Sara Ahmed’s “complaint biography” and Affective Reflections on Our Institutional Ethics
The world is encountering an unprecedented scale of injustices all over. Each of us is replete with a never-ending number of complaints. Complaints never follow a straightforward linear model. The process of complaining and redressing grievances is a complex issue that functions within the powerplay of institutional mechanisms. Sara Ahmed, in her book Complaint!, has drawn an intimate account of complaints and their afterlives. Ahmed's book is the product of her prolonged interviewing of her peers and students in academia regarding the lived experience of the gap between their complaints and the institutional ordeals they went through. Pitching the ethics and the well-being approach towards the complainers, Ahmed emphasized both the act of complaining and hearing the complaints as a feminist practice. She refers to becoming "feminist ears" as a way of hearing students' complaints, sharing them and becoming a part of the collective, something she coins as "complaint activism."
In her book, Sara Ahmed embeds her own anecdote of resigning from her post as professor at the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths, University of London, in protest against the failure to address sexual harassment at her institution (she calls resignation a "feminist issue") as well as the testimonies of numerous others who complained seeking justice. "Complaint biography" is the catchphrase that Ahmed uses to point at the life of a complaint in relation to the life of a person or a group, i.e., how complaints start, what course they follow, how they affect the individuals, how they control our subsequent actions and feelings and finally how we carry the complaints with us. Complaints shape who we are and who we become; there is embeddedness in complaints. We are never the same once we complain or lodge an institutional complaint.
Ahmed argues that an affective (read: intimate) hearing of complaints requires a safe space, a place where the reinvocation of the memories of actions that led to the complaining process does not traumatize the complainer. A retelling of the complaint narrative is comparable to a composition where the complainer has to go through the fragments of memories (often painful), see them through the lens of complaints, name what happened, and "spill" them within the limits of time and space. So, it comes at the cost of mental labour that affects our physique. Ahmed calls the testimony of complaints "spillage."
Complaints have transformative potential, often at the cost of the complainers' mental and physical health. The toils that the complainer has to undergo are often overwhelming yet with the potential to destabilize the power relations. Ahmed argues that power shapes what happens once we complain. To complain against the power is to know about the power, is to deal with the monstrosity, and also to render oneself vulnerable. Once lodged, complaints reveal what Angela Davis calls the "intersectionality of struggle". However, when the complaints are shared, lodged and disseminated as a mode of solidarity towards vulnerability, vulnerability turns into an energy, a justice project. Complaints by the so-called less-powerful against the "more-powerful" rupture the complacency of being powerful and untouchable.
A few days ago, a Bangladeshi national daily published an op-ed regarding a Bangladeshi public university's unresolved sexual harassment cases. The title roughly translates as "Why so afraid to complain?" Well, this is not only the question of fear that restrains the complaining process but also about shame, stigma, and overall, the question of existence. While the events that led someone to complain had already caused enough damage, the formal protocol of complaining itself may incur a more damaging psycho-somatic impact on the complainer, a context that critical theorists term "affect theory" or "affective reading." Hence, our academic institutions must adopt an ethical and wellbeing-driven model to address complaints coming from any of its members, keeping in mind that students are rendered more vulnerable in this mechanism. The embodiment of the during- and after-effects has a life in itself that the complainer carries with themselves. Perhaps, that's why Ahmed calls her book "complaint biography," which chronicles the life of complaints.
Institutions should adopt a clear delineation of what can be considered harassment or abuse and what is complaint worthy. Some universities in Bangladesh have already proved to be meticulous in disseminating their policies regarding sexual harassment and abuse, though this is just an exception. Most universities either do not have clear documentation or do not make the documents available and/or usable/decipherable. To make the policies regarding the redressing of sexual harassment and other forms of abuse messy and wordy is itself a strategy to create a scary labyrinth of procedures. We should not turn the institutional complaining process itself into another form of harassment.
I saw a colleague vomiting after one of her departmental colleagues made an unguarded comment about her. This is the same instance where Ahmed talks about institutional violence that may occur even in the meetings where seniority is often weaponized as "reprimands, threats and warnings." Have we ever thought about how that colleague who digested all those bullying words was feeling while getting back home? In the Bangladeshi university context, seniority in age among peers comes with the taken-for-granted impression that junior colleagues (both in rank and age) can be reprimanded. This is how every day many undocumented injustices and abuses are produced as snippets of institutional violence. A student being asked "why are you so fat?" by a faculty has a similar emotional damaging impact as a colleague being called "rubbish" by another colleague. Words matter and can leave a damaging trace on ourselves. If we don't hear and don't address them, they become an institutional epidemic. While universities as a location of injustice and abuse mark a deviation from the institutional ideals, the space of the universities has transformational potential.
Complaint! is not a provocation to endless institutional mayhem of accusations against each other; rather, this book can be read as a critique of the institutional culture of "dismissal" of complaints and a cultural reading of the politics of emotion. What we can take away from her book is the importance of emotion and an understanding of its multidimensional consequences.
Sara Ahmed's book as a creative and critical product came out of a performative act of hearing complaints for almost a decade. By asking us to mind the gap between what is asked for and what is done by the universities regarding the complaints, she offers us a methodology of how to attend to (feminist hearing) complaints and how to create a narrative out of them to share with readers, complainers and the predators (why not!). Hearing and sharing can also be collective activism. Why Gayatri Spivak advocates for voicing or speaking within the feminist politics, Sara Ahmed pitches the importance of complaining and hearing as feminist solidarity. Both projects have academic implications in raising the series of micro injustices that turn our academia into an unwholesome space.
Currently on study leave from the Department of English, Jahangirnagar University, Kazi Ashraf Uddin is pursuing a PhD in the School of Law, Society and Criminology at the University of New South Wales, Australia.