FeministKillJoys | killing joy as a world making project
My name is Sara Ahmed, and this is my research blog. I am a feminist killjoy. It is what I do. It is how I think. It is my philosophy and my politics. My research is concerned with how bodies and worlds take shape; and how power is secured and challenged in everyday life worlds as well as institutional cultures.
I am talking to a woman of colour about the racism she has experienced in her academic career thus far. She has a lot to share. The more experiences you have, the more you have to share. She talks about two instances in which she is identified as having “a chip on her shoulder.” This expression “chip on her shoulder” has come up often in my data: it can be used to imply that the one who complains does so because she is bitter, that her grievance is really a grudge.
Chip, chip; chip: if we keep chipping away at the old block it is not surprising they keep finding the chips on our shoulders. What is most unsurprising is often what is most hard.
In the first instance she is told she has a “chip on her shoulder” by the head of human resources. It was during a meeting to discuss a complaint she had submitted about racism, bullying and misogyny in her department. She had collected testimonies from around 20 people; the complaint was a collective. She describes: “they treated the submission as an act of arrogance on my part.” It is as if she put a complaint forward as a way of putting herself forward; a complaint is often treated as self-promotional. I have shared her experience in previous posts. Her account has taught me a lot about how those who complain are dismissed and how this dismissal can rehearse the problem that the complaint is trying to address: for instance, how women of colour are often positioned as embittered (or even envious), as if we are talking about racism because we are sore or as if we are projecting a personal failure onto a system. It is a form of racism to say that racism does not exist. We can know this, but still have to deal with the consequences of this.
She talked to me about another occasion in which this expression is used. Here the setting is more familiar; it her familiar. It is an academic setting. She is giving a paper on the emotional labour of diversity work. It can be exhausting to talk about what is exhausting. We often do what we do to make sense of what we do. A white feminist academic in the audience responds in a hostile manner saying she had “a chip on her shoulder.” If making complaints can take you into meetings with human resources, what you encounter there is often the same thing you have already encountered in academic settings.
Talking about racism means dealing with the racism articulated in response to what you are talking about. Which also means: you end up doing more emotional labour the more you talk about doing emotional labour. The labour of dealing with racism is not only about dealing with those who articulate racist views or who respond in a hostile way because you are talking about racism. That labour is often performed in relation to many others, including those around you who you might have expected to be more sympathetic. In this case, she had to perform that labour in responding to two white academics she understood to be her friends. They were also her white allies: in their academic work they both offered critical perspectives on race. She has reasons to expect them to “get it,” to have understood what had gone on, and to give her support. “Getting it” is important to solidarity work – so many experiences are made harder if other people do not, cannot, or will not “get it,” get what is going on. She said that although her white friends and allies had heard what had been said; they “could not recognise it.” Often non-recognition works by giving explanations for something in such a way that what is explained is explained away. An explanation can be saying: away! Go away! They say: “she got wrong-footed;” “she didn’t understand;” “we like her.” Wrong footed is used to imply the white woman who had just made a muddle of her words. Racism is often heard as an error message, as inexpressive or as not expressing how things are: what a person is like; what an institution is like. Their friendship with a white woman (“we like her”) stops them from recognising the racism experienced by a woman of colour who is also their friend. She describes to me what she would have liked to say to them: “you’ve just witnessed somebody abuse somebody because they have expressed their experience of racism and your problem is you can’t hear what you’ve just heard.”
“We like her” as a statement of affection ends up being a performance: we like her; we are like her.
The white friend appears as a figure created through a relay of messages: her white friends cannot hear racism when it is expressed by their white friend. Perhaps they can hear racism when it is articulated by those who are further away: we might think of how critical often depends upon distance. I will return to the problem of critical white friends in due course. Hearing racism further away might be what enables them not to hear racism closer to home. The racism they cannot hear is then treated as if it is not there. She said: “they probably deleted it from their memory.” This deletion is what enables them to stay loyal to a white friend, to maintain an idea or investment of her as a good person who would not say or do what they are committed to opposing.
What else is being deleted? Who else is being deleted? We need to think of how she as a woman of colour she does not delete the experience from her memory; she is telling the story to me, after all, another woman of colour, who “gets it” because I have been there. We need each other if we are to live with what we get. And what some delete, others retain. We also retain the memory of the deletion. We know what we are being told: that out of loyalty, white allies can and do abandon us. Loyalty might be to a white friend, to a colleague, but can also work more abstractly as loyalty to some “we,” which might be a sensible “we,” a sense of shared project, or to an institution. Perhaps an institution too can be retained as a good thing, a warm and inclusive thing, through repeating and sharing such acts of deletion. (1)
We also learn: loyalty can be how some do not, or even will not, notice the violence that happens right in front of them. What else does loyalty stop us from noticing? Is loyalty how spaces are occupied by what and who is screened out? These questions will stay with me as I work through the material of complaint.
Even to use a word like racism is to be heard as complaining not only in the sense of being negative or mean but also in the sense of being self-promotional; a sore point as a point that is pushed. Racism is often directed all the more to those who complain all the more about racism. Racism is not just an idea about who is worth what or more, about how higher and lower become properties of persons organised into clear and distinct groups. Racism is how ideas are expressed in or through actions; how some try to make others smaller, less significant; less valued. This is why the judgement of getting above yourself, above your station, or ahead of yourself is so often racialised. Even talking about racism can be heard as making too much of yourself. (2)
In another instance a black woman has a meeting with a white colleague who has just become her new head of department. This colleague refers to the “history” between this black woman and a former head of department, another white woman. She says: “I want you to reconcile with her because after all she is my friend and colleague and all she ever did was write you some long emails.” Note how the former head of department is evoked possessively as colleague and friend (“my friend and colleague”). This white woman by expressing her desire for reconciliation (“I want you to reconcile with her”) is also offering an interpretation of events (“all she ever did is to write you some long emails”). As I noted in an earlier post on damage limitation, responses to harassment often work to minimise harrassment; when superficial solutions are offered a problem is treated as superficial. A key tactic for minimising harassment is to present harassment as a style of communication: long emails might be annoying, but the implication is that they are not harmful or serious (3). Harassment is often treated like a point of view shot: as what you can see from where you are located or because of where you are located; a way of interpreting a situation rather than being a situation. This is how harassment can disappear by being treated as a conflict between perspectives. This is also how to describe an experience as harassment can be deemed to become a harasser, as the one imposing your own perspective onto others.
It is important that the appeal is being made by a white woman on behalf of a friend and colleague; her white friend. This white friend enters the scenario as a figure, loaded with value and significance; she is appealing. Why is this figure so appealing? What work is she doing? What do learn from how and where and when she turns up?
It is not simply that the white woman is saying what she wants (“I want you to”). This expression of desire is also a management tactic: she is giving an instruction; she is telling a black woman, who is also a colleague (but importantly is not addressed as a colleague), what to do, and what to say. The work of reconciliation often falls upon those who have been harassed – she has to reconcile with her. Reconciliation is also restoration of a “we” premised on warm and fuzzy feelings of friendship and collegiality. The problem here is not simply that those who are harassed are expected to do the work of reconciling themselves to the situation they are in (to reconcile with her as reconciling yourself to a situation) although that problem is quite a problem given that the situation is the harassment (reconciliation with her as reconciling yourself to being harassed by her). Reconciliation does not just happen once you have reached a certain point in a longer sequence. Reconciliation is often there from the very beginning as an expectation or appeal. In other words, the expectation she will smooth things over or keep smoothing things over is how she is required to maintain a relationship that is damaging. An expression of desire for reconciliation might appear to be a friendly gesture. There is nothing friendly about this gesture. If she does not return the desire for reconciliation, if she is not willing to smooth things other, moving on, getting along, getting on, she becomes the one who has not only damaged a connection but refused to repair the damage. The perception of her as causing damage justifies and perpetuates the harassment.
Reconciliation can thus be a form of harassment. You can experience an expectation as a pressure (the press in pressure is that the same press as the press in oppression): to let it go, to let go, to get over it. I have been thinking about this too: how complaints are often deemed as what you are doing when you fail to be conciliatory, a word that can also mean being unfriendly; as if rather than complaining you could have just talked something through.
This is rather like that old multicultural fantasy: the fantasy that if only we could get closer we would be as one.
The expectation of reconciliation does not seem to lift at any point: it seems to be there all along. Many people have talked to me about the role of weak or empty apologies in the complaint process. In one case a professor makes an apology to a student who had lodged a complaint against him for bullying. His apology was unsolicited. But it was inserted into her complaint file in a way she experienced as deeply intrusive. An apology can be how somebody tries to pull themselves out of a critique or a complaint. An apology can be a form of self-justification as well as given as an instruction: I didn’t mean it! Move on! An apology can even be an extension of the behavior that someone is supposedly apologising for. She describes: “I think they thought I would accept it as a real apology. Reading it, it is not an apology. He did exactly the same thing he used to do in seminars…. I am just going to capitulate in such a tone that tells you that I don’t believe a word you are saying, therefore not giving you the respect of recognising that you might have a valid point.”
The person who apologises does not have to say what they are apologising for, or if they do say, they can do so in such a way that the problem is made slight or becomes about how someone is affected rather than what that person caused: you might apologise for hurting someone’s feeling, which rather conveniently make the hurt feelings the problem (as well as the obstacle to reconciliation) rather than the fact that you acted in a way that undermined another person. An apology in the case of bullying can be a form of bullying; you can be telling someone how little you think they are worth by appearing to concede in such a way that intonates that their complaint is not “a valid point.”
To appear to recognise your role in a problem can be how recognition is withdrawn.
When you are involved in complaint, you are often surrounded by weak and non-performative apologies. Perhaps one person can offer an apology as a way of asking another to “move on” because of what an apology does not require: any meaningful recognition of that person’s complicity in the violence the complaint was about. My own feeling is that apologies (as with other apparently “friendly” gestures) are so often used because they can be how some people maintain a fiction they acted in good faith despite the evidence of their role in bullying and harassment or in silencing complaints about bullying and harassment; in other words, apologies can allow people to get themselves out of doing the much harder work of recognising their own role in situations they are nevertheless able to identify as bullying and harassment.
An apology can make something and somebody seem small. Reconciliation (rather like harassment) is often about belittling: you try and make something be smaller than it is. To treat an injury as small is to treat a person as small. That treatment is also about who gets to be bigger, who is allowed to take up more space. You can end up being where you are judged to be: taking up less space because it is exhausting to be or stay in that space.
When the harassment is made small, the harasser can be treated as the injured party; if it is slight, they are the ones who have been slighted. This is why the white friend is evoked quickly as an injured party. What Gloria Wekker (2016) has called “white innocence” is central to the redirection of sympathy. We could think here of the role of white tears, expressions of hurt and grief that are often shared. Luvvie Ajayi offers a powerful and astute analysis of how white women’s tears are “weaponised,” tears can be used to “shield white women from consequences.” Ruby Hamad explores how “legitimate grievances of brown and black women are no match for the accusations of a white damsel in distress.” When white innocence becomes white injury, affection becomes instrumentalized. In order to maintain that innocence, that sense of injury, those who complain about racism become the real harassers; if they didn’t mean it, racial grievances are not only grudges they are mean.
Being mean is not simply a judgement one person makes about another. That judgement gets passed around; it becomes a rumour that spreads, information travels faster along the well-used paths of academic networks. The singularity of the white friend quickly becomes a collective; a network of feeling, did you hear, poor her, how mean! Whiteness can function as a wall of sympathy. It is not just that sympathy is extended by being restricted; how some are kind to those deemed of the same kind. The gesture of being sympathetic to a white friend is the same gesture as the gesture of being hostile to those who complain about racism. So many stories have been shared with me about this: how if you are involved in any way in a complaint about racism or racial harassment that implicates a colleague, other colleagues turn away from you; you are “dropped” from invites, removed from references and from the ordinary sociality that makes up so much of our professional lives.
Sympathy as removal.
It is the same gesture.
When a door is closed, the same door is being closed.
The affection between white friends is how racism is not heard, or if it heard, it can be how racism is either deleted or deflected as an injury to those accused. As Fiona Nicoll argues “The very idea of suggesting that someone might be racist has been elevated into a crime to rival (if not displace) racism itself” (2004, 20). The displacement of racism is the enactment of racism.
A white friend might explain how critical white subjects displace the racism in order not to recognise it; a white friend might be the one deemed hurt by an accusation of racism; a white friend can also be the one who expresses racism. A Muslim woman of colour describes such an experience:
I had a white friend who was also a colleague – we worked at the same university. We worked together, we helped each other. But there was a tension, an increasing tension. I felt it was about race, sometimes you just feel it. Anyway one time it really came to a head. She said something like: tell me what to think about Muslim women who wear the face veil. I struggled to answer, because I just wanted to say that was a totally inappropriate question, and then she told me what she thought, that she couldn’t meet their eyes, she couldn’t make that feminist sisterly connection. Eventually we stopped communicating. Later I saw one of her papers when it was published – she had removed references to my work. I actually checked the earlier version because I could not quite believe it! And that has happened with stuff since. You watch yourself be removed by someone who you had thought of as a friend. Now she writes on race: she is cited for her work on race.
Sometimes racism is a feeling of tension; you know it’s about race, even if you can’t quite put your finger on it. The tension can then come to a head, rather like a boil. The racism that is already there, just below the surface, blubbing away, is expressed (4). Her white friend seems to be asking a question of her and there is no doubt that “that question” is a problem: it is a problem to ask her Muslim friend what to think about what other Muslim women do. We are familiar with the problem: it is like when white teachers ask questions about race and their gaze keep landing on the one student of colour in an otherwise all white classroom. Oh how many times we have to squirm our way through and out of these loaded questions! To have to receive that question is how you are made responsible for it; a question as how race becomes about you, and how you become a question.
A question can be a load.
But even if that question is a problem a question is not really being asked. She is using a question (what should I think of Muslim women who wear the face veil?) in order to tell her friend what she thinks. Questions can be assertions in disguise. And what is being asserted? White feminist solidarity is asserted as a universal. White sisterhood becomes about meeting each other’s eyes; it becomes a demand that other women unveil in order to share a sense of sisterhood. Those women who do not participate in a white feminist universal become barriers; a barrier can be the concreteness of a difference. The requirement for friendship might be that women of colour participate in their universal. Participation might require putting aside our particulars, our differences; becoming available as a resource.
So many stories of racism are also stories about plagiarism; they are about the relative value given to different people but they are also about the appropriation of other people’s work. Perhaps white colleagues can make use of words by cutting those words off from bodies – it is easier to use the words, to make them appear as your words, when those who wrote them disappear. Or it might be that some white scholars despite their anti-racist scholarship (or even though their anti-racist scholarship?), have a sense of entitlement: a right to use or have something. Perhaps people of colour become data that can only be converted into theory, into capital, by a white academy. I suspect the figure of the white friend appears in different stories of removal and deletion because she operates from a sense of entitlement; it is about who is at home, who gets to be at home. If, as I noted earlier, persons of colour becomes more of a problem when they are closer to home, then critical white subjects who work on race might require scholars of colour they cite to be further away. Not all white people who do critical work on race act like this. But we need to learn from the fact that it is possible to do critical work on race and act like this.
Harassment can also be understood as hardening of that history, a history of entitlement, a colonial as well as patriarchal history, a history of who gets to do what; who is deemed entitled to what; who is deemed entitled to whom. These hard histories are not just out there; they are in here. They are not just about what happens in hostile institutions; they are about what happens in spaces we might otherwise experience as warm and intimate. A hard history can be between friends.
In the project I will be considering in much more detail the problem of how academic network operates as friendship networks. This problem can be about how academics call upon their friends to do certain kinds of work – from writing positive references or reviews of their work to supporting or defending them in harassment cases. It can also be about how friends are appointed into roles within departments; here a “friend” might refer not only to someone we know well but someone we imagine we could get know well. A “could be friend” is someone you could like, liking is often about likeness; a hire as about hiring those who are alike.
In future posts, I will offer a close up lens on racial harassment as a method of belittling. I have been glad to read important recent work on racial harassment as it operates within universities by Kalwant Bhopal, Nicola Rollack Shirley Anne Tate and Heidi Mirza.
It is worth noting that physical as well as verbal harassment can be presented as styles of communication For example, when a member of staff made a complaint after a head of department physically accosted her in a corridor he was described in the report (that cleared him of any wrong doing) as having a “direct style” of management. That description can also provide a justification of behavior: physical harassment as blunt speech. I will return to how physical and verbal forms of harassment are treated as styles of communication in future posts.
Thinking about complaint has led me to become interested in writing more about the sociality of expression – of how things “come out” or are squeezed out in the thickness of everyday worlds.
Bhopal, Kalwant. 2015. The Experience of Black and Minority Ethnic Academics. London: Routledge.
Mirza, Heidi .2017. “‘One in a Million’: A Journey of a Post-Colonial Woman of Colour in the White Academy’ in Deborah Gabriel and Shirley Anne Tate eds. Inside the Ivory Tower: Narratives of Women of Colour Surviving and Thriving in British Academia. London: UCL press, 39-53.
Nicoll, Fiona (2004) “’Are you calling me a racist?’: Teaching Critical Whiteness Theory in Indigenous Sovereignty,” borderlands, 3.2.
Tate, Shirley (2017). “How do you feel? Well-Being as a Deracinated Strategic Goal in UK Universities,” in Gabriel, Deborah and Shirley Anne Tate. 2017. eds. Inside the Ivory Tower: Narratives of Women of Colour Surviving and Thriving in British Academia. London: UCL press. 54-66.
Wekker, Gloria 2016. White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
We learn about institutions by learning how complaints are stopped. In an earlier post I discussed how complaints can be stopped by the use of warnings. Warnings articulate a no, don’t go there. Warnings are useful because they make suggestions about an appropriate course of action with reference not to abstract rules about rights or wrongs but to a person’s own health and safety. A warning can be saying: if you make a complaint you will endanger yourself or your career. In this post, I want to explore how complaints can also be stopped by a yes. That yes is not necessarily saying, yes go there or yes do that. So: what is that yes saying? Or what is that yes doing?
Questions can be inheritances: I ask these questions because of what I have been hearing from those who have made or tried to make formal complaints. One student makes a complaint about harassment from other students. She describes what happened when she talked to her head of department: “He seemed to take it on board, he was listening; he was nodding. Ten days later I still had not heard anything. A space of limbo opened up.” It is striking to me how a limbo is described as a space: you make a complaint and that is where you end up; a limbo as what is opened up. To be in limbo is to be left waiting. I am interested in what the head of department is doing by nodding. Nodding is not the only thing happening. But nodding is how the head of department is communicating that he is listening; nodding as taking (or seeming to take) something on board. If she feels heard she does not then hear anything. She has to do what many who make complaints have to do: follow it up; send reminders; prompts. When you don’t hear anything you have more work to do.
Many of those I have talked to about making complaints have talked about nodding. Nods seem to surround complaints. We learn from our surroundings. A nod is when you move your head up and down, often several times, to show an agreement, approval or a greeting. That a head is doing something by moving reminds us that heads are parts of a body; a nod is a bodily gesture or how a body gestures. The movement of a head up and down seems to be telling the one who is giving the complaint that their complaint is not only being received but is being received well. What we are left with is often how we can understand something: if you feel encouraged perhaps that is what nodding is doing: nodding as encouraging.
This post is a proposition: we can think of nodding as non-performative, which is not to say this is the only way we can think about nodding. Thus far I have used the category of “non-performative” primarily to refer to institutional speech acts that do not bring into effect what they name (1). I introduced the term “non-performative” as a kind of counter-claim: I was trying to counter a claim that institutional speech acts are performatives that I could hear in how statements of commitments were being used by organizations: as if saying “we are diverse” or we are “committed to diversity” is sufficient to bring something about. Diversity itself might function as a nod, a yes, yes, that does not require much movement at all. If a nod can operate in the realm of the non-performative, then bodies can be in on the act, that is, bodies too can appear to act. A nod can be made in order not to bring something into effect. A head does not even have to move for a nod to be performed. I want to think about nodding not only as a specific gesture but as how a yes is performed or enacted.
I spoke to an academic about how she came to a decision about whether to complain about the conduct of senior members of her university including heads of departments and a pro-vice chancellor around a table. She was the only women at that table. She describes how they were “talking about women’s bodies, what they look like, what they do to them as men, what they would do to them. Very sexual. Very sexist jokes. Very sexually overt conversations and I was sitting there as if I was not there.” It was a deeply distressing experience in part as she had assumed the organisation to be as progressive as it claimed to be. She took the matter up by speaking to another pro vice chancellor and the director of human resources: “I had a hearing …but I think it was just to placate me.” To placate is to calm or to sooth. Placate derives from the word please, to be agreeable. If a hearing functions to placate, then a hearing can be used to calm someone down by the appearance of receiving something or of being agreeable to something.
Being placated is another way a complaint is stopped. I wonder if a hearing is offered when a hearing is deemed sufficient to complete the action of complaint. When hearing about a problem is offered as a solution, a hearing becomes dissolution. When these senior managers did not do anything after hearing the complaint, and not doing is an action not simply inaction, she decided not to take the complaint any further.
It is important to think more about how a hearing can be a stoppage or part of a longer history of stoppages. Nodding seems often to be what you receive (or how you are received) in the early stages of a complaint process. Perhaps over time, nods wear out. We often learn how things work by how they are wearing. One academic indicated that she intended to make a formal complaint about bullying and harassment by another academic. Initially, she is met with sympathetic responses. She describes the “initial sympathy and concern from various offices and individuals” as “largely rhetorical.” She is implying that the sympathy can be given because it is empty; words can be said because of what they do not do. This is not to say that sympathy is not doing something (2). We can learn what sympathy is doing by how sympathy is withdrawn.
When she persists with making a formal complaint, she is received less sympathetically. She describes “the more insistent I was on filing a formal complaint, the more resistant the institution was to addressing my concern; confidential, informal mediation was strongly preferred, because it involves neither fact-finding nor fault-finding.” Formal complaints I have noted in earlier posts are data rich; the complainer is required to gather evidence to support the complaint. In this case, the data included information about bullying and harassment by another member of faculty who was highly valued. To move forward to a formal complaint is to present that data. She notes “On multiple occasions, someone who had initially seemed to be supportive withdrew support or concern–after I had shared sensitive information.” Sympathy is withdrawn, no more nodding, as an institutional resistance to receiving “sensitive information.” I am interested in how data is sensitive; how data can touch an institutional nerve. If a yes does not lead to a withdrawal of your no (a nod as a yes to no), a no returns (no nod as no to no).
Perhaps we can think of nodding as a way of creating an atmosphere. I talked to two students about their experience of making a formal complaint about harassment in their former department. I referred to their testimony in my post, Strategic Inefficiency: they showed me how some complaints are not recorded properly (a process as a bumbling along), and how not recording a complaint is a way of not treating a complaint as a complaint:
Student 1: They didn’t record it or take any notes. I think there were one or two lines written.
Student 2: It was very odd.
Student 1: You did feel it was a kind of cosy chat.
Student 2: Very odd; very odd.
Student 1: They were sort of wrapping the conversation up, because it had gone on, and I said this is us making a formal complaint and there was shift in the atmosphere. And I said we do want to follow it up as a complaint.
Informality can be used as a way of setting a tone; it can be a way of trying to discourage the formality of a complaint. To turn a complaint into a casual conversation is to try to wrap it up. Maybe a nod can be thought of as a way of wrapping up a conversation. If so, then: positive intonation can be an instrument. You can conduct a conversation as a “cosy chat” to stop what is deemed negative (those who are deemed negative) from getting out or getting through. A nodding might also be accompanied by smiling. A nod can be an attempt to transfer a positive feeling to the complaint or to a complainer. No wonder then: a complaint is a killjoy genre. Those who persist with making a complaint ruin the cosy atmosphere (“there was a shift in the atmosphere”). If you persist with a complaint you become an affect alien: you have failed to be affected in the right way.
It is important to think more about how nods and yeses are performed among a wider community of actors; a yes is not just delivered from one person to another. A yes can be relayed between persons. One academic described a number of failed attempts to get her complaints about harassment and bullying taken seriously. In her last attempt, she feels more hopeful because her complaint is received with the same sense in which it is made, that is, with a sense of urgency. When hearing the complaint, a member of human resources says yes: “yes you really have a case we can explore and investigate: how you would feel coming back to talk to our director later today?” On the same day she talks to the director of human resources: “I felt really supported by him.” She notes that “he also said this isn’t the first complaint like this he’d heard within the institution and that he’d heard similar complaints within our division.” The director of human resources is telling her that her complaint is not the first complaint: if there are similar complaints, there are similar problems. So she has reason to believe that they are going to take the complaint, and her, more seriously. She is told that the diversity and equity office will follow it up: “he said that she said she would follow up with me to have further conversations because they wanted to further investigate this.” Through these conversations, which include conversations about conversations, she feels encouraged: “I thought this is great, this is already moving faster than my process here, this is great; this is awesome.” But then: she does not receive any more communications: “Not even a response to an email, not even I have got your email I am looking into it. Nothing. Nothing.”
A yes can be how you end up with nothing. Nothing can be what is being achieved by nodding.
An academic brings a complaint to her line manager about how her university handled her sick leave, which turned into a grievance about how she had been treated by her university. She notices how her line manager kept saying yes: “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 that yes to bring something about.
Yes saying can be understood as management technique. She describes this technique as magical: “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 can be what is being achieved; to be left with a sense you are getting somewhere is how you end up not getting anywhere. A nod can be an attempt to extinguish a fire, to calm as to cool things down. A yes can stop a complaint from progressing by diffusing the energy of the one who complains.
We learn how you can manage complaints by managing where they are expressed. Perhaps we are allowed to say no when that no has nowhere to go.
Another academic describes what followed when students lodged a complaint about the behaviour of professors at research events. A meeting is set up: “they said they would have an open meeting but it was just about calming [the students] down.” It is worth noting here that the meeting is set up by the same professors the students are complaining about. Often who receives the complaint is enough to explain how it will be received. An open meeting appears to be a chance for the students to express themselves – to present their complaint. We are back to sensitive data. You can allow a complaint to be expressed in order to contain the complaint. I think of this mechanism as institutional venting. Venting is used as technique of preventing something more explosive from happening. Once the students have vented their frustrations, once they have got complaint out of their system, the complaint is out of the system. The mechanism is rather like a pressure relief valve, which lets off enough pressure so that it does not build up and cause an explosion. Or a complaint can be thought of as steam: puff, puff. In being let out, it disappears. A hearing can be a disappearing; we are back to those magic tricks; puff, puff.
Of course sometimes we need to create spaces to vent our frustrations because of how much we are required to contain ourselves (3). We might need to vent in order not to explode because frankly we have work to do and it is hard to work and explode at the same time. We let it out so we can get about. What we need to do to survive the institutions we are trying to transform can be useful to those who are trying to stop us from transforming institutions. We can know this and still need to vent about this.
How complaints are received has something to tell us about why complaints are made in the first place. Complaints are immanent: they are about what we are in. I will be unpacking the significance of immanence as I work through and with these materials. A complaint archive is fragile; it is an archive to which I have a duty of care.
And I too am in it: I am writing and speaking about what I am in. One time I gave a lecture that included a discussion of nodding as a non-performative. The lecture was funded centrally so there were a number of senior managers in attendance. They were seated toward the front of the lecture theater. Afterwards some students came up to me (thank you to all the students who come up to me!). They had been seated behind the senior managers. The students observed that the senior managers had been nodding throughout my lecture including nodding during my discussion of nodding. If you are nodding about nodding, you are still nodding; an affirmative hearing can reproduce the problem of the affirmative. The students were at the tail end of a long and difficult complaint. And they told me that the management had enacted the same tactics that I was describing in the lecture. So what then is that nodding doing? Perhaps a nod can be about a public performance; it can be about being seen as giving an approval. A public nod can be made because it can be easily withdrawn when you are behind closed doors, which is where complaints are mostly made. If nods can be withdrawn in time they can also be withdrawn in space.
Nodding can be about recognising a problem insofar as the problem is safely construed as being somewhere else or as coming from someone else. In other words nodding can be a way of not recognising one’s implication in a problem at the very moment that the problem is recognised. You can nod if a paper is heard as addressing a problem located elsewhere; we are back to the nod as a container of expression. A nod can be how a problem is enacted by the appearance of being heard. (4) And we really need to think about how difficult this experience is and would be: to witness a public nod, the appearance of being supportive, by those who are trying to stop you from taking a complaint forward, those who are trying to bully you out of a complaint. Many of those I have spoken to have versions of this difficulty: minding the gap between what is supposed to happen and what does happen is often about learning what public nods are used to conceal. When those who appear supportive in public are not supportive behind closed doors it can be extremely alienating. Because when a nod is performed well, it does not even appear as a performance; you know that others, those who are not where you are, doing what you are doing, not witnessing what is happening behind closed doors, might be convinced. You know that a nod might be convincing because of a story it can be used to tell; you know that some peers might want to be convinced, to find in the nod, a reason for hope, a reason not to give up on an idea of the institution as being warm and inclusive.
There can be many reasons for nods. I have by no means exhausted what nods do or can do. We can nod in encouragement when we sense someone is feeling nervous. We can catch someone else’s nod as a way of being affected by their encouragement. Nodding can be how are caught up in what is shared. If a nod can be an instrument, we learn that affection and instrumentality are not separate domains. When are trying to understand how power works, through listening to those who are trying to challenge how power works, it is important to keep this in mind. Power is not always being asserted by the uses of rods or other technologies that more obviously indicate coercion; we are not always facing the scowl of disapproval. A nod, a smile, an appeal to your loyalty and affections: these too can be methods used to try to stop someone from complaining, which is also about trying to contain the data of that complaint. It is the data that is explosive. I will talk more about explosive data in future posts. We need more explosions.
If the nod is withdrawn when you go ahead with a complaint, you are learning about the conditions in which you were given a sympathetic hearing. Those who complain often come to witness retrospectively how the sympathy they had previously been given was conditional on what they were willing not to do. Those who go ahead with formal complaints are thus teaching me so much about the conditions of sympathy.
Butler, Judith (1993). Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge.
I am adapting Judith Butler’s definition of performativity: “those speech acts that bring about what they name” (1993, 225).
Non-performatives too are doing something. Working on the uses of use has helped me to articulate just what they are doing. One of my examples of a non-performative is a new diversity policy that came into existence without coming into use. When the new policy does not come into use despite being agreed, the existing policies remain in use; the action being performed is the maintenance of what already exists. Non-performatives are how an arrangement is continued despite or even through an agreement to modify that arrangement. As such non-performatives are doing the work of continuation; a continuation of an existing arrangement requires work, it is dependent on actions, when attempts to modify that arrangement are made. This is why diversity work teaches us about non-performatives.
I need to think more about the role of venting as a counter-institutional survival tactic. Thanks to Gavin Stevenson who asked me a great question about uses of venting in inter-personal relationships as well as Sisters Uncut who in a recent panel linked venting to safe spaces in a really striking and distinctive way.
Perhaps in being invited to speak from my research, I am receiving a nod, a nod can be a mask: as if to say, we hear you, which often can mean, look, look; watch us giving approval, watch us being supportive, see how committed we are to changing the culture of the institution! Invitations can often function as screens, that is, can be used as evidence of a commitment to changing the culture. I need to stay aware of this as a problem: however much I am trying to describe how commitments can be used as evidence I too can be used as evidence.
Diversity often takes institutional form as damage limitation.
This is a claim I make in Living a Feminist Life (2017). I want in this post to expand on what I mean by diversity as damage limitation as well as to show how university responses to complaints about racial and sexual harassment often take this form. I want to deepen some of my past analyses of damage limitation to consider how such activities go beyond official responses to complaints to include a wider set of activities, some of which are understood in positive terms, as being about collegiality and loyalty.
In the final chapter, “Speaking about Racism” of my book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity as Institutional Life (2012), I explored how diversity works as public relations, that is, how diversity offers a way of managing the relation between the university and wider publics often through presenting “the best image” of itself. Public relations is often about the handling of crises; think of how the expression “public relations disaster,” works to present problems in terms of their impact on the image or reputation of an organisation. To say that diversity is used as public relations is to imply that diversity is often mobilised in response or as a response to a problem. In that chapter I referred to two key instances, when universities responded to allegations of racism. It is interesting for me to revisit these instances in light of my research into experiences of complaint.
In one example, students experience racism on campus and report that they felt “there were no real channels for complaint.” The university responds by contradicting the students complaints: ‘This could not be further from the truth. The college prides itself on its levels of pastoral care.’“ The response not only contradicts the students’ claims (“nothing could be further from the truth”) but also functions to promote or assert the good will of the college. It is striking how “pastoral care” is evoked caring for students, but also creates an idea of the organization as “being caring.” Pastoral care is tied to an organizational ideal as being good: we do not have a problem (with racism, with responding to those who experience racism?) because we care for these students. To respond to a claim that there are no proper channels of complaint by saying that there are proper channels of complaint is to show how the channels are blocked. The response to the complaint enacts the very problem that the complaint is about. The response that we don’t have a problem is, in other words, a sign that there is a problem..
I also discussed another case in which a university responded to press coverage about it’s the lack of racial diversity on its campus, by making reference to its commitments to diversity: “we have just celebrated One World Week, which we tied in with Black History Month.” The response to a challenge about the lack of diversity of the university takes the form of a statement of how the university promotes diversity. Universities often treat whiteness as an image problem rather than an institutional problem, to change the whiteness of an image (for example by creating brochures showing smiling colourful faces) is how they do not modify the whiteness of the institution: change the image, keep the thing. Indeed in the same article the communications officer claims: “We don’t have a problem with racism here…we take a much more holistic approach, working with the community. But we don’t come at it as a way of tackling racism.” Statements such as “we don’t have a problem with racism” make those who report racism into the problem. Note also that the “holistic approach” of “working with the community” is explicitly linked to not coming at “it” as racism. Racism is not spoken about by those who speak for the university.
To change the whiteness of an image is still, I should add, work. Those who embody diversity, those of us of colour, have to appear more; and we have to appear in such a way, happy and smiling, that might be counter to how we experience the organization. Heidi Mirza describes how her university kept using her smiling face: “Visual images of ‘colourful’ happy faces are used to show the university has embraced difference. My happy face appeared on the front of the university website – even though every week I asked for it to be taken down, it still kept popping up” (2017, 44). Diversity work can also be the work you have to do not to appear smiling or even not to appear.
If you do not do what you are supposed to do or do not appear as you are supposed to appear, if you talk about racism, you are treated as damaging the organisation and as refusing to be grateful. We learn the conditions of inclusion from what happens to those who fail to meet the conditions. In another instance, a diversity officer for the centre that funded our research project (which was primarily about diversity and leadership in the FE sector), talked to a newspaper and used the words “institutional racism.” A newspaper report followed that quotes from the diversity officer about the existence of institutional racism within the sector. The director is “outraged” and sent off an email to all staff saying that “we would never accuse a college of institutional racism.” The concept of “institutional racism” was of course introduced to show how racism is reproduced through institutions rather than simply coming from the individuals. When institutional racism is talked about as an “accusation,” the institution is treated as if it was a person as if the institution is “the one” who is suffering a blow to its reputation. When racism is recognised as institutional, the institution is quickly psychologised.
Since I published On Being Included, there have been many comparable instances of universities responding to complaints about racism by making explicit use of diversity, that is, by pointing to diversity as evidence of what the institution is really like. These defensive uses of diversity are often made because information has been leaked to the press by those who have tried to make complaints about racism but have not got anywhere. This is how diversity ends up being used to deny racism; to promote an image of institutional inclusivity and happiness. By treating racism as causing damage to the organisations the damage caused by racism is not addressed. Damage limitation can also mean in practice: the failure to recognise the role of the institution in causing damage. Indeed damage limitation is often about the denial of the damage caused (“nothing could be further from the truth”). Leila Whitley (2017) has usefully identified the “displacement of harm” as central to how universities manage complaints about sexual harassment: the harm experienced by the person who experiences harassment is displaced by being treated as harm to the organisation. We are witnessing the displacement of damage from the person who makes the complaint to the institution that receives that complaint.
The term “damage limitation” is typically used to refer to the activity of limiting or containing the effects of an accident or error. When organisations make use of diversity as damage limitation, they are treating racism as incidental rather than structural, indeed, as an accident or error. Diversity is used as if such activities are true indicators of the nature of the institution. Importantly then superficial activities are treated as if they are revealing of something. I will return to the significance of the superficial nature of diversity (and other solutions) in due course. That One World Week can be used as evidence there is not a problem with racism teaches us how solutions can be problems given new form. In Living a Feminist Life (2017) I also described diversity as institutional polishing: a way of polishing the furniture so it can reflect back a good shiny version of the organisation. Or perhaps we could think of diversity as rather like a bad repair job. Diversity is the effort to fix a leak, treating the leak as the problem. And the work of repair or recovery can be understood as a covering over the damage caused, creating the right impression as the impression that things are all right. Even bad repair jobs can be successful. Perhaps you can only see the plaster – what has been plastered over- when you know how much there is to leak.
Complaints procedures can be used rather like diversity, as a way of fixing a leak, or as way of appearing to address a problem. One university’s complaints policy includes a section on the recording and monitoring of complaints. One bullet point is that complaints will: “assist in identifying problems and trends across the University.” The next bullet point is that complaints will: form “the basis of positive publicity, in demonstrating that identified issues have been resolved.” When complaints record a problem they can be quickly folded into a solution; a record of how universities have resolved something; resolution, dissolution. We learn from how solutions can be found before problems have even been identified. Damage limitation can thus refer to a system that is already in place, that is, damage limitation is a system for managing problems by managing them out of existence.
I noted earlier how diversity often works as a bad repair job, a superficial or surface-level activity that is given the status of depth, that is, used as evidence of what an organisation is really like. What is striking is how often complaints about harassment are treated as if they can be resolved in a superficial way, which I would argue, is a way of treating harassment as superficial. I spoke to an academic about her experiences as a student. She was assaulted by one of the lecturers in her department. With the help of the student union, she writes a letter detailing the assault. That letter would be considered the first stage of a formal complaint process if she went ahead with a formal complaint (she did not). Where does the letter go? It ends up with the Dean. And what does the Dean do? “The Dean basically told me I should sit down and have a cup of tea with this guy to sort it out.” So often a response to a complaint about harassment is to minimise harassment, as if what occurred is just a minor squabble between two parties, something that can sorted out by a cup of tea that English signifier of reconciliation. A complaint would become a failure, your failure, her failure, to resolve a situation more amicably. A complaint too can be handled like a bad repair job; covering over something very serious by the ease of how it is addressed.
I have many examples in my data of the minimisation of harassment. It is very important to work out what is going on here. We need to think about how this minimisation is being enacted in an address to the student who has been harassed (1). So she is being told: what happened to you is not serious; I don’t take it seriously; I don’t take you seriously. She is being told: it is small thing, you are a small thing. In the telling is lodged a command to make what happened a small thing by not making a complaint.When some forms of violence are normalised as being about how things are, they are also treated as little things. With “boys will be boys” is often an accompanying “he didn’t mean anything by it.” When it becomes routine to make forms of violence small, then any act of attending to these forms, facing up to them, let alone complaining about them, is judged as making something bigger than it is, should be, or needs to be. So in making a complaint, you are treating what is around you quite differently than others around you because you are refusing what has become routine; you are refusing to reduce the significance of what happened. Many of those I have spoken to describe the experience of complaint as one of disorientation as well as alienation: what appears to you does not appear to others.
From the point of view of those trying to limit damage to the organisation’s reputation, damage limitation can work. In this case, that damage limitation worked meant : she did not go ahead and make a formal complaint (if she had the letter that ended up with the Dean would have been the first stage of a formal complaint in accordance with complaint procedures). We immediately learn: the success of damage limitation is how damage is reproduced. When an attempt to stop harassment fails, the harassment does not stop: “He was a known harasser; there were lots of stories told about him. I had a friend who was very vulnerable, he took advantage of that, she ended up taking her own life.” She ended up taking her own life; so much more pain, so much more damage at the edges of one woman’s story of damage. He went on; he was allowed to go on, when her complaint, and for all we know there were others too, we do not know how many said no, did not stop him. He has since retired; much respected by his peers; no blemish on his record. No blemish on his record, no blemish on the institutional record, the damage carried by those who did complain or would complain if they could complain, carried around like baggage, slow, heavy, down. To hear complaint is to hear from those weighed down by a history that has not left a trace in the official records. Damage to a person is indeed deflected by being treated as potential damage to the institution and damage to a person if a person is identified by a complaint. That damage is often evoked through or as concern, as concern for consequence, for how much he or they have to lose, reputation, status, standing, and so on. I will return to the role of “they,” in due course. They matter.
I am learning so much from the repair work those who been harassed or bullied, are asked or made to do. When we are talking about bad repair jobs, we are still talking about some being asked to do that work, which usually means in practice being asked (or required) to get over what is not over. In another instance, a black woman is racially harassed and bullied by a white woman colleague. When another white woman becomes head of the department she says: “I want you to reconcile with her because after all she is my friend and colleague and all she ever did was write you some long emails.” She is my friend. Racial harassment is reduced to a style of communication; we are back to the minimisation of harassment. And a complaint about racism becomes damage to a friend, to a white friend; racism even as damage to whiteness. I will return to the figure of the white friend in a future post on racial harassment (2). An expression of desire for reconciliation might appear to be a friendly gesture. There is nothing friendly about this gesture. If a black woman does not return the desire for reconciliation, if she is not willing to smooth things other, moving on, getting along, getting on, she becomes mean; the one who has not only broken a connection but refused to repair it.
If you do proceed with a complaint you are often treated as causing damage or as being unwilling to repair the damage caused. Discrediting a complainer is also about damage limitation. And the discrediting is itself damaging: discrediting often works in practice as an effort to stop a would-be-complainer from complaining. I will be describing this effort as institutional harassment and institutional bullying in future posts. Harassment can be the attempt to stop someone from identifying the harassment that implicates the institution in wrong doing (that many complaints end up as complaints about how complaints are mishandled is telling us something about implication). One method of discrediting the complainer is to identify the complainer as malicious. The figure of the malicious complainer is exercised before a complaint is lodged; she has precedence. That figure is even evoked by some complaint policies; we learn that the same policies that tell you how to complain evoke that figure. One person who I spoke to informally told me she was treated as a “loose cannon” as if the damage caused by a complaint is a failure of precision; as if by complaining she is firing off at anyone or anything. You can be treated as if you are intending to cause as much damage as possible, as if the effect is your cause, as if your cause is to cause damage. One academic I interviewed, who had recorded 72 instances of racial and sexual harassment, was accused of a “scatter gun” approach (can I repeat that number, 72).
The more evidence you have of violence directed at you the more violent you are made to appear.
It is because the system of damage limitation is already in place that organisations can respond so quickly when the information generated by a complaint (and complaints are always data-rich because they require the collection of evidence) gets out. They often respond with statements of commitment: we do not tolerate sexual harassment, or we are a diverse and inclusive organisation, as if saying it is so, makes it so. I call these statements non-performatives: they do not bring what they name into effect.I have used that term in part as these statements are made as if they are performative; as if they, in Judith Butler’s terms, produce “the effect that [they] name” (1993, ix) . Non-performatives are all about damage control; statements are easy to make because of what they do not do. It is not just statements that are made because they lack the force to bring something about. Many of these activities undertaken after cases of sexual harassment are made public can be understood as damage limitation; however much the work is conducted with commitment and in good faith by those employed to do the work. The point of the work undertaken, the reasons that work is funded, is often to repair damage to the institution’s reputation. This would not be surprising at all to diversity or equal opportunities practitioners: as I described in On Being Included (2012), drawing on interviews with practitioners, one of the most successful ways for directing funds to equality and diversity is to make that work a matter of risk and reputation.
But we have a problem when such activities, however they are funded, or why ever they are funded, are used as evidence that the problem has been resolved. An academic who participated in a collective complaint about a culture of harassment at a former university describes how: “[the university] now has a very nice patch on its intranet telling staff what happened and it all looks cleaner than clean because of all the action they have taken in the past six months and frankly they haven’t addressed the situation at all.” I am interested in the evocation of the intranet: communication about the house can be kept in house. Communication can be used to clean up a mess, which implies that complaints about harassment are treated rather like dirt, “matter out of place” to reuse Mary Douglas’s reuse of an old definition of dirt (1966, 35). It is not just that activities undertaken do not address the problem; they can even be a way of not addressing the problem. Perhaps these activities are another version of One World Week, a way of creating evidence you have dealt with a problem.
Creating evidence of doing something is not the same thing as doing something.
Those who make complaints often know about what is not being addressed. In this case, the university appointed an external person to conduct an enquiry as a result of complaints (I will be discussing in due course how independent enquires are often far from independent, which is not surprising given the person who is appointed is usually appointed by the institution). Between them, the students had direct experience of sexual harassment (including grooming and sexual assault) from 5 different lecturers in the same department (can I repeat that number 5). And the report did not even mention the testimony provided by some of the complainants: “And what they have effectively done with that report is identify one rogue member of staff whose been encouraged to take retirement, and then of course ‘they’ve dealt with the situation’, and the reason they left all of our testimony out of the picture is that they didn’t want to accept exactly why we wanted to talk to them about it in the first place which was that this all was the face of culture.” So here to contain the damage caused by a complaint it to contain the problem that the complaint is addressing: as if the problem can be removed by removing a person. Alison Phipps (2018) has usefully described this removal as institutional airbrushing. As Leila Whitley and Tiffany Page argue “by treating a reported incident of sexual harassment as a singular one-off event exercised by a singular excisable member of staff, the university can maintain its reputation” (2015, 47). We might consider how in becoming excisable, harassment is also treated as foreign to the organisation, as being inexpressive of its core values (3).
There is indeed often a blur of activity after cases sexual harassment is made public. I use the term blur to imply that such activities can be used to obscure the problem. Much of the activity following publicity about sexual harassment relates to the creation of new complaints procedures or new procedures for reporting harassment. New procedures are important given the inadequacy of old procedures. In particular we do need to create systems to enable anonymity for those reporting harassment given what we know: many do not report harassment because they fear the consequences of reporting harassment. But as I noted in an earlier post, you can change procedures without changing the culture (4). You can even change procedures in order not to change the culture; changing procedures as a way of not seeing “the face of culture,” of not facing up to something. That many organisations turn new complaints procedures into public relations exercises should alert us to the problem of what is not being addressed.
You can change how you address a problem without addressing the problem.
I am learning about what is not being addressed by listening to those who have tried to address a problem. And by listening I have also learnt that damage limitation needs to be understood as an inside job; it not simply imposed on universities from the outside or imposed on academics from above by senior management. The activity of containing the damage of complaint is shared. I am not saying that all the activity is the same activity or that it is even coordinated. Containing damage is often achieved without the need for any coordination. It can be achieved by silence; not saying something is doing something. When a complaint has been made, silence can sometimes be achieved by silencing, you have to silence someone because they are talking or because they are talking in the wrong way, perhaps in a way that has too many implications for the organisation.
I think of silence not as separate sphere of activity but as an effect of how people are already working. Silence can even be a way of performing collegiality. Indeed how complaints are suppressed might point in the same direction to what we hold hear: working with others, have a shared sense of a project, being part of something, part of a feminist we even (5).
Note: many who make complaints are called “uncollegial.”
Damage limitation is often about the work of maintaining silence in public about the role of institutions in reproducing the problem. Maybe sometimes silence is heard as dignified. Too many of our virtues are about rewarding submission to authority. Now we could understand silence as a disciplinary technique –academics themselves are forced to be silent. I think this is accurate in some cases. In the UK, many codes of conduct (as well as some employment contracts) for academics include clauses about not doing or saying something that would bring the employer/university into disrepute. I have to confess that until I began working a complaint, I did not know this was the case! Disciplinary norms are perhaps more successful the less we are conscious of them. I know of some instances when..
In this post I describe a problem I have given a name “strategic inefficiency.” That name came to mind as I was listening to people’s experiences of making formal complaints. I was hearing accounts of unexplained and excruciating delays; of confidential folders being sent to the wrong person or being posted with incomplete addresses; of whole complaint files mysteriously disappearing; of meetings that were not properly minuted or that were assembled haphazardly in contradiction with policy and procedure. These scenes of institutional disarray were familiar to me as an academic who had worked at universities for over twenty years (1). I had even worked at one university that had seemed almost proud of its inefficiency, an inefficiency I am tempted to call critical inefficiency, an inefficiency that was assumed to be critical by virtue of an implied refusal of an injunction to be efficient (2). But I was also hearing something else beyond the mess or in the mess. I was listening to the sound of machinery: the clunk, clunk that was telling me that inefficiency is not just about the failure of things to work properly but can be how things are working. In other words, I began to realise that inefficiency was not just about errors in an operating system; errors can be an operating system.
I had wondered about the work of inefficiency before; how inefficiency could be understood as an achievement. One time during my first year as a lecturer I was in the departmental office. An administrator was trying to find someone to mark a course. I was curious. I asked why Professor X was not marking the course given he was the course leader. She gave me a certain kind of look; a look that said that’s a long story but I can’t tell you it. Later I talked to another academic. She told me that everyone knows that Professor X cannot be relied upon to mark his own courses – if you gave him marking it would not be done. She told me how one time a whole set of exam scripts was found behind his chair. I came to learn over subsequent years that Professor X was rarely given administrative work: even if he was named Director of such-and-such he did not actually do the work (though being Director still counted as part of his work-load). When administrators participated in distributing Professor X’s work to other staff (always more junior, usually women) it was not because they thought Professor X was special or wise or important. It was because they cared about the students and they did not want the students to suffer the consequences. Professor X was however still benefiting from his inefficiency; he was being saved from doing certain kinds of work, the administrative work we can describe as institutional house work. Having his time freed from that work meant more time to the work that was more valued; time for research.
This is one version of strategic inefficiency: how some are relieved from doing the work that would slow their progression. And, of course, others then inherit that work. That some people end up being given more administrative work because they are more efficient might seem so obvious that it does not need to be said. The obvious is not always obvious to those who benefit from a system; the obvious always needs to be said. We need to learn from how inefficiency is rewarded and how that rewarding is a mechanism for reproducing hierarchies: it is about who does what; about who is saved from doing what. In academic career terms, efficiency can be understood as a penalty: you are slowed down by what you are asked to pick up.
Another time many years later, I was a visitor at an elite university. I was sitting at the back of a lecture theatre. It was a grand room: there were portraits on the wall; old white men in gowns; same old, same old. I was watching someone fiddle with a projector. It just would not work. And something struck me: how organisations that are often so profoundly inefficient at some things can be rather remarkably efficient at others. I was thinking about how difficult it was at this university to get quite basic tasks done: to get the technology to work; a lecture theatre heated, a syllabus circulated in advance. And I was noticing how those portraits on the wall and those who were gathered at the meeting tables, the dining tables, all kinds of tables, seemed to reflect each other rather smoothly, the narrowness of an assembly can be its own achievement, a sign that some systems are working; how those whom are selected keep just happening to meet the requirements of vacancies that need to be filled. Even when a projector fails, a history can still be screened. In other words, I was struck by how the university seemed so efficient when it came to reproducing itself or when it came to reproducing who it was for.
The engines of social reproduction still seem to run smoothly even when other things fail to run. We can turn an observation into a question: is there a connection between the inefficiency in how some things are run and the efficiency with which institutions reproduce themselves?
Let’s return to one of the common experiences shared with me: that if you make a formal complaint you are often left waiting. You might be waiting for a response to a letter; waiting for a report into an enquiry; waiting for an outcome, for somebody else to make a decision. A common word for describing this time of waiting is “dragging,” a complaint keeps dragging on; taking up more and more time. I think of that time as a heavy bag, the longer it takes the heaver it becomes, what you have to carry around, what you can barely carry; time as becoming heavier. This weight matters. Just remember complaints are hard to make: you are often warned against making them; those who proceed often do so out of a sense of urgency, a complaint is often a last resort. And a future can be what is at stake; a decision on a complaint can be an opening or closing of a door. Everything can stop when a complaint is ongoing; you can put a life on hold or you can feel your life has been put on hold.
It is not just that complaints take a long time. Complaints often take often much longer than they are supposed to take if they were conducted in accordance with policies and procedures; guidelines are often time lines. I have noted how there is a gap between what is supposed to happen and what does happen. A gap can be a lag; when a complaint is put forward, you often end up lagging behind where you are supposed to be.
In that time-lag, the person who initiates a formal complaint is often very busy. You are waiting but you are also reminding, prompting, sending enquiries: asking questions; questions after questions: what is happening, what is going on now? This is another sense in which complaint can be understood as diversity work, a complaint as the additional work you have to do because you are not supported. That diversity workers often have to push harder to get things done is a sign of the lack of support for the work they are doing. As one practitioner described “you need persistence and I think that’s what you need to do because not everyone has an interest in equity and diversity issues.” When your task is to get information out that is less valued by an organization, the techniques for moving information become even more important. Even after policies have been agreed, or commitments to diversity and equality have been made, you can still encounter what another practitioner described as “institutional inertia,” a lack of an institutional will to change. By inertia we are back to that institutional brick wall. A wall gives concrete expression to an experience of being stopped. A wall can be thought of as not only hard but as slow: you can encounter a resistance in the slowness of an uptake.
In listening to those who have complained, I have been learning about the effects of slowness. One interviewee described her complaint process as “Do-It-Yourself,” you have to teach yourself the policies, write the documents and ensure they keep moving around because otherwise the process would stall. She described how she had to keep pushing after she submitted a complaint: “I had to keep pushing them and pushing them to get their act together. I had to push them because according to their policy there were so many days you had after submitting the complaint for it to be investigated.” She has to push to get them to meet their deadlines because if they do not meet their deadlines the complaint would not be investigated. To stall or to slow can be to stop. Sometimes you have push to make an organisation comply with its own procedures. (3) A complaint can require you to push harder; a complaint as what you have to do because of what is not being done or what would not otherwise be done. We might pick up something else from the verb “push.” A complainer is often judged as being pushy; in making a complaint you often have to become what you are judged as being.
One student talked to me about how when they made a complaint they had to become an administrator: “I am the one who is having 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 FOI requests; it was on me to do all of this work.” We can nite here that inefficiency is often a product of a failure of internal communication systems: things get lost because of who is not talking to each other. In order to stop a complaint from being stopped, you have to become a channel of communication. We need to think about how you have to do this work in addition to doing the work of complaint. As this student pointed out “I am the one who made the complaint and I have all the emotional damage around that to deal with.” So you pick up more work whilst also having to deal with the emotional damage that surrounds complaint. The administrative labour can thus also be understood as emotional labour: what you have to pick up on top of everything else.
Strategic inefficiency describes not just the slowness of an uptake but how that slowness is useful and purposeful. Another student described how her university took seven months to respond to her complaint and then another seven months to respond to her response to their response to her complaint (if it had followed its own procedures, it would have taken no more than three months). This student had her own explanation for what was going on: “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.” The point of tiring the complainer seems to be to get her to retire that complaint.
A number of people I have spoken to thus far have understood slowness as a deliberate tactic used to try and stop them from taking a complaint forward. I interviewed two students together about their experiences of making a collective complaint. One of these students described: “what they are doing is trying to exhaust you. It’s a very good strategy. And it’s ongoing.” (4) Being slow in responding to a complaint is a “good strategy” for stopping a complaint because of what it creates: that sense of exhaustion. Exhaustion seems to be not just the effect but the point of a complaint process: you tire people out so they will give up. The style and tone as well as the slowness of institutional responses to complaint can be strategic. They talked about how a meeting was set up and conducted after they made their initial complaint:
Student 1: They didn’t record it or take any notes. I think there were one or two lines written.
Student 2: It was very odd.
Student 1: You did feel it was a kind of cosy chat.
Student 2: Very odd; very odd.
Student 1: They were sort of wrapping the conversation up, because it had gone on, and I said this is us making a formal complaint and there was shift in the atmosphere. And I said we do want to follow it up as a complaint.
Informality can be used as a way of setting a tone; a way of trying to discourage an informal complaint from becoming formal; a way of turning a complaint into a casual conversation that can be more easily wrapped up. This effort to turn a complaint into a “cosy chat” is not an obvious example of strategic inefficiency. But I think we catch something by making it an example. We can begin to appreciate how inefficiency can also be a style or performance; how a bumbling along, a being ineffectual, can be achieving something. The failure to take notes in the usual manner, so that they could be written up as minutes, is useful to the organisation; if you do not follow the usual procedures for conducting meetings, you are also stopping a record from being created. We are learning the utility of a certain style of institutional response to complaint; how a casual and informal approach can be an effort not to register that a complaint is being made.
If the meeting is conducted without an agenda, an atmosphere can become an agenda. It is then as if the complainer is requiring an adherence to rules and conventions, or as if formality is itself an imposition of will or even a kind of antagonism. A formal complaint would become what someone makes because they have failed to resolve the situation more amicably. Note how when the students make clear that they are making a formal complaint there is a “change of atmosphere.” They described to me how from this point the tone of all communication changed: “the tone was horrendous. It was basically like ‘tut’ (sound accompanied by a hand slapping the table) stop it attitude; like that ‘tut’ if you could make that noise it was in there somewhere.” An atmosphere can be how a complaint is handled; that tut sound that no, stop, stop being, stop doing, only has to be articulated given the attempt to stop a complaint has failed.
Strategic inefficiency can help us to understand that not creating a record is not simply about the failure to do something but is an attempt to do something. When that attempt fails a complaint is being made. Strategic inefficiency can refer not only to how records are not made but also how they are lost. Thus far a number of instances of lost complaint files or lost evidence from files have been reported to me. One person I interviewed had evidence of how her university made evidence disappear (she took screen shots of data before someone manually removed that data). She described what happened as sabotage. That term has certainly been used by a number of people to describe the deliberate removal of evidence, or the disqualification of evidence, that would otherwise have supported a complaint.
Evidence can also go missing because of administrative incompetence – or at least incompetence can be used as an explanation for what has gone missing. In such instances, you would not need to deliberately remove something; it can disappear as a consequence of how things tend to be done. I am thinking of one case when a file that held information into a large scale enquiry into harassment was lost alongside a number of other files. The organisation’s own way of accounting for the missing files was that “there was a problem in Human Resources.” If inefficiency can be a tendency, a way of working that has become habitual such that it does not require special effort for things to be lost, then acquiring that tendency can be useful or convenient. A history that is inconvenient can be erased by the failure to keep records properly, which makes the failure to keep records properly rather convenient. It is also the case that inefficiency can then be used to imply that a file that had in fact been removed was just lost; losing all the files can mask the deliberate removal of one. That it would be impossible to know whether this is the case – whether or not the loss of all the files was used to mask the removal of one file- might be teaching us something about the utility of inefficiency.
Inefficiency can be used as evidence that you have not removed the evidence.
And thus: inefficiency can be how evidence of the removal of evidence is removed. (5)
A bumbling professor always losing the scripts becomes a bumbling university always losing the files.
By using the term strategic I am suggesting that inefficiency is beneficial to an organisation whether or not it involves deliberation; inefficiency can be understood as a means of achieving an end. What is perceived to be beneficial to an organisation often evokes a “who,” and the “who” that is deemed beneficial might be the same “who” that decides what is beneficial to an organisation. I want to suggest that inefficiency is beneficial insofar as it supports an already existing hierarchy. I think of inefficiency and I think of who’s who, a manual of importance, a biography of the notable. I have already made a connection between inefficiency and hierarchy by suggesting that inefficiency can be used to protect some people from doing certain kinds of work, the work that is less valued (which does not mean this work is without value or that we don’t value the work); the work of administration. A hierarchy is also supported because of the differential impact of inefficiency. We might assume that inefficiency is annoying but indiscriminate, affecting everyone and everything. Listening to those who have complained has taught me how inefficiency can be discriminatory.
Let’s go back to complaints processes that take too long. Another student described similar delays in her complaint: “Months went by. Nothing. They really botched my complaints procedure just by the virtue of missing their own deadlines.” A botched job can be your life. Now this student was an international student and 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.” As she describes further:
I had no money, I couldn’t work. Every week they were like we will give you an outcome next week, then the next. I couldn’t renew the lease where I was renting. I really couldn’t continue with my work as I wasn’t sure I could stay. Everything depended on the outcome of the complaint. I was like homeless, staying with a friend on a couch. And it ended up being a 6 month process.
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 topples over; a whole life can unravel, thread by thread; you can be left homeless, even more dependent upon the good will of others. The impact of delays can be devastating; there can be more and more knock-on effects. In this case the student’s complaint file also went missing. The university explained the lost file as being about a job turn-over; she was given a new complaint officer during the complaint. A new officer should not mean a lost file: after all efficiency is about the creation of filing systems so that materials can be retained and located. Nevertheless it is worth noting that this university (like many other organisations) had a high turn-over of staff working in human resources on student complaints. And this in itself is telling: inefficiency can also be an effect of how a university does not support those who are employed to do certain kinds of work; inefficiency can be an effect of not looking after staff properly, which can lead to the failure to acquire a long term institutional memory. Inefficiency can be an effect of constantly making changes to procedures for doing things so that no one acquires a stable footing. Inefficiency (strategic or otherwise) can be effect of under-funding and the institutionalization of staff precarity, which is also about the unequal distribution of precarity; how some are protected from having to keep moving or from having to keep up with the constancy of changes to procedures. It is important for me to stress this point because there are many committed administrators in the sector trying to do their best for students and staff who have to make complaints and grievances. Making the problem one of administration, that “problem in Human Resources,” can be how much deeper more structural problems are not addressed.
The failure to support those who giving support to those who are making complaints is an institutional failure; a failure to support that gets passed around; and passed on. In this case, the student did take her case to the Office for the Independent Adjudicator (OIA). They recommended that the university “improve its record keeping.” There is nothing wrong with this recommendation. But we learn from it; how the failure to support those who are most precarious is framed as an administrative failure.
For some an administrative failure is a life disaster.
If complaints can be stopped through what appears as administrative failure, complaints teach us who organisations are for. By this I mean: those for whom an organisation is built are also protected from doing certain kinds of administrative work or from the consequences of having to do such work. If an organisation is built for you, no adjustment is needed for you to participate; you can enter a room or participate in a meeting after hours or complete an exam in the allocated place and time. If you need adjustments in order to participate, if you are a misfit to use Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s (2014, 2011) important term, you have to do more work. We could think of complaint as a misfit genre; as the work you have to do because or when you do not fit.
Some of this additional work is administrative work or paper work. Students and staff with disabilities often have to enter complex administrative processes in order to secure the “reasonable adjustments” they need to be able to do their work, which also means that administrative problems can stop you from being able to do your work. Inequalities are reproduced by the extent to which some people more than others are required to enter administrative processes to acquire what they need to proceed.
A student with a chronic illness talked to me about the additional work she had to do in order to secure reasonable adjustments. In doing that work, she learnt all about the institution; she learns about what I have been calling strategic inefficiency. As she describes: “I uncovered all these failed processes. You register with disabled services, disabled services get your docs, and then they send a memo to your department and then something else happens with it. And what was supposed to happen was that it was supposed to go from Disability Services to the Disability Liaison Administrator who was just the head secretary who would then cascade it around relevant staff but who never did that.” If there are no efficient systems for passing information around memos get lost; what is supposed to happen does not happen. The more units and staff are involved, the easier it is for something to be lost; it just takes one person not to send something on for the memo not to come into effect (without an out you lose an about). And a lost memo can mean a person too can end up lost in a system. This student notes how “everyone is rubbish in tracking disability.” The consequences of rubbish systems for keeping track of things are very different depending on who or what is being tracked.
And then: if you have to complain because of failed processes you have to enter yet more failed processes. She has to complain about how her complaint about the failure to be supported is handled: “the complaint hinged on them not giving me the time. I said you should have given me more time, more than a week, to do all this paper work. You can’t then get pissed off with me when I don’t do the paperwork and moreover you can’t do that for a PhD student who is registered disabled.” As she commented wryly: “yes I was..
Listening to those who have made or tried to make formal complaints about abuses of power within institutions is teaching me about institutional mechanics; how institutions work; how different parts fit together. The testimonies I have gathered zoom in on processes that are usually obscure, if perceived only dimly perceived, because of how institutions work. The accounts I have heard have helped me to make sense of the concrete ways we are directed along institutional paths, those well-traveled paths that are assumed to lead to better or happier outcomes, as well as how we are directed away from other paths.
Complaints are “other paths.”
In this post I consider the implications of how those who are considering whether to make a complaint are often warned about the consequences of complaining. I will share with you some examples of the different kinds of warnings received by would-be-complainers. By evoking the figure of a would-be-complainer I am thinking not simply of persons but of times. To be a would-be-complainer is to be in a time of consideration; the time of consideration is an important part of what I described in an earlier post as the time of complaint. Many things can happen during this time that influence how or whether someone proceeds to a formal complaint.
When you have to consider whether to make a complaint about bullying or harassment because you have been harassed or bullied you have to go through a difficult and life-consuming process. Experiences of the difficulty of making a complaint are often shared at this time such that when you are considering whether to make a complaint you often become even more conscious of the difficulty of making a complaint. You might decide not to go through with a complaint not despite but because of what happened to you. Being harassed or bullied is already painful and difficult and can leave you with a sense that you do not have the resources you need to take a complaint forward. This is why: the experiences that lead you to complaint are often the same experiences that stop you from making a complaint.
A would-be-complainer is someone who is in midst of this process; in the middle of it; right in the thick of it. A would-be-complainer might have taken some steps in the direction of a formal complaint by making an informal disclosure to a line manager, supervisor or peer (1). From my study I have learnt that it is at this point that many people are cautioned or discouraged from complaining. And they are often discouraged by the use of warnings.
Warnings are familiar: we know what to do with them. A warning could be thought of as an ominous sign; a sign of a danger-to-come. A warning can be an instruction.
Stop! Danger ahead!
Take this sign.
Such a sign is affective: it can fill you with the alarm of what could happen if you went that way: you could topple right over. Even if the danger being evoked points to a future, the point of a warning is to grab someone’s attention in the present. A warning tells you “it is alarming” by making you feel alarmed. A warning in telling you what to feel is also telling you what to do: to change direction; to find another route. Warnings are only useful to the extent they give you enough time to modify your behaviour. Warnings are how we learn what (as well as who) to avoid. The usefulness of warnings is thus restricted in terms of timing, a warning that is given too late, before you venture somewhere that is deemed dangerous, might as well not be given at all. And given that warnings are often about safety, they might even evoke the danger of death, the right response is to respond quickly, not to think or to hesitate but to act.
A warning tells us how to approach something: as an emergency. I think of warnings and I think of slamming the brakes, an expression that can literally mean stepping on the brakes of a vehicle to slow it down as quickly as possible but can also mean by extension to slow down or stop whatever one is doing. I think of a warning and I hear a screech.
Warnings litter the landscape as signs, as exclamation points, points that tell us when to stop or start, or when to be concerned.
And warnings are also spoken; they can even be how we speak to each other with concern; notes of caution given as everyday wisdom. In thinking about warnings – a thinking that was prompted because of how and how often warnings came up in my complaint data – I was rather surprised that I had not written about warnings before. So much of my work especially Queer Phenomenology (2006) and The Promise of Happiness (2010) has been about techniques of direction – how we are directed toward some paths, towards some things and not others. Happy objects circulate as promises; we are directed toward things that are anticipated to cause happiness (anticipatory causality). I now realise warnings can also be understood as promises: if the point of a warning is to avoid what is deemed dangerous, you are also receiving a promise (of safety or even happiness). I began to realise that the speech act that had so intrigued me, “I just want you to be happy,” often said by a parent to a child can be heard as a warning. The speech act appears to give the child freedom to do whatever makes them happy, and yet is often said in frustration, which is to say or as if to say, “so don’t do that,” because that is deemed the cause of unhappiness. A warning can thus be made without being made explicit: warnings are how we learn “don’t do that.”
Warnings might be useful because they articulate a “no” predicated not on some abstract rule but on someone’s own health and safety. We need to tease out the implications of the usefulness of warnings: useful to whom, useful for what?
We learn from the mere fact that would-be-complainers are warned about complaining that complaints are deemed dangerous. (2) Simply put, complaints are anticipated to compromise the health, safety or happiness of those who make them. Warnings can come from many sources –from supervisors, from administrators, from senior managers but also from friends and peers. Warnings can be offered with quite different intonations; from caring and concerned, cautious and ambivalent, dramatic and fearful, to aggressive and threatening. A would-be complainer is often surrounded by warnings, which means that you are surrounded by alarm, concern, caution and fear for your future, which is why even considering complaint can feel like you are risking toppling right over.
Let’s start with the softer warnings; those spoken in the language of care and concern. A concern about the consequences of complaint is often expressed as “thinking about your career.” One student describes: “I ended up going back to the chair, and saying, look, this is harassment and I am going to file a complaint. And his response was essentially, ‘well we are just thinking about your career, how this will affect you in the future.’” Another student describes: “I was also told that if I made a formal complaint, this was the Head of Department, I had to think about my career.” The implication is that to proceed with a formal complaint is not to think about your career. Being advised not to complain is thus offered as career advice. Your career is evoked as a companion who needs to be looked after; maybe your career is a plant that needs watering so that it does not wither away. If your career would wither as a consequence of complaint, then a complaint is figured in advance as carelessness, as negligence, as not looking after yourself.
We are often encouraged to think of our careers as having an exteriority, as what you have to care for in order to have somewhere to go. You might be told to do something “because it would be good for your cv.” For those who are institutionally precarious, who have a fight on their hands to become established, a career is a not-quite-formed and thus all-the-more fragile thing; a career is what can be easily broken. The more precarious you are the more you support you need to secure a foothold. If you do not take heed of a warning, that is, if you are not stopped from complaining, you are understood not only as having damaged your own future (a career becomes like a shattered jug, broken because you carelessly left it too close to the edge) but as having failed to protect the investment that others have made in you (the scholarship, mentorship or support you might have relied upon along the way). A complaint becomes a failure to protect an investment.
If we treat warnings about complaint as part of a wider cluster of speech acts that go under the heading “career advice” they teach us about how we are taught to approach careers. You might be advised to approach your career strategically, which in practical terms means doing what would maximize your chances to go somewhere or to get somewhere. To be strategic is the requirement to select from a range of possibilities open to you that which would enable you to go further. Being strategic can thus also mean not going in a certain direction. I have heard again and again from students, and also from colleagues, how they were directed away from certain kinds of work, away from certain stances, away from words even, don’t do a feminist project, that won’t get you very far, don’t do race, that’s too narrow, race and gender are often framed as too narrow, the universal is given width, breadth, as well as speed, faster, lighter. As academics of colour we learn from what happens when we use the word race. You hear alarm bells: you can feel like you are constantly being warned. Don’t say that, translating into, don’t do that, or even, don’t be that.
We can and we do refuse the instructions. But we do need to listen to them, to learn from what they are asking.
Warnings that are expressed out of concern for one’s career do not always feel like concern; in the cases above, it was quite clear to the students that the concern for their careers was masking something else (such as concern for departments or colleagues). Whether warnings feel concerned for the welfare of those being warned seems to depend not so much on the words used, or how they are used, but on the kinds of relationships we have with each other. One junior academic who had an experience of unfair and unequal treatment in her department was warned by a senior woman of colour not to complain. She describes: “This was a professor who I really trust and who did probably have my best interests at heart and she said to me at that point, don’t put in a grievance, you are a young academic, and if you do that now you are going to be known as someone who puts in grievances, you are going to be known as someone who puts in complaints, so just let it go, and work out something informally.” The language in this warning is familiar. Warnings about the costs of complaint often evoke the figure of the complainer as who you do not want to become; to become a complainer is to be slowed by how you are known. But this early career academic sensed this professor “had her best interests at heart.” I sensed her trust come out of political allegiance as well as recognition of political struggle; of the work it takes to be a senior woman of colour at a university; how some have to battle their way to create spaces (and have careers) in institutions that are not built for them (3).
I have been thinking about this: how if you have to battle the institutions of patriarchal whiteness to establish yourself you might become warier about being worn, warier about complaining, and how that wariness can end up being passed on as advice to others.
In this instance the early career researcher did not proceed with a complaint. And in not complaining she became conscious of the costs of not complaining (4): “Looking back on that, I don’t believe in regret, but I definitely believe in complaining, even when it’s a bad outcome, just creating that record of what happened. When something really bad happens, and you don’t complain but you do something informally within the institution you are really implicated in letting go of what happened even if that thing is just to you.” Not complaining can mean you let go of what happened and thus come to feel implicated in what was not resolved. We learn from such accounts, however they leave us, how individuals are presumed to benefit from not complaining; from not addressing certain kinds of problems as institutional problems. If you benefit from not complaining you also become implicated – or come to feel implicated – in how that problem is reproduced. This is one of the reasons that a decision not to complain can be so complicated: you are considering whether to benefit from not addressing the cause of harm. If we have to complain because of a structure (what gives unfair advantage to some), sometimes it is because of that same structure that you don’t complain. Not complaining can be an effort not to be further disadvantaged by that structure by leaving it in place.
If warnings are used to discourage a course of action they can also function as more positive directives: in being discouraged from complaining you are being encouraged not to complain. Indeed one academic described how not complaining becomes a default setting: “the default academia thing, the university thing: it will be fine, if we do wait, don’t make a fuss.” It is interesting how complaining is evoked as making a fuss, or as making something bigger than it needs to be or as impatience. Not making a complaint becomes a form of virtue or even a style of good citizenship: patience is tied to a positive outlook as if waiting is what would make something fine, as if the best way to approach a wrong is to wait for it to right itself. The flip-side of a warning is thus that promise, an institutional version of what I called “the promise of happiness,” a promise that if you don’t complain you will go further.
Sometimes you can be given permission to complain and be warned about the consequences of complaint at the very same time. In one instance a postgraduate student was considering making a complaint against her supervisor who had sexually harassed her. She had concrete evidence – he had sent her photos of his genitals.
She goes to the office that handles such complaints. And what happens?
They were like, “you can file a complaint.” But then the same narrative “not much is going to happen: he’s really well loved by the university, he has a strong publication record; you are going to go through all of this emotional torment.” It was even proposed that he could counter sue me for defamation of character. The line was essentially, you can do this, but why would you.
What she calls “the same narrative” is also skepticism that there is any point in following a complaint procedure (by those responsible for the administration of procedures). There is a sense that even if you file a complaint what will happen is “not much” no matter what evidence you have in a file. There is a certain kind of fatalism operating here; we might call this a procedural fatalism. We can relate procedural fatalism to what I called in an earlier post, institutional fatalism, a sense that this is how institutions work so there is no point in trying to change how they work; or a sense that sexual harassment is everywhere so there is no point in trying to change it here. That fatalism can be performed through warnings is instructive: after all warning are about how you can avoid certain consequences. It is implied that institutions are what they are, such that whatever they will be, they will be. This disbelief that something would happen operates as recognition of what or who is valued by the university: it is because of what such-and-such professor is worth to the organisation that it is presumed not much will happen; in other words, the confidence that not much will happen is a confidence that not much will happen to him. A prediction that the consequences of complaint will be dire (not only that you would experience emotional torment but that you could render yourself even more precarious further down the line) is also an expectation that those who are institutionally valued will retain their value no matter; no matter whom.
So if a complaint is deemed in advance as dangerous, a complaint can also be framed as pointless, as what will not stop the reproduction of the same thing. This is important: because it might be that someone would proceed to complaint even if it might cause damage if they sensed there was a point to that damage, that a cost would bring some benefit. And note you can be told that “you can do this” whilst being warned about doing this. Warnings can operate in the realm of the “would” rather than the “could.” Warnings can be translated into questions you end up having to ask yourself: you could complain but why would you? A warning becomes about what you would not do if you wanted to protect yourself; your career and your happiness.
Sometimes you can be told you should make a complaint and be warned about complaining at the very same time. A woman student, who was sexually assaulted by a male academic, describes a warning she receives from a female research assistant:
She told me that if I wanted to make an official complaint (which I should), she would support me. Yet, she also told me about her own experience of sexual harassment by another professor in another school and warned me about what would happen and what would not. Especially considering this professor’s image in the school, she said I should have been ready for the possibility that many people wouldn’t even believe me and would accuse me of misunderstanding his open-mindedness and intimacy.
A warning about “what would happen” can be predicated on what has happened. And a warning about “what would happen” can even be offered as feminist knowledge about how sexism operates as a belief system – a knowledge of how much is invested in the professor and his image and how that investment means he will be protected from facing consequences of his actions (turning even an assault into a fault of perception, a misunderstanding of his “open-mindedness and intimacy”). I think it is important that a warning can be offered in the style of a report: the person who warns you can do so by reporting on beliefs she does not hold and even on beliefs she might oppose. We learn from how even a wealth of feminist knowledge can be transformed into a warning. Even as she is told she should complain and that she will receive the support of the one who is giving the warning if she does complain, she is told to “ready” herself for the consequences. In fact warnings are telling you to be more concerned with consequences than with anything else. And so, if we accumulate more evidence that she will not be believed that evidence can be used as a technique of redirection; she can be given even more reasons not to complain.
A warning is a technique of redirection when you are directed away from a path that your commitments would otherwise lead you to...
It has been important to me to give this talk Queer Use to centers and programmes dedicated to LGBTQ studies: we need to have spaces to do our work, to create shelters so that we can be disruptive! Thanks so much to all those who came along. This version is the one I gave most recently. The lecture draws primarily from my forthcoming book, What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use, which will be published by Duke University Press in 2019, but there are also a few examples from the chapter on Lesbian Feminism in Living a Feminist Life (2017). I have added references but I have not amended the text. I am very grateful to everyone who listened, asked questions and shared stories about queer uses of all sorts of things!
When I gave my paper for LGBTQ+@cam I was very glad my queer family was with me. I dedicated my lecture to them, to Sarah and Poppy.
Sara Ahmed, Queer Use, Lecture presented at LGBTQ+@cam, Cambridge, November 7, 2018.
I want to start my consideration of queer use by attending to uses of queer. Queer: a word with a history; a word that has been flung like a stone; picked up and hurled at us, a word we can claim for us. Queer: odd, strange, unseemly, disturbed, disturbing. Queer: a feeling, a sick feeling; feeling queer as feeling nauseous. In older uses of queer – queer to describe anything that is noticeable because it is odd – queer and fragility were often companions. In one of George Eliot’s essays, “Three Months in Weimar” the narrator describes the sound of an old piano thus: “it’s tones now so queer and feeble like those of an invalided old woman whose voice could once make a heartbeat with fond passion” (1884, 91-2). Feeble, frail, invalid, incapacitate, falter, weak, tearful, worn; tear; wear; queer too, queer is there, too. These proximities tell a story. A queer life might how we get in touch with things at the very point at which they, or we, are worn or worn down; those moments when we break or break down, when we shatter under the weight of history. The sounds of an old piano evoking the sound of an invalided old woman: could this evocation vibrate with affection? Could a queer heart beat with passion for what is wavering and quavering?
That some of us can live our lives by assuming that word “queer,” by even saying “yes” to that word shows how a past use is not exhaustive of a word or a thing however exhausted a word or thing. As Judith Butler notes in Excitable Speech: “An aesthetic enactment of an injurious word may both use the word and mention it, that is use the word to produce certain effects, but also at the same time make reference to that very use, calling attention to it as a citation, situating that use within a citational legacy, making that use into an explicit discursive item to be reflected on rather than a taken for granted operation of ordinary language” (1997, 99). We can disrupt the meaning of an insult by making its usage audible as a history that does not decide, once and for all, what a word can do. To queer use might be to make use audible, to listen to use; to bring to the front what ordinarily recedes into the background.
Sometimes words are reused as if they can be cut off from their history, when an insult is thrown out for instance, and reaches its target, but is defended as just banter, as something you can, should, make light of. If we reuse the word queer we hold onto the weight; the baggage. Eve Sedgwick suggests that what makes queer a “politically potent term” is how it cleaves to “childhood scenes of shame” (1993, 4). Queer acquires force and vitality precisely because we refuse to use the word to make light of a history. To recycle or reuse a word is to reorientate one’s relation to a scene that holds its place, as memory, as container, however leaky.
Queer as reused; reuse as queer use. In today’s lecture I will be drawing on arguments from a book I have recently completed, What’s the Use. In the book, I follow use around, the way I followed happiness in The Promise of Happiness, and the will in Willful Subjects. Use is a small word with a big history, a busy word; use has had and does have many uses. Following use has allowed me to connect bodies of work that are usually assumed to be distinct such as literatures in design, psychology and biology that make use of use to explain the acquisition of form. Following use has allowed me to explore how worlds are shaped, as it were, from the bottom up.
Uses of Use
In this section I want to meditation on use as biography, a way of telling a story of things. Use when used as a verb can mean: to employ for some purpose, to expend or consume; to treat or behave toward; to take unfair advantage of or exploit; to habituate or accustom. Use is a relation as well as an activity that often points beyond something even when use is about something: to use something points to what something is “for.” Some objects are made in order to be used. We might call these objects designed objects. What they are for brings them into existence. A cup is made in order that I have something to drink from; it is shaped this way, with a hole as its heart, empty, so that it can be filled by liquid. We might summarise the implied relation as “for is before.” However even if something is shaped around what it is for, that is not the end of the story. As Howard Risatti notes in A Theory of Craft
Use need not correspond to intended function. Most if not all objects can have a use, or, more accurately be made useable by being put to use. A sledgehammer can pound or it can be used as a paperweight or lever. A handsaw can cut a board and be used as straight-edge or to make music. A chair can be sat in and used to prop open a door. These uses make them “useful objects” but since they are unrelated to the intended purpose and function for which these objects were made, knowing these uses doesn’t necessarily reveal much about these objects.
Use can correspond to intended function, but use does not necessarily correspond to an intended function. This not (not necessarily) is an opening. I am not so sure if uses are quite as unrevealing about things as Risatti implies at least here (“knowing these uses doesn’t necessarily reveal much about these objects”). I am being told something about the qualities of a sledgehammer that it can used to be a paperweight. That a sledgehammer can be used as a paperweight tells me about the heaviness of the sledgehammer. Something cannot be used for anything, which means that use is a restriction of possibility that is material. Nevertheless there is something queer about use; intentions do not exhaust possibilities. The keys that are used to unlock a door can be used as a toy, perhaps because they are shiny and sliver; perhaps because they jangle. Queer uses, when things are used for purposes other than the ones for which they were intended, still reference the qualities of a thing; queer uses may linger on those qualities, rendering them all the more lively.
Queer use might also be understood as improper use; queer use as perversion. The word perversion can refer not only to deviate from what is true or right but to the improper use of something. We would not call the child who turns the key into a toy a pervert, even if that is not what a key is for; the child is expected to play with things. But a boy who plays with the wrong toy, a toy hoover for instance that is intended for a girl (the fact that toy hoovers even exist is of course deeply concerning), might be understood as perverted or at least as on the way to perversion. Correcting the boy’s use of the toy is about correcting more than behaviour in relation to a toy; it is about correcting how the boy is boy. The figure of the pervert comes up as the one whose misuse of things is a form of self-revelation.
Note also Rissati’s argument that use makes something usable, which implies that a possibility follows an actuality, a reversal of a usual sequence. Use seems to have a strange temporality. Use can also make something used. When we think of something as being used, we might also think of buying something second-hand. Like this book – it is a book on hands that was handy. A used book is usually cheaper than a new book. The more signs of usage = less value unless the user is esteemed, when the value of a person can rub off on the value of a thing. Marx discusses wear and tear in relation to machines: “The material wear and tear of a machine is of two kinds. The one arises from use, as coins wear away by circulating, the other from non-use, as a sword rusts when left in its scabbard” ( 1990, 528). Marx showed how machinery intensifies rather than saves labour: you have to get the most of the machine before it wears out, a wearing that is passed on to workers, wearing as passing on and passing out; used as used up.
Wear and tear in this economy is the loss of value determined by the extraction of value. To value use might require a change of values. We might value worn things, broken things, for the life they lived, for how they show what they know: the scratch as pedagogy, the wrinkle as expression. To value use would not be to romanticize what is preserved as a historical record: signs of life can be signs of exhaustion, which is to say, signs of life can be signs of how a life has been extinguished. Perhaps we can think of use as a record of the fragility of a life. In writing about use, I have deliberately made use of “used books.”
A book on hands that was handy
With this book in my hands I can tell others have been here before. I think of the reader who circled the word grief. I cannot trace you but you left a trace.
Use leaves traces in places.
Something might be in use or out of use. When something breaks, it might be taken out of use rather like this cup, which has lost its handle.
It is a rather sad parting.
When we think of something in use, we might think of a sign on a door: occupied.
This sign tells us that the toilet is in use.
It tells us that we cannot use the toilet until whoever is using the toilet is finished. Use often comes with instructions that are about maintaining bodily and social boundaries. Sometimes instructions are about who is allowed to use what for what. Take this image.
The sign is another kind of use instruction.
It makes a claim that the door is in constant use in order to justify that instruction: keep clear! If you were to park a car or a bike in front of the door, you would become an obstruction. Becoming an obstruction describes the fate that awaits some uses and users.
Or take this image of a post box.
This sign politely asks the would-be poster not to use the post box by posting a letter into the box.
If the toilet was occupied because it was in use, the post box is out of use because it is occupied. Although of course from another point of view, it is in use. The post box has provided a home for nesting birds. Intended functionality can mean who something is for, not just what something is for. This means that: something can be used by those for which it was not intended. Queer use: when something is used by those for whom it was intended.
Can I add here that it was when I was writing my conclusion to the book that I realised that others have used “queer use” in this way : as we can note in this article from 1899 referring to the queer use for cloisters. One wonders if the queer use for cloisters might extend beyond where they store their machines.
If we go back to a post-box that it can become a nest still tells us something about the nature of object; what allows the box to be used to post letters, that slips is how the birds can enter. If a change of function does not require a change of form, a change of function does require a sign, “please do not use,” to stop what would be usual: posting a letter through the box. The sign, we assume, is temporary. That box will come back into use as a post box when it ceases to be a nest.
Back into use: use can involve comings and goings. Take the example of the well-trodden path. The path exists because people have used it. Use involves contact and friction, the tread of feet smooths the surface; the path is becoming smoother, easier to follow.
The more a path is used the more a path is used.
How strange that this sentence makes sense. Without use a path can disappear, becoming overgrown, bumpy; unusable.
Like this path, we know it is a path because of a sign but you can hardly see the sign for the leaves.
Use can be necessary for preservation. Use it, or lose it: this is not only a mantra in personal training; it can become a philosophy of life. Not using; not being.
If not using can mean not being, use becomes useful as a technique. You can stop something from existing by making it harder to use. Use can also be a frame: a pad might appear unused because the pencil marks have been erased. Frames of use have uses. For example, many uses of land were not counted as uses because land use in Western culture was understood in terms of cultivation. The labour theory of property was also a theory of use. John Locke’s Two Treatises, made extensive use of use: “it cannot be supposed [the land] should remain common and uncultivated” such that “he gave it to the use of the industrious and rational” ( 1824, 149). Use is defined here as or restricted to agriculture and cultivation. Land that has not been cultivated becomes wasteland, unused, and thus available to be appropriated. Edward Said was attuned to this use of use; he described how Palestine was rendered “a whole territory essentially unused, unappreciated, misunderstood . . . to be made useful, appreciated, understandable” (1979, 31, emphasis Said’s).
You can declare something unused or ensure something becomes unused as the grounds for justifying an appropriation.
Used paths have many stories to tell. A path can appear like a line on a landscape. But a path can also be a route through life. Collectivity can be acquired as direction; the more a path is traveled upon the clearer it becomes. A path can be cared for, kept clear, maintained.
I have been away from my blog for such a long time! Over the summer I revised my manuscript What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use, which I sent back to my publishers at the end of August. I have been working on the uses of use since 2013. The project has been with me through thick and thin. I put my use folder away whilst I working on Living a Feminist Life and engaged in the institutional battles that so informed the tone and timbre of that text. I picked up my use project again in 2016, and it did feel like I was picking up some rather shattered pieces. I have picked up so much by following use around. All being well, the book should be out in late 2019, with Duke University Press, my publisher-companion. Together we are creating a killjoy library!
Since then I have been transcribing interviews for my complaint research. I have been listening and learning. That is my task. I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility as a care-taker for the stories I have collected. I had been expecting to be sharing new posts on complaint by now but I realised I needed more time to process all I am hearing. I need to sit with and to be with the stories. So I am giving myself more time. I hope to post new work on complaint on this blog in December of this year. My first post will be on warnings.
This term I will be giving two lectures on Queer Use and three lectures from my research into complaint. Details are here.
In the meantime, I am sharing a few words drawn from my introduction and conclusion about the question that is the title of my book.
What’s the Use?
The title of this book is a use expression, one that seems to point to the pointlessness of doing something. This expression often has an intonation of exasperation. What’s the use, what’s the point? Said in this way, “what’s the use” operates as a rhetorical question, what we ask when we have reached a conclusion; there is no use. I imagine hands flung in the air expressing the withdrawal of a commitment to some difficult task. I hear a drawn out sigh; the sound of giving up on something that had previously been pursued. We might be more likely to say “what’s the use” when the uselessness of something had not been apparent right from the beginning; when we have given up on something that we had expected to be useful such that to become exasperated can point not only to what, that which is now deemed pointless, but also to who, those who had assumed something had a point. It seems appropriate to ask about use, what it means to use something or to find a use for something, with such a moment of exasperation; a moment when we lose it, rather than use it.
“What’s the use, what’s the point of saying that?” This is the question asked by a character Peggy in the last segment of Virginia Woolf’s novel, The Years, first published in 1937. Peggy is having what we might call a feminist killjoy moment; she is interrupting a family gathering with this question, posed sharply, pointedly. Her Aunt Eleanor has already suggested to Peggy the she should enjoy herself: “‘But we’re enjoying ourselves’ said Eleanor, ‘Come and enjoy yourself too’” (2012, 264). Peggy does not obey her command. She seems alienated from happiness by making happiness into a question: “What does she mean by ‘happiness,’ by ‘freedom’” Peggy asked herself, lapsing against the wall again” (265). Happiness for Peggy seems unjust: “How can one be ‘happy,’ she asked herself. In a world bursting with misery” (266). She is listening to scraps of conversation, to laughter bubbling away at the surface. Perhaps she can hear what is being said because she does find happiness convincing. It is then that she asks the question, “What’s the use, what’s the point of saying that?” Once she asks this question which she addresses to her brother (the discussion is about him), she is overwhelmed by bad feeling: “She looked at her brother. A feeling of animosity possessed her. He was still smiling but his smile smoothed itself out as she looked at him. ‘What’s the use, she said facing him. You’ll marry. You’ll have children. What’ll you do then? Write little books to make money” (268). Peggy flounders; describing her own words as “personal” when “she had meant to say something impersonal” (268). The question of use becomes a personal question; a question about how a person lives their life. Once Peggy has started on this path, she has to keep going: “‘You’ll write one book, then another little book,’ she said viciously, ‘instead of living differently, differently’” (268).
Her utterance is too sharp; she regrets it. This wrinkle in the smile of the occasion is passed over; the conversation is smoothed out again, which means Peggy’s question is passed over, just as she is. This question “what’s the use” is often articulated by Woolf’s characters at the moment they seem to be losing it. It is a question posed by sisters, such as Peggy, who are interrupting the flow of a conversation about the lives of men. Or it is a question posed by wives, such as when Mrs Flushing asks Wilfrid in The Voyage Out “What’s the use of talking? What’s the use —?” Once talking is replaced by a dash, we might think of the dash as anything, “She ceased.” She ceased implies not only that she stops talking but that she stops being. The wife becomes the one who ceases; for whom the questioning of use is a questioning of being. One thinks here also of Mrs Dalloway, who also watches herself disappear in becoming wife, becoming mother (Woolf  1996). Mrs Thornbury follows Mrs Flushing by also asking a question to Wilfrid not to his wife, “because it was useless to speak to his wife.” To become useless: not to be addressed. Perhaps to be defined in relation to men, as sisters, as wives, is to be deemed useful to them, but not to others.
When you question the point of something the point seems to be how quickly you can be removed from the conversation. Maybe, she removes herself. The question “what’s the use?” allows Woolf to throw life up as a question, to ask about the point of anything by asking about the point of something. It is question Woolf poses to herself, a question she poses about her own writing. In a letter to Margaret Llewellyn Davies, Woolf writes: “My dear Margaret what’s the use of my writing novels” (cited in Bell 1972, 29). The question of use matters to a woman writer as a question of confidence, a question of whether the books she sends out can enable a way of “living differently” to borrow Peggy’s terms. It implies that that some things we do, things we are used to or are told to get used to, are in the way of a feminist project of living differently. The woman writer is trying to craft an existence, to write, to make something, in a world in which she is usually cast as sister or wife. It is not surprising that when the world is not used to you, when you appear as unusual, use becomes what you question.
We might challenge how functionalism becomes fatalism; how (for some) for is treated as before, how some are given an end before they even begin. But in challenging how the requirement to be useful can be imposed upon us, we open up a conversation about usefulness and how it might matter. I think again of Audre Lorde who especially in her later work spoke often of her desire to be useful to others. She speaks too of her desire for her own death to be a useful death (1988, 53). She writes of how she thought about death, about how to die (as well how to live): “rather than just fall into death any old way, by default, according to someone else’s rules” (53). Not falling into death, not going the same way others are going, as things have gone before, requires asking questions. Usefulness here is about asking questions about how to do something; how to be something. She notes that you have no choice; mortality is the condition of having to die. But mortality acquires a different meaning for those whose existence is not supported: “We have all to die at least once. Making that death useful would be winning for me. I wasn’t supposed to exist anyway, not in any meaningful way in this fucked-up whiteboy’s world” (53).
Usefulness might matter more for those who are not “supposed to exist.” Usefulness becomes then a political address; a way of facing outwards, toward others. Audre Lorde teaches us that we need to keep the question of use alive not because use does not matter but because it does. What’s the use? I noted in my introduction how this question can sound like exasperation, giving up on the point of something. I considered how for Virginia Woolf that question, what’s the use? however difficult, throws everything into question. To make use a question is to inherit a feminist and queer project of living differently. Asking the point of use might be an address to. To be useful can be a way of addressing a world; a multiple plural to, to that faces many directions; to that can animate a life, too.
Animation: queer use as the work you have to do to be. The more you are blocked the more you have to try to find a way through. The less support you have the more support you need. We might become each other’s resources, we prop each other up, because we understand how diminishing it can be to have fight for an existence, to have to fight, even, to enter a room. Perhaps the harder it is to be, the more use you have for use.
Bell, Quentin (1972). Virginia Woolf: A Biography. Hogarth Press.
Lorde, Audre (1988). A Burst of Light, Essays. Ithaca, New York: Firebrand Books.
Woolf, Virginia  (2012)  The Years and Between the Acts. Wordsworth Classics.
I am sharing the last lecture I presented this academic year. I gave the lecture as part of the third Colonial Repercussions symposium curated by Nikita Dhawan for Akademie der Künste, June 23-24, 2018. It was helpful to share my work on diversity, complaint and use and to stretch myself somewhat by thinking of the hope of “no.” It was a delight to listen to reflections on colonial repercussions and planetary humanism by black feminists, feminists of colour and postcolonial scholars including Angela Davis and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. You can listen to the presentations here. I have resisted the temptation to add to the lecture – I am sharing what I presented. You can listen to more detailed presentations from my research into “the uses of use” here and from complaint here.
Whilst in Berlin I also read from Living a Feminist Life for a stand-alone event organised by Iris Rajanayagam for xart splitta. I want to thank all of those attended and especially those who shared some of their own experiences during the discussion.
Over the next two months I will be taking a break from my blog as I complete the finishing touches on my book, What’s the Use: On the Uses of Use.
I wish all you killjoys out there the hottest of feminist summers!
No! Refusal, Resignation and Complaint, Lecture presented by Sara Ahmed at Colonial Repercussions conference, Berlin, June 23 2018.
On March 10 2014 a panel Why Isn’t My Professor Black? took place at University College, London with Black British scholars William Ackah, Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman, Deborah Gabriel, Lisa Amanda Palmer, Nathan Richards and Shirley Tate (1). Why isn’t my Professor Black: what a necessary and urgent question! At the end of the panel, a member of the audience asked another necessary and urgent question about the UCL’s continued use of Francis Galton’s name. Galton as you probably know coined the word eugenics described by him as a science of improvement. Galton bequeathed funds to UCL (then London University) for a Professorship as well as Department of Eugenics. The UCL has removed the word Eugenics (they replaced it with genetics) but they have kept Galton’s name. The provost of the UCL at the panel justified the continued use of Galton’s name by saying “in my defence, I inherited him.” A use can be explained and defended as inheritance.
There has since been a wider and meaningful discussion of the role of Galton’s legacy at UCL. This questioning of a legacy was represented to the wider public as the Galton Must Fall Campaign. Whilst we might support such a campaign if it did indeed exist there was no such campaign; it was in fact invented to discredit the questioning of a legacy as censorship and vandalism. When it was pointed out that such a campaign did not exist, the newspaper made some small amendments clarifying that such a campaign “has yet to materialise.” What is clarifying is how discrediting works. To discredit the questioning of a legacy is to discredit the questioner. Even posing a question or making a history questionable is framed as vandalism, “a willful destruction of the venerable and beautiful.” A judgement can be turned into a project. If questioning what is received as inheritance is understood as damaging institutions, we need to damage institutions.
So much of the work we do is dealing with the consequences of the work we do. In my lecture today I want to talk about “no” as work : as the work you have to do in order not to reproduce an inheritance. We might think of no as expressive. The word express comes from press. It implies something that is squeezed out. To get a no out you have to do more than say no; a no needs somewhere to go. My talk will be concerned with we can call diversity work, the ordinary and painstaking work of working on institutions so they are more accommodating. I will be talking today specifically about working on universities: although I am no longer at a university I am still working on it. It might seem like an odd choice for an event on utopianism, desire and hope, to be talking about doing this kind of institutional work; the kind that often does not seem to get us very far. But for me it is from our small efforts to make room that we register the full force of what we are up against. Maybe what I will be offering today is a killjoy utopianism, a willingness to inhabit what seems negative as an insistence that worlds can be otherwise. We are willing to be there, in the wear and tear, for as long as it takes.
I will be drawing today on arguments from a book I have recently completed, What’s the Use: On the Uses of Use. In the book, I follow use around, the way I followed happiness in The Promise of Happiness, and will in Willful Subjects. And I have followed use right back into the university, as a way of thinking about how universities are built. We might recall how the use of Galton’s name is justified as inheritance. I will also be drawing on data I collected in project on diversity, first presented in my book, On Being Included as well as new material from my current research on complaint in which I have been talking to students, academics and administrators about their experience of making complaints within universities.
Uses of Use
To transform institutions requires becoming conscious of how they are built. We can think of this consciousness as consciousness of use. So I am start with use. To start with use is to start small: use is a small word with a lot of work to do; Rita Felski has described use as “work-man like” (2003, 5). Use when used as a verb can mean: to employ for some purpose, to expend or consume; to treat or behave toward; to take unfair advantage of or exploit; to habituate or accustom. Use is a relation as well as an activity that often points beyond something even when use is about something: to use something points to what something is “for.” Some objects are made in order to be used. What they are for brings them into existence. Even if something is shaped around what it is for, that is not the end of the story. As Howard Risatti notes in A Theory of Craft:
Use need not correspond to intended function. Most if not all objects can have a use, or, more accurately be made useable by being put to use. A sledgehammer can pound or it can be used as a paperweight or lever. A handsaw can cut a board and be used as straight-edge or to make music. A chair can be sat in and used to prop open a door. These uses make them “useful objects” but since they are unrelated to the intended purpose and function for which these objects were made, knowing these uses doesn’t necessarily reveal much about these objects (2007, 26).
Use can correspond to intended function, but use does not necessarily correspond to an intended function. This not is an opening. I am not so sure if uses are quite as unrevealing about things as Risatti implies at least here. I am being told something about the qualities of a sledgehammer that it can be used as a paperweight. That a sledgehammer can be used as a paperweight tells me about the heaviness of the sledgehammer. Something cannot be used for anything. Use is a restriction of possibility that is material. Nevertheless there is something queer about use; intentions do not exhaust possibilities.
Risatti implies that use makes something usable. Use also makes something used. Wear and tear usually means a depreciation of value. I think of the surface of a table, worn, scratched. Marx suggests that when a table is exchanged, it ceases to be a mundane object, “an ordinary sensuous thing.” To use the table is to bring it back to earth.
We can think of the marks left by use not as the erosion of value but as testimony.
The table testifies to a history.
Marx discusses wear and tear in relation to machines: “The material wear and tear of a machine is of two kinds. The one arises from use, as coins wear away by circulating, the other from non-use, as a sword rusts when left in its scabbard” ( 1990, 528). Machinery intensifies rather than saves labour: you have to get the most of the machine before it wears out, a wearing that is passed on to workers, wearing out as passing on and passing out; used as used up.
A worn thing might eventually break. When something breaks from use it might be taken out of use, rather like this cup, which has lost its handle.
It is a rather sad parting.
When we think of something in use, we might think of a sign on a door: occupied.
This sign tells us that the toilet is in use.
It tells us that we cannot use the toilet until whoever is using the toilet is finished using the toilet. Use often comes with instructions that are about maintaining personal and social boundaries.
Or take this image of a post box.
There is a sign that politely asks the would-be poster not to use the post box by posting a letter into the box. In the previous image the toilet was occupied because it was in use. In this case the post box is out of use because it is occupied. Although of course from another point of view, it is in use. The post box has provided a home for nesting birds. Intended functionality can mean who something is for, not just what something is for. Which means that: something can be used by those for whom it was not intended. A change of function does require a sign, “please do not use,” to stop what would be usual, that is, to stop a person from posting a letter through the box. The sign, we assume, is temporary. That box will come back into use as a post box when it ceases to be a nest.
Back into use: use can involve comings and goings.Take the example of the well-trodden path. The path exists in part because people have used it. Use involves contact and friction, the tread of feet smooths the surface; the path is becoming smoother, easier to follow.
The more a path is used the more a path is used.
How strange this sentence makes sense.
Without use a path might disappear, becoming overgrown, bumpy; unusable. Like this path; we know it is a path because of a sign.
But you can hardly see the sign for the leaves.
A path can appear as a line on a landscape. A path can also be a route through life. Heterosexuality can be a path; an easing of a passage, a clearing of a way forward. To deviate from that path can be hard. When it is harder to proceed, when a path is harder to follow, you might be discouraged; you might try and find another route. Think of how you can be dissuaded by perpetual reminders of how hard something would be. Deviation is hard. Deviation is made hard.
So much is reproduced by the requirement to follow. In the academy you might be asked to follow the well-trodden paths of citation; to cite properly as to cite those deemed to have already the most influence. The more a path is used the more a path is used.
The more he is cited the more he is cited.
A path is kept clear through work; occupation depends upon erasure; such and such white man might become an originator of a concept, an idea as becoming seminal, by removing traces of those who were here before. When use leaves traces in places, occupation can involve the removal of those traces (2).
On Being Stopped
Diversity work is the work of trying to transform institutions by opening them up to populations that have hitherto been excluded; diversity work as deviating from the well-used paths, as not going the way things are flowing. And yet at another level diversity seems to be a rather well-used path, an arrow even, which can be an instruction and thus a direction:
Go that way!
The ease with which diversity travels might be why diversity work is hard work. One diversity worker describes diversity as “a big shiny apple”: “it all looks wonderful but the inequalities aren’t being addressed.” The word diversity might be used more because it does less. Diversity can be a sign of the difficulty of getting through.This practitioner described her own work thus “it’s a banging your head against a brick wall job.”