Some time ago I assigned a selection of chapters from Curiosity Studies (U of Minnesota Press, 2020) to my undergraduate students, who were really moved by the work. The volume presents a powerful trans-disciplinary examination of “the desire to know,” addressing how curiosity has been by turns commodified (as in the case of “pathways to student success,” for instance), weaponized (in the designation of what or who constitutes “a” curiosity), or stifled (as in the case of subjugated knowledges, indigenous histories, or even student interest). The essays in the volume address the entanglements of knowledge and power not only in their intimacies—in their relation to desire—but also in relation to specific fields of inquiry and expertise, from political philosophy to mental health, from education to anthropology. The volume, like its topic, is not only omnivorous; it is hungry.
What follows is a conversation with the volume’s editors, Perry Zurn and Arjun Shankar, conducted in 2021.
—Jonathan P. Eburne
Jonathan P. Eburne: I’d love to hear your origin stories for the volume, as well as to learn more about the process of building and gathering its contents. I’d especially love to hear about the ways in which collaboration has played a fundamental role in this project, as well as your thoughts about ways to create new structures or infrastructures for the practice of curiosity as you’ve defined it. So, maybe you could just start with the origins of this project?
Arjun Shankar: I think the best way to narrate an origin story of how I got into curiosity is by starting with my time before joining the academy, before I became a doctoral student, and then a professor. There are two ways of telling that story. One story is that I didn’t know what I wanted to do as an undergrad. I just sort of went from discipline to discipline to discipline, from area to area, not understanding what it was my path was. And so that kernel of never-ending exploration about what the university was, what study was, and where I fit in it stayed with me. But the other thing is that after I was done with college, in this sort of mass emptiness of what I was going to do, I became a ninth-grade biology teacher. And that set the stage in New York City for me to actually become conscious about the massive inequities in the education system. I witnessed, every day, a system that was preventing students from being curious. Not asking questions, standardized forms of engagements with tests, really sapping them, of any level of interest in learning. That actually set the stage for me to come back and get my PhD in education. I eventually got into anthropology as well, because I still held on to the idea of the university as a place for radical exploration and still didn’t understand what disciplines were. But it started with this question of education and what it is that we’re doing to young people that makes them so disinterested and separated from their own learning. Eventually, that led me to this question of curiosity. And that’s how I ended up meeting Perry.
Perry Zurn: Curiosity for me starts early, both as a practice and as a concern. I was homeschooled, and given a vibrant, wholistic education. But I also grew up in a very conservative, religious community, and thus saw firsthand how curiosity, or particular curiosities, particular forms of knowledge, and ways of knowing, can be policed. As I graduated highschool, my father forbid me from going to college. Thankfully, by a series of adventures, I eventually got there anyway. Getting there, I thought, Great! I’ve finally made it! To the space of pure intellectual freedom! But the longer I studied, the more I realized that curiosity—especially my own growing curiosity about feminist thought, queer and trans thought—was policed there too. That was a galvanizing moment for me. To feel at once free and trapped. I’ve since learned this is true of all institutionalized spaces of inquiry. There are always constraints on who is curious and about what, which knowledges are lifted up and which suppressed.
Now, curiosity is something of an obsession for me—again, as a practice and as a concern… I’m relentlessly curious. I read voraciously in and outside of my own disciplinary field. I can’t help but experiment with different genres and voices in my writing, curious to bend academic custom and see what that allows me to think. I ended up writing a dissertation on curiosity and the politics of difference. Then, during a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania, where I met Arjun, I co-edited Curiosity Studies. And since then, I’ve written Curiosity and Power (out earlier this year), the first book to tackle the politics of curiosity. And I’ve also co-written with my twin Curious Minds (out next year), a genre-bending account of curiosity at the interstices of philosophy and network science. Despite all of this work, curiosity still holds incredible intrigue for me and I find myself still hatching projects around it. Curious to see what’s next!
JPE: What I’m struck by in the book itself, and in both of these stories, is the notion that curiosity is not a foregone conclusion. There’s a kind of dialogism, or multifariousness at work in the term “curiosity,” and there’s a healthy amount of disagreement in there as well. And I think that what becomes traumatic, according to what you’ve both said—and this is addressed in the book as well—is the idea that there’s an imperial gaze involved in certain kinds of curiosity, certain regimes of curiosity. This is certainly the case historically, as Perry develops further in Curiosity and Power. You both seek to recast curiosity, the desire to know, as something other than a colonizing, imperialist gaze; to recast it as a counterhegemonic form of sovereignty. As a move towards a certain kind of autonomy—the creation of spaces of desire and inquiry within institutions, within different spheres of expertise and domains of power, and within epistemology. In other words, for there to be this kind of curiosity there has to be, it has to be bound up with, some degree of sovereignty. I’m very moved by that insistence.
PZ: Right. There is an assumption today that curiosity is always on the side of change, social critique, and scientific revolution. But this is too simplistic an understanding. Curiosity—that is, the practice of investigation—works just as much on the side of the status quo, social sedimentation, and Kuhnian “normal science.” And that prompts us to ask, in every setting, how is curiosity at work here? By what means and to what ends? I develop this insight in my chapter for Curiosity Studies, “Curiosity and Political Resistance.” There I trace the work of inquiry, of wanting to know, on both sides of political movements, from the Civil Rights Movement to more recent disability and trans mobilizations.
Then in Curiosity and Power, I dig much more deeply into the processes by which curiosity becomes institutionalized. I use the term “sovereign,” as in “sovereign structures of curiosity,” to characterize that institutionalization. The curiosity undergirding sovereignty is deployed so as to solidify and extend existing formations of power and knowledge. Colonialism is certainly one of the structures or channels through which sovereign curiosity functions, but there are others. Identifying them requires asking where forces are conserved and consolidated. But it is just as important to ask where curiosity lives on the edge and in the cracks of institutions. Where does it crack things open, unsettling histories and habits instead of solidifying or closing them down?
AS: Maybe I’m a little bit more cynical when it comes to curiosity, generally. This is mainly because of how deeply colonized our imaginations, curiosities, and interests are. So for me, I start by thinking with Perry about how to move against the entrenched colonization of our ability to imagine and question. Which means, first, just becoming conscious that one’s curiosity is colonized, myself included. For me this book matters so much because once you’re aware that curiosity is political—that it is not singular, it is not universal, it is not just as it should be in one way, shape, or form—then it actually allows maybe a cracking just ever so slightly of the edifice of neocolonial curiosity, if you want to call it that. To me this is what hope looks like.
Hope stems from our realization that we might be able to change our curiosity; when we become conscious that we don’t have to ask the same questions we’ve always been told are the only ones that should matter to us. So actually, learning to ask questions about what we can change and how we can change it. That’s powerful. And that’s really what a radical curiosity for me is about, you know, from a hopeful perspective, as you were sort of pointing out there.
PZ: As an example, take the Freedom Schools. It’s perhaps no real surprise that these alternative learning environments, generated in the 1960s as part and parcel of the Civil Rights Movement, mobilized a revolutionary curiosity. The extent of their commitment to curiosity, however, is remarkable. In the Mississippi Freedom School’s curriculum, roughly one third of the sentences end in a question mark. For the citizenship section, which is the heartbeat of the curriculum, it’s about half. That means that for every period there’s a question mark. The Freedom Schools, then, are not only built on those touchstone questions of “What does the dominant culture have that we want?” and “What does it have that we don’t want?”, but on a rich bed of existential and practical questions about what life is, and should, and might be like. This is a practice of curiosity that does the work of undoing. It undoes both the world outside and that within, awakening folks to possibilities of racial liberation and coalition. The point of the Freedom Schools’ curriculum was to equip actors, activists. To insist: We can change things, so how do we want to change? In this sense, the project was fundamentally curious.
JPE: As you were talking, Perry, I noticed the Foucault books behind your head, because I’m a bookshelf ogler. So I have a Foucauldian question for you, because I know it’s part of the conceptual crux of this issue. It strikes me that there’s a kind of plasticity—a habitable, incorporable element—to curiosity that is not as present in Foucault’s understanding of biopower. “Curiosity” and “biopower” are not exactly analogues, despite the title of your Curiosity and Power book, but they both describe mediums through which living systems—our own very lives—can be orchestrated toward (and as) constitutive regimes. And yet these terms also identify the very things, the very orchestrations, that can dismantle regimes as well. But there’s something about the particularity, or maybe the nonparticularity, of curiosity, that seems, I don’t know, to break out of a lot of the foreclosure that certain versions of Foucauldian thought have taken up or had to confront. I’d love to hear your version of this.
PZ: Certainly. Curiosity is never simply sedimented, the inquisitive arm of industrialization, capitalism, or colonialism. It is always also something else. Something changeable and unsettling. Foucault’s work provides great examples of that bivalent character. I like to reframe his notion of biopower—with all its practices of surveillance, of datafication, information collection, and bureaucratic arrangement of life chances—as a curiosity formation, a means of mobilizing ways of knowing and wanting to know. But also of not knowing and not wanting to know. There are certain things to which biopolitics does not attend, by its very nature. And this is even more true of specific biopolitical regimes. Foucault, as we know, died of AIDS complications. The AIDS epidemic is not only the effect of a specific biopolitics, but a function of a lack of curiosity, a refusal to ask questions about a particular community and the healthcare that they require, in a particular moment.
But Foucault insists that is not the whole story. The question, the enquête, the test, and the query are all functionaries of different regimes of power, yes, but they can also upend things. In his own work, Foucault repeatedly attests, “I’m motivated by curiosity”—not the sort that weighs one down with expectations, but the sort that sets one free. For him, there are ways of living and thinking that escape the structures of biopolitics and epistemic injustice. Ways of arranging words and bodies, of attuning affects and affinities that transgress (or move resistantly across) the social fabric and invent unlegislated, even illegible forms of being. Shapes of intimacy that expand life’s possibilities.
AS: One way I think about what you just said, Perry, is that if we’re going to take a biopolitical reading of curiosity—I’m not saying we should—then we can only do so if we are able to take very seriously the way that curiosity is always already raced, gendered, classed, etc. When we do that, it actually sheds a different kind of light on your story of Foucault himself, even. And the way that we weren’t curious about HIV/AIDS at that moment, what that says about the particular regimes of power around sexuality and gender in particular, right? That, to me, is interesting. And that’s the thing I think we’re both pushing towards with our analysis of curiosity, which is to be specific and to have a materialist critique of power. We might then say that “yeah, power flows through many capillaries, but let’s still find ways to locate it.” What state regimes, and what actual human beings are we looking at, and why? What histories of violence have shaped the differential material conditions for humans all over the planet, and why might that create a very different set of paths for our curiosity? And then we can actually have a politics of curiosity that’s about change, organizing, and solidarity.
PZ: Absolutely, specificity is key. As is a healthy suspicion.
Lots of folks urge us to find our true interest, our authentic curiosity, so to speak, under the rubble of capitalist expectations and pragmatic calculation. But if neoliberalism has taught us anything, it is that that very call to be “just curious” or freely, uselessly curious may itself be in service of an existing power formation. I think about Foucault’s The History of Sexuality. There he argues that sexuality, in the very process of liberation, becomes subject to constrained testimony and targeted curiosity. The individual is ceaselessly cajoled into asking themselves: What am I? How do I identify? What is my sexuality? They are pressed to discern it and then to state it, to claim it and to advocate for it. In the university setting, one of the ways curiosity becomes neoliberalized is the obsession with being so busy, so invested, so curious, so full of so many projects, you know? And to market oneself as such. To constantly tell other folks about it. But this is precisely the process of claiming and crafting who you are for a system that asks that of you. And that should be suspicious.
AS: That’s exactly right. We so often get caught up in this experiential, individuated version of curiosity. So the question of who I am is located in the self, in a way that it really shouldn’t be. A material analysis of the same question would take us in a very different direction. But because of this neoliberalizing form of curiosity, we are encouraged to tether our curiosity to a very, very narrow idea of who we are; to an atomized sense of success tied to production. It produces in so many of us a ton of anxiety and, worse yet, it doesn’t allow us to see the system that is producing all of this anxiety in us. And we might be so anxious about whether we are achieving enough in this neoliberal system that we don’t have the energy to ask more expansive questions and to explore our curiosities.
JPE: I’m really intrigued by the fact that we are framing these questions for a contemporary arts audience. And I say this not just because this is a conversation for publication in ASAP/J, but also because it’s important to think about auditors who would self-identify with one part of that construction. That is: the extent to which one’s self is constructed and constituted by the fact of curiosity, by the procedures of curiosity. As contemporary artists, or as contemporary scholars, the self-identification is for many of us also a self-consciousness about, well, an interrogation of whether our curiosity is a commodity or a desire. It’s, er—[laughs] I almost said, “curious.” Can you say more about this in terms of the materialist analysis you both bring to bear? What does it mean to locate not only the products of one’s creative labor or one’s professional identity within a cultural matrix of parameters that include the marketplace, as well as different forms of embodiment and encounters with systemic violence, sexism, racism, and so forth—but also one’s very desire to create? So, I mean, I feel like the arts—no less than other realms of experience—offer a really interesting and important framework for this investigation—precisely when people put themselves next to or outside of, or in odd relationships with institutions.
And I think that’s why the art world is an important readership for this work, because there are many artists who are actively thinking about constitution and collectivity, and who are striving and fighting for this eagerly.
AS: In my other life as a filmmaker and multimodal anthropologist, and as one of the co-editors of the Multimodal Anthropologies section of American Anthropologist, we encounter this way of fetishizing art, in opposition to say, scholarship, a lot. There is often some form of “The art world is going to save us”. But for me, thinking about curiosity, creativity, art etc. is to remind ourselves that there’s always a visual economy. And that visual economy shapes so much of how we see and what we value artistically. [laughs]
You spoke of imperial gazes and the imperial gaze has consistently produced particular kinds of ideas of art quality. That is to say, questions of what we should produce, in what form, and how, that a radical artistic curiosity has to actually reckon with. We actually have to ask, why am I seeing through the camera’s lens in this way? Let’s see. Why do I think this is beautiful and that not? The entire politics of beauty, pleasure, and desire comes up immediately. And that’s what I think a radical curiosity has to get us to think about. I’m grappling with that in real time, and this other role, because I see it, you know, I see it when, when people suggest to me that their projects are “purely creative” and somehow outside of a historical framing. And when I hear that I hear colonization because until they can actually understand that creativity, and this conceit of “pure creativity” is a conceit of the white, European, Euro-American regime, you can’t actually ask new questions about what you want to create. So, I think for me, yeah, that’s why ASAP journal and what you all are doing is really interesting to me. Because it’s saying that we need to actually have a different way of critically appraising art vis a vis what we learn from a more rigorous pluridisciplinary perspective. That means taking seriously that ideas like pleasure and beauty and the sublime are, are situated and political and never universal.
PZ: The challenge is to take some accountability both for how our curiosities have been formed and how they are actively forming the projects we undertake. One way to do this is to grapple with your social positionality and explicitly situate yourself in relation to your project. That allows you to flag your investments and expertise as much as the limitations of your perceptions and awareness. Whether these acknowledgments are brief or threaded throughout a work, they say: I understand that, as a theorist, I’m not above the material, but I’m inside it, and I appreciate how that affects the methods and contours of my inquiry. But that project is always ever incomplete. One of the things we have to consider in thinking an ethics of curiosity is this: it will always be impure, mottled. And what does it mean to live with that? What does it mean to know that?
In thinking reflexively about our curiosity, it is critical to think not simply of curiosity as a mental faculty or intellectual affect but as a praxical force throughout the body. In a modern context, curiosity is typically located in the mind or the brain. In a pre-modern context, it was located in the eye and the soul. Historically, then, curiosity has been thought primarily as a visual, ocular, or spiritual capacity, rather than as a fully embodied or haptic practice. There’s so much more work to do there, both artistically and theoretically. And I think disability studies provides not only an incredible set of resources for expanding the practice of curiosity to embodiments (plural), but also a specific injunction to account for non-normative embodiments of the curious impulse.
AS: Perry, it feels like you are identifying a critique of a particular kind of reflexive move in these projects. I think curiosity studies has a lot to say as a critique of that sort of reflexive move, and that sort of reflexive anthropological move, which I have seen more and more and which feel to be a short-circuiting of the complexity, messiness, and unfinishedness of a rigorous reckoning with how we might be implicated in systems of oppression. Aa radical curiosity forces us to ask the next question and the next question and as soon as I think I’ve “decolonized my mind,” I realize I haven’t. And then I have to ask another question and another. But the sort of way that anthropology is trafficking in reflexivity has been to short circuit that series of questions. It’s to say, “Look, I am reflexive. And here’s how 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and now I’m done.” And now I can go on and gain capital by being reflexive but I no longer have to be accountable. That is precisely why I think I’ve gravitated to curiosity studies and sort of the way you’re thinking about a barrier, which is, uhh, always uncomfortable one, and unfinished two, right? That has to be the case.
PZ: And this should change what criticism looks like. So often the way theoretical criticism functions is as an accusation: you should have done, you should have thought, you should have accounted for, you should have known, you should have read, you should have included, etc. Pointing out the limitations of a work as a fault assumes a work ought not to have limitations, or at least not those limitations to which the critic is particularly attuned (suspending entirely, of course, the limitations of the critic). On the one hand, this can be a call to accountability, and that I respect. But on the other, it can presume that the author should be able to account for every possible question or every possible resource, and that the project should be totalizing in some way, and certainly not entangled in the very thing it’s trying to resist. But this is folly. Entanglement and limitation are a fact of scholarship. So, what does criticism look like if we understand this embeddedness, this powerful social and interpersonal embeddedness of curiosity? This relentless localism of all of our inquiries?
JPE: And that especially becomes the case when you think about a mode of criticism, or even a mode of production—of putting an idea into circulation—that expresses itself in terms of capaciousness. It’s not just a matter of asking, “Why wasn’t this included? Why didn’t you talk about x?” Rather, it’s a matter of thinking about how to articulate the significance of that incompleteness, in contrast to a neoliberal academic system, or even a colonial art world that favours the particular, the knowable. I don’t mean “particular” here in the sense of granular or specific and embodied, in other words, but particular in the sense of discrete—you know, singular.
AS: And Specialized. Right?
JPE: Specialized. That’s exactly right.
AS: Yeah. And if we’re taking another strand of curiosity, it’s the pedagogical side, right? So, there’s a pedagogical infrastructure to be radically curious. One of those things that I think is required in a curiosity toolkit is a sort of fearlessness when it comes to risk taking, because, as you said, Perry, once you’re actually capacious and actually broad and expansive in your thinking, and you’re trying to ask questions that have not been asked and in a way that they haven’t been asked before, you’re likely to end up getting quite roundly criticized by many people. And as you said, sometimes rightfully so. But sometimes not so rightfully so. But what this means is that in order to be actually able to ask those questions, one has to be able to live in uncertainty and risk, and that’s actually what’s driven out of us in the neoliberal version of pedagogy. We have to know everything about this specialized, little piece of knowledge, and not to speak outside of that zone. I’m not going say two more extra words for fear of failure or criticism. And that prevents us from actually being curious, at some level.
PZ: At the heart of this discussion are three commitments that mark our approach to curiosity: a commitment to critical theory, to feminist and antiracist sensibilities, and to interdisciplinarity (or even anti-disciplinarity). So we ask about structures of power and their material and discursive effects on who is curious, and on when and how they are curious. We ask about how differential effects mark the curiosity habits (and potentialities) of differently gendered and racialized subjects. And we ask how the illusion of intellectual sovereignty and the pigeonholing of inquiries is ultimately unsustainable both in theory and in practice. The more you insist on borders, the more they wash out, wash away.
I recently wrote a short, teachable piece on “Feminist Curiosity.” I draw on sources in the belly and at the borders of philosophy proper to argue that feminist curiosity changes not simply what questions we ask, but how we ask them, where we ask them, and, perhaps most importantly, who we ask them with. I like to think of this as a primer on thinking curiosity with a critical, political attunement and an appreciation for what escapes disciplinary contours.
JPE: Well, with that in mind, I’ve been dying to ask you about the lab—the Curiosity, Mindfulness, and Education lab at American University. What’s interesting is that it both resembles but also distinguishes itself from the many other centres and initiatives that have cropped up throughout the neoliberal academy. The lab is another instance of thinking curiosity with an attunement to the pressures and criteria of disciplinarity—an effort to gather and to be capacious, but also to sustain this sort of this questioning toward the future-perfect. You know: what will this have been? Could you talk a little bit about this project, and the kind of struggles it entails? I am particularly drawn to the question of how you rethink institution building, the creation of communicative or collective spaces, with this work of “thinking curiosity” in mind.
PZ: Curiosity is a fantastic connector. It is one of these approachable and yet intriguing words that can be found in every corner of human existence, and a wide array of sectors and vocations (e.g., education, business, science and technology, theology) take it as their heartbeat. This means it is easy to build cross-sector and cross-disciplinary communities around curiosity. From pop-up events and informal chats to international conferences and formal collaborations, Arjun and I have found an unending well of possibilities. I’ll take just one example. In 2017, I organized a panel on curiosity at American University. Lynn Borton, executive producer of the Choose to Be Curious podcast, came up to me afterward and said, “You know, I really love what you’re doing, I want to hear more. Would you come on the show?” I said, “Of course!” Talking to Arjun beforehand, I said, “I think we should ask Lynn to do a series on curiosity studies.” I pitched the idea to her and she was game! Now there is a podcast episode for every chapter of Curiosity Studies!
It always starts like that: Who’s talking about curiosity? Or who is thinking about curiosity without even talking about it? And what can we learn from each other? What can we do together? The Curiosity, Mindfulness, and Education Lab at American University was like that, too. We had people in community media, elementary ed, disability education, dance, poetry, politics, psychology, pastoral ministry, health science, and more! That’s the point, right? To find means of connection in an otherwise fragmented world. Curiosity is a bridge.
AS: There are two things that you make me think about immediately, which I think bear mentioning, both vis a vis the lab and the book: how do we understand our public? Who is our audience, and whom do we want to address? If one really takes capaciousness seriously here, we oftentimes have to think beyond the narrow audiences that we traditionally have. For me, digital outputs and multimodality represent a different kind of institutional building possibility, where, you know, you can project past the paywall of the journal article. You can be open access, you can have digital extensions, like a podcast that allows us to hear the subject matter completely differently and reach audiences who may not want to read a book, but who might have 30 minutes to listen to an episode about a chapter and connect that way. And that can be really, really powerful. We’ve been lucky enough through the University of Minnesota Press to be able to work on their Manifold digital open access platform and that changed the way we could even imagine this project, especially in relation to institution building and audience.
PZ: For me, embracing multi-modality and multi-community connections is part and parcel of trying to think and to stay on the edge or in the cracks of the university. Too often, the university collapses in on itself—like an ivory tower sunk in quicksand. For those of us who work in it, there’s a tug, every day, to just settle in more deeply and pull away from the world instead of to stay accountable and communicative beyond it, beyond ourselves, out there on that edge.
AS: I think both of us being on the one side of the tenure track divide really think about the massive hierarchies of labor that the university continues to create. It’s easy to fall prey to a version of that reality where you can start to believe in it and to sort of be like, “Yeah, look, we’re doing this great scholarship and that’s why we’ve got these meritocratic positions in the university.” Well, that’s obviously false and obviously not the way we want to think about our work or what our critique of the university should be. So attention to the academic labor hierarchy I think bears repeating a few times as we think about how curiosity is facilitated or inhibited by the university as institution. On top of that, one of the things that comes with capital is particular kinds of intellectual constriction and an overvaluing of some kinds of ideas which have been given excess space in the university. And in many cases this has meant that conversations on curiosity are dominated by those in STEM. And sometimes scholars from these fields can continue to center universalizing technocratic ideologies that Perry and I might choose to critique. So that became something that we navigated and learned a lot from, and you know, a lot of those people we brought into our pluridisciplinary conversation early on came out of STEM because of that, but also, I think, helped us congeal around what we might want to do differently. Those learnings travel with us when we’re doing things like this lab and the book as well. And the digital platform.
PZ: While there is a bias in STEM toward a universalizing conception of curiosity, I don’t think that bias is either totalizing or unique. I have enjoyed fantastic collaborations and conversations with STEM folks—including Dani Bassett, Kristy Johnson, David Lydon-Staley, Seeta Sistla, and Dale Zhou—who appreciate the variability of curiosity and the social importance of expanding and diversifying our conceptions of it. But I have also seen work in the social sciences and humanities—and in philosophy, in particular—that continues to assume (and theorize) curiosity is a singular thing T expressible in XYZ ways. And if one doesn’t see expressions X, Y, or Z, then one is not witnessing T (i.e. curiosity). The trouble is: those expressions of curiosity (X, Y, and Z) typically mark the average Western human, with normal cognitive and physical functions, with an average SES background, etc. But of course, there are simply more ways (and queerer ways) of doing curiosity. And they often go unrecognized.
One of the best antidotes to this universalizing tendency in the definitions and descriptions of curiosity is disability studies. There’s a lot more work to be done to think about curiosity across the spectrum of abilities and disabilities. I’m a huge history nerd. And one of the things I’ve learned is the fact that curiosity was considered a disease for thousands of years. Specifically a mental illness and an anxiety, a cognitive instability. (I mention this in the introduction to Curiosity Studies and then develop it in a chapter in Curiosity and Power on cripping curiosity.) Then, in the modern period, curiosity was sanitized, it was ableized. So the kind of curiosity that is lifted up in university settings, in the tech and business sectors, is presumed to be a capacity of able bodyminds and not a capacity of disabled bodyminds. That’s an incitement to think more critically about the kind of curiosity we’re swimming in today, that perhaps somebody in that ancient or Medieval period would not be.
JPE: And this is a slight digression in some ways, but it’s really more of an extension from the institutional, capacious sense of curiosity studies, to the very concept itself. I am, let’s say, eager for curiosity studies to thrive, to flourish; I feel like curiosity studies should catch on, right? [laughs] The spirit of curiosity studies is deep; its work is a fundamental interrogation of the ethos and infrastructure alike of the work of thought. I can’t stress enough how important I consider thinking about the reaches, the implementations, of the ethos and politics that you’re both describing. But I have a slight concern about the ways in which Curiosity Studies might “catch on,” and of disrupting its own potential reification. I mean, how woefully ironic would it be to hear someone say, for instance, “I’m using a Curiosity Studies approach to analyzing the works of, say, Chaucer [laughs]. I’m going do a curiosity studies version of reading x or y.” And I as this not to parody some Frankfurt-school concern for the cooptation of the vanguard by the marketplace, or the hip cooptation of the marginal; it’s actually a real question, or at least I think there’s a real question lurking in there somewhere, which is how, without policing—or maybe with a certain kind of policing—can one maintain continual openness on the conceptual front, that attention to embodiment and structure an racialization you’ve both described, even as the audience interest in this, curiosity towards this concept, might risk reification at every stage? How to keep that openness alive? This seems to be the very drama of “curiosity” itself, and the question is: to what extent is curiosity studies subject to the same drama? I don’t know the if there is an answer to this. But I’d love to hear your how you’re thinking about it, especially s we’re in the process of promoting the volume, at least to a certain exent. But of course, this also a conversation. So again, I’m not just falling back on moribund gestures of wishing for and lamenting the impossibility of some kind of decomplicit zone.
PZ: I like this prompt! How would we build a curiosity studies analysis of Chaucer?
If the framework of curiosity studies insists that curiosity is multiple, that it is practice-able or praxiological, and that it is political, then we would have to track those elements in Canterbury Tales. In what multiple ways does curiosity show up? Not just the way that is most recognizable today, but the ways germane to its historical and geographical context? How are questions being prompted or crafted in the reader, through what rhetorical and literary devices? What are the curious practices depicted in the text? How do characters pursue or manifest their curiosity (or curiosities)? In the Tales, there’s a monk who is said to be especially curious. He’s unorthodox, however, in that his curiosity leads him out of spiritual reflection and into garrulous conversations and wild hunting expeditions. What are the social structures at the time that are forming and therefore informing curiosity? And perhaps, how might the tales actually be a critique of curiosity as framed within the Renaissance period? Christian Zacher’s delightful chapter on the Tales in Curiosity and Pilgrimage might get us started.
AS: I love all of what you said, Perry. And you can also do a sort of presentist critique of Canterbury Tales. And it’s really funny you brought up Canterbury Tales, because I’ve probably read it sometime in my past, but I always use it only in one particular story I tell my students about the University of Pennsylvania library, where I talk about the rare books room. I take all my students to this rare books room, right? And then I tell the story. I say, you know, you can imagine on the walls: there’s Dickens, there’s the Canterbury Tales, right, umm, preserved for all for all of us for all time, right? And then if you look, there was a small little plastic envelope in which there were a few placards, posters, and flyers. And these placards, they’re all crinkled, they’re mostly ripped up. But someone has thought to preserve just five of them. And as we look at them together, we realize that these placards were put up on phone poles by black community members in West Philly to warn each other of police officers they should avoid. Now, here we have the preservation of the Canterbury Tales in its first edition form in the rare books room of the University of Pennsylvania, even as these exceptionally important artifacts that point us towards racist America are just barely preserved. We can barely make them out. Now how do we think about the Canterbury Tales in that context? There’s a version of that conversation where people say, “Oh, that’s like the “cancel culture” coming for Canterbury Tales. But no, what is happening is we are reassessing works at all times and with new framings. And this is a new framing of the Canterbury Tales as preserving a particular version of, you know, Western, Western civilizational knowledge in a place that has been consistently white supremacist. Maybe that should give us some pause before we place texts in as rarefied an air as we once might have.
JPE: Especially given where the UPENN library is situated, those flyers are evidence of the neighborhood that the library actually, actually displaced right in West Philly….
AS: Right. We walk down to West Philly afterwards. And when you walk back, and we all know that most of these universities have a particular kind of story they tell the students, which is: don’t cross X Street, right? Even as they’re preserving particular things and destroying the communities that they’re telling students not to go to. So, it’s this very clear story of systemic racism that is imbued in the library.
JPE: Thank you for these beautiful answers to my rather ham-fisted question. I really do appreciate that. Perry, your attention to the history of critical theory is germane here, insofar as the idea of using the concept as a weapon is always present. To insist upon that situatedness does not rescue anything from cooptation; but it does provide the basis for the praxiological insistence that follows. I thus see curiosity studies working in tandem with a genealogy of ecological and transdisciplinary, coalitional work that reaches back to Anna Tsing, but also to Patricia Hill Collins, even the Combahee River Collective, as insistently praxiological work too.
PZ: Absolutely. The praxiological and the situated is crucial if we are to resist the always-impending weaponization of curiosity. In Christina León’s chapter for Curiosity Studies, one of the things she argues is that curiosity needs a companion, and that companion is opacity. By opacity she means a resistance to the demand for transparency, drawing on Edouard Glissant’s work. I think her move to relationality here is fascinating. To return to Arjun’s story of the Penn library, there are certainly moments in which flyers by Black activists ought to be taken seriously as objects of curiosity. And yet, there is much about Black theory, Black practice, Black resistance that would insist upon a certain opacity, a certain assertion that Black life is not simply there to be known and that there is always more that the (non-Black) onlooker cannot know and ought not to know. What does it mean to practice curiosity as a companion to, or in companionship with, opacity? That was León’s haunting and crucial invitation, especially—for her—in the Latinx context.
AS: One hundred percent. Those flyers were precisely not meant for the eyes of white people in Philly. It actually also makes me think about what an indigenous critique of curiosity would be too, you know? Many indigenous scholars, Audra Simpson for example, critique anthropology as but an extension of colonialism. They point to the way that anthropologists ask question after question and expect transparency from those who they question. Indigenous refusal is literally to say, we don’t want your questions, and we don’t want your forms of colonial categorization anymore. As importantly, it’s to say that they refuse the very assumptions of inclusion—through citizenship, etc—in societies that have sought to erase them. So, I totally think you’re right to say that refusal and opacity forces a different reckoning with curiosity. And again, to come back to the questions: what are we curious about? And what are we not? And why? And what is the regime of value in which these questions exist?
PZ: Right. I actually take León’s work as a prompt for my conclusion to Curiosity and Power. I talk about opacity as one of curiosity’s companions, but I also add intimacy and ambiguity. I take ambiguity from Gloria Anzaldúa, who insists on resisting the Western colonial gaze (and its violent curiosity) through the ambiguity of the borderlands and mestiza consciousness.
And I take intimacy from North American Indigenous theorists (e.g., Leanne Betamosoke Simpson, Doug Anderson, Dylan Robinson), who repeatedly argue that curiosity can’t get started until we are in a relationship of intimacy, with one another, yes, but also with the land and all its creatures. It is an acknowledgment of our connectedness and our interdependence, among humans and well beyond. And it’s only after intimacy that curiosity can be practiced. That intimacy is, of course, prima facie broken by colonization such that what can be known is already and necessarily opaque to the colonizer, despite the colonizer’s presumptions of access, transparency, and ownership. This should prompt all of us not only to reckon with the afterlives of settler-colonialism in contemporary mobilizations of curiosity. But also to ask: What chunks of our knowledge are really just a string of ignorances because we are out of relation (or in ruptured relation) to certain elements and energies in our lives (and other lives)? And what might an epistemology of restoring relation look like?
AS: Yeah. It’s the difference between neocolonial curiosity and a feminist ethics of care that starts the conversation on curiosity.
JPE: Oh, that’s terrific. And I think it also allows a distance to open up between opacity and refusal. Because whereas refusal suggests an explicit instance of agency—the agency of that which is doing the refusing—opacity bears that capacity within itself. One can be refused by it. But opacity doesn’t itself stand as the causing of any such refusal; it can give onto it, it can give or not give, but it’s nonetheless open to situations in which intimacy exists and can event become mutual without relinquishing opacity and without necessarily implying refusal, either.
I’m struggling a bit to articulate this, but your thinking opens up an important set of distinctions and it resonates with a lot of the work I’ve seen, including Christina León’s. She’s an ASAP/Journal author; she published a wonderful piece on Xandra Ibarra in the “Queer Form” issue early on in the journal’s history.
I recognize that our time is short, and I wanted to take a moment and invite you to spin out some valedictory statements of great pith and resonance. I’d love to hear you speculate further about finding continued opportunities to work together. And by “together,” I mean not just individually with each other, but with the constellation of people that you have been working and thinking, as well as with and among other intimacies. Considering the importance of intimacy for conducting imaginative work, I’m interested in how you work to create moments and spaces for collaboration that can be both inclusive and yet also… I’m always looking for a better word; I hate the word, but I’ll use it anyway: rigor. [laughs] Ugh. Or a better word, perhaps: devoted. How do you find that, to create continuity without losing sight of openness, of open-endedness? I’d love to hear your feelings about how this, how you see your collaborative work continuing.
PZ: For me, the intimacies that sustain curiosity are often built through words and writing. I’m thrilled to be following up Curiosity Studies and Curiosity and Power with another book on curiosity, this time with my twin, Dani Bassett. We’ve called it Curious Minds: The Power of Connection, and it will be out next year with MIT Press. Using Dani’s expertise in network neuroscience and mine in critical theory, we argue for a relational, network account of curiosity. But what does that mean? Curiosity is not a drive to acquire new bits of information or fill information gaps, but a capacity to appreciate and freshly connect raw facts, phenomena, experiences, and sensations. That means that we are always already saturated in curiosity-built networks of knowledges and knowers. The question is how we help those networks grow, how we insist that they change, and how we crack them open to something totally unexpected in their wake.
For me, writing is precisely that kind of practice. It is a discipline of waiting, of listening, and of hoping. It is something one does with other voices, even when sitting alone in a room. Through it, one can honor what has come before and open the way for what is to come. But it is also a humble practice of connecting one word to the next. Wherever curiosity and curiosity studies is going, it will do some of its travel along the intimate line of words.
AS: Perry and I had a chat before this call and one of the things we want to really figure out is where curiosity studies should reside within the university and our collaborators or allies might be. Who are we in solidarity with? So we were just talking before about how curiosity studies really needs to be in solidarity with the antiracist initiatives on campus, the gender justice initiatives on campus. These are the spaces in which curiosity can flourish in the sort of form that we imagined it. So that’s something I think we’re excited to start doing more of so that because—and maybe this gets back to your other question about branding—curiosity, like many other pithy sorts of phrasings, can easily be coopted or commodified, and moved in a very different direction that might benefit us individually, but which doesn’t actually do the political work that we want this project to do. So, it really is about being strategic about who our allies are and who we are aligning ourselves within.
So that’s one. And then the last thing which we haven’t mentioned yet is that the last chapter of our book is on teaching curiosity. One of the things I think is the most deleterious about academicians is that we forget that we are pedagogues first and foremost. We are teachers. And by claiming research and not teaching, we forget that there’s already a collectivity we’re part of every single week, every day. You know, a lot of what this curiosity studies project has done for me, and where I talk about curiosity the most is in my classroom, even when I’m not teaching a class on curiosity. And it’s because what I’m trying to get students to start recognizing is that rigor and intellectual possibility comes from being curious and not from worrying about grades. All of these things actually stifle your ability to learn the information. And you know, it’s been really interesting talking to some of my students who say they’re extremely anxious about learning. And they think about that from a medicalized perspective as some sort of disease or illness. But there is also a way that all of that is about a regime of questioning where they’re just not allowed to ask questions because they think that they’re going to fail. They think that they’re not learning anything unless they’ve done it right. And so, they don’t even read the work. Like, they can’t even get through the first two pages of a text because they are so worried that they’re not going to get it right, that they’ve already foreclosed on their curiosity. So, for me, an attention to curiosity is the thing that allows them to start to reclaim their learning and to collectivize around that. So, I see my classroom as a collective and we’re in that process together to push against a system that’s trying to make sure all of us remain uncurious in nearly every way possible.