by Sara Ahmed
Duke University Press
Published September 2021
Seventeen thousand people have lost their jobs at Australian universities in the past eighteen months. Before it happened, we in the sector viewed the prospect of such an outcome as intolerable: a Rubicon we would never allow to be crossed. So we responded: attendance at union meetings swelled into the hundreds; large demonstrations and protests were violently suppressed by police; the university’s underclass of casuals and other precarious workers, normally atomised, worked to build a national organisation for Casualised, Unemployed and Precarious University Workers (CUPUW); and campaigns gained the attention of mainstream media and triggered formal inquiries into wage theft.
But we teach ourselves all the time to tolerate things once deemed intolerable. I’m often alarmed at the speed with which I metabolise new shocks, skipping over grief and heading straight to acceptance. This year, in particular, I have learned to live with less and less. New losses in the university sector wash over me and, as I grow depleted, I turn to conserving my energy, getting a little more selective about what I allow myself to be outraged about. In this, I am imitating many of my peers and colleagues. That’s academia for you, we sigh. Recessions happen. It’s to be expected. Sometimes I feel like a drowning swimmer, with all the fight gone out of me – washed away by an overwhelming tide.
Sara Ahmed’s Complaint! is an antidote to apathy. The book focuses on the tangle of testimonies Ahmed gleaned over a twenty-month period from ‘forty students, academics, researchers and administrators who had been involved in some way in a formal complaint process’. Using these interviews, Ahmed offers readers a slow and careful ‘phenomenology of the institution’: an account of how and why the same place, the same moment, the same door, can feel impossibly narrow, closed off or oppressive to one person, but to another feel like nothing at all. I am fascinated, as is Ahmed, by this gap, which causes some of us inside the university to wave, while others drown.
Complaint! is narrower in focus than the broader crisis facing higher education institutions. Ahmed’s work is interested in deconstructing abstractions. Having previously turned her attention to the politics of ‘use’, the goal of Complaint! is to ‘offer a full and feminist account of the politics of complaint’. Reading this book now, however, I feel that Ahmed speaks to the broader increasing tendency towards institutional fatalism, which ‘tells you that institutions are what they are such that there is no point trying to change them’. She reminds us that fatalism is a choice and that to choose fatalism is to take a side. At their best, then, complaints function as refusals to do business as usual.
I could be safely characterised as a university simp. I have been a hanger-on at my university for nine years now, undertaking various degrees, unable to keep away from campus. I still go there for drives, even though a Public Health Order currently has me banned from entering any buildings. Last night, I dreamed vividly of making my way through Fisher Library. Today, I fondled some books and tears filled my eyes when I realised that the longest positive, stable relationship I have had is with the University.
Because I am the ideal audience for Complaint!, I can see that Ahmed, in choosing to follow the trajectory of largely unconnected complaints – most of which, cannily or uncannily, follow the same invisible script – has tapped into the veins of the modern university. The book resonated in big and small ways. I felt in my bones Ahmed’s discussion of the way young, female, academics of colour find themselves locked in a game of chicken against their often white, male peers, picking up the administrative or teaching slack because they care more, causing them to fall behind on more highly-valued metrics like publications. Ahmed discusses the punitive grading criteria applied to work that discusses topics like race or gender and how gatekeepers obstruct the career progression of scholars from non-traditional backgrounds. She describes an incident where an on-campus mixed-gender knitting club was taken as a sign of subversion, on the grounds that it was attempting to create a women’s space. I laughed, having disagreed with a male colleague about this exact phenomenon only days before.
Ahmed is therefore correct that studying complaint supplies insight into how the university works as a modern institution. It allows us to peer into its mechanical guts. One of her key concepts is the non-performative: the gap, in universities, between what is said or codified in policy and what is done. In other words, the gap between how universities claim they work and how they actually work. The non-performative refers to ‘institutional speech acts that do not bring into effect what they name’. Ahmed identifies the non-performative in complaints and grievance policies that do not exist to be enforced. Many complainers learn the hard way which rights are not meant to be sought – the ones that only the naïve, entitled or overly credulous would seek. These include policies against sexual harassment, discrimination, or even the rights to job security and to be paid for all work done.
Then there are those policies that are treated as evidence that they have legislated into non-existence issues that they are in fact meant to supply a roadmap for rectifying. Ahmed writes that ‘many organisations respond by pointing to their own policies as if having a policy against something is evidence it does not exist’. She notes that ‘creating a new policy to deal with a problem becomes another way of avoiding that problem.’ It strikes me that these insights and others are both particular to universities and not. I see them replicated across other institutions, including militaries and churches. The proposition is that a new leaf, once turned over, renders all existing problems ‘historical’, and any future problems become impossible, because the problem has already been fixed by a souped-up grievance procedure, a fresh awareness of race, a new zero-tolerance policy or a cultural reset.
To that end, although Ahmed limits her scope to the functioning of the university as an institution, I see echoes of the mechanics of multiple others. The employment lawyers I know, for example, often lament the issue of ‘out-of-time complaints’, which Ahmed discusses in the university context. For example, Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman requires that any unfair dismissal claim must be lodged within 21 days. The effect – and possible purpose – of such policies is to limit individuals’ access to redress. Many colonial and carceral institutions also make strategic use of inefficiency by losing, withholding, misdirecting or destroying evidence, allowing emails and phone calls to go unanswered, and grievances to swell.
It becomes difficult sometimes to understand why Ahmed limits her focus to higher education, when the book also speaks beyond the sector. But the work insists on this particularism. Complaints, Ahmed argues, are generated by their contexts. Therefore, to study complaint is to reveal the workings, and make visible the contours, of the institution. Ahmed approaches institutions as immanent: they are reproduced moment to moment. This understanding opens up space to consider how they may be altered or interrupted in the same breath. Ahmed argues that complaints possess a destructive quality: they are a metaphorical loose cannon, a scattergun, a boat that is either rocking or about to be subsumed by waves. They therefore hold non-reproductive power: complaints can cause institutions not to be reproduced.
The metaphor of the societal interloper as un-regenerating – a source of death and infertility – runs through the work of queer theorists, and it applies here. I think of the times I have complained; I think of the complainers, moaners and whiners I know. And I know that what we have in common is that, in those moments, we have caused something to halt. We have interrupted the fun, fecund, sexy flow of the moment. Ahmed notes that complainers are often deemed nags and hags: the two key categories of unfuckable person. She shows that some individuals by their very existence are registered as complaints: to exist as a disabled person in an inaccessible space, for example, or as an unsmiling woman, is to emerge as a complainer, without doing anything in particular. I remember distinctly being at a conference at the Australian Defence Force Academy in 2015, sitting around a table with my colleagues and two ADFA cadets I had just met. The evening had passed well: I had shared many laughs with friends, even spoken briefly with the two cadets. At some point in the evening, one of them, turning to the other, made a joke I can’t remember, although I seem to recall it was about rape. I made sure to keep my expression stoic and turn my gaze away. Later in the evening, the joker leaned down towards me, and said in a low murmur meant just for me: ‘You know, women like you need to be really careful.’
Women like me, in those moments, are deemed neither fun nor frisky. For the crime of not laughing, we are rendered frigid and humourless. Ahmed therefore rightly identifies complainers as one face of the feminist killjoy.
These insights help to quell my fear that is it not always immediately apparent what is political about complaint. After all, as Ahmed identifies, complaints are often made by perpetrators just as readily as victims. We live in an age where language no longer feels sufficient. Like the language of social justice, the language of victimhood is endlessly co-opted, recombined and re-purposed by individuals adept at DARVO. As Ahmed notes, although race and gender scholars are deemed complainers, they are more likely to receive complaints against them. This issue is most pronounced when complaints emphasise hurt feelings rather than pointing at material power relations. I think of the case where a union was penalised for publishing a poster identifying employees who worked during a strike action as scabs, making it a more serious offence to call someone a scab than to be a scab.
It is not always correct to side with the complainer. The phenomenon of the Karen has taught us that complaints can be frivolous or even violent attempts to leverage the power of the state against the less powerful. On the other hand, this discourse is itself weaponised against legitimate complainers: inside the university, Ahmed notes, complainers are often deemed entitled or neoliberal. They are often captured by the archetype of the student who offers negative course feedback because they think of themselves as a customer and the university as a corporation; or the latte-sipping middle-class girlboss who complains about sexism to clear a path for her own career. The issue is complicated by the fact that those who ‘have the least need to complain are those who can most afford to complain, and those who have the most need to complain are those who can least afford to complain’. Often, the power to define the legitimate complainer as illegitimate is held by those who are themselves more likely to complain in a cynical way. Complaint is a hallway of mirrors.
A distinction should be drawn, then, between those for whom complaint is a sacrifice – an interruption to one’s career, an alienation of one’s colleagues and friends, a risk to one’s safety and security, a possible final act before one is driven out of an institution entirely – and those for whom complaint is a shield. No obvious way for drawing such a distinction exists, however, and I am of the belief that the identity of the complainer is rarely a good litmus test. As Ahmed notes, a black male academic can make a complaint about a victim in order to get ahead of his own behaviour. Indeed, I am personally aware of men of colour who are careful to pre-empt all critique as instances of racism. Although I empathised with the negative experiences of a female head of department described by Ahmed, I am reticent to take seriously all complaints proffered by minorities who hold power in the institution. In the modern university, I know that the direction of power flows as follows: from management down to the rest of us. In fact, the majority of queer, people of colour and women live down here: this I know, and I am inclined to use it as my guide for appraising complaints.
Institutions perpetuate themselves and, being geared towards their own reproduction, they make it so that the incentives to complain are few, especially for those of us who want a future in the academy. This is a world in which many of us long for a place. Much of my time in the academy has been spent yearning: for recognition, a slot, a spot, a seat, one of those good jobs. When I fondled those books, I was yearning. When I had my first article accepted for publication, I was yearning. A key affective dimension of the phenomenology of the institution, I think, is this experience of longing: to traverse that gap, to experience the institution as we perceive others do, to cross over into that space of plenitude. Ahmed captures this sensation through the metaphor of the academic who knocks at the door; she wants to come in, but she needs to be let in. Part of me wonders – as does Complaint! – why are we knocking at the door and not burning down the building?
Ahmed has the credentials to grapple with this question. In fact, they outstrip most, given her principled resignation from her academic post as Professor of Race and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths in 2016, following the inadequate handling of sexual harassment complaints inside her department. The question is a vexed one precisely because the things we are told we need to do ‘to progress further in a system’ are the things that themselves reproduce that system: like not complaining. To complain is to attempt to re-purpose a space, interrupt its regular use, and make it newly fit to be inhabited by the likes of the complainer. But the spaces we are trying to re-make also try to re-make us.
As Professor Chelsea Watego states in an article published with Dr Bryan Mukandi, ‘I’m not sure it is a defiant gesture to insist upon occupying the [white] spaces that they claim are exclusively theirs, particularly if the entry fee requires one to think and act just like them.’ However, the authors reject the proposition that the only options available to the Black academic are to be white, or to disappear. Simply exiting the space is not a satisfactory solution for many – if you leave, you have been driven out, refused your right to be a knower. Watego quotes the advice she received from a senior Indigenous scholar: ‘Once you accept that they will never accept you – you will be free.’ She continues: ‘It is not the truth about Blackness as much as it is the truth about the limitations of The Academy, what it is incapable of seeing, that sets us free.’
In light of these tensions, I am torn between being the complainer and keeping my mouth shut and my head down. Ahmed identifies the multiple situations in which we might not have it in us to complain. Some days, the fight leaves me: I am capable only of treating this as just a job and am not prepared to give my entire self to the institution, so I don my job-mask. Ahmed writes: ‘There is only so much you can take on because there is only so much you can take in.’ She has spoken to many people who have chosen not to complain in a particular instance, opting instead to act as if everything is fine and powering through. ‘If to admit something makes it real, then to admit something can feel like becoming your own killjoy, getting in the way of your own progression.’
Many of us have developed high tolerances, learning to exist with a ‘known quantity’ of aggrievement, which is taken as inevitable. I am reminded of a statement my parents would echo to me when I complained or cried as a child (independently of each other: it was a position they arrived at through parallel life experiences): you can’t complain about everything every second of the day. If I sat down, I’d never get up. If I started complaining, I’d never stop. Although I don’t necessarily endorse this as a parenting strategy, I understand how this inertia around complaint sets in, particularly for those who are aggrieved on a daily basis. Some days, I can’t be bothered being the arsehole. I just want to have a little fun, be the libertine for once, so I skip an organising meeting, or let an Islamophobic comment wash over me, throw it off with a small chuckle, because I’m headed to the pub, and must I care?
But Ahmed is correct when she argues that we need complainers. I think of the unionists and organisers I know who are regularly identified as loudmouths, or big personalities who never seem to respect allotted speaking times and who send too many emails or are deemed far too pushy – somehow crude for an academic. Their annoyingness, though, I find myself arguing, is what we need: witnessing their passion drives me, vivifies me – in contrast to the passionless paper-pushing PowerPoint-presenting approach of others. In risking social marginalisation by whining, they help push us left: if the sensible centrists weren’t subjected to endless critique, they would get away with a lot more.
The labour of the complainer, then, while often deemed self-serving, is a collective labour, in two ways, and this I found to be the most nourishing argument in Complaint!. The first is that complainers can open the space for the rest of us. If a few of us each take a turn at scratching at the door, then we mark its surface, creating the possibility of a new inheritance for the institution, a more faithful one. Ahmed closes the book with the words, ‘a complaint can open a door for those who came before’.
The second is that complainers help to foster an experience of collectivity in a context which routinely lacks it. Those institutional doors, as Ahmed observes, atomise the workers and students who comprise the modern University: they silo them away, keep them from being aware of who else might be inhabiting their same building, their same floor. The book’s seventh chapter is co-written by a complaint collective – Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, Alice Corble, Heidi Hasbrouck, Chryssa Sdrolia, and others. In complaining, the authors argue, they found each other. They discuss the impetus placed on complainers to identify their complaints rather than submitting them anonymously or as a class. In an institutional context where the key means of ‘knowing’ complaint is through the unit of the individual, to complain means to become a collective. The chapter, written in the first-person plural, resists this atomising tendency, providing a pathway into collectivity.
I remember the last time I made a complaint, a few years ago now. I was asked to attend an event with a man whom I quickly identified, throughout the course of an uncertain phone call, as an unsafe person. When the organiser asked if I was willing to come out with my complaint, I declined. ‘Well, then,’ they said. ‘Since you’re the one with the problem …’ When you’re the one with the problem, the solution, in other words, is that you fuck off, and fuck off I did. The potent reminder that Ahmed offers is that we are not the ones with the problem, that a number of voices raised up in complaint can help identify that the problem lies elsewhere.
Mukandi, Bryan, and Chelsea Bond. “‘Good in the Hood’ or ‘Burn It Down’? Reconciling Black Presence in the Academy.” Journal of Intercultural Studies 40, no. 2 (March 4, 2019): 254–68.