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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Slammed Doors

Colleagues and killjoys,

How can we respond to this time, to this difficult and painful time, to this time in which those who are so much more vulnerable become so much more vulnerable? It is time to take care of each other; to look out for each other. It is always that time, but sometimes we know it, the truth of it. And we know that however compelling this truth, that that is not always what happens, that that is not always how decisions are made. Care is an urgent practical task. The less some are supported, the more they need to be supported. We do what we can, where we can.

All of my own speaking events for the rest of this academic year have been (or will likely be) cancelled or postponed. I will continue to write and to work carefully on my book on complaint, which I can only do because so many people have given me their time, their stories, their complaints, and yes, their care; their care for alternatives; their care not to reproduce worlds that are unjust. Over the next few months I hope to share posts regularly on my blog. The post below is my presentation from an event organised by Katy Sian that took place earlier this month. Please do read Katy’s important book, Navigating Institutional Racism in British Universities. It was a delight and honour to speak alongside Katy and my friend and colleague Heidi Mirza. Please also do read the book Heidi recently edited with Jason Arday Dismantling Race in Higher Education.  Navigating, dismantling; we have so much work to do.

Stay safe, close in heart and spirit. More soon, Sara

Slammed Doors:  Diversity and/as Harassment, Paper presented for Thinking of Leaving: Racism and Discrimination in British Universities Panel, March 6, University of York, by Sara Ahmed

I wanted to start by saying I am not thinking of leaving. I left. And when I left the academy, I am not sure I was thinking about leaving.  I just reached a point when I couldn’t do it anymore, keep quiet about what was going on, going into the departmental meeting room to talk about this or that, the same meeting room in which I first heard from students about the harassment and bullying they’d been subjected to. But I do not want to go over this, what led me to leave; it is still too painful, too difficult. I want instead to use my time to share some research I have done since leaving, research that leaving helped me to do. I resigned in protest about the failure of the institution to deal with sexual harassment as an institutional problem.  I shared the reasons for my resignation on my blog.  I did not disclose much information but I disclosed enough.  I became a leak; drip, drip. The story leaked into the mainstream press, and the university quickly responded in the mode of damage control, using tired old non-performatives: saying how much they did not tolerate sexual harassment; how they had robust procedures and policies; how committed they were to creating a diverse and inclusive environment. If any of this had been remotely true, I would not have had to resign. This will be familiar to students and scholars of colour: we know how universities respond to our complaints about racism by announcing their commitments to diversity.

I don’t want to take any more of our precious time talking about how my former employer used (and still uses) diversity as damage control. Posting about my resignation did something else, something far more important: it helped other people to find me; those who had experiences of making complaints that led them to confront institutions head on and, in some instances, also led them to leave. The research I have been doing on complaint was possible because of this finding.  A leak can be a lead; complaints can be how we find each other. We follow what we find.

In my earlier project on diversity, I noticed how often walls came up. One practitioner described: “it is a banging a head against the brick wall job.”  A job description becomes a wall description.  In my project on complaint, doors keep coming up.  Perhaps we could think of doors as “the master’s tools,” to borrow from Audre Lorde; doors tell us how institutions function, for whom they function; how only some are allowed to enter, how others become trespassers.

No Trespassing

Doors can tell us something not only about who can get in but who can get by or who can get through. After all, when a path is no longer available to us, a door becomes a figure of speech: we say that door is closed. A women of colour academic described her department as a revolving door, “women and minorities” enter, only to head right out again: whoosh, whoosh.

Revolving Door

Getting in can be how we are shown the way out. We can recall here that diversity is often represented as an open door, translated into a tag-line, tag along; tag on: minorities welcome: come in, come in!  One university transformed the “open door” of diversity into a project of attaching photographs of Black and minority ethic staff and students to door panels across the campus. Here BME students and staff are pictured not even as going through the door but as on the door.

Just because they welcome you it does not mean they expect you to turn up. You might turn up and end up on the diversity committee. We often end up on the diversity committee because of whom you are not: not white, not cis, not able-bodied, not man, not straight. The more nots you are the more committees you end up on!  A woman of color academic describes: “I was on the equality and diversity group in the university. And as soon as I started mentioning things to do with race, they changed the portfolio of who could be on the committee and I was dropped.” Certain words carry a complaint, you just have to say words like race or racism and you’ll be heard as complaining.  A complaint can be how you are received as much as what you send out. She added: “whenever you raise something, the response is that you are not one of them.” A complaint seems to amplify what makes you not fit, picking up on what you are not. A complainer becomes a foreigner, a complaint a confirmation that you are not from here, not really from here.

“Whenever you raise something the response is you are not one of them.” I cannot think of a more helpful description of the problem of becoming the problem. It is not that raising something makes you not one of them. You are already not one of them. Not being one of them is a judgement with consequences: it means being put under scrutiny. As she further describes: “To retain your post you have to be whiter than white. You are not afforded any good will. You have no scope for error. You don’t have any scope for being a bit foggy. The level of scrutiny is so high.” The expression “whiter than white” is telling us something; how whiteness becomes clean, good, pure, yes, but also how people of colour have already failed to be those things even before we get here, or how easily you come to fail, because when you are under scrutiny, anything can be used as evidence of failure, any mistake you make, and we all make mistakes; or anything quirky, irregular, out of place, queer even, can be confirmation not only that you are not from here, but that you are not meant to be here. Sometimes you might try and pass not because you identify with them or wish to be one of them but just because it is safer not to stand out.  I have called this work institutional passing; passing as trying to maximize the distance between you and the figure of the complainer. When passing fails, when you raise something, perhaps you use the word race, although let’s face it, for people of colour turning up is enough to bring race up, you reconfirm a judgement that has already been made.

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

We often end up having to keep explaining ourselves. A trans student of colour complaints about sexual harassment and transphobic harassment from their supervisor who kept asking them deeply intrusive questions about their gender and genitals. Questions can be hammering; for some to be is to be in question. The questions were laced in the language of concern, concern for the welfare of the student predicated on judgments that they would be endangered if they conducted research in their home country; racist judgments are often about the location of danger “over there” (in a brown elsewhere). But when they complain, what happens: “People were just trying to evaluate whether he was right to believe there would be some sort of physical danger to me because of my gender identity… as if to say he was right to be concerned.” The complaints process can lead to a reiteration of yet more intrusive questions, questions that make the concern right or even into a right; a right to be concerned. So much harassment today is enacted as a right to be concerned; we have a right to be concerned about immigration (as citizens) or we have a right to be concerned about sex-based rights (as “adult human females”). A right to be concerned is how scrutiny is enacted, how the violence of that scrutiny is masked, a violence premised on suspicion that some are not who they say they are, that some have no right to be where they are, that some have no right to be.

Embodying diversity in making you more visible can make you more vulnerable. A postdoctoral researcher, a woman of colour wanted to make a complaint about racial discrimination. She was hired as part of a diversity programme.  And she knows that the programme is precarious: “I don’t want to do something that is going to threaten a programme that is supposed to diversify the faculty.” Doors can be closed when we are made responsible for opening the door for others. If diversity often ends up being located in students and scholars of colour who are assumed to be here because we bring diversity with us, it can be harder to address the problems we have when we get here, which are not unrelated to the problems we have getting here. She used the term “coercive diversity” for how the university wanted to make use of her body and her research as evidence of its diversity whilst undermining her work as a colleague; as an early career academic; as a human being.

Another woman of colour researcher described how her expertise was used to secure funding for a project on diversity. Once the project was funded, she was shut out. She describes : “If you are a mascot you are silent, everything you are amounts to nothing, you are stuffing, if that, a skeleton with stuffing….I was kept out of the frame of the management structure; I had no control over how the money was spent, who was being employed, who was being invited to the advisory board.” You are stuffing; a skeleton with stuffing. As a symbol of diversity, a mascot, you are supposed to be silent, or perhaps you provide the raw materials, data; the experience, which is converted into theory, by the white academy. What happens when the stuffing speaks? What happens when those who embody diversity can theorize for ourselves? She told me what happens. She documented seventy-two instances of racial and sexual harassment directed toward her because she refused to be silent. Harassment can be the effort to silence those who refuse to comply; harassment can be the attempt to stop you from identifying harassment as harassment, which means the one who identifies harassment as harassment is harassed all the more.

Harassed all the more: a Muslim student of colour does not get the same number of classes to teach that other students do; she does not get the fellowships other students get. She is an international student; she is a mother; she does not have enough to get by. She has to complain to get what she needs: “after I made a complaint against them, I felt all sorts of overt discrimination as If the complaint made everyone free from the mask they used to put on when they were dealing with me before.” Diversity is that mask, when it slips, racism is given freer expression. Note then: a complaint can bring out what a complaint is about. She decides to leave. But she needs the support of the professors. Only two of the professors would write her letters. When she does not into any other programme, she asks to see those letters: “she wrote that ‘I am good at transcribing data’ nothing at all about my research, awards, the paper that I was working with her on, nor about the classes I took with her.” We are back to how some of us become reduced to data.  References too can function as doors, how some gather speed and velocity; how others are slowed down or stopped.

No Trespassing

Note then: power can work through what might seem a light touch: all you need to do to close a door on someone is to write them a less positive reference. This means that: the actions that close doors are not always perceptible to others. A closed door can itself be imperceptible; we can think back to the how diversity is figured as an open door; come in, come in; as if there is nothing stopping anyone from getting in or getting through. Or it might be that the effects of the actions are perceptible but the actions are not: so when someone is stopped, it seems they stopped themselves.

For those who are deemed dependent on doors being opened, those who embody diversity, whose entry is understood as debt, a door can be shut at any point. A door can be shut after you enter. A door can be shut because you enter.  I am talking to a black woman academic. She had been racially harassed and bullied by a white woman colleague:

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

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

Some of us in becoming professors become trespassers; you are being told you need permission to enter by being told you do not have permission.

No Trespassing

Closed doors can mean that other people do not hear that laughter; they do not hear that door being slammed. And those who try to stop you from progressing are often the same people who front the institution, perhaps nodding enthusiastically about diversity. Nod, nod, yes, yes, slam. I am listening to an indigenous woman academic. She told me how she could hardly manage to get to campus after a sustained campaign of bullying and harassment from white faculty, including a concerted effort by a senior manager to sabotage her tenure case as well as the tenure cases of other indigenous academics. When you are harassed and bullied, when doors are closed, nay slammed, in your face, making it hard to get anywhere, it can be history you are up against; thrown up against. Complaints can take us back to histories that are still:

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

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

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

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

Our battles are not the same battles. But there are many battles happening behind closed doors. I am speaking to a Black woman. She had been a Professor; she had been a Dean.  I use the past tense because she is no longer a professor; nor is she a Dean; she was dismissed from her post. The stories we share of becoming professors need to be supplemented by stories of unbecoming professors. The case begins as an administrative dispute. She has evidence that the university did not follow its own procedures.  But the evidence she has becomes evidence of her insubordination. If you don’t back down, a wall comes down. Racism comes up in what comes down. As she describes: “Race and gender are always in there. I thought this has never happened before. The first time it happens is when you have a black woman dean.” Race and gender: they are always in there; in the situations we find ourselves in. If you are not compliant, if you are defiant, they will do what they can to stop you.

How we are stopped is how institutions are reproduced. In order to survive those institutions, we need to transform them. But we still need to survive the institutions we are trying to transform. Sometimes, we do end up out of it, sometimes we get out; sometimes we are forced out. But if they are trying to shut us up by shutting us out, they have failed.  A complaint is a record we carry with us, we are that record, it is a painful record, no doubt, no question, a shattering; we can be left in pieces not just our careers, but our lives, ourselves. We pick up the pieces.  Perhaps that is what we do for each other, with each other; each piece, however sharp, a fragment that connects us, a story shared.

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Feminists at Work

It can be overwhelming: how much feminist work there is left to do. We might need to give ourselves permission to be overwhelmed, to stop as well as to start up, to take a break from the work even if we need to keep doing that work. I stopped. In the early days of the new year and new decade, I started up again. I have gone back to work, to my feminist work. I have been working closely on complaint, working with my transcripts, reading, listening, learning; reflecting on how hard some people are willing to fight, some people do fight, in order to build environments in which they can do their work. It is my task for this year, to bring together the material I have collected from listening to complaint, to gather and to hold the data, to let it spill. As I expect to be immersed in this task for some time now, I thought I would share a lecture I gave at Malmö University last year when accepting an honorary doctorate. I share the lecture in the form I gave it, though I have not included all the images. You can also see a video of the lecture with the powerpoint slides incorporated here. Thanks so much to Camilla Lekebjer, Rebecka Lettevall and Kristin Järvstad for all the work you did to make my visit possible and for the warmth of your feminist hospitality. On the occasion, I was surrounded by feminist, queer and anti–racist activists some of whom I knew personally (a special thanks to Ulrika Dahl and Asynja Gray for being my special guests!), and some of whom I did not. We need to surround each other, as we do this work; we need to surround each other in order to do this work.

Killjoys, misfits, trouble-makers; willful wanderers and woeful warriors: we fight for room to be as we wish; we wish for room in which we did not have to fight to be.

In solidarity and with affection,


“Feminists at Work: Complaint, Diversity, Institutions”, Lecture given at Malmö University, October 17 2019, by Sara Ahmed

To live a feminist life is to be a feminist at work. To be a feminist at work requires working on as well as at institutions. I have called the work of working on institutions diversity work: the work we have to do in order to be accommodated or the work we have to do because we are not accommodated. In my lecture today I want to retrace some of the steps in my own journey as a feminist of colour scholar and as a diversity worker. I will ask what it means, what it does, to be “on it,” and how being “on it,” trying to transform institutions, ends up being the work of complaint. A complaint can be what you have to make but a complaint can also be how you are heard. When we challenge how diversity is happily claimed by organisations, as a sign of what they are already doing, as I do think we need to do, we are heard as complaining; as being negative; destructive; obstructive. We become killjoys at work.

I first picked up the figure of the feminist killjoy by placing her where I had received this assignment, at the family table. You can be a killjoy because of what you bring up wherever you meet up. You might be identifying the sexism of a much loved film, or questioning how heterosexuality is presumed as the future of a child, or challenging how colonial occupation is transformed into a national holiday. And it might be assumed that you are saying this, doing this, even being this, because you are unhappy or because you are trying to stop others from being happy. If the feminist killjoy gets in the way of happiness, to claim this figure is to be willing to get in the way.  We become killjoys at work, institutional killjoys, when we get in the way of institutional happiness or when we just get in the way.

To be a feminist at work is to inherit the effects of other feminists at work. It is important to recognise that some of us can only be here, at universities, because many before us fought for us to be here. And we created feminist programmes such as Gender Studies; feminist centers, places to do our work because of how the university was already occupied when we got here. In these programmes, on them, some of us still end up as killjoys, getting in the way of feminist happiness or just getting in the way.

Many of my own experiences of being a killjoy at work have been a result of pointing out racism on feminist programmes.  I think of Audre Lorde in 1978 turning up at an event to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex. She agreed to speak; she does speak, on a panel, “The Personal is Political.” But she finds that the panel on which she is speaking is the only panel at the conference in which black feminism and lesbianism are represented. Lorde takes a stand; she makes a stand. She uses the time and the space she has been given to make a critique, perhaps a complaint, about the time and space Black feminism and lesbianism has been given.   That critique was to become one of her best-known essays, “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”  In that essay Audre Lorde asks a question, “What does it mean when the tools of racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that patriarchy?”  Lorde tells us what it means by showing us what it does.  When a feminist house is built using the tools of “racist patriarchy,” the same house is being built, using the same doors ; doors can be the master’s tools, how only some are allowed to enter; how others become trespassers, or if they are allowed in how they end up in a little room at the back of the building. Doors are not just physical things that swing on hinges, though they are that, they are mechanisms that enable an opening or a closing. When a path is not available to us, a door becomes a figure of speech; we say “that door is closed.”

Some openings, feminist conferences, end up being closed. Lorde stresses that those who are resourced by the master’s house will find those who try to dismantle that house “threatening.” Even an attempt to open up a space to others can be threatening to those who occupy that space.  In my new book on the uses of use What’s the Use, I use this image as an image of queer use: how things can be used in ways that were not intended or by those for whom they were not intended.

Birds Nesting

I think of these birds rather affectionately as our queer kin; they turned a small opening intended for letters into a door, a way of getting in and out of the box. Of course, the post box can only become a nest if it stops being used as a post-box; hence the sign “please don’t use” addressed to would-be posters. I am aware that this is a rather happy hopeful image. 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.

I am not going to be talking about queer use today, though I will return to the image of the post-box that has become a nest.  I want instead to focus on diversity work and complaint as world-dismantling efforts.  My own work builds upon work by Jacqui M. Alexander, Heidi Mirza, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Malinda Smith, Shirley Anne Tate and Gloria Wekker, as well as many others, who have offered powerful critiques of diversity in the academy as a way of building black feminist and feminist of colour counter-institutional knowledge. There is no doubt that doing this kind of work, trying to open institutions up to those who are not accommodated, can be frustrating, exhausting and shattering; we come up against walls, doors that appear open end up being closed. This work is also how we come to know what we know; we know so much about institutions from our efforts to transform them.

Doing Diversity

How do you end up as a diversity worker? We all have our stories to tell. Sometimes we end up on the diversity committee just because of who we are not: not man, not white, not cis, not able-bodied, the more nots you are the more committees you are on! We can end up being given diversity as a task because we are assumed to be diversity, to bring diversity with us.

My own story of becoming a diversity worker is hard to separate from my own story of being a feminist at work. When I became director of Women’s Studies as a relatively junior academic, I began to attend faculty meetings. I was the only person of colour at these meetings.  It is important to note that I noticed this: whiteness tends to be visible to those who do not inhabit it. And during the discussion of one item at a faculty meeting on equality the Dean said something like “race is too difficult to deal with.”  I was a feminist killjoy in training at this point, and did not quite have the confidence to speak out during this meeting. So I wrote an email.  I said that saying that race is “too difficult” is how racism gets reproduced. I was asked to join the new committee set up to write a race equality policy. You speak up and the diversity committee is where you end up.

There can be a problem with who ends up on such committees. There can be a problem with who does not end up on such committees. We can still learn from being on them. We talked about words like diversity, racism; we talked about the different associations those terms had for us. And we crafted a policy that made use of critical vocabularies, naming whiteness as an institutional problem, for instance. I have since then found policies interesting as a way of telling stories about institutions; who writes them; how they are written; where they do and do not go. What happened to our policy was how I first began to identify the mechanism I would later call “non-performativity.” The Equality Challenge Unit ranked the policy as “excellent.” The university was able to use the document as evidence of being good at race equality: as if to name something is to bring it about.  Non-performativity: when naming something does not bring it about, or when something is named in order not to bring it about.

A document that documents racism becomes usable as a measure of good performance. However much that experience led me to recognise my own complicity, or perhaps because it led me to recognise my own complicity, the conversations we had on that committee stayed with me. Complicity can be a starting point: if we are on it, we are in it. We are implicated in the processes we identify; we can identify processes because we are implicated in them. In my subsequent study of diversity, I collected stories by talking to diversity practitioners, those who are given the task of diversifying institutions. Diversity practitioners know all about what policies do not bring about. You can still make use of such policies to show how organisations are not doing what they are saying. Diversity practitioners have to make do with what is available to them. Perhaps diversity itself becomes a tool. One practitioner observes : “I would say that the term diversity is just used now because it’s more popular.  You know it’s in the press so why would we have equal opportunities when we can just say its diversity.”  We can “just say its diversity” if diversity is “just used now.”  Use becomes a reason for use, the circularity of a logic transformed into a tool.

The word diversity might be “just used now,” because of its affective qualities as a happy or positive term. Another practitioner described diversity as a  “big shiny apple,” “It all looks wonderful but the inequalities aren’t being addressed.” Diversity can be a way of appearing to address a problem. This practitioner described her job thus: “it is a banging your head against a brick wall job.”  A job description becomes a wall description. If you keep banging your head against the brick wall, but the wall keeps its place, it is you that gets sore. And what happens to the wall?  All you seemed to have done is scratched the surface. This is what doing diversity work often feels like: scratching the surface, scratching at the surface.

So many of the stories I shared in my book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, as well as in the middle section of Living a Feminist Life, were stories of how much diversity workers have to do because they did not through. One story in particular has traveled with me. A diversity worker managed to get a new diversity policy agreed after multiple attempts to block that policy; for example, the head of human resources removed reference to the policy from the minutes of the meeting.  After the policy was agreed, her colleagues blank her when she refers to the policy. Blanking is an activity: you treat someone or something as if they do not exist because they do; when they do. There are many ways to stop something from happening. This is why I called diversity workers institutional plumbers. You have to work out where things are stuck; how they are stuck, because they are stuck.

The Work of Complaint

How we arrive at our research questions matters. If becoming attuned to how racism was talked about, or not talked about, led me on a path to study diversity, it was my participation in a series of enquires into sexual harassment and sexual misconduct that led me to study complaint. These enquiries were prompted by a collective complaint lodged by students.  A collective complaint is created by a complaint collective: it can take a collective to keep a complaint going. I learnt so much from the work they had to do to keep that complaint going. Since then I have interviewed students, academics and administrators about their experience of the complaint process.

Making a complaint can also require becoming an institutional plumber. It is because complaints often get stuck in the system that complaints end up about the system. On paper it can seem is if making a complaint is a rather linear process ; indeed procedures are often represented as flow-charts; with paths and arrows, which give the would-be complainant a clear route through. The clarity of a procedure can be used to indicate a commitment.  One university writes that complaints will  “assist in identifying problems and trends across the University.”   They then write that complaints will : “form the basis of positive publicity, in demonstrating that identified issues have been resolved.” Organisations use complaints procedures like how they use diversity; as a way of appearing to address a problem. When complaints record a problem they can be quickly folded into a solution; a record of how universities have resolved something; resolution, dissolution. Resolutions can be problems given new form.

Listening to those who have made or tried to make formal complaints has taught me that the gap between what is supposed to happen and what does happen is densely populated.  This gap is where my study is located:  I am minding the gap. I spoke to one administrator about her work in supporting students through the complaints 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 ….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.

If a procedure exists in order to clear a path, that path can be blocked at any point.   A complaint is not simply an outcome of a no, a complaint requires you to keep saying no along the way.  This practitioner acknowledges that what is required to proceed with a complaint (confident and tenacity) might be what is eroded by the very experiences that lead to complaint (“something bad has happened,” “not feeling that way inclined”).

I suggested earlier that diversity work can often feel like scratching the surface. Making a complaint can also feel like scratching the surface. Let me share with you a description from an early career lecturer. She made a complaint about how the university handled her sick leave which turned into a grievance into how she had been treated as a neuroatypical person by her university:

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

It was like: note this it. A complaint, as something you are doing, can acquire exteriority, becoming a thing in the world; scratching away; a little bird, all your energy going into an activity that matters so much to what you can do, who you can be, but barely seems to leave a trace; the more you try, the smaller it becomes, you become, smaller; smaller still. A complaint is made confidential as soon as it is lodged, so all this happens behind closed doors, a complaint as a secret; a source of shame, what keeps you apart from others. A complaint becomes a magnifying glass: so much appears, so many details are picked up by an attention; the building, the  long corridors ,  the locked doors ,  the windows with blinds that can come down , less light, less room; you cannot breath; cloistered; suffocating.

Complaints can allow institutions to be registered all the more intensely; you acquire a sense of the institution through an experience of restriction. That sense is not always about things becoming clear.  If complaints happen behind closed doors, those doors are also closed to those who make a complaint. One 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. Making a complaint about harassment can often feel like being harassed all over again, becoming subjected, again, to another’s will.

The gap between does happen and what should happen can be what you fall through; how you fall through.   Remember “mind the gap” is familiar to us as advice and a warning And warnings are useful because they introduce notes of caution predicted not on abstract rules but on someone’s own health and safety. Those who are trying to make a complaint are frequently warned about the consequences of complaining.  A student describes : “I was repeatedly told that ‘rocking the boat’ or ‘making waves’ would affect my career in the future and that I would ruin the department for everyone else. I was told if I did put in a complaint I would never be able to work in the university and that is was likely I wouldn’t get a job elsewhere.” Complaining is framed as self-damage as well as damage to others, ruining a department, no less.  The flip side of a warning is a promise, a promise that if you don’t complain, you will go further. What you are told you need to do to progress further or faster in a system reproduces that system. One academic describes not complaining as the default : “the default academia thing, the university thing: it will be fine, if we do wait, don’t make a fuss.  A default is what will happen if you do not change the setting intentionally by performing an action.   Not complaining is thus about not performing an action or altering the setting; not complaining as how things are set.

Warnings articulate a no, don’t get there. Complaints can also be stopped by a yes, by a nod, by the appearance of being heard.  An academic brings a complaint to her line manager: “I would say he’s a yes man. So whenever I’d talk to him he would say yes but I knew the yes was definitely not a yes; it was a ‘we’ll see.’” Perhaps a yes can be said because there is not enough behind it to bring something about; we are back to the non-performative, given bodily expression as a nod, yes, yes, nod, nod.  She describes yes saying as a management technique: “this weird almost magical thing that happens when you speak to people in management when you go in there and you kind of ready for it, and you are really fired up and you kind of put your complaint, your case, your story to the person, and then you sort of leave as if a spell has been cast, leave feeling like ok something might happen and then that kind of wears off a few hours later and you think oh my gosh. It is like a slight of hands, almost like a trick, you feel tricked.” The feeling that something might happen is what is being achieved; to be left with a sense you are getting somewhere is how you end up not getting anywhere. A yes can stop a complaint from progressing by diffusing the energy of the one who complains.

Another method of stopping a complaint is to declare a complaint “not a complaint” because it does not fulfill the technical requirements for being a complaint. A member of staff made a complaint about bullying from her head of department. The experience of bullying had been devastating, and she suffered from depression as a result. It took her a long time to get to the point where she could make a complaint:

I basically did it when I was able to, because I was just really unwell for a significant period of time. And I put in the complaint and the response that I got was from the deputy VC. He said that he couldn’t process my complaint because I had taken too long to lodge it.

Some experiences are so devastating that it takes time to process them. And the length of time taken can be used to disqualify a complaint. The tightening of the complaint genre – a complaint as the requirement to fill in a form in a certain way at a certain time – is how many struggles are not recorded.

If organizations disqualify complaints because they take too long to make, they can also take too long – in accordance with their own procedures – to respond to complaints. One student described how the university took seven months to respond to her complaints, and then another seven months to respond to her response to their response to her complaint:  “it is my theory they been putting in the long finger and pulling this out, dragging this out over unacceptable periods of time, to try and tire me out so that I will just give up.” It can seem exhaustion is not just the effect but the point of a complaint process. Exhaustion can be a management technique: you tire people out so they are too tired to address what makes them too tired.

I have used the term “strategic inefficiency” to describe how organizations have an interest in stopping or slowing complaints. We might think of inefficiency as annoying but indiscriminate, affecting everybody, everything. Listening to those who have complained has taught me that inefficiency can be discriminatory. An international student 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, employment or financial status; the longer a complaint is kept open the more you could lose. There is a connection between the discriminatory effects of inefficiency and the efficiency with which organizations reproduce themselves as being for certain kinds of people, those whose papers are in the right place, those who are in the right place; those who are upright, straight, able; well-resourced, well-connected.

A complaint can go through the system and still nothing happens.    Perhaps complaints end up in a filing cabinet; filing as filing away. One student said of her complaint: “it just gets shoved in the box.” Another student describes: “I feel like my complaint has gone into the complaint graveyard.” When a complaint is filed away or binned or buried those who complain can end up feeling filed away or binned or buried. We need to remember that a complaint is a record of what happens to a person. Complaints are personal. Complaints are also records of what happens in an institution. Complaints are institutional. The personal is institutional.  One academic researcher shared her complaint file with me: “One of the things I talked about in those documents, I am very open, I was under such stress and trauma that my periods stopped….That’s the intimacy of some of the things that go into it, bodily functions like this.” A body can stop functioning. A body can announce a complaint. That body is in a document. And that document is in a file. And that file is in a cabinet. To file a complaint can mean to become alienated from your own history, a history that is often difficult, painful and traumatic.

Complaint as Diversity Work

A body can announce a complaint. It is worth remembering here that a complaint can be an expression of grief, pain or dissatisfaction; something that is a cause of a protest or outcry, a bodily ailment as well as a formal allegation. We are learning how the latter sense of complaint as formal allegation brings up these more affective and embodied senses. With bodies in mind, we can think about the work of diversity and complaint together; to show how they are part of the same work. If walls came up in my research into diversity, doors have come up in my research into complaint.   I have already noted how complaints happen “behind closed doors.” If complaints provide data, that data is kept under lock and key. Doors can be about who is locked out as well as what is locked in. You might not be able to open the door because the door is too heavy or too narrow. As Aimi Hamraie describes in Building Access: “Examine any doorway, window, toilet, chair or desk…and you will find the outline of the body meant to use it” (2017, 19, emphasis added). They usefully name this outline “the normate template” (19). Those who don’t assume the shape of the norm know the norms; norms become walls: what hits you is what stops you from entering.

A disabled academic has to keep pointing out that rooms are inaccessible because they keep booking rooms that are inaccessible. She has to keep saying it because they keep doing it . “I worry about drawing attention to myself. But this is what happens when you hire a person in a wheelchair. There have been major access issues at the university.”  She spoke of “the drain, the exhaustion, the sense of why should I have to be the one who speaks out.” You have to speak out because others do not; and because you speak out, others can justify their own silence. They hear you, so it becomes about you; “major access issues” become your issues.  A complaint might be necessary because you do not fit the requirements of an organization, because you are a misfit to use Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s important term. She describes being a person with a disability in an ablest institution as like being a “square peg in round hole.”  You can also be a misfit given what has become routine. An organization that organizes long meetings without any breaks assumes a body that can be seated without breaks. If you arrive and cannot maintain this position, you do not meet the requirements. If you lay down during the meeting, you would throw the meeting into crisis. A social justice project might require throwing meetings into crisis.

 Perhaps because organizations are trying to avoid such crises, misfits often end up on the same committees (otherwise known as the diversity committee). We can be misfits on these committees. A woman of colour academic describes : “I was on the equality and diversity group in the university. And as soon as I started mentioning things to do with race they changed the portfolio of who could be on the committee and I was dropped.” Certain words carry a complaint, you just have to say words like race or racism and you’ll be heard as complaining.  Given that people of colour just have to turn up to bring race up, we can be heard as complaining without even saying anything. A complaint can be how you are received as much what you send out. If you do raise something, you end up confirming a judgement that has already been made. She describes: “whenever you raise something, the response is that you are not one of them.” A complaint seems to amplify what makes you not fit, picking up what you are not; a complaint as foreign, a complainer as a foreigner, not from here, not here, not.

A structure: when the same things keep coming up. But if you keep having the same problem, you can be made to feel the problem is you. A lesbian academic describes:  “if you have a situation and you make a complaint, then you are the woman who complains, the lesbian who complains.  And then of course you get witch-hunted, you get scapegoated, you become the troublesome uppity woman; you become the woman who does not fit; you become everything the bully accuses you off, because nobody is listening to you. And you don’t like to hear yourself talking like that but you end up being in that situation, again. You can hear them saying, ‘oh there you go.” A diversity practitioner had said something similar to me: she only had to open her mouth in meetings to witness eyes rolling as if to say “oh hear she goes.” Both times we laughed: it can be relief to have an experience put into words.  The feminist killjoy comes up here; she comes up in what we can hear. We hear each other in the wear and the tear of the words we share; we hear what it is like to come up against the same thing over and over again.  We imagine the eyes rolling as if to say: well she would say that.

It was from experiences like this that I developed my equation: rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy.

Sometimes we do laugh; we need each other so we can laugh. In that laughter is also a groan of recognition. To be followed by rolling eyes is after all to be followed by eyes. A trans student of colour complaints about sexual harassment and transphobic harassment from their supervisor who kept asking them deeply intrusive questions about their gender and genitals. Questions can be hammering; for some to be is to be in question. The questions were laced in the language of concern, concern for the welfare of the student predicated on judgments that they would be endangered if they conducted research in their home country; racist judgments are often about the location of danger “over there.” But when they complain, what happens : “People were just trying to evaluate whether he was right to believe there would be some sort of physical danger to me because of my gender identity… as if to say he was right to be concerned.” The complaints process can lead to a reiteration of yet more intrusive questions, questions that make a concern right or even into a right. So much harassment is enacted as a right to be concerned. We have a right to be concerned (as “citizens”) about immigration; we have a right to be concerned (as “adult human females”) about sex based rights. A right to be concerned is how the violence of scrutiny is masked, a violence premised on suspicion that some are not who they say they are, that some have no right to be where they are, that some have no right to be.

When you complain about what you come up against, you come up against what you complain about. What complaints are “about” is how some end up “out.”   A woman of colour described her department as a revolving door: women and minorities enter only to head right out again: whoosh, whoosh. You can be kept out by what you find out when you get in.  Getting in can be how you are shown the way out.

And yet, we can think of how diversity is often figured as an open door, turned into a tagline; tag on, tag along; minorities welcome, come in, come in!  One university transformed the “open door” into a project of attaching photographs of Black and minority ethic staff and students to door panels across the campus. BME students and staff are pictured not even as going through the door but as on the door.

Remember the post-box that became a nest?   There could be another sign on the post-box: “birds welcome”.

Birds Welcome

Diversity is that sign: birds welcome, minorities welcome: come in, come in!  Just because they welcome you, it does not mean they expect you to turn up. That sign would be a non-performative if the post-box was still in use because the birds would be dislodged by the letters, a nest destroyed before it could be created. Comments, jokes, questions, who are you, what are you; what are you doing here, where are you from, where are you really from function as letters in the box. They pile up until there is no room left, no room, no room to breathe, to nest, to be. This is why diversity work is work: it is not enough to open the door. For some of us to be in the room requires stopping what usually happens in that room, the usual is the structural in temporal form; otherwise some of us would be, as it were, displaced by the letters in the box.

Doors can be closed because of what you refuse not to bring up. When an MA student indicated she wanted to make a complaint about bullying and sexual harassment by the most senior member of her department, she was told by the convener of the programme: “be careful he is an important man.” Be careful: a warning not to proceed can be a statement about who is important. The student went ahead with a complaint. In her terms, she “sacrificed the references.” In reference to the prospect of doing a PhD she said: “that door is closed.”   That door is closed: references too can function as doors, how it is made possible for some to progress, others not.  Reference systems are how some are enabled by their connections, how some gather speed and velocity, more and more, faster and faster, “he is an important man.” Many do not make complaints because they cannot afford to lose the references.  Power can work through what might seem a light touch: all you need to do to close that door is to write a less positive reference. The mere lift of a supportive hand can function as the heaviest of weights.

The actions that close doors are thus not always perceptible to others.  For those deemed dependent on doors being opened, those who embody diversity, whose mere entry is understood as debt, doors can be shut at any point.  A door can be shut because you are told that a door will be shut. A trans lecturer considered making a complaint after not getting a promotion and goes to their union. They are told: “because I was trans I would never be promoted.” Perceptions can be doors: how you are perceived as being as how you are stopped from progressing. This is not to say that we are always stopped; you have to work harder to get through the doors of perception. When a black woman told her white head of department, “I would like to work towards becoming a professor,” her head of department “just laughed in her face.” That laughter can be the sound of a door slammed.  Some of us in becoming professors become trespassers; you are being told you need permission to enter by being told you do not have permission.

A door can be shut after you enter. A door can be shut because you enter. I am listening to an indigenous woman academic. She told me how she could hardly manage to get to campus after a sustained campaign of bullying and harassment from white faculty, including a concerted effort by a senior manager to sabotage her tenure case as well as the tenure cases of other indigenous academics. When you are harassed and bullied, when doors are closed, nay slammed, making it hard to get anywhere, it can be history you are up against; thrown up against. Complaints take us back; they take us back further still, to histories that are still:

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

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

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

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

Our battles are not the same battles. But there are many battles happening behind closed doors. Behind closed doors: that is where complaints are often found, so that is where you might find us too, those of us who embody diversity; and what we bring with us, who we bring us, the worlds that would not be here if some of us were not here; the data we hold, our bodies, our memories; perhaps the more we have to spill, the tighter the hold.

Complaint Collectives

The more we have to spill, the tighter their hold.  When organizations can’t stop a complaint from being made, there is an effort to stop a complaint from getting out. Non-disclosure agreements are the tail end of a much longer process of containing complaints.  I think of filing cabinets as institutional closets; complaints are buried here because of what they could reveal. One student who made a complaint about sexual harassment describes, “The scale of the response was so extreme in a way compared to what we were complaining about. Now on reflection I guess it was because there were hundreds of complaints they had suppressed that they did not want to have a lid lifted on it.” To suppress is to contain as well as to keep secret. The more information is suppressed, the more there is to spill. This is why so many norms of professional conduct are about keeping a lid on it; silence as institutional loyalty; silence in case of institutional damage. A wall can be built from silence. And those walls can also be built around feminist spaces. Many have relayed to me how feminist colleagues, often senior feminists, often senior white feminists, were among those who told them to “keep a lid on it.” When feminists keep complaints “in house,” treating the data contained by a complaint as a secret, as what must be kept secret, they have become not the birds nesting, but the letters in the box, treating complainers as trespassers; complaints as messy matter, as straw, not as part of a nest but as “matter out of place.”

Sometimes we have to “lift the lid” to make complaints matter, to make a mess. 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 will try and contain the damage. The response in other words is damage limitation. This is how diversity often takes institutional form: damage limitation. Happy shiny policies will be put in place, holes left by departures will be filled without reference to what went on before; a blot becomes something to be wiped up, wiped away; as if they are mopping up a mess.

But there is hope here; they cannot mop up all of our mess. A leak can be lead. A leak can be how we leave traces of ourselves behind.  Sometimes you hold on by passing a refusal on. A postgraduate student made an informal complaint about white supremacy in her classroom: using that term for what is at the university, can get you in serious trouble; she knew that but she was still willing to do that. She became in her terms “a monster,” an indigenous feminist monster, and is completing her PhD off campus.   She said that “an unexpected little gift,” was how other students could come to her: “they know you are out there and they can reach out to you.” A complaint in taking you back can point forward, to those who come after who can receive something from you because of what you tried to do, even though you did not get through, even though all you seemed to have done was scratch the surface.  Yes, those scratches: we are back to those scratches.  They seemed to show the limits of what we accomplished. They can also be what we leave behind. They can be testimony: a complaint as writing on the wall; we were here; we did not disappear. The complaints in the graveyard can come back to haunt institutions.

I shared the image of a complaint graveyard with one person that had been shared with me by another. She said:

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

We can and do form complaint collectives. We can and do become harder to manage. But we do not always assemble at the same time or in the same place. You might feel like a lonely little ghost: gone; gone away; a stray. Your complaint might seem to have evaporated like steam, puff; puff. That complaint can still be picked up and amplified by others. You might not be able to hear it now; it might not have happened yet.  But each complaint gathers more, a gathering as a gathering of momentum; the sounds of refusal; little ghosts, little birds, scratching away at something.  We gather, becoming that momentum. Thank you.


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The Same Door

In the first chapter of my new book What’s the Use: On the Uses of Use, I reflect on the use status of different things, from well-used paths, to used up tooth-paste, to over-used exclamation points. One of my examples is “usable/ unusable doors” (75-65). I photographed this door, which is a door at a university near where I live.

Usable Unusable door

This door is a door I can use, I do use, it is usable for me, but it is not a usable door for  disabled people with mobility restrictions.  To reflecting on usability is to reflect on who a world is built for. This is why scholarship in disability studies was one of my primary sources of inspiration in writing the book. As Aimi Hamraie describes in Building Access “Examine any doorway, window, toilet, chair or desk…and you will find the outline of the body meant to use it” (2017, 19, emphasis added). Hamraie usefully name this outline “the normate template” (19). Those who don’t assume the shape of the norm often know the norms; norms become walls: what hits you can be what stops you from entering.

Doors were not originally one of my primary examples in the first draft of the book although I did have examples of signs on doors. They came into the text later. Why? When I began doing interviews for my project on complaint in the middle of 2017, I noticed how often people made reference to doors. Doors came up figuratively, certainly, but it was the actual doors that first caught my attention. That I was working on use, making use of things, was probably why I noticed these doors.[1] Something can be right in front of us, but we still do not notice it. Research can be about becoming attuned to what is already there: you notice an arrangement; you reflect on what you notice.

In the book I kept reusing the same images with different captions.[2] But there is one instance in which I use the same caption with different images. That caption is “the same door.” In this post I explore the connection between these different uses of the same door.

Why do doors come up in testimonies about complaint? Complaints are made confidential as soon as they are lodged. The expression “behind closed doors” is thus everywhere in my data. This expression might be used to refer to actual doors: you might tell the story once the doors of the office have been shut. The expression is also used to convey what is kept hidden or secret from the public. If complaints are data-full, and complaints require evidence, they require you to collect data, then that data is kept under lock and key. Doors can thus function as containers of complaints. My own task is to open the container.

My first use of “the same door” as a caption on page 181 refers to how if harassment and bullying happen behind closed doors, then they happen in the same place complaints happen. I reused the image of an usable/unusable door from chapter 1.

Usable Unusable door

I will be working in future writing on accounts of physical or sexual assaults that happened in offices or corridors. In these testimonies, doors figure prominently. I am not sharing these testimonies here: to share them responsibly requires giving them the fullness of my attention. Doors came up not only because they were shut, but because someone was struggling to get out of the room. Two women academics I spoke to, one who was sexually assaulted by a lecturer when she was a student, the other who was physically assaulted by her head of department as a lecturer, described to me in acute detail the handles or locks on the doors of the office or corridor in which the assault happened because those handles or locks were difficult to use. When you are struggling to get out, a lock can be imprinted in your memory. They both managed to get out, but it was hard. It was made hard.

We tend to notice what stops us from getting out when have to get out. And if you have to struggle to get out of the room, it can be another struggle to get a complaint out. In another instance, when a student made a complaint about an assault (her assailant in this instance had locked the door) she is called to a meeting with senior academics. They were all colleagues of the lecturer who assaulted her. In talking to her, they referenced their shared history with him. As another student said, “they have each other’s backs.”

The “same door” is a device I am using to show what might be obvious but still needs to be said (the obvious is too often left unsaid): the same structures, the same networks that enable harassment are “at work” in stopping complaints about harassment.  Doors can be our teachers: they teach us the significance of a complaint about harassment being lodged in the same place the harassment happened.  If they have each other’s backs, their backs become doors.

The second use of the caption “the same door” (p. 202) might seem quite different. Here the image is of a sign on the door: women.

women's sign

A sign on a door is often a use instruction: it tells you who should use what door. The signs are of course not referring not to the toilets themselves as men or women but to the users of the toilets. You might go that way, open that door, because of who you understand yourself to be, but still be told you are using the wrong door because of how you appear. Use instructions can be enforced not only by the police or security guards but by other users, who are invited to become police, to look out for those who are, as it were using the wrong door.

Doors exist alongside other technological methods for directing human traffic, that is, for telling us which way to go when we have to go. Doors are also telling us something about the nature of sex as an assignment. We are supposed to be as constant as an assignment. And so: if you are assigned girl, if girl is your original assignment, you are supposed to follow that path, which means using the same door that you used before; the same door. This is my other use of “the same door.” It is a use instruction that teaches us something about the nature of an assignment.

Is there a connection then between this “same door” and the other “same door”? I think there is a connection. Being told you are using the wrong door often means in practice being harassed. You can be harassed behind a door; you can be harassed for using the wrong door. Many women who are gender non-conforming, including cis as well trans women, have experiences of being harassed in toilets because they do not conform to an idea of how a woman should appear.

When you complain about harassment you are often harassed all the more. You encounter the same door.  The same door can also refer to how a person is stopped when they are trying to stop something from happening. A trans student of colour complains about sexual harassment and transphobic harassment from their supervisor who kept asking them deeply intrusive questions about their gender and genitals. Questions can be hammering; for some to be is to be in question. The questions were laced in the language of concern, concern for the welfare of the student predicated on judgments that they would be endangered if they conducted research in their home country; racist judgments are often predicated on stranger danger, the location of danger “over there” (a brown elsewhere). I will return to stranger danger in due course.

When they complain, what happens? “People were just trying to evaluate whether he was right to believe there would be some sort of physical danger to me because of my gender identity… as if to say he was right to be concerned.” The complaints process can lead to a reiteration of yet more intrusive questions, questions that make a concern right or even into a right. So much harassment today is enacted as a right to be concerned. We have a right to be concerned (as “citizens”) about immigration; we have a right to be concerned (as “adult human females”) about sex based rights. A right to be concerned is how the violence of scrutiny is masked, a violence premised on suspicion that some are not who they say they are, that some have no right to be where they are, that some have no right to be.

A complaint is put out into the same world a complaint is about. The doors that are closed on complaints, which stop them from getting through or getting out, can be the same doors that are closed on persons, which make it difficult for some to get through. A trans lecturer considered making a complaint after not getting a promotion and goes to their union. He is told: “because I was trans I would never be promoted.” I think of the weight of that because: how you can be made responsible for what stops you from progressing even if it is discrimination that stops you from progressing. You have to deal with what comes at you: each time you are slowed down by trying to challenge what slows you down.  In his testimony, he describes transitioning as moving between different zones of discrimination. Before he transitioned, he had experienced routine sexism:“being pushed out and side-lined in terms of my career.” He also described what it was like to witness colleagues who “make use of sexual jokes” only to be quickly promoted. In transitioning, he enters a different zone of discrimination: “I started transitioning and he fired me.” Indeed he describes how discrimination against, and harassment of, trans people is given a “green light.” I think of traffic lights, not amber, not red, but green: a traffic light is saying, yes, go, you can say that, yes, you can do that; fired; fire away.

A green light to harassment, yes, go, you can say that, yes, you can do that: is that where we are today?

That is where we are today. In the UK today, we are on a permanent green light: permission is constantly being given for transphobic harassment, creating a hostile environment for trans people. Some of this harassment operates through the logic of stranger danger: trans people are often positioned as strangers not only as “bodies out of place,” but as threatening those who are “in place.” Stranger danger is a well-oiled machine: it works so well from being used so often.[3] Just think about the use of terms like “gender extremism,” which work to creating a menace, a vague sense of menace, borrowing perhaps from racialising discourses (extremism as a term tends to stick to some bodies more than others). Just think also of the use of terms like “the trans lobby,” to imply a powerful and sinister agent that is behind this or that action. If stranger danger works to locate danger in those deemed outsiders, stranger danger also creates the figure of the endangered most often a child. Contemporary transphobia works to suggest or imply that trans people are endangering children (one headline reads, Are you transphobic? Me neither, we’re just worried about our children). Stranger danger thus creates a missionary position: we have to save the children. We have seen a proliferation of this positioning.

Contemporary transphobia is thus eerily similar to earlier forms of homophobia (and by saying earlier homophobia I am not saying that such homophobia has disappeared – it most certainly has not).  Gays and lesbians too were often presented as endangering children[4]. And a “gay lobby” was deemed to be promoting “gay lifestyles,” by teaching or recruiting students, by publishing books about happy gay families.

Damn it: we needed those books!

Many of us can recognise these forms because we have seen them before.

Power is often legitimated by treating an effort of a minority to survive, to create resources to enable their survival, as the formation of an industry. Those with power often position themselves as having to defend themselves (as well as others for whom they claim to speak) or defend a group or an idea/ideal that has already taken their shape; the nation, the race, civilization, even life itself, as if they are the minority under attack. That reversal of power is a central means by which power operates.[5]

Stranger danger is about how danger is located in the outsider.[6]  Stranger danger thus creates a line, a boundary, between inside and outside. Some are judged as imposing on others; by virtue of existing, or by being too proximate, you can be deemed to have crossed a line necessary for the protection of others. A category too can be assumed to be closed; a door can be used to close the category “woman,” for instance. Closures however much they are justified as natural or necessary still depend upon actions; hence the creation of new terms if the old ones are drawn in a way that risks including those some do not want to include (woman becomes “adult human female,” for instance).  This is how a conversation about terms can actually be about how some are shut out of conversations. Note: you can be asked to participate in a conversation even though the terms of the conversations are about shutting you out.

I have no interest in having a conversation in these terms.

All categories have social lives. I think stranger danger can also work through category formation. My sense is that “gender” can be turned into a stranger; yes I am suggesting a category of thought can be treated as a stranger, framed as an imposition on nature or on biological reality.  The externality of “gender” as a category can then be used to refer to the externality of people who are assumed to rely on a category for their existence (simplified as: gender does not exist, you don’t exist as you say you do).  When gender is made foreign, those who use that category to make sense of their own selves are treated as foreigners. Part of the transformation of gender into the stranger, is the treatment of sex, often biological sex, as nature or even as native.

Categories such as “sex,” “nature” or “biology” or “biological sex” are being used to justify trans exclusion as natural and necessary, as if these categories are not themselves product of labour, as if we do not have a hand in making and shaping them.[7] Feminism gives us internal resources to challenge this use of categories, whichever categories are being used.[8]

We have behind us many feminist critiques not only of the sex/gender distinction but also of the idea that biological sex is given.[9] It would not be possible for me to review all the feminist work that would be helpful. I will just give a few pointers. In the radical feminist tradition, Andrea Dworkin’s Woman Hating, challenges what she calls “the traditional biology of sexual difference” based on “two discrete biological sexes” (1972: 181, 186). She expands further: “Hormone and chromosome research, attempts to develop new means of human reproduction (life created in, or considerably supported by, the scientist’s laboratory), work with transsexuals, and studies of formation of gender identity in children provide basic information which challenges the notion that there are two discrete biological sexes. That information threatens to transform the traditional biology of sex difference into the radical biology of sex similarity. That is not to say that there is one sex, but that there are many. The evidence which is germane here is simple. The words ‘male’ and ‘female,’ ‘man” and ‘woman,’ are used only because as yet there are no others” (175-6). Dworkin argued that transsexuals in a culture of “male-female discreteness” are “a state of emergency,” and argued that they should have access to hormones and surgery because they have a “right to survival [in their] own terms” (176). If Dworkin did imagine that transsexuals might disappear in some projected future, which she did, this was also because she imagined that discrete sexes, that is, women and men, would also disappear. Whatever we think of her androgynous solution, we can learn from her diagnosis of the problem. Dworkin teaches us that radical feminism, a feminism that is feminist at root, cannot be formulated without a radical understanding of sex and biology.

We could also turn to the evolution of arguments about sex and gender in feminist sociology. Ann Oakley’s classic, Sex, Gender and Society certainly made use of the sex-gender distinction, with sex referring to biological differences, visible differences of genitalia, and differences in procreative function; and gender to “a matter of culture” that refers to the social classification into “masculine” and “feminine”’ (1972, 16). However in a later work offers a strong critique of this same distinction. In “A Brief History of Gender,” Oakley writes: “the distinction between sex and gender does not call into question how society constructs the natural body itself” and “sex is no more natural than gender given that our speaking of both is mediated by our existence as social beings” (1997, 30).  Or we could think of the work of historical materialist Christine Delphy who provided a strong critique of the sex-gender distinction in Ann Oakley’s earlier sociological work as well in the work by the anthropologist Margaret Mead. Delphy argues that gender precedes sex,. She writes: “we have continued to think of gender in terms of sex: to see it as a social dichotomy determined by a natural dichotomy” (1993, 3). Christine Delphy called as a materialist feminist for a full and feminist de-naturalization of the category of “biological sex.” So much feminist work has shown that what is deemed originary is an effect. If gender creates the effect of two distinct biological sexes, it is important we do not make the effect our cause (otherwise we would simply be reproducing the system we are trying to dismantle, taking what it creates, as our ground).[10]

We can also find resources in feminist phenomenology. Phenomenology has been an important for feminism because it is a way of doing theory in the first person. Phenomenology helps us to explore how worlds can take shape by receding into the background. When something has become natural, it tends to be looked over. Phenomenology also helps us to think about how bodies are shaped through habits, ways of acting that are repeated over time. Simone de Beauvoir or Iris Marion Young are feminist philosophers who have shown how we become women through in relation to our bodies. Biology matters, yes, but biology is always part of our historical situation. From feminist phenomenology, we might learn how bodily matter and social meaning are always entangled; I think of Iris Marion Young’s concern with how girls learn to throw “like girls;” she calls this “inhibited intentionality.” An idea of what girls can do can affect what girls do, which shape what girls can do. We can thus de-naturalise the category of “biological sex” and still talk about our lived experiences as gendered beings (in fact we have more not less to talk about when we don’t bracket sex as if was outside the social or the cultural domain). We can talk about physical and fragile bodies, aging bodies; and yes, we can still talk about women’s bodies without presuming in advance who is “women.”[11] We can talk in this way because we do not assume that others will have the same experiences; to inhabit a body is to be thrown into a world with others. Phenomenology can also help us to re-think how categories themselves are social as well as lived entities. Categories too can be how we are thrown. Some of us will be thrown by how we are known; we will not be “at home” in the categories that have been used to name us, to identify us.[12]

There is of course much work in the biological sciences, which can help us to show how biological reality is much more complicated than two discrete biological sexes.[13]  And we could work more sociologically; we could track the uses of biology.[14] When biology is used to refer to something outside history or without a history, biology is performing a social function. What are the social effects of these uses of biology? This is where we come back to the same door. It is not a coincidence that the investment in biological sex has led to increasing gender conservatism: the presumption that you can tell who is a woman or man from how they appear. Simply out, gender conservatism is about sex. This is rather obviously the case in the religious right: arguments against “gender ideology” are made as arguments about the immutability of sexual difference as Judith Butler has shown. They take the form of statements: sex is given; there are two discrete biological sexes; marriage can only be about two sexes. Those who are against gay marriage (as well as gay adoption and queer families) are the same people who are arguing against the idea that gender can be experienced as an identity that does not correspond to biological sex. With the increasing spread of right wing politics across the globe, none of us can be confident that we have finished having to make the case for gay marriage (for those who would want to make that case). That is, even if we live in a country that has allowed gay marriage, the idea that gay marriage is against nature (and biology) persists. And we need to note the slide between conservative ideas about sex and gender to conservative ideas about sexuality: sex is man or woman; marriage is man and woman.[15]

To learn from the social uses of biology is to understand how and why gender critical can become very quickly gender conservative. It is not just the religious right that is spreading conservative ideas about gender. Gender critical feminists might not be making the same arguments against gay marriage (although the allegiance of some of these feminists to white supremacists and the religious right probably means that step is not far off).  They are however making similar arguments about biological sex as given. The consequences are not only anti-trans, they are anti-feminist. When you are critical of gender, but uncritical of sex (sex uncritical = biological sex is given), you tighten rather than loosen the hold of the gender system. We can see the effects of this gender conservatism all around us. We are witnessing increasingly conservative judgement being made in the name of feminism on the basis of women and men’s appearance, organised around the assumption that you can always tell the difference between men and women by how they appear (on discussion forums on social media and also in everyday life, at public toilets, on streets). Many cis women as well as trans women have been caught out by this; they have been told they are not really women because of how they appear. By “being told” I am talking about being harassed. And I have heard it justified by some gender critical feminists that if some women are harassed in toilets by other women because they do not appear to them as women (including, say, butch lesbians) that would be “a regrettable cost” in the broader project of protecting women from men.

Harassment as a regrettable cost: harassment as protection; we are back to the same door. I’ve heard that door being closed before, as a lesbian, as a lesbian of colour. Lesbians have often been told we are not really women; gender conservatism has very dire consequences for lesbians; whether cis or trans. Black women and women of colour too, have had the door closed in our faces; not women, not really, not you. Some of us have been shut out of feminism, told our concerns were distractions from the real thing.

The same door can be a feminist door. To open feminist spaces, requires constant vigilance; we have to keep questioning ourselves, learning from each other about each other.

Let me share a few paragraphs from the conclusion of What’s the Use on queer doors.[16]


A transfeminist project might show how original assignments are themselves constructions. As Emi Koyama notes, “While the concept of gender as a social construct has proven to be a powerful tool in dismantling traditional attitudes towards women’s capabilities, it left room for one to justify certain discriminatory policies or structures as having a biological basis” (2003, 249). Biology can be used as a tool because biology is often assumed to be about what is fixed or immutable. The very idea of two distinct sexes is transformed into an architectural principle by the use of doors.

If we think of biological sex as a door, we learn how biology can function as technology, to return to my discussion in chapter 2. This intimacy of biology and technology helps us to explore the queerness of biology and to consider what Sarah Franklin has called transbiology. Franklin introduces the cyborg embryo picking up on Donna Haraway’s (1991) creative reuse of the figure of the cyborg as well as her use of the concept of “trans-” to describe how new hybrid entities “blast widely understood notions of natural limit” (Haraway, 1997, cited in Franklin 2006, 170).  The cyborg embryo is born and made, biological and technological. The cyborg embryo is a product of what Franklin calls the IVF/Stem Cell interface: stem cell research is dependent upon “surplus” or “spare” embryos generated by assisted conception technologies. Interestingly, Franklin’s discussion of transbiology refers a number of times to doors. She describes how human stem cell derivation laboratories are built adjacent to assisted conception units and how the laboratories and clinics make use of doors to allow the passing through of biological materials—eggs and embryos—between them: “Like the cyborg embryo, transbiology is a mix of control and rogue, or trickster, elements. The hoods are noisy breathers, the eggs are dirty, and the door is queer” (2006, 175, emphasis mine). The door is there because it offers the most convenient way to pass materials through. The door is queer because it is not meant to be there; the lab is supposed to be a clean, controlled, and sealed environment.

We can pick up on the significance of the queer door. An opening created for convenience can have a queer potential: it can mean lessening control of what or who can pass through. The biological would then be about the potential of transfers and transits of many queer kinds. It might seem that doors function to contain us; to be told to use the same door is to be told who we are and what we can be. Perhaps use instructions are only necessary because they can be refused. Indeed, one might think of how the postbox can become a nest only by creating a queer door: the birds turn an opening into a door, that is, a way of entering the box.

Birds Nesting

A queer door can be the effect of unexpected arrivals: openings intended for some things to pass through can end up providing an access point for others.

By considering the uses of use, I have been able to show how the potential for movement can be eliminated or almost eliminated before that potential can be realized in this or that instance. In chapter 1, I suggest that use can lessen the queerness of use; when things are used repeatedly in a certain way it becomes harder for things to be used in other ways. Those for whom use is harder are trying to use things in other ways. Timing matters. If use instructions are made because they can be refused, use instructions are made even more forcefully when they are refused. Some forms of use are corrected, punished; do not use that is saying, in truth, do not be that. Those who refuse the instructions know how they work.


You come to know the instructions, when you are hit by them, when a door is slammed in your face. Maybe sometimes we might make use of doors ourselves, to create spaces, shelters, in which we can breathe, to survive the harshness of being shut out.  To turn that door into a wall, a way of stopping other people from entering, by treating the closing of the door not as a decision, as temporary, a product of labour, what we have a hand in, but as natural, as permanent, is to turn a shelter into a fortress. We cannot afford to do that. We can never afford to do that. There are too many lives at stake.

I wrote this post to work out what the same door is doing. I also wrote this post in response to the setting up an LGB alliance. Removing T (also I, also Q) is shutting the door, the same door, on those who are part of a shared struggle against forms of power and authority that work by restricting ideas of what life can be, what it means to be a woman or man or not a woman or not a man, to be both, to be neither, which restrict who we can love; how we can love. We were in the same bars, laughing and living, surviving the worlds that decided our lives were lifestyles, our choices whims; our ideas false; that we were selfish or dangerous because of what or who we refused to give up. We marched in the same marches, recognising something of ourselves in each other, as we fought for a world that could reflect our own images of ourselves back to ourselves; however tired, however worn; we loved what we could catch in each other’s reflections. We called each other family because we turned up for each other when we are cast out from our homes, our communities. Perhaps we are sloppy, rather messy; we are not unaffected by the trauma of being rejected. Perhaps we got things wrong; when you have been treated as wrong, it can be hard not to inherit that judgment. We have been at times confused with each other or turned into inauthentic versions of each other.[17] Maybe if we were confused with each other it is not surprising we are sometimes confused by each other. But that confusion becomes what we share: we work it out by working together. We can’t sort it by creating new distinctions, by separating ourselves from each other. At this moment, they are slamming that door in your faces; trying to close our shared struggle for freedom and justice to those of you travel under the sign T.

Well: they are shutting the door on us too; the same door; turning their backs on us too; their backs become doors.

We created our letters, our assembly, LGBTQI, fragile, fabulous, furious, because we needed each other; we needed to become each other’s resources.

We needed each other; we need each other; we still do.


Beauvoir de, Simone (1997). The Second Sex, trans. by H.M.Parshley. London: Vintage Books.

Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Delphy, Christine (1993). “Rethinking Sex and Gender,” Women’s Studies International Forum, 16, 1: 1-9.

Dworkin, Andrea (1972). Woman  Hating. New York: E.P.Dutton.

Franklin, Sarah. 2001. “Biologization Revisited: Kinship Theory in the Context of the new Biologies,” in Sarah Franklin and Susan McKinnon eds,  Relative Values: Reconfiguring  Kinship Studies. Durham: Duke University Press.

Germon, Jennifer (2009). Gender: A Genealogy of an Idea. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hamraie, Aimi.(2017). Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Oakley, Ann (1972). Sex, Gender and Society. Maurice Temple Smith.

Oakley, Ann (1997).  “A Brief History of Gender,” in A. Oakley and J. Mitchell (eds) Who’s afraid of feminism?, London: Hamish Hamilton; New York, NY: The New Press.

Rich, Adrienne (1993). ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’ in H. Abelove, M.  Barale, and D. M. Halperin (eds), The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, New York: Routledge.

Sanz, Veronica (2017). “No Way out of the Binary: A Critical History of the Scientific Production of Sex,” Signs, 47, 1.

Spade, Dean (2006). “Gender Mutilation,” in Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (eds).  The Transgender Studies Reader. London: Routledge. pp.315-332.

Stone, Sandy (2006). “The Empire Strikes Back: A PostTransexual  Manifesto,” in Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (eds). The Transgender Studies Reader. London: Routledge.

Young, Iris Marion (1990). Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays. Bloomington Indiana University Press.

Wilchin, Rikki (2014). Queer Theory, Gender Theory. Riverdale Avenue Books.

Wittig, Monique (1992). The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon Press.

[1]So for instance in my diversity research, published as On Being Included, I reflect on how diversity practitioners often talk about walls in describing their work. But I did not notice the walls until after I completed the research – I came back to the data a few years after completing the work having finished a book on happiness. I know wonder if writing about feminist killjoys is what helped me to notice the walls.

[2] It is interesting to note here that presenting the use research as a power-point changed how I presented the book. With power-point I kept using the same image but with different captions. And I noticed how this allowed me to make the points more concretely. In this first version of the book I used each image once – for example the well-used path – and then referred back to that image. In the final version the well-used path keeps reappearing with different captions: the more a path is used, the more a path is used; a longer neck; a stronger arm; an old policy; more can refer to how many; the more he is cited, the more he is cited; heterosexuality, a path that is kept clear.

[3] I began working on the uses of stranger danger as a frame in my second book, Strange Encounters. Most of my work has been on stranger danger as a technique of racialisation. A crucial aspect of stranger making is that the stranger, however singular as a figure comes to stand for a group. It is crucial to understand how this work in the media reporting of violence. Take anti-Muslim racism: if a Muslim person commits an act of violence, that violence becomes expressive of the violence of Muslims (which quickly then becomes an argument against immigration or for increased securitisation and so on). Much transphobic reporting works to make an instance of violence made by a trans person as expressive of the violence of a group (which quickly then becomes an argument against “gender ideology,” or allowing trans people to live in accordance with the gender identity and so on).

[4] We have to become good readers here about how narratives of danger work. You do not have to say “all gays are pedophiles” or “all gays endanger the well-being of our children,” all they need to do is put the category of pedophilia near to the category of homosexual to create this effect. Or note how if a lesbian or gay person is involved in child abuse, the category of lesbian or gay will often be made explicit in media reporting, which becomes an implicit invitation to make being lesbian and gay part of the problem: but when a heterosexual person is involved in child abuse (much more commonly) their heterosexuality is less likely to be brought up in the description, which allows heterosexuality to disappear from the problem.

[5] Those who speak against the rights of a minority will thus almost always position themselves as the minority. They are not. Critical feminist voices have been over-amplified by the media – and of course if you will ask people if they are not allowed to speak about x, when x is the site of a controversy, you will find those people very easily and very quickly. We can witness how this mechanism works by how much the same people speak about not being allowed to speak at all (no platform has become a big platform for a reason). I would add here that this is also the case for other positions. You can find many white academics who are involved in the new eugenics (which is the old eugenics in dressier form) who would go onto the television and talk to newspapers about how they are harassed because of expressing critical viewpoints, how talking about white displacement or differences in IQ between racial groups or colonialism as a moral project is not racism and how other people calling it racism is how they are censored. We know they could do that because they do do that. Much harassment is justified as freedom of expression. Note: all of our equality commitments are about the imposition of restrictions on what people can do and say. If some people understood these restrictions as restrictions on their freedom, you are learning about their sense of entitlement. When some gender critical academics say that “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 in fact not free not to do so; they are required to do so under existing equality law (the guidance to the Equality Law 2010 by the EHRC uses deliberate misgendering as an example of harassment of persons with the “protected characteristic” of gender reassignment). Also, using theory 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 said justification: your theory does not exempt you from the requirement to act in a certain way. One has a sense here of the political stakes of the attack on “gender theory.”  I would add many people justify verbal forms of harassment as expressions of freedom – and also sometimes use “my theory gives me permission to say x” as well. I know this from my complaint research: I have collected many examples of sexist and racist as well as transphobic speech being justified not only as freedom of expression but with reference to a person’s “theories.” For example one student who objected to a sexist expression was told: “I don’t need to talk to you about discourse analysis and post-structuralism, and we can all do a discourse analysis on x; and we’d all come up with very different meanings.”

[6] Stranger danger can be dangerous. It can be dangerous to those deemed strangers: those who tend to be treated as dangerous are often those who are most vulnerable to violence. But it can be dangerous because of where it does not locate danger: here, at home, in the family. Women for instance are much more at risk when they are home. Stranger danger is how the violence that is close to home is often overlooked.

[7] As Sarah Franklin has noted, biology can refer to both a “body of authoritative knowledge (as in the science of reproductive biology) and a set of phenomena” (2001, 303). Biology can thus refer both to studies of living organisms and to the living organisms themselves. This confusion of different senses of biology is evident in some of the wider discourse, which has had the effect of treating “a body of authoritative knowledge” as if corresponds to a set of phenomena.

[8] Transphobia seems to create a moving target.  I am exploring in this post today how and why “biology” and “biological sex” are the main terms in use. At other times it is not biology but “socialisation” that is used: trans women cannot be women because they were socialised as men and benefited from male privilege. Here it is the social rather than the biological that becomes what is immutable: as if socialisation goes one way, relates only to one category (sex) and is not contested and disputed in everyday life depending on how one might not embody or not embody that category. Feminism itself depends on the failure of socialisation to bring about willing gendered subjects. Another typical argument is that “transgenderism” as a set of medical practices depends on essentialist notions of gender because it corrects gender nonconforming behaviours and is shaped by a heterosexist imperative.  Of course there has been decades of scholarship by transgender theorists that is critical of how gender and hetero norms become an apparatus of truth within medical institutions; that has shown how in order to gain access to surgery and hormones, trans subjects have to tell a narrative that is legible to authorities because it maintains gender scripts: from Sandy Stone’s wonderful “The Empire Strikes Back: A Post-Transsexual Manifesto” ([1987] 2006) to more recent work by Dean Spade (2006) and Riki Wilchins (2014).  This work shows how not to be accommodated by a gender system (which requires you to “stay with” an assignment made by authorities at birth) can involve becoming more vigilant and reflexive about that system (although it is very important not to expect those who are not accommodated by a system to become pioneers or transgressors of norms, either). I think what is going on in anti-trans feminist work is the desire to exclude and police the boundaries of “women” on whatever basis can be found (hence the target is a moving target).

[9] For a discussion of how the “sex-gender” distinction was imported into Gender Studies (via the work of John Money on intersex communities) see Jennifer Gorman (2007). Gorman also explores the link between Gayle Rubin’s model of the “sex-gender system” and Money’s work.

[10] This reversal was also performed by Judith Butler in her classic Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), which drew on many other feminist theorists to show how physical and sexed bodies are shaped right from the very beginning (or even before a beginning) by social norms and values. Following the “uses of use” deepened my understanding of the complexity of chains of cause and effect. When effects are treated as causes there are further effects (including on causes). If sex is an effect of gender, the assumption that sex is a cause is what gender effects. The very assumption of causality brings worlds as well as bodies into existence. Doors are especially useful to help us address the materializing effects of assumptions.

[11] It is also worth remembering here the strong lesbian feminist critique of the category of “women.” The history of the word “woman” teaches us how the categories that secure personhood are bound up with a history of ownership: “woman” is derived from a compound of wif (wife) and man (human being); woman as wife-man also suggesting woman as female servant. The history of woman is impossible to disentangle from the history of wife: the female human as not only in relation to man but as for man (woman as there for, and therefore, being for).  We can make sense of Monique Wittig’s (1992) audacious statement “lesbians are not women.”  She argues lesbians are not women because “women” is being in relation to men: for Wittig, “women” is a heterosexual category, or a heterosexual injunction. Wittig calls the lesbian an “escapee” from this system.

[12] Those who are not at home, come to know categories more intimately, which is why some of the most important work on gender, sex and sexuality is coming out of trans studies. Can I also add that to dismiss “identity” and “emotions” as somehow immaterial relative to “sex” as “material” is to forget so much previous feminist work. I have even heard a gender critical feminist say she doesn’t believe in gender because she is a materialist!  I am tempted to quote here from Marx on matter and labour but I won’t.  There is a huge and important literature that teaches how emotions, how we feel in relation to objects and others, are physical and embodied as well as being about judgment or cognition; how we come to know about ourselves as well as worlds. If your body does not feel right, if you feel wrong, it takes a huge amount of work, a difficult transition, to get to a point to where things feel right. I am myself a cis woman, but I have learning so much from trans people’s accounts of transition and of the emotional and physical nature of this process. On what it means to feel wrong, or in thinking about how wrong feels, it is hard not to think of my own experience of heterosexuality. I remember the work it took, how long it took, to let my bodily feeling “this is wrong,” however powerful and palpable that feeling was, to lead me to change my situation. Sometimes feelings can be traumatic, because you realize from them just how much you have to do to rearrange yourself, your life, so you can breathe, even if there is joy and hope and possibility in that rearrangement. To dismiss other people’s feelings about gender as immaterial, as I have heard people do, is deeply unethical. I can’t breathe in this version of feminism.

[13] Please also consult with the incredibly rich domain of feminist science studies. For an article that reviews the “critical history of sex” with reference to feminist science studies see Sanz (2007).

[14] Of course there is a lot of confusion about categories as the same categories are being used differently by different people.  For example gender now tends to be used on equal opportunities forms rather than sex – I think gender is used almost like polite speech. But to make clear distinctions when in everyday life those distinctions are unclear would be to remove ourselves from everyday life. Yes, we can make provisional definitions, but these are working definitions: we use them to do certain work; we have to keep working on them. We have to keep working things through because or when they are messy.

[15] Gender and sexuality are not the same thing but neither can they be separated. What Adrienne Rich (1993) called “compulsory heterosexuality” is also a gender system (we could call this system hetero-gender); it rested on ideas about what men and women were like and could be. The implications for our activism ought to be obvious.

[16] These paragraphs are from the section “Refusing Instructions.” Citations for the material in this section are listed in What’s the Use: On the Uses of Use.

[17] Anyone who knows the history of sexology will know about these confusions, many early and varied  categories such as that of “inversion” rested upon them (if a person wanted someone of the same sex, that was because they must really be the other sex or if a person wanted to be the other sex, that was really because they wanted the same sex).


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