Complaint!, by Sara Ahmed

Emma Rees is impressed by a disturbing study of how universities largely fail to address their employees’ grievances

December 2, 2021
Source: Getty

The front cover of this book from the patron saint of self-professed feminist killjoys, Sara Ahmed, features two doors by Rachel Whiteread. Those familiar with Whiteread’s work, though, will soon realise that they are and are not doors; they’re the casts or impressions of two doors. This presence-via-absence is a hallmark of the artist, whose playfulness around perspective and phenomenology is what fans of Ahmed’s writing will instantly recognise in Complaint!.

Such paradoxes are central to how Ahmed articulates her feminism. It’s feminism that isn’t out to win friends but should certainly influence people. It’s angry because anger is required. And it’s collective and inclusive.

“As a feminist of color,” Ahmed writes, “many of my experiences of being a feminist killjoy are of killing feminist joy, for instance, by pointing out racism in so much feminist politics or by identifying the whiteness of so many feminist spaces.” The accessibility of spaces – both feminist and decidedly non-feminist – is where the doors come in (and go out). Doors, both literal and metaphorical, are central to Complaint! because doors are instrumental in how universities (don’t) handle complaints: “Doors teach us about power: who is enabled by the institution, who is stopped from getting in or getting through.”

The types of complaint Ahmed covers are depressing in their predictable familiarity – who hasn’t worked or studied in a university where, for example, certain predatory male professors are widely known for being “handsy”, crude or inebriated? Ahmed began to write Complaint! before her own resignation from Goldsmiths, University of London in 2016. That the press picked up on her departure opened up a way for people to share their stories with her, and so the book’s trajectory changed to what it is now. Unsurprisingly, Ahmed refers to her own situation more than once in Complaint!. “If speaking out about sexual harassment made me unemployable (as an academic),” she writes, “I was willing to become unemployable (as an academic).”

For this book, she interviewed 40 “students, academics, researchers, and administrators who had been involved in some way in a formal complaint process”. These interviews, not least because of the exhausting (and, in many cases, life-altering) nature of what was being complained about, become “testimonies”. Ahmed bore witness to these moving and “solemn statements about a crisis or trauma”. And, ever quick to pick up on ironies and contradictions, she nails it time after time. “Making a complaint is often necessary because of a crisis or trauma,” she writes, but “the complaint often becomes part of the crisis or trauma”. Such phrases characterise Ahmed’s Möbius band idiolect; they hit home because of the writer’s extraordinary skill.

Another door Ahmed considers is the closed one behind which “shadow policies” – decisions made despite a university’s formal, outward-facing procedures – are made, by the back door. The shadows might be dispersed, and serious systemic failings might be overcome, by a pooling of efforts. Complainants, if they work together, can combine a wealth of “institutional wisdom”. (By way of collaborative example, Complaint! has two conclusions – one by Ahmed alone; the other by a collective who have made complaints, only to be let down by their universities.)

“I think of how much we come to know by combining our forces, our energies,” writes Ahmed, “we are not alone. We sound louder when we are heard together; we are louder.”

Emma Rees is professor of literature and gender studies at the University of Chester, where she is director of the Institute of Gender Studies.

By Sara Ahmed
Duke University Press, 376pp, £91.00 and £23.99
ISBN 9781478015093 and 9781478017714
Published 24 September 2021

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Reader's comments (3)

What is a ‘ Möbius band idiolect’?
A habit of expression whereby the logic of the writing loops back on itself, chicken and egg-style.
A habit of expression whereby the logic of the writing loops back on itself, chicken and egg-style.