On Complaint in the Face of Precarity

Recently, I had a conversation with one of my dearest friends from graduate school in which we reflected on our experiences over the past five years. We were part of an abnormally small cohort by our department’s standards—just three in number—and all of us were Asian/Asian American women (under 5’4,” as I also often like to joke). In our own ways, each of us has lived out our career in graduate school with a degree of uncertainty: because of perceived doubts on the part of faculty members about our intellectual abilities; because of academic probations precipitated by a failure to meet our committees’ expectations; because of mental health leaves necessitated by anxiety and depression gone neglected. Although we often knew about each other’s struggles, we ultimately managed them individually. Yet as my friend and I reflected on our paths to this point, she was finally able to articulate that “it’s never not felt precarious.”

When the Cultural Anthropology website published its forum on academic precarity in American anthropology earlier this year, I was confronted with a simultaneous sense of excitement and disappointment. I was thrilled to see the discipline acknowledging something that many of us have been whispering about for years—and on a highly visible platform within the discipline no less. At the same time, I could not help but notice the absence of voices of people for whom academic precarity is not a novelty but a long-held reality: people of color, women, LGBTQ folks, first-generation scholars, and those with disabilities, among others who have been historically marginalized in academia.

Why, then, are we just now beginning to acknowledge these realities? When we begin to think about who is raising these questions and who were among the first to have an opportunity to contribute, it becomes impossible to ignore the ways in which this conversation is immanently raced, classed, and gendered. The second installment of responses to this forum began to address some of the limitations of the initial round, many of which focused on identifying the problem and potential solutions to it rather than on the affective conditions that precarity creates and the real consequences it has on people’s lives. In spite of all of this valuable introspection and a seemingly widespread commitment to addressing this structural crisis, something remains unresolved for me.

I keep returning to the idea that our experiences of how precarity manifests itself—as anxiety, depression, neuroses, stress, and all of the symptoms that come with them—remain deeply personal. We may express our doubts and fears to a select few who are closest to us, but by and large, we keep them to ourselves in the fear that admitting them may reveal that we do not possess the grit and fortitude required to “make it.” This feeling of alienation is compounded for those of us who contend with the affective realities of precarity while occupying a position of marginality within the academy, because we have been discouraged from speaking about how our identities (race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, neurotypicality) impact our chances of thriving in graduate school, securing research funding, or succeeding on the job market.

Here, I think it is helpful to introduce the work of Sara Ahmed, the feminist philosopher who has written extensively on diversity and inclusivity in institutions of higher education. I am particularly drawn to Ahmed’s recent theorization of complaint, based on student testimonies in university sexual assault cases. As Ahmed notes, academic institutions have been historically resistant to complaints, and as students (whether undergraduate or graduate) we have been warned against making them with the threat that complaining will “damage [our] reputations, relationships, career prospects, and lives.”

This threat need not always be external. Consider the concept of “gaslighting,” which has come into fashion as a way to describe the experiences of women who have experienced sexual harassment or assault. It is inspired by the 1944 film Gaslight, directed by George Cukor and staring Ingrid Berman, in which Berman plays a woman whose husband methodically manipulates her into questioning her own sanity. There is an important connection between gaslighting and complaining in that to be gaslit is to be convinced that one’s complaints are nonsense and somehow unhinged from reality.

My colleague in the Contributing Editors Program, Tariq Rahman, notes in his contribution to the forum that graduate students have become obsessed with “collecting lines for our CVs, strategizing every single relationship, maximizing our ends and minimizing our means.” This is one way that the scarcity of academic jobs and anxieties about securing a livelihood structure our everyday lives. But another, I suggest, is the way in which graduate students—and particularly scholars in marginalized positions—are discouraged from complaining. Our complaints are often brushed aside as unproductive expressions of dissatisfaction. University administrations have long been resistant to graduate student calls for unionization, and many faculty continue to address the problem of precarity in the academic job market in terms of individual solutions for individual students. As a consequence, precarity remains de facto an individual problem.

What if, instead of focusing on the negative associations of complaint, we took it—as Ahmed does—in terms of its productive potential to initiate inquiries, expose abuses of power, and reveal how those who are subject to it are paradoxically made the responsible parties? Moving beyond the formal complaint, which often requires additional administrative and emotional labor on the part of those experiencing the precarity that comes along with occupying marginalized positions, I propose taking our informal, quotidian critiques and grievances as something more than ungrateful dissatisfaction. Doing so, I think, would require us to listen. By listening, I have in mind not only entertaining complaints, but also seriously contending with the possibility that complaints may surface what was previously kept invisible.