On February 13, 2013, San Diego State University hosted Eli Clare: writer, speaker, activist, teacher, and poet. Students, professors, and community members gathered in the North Education building to listen to Clare’s poetry and prose. Clare is highly respected in the fields of environmental and social justice studies, and introduced by Dr. Sara Giordano, Women’s Studies Professor at San Diego State. Giordano highlighted some of Clare’s work and ‘rabble-rousing’ such as walking across the country for peace.
Clare then captivated the audience with the reading of a work entitled “Meditations on Disabled Bodies, Natural Worlds, and A Politics of Cure.” The reading was broken down into eight sections, with a range of themes that included a discourse on the damaging terms that surround disability, an exploration of why we demand cures for disabled bodies, and an look into our relationship with our environment. He spoke with the kind of dramatic pauses that you just can’t punctuate, sharing a work designed to invoke contemplation through visceral sensation. I had chills when listening to his melancholy description of time spent in a Wisconsin prairie:
You and I walk in the summer rain through a 30 acre pocket of tall-grass prairie that was, not so long ago, one big cornfield… Without the massive web of prairie roots to anchor the earth; bison to turn, fertilize, and aerate the earth; and lightning-strike fire to burn and renew the earth; the land now known as Wisconsin is literally draining away. Rain catches the topsoil, washing it from field to creek to river to ocean.
The language was a braiding together of personal record, critical theory, and this type of quintessential environmental imagery. Successfully taking on the difficult task of comparing the way society treats the environment to the way we treat those with disabilities and queer people; as something to be shaped and controlled, Clare’s lyrical examinations reveal that oppression and destruction are tangled together. Weaved by a web of dueling cultural values: normal vs. abnormal, natural vs. unnatural. Having cerebral palsy and self-identifying as gender-queer, Clare explains that our concept of normal and natural affect how we treat who and what surround us. Using his own body as an example, he created a dialogue on how society makes light of our differences and how painful these constructions can be for someone who is labeled ‘other’. His words have stuck with me for weeks now. “The pressure to conform individually and systemically, these standards are immense… It is not an exaggeration to say that the words unnatural and abnormal haunt me as a disabled person. Or maybe more accurately, they pummel me”. His critique also highlighted how our definitions of the terms normal and natural simultaneously mean so much to the environmental, queer, and disability studies, yet those same definitions slip and slide in meaning and in context.
I think about the words natural and unnatural, normal and abnormal. What was once normal here; what can we consider normal now? Normal and natural dance together, while unnatural and abnormal bully, threaten, patrol the boundaries… How does unnatural technology repair so-called abnormal bodies to their natural ways of being?
Clare posits that disabilities and other supposed abnormalities such as the queer identity are not embraced as just plain variations among humans. Not only in this reading but in his books Exile and Pride and The Marrow’s Telling Clare hopes that our society can begin to step away from these myopic valuations of uniformity. At one point in the reading he called for “a world where a wide range of difference can simply exist as difference.” Thus envisioning a world in which biological and cultural diversity thrive, and where we actually embrace the experiences of the multifaceted individual. This talk marked the opening of the Spring 2013 Feminist Research Colloquium. The event was presented by Common Experience and the Department of Womens Studies, and co-sponsored by MALAS (the Master of Arts in Liberal Arts and Sciences) and Safe-Zones @ SDSU. I would highly recommend interdisciplinary readings/writings of Eli Clare to anyone and everyone, especially those interested in environmental or social justice. The reading in its entirety can be found here