Scenes of Curiosity in the Classroom
Let me begin with a scene of pedagogy that continually motivates my work, both as a professor and as a scholar, in order to consider modes of curiosity in relation to the position of Latina/os and latinidad in an age of growing demographic awareness. Like many Latina professors hired under the aegis of Latino studies, I am implicitly charged with the pedagogical task of teaching students about latinidad often within the limits of a term. As a scholar of not only latinidad but also literature and performance, I remain skeptical that teaching novels or art can, in fact, divulge totalizing information about heterogeneous and ever-fluctuating peoples, even if our departments are branded as the new empathy trainers of the twenty-first century. With this in mind, I have fretted over a course assigned to me in my first year on the tenure track: “Literature of American Minorities.” Chiefly, I was concerned about an unintentional Epcot effect wherein I took students on a salacious tour that rimmed the fringes of the U.S. literary canon—one in which writers of color, queer writers, and marginalized voices became peripheral curiosities. Yet this very ethicopolitical challenge transformed the course into the lower-division class that I enjoy teaching and have learned from constantly.
As with many student-centered pedagogues, I do a survey on the first day of my courses in order to know my students beyond a matching of face to name (and later to performance). My students, who often take the class for a Gen Ed requirement (in this case, “Difference, Power, and Discrimination”), overwhelmingly answer the question in kind with the baccalaureate core itself—that is, they come to the classroom to know about “different people and cultures.” I remind them that they are in a literature classroom and ask them how they expect literary works to achieve such high-minded goals. I find, though, that they are really quite curious. And, like any pedagogue worth her salt, I don’t want to squash this curiosity. Nonetheless, I am suspicious of the implicit assumption that one class based upon literature could teach the truth about myriad peoples. So I reroute this curiosity as an open one, as an ethical one. Rather than teaching them about people via fiction, I try to show how fiction (and aesthetics more broadly) might be an occasion to learn how to encounter difference without deadening it into broad generalizations. This class and its charge brought me to consider how an aesthetic form might be a way in which to communicate both singular experience and sociopolitical context without providing empirical evidence of demographics. These pedagogical scenes bring me back to my research in fundamentally important ways.
Curiosity, Opacity, and Latinidades
Some of what follows has been the theoretical foundation for my current book manuscript, “Radiant Opacity: Material, Ethical, and Aesthetic Relations in Latindad,” which considers the place of literature and aesthetics in regard to ethicopolitical engagements with difference.1 Here I linger on the question of curiosity and how curiosity relates differently across bodies and disciplines. How might we develop an ethical approach to cultivating a curious aesthetic intervention rather than casting certain marked bodies and cultural productions as mere curiosities—ones that can be dealt with in a week or tribute month? I dwell specifically in the space of minoritarian aesthetics broadly conceived, and Latina/o aesthetics more narrowly, in order to consider the pedagogical and scholarly tasks of teaching that traffic in difference. While subaltern knowledge production and canon-building gestures marked the terrain of the late twentieth century with epistemic imperatives, I turn to how aesthetics and curiosity commingle in the sensorium—how the place of the senses, instead of discrete knowledge, might be one way to sustain an ethical form of curiosity and, hence, readerly encounter and relation.
This essay also adds to ongoing conversations in Latina/o studies by proposing opacity, vis-à-vis the Martinican thinker Édouard Glissant, as a form of ethical relation to latinidad that would not need to anticipate or fully know Latina/o alterity. Such an emphasis on opacity might spawn a form of curious engagement with aesthetics, ethics, and politics, without emphasizing the identificatory trappings of weak multiculturalism that, in form, colludes with waves of recent U.S. legislation demanding legal documentation and encouraging racial profiling. Instead, I theorize opacity as a visual concept that disrupts logics of visibility and concentrates on the textures of relation rather than producing demographic knowledge. Importantly, opacity allows us to stay in ethical relation to alterity without having to sediment difference into a domesticated realm that mimics the limiting language and logic of rights. Opacity, then, functions as a way to remain openly and ethically curious as a form of engagement with Latina/o aesthetic production, or any minoritarian aesthetic production. I am sparked by Tyson Lewis’s statement that approximates my own pedagogical and scholarly concerns. As Lewis states, “Curiosity perpetually stumbles into the void at the heart of the order of things and thus suspends our ability to name/identify such and such according to prescribed criteria—it effectively disconnects objects and beliefs by tripping over a detail, remnant.”2 My aim is to consider Latina/o studies vis-à-vis a stumbling in relation to aesthetic opacity, rather than the mastery demanded of area/identitarian studies, to either (1) tell us about all of the wrong that has been done or (2) pave the way for an unfettered, smooth transition to a liberatory future.
Theorists of Latina/o studies have lucidly shown that demographic homogenization through media and the call to rally under visibility and unity has brought some significant gains in the political realm, but such calls also foreclose nuanced engagements with the multiplicity and dissonances within Latina/o lives and cultural production. Viewed from the vantage points of literary and performance studies, such politics of representation evoke a form of curiosity that, one might argue, is not radically curious—but is instead anticipatory of a priori notions of latinidad, whether through culturally tourable novels or media depictions of Latina/os as religious, family oriented, and culturally aligned. Consider that a form of curiosity spawned by weak multiculturalism colludes with historical work on curiosity—tracing it to travel literature. Nigel Leask writes of such travel literature as an aesthetics of curiosity in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, adding, “Curiosity was of course by no means limited to travel. . . . The term has a long and ambivalent history in European culture as the disposition of mind which desires knowledge of the world, but one which easily oversteps the boundaries set by God in a Faustian show of intellectual pride.”3 Instead of craving a trip into exotic lands and cultures, how might we foster a mode of curiosity that stays curiously open—rather than demanding static and sociological knowledge from aesthetic modes?
In what follows, I stumble into the tangle of questions that crop up when thinking about curiosity in relation to latinidad, dwelling specifically on the contours of our visual cultures and how they meet with a pan-ethnic category that is often rendered through the lens of demography. I show how forms of representation that purport to be transparent actually curtail ethicopolitical engagements with the difference of latinidad. Following this dilemma, I chart out how opacity might be an ethical, attendant term for thinking through the curious relations that encase minoritarian aesthetics broadly, and latinidad in particular. In order to consider this theoretical premise within a particular figure caught between the representations endemic to visual culture and the ethics of encounter, I consider how questions of curiosity might be understood through the face. I trace different figurations of face or faces in latinidad, showing how they’ve been used as both a marker of demography and as a form of aesthetic opacity. Finally, I reflect upon how these two poles of curiosity, the colonial urge to master difference and a more radically open curiosity, are necessarily entangled, both etymologically and materially. Rather than sanitizing or idealizing curiosity, the work that follows suggests that in order to do justice to cultivating an ethical approach to curiosity, we must be vigilant about the violences that have been waged under its epistemological promise. As a concomitant term to curiosity, this essay contends that opacity might proffer a way to keep asking ourselves how we curiously engage with the face of another without forcing it into static, flattened notions of difference.
Latinidad and the Problem of Transparency
The category of Latina/o in the United States, while fairly recent in usage, has sedimented into a kind of settled amnesia—wherein myriad faces unite under one front. Cristina Beltrán’s trenchant work in The Trouble with Unity poses the unity and demographic creation of a Latina/o sector as a convenient and oversimplified homogenization of an otherwise diverse, fragmented, and contestatory set of subjects.4 She shows how the amalgamation that is latinidad poses itself as a sleeping giant, a leviathan, that cuts both ways: on the one hand, Latina/o elites have used the overarching term to guarantee some semblance of rights and political purchase; on the other hand, conservative fear mongering has used the term to amalgamate a threat and wash over inherent differences. In short, both attempts at using the term politically invoke a giant, a giant that never seems to have gigantic agential access. Very real political urgencies often produce a temporal structure that urges shorthand categories—ones that I think can be very necessary when considered as a catachresis that names need rather than stagnant truths.5 Yet the time of ethics—of ongoing relations of reading, desire, and encounter—can sometimes lag, or stumble, behind the demands of politics, especially those that seek to represent and read without much attention to nuance, ambivalence, or singularity. So perhaps Beltrán’s notion that calling someone Latino “is an exercise in opacity”6 resonates as more than just a political practice; it ought also to be considered ethically.
One of the major representative burdens outlined by contemporary Latina/o scholars is the interpellative demand for minoritarian subjects to be either transparent signifiers of culture or evidence of some demographic generalization. In Dead Subjects: Toward a Politics of Loss in Latino Studies, Antonio Viego links forms of ego psychologization to an assimilative project that promises Latina/os the wholeness and agentiality that he claims has dominated activism and academic writing on latinidad.7 The danger is that some subjects are afforded nuance while others (specifically ones that are marked as Others) are objectified in this lie of wholeness—made to be what he calls “dead signifiers.” By being called upon to present themselves as whole and transparent, ethnic-racialized subjects do not gain more agency—though that seems to be the promise behind such interpellative gestures. Demands for transparency reduce and deaden. He writes: “There must be much less pretension to understanding in this regard, since ethnic-racialized subjectivity has suffered from too much understanding. This is not to say that ethnic-racialized subjectivity and experience has been understood, but rather to say that the project of understanding is imagined as completely within reach.”8 The desire for too much wholeness and too much knowledge becomes a kind of burden for very specific subjects, bodies, and objects, and such a burden is bound up with a demand for transparency.
Opacity as a Curious, Ethical Attendant Term
If, as Viego claims, transparency is a particular burden of representation or violence for those under the sign of latinidad (and, no doubt, many other marked demographics), then reading with and for opacity may represent another valence, an ethical valence, through which to consider the question of differences in relation to one another. Opacity, for me, escapes the allure of an elusive negativity and the dualistic thinking it can often invoke. Likewise, I do not understand all transparency as necessarily nonresistant—transparency and visibility can often lead to more democratic and accountable forms of politics. My insistence upon opacity is not an excuse to feign ignorance in the face of injustice but instead a call to sustained reading, relationality, and encounters. Certain kinds of visibilities very much carry their own violences, and a lack of transparency can be an effective and necessary mode of resistance to reduction. Opacity materializes as a resistance, an indeterminability, or a recognition of the limits of our gaze, knowledge, or interpretation—the kind of stumbling that marks the terrain of curiosity. In what follows, I chart a constellation of thought to lay out the ethical stakes of opacity and relationality that would resist the demands for transparency.
Thinking about and through the Caribbean at a time when political discourse was flooded with the promise of rights and programmatic politics, Francophone Martinican writer and thinker Éduoard Glissant considers the place of literature, and more specifically poetics, to be a realm within which sustained reading and encounters take place if we can hold on to relational difference without reducing it to transparency. Poetics becomes the place where, Glissant claims, “We clamor for the right to opacity for everyone.”9 In Poetics of Relation, Glissant puts forward this “right” to precisely undermine a discourse of rights that needs to fully know those that it seeks to protect. Moreover, it is not an “I,” but a relational we, that clamors. “We clamor for the right to opacity for everyone [Nous réclamons pour tous le droit à l’opacité].”10 The translation of the verb réclamons as “to clamor” brings with it some felicitous figurations: the notion of a disparate mass that does not harmonize, the cacophony of a “we” that calls and demands, and the struggle inherent in this almost impossible demand. The word droit—translated as “right” with clear connotations of legitimacy/law, also carries that which is not bent—an unyieldingness, an urgent and always already ethical call for opacity. Glissant notes that “the theory of difference is invaluable. . . . But difference itself can still contrive to reduce things to the Transparent.”11 Opacity, for Glissant, is that which allows relationality to take place. He writes, “Opacities can coexist and converge, weaving fabrics. To understand these one must focus on the texture of the weave and not on the nature of its components.”12 Such a weave of opacity emphasizes the textures of relation rather than the classification of the thread. Hence the sensorial experience of relation and difference is emphasized through an opacity that resists transparent notions of ontological parsing.
Similarly emphasizing the ethical charge of opacity and relationality, Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself considers the question of how we tell stories about ourselves and how we demand them of others.13 Butler postulates that the very incompleteness of one’s account of oneself, and the relational structure of that account through address, conjures up an ethics within which the subject’s primal opacity and radical relationality figure necessarily. Rather than a firm epistemological ground, it is a limit of knowing that places one in the realm of ethics. Such an ethics hinges upon the unknowingness that subtends relationality, encounter, and reading. Moreover, our radical relationality is necessarily enmeshed in the fact that we are opaque to ourselves (as we are to others). Such an ethical frame, that we are always given over to a relationality that marks an interdependence, moves Butler in her more recent work to map the relational as concomitantly the terrain of the aesthetic.14 Aesthetic encounters necessitate relationality—they are primarily sensorial, given over to impression, without ever quite having a firm grasp on that which we sense. We stumble. In this constellation, Butler links aesthetics and ethics through the relational and the sensorial—two registers that confound, complicate, and nuance claims to veracity. Butler’s notions of opacity and relationality, as they pertain to autobiography and narrative specifically, help us to consider how Latina/o subjects are often called upon to “give an account” of themselves transparently through the demand for culturally tourable novels that explain the intense sabor of island food or, perhaps more materially and urgently, through increasing laws that demand identifying papers (which often require identification that bears a face) to account for the very existence of Latina/os in the United States. Put another way, the burden of representation commingles with the ruse of visibility in very specific ways for latinidad.
It is in this terrain of visibility and representation that I would now like to consider the question of the face, or many faces, in relation to curiosity. Here, I think, we can find that the question of curiosity and how one may either occasion curious looks or look curiously at another might be held in productive tension regarding the face-to-face encounter, an encounter that those marked by difference have had to learn to navigate—one wherein the political and ethical interweave. The face beholds another and can be held by the face of an Other, but so too is the face where searching eyes seek answers. Faces, too, often become the aesthetic representation of demographic awareness—for either conservative or progressive political means. As a rising demographic in the United States, latinidad is often rendered as an amalgamation of faces that either amass or invade. But faces often do not reveal much in relation to large generalizations—instead, the face-to-face can be a site of recognition, desire, undoing, objectification, and affective traffic. Before a mouth opens to utter a word, faces can communicate quite a lot—but that lot would not be in the register of the knowable or veracity. Rendered static, or statistic, the face becomes an occasion to reduce one to a deadened subject. In what follows, I chart curious looks that impress upon faces—signaling a difference between a curiosity that can respect the right to opacity and one that, with hubris, violently seeks transparency when looking into the face of another.
Latina/os are often judged visually, through xenophobia, through fears of immigration, and, more liberally, for things like diversity work. Indeed, it should come as no surprise that the much-anticipated Norton Anthology of Latino Literature became the only anthology in Norton’s series to feature, on its cover, a panoply of faces in various shades of brown. The Latina/o face is more often the face of demography—the face of diversity—the face that we must face if we aim to do justice to shifting populations. And yet I would argue that the face, taken at face value, precisely demurs serious ethical, political, and, namely, aesthetic consideration. Such demographically minded forms of representation offer a face instead of a question, a face that renders representation as strictly and simply referential to a people. Doris Sommer invokes worry and caution in relation to minoritarian literature, focusing on moments within the texts that perform a kind of refusal to mastery or easy intimacy: “Worry should be part of the work, if we learn to read the distance written into some ethnically marked literature. A variety of rhetorical moves can hold a reader at arm’s length or joke at their pretense of mastery, in order to propose something different than knowledge.”15 It may seem strange to propose something different than knowledge, when much of the insurgent and foundational scholarly work in area studies touted alternative, postcolonial, and decolonial knowledges. Yet the insistence upon knowledge and epistemic certainty places a burden on minoritarian cultural production—the burden of representation.
In this vein, Doris Sommer asks us to worry, and worry we should. We all know far too well that in the age of the corporate university, diversity as a branding technique works less for difference and more to sanitize the face of the university—precisely by featuring faces of color. In “The Language of Diversity,” a chapter in her book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, Sara Ahmed shows that the work of diversity is often achieved by the mere institutional speech act of claiming diversity. She writes, “My interviews with diversity workers taught me about the relationship between words and bodies, how certain words stick to certain bodies, such that bodies can in turn become stuck.”16 My contention here is that representations of latinidad often use the figure of the face as a synecdoche for a demographic that could never be codified by a series of such figures. Latina/os seem to be precisely stuck with the face as the only form of representation.
Face or a disfigured face, according to Paul de Man, is the trope of autobiography, no simple genre and one that happens to be the hermeneutic assigned to most Latina/o cultural production—from poetry to novels to performance. De Man links the writing of life to death and the giving of face to defacement.17 In order to communicate this dual function of autobiography, de Man chooses the trope of prosopopoeia—that figure of speech within which an absent, dead, or fictional person is speaking. Prosopopoeia, which de Man describes as both a headstone and as writing from beyond the grave, means that while autobiography gives us a face of a life, that face also carries its own disfiguration—or, we might say, aesthetic morphing. In the interplay between face and defacement, a static notion of a demographically marked and anticipatable face is a radical reduction. When we take the face at face value, we afford no form or formal engagement with face. Or, to think with Levinas, we do not proceed with the face-to-face as the encounter, par excellence, of ethics. Instead, taking latinidad as only a panoply of faces renders them, as Antonio Viego would call them, dead signifiers.
Faces, too, tend to be privileged as sites of affect—as the place of communication not just with tongue and mouth, linguistically. A face can also be the bodily site upon which emotional registers play out, perhaps articulating in a different register than what language offers. In Feeling in Theory, Rei Terada points to the face and engages precisely with de Man’s work on prosopopoeia: “The figure that bestows face, reflects his [de Man’s] preoccupation with the shaping of information and of the emotionality of information processing.”18 Such information, de Man and Terada remind us, is delivered not without a certain kind of pathos. And in the information age, numbers, polls, and statistics are the name of the game. As such, faces frozen or taken at face value are often in a curious position vis-à-vis how we receive statistical values.
There is an aesthetic and affective import to the face in this age, which, Michel Foucault would remind us, is in the business of managing life through biopolitics. The difficulty or ethical dilemma we face, then, as curious subjects in the age of biopolitics (and, to be sure, necropolitics) is that information is not the epistemological telos—it is, more often than not, a signifier in a chain of signifiers that hide their relativity and, hence, their value. If we approach an ethical and political problem, that of difference, with the goal of epistemological certitude, and if we do so with the flimsy data of information—taken at face value—we deaden alterity. Perhaps the face is best read for affect, for opacity, and for things other than knowledge. Silvan Tomkins’s illuminating work on affect in the cybernetic fold privileges the face as one of the primary sites of affect. And Rei Terada chimes in with this very sentiment: “The face is to visibility what the voice is to audibility: of all physical surfaces, it has the greatest reputation for expressivity, an alleged ability to externalize invisible emotions in a virtually unmediated way.”19 This expressivity of the face does not divulge knowledge as such or information. Rather than epistemology, the face is a site of relation, affect, and encounter. Pathos and ethos rhetorically reign in this corporeal site, while logos recedes.
In the face of another, we are often curious—searching eyes, reading mouth gestures, and noting when to look directly and when to look away. These encounters are deeply felt as relational, and this may be one reason that Levinas privileged it as the site of ethics. The curiosity inspired by the face of another, though, may very much carry what philosophers in Foucauldian studies have called the “violence of curiosity.” Lauren Guilmette signals this violence of curiosity as the affective frame of modern biopolitics.20 Indeed, if one has any doubt about what it might mean to feel the impact of the violence of curiosity, just ask a trans or genderqueer person whose body, face, and person are constantly under scrutiny to figure them out—to pinpoint alterity. The same would go for ethnically marked folks whose color and phenotypes warrant unusual stares and long guessing games. Disability studies too, with the seminal work of thinkers such as Rosemarie Garland-Thomson,21 has long taught us about the effects of curious stares in relation to corporeal difference. Taking this focus on the violence of curiosity as an affective frame, especially as it is in relation to sex and biopolitics, I would add that critical race and postcolonial scholars have always focused on the colonial, racist logics that produce the ethnically or racially marked Other under strict categories that often discipline and scrutinize, under the aegis of managing life. Biopolitical imperatives often use curiosity about alterity as a way to produce knowledge about the problem of reproduction at the intersections of race, ethnicity, and sex. In these scenes where strange terms like “anchor babies” commingle with the precarious futures of dreamers with the fate of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), there is often an imperative to know the problem, to pin down numbers and bodies, and to rely far too heavily upon the biopolitical imperative behind demographics.
But it also seems that the violence of curiosity is caught up in what feminist scholars have often called the gaze or scopophilia—taking pleasure in consuming difference optically. And here we are reminded that while Foucault was writing genealogies of biopolitics, he also claimed that “visibility is a trap.”22 Yet, much as one would like, we do not have much of a choice about being in a visual culture, and prelapsarian wishes that fetishize lettered cultures carry their own violences. Instead, opacity might proffer a particularly entangled way of thinking with and around the difficulties of visual culture.23 So then a guiding question might be: How do we curiously engage with the face without forcing it into false transparency or flattened difference?
One face that bears the marker of latinidad and speaks beyond the grave is that of Ana Mendieta. The iconic Cuban American feminist artist is best known for using her body markedly and centrally in the majority of her oeuvre. From her earth body works to the silueta series, Mendieta used her body as both the frame and source material of her work. While known for using her body as a scale, a scale that critics often commented on as being both small and explosive, Mendieta also made early performance pieces using her face. These photographs were part of a series entitled Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints—Face), wherein she placed a plate of plexiglass against various parts of her body—pressing it almost like a second lens that highlights the camera’s lens—noting the materiality and impact of being seen or being visible. In this series, this impact is notable as something that flattens and, through that flattening, morphs and transfigures.
These early works were notably performed and documented during her work at Iowa University, where she earned her MFA. Mendieta landed in Iowa not by choice but through Operation Peter Pan. This operation was CIA sponsored, a series of exoduses that to date marks the largest number of unaccompanied minors in mass exodus: fourteen thousand in total between 1960 and 1962. The operation preyed on the fears of Cubans on the island, fears stoked and fanned by both the CIA and the Catholic Church, that the Cuban government would enforce Patria Potestad law—their children would no longer be theirs to raise in accordance with their familial values versus the state’s values. As a result of these fears, Ana Mendieta and her sister made the lonely trek from Havana to Miami and then were assigned to an orphanage in Dubuque, Iowa. There Mendieta began her search for belonging, often turning to the elements of the earth to make her early land art that would come to bear her materialist signature.
While Mendieta’s family had both racial and class privilege in Cuba, the ninety-mile stretch between her homeland and the United States functioned as a translation abyss in regard not just to language but also to race, ethnicity, and culture. Upon arriving in the United States, she went from being considered white in Cuba to brown in her new, strange home. Moreover, the assaults she experienced, both verbal and, later, physical, were most certainly at the violent intersections of racism and sexism. No wonder, then, that her face told a story so many in Iowa did not want to read. Instead of facing alterity, they slandered her with racial epithets and sexist slurs—usually a toxic mixture of both. With this context in mind, we can see that she endured not a radical, ethical curiosity, one wherein an unfamiliar face becomes an occasion to extend relational gestures. The siphoning of her person into insults that relied upon misogynist and racist stereotypes made her into a “dead signifier.” But rather than resigning herself to such stultification, she defiantly used her face as both canvas and performance—rendering it grotesque, inquisitive, morphed, and translated. Her portraits show us that what seems like a transparent lens, perhaps the gaze of curiosity, can turn hard and make impact. Each snapshot, fascinatingly, shows a slightly different affect or expression. Yet, as photographs, these pieces are perhaps most eerie because they are frozen. We see the effect of force on a face, the flattening gestures that violent gazes can produce, and we are held in thrall because we want the face to return back to “normal”—that is to say, expressive and gestural. These portraits imbue her face with the uncanny, the unhomely or unfamiliar, and show that what we deem to be foreign to place and face is part of the same relational matrix that envelopes us. Mendieta’s photos, if they are autobiographical and if they do respond to the sociopolitical context in which she found herself, play more with the defacing effects of curious, but lecherous, gazes. A lecherous gaze of curiosity, then, willfully disavows nuance and opacity to the subject it faces—taking a marker of difference and using that codified difference to enforce a gaze that feigns transparency but has the material consequence of flattening and freezing through its optics. Such defiance against static renderings and such interest in deformation, disintegration, and the fleeting moment would mark Mendieta’s career up until her early, untimely death. Perhaps this ability to both capture moments and portray their flight is one way in which Mendieta fought back against the stereotypes that thought they knew her as part of a new hoard of invaders. Perhaps she battled with their hubristic notion that her person was transparently knowable by waging her own aesthetic opacity, rendering herself as fleeting as a facial gesture and as hard to pin down as a grain of sand being pulled back into the ocean.
Because curiosity can morph like a face, I hesitate to proffer a definition of curiosity here and, rather, defer to both the way it has been used and its multivalent effects. A turn to the etymology of the word can be telling. Curiosity in its modern usage comes from the middle of the fourteenth century, when it meant “eager to know,” often in a negative sense. It derives from the Old French curios, which meant solicitous, anxious, inquisitive, odd, and strange. This root, however, is quite entangled with the Latin curiosus, which means, on the one hand, careful and diligent and, on the other hand, eager and meddlesome. The word’s tangled roots are akin, fascinatingly, to cura, which would connote cure and care. In the 1800s curiosity was often a euphemism or code for the pornographic. It is precisely in this entangled weave of both linguistic and also very material histories that we see the dilemma of curiosity, especially as it pertains to those marked by difference. But I would wage that instead of trying to sanitize the term, to wash it of its colonial past, such roots must break and become errant. Here, in this tangled weave, it becomes essential that we engage with both the political and the ethical—two registers that may benefit from further entanglement. Politics seeks to know those whom it speaks for, while ethics keeps us humble in the face of another, knowing that that face holds a resistant opacity. This process of fostering an ethical curiosity means immersing ourselves in this rhizomatic history in order to begin to do justice to difference—honing a curiosity in our students that remains accountable to the violence of curiosity. Perhaps, then, opacity might be an attendant term, one that hastens us to be humble in the pursuits of knowledge, to keep relation and reading open and to infuse our imaginaries with the unknown—not to domesticate or know, but to keep learning.
In such a messy weave of etymology, it seems prudent to come back to Glissant, who preferred to traffic in the tangles of rhizomes rather than the linear logic of roots. In a provocatively titled chapter, “Ethics of Entanglement,” John Drabinski seeks to think about the abyssal, catastrophic origins of ethics and relation by putting into conversation Levinas and Glissant.24 The entanglement, here, is the irreducibility of relationality. What does this mean for curiosity? Let’s take a step back to think about knowledge claims and the temptation of the biopolitical lure of information in the form of statistics, narratives, anecdotes, and numbers. What sort of knowledge is produced through these various means? They are, to be sure, incompatible in many ways with the aesthetic insofar as they pinpoint, manage, and try to grasp life. Such a seizure or grasp is the very thing Glissant seeks to undo with his notion of opacity, that right to which we clamor for all. In reflecting upon Poetics of Relation, Drabinski writes: “Seizing and grasping figure in the act of knowledge of what is and has long been political and cultural practice under colonialism. But there is also the composition of knowing and contact outside that totalitarian economy, a sense of relation that keeps the opacity of the Other safe without insisting upon simple separation.”25 Simple separation, of course, would be the privilege of unknowing—the kind of austerity and purity assigned to others for whom folks with privilege cannot speak and, hence, do not consider. That kind of fetishized alterity ultimately washes the hands of those who are not marked in such a way. Instead, we follow Drabinski, who follows Glissant: “Opacity, contact, then composition. The composition of knowing in a composite cultural context crafts meaning in the imaginary—that precarious aesthetic sphere of knowing and being that structures a relation to the world—out of fragments of the past and present that bear no atavistic relation to rooted memory and history.”26 The emphasis on the imaginary is part of the world-making that comes from the abyssal histories from which relation emerges. The imaginary is the poetic vision of the open boat, the ability to foreground relation over seizure, and the urgent call to take stock of messy, often fissured, pasts. Such a relationship asks for the poetic vision of imagination over the colonial project of knowing, instead emphasizing chaos, echo, and totality—the three forms of worlding Glissant theorizes. The imaginary requires that we not only rest on firm knowledge claims but also give ourselves over to aesthetic relation, to the impressionability of the senses. This enfolds us in relation, making the subject and object split of both impression and imagination hard to discern. I would wager that this is when reading truly begins.
The issue of entanglement urges us to recall the problem of curiosity in the classroom and how to foster reading practices that respect the singularity of difference. Curiosity can be used as a means to further ethical relations, readerly and otherwise. It can, as we have seen, be used as a catalyst for more colonial knowledge projects. It is inescapable that these two facets of curiosity are linked, entangled, and embody the enmeshment of political and ethical urgencies. On the one hand, we need subaltern knowledge and voices. On the other, we learn little from them when we turn them into objects of mere curiosity—the collection of Orientalist tapestries and perfumes captured in Dorian Gray’s house or the heads of game animals stuffed in Hemingway’s den. Politics demands representation, and ethics slows us down in the face of representation. It is these two, incongruent temporalities that make teaching minoritarian aesthetics at once incredibly important and difficult.
Acknowledging the difficulty of such a task, I ask students to engage with the sociopolitical context of a piece while also attending to the nuances of the aesthetic choice, with careful attention to form and with the same eye they would give to supposed canonical writers. Teaching students to read for opacity in the classroom does not mean encouraging all things obfuscating, nor does it open the floodgates to purple prose.27 Instead, it reminds them that the task of reading may not always be “to get it”—or, as Glissant would say, “to seize it.” Our work in the literary classroom, as well as many humanities- and social justice–based classrooms, may not be primarily about accruing knowledge linearly, in a way that adds up to mastery. It may, instead, require that students learn to sit with the discomfort of unknowing, to be in relation to a complexity that is always unfolding and never complete. The pedagogical payoff here is that teaching students to sit with and learn from opacity—to stay in relation without fully knowing—asks them to be humble, to be students. What leaves the classroom, as they begin to learn that I do not require mastery, is the profound anxiety that surrounds all that they do not yet know, all that they fear others know. What rushes in, in the form of careful, conversational, and close engagement with texts, art, theory, and histories, is a cacophony of voices responding to aesthetics from minorities. Reading curiously for opacity may be a scholarly practice of humility that students, interpellated as consumers and churned out as workers, seldom get afforded in their lives. While it seems rather risky to teach with an attunement to opacity in the classroom, I find that if students can trust themselves enough to let go of the pretense of mastery, they relax into the terrain of thought and aesthetics that traffics less in easy answers and more in the curious quagmire that surrounds us all. If students, then, are allowed to be students, allowed to not know every identitarian category or minority difference before discussion or before sustained encounters, then the work of reading can begin and the work of imagination can begin. If we learn to teach with an attention to opacity, to the moments in a text, history, work of art, or performance that push us out, that draw our attention to the sensorial (and not just the empirical), that, to be sure, entangle us in relation, perhaps then we have begun to do justice to our pedagogical task.
It is in entanglement and relation that curiosity would be best sustained—paying heed to the “texture of the weave” and not just using curiosity as a way to more fully discover, and conquer, the unknown. By emphasizing that any work on curiosity must stay vigilant about the violences waged in its name, I do not mean to discard the project of curiosity. Rather, making curiosity more accountable to its pursuits and more invested in ongoing relation, we might foster an ethical approach to curiosity. In its distillations as an affective and ethical mode that does promote learning, we might ask our students to interact with texts in ways that keep us asking more and more questions, rather than statically finding answers. The aesthetic, when emphasized in relation to minority positions and politics, might be one place to curiously cultivate questions rather than seek static, demographically minded answers.
I want to insist on a humble, yet overlooked, form of curious engagement with latinidad—one that attends to curiosity not as a strong colonial gaze but the kind of engagement that looks for surprise, for detail, for form, for aesthetics—and, perhaps, an aesthetic education of radical and ethical curiosity. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak highlights the aesthetic realm as a space within which to continue to consider opacity—something akin to the irreducibility of singularity and the contingent. She writes:
The most pernicious presupposition today is that globalization has happily happened in every aspect of our lives. Globalization can never happen to the sensory equipment of the experiencing being except insofar as it always was implicit in its vanishing outlines. Only an aesthetic education can continue to prepare us for this, thinking an uneven and only apparently accessible contemporaneity that can no longer be interpreted by such nice polarities as modernity/tradition, colonial/postcolonial. Everything begins there, in that space that allows us to survive in the singular and the unverifiable, surrounded by the lethal and lugubrious consolations of rational choice.28
In Spivak’s work I find resonance with the spirit of Eve Sedgwick’s late work that emphasized relational and reparative modes of art and reading. Such energies move us away from ideological critique in order to devote less in scholarly attention to paranoid critique and strong theory that seeks to explain the globe through the anticipatory hermeneutics of capitalism and neoliberalism.29 By introducing opacity into the promising work of curiosity, I hope to conjure an attendant term that keeps the space of curious relation open, entangled in the pleasures afforded by tending to, rather than glossing over, the moments where difference does not fully reveal itself. It seems to me that opacity can function here as an ethical imperative in relation to curiosity—one that keeps curiosity open instead of curating a curio of difference—a boutique of carefully placed and easily dismissed curiosities. As such, we have much to learn about latinidad as it continues to unfold in the theater of our political world, our classrooms, our readings, and our everyday, textured sensorium.
My current manuscript is grappling with the lack of ethical work on latinidad. As such, I will, at times, separate the ethical and the political in this essay. I do so not in order to separate their work as concepts, but to show how certain constricted notions of politics have kept ethical questions at bay in Latina/o studies.
Tyson E. Lewis, The Aesthetics of Education: Theatre, Curiosity, and Politics in the Work of Jacques Rancière and Paulo Freire (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), 102.
Nigel Leask, Curiosity and the Aesthetics of Travel Writing, 1770–1840: ‘From an Antique Land’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 23.
Cristina Beltrán, The Trouble with Unity: Latino Politics and the Creation of Identity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
Gayatri Spivak, throughout her career, has given us a few ways to think more creatively about terms often associated with identity. In her work, she has lauded the term strategic essentialism only to find it woefully misread. Hence, I look back to her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” where Spivak’s engagement with Derrida showcases that one of his motivating theoretical nuances was to think about catachresis—the abuse of metaphor—as an originary figure. If, at the supposed origin, we find not a solid root but yet another figure of metaphoricity broken, then we have no essential kernel of truth and no directive telos of identity.
Beltrán, The Trouble with Unity, 6.
Antonio Viego, Dead Subjects: Toward a Politics of Loss in Latino Studies (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007).
Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009), 194.
Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005).
In Senses of the Subject (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015), Butler writes: “What follows is a form of relationality that we might call ‘ethical’: a certain demand or obligation impinges upon me, and the response relies on my capacity to affirm this having been acted on, formed into one who can respond to this or that call. Aesthetic relationality also follows: something impresses itself upon me, and I develop impressions that cannot be fully separated from what acts on me” (11).
Doris Sommer, Proceed with Caution, when Engaged by Minority Writing in the Americas (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), xi.
Sara Ahmed, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2012), 62.
Paul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), 62. Cf. “Prosopopoeia is the trope of autobiography, by which one’s name . . . is made as intelligible and memorable as a face. Our topic deals with the giving and taking away of faces, with face and deface, figure, figuration and disfiguration” (76).
Rei Terada, Feeling in Theory (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001), 52.
Lauren Guilmette, “The Violence of Curiosity: Butler’s Foucault, Foucault’s Herculine, and the Will-to-Know,” philoSOPHIA 7, no. 7 (2017): 1–22.
See, for example, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Staring: How We Look (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 200.
In her recent monograph, Entanglements, or Thinking about Transmedial Capture (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2012), Rey Chow makes the excellent point: “As Foucault demonstrates in works such as The Archeology of Knowledge and The Order of Things, with the progressively widening chasm between words and things, visibility can no longer be treated as the secure opposite of what is hidden, or as the simple unveiling of data that can be accessed similarly in (or that share a resemblance with) words. Rather, visibility is now caught up in the shifting relations of political sovereignty and in the discontinuities among different representational regimes” (153).
John E. Drabinski, “Ethics of Entanglement,” in Levinas and the Postcolonial: Race, Nation, Other (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), 129–64.
Here it seems worth noting that opacity is often charged with elitism, while clarity is charged with accessibility. I do not think these two aspects of writing or reading are at all disentangled. What may be clear to one person, whether by language or experience, may be radically opaque to another. For more on this problem of clarity and opacity in relation to feminism, see Aída Hurtado and Cynthia M. Paccacerqua, “Not All Clarities Are Created Equal: The Politics of ‘Opaqueness,’” Hypatia 30, no. 3 (2015): 620–27.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012), 4.
See Eve Sedgwick’s essay “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or You’re So Paranoid You Probably Think This Essay Is about You,” in Touching Feeling (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002), 124–55.