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To Be Heard As Complaining Is Not To Be Heard. Part I


To Be Heard As Complaining Is Not To Be Heard
Part I: The Complaint Banner

by Will Damarjian with Emily Baker

People can complain, but are they heard? People can raise their voices in anger, but can they truly disrupt institutional procedures which neutralise dissent? Taking inspiration from
Sara Ahmed’s Complaint!, Will Damarjian offers a probing personal and poetic reflection on the stakes of complaining within the constraints of UCL’s institutional infrastructure. 

‘To be heard as complaining is not to be heard. To hear someone as complaining is an effective way of dismissing someone. You do not have to listen to the content of what she is saying if she is just complaining or always complaining.’ Sara Ahmed, Complaint!

The complaint banner started with personal venting and complaining. In my second year at UCL, I experienced a series of violent instances of stalking, murder attempts, and other domestic instances that were repeatedly ignored and in critical moments aggravated by senior staff at the university. I was very afraid to return to the physical campus in the autumn of 2021, and on the first day of class confided in my professors what had been happening the past year and how UCL had retaliated against me when I attempted to file formal complaints. I was finally heard. 

When staff at UCL prepared for strike action in the fall and winter of the past academic year, I began to see my personal experiences with ableism, homophobia, and transphobia as deeply tied to their struggle as workers in an exploitative context. I wanted to lend my support to the union, most especially when staff and the UCL University and College Union (UCU) widely opposed and spoke out against the decision to not rejoin the Stonewall schemes. I spoke to Dr Emily Baker, who runs the Comparative Literature module ‘Queerstories and Queeory’, about the need to organise space for students and staff to stand in solidarity against the variety of issues we both face in the hostile university environment. We wanted to work towards a university that is safer for staff and students. We started by reflecting on Sara Ahmed’s text Complaint! This text resonated because Ahmed not only defines  strikes as a central tool of complaint for workers but also because she spoke out against UCL’s Stonewall decision. Emily suggested we make a banner, so we could hear and read one another’s complaints and use them to reconnect students to the strike action. We organised a teach out that combined a variety of talks related to queer history and protest, then ended with staff, students, and other supporters adding their complaints to the banner and discussing their connection to organising.

Teach out flyer with back text on a light background showing an upside-down image of the UCL portico behind a semi transparent image of the Intersex-Inclusive Progress Pride Flag. The flag black and brown stripes to represent LGBTQ+ communities of colour, and pink, light blue and white stripes to represent trans communities in a triangular shape around a yellow triangle and purple circle outline to represent intersex people, alongside horizontal rainbow stripes of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. The text reads: TEACH OUT in collaboration with LGBTQ+ STUDENT NETWORK. TRANS & QUEER LIBERATION: LGBTQ+ FEMINIST SOLIDARITIES. Join us for talks, conversation, collaboration and constructive complaining on the picket line. Xine Yao - Stonewall and Leslie Feinbers. Lo Marshall - EDI in (un)caring institutional conditions, Emily Baker, Will Damarjian & Queerstories students - Complaint, LGBTQ+ Student NEtwork - Building student-staff solidarily. 10.00 - 12.50, 28 Feb 2022. Entrance to main UCL Campus (Gower Street). Bottom left, is a UCU graphic: a pink circle with purple centre split by a pink zigzag, with the text ‘we are at breaking point’.
The Complaint Banner hangs on a wall at the entrance to UCL's campus. Next to it a sign that reads ‘welcome point’.

I am tepid about participating in a university funded project where ‘Complaint’ is the inspiration and a strike banner is the object of inspiration because it is all too common for universities to neutralise radical acts of hope and protest. I must admit, I feel protective of the banner because it holds very personal complaints of mine and the other attendees of the strike action. It is my hope that this banner does not become a relic and the writing in this journal not an accolade for the university, but instead for our work to continue to inspire mischief, to show complainers they are not alone, and to be a tool for change instead of a balm allowing us to stay in hostile environments. 

I chose to contribute a poem [read here] about the university’s physical witnessing of complaints because I am not a confident poet and thought this was a perfect opportunity to playfully consider my own complaints alongside longer and more formal complaints against UCL. I have tried and failed to seek accountability and healing through formal complaint procedures and so perhaps through a medium that tends to be taken less seriously in academia, we can continue
to complain.

WILL DAMARJIAN is a former UCL student of Comparative Literature, union enthusiast, and adoptive mom to many cats. They recently created an archival piece with the Museum of London interviewing members of the London bear scene about the impacts of gentrification on older men’s ability to hangout, cruise, and get drunk. When not Complaining, Will enjoys canning and pickling veggies, cooking for their husband and painting.

DR EMILY BAKER is a research specialist in Comparative Literature and Latin American Studies at UCL. Her monograph Nazism, the Second World War and the Holocaust in Latin American Fiction was published with Cambridge University Press in 2022. She is now undertaking a project on Climate Literature and Queer Ecologies.  @DrEmilyM_Baker


Lead image and images of complaint banner by LO MARSHALL