteness.

“Get back in your own box.”  I think back to the post-box that has become a nest. There could have been another sign on that box, birds welcome!

Diversity is that sign. That sign would be 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. All those questions, what are you, where are you from, instructions, tone it down, they function as letters in the box, piling up until there is no room left, no room to breathe, to nest, to be. If diversity is that sign, diversity obscures the hostility of an environment.

“An Important Man” (and other stories of reproduction)

An MA student was considering whether to complain about the conduct of a professor. She had already questioned his syllabus which was all white men until week ten. One time she has an essay tutorial with him, she tells him she wants to wrote her essay on gender and race. He says, “if you write on those fucking topics you are going to fucking fail my course, you haven’t fucking understood anything I have been talking about if you think those are the correct questions for this course.” When you ask the wrong questions, you witness the violence of correction. “But then he says, wait, you know what, your so fucking old, your grades don’t really matter, you’re not going to have a career in academia, so right whatever essay you wanted to write; you are going to fail, but it doesn’t matter right, you’re not here to get a good grade, you are not here for a career, your obviously here because you want to learn, so write whatever it is that you wanted, it doesn’t fucking matter.” She hears herself being written off. The complainer, who is questioning the syllabus, becomes the feminist who has got the questions wrong; becomes the old woman who might as well be wrong, a hag as well as a nag, because she can’t proceed, she won’t proceed.

She decides to make a formal complaint because she “wanted to prevent other students from having to go through such practice.”  Complaint can be thought of as non-reproductive labour: the work you have to do to stop the same things from happening, to stop the reproduction of an inheritance. When she tells the convenor of the MA programme that she is intending to complain, she receives a warning, “be careful he is an important man.” A warning is a judgement as well as a direction. She goes ahead with the complaint. And she “sacrificed the references.” In reference to the prospect of doing a PhD, she said, “that door is closed.”  That door is closed, references can be doors, how some are stopped from progressing. When the door is closed on her complaint, and also on her, she will not be there, bringing to the institution what she might have brought to it, the door is kept open for him so he can keep doing what he has been doing where he has been doing it, behind closed doors.

The figure of the “important man” is teaching us about how institutions work, for whom they work. A retired academic told me how her application for promotion to professor, was “put in the bin.” The university decided to award only one professorship during the promotion process, “So who did get put forward? And of course, it was a man far less qualified by any of the women who had applied…the Head of Department’s argument was that he had very important contacts, very important contacts in the community…in order to keep this guy they had to give him the promotion because they didn’t want to lose him.” They didn’t want to lose him: a door is opened to him because of who he brings with him.

Importance is often predicated on connections. To progress you might be told you need to have or to make the right connections. You might be told not to complain about an important man because you need a reference from him. Or you be might be told to refer to an important man.  The more a path is used, the more a path is used. The more he is cited, the more he is cited.  We learn not just who to cite, but how to cite.  Sarah Franklin has explored sexism in the academy by discussing Professor P’s rather extreme response to one of her essays, a feminist essay on Durkheim; his scrawling marks made mostly with red pen all over her essay turned it into a bloody document.  Franklin shows how sexism can be “a means of reproduction” that works by “prohibition or cultivation to select a path – for example by blocking a conversation or an argument when it flows in the ‘wrong’ direction, or enabling the ‘right’ kinds of thinking or critique by creating spaces for them to move into.”

Prohibition or cultivation.  Prohibition is an obvious door story, how you are stopped from doing something by being denied entry for doing it, you might end up without a career path if you don’t follow the right path, disciplinary or otherwise. A path, a line. I think of how even decolonizing special issues can require “toeing the line,” recall how a woman of colour was told to “tone it down,” maybe she was being told not just to remove herself from her text but to cite right, cite white.  Cultivation is also a door story, a less obvious door story, but a door story nevertheless; what you are told you need to do in order not to have a door closed on you. Earlier I suggested warnings not to complain can be how you are told to align yourself with the institution. Warnings not to complain are part of a cluster of speech acts we sometimes call career advice.

Career advice = straightening device.

Not complaining becomes about developing a more positive attitude to the institution and its legacies. A woman of colour academic describes,

There’s an agreement between people not to rock the boat. People would talk about the institution as a kind of legacy project and would imply that you just didn’t understand how the institution was formed. The implication was that you have to be respectful of how this place was organised and what its traditions were essentially. And if you were not abiding by that it was because you had not been there for ten years.

When a legacy become a project, it signals a relationship to what has been received from the past, think of the words she uses, “respectful,” “abiding,” also “understanding.” The implication is that to complain is to provide evidence that you have not been in an institution long enough to understand it, to respect it, how its organised, its traditions.

You become a complainer when you have not or not yet internalized the norms of the institution. I noted in my introduction that the figure of the complainer becomes a container of negative affect. Negation is also a relation to the institution. You become a complainer when you fail to reproduce an institutional legacy. Remember the woman of colour who was dropped from the diversity committee for mentioning things to do with race? All you have to do is use the word race to be heard as complaining; that word can be evidence you have not internalized the norms of the institution. She explains, “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.

The complainer becomes a stranger. You don’t have to make a complaint to become a complainer. I spoke to a lesbian academic who became the first woman to be head of her department, let alone the first lesbian. 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, as rocking the boat, imposing themselves just by virtue of not being or doing more of the same.  Being called a lesbian academic is akin to “raising something,” like a flag.

When you raise something, or something is raised about you, it is treated as evidence you do not belong here or you are not meant to be here. Belonging can be expressed as kin and kind. Another academic describes an incident,

It was really weird. It was in the school office, and he started talking about one of my classes, and he said, “The external examiner said something,” and I said, “I don’t actually agree with the external examiner” . . . and he said, “Well fuck you, you don’t fucking know anything, the external examiner is a major professor, fuck off, who the fuck do you think you are talking about him like that in front of other people.” . . . I later found out that the external examiner was one of his closest friends. So I went to the head of school and I said this happened, and she said, “You know, [he] is like the naughty uncle of the school. That’s just how he is, you just have to let it go.”

Friendship networks, family connections. The naughty uncle appears here as a figure, as familiar, but also as an instruction to her: to let it go, not to complain, to accept the shouting and abusing behaviour, because that is what families are like, because that’s what families do. The complainer becomes not us but also not family.  To be “one of them,” or not “not one of them,” you have to be in relation to “an important man,” to become his relative. I think of how one post-doctoral researcher was unable to get anyone to support her complaint about her mentors. One student said to her, “I have been here since I was seventeen years old. I grew up with them. I can’t do anything.” To progress as a student becomes akin to growing up, complaining becomes something you cannot do. What you cannot do is what protects them. I communicated with an academic whose work plagiarized by a colleague.  The chair told her to “keep quiet about it because they were a family.” He “kept reminding me a lesbian, that [he] has a wife and child.” She could hear what she was being told, that by complaining she would damage not just him but his family. Perhaps that reminder is being addressed to her as somebody assumed not to have a family in need of protection. The protection of a person becomes a protection of their relations.

When I think about protection, I hear silence. When I think back to my experience of complaint, I hear silence.  Silence can be a wall. I think of our efforts over three years to try and get the university to acknowledge the problem of sexual harassment. We could not even get an acknowledgement in public that these enquiries had taken place. It was like they never happened, which was, I have no doubt, the effect they were looking for.   The very first mention of them in public was in fact a post on my blog, written just after I resigned, which is probably telling you something about why I resigned. The university treated my resignation posts as a leak, making a mess, causing damage.  But it was not just the university that treated my disclosure as damaging. A feminist colleague described my action as “unprofessional,” because it caused “a fall-out which damages us all now and in the future.”  We are learning what it means to be professional. To be professional is to be willing to keep the institution’s secrets. It is important to note then that silence is not just something enforced by management or marketing departments, silence can be performed as loyalty, turned into a duty by our own colleagues, including feminist colleagues, silence to protect important people, silence to protect resources, silence to protect reputation, individual, institutional, silence as promotion, how you maximize your chances of going further or getting more from the institution.

In other words, if the story of “an important man” is a story of who is protected and promoted, it is a story of how many get enlisted into doing that work. An early career lecturer talked about why people don’t tend to make complaints in her university because of who would receive them, “People don’t want to rock the boat with [senior academics], because they are so important and they bring in this grant money and their names really matter.” Not wanting to rock the boat can be part of an effort to maintain good relations to those who are more important because of how they bring in more resources.  So much violence is enabled and reproduced because people do not think they can “rock the boat,” which means there is so much violence in “keeping things steady” or in “steadying.” When you complain, especially in public, you are then judged as trying to make the whole thing unsteady, as damaging “us all,” and by “us all” translate those for whom the institution means more resources. Audre Lorde told us this would happen.  She said that those who are resourced by the master’s house will find those who try to dismantle it, even those who just question what he does in there, threatening.

If to complain is to hear silence, to complain is also to hear the clunk, clunk of the institutional machinery, how the system is working by stopping those who try to stop it from working. We know how institutions reproduce themselves when we try to intervene in their reproduction. When you make a complaint, you might not necessarily begin by thinking of yourself as part of a movement nor as a critic of the institution let alone as trying “to dismantle the master’s house” to evoke the title of Audre Lorde’s important essay. But that is where many who make complaints end up. There is hope in this trajectory.

Conclusion: No, and Other Queer Tales

The title of the third part of the book is, “If These Doors Could Talk.” In listening to doors, I have been learning about power, how the door that is kept open to some is the same door shut on others.   The image on the front of Complaint! is by the artist Rachel Whiteread. I love how the double doors are an assembly, telling us about time, as well as space, how they resemble funerary slabs, telling us something about who is departed. Doors have stories to tell, they can be how we tell our stories. Doors have queer uses.  Remember the birds who turned a post-box into a nest? I think of these birds as our queer kin, they turned an opening intended for letters into a door, a queer door, way of getting into and out of a box. A queer door can be how we make room for ourselves. I think back to Judith Butler’s discussion of coming out as coming into a bounded space such as a basement or university. There was a door in that story. In Undoing Gender (2004), Butler tells another door story; she talks about being in the basement of her house “having locked the door,” and in the “smoke filled” airless room, finding books that once belonged to her parents, or at last passed through their hands, philosophy books that ignited her desire. Spaces that might seem like closets, or containers, can be where queer things can happen, where we pick something up that gives us somewhere else to go.

A shut door, a room. I am listening to an indigenous academic. She told me how she could hardly manage to get to campus after a sustained campaign of bullying and harassment from white faculty, including a concerted effort by a senior manager, another important man, no doubt, to sabotage her tenure case as well as the tenure cases of other indigenous academics.  When doors are closed, nay, slammed in your face, it can be history you are up against. Her complaint goes nowhere. So she found another way of 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 the door is how she says no to the institution that demands access to her, whilst taking so much something from her. 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. She pulls down the blinds. 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, our bodies, our memories, the more we have to spill, the tighter the hold. The more we have to spill. Many complaints end up in containers otherwise known as filing cabinets.

That filing cabinet can be thought of as an institutional closet.  What is buried here is what the institution does not want revealed. We too can be buried here; our lives can be the details of their documents. One student said her complaint was “shoved in a box.” Another student describes how complaints end up in the “the complaint graveyard.” Perhaps filing cabinets are where complaints go to die.

If complaints end up in the institutional closet, the work of complaint includes the work of getting complaints 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. If the student I spoke to hadn’t made her complaint, that letter would have stayed put, the file too; dusty, buried. So many are involved in pulling something out, pulling something off. A complaint made in the present can release complaints from the past.

We can meet in an action without meeting in person.  I think of all the different actions in the book, I call them complaint activisms – students and academics who performed their complaints, who turned complaints into posters, put them on leaflets or as expressed them as graffiti on books or on walls. Complaints can be sneaky as well as leaky. When it is made hard to get complaints out, complaints can be the sound of a release, eehhhhh. This is why I have placed such a strong emphasis on the sound of the work in the work, not just the clunk, clunk of the institutional machine, but the groans and moans of what we keep coming up against. The doors slam. So, we knock on the door. We knock on the door not to demand entry but to create a disturbance. I hear Audre Lorde knocking on a door, telling us something’s up.  In an interview with Adrienne Rich, Lorde describes her fascination with a poem “The Listener,” a poem about a traveller who rides a horse up to the door of an apparently empty house,

He knocks at the door and nobody answers. ‘Is there anybody there?’ he said and he has a feeling that there really is somebody in there. And then he turns his horse and he says, ‘Tell them I came,’ and nobody answered. ‘That I kept my word.’ I used to recite that poem to myself all the time. It was one of my favorites. And if you’d asked me, what is it about, I don’t think I could have told you. But this was the first cause of my own writing, my need to say things I couldn’t say otherwise, when I couldn’t find other poems to serve.

It is important to follow Lorde, to go where she goes. When we are fascinated by something we do not always know why. Lorde keep reciting the poem; she says “it imprinted on her.” I think of that imprint: the print of a poem on a person. The point is not in the answer, whether someone answers, but in the knock; the knock is the action. You might be knocking on the door of consciousness, trying to hear something, to admit what we have shut out, the violence that can make it so hard to focus or function. Or you might be knocking on the door of the master’s house because you know that house is haunted. To knock on that door, to make that sound, not “knock, knock, who is there?” but “knock, knock, we are here,” is to disturb the spirits who linger here because of the violence that has not been dealt with.

Scratching too can be not just a mark, but a sound, the sound of labour, the little bird scratching away. We hear that scratching as speech, as spillage, as testimony, different ways of getting messages out. Those scratches, that scramble of letters, eehhhhh, can be how we get our complaints on the wall.  I think of how, after I left my post, students put words from my work on the wall.

Yes, they were taken down. But they cannot stop them from having been there.

And I think of how, by resigning, saying no in public, people came to me with their complaints. I became part of a collective, a complaint collective, we are assembled before you.

Earlier I shared a picture of what a complaint looks like.

Perhaps this image is a queer map of the organization, telling us all the places we have been to try and get our complaints through. The more we don’t get through, the more we have to do. Yes, this is hard, exhausting, also shattering. But think of this: each line might be a conversation, one that you had to have, a conversation that can open a door, just a little, just enough, so that someone else can enter, can hear something. Each line might be time, the time it takes to get somewhere, time as a queer line, going round and about as how you find things out. Each line might be a path, the places you go, the unlit rooms, the shadows, the doorways, a line as a lead, who you find on your way there. Each line might take us back, how we learn there are more, how we hear of others who complained before. Each line can be thrown forward, a leak as a lead, how those who come after you can pick something up, 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. What you left behind they find.  That we find each other through complaint is a finding. That complaints are made is how we come to know something happened here, what happened here: no as a trail, another queer tale.

*I have given different versions of this lecture “Complaint as a Queer Method,” over the last 2 years. This is the most recent version given as a zoom lecture (the 28th Annual Margaret Laurence Lecture Department of Gender and Social Justice, Trent University, March 10, 2022). The video is linked in the opening sentence. I have edited the spoken version only for clarification. I will be developing the framework of “complaint as a queer method” in The Complainer’s Handbook.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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