1. bookVolume 21 (2022): Issue 2 (December 2022)
Journal Details
First Published
05 May 2002
Publication timeframe
2 times per year
Open Access

Encountering Discomfort and Negotiating Vulnerability as a Feminist Activist Researcher

Published Online: 22 Dec 2022
Volume & Issue: Volume 21 (2022) - Issue 2 (December 2022)
Page range: 69 - 92
Journal Details
First Published
05 May 2002
Publication timeframe
2 times per year
Between feminist activism and academic research

Being a member of a feminist activist community prior to engaging with academic research has prompted the acknowledgement of a series of questions upon my entering the academy, mainly around relevancy and positionality. What is the aim of the knowledge produced, whose voices does it cater to, and with whom am I allied? It also prompts the question of what the qualitative as well as the political implications of conducting research as a feminist activist are. Researching from a standpoint of a feminist activist in this case is particularly connected to examining the articulation of voices born within these often contested spaces; most notably here, the dialectic space between academia and activism. This focus entails examining parallel positionalities, involving both institutional and community belongings and their negotiation of respective paradigms. I enter this research as an activist member of my ethnographic context, bonded in long-term friendship, comradeship, solidarity and resistance praxes with and within the cluster of my collaborators. This role involves an explicit alignment with activist agendas, and negotiates the potential of academic attunement to the articulated complaints. As such, this article has emerged from transnational ethnographic encounters with feminist activists and collectives, including gender violence survivors, disabled activists, and members of the trans community. It is also a negotiation of my own autoethnographic experiences within these communities as a disabled sexual violence survivor, bonded in affection and joined feminist activist practices with collaborators in transnational initiatives against gender violence and its intersections.

Navigating the academy while also being an active member of such initiatives entails negotiating violences, vulnerabilities, and discomforts that are present in the research context and fundamentally intertwined in this double positionality. Feminist activist researchers Alejandra Araiza and Robert González (2017, pp. 67-68) point out that a new kind of feminist research subjectivity is being formed; it is one being shaped by increasing precarity and casualisation of work in neoliberal academic institutions, forced immigration to avoid destitution, patchwork biographies, constant uncertainty and instability, alongside patriarchal oppression, but also simultaneous participation in activist mobilisations and dissidence to disrupt these and other intersecting institutional violences. Araiza and González (2017, p. 68) suggest that the epistemological positionality emerging from this volatile landscape, entails the benefit of the ability to recognise such violences and injustices, because these are being inscribed on the very bodies of the researchers who are fighting against them. Expanding this thought, this entangled positionality allows a proximity to the challenges of interacting with potentially conflicting discourses and agendas while also being mindful of the qualities of such conflicts, most notably what is excluded or marginalised, what claims and complaints are overlooked when the exercise of power enters the dialogue between institutions, like the academy, and activist communities.

Researching as a feminist activist in this frame incorporates an embodied attunement to vulnerabilities and complaints that might not always align with established institutional perceptions of what is worth acknowledging and what is not, or how to practically facilitate its recognition. Emanating from the materiality of lived experiences of violences, hostile environments, and the affects that these generate on bodies, those of the activist researchers and the maligned communities they belong to and work with, embodied attunement becomes a topos generating knowledge that closely reflects the tangible realities of those involved. Such attunement might necessarily have to disrupt established research practices such as critical distance (Kostka and Czarnota, 2017), scientific objectivity, and the presumed need for apolitical boundaries between the ‘academic’ and the ‘activist’ (Juris, 2007). It might instead involve an explicit political position and activist agenda alignments, taking ‘sides’, and directly promoting the visibility of affective practices and emotions that reflect lived experiences and situated knowledges which transcend established visibility and audibility norms and forms. Committed to this approach, researching as a feminist activist scholar in this context recognises the need to centralise affects that are peripheral, negotiated in volatility, and articulated against hegemonic discourses that deny their presence.

Mapping intersected violences and complaints

The 8th March 2018 (8M) became a new feminist milestone for international feminist activist communities as millions of them took to the streets to protest multiple systemic oppressions and gender-based violence. In some cases, the 8M was established as a general strike of women who refused to attend any work or school on the day, and was historically one of the biggest mobilisations ever organised, most notably in Spain and the autonomous regions, such as the Basque Country. Activists from Latin America and South Europe organised simultaneous demonstrations in numerous cities and towns that brought together international feminist movements like the Latin American Ni Una Menos, the Green Tide, workers unions, LGBTQ+, disability, and anti-fascist activists amongst others. One of the main banners of a Basque 8M protest read: ‘Stand up against capitalism, heteronormativity, patriarchy, colonialism, ableism’ and ‘We want us alive. Not one less’

1Original in Basque: ‘Kapitalismoari, Heteroarauari, Patriarkatuari, Kolonialismoari, kapazitismoari planto’. Original in Spanish: ‘Nos queremos vivas. Ni una menos’.

, alluding to consistent cross-continental messages in other marches. Other signs protested the inefficiency of institutions, most notably the justice system and the police, to address issues of gender violence that again appeared as persistent claims across various contexts: ‘The police won’t protect us, our sisters will’, ‘Patriarchal justice is killing us’.

2Original in Spanish: ‘La policía no me cuida, me cuidan mis amigas’; ‘La justicia patriarcal nos mata’.

Enforced in its plurality of actors and claims, the agenda went beyond the gender pay gap, a claim constantly present in previous demonstrations of the day; it incorporated complaints of multiple exclusions and the common theme of failed institutions, unaccountability, and patriarchal discourse generating multi-layered violences across national geographies.

This explosive momentum was not a mere coincidence, but a result of continuous local and transnational activism exposing structural injustices at the intersection of gender and other identities that generate violences and marginalisations over a lengthy period of time. My witnessing and partaking in such events had already involved vigils and spontaneous gatherings to protest yet another femicide and transfemicide, often entangled with racial/ethnic violence: Lucia Pérez, Carly VG, Fatima Catan, Antonia Barra, Verónica, Sabina Nessa, Sarah Everard, amongst others. It also involved following and collectively responding to troubling court cases as they were progressing, such as that of the gang rape, torture, and murder of Eleni Topaloudi in Greece, and the Manada (the Wolfpack) gang rape case in Spain. In the second case, the survivor was faced with a discourse of extreme disbelief, as she was asked to justify in court why she had not bitten her rapists’ penises, had she truly not consented to the act (Jabois, 2017). Both cases became landmarks within their respective local activist movements and beyond. Particularly the Manada case, it gave rise to the #YoSiTeCreo (I Believe You) wave, which highlighted the need for affirmation and accountability (Velte, 2019). ‘The Manada are 8: 5 rapists and 3 judges’

3Original in Spanish: ‘La Manada son 8; 5 violadores y 3 jueces’.

read one of the posters written in Spanish in the London protest against the original court decision to provisionally release the members of the Manada; ‘They won’t tell us what to do, how to do it, and what to be’,

4Original in Basque: ‘Ez digute esango zer egin, nola egin ta zer izan’.

read another in Basque at a solidarity demonstration approximately one thousand kilometres away. What was undeniably present was anger, frustration, lack of trust at the handling of violence, and the will to transcend unaccountability with publicly performed counter-action to unblock its invisibility; what was present was an explosion of collective affects.

Similarly, the performative protest El violador en tu camino (The rapist in your path), originally performed in Santiago on 25th November 2019, transcended the borders of the Chilean political context as it was followed by hundreds of repetitions and adaptations in numerous countries around the world. These re-enactments, inspired by feminist activist group Las Tesis’ original performance, spread to transnational contexts, including the UK, Spain, the Basque Country, Greece and Italy, and across continents, including Africa and the Americas. These events brought together members of maligned communities with the demand to be heard: Black and indigenous women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants and asylum seekers, disabled activists, and survivors of gender violence as witnessed, for example, at the Tower Bridge performance in London (Francis, 2019). The complaint expressed in these mobilisations was reflected in the lyrics and the embodied performance of the song, while its unprecedented popularity appeared to resonate in the various re-enactment contexts of my ethnography; ‘The oppressive state is a rapist’. This performative complaint articulated common links of intersecting violence as well as shared affectivity amongst these communities. During their embodied performance, the activists point their finger–literally and metaphorically–to patriarchal institutions which dismiss the calls of recipients of violence, and amplify discomforting listenings that demand a public audience. Such dynamic activist momentums, with entangled and intersecting agendas, centralised and grounded the voicing of frustrations, concerns, and rage at the absence of attunement into discomforting affects and vulnerabilities experienced locally and globally, individually and collectively.

Close observation of these complaints and affects confirms their recognition as intrinsically entangled and intersected, as are the very violences, physical and institutional, from which they emanate. In my ethnographic and activist context, feminist activist mobilisations centralising gender violence incorporate intersectional agendas that attest to marginalisations and oppressions as multi-layered, and whose common denominator is that their articulated complaints have been systemically invisible, obstructed, or denied. Sara Ahmed (2017, p.189) uses the term ‘snap’ to refer to a state of breaking point, when suppressed affects can no longer be contained. These collective ‘snaps’ of affectivity, solidarity and resistance become a topos where the proverbial margins now occupy and surround the literal centre: main squares and streets, state buildings, and places of institutional power in order to channel uncontested listenings.

The story of Ekai Lersundi, the 16-year-old Basque trans boy who committed suicide as medical decisions about his access to hormonal treatment were constantly prolonged, has been a prominent example of embracing–on a collective level–complaints and violences that are silenced on an individual level. From Ekai’s funeral to the vigils and local and wider protests that came after, feminist activist communities amplified the witnessing of transphobic violences, of institutional biases, and the lack of support; their complaints echoed in mobilisations in Ekai’s hometown square in Ondarroa, in the streets of Donosti and Bilbao, in cities all around Spain and eventually, as my collaborator, Basque writer and film maker Arantza Ibarra demonstrates in her documentary on Ekai, Mi pequeño gran samurai (2019), in the halls of the Congress of Deputies, a legislative organ of Spain.

Attunement to complaints emanating from this topos involves paying attention to the affects through which complaints become embodied and materialised, and which reveal exclusions that pathologise, dehumanise or render the articulators of complaints vulnerable to (further) violence through stigmatisation, unsupportiveness, or invisibility. According to Basque gitana fellow feminist activist, T., participation in the context of the current feminist activist momentum involves voicing the tryptic gender-race-nationality identity oppression as cornerstone of her violent subjugation as a Basque Roma woman in a Spanish state: ‘We are being killed by anti-gitanismo, racism, and machismo. We won’t allow that’. Her claim is later echoed by the Latin-American domestic workers representative in her opening speech marking the 8M demonstrations protesting their precarity and racialisation as immigrant Latina women without rights: ‘They don’t look us as humans’. In my own immigrant feminist activist community in the UK, this complaint similarly involves violences of an institutionally hostile environment, one which prioritises white British citizenship as a guide for acknowledging and gatekeeping human agency; it entails the precarity of articulating a voice while simultaneously negotiating its very legitimacy based on whether a visa, settled status, or asylum is granted.

Collective complaints, such as these, bring together different positionalities and experiences of vulnerability and susceptibility to violence. Yet, despite their heterogeneity, they manage to bridge communities, resistances and solidarities against the normalisation of violence and volatility at the margins, where affects are not being listened to. Collective knowledge operating in the articulation of these complaints acknowledges the existence of those who ‘are more readily targeted than others’ (Ahmed, 2021, pp. 176-178). This suggests that this collective type of knowledge already incorporates within itself definitions of what is understood as violent, what is felt as a suitable response to it, and what the labour of solidarity against it might need to involve to overthrow targeted violence; in other words, this type of knowledge can serve as a guide facilitating collective labour while also paying witness to and recording the operations of violence targeting marginalised groups.

(A)voiding the affects

I recall one of my conversations with Arantza Ibarra where she described her discomforting feelings after the death of Ekai. ‘It felt like this injustice should somehow be recorded, exposed for all to see, the pain this had inflicted was unbearable and we needed to be heard’. Arantza’s community-supported documentary became a way to amplify personal and collective affects and community trauma, however, it also exposed the ways in which discomforting emotions and difficult listenings had been voided before they even had a chance to be materialised, negotiated, credited, and communicated. This has turned out to be the running theme across all feminist activist contexts, lived experiences, and complaints in question, as well as the harmful impact on those communities and individuals because of this lack of attunement.

Sweating the ‘small stuff’

Having had to navigate decades of established discourse as a disabled survivor in medical and non-medical contexts myself, the experience of these ideological premises feeding into how affect and complaint are institutionally perceived and managed feels cunningly familiar. It is the familiarity of vulnerability understood as the state in which attunement, support, and care are necessary but absent, thus silencing the voices of those on the receiving end of violence. One of the ways in which this materialises is through normalising them as insignificant. Examining the situational contexts of this phenomenon, a pattern emerges which suggests that voicing discomforting affects, pain, and the trauma and harm associated with them is structurally addressed with refutation. It is ideologically framed in ways which ignore the embodied lived experiences, and the potentially transformative input of those directly impacted for the sake of an authoritative institutional status quo approach; a violence in itself.

As a chronically ill immigrant woman, my experience of this process involved the tendency to overlook, patronise, and minimise my account of how I feel about my trauma and pain, how I experience myself and the world, and my ability to access the necessary means to negotiate such affects and feel supported. My discomforting pain, anger, fear, and mistrust have been largely conceived as footnotes in a bigger picture, often attributed to a presumed lack of English language skills because of my immigrant status, to ‘difficult’ character, to (female) exaggeration, to lack of awareness around my body, ‘my chemicals’, to a flawed perception. Informed by this ideological presumption, what is implied is that the responsibility lies solely on individual accountability while the vulnerabilities and violences associated with the original trauma remain unaddressed and ongoing in the contexts in which they appear. Instead, the established response is to ‘push through the pain’, embrace a positively visualised imaginary self, stripped of negative affects and voided of the politicality which is inherently inscribed upon embodiment; discomfort is presumably ‘all in the mind’ and deconditionable, which is another way of negating the legitimacy of negative affects and political accountability. Having the privilege of partaking in supportive feminist activist communities, which are also confronted with similar discomforts but are attuned to disability experiences and complaints, allowed me to collectively welcome the reinstatement of overlooked affects and complaints in my activist/ethnographic context; however, this cannot account for their continuous original erasure nor the harm resulting from their institutional denial.

This ‘hurt does not equal harm’ mantra, particularly popular in mainstream manuals on approaching disability (for example, Murphy et al, n.d.), epitomises a more general institutional approach based on the ideological premise of legitimising voiding affect as panacea from all ills. As such, it excuses the presence of pain as an affordance, a sacrifice of the life and wellbeing of others which is defined and decided by institutions’ own ‘balance scales’. Choosing or not to see pain and violence for what they are, for how they are experienced by those who do, becomes problematic when established knowledge is led by institutions, their normalised conceptualisations, as well as the precedents they set; on the one hand there is the hierarchical power of institutions to influence dominant narratives and enforce hurtful ideologies, and on the other hand, the already marginalised position and lack of choice or input from those who are affected the most. The omnipresence of this premise is evident in its institutional executions, as echoed in the answer given to Ekai’s agonising complaint when confronted with the medical discourse while on a waiting list pending decision on his own life: ‘Don’t sweat the small things!’ (Ibarra, 2019). Similar agonising and discomforting affects were present in the experiences of my disabled and trans collaborators, friends and fellow activists across geographical/national contexts, who came to face this ideology in their encounters with institutions when attempting to access support; forcing deconditioning, blocking transitioning, detaching agency from its own embodied knowledge, and stripping the validity of a knowledge affectively informed by violences, vulnerabilities, and the resistance to them aspiring to transformation. Such a pattern of shared experiences raises questions around who gets to decide the magnitude and impact of embodied complaints, particularly as they run so deep existentially and connect to unattested injustices. Also, given that this decision comes with the privilege to selectively overlook them, who gets to evaluate the significance of the harm involved in making decisions on the procrustean bed; on whose terms is this rule measuring against?


Rendering discomforts and complaints insignificant through devaluing embodied knowledge is one way to demote their significance; its complementary extension is disbelief. After the unprecedented demonstrations protesting the inaudibility of an ongoing claim for gender justice and accountability, the survivor of the Manada shared a public letter in response, entitled ‘De víctima a superviviente y de ahí a mujer valiente’ (From victim to survivor and from there to brave woman). In this letter, primarily addressing those involved in the mobilisations, she thanked the activists for supporting her case and, most importantly, ‘for believing’, as stated in her letter. This expression of gratitude for the activists’ affirmative approach of support and solidarity is suggestive of the benevolent impact of a space where embodied discomforting experiences of violence and vulnerability are credible, attended to and matter; the rising international popularity of the #YoSiTeCreo wave had proven that these affects were collectively shared far beyond their narrow context of the Manada case. However, at the same time, this explicitly specific reference to the notion of ‘belief’ also signifies a context where the perceived default reality for survivors of patriarchal violence negotiating their experience through institutions is certainly not credibility.

In the case of the Manada, disbelief was structured around the notion of consent and suspicion at what was perceived as lack of resistance during the rape, despite the survivor’s vocal denial that she had not consented; indeed so much so, that there was an attempt to build the whole case on the question of why a (semi-conscious) rape survivor had not even attempted to bite the reproductive organs of the rapists, which supposedly implicitly denoted consent. In other instances, the use of underwear type as an indicator of validity of a survivor’s account has been a common norm against which numerous feminist activist demonstrations organised across my ethnographic context. Protesting the sensationalism employed in the instrumentalisation of survivors’ choice of underwear to discredit their testimonies, feminist activists in the Basque Country used ropes to hang different types of colourful underwear in public places, left thongs on park benches, and crafted posters challenging the misplacement of justice: ‘You are scandalised by those [women] who fight but not by those who die’.

5Original in Spanish: ‘Te escandalizas por las que luchan y no por las que mueren’.

In the UK and Ireland too (amongst other countries), local feminist activists hosted numerous protests to express their solidarity and resentment at the ideological assumptions embedded in the use of survivors’ garments as legitimate evidence in the context of serving justice. In these instances, a lacy underwear and a thong with a ‘Little Devil’ print at the front

6This is a reference to the case that became widely known as the ‘Belfast rugby rape trial’ in 2016. The men involved were acquitted. The second reference concerns the case of 16-year-old Lindsay Armstrong in 2001.

became institutionally admissible evidence of consent, credible enough to question the validity of survivors’ account of their lived experience. This direct association of clothing with consent to rape triggered an affirmative feminist activist response of belief in the survivors’ voices (#ThisIsNotConsent), artistic and educational interventions around consent, but also the suicide of the 16-year-old survivor who was submitted to a distressing request by a barrister to read out loud the print on her thong in court.

7Lindsay Armstrong committed suicide in June 2002.

Disbelief in these cases is constructed in direct opposition to the affects and complaints, particularly those challenging their appropriation by institutional, hegemonic counter-narratives.

Disbelief does indeed entail the direct denial of a complaint but also, most notably, the rejection of the conditions that trigger complaints in the first place. It is omnipresent in courtrooms, police stations, doctors’ surgeries, universities, workplaces, the streets; it exists across establishments and institutions that ideologically maintain, advocate, and enforce the discrediting of embodied knowledge as valid. There is no acknowledgement of complaints, no witnessing or affirmation, in this institutionally structured and perpetuated disbelief. Contrary to the affective activism of this ethnographic context practising public visibility of complaints and affective listenings, the ideology of disbelief is actively working against them, it unstitches the potential of the visibility and understanding of this complaining praxis.

Particularly as the agency of these claims concerns members of maligned communities and marginalised identities, it becomes evident how the affordances of disbelief disproportionately impact those who, exposed to violences and vulnerabilities, crucially depend on affirmation. Accessing justice as a survivor of gender violence, medical support as a trans person, protection from police brutality as a gitana woman, entangled with barriers of financial precarity, disability, and hostile environments, heavily relies on an affirmative listening and understanding of the complexity of such experiences. However, affirmative listenings cannot materialise when embodied manifestations of discomfort and collective knowledges from the margins are sidelined. Disbelief, in this case, is not simply an issue of whether or not an experience can be proven true, but is inflected by the ideological viewpoint that signals exclusive credibility for some experiences, as opposed to some others.

The violence of the middle ground

In one of the feminist assemblies in preparation for the upcoming 8M march in South Spain, a fellow activist brought in a flier that was distributed to members of her local teachers’ union. It read ‘Ni feminazis, ni machistas. Solo personas con valores y educación’ (Neither feminazis nor sexists. Just people with values and manners). The purpose was to collectively discuss ways to negotiate the gaslighting impact of this relativist discourse gradually gaining more ground in our local and wider settings. The narrative of the ‘middle ground’ was not new; it had already been widely advocated and a prominent part of the extreme-right, ultrareligious, supremacist, and anti-gender narrative and agenda opposing feminist activism locally and internationally. As Sara Farris (2017, pp. 1-3) points out, there exists a more general phenomenon gradually understood as the return of revamped extreme right-wing ideologies as mindful of ‘progressive’ agendas, such as women’s equality and LGBTQ+ rights, albeit with a false pretence of inclusivity concerns, seemingly departing from their previous ‘traditionally antifeminist politics’. The workings of this discourse in my ethnographic context had been evident in its wide circulation on digital platforms, advertisements against non-binary genders on busses and bus stops, and threats of rape and doxing against my fellow activist collaborators who opposed it online. One of the most notable representatives of this body of ideology–whose action I encountered within both an activist and ethnographic capacity–was extreme-right Catholic association Hazte Oír.

8A picture of the bus advertisement sponsored by Hazte Oír can be found here: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39125187.

Their main discourse and advocacy generally involves upholding claims of equality as a goal already achieved, gender violence as a misconception of what should be instead defined as general/domestic crime, and gender as a misleading, conspired conceptualisation against what naturally constitutes an essentially binary reproductive anatomy, adhering to balanced attributes and values of two sexes.

Admittedly, there was a considerable discrepancy between what constitutes a ‘balanced’ approach or a ‘middle grounds’ pacifism outside this ideological cluster–in the context of local feminist activism, this mantra was in fact widely perceived as ‘agenda exterminacionista’ (exterminationist agenda). However, returning to the assembly discussion, what seemed to be particularly disturbing was the infiltration of bulldozing ‘balanced opinion’ ideologies in contexts that had so far mostly felt safe or, more accurately, tuned into the necessity of upholding and amplifying discomforting affects and complaints. This relativist discourse negating the historicity, situational knowledge, and power dynamics implied in the ‘both sides to a story’ approach had found a way in ‘progressive’, or ‘alternative’ spaces, such as the movements of the Left, workers’ unions, intellectual and academic circles adhering to Marxist, communist, and anarchist ideas, traditionally allied to activist calls by the feminist movement. Daniel Bernabé’s book La trampa de la diversidad. Cómo el neoliberalismo fragmentó la identidad de la clase trabajadora (2018), a popular reference in discussions involving the Left thought in Spanish-speaking contexts and debated item in feminist activist conversations, is another example of the balanced approach argument; it does so through claiming that attunement to individual affects and complaints is operating against the working-class agenda, which should not be diluted and overshadowed by collective protesting of less worthy causes. Looking closer at what exactly is conceptualised as unworthy, it is evident that this involves, amongst other things, condemnation of the activist prominence of LGBTQ+ claims as well as the community’s protesting behaviour (Bernabé, 2018, p. 158), as well as their alliance in upholding issues of violent suppression of self-expression faced by members of the trans community (2018, pp. 96-97). Bernabé’s critical commentary goes further, as he chastises the inclusive vocabulary and temperament of feminist activists whose complaints conceptualise terms like ‘TERF’, ‘cisgender’, ‘manspreading’, ‘mansplaining’ (2018, p. 163), words which supposedly emit affects too discomforting and alienating to attune to, thereby working against the higher cause of a harmoniously unanimous working class front fighting against the bigger enemy rather than seeking accountability based on such divisive complaints. What is consistently implied in these examples is that such ‘harmonious’ middle ground approach by default demands stripping affective activism of what constitutes its very core: direct language and unfiltered affects, discomforting complaints, uncomfortable listenings, raw exposure to embodied testimonies of experiences of violence demanding space and voice when institutionally devalued.

Admittedly, not all of the calls for ‘both sides’ attack the articulation of oppressing affects. Attempts have been made to bridge fronts and facilitate the process of their articulation (for example, Mackay, 2021). However, attunement to agents of marginalised communities seeking articulation should primarily revolve around the quests of those who are at the receiving end of violences in volatile contexts, those whose lives are at stake and whose existence depends on it. Looking at the qualities of articulated complaints confirms that ‘middle ground’ solutions are not enough to create the urgent shift to transformative change in contexts of crisis. The messages on the posters displayed in feminist activist demonstrations mock this approach ‘“Ni machismo ni feminismo” es machismo’.

9Original in Spanish: ‘Neither sexism, nor feminism’ is sexism.

The rejection of ‘middle grounds’ inscribed on this condemnation suggests a mistrust historically and experientially informed by contexts where direct accountability is pending. Harmonious consensus cannot exist when reparative processes have not yet been initiated.

Two steps back?

The articulation of voices and the materialisation of attunement cannot easily emerge in increasingly hostile, volatile, and violent contexts, where acquired support and community accomplishments are gradually stripped back. If denial and disbelief are some of the implicit ways in which structural violence operates, there is also an ongoing direct attack on the tools and platforms that facilitate the amplification of complaints. Far from being a locally isolated phenomenon, the attack on the so called ‘gender ideology’ is globally impacting feminist activists and scholars, and marginalised communities; from legislations attacking sexuality and gender expression and acquired LGBTQ+ rights to the closing down of gender studies departments, violence targeting communities of complaint is exercised directly and unreservedly (Hemmings 2020; Toldy and Garraio 2020; Kuhar and Patternote, 2018). At the same time, these attacks re-enforce the circulation of existing ideological frameworks that suppress complaints, thus enhancing the ramifications on affected communities and perpetuating a vicious cycle of unaddressed violence. For example, narratives of surviving and resisting gender violence get co-opted by the counter-discourse to signify that the very articulation of complaint and resistance are attacking social order; in a similar fashion, being involved in feminist activism is re-signified as being a ‘feminazi’ (Puente et al, 2021). While reclaiming such narratives and pushing for discursive innovation is important in overcoming such co-optations (Puente et al, 2021; 2017), there still remains the issue of attunement to the urgency of the complaint as a proactive rather than reactive task.

Forty years after positionality feminism became mainstream in theoretical debates (as in the work of Hill Collins, 2000, Harding, 1986, and Haraway, 1998), the translation of these invaluable theoretical arguments into structural change with significant impact on the lives of my collaborating feminist complainants has been an unsustainably slow work in progress. Centralising complaints, affects, and embodied knowledges is directly linked to concepts of positionality. They allow viewing violences and vulnerabilities through the prism of the lived experiences of those upon whom structural violences are inflicted, and who can accurately identify them for what they are. Lived experiences can be valuable testimonies against multiple oppressions and help pinpoint the specific and broader patterns of the flow of power. Viewing their role as such entails a faithful commitment and attunement to what constitutes the ‘perspective of the marginalized’ (Chakraborty, 2021, p. 8; Harding, 2014). Yet, at the same time, resistance to these listenings is present even within academic settings that are, in theory, committed to such labour. In ‘Unsettling ourselves: Notes on reflective listening beyond discomfort’ April Petillo speaks of an ‘(un)willingness to hear content in certain spaces’, including academic settings (2020, p. 14). Violences affecting both scholars and the activist communities they belong to and work with can be further increased by the challenges of established perspectives and of their inability to tune-up to embodied knowledges informed by marginalised positionalities. Using the example of (settler) whiteness and its problematic reflexes to understanding how intrinsically it is connected to culturally and historically-informed oppressing hierarchies, Petillo questions the ability of established academic practice to grasp the essence of articulated affects, such as those often perceived as ‘excessive–passion, suffering, and resiliency as well as telling one’s story the way one wants to’ (2020, pp.19-21). Collective complaints can become a nuance because they entail realities that mirror uncomfortable truths; they expose the unwillingness of establishments to own accountability; the discomfort to accommodate discomfort.

Engaging discomforts and complaints

Being part of communities of complaint as an activist while also negotiating my belonging in academia–as one of its precarious members–involves for me a constant negotiation of positionality, of conflicting emotions about my role in an institutional setting, and the responsibility of crediting and upholding lived experiences and complaints as felt and witnessed within my collaborating communities. However, my own lived experiences differ from those of my collaborators who face daily physical and structural violences, such as racism and transphobia; they also differ from those of other survivors of sexual violence and ableism because of the diverse qualitative entanglements of violence and levels of vulnerability exposed to which shape our lives. Acknowledging the need for audibility of complaints, collective resistance, and solidarity does not imply oblivion to the interplay of marginalisations and privileges shifting across identities, contexts, and levels of support available. My exposure to sexual violence and ableism does not render me immune to privileges that come in other forms. The feminist activist commitment to affiliated communities of complaint presupposes an awareness that the notion of ‘lived experience’ carries traumas, intimacies, and affects that cannot be essentialised as a common, general understanding of the struggles each member must endure. They need to be attended to, upheld, attuned to, and affirmed for what they are.

This paper has been itself a product of such negotiations, at the intersection of personal and collective lived experiences that aimed at not overlooking either. In this case, academic attunement has had to start with who chooses the research questions, what is relevant to collaborators, what constitutes meaningful knowledge. Our group affectivity, with its proximity and emotional bonding, has been the means to access what matters to others; it unfolded in our emotional relationships and activist solidarity when directness, non-hierarchical affection, care, and affirmation are part of the relationship. My own questions have been collaboratively chiselled by the urgent call at the core of collective complaints, often even discursively unmediated but collectively agreed upon: “Can we write this?”, “Can you add that?”, “That’s not the point”. An emotional, often passionately expressed collage of complaints coming together in assemblies, personal and collective encounters, a witnessing, a direct manifesto, an activist signalling, a direct questioning of institutional tools; all these evaluated as valid and valuable knowledge setting the tempo of my work as an activist researcher with explicitly articulated loyalties to this activism. As a result, my affective relationship to my friends, fellow-activists, materialises my role as a choral amplifier: the voice that reaches the audience is coloured and flavoured by the personal-collective trajectory filter; admittedly, often sputtering theorising and academic knowledge paradigms as purposeless residues sitting at the bottom of this filter.

Looking at the conceptualisations of activist affects and complaints, this is the risk involved when theorising actions of violence and resistance in academia, the potential residue in the filter in the previous figuration. This risk concerns their representation in ways that are incompatible with the agentic and collective perceptions and embodied knowledges of those generating these resistances. How much relevant and meaningful knowledge is left once the residue is removed, and is it still beneficial to those it concerns? In their analysis of public activist demonstrations and of their potential, Judith Butler (2020, p. 195) approaches protest from a ‘theatrical politics’ perspective, whereby ‘it is not the immediacy of the body that makes this demand, but rather the body as socially regulated and abandoned’. However, it is precisely through this immediacy that affects are manifested, materialised, and shared; the protesting body is not merely a ‘socially regulated and abandoned’ unit, it is a live sensorial receptor of pain, comfort and discomfort, of a wide range of feelings and sensations triggered by and through the actualisation of public complaints in the presence of others. Being there and connected in affectivity is not just a symbolic act of resistance or a representation of a state of oppression; it is the affirmative platform of the actuality of bodies and of the tangibility of their pain, an opportunity for explosive, excessive affects realised through the senses and emotions of immediate bodies that are suffering, healing, demanding for violences to cease then and there. Violated bodies do not need to discursively signify in order to exist, but quite the opposite; it is the frequency of the listening that needs to be adjusted to their raw, embodied affects in order to recognise them.

This connects directly to conceptualisations of vulnerability and the place of materiality within these conceptualisations. I agree with Butler that vulnerability cannot be seen as an isolated concept, separate from resistance, particularly in the context of protesting communities, however, Butler goes as far as to argue that ‘[s]ometimes continuing to exist in the vexation of social relations is the ultimate defeat of violent power’ (2020, p. 195). Vulnerability is, to a certain extent ‘ambivalent’ (Gilson, 2011, p. 310), however it is important to see how it connects to the material affects of the bodies of those targeted by violence in order to tune into their complaint. Reading a symbolic victory over power through the means of a discursive theorisation, particularly articulated by those with more means to shelter from it than others, does not reflect the affective experiences and perceptions of reality of the recipients of violence within my collaborative communities, such as rape survivors, trans and disabled people seeking tangible reparative justice and support. For them, as for me, striving to survive in hostile contexts does not equate achievement or a liveable existence; it is not about coming up with a satisfyingly optimistic and idealised conceptualisation of the devastating, it is primarily about creating a wider consensus on the very existence of the violences. In the maligned and marginalised communities of my ethnography it is evidently felt that such consensus has not yet been achieved.

How then can the discrepancy between understandings of lived experience and its situational meaning be mitigated? Petillo (2020, p. 15) argues for the need of ‘reflective embodied listenings’ when ‘encountering other’s lived realities’, which can offer ‘self-corrective course of action’. In similar lines of thought, Ahmed speaks of feminist listenings and ‘feminist ears’ that can attune to complaints (2014, p. 207; 2017). Attunement presupposes primarily the recognition of the existence of the affects, it involves tuning into the materiality of bodies and its manifestations; it is paying close attention to the negotiations of violence, the discomforts, the excessive emotions, the traumas, the hurt, and the embodied knowledge that emanates from them. Michalinos Zembylas (2013) and Jonathan Jansen (2009) use the term ‘troubled knowledge’ to refer to the ‘knowledge of a traumatized past such as the profound feelings of loss, shame, resentment, or defeat that one carries from his or her participation in a traumatized community’ (Zembylas, 2013 p. 177). Attunement to complaints necessarily involves the recognition of ‘troubled knowledge’ and the discomforting affects that emanate from it. It also presupposes willingness and openness to trace the affects, as well as affirmation. The quest for ‘believing’ articulated in the letter by the survivor of the Manada is a reminder of the significant role of affirmative listening for those affected by violence. Affirmative listenings are the counter-response to institutional disbelief, voiding, and appropriation of complaints in favour of more convenient ‘middle ground’. As seen in the examples of feminist collective complaints, affirmative listenings also entail undertaking the labour of amplification. Ahmed (2021, p. 182) calls this task ‘complaint activism’, which is not only about formalising complaints institutionally, but ‘about taking complaints out, making complaints across different sites’.

Affective listenings to complaints can become particularly meaningful when informing actions in response. Addressing violences, especially within an academic capacity, is connected to both the suitability of the means to disrupt and the spaces available to do so. Sara Motta (2018, p. 36) points out that the language of trauma cannot be easily translated into fruitful understandings of marginalised experiences in the context of institutions adhering to a long tradition of white male scientific objectivism. The grammar of emotion, which is present at the very core of affective activisms and complaints, is a qualitatively different register. Is affect a dialect or a completely different language, illegible academically and institutionally? Sara Ahmed herself epitomises a case of incompatibility of voicing affective complaints within institutions, having had to leave her academic institution in order to materialise communities attuned to these complaints.

10Sara Ahmed resigned from her academic position in a UK institution in protest against sexual harassment within the university and the way it was handled institutionally. Sara Ahmed has published a blog post on the issue: https://feministkilljoys.com/2016/05/30/resignation/

This also poses the question of space. If the intention is to engage with affects and complaints, what ideologies shape the table to which complainants are invited? Is the discursive space inclusive and sensitive of the violences, the lived experiences, and the collective (troubled) knowledges embodied in these complaints? Disruption will have to necessarily involve reflection around these issues, practising openness and affirmation, as well as willingness to accommodate discomforting affects for what they are.

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