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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do want to understand the concerns.

But I still think we have a problem.

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

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


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

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




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Notes on Feminist Survival

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

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

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

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

For those of us who live at the shoreline

standing upon the constant edges of decision

crucial and alone

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deviation is hard. Deviation is made hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.




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Opening the File

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Files: things are not always as they seem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Diversity Work as Complaint

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary: complaint as ingratitude.

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

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

If this sounds familiar it is because it is familiar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the objects dare to speak?

How are they heard?

As complaint; as complainers; as complaining.

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

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

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



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

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


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Complaint as Diversity Work

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

I want to make being stricken an opportunity for thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A complaint: things are not as they appear.

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

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

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

Unused Path

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

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

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

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

Feminism: living with consequences.

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

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

We are with you; we hear you.

Feminism is about giving a complaint somewhere to go.

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

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

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

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

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



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




















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The Figure of the Abuser

The figure of the abuser is useful.

In my previous post,  I mentioned how when members of staff are identified as harassers they quickly become strangers, even foreigners, as inexpressive rather than expressive of the values of the organisation. An organization can then articulate the following statement as if it was performative: “we do not tolerate sexual harassment.” Organisations are only called upon to make such statements because they have tolerated sexual harassment: when their tolerance threatens to come out, it has to be denied. Everyone knows that these statements are only made because they are empty and have no force; even those who make them.

The figure of the abuser as a stranger or foreigner is thus useful to an organisation, as well as a profession. It is useful to the system to present an abuse of a system as an aberration or an exception. An abuse of a system is part of the system. Those who abuse power can do what they do because of how they are enabled; networks can come alive, contacts can be drawn upon, because of who is already there; what is already there.

Simply put: some can get away with ensuring they get their way. Already.

My project on complaint is not specifically about sexual abuse, sexual harassment or sexual misconduct although these problems come up because of what is brought up. Many complainants are making complaints about abusive behaviour. My project is about listening to those who challenge a system. In making a complaint, you might not think of yourself as challenging a system. But a system is what you come up against because you are making a complaint. This is why those who make complaints become diversity workers even if they did not think of complaining as diversity work from the outset.

The idea that the abuser is a stranger is part of the wider discourse of stranger danger. Stranger danger is dangerous. It is dangerous to those who are recognised as strangers, so often people of colour, black and brown bodies; those who are passing by at the edges of social experience; those who are deemed to be loitering, lurking, lacking a legitimate purpose. It is dangerous to be seen when you are seen as dangerous.

Stranger danger is also dangerous because it locates danger in the outsider: most who are endangered are endangered when they are home, because they are at home. They are most endangered by those with whom they have ties; by intimates not extimates; friends and family not strangers.

We can think of institutions as homes; places where we reside, where some are assumed to belong and others not. The location of danger in an outsider is how the institution appears as safe and protective when it is not. And abuse can usually happen because of ties that already exist, because of intimacies and connections, which means: those who abuse the power given to them by organisations might not appear as such because an abuser is assumed as a stranger.

The figure of the abuser is also useful to those who abuse power. In fact, many abuses of power are enabled because an abuser does not appear.

I think we need to know from this.

Feminism: knowing from this.

My study of complaint has already taught me so much about how power works. It has taught me how abusive behaviour is understood as a way of framing a situation (rather than as a situation). Those who identify an abuse are understood as having a point of view.  That might seem generous; but in fact it is not. Abuse is narrated as a conflict between sides; your side; my side. It is a way of neutralizing the situation because sides are assumed to be equal; to become a side is to be given the right to be treated as equal.

The idea of sides is how dominance becomes a view.

The one who is identified as abusive is understood as having a point of view. So in one case in my study, a head of department refused to discipline those identified as abusive because he said it would be “taking sides.” The abusive behavior I should add included threats of physical violence made because a complaint had already been made: comments included “grasses get slashes.” Such comments are in effect defended by being treated as a side, as what you cannot come done upon without affirming one person’s point of view over another’s.

An abuse of power becomes not simply a point of view but is enabled or reproduced by being treated as a point of view. I would add: the presentation of abuse as point of view is how domination works in general. Domination does not work by appearing as domination. Domination works by presenting a dominant view as just another view (that someone has the right to express). This is why the socially and politically dominant present themselves as discursively marginal: as having to fight a consensus to articulate a viewpoint. This is how fascism works, how fascism comes to have a hold: by articulating itself as a viewpoint that has to be fought for alongside other viewpoints. Fascism becomes dominant at that very moment it is given legitimacy as “just another point of view,” which liberal institutions must defend in defending themselves.

Hear from this: a refusal to listen to a complaint can be part of a liberal defence.

Those who abuse power are the same those who appear as portraits on the wall. I mean by this: those who abuse power already have a portrait; get closer, and you can see their point of view. They are benevolent; they feel bad; they are complex: they didn’t mean anything by it; they are full of meaning.  It is because of past abuse that we have already been given such portraits of abuse, that is, a world can be built from that point of view; to be sympathetic to such a viewpoint is to support how sympathy has already been allocated.

The complainers become unsympathetic; mean. When too much threatens to come out, other words will quickly get floated about: words like panic; words like punishment (1). He is implied to be a victim of a moral consensus; of identity politics; feminism; even neoliberalism. One person testified “my complaint was called neoliberal.” This was a complaint about sexual harassment by a member of staff.

What a calling. You can hear the implication: as if complaining is colluding with management; becoming an administrative accomplice, behaving like a consumer or even a market (2).

Those who complain about power are assumed to be holding the power. This inflation of the power of those who challenge power is how power is defended; he becomes a minority.

How could they; how mean, how lacking complexity! It is much queerer than that!

Hey: it isn’t that complicated, and it isn’t that queer. Unless you take the universal as point of view, which is how something, somebody, appears complicated.

Our task is to make it simple because we have learned to disguise something by complicating something.

Power: withholds itself by holding itself. This is how abuses of power can happen even when someone does not appear to have that much power: it can just be implied that you received that scholarship as a favour. An implication of debt can be sufficient to make someone indebted. An implication is still enabled by a position. Those who abuse the power given to them by virtue of a position speak eloquently in the language of favours; of what they can do for you if you do this for them.

The for is presented as equal, sweet, nice, honey, stick to me, honey: do this for me, honey, because I did this for you, honey.

An abuse of power might only be experienced as abuse (or harassment) when you do not go along with something. Maybe you could not start with this not. The very word  “unwelcome” is used as definitional in sexual harassment: an unwelcome advance. If you are a student, it can be hard not to welcome the professor. Your advancement might depend on being welcoming. Here’s the professor; hello professor. Everyone else seems to accept it: so what do you do?

You might hesitate. And then you might be persuaded to be more welcoming. Abuse often works through techniques of persuasion: of trying to persuade someone to enter into something. If you are persuaded, you might receive some benefits; it might even work for some time. But being persuaded often involves becoming a stranger to oneself; you only have to persuade yourself when you are not persuaded. Making a complaint in such a situation is very painful and difficult; identifying an abuse of power often means feeling complicit for not having identified it before.

A complaint can feel like guilt.

That is how power works.

When complicity is required a use is an abuse.

And: those who abuse power often present themselves not as forceful or as dominating but as needy. This is another reason it can be hard to make a complaint or to identify an abuse as an abuse: because of the sympathy you are asked to feel and that you might even come to feel. Those who abuse the power given to them by organisations often create a portrait of themselves: they might create the impression of being a victim of a hostile organisation, as in need of protection, or they might present themselves as suffering, and in need of love and affection. The creation of an impression of being needy is how a complaint is judged in advance as unkind; as hurting someone who is already fragile, as depriving someone of what they need to survive.

A complaint: it would topple him over.

The dominant are always near the edge.

How could you; how would you.

In making a complaint, you become unsympathetic.

We need to become unsympathetic.

We need to topple the system.

This post is dedicated to the students fighting fiercely to topple the system.

I hear you. I am with you.





(1). I have learned that to make a complaint about an abuse of power is viewed as a desire for punishment and as a failure to mediate; as a refusal to “talk through differences.” In reflecting more on the problem of how a complaint is perceived as punishment, I hope to return to my engagement with the literature on restorative justice from the conclusion of The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004).

(2). See my post, Against Students, for some relevant observations on the use of the figure of the consuming student.

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Cutting Yourself Off

Talking to those who have made complaints about abuses of power within universities has already taught me so much.(1) Complaint is feminist pedagogy. Listening to those who have been through a complaint process – not all of whom have been able to complete that process – has taught me what might seem obvious (and the obvious is often obscured by being obvious): the reasons making a complaint is difficult are the same reasons that making a complaint is necessary. A complaint brings you up against the culture of an institution; and a complaint is often necessary because of the culture of the institution.

In my first post on complaint, I offered the framework of a “complaint biography” as a way of addressing the life of a complaint in relation to the life of a person or group of persons. A complaint biography is not simply what happens to a complaint; a story of how a complaint comes about, where it goes, what it does, how things end up, that is, it is not simply about the institutional life (and death) of a complaint. The idea of a “complaint biography” is a recognition of how a complaint in being lodged somewhere, starts somewhere else; a complaint comes from someone, who is living a life that is compromised in some way by or in the institution in which they are doing their work; a complaint might be the start of something, things follow because a complaint has been lodged, but it is never the starting point. How would you give your own complaint biography? So many incidents, so many encounters, are often recalled, times you said something; times you did not say something. Those who lodge a complaint might have made complaints or might not have made complaints before; the decision to make a complaint is a difficult one, and sometimes people decide not to make a complaint or to make a complaint because of their past experience of having made a complaint or not having made a complaint. I am learning how complaints are often about timing.

In my first post I drew on a small fragment of a complaint biography; the experience of a woman who as a postgraduate student become the target of sexism and sexual harassment by male postgraduate students. And I tried to show how her complaint biography did not begin at the moment she decided (with a group of other women postgraduate students) to make an official complaint; it began much earlier, before she said anything, in her experience of not going along with what was being said and done. When the male students began to articulate sexist statements, calling female staff and students “milking bitches,” there was an expectation that everyone would laugh. She does not find it funny. She does not have to say anything to show something. She describes: “it felt like my reaction to it was out of kilter with everyone else. It felt really disconnected, the way I felt about the way they were behaving and the way everybody else was laughing.” By not laughing, by not going along with it, she is targeted. You become an object of harassment when you experience behaviour as harassment: “you start to stand out in that way; you are just not playing along. I got a sense then, the only way I can explain it is he decided to come after me a little bit.”

The experience of a situation as something to be complained about is an experience of coming apart from a group. I want to think of the violence of this situation. The violence of such utterances is what you are required not to notice in order to participate in the group. You have to laugh – and laugh convincingly – in order not to stand out. You can stand out by just experiencing violence as violence. And then the violence you fail not to experience as violence is redirected towards you; the violence that was already in the room is channeled in your direction. This is probably why some laugh; to avoid the channeling. Laughing could thus be considered a form of institutional passing; a way of avoiding standing out, of trying to slide by undetected. The problem of passing is that if someone fails to pass, those who have passed are still participating in what has left someone stranded.

Being stranded is part of the experience of complaint; a sense that you have been cut off from a group that you had formerly understood yourself as part of; you come apart; things fall apart. Cutting yourself off can also be a judgement made about the complainer: as if you have caused your own alienation by not going along with something. This is how a complaint teaches us about culture; we learn what is required to participate in something. A complaint teaches us about we; how a bond becomes a bind. Those who complain are often judged as causing the problem they identify by failing to be part of a we.

This is why complaint is pedagogy; we are learning about the conditions of social membership. Take two related instances. Take the case of a queer child. A queer child might be cut off from the family, either by an act of being disowned (yes this still happens) or by just not being able to participate in the family in the same way when family life renders heterosexuality a shared routine. When the queer child is disowned – or tolerated – the child might be understood not as being cut off, but as having cut herself off: as having willingly gone in the wrong direction. This is what I would call queer snap, as if you have cut yourself off by not following the straight line. Note here that act of willing misdirection is often judged as a kind of willful destruction: snap, snap, as if you are cutting up the family by living your life in a different way. We might indeed have to cut ourselves off from a group that decides our desires are cutting ourselves off from a group.

Or consider what happens when a woman of colour talks about racism within a feminist community. She understands herself as part of that community; though she might also have a sense of not being part in the same way as white women. Some of the issues that matter to her are not treated as feminist issues. But when she speaks of racism within feminism, or even just talks about why racism is a feminist issue, she is heard as being divisive. She is deemed to cause a division by naming a division. This means that: those who are not part of something (because of racism) are supposed to pass over what makes them not part of something (because of racism). And then: if you bring racism up you are understood to bring racism into existence. Even to name a problem is to become disloyal: as evidence that you were not really part of something; that you did not have your heart in something (2).

A complaint can indeed be treated as a form of disloyalty; a disloyalty not only to a department or institution but to some we or another. Individuals within a group then experience the requirement to justify their behavior as an imposition from someone who is judged to have made themselves an outsider by virtue of creating such a requirement. Being targeted because you are identified as the source of a complaint (sometimes wrongly) is common. That targeting can come from official sources (in other words, those who communicate with the complainer during a complaint procedure can target or bully the complainer to try and stop a complaint from going further) and also unofficially, from peers who understand themselves to be loyal to a we and threatened by the complaint insofar as they have an allegiance to that we.

My opening example was about sexist conduct. I am thus suggesting that accepting sexism might be a requirement in becoming part of a department or cohort. Even if a sexist utterance is made by an individual, it has a life or a career, somewhere to go, because of how it is picked up by others. When there is a pick up, the utterances are held, often by the institutions in which they are made. We might call this institutional sexism.

Institutional sexism and institutional racism exist even after institutions are committed to gender and race equality. We learn from this too: universities have official commitments to equality that ought to stop the use of sexist and racist language. A policy can be about what ought not to exist. I noted in my lecture, Institutional as Usual, that something can come into existence without coming into use. The idea that something should not exist, or even that something does not exist because it should not exist, might be how something remains in use. What is used more is often framed as prohibited (what is not supposed to exist), which is how racist and sexist utterances can be made as if they are rebellious. The “norm as rebel” is how the “norm is norm.”

An official response to what is not supposed to happen but is a norm often takes the form of denial.

The student describes what followed her experience:

I think the staff member knew I was deeply upset by it. I pretty much left the table.  And he (the staff member) followed me out and started a conversation, and this is when probably in hindsight it started to get difficult, in that staff member started to lean on me; immediately he said to me, oh you know what he’s like, he’s got a really strange sense of humour, he didn’t mean anything by it, and the implication was I was being a bit over-sensitive and that I couldn’t take a joke, and that I need to sort of forget about it and move on.

A complaint: leaving the table. As I noted in my earlier post, that there is an effort to stop the student from complaining about the situation in the situation. She is told not to say anything; not to be over-sensitive, not to do anything, not to cause trouble. This is how banter is used; to justify use as if words can be stripped from a history, such that to hear a wrong is to hear wrongly, to impose something on somebody. A use is sustained by a fantasy that a use can be suspended. The staff member in warning her not to complain, by leaning in this way, positions himself with the harasser, treating the verbal onslaught as joke, something she should take. Indeed, when she refused the instruction not to say anything by making a complaint, the complaint sent out an alert; when the students who had conducted themselves in this way found out from the head of department that a complaint had been made, they initiated a violent campaign (including threats of physical harm) to those they thought had initiated the complaint.

Cutting yourself off is a judgement. It can also be a punishment.

In another case, a student talked of how she had participated along with a number of other students in a complaint about harassment from a member of staff. These students were accused by other students not only of cutting themselves off from the cohort but of depriving other students of what they needed for their education:

We were accused of having caused the disruption in their studies. They valued their desire to have him as a professor over those who were suffering psychologically because of his harassment. I was told I should have consulted the whole class before going ahead with a complaint. We needed to be in “solidarity” with those whose education was now being disrupted, not the other way around.

To complain about harassment is to be judged as cutting yourself off from a collective. And then you are cut off from that collective. In other words, what follows the action is what gives confirmation to the judgement. Note that the other students are not disputing that the harassment happened. The implication is that to be loyal to your peer group is to accept the harassment as part of the deal.

The deal: you have to get used to it, or get out of it. Those who complain refuse that deal.

This implication is not only that a complaint is a standing apart but those who complain do so out of self-interest as opposed to group interest. (3) It is this implication that we need to interrogate further: how group interests are assumed to coincide with the acceptance of abuses of power.

In cases when a member of staff is recognised as having abused power (and in all the cases I know of such recognition only happens after a long and painful battle for recognition, most often led by students) another version of cutting off occurs. The member of staff is quickly re-positioned as a stranger, even as a foreigner, as not expressing the values of the organization; rather than as being enabled by what the organisation enabled.

We need to think about what organisations enable; who they enable. A woman of colour academic told me how she set up a reading group and a writing group in her department. Those groups quickly became occupied by senior men: “What I found in each of the meetings were senior men who were bullying everyone in the room.” Those who have power can influence and direct discussions often by undermining the confidence of others: “The first session someone was being just really abusive, about someone’s PhD saying it was rubbish.” A racist comment is made: “I’m from London and London is just ripe for ethnic cleansing.” She described how people laughed, how the laughter filled the room; again, laughter as holding. As she puts it, “Those were the sorts of things being aired.” These are the sorts of things; a sentence as a sentencing; violence thrown out can be how you are thrown out.

She decided to make a complaint because she “wanted it recorded” and because “this culture was being reproduced for new PhD students.”  She gathered statements from around twenty people in her department who shared her objections to how the space had become occupied. A complaint can be a feminist collective. Even then she was described by the head of human resources as “having a chip on her shoulder.” She adds: “they treated the submission as an act of arrogance on my part.” A feminist we can be heard as me; as how she is getting ahead of herself. A complaint is treated as self-promotional. Even when we combine our forces, it is hard to get through (4).

Many of those I have spoken to thus far have talked of how a complaint is treated not only as potential damage but as actual damage: as damaging the reputation of a university, damaging the reputation and life chances of an individual person if an individual person is the object of complaint, and also as damaging projects, “ruining the department” or “spoiling the student experience.” If a complaint is treated as damage, those who complain end up having to pay high costs. This is another way cutting yourself off works: a warning about costs. I will return to warnings in future posts. A warning works by trying to dissuade the would-be complainer by declaring in advance what the costs of the action will be: when cutting yourself off is a warning, you are being told that you will not receive the benefits you would otherwise receive (such as references, funding). If you proceed with a complaint, it is then as if you are damaging yourself or depriving yourself of the connections you would need to progress (5). And: if you proceed with a complaint and it is damaging, it is then understood that you brought that damage upon yourself.

A warning is a projection of a future. It is a future that no-one wants: institutional death (6); the end of the line. A warning is thus also a threat: do this and that will follow.

A complaint also involves an interpretation of the past. One student who participated in a complaint with other students about misogyny in her peer group describes how “cutting yourself off” is used to explain their complaint. She gives an account of a meeting with the head of department: “She said even before you put in this complaint, and now you’ve put in this complaint, you’ve really separated yourself from this department. She said even by having a knitting club (and men and women were in the knitting club) that was already a sign of separating yourselves from the department. She said what do you want, do you want your own women’s space, trying to make it was some kind of militant feminism. Obviously it was a feminist project but what we asking for was equality and safety and people to feel welcome in that space.”

Past activities are swept up as symptoms of some having “separated themselves”: as if some complain because they are not better integrated into a department. Even a mixed knitting club can become a sign of a subversion-to-come. I think we need to hear what is at stake in how complainers are identified as militant. One way a complaint can be dismissed is by magnifying the demand; a demand for “equality and safety” is treated as wanting to bring an end to what or who already exists, or as separatism, as not wanting to share a space or a culture. This is how a complaint is treated as vandalism; “a willful destruction of what is venerable and beautiful.” (7)

A complaint is thus framed as a failure of integration: as not being willing to put aside your differences, as a failure to love, a professor say, or a department, or a university. Integration can mean in practice the expectation that you should put up with forms of behaviour that negate your existence.

Integration, that heavy word, is often used, overused, to describe a national project. It is the migrant or the would-be-citizen who has to integrate; those who are deemed to “come after.” Coming after means having to accept what is understood as national culture or even just culture. In other words, culture becomes priority; it is how some are given priority. As we know national culture in the UK is often articulated through the language of diversity and equality. We are getting to the heart of the matter here. Diversity and equality are not just ideals the nation has or is supposed to have; they are ideas we have of the nation. What is in existence is not always in use. In fact, integration can really mean: not being able to identify how a we has already failed those ideals. To speak of racism or sexism, to name the harassment committed by those who have been given priority, becomes a failure of integration. And racism, sexism, harassment: they are directed more toward those who identify them more. You just have to say words like racism and sexism and you will be heard as making a complaint. We know what follows such a hearing.

Inequality masked as equality: complaints reveal a mask and threaten to show an image of we that a we is not willing to consider. In the accounts I have been collecting, the mask has been slipping. Complaint as feminist pedagogy.



(1) I am aware that I am using “abuses of power” as a shorthand here and will be explaining rather than assuming what I mean by this expression in the study. Thus far I have heard about complaints relating to sexism, cissexism, heterosexism, racism, classism, ableism and ageism as well as sexual abuse, sexual misconduct, sexual harassment and bullying. I have also heard stories in which an abuse of power occurred because of a dispute that did not seem, in the first instance, to do with an abuse of power. My project is framed around the university, as a body I know, to show how complaints are embedded within the institutions in which they are lodged. In my work I have understood the institutional as a form of directed human traffic (we can call this social traffic, the way we are directed toward the more used paths). If a complaint is “in” an institution we also need to recognise that complaints about abuses of power might still tend to go in the direction of social traffic: this mean that a complaint might be more likely to be successful, or get uptake, if a person has more power (if a complaint requires being convincing there’s a politics to whose more convincing). This also means that those with more power can use complaint as a technique of power. This is complicating and I will address the complications, but we need to be very careful. A related example: recognising that equality can be used as a technique of audit culture (ticking boxes) does not mean dismissing equality; however people (including governments) can use that use as a dismissal. The misuse of complaint could also be used to dismiss those who have to complain if they are to have any chance of inhabiting a space or progressing within an organisation. Given that responses to complaints tend to amplify the power of the complaint and of the complainer (these responses are defences) these uses of the misuse of complaint can constitute another misuse of complaint. Yes: it is complicated! We need to take much feminist care in handling this.

(2) In The Promise of Happiness (2010) I explored how investment in racism (rather than racism itself) is narrated as the primary obstacle to inclusion. I am now realising how my earlier argument could be understood in terms of complaint (as what you must give up in order to participate in the national game). I wrote then: “The figure of the melancholic migrant is a familiar one in contemporary British race politics. The melancholic migrant holds onto the unhappy objects of differences, such as the turban, or at least the memory of being teased about the turban, which ties it to a history of racism.  Such differences become sore points or blockage points, where the smooth passage of communication stops. The melancholic migrant is the one who is not only stubbornly attached to difference, but who insists on speaking about racism, where such speech is heard as labouring over sore points. The duty of the migrant is to let go of the pain of racism by letting go of racism as a way of understanding that pain.” Complaint could also be understood as labouring over sore points.

(3) In my work on happiness and the will, I have noted how those who challenge social norms are often judged as putting themselves first, as acting like individuals in opposition to a collective good. There is much to learn from this. I am still trying to learn from this.

(4) A number of the complaints I have learned about are collective complaints; when a group works together to put a complaint forward. I will return to collectivity and complaint in future posts.

(5) Note the shift here from complaint as self-promotional to complaint as self-damage. In both cases, complaint is made self-referential. I am developing the argument I made in the chapter, “Feminist Snap,” from Living a Feminist Life (2017), where snapping is understood as self-harm, as depriving yourself of what you would need for a good life.

(6) If this seems somewhat dramatic, one of the common ways of describing complaint is as a form of career suicide. I will return to this description in later posts. Please note being threatened with institutional death does not inevitably lead to institutional death. But it does mean that feminists need to participate in the institutional life of those who have been threatened with institutional death (by supporting those who are cut off from official networks). However my research thus far has taught me that there is no guarantee that feminists will do this work. Some students and staff who have made complaints have relayed to me their shock at not being supported by other feminists within the organisation. I will come back to this issue, but I have some thoughts derived in part from my own experience of this problem:  If we want to transform institutions we have an institutional project, which might also be a diversity project, a feminist project. We use the more used path. Even if we proceed on a path in order to disrupt it we can end up not disrupting it in order to proceed. This paradox is often presented as a utilitarian choice, a fantasy choice, join or die, which is another version of get used to it or get out of it. Join is a nice word; to join as to be part of something. Being seen as choosing not to die, choosing not to have your projects cease to be (the double negative), choosing your projects (turned into a positive), can mean you sign up to so much when you join up. When you sign up it becomes harder to speak up; or speak out about the violence of the institution, without compromising your own projects. The imperative to join can have deadly consequences: you might not speak out about the abuse of power within your own institution because to speak out would drain resources from your projects; it would be to lose it, not use it. This is my view: if we are silent about abuses of power within institutions where we do our feminist work, to enable us to do that work, feminism is not working. We need activism here. We need dismantling projects here.

(7) I will discuss how decolonizing the curriculum is treated as vandalism in a future post.

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Institutional As Usual

I have been away from my blog for some time! Over the summer, I completed the second draft of my book, What’s the Use: On The Uses of Use, which I have now sent to my publishers. There will be a long process of review and revision but it is a step closer to coming out into the world. Since then I have been giving some lectures in the UK and the US. I have been trying to bring together my research into diversity, complaint and use by addressing the institutional as usual. Thank you so much to those who have come along to my lectures! I have learnt so  much from the conversations that followed.

I am sharing the version of the lecture I gave at Barnard College and Princeton University. I have preserved it in the form it was given with some minor corrections and additions and explanatory notes.

The Institutional As Usual: Diversity Work as Data Collection, lecture given by Sara Ahmed at Barnard College on October 16 2017, and Princeton University on October 17 2017.

I want to start with a description of the institutional as usual.  Diversity work, the work of trying to transform institutions by opening them up to populations for which they were not intended, generates data on institutions, snap shots of institutional life taken from the point of view of those trying not to reproduce that life.

A snap shot: I am having an informal meeting with a diversity practitioner. She is talking to me about how she felt about her job; how she felt about the university that employed her. She spoke of how most of her time was spent preparing for committees, which usually meant writing documents: writing the agenda for the next committee, minutes of the last, new policies for consideration, often prompted by changes in legislation. There is a lot of paper work – a lot of stuff – in diversity work. Diversity work is stuffy. How institutions do committees varies. Once you have been somewhere for a certain length of time, as long as it takes not to be surprised by your surroundings, you have become used to it; it is business as usual.  You know what usually happens; the usual is a field of expectation that derives its contours from past experience. Some of this routine is about formal process: the motions you go through, how often committees feel like going through the motions; reviewing the minutes from that past meeting; chairs and secretaries with their specific tasks; any other business, always last.

Committees are also spaces: we are occupied when we are in a committee: there are ways of talking, ways of being seated; ways of doing the work. When a room is properly assembled, a meeting can progress. In our conversation the diversity practitioner spoke of one time when she turned up for the equality and diversity committee for which she was the secretary. This committee is chaired by a senior member of the university, a white male professor.  At the time all members of the senior management were white male professors: he is how the professor usually appears. However he appears, the professor is there because he is the chair.  When the diversity worker turns up, she finds the room is already occupied. The chair was already there, as was another member of the committee, also a white male professor. They were lounging around, confident, taking up the time. They were talking about the breakfasts they used to have when they were students at Cambridge University; laughing, a shared memory of consuming. A memory can be consuming. A memory can occupy space. A casual conversation about a past experience of an elite institution can fill the space, the space becomes elite, for a select few, how a few are selected; a sense of ownership spills out and over, our space, our diversity, our university, ours. She said they did not stop talking to each other when she entered the room, the person who had sent them the papers that were on the table; they just keep talking to each other as if she was not there. Perhaps for them she was not there.  This practitioner said to me about her experience of turning up at a diversity committee, only to find it already occupied, and her words have stayed with me because they got through to me:  “I realised how far away they were from my world.”

I realised how far away they were from my world.”  We learn: a committee set up to transform a world can be how a world is reassembled.   We also learn: those of us who arrive in institutions that were not intended for us bring with us worlds that would not otherwise be here.  In the descriptions I have offered thus far, by way of an introduction, I have deliberately made use of the vocabularies of use, including the words used, usual and usually. My task in today’s lecture is to think about diversity and universities by starting with use, a small word that has a lot of work to do, a small word with a big history; use has had and does have many uses. My arguments build on the important critiques of how diversity operates within universities offered by Chandra Talpade Mohanty (2003), Gloria Wekker (2016) and Heidi Mirza (2015). I will be drawing on some of the data I collected from an empirical project on diversity work in universities, which I first discussed in my book, On Being Included, as well as from my current project on complaint.

I will also be introducing today some arguments from a book I have recently completed entitled, What’s the Use. In the book I follow use around, the way I followed happiness in The Promise of Happiness (2010) and the will in Willful Subjects (2014). And I have followed use right back into the university. We can explore for instance how London University (now UCL) was established through the mobilization of arguments about useful knowledge. Many of those involved in the setting up of London University, such as James Mill and Lord Henry Brougham were also involved in The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, which were both established in 1826. I will not be addressing the history of the idea of useful knowledge today. But I wanted to note that if following use takes us back to the university, use allows us to show how universities are assembled, as it were, brick by brick. When I visiting the archives of the UCL, I was able to witness the history of decisions about how the university was to be built. On May 6 1827, stones were brought to the Building Committee, Portland and Edinburgh Stones, in order to help make a decision about which stones to use. I think of stones there, on the table; part of the proceedings. The stones have a story to tell. The stones can be how we tell the story of a university. If bricks become walls, stones become steps. Jay Dolmage describes how steep steps are material but also create an idea of the university: “that access to the university is a movement upwards—only the truly ‘fit’ survive this climb” (2017, 44). Following use has allowed me to reflect on how worlds take form around bodies and to connect bodies of work that are usually kept distinct – such as literatures in design and biology that make use of use to explain the acquisition of form.

Uses of Use

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

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

Use can correspond to intended function, but use does not necessarily correspond to an intended function. This not is an opening. I am not so sure if uses are quite as unrevealing about things as Risatti implies (“knowing these uses doesn’t necessarily reveal much about these objects”). I am being told something about the qualities of a sledgehammer that it can used to be a paperweight. That a sledgehammer can be used as a paperweight tells me about the heaviness of the sledgehammer. Something cannot be used for anything. Use is a restriction of possibility that is material. Nevertheless there is something queer about use; intentions do not exhaust possibilities. The keys that are used to unlock a door can be used as a toy, perhaps because they are shiny and sliver; perhaps because they jangle.

Note also the implication that use makes something usable. This strange temporality matters: what makes something possible comes after; we are perhaps more used to thinking of possibility as precedence. Use also makes something used. When we think of something as being used, we might also think of buying something second-hand. Like this book, a book on hands that was handy, which I bought as a used book.


Image 1: A book on hands that was handy.

A used book is usually cheaper than a new book. The more signs of usage = less value, unless the user is esteemed, when the value of a person can rub off on the value of a thing. Wear and tear usually means a depreciation of value. Marx discusses wear and tear in relation to machines: “The material wear and tear of a machine is of two kinds. The one arises from use, as coins wear away by circulating, the other from non-use, as a sword rusts when left in its scabbard” ([1867] 1990, 528). Marx showed how machinery intensifies rather than saves labour: you have to get the most of the machine before it wears out, a wearing that is passed on to workers, wearing as passing on and passing out; used as used up.

Wear and tear in this economy is the loss of value determined by the extraction of value. To value use might require a change of values. To value use would not be to romanticize what is preserved as a historical record: signs of life can be signs of exhaustion, which is to say, signs of life can be signs of how a life has been extinguished. Perhaps we can think of use as a record of the fragility of a life. In writing about use, I have deliberately made use of “used books. With this book in my hands I can tell others have been here before. I think of the reader who circled the word grief. I cannot trace you but you left a trace. Use leaves traces in places.

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


Image 2: Lost its Handle

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

Occupied toilet

Image 3: A sign on a door

This sign tells us that the toilet is in use. It tells us that we cannot use the toilet until whoever is using the toilet is finished. Use often comes with instructions that are about maintaining bodily and social boundaries. Or take this image of a post box.


Image 4: The post-box is out of use because it is occupied

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

Back into use: use can involve comings and goings.  Take the example of the well-trodden path.

Used Path 2

Image 5: The more a path is used the more a path is used

The path exists in part because people have used it. Use involves contact and friction, the tread of feet smooths the surface; the path is becoming smoother, easier to follow. The more a path is used the more a path is used. How strange that this sentence makes sense. Without use a path can disappear, becoming overgrown, bumpy; unusable.   Like this path, we know it is a path because of a sign but you can hardly see the sign for the trees.

Unused Path

Image 6: You can hardly see the sign for the trees

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

A path can appear like a line on a landscape. But a path can also be a route through life. Collectivity can be acquired as direction; the more a path is traveled upon the clearer it becomes. A path can be kept clear, maintained; you can be supported by how a route is cleared; heterosexuality for instance can become a path, a route through life, a path that is kept clear, maintained not only be the frequency of use, a frequency can be an invitation, but by an elaborate support system. When it is harder to proceed, when a path is harder to follow, you might be discouraged; you might try and find another route. A consciousness of the need to make more of an effort can be a disincentive. Just think of how we can be dissuaded by perpetual reminders of how hard something would be. Deviation is hard. Deviation is made hard.

Thoughts, feelings; they too have paths. Within empirical psychology, the path is in use as a way of thinking about thought.  John Locke, for example, once suggested  that thoughts “once set agoing, continue in the same shape they are used to, which, by often treading, are worn into a smooth path, and the motion in it becomes easy and as it were natural” ([1690] 1997, 531). Used to: that which is wearing. A history of use is a history of becoming natural. William James in his psychology cites the work of Dumont on habit:

Everyone knows how a garment having been worn a certain time clings better to the shape of the body than when it was new. A lock works better after being used some time; at the outset a certain force was required to overcome certain roughness in the mechanism. The overcoming of their resistance is a phenomenon of habituation. ([1819] 1950: 105, emphasis mine).

A garment becomes more attuned to the body the more the garment is worn. I will return to the well-used garment in due course.  The example of the lock and the key suggests that it is through use that things become easier to use. Less force might be required to get a key through a lock. This is how acts of use are the building blocks of habit: if we take habit as our unit, we would miss these smaller steps, which accumulate to take us somewhere.   If use takes time, use saves time; use makes something easier to use, less effort is required to complete an action.

The idea that use keeps something alive, or that using something makes something easier to use, is supplemented by another idea central to the emergence of modern biology: that use in making something stronger, and disuse, in making something weaker, shapes the very form of life. For example, Lamarck the French naturalist who first used the word biology in its modern sense, offered a law of use and disuse: “a more frequent and continuous use of any organ gradually strengthens, develops and enlarges that organ, and gives it a power proportional to the length of time it has been so used; while the permanent disuse of any organ imperceptibly weakens and deteriorates it, and progressively diminishes its functional capacity, until it finally disappears” ([1809]1914, 113).  These acquired modifications for Lamarck can be inherited, what he called use inheritance. What is used or disused is dependent on an environment. Use is how an organism receives a message from the environment.

Lamarck’s famous example is the giraffe’s neck, although he only uses this example once (1). For Lamarck the giraffe’s neck grows longer not through conscious volition but as an effect of repeated efforts that become directional over time. He describes: “efforts in a particular direction, when they are sustained or habitually made by certain parts of a living body, for the satisfaction of needs established by nature or environment, cause an enlargement of the parts and the acquisition of a size and shape that they would not have obtained if these efforts had not become the normal activities of the animal exerting them” (123, emphasis mine). When an effort becomes normal, a form has been acquired.  When such form has been acquired, less effort is needed; the giraffe does not have to reach so high to reach the foliage.  Use inheritance translates as: the lessening of the effort required to survive within an environment.

At certain points Lamarck does seem to imply that a use for something would bring it into existence. This was one of the reasons Charles Darwin was rather disparaging about Lamarck’s work: the implication he heard  that modifications can be brought about by conscious effort or will (2).  We can find evidence of his disparagement in another used book, Darwin’s personal copy of Lamarck’s Historie Naturale. I would have liked to reproduce Darwin’s marginalia, but he wrote them in pencil; the inscription would have been too faint to reproduce even if I had permission to reproduce it. But the comments are available by virtue of  digital reproduction. Darwin wrote on the margins: “because use improves an organ – wishing for it, or its use, produces it!!! Oh.” (3).

Despite how Darwin and Lamarck appear to deviate at least from Darwin’s point of view on this question of use, Darwin himself often represents natural selection and the law of use and disuse as working together: “natural selection would probably have been greatly aided by the inherited effects of the increased or diminished use of different parts of the body” ([1871] 1992, 39).  And it is interesting to note that Darwin offers a reuse of the architect metaphor in describing the mechanism of natural selection despite how this metaphor risks the implication of design:

Let an architect be compelled to build an edifice with uncut stones, fallen from a precipice. The shape of each fragment may be called accidental; yet the shape of each has been determined by the force of gravity, the nature of the rock, and the slope of the precipice,—events and circumstances, all of which depend on natural laws; but there is no relation between these laws and the purpose for which each fragment is used by the builder. The shape of the fragments of stone at the base of our precipice may be called accidental, but this is not strictly correct; for the shape of each depends on a long sequence of events, all obeying natural laws; on the nature of the rock, on the lines of deposition or cleavage, on the form of the mountain which depends on its upheaval and subsequent denudation, and lastly on the storm or earthquake which threw down the fragments. But in regard to the use to which the fragments may be put, their shape may be strictly said to be accidental (1868, 248-249, emphasis added).

An architect can be a builder who makes use of stones without cutting them in order to fit a design. The stones are thrown up, or available, according to natural laws. These stones were not made in order to be used. They become useful to the architect once he has begun building. If the shape of a stone is determined by a long sequence of events, it is still an accident that the shape of this stone fits the shape of that hole in the building of this wall.  You are more likely to use a stone that happens to fit that space; use as happening, hap, even happyI will return to Darwin’s happy use of the architect metaphor in due course.

Institutional Habits

Through reflecting on institutional use we thicken our account of use.  When we are habituated or attuned to the environment, we know what usually happens. Diversity workers are trying to transform what has become a habit, not to follow the well-used paths; not to go the way things flow. We learn about the institutional (as usual) from those trying to transform institutions.  Diversity work often requires become conscious of use; confronting or bringing to the front what is often reproduced by receding into the background.

 And yet at another level it seems that diversity at least as a word is the way things are going. How do practitioners explain their use of diversity? One practitioner observes: “I would say that the term diversity is just used now because it’s more popular.  You know it’s in the press so why would we have equal opportunities when we can just say its diversity.”  We can “just say its diversity” if diversity is “just used now.” Use becomes a reason for use, the circularity of a logic transformed into a tool. Many practitioners suggested that diversity is “just used now,” because of its affective qualities as a lighter, happy or positive term. Another practitioner describes: “Diversity obscures the issues…  It can, diversity is like a big shiny red apple right, and it all looks wonderful but if you actually cut into that apple there’s a rotten core in there and you know that it’s actually all rotting away and it’s not actually being addressed.  It all looks wonderful but the inequalities aren’t being addressed.” Diversity might be used because of what it allows organizations not to address. Intended functionality can be used to refer not only to the intended function of an object but to what is stated as the intended function of an action. There is gap between what is being stated or given expression as an intention, and what is being done.

Sometimes you have to use words more because of what is not being done. One practitioner noted: “I think it [equity] became a tired term because it was thrown around a lot and I think…well I don’t know…because our title is equity and social justice, somebody the other day was saying to me “oh there’s equity fatigue, people are sick of the word equity” ….oh well OK we’ve gone through equal opportunity, affirmative action – they are sick of equity – now what do we call ourselves?!  They are sick of it because we have to keep saying it because they are not doing it.” We use a word more because we are not getting through; we keep saying what they do not do. Words seem almost the opposite of muscles. The more you use words, the floppier they become; they become looser, less tight, less precise; less sharp. This argument contradicts what has been called “the law of exercise,” where to use is strengthen. This contradiction needs to matter to a theory of use that is robust enough to explain different uses of use.

So: diversity does less because it is used more. Or diversity is used more because it does less. This or is and.

Even if diversity workers are appointed by institutions to transform them, it does not mean institutions are willing to be transformed. One practitioner described her work thus : “it is a banging your head against a brick wall job. A job description becomes a wall description.  If you keep banging your head against the brick wall, but the wall keeps its place, it is you that gets sore. And what happens to the wall?  All you seemed to have done is scratched the surface. This is what diversity work often feels like: scratching the surface, scratching at the surface.

Scratched wall 3

Image 7: Scratching the surface

But even if you have only scratched the surface, you can still be liable for damages. Doing diversity work often means you collect wall stories; the wall is data.

Let me share a wall story:

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

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

The wall: that which keeps standing.  The wall is a finding. Let me summarize the finding: what stops movement moves.  In other words, the mechanisms for stopping something are mobile, which means when we witness the movement we can miss the mechanism. This is quite important because organisations tend to create evidence of movement; of just how much they are doing.  Creating evidence of doing something is not the same as doing something. This is why I have called diversity workers institutional plumbers: they have to work out not only where something is blocked but how it is blocked. In our example, what stopped something from happening could have been the removal of the policy from the minutes; it could have been the failure to notice this removal; but it wasn’t. It was the way in which those within the institution acted after the policy had been agreed.   Agreeing to something can be another way of stopping something from happening.  A diversity policy can come into existence without coming into use.  I noted earlier how a sign is often used to make a transition from something being in and out of use, such as in this case of the post-box. Institutions are also postal systems.


Image 8: another function

Maybe the diversity worker deposits the policy in the post-box because she assumes the box is in use.  It is a reasonable assumption: she is following the procedure. The post-box that is not in use without a sign saying it is not in use might have another function: to stop a policy from going through the whole system. The policy becomes dusty, rather like Marx’s rusty sword; from rusty to dusty.

A policy can become unusable by not being used.

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


Image 9: You might end up feeling used up

Or you might fly off the handle, to recall that broken cup. To fly off the handle can mean to snap or to lose your temper.


Image 10: To lose a handle on things

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

I think it is important to note that the policy that was stopped by not being used was a policy about how academic appointments are made.  A university is shaped by a history of appointments. When I attended the UCL archives, I got a sense of the shape of that history. The secretary wrote letters in response to those who expressed interest in teaching at the new university. Once you had read one of these letters, it seemed you had read them all: they were standardized; each letter might as well as have been a copy of another letter. A standard is what you create when you use the same form. But then one letter jumped out. It was a letter sent in response to Professor Johann Freidrich Meckel in 1827 who was a star professor in his time (4). What is striking about the letter sent to Meckel is how the standards were suspended for the star professor; the letter is long and gushing, detailed and personal. This suspension of a standard can become standard. It can be usual to bypass what is usual. I know of many recent cases where the usual procedures are bypassed to enable the recruitment of such-and-such star professor, even though this bypassing is a bypassing of equal opportunities procedures that are supposed to be compulsory.

We can begin to appreciate a difficulty here: diversity workers often try to develop new procedures to stop the reproduction of the same thing, but procedures are suspended to enable that very reproduction. Appointment panels thus become places to go, if you want to learn more about how institutions are reproduced; how decisions are made about who is “appointable” (a much used, over-used term). A person in a diversity training session I attended shared that people in her department used an unofficial criteria for appointability of whether someone was “the kind of person you can take down to the pub”. They wanted someone who can inhabit those spaces with them, being with as being like; someone they can relate to, drink with.  I remember one time a woman of color was being considered for a job, she worked on race and sexuality, and someone said in a departmental meeting with concern, “but we already have Sara,” is if having one of us was more than enough. There was a murmured consensus that she replicated me, even though our work was different. There was no such concern about other areas. Concern; no concern; how things stay the same by seeing others as the same.

I want to go back to my discussion of uses of use. An institution is an environment. Environments are dynamic; it is because environments change that uses change. An institution, however, works as a container technology.  You reproduce something by stabilizing the requirements for what you need to survive or thrive in environment.  Once these requirements have been stabilized, they do not have to be made explicit. Use becomes instead a question of fit. Remember Darwin’s use of the architect metaphor? The builder uses the stone that happens to fit. An institution is built. It appears as if the moment of use is hap: that this person just happens to fit the requirements, that this stone just happens to the same shape and size as this hole in that wall.  Once a building has been built, once it has taken form, more or less, some more than others will fit the requirements.  Indeed “hap” can then be used ideologically: as if they are here because they just happened to fit, rather than they fit because of how the structure was built.  A structure is the gradual removal of hap from use in the determination of a requirement. In Lamarck’s model, use becomes inheritance, in shaping form it lessens of effort required to do something within an environment. When you fit, and fitting here is formal, a question of form, you inherit the lessening of effort. So a path, say in the sense of a career path or even a life trajectory, is not simply made more usable by being used.  Some have more paths laid out more clearly in front of them because they already fit a requirement. In other words, it is not just constancy of use that eases a passage. Use is eased for those who inherit the right form, whereby rightness means the degree of a fit with an expectation.  For as before acquires a new resonance here: when a world is built for some, they come before others.


People do come to inhabit organizations that are not intended for them; you can make the cut without fitting.  If you arrive into an organization that is not built for you, you experience this for as tight or as a tightening. If you are the one for whom an institution is intended for is loose; you might experience the institution as open because it is open to you. If use is a restriction of possibility that is material, as I suggested earlier, some encounter that restriction more than others.  This is why I think of an institution as an old garment:  it has acquired the shape of those who tend to wear it such that it becomes easier to wear if you have that shape.   And this is why I think of privilege as an energy saving device; less effort is required to pass through when a world has been assembled around you. If you arrive with dubious origins, you are not expected to be there, so in getting there you have already disagreed with an expectation of who you are and what you can do, then an institution is the wrong shape.  Annette Kuhn describes how as a working-class girl in a grammar school she feels “conspicuously out of place” (1995, 111). She describes this sense of being out of place by giving us a biography of her school uniform; how by the time her ill-fitting uniform came to fit, it had become “shabby” and “scruffy.”  The word “wear” originally derives from the Germanic word for clothing. It then acquires a secondary sense of “use up, gradually damage” from the effect of continued use on clothes. It is not just that when something is used more it fits better. If you are the wrong shape you have to make more of an effort: use then does not smooth a passage, or enable a better fit, but can lead to corrosion and damage. This difference – between use that enables a smoothing of a passage and use that leads to corrosion and damage – is a distributed difference.

Not fitting can be about the body you have; not fitting can be about your own requirements.  When you don’t meet the requirements you become to borrow Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s  important term, a misfit. As she describes: “The built and arranged space through which we navigate our lives tends to offer fits to majority bodies and create misfits with minority forms of embodiment, such as people with disabilities” (2014, np). Fitting becomes work for those who do not fit; people with disabilities in ablest institutions have to push, push, push; and sometimes no amount of pushing will get you in. You can also become a misfit given what has become routine. An organisation that organizes long meetings without any breaks assumes a body that can be seated without breaks. If someone arrives who cannot maintain this position, they do not meet the requirements.  If you lay down during the meeting you would throw the meeting into crisis. A social justice project might require throwing meetings into crisis.

The misfit exists in close proximity to the killjoy. If a meeting has been planned in a room that is not accessible to those with mobility restrictions, or at a time that is not possible for those with caring responsibilities, and a request is made for the room to be changed, or the time changed, that request is heard as being difficult, or negative, and being demanding, as imposing your will upon others; as depriving others of their first preference. You should not have to ask for a room change or a time change in order to be accommodated. But if you have to ask for a room change or a time change, a request becomes theft: as if you are stealing their room and their time.

If a space has to be modified to enable you to participate, it is not just that is harder for you to participate; your participation is deemed disruptive. You stop how things usually flow. You have to try to fit in when or because you do not fit in. A woman of colour describes this work: “I think with a person of colour there’s always a question of what’s this woman going to turn out like… they’re nervous about appointing people of colour into senior positions….Because if I went in my Sari and wanted prayer time off and started rocking the boat and being a bit different and asserting my kind of culture I’m sure they’d take it differently.” Some forms of difference are heard as “rocking the boat,” as if you are only different because you are insistent (on being different). Trying not to cause  disruption might require discarding parts of yourself, parts of your history, such as garments, a sari say, or rituals, a prayer, words, what you cannot say.

I suggested earlier that the word diversity might be used more because less, as well as do less because it is used more. Think of the word “racism.”   Audre Lorde (1984) described so well how racism is heard as getting in the way of “smooth communication.” Any use of the word racism is heard as overuse. When words evoke histories that create friction, they catch attention, they sound louder.  Words can evoke histories, bodies too. Sometimes turning up is enough to bring a history up, a history that gets in the way of an occupation of space.

A social category is a dwelling: that which gives residence.  We can recall the sign occupied.

Occupied toilet

Image 11: That which gives residence

You can enter if the toilet is vacant. Even spaces that seem available for anyone to enter can be closed.  Before you get to one door, you might have to get through another. You can be stopped from using the women’s toilet because you are seen as not woman: you become not only a body out of place but a body that threatens those who are in place. You might have to become insistent to pee, and given that peeing is necessary for being, insistent to pee really means insistent to be.

Some have to insist on belonging to the categories that give residence to others.

The university too is occupied. This occupation leaves traces in places, on walls; portraits of dead white men as reminders of who the university is for. One thinks of UCL, where you can encounter Bentham’s dead body, well minus a head or with a wax head, or enter a lecture room named after  Francis Galton, who coined the word eugenics and who donated funds to enable the setting up a Laboratory in National Eugenics as well as a Professor of Eugenics. UCL has removed the word “Eugenics” from the programme and Professorship and replaced it with “genetics,” perhaps because Eugenics is too revealing, too contaminated by a history (5). Lose the word, keep the thing; not using as reproducing. They have kept Galton’s name, however.

Galton bequest

Image 12: “I inherited him”

When asked to justify the continued use of Galton’s name by a member of the audience at a panel, Why Isn’t My Professor Black that took place in 2014, the Provost of UCL said, “my only defence is that I inherited him.” Use inheritance becomes use as inheritance.

Histories come in with who comes in.  You can be stopped from using a space by how others are using that space. A woman of colour academic describes to me how she set up a reading group and a writing group in her department. Those groups quickly became occupied by senior men: “What I found in each of the meetings were senior men who were bullying everyone in the room.” Those who have power can influence and direct discussions often by undermining the confidence of others: “The first session someone was being just really abusive, about someone’s PhD saying it was rubbish.” She described how a racist comment was made during one session:  “I’m from London and London is just ripe for ethnic cleansing.” She described how everyone laughed. When laughter fills the room, like water in a cup, laughter as holding something; it can feel like there is no room left. As she puts it: “Those were the sorts of things being aired.” These were the sorts of things; a sentence as a sentencing; violence thrown out can be how you are thrown out.  

Aired: even the air can be occupied.

I spoke to this academic as part a new research project on complaint – I am talking to those who have or have considered making formal complaints about abuses of power within universities. She decided to complain because “she wanted it recorded” and because “This culture was being reproduced for new PhD students.”  She complained because she wanted to record what was happening and to stop what was happening from happening. Her complaint didn’t get anywhere; and even though the complaint was collective (she gathered testimonies from around 20 staff) she was described by the head of human resources as “having a chip on her shoulder.” The killjoy pops up here, it is not long before she turns up, as an explanation of critique as well as complaint: as if we say what we say and do what we do, because we suffer from a personal grudge or grievance. We learn about power from how challenges to power are dismissed (6).

I want to return to the statement, “I inherited him,” to justify the continued use of Galton’s name. Use inheritance might refer here to the mere fact that upon arrival some things are already in use. What if inheritance can be understood as kinship; inheritance as not simply what is received but what can be received by whom, those who are the right kind, whiteness as kind, the white man as one of a kind; inheritance as how what is received is reproduced.(7) To try to intervene in the reproduction of an inheritance often means making a complaint. This is why making a complaint often involves becoming a diversity worker. You are brought up against the organisation, especially if a complaint is a chip at the old block. Chip at, chip off: the expression chip off the old block evokes paternity, the son who is like the father who will eventually take his place. If you chip away at the old block no wonder they find that chip on your shoulder.

I am in the early stages of my research but I am learning so much about the institutional as usual.  A complaint can teach us about the continuity of abuses of power with the use patterns of an institution. By use pattern I am precisely not referring to official policies. I am referring instead to how universities are occupied; how a network can come alive to stop a complaint from getting through rather like how electricity travels through wire: hiring as wiring.

Hiring as Wiring

Image 13: Hiring as Wiring

Lines of communication are well-worn paths through an organization. The more a path is used the more a path is used. The more he is connected the more he is connected. When you follow a complaint procedure you are usually asked to go through official networks, first talk to the person concerned if a person is concerned, then your personal tutor or a colleague, then your head of department, and so on.  A complaint can function like a switch, an alarm or alert that triggers a reaction: when a network comes alive it is in order to protect those who are the most networked, which is to say, a network is how a complaint is stopped.


Image 14: A complaint can function like a switch, an alarm or alert

By listening to those who have made complaints I have been learning about the different methods through which complaints are stopped. Those who indicate they might make a complaint are often warned that by complaining they would damage themselves; they would damage their careers, reputations, and relationships. Warnings can work as threats: that you will lose the connections you need to progress. One student describes: “I was repeatedly told that ‘rocking the boat’ or ‘making waves’ would affect my career in the future and that I would ruin the department for everyone else. I was told if I did put in a complaint I would never be able to work in the university and that is was likely I wouldn’t get a job elsewhere.” Here complaining becomes a form of self-damage as well as damage to others, ruining a department, no less. This student goes onto to describe how the pressure not to complain is exerted: “In just one day I was subjected to eight hours of grueling meetings and questioning, almost designed to break me and stop me from taking the complaint any further.”  A wall can be what comes up, or a wall can be what comes down, like a ton of bricks. This is how power often works: you don’t have to stop people from doing something, just make it harder for them to do something.

Remember: deviation is hard. Deviation is made hard.

Another student described what followed making a complaint: “We were accused of having caused the disruption in their studies. They valued their desire to have him as a professor over those who were suffering psychologically because of his harassment. I was told I should have consulted the whole class before going ahead with a complaint. We needed to be in ‘solidarity’ with those whose education was now being disrupted, not the other way around.”  To complain about harassment is to be judged as cutting yourself off from a collective. And then you are cut off from that collective. To complain can mean having nowhere to go; it can mean not having a path through the organisation.  This is why creating feminist support systems remains so important: we need to give those who complain somewhere to go, to provide a shelter.

Sometimes it can seem that we have two options: to get used to it or get out of it. For those who cannot afford to get out of it, getting used to it becomes a survival strategy, an effort to try and minimize damage; a partial and failed resolution to a crisis. However, this is not to say these are the only options. Complaints that do not get anywhere tend to disappear, becoming like unused paths, hidden by new growth.

Unused Path

Image 15: Hidden by new growth

What appears as “getting used to it,” might not be what it appears to be. We do not know how many said no. This is why talking to each other matters; why naming the problem matters. We have to learn about what she is on about so that we can remember. Feminist memory becomes a counter-institutional project: we have to find ways of creating paths for others to follow, to leave traces in places.

Conclusion: Lifting the Lid

Diversity work is the work of trying to dismantle the structures that do not accommodate us. I used to think that I was collecting data on diversity work. But I have come to realise that diversity work is data collection. We know so much from what comes up because of what we bring up. We learn from the consequences of the work we do; we learn even from the damage we cause or from how our cause is understood as damage.

When I shared my reasons for resigning from my post – in protest at the failure of the institution to address sexual harassment as an institutional problem – I quickly became the cause of damage.  I became a leaky pipe, drip, drip.

Leaky Pipe

Image 16: A leak can be a lead

Organisations will try and contain that damage. The response in other words is damage limitation. This is how diversity often takes institutional form: damage limitation. Happy shiny policies will be put in place, holes left by departures will be filled without reference to what went on before; a blot becomes something to be wiped up, wiped away; mopping up a mess.

There is hope here; they cannot mop up all of our mess.  A leak can be a lead (8). A leak can be a feminist lead. When I shared my reasons for my resignation, many people shared with me their own stories, their own institutional battles; when you lift a lid, more and more comes out. Just loosen the screw a little bit, a tiny little bit, and you might have an explosion. We need more explosions. This is another way of thinking about diversity work as data collection: it is explosive what comes out.  And this is why professional norms of conduct are about keeping a lid on it; institutional loyalty as silence in case of institutional damage.

We might collect more data the less professional we are.

Earlier I described diversity workers as institutional plumbers. We might from this description assume that diversity workers are appointed to unblock the system. But a blockage is how the system is working.  The system is working by stopping those are trying to transform the system.  To transform a system we have to stop the system from working.  We might need to pass as plumbers (fixing the leak) in order to become vandals (making a leak).  Vandalism is described as the “willful destruction of what is venerable and beautiful.”  We might have to throw a wrench in the works or become, to use Sarah Franklin’s (2015) terms “wenches in the works,” to throw our bodies into the system, to try and stop the same old bodies from being assembled, doing the same old things.

Same old, same old: so much is reproduced by the requirement to follow. Within the academy you might be asked to follow the well-trodden paths of citation; to cite properly as to cite those deemed to have already the most influence. The more a path is used the more a path is used. The more he is cited the more he is cited.  A syllabus is occupied. And occupation depends upon erasure; such and such white man becomes an originator of a concept, an idea as becoming seminal, by removing traces of those who were there before. Not following something as destroying something: you can become a vandal by rearranging a text in a different way, by not citing any white men for instance (8). To speak of whiteness in the academy or of colonialism as the context in which Enlightenment philosophy happened is to bring up the scandal of the vandal.  Decolonizing the curriculum as a project has been framed as an act of vandalism, a willful destruction of our universals; knocking off the heads of statues, snapping at the thrones of the philosopher kings. The question raised about the use of Galton’s name during the Why Isn’t My Professor Black panel, which led to a wider and meaningful discussion of the role of Galton’s legacy, was represented by the media as a Galton Must Fall Campaign. Whilst we might support such a campaign if it did exist, it was in fact invented by the media to discredit the questioning of a legacy as censorship.

To be vandal is to damage what you are supposed to revere, to bring to an end what you are supposed to reproduce.  If talking about sexism and racism damages institutions, we need to damage institutions. We have to stop what usually happens from happening; because we know, that however much spaces have been occupied, they can be freed up when they are inhabited by those for whom they were not intended. In a protest we often aim to cause disruption of usage; when you occupy a building, you are stopping it from being used as it is ordinarily used; business as usual. No wonder protest is often framed as vandalism; as damage to property.  Vandalism is a useful tactic when we have to cut a message off from a body, when a message if traced to a source would compromise the source or when you have to bypass official procedures to avoid sending out an alert. We might need to use guerrilla tactics; you can write names of harassers on books; turn bodies into art; write graffiti on toilet doors or on walls.

Yes those scratches: we are back to those scratches. Feminism becomes a message we send out, writing on the wall; we were here, we did not get used it.

Scratched wall 3

Image 17: Writing on the Wall


(1) The other typical Lamarckian example is the blacksmith’s strong arm, which Lamarck does not use at all. In chapter 2 of What’s the Use, I explore how the blacksmith’s arm is a phantom limb and also consider examples as having their own biographies of use.

(2)  Many scholars have pointed out how Lamarck has been dismissed on problematic grounds as assuming conscious volition. It is noteworthy that Lamarck does use the language of will, but describes will not as a form of inner causality but as a physiological process. In the book I explore the relation of Darwin and Lamarck in more detail as as interesting case-study on the “uses of use.”

(3) In chapter 1 What’s the Use, I discuss overuse by reflecting on exclamation points.

(4) Meckel’s name survives, as far as I can tell, because of the use of his name to name things: his name was given to a condition (Meckel’s diverticulum), a syndrome (the Meckel syndrome), bone structure (Meckel’s cartilage) as well as a protein (Mecklin). One thinks here of naming as another way some are preserved in the archive; how some are committed to memory.

(5) The Galton Laboratory of National Eugenics became The Galton Laboratory of the Department of Human Genetics & Biometry and the Galton Chair in Eugenics became the Galton Chair in Genetics.

(6). A complaint can be a feminist collective. But a feminist we can still be heard as me, in other words, complaints tend to be heard as self-promotional.

(7). See the third chapter of Queer Phenomenology (2016) for a discussion of whiteness as an inheritance. I work with the two meanings of inheritance: to receive and possess.

(8). I discussed how a leak can be a feminist lead in Living a Feminist Life (2017), and I will be developing this argument in my project on complaint. The campaign #metoo shows how a leak can be a lead, how much can spill  out when something comes out. We can think of this too, as an address to. With thanks to all those who have risked coming out with it. And can I acknowledge the work of Tarana Burke as the black feminist creator of the #metoo campaign 10 years ago.

(9) This was my rather blunt citational policy in Living a Feminist Life. See the conclusion to my earlier post Useful for why I was not able to use this policy in What’s the Use.


Darwin, Charles  [1871] (1992). The Works of Charles Darwin, Volume 21: The Descent of Man and the Selection of Sex. London: Routledge.

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

Dolmage, Jay (2017). Academic Ableism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie (2014). “The Story of My Work: How I became Disabled,” Disability Studies Quarterly, 34(2). np.

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

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

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

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

Mirza, Heidi (2015). “Decolonizing Higher Education: Black Feminism and the Intersectionality of Race and Gender,” Journal of Feminist Scholarship, 7-8: 1-12].

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade (2003). Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham: Duke University Press.

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

Wekker, Gloria (2016). White Innocence. Durham: Duke University Press.



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A Complaint Biography

I have just begun research for a new project on complaint. I realised I wanted to work on complaint whilst supporting students who were testifying in multiple enquiries into sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. A complaint is usually required to initiate an enquiry. Once a complaint is lodged, a procedure is followed, supposedly automatically. What is supposed to happen does not always happen.  A process can be quite different to a procedure even when a procedure is followed. In the project I will be asking those who have made complaints to reflect on their experience of the process.

I learnt a lot about complaint from what happened during and after these enquiries. I learnt how difficult it can be to make a complaint – and to keep making a complaint as a complaint is not completed by one action alone. As I noted in my lecture, “Snap,” students are often warned about making complaints; they are told that making a complaint would damage their reputations, relationships, career prospects, lives.[1] If a complaint is made, it tends to be treated as potential damage, as that which could damage the reputation of an individual or an organisation. There is often a concerted effort to stop a complaint from going through the system or to stop a complaint from getting out.  I will be drawing on some of my experiences of these stopping and stalling mechanisms. But I know enough to know there is much I do not know. The project is a qualitative empirical study[2]; the first such study I have conducted since my research into diversity work within universities, the results of which I presented in On Being Included (2012) and which I returned to in the middle section of Living a Feminist Life (2017). In this project I will be listening to other people’s experiences of making and not making complaints. I will be gathering written as well as oral testimonies over the next year; learning and listening.

I am at the very early stages of the research and I have already learnt so much [3]. I am learning that you can make a formal complaint and it not be treated as a complaint due to one technicality or another, a quite unexpected finding that I will discuss more in subsequent posts.

It is also the case that statements that are not intended as complaints can be received as complaints. Just using words such as racism or sexism can mean being heard as making a complaint. If we think of the word complaint we might think of a formal statement; a complaint as something you officially lodge. But if we think of the word “complaining” it brings up something else; it brings up somebody else. The word complaining has a negative quality: the word belongs with the killjoy in the same family of words; complaining, killjoy, whinging, moaning, buzzkill, party-pooper; stick-in-the-mud. In an earlier post, I described how being heard as complaining is not being heard. You are heard as expressing yourself; as if you are complaining because that is who you are or what you are like. If you are heard as complaining then what you say is dismissible, as if you are complaining because that is your personal tendency. When you are heard as complaining you lose the about: what you are speaking about is not heard when they make it about you.

What I have already learnt from my complaint research is that being heard as complaining can mean being slowed down. You might have to complain because you are not promoted, and you might not be promoted because you complain. A complaint: how you can be stuck. Avoiding making a complaint (to avoid a complaint – not go in that direction – you might first need to consider making one) does not necessarily mean escaping these consequences. The situation you avoid complaining about is often what you cannot avoid.

I should also add here that diversity work in the first sense I have referred to it – trying to open institutions to make them more accessible to populations that have historically been excluded – is often framed as complaint. If a meeting has been planned in a room that is not accessible to those with mobility restrictions, or at a time that is not possible for those with caring responsibilities, and a request is made for the room to be changed, or the time changed, that request is heard as complaint, not only as being negative, but as an imposition of your will upon others; as depriving others of their first preference, and even as restricting their freedom.

You should not have to ask for a room change or a time change in order to be accommodated. But if you have to ask for a room change or a time change, a request becomes an appropriation: as if you are taking (up) their room and their time.

Even a request that is about meeting compliance with existing equality legislation can be treated as complaint.

What is treated as complaint seems to warrant making a complaint.

Also: for some to enter the room, to make a time, not just to proceed but to be there at all, you have to do something or say something that is heard as complaint. If a complaint is what you have to lodge, complaint can become a lodge; where you end up residing because residing requires changing how things are being done.

My task in asking about what complaint is doing, what we are doing with complaint, is not to specify what makes a complaint a complaint. Definitions can be used as political tools: an organization can say a complaint is x in order to render a submission not x as a way of not doing something about x. Nevertheless, I need to account for how complaint becomes a distinct genre, how a complaint becomes tight, this becoming generic is part of the process. In order to make a complaint you usually have to fill in a form that is determined in advance by an organization – and the forms are often shared even copied from other forms. I want to track the implications of how complaint is framed; how complaints and channeled by how they must take form, whilst also exploring the murky and messy world of perception: who is heard as complaining; what is heard as complaint.

How can we talk about how complaint is narrowed without narrowing complaint?

How can we give room to the one who is heard as complaining before she makes a complaint?

Let us assume in the first instance that a complaint is what somebody intends to make. It would then be useful to think of complaints as having institutional lives or biographies: a letter might be written that meets the criteria for a complaint, which decides what happens to the letter; where it does and does not go.  I do not think whether something is received or not as a complaint is the only factor in determining how something circulates. From my informal conversations over the past three years, I have learnt of many complaints that are acknowledged as such only then to be filed away– and that’s how things stay. A complaint can just sit there, even though a complaint procedure if followed should have meant that the complaint would have gone somewhere.

As ever: the gap between what should happen and what does happen is densely populated.

Diversity work: mind the gap.

A complaint biography is not simply a story of what happens to a complaint. Individuals too might have their own complaint biographies: histories of saying something or doing something that are understood either at the time or retrospectively as complaint.

A complaint often becomes present in the experience of a need to make a decision. That experience can often be one of a crisis: you have to decide whether or not to complain (either formally or informally) about a situation. We should remind ourselves (this is obvious but it matters) that a complaint comes up because of what has already come up: you are considering whether to complain about something, which often involves an experience of something as wrong or of being wronged. It is might be you are uncertain about whether what happened “merits” a complaint. That uncertainty is part of the story if it is what stops you from proceeding.

This recently published report on sexual harassment and sexual assault at Australian universities, concluded that the vast majority of students who experience sexual harassment and assault at universities do not make formal complaints. It suggests: “Common reasons for this were that students who were sexually assaulted or sexually harassed did not believe their experience was serious enough to warrant making a report or that they did not know how or where to make a report” (4). Both of these reasons need investigating. The inaccessibility of complaint policies has already come up as a serious issue in my research. Let me also say here: the sense that harassment is not serious enough to warrant a complaint is often part of the experience of harassment, or an effect of being harassed; it not that you lose confidence it is that your confidence is stolen from you. You might also be told by others to reduce the significance of what happened, not magnifying something as being mature about something; as if something is big or significant only because you have let it be so.

How a complaint is treated is also about how those who abuse power are not made responsible for abuses of power; how a complaint is treated is how abuse itself is minimized or reduced and made the responsibility of the abused, as if abuse would just disappear if those who are abused do not let it appear.

A complaint biography would include those times we decide not to make complaints – not to say something or not to do something – despite an experience or even because of an experience. A complaint can mean being prepared to talk about difficult and painful experiences over and over again, often to those with whom you have not built up a relationship of trust and those who represent an organisation that is implicated in some way in what you are complaining about.  You might decide not to complain because of your attachments; to a person, a group, a department, an institution: you might take seriously the warnings that a complaint would be damaging; you might worry about causing damage. And you might make a decision not to complain because you cannot risk the consequences of complaint. A decision not to complain can be influenced by past experiences; you might not be confident your complaint would be taken seriously because you have not been taken seriously. The reasons you don’t make a complaint are often the same reasons you need to make a complaint. The decision whether to complain is also often made in light of advice, suggestions and guidance given by others, whether welcomed or not.

A complaint biography includes the experiences that lead to a complaint but also the experience of a complaint if that is indeed the course of action taken. In these cases, a biography of a complaint and that of a person are part of the same story; what happens to a complaint also happens to a person. In some cases, it takes a group to form in order to proceed with a complaint, or a complaint involves gathering testimonies from a number of people. What happens to a complaint also happens to a group of people. And given that a complaint can take many years to go through a system, the story of a complaint is often a story of exhaustion.

A complaint can take over lives.

A life can become a complaint.

Or a life can feel like a complaint.

I am also learning: when you make a complaint within an organisation so much is revealed about an organisation.

A complaint biography might not even begin with something that has been explicitly said. A complaint biography might not even begin with the word no, or no might not only be expressed through words. To give a complaint biography we need to slow down; to get a sense of how a complaint is embedded within the intensity and thickness of a situation.

A situation: how you encounter a structure. A situation: how you are thrown.

Complaint can be the experience of the absence of exteriority to what you are complaining about.

You are there; you are right there; there you are.

I want to take an example from one of my first interviews. This is an account provided by a woman of a situation in which she found herself when she was a postgraduate student. There is much that follows the situation she is describing here that I will leave for later. She offers a powerful description of how harassment works by creating the figure of a complainer who appears before she says anything at all:

They were making jokes, jokes that were horrific, they were doing it in a very small space in front of staff, and nobody was saying anything. And it felt like my reaction to it was out of kilter with everyone else. It felt really disconnected, the way I felt about the way they were behaving and the way everybody else was laughing. They were talking about “milking bitches.” I still can’t quite get to the bottom of where the jokes were coming from. Nobody was saying anything about it: people were just laughing along.

What do you do when sexist jokes become part of a culture? Can you complain about a culture? To whom would you make that complaint?

The sexist expression “milking bitches” seemed to have a history; a number of men in the cohort would regularly refer to women in this way. It is interesting how for her, the expressions and jokes seem somewhat mysterious, she “can’t quite get to the bottom of where they are coming from.” That they keep coming does not mean you know where they are coming from. Each time the expression is used, that history is thrown out like a line, a line you have to follow. As she shows, to feel alienated from the jokes is to experience your own reactions as out of kilter with others; there is a gap between what she hears when she hears those jokes and what she hears other people hear.

It might appear that sexist jokes bind everyone together; it can sound like everyone is laughing. If you are not laughing it can be hard to hear others who are not laughing; laughter can sound even louder, louder still, when it does not have your agreement. Whether or not everyone is laughing, it is important that that is what it sounds like. If you experience jokes as offensive, you are alienated not only from the jokes but by the laughter that surrounds them, propping them up, giving them somewhere to go.

We can hear in this description how sexist jokes are recruiting; not to laugh is to become out of line, not part, alienated from a we that announces itself with glee.

Sexism makes it harder not to be recruited by sexism.

Alienation from a we can be costly.

Power is maintained by increasing the costs of challenging power.

We can sense too how a killjoy would be a source of solace and connection in such a situation: if you could just catch someone else’s glance, someone else for whom the jokes were not funny, for whom they were violent, what a difference it would make: finding others who are alienated by the jokes is one way of feeling less stranded, less alone.

Killjoys: sharing our points of alienation.

Sometimes not participating in something is heard as complaining about something.  If you are alienated by virtue of how you affected, it can be picked up. And you can then be picked on.  As she further describes:

I was actually finding it was quite aggressive the way they were dealing with people as well. I got a sense that he realised that I was really not very happy with what was going on, maybe it was just everything about my person was just this is not acceptable, there it should not be like this, I was just not condoning the way they were behaving, I was not finding it funny. You start to stand out in that way; you are just not playing along. I got a sense then, the only way I can explain it is he decided to come after me a little bit.

Just by not laughing, not going along with something, she comes to “stand out.”

Note how perception matters; you become an object of perception by not going along with something. If you laughed too, you would become part of a we and also part of the background. We learn how a we is asserted or becomes assertive by not having to appear. One suspects that some might laugh in order to recede, in order not to stand out; laughter as a form of passing. Because she does not find the jokes funny, because she is not condoning the behavior, because she is not happy with what is going on, he comes after her.

Not laughing becomes audible as complaint because this “not” is registered as a different direction. You can be caught out; your own reactions becoming testimony. The violence that is diffused throughout the room (this is  violence that is still directed, that makes women the butt of the joke, whether or not they hear themselves as the butt, and getting used to it is often about learning not to hear something), is directed or redirected toward anyone who does not go along with it.

And more follows:

 So he was doing things I think to try and provoke me to react to him. I think he was doing it under the guise of humour. But he specifically went for me, verbally at a table where everyone was eating lunch. It was a large table with numerous amounts of people around it including staff….I was having quite a personal conversation with someone….and he literally leaned across the table or physically came forward, he was slightly ajar to me, he was really close, and he said “oh my god I can see you ovulating.” It was really lurid; it was really unpleasant. You can imagine the conversation stopped, right; I didn’t laugh. I didn’t find it remotely funny and from the expression on my face, I was horrified that he thought that was appropriate. I was really aware that I had a member of staff next to me, and they didn’t say anything. The overwhelming sense of humiliation that came off it was really uncomfortable. And it was so silencing. I had never been put in my place like that; I had never been brought down so acutely.

Description can be insightful. There are so many insights in this description of harassment about how harassment works. Any acts of non-compliance or disagreement are picked up on; in this case non-compliance involves not just not laughing but getting on with it, talking to someone else, about something else. This rebellion of not directing her attention to the one who is trying to trying to provoke her is punished; her personal space invaded, words flung out, flung at; she is reduced to body, brought down, pulled back, woman as ovaries; she is not allowed her to do her own thing, to converse with others, to be a student with others.

Harassment is an access issue; if you are harassed when you are occupied with being a student, when you are harassed you are not allowed to be a student.

Those who share the table, including staff as well as students, do not say anything; they do not do anything.

I need to add a still: still do not say anything, still do not do anything.

Silence still.

Silence can be occupied.

Silence: I have learnt from working on sexual harassment that nothing is louder than silence; you can hear the failure to do anything, to say anything; you can hear the turning away, the sounds of distraction; busy; preoccupied. Even when people don’t agree, by turning away, their actions are as loud as the words they do not say.

And still there is silence.

You can be harassed because you experience other people’s behavior as harassment or because you identify an experience as harassment. This means that: the more you experience harassment the more you are harassed. Violence is increased because you experience something as violence; violence is amped up.

There is more:

I think the staff member knew I was deeply upset by it. I pretty much left the table.  And he (the staff member) followed me out and started a conversation, and this is when probably in hindsight it started to get difficult, in that staff member started to lean on me; immediately he said to me, oh you know what he’s like, he’s got a really strange sense of humour, he didn’t mean anything by it, and the implication was I was being a bit over-sensitive and that I couldn’t take a joke, and that I need to sort of forget about it and move on. It really affected me, that the person who I think should have done something, did that. And he didn’t do it once. He did it again. He did it on the way home. I ended up in a car with him, so he started telling me in the car, you know, if something was said, all I think is that it would cause a lot of trouble, I don’t think it’s worth it – and I had not actually brought it back up so I could tell he knew that it was really not right; he had to come back to it as an issue. I think that’s probably because my demeanor wasn’t right, I was quiet, I had felt really affected, emotionally affected, that sense of being quite close to tears.

 Nowhere to go.

She has nowhere to go.

She leaves the table; she leaves.

A complaint biography begins from what is thrown up by a situation; how words are used to occupy spaces, how spaces are occupied by bodies. Warnings about complaint – instructions not to complain -are often made within the situations; they do not just happen after. A complaint is in the situation a complaint is about. She is told to make light of the situation when she is in it; because she is in it. She is encouraged not to say anything; not to be over-sensitive, not to do anything, not to cause trouble. It was just a joke, he didn’t mean anything by it, he didn’t mean anything: the excuses given give permission to those who conduct themselves in this way to conduct themselves in this way. The staff member in advising her, nay, warning her not to complain, by leaning in this way, positions himself with the harasser, treating the verbal onslaught as joke, something she should take; something she should be willing to take. The harasser physically came forward; the staff member leans on her. She implies again that it is by virtue of how she is affected (being quiet, being “close to tears”) that makes him bring it up again.

This is why I think using the word harassment is important: to experience an advance as unwelcome, as harassment, is to be reharassed, often by those who embody institutional will.

The response to harassment is harassment. The more you resist pressure the more pressure is exerted. Institutional harassment can be what follows making a complaint about harassment.  As I pointed out in my post on no, what follows a complaint can give you more to complain about. The more you complain the more you have to complain about.

You are punished for not going along with it. If complaining is how you are heard because you do not go along with it, you are punished for complaining. And if you complain about the punishment you are punished even more.

This woman’s powerful description of a situation is one fragment of her complaint biography. We learn from the detail, from the sharpness; how hard it is to keep going, how little room you have, how not being affected in the right way by violence, by not laughing at it or laughing it off, by the act of perceiving the address as violence, can lead to more violence being directed your way.

Perception can be action; you can disobey an instruction by perceiving a wrong as if your perception is what’s wrong.

A feminist fight is for the one who has to complain to stay in a situation to be given a hearing.

If you would have to complain in order to stay in a situation you often have to leave the situation.

We have to fight so complaints can be heard.

We have to fight so she can stay.

[1] I will be writing a post/chapter on warnings in due course.

[2] Many institutions deal with complaint as a potential risk to their reputation. All the data collected will thus be carefully anonymised with no individuals or institutions being being named.

[3] I have decided to share the research as I go along. I am aware that we often wait to present our findings until after we have finished the research. I understand the reasons for this. I do not expect to finish the research just as I never really finished my research on diversity work. And what I have already found is that the findings are in the accounts. Note: I will be asking all interviewees for permission to share specific quotes drawn from interviews on any posts published here.

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I am sharing my contribution to an event that took place at SOAS, University of London, “Conceptual Itineraries: The Roots and Routes of the Political,” on June 10th. I have preserved it in the form it was given, but as I have not published anything as yet from my work on use (I will be submitting the manuscript to my publishers at the end of the summer) I have added some explanatory notes as well as references. Please note this work is work in progress!


I have picked useful as my concept. I had originally said my concept would be use – I am working on a project on the uses of use.  Indeed when we think of our task today we might make use of use; travelling concepts as travelling by being used or travelling through use.  I tend to think of my own research activity as following words more than concepts, following words like happiness, like will, like use, in and out of their intellectual histories. To follow a word is to ask where it goes, in whom, in what, it is found. Maybe a concept is implicated in a finding. A previous speaker in this series took concept as their concept and created a sharp distinction between a term and a concept in part by making use of use; terms are in use; concepts are what we come up when we take terms out of use. I think to make a clear distinction before we proceed can make our procession about that distinction; we might end up with a more refined argument but the argument can end up being, perhaps somewhat ironically, about our own terms. Of course, when you follow a term, or using my word, a word, you are still singling it out, however much you show how words acquires baggage; carrying their histories with them: words as itinerant, words as heavy. A concept can imply abstraction, a way of dragging or pulling something away. When I think of a concept I think ouch. We might want to think of the verb form – to conceive – to give us more of a sense of how we are involved in an activity when we identify something as a concept. Involvement is not origination; a concept becomes something you pick up as well as pick out.

However we understand concepts, I changed mine from use to useful. This is partly because use is a small word with so much work to do; Rita Felski describes use as “workmanlike” (2003, 5). But of course the word useful includes the word use: we might even say useful is full of use. In my project on the uses of use, I am in the first instance approaching use biographically, a way of telling a story of something. For a path to be usable, it needs to be used, which means use can keep something alive, whilst disuse can mean disappearance and decay. If by being used, a path becomes clearer over time then the more a path is used the more a path is used. And if by being used less a path becomes more difficult to use, overgrown, prickly; the less a path is used the less a path is used; until you cannot even see the sign for the trees. To use a mantra from personal training, which can also become a philosophy of life, use it or lose it.

We can hear how use can be both a description of an activity and a moral duty, necessary for the preservation of something, necessary even for life. This doubling of description with prescription might be teaching us something about the work use is doing. Useful is more useful for a short presentation because it tends to operate in a more restricted way, at least discursively: useful is mostly used as an adjective, that which denotes the qualities of something or somebody. Useful can mean to be able to be used for a number of practical purposes as well as to be able or competent.  Useful is an adjective with a job description. As an adjective, useful tends to have a companion, a noun; what or who being described.

So let me start my exploration by using a pairing that acquired considerable importance in the early decades of the nineteenth century, “useful knowledge.” To travel in this instance is to travel back. Useful knowledge was a mission, a plan of action; and we might recall another meaning of a concept is a plan. The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK) which was established in 1823 by Lord Henry Brougham made useful knowledge a platform and a plan. Its core mission was to make knowledge more accessible by producing a series of pamphlets (such as the Penny magazine) intended for middle-class and working-class readers. The materials they produced formed a “library of useful knowledge.”

We can follow usefulness right back into the archives left behind by this organization. As Carolyn Steedman describes in Dust archives come alive by being used. She describes “it [stuff] just sits there until it is read, and used and narrativised” (2001, 68).[1] A box is opened, a document lifted out. A letter can be a lift. In a letter sent to the SDUK by William Adamson in 1830, the word use is singled out, double underlined, to make a point: that useful knowledge must involve use an activity.[2] I picked up the letter because of how it picked up on use. An archive might be what we create when we share an emphasis.[3] I have learnt from the sheer volume of what was left behind by this organization, how usefulness can be stuffy, can generate stuff: useful knowledge was not simply an idea that was in circulation, but it involved organising, administrating; meetings, minutes. When considering how concepts travel we are thinking of concepts as coming out of work; what is picked up is put into papers that are passed around.

Concepts can be busy or even buzzy. A few years before the SDUK was set up in 1817, Jeremy Bentham published his plan for a school based on the principles of useful knowledge Chrestomathia. Rather like his plan for a prison, Bentham’s planned school did not come about. The plan for the school, again rather like his plan for a prison, made use of panoptical principle as a design principle. It is thus curious for those interested in the history of ideas that Foucault does not refer to Bentham’s plan for a school in any of his published writings given how central Bentham’s Panoptican was to Foucault’s elaboration of power.[4] However Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish does have much to teach us about how usefulness became an educational as well as moral requirement. Foucault describes: “In the correct use of the body, which makes possible a correct use of time, nothing must remain idle or useless: everything must be called upon to form the support of the act required” (1977, 152). The correct use of the body is when all parts of the body are contributing to an action. Nothing must remain idle or useless: we can hear from the “must” the status of this speech act as command. At one point Foucault refers to mutual improvement schools and what he calls the Lancaster method:

From the seventeenth century to the introduction, at the beginning of the nineteenth, of the Lancaster method, the complex clockwork of the mutual improvement school was built up cog by cog: first the oldest pupils were entrusted with tasks involving simple supervision, then of checking work, then of teaching; in the end, all the time of all the pupils was occupied either with teaching or with being taught. The school became a machine for learning, in which each pupil, each level and each moment, if correctly combined, were permanently utilized in the general process of teaching (165).

We learn here that a class can become the body from which uselessness must be eliminated. A class becomes what we might call, following Mary Poovey (1995), a social body: from discipline and punish to discipline and care, or even discipline as care; a cog in a machine as part of a body, a living member that must be cared for if it is to remain in service. To become part is to be improved by taking part.[5]

It is here that we can begin to take a history of usefulness in another direction, travelling in a way that Foucault did not. Mutual improvement schools were also known as monitorial schools; they relied on the method of students becoming the teachers of other students. Monitorial schools were a significant part of the history of education in Britain and in the colonies. The educationalists understood to have invented the method are Andrew Bell and Joseph Lancaster. Bentham’s Chrestomathia could be described as a systematization of their combined work. Bell was appointed by the East India Company as Director of the Madras School for Eurasian Orphans of Soldiers in 1787.[6] Lancaster’s schools were primarily in working class areas of London; he opened his first school on Borough Road in 1798. We can learn from this historical coincidence. It matters. Alan Richardson notes “the discipline of England’s colonial subject and the internal colonization of its unruly ‘industrial classes’ – these twin problems inspired a single method or approach” (1994, 97).

Twin problems: a history of usefulness as a requirement is also a history of uselessness as a designation, a history of the problem of who became the problem. The singularity of a method teaches us how uselessness became a form of racial as well as class stigma. In England during this period there were many treatises published about the dangers of idleness for the labouring poor. As Sarah Jordan shows in her discussion of idleness in eighteenth century British literature and culture, idleness was not understand as universally compromising; for the rich, idleness was even narrated as a burden, a sacrifice of the happiness that would come from employment (2003, 49). Arguments for useful knowledge often took the form of arguments about class redemption: that education could save the labouring poor by rescuing them from idleness and vice. When work is transformed into duty, industry becomes virtue. Joseph Lancaster argued that “the rich having ample means of educating their offspring, it must be apparent that the laboring poor, a class of citizens so evidently useful, have a superior claim to public support” (1807, xi). Here an adjective becomes mobile, transferring a quality from one thing to another: the useful in useful knowledge is transferred to a class, the labouring class becoming self-evidently the useful class. It is more useful for more to be useful.

The requirement for more to be useful can be understood as a history of a restriction. Prior to Andrew Bell’s school there had been a debate in the East India Company about whether to educate the Eurasian children of dead soldiers. One address to colonial administrators in 1778 called for “methods by which this vagrant Race may be formed into an active, bold and useful body of people, strengthening the hands of dominion with a colony of subjects attached to the British Nation” (cited in Love 1913, 179). To become useful is to be rescued from vagrancy as well as idleness; becoming usefully employed as being contained in one place. Usefulness becomes here about an attachment to colonial culture; “this vagrant Race” was required to become what Homi Bhabha (1994) was to call, in relation to Thomas Babington Macaulay’s discussion of education in India over 50 years later, “mimic men.” It is important to add here that the Madras school was set up after policies were passed by the East India Company that restricted the social as well as physical mobility of Eurasian children.[7] In this way the spread of useful knowledge is profoundly linked to racial and classed geography. The mobility of a method translates into the immobility of a class or race of persons.

One thinks here of bodies that travel; of Andrew Bell’s own travels from Scotland to India (and back again). Of course Orientalism did not require a travelling body to travel as a body of ideas. James Mills (one of a number of utilitarian philosophers with an administrative role in the East India Company) argued that his History of British India was more objective because he had never been to India, never been swayed by his first hand impressions (Ahmed 2010, 123).  An idea can travel all the more by being cut off from a body. Bell however did travel to India and taught there. In An Experiment in Education first published in 1797 Bell observes:  “I had, at first sight of a Malabar school, adopted the idea of teaching the letters in sand spread over a board or bench before the scholars, as on the ground in the schools of the natives of this country” (1797, 11). Bell suggests here that the idea for the monitor derives from his imitation of a local practice; the colonizer as mimic. In his Futurism of Young Asia Benoy Kumar Sarkar used Bell’s account as an example of how ideas travel back from India to England: “England’s debt to India has been fitly acknowledged in the tablet to Westminster Abbey, which describes Andrew Bell as the ‘eminent founder of the Madras system of education, which has been adopted within the British empire as the national system of education for the children of the poor’” (cited in Tschurenev 2014, 105). But if Bell did not erase these signs of travel in describing how he came up with this method he does, in having a dispute with Lancaster about who first conceived of this method, appropriate it as his own; appropriation is another kind of travel.

A method becomes mobile when it is a method of controlling movement. The monitorial method was indeed precisely about control. I visited the British School Museum in Hitchin earlier this year; the last remaining monitorial school room in the world. The tour guide kept using the word “control” throughout as he pretended to be a master; the guided, his students. Control matters in part because of the large number of bodies in a small space. If you have hundreds of children in one room, where there are no partitions, you have to eliminate all unnecessary noise and activity.

A lesson requires lessoning what is not necessary for something to be useful; lessen, less. The monitor is a labour saving device: less teaching more. Bell described: “it is the division of labour, which leaves to the master the simple and easy charge of directing, regulating, and controlling his intellectual and moral machine” (1807, 3). The master is freed to master by students becoming teachers; a delegation of work as a distribution of power. Bell notes: “By these means, no class is ever retarded in its progress by idle or dull boys; and every boy in every class is fully and profitably employed; and, by thus finding his own level, his improvement is most effectually promoted, and rendered a maximum” (20). Critical disability studies offer us tools to analyse the techniques being described here. Licia Carlson for example describes how custodial departments “developed routines, punishments and physical tasks to prevent idleness” (2010, 44). In the monitorial school the reduction of idleness is also central to the machinery: a way of stopping some students from slowing the others down.

Bell summarises the method as “conducting a school through the medium of the scholars themselves.” This description does return us to Foucault’s arguments in Discipline and Punish (1977). I think however Foucault missed the significance of the figure of the monitor. Lancaster writes: “Active youths, when treated as cyphers, will generally show their consequence by exercising themselves in mischief. I am convinced, by experience, that it is practicable for teachers to acquire a proper dominion over the minds of the youth under their care, by directing those active spirits to good purposes. This liveliness should never be repressed, but directed to useful ends; and I have ever found, the surest way to cure a mischievous boy was to make him a monitor” (1807, 32). The implication here is that liveliness can be directed towards useful ends not only or simply by the students monitoring themselves (like the prisoner who takes on the gaze of the prison guard) but by how some students become monitors of other students. The monitor as method can be summarised thus: it is by policing others that you police yourself. Neighborhood Watch, which has become a form of national citizenship, rests on the monitor as method: a neighbor is invited to become the eyes and ears of the police by looking out for strangers, bodies out of place, where “out of place” is registered as a perceptual field, resting on darkness, on shadows, those who are passing by at the edge of social experience; passing by as being unemployed, loitering, queer, then, queer is here, then; not here on legitimate business.[8]

To become a monitor is also to be taught by teaching; you straighten yourself out. The monitor by teaching the other students has the lesson more firmly impressed in their own mind: “The repetition of one word by the monitor, serves to rivet it firmly on the minds of each one of the class, and also on his own memory; thus he cannot possibly teach the class without improving himself at the same time” (Lancaster 1807, 47). It is this aspect of Lancaster’s method that Bentham picks up. Bentham wrote: “By teaching others the scholar is, at the same time, teaching himself: imprinting, more and more deeply, into his own mind, whatsoever ideas he has received into it in the character of learner: taking of them, at the same time, a somewhat new and more commanding view, tinged, as they are, with enlivening colour by the associated ideas of reputation, and of that power, which has been the fruit of it” (1841, 9). Ideas become firmer the more they are associated with an increase in a sense of what a subject can do. The key to the monitor-as-method is how capacity is enhanced by positive affect. The aim is to create happy as well as useful children: “Before the effect of novelty is worn off, new habits are formed; and the happy children who are trained under the mild and generous influence of the British system of education, learn obedience with pleasure, and practice it with delight, without the influence of the rod or cane to bring them to order” (41).  The monitor becomes the rod, eliminating willfulness from the child without the need for punishment.[9] Power works here through incentive and reward. The word reward comes from warden, to guard or look over. The history of education as a utilitarian project is a history of rewarding that which is deemed most useful for governing a population.

If the history of the usefulness is the history of a requirement of some to be useful, a history of usefulness is also a history of how others are freed from that requirement. Bentham offers in Chrestomathia a plan for a school for the children of the middle-classes: “The more things he is more or less acquainted with, the more things he is fit for, and the better chance he has acquired of meeting with some occupation, according to his condition, and which shall be at once within his power, and suited to his taste” (1841, 16). We can contrast this account of the diversity of paths that enables occupation to become choice with Bentham’s writing on education in the work houses: “In the choice of subject-matters of instruction, utility—not usage—should be the guide. The utility in view ought to bear reference—in the first place to the situation of the individual during the apprenticeship; in the next place, to his situation in the world at large, after the expiration of it” (1843, np).[10]  This distinction between usage and utility becomes a social distinction. It is not simply that the concept of usefulness travels. It is not even that the requirement to be useful is distributed unevenly across a population. It is that for some use is tied tightly to a referential system; you must be useful for; or useful to, whilst for others, use is loosened, made freer, more creative.

If everything must in use for something to be useful, not everybody is required to be useful. Being designated as useless can have deadly consequences for those who are supposed to be useful. Bentham tells the story of a once industrious Mr Beardmore who sold his business for a good profit and then suffered a rapid decline until his early death, drawing on Mr Beardmore’s obituary from 1814.  Bentham makes use of a dead body to warn of the danger of falling out of use, of losing a sense of dignity and purpose. To fall out of use is to fall out of life. To cease to use one’s faculties is to cease to be.  Of course the implication is that without employment of a particular kind – a legitimate business – there would be no activity worthy of life.[11]

It might seem that Bentham followed his own words by submitting his dead body to an archive; he wanted his dead body to be of use. Bentham’s own body was dissected, under his strict instructions, 3 days after his death in 1834 by Southwood Smith, a medical doctor and friend of Bentham’s (who also wrote the introduction of Chrestomathia). And Bentham’s body, which is still on display at the UCL, minus a head or with a wax head, is seated in accordance with Bentham’s precise instructions; to create the impression of a thinking body.

Bentham’s useful death was and remains a visible death, a celebrated death. Southwood Smith had in fact in 1828 published a pamphlet: “Use of the Dead to the Living.” His lobbying led directly to the 1832 Anatomy Act, which aimed to end the practice of “grave robbing,” to secure a legal access to dead bodies for the purpose of scientific research. The first principle of Smith’s plan was as follows: “That the bodies of those persons who die in all infirmaries and hospitals throughout the kingdom, unclaimed by immediate relatives, be appropriated to the purpose of anatomy” (1828, 49).  It was the bodies of the poor, the detained, paupers, wretches that were to be appropriated for science. Smith adds: “No one can object to such a disposal of the bodies of those who die in prisons; no one can reasonably object to such a disposal of the bodies of those who die in poorhouses. These persons are pensioners upon the public bounty: they owe the public a debt: they have been supported by the public during life” (1828, 52). If Bentham’s dead body was a gift, the dead bodies of the poor and incarcerated became what they owed. Some bodies become disposable when utility can be extracted from death.  We can begin to understand how what seems to be a general or even universal requirement to be useful falls on some bodies and not others; utility whilst presented as a universal value, or at least one that alludes in some way to the greatest good for greatest number, becomes a system for extracting value from death. [12]

A history of usefulness is a matter of life and death. Becoming useful as being used up, the bodies of the enslaved, the colonized, the subaltern, the poor, the incarcerated; use as worn down, worn out, use as a record of life but use as a record of how a life is extinguished.

I want to end with a paradox. In speaking today I have used the names of many dead white men. You might have noticed; I hope you noticed. If the more a path is used the more a path is used, the more he is cited the more he is cited. Yes I am trying to counter the violence of a history often presented as moral history; utilitarianism as a history of morals and manners. But I have made still use of their names. A reuse is still a use damn it: a way of keeping a legacy alive. I recently wrote a book on living a feminist life without using the names of any white men.  And when I write of them in this project I do so because what I am following leads to who, to who has been deemed to come up with something. I do not write to them. I also write of those who are missing, who have been dismembered, whose names are not known; whose names cannot be used; those who are faint, becoming faint, fainter still. I write to you. We can mourn who we not know.[13] We can mourn the missing. If we do not mourn, we miss.

Saidiya Hartman in reflecting on the history of slavery asks: “what use is an itinerary of terror?” (2002, 772). And she suggests: “Tears and disappointment create an opening for a counter-history, a story written against the narrative of progress.” Mourning, she suggests is a public expression of one’s grief that “insists that the past is not yet over; the compulsion to grieve also indicates that liberal remedy has yet to be a solution to racist domination and inequality” (772).

Of what use is an itinerary of terror? I have tried to show how use can have a terrifying itinerary, although there other stories of use to share. We must counter this history by showing how liberal remedies have been the scene of collective dismemberment.

Wear and tear can be in the words we share; wear, tear, tears, too. Thank you.


Ahmed, Sara (2014). Willful Subjects. Durham: Duke University Press.

———————- (2010). The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke University Press.

———————- (2000). Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. London: Routledge.

Anderson, Valerie (2011). The Eurasian problem in nineteenth century India. PhD Thesis, SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies)

Bell, Andrew (1808). The Madras School. London: John Murray.

——————– (1797). An Experiment in Education Made at the Male Asylum in Madras.  London: Cadwell and Davies.

Bentham, Jeremy (1843). “Tracks on Poor Laws and Pauper Management,”

————————— (1841). The Works of Jeremy Bentham, Volume 8. Edited by John Bowring. Edinburgh: William Tate.

Bhabha, Homi (1994). The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.

Brunon-Ernst, Anne (2012). “Deconstructing the Panoptican into Plural Panopticans,” in Beyond Foucault: New Perspectives on Bentham’s Panoptican. New York: Routledge. 17-42.

—————————– (2012b). Utilitarian Biopolitics: Bentham, Foucault and Modern Power. London: Routledge.

Carlson, Licia (2010). The Face of Intellectual Disability: Philosophical Reflections. Indiana University Press.

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

Foucault, Michel (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books.

Hartman, Saidiya (2002). “The Time of Slavery,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 101-4, 757-777.

Jordan, Sarah (2003). The Anxieties of Idleness: Idleness in Eighteenth Century British Literature. Bucknell University Press: Lewisburg.

Lancaster, Joseph  (1812). British System of Education. Georgetown: Joseph Milligan.

—————————–  (1807). Improvements in Education. 3rd edition.: New York: Collins and Perkins.

Love, Henry Davison (1913). Vestiges of the Old Madras, 1640-1800. London: John Murray.

Mbembe, Achille (2003). “Necropolitics,” Public Culture, 15, 1: 11-40.

Richardson, Alan (1994). Literature, Education and Romanticism: Reading and Social  Practice 1780-1830. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Southey, Charles Cuthburt (1843). The Life of the Reverend Andrew Bell, Vol 3. London: John Murray.

Tschurenev, Jana (2014) “A Colonial Experiment in Education: Madras 1789-1796” in Barnita Bagchi, Eckhardt Fuchs, Kate Rousmaniere 9eds). Connecting Histories of Education. Berghahn.

[1] I had already decided to use this sentence from Steedman in my introduction before I bought my own copy of Dust. It was a used copy – in the project I am deliberately making use of used books. And a previous reader had underlined that very sentence! Use as a thread of connection.

[2] For the first time  I visited archives and museums as part of my research including the archives of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK), which are currently held at the National Archives; the British and Foreign School Society (BFSS), held at Brunel University; the records of early correspondence that led to the formation of London University, held at the UCL, as well as the British School Museum at Hitchin.

[3] In my introduction I discuss my archive in terms of “shared emphasis,” and how this relates to my previous way of describing my method as following a word/concept.  We can add here: the word use jumped out not simply because it was used. It is hard to write a letter without using use; use is a rather ordinary kind of verb and is often hard at work, a sweaty word. The word use jumped out because the author had given emphasis to the word. In chapter 2, I will discuss a marginalia in a published text that also stood out to me because of the emphasis given to use (Darwin’s comments on his copy of Lamarck’s Historie Naturale). I think this question of emphasis is interesting. Perhaps we have a bond when we share an emphasis. An emphasis can mean intensity of expression. In time, it came to mean the extra stress given to a word or phrase. Indeed I will explore in chapter 1 with reference to exclamation points, how emphasis requires a restriction of use to function as emphasis.

[4] In the project I explore how Foucault’s critique of disciplinary power, as well as his later work on biopolitics and neoliberalism can be understood in relation to the wider corpus of Bentham’s utilitarian project. Anne Brunon-Ernst (2012a) offers a useful discussion of the relationship between Foucault and Bentham with specific reference to Foucault’s use of the Panoptican. She points out that the Foucault develops his theory of power with reference only to one of Bentham’s many uses of the Panoptican (including in Chrestomathia) thus producing a very narrow account of Bentham’s work.  In her monograph, Utilitarian Biopolitics, Brunon-Ernst notes: “Foucault has been criticised for having portrayed Bentham as the inventor of disciplines, overshadowing Bentham’s achievements in other fields of thought: he has been considered a persona non grata in the world of Bentham studies” (2012b: 2). I will be drawing on Brunon-Ernst’s important work in my discussion of Bentham and Foucault.

[5] This book picks up the argument from my third chapter, “The General Will,” in Willful Subjects (2014), which draws on Mary Poovey’s model to consider how becoming part of a body is to acquire a “will duty.” I drew in this chapter on Blaise Pascal’s description of a foot that had forgotten it was part of a body, and was thus not useful to that body. This description from Pascal was one of my starting points for writing about the uses of use. In the book I pick up on the implied intimacy between will, use and memory.

[6] Many of the children taught by Bell were not actually orphans. The significance of being described as orphans is clear from Bell’s own description of the children: “But the great object for which the Military Male Orphan Asylum had been founded, was to rescue the children of the soldiers from the degradation and depravity of that class to which their mothers mostly belonged” (cited in Southey 1844, 170). I have become fascinated by this history, and will be drawing on the important scholarship that has shown how race and class were deeply entangled in the management of the Eurasian population by the East India Company in the nineteenth century.

[7] For a useful history of the changing policies of the East India Company in relation to Eurasian population see Anderson (2011).

[8] My argument in Strange Encounters (2000) rested in a way on the principle of the monitor-as-method: you become a neighbour/citizen not by policing yourself but by policing others – by detecting strangers, or “bodies out of place.” Here we are also considering how becoming a neighbour/citizen thus enabled an enhancement of capacity (reward for detection).

[9] The chapter from which this presentation is drawn involves a much fuller discussion of monitorial schools (as well as Bentham’s plans), and has allowed me to develop my arguments on education, will and willfulness from Willful Subjects (2014). The diffusion of the monitor-as-method has allowed me to track how positive affect was central to technologies of control.

[10] A key premise for Bentham in his writing on the poor laws was that relief maintained idleness, and thus encouraged pauperism, which was against the happiness principle (the greatest happiness of the greatest number). If general happiness depends on the unemployed not being maintained in idleness, then relief must be made to cause unhappiness. He thus calls for the stigmatising of relief. We can hear how this recommendation that relief should be stigmatising is preserved as a core assumption of contemporary capitalist society with its reliance on the stigmatisation of welfare and of those who receive welfare to create a moral distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor.

[11] Writing about the uses of use has allowed me to track how happiness became associated with employment as well as the morbidity of this association. It has made me aware that my earlier critique of happiness was if anything understated.

[12] In the project I thus explore the intimacy of what Achille Mbembe (2003) called “necropolitics” and utilitarianism.

[13] In the project I am trying to write about who is named in my story of use as well as whose deaths are marked (I have noted already how Bentham’s and Bells’ deaths are marked). For example I consider how some of the monitors are named in letters that have survived because of who they were sent to, or because of their own contributions to education or society. Becoming a monitor also meant: leaving a trace in the archive. This is another way that becoming a monitor became a commitment to memory.

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