The second book in my summer book review series is another one from Duke University Press: Eli Clare’s Brilliant Imperfection. After reading Clare’s revised Exile and Pride last year (which I strongly recommend), I was eagerly anticipating tucking into this book. The good news is, it didn’t disappoint. Now on to the book review!
Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure
Duke University Press © 2017
There are few authors who write more beautifully than Eli Clare, and Brilliant Imperfection is a perfect example of such beauty. In fact, one of my favorite things about Clare is that he eschews easy categorization. He writes poetry, prose, and academic pieces; mixes empirical evidence with personal reflection with story-telling; and he is a writer whose analytical focus blends between and among various interlocking systems of oppression. In this latest book, Clare brings these profuse perspectives, writing styles, and approaches together to interrogate various competing notions of cure.
Duke University Press classifies Clare’s text as fitting into disability studies, disability activism, and queer studies. However, readers will quickly come to understand that Clare’s accounting of cure takes into account environmental justice, colonization, racism and racialization, and fat studies. Through these various analytical lenses, Clare also takes on the medical industrial complex, the pharmaceutical industry, and his own ongoing socialization regarding cure in ways that are both personally moving and helpful for thinking about how to dismantle systemic oppressions.
One of my favorite aspects of the book is its performative nature. Clare doesn’t give easy answers or a sense of settledness regarding his interpretation of cure. In fact, he suggests in the text that if one is to be honest, one cannot ever have a unified understanding of cure due to its mercurial nature as a concept and ideology (to say nothing about the multiple ways it is taken up with both violent and liberatory aims/results). As a reader, I felt bumped and jostled throughout the text. I felt pulled between writing styles, across perspectives on cure, and, as a result, found myself shifting my own views and investments on cure as I read. As someone who is crip and trans* myself, and has recently had several experiences that have made me (re)think my own investments in medical-based body normativity, this book was a gut check. Clare’s vulnerability pulled at my own vulnerability, and Clare wrote the book in such a way that I felt I was sitting with a friend late at night, sharing our complicated and complex secrets by candlelight.
Similar to my first book review of the summer, Brilliant Imperfection is decidedly outside of the field of higher education and student affairs. However, there are several things I was able to take from the book that are highly relevant to educators’ work. The first takeaway for me was the need to think about the ideology of cure from a student affairs perspective. While we rarely use this word, I have a sneaking suspicion that much of the work we draw from in our field works to promote cures. Most notably, I have been thinking about how student development theory may be used as a way to cure students of their less complex, earlier developmental stages/processes/statuses. In other words, I wonder how we may think of using student development theory as an anecdote to what we see as “less healthy” ways of thinking and being in the world, and by implementing student development theories in practice, we can then cure such developmental ills.
This perspective is, quite simply, dangerous and paternalistic. To think that we, as educators, know the “right way” for people to think and be, and that we have the cure(s) for what we have defined—via student development theories—as students’ shortcomings. Thinking with Clare’s text, then, the ideology of student-development-theory-as-cure promotes violence at the very same time that it may well encourage individual growth and wellbeing (because not all development is negative, bad, or unwanted by students). Clare reminds us that cure is complex, but we should never overlook the potential violent foundations and implications of cure, alongside its potential/hopeful positive effects.
Another component of the book I find helpful for educators is Clare’s questioning of normalcy, as well as who defines such a paradigm (because I agree with Clare that normalcy is much more than a term/concept). Questioning normalcy has long been a staple of disability studies literature, but Clare’s picking up on various interlocking systems of oppression reminds educators that the paradigm of normalcy is deeply entrenched in colonialism, racism, fat-phobia, heteronormativity and queer shame, and staid notions of what body-minds (a term Clare introduces in Brilliant Imperfection) should be able to do. Clare also reminds us that normalcy is also framed by temporality, as body-minds that cannot do certain things within certain timeframes are created as abject, deviant, and wrong.
In a field that still discusses “traditional” and “non-traditional” students, frames college as a 4-6 year endeavor, and continues to have a love affair with the notion of allyship as a status one can hold up as a sign of their being progressive, educators would do well to follow Clare’s lead and interrogate normalcy from all angles. Who is normal? Who says so? Why are we enamored with normalcy? How is this helpful? What if we strove for abnormality instead? How, in desiring normality, are we neglecting our own body-minds? What generational violence are we passing down by not questioning normativity as an ideology that frames much of what we do as educators?
The final element of Clare’s book that I find quite beautiful—and very scary—is his intimate openness. Clare shares of himself in a way that is not self-indulgent or without purpose, but in a way that challenges me. In particular, Clare’s poetry/prose challenged me to have a good, long think about how/why/when/if I am sharing of myself, and if that (not) sharing is itself rooted in violent notions of desiring cure.
To be honest, I am not sure where I am at with this element of Clare’s book. I have continued to think about this as I have read Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life, as she also discusses this (and her reticence about self-disclosure). More on that in a future book review, though. For now, let’s just say that I am wondering how openness may be used by educators—myself included—as a way to not be open. In a sense, then, I wonder how our sharing—and decisions around when/how/if/with whom/in what contexts we share—acts as a non-performative, or a way that we put up brick walls around not sharing…despite our suggesting the opposite. For example, I have recently begun talking a bit more publicly about my having a think about the pronouns I would like people to use in relation to me. However, I have not gone much further than that in public. And while I know there are many good reasons for this, I also need to have a real think about what it means to be open, and what that openness might (not) do. I also need to think about why I haven’t shared much more about pronouns, including if my not sharing is linked to my own complicity with oppressive illogics.
Clare’s book is as impressive as it is painfully necessary. For those who invest the time and space for Clare’s work, the book challenges the very core of who we are, what we think, and how what we think (re)produces the very worlds we may (not) want. And in the end, isn’t that all we could ever ask from a book: to be pushed, pulled, cajoled, and invited to thinking about the complex tapestry of life as brilliant imperfection? I, for one, would like to think so.
This blog is a space where I share my thoughts on trans*-related issues. I also will share my own research as it develops, including papers, presentations, and the development of my dissertation study with trans* college students.