Complaint Activism

I have just sent the proofs off for Complaint! The book, which is rather like a complaint, long, drawn out, somewhat messy, hard to hold, hard to contain, full of emotion and shared reflections, full of pain and also possibility, a collection of stories, a collective, an assembly, is on its way to you, co-complainers.

To mark the moment, I am sharing some paragraphs from my conclusion on “complaint activism.”

With killjoy solidarity

Sara xxx


Complaint Activism

Many of the stories I have collected in this book seem to be stories of working very hard not to get very far. We learn from what we fail to achieve. The complainer knows how much work goes into things staying the same. Being involved in a complaint can thus be a politicizing process in a similar way to participating in a protest or demonstration. It can be violence that brings you to the protest, the violence of the police, for instance. But in protesting against violence, you witness that violence all the more—the violence of the police, the violence of the media which misrepresents the violence of the police as caused by the protestors—you learn how violence is directed, against whom violence is directed. You come to learn how violence against those who challenge violence is how structures are maintained. You come to realize that some are more readily targeted. A formal complaint can lead you in a direction similar to a protest: you come to witness the violence of the status quo when you challenge the violence of the status quo; you come to realize the politics of who gets identified as the origin of the complaint. When you make a complaint, you might not necessarily begin by thinking of yourself as part of a movement nor as a critic of the institution, let alone as trying “to dismantle the master’s house,” to evoke the title of Audre Lorde’s important essay. But that is where many who make complaints end up. There is hope in this trajectory.

Making complaints can lead some to become complaint activists. I first thought of the term complaint activism when I was talking to a disabled woman about the complaints she had made as a student. She needed to make a formal complaint in order to be able to study part time, to have the time she needed to be able to do the work. I drew on her testimony especially in chapter 4; she taught us how you can be heard as complaining if you do not display the right attitude as a disabled person, how you have to show “grovelling gratefulness” in order not to be “a pain in the ass.” She told me not only about her experiences of making a complaint at her former university but how she took what she learned out, onto the streets. Becoming a complainer at her university led to her becoming a complainer wherever she went: “I have started doing this activism using the law and in particular the part of the Equality Act (2010) that only applies to disability regarding reasonable adjustments.” She made use of the law, however limited, as a tool to try to press organizations to become accessible, to become compliant with existing legislation. If complaints can lead you to learn how institutions work, how policies work, what they do and do not do, you can take that knowledge with you. I noted in chapter 6 how a complaint can leave a blank space in a cv, but really it could be claimed as a transferable skill. Even if you can’t claim those skills, you can still make use of them.

Her activism was probably well described by what she said her former university perceived her to be: “a complete pain in the ass.” She was indeed described in local media as trying to ruin small businesses because of demanding they be accessible to her as a wheelchair user, a demand she should not have to make. From her I learned how complaints about institutions can be used to press against them. You are making noise; you are making demands on their time; you are requiring them to do work (even the work of covering over a problem is work) and to use up their resources. A complaint can be a way of occupying their time. You complain again and again about inaccessible rooms and buildings; yes, you are saying it because they are doing it, but it does not mean it is not worth saying it; we just need more to say it as well as to say it more. Perhaps they hope you will stop saying it. You keep saying it even if you don’t have much hope that they will stop doing it; you don’t want their hope you will stop to stop you. If the complainer is irritating, complaint activism might involve being willing to be an irritant, an institutional killjoy.

To be an institutional killjoy, a killjoy at work, you need to work with others. Complaint activism can lead to forming new kinds of collectives. She began working with a group of disabled activists, to use compliance with the law as a method for putting organizations under pressure to be as accessible as they claim to be. Complaint activists can thus also be understood as complaint supporters; you not only work with each other, but in working together, in pooling your resources, you are also more able to give advice and practical support to those who are making complaints.

This kind of complaint activism has a long history. Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie, and Suzanne Scafe ([1985] 2008) in the Black British feminist classic text The Heart of the Race quote from a Black woman talking about the work of her activist group in the 1970s. She refers to how they gave support to a Black mother “in making a complaint against the police” (158). She expands: “We picketed the local Police Station and called in the local press. Then we got involved in a People’s Enquiry, gathering information and evidence on the courts, the police, our housing situation, employment and education practices—everything which affected the Black community in our area. A lot of Black people came along to give evidence on how they had been dealt with by the local police and we helped to compile a report” (159). Supporting a complaint can be about how you make a complaint more public and visible, using pickets and the press, as well as how you collect the evidence needed to compile reports. To make a complaint against an institution is how you gather more evidence of its violence.

We can turn our own experience of institutional violence into a shared resource for others.

Complaint activism might describe a stance or a style, a willingness to fight back, to fight for more, whatever the costs, whether or not you get through. Not getting through does not mean not getting somewhere. This also means that getting somewhere is not always about getting through. Complaint activism is a way of thinking about what we get from complaint even when we do not get through. To complain is also to create a record. Remember: you have to record what you do not want to reproduce. If you record what you do not want to reproduce, that record exists even if what is reproduced is still reproduced. Yes, a record can end up in a file. But the record is also what you retain: you can take it with you wherever you go. A complaint becomes a companion, a noisy companion. One lecturer who made a complaint about bullying at her former institution told me,

I definitely believe in complaining, even when it’s a bad outcome, just creating that record of what happened. I am glad that it exists for me, and that if any questions are raised I have it and also that I had a go, I did try. And for the record: that matters to me. It matters to me not that I tried to seek justice, because I don’t really believe the process can deliver that, but just to have some accountability and explanation in the hope of institutional change, which was I think all I was asking for in the end.

A record can be what matters to the one who assembles it; a record can be a reminder that you made an effort, that you had a go, even if that effort did not lead to institutional change.

To be a complaint activist is not necessarily to enter a process believing it can deliver an end such as justice. Complaint activism does not come from an optimism in the law or in complaints procedures; if anything, complaint activism comes out of the knowledge of institutional violence that comes from making complaints. I noted earlier that there is hope in the trajectory of becoming a complaint activist. The hope of this trajectory is not tied to success. Complaint activism comes from an experience of institutional failures of many kinds. One student said, “You know the process is broken, but still, you know you must do it, because if you don’t, more falls to the wayside. So, it’s like a painful repetitive cycle where you do what you know is right, knowing it may not make a difference at that time, but you always hope, you always have that hope, that maybe because I did this, it paves the way for something else.” Complaint activism involves the willingness to make use of complaints procedures even though you know “the process is broken” and you are likely to enter “a painful repetitive cycle,” which you can recognize because you have already been through it. You have hope because even if a complaint does not make a difference at the time you make it, it could still “pave the way for something else.” I think of how paving can become pavement, how possibility can be preparing the ground. The hope of complaint could be thought of as a weary hope, not agentic, bright, forward, and thrusting, but a hope that is close to the ground, even below the ground, slow, low, below; a hope born from what is worn.

Even going through an exhausting of processes can have creative potential. Yes, we can be in a state of exhaustion because of that process. But complaints, even formal ones, slow and tedious ones, long and drawn out, can be creative. Consider how feminist artists have made use of complaint, or how feminist art can be complaint. The Guerrilla Girls, for instance, had an exhibition called Complaints Department, in which individuals and organizations were invited to post “about art, culture, politics, the environment, or any other issue they care about.” They also ran office hours where you could share your complaints “face to face.” You can turn what might be assumed to be a mundane administrative practice into an art project. The direction of travel goes both ways. Those who make complaints, who enter that department, the Complaint Department (though of course making formal complaints often means entering many departments), can turn what they do—it might seem tedious, it might seem dull, all those papers—into art. Or perhaps there is no turning involved; perhaps there is an art in the mundane, to the mundane.

Complaint activism is not simply about using formal complaints procedures to press against institutions, although it involves that. It is also about taking complaints out, making complaints across different sites: the walls, the committees, the classrooms, the dissertations. Complaints can be expressed queerly, coming out all over the place. Complaints can be sneaky as well as leaky.

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Melancholic Migrants

Not that long ago I received a message. It was a relatively mild message compared to some I have received. As a lesbian feminist of colour from a Muslim background who writes on racism as well as other forms of power and oppression, albeit keeping my work as far away as I can from mainstream media, I know what I will receive is what I work on. But this message caught my attention. Before a long hate-filled preamble, it said “just because someone called you a P— in the 1980s.” Here a racist insult is repeated by saying that it was or had been said. The insult is firmly located in the past (that distant decade) and attributed to another (that someone) whilst being said, put into a message, put to a person, in the present.

Note the implication of the wording “just because” as if what you are doing now, the work you are doing now, perhaps the critiques you are offering now, are because “or just because” you did not get over what someone once said to you in the past. Note as well how what was said is not only located in the past but is made singular, as if what was said was said once.

So often when we talk about racism we are heard as talking about something slight.

Because, just because.

So much harm, so much history, can be turned into a slight.  There is a history to this making light of history.

Racism: a word we use because we refuse to make light of this history.

When Black or Brown people refuse to make light of racism, we find ourselves turned into a ghostly figure, the melancholic migrant.  The migrant is already a racialised figure: you can be Brown or Black and born here and told to go back to where you came from or to go home.  To be a melancholic migrant is to say what I just said, or do what I just did, to use the languages of race, racialization or racism to make sense of who gets to reside here; who decides who resides here. The melancholic migrant, like any other killjoy, is a useful figure, locating soreness at a certain point. That melancholic migrant is exercised regularly, turning up whenever we bring racism up, as if to say, we talk about racism “just because” we have a chip on our shoulder, racism as how we instrumentalise, even weaponise, our individual or collective trauma.

Because? Just because.

Speaking of singularity, you just have to say the word racism and you are heard as always saying the word racism, as if you are a broken record, stuck on the same point, as if you can’t pause for breath, as if you can’t even punctuate your sentences with any other points.


We might keep saying it because they keep doing it (though we are the ones who will be heard as repeating ourselves). But, actually, we have many different points to make. You can make many different points and be heard as making the same point.

One woman of colour I interviewed for my project on diversity said, “they say you make everything about racism.”

About. What’s that, about?


Maybe its because when you say it, that is all they can hear. Or maybe its until you bring it up, they don’t have to hear it.

Then if we bring it up, they say you made it up, as if to bring it up is to bring it into existence.

And then: it is assumed it would go away if you just stopped going on about it.

No wonder we are heard as repeating ourselves.

I suspect mostly most of us want to get on with things. And most of the time, we put what makes it hard to do our work into the background, which does not mean it no longer exists. Sometimes you are busy, doing what you do. But then you are hit by it. I remember one meeting, an informal meeting at the house of a white feminist colleague. Another white feminist, a colleague of a colleague, well known for her work on cultural difference, suddenly peered over the table at me, as if to examine me more closely.

“Sara, I didn’t realise you were Oriental.”

Even when you are used to it, it can catch you. Casual comments, draped all over you.

Realisations cutting the atmosphere like a knife.

I wince, but don’t say anything.

Maybe when we wince, we are heard as sore, as shouting, because of what we are not receiving, the message, kindly meant, dear, how curious, dear, look at you, dear.

You can be deemed to be holding onto racism just by noticing what is going on.

Noticing can be a killjoy hammer.

I first reflected on the figure of the melancholic migrant by working through and working out what I found so problematic about the film Bend it Like Beckham that feel-good film that presented a happy view of British multiculturalism. The film tells the story of Jess, who wants to make her family happy, but also wants to play football because that is what makes her happy. Happiness is a crisis if what makes you happy does not make those you want to make happy, happy.

Racism comes up because Jess’s father brings it up as an explanation of why he does not want Jess to play football. He says: “I was a teenager in Nairobi, I was the best fast bowler in our school. Our team even won the East African cup. But when I came to this country, nothing. And these bloody gora in the club house made fun of my turban and sent me off packing.” The father says he does not want Jess to play because he does not want her to suffer like him. A memory of racism, it is implied, stopped him from playing, and could stop her from playing.

The father makes a second speech in which he announces a different decision: he wants her to play. He says, “When those bloody English cricket players threw me out of their club like a dog, I never complained. On the contrary, I vowed that I would never play again. Who suffered? Me. But I don’t want Jess to suffer. I don’t want her to make the same mistakes her father made, accepting life, accepting situations. I want her to fight. And I want her to win.”  The second speech implies that the refusal to play the national game is the “truth” being the migrant’s suffering: you suffer because you do not play the game, where not playing is framed as a kind of self-exclusion (“I vowed I would never play again”). For Jess to be happy he lets her be included, narrated as a form of letting go. By implication, not only is he letting her go, he is also letting go of his own suffering, the unhappiness caused by accepting racism, as the “point” of his exclusion.  

In these two contrasting speeches, we can hear an old diagnosis that is not invented but inherited. Racism is treated as a kind of false consciousness, as how some hold onto what is no longer relevant or real.  Racism as an explanation of migrant suffering (“they made fun of my turban and sent me off packing”) is deemed to function to preserve an attachment to the very scene of suffering. The melancholic migrant holds on not simply to difference (such as the turban), nations can enjoy some differences, but to the unhappiness of difference as an historical itinerary (they “made fun of my turban”).  In other words, racism is framed as what the melancholic migrant is attached to, as an attachment to injury that allows them to justify their refusal to participate in the national game (“the gora in their club house”). By implication, it is the story of injury which causes injury: the migrants exclude themselves if they insist on reading their exclusion as a sign of the ongoing nature of racism. The narrative implicit in the resolution of the father’s trauma is not that migrants invented racism to explain their loss, but that they preserve its power to govern social life by not getting over it.

The moral task is thus “to get over it,” as if when you are over it, it is gone.

Killjoy maxim: Don’t get over what is not over.

The task is not only to let go of the pain of racism but to let go of racism as a way of understanding that pain. Implicit to the task is also a warning: if you don’t stop talking about racism, then you will be stopped (from playing the game, from doing something, from getting somewhere). Perhaps we are required to tell that story happily, as if the only thing stopping us from playing the game is ourselves.

Why bring up the figure of the melancholic migrant now? Because the figure has come up again.

This figure appears in the Report recently published by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities set up by Government (March 31, 2021). The report reads like a reference for the Government. It reads like that because it is that. The report acknowledged (it “has to acknowledge”) that the  “original trigger” for the setting up of the Commission was the Black Lives Matter protests that “engulfed the world.” Language is a lead. If the protests are treated as what could spread and engulf and enflame, the Commission (and the Report) is the effort to put the lid on it.  It did what it was set up to do: deny the ongoing existence of institutional and structural racism. We know it was set up to do that because those who chose and were chosen to lead the Commission had already denied the existence of institutional and structural racism.

Brown and Black people who deny structural racism are far more likely to have a door opened to them by those who benefit from structural racism. In fact, my own research on complaint has taught me how denial can lead to promotion (or how promotion can be a reward for denial).

The more you deny the existence of structures, the more you are promoted by those same structures.

The Commission is another door slammed shut, evidence of what it says does not exist. It teaches us how some others are allowed in because of what they are willing to do or not do. You give them what they want: a happy story about diversity, a refusal to acknowledge racism, colonialism, that recent history, that present, occupying so many institutions.

Doors are opened to some of us on condition we show we are willing to shut the door on others. If you police the border, you get in. And then, the shut door is treated as a melancholic object, not in the world but in the minds of those who don’t get in.  To evoke as the report does that old-worn-tired figure of the melancholic migrant is to shut the door whilst denying the door even exists. So, racism appears only by being located in the minds of those who are haunted by history: “For some groups historic experience of racism still haunts the present and there was a reluctance to acknowledge that the UK had become open and fairer.”

Racism is not only deposited in the past it is deemed to be what stops us from seeing the present.

If we are haunted it is because racism has not gone. If we are haunted it is because racism goes on.

What has not gone, goes on.

As killjoy critics, we have learnt to read the distribution of positives and negatives. In the report, being positive is treated as being objective and neutral and forward-thinking; being negative, as subjective and biased and stuck in the past. Indeed, the report uses positive and negative not only as attitudes that alone determine outcome for individuals, but as judgements made against different ethnic groups: “Those groups, particularly Indian and Chinese ethnic groups, who have the most success in British society tend to see fewer obstacles and less prejudice. And those groups that do less well, Black people and Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims, tend to see and experience more of both, though Black African people are considerably more positive than Black Caribbean people.” The implication here that when you see an obstacle, you are you are own obstacle. When I think of the grossly simplistic and frankly outrageous moral economy, I think of Audre Lorde, who taught us how “being positive” as an outlook is used to obscure so much.  Lorde writes, “looking on the bright side of things is a euphemism used for obscuring certain realities of life, the open consideration of which might prove threatening to the status quo” (1997: 76).

What is threatening is what you are supposed to overlook to do well.

The report even “see the positives” in slavery, “here is a new story about the Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain.”  Yes: even slavery, which caused the death and dispossession of millions of African people, can be, has been, is being, turned into a positive story of cultural and self-empowerment.

Being positive is also turned into a teaching resource, which they contrast to “the negative calls for ‘decolonising’ the curriculum:” “Neither the banning of White authors or token expressions of Black achievement will help to broaden young minds. We have argued against bringing down statues, instead, we want all children to reclaim their British heritage. We want to create a teaching resource that looks at the influence of the UK, particularly during the Empire period. We want to see how Britishness influenced the Commonwealth and local communities, and how the Commonwealth and local communities influenced what we now know as modern Britain. One great example would be a dictionary or lexicon of well-known British words which are Indian in origin.” Here happy diversity, becomes happy hybridity, a story of mixing and mingling.

Just in case we need a reminder: the dominant way of telling the story of the British empire in Britain has been as a happy story, which was the same story that justified empire, of course, as a moral or civilizing project in the first place; empire as gift, empire as bringing railways and Shakespeare, empire as drinking tea with smiling natives, as bringing light to dark shores; the British imperialists as rather well-meaning gentlemen and even gentler women. That dominant happy view of empire is enforced through citizenship, by which I mean, to become a citizen is to learn that positive view and to be required to repeat it. The Home Office guide for citizenship tests Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey to Citizenship first published in 2005, mentions empire a few times and always in positive or glowing terms, for example, empire as what brought “regular, acceptable and impartial systems of law and order” to “Indigenous peoples in Africa, the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere.”

Gone the violence; the dispossession of people from land, from language, from culture, the dispossession of people from people.

Gone the violence: how the violence has not gone.

This happy story of empire is endlessly reproduced everywhere. The former head of the former Commission for Racial Equality once said, “And we can look at our own history to show that the British people are not by nature bigots. We created something called the empire where we mixed and mingled with people very different from those of these islands.” Invasion, enslavement, and servitude are rewritten as a party, as diversity, mixing and mingling with different people and even as a confirmation of not being bigoted. A former prime minister made a list of things make England great, and included in that list that we “took slavery off the high seas.”

Great Britain is remembered as the liberator of the slaves not as one of the main perpetrators and beneficiaries of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Since the Black Lives Matter movement has travelled into the UK, following the paths of other anti-racist global movements, there has been more of a concerted effort not to keep telling the idealised story of empire. There has been more of an effort to remove statues of slave owners and to take the names of eugenicists off from buildings.  This is not about censoring history but refusing the censoring of history, refusing not to deal with the violence that has not been dealt with.

Because that is what we are dealing with: what has not been dealt with. My research into complaint has taught me the racism experienced by many Black and Brown students and academics in universities in the UK is almost always met with by denial (see here, for a recent lecture on Complaint, Diversity and Hostile Environments). Universities can announce their commitments to Black Lives Matter whilst remaining hostile environments for Black people. We know can from do.  Universities are not a special case: they are public institutions amongst other public institutions. Much racist speech is routinely justified as free speech or turned into an error message, as being inexpressive of what persons or institutions are really like (they didn’t mean it; it didn’t mean anything). I have learnt that even acts of physical violence are justified as forms of self-expression or as inexpressive and if not justifiable in this way are explained as caused by how others appear.

So much violence is dealt with by not being faced.

Denial is how institutions handle racism.

Denial of racism is how racism is reproduced.

Denial is how institutional racism works.

In denying the existence of institutional racism, the Report produced by the Commission is evidence of institutional racism. It is teaching us how institutional racism works.

Sadly, we don’t need to learn that lesson; the point of that lesson is we have already learned it.

The reassertion of positivity-as-duty is a concerted and deliberate attempt to close the door, to dampen the mood, to loosen the will, and to deny the truths, of those protesting the violence of racism, especially anti-Black racism, the violence of more violence, the violence that leaves so many people so much more vulnerable to violence, police violence, state violence, economic violence, inter-personal violence.

It will not work. We will keep doing the work.


Lorde, Audre (1997). The Cancer Journals. Aunt Lute Books: San Francisco.


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Apologies for Harm, Apologies as Harm

What would you do if you opened your complaint file and found an apology from the person you complained about?

This is not a hypothetical question.

We ask some questions because of what has happened.

A student is being harassed and bullied by the professor who teaches the core course of her MA. In a one-to-one tutorial, he shouts and swears at her, tells her that her questions about “gender and race,” were “the fucking wrong questions.” He tells her that her grades don’t matter, that she doesn’t matter, because she’s too “fucking old,” she is “not going to have a career in academia.” She is “insulted, undermined, threatened.” She felt afraid not only because someone with power was acting toward her in such a manner but because his actions left no physical trace.

She said: “I felt afraid. He hadn’t touched me. He hadn’t physically abused me.”

If other people can’t see it, that it happened, did it happen? Some forms of violence, however hard they hit you, do not appear to others. Fear can be magnified by not being able to evidence what you encounter.

She said: “So, then I started getting afraid, I started questioning and doubting myself.”

Fear can be not only directed toward something, but can be the experience of not being able to communicate what it is directed toward to others.

We can feel the absence of evidence as fear.

What then, what to do then?

She did make a complaint after her MA about what happened during it. And she complained in part because the professor used the power he had as professor to close the door. He was not supposed to mark her dissertation, but he does; she gets a much lower mark than she did for her other course work. On the prospect of doing a PhD, she said “that door is closed.” He closed the door on her complaint, he closed the door on her career; he closed the door on her. She knows that the low mark was a form of retaliation, for asking the wrong questions, for not receiving passively what the professor taught as wisdom (in Living a Feminist Life, I call sexism “received wisdom”). Believe me, when someone retaliates, you know it. But it can still be hard to convince others that the retaliation is retaliation. Many people do not want to be convinced because of the investments they have in persons (he wouldn’t do that; he couldn’t do that).

So many complaints are blocked because of people’s investments in persons, in programmes, in projects.

To complain is to encounter a wall of investment.

She felt she had a duty to complain: she wanted to stop what happened to her from happening to others. But her complaint did not get anywhere. He was protected by the organisation and by his colleagues. She is left feeling there was little point to having complained:

I think lots of students would have complained but a lot of people are a lot better at self-care than I am and realised that this process is damaging, is traumatic and to be perfectly frank it is not very helpful for me as a student all I am doing is being fobbed off by the university, where they are making excuses for their behaviour. As far as I can tell, no real change is going to happen. I might get some money at the end of it to shut me up. In terms of change for future students, institutional change, or any real genuine apology or sense of worry from the university that they had let a student have the kind of experience I had, none of that so ultimately the complaints process has not helped me in any way. Maybe you could make an argument that somehow it is therapeutic to air one’s woes but to be perfectly frank I haven’t found it therapeutic at all. And, it continues and I am finding it difficult to move on with my life.

Like many of the stories of complaint I have collected for this project, her complaint did not end well. She was not even able to narrate the experience as therapeutic. Rather she witnessed what I think of as the “clunk, clunk” of institutional machinery. She encountered the same thing she complained about because she complained: the protection of an esteemed professor by an institution and by his colleagues.

How he gets away with it is how he keeps doing it.

Unlike most of the stories of complaint I have collected in this story there is an apology, or at least an apparent apology made by the professor even though, as she describes, there is no “real genuine apology” or even a “sense of worry” expressed by the university. In her complaint file she finds a letter addressed from him to her. She had not asked for an apology. She was quite clear about what the apology was doing and not doing by turning up in her file. She said:

I think it’s a box ticking exercise, oh at least we apologised, but look at the words, think about what an apology really means then tell me you’ve apologised or whether you have got a lawyer and wrote a letter that you wanted to show.

To describe an apology as a “box ticking exercise,” is to suggest that the apology is fulfilling a bureaucratic function. Some apologies are made so those who make them can show they have been made (“a letter that you wanted to show”). If a “real genuine apology,” would be a recognition of harm, a bureaucratic apology would be a way of appearing to recognise harm without really doing so. An apology can be offered rather like that non-performative nod, a way of appearing to hear somebody’s complaint, a way of placating somebody. An apology can be used to resolve the complaint, to complete an action, when it acquires the status of evidence that the harm identified by the complaint has been heard and handled. An apology for harm can be a mode of recovery, a recovering of harm, covering over harm.

Although in this case the apology took the form of a letter from another person, by describing it as “box ticking exercise,” she is pointing to the usefulness of the apology to the institution.  The apology is teaching something about how the institution is working (2). Even an apology that takes the form of a letter addressed from a professor to a student can be an institutional speech act. It can follow a format, or a template; it can be signed by an individual but written by lawyers with words carefully chosen to ensure that the apology does not do too much, say too much, reveal too much (“look at the words”). By attending to how the words fall short of what “an apology really means,” she is showing that an apology does not always apologise; it does not mean what it says. A person can apologise for wrong doing in such a way a person frees himself from implication in that wrongdoing.

It is not always clear who is freeing what from what. This lack of clarity can be doing something. Perhaps the apology can be made vague in what the apology is for or in who it is from. She shows the vaguely institutional nature of the apology by switching between “you” and “we”: she says that the apology is written for you or by your lawyers so that “at least we apologised.” That an apology can be vaguely institutional means that an apology can be used by the institution to create an impression that it handled and heard the complaint in such a way that the institution is not implicated, or is cleared, of wrong doing. If the institution can be vaguely cleared perhaps the professor is cleared too. Perhaps the vaguer the apology, the more can be cleared.

Apologies can, of course, be made by institutions such as universities to nation-states. In such instances, apologies are official to the extent they are made by a person or persons who have already been given the authority to speak on behalf of the institution. Even when institutional apologies can be used to cover over wrongs, apologies can still be received as recognition of wrong doing. This is why many governments today still refuse to apologise for colonialism and slavery, preferring weaker words like regret. To apologise can be to say too much, do too much, because of how apologies can be received as an admission of something, or as taking responsibility for wrongs, historic or not, whether intended as such. Some apologies are not made because of where they could lead; apologies as a path toward reparation, for instance. However, we know from history, that it is possible to apologise for crimes against humanity without starting on a path toward reparation.

If apologies are paths, where else do they lead? Perhaps we need to ask about who, who apologises, before we can think about the direction of an apology. Apologies are more often made without the need for authorisation; the person who is apologising is doing so on their own behalf. What such interpersonal apologies do depends on how they are made, when they are made, by whom they are made and to whom they are made.

Some apologies can be habitual; some people can keep saying sorry as a way of prefacing their own existence as if they are apologising for existing. Apology in this form is very gendered; femininity as apology for taking up space.

Apologies can be made without referring to a person’s own conduct. The person who apologises does not have to say what they are apologising for. Or a person can apologise for what they have done in such a way that they make what they are apologising for seem small or minor. Or someone might apologise for causing offence rather than for being offensive. An apology is then made a matter of how someone is affected rather than what the person who made the apology caused: If you apologise for hurting someone’s feelings, hurt feelings become the problem that is being resolved by the apology.

Of course, so much harm can be minimized as a matter of hurt feelings without an apology being made.

Let me return to complaint. In my complaint testimonies, I found different kinds of apologies.

What are they doing?

An academic made multiple complaints relating to plagiarism as well as racism. Her complaints could be well described as “feminist of colour pedagogy,” she came to know the institution intimately, profoundly, as a white patriarchal institution, from the work of complaining. She came to know how it worked, how white men academics ended up with more research time, how people of colour, especially women of colour, ended up with less research time; all those backdoor deals and shadow policies. I share her learning in Complaint! and explain her use of the term “shadow policies.” She is sure that she will never receive an apology for the harm caused to her. She stated, “x will never apologise or acknowledge they made a mistake. They are afraid of lawsuits.” Some apologies can be not made, more than not, will never be made, because they recognise too much, because of where they could lead, to lawsuits.

Apologies can be refused because they recognise harm.

A senior researcher made a complaint about bullying and harassment. Her complaint ends up with an ombudsman. They require that the organization apologies. She describes “The organisation ‘had to apologise formally.’ The state of that apology. It is ridiculous: it is 10 percent of what happened.” She describes the apology, which took the form of a written letter as “not really an apology.” She added, “They are sorry for the suffering…but is not their fault, and things have changed now so it is fine.” Sometimes it is clear: an apology when required can be made in such a way that it clears an organisation of wrong doing. When you are sorry for someone’s suffering, you are not saying sorry for what you have caused. You do not have to admit responsibility for causing suffering when you are sorry for suffering (3). She added: “there is no recognition of the harm they did and that it’s their fault and responsibility and it’s not fair.”

She experienced this apology that did not recognize harm as harmful.

Apologies can be made because they don’t recognise harm.

Take these bold sentences together:

Apologies can recognise harm and not recognise harm. Apologies can be not made because of what they do or made because of what they do not do.

Apologies can hold histories because they hold contradictions.

I am understanding so much more about what apologies do and do not do from listening to those who complain.

More instances.

Apologies that do not recognise harm (or do not really do anything) can be experienced as empty or meaningless by those who receive them. I spoke to a student who made a complaint about disability discrimination. Her complaint also ended up with an ombudsman who found that the institution had failed to handle her complaint fairly. She described, “x was required to write an apology, which they did on the last day.” The university also gave her a small monetary compensation. She passed over the gesture because she recognised what the gesture allowed the organization to pass over: “as a gesture of good will you can just go away.”

An apology can be another way you are told to go away.

If an apology from one party to another party is made into a requirement by a third party, the person who receives the apology does not always experience the apology as empty or pointless. In another example, an academic experienced abuse from another academic. She describes: “There was one moment I had to complain where a female member of staff was completely drunk and verbally abusive and aggressive to me, and on that particular occasion I managed to get the institution to force her to write a letter of apology, because I think that is really important to have it on record and on file that in any given circumstances you are not ethically in the wrong position.” She was not concerned about whether the person who made the apology was being sincere or not, or whether the apology in its wording offered a recognition of the harm that had been caused or not. For her that an apology was made was what mattered. An apology here, however solicited, however required, or perhaps even because it was solicited, because it was required, becomes a record of a wrong.

An unsolicited and unrequired apology can also matter in part because it is unsolicited or unrequired. A postdoctoral researcher made a complaint about racism that led her to experience more racism. She attends meetings that end up as interrogations. But in the middle of the process, a person from human resources apologies to her. She describes, “She was like: wow I am really sorry you had to go through this. And the union official said they and never heard someone apologise.” If you are an administrator of a complaint process you might be encouraged not to apologise because of an institutional concern that an apology can be used by the recipient as evidence or as acknowledgment of wrong doing. If someone apologies in the middle of a complaint process about the process, in part as that’s the right or decent thing to do, it stands out. An apology becomes a gesture filled with meaning because in being offered it does not follow the path laid down by the institution.

It can help sometimes to have someone recognise how hard a process is, which can be about how hard a process is on you. If so, then: apologies for how someone is being affected by something can do something for someone.

In writing about apologies and what they do, and do not do, I am not writing apologies off. I am not claiming that in doing this or doing that they only do this or only do that. Perhaps apologies are another queer map of the organization, also of a complaint, also of a life: messy.

And yet: we still need to write about what some apologies write off.

The following is the some of that story.

Let me return to the testimony from the MA student with which I opened this post. She said:

And the other thing they did is send me that letter by x. I didn’t ask for any contact from that man. He is a bully. He already lives in my nightmares.

If the letter was an apology, it was also a form of communication. Making an apology allowed the professor to enter the complaint she had made about him in his own terms; it allows him to enter her mind as well as her file, to take up space in the way he had already taken up space (“he already lives in my nightmares”).

The insertion of an apology into a complaint can be a continuation of the kind of communication she complained about. The apology becomes another instance of unwanted communication. Even his apology is a form of self-assertion. To accept his apology would be to accept how he inserts himself, into her complaint, her file, into her mind; her world. She needed not to accept that apology because she needed him not to be there.

She added, “I think they thought I would accept it as a real apology.” The action she is identifying as problematic is not only the apology, but the expectation of what would follow the apology, that she would accept it. Finding that letter in the file is to be put under pressure to accept it, to move on with it, to get on with it.

The use of an apology teaches us how reconciliation can be a form of governance (4). When reconciliation becomes a mode of governance, abuses of power are treated as minor squabbles or as the product of poor communication that can be resolved by better communication.

Another student was considering making a complaint about sexual misconduct by her former tutor.  She was told her options would either be a formal complaint, which she didn’t “think would lead anywhere without tangible proof of physical assault” or “writing him a letter directly.” She did not want to write such a letter. As she describes: “I have no wish to reopen channels of communication with X as I have successfully cut myself off and I do not want to start a conversation with him or give him a chance to explain himself.” To be asked to communicate whether in writing or in person with the person who has harassed you, is to be asked to reopen channels of communication that you closed to protect yourself. The person who abused you is given more chances to express himself.

Reconciliation can be experienced as the enforcement of communication.

Stories of apology are also about who is given the task of reconciliation.  A white academic, when she became head of her department, told a black academic to reconcile with the former head of department: “I want you to reconcile with her because after all she is my friend and colleague and all she ever did was write you some long emails.”  The black woman she is addressing (although not addressing as a colleague) had in fact been racially harassed by the former head of department, another white woman, for many years. This white woman by expressing her desire for reconciliation (“I want you to reconcile with her”) is also offering an interpretation of events (“all she ever did is to write you some long emails”). A key tactic for minimising harassment is to present harassment as a style of communication: long emails might be annoying, but the implication is that they are not harmful or serious.

If reconciliation can be the enforcement of communication, violence is shut out by being presented as a style of communication.

The work of reconciliation often falls upon those who have been harassed: it is the Black woman who is given the task of reconciling “with her,” the white woman who harassed her whilst she was her head of department.  The expectation she will smooth things over or keep smoothing things over is how she is required to maintain a relationship that is damaging.   An expression of desire for reconciliation might appear to be a friendly gesture. There is nothing friendly about this gesture. If she does not return the desire for reconciliation, if she is not willing to smooth things other, moving on, getting along, getting on, she becomes the one who has not only broken a connection but refused to repair it.

This story is not a story of an apology. And yet I learnt from her testimony something about timing that allows me to return to apology in a different way. Being required to accept an apology can be how you are required to accept a situation. Perhaps some apologies are made not after harm but before harm; apologies for harm, apologies as harm. An expectation of reconciliation can be enforced right from the beginning; the violence that follows must be forgiven in advance for someone to advance.

In fact, then, the requirement to accept an apology can be the requirement to overlook violence: it didn’t mean anything, they didn’t mean anything, don’t be mean!

Abusive relationships are often treated like fragile, breakable things. And repair is often narrated as achievable through giving time and attention; patching it up, patching things up. Sometimes, however, in order to end abuse, we need to end relationships with those who are abusive. Keeping those relationships going in the hope they can improve is to keep going with something that is harmful.  If an apology is made to keep a relationship going that is harmful, an apology is harmful.

Institutions too can be treated as fragile things that can be patched up or as persons whose problems can be resolved by learning to communicate better. In my book, On Being Included I noted that when racism is recognized as institutional, institutions are quickly psychologized. Consider this definition of institutional racism: “processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping.” In a way, the institution becomes recognised as racist only through being posited as like an individual, as someone who suffers from prejudice, but who could be treated, or made better (perhaps through diversity, that reconciliation story).  The recognition of institutional racism can easily be translated into a form of institutional therapy culture: where the institution becomes the sick person, who can be helped by being given the appropriate treatment.  An apology can be expressed as treatment.

When institutions apologise, those apologies often assume a magical form: as if to say it is to be over it. An apology can be offered as a way of “being over it.” If it is not over, it is not the time to be over it. If apologies are to have a point as well as purpose, they need to be offered in recognition that what an apology is an apology for is not over. Being sorry is not being over it. We apologise for what we are in not what we are over.

Perhaps an apologetic institution is also one that demands we preserve our attachment to it despite everything the institution has done not to deserve that attachment.

Apologetic institutions: the violence perpetuated by an apology for institutional violence as if apologising for institutional violence is no longer being violent in the same way.

Apologetic racism: the racism perpetuated by an apology for racism as if apologising for racism means no longer being racist in the same way.

Apologetic sexism: the sexism that is perpetuated by an apology for sexism as if apologising for sexism means no longer being sexist in the same way.

And so on. And so, it goes on (5).

The problem is not only that apologies can be used as if they create the conditions for transcending what apologies are for. An apology can enact what the apology is for. For instance, someone can take up more time and space by apologising for taking up more time and space.

I want to return for the final time to the story of an apology found in a complaint file that inspired this post. This former MA student also said:

Reading it, it is not an apology. He did exactly the same thing he used to do in seminars. Of course, of course, you’re right, but not actually to enter into any discourse, so in fact telling you, I am not even going to grant you the respect of a conversation. I am just going to capitulate in such a tone that tells you that I don’t believe a word you are saying, therefore not giving you the respect of recognising that you might have a valid point. It sounds bizarre but by saying a person’s right you can somehow devalue or invalidate the point you are making but x is an expert at doing that.

What you are told to receive as apology you do not have to receive as an apology. You have to be assertive not to do as you are told, not only not to accept the apology but to insist that an apology is not what it is (“reading it, it is not an apology”). You might refuse to recognise the apology as apology because of what you recognise. She recognises the letter, the tone of it, what it is doing, what he is an expert in doing, because it is what he did before (“exactly the same thing he used to do in seminars”). An apology for conduct can be that conduct: it is familiar to her, he is addressing her in the same way he used to address her, the disbelief, disdain; how a right, you’re right can be a way of not engaging, not recognising someone, not entering into discourse. You can be telling someone how little you think they are worth by appearing to concede in such a way that intonates their point, their complaint, is not “a valid point.”

Summary: an apology for bullying can be an extension of bullying.

Remember: violence is often enacted in a way that makes that violence intangible to others.

Also: we can feel the absence of evidence as fear.

An apology can add to the fear: how the violence is made to disappear.

An apology inserted into her complaint file can be a way of countering the evidence of complaint, countering an absence with its presence. His apology could be showing: she has nothing to show.

What would happen if you opened a complaint file and found an apology from the person you complained about?

I don’t know what would happen in every instance. But I know what could happen from what did happen.

When you open the complaint file and find an apology, you can find the enactment of what you complained about. An apology can be that enactment.



  1. In my book, Complaint! I have only one paragraph on apology. I could have written much more than I did but there was only so much room and I had so much material. In the year to come, I hope to share posts drawing on data I missed out from the book.
  2. I have wondered about the work of the apology before. In the chapter, “Shame Before Others,” from The Cultural Politics of Emotion, I examined the role of apologies, as well as expression of sorrow, remorse and shame, in the Sorry Books written by settler Australians about the stolen generations of Aboriginal peoples in Australia. Many of these speech acts were requests for an apology by the government for the violent theft of Aboriginal children from their homes and communities. I was struck then by how often the request for an apology by government took the form of a desire for national pride, in other words, an apology was deemed a necessary condition to be able to return to being proud to be Australian. An apology was assumed to be necessary to bring an end to this shameful period of colonial history. Colonial violence and subjugation can be treated as inexpressive, as not being evidence of what we are really like. So much structural violence is deemed to be inexpressive in this way (we are not that, we need to do this to show we are not that.
  3. As I was writing this post on January 26 2021, the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was widely reported by the press as having apologised for the suffering caused by coronavirus. This was a day to be sorry, a day to be outraged, very angry and very sad: it was the day that over 100,000 deaths from coronavirus were officially recorded in the UK. Johnson’s speech was an expression of condolence to all those who had lost loves ones. But it was not an apology in the sense of offering a recognition of wrong doing and harm caused by government policies. Or perhaps it was more of an apology in the original sense of the word; an apology as speech given as defence. Despite saying he was responsible as Prime Minister, Johnson also attempted to clear his government (and thus himself) of responsibility by saying they had done “everything [they] could” to minimise death and suffering.
  4. The uses of reconciliation as a governing strategy by organizations is not unrelated to the uses of reconciliation by settler colonial nation states. Reconciliation can be the demand that indigenous peoples reconcile themselves to the situation of occupation as well as with the colonizer (see Nicoll, 1998). The use of reconciliation in the settler colonial context can imply, as Glen Sean Coulthard has astutely noted, that the task for native peoples is to overcome “negative feelings” in the promotion of harmony. He writes, “it is frequently inferred by proponents of political reconciliation that restoring those relationships requires that individuals and groups work to overcome debilitating pain, anger and resentment that frequently persist in being injured or harmed by a real or perceived injustice” (2014, 107).
  5. The structure I am describing here is similar to the uses of criticality: critical racism as the claim to have transcended racism (as racism is uncritical) and so on.



Coulthard, Glen Sean. 2014. Red Skins, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Nicoll, Fiona. (1998) “B(l)acklash: Reconciliation after Wik,” Meanjin, 57, 1: 167-183.

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Killjoy Commitments

It is another year, a new year. A new year, an old reality, being where we are, in a global pandemic, a time of immense loss and hardship for so many. When times are hard, inequalities become harsher.

This is a killjoy commitment.

I commit to keep going, to keep doing what I can to challenge inequalities where I am.

On the morning of January 1st 2021, I made another killjoy commitment. I tweeted:

I recommit myself to the task of explaining what I oppose without elevating what I oppose as a position worthy of being debated.

My task in this post is to show how these killjoy commitments are part of the same commitment.

To challenge inequalities where I am is to explain what I oppose without elevating what I oppose to a position worthy of being debated.

For me to undertake this task will be to return to complaint.

My study of complaint is an explanation of how hard it is to challenge inequalities.

Harassment is an equality issue.

What do you do if someone with institutional power harasses you? You know that if you did complain they could use that power to do what they can to stop not just the complaint but you, to stop you from getting somewhere.

Much harassment is the effort to stop people complaining about harassment.

That some have power can be what makes it hard to complain. Power works by making it hard to challenge how power works. We have systems in place to stop those who have power from retaliating against those who complain. But those systems often work to protect those who abuse their power from those who complain about abuses of power. My study is a study of what follows this but.

We learn about power from those who complain about power. Hence my project hashtag: complaint as feminist pedagogy.

In the year to come, I hope to write more posts that draw on the material I gathered for my study of complaint. Although my forthcoming book Complaint! is long, it was not possible to share all the stories that have been shared with me. There is so much left to share. I hope to write some shorter, dare I say it, snappier posts in the coming year. These are hopes, because I have yet to write the posts.

I hope to reflect more on how and why so much harassment today is justified as expressions of freedom. I also want to write specifically on how transphobic harassment is reproduced by the refusal to identify that harassment as harassment. These posts will not mention specific authors by name, even if I use direct quotes. I have quoted from work without naming authors in earlier posts (such as this one). I am well aware people can follow the quote to the source. But I will not cite authors by name insofar as a citation can be an invitation to dialogue. Remember: my killjoy commitment is to explain what I oppose without elevating what I oppose into a position worthy of being debated.

Why not debate the views you oppose? To oppose some views requires opposing debating some views. It can be the transformation of what you oppose into a viewpoint that is debatable that you oppose.

Let me explain.

There are lots of debates that, if reopened, would compromise our commitments to equality. A gay journalist published an article about homophobia he had experienced. One person wrote a comment in response: “we should be allowed to debate whether homosexuality is a mental illness.” I was really struck by this sentence. Sometimes a history can be abbreviated as a sentence. This statement did not claim that homosexuality is a mental illness. It said we should be allowed to debate whether or not that claim is true. One suspects that only a person who has such a viewpoint, that homosexuality is a mental illness, would articulate a desire to make that viewpoint debatable. Viewpoints that counter existing commitments to equality are often expressed as an effort to reopen a debate. One way of saying “homosexuality is a mental illness” is by saying “we should be allowed to debate whether homosexuality is a mental illness.”

A viewpoint can be expressed in the act of calling for a viewpoint to be made debatable.  This is especially the case when the viewpoint expressed is one that pathologises a group protected under equality legislation (treating a group as suffering from illness). Groups that are protected by equality legislation (in the UK, the language is “protected characteristics”) are groups that are discriminated against.

Debatability can thus be code. It can be saying: we should we allowed to discriminate.

Harassment is an equality issue.

There are some debates we must refuse if we are to express in a meaningful way our commitments to equality. A commitment to equality is a commitment to enabling what does not yet exist (a commitment to equality is necessary given the existence and reproduction of inequalities).

For equality to be possible, there needs to be restrictions in what people can do as well as say. We learn something about the nature of power and privilege from those who experience the restrictions necessary for equality as restrictions on their freedom. We learn something about the nature of power and privilege that some people experience equality as theft.

If we were to reopen the debate as to whether homosexuality was a mental illness, those of us who are lesbian or gay would be hammered, all over again, prodded and poked; we would have our lives and our loves scrutinised. Homophobia would be given legitimacy; it would be given somewhere to go. To have to defend ourselves against this claim, would be to have to go back over what made it, what makes it, very hard to exist in our own terms. Some of us know that it would not take that much for that to happen, for lesbian and gay people to have to defend ourselves against homophobic terms, how we live, how we love. We know that the public commitments to equality are conditional and can easily be withdrawn.  We know that the equation between homosexuality and paedophilia is still being made in debates about sex education which is also how (and why) the legitimation of transphobia is often the re-legitimation of homophobia. We also know the gap between commitments and action: we know gay friendly organizations can be hostile environments for gay people. We also know that if homophobia is often prefaced in public as what you are not allowed to say, in private it can be expressed without any such prefacing whether in the form of jokes, slurs, insults, abuse, or in assaults.

Well then, imagine this: you say, I will not have that debate, I will not make my existence a debate, and you are told, stop being a sensitive snow-flake, too easily offended, stop censoring others. Imagine being accused of harming those who wish to have that debate because you refuse the terms of that debate.

You don’t have to imagine it: this does happen; this has happened; it is happening.

Another killjoy commitment: to document what is happening to those who refuse to debate their existence.

In my book Complaint! I explore how much verbal and physical harassment is justified as freedom. I talked to a woman postgraduate student who made a complaint against men students for sexual harassment (earlier posts that refer to her testimony are here and here). Most of that harassment took the form of sexist and misogynist language: the men students used expressions like “milking bitches” to describe women students and academics. One staff member put pressure upon her not to complain saying “he didn’t mean anything by it.” When the woman student went ahead and complained, with support from other women students, the harassment worsened, turning into threats of physical violence (statements made included “grasses get slashes”). As another student involved in the complaint described “they were talking about the women who complained as vermin who needed to be shot.” These threats were not taken seriously. She explains: “Even when threats of violence were made, it was implied it was just talk and it didn’t mean anything.” In a subsequent meeting with the students who made the complaint, their head of department said: “I don’t need to talk to you about discourse analysis and poststructuralism, and we can all do a discourse analysis on x; and we’d all come up with very different meanings.” The head of department makes reference to current theories to imply that interpreting “milking bitches” as an offensive and sexist speech act is just one interpretation amongst a universe of possible interpretations.

Just one interpretation: the implication is that the speech act can be justified. We could call this justification the theoretical justification of violence.

The head of department’s comment is the kind of justification that I have heard over and over again in my study of complaint and from my own experience of trying to challenge sexism and racism in the wider public domain. A common justification for using offensive terms is that terms have different meanings. I have heard lecturers or students justify their own use of racist terminology including terms we know by letter; I will not share the letters, a history can the violence of repeated letters, as an attempt to give those terms new meanings or even to show that they can acquire new meanings.

The justification of violence is how that violence is repeated. The justification of violence is that violence.

The transition from “he didn’t mean anything by it” to “it didn’t mean anything” to “we’d all come up with very different meanings” is teaching us something about how and why meaning matters. The implication is that to complain about what such-and-such person said is to impose your interpretation upon others. I think what is going on here is another version of stranger danger. In earlier work I have suggested that stranger danger is used to imply that violence originates with outsiders. It can also be used to imply that those who identify violence “on the inside” do so because they are outsiders. The use of words like racism and sexism become understood not only as impositions from the outside but as attempts to restrict the freedom of those who reside somewhere, the freedom to interpret what words mean and to do as they say. When you complain about offensive terms within the university you are often treated as ungrateful for the benefits you have received by the university, the freedom to make your own interpretation, the freedom to be critical; academic freedom. Replace university with nation and the argument holds: the complainer becomes the stranger, whose complaint is evidence that they do not value our freedom; they are not from here, they do not belong here.

Many terms are treated as attempts to restrict freedom not only as impositions from the outside but as made by outsiders. This is true for the terms sexism as well as harassment: consider how many people mourn a world where you can say and do certain things because feminists have called such behaviours harassment or designated them as sexist. I document these acts of mourning in The Feminist Killjoy Handbook, which I am currently compiling. This is true for the term racism: consider how many people suggest that you are not allowed to argue for restrictions to immigration because you would be called racist, or how work in  the new eugenics, which is not that different from the old eugenics, implies that racism is used to stop us having certain kinds of conversations about why white people might prefer being with white people and have the right (even duty) to defend their spaces accordingly.

We call these words and actions racist and sexist. Those who use these words or act in these ways don’t call themselves racist or sexist. They claim to be censored by the words, racism and sexism, stopped from saying certain things, stopped from doing certain things, stopped from being certain things.

This is also true for the word transphobia. I have come across countless instances where  the term transphobia is identified as an attempt to restrict the freedom of some people to say what they wish to say, do what they wish to do, be what they wish to be. Misgendering, for example, is often justified as freedom of speech. The requirement to use the correct pronouns is often positioned as a restriction on that freedom. When some academics say “out of politeness” they respect pronouns of their students they are implying they are free to do so or not to do so. They are not in fact free not to do so; they are required to do so under existing equality law. The guidance  by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) thus includes deliberate misgendering as an example of harassment of persons (using the terms of the 2010 Equality Act) with the “protected characteristic” of gender reassignment.

Those who are members of groups with a “protected characteristic” are those who decide what counts as harassment, which includes “creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.” So, if a woman student says that the repeated use of terms like “milking bitches” made the environment hostile, that is harassment. Disputing the terms is how the harassment is enabled. So, if a person of colour says the repeated use of a racist slur makes the environment hostile, that is harassment. Disputing the terms is how the harassment is enabled.  So, if a trans person says that deliberate and repeated misgendering makes the environment hostile, that is harassment. Disputing the terms is how the harassment is enabled. Some might say (some do say) misgendering is not like a slur or an insult; they might try to minimize the harm of misgendering, to make light of it. Well, those who harass almost always try to minimise or deny harm, to make light of it. It is not up to them to decide what counts as a hostile environment. Many transphobic utterances are given what I call theoretical justification. Using theories to justify misgendering (I can call you he because my theories mean I don’t recognise you as she) is no less harassment than it would be without that theoretical justification.

My book Complaint! explores how theories can be used as techniques to shut out the violence of actions. Theories can also be used as if they are exemptions, as if they exempt someone from the requirement not to act in a hostile way toward a group that is protected because they are discriminated against.

Killjoy truth: Your theories do not exempt you.

Killjoy commitment: They do not. So it must stop.

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A Mess as a Queer Map

This post is dedicated to all messy queers and other subjects in disarray. We recognise each other from the mess we make; we don’t try to tie up each other’s loose ends. This post is for all those who have been judged as having “made a mess of things” because of what they have tried to do, or tried not to do, not to accept things as they are, not to accept an existing arrangement.

It will take me some time to explain my title, how a mess can be a queer map, but I’ll get there.

Doing research on complaint felt like becoming attuned to mess. As I noted in my previous post, when I first imagined researching people’s experiences of complaint, I thought I would be doing semi-structured interviews. I realised rather quickly that complaints were “too messy,” even for a loose set of questions.  What do we learn from the messiness of complaint? And what do we learn from the “too” of “too messy,” from how the messiness of complaint tends to exceed our frames for dealing with it?

On paper, complaints might not appear messy. Consider that complaints procedures are often represented as flow charts, with lines and arrows indicating paths that give the would-be complainer a clear route through.

Things are not always as they seem.

Things are not always as they appear on paper.

I talked to an administrator about her experience of supporting students through the complaints process. She talked me through the process:

So, your first stage would require the complainant to try and resolve it informally, which is really difficult in some situations and which is where it might get stuck in a department…And so it takes a really tenacious complaining student to say, no, I am being blocked…. If something bad has happened, and you are not feeling that way inclined, you can understand why a student would not have the tenacity to make sure that happens, and to advocate for themselves. They might go to the student union, and the student union is really bogged down. So, you can imagine that something on paper that looks very linear is actually very circular a lot of the time and I think that’s the problem, students get discouraged and get demoralised and feel hard done by, and nothing’s getting resolved and then they are in a murky place and they can’t get out.

On paper, a complaint can appear linear. In reality, a complaint is often more circular (round and round rather than in and out). If a procedure exists in order to clear a path, that path can be blocked at any point. Blockages can occur through conversations. When a lecturer went to human resources to make an informal complaint she was told that they were “too busy” to deal with it. Or if, as this administrator describes, a student goes to the students’ union and the students’ union is “really bogged down,” the complaint will end up bogged down. A complaint can be stuck in the mud, so to speak, muddy as well as messy.

You can be stuck by the very nature of the terrain. What it takes to get a complaint moving or to get a complaint through (such as “confidence” and “tenacity”) might be what is eroded by the experiences that led to a complaint (“something bad has happened,” “not feeling that way inclined”). The experiences you need to complain about are the same experiences that make it difficult to keep a complaint going.

A complaint is not simply an outcome of a no, a complaint requires you to keep saying no along the way. Complaints then are rarely experienced as a flow. If we were to picture a complaint, it might be less of a flow chart and rather more like this: it’s a mess, what a tangle.

A Complaint

You can enter the complaint process but not be able to work out how to get out (“they are in a murky place and they can’t get out”). Each line is a tangle, each path, leads to another path, you end up criss-crossing, going backwards, forwards, around and about.

Those cross-crossing lines can be wires; there are so many crossed wires, all that mess, all that confusion. If to make a complaint is to make the same complaint to many different people, those people are not necessarily talking to each other. One student who made a complaint about transphobic harassment from their supervisor described how they ended up having to administer their own complaint process: “I am the one who has to arrange all this information and send it to different people because they are just not talking to each other. I had to file the forms in order to get the human resources records; I had to do all the Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. It was on me to do all of this work, which raises the question of why have human resources officers at all because I am literally doing their job. And I am the one who made the complaint and I have all the emotional damage around that to deal with.” The person who makes the complaint – who is often already experiencing the trauma or stress of the situation they are complaining about – ends up having to direct an unwieldy process, becoming a conduit; they have to hold all the information in order that it can be circulated, they have to keep things moving. We sense a difficulty here given that many of the experiences that lead to complaint can make it hard to hold yourself together let alone direct an unwieldy process.

You have to keep making the same points to different people. An early career academic describes: “there are like four channels of complaint going on at the same time. But interestingly none of these people seem to be crossing over. You duplicate the complaint at different times, emails, phone calls, occupational health; the union. It is all being logged. It is generating all this material and all this paper work but actually nothing seems to shift. It’s just a file, actually.” You end up duplicating the same points to multiple parties because there are no clear lines of communication between those parties. A complaint can be experienced as the requirement to labour over the same points, which are already sore points, points that can become even sorer because of the need to keep making them. And where does a complaint end up? All of those documents many of which replicate other documents, end up in the same file (“it’s just a file, actually”).

When you make a complaint, you write papers that have to go all over the place. Where papers go, you have been; a complaint can be how you end up all over the place. All those different paths you follow lead to the same destination; all the materials you created or collected end up in the same file. I talked to another student about her experience of making complaints. She had also worked as an administrator supporting students in making complaints so she had experience of the process from different angles. She describes: “It’s messy and it’s cyclical: you file the complaint this process happens, which can cause another complaint.” Complaints can lead to more complaints because of how complaints are handled. One student who made a complaint about sexual harassment from another student was told by a member of human resources: “I need to tell you this, the only way you can go with this now; you can’t put in a complaint about a student…. The only complaint you can put in is if you complain against the university, against the way that this has been dealt with.” Being directed to make a complaint about the complaint can be how the original complaint is dropped. You end up on another route, which does seem circular, round and round, round and about, complaints end up referring to other complaints; you have to keep dealing with what is not being dealt with; yes, once you start the process, it is hard to get out.

The straight lines of a complaint procedure can be how complaints appear. But what appears is often not what the person who makes the complaint experiences, which also means that the person who makes the complaint experiences what does not appear.

A mess can be what does not appear. Or perhaps the effects of that messy process, which are themselves messy, do appear. And then it can seem that the complainer is the one who made a mess of things; that the mess is you.

Perhaps procedures are not just what exist on paper, they paper over what exists. Complaints procedures can be used rather like diversity: as a way of not addressing a problem by appearing to do so. My book Complaint! is profoundly indebted to the work of Black feminists and feminists of colour such as M. Jacqui Alexander, Chandra Talpade Mohanty and Heidi Mirza who have offered critiques of what diversity does not do.

Diversity can paper over racism. Paper matters. To make a complaint is often to make use of papers. An academic describes, “In every one of my complaints I used the policies that were given to us by the university.”  To make use of policies in a complaint is often to point to their failure to be followed. Having evidence of the failure of policies to be followed does not guarantee the success of a complaint. She described policy as a trip wire: “That was my experience of the complaint process.  As an employer of the university, the minute you try to enact policy that you are told when you are hired to be the vanguards of, to protect the quality of education and work at the university, that in effect it is a trip wire, and that in effect you become the person to be investigated. These policies are not meant.” When you try and use a policy to do what it was meant to do, your action sends out an alarm or an alert. To make a complaint is to find out what policies are not meant. You are stopped from using the policy rather like a trespasser is stopped from entering the building.  If a usage becomes an alarm, you are being told, you are not supposed to do that, you are not supposed to be here. You are stopped by becoming “the person to be investigated.”

It is worth reflecting more on how we learn about institutions from what policies do not do.  She describes further: “I was told it was now a formal process. I had to look at all the policies. I found there was this fog. It was constant. Every time I found clarity – isn’t it supposed to happen in accordance with policy blah blah-blah – this has been around ten years, isn’t this supposed to happen, and they would be like no.” To be told “no” is to be told that however long a policy has been around it is not going to determine what happens.  Even when a policy makes something clear (“every time I found clarity”) you end up in a fog: messy; muddy; foggy. Nothing is clear. A complaint can thus queer your relation to the institution, and I mean queer in the older sense of the word, queer as strange or wonky. Words that are everywhere in my data are odd, bizarre, weird, strange, and disorientating.

To enter an administrative process, interestingly, perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, can be the start of a rather queer experience: trying to assemble the papers in the right way can lead to odd things happening. One lecturer described what happened during his complaint about discrimination in a promotion case. He noted how documents would suddenly appear in files that had not been there before: “the lawyers had said in my file I had all these negative annual reviews. I thought that was weird as I had no negative reviews.” I have collected many stories of documents that mysteriously appear or disappear from files.  The words we use to describe something tell us about something. He described his experience thus: “I would bend towards the surreal. The situations have been so bizarre. I want to believe there is some research value in that because it is so strange.”

I agree: there is research value in documenting what is bizarre and strange. The strangeness of complaint manifests in so many ways, there are so many loose ends, nothing seems to add up or line up. I remember from my own experience how disorientating the experience of complaint can be: you have to keep switching dimensions; you are having all these conversations, so many meetings, meetings after meetings, but most people you are working with don’t even know about what is going on. And you have to keep going back to your other job, your day job, different kinds of meetings; and that world, which is supposed to be the real world, the upright, brightly-lit world, feels increasingly unreal; topsy-turvy; upside down.

If complaints can be what you end up doing, where you end up going, the lack of clarity of the process becomes the world you inhabit: nothing seems to make sense; you can’t make sense of it. One early career lecturer who complained after being harassed by a professor in her department describes:

It is like being trapped in some kind of weird dream where you know you jump from one section to another because you never know the narrative. I think that’s the power that institutional abuse has on you.

Making a complaint can feel like becoming a character in somebody else’s story; what happens to you is dependent on decisions that are made without your knowledge or consent. This is why making a complaint about harassment can often feel like being harassed all over again, becoming subjected, again, to another’s will. You know that what is happening is not what is supposed to be happening, but you still don’t know what is happening. I think again of our messy picture. Perhaps those lines are not just paths, or wires; perhaps they are strings. When you make a complaint, you can feel like something or someone is pulling the strings, but you don’t know what or who.

“Too messy,” can be how you experience a complaint. “Too messy,” can be a life experience. A picture of a complaint can be a picture of a life.

A Life

Another student described multiple delays in her complaint: “Months went by. Nothing. They really botched my complaints procedure just by the virtue of missing their own deadlines.”  The more precarious the situation, the more those lines become threads. In the midst of complaint, a life can be what unravels, thread by thread. I use the term strategic inefficiency to show the connection between inefficiency and inequality: for some, a botched job can be a botched life; a delay in a process the end of a line. As an international student, she was waiting for her complaint to be processed whilst her visa was running out: “Ten days before my visa was about to run out, I applied for a new visa. And they were like how can we give her a visa she is on probation. You have to have good standing to get a visa and they were like this complaint thing is open.” For students and staff who are more precarious because of their residential or financial status, the longer a complaint takes, the more you risk losing. If you are already on the edge, barely managing to stay on top of things, a delay can mean everything seems to topple over.

Not everything: perhaps some stay up by how others topple over. If we notice the toppling; it’s a mess; what a mess, we might not notice who stays up, what stays up. That mess often up being contained; remember all those letters that end up in “the same file.” Perhaps making a mess becomes what we aim for. We mess up to get the mess out.  We might want to get the papers out from where they have been contained. Sometimes to get the papers out, we get out. When I make the reasons for my resignation public, I shared information, not very much, but enough; that there had been these enquiries. I became a leak: drip; drip. Organizations respond in the mode of damage limitation, treating the information you share as a mess, mopping up a mess. The more you share, the more they mop.

There is hope here: they cannot mop up all of the mess. A leak can be a lead. By becoming a leak, I became easier to find; people came to me with their complaints. That we find each other through complaint is a finding. This finding is not so much a finding from the research but what led me to it; it is how I could do it. My resignation letter, at least the version I shared in public, was how many I spoke to found me. Posting that letter was how I became part of a collective, a complaint collective.

To resign can be how you get the letters out. Even complaints that do not seem to get anywhere can lead us to each other. One lecturer who left the academy after her complaint did not get anywhere, turned her resignation letter into a performance: “I wrote a two-page letter and it was really important to me to put everything in there that I felt so that it was down on paper. And then I asked for a meeting with the Dean. I kind of read the letter out in a performative kind of way just to have some kind of event.” We find ways to make our letters matter. I think of her action, of what she expressed.  You can do so much and still want to do more; still feel you could have done more. She wanted to do more, to express more, to express herself in more places, all over the place. She wanted to put that letter on the wall: “I just thought I am not the kind of person who would put my resignation letter on the wall, but I just wonder what it is that made me feel that I am not that kind of person because inside I am that kind of person, I just couldn’t quite get it out.” Perhaps that is what complaints are about; how we help each other to get it out.

What you put down, down on paper, everything in there, others can pick up. We don’t always know how. We do not always know when. A disabled student was not getting anywhere with her complaint about the failure of her university to make reasonable adjustments. After a particularly difficult meeting, documents suddenly appear: “a load of documents turned up on the student’s union fax machine and we don’t know where they came from, they were like historical documents about students who had to leave.” The documents including a hand written letter to a human rights charity by a former student who had cancer, and who was trying to get the university to let her finish her degree part-time. The student speculates that a secretary at the meeting had released these documents as a way of giving support to her complaint she was not supposed to give.

The word secretary derives from secrets; the secretary as the keeper of secrets. It should not be surprising that a secretary can become a saboteur; those who do administration, institutional housework, know where to find stuff, know what to do to get stuff out.

I think of the student who wrote that letter by hand. We can’t know, we won’t know, what happened to her. But we can make the letter matter; a complaint can be a hand stretched out from the past. If the student I spoke to hadn’t made her complaint, that file would have stayed put, the letter too; dusty, buried.  If the secretary had not witnessed what happened to the student, if she hadn’t been politicised by what she witnessed, she might not have pulled the letter out of the file. Many have to meet to pull something out, to pull something off.

You can meet in an action without meeting in person.

Perhaps a mess can be how we meet. Mess as meeting; mess as eating. The word mess derives from the old French mes; a portion of food, a course at dinner.  To share a mess can be to share a meal. Can we share a meal, sustain each other, be sustained by each other, without meeting in person? I picture again, that mess.

A Queer Map

A mess can be a picture of a complaint.

A mess can be a picture of a life.

A mess can be a picture of an organization.

A mess can be a queer map of an organization. Queer maps of this kind are not made by organizations or for them. A queer map of an organization is not a brochure. It is not a shiny happy picture. There are no straight lines; no flow, flow, away we go. There are no smiling colourful faces; this is not about what or who is faced. A queer map is a map of the behind, of what is ordinarily hidden from view, of what goes on behind closed doors. It is a map of what has been filed, what has been kept secret, what would be threatening if revealed; a filing cabinet can be an institutional closet.

I think of all those lines, those paths, those wires, those strings, threads too: so much can unravel, come tumbling out, so much, so many.

When I think of that mess as a queer map, I still think of complainers, of all the trails you follow, those dead ends, those stops, those blocks, going back, going this way, that, how you cannot go forward, go there, be there. To follow a trail is to leave traces behind despite the effort made by organizations (and others) to wipe those traces away. Sometimes, the work of complaint becomes the work of leaving traces of complaint: that is what it means to get mess out. A mess as a map: a tangle can tell us where you have been. A mess as a map: a tangle can be what you find; how you find, and also then, how we find you.

What we find, how we find: queer maps are useful to queer people because they tell us where to go to find queer places, places that come and go, providing temporary shelters, gay bars can be our nests. We need queer spaces because we need not to be displaced by how organisations, also worlds, are occupied; yes, compulsory heterosexuality can still take up space; time, too.  If queer maps are useful because they tell us where to go to find queer spaces, queer maps are also created by use.  Perhaps those messy lines are also desire lines that tell us where we have been, what we found, who we found, by going that way, by not following the official paths we are told would have opened doors or eased our progression.

I think of other kinds of queer maps. Paul Harfleet, for instance, turned his experience of homophobic violence into an art project, planting pansies where acts of violence and abuse had taken place (1). Perhaps a complaint is what we plant, a new growth marking the site of violence. The site of violence is the site of remembering violence, of protesting violence, of saying no to that violence.

A complaint leaves a trail, however faint. This is how complaints can be a queer method. I think of my own method of listening to those who complain, as well as how that listening is also a way of gathering and holding data only to let it spill; holding as leaking information. The word complaint might pick up on the word queer, sharpened by its use as an insult, queer as cutting. When we use the word queer we hold onto its baggage, the sharpness of a word repurposed as tool. We turn the word queer from insult into complaint, redirecting the no that has been flung at us back to the institutions that do not accommodate us.  My method in Complaint! is all about ears: not queer eye for the straight guy but queer ears for our queer peers.

That complaints are made is how we come to know something happened there; no as tale; no as trail. It takes work to keep a no going. A no can be passed on, passed down. In the mess, that queer map, we hear each other, those who said no to what went on, no to what goes on.

(1). See also the Queering the Map project With thanks to Paul Harfleet and Lucas LaRochelle for creative inspirations.

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Complaint as Testimony

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

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

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

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

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

Yours in killjoy solidarity,

Sara x

Complaint as Testimony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Use is a Life Question

I am pleased to share the comments I prepared for the launch of my new book What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use earlier this year. I titled my comments “Use is a Life Question” so that’s the title of this post. That title takes me to a different place now because we are in such a different time now. I think of what it means to get used to changed circumstances, radically changed circumstances, how change can be a point of commonality; what connects us can be that our circumstances have changed even if our circumstances are different.  We can share a change in circumstances without sharing circumstances.

Words can come back to you as circumstances change. As I have been finishing Complaint! I have been thinking again about the histories of use, of utilitarianism, and upon whom the injunction to be useful falls (and on whom it does not, who is freed by that same injunction). So often, a complainer becomes a stranger. A complaint that you do not belong can be used as evidence that you do not belong. The more you are treated as a stranger, not from here, not really from here, the harder it is to complain. And the harder it is to complain the more vulnerable you become. Right now, in the middle of the pandemic, this loop between vulnerability and complaint has become a lesson; a hard, cruel lesson. As Zubaida Haque, deputy director of the Runnymede Trust describes, “We know that BME NHS staff can’t complain as much because they’re worried about the recriminations of complaining….They’re much likely to be harassed and face discrimination compared to their white counterparts. There is the question of, did they have the appropriate PPE equipment? If they didn’t, did they feel they could complain or were they worried about the recriminations from complaining?”[1]  Exploitation works by making it harder to complain. And you might not complain because you are told, again and again, that you are a stranger, not from here, if you are brown or black you are treated as not from here even if you were born here; that you should be grateful just to be here.

This expectation of gratitude is performed most violently as the demand for sacrifice.

I think of the title of the powerful poem “You Clap For Me Now,” a “coronavirus poem on racism and immigration in Britain.” [2]

You clap for us now. That clap can be the same sound as the door being slammed.

“You cheer when I toil.”

A cheer can mask a hostile environment. A cheer can be a hostile environment.

You might be cheered when you are useful only to be told to go home when you are not.

To recover what I call queer use, to recover what has been stolen, to recover from what has been stolen, is to protest this violence.

In killjoy solidarity with those protesting this violence,

Sara xx

Use is a Life Question, Comments for Launch of What’s the Use: On the Uses of Use, Cambridge University, February 13, 2020

Thank you for being here today to help us launch What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use. It is a killjoy joy to be launching this book at Cambridge with the Centre for Gender Studies and LGBTQ+ Cam as our joint hosts. I began the research for this book at Cambridge when I was visiting Professor in the Centre for Gender Studies in the spring term of 2013. And 5 years later in 2018, I gave a lecture on queer use for LGBTQ+Cam, which was the last time I presented material from the book in this form. By queer use I refer to how objects or spaces can be used by those for whom they were not intended or in ways that were not intended.  We are queering use when we create spaces like Gender Studies and LGBTQ+, spaces that help us to do our work in institutions that were not built for us, as well as our work on institutions to make them more accommodating. And if we need these kinds of feminist and queer spaces, to keep our work going, it takes work to keep these spaces going. I would like to thank in particular Joanna Bush, Jude Brown, Heather Stallard and Sarah Franklin for their work.

It is quite a loop, from 2013 to 2018, here, there, back again. When I returned to Goldsmiths from Cambridge in the summer term of 2013, I became involved in a series of enquiries into sexual harassment and sexual misconducted prompted by a college complaint lodged by students. I learnt so much from the work they had to do to keep that complaint going. During this period, I stopped working on the uses of use; I can remember the moment it became obvious that is what I needed to do. I put away my old red note book. We fill books in writing books; our notes, scribbles, records of where we have been. Instead I wrote another book, Living a Feminist Life, and yes, this book gave me somewhere to deposit my feminist rage more directly, as well as frustration, frustration can be a feminist record, and also knowledge, the knowledge you acquire from being a feminist at work.

There is no doubt that that experience was shattering: I left my job, yes, a job I had loved, although in some ways it felt more like the job left me.  I had a “snap,” the moment when you can hear a bond break; a snap that moment with a history. But I left more than a job, I left a life, a structure, what I was used to, an identity, who I had understood myself to be, a way of organising my time, of giving order to things; I left what was familiar. I returned to my use project, picking up my scruffy red notebook was like catching up with an old friend, in that period after leaving my post, when I was working through, working out, what happened, as well as working out what I wanted to do.

What’s the Use helped me pick up the pieces. Writing about use whilst I was trying to get used to new circumstances made it clear to me how use was another way of posing the question of what it means to live a feminist and queer life, in other words, how use is a life question. The question, “what’s the use” can sound like it comes from a feeling of exasperation, and it can without doubt be said in exasperation. But the question “what’s the use” can also come out of a sense of curiosity, of interest, what’s the use, what is use, which is why I begin the book with Virginia Woolf who kept asking “what’s the use?” as a way of questioning pretty much everything. Perhaps we question use, or turn use into a question, use as a life question, the more we are not used to something, or because we refused to get used to something or because of our experiences of inhabiting worlds that are not used to us; how we appear; how we assemble. And although I offer a strong critique of how use can become about restriction, a restriction of who can do what, who can use what, how things and spaces when used in some ways become harder to use in other ways, I do insist that there are different uses of use and that these differences matter.

I think of this insistence as a feminist inheritance: I already mentioned Virginia Woolf, I also think of Audre Lorde who wrote often about the importance of being useful as a way of facing outwards to others (I offer in my conclusion some thoughts on Audre Lorde’s words on useful death), and I also think of Marilyn Strathern who in her paper, “Useful Knowledge,” notes the importance of critiquing the requirement that knowledge be useful in accordance with criteria decided in advance by considering other uses of use; for instance, use as a way of cultivating faculties.

I describe What’s the Use? as the third in a trilogy of books that use the method of following words around, in and out, of their intellectual histories.  The “out” part really matters: although my training was in the history of ideas, I didn’t do, I am probably quite incapable of doing, a conventional history. [A side note: in 1990 I applied to do a joint honours degree in History and Literature, hoping to write my honours thesis on ideas of history in literature, but my proposal was rejected by the History Department as not being historical enough!]  I could follow Natasha Tanna in thinking of my method as queer genealogy; to borrow from a description of her recent book, a way of “bringing together disparate fragments.” In each of the three books, I take quite ordinary speech acts as an impetus for thought. In The Promise of Happiness the speech act that had my attention was “I just want you to be happy,” which was often said to me in a tone of exasperation; and in Willful Subjects “I will if you will.” In this book, it is “use it or lose it,” a phrase familiar to us from personal training and self-help books. As a phrase it teaches how use can be an injunction or even a moral duty, you must use something to keep it alive.  And in that quite ordinary speech act is another history, of how use became a technique, for example, you can direct people along a path by making that path easier to use; how you can discourage a course of action by making it harder to follow.

To follow words is to go where they go.  But, of course, use is too used as a word to follow use everywhere. In this book I worked with materials that made use of use that most captured my interest. If I had located the book in an academic discipline that made use central as a category of thought, I would probably have located the book in design studies. But what captured my interest was, in fact, the use of use in biology, and more specifically, Lamarck’s law of use and disuse, which refers to how organs are strengthened by use, or weakened by disuse, and his law of inheritance, which suggests that, if certain conditions are met, the effects of use are inherited as modification of form. The idea that use shapes bodies in this way, which was sometimes called “the law of exercise,” was also widely articulated in nineteenth century social thought, including utilitarianism. In the book I approach utilitarianism primarily as an educational project rather than as moral philosophy with specific reference to Jeremy Bentham’s text, Chrestomathia, where he creates a plan for a school for middle-class children based on useful knowledge.[3]  Bentham was influenced by the monitorial school movement; monitorial schools were introduced into poor and working-class areas of Britain as well as in many British colonies. I learnt so much from reading about the techniques used in these schools. For example, Joseph Lancaster, who opened his first school in Borough Road in 1778, used only a small number of books in his classes, with the premise that fewer books would be read more. The idea was simple: you would direct the child to what he called “useful ends” by narrowing the paths available.  Andrew Bell who was appointed by the East India Company as Director of the Madras School for Eurasian Orphans of Soldiers in 1787 articulated his aim as “to rescue the children of the soldiers from the degradation and depravity of that class to which their mothers mostly belonged.” Making these children useful was about taking them from their Indian mothers, a theft narrated as redemption, utility as redemption; children were treating as orphans, as deserted or abandoned, rather like how land was treated as desert,  as unused; children became raw materials that could be shaped in accordance of the needs of the company.

What was articulated as a natural law became the basis of an educational technique. And because I am a rather queer scholar, wandering willfully around rather varied terrains, I should add here that I partly became intrigued by Lamarck law of use and disuse because of the use of example of the blacksmith’s strong arm to illustrate that law (the idea being that if the blacksmith makes use of his arm, his sons will be born with stronger arms, a story of paternity turned into profession). I noticed how the blacksmith’s strong arm was used as an example of Lamarck’s law of use and disuse without that example being used by Lamarck (the other typical Lamarckian example, the giraffe’s long neck, Lamarck only uses once). I think the arm became what one commentator called “the standing illustration” for the law of use and disuse because the arm provided a way of telling the story of modernity as a story of improvement, of how workers become more attuned to what was deemed their social function. I thus draw on historical materialism understood as a useful archive in the book, which retells that same story, of workers becoming as it were the “arms of industry,” as a story of exploitation; use not as strengthening of capacity to perform a function, but use as exhaustion, use as depletion; use as used up.

I probably only noticed this arm was missing from Lamarck, a phantom limb, because of how arms had come up in Willful Subjects.  And arms came to matter in that project because following willfulness, led to the Grimm story, “The Willful Child.” And in that story, an arm keeps coming up, an arm that inherits the willfulness of a child; that arm was striking. That arm became my lead. To wander is not to be without a route or a reason; it is to be redirected by what we encounter. To do cultural studies, to be an interdisciplinary scholar, for me, means being willing to go beyond the edges of fields, including those that have been shaped by our own training. And in What’s the Use, however much the arm was my lead, it was things that kept my attention; used things, old things; perhaps the arm had a hand in leading me there, worn out from being used as an example of the effects of use. In the first chapter, these are my main companions: a second-hand book, a well-used path, an unused path, a used up tooth paste, over-used exclamation marks, an occupied toilet, a broken cup; an old bag; a usable/ unusable door; an out of use post-box.

Here is a collection of some of my companion objects in writing the book as well as my old red note-book mentioned earlier. I call this collection, companions (see note 4 for why I included two copies of the book itself in the photo with its companions).

Use is a Life Question

We write, always, in companionship.  We present, too, in companionship.

It was from giving presentations from the work and in particular using power-point that allowed these things, which I first describe in terms of their use status, to acquire a different status in my own argument. I should note as an aside here that even if we use technologies like power-point for specified ends, using them can still mean we end up somewhere unexpected. I began to develop my argument with these used things as well as through them. I think this way of using things created moments in my text that were jarring, disconcerting, even, well I certainly experienced them that way, a feeling can be a question: can I really be discussing a used up tube of toothpaste in the same chapter that I reference Edward Said’s critique of Zionism for how it rendered Palestine unused and uncared for land?  I know I can because I did, and I remain committed to telling bigger stories through smaller things, to changing scales, but it is, I admit, jarring.

Although I was using things in a different way to how I had them before, used things had appeared in my work before. In The Cultural Politics of Emotion I likened heteronormativity to a comfortable chair, a world is more comfortable if it takes your shape; in Queer Phenomenology, I used, I am sure some would say overused, the example of the table, considering how the writing table appears in philosophy because it is in front of the philosopher only to disappear again because of what (and who) he can put behind him. Tables reappear in The Promise of Happiness, this time as the family table, along with the feminist killjoys, who get in the way of how the family is occupied. In Willful Subjects, I likened an institution to an old garment, how institutions take the shape of those who tend to wear them, so they are easier to wear if you have that shape.

On reflection, it is obvious that these objects mattered in part as they were also ways of talking about the effects of use, the sociality of use, how worlds are built for and around some bodies, how worlds are shaped by whom uses what to do what.

In this work I reuse the same images with different captions. The most used image in the book is in fact the well-used path.

Used Path 2

The image reappears six times with the following captions:

The more a path is used, the more a path is used

A longer neck

A stronger arm

An old policy

The more he is cited, the more he is cited

Heterosexuality: a path that is kept clear

If a used path is made smoother by use, from the tread of past journeys, that smoothness makes the path easier to use; the more a path is used, the more a path is used; there is more to more. I think of this “more to more” as the strange temporalities of use, how use, in pointing back, to where we have been, the tread of past journeys, points forward. I had in fact already used the well-used path in Queer Phenomenology, to talk about heterosexuality as a support system. But including an image of a well-used path alongside these captions helped me to make the argument, or perhaps to show it, about how use can be a building block for habit, how use can not only ease a route but become an invitation or perhaps an instruction: go that way! People often laughed when I showed the image “the more he is cited, the more he is cited” because I think it captures a problem we are familiar with; how we taught to cite the sources that have already had the most influence; how a citational path is created, a furrow deepened, how we end up reproducing what we inherit.

How we end up reproducing what we inherit: citation is one way of thinking about how universities are occupied. Whilst I was writing What’s the Use, I also began interviews for a project on complaint. In the project I am listening to people who have made, or tried to make, formal complaints about abuses of power within universities. This project has taught me a great deal about how universities remain occupied by learning more about what happens to those who try and challenge that occupation. I have been calling this institutional mechanics: you learn about how institutions work from how complaints are stopped from getting through.

Working on complaint and use at the same time has shaped both projects. Doors are the most tangible connection. It was because I was writing about use as building works, as scaffolding, that I noticed the doors in my complaint data; solid doors, glass doors, revolving doors; complaints as happening behind closed doors. Doors were not amongst the examples of used things in the first version of What’s the Use that I submitted to Duke. I included them when I rewrote chapter 1, because of how doors came up in accounts of complaint. Complaint changed the form of use. And it is not surprising doors kept coming up in my project on complaint: we tend to notice doors when they are shut in our face, which is to say, we tend to notice what stops our progression.

We learn about institutions from our efforts to transform them. Or to evoke Audre Lorde, we learn how the master’s house is built when we try and dismantle that house. What’s the Use is also about doing this kind of institutional work, the work of decolonizing the university, the work of challenging how racial and sexual harassment get built in, showing how universities are occupied all the way down. To open spaces up requires more than opening a door or turning up; sometimes you have to throw wrenches in the works, to stop things from working or become “wenches in the work” to borrow Sarah Franklin’s evocative terms. And it is a fight: we have a fight on our hands. It can be a fight for room, room to be, room to do; room to do your work without being questioned or being put under surveillance. A fight can be how we acquire wisdom: we know so much from trying to transform the worlds that do not accommodate us. But that fight can also be just damn hard. We have feminist and queer programmes and events not just because they are nice things to have, though they are that, what a relief, but because we need to survive the institutions we are trying to transform.

In doing this work, we need each other; we need to become each other’s resources.

Publishers also matter to how we become each other’s resources. I would like to acknowledge Duke University Press; it has been so important they provided me with a nest for my words. Duke became my publisher for Queer Phenomenology, all other publishers found this book too odd for their markets. My editor Ken Wissoker never used the word “market” when I approached him about this book (or any of the others) which is how I suspect I ended having so much room to roam. I also want to thank Combined Academic Publishers, representing Duke in UK/Europe, for their support in bringing the books to readers here.

Family: that’s another word we can reuse for our queer gatherings. I dedicated What’s the Use to my queer family, Sarah and Poppy. Being a feminist at work is also about living a feminist life; I am so glad to be sharing my life with Sarah. So many of the words and ideas in What’s the Use I worked through with you. I could replace “words and ideas” with “obsessions,” I don’t know how many times you listened to me talk about Lamarck’s non-use of the blacksmiths arm but it was a lot!  I also want to thank Poppy, who is here with us today.[4] Poppy, I am not sure you would be that impressed that I only mention you by name in reference to water bowls and puddles, though the word poodle does come from puddle. But Poppy: your paw prints are everywhere. You taught me to feel what I came to know, that to queer use is not to call for the cessation of use but its animation. You taught me how you can turn an old discarded shoe into a toy, a source of endless amusement, how a stone on a beach, seemingly lifeless, can become a friend, if you pull it behind you with your paws quickly enough it will dance. You taught me how a change in perspective, being closer to the ground, say, using your nose rather than your eyes, say, can be how you find new paths.

New paths, old paths, companions, friends, those who help us pick up the pieces when we fly off the handle, when we lose it rather than use it. In the book, I use this image as my primary example of queer use: a post-box that has become a nest.

Birds Nesting

Of course, the post box could only become a nest if it stops being used as a post-box otherwise the birds would be dislodged by the letters; hence the sign “please don’t use” addressed to would-be posters of letters.  Being dislodged by the letters in the box is a good way of describing how spaces become restricted by use; of accounting for the materiality of that restriction; how some have no room, no room to breathe, to nest, to be, because of how spaces are already being used.

In my conclusion I return to the image for the last time with the caption “a queer teacher.” The image teaches us that it is possible for those deemed strangers to take up residence in spaces that have been assumed as belonging to others. The post-box could have remained in use; the nest destroyed before it was completed; the birds displaced. A history of use is a history of such displacements, many violent, displacements that are often unrecognised because of how things remain occupied.

I am aware this is a rather happy, hopeful image; not a typical image, perhaps, for a killjoy. Queer use is rarely about just turning up and being able to turn a box into a nest or a room into a shelter: to queer use, to enable some to take up residence in spaces not built for them, often requires a world-dismantling effort.

My task is to keep describing that effort. I think of the birds rather affectionately as our queer kin; they turned an opening intended for letters into a door, a queer door, perhaps, a way of getting into and out of a box. I mentioned earlier that the arms travelled with me from my willfulness project into my use project. I am now writing a book on complaint. And the birds are coming with me. One person described her experience of complaint thus: “it was like a little bird scratching away at something.” It was like: note this it. A complaint as something that you are doing can acquire exteriority, becoming a thing in the world; scratching away; a little bird, all your energy going into an activity that matters so much to what you can do, who you can be, but barely seems to leave a trace.

Perhaps those scratches are a trace, what we leave behind, how we leave ourselves behind, traces for others to follow.  Queer use, scratching away at something, making room, making nests, from what has been left scattered.

[1] Cited in Aina Khan (2020), “Why are ethnic minorities more vulnerable to coronavirus?”

[2] The full performance is available here.

[3] The schools provided me with a way of considering how utilitarianism travelled throughout empire not only as a body of ideas or as a way of justifying colonialism as increasing happiness, as I explored in The Promise of Happiness (2010), but also as a set of practices aimed at creating “a useful class.” See also my 2017 post, Useful, which explains how I made use of Bentham and includes some of my key sources. In the second chapter of the book, I also consider the connection between utilitarianism and eugenics. These histories meet in the formation of London University.

[4] Since I gave this presentation, our queer family has expanded! Early on during lock-down we decided to bring forward a plan to bring a puppy into our home. Her name is Bluebell. Here she is:


Caring for her, at this time, a fragile buoyant being, has been a precious task. A new being in a household is work as well as joy: there have been challenges, especially for Poppy, who will have a paw in shaping her companion. A shaping can be painful. Bluebell adores Poppy but tends to express her adoration by doing things like jumping on Poppy’s head. Poppy has been a wise and patient teacher for Bluebell (with the occasional understandable snap).  Bluebell like Poppy is teaching me so much about queer use. She has found her own use for some copies of my book What’s the Use. You can see evidence of her usage if you look carefully at the photo shared in this blog. What’s the Use became a chew toy. I can’t think of anything more fitting. I am letting her chew right through.


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Complaint Collectives

Killjoys and complainers,

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

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

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

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

In killjoy solidarity,

Sara xx



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

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

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

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

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

Filing Cabinet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Complaint and Survival

It is an overwhelming time; it is hard to know what to do. For those who are non-essential workers, being at home, withdrawing from physical proximity to others, is how we express our loyalty to others, our care for others. For those who understand themselves to be less vulnerable, less likely to become seriously ill from coronavirus, withdrawal is necessary, trying not to become a link in a chain that could lead very quickly to disaster for others.

We don’t always know the situation in which others find themselves; we don’t always know about other people’s disasters. Compassion and care rest, I feel, on not making presumptions about how other people are doing. We need to listen; to learn. What makes a situation more or less hard is not always tangible or obvious even if we can point to what can ease burdens, material and economic securities, support systems; buffer zones that can protect some from the harsher consequences of crises if not from crises.

If we lose our anchors, we don’t always know what will help us get through. For me, working as an independent scholar, writing is a handle that gives me something to hold onto; I know that is not true for everyone. I don’t write to be productive or because I think what I have to say is important. It is not; it is what it is. Continuing with my own projects such as my project on complaint, keeping  myself going by keeping them going, is not about “carrying on” or “staying calm” or any of the other truisms that seem to circulate as national nostalgia for a time that never was. For me, writing is about holding on; how I stay in touch with myself as well as with others because some of my other handles are broken. It won’t necessarily always be that way. For me, now, writing is a lead, leading me to others; writing as hearing from others.

We are readers before we are writers. I find myself picking up Audre Lorde, again; her words again, guide me through.  I think of Audre Lorde and I think of those moments when a life-line is thrown out to you. A life line: it can be a fragile rope, worn and tethered from the harshness of weather, but it is enough, just enough, to bear your weight, to pull you out, to help you survive a shattering experience.

Words can pull us out.

In an interview with Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde described how she was so “sickened with fury” about the acquittal of a white policeman who shot a black child that she wrote the extraordinary poem, “Power” (2017, 85).

In Lorde’s own words:

I was driving in the car and heard the news on the radio that the cop had been acquitted. I was really sickened with fury, and I decided to pull over and just jot some things down in my note book to enable me to cross town without an accident because I felt so sick and so enraged. And I wrote those lines down – I was just writing, and the poem came out without craft.

She stopped the car to get her feelings out.

She stopped the car and a poem came out.

She stopped the car because she knew that what she felt would come out, one way or another; an accident or a poem.

A poem is not an accident.

I have been thinking about that: how sometimes we have to stop what we are doing to feel the true impact of something, to let our bodies experience that impact, the fury of an escalating injustice, a structure as well as an event; a history, an unfinished history.

Sometimes to sustain your commitments you stop what you are doing.

In stopping, something comes out.  We don’t always know what will come out when we stop to register the impact of something. Registering impact can be a life-long project. Perhaps collectives are assembled so we can share the work of registering the impact of what is ongoing; what is shattering.

I have been thinking about stopping and starting; what we have to do to express the truth of a situation; I have been thinking about complaint and survival.

I want to share some quotes from a testimony given to me by an indigenous woman academic. She talked to me about how the project of surviving the violence of colonial occupation led her both to complain and not to complain. Both actions – complaining and not complaining – were for her about survival, not just her own survival, but the survival of her family; her people.

She said:

It is possible I learned very early that in order to keep my job and to have a stable income… that I better just keep my mouth shut, and learn how to avoid these encounters, to protect myself, and to keep quiet about it.

For many, surviving institutions requires trying to avoid “these encounters” that you recognise because they happen. You try to avoid them by being silent about them if they happen or because they happen. Not to be silent, speaking out, speaking up, can be to turn yourself into a target. No wonder some refuse to refuse to be silent – if your family, your people, have been targeted, you might lay low, be quiet, not complain, or not do anything that might be heard as complaint; doing what you can to survive.

Doing what you can to survive: to survive certain histories can require not complaining about them or at least not expressing complaints in the usual places by filling in a form or by sharing in public what you think or feel about a given situation. I noted in my previous post “In the thick of It” how complaints can come out in the middle of a situation, expressed sometimes despite ourselves. Survival can be another way of expressing a complaint, of refusing to acquiesce to the demands of a situation. The implication here is that some of the actions that seem to be about “not complaining” can be oblique complaints, complaints that are not quite expressed or fully expressed; complaints that are below the surface; hidden complaints; underground complaints; queer complaints.

We might end up expressing our complaints in less usual ways because of what happens when we make complaints in more usual ways. She did in fact try to make a formal complaint, a grievance, after her tenure case was sabotaged by a senior white manager:

I had to send an email to her with the subject line in all capital letters with an exclamation point, my final email to her after 7 months. THIS IS A GRIEVANCE! THIS IS A GRIEVANCE! And her obligation under the university rules and the process is that she has to put it forward. She did not. She did not put it forward.

A complaint does not go forward because it is not put forward by those who receive the complaint. That capitalized subject heading has much to teach us about how complaints are not heard. You have to shout because you are not heard. If you have to shout because you are not heard, you are heard as shouting. When complaints are heard as shouting, complaints are not heard.

Walls can be built from silence. Walls can be effects.  The consequences of how complaints are not heard make it less likely that complaints will be heard; you become worn out, worn down, by the struggle to get a complaint through.

The more you do not get through, the more you have to do. You change tactics:

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

In order to survive institutions, we need to transform them. But we still need to survive the institutions we are trying to transform. Closing a door can be a survival strategy; she closes the door to the institution by withdrawing herself, her commitments, from it. She still does her work; teaches her students. She makes use of the institution’s door by using it to shut out what she can, who she can.  Doors can hold so many histories. If she uses the door to shut the institution out, she also takes everything off the door (“my posters, my activism, my leaflets”). She depersonalizes the door; takes herself out of it; her politics off it. That door is not going to be where she expresses herself. And she pulls down the blinds and she pulls on a mask, the mask of her people, connecting her fight to the battles that came before, because quite frankly for her, this is a war.

And so we learn: you can withdraw from an institution to take up a fight. You can take the institution on by taking it out. You don’t put everything you have into it; you do what you have to do to get through.

I think of Lorde: how a poem comes out when she stops what she was doing. I think sometimes you withdraw from a situation – driving a vehicle, being in the driver’s seat – to express your commitments. You close the door; stop the car because you need to get something out; you need to get yourself out.

You need to get yourself out; get yourself through.

When there is an effort to stop you from getting through, getting through can be how you express a complaint. When you are told you are not supposed to be here, that this place is not for you, the likes of you; this university, this nation, this neighborhood, being here can be complaint; being can be a complaint; being as complaint. If not complaining gives you a better chance of being, not complaining can give you a better chance of complaining.

Can: not always and not only. It can be a difficult deal: how we survive some structures can be how those structures are reproduced.  Yes, that is true. But there is more to it. The story of reproduction is a much less smooth story when told from the point of view of those who express their complaints obliquely, passing as not complaining, in order to trouble what they receive; that inheritance we call history. There can be creativity in laying low. When you pass into the background, you are not striking, you do not appear to be striking (behind a smile, there can be a strike behind a smile) there are other things you can do.

We learn from survival strategies. We are our survival strategies.


There is only so much you can take on as there is only so much you can take in.


We can’t take everything on. We can’t take everything in.



Lorde, Audre (2017). Your Silence Will Not Protect You. London: Silver Press.

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In the thick of it

A complaint can be what you have to make because of a situation you are in. Complaints are immanent. Immanence implies to be in something or to dwell; to remain.  Perhaps a complaint is what you make because you do not want to remain in a situation; a complaint can be an effort to get out of a situation you are in.  You are in the thick of it, right in the thick of it. To be in the thick of it means to be in a situation where it is most intense; it means to be in the most crowded of places. The idiom “in the thick of it” can also reference how much you have to do; it can imply, being occupied or busy. What do we learn from complaint, or about complaint, by considering complaint as intensity, as crowded, as busy?

Complaints might come up or come out in the middle of a journey: a middle can be a muddle. I am muddling through, at this difficult time; thinking about time. If it takes time to make a complaint; it takes time to reach a complaint.  When we think of complaint as what you have to reach, we are thinking about different ways that complaints come out as expressions of dissatisfaction with a situation. A complaint might be how you say no to something whether in speech or in writing or even through non-verbal communication; complaints as objecting, calling out, contesting, naming; questioning; and so on.

When a complaint is about something, you first have to admit to something, to recognise something as being wrong, as being something you need to complain about. To admit to something can mean both to confess a truth, and to let it in. A complaint can require opening a door to the truth of a situation; letting it in; letting it sink in. Before you have any conversations with others, you might first have conversations with yourself. A complaint might begin with a sense of something not being quite right; with an uneasy feeling, with discomfort; concern. You might sense something is not right without being sure of yourself.  A complaint might begin with being unsure about whether what you are experiencing is something to be complained about.

A Masters student begins her new programme with high hopes and expectations. And then “it started.”

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

When an alarm bell rings you are hearing a warning; the sound of a bell announces a danger in the external world even if an alarm bell is what you hear inside your own head. It does not always follow that you take heed of what you hear. And so: she starts questioning herself rather than his behaviour. She recalls how she doubted herself for being alarmed. She tells herself off, even, she gives herself a talking to; she tells herself to stop being paranoid, to stop being a feminazi, to stop being a feminist, perhaps. It is striking how in questioning herself, she also exercises familiar stereotypes of feminists as feminazis, with the implication that gender is a judgement that is imposed upon a situation from the outside. We learn from what is possible: it is possible to identify as a feminist and worry that gender is an imposition. External judgements can be given voice as internal doubt.

It takes time for her to realise that her first impressions were right. Her sense that something was amiss, which was followed at first by telling herself not to be paranoid, is confirmed by what she keeps encountering. She describes how the syllabus was occupied: “he left any thinker who wasn’t a white man essentially until the end of the course.” A syllabus can tell you who is being valued, what is valued; who comes first, who has priority. You can come up against a structure in a syllabus. Many of us are familiar with such structures. Even structures can take time to reveal themselves: “and then by week 5, I was like, no, no, no, no, things are wrong not just in terms of gender, things are desperately wrong with the way he is teaching full-stop.” Perhaps her first reaction is to say no to the bell, no to no. But then she realises she was right to hear that something was wrong; those no’s come out; more of them. I think of those no’s, all four of them, as the sound of an increasing confidence in her own judgement: “it was a progressive realisation that it wasn’t just me being paranoid.”  Perhaps once you get a single no out, other no’s will follow.

Sometimes if you have a sense of something wrong, you might check in with others. What did you think of this? Is that what you think? A senior woman, a professor, a head of department experiences misogyny and sexism at a table on an away day. One of the male professors says things that are particularly offensive. She checks in with friends and colleagues. This happened; this is what he said. The responses lead her to doubt herself: “the person who was the main protagonist in the banter; I was told he couldn’t be you must have imagined that because he is married to a real feminist.” You must have imagined that; it can’t be true; it couldn’t be. She knows what happened.  External voices can be internalised as doubt. To proceed (and she did, although her complaint was to stall later, after she was placated by a senior manager) she has to put their voices aside, not to believe them. What if the experiences you need to complain about have shaken your confidence?  She said: “it does shake you; you think oh am I making a fuss, should I make a fuss. I have already made a massive fuss at my previous institution, which went on for months.” She had participated in a formal complaint in her previous job, at an earlier time, another time, a complaint about sexual harassment that did not get anywhere. If a complaint is stopped it can have a knock on effects on those involved; you can be stopped later, another time.

We carry our complaints with us whether or not we make them.

So many of the people I spoke to made use of this expression, “making a fuss,” as if to complain is to be fussy, to be too particular, demanding even, as if a complaint makes something bigger than it needs to be, as if you are making yourself bigger than you are. But you also might know that that is how you will be judged. You might try and keep the complaint secret in order not to make a fuss. One early career lecturer describes: “I felt frightened to tell other people. I don’t know why. I did feel really frightened. I did not want to kick up a fuss. I didn’t want to make a big scene. I don’t like that anyway. I don’t like to feel that a lot of people would have known what was going on.” You might avoid talking about what you are going through to avoid making a spectacle of yourself.  And it is not that you would be wrong: those who complain are often perceived as making a fuss, even making a fuss over nothing. Another early career lecturer was told: “you look like somebody who is causing a fuss.”

Those times you have not been heard: you don’t leave them behind either. One postgraduate student describes: “I would wonder how much is going to be a repetition of not being taken seriously, not being heard.” When you have not been heard, you wonder about the point of speaking out, of expressing yourself. Hearings can be walls, silence can be hard; you have to push very hard to make a complaint if that’s how you have been heard, not heard, if you have not being taken seriously before.

I have learnt from talking to people how ways of speaking and behaving that seem, at one level, obviously problematic can still be justified as how things are or how things are done. An international student, for instance, arrived into a new department only to find professors being intimate and sexual with students in front of staff and other students. No one seemed to be paying any attention, to show any signs of noticing that something was amiss. She said: “I thought at first this must be how they do things in the UK.” Sometimes it is the unremarkability of the behavior, how other people are not remarking upon something, not objecting, or showing signs of objecting, that can make you wonder whether what is happening is not objectionable after all.  Leila Whitley and Tiffany Page have noted how the absence of objections to sexual harassment can work “to normalise sexual harassment in the university environment” (2015, 42).

The absence of other complaints can make it hard to recognise there is something to complain about.

This also means that: complaints can be stopped by stopping other complaints.

The work of complaint can also involve an internal process of coming to terms with what you are experiencing. Even if you have to complain about something that is being done to you, whether by somebody else or by a structure that is enabling somebody else, you still have to come to terms with yourself. A complaint can feel like an existential crisis, a life crisis. The conversations you have with others are relayed endlessly as conversations with yourself. I noticed in listening to people’s testimonies how often people when sharing their complaints with me put on “other voices,” so when they told me what the head of human resources said, or what their supervisor said, they would change their voice; it was like I was listening to a chorus. And that is probably because making a complaint can feel like becoming a chorus, all those conversations take up time and space in your head, more and more voices, they become loud; louder still.

I am talking to a postgraduate student based in small progressive university in the US. She is talking about the time it took to get the point where she realised she might have to make a complaint, to decide whether to complain. She is part of the story; she is telling the story. She is a queer woman of colour. She is the first person in her family to go to university. She’s had to fight really hard to get here.  She has had to fight really hard to get here. I have repeated that sentence because of how much it matters; because of how it matters. She knows something is not right, she is feeling more and more uncomfortable: he keeps pushing boundaries, wanting to meet off campus, then in coffee shops, then at his house. She tries to handle the situation: “I tried very hard to keep all of the meetings on campus, and to keep the door open.” She keeps the door open; an actual door, at the same time she closes another kind of door, we might call this door the door of consciousness, trying to shut out what he is doing. She describes “I thought I would take myself down by admitting to the kind of violence he was enacting.” To admit can mean to confess a truth but it can also mean to let something in.  Take myself down: if to admit to violence makes it real, then to admit to violence can feel like becoming your own killjoy, getting in the way of your own progression.

A closed door can be a handle, how you handle a situation, by which I mean you close a door by not letting it in, the truth of a situation sink in, because letting it in would mean giving something up.  But handles can stop working:

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

When the handle stops working, the violence directed at her seeps not only into her but into her colleague; into the conversation, into the room in which they are having that conversation. That violence is only witnessed because of this seepage; a complaint is expressed, gets out, at the same time the violence gets in.

A complaint can then feel like an alarming exteriority, what you have to do to get out of a situation, yes, but also what comes at you, what would mean giving up on something you had fought very hard for.  For a complaint to get out, something gets in. And I think it is important to remember that the work of complaint (including the work of reaching complaint) is work you are doing when you are still at work, when you are still trying to do your work; you are trying to hold yourself together; you are trying not to fall apart. If some of the work around complaint might seem or feel like internal work (the conversations you have with yourself), complaints often come out at work, in social situations.  These points about internality and sociality are related: if you are trying to hold something in and that effort fails, a complaint is expressed; what was kept apart is shared.  To express can mean to squeeze something out. The sociality of how complaints are expressed is another way of considering the effects of how complaints are contained.

In another example, an early career woman academic is being sexually harassed by a senior professor, a star professor, mainly through verbal communication.  The professor arrived at the same time she did: “he was much older, late 50s, early 60s. It was a big thing in the university, what a coup we have got this extraordinary professor; he was on the side of the angels.” This new professor starts communicating with her in a way that feels increasingly uncomfortable. She does not want to make the situation worse than it is; she describes his behavior as mildly irritating; annoying yes, distracting. His behavior, however mild, is still getting in the way of her being able to do her work. And she wants to do her work:

He made me feel uncomfortable and at the time I didn’t know it was ok to say, please can you give me some personal space, that’s not appropriate. Because I wasn’t saying no, I really didn’t know how to negotiate this. He clearly read that as “all things ago here.” The comments became more overtly sexual to the point where he made this strange comment about wanting to suck my toes, even I, naïve as I was at that point, went, oh shit this is not, this is really, really not ok in the work environment.

She does not know how to tell him to stop, even if what he is doing seems small, perhaps because she feels smaller than him, he is a professor, “on the side of the angels,” no less; she a junior lecturer. Hierarchies can make handling harassment hard, which is how hierarchies enable harassment. But she wants the behavior to stop:

All I wanted at that point was for someone to talk to him and say you need to stop this. Like that’s what needs to happen. So I went to my line manager who was a woman and said this is going on, this is making me feel really uncomfortable, and I don’t know how to handle it, we are in a shared office space and we are often in the office space alone, I just want someone to have a chat with him and say, please don’t continue with this. And she assured me that she would do that. And much later I learnt because she did not want to complain, nothing happened.

She needs assistance to get no out, to say no to the behaviour. The harassment she has to deal with has already seeped in; she doesn’t know how to handle it. She wants it to stop; she wants him to stop. It is her line-manager who sits on the complaint, despite her assurance. A complaint can be stopped because others do not want to pass the complaint on. Passing on a complaint can be making a complaint (“she did not want to complain”), which in itself is telling us something about stoppages, about what does and does not get passed on; passed around.

When an attempt to stop harassment is stopped, the harassment does not stop:

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

A “yes” can work rather like magic, assurance, she would do that, she did not do that, making a complaint go away, disappear into air, rather like steam: puff, puff. If the complaint was evaporated the harassment “has not magically gone away.” Her complaint comes out in the middle of the meeting, not as an account given by someone to someone, an intentional action, but as a sound, eehhhhh, a gut-wrenching expression of a no, or even a no, not again, or even, enough is enough. That sound, that eehhhhh, pierces the meeting, that meeting taking place in the little glass room, a fishbowl, where they can all be seen. Something can become visible and audible sometimes even despite yourself; a complaint is what comes out because you can’t take it anymore, you just can’t take it anymore, your insides like a meat-grinder; a complaint as how you are turned inside out.

A complaint can be expressed rather like a snap; you hear the sound of something breaking.  If that sound sounds sudden, it is because of what you did not hear before, the pressure of what came before. Her sound becomes an alert, leading to a question, what’s happened, what’s up; the sound leads to her turning her computer to him, so he see what she has been sent. A complaint comes out because what she was sent is heard and then seen.  And note how the problem once heard is implied to be not so much the harassment but that there was evidence of it (“for fuck’s sake how stupid do you have to be to put that in an email”).

A sound becomes a complaint because it brings to the surface a violence that would otherwise not have to be faced. Violence is often dealt with by not being faced.  It is then as if the complaint brings the violence into existence; forcing it to be faced. Perhaps this is how complaints (and complainers) are often heard as forceful. For those who receive the complaint, who hear the sounds she makes, it is the complaint that alerts them to violence, to what she has to face, which means, in a certain way, the complaint can then be treated as the origin of violence. There is a clue there, in that description, her description: how the complainer becomes a problem because of what she does not contain.

A complaint can be what it takes to get through; to pierce the seal, to open the door, to let something in, to get it out. A complaint can be the work you have to do to get violence out. It can be terrifying but necessary.



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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