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Duke University Press, 2021

In an interview conducted a month or so before his death, Foucault took up the notion of problématisation that had structured The Use of Pleasure. This time the context is not Foucault’s scholarly attention to “the conditions in which human beings ‘problematize’ what they are, what they do, and the world in which they live” (Use of Pleasure, tr. Robert Hurley, Vintage, 1990, 10), but the person of Foucault himself. He had been discussing his refusal to engage in polemics, and he tells Paul Rabinow (in words that ring with utopian fervor today), that his disdain for polemic is related to his way of “approaching political questions”:

It is true that my attitude isn’t a result of the form of critique that claims to be a methodical examination in order to reject all possible solutions except for the one valid one. It is more on the order of ‘problematization’–which is to say, the development of a domain of acts, practices, and thoughts that seems to me to pose problems for politics.

“Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations: An Interview. In Paul Rabinow, editor, The Foucault Reader, Pantheon Books, 1984, 384 [bold added]

Foucault does not criticize in the sense of knocking out all invalid positions and claiming victory with the remaining valid one, but endeavors to construct a field of inquiry–how a domain has developed–within which he can pose problems about the critical positions in play. Continuing his answer to Rabinow, Foucault refers to Richard Rorty’s critique that Foucault’s writings are not situated within a clear “we.” Foucault accepts the charge:

But the problem is, precisely, to decide if it is actually suitable to place oneself within a ‘we’ in order to assert the principles one recognizes and the values one accepts; or if it is not, rather, necessary to make the future formation of a ‘we’ possible, by elaborating the question. Because it seems to me that the ‘we’ must not be previous to the question; it can only be the result–and the necessarily temporary result–of the question as it is posed in the new terms in which one formulates it.”

Ibid, 385 [bold added]

Foucault’s method is remarkable. Instead of assuming the terms of contemporary debate and lining himself up with one side or the other, Foucault attempts through problematization to stretch analysis around the edges of such debate and examine when, how, by whose authority, and with what consequences the form of contemporary debate has been drawn. He does not side with the “we” of the normal or the abnormal, for instance, but delineates the historical (the institutional, practical, and discursive) production of those we’s and sidesteps them to attend tenderly to his “little mad ones,” those whose difference and despair cannot be registered amid the vain clamorings of power.

I was jostled back to Foucault’s words about problematization as I contemplated my experience of reading Sara Ahmed’s newest book, Complaint!

I went through the text with my graduate students, but inevitably one reads this book alone, through the idiosyncratic history of one’s own relation to discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual assault, and also alongside multitudes of other women, non-white, and non-gender conforming scholars (and especially those at once non-white, female-presenting, and non-gender conforming) who have been censored, ridiculed, silenced, degraded, talked about behind hands and backs, pushed out, and otherwise harmed by the seemingly innocent desire to obtain the knowledge, status, and dismal job prospects of a scholar.

One inevitably reads this book alone, I say, because to read this book is to fall sway to memoire involuntaire and that is an event in which one falls back into oneself. It is not shareable, though of course it can be evoked through narrativization. “Involuntary memory” has several points of intellectual provenance, but a common one is Proust’s famous “madeleine” scene from Swann’s Way in which a current sensory encounter (such as reading Ahmed’s book) sparks cascades of memories that spiral out like giant pop-up books to re-create the relational matrices of one’s past in visceral thickness. Over and over in reading Complaint! I was returned, involuntarily, to my years of graduate school and tenure-track. Moments, places, words, smells, fabrics, books, topics of conversation, searing realizations, impossible obligations, incomprehensible obstacles, maddening contradictions…all came bursting through the carefully closed and latched and cobwebby doors of my memory. Again, I was both alone and not alone in this. Whenever an academic colleague found out I was reading Complaint!, her response was inevitably (without fail), “Oh, that book was so triggering.” Yes, triggering. That is how we now talk about “sparking cascades of involuntary memory,” tinged with 20th century advances in trauma theory and with the reified “wounded attachments” (Wendy Brown) that we all hold close and nourish, even as they fester to our detriment. To say we are reading Complaint! is to share in the affectscape of complaint.

To me, the book is brilliant in structuring itself as this imbricated solitary solidarity that catalyzes a parallel (or parallax?) solitary solidarity in its readers. Truly, it is a book that doesn’t presume a “we” but demonstrates how certain we’s are produced by what Foucault terms the “games of truth, relations of power, and forms of relation to oneself and to others” of experience, which inhere in department cultures, university policies and–especially–in and through the very procedures of complaint that academic institutions implement to receive and (putatively but practically never) respond to situations of discrimination, harassment, and assault. [The quotation is from the same essay as above and refers to the “three fundamental elements of any experience,” on page 387.]

On the one hand, Ahmed writes the book as someone who had worked as a diversity officer at a university until she quit in protest. She refers at times to her own memories of that work and it is clear that her advocacy for those who wish to and those who have made complaints about academic abuse has left her angry and frustrated. On the other hand, Ahmed openly positions herself as a “feminist ear.” She conducted approximately forty interviews after leaving her post and she feels privileged and obligated to mediate the institutional knowledges and wounding experiences told to her because she discerns in them clear patterns of dysfunction, failure, and harm in processes that are by university standards developed and staffed to provide resolution and protection. Ahmed is thus one who consciously and conscientiously mediates a multitude and at some point in the book, the intertwining becomes quite blurred, in a manner that I find appropriate and galvanizing.

Ahmed relays experiences that match my own experiences and she argues what I feel. As I said to my institution’s university Senate last April, “There is a widespread and anecdotal sense at that Title IX does nothing to actually protect the vulnerable, and that it seems dedicated only to protecting the university.” I have only scattered anecdotes and personal feelings to back my sensibilities. Ahmed has patterns of anecdotes and patterns of affective responses and she gathers these patterns into data for her argument. And indeed, her argument does well up like a tsunami.

But I also felt myself wanting more of Ahmed the queer phenomenologist in this book. I wanted fewer recursive sentences and more Husserl! Many times during her rendition of anecdotes I wished for more discussion of the inter-relational undecidability precisely because ‘what is’ is itself so contoured and stippled by the sedimented pasts of the players involved. This is not at all to cast doubt on anyone’s experience. On the contrary, it is to claim that experience needs deeper theorization, more extensive problematization. If the elements of experience include “games of truth, relations of power, and forms [sedimented patterns] of relation to oneself and to others,” then experience is even more complex and slipperier than presented in this book. It does not lie on the surface but always gurgles from the “behind” of the moment, like involuntary memory. As Ahmed writes in her 2006 article, “Orientations: Toward a Queer Phenomenology,” “What is behind the [phenomenological] object for me is not only its missing side, but also its historicity, the conditions of its arrival” (GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Volume 12, Number 4, 2006, pp. 549).

Does working as a feminist ear prevent this kind of analysis? I hope not. For, if academics are to grasp why the banal desire to enroll in classes and pursue an MA or PhD degree can lead to the harms that Ahmed collates and presents to the world in this book, then we need more of the “behind” to the failures of pedagogy, mentoring, and Title IX offices that bear the phenomenological intentionality to teach, to nurture, and to protect.