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Interview with Sara Ahmed

Consider the exclamation mark. Medieval in origin, this blink of ink has a gift for controversy. A single point can signal a moment of joy or incredulity. Use two or more, though, and risk being dismissed as shrill or shouty, especially if you are a woman.

 

Feminist thinker and independent scholar Sara Ahmed has written 11 books, but her latest, Complaint! (2021), is the only one to employ an exclamation in its title. Yet to immerse oneself in her body of work – which includes several public lectures, seminars and workshops – is to feel an intensification of everyday experience. Her works are all attuned to affect, wilful subjects, and the phenomenology of trying to make yourself heard while living in a marked body: as an ‘unhappy queer’,’ a ‘melancholic migrant’, a woman and/or person of colour. As Ahmed wrote in What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use (2019), ‘Sometimes, I feel like I am an exclamation point, as if in being I am shrieking.’

 

In that book, a roving work of phenomenology, she examines ‘use as technique’ by closely examining a constellation of things, including an empty tube of toothpaste, a postbox, an arm and Jeremy Bentham’s desiccated body. She shows how utilitarianism was historically used to shape the subjectivities of those deemed least desirable and most disposable – the poor, the incarcerated, the orphaned and the unhoused.

 

What’s the Use? is the final book in a trilogy that began with The Promise of Happiness (2010), which looks at the regulatory uses of happiness, followed by Willful Subjects (2014), which valorises ‘wilfulness’ – a disposition towards disobedience, or to be ‘what gets in the way of what is on the way’ – as a way for feminists and minority groups to assert agency. In its own way, each of her books tracks, with forensic care and attention, the peristalsis of power: what feeds it, what impedes it, what lubricates its sinuous passage through the halls of institutions and everyday life. Bodies, for Ahmed, are a locus of feminist investigation. Having an ‘out of skin’ experience – being at odds with the world or with the promises that mark its horizon – can be the starting point for a revolutionary consciousness. It can help us recognise that the disciplinary walls of the institution or the ‘happy family’ conspire to individually pathologise people, rendering their subjectivity and citizenship conditional. It can turn us into ‘affect aliens’ or, to invoke the phrase for which she is probably most well-known, ‘feminist killjoys’.

 

In September and November of 2021, Ahmed and I exchanged emails about Complaint!, which looks at complaint as a ‘feminist pedagogy’, and which she completed during the coronavirus pandemic. The book opens a vein, drawing from numerous written and oral testimonies of beleaguered individuals in the university setting who complained to Ahmed about bullying, harassment and normative structures that prevent their flourishing. Many of the concerns in Complaint! are prefigured in earlier works, which similarly indicted universities for protecting sexual harassers. Her new book is no less urgent, offering a ‘weary hope’ to wilful readers, refusers and resisters.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— In Living a Feminist Life (2016) you write that ‘Hope is not at the expense of struggle but animates a struggle.’ The question of living a feminist life – figuring out how to create a less unequal world – can be all-consuming. How have you been able to sustain hope from project to project? Where are you drawing hope from these days?

A

SARA AHMED

— Writing gives me hope, as it is about connecting what we are doing to what came before, to who comes after. Reading is also for me a way of being ‘in connection’. When I am feeling despair, political or otherwise, I tend to write or read. I often read Audre Lorde – her prose or poetry is always close to hand. For me, reading and writing are profoundly optimistic gestures. But that does not mean they are that for everyone. We take up the struggle differently. I am always struck not only by how hard people fight for more just worlds, but how there is creativity in that fight. This means that what is creative is close to what is exhausting. I draw hope from writing as I draw hope from connection, community and from political struggle.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012) was the first of your books to draw heavily on qualitative empirical research, synthesising interviews with an array of subjects. It made me think of the form of the gathering, or bringing people together to discuss a common grievance or for a shared aim, which in turn structures how they feel, act and react to the world. It has often been observed that one of first signs of a society devolving into authoritarianism is that the right to assemble gets trampled upon. Reading your interviews with communication workers, diversity practitioners (those working on diversity initiatives in academic settings) and complainers makes me wonder how these experiences, once entered into the written record, might feed back into the real world. What was your hope for writing On Being Included, and do you think your goal has been realised?

A

SARA AHMED

— I don’t think I had a specific goal for this book. I just wanted to share what I had learnt from talking to diversity practitioners. I wanted to share their wisdom. We learn so much about institutions from those given the task of transforming them. But we also learn from the fact that they are who teach us! It is practitioners who know from first-hand experience the gap between what institutions say they do, or what they say they are committed to, and what they do. I didn’t want the time that practitioners gave me – the energy – to disappear or be funnelled into academic papers no one reads. On Being Included was a hard book to write – the most difficult book I have had to write – in part because I did not go much further than describe the exhaustion of doing the work and the exhaustion of what the work does not do. But I am glad I put it out there, and that it can be of use to those who are trying to transform institutions, who know all about those walls.

 

It was extremely hard to get a publisher for On Being Included – I wanted a UK/European publisher given the focus. So many publishers said there was no market for it. Duke University Press, my publisher, does not tend to speak of the value of books in terms of markets. This book has a very wide and growing readership. It is being read more now than when it came out a decade ago, probably because the material has if anything acquired more relevance. The genre of the ‘non-performative’ has proliferated since the book came out; I am thinking here of all those organisations making statements about how Black Lives Matter whilst remaining hostile environments for Black people.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— In The Promise of Happiness you write about happiness as a moral imperative that shores up (hetero)normative visions of the family, community, state and nation. In What’s the Use?, you showed how the idée fixe of utilitarianism (maximising public utility) was yoked to the oppressive imperative to be happy by educators like Jeremy Bentham. In the British colonies, Indian children were indoctrinated to serve a useful function for colonial companies and were promised that in fulfilling that function, they would be happy. Happiness, you write, instantiates ‘a hopeful performative’. What do you mean by this? Is the responsibility for generating such a ‘feeling-state’ one that falls more heavily on the shoulders of women?

A

SARA AHMED

The Promise of Happiness does offer a critique of positive psychology as a way of thinking about human subjectivity. The ‘hopeful performative’ is my term for a kind of ‘task’ given to subjects to think or talk themselves into more positive or happier states of being. I am quite sure that these tasks are gendered, falling more heavily upon women. Some are made responsible not only for trying to make themselves happier but for making others happier, too. I have been returning to some of this material in my chapter ‘The Feminist Killjoy as Cultural Critic’, in the forthcoming The Feminist Killjoy Handbook. I have been thinking of the hopeful performative as a kind of polishing (drawing on Simone de Beauvoir, as well as the academic Anne McClintock, on polishing as domestic labour). Polishing is about the creation of a shiny surface. You can create an appearance of happiness by removing what does not correspond to it. To polish is also to remove the polish, the labour, from the appearance. I had already described diversity as ‘institutional polishing’ in Living a Feminist Life. I think the happiness duty can also fall on people of colour. We have to remove so much from ourselves to provide organisations with shiny happy diversity. We can also think of imperial history as polished, how the violence of empire is removed by how it is remembered (that story of empire as a gift of modernity). What is polished has not gone away. This is why to see through happiness is to encounter what is real.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Your new book, Complaint!, assembles a patchwork of complaints about abuses of power within universities. Elsewhere, you’ve mentioned that the seeds of this book were planted after you resigned from your position as Professor of Race and Cultural Studies and Director of the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths, University of London over the university’s normalisation of sexual harassment. Your resignation letter attracted much attention, and you became part of a ‘complaint collective’, which was a kind of early iteration of this book: a place for stitching together grievances that have been dispersed through disciplinary and structural boundaries. Can you talk about the personal dimension of complaints?

A

SARA AHMED

— Before I answer your question, it is worth pointing out that the timeline of Complaint! is messy. I decided to research complaints whilst I was in the middle of a long complaint process that involved multiple enquiries. I was supporting students who had submitted a collective complaint about sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. I realised that despite the indications that the university was going to take their complaint seriously – they held the enquiries after all – there was so much they were not going to recognise or do. We realised there was not going to be any public acknowledgement that the enquiries had even happened, let alone a discussion of a problem with the institutional culture they revealed. That silence was a wall. I decided to do the research before I resigned because I realised that if we asked people about their experience of making complaints, we would learn so much about institutions. And then, when I resigned, a ‘complaint collective’ did indeed take form (although I did not use that term – it came from doing the research). Not all of this collectivity was public. So many people who I had never met got in touch with me to check in and ask if I was alright and to thank me for taking a stand. So many people shared with me their own stories of what happened when they complained. The conclusion of Complaint! has a discussion of resignation letters, how they can become part of the work of complaint in sometimes surprising ways.

 

There is so much work in the complaint and that work is mostly withdrawn or hidden. That work gets me to your question! Making a complaint can feel like becoming institutionalised: you have to fill in forms and follow procedures, paths laid out by the institution. And, then, your complaint often ends up in a file. It is you, a person or a group of people, who is doing that work, who is filling that file. The harder it is to get through, the more you have to do. And the more you have to do, the heavier the file. But it is not just the file that becomes heavier. We can experience complaint as weight. People told me where or how they felt the weight of complaint; in their necks, or backs or on skin. I think of one senior researcher who made a complaint about bullying. She was so  traumatised by the process that her periods stopped. That detail was in a document. That document was in a file. And that file was held by the institution. If the personal is institutional, the story of complaint can be one of alienation, of becoming alienated from one’s body and being. In other words, alienation can be how the institutional is made personal. What they file, we store, often in our bodies. This is why our bodies can tell us so much about institutions.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Complaints can be an expression of a ‘snap’, marking a kind of breaking point, as well as of grief or pain. A disabled student in a wheelchair might, for instance, complain that doorways are too narrow and therefore inaccessible. If you run into the same problem repeatedly, you can start to think that you are the problem. How is making a complaint connected with diversity work?

A

SARA AHMED

— If my project began as a project on formal complaints, I realised very quickly that to keep that focus would be to narrow it too much, to miss too much. Thinking of complaint as diversity work was a way of showing how the work of complaint exceeds the form of complaint. In On Being Included and Living a Feminist Life, I understood diversity work in two senses: the work we do when we try to transform institutions and the work we do when we do not quite inhabit the norms of institutions. These two senses often meet in a body: those who do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution are often given the task of transforming these norms.

 

If you have to ask for an accessible room, you are not making a complaint in any formal sense. You are asking in fact for what is necessary to do your work, you are asking to receive something to which you are entitled. But you are still often heard as complaining, as being negative, and as getting in the way of others – those who are already accommodated. One disabled student told me how she was perceived as a ‘complete pain in the ass’ when she asked for reasonable accommodations, for what she needed to do her work. She said to counter that perception, you have to appear ‘grovelingly grateful’ or even to become a ‘cheerleader’ for the organisation. Trying to manage perception, not to appear as a complainer, to maximise the distance between yourself and that figure, is diversity work and the work of complaint. So, although she did end up having to make a formal complaint to get what she needed, the work of complaint began long before that. Complaint can be about the work some have to do to enter or to be in institutions that are not built for them, as well as the work we do to make institutions more accommodating.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Lodging a complaint can turn one into ‘an institutional plumber’, you write. There’s a way in which making a complaint can dislodge other (similar) complaints that may have been stalled. You also write that in deciding to go public with your reasons for resigning, you became ‘a leak’. One can trace in your work a motif of dripping, making a mess, refusing to be contained and constrained by institutional structures.
A

SARA AHMED

— I first used the term ‘institutional plumber’ in my book On Being Included. It was the term that came to mind as I was listening to diversity practitioners talk about their work. Diversity practitioners are typically employed by organisations to institutionalise their commitments to diversity. And yet, they often experience the organisation as blocking their efforts. If the institution has many pipes, literal and metaphoric, systems for passing materials around (including waste), diversity practitioners come to know these systems because of how much gets stuck in them. I was rather surprised by the extent to which my research on complaint returned me to this earlier work. I was surprised in part as a complainer or complainant seems to be in a structurally different position to that of a diversity practitioner who, in the UK at least, is typically an administrator. The points of similarity seem to be around an experience of ‘stuckness’. The complainer often ends up having to administer the complaint process; they have to do what they can to keep the complaint moving. And they learn about institutions from the difficulties they have getting a complaint through them.

 

Even if you get a complaint through the system, complaints are mostly made behind closed doors, which means people don’t tend to hear about them. So, if complaints get through, they often don’t get out. A complaint might be filed away. Or a complaint might end up in the ‘complaint graveyard’, to use an evocative image shared by one student. Perhaps filing cabinets can be graves. Or we might end up filing complaints away ourselves. I think of a woman professor who, after describing how a sexist and heterosexist comment at a meeting became a bonding moment between men, said, ‘you file it under “don’t go there”’. The file ‘don’t go there’ tells us where we have been. We might file away what it hardest to handle. If so, then a file becomes a handle. Sometimes, to get the complaint out, we need to snap or to fly off the handle. And because of how many complaints have been co tained (whether in cabinets, our bodies or both) to leak can be to let out more than a single complaint; it can be to let all of them out, all the complaints that have previously been filed or suppressed. Complaints can end up all over the place. We can, too. If we let something out, whether by writing a blog post like I did, or making a loud sound in a meeting, or writing a resignation letter that could land anywhere, or distributing leaflets that name harassers who have been protected by their colleagues, to reference some of the leaky actions described in my book, others can find us. This is what I mean by ‘a leak as a lead’. I also describe mess as a queer map; if a complaint can leave a trail as well as be a tale, a complaint can be how we know where to go to find each other.

 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

SARA AHMED is an independent scholar and author of Complaint!, What’s the Use?, Living a Feminist Life, and other books published by Duke University Press.

Rhoda Feng is a freelance writer in New York.

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