Today I got sick again. I embraced my state as something that inevitably had to happen. I was waiting for it. My body gets infected every time I drain it with my enthusiastic behavior. Once in a while, it gets infected with different bacteria, viruses, and sometimes serious sickness that lasts for weeks. It always manifests as a fever that no Paracetamol in the world can solve, sharp pain in the kidneys or low back, and a sort of sadness.
I am very tired.
Today I sobbed after experiencing the drought syndrome I have been fighting for months. The long-awaited cry was performed on my kitchen floor while cutting the leaves of my grandma’s tea and sorting it out in the small jars. I gave the names after their purpose. For instance, the ”Kantarion Diary” killed the viruses in my body many times. I drink two extremely hot cups that almost burnt and melted my fingers. The pain felt very good. I enjoyed my fingertips embracing the heat while igniting the whole body.
And then I sang.
I sang so loud while screaming the words deep down from my stomach, the words that neither mean something nor actually exist. Sounds are being transmitted through my tight skin, through my body floating on the fever for the 10th hour today. It felt like I am flying on my kitchen table with the small tea forest surrounding me, barefoot, weak, and lost. It was my own crying stage that stopped right on time before somebody visited my world. Confused and scared, the visitor offered help. I rejected and proudly said: ”Today, I finally cried”.
In chapter 5, Sarah Ahmed explains how collegiality can stop complaints. According to her, colleagues are defended by superiors against complaints due to various private reasons – for example, they studied together, are friends or even a couple. Based on this, an invisible power structure can emerge that reinforces itself (cf. Ahmed 2021: 186-202).
These points made in »Complaint!« are reflected in a tool, used in the context of systemic coaching whenever clients feel like organizational structures prevent changes on a personal and a team level. Using the tool, the client is asked to create a subjective organization chart, by sketching the perceived relationship of the team members to each other. At this point, it is important to note that not the actual formal hierarchy, but the perceived and yet invisible power structures, as explained by Ahmed, are mapped (cf. BusCo Institut 2022) (Ill. 1).
Illustration 1: Invisible power structures (Based on BusCo Institut 2022)
After the client explains to the players on the map as well as their relations, the person is asked to mark alliances and coalitions. Alliances (Ill. 1) are strong bonds between two team members on the same level – for example, two students that are close friends – whereas coalitions (Ill. 1) are bonds between people on different formal hierarchical levels – for example, a relationship between a young academic and the head of a department. When dealing with alliances and coalitions as an affected person, there is one key point to be aware of: alliances can be softened by establishing a closer relationship with the people involved, but coalitions can generally not be softened or even entered (cf. BusCo Institut 2022).
It becomes obvious that in situations of harassment performed by superiors, alliances but especially coalitions are the reason why “their backs become doors; their hands become locks” (Ahmed 2021: 202), as Sara Ahmed writes. Unfortunately, since informal bonds are so strong that it is almost impossible “to tell them apart or to take them apart” (ibid.). Therefore, those whose complaint is stopped by the “human door” often have no choice but to leave the team or the organization.
Ahmed, Sara. Complaint!, New York, USA: Duke University Press, 2021.
Carlotta was a seven-year-old girl, living in a small town in Germany with her parents and her little brother Caspar. She was a girl with a blooming imagination who loved to wander the streets and observe. Sometimes, her dad even called her “my little daydreamer”, when she seemed to be caught in thoughts that made her forget the reality around her again.
Even on her way back from school, Carlotta always followed the same creative routines. First, she jumped out of the school door to not touch the big door threshold. She herself didn’t exactly know why – it just gave her a rewarding feeling. Just around the corner, she petted the coachman’s black stallion, when they weren’t on a tour showing tourists around the city center. Sometimes, she even fed him some of her leftover vegetables – he really loved yellow carrots. The last stop on her way home was the house of an old man called Oskar who often looked mad even though he had never been not nice to her. In his kitchen window, he had a green bubblehead that would bob its head up and down if Carlotta jumped up and down in front of it just hard enough. So that was what she did every day.She jumped as hard as she could to make the green sausage dog bob and then started laughing and dancing crazily in front of it before she finally went home for lunch.
One sunny Wednesday in March, she had just arrived at the green bubblehead and was about to start jumping when a loud drum startled her and made the sausage dog’s head nod. She felt a mixture of insecurity and anger as she turned around and saw a group of people holding signs and making noise with drums and whistles. She didn’t understand what they were doing, but she felt sad and angry, because they had ruined her play. With these feelings in her belly, she went home, threw her satchel into a corner, and sat down at the kitchen table with folded arms.
“What’s the matter my darling?”, her mum asked her. “THEY RUINED MY PLAY”, Carlotta shouted back at her. “Who are they?”, her mum asked while stroking her back and Carlotta started to explain what had just happened.
By the time Carlotta had told her story, her mum explained: “The people you saw are a group of activists, who demonstrate to make our city a nicer place for everybody. For example, if you want to take an official corona self-test, as we always do before visiting granny, you need to have a European passport. They are convinced that this is not fair, that it is discriminating, and they want to change it. They talked to the mayor and he always nodded and said “yes, I understand what you mean, we are going to investigate this further and come back to you” – but nothing happened afterward. They have already officially complained to the city council, but nothing changed and now they want to raise more attention by demonstrating. What I wanted to explain to you was: They didn’t want to disturb your game or even bully you.”
“Thanks for explaining this to me mummy”, Carlotta replied. As she understood that the people were demonstrating to draw attention to a topic and not just to be loud and mean, she felt a little bit guilty and made the decision to see if they would be there again on Wednesday the next week, to observe them again.
The next Wednesday, Carlotta basically ran to Oskar’s house after school and it was probably the first time she was happy that the coachman and his stallion were on a tour. When she arrived in front of Oskar’s kitchen window, she already heard the activists in the distance. As they came closer, she could see their faces. They didn’t look mean or angry at all this time, some of them she even recognized from her neighborhood. And she could really relate to what they were saying on their signs. For example, she read “No human is illegal” and although she didn’t know exactly what illegal was, she understood that it was something bad and she agreed that humans are not bad.
Turning her head a little, she realized that the green bubblehead was bobbing his head again due to the vibration of the activists’ drums. But this time, the bobbing didn’t make her feel like dancing. It even seemed like the sausage dog wasn’t really bobbing this time, but nodding at the protestants. “Just as the mayor reacted, from what mummy told me”, Carlotta said to herself, “He was nodding, but nothing changed.”
From thatday on, Carlotta’s view on the bubblehead had changed. She still took the same way home from school and sometimes she even had a little chat with Oskar when he was in the garden, but she didn’t jump in front of the bubblehead anymore. Carlotta even asked her mom if they could join the demonstration once in a while.
Just after I read chapter 2 of »Complaint« I went to the FLINTA*- Kampftag rally at the Theaterplatz where a young woman was courageously giving a speech on how she often does not respect her boundaries in order to please others. She even said something like: “It took me so many years of therapy to realize that I even have such a thing as boundaries.” I could relate to that. And to my mind, not expressing and advocating for your boundaries is directly related to what Sara Ahmed explains as “warnings [that are] an instruction about what you need to do in order to avoid a damaging situation” (Ahmed 2021: 70).
Especially as a young woman, I receive so many warnings that depict me as being self-damaging when I express personal boundaries, articulate my opinion or complain about institutional or societal problems. The sketch below shows me being influenced by such warnings. I wrote down a few that were still so present to me that I could easily remember them. They are representative of so many more.
Illustration 1: Receiving warnings
In this sketch, where I receive warnings, I decided to keep the warnings in my native language because I feel they have more impact on me that way
Fellow student: “Be careful not to complain too much or you’ll get a bad grade.” Grandma: “Don’t always complain or you’ll never find a boyfriend.” Dad: ”Don’t engage in political activism in Weimar – it could be dangerous.” Ex-boyfriend: “Why are you always so bitchy? It’s not that bad. I don’t like you like that.”
Ahmed, Sara. Complaint!, New York, USA: Duke University Press, 2021.
In the passage “Following procedures”, Ahmed describes how complaint processes are often represented as flowcharts that show how a complaint is recorded, seriously investigated and addressed, whereas actually making a complaint feels circular, confusing and messy (cf. Ahmed 2021: 31-39). Explaining reasons that lead to being blocked, not being heard, or realizing that even the complaint process is discriminating, she illustrates how undergoing a complaint process regularly causes feelings of being filed away or functioning as a testimony and fosters the need to complain even more.
To illustrate how a supposedly linear complaint process actually turns out to be a confusing and confounding systemic cycle, I extracted the arguments made by Ahmed in the passage “Following procedures” and developed a Causal Loop Diagram based on them. Causal Loop Diagrams are a system-theoretical method that allows to capture complex systemic relationships. By connecting variables, which in this case are Ahmeds points made in “following procedures”, with each other and adding positive and negative polarities, cause and effect loops are obtained. The formed causal loops either have a balancing or reinforcing effect on the initial situation, with respect to the main variable of the system (cf. Mabin et al 2006: 37 ff). In this case, I chose the perceived need to make a complaint as the main variable (Ill. 1, blue variable).
Illustration 1: Systemic loops of complaint (Based on Ahmed 2021: 31-39)
Generally, Causal Loop Diagrams help to capture and understand complex interrelations and unveil underlying structures and motives of a system (cf. Mabin et al 2006: 37 ff). However, as shown in the illustration, the complaint process as explained by Sarah Ahmed, can not be mapped in a clear and understandable way, because it holds loops of systemic blockage, frustration and disorientation.
As Ahmed describes it:” What leads you to make a complaint is what makes it hard to complain” (Ahmed 2021: 35). Looking at the loops mapped in the illustration, it becomes clear that this feeling – being pressured to undergo a painful complaint procedure to complain about something painful that has happened to you – constantly reinforces the perceived need to make a complaint (Ill. 1). Just one loop seems to have a balancing effect on the feeling of having to complain: It is the feeling of being heard (Ill 1, pink loop). But although this might at first make the complainant feel like the core problem that caused the complaint is being recognized and addressed, it must be noted that this feeling does not necessarily mean that the needed actions to change something are really being performed. This rather frustrating finding, expressed in the illustrated “systemic loops of complaint” underlines the following quote from Sarah Ahmed:
“Complaints end up referring to complaints; you have to keep dealing with what is not being dealt with; yes, once you start the process, it is hard to get out”. (Ahmed 2021: 37).
References: Ahmed, Sara. Complaint!, New York, USA: Duke University Press, 2021.
I am intrigued by the difference and distinguishment of formal and informal complaints. The book Complaint! By Sara Ahmed mainly addresses formal types of complaining but encourages complaining in all forms and shapes. “Formal” complaints are consider here those ones that follow procedures given by the institution, and “informal” are those who don’t ask for permission, are done without premeditated or stablished frame. I know filling forms and reporting in legal ways is the lets-say-propper-way to do things but is the informal way of complaining that captures my attention.
As Sara explains in Part III “Participation and protection”, there is a power when an action or protest reaches and interferes the reputation of the institution. It is this moment when the structure moves and reacts to an “attack”. If the procedure is kept in the shade of a folder it is less likely to success. I suggest that the procedures kept in the silent corridors of the institution can benefit when they are combined with posters, megaphones and graffitis.
But for sure there is a risk to sound radical, to make “too much noise” and be seen as over exaggerating. This might cause “neutral” people reject the original cause because of the “extremism”. This makes me think about what I have heard from (other) adults around me when protest and riots happen in the street and urban furniture or public properties are damaged. You can often hear things like “yes, I think the same but they have tho mind their manners”. I am sorry I do not care that much about those trash cans. Anyway, I can understand this but I will try to explain my point in the next paragraphs. I would like to add that writing about this confrontates my insides as it has been a while since I do any non formal complain that has this kind of impact. I am -just- writing in the internet.
In any case, here I share an overview of a good example where formal and informal types of complaining collide and work together. This is Emma Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight). It is mentioned in Sara Ahmed´s book in page 290 as an example to “turn spaces into complaints”. This case of complaint activism consist of complaining about the sexual assaults that happens in the campus of Columbia University. (Morningside Heights, Manhattan, in New York City). In this case, the former art student Emma Sulkowicz alleged to be raped by another student of the University and the institution never positioned in order to protect the victim. Her aim was to get the University to expel the alleged rapist. She made paperwork as well as act of protest in order to call attention to her situation.
She carried a mattress around campus as showing the physical place and physical burden that she has to carry. It was a 23 kg university dormitory mattress that she would have to carry following the rules of engagement she decided until her rapist was taken out of the University. The rules were written in the walls of her studio and she considers the piece as an endurance performance art. He was never expelled from the University and the paperwork procedure finished without charges, as a lack of reasonable suspicion.
Emma’s complaint was filled 8 months after the encounter and she made it mainly after knowing that two other female students who said they had also been victimized by him. After Emma’s complaint, these other students also filed complaints with the university against the same masculine student. This is a clear example of the behavior of complaints.
“One story coming out can lead to more stories coming out”
Sara Ahmed, Complaint!. Pg 8
Having the both paths to show discomfort about a rape situation (paperwork and performance), I would like to proceed and evaluate them as in different stats that can define the “power” of a complaint. Inspired by the interner phenomenon of “Tier lists” where users subjectively rank for example the characters of a video game based on stablished criteria, I will try to rank complaints as my own established stats.
I thought about five parameters to calculate how good a complaint is: – The importance for the person making the complaint. Does the person complaining feel satisfied with this action. – The impact on the environment. How did it affect to the mates, colleagues, team, family… – The impact on the institution. How did it affect the people that work in the institution/are part of the structure that the person complains about. – The changes on the institution. Did it change any rule or policy in the institution – The safety for the person making the complaint. Did the complainer expose themself to any possible external attack (example: revealing their names or face, being a body in a hostile space, compromising their career…)
This Emma Sulkowicz’s complaint comparison would look like the image below
Knowing the performance has better stats than the paperwork, I would suggest the performance would be in a higher rank in the list than the other option. But could the performance live without the paperwork? I could also consider if the complaint was only consisting about the performance, it would have been taken completely different by the public. The paperwork, the boring folder, is what grounds the procedure for the “real world”. Me personally, I hate to say this as I do find this ethically good but I also have to acknowledge the structure in which the institution positions us.
In my opinion, Emmas performance was a great example of the fruitfully relation between these two types of complaining. The performance made its way to media so it could gather attention of viewers. Therefore, the so mentioned environment grew. On the other hand, none of the paths had any “real” change in the institution. Should we think this complaint was a failure? I would leave that to the consideration of the viewer as I consider there is no way to have an answer for this. That also makes me think, how would a complaint with impeccable stats be? Is that even possible?
Rethinking the image, it also comes to my mind that it is overall sad. Despite the effort and time spent there was no real change in the institution. For sure, the noise being made and the attention in the case is not bad and it is better like this than without it. The times I am feeling weak and tragic I look at the “real” results and it just gives me hopelessness. Is it worth doing it?
As a conclusion, I understand the importance of the tedious filling forms format but I will always reassess and support the other kinds of complaints. (maybe they could be called in German as “bunte Beschwerden”?)
Ahmed, S. (2021). Complaint!. New York, USA: Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.1515/9781478022336
When we started this seminar we were asked to write the expectations we had about it. I wrote I wanted to know what a complaint is. More than four months after this moment I think I still do not know what that is. In this post I share the path I have gone through to approach the definition of complain.
Going full cliché I check the definition online, it is a way to start:
So complain is the act and the state. This is big and ambiguous and I like ambiguous things. On the other hand, I spent the time I read the book wanting to know the definition Sara had for us. There was not such a thing like a moment where a ultimate definition of complaint was presented and I did not like that, somehow. We (“we” as referring to “me” but feeling less lonely in this journey) passed the barrier of only considering complaining the formal filling forms format. For a really long part of the reading process I thought that was the case and that got me annoyed. Even if the explanations never closed the definition almost in any way, I was bitter with the writer. I could not believe this. Even though I know in page four (page four!) it clearly explains “a complaint can be an expression of grief, pain, or dissatisfaction, something that is a cause of a protest or outcry, a bodily ailment, or a formal allegation”. This was not enough for me. I just could not stop thinking about the -other- types of complaining that involve maybe unorthodox/impulsive/childish/and-so-on kind of behavior.
Then at some point I realized the writing style she has, repeating some structures or emphasizing by rerunning the sentences maybe adding a little bit more at a time or making minor changes. This is the moment I had the idea of collecting sentences from the book that might clear up my hesitations about the definition presented. I am really thankful about the “searching” tool in texts available in digital books. I take this moment to appreciate the Ctrl + F.
So as we all know, we can get the words and sentences we want from a text, in this case a whole book. For your information, you can find the word “complain” 251 times and “complaint” a total of 1686 times.
I searched for combos like “to make a complaint is”, “to complain is” or the longest one by far “complaint can”. I think the most useful one was this one:
With this collection I satisfied a little bit my needs of definition, still as an ambiguous and big pool.
By the end of the book I finally was dazzled by what it seemed to be a strong statement who says:
“If complaint can be understood as a phenomenology of the institution, complaint is a practical phenomenology“
(And it comes from a previous book from Sara in 2012: “On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional.”)
While reading I also made many notes about what the institution/structure means to me and how I experience it. I might have been caressing the position of wanting to scape the structure but (sadly?) it is not that realistic. Complain ties us up with the institution. My initial aim was to avoid formal ways of complaining as I thought complaining the formal way would only show that I support the institution/structure. Why would I like to support such thing? Complaining in non-formal ways ALSO knots us with structures. I wonder, could it be because structures are usually the thing to blame? So as we usually blame structures in formal and non-formal types of complaints that could be the link. Even if, for example, you are complaining about your grandpa having an old-fashioned way of thinking and him being intransigent, there is the structure of power+sexism to blame. Huh, how easy is this? If everything is a structure there is always a structure to blame.
I consider <<blame>> a really critical ingredient of complaining. I might talk about this in the future and how we can blame things that are bigger than us/our control.
So, yes, again in this ambiguous map I enjoy. The complaint is together with the institution/structure. But I was still thirsty for limits. I thought if I might not find the big limits of it, I could at least work with the content we know it is inside of it. Thats when I though of classifying the inside of complaint. The first approach was to make a diagram, a Venn one:
Obviously we have the big big circle that captures everything, called complaint, and inside of it the are two main types of complaint. The most attractive part I find is the protest, and how it can be both at the same time (the joy of ambiguity strikes back!?). I would like to go deep about it in other post. In future posts I will suggest as well a way of classifying complaints regarding their traits.
So yes, anyway, what is still the definition of complaint..?
One possible option: could everything be a complaint?
Is it like the definition of art by Dickie? He said something like “a work of art is an artifact upon which some person(s) acting on behalf of the artworld has conferred the status of candidate for appreciation“
yuhuuu then: “a complaint is an artifact upon which some person(s) acting on behalf of the complaintworld has conferred the status of candidate for appreciation”
Lets appreciate coomplaints in the complaintworld then!?