Notes on Cure, Disability, and Natural Worlds

Watch a video of Eli giving this talk at the University of New Hampshire in April, 2015, or read the excerpt below. The video is captioned.


As an ideology seeped into every corner of Western thought and culture, cure rides on the back of normal and natural. Insidious and pervasive, it impacts many, many bodies and minds. We need to respond not with a simple or reactive belief system, not with an anti-cure stance in the face of the endless assumptions about body-mind difference, but rather with a broad-based politics of cure mirroring the complexity of all our body-minds.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines cure as the “restoration of health.” In developing a politics of cure based upon this definition, it would be all too easy to get mired in an argument about health, trying to determine who’s healthy and who’s not, as if there’s one objective standard.

Instead I want to follow the word restoration. To restore an object or an ecosystem is to return it to an earlier, and often better, condition. We restore a house that’s falling down, a prairie that’s been decimated by generations of monoculture farming and fire suppression. In this return, we try to undo the harm, wishing the harm had never happened. Talk to anyone who does restoration work—a carpenter who rebuilds 150-year-old neglected houses, a conservation biologist who turns cornfields back to prairie—and she’ll say it’s a complex undertaking. A fluid, responsive process, restoration requires digging into the past, stretching toward the future, working hard in the present. And the end-results rarely, if ever, match the original state.

Restoring an ecosystem means rebuilding a dynamic system that has somehow been interrupted or broken—devastated by strip mining or clearcut logging, taken over by invasive species, unbalanced by the loss of predators, crushed by pollution.  The work isn’t about recreating a static landscape somehow frozen in time, but rather about encouraging and reshaping dynamic ecological interdependencies, ranging from clods of dirt to towering thunderheads, tiny microbes to herds of bison, into a self-sustaining system of constant flux. This reshaping mirrors the original or historical ecosystem as closely as possible, but inevitably some element is missing or different. The return may be close but never complete.

The process of restoration is simpler with a static object—an antique chair or old house. Still, if the carpenters aren’t using axe-hewn timbers of assorted and quirky sizes; mixing the plaster with horse hair; building at least a few walls with chicken wire; using newspaper, rags, or nothing at all for insulation; then the return will be incomplete, possibly sturdier and definitely more energy efficient, but different from the original house. Even though restoration as a process is never complete, it always requires an original or historical state in which to root itself, a belief that this former state is better than what currently exists, and a desire to return to the original.

Thinking about the framework of restoration, I circle back to the folks who offer disabled and chronically ill people prayers, crystals, and vitamins; believing deeply in the necessity of cure. A simple one-to-one correspondence between ecological restoration and bodily restoration reveals cure’s mandate of returning damaged bodies to some former, and non-disabled, state of being. This mandate clearly locates the problem, or damage, of disability within individual disabled bodies and minds.

copyright 2015, Eli Clare