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Curiosity and Power: The Politics of Inquiry, by Perry Zurn

Reviewed by Taylor Eggan

Ever since I started teaching research-based courses at a school for art and design, curiosity has become an increasingly central keyword in my pedagogy. At Pacific Northwest College of Art I teach primarily in Critical Studies, an MA program that provides a flexible yet rigorous forum for independent research aimed at contributing to a range of urgent emancipatory projects. As an interdisciplinary program whose students and faculty come from diverse academic backgrounds, Critical Studies builds unity through two interrelated curricular engagements. The first is a series of foundational seminars in critical theory and cultural studies. The second is a commitment to understanding research as a creative practice. It is under the rubric of research as a creative practice that, for me, curiosity has arisen as an indispensable concept, and one worthy of bringing explicitly into the graduate classroom.

Of course I recognize the tendency, under neoliberal conditions, for curiosity to be instrumentalized for monetary gain. (Think, for example, of the laboratory as a site for commercial research and development.) Even so, I’ve held to an understanding of curiosity as a kind of metacognitive engine—one that moves away from an idea of research as a product-oriented procedure of means and ends, and toward an alternative notion of research as an ongoing practice that cycles back into itself, continuously enabling new forms of criticality and creativity. At the heart of this understanding of curiosity is an elementary thought-loop that my friend and teacher Suniti Dernovsek frequently invokes when she tells her students: “Notice what you notice.” That is, don’t just observe the world; get curious about the patterns that shape how and what you notice in the first place. Such a recursive reflexivity is precisely what draws those apparently oppositional terms theory and practice into a foundational intimacy. Or so it has seemed to me.

Outside of these abstract musings, my own thinking about curiosity has remained disconnected from any critical tradition on the subject. And until recently, I had no idea that such a tradition even existed.

Enter Perry Zurn, a professor of philosophy who is helping to drive a renewed critical interest in curiosity. A prolific scholar who has many articles, chapters, and edited volumes to his name, Zurn has, in the past two years, played a central role in establishing the emergent field of curiosity studies. Last year he offered something of an opening salvo with the publication of Curiosity Studies: A New Ecology of Knowledge (Minnesota, 2020), which he co-edited with Arjun Shankar. Earlier this year he followed the edited volume with his first single-authored book, titled Curiosity and Power: The Politics of Inquiry (Minnesota, 2021).

Central to both of these books is a conviction that curiosity is something we at once do and feel; it is an affective formation that orients action, and for this reason it is also fundamentally political. The essays in Curiosity Studies take up the politics of curiosity mainly through the lens of pedagogy. In their theoretical framing for the volume, Zurn and his co-editor specifically foreground a range of affective practices they consider essential for a “critically curious pedagogy”—practices that include sincere self-reflexivity, active empathy, an enjoyment of uncertainty, and a questioning comportment toward normative power structures. In Curiosity and Power, Zurn supplements this important work by cultivating a philosophically grounded understanding of curiosity as an intentional practice of inquiry that comprises a trio of essential habits: “making the familiar strange, searching out subjugated knowledges, and cultivating a life of purposeful experimentation and authentic engagement in the project of self-creation in community” (193). Although the first book does much to leverage curiosity’s subversive potential, it is in the second book that the political horizons of curiosity truly take center stage. As Zurn puts the matter: “Taking the politics of curiosity seriously involves tracing the politics implicit in theories of curiosity, as well as tracing the curiosity implicit in political theories. It also involves, however, measuring those theorizations against theorizations on the ground, theorizations of curiosity within political movements and political communities” (129). Part 1 of the book takes on the task outlined in the first sentence, and part 2 takes on the task outlined in the second.

Zurn spends the first half of Curiosity and Power rescuing a history of philosophical thinking about curiosity, beginning with the ancients, the medievals, and the early moderns (chapter 1), then continuing with more sustained accounts of three philosophers spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Nietzsche, Foucault, and Derrida (chapters 2–4). Zurn moves through these chapters with admirable concision, offering a clear-sighted and accessible account of each thinker. Throughout these accounts Zurn traces an agonistic relationship between two basic types of “curiosity-formation”: one that institutionalizes normative modes of thinking, and another that seeks to inquire otherwise. This agonistic relationship takes a different shape for each philosopher. In Nietzsche’s case, for instance, curiosity remains caught up in a perpetual struggle between life-affirming and life-negating forces. For Foucault, by contrast, it stands at the crossroads between sedimented power relations and actively mobilized resistance. And for Derrida curiosity occupies a zone of tension between “sovereign” and “responsive” modes of inquiry.

As heroic as Zurn’s effort to trace a genealogy of curiosity thinking across two millennia of Western philosophy may be, readers less concerned with curiosity’s philosophical pedigree will likely find the book’s second half more resonant. Part 2 largely turns away from academic philosophy in order to investigate curiosity as it has been put into practice by marginalized communities. Chapter 5 begins this work by offering a broad overview of the politics of inquiry as it came to be developed and mobilized in three distinct cases of activism and resistance, including the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Prisons Information Group of the 1970s, and the People in Search of the Safe and Accessible Restrooms initiative of the 2000s. Chapters 6 and 7 turn to contemporary critical theory and memoir to investigate the particular shapes curiosity takes among disabled and trans thinkers. Whereas chapter 6 imagines how disability theorists actively “crips” curiosity, chapter 7 envisions how the ceaselessly inquisitive life practices of trans people might ultimately “trans-gender curiosity studies” at large. The book concludes with a chapter titled “Unsettling Curiosity,” in which Zurn makes a final appeal for a liberatory form of curiosity constellated by three essential concepts: opacity, ambiguity, and intimacy, which he draws from Caribbean, Chicana, and Indigenous American philosophies, respectively.

Readers who come to Curiosity and Powerhoping to find a readily adoptable definition of curiosity may at first be disappointed. Although Zurn does recount several definitions furnished by a range of historical and contemporary thinkers, he is less interested in crystallizing a singular notion of curiosity than he is in identifying how “curiosity manifests itself in multiple guises” (127). More specifically, Zurn aims to understand how curiosity contains two basic possibilities, which in turn enable two generally opposed formations of curiosity-as-praxis. On the one hand, curiosity has served as a technique of objectification, one that has played a key role in the establishment of disciplinary institutions such as hospitals, asylums, prisons, and schools. This curiosity-formation wields a subjugating force that tends to reduce nonnormative bodyminds to feminized, medicalized, and otherwise disempowered curios. Counter to this normative curiosity-formation, Zurn traces out a latent understanding of curiosity as a practice of freedom, one in which those marginalized bodyminds who have historically been denied the agency of thought reclaim the power of inquiry. For Zurn, this includes marginalized nonhuman communities as much as marginalized human ones. The objects of curiosity become its subjects, and in doing so they unleash inquiry’s liberating potential.

If I have one criticism of Curiosity and Power, it’s that nearly every chapter follows a similar argumentative logic. Over and again we encounter the same basic formula: viz., whereas curiosity has historically had oppressive outcomes, it has also always contained the possibility of freedom. However effective the argument may be, this reader occasionally tired of its repetition and craved more moments of genuine surprise. That said, as I approached the end of the book I realized that Zurn’s method was having a distinct effect on me. For not only does he return again and again to curiosity’s divergent tendencies; in doing so, he also repeatedly suggests just how blurry the line frequently is between curiosity’s oppressive and liberatory possibilities. By insisting on the abiding slipperiness of curiosity as a real-world practice, Zurn introduces an ethical dimension to his argument that I found essential if largely implicit.

Consider, as just one example among many, a moment in chapter 5 when Zurn discusses disability theorist Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s book Staring, which “interrogates the ethics of the curious gaze” (161). In contrast to the intrusive and violent forms of gawking all too often directed toward people with disabilities, Garland-Thomson proposes a concept of beholding. “Beholding,” Zurn summarizes, “involves both a ‘holding [of] the being of another’ in recognition and a ‘beholdenness’ to that being, equal parts ‘generosity’ toward another and welcoming a ‘besiegement’ of oneself” (161–62). Reading this, I wondered to myself how I could know whether or not my own gaze could be considered gawking or beholding in any given situation. Even if I directed my gaze with all the inward intentionality of Garland-Thomson’s beholding, how could I be sure that others would experience my gaze as inhabiting this intentionality? How might I still inflict harm despite my best efforts to hold the being of another while simultaneously recognizing my beholdenness to them?

Of course there are no easy or immediate answers. Yet the kind of questioning that such a moment inspires showcases what is perhaps the most important—if also forever challenging—aspect of the kind of curiosity Zurn calls us to practice. In order to distinguish between instrumentalizing and abolitionist curiosity-formations, we must in fact become curious about our own curiosity. Zurn alludes to the importance of such metacurious engagement in his chapter on trans curiosity: “The analysis above might prompt individuals to reflect phenomenologically on whether they take trans people as objects of their own curiosity” (191). But for me to focus too much on myself and my own curiosity would be to miss one last essential aspect of Zurn’s argument, which is that “curiosity is more than an individual, innate capacity; it is also a series of social practices that must be ethically and politically evaluated as such” (174–75). Ultimately, then, Curiosity and Power offers a call to acknowledge the importance of collective inquiry. Collective curiosity makes subjects rather than objects of the historically marginalized; it empowers the disempowered, and encourages those denied the status of knowers to claim the power of inquiry for themselves and their communities. As Zurn powerfully demonstrates, such a transformation enables liberatory practices that not only recuperate pasts but also imagine new futures into being.