‘Complaint!’ A (Complaint) Collective Book Review: Part I

This post, by Rachel Jane Liebert, is Part I of a series of responses to Complaint! by Sara Ahmed (2021: Duke University Press). For the other contributions, click here.

“To complain is to admit the truth of violence. To complain is to let the ghosts in. To be haunted is to be hit by an inheritance” (Ahmed, 2021: 308)

I had not paused on doorways, in doorways, before reading Complaint!. Covered in an inherited lube, in the blood of my settler ancestors, the bloodshed of militia and missionaries, I have lived my life moving quickly, easily, pleasantly through them – at least as they operate in a white supremacy.

“When a door is opened for you, you do not even have to notice the door” (233)

Sara Ahmed, however, notices doors, pauses on and in doorways. They are the shape of Complaint!, the space of complaint. Learning from her own experiences of complaint within a university, experiences of strangeness and silence, she assembles 40 interviews, 18 written testimonies and hundreds of informal communications from people who have done the same. Together these complaints “scratch” at the structural intersections of race, class, sex, gender, disability, sexuality, seniority, forming a “complaint collective” whose “institutional wisdom” about “institutional violence” can teach us about doors. When are they open, shut, locked, blocked, guarded, solid, see-through, (too) heavy, (too) narrow, unmarked, marked, revolving, dressed? What can these “uses” teach us about the mechanics of how institutions work and reproduce themselves, of “how the [master’s] house is built and for whom” (177)? How does this “sorting system” have a history? Can we change it?

“What if we were to listen to the door rather than through the door?” (175)

Yet there is even more to this explicitly feminist pedagogy. Sara Ahmed’s Complaint! collective welcomes the reader in, reminding us that “we are not alone” (278). That doorways are populated, haunted. Even if we feel like a “lonely little ghost” (308). Even if Complaint! was “hard to read” (277).

Complaint! was hard to read. By the end of the second paragraph, I had scribbled in the margins, “I can already feel myself getting angry – something is s/welling up in my forearms and chest, my nostrils are flaring – I can’t tell if it’s to start a snarl or to stop tears”. As I continued through page after page of familiar testimonies, I became metaphorically and literally inflamed – furious, fatigued – recalling painful memories of complaint, many of which I had buried. Through Complaint! I learned not only that the universities within which I have tried to create change are “graveyards”, but that my own body is too.

Image from Mike Hindle on Unsplash

Complaint! was an experience. This is testimony to not just Sara Ahmed’s feminist “ear”-cum-method and (therefore) profoundly sensitive, care-full analyses – hearing “who is not heard, how we are not heard”, becoming “attuned to those who are tuned out”, including ourselves (4). It is also testimony to her characteristic attention to form. Complaint!’s poetic style enacts the nature of complaint – repetitive, loopy and peppered with a kind of absurdity that at times even ruptured my reading with a lol, feeling a shared joke, part of a united underground. Indeed, I came to wonder if it is this capacity to respectfully conjure both the serious and the playful that brings a ‘magic’ (Stengers 2012) to Sara Ahmed’s writing, a beckoning of possibility within a context of institutional violence – so oppressive, so omnipresent, so often made “immaterial, small, insignificant” through the very process of complaint itself (172).

“[A] hearing can be a disappearing; we are back to those magic tricks; puff puff” (84)

Sara Ahmed’s use of form is done through not only words but also imagery. A filing cabinet becomes a cemetery and a closet, a scribble becomes a mess and a map, scratches on a brick wall become our limits and our legacy. ‘Re-turning’ (Barad 2014) the banal over and over again – aerating it – these ‘reparative reads’ (Sedgwick 2003) invite everyday punctures, everyday prods not only that something else is possible, but that that something may be right here, right now; a sense so needed within coloniality, within a ‘state of breathlessness’ (Maldonado-Torres 2016).

“Long corridors, locked doors, windows with blinds that come down: if these are familiar features of our built environment, what is familiar can also be what is suffocating. You don’t have enough air, you cannot breathe.” (41)

If Complaint! was an experience, it also became an experiment[1]. Can I survive Complaint!? Can I sustain complaint? Having tried as a white, female psychologist to do decolonising work in a London university – a “colonial archive” in and of itself, invested in denial, in destruction (292) – I felt near dead when I started reading Complaint!. Sara Ahmed describes complaining as a “phenomenology” of the institution – one ends up re-entering the university “through the back door” (276), finding more doors, more corners, more shadows, more ghosts – and “you can’t unsee what you have come to see” (p. 19). Complaining, then, is a politicising process. Or, as I share with my white students, if you don’t yet see and feel white supremacy, poke it: it will bite. And it is hard(er) to ignore what makes us bleed.

“When you throw your body into the system to try to stop it from working, you feel the impact of how things are working” (171)

But it was not affirmation or solidarity that I found myself looking for in these pages; it was my complicity.

“To complain is to admit the truth of violence”

I have had so many dreams of bleeding lately. Seeing my blood, my ancestors all over my white, female body. If I felt near dead when starting Complaint!, I felt near the dead after finishing it. As Sara Ahmed points out, graveyards are actually rather lively, full of not-so-lonely little ghosts, of those who have come before, complained before. Indeed, she considers Complaint! an “unburial”:

The sound of the book is not just the sound of institutional machinery – that clunk, clunk – but the sound of the effort of coming up, of what we bring when we bring something up; who, too we bring up. The physical effort, you can hear it: the wear and tear, the moans, the groans … We can hear it in our own voices, we can hear it in each other’s voices. We can hear it because we feel it: the sound of how hard we keep having to push. I think of that push as collective, a complaint collective (276).

I hear you, Sara Ahmed; I am trying to hear these ghosts. To feel these ghosts, learn from them, push with them. Yet I also hear and feel the wearing, tearing, moaning, groaning, pushing of Jane “Grannie” Glasgow in 1842, giving birth to my great-great-grandfather. One of the wives of Irish Presbyterian missionaries based in Gujarat, we are told she had a “prolonged and difficult labour” after refusing to let an Indian midwife turn her breech baby, to touch her.

The doorways in my white body are populated with these kinds of ghosts too: the colonising kind, the racist kind. Should I attune to them? Can I learn from them? From their “immanence”?

“[I]mmanence implies what we are in, as presence or even the present, but it can also imply what remains, immanence as what carries on from the past, what has not been transcended or what we are not over” (102).

Early on in Complaint!, Sara Ahmed invites readers to consider how we would give our own “complaint biography”. That is, “to think of the life of a complaint in relation to the life of a person or group of people” and therefore “to recognize that a complaint, in being lodged somewhere, starts somewhere else” (20). What, then, if my complaints, lodged in the past four years at a London university, started in the nineteenth century Irish Presbyterian mission of Gujarat, where the wives of missionaries were teachers, contributing to the colonisation of first India and then Aotearoa through not just the Church but also education? I am a white, female teacher in a British university where the vast majority of students are first or second generation from ex-British colonies. If I don’t actively try to interrupt coloniality then doesn’t my body’s very presence simply reproduce my ancestors’ legacy of colonial education? And yet, how can I interrupt coloniality in a university for black and brown students without likewise becoming saviour, master?

“[W]hiteness can be just as occupying of issues or spaces when they are designated decolonial” (158).

“To complain is to let the ghosts in”

One thing I am learning through complaint/Complaint! is that this ‘innocent’ reproduction may not just be despite my (ancestors’) intentions – our supposed godliness, goodness – but also because of them. I thought of these ancestors when I thought of the well-meaning senior, white, female, feminist colleague (a figure that the Complaint! collective is very familiar with) advising me to “smile more” after my attempts to raise the coloniality of the curriculum at a staff meeting. And I thought of this advice, when I read Sara Ahmed’s account of a female student who – after escaping the office of a male staff member when he sexually assaulted her – was asked by senior management to sit down with him and have a cup of tea.

Smile more, have a cup of tea. Be nice, quiet, virtuous (73), conciliatory (210). A White Woman. Sip sweetly from colonialism, from genocide. Trade submission for privilege, for career. Become ‘professionally racist’ (Kinouani 2021, my emphasis).

White liberal feminism: When career advancement for individual women is dependent on the extent to which they show they are willing not to address institutional problems. Silence as promotion” (254, Ahmed’s italics).

Image from Dewang Gupta on Unsplash.com

‘Reward’, Sara Ahmed tells us, comes from warder, “to guard” (100). In white institutions, she continues, everyone gets rewarded for whiteness, for watching what we (or others) say, for becoming agents of surveillance, reproducing the “institutional legacy”. While she writes of this poisoned promise as necessary for POC safety or survival, as laboured and precarious, for me as a white woman it feels seductively available – speedy, easy, pleasant. There’s that lube again, oiling white bodies, oiling colonial cogs.

“Doing nothing is doing something” (132-3)

Complaint! is teaching me about (how complaint is teaching me about) whiteness, although I wonder if this is not just any kind of whiteness. The majority of testimonies assembled by Sara Ahmed were from UK universities; the others were mainly from ex-British colonies. Could it be that they document a particular kind of whiteness, an (exported) whiteness of the metropole, of settler colonialism?

“To hear complaint is to learn about occupation” (174)

An occupation that can look like ‘conviviality’ (Tate 2017, as cited on 159), politeness (162), diversity (162), collegiality (201), like not noticing (p. 201), like saying – even feeling – that there is nothing you can do (248). An occupation that can be disquietingly quiet. Indeed Sara Ahmed notes how words like “odd, bizarre, weird, strange and disorienting” (44) came up repeatedly in the Complaint!collective when people described the institutional violence they experienced. She understands this repetition through her own earlier concept of “non-performativity” – those institutional speech acts that do not do what they say, creating a “gap between appearance and experience” (41), a gap that can be excruciating (56), cruel (57).

“That conversation you have with yourself – it’s me, it’s the system, it’s me, it’s the system – takes time. And it can feel like everything is just spinning around” (150)

For Sara Ahmed, in complaining we come to inhabit this “strange and queer world of the non-performative” (52). For her personally, this was an experience of constantly “switching dimensions”, of being forced to keep participating in the ‘real world’ of an institution that felt increasingly unreal (44). In turn Complaint! obliged a respect for those ways of knowing that are “queer”, aka “strange or wonky” (43). Sara Ahmed welcomes embodied, non-rational, more-than-human knowledges otherwise marginalised, derogated, exiled from the colonial episteme – and necessary if ‘decolonisation’ is going to be more than a metaphor (Tuck and Yang 2012). As a research project, then, Complaint! is a radical intervention in the coloniality of not just universities’ institutional mechanics, but one of their main currencies: data.

“[Bodies] store what minds file away” (109)

What minds file away; what coloniality files away. Complaint! respects the disrespected, hears the unheard, articulates the inarticulable, validating our ‘borderland’ (Anzaldúa 1987) sense that something is up, our experiences even as they are being erased – including this experience of erasure. We are back to Sara Ahmed’s feminist ear-cum-method, to being welcomed into a collective, to being gently encouraged to keep complaining – even through a whisper (262), or a mess (298), or simply appearing when otherwise expected or demanded to disappear (302).

To be clear: this last tactic is not mine to claim. As above, I cannot complain simply by appearing in a white institution, an institution that is made for me. My white, female presence is not a complaint in and of itself; it is a reproductive body for white supremacy (Lugones 2007).

“To be haunted is to be hit by an inheritance”

I am currently waiting to give birth. As I write this and feel our baby kick – so much kicking (especially when I drink tea…) – I am reminded that the blood in my dreams is not just my ancestors; it is my descendants too. And that this time around, Grannie Glasgow’s story of racism and breach might become one of complaint and breech. That is, I have finished Complaint! with an understanding of complaint as an obligatory part of my response-ability to breach the bloody legacy of my ancestors.

“A complaint as what we try and do to stop the same thing from happening” (164, her italics)

This “nonreproductive labour” can feel like nothing is happening, but at the very least is “a way of not doing nothing” (165, her italics) and thus, for a white woman, could perhaps be approached as a kind of dis-inheritance – passed on not with lube so much as Sara Ahmed’s “wary hope”, “close to the ground, even below the ground, slow, low, below; a hope born from what is worn” (289) – both drawing on and nurturing a “transgenerational intimacy” offered by the very act of complaining. Indeed for Sara Ahmed, Complaint!/complaint is ultimately about this kind of “slow inheritance” – the wary, collective, queer (“coming out all over the place”, 291), unknown yet inevitable impact of our efforts to stop institutional violence.

“No doors are solid enough to stop the ghosts from entering. The complaints in the graveyard can come back to haunt institutions. We can come back to haunt institutions. It is a promise” (308)

Non-reproductive labour. Collage by reviewer.


Anzaldúa, Gloria. 1987. Borderlands/La frontera: The new mestiza. Aunt Lute Books.

Barad, Karen. 2014. “Diffracting diffraction: Cutting together-apart.” parallax 20 (3): 168-187.

Kinouani, Guilaine. 2021. Living While Black: The essential guide to overcoming racial trauma. Ebury Press.

Lugones, María. 2007. “Heterosexualism and the colonial/modern gender system.” Hypatia 22 (1): 186-219.

Maldonado-Torres, Nelson. 2016. “Outline of ten theses on coloniality and decoloniality.” Accessed 17th Jan, 2022.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 2003. “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You.” In Touching Feeling, 123-152. Duke University Press.

Stengers, Isabelle. 2012. “Reclaiming animism”. Efflux 36.

Tate, Shirley Anne. 2017. “How Do You Feel? ‘Well-Being’ as a Deracinated Strategic Goal in UK Universities.” In Inside the Ivory Tower: Narratives of Women of Colour Surviving and Thriving in British Academia, edited by Deborah Gabriel and Shirley Anne Tate, 54–66. ioe Press.

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. 2012. “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1 (1): 1-40.

Rachel Jane Liebert collaborates with decolonising and feminist scholarship, art and activism to trace the circulation of psy within coloniality and experiment with participatory and more-than-human alternatives. Her 2019 book, Psycurity: Colonialism, Paranoia and the War on Imagination, became a performative examination of otherworldly potential within white supremacy; her current project explores embodied, inspirited praxes for engaging settler ancestors and doing whiteness differently. She is a Senior Lecturer and EDI Lead in Psychology at the University of East London, and co-curator of Awry2 – a space for psychologists to experiment with form as a commitment to decoloniality. Contact Rachel at r.liebert@uel.ac.uk.

For the other contributions to this Complaint! collective review, click here.

[1] Etymologically, experience and experiment share the same root, see https://www.etymonline.com/word/experience

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