Curiosity manifests itself in multiple guises. There is a sort of frivolous curiosity that asks vacuous questions, questions of little—and certainly no lasting—import to anyone. This curiosity vainly pursues rapidly changing lines of questioning, sometimes out of boredom and other times out of sheer pleasure in the minute, the contingent, or the ephemeral. It is excessive, without root in existential need, social utility, or rational armature. It produces, by turns, a dizzying array of details and a banal buzzing to blanket the otherwise jagged architecture of daily life. Then there is an eminently serious curiosity, the sort promulgated by somber-lipped academics, corporate investigators, or criminal courts. It is controlled, it is disciplined. It works within institutional constraints and moves at a swift clip down well-trimmed pathways. It builds an ever more intricate system of knowledge, whether through an expanding scaffold of classifications or a network of correlates. This curiosity is patient, hard-nosed, and exacting.
But there is a third sort of curiosity that is neither terribly serious nor entirely unserious. This particular configuration of the curious impulse begins by fidgeting with the fissures of social mores and political strata, poking and prying in search of a new space to stand tall. It bravely barrels into the darkest recesses of suffering and pain, steels itself, and lays bare the true face of social inequality and social death. And it raises its head to the sky, imagines as-yet-inconceivable worlds of justice and of peace, still so easily dismissed as feverish fantasies or illogical hopes. This curiosity is politically resistant. This curiosity is from and for the margins. If the first sort of curiosity flourishes in media and technology, while the second settles into museums and bureaucracy, this last comes alive in the streets and poetry, in shared meals and political protests. Nabokov once wrote, “Curiosity [ . . . ] is insubordination in its purest form.”1 Although not every form of curiosity is aptly characterized thus, curiosity’s insubordinate potential has rarely received the attention it deserves. It is this curiosity that forms the focus of the present essay.
In what follows, the resistant potential of curiosity will be first framed by theories of political curiosity writ large and then explicated through three case studies: the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, prison resistance networks in the 1970’s, and a more recent initiative for accessible restrooms. From these archives, an anatomy of politically resistant curiosity will be drawn.
Theories of Political Curiosity
Across the history of philosophy, curiosity has most often been understood as a question of ethics or epistemology. Many thinkers have debated whether curiosity is consistent with virtuous and/or scientific inquiry, while others have quarreled over precisely what sort of curiosity is most conducive to childhood learning and development. Philosophical studies of curiosity have therefore developed in dialogue primarily with the fields of theology, science, and education.2 While important, these studies have left vastly undertheorized curiosity’s role at the social and civic level. There are, however, untapped resources within the history of philosophy from which to draw a theory of resistant curiosity. Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida offer accounts of political struggle that include implicit characterizations of an insubordinate curiosity. Whether working against the structures of civilization and consciousness, sedimented power relations, or sovereignty, Nietzsche, Foucault, and Derrida describe a curiosity capable of an irreverent refusal and creative reconfiguration of the political landscape.
For Nietzsche, human consciousness is the product of civilization, with all the dissimulation, repression, and cruelty that it presupposes. Knowledge and morality—as the costars of consciousness—are born and bred in a scene of struggle. It is upon a landscape ravaged by this struggle that curiosity appears. Nietzsche grants that there is a kind of curiosity that runs quickly to build up and to build on what has already been built: systems of consciousness, civilized societies, schemas of knowledge, and deep evaluative divisions. Such a curiosity contributes to and maintains, however indifferently, the products of struggle: the distributions and effects of power. This is the “curiosity” of the general populace,3 a “sober, pragmatic curiosity” that busies itself with the “curious investigation of . . . countless minutiae.”4 But there is another sort of curiosity, one vibrant enough to slip beneath civilization and slip through what has become so keenly conscious. This curiosity is eminently suspicious. It roots out illusions that maintain the current system, highlighting the greed and the hatred that fuels them. It is a “fateful curiosity”5 that spells the demise of the status quo and present forms of existence. Nietzsche attributes this curiosity to the “free spirit” and “the great liberation.”6 This is the sort of curiosity Nietzsche himself endorses.
Much like Nietzsche, Foucault also conceives of two, warring curiosities in the political sphere.7 Across his work, curiosity features first as an arm of institutions that identify, catalogue, control, and deploy persons and objects in the world. From History of Madness to History of Sexuality, one can trace the role of curiosity in the development of psychology and education, penal theory and punishment, and sexuality studies and the various professions of desire that mark the modern, liberal subject. Although this is patently clear conceptually, Foucault uses the term “curiosity” in this regard sparingly, although no less significantly. By contrast, Foucault’s most extended and direct discussions of curiosity develop it as a practice of freedom, a tool by which people can resist objectification and subjectification. Curiosity, he says, refuses to be “immobilized” by reality and is instead determined “to throw off familiar ways of thought.”8 Curiosity resists the sedimentation of knowledge and power in particular institutions, working instead to make things “mobile” and “fluid.”9 He specifically explores this curiosity as a tactic of self-transformation,10 as a characteristic of the parrhesiastes who speaks truth to power,11 and as an impetus to critical or genealogical scholarship.12 In each case, resistant curiosity relentlessly breaks up whatever is well-governed and allows people to think, imagine, and behave in counterdisciplinary ways.
For Derrida there are at least two different sorts of institutionalized curiosity against which resistant curiosity works.13 In The Beast and the Sovereign, Derrida explores the culture of curiosity as exemplified in pre- and postrevolutionary France. On the one hand, there is a scientific curiosity that dissects an object in the service of knowledge, cleanly separating one thing from another. This curiosity fueled, for example, animal and human autopsies. On the other, there is a therapeutic curiosity that confines an object in the service of care, definitively isolating one thing from another. This curiosity undergirds the menageries and asylums, which aimed “to treat, to care for, . . . to liberate by locking up differently.”14 Derrida argues that both are interconnected expressions of sovereignty. That is, they attempt to sovereignly control and deny the inherent instability of objects, divisions, walls, and procedures. And yet for Derrida there is a third kind of curiosity that capitalizes on precisely that instability. In The Animal That Therefore I Am, he explores a deconstructive curiosity that resists the sovereign impetus. Such a curiosity not only challenges the illusion of a clean dissection or safe confinement, the definitiveness of a position or the stability of an opposition, but also explores new, untested concepts and lines of argumentation. This curiosity is not invested in securing phallogocentric fantasies but aims “to track, to sniff, to trail, and to follow” what is as yet unrecognized.15 Inherent in the structure of human language, as much as in the “exploratory behavior” of animals and plants,16 this curiosity welcomes l’avenir.
A brief comparison of these accounts throws into relief the basic contours of politically resistant curiosity. For Nietzsche, resistant curiosity is eminently suspicious of civilization and rooted in the jubilant force of nature. It is fundamentally naturalistic. For Foucault, resistant curiosity is a counterforce to disciplinary isolation and biopolitical management, nurturing instead vibrant self-transformation and social activism. It is essentially historicized, insofar as it develops as counterpoint to contemporary configurations of power. For Derrida, resistant curiosity, regardless of time or place, attacks the illusion of sovereignty, with its absolute unities and divisions, and instead celebrates la différance. It is constitutive of symbolic systems. Thus, against civilization, discipline, and sovereignty, resistant curiosity is irreverent and courageous, experimental and tactical, responsive and integral. It comes from the bottom, from the marginalized, and from the constitutively excluded. It is disruptive. It is insubordinate. And it is this curiosity that each theorist endorses, in his own way, as a marker of his philosophical activity.
This essay is not concerned, however, with the role of resistant curiosity in philosophical work, as important as that is. Instead, in the following sections, three case studies of political activism will be analyzed in order to extract the anatomical structure of curiosity at work therein. These cases are Martin Luther King’s nonviolent direct action, the Prisons Information Group’s prison activism, and PISSAR’s work for safe and accessible restrooms. In each case, activists deployed curiosity along several key tracks, asking (1) What is going on? (2) What do we need? and (3) What better future can we imagine? These cases of resistant curiosity are in part elucidated by Nietzsche, Foucault, and Derrida’s theories, but they also expand beyond those accounts. Ultimately, an analysis of resistant curiosity in these specific, localized instances of political action emphasizes the otherwise underthought sociality of curiosity. From the subsequent anatomy of resistant curiosity, then, can be drawn an ethics of communal curiosity.
The Civil Rights Movement and Nonviolent Action
Writing from jail during the Birmingham campaign in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. asserts that nonviolent action involves four basic steps: the collection of facts, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action.17 Bookending nonviolent action, then, are two distinct deployments of curiosity. There is the curiosity it takes to gather relevant information: the brutal record of injustice. This curiosity pits itself against forces of media and government that refuse to tell these stories or collect this data. And then there is the curiosity that fuels protest. Activists wonder whether or not this will finally be enough to change hearts and minds. More than this, activists engage protests as a tool to grip public attention, throw the status quo into question, and generate public recognition that segregation is indeed a problem. Curiosity is therefore integral to pursuing an informed, creative reenvisioning of a desegregated culture of equals.
King describes the first step of nonviolent action as the “collection of facts to determine whether injustices are alive.”18 This is not the later work of promulgating a nonviolent philosophy, expanding the existing network of activists, tracking the boycotts, sit-ins, protests, and tabulating arrests. Instead, this is the sort of information gathering that gets the movement started, ignites it with the force of an unjust world that must be changed. The Civil Rights Movement, in King’s estimation here, begins by collecting facts that indicate the absence of civil rights, the reality of discrimination and segregation, and the brute force of violence against African Americans. This is a commitment to curiosity, a desire to know the extent of pain and suffering, the effects of hatred and systemic injustice. Participants collected data on the beatings, the sexual assaults, the lynchings, the burning or bombing of African American homes and churches, as well as other activities of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council. They collected data on police killings, unjust trials, voter registration restrictions and voter intimidation, housing discrimination, school segregation rates, as well as statistics of unemployment and restricted employment. They mapped segregated spaces in downtown cities and identified merchants specifically responsible. They researched and evaluated current laws and policies, at once looking for legal resources to support their cause and lacunae where new legislation was needed. This is an agonizing curiosity, stemming from pain and met with greater pain at witnessing rampant inequality. But it is necessary. It comes first.
The fourth and final step of direct action—whether it involves protests, demonstrations, marches, sit-ins, or boycotts—also catalyzes curiosity. This is not the superficial curiosity of depoliticized young folk who join their friends at the picket lines on a whim and may or may not contract any real commitment.19 It is instead a curiosity that generates and is generated by crisis. King states that the power of direct action lies in its ability to build a state of creative tension that breaks one’s bondage to myth and prejudice, pushes one to rethink what is taken for granted, and fuels subsequent efforts at understanding.20 King reminds his readers of Socrates, the nonviolent gadfly who aimed “to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal.”21 Being a gadfly, for Socrates, involved a meddlesome inquisitiveness directed at people of good standing22 and about things one ought not to question.23 It was Socrates’s commitment to questions outside the confines of religion, politics, or established values that rattled the Athenian populace, opening up the possibility of radical intellectual and social change. Following King’s line of comparison, then, the civil rights protests were arguably Socratic catalysts for public curiosity.
In The Psychology of Nonviolence, Leroy H. Pelton argues that the power of nonviolent protest, particularly that employed by the Civil Rights Movement, lies in its ability to ignite curiosity in the general public around heretofore unrecognized injustices.24 Pelton relies heavily on Daniel Berlyne’s classic study Conflict, Arousal, and Curiosity. Berlyne argues that conceptual conflict—or ideational incongruity—is the primary impetus to epistemic curiosity, which he defines as “the brand of arousal that motivates the quest for knowledge and is relieved when knowledge is procured.”25 For Pelton the protest form naturally creates conceptual conflict for the general public, which is presented with a manifestation of social and ideological discord. In order for that protest to best promote curiosity, and in turn facilitate attitudinal change, it needs to strike a careful balance. Its message must be complex enough to attract attention, but simple enough to defray natural resistance.26 It must be novel enough to generate interest, but repeated often enough to increase the pleasure of familiarity.27 While psychologists continue to debate the nature and causes of curiosity,28 current theorists remain indebted to Berlyne’s framework. Todd Kashdan’s Curiosity and Exploration Inventory I and II,29 for example, reinforces curiosity’s attraction to novelty and complexity, as well as its willingness to endure the anxiety of conflict or uncertainty. While these elements may not be sufficient for curiosity in the final analysis, their importance underscores the continued relevance of Pelton’s account of the efficacy of political protest.
The Civil Rights Movement, then, utilized curiosity as a fundamental tactic of political resistance from the earliest stages of nonviolent action to full-blown protests and decisive acts of noncooperation. W. E. B. Du Bois opens Souls of Black Folk with the remark that “between me and the other world there is always an unasked question . . . [:] How does it feel to be a problem?”30 How does it feel to be Black in a white world? But the question is not asked honestly; it is never explicit. As Franz Fanon would later put it, the white man affords his Black counterpart “nothing but indifference, or a paternalistic curiosity.”31 For a group or an individual that is consistently the object of a gloating, a punishing, or a half-hearted question, it is immeasurably powerful to become the subject of questions, the source-point of curiosity. Part of the power of the Civil Rights Movement lies in the way African Americans took ownership of their own curiosity and demanded public recognition of it. They identified what institutions needed to be questioned, what information needed to be gathered, and what future needed to be imagined. The movement then worked to educate the curiosity, concern, and creativity of the broader public. In doing so it deployed inquiry and imagination—deployed curiosity—as a tactic of political resistance.
The Prisons Information Group and Prison Resistance Networks
It is a little-known fact that one of the foundational texts in critical prison studies, Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, was the product of three intense years of prison activism.32 Foucault founded and led a movement called the Prisons Information Group (the GIP), active between 1970 and 1973. A vibrant coalition of prisoners, ex-prisoners, their families, doctors, lawyers, academics, and other professionals, this group worked to collect and share information about the prison gathered from prisoners themselves. The GIP deployed its resistance effort on multiple levels, not least of which was curiosity. For the GIP the prison must be made into a question.33 And it is prisoners—not the penitentiary administration—who should be asked about it. Prison resistance in early 1970’s France, then, was marked by a distinct war over curiosity.
The GIP’s first act was to generate a questionnaire for dissemination to prisoners. Organizers were keen to insist, in the accompanying leaflet, “this is not a sociological inquiry, a curiosity-inquiry, it is an intolerance-inquiry.”34 What is the distinction here? In a similar statement published shortly thereafter, Foucault again characterizes the questionnaire as an “intolerance-inquiry.” He explains, “We do not make our inquiry in order to accumulate knowledge, but to heighten our intolerance and make it an active intolerance.”35 The enterprise of gathering information from prisoners was not an academic one. It did not seek the acquisition of information for information’s sake. Nor was the enterprise curious in a banal sense, attracted to the spectacle of the prison fetish. Instead, it was an act of intolerance. As Daniel Defert would put it two months later, distributing the questionnaires was “not sociological work” but “a political act.”36 It was the work of people with intimate ties to the prison and a staunch conviction of its intolerability. And it aimed to incite the public to recognize and treat the prison as “intolerable.”37 One might then say it was driven not by a banal but by an intolerant, already-politicized curiosity.
Fundamental to the GIP initiative was the practice of asking prisoners themselves to describe prison conditions, assess the penal system, and formulate necessary reforms. As the group repeatedly stated, it worked “à donner la parole,” or “to give the floor,” to prisoners.38 From its outset, the GIP insisted that, despite official penitentiary reports, the prison remained a “black box,”39 about which little if any truth was known. To rectify this situation, the GIP developed an investigation through which “questions were really addressed by detainees to detainees.”40 This meant that the center of curiosity shifted. Through the investigation’s questionnaire, ex-prisoners asked current prisoners to report basic facts about their food, work, mail, medical care, visiting rights, and prison discipline.41 But they also asked open-ended, evaluative questions: “Do you have any comments about the [prison] rules?”42 “What comments do you have about this investigation or questionnaire?”43 Furthermore, they asked politicized questions: “What is intolerable?”44 “What is unbearable?”45 and “What are the most scandalous aspects of penitentiary life you want people to focus on?”46 The breadth of these questions positioned prisoners as the chief source of objective details and reflective assessments of the penitentiary system.
For three years, the GIP published pamphlet after pamphlet, disseminating the material gathered from prisoners to the wider world.47 In doing so it aspired not only to enhance societal awareness of the prison but to force the broader public to recognize the prison as a problem and therefore take it as a question. According to Foucault’s retrospective assessment, the GIP posed “the problem not of the political regime in prisons, but of the prison regime itself. . . . The problem was this: What is prison?”48 This meant it laid bare the intolerable nature of incarceration not in order to instigate reform but rather to cast doubt on the entire institution. It asked, Why punish by confinement? Why exercise social control in this manner? For the GIP, “the existence of prisons posed problems, just as much as what happened there”; members therefore resisted making any proposals for reform, saying they “wanted no prescription, no recipe, and no prophecy.”49 The GIP problematized the prison. This is not yet the rich sense of problematization Foucault would later develop in his reflections on genealogy, but it does require the same “curiosity and scrutiny.”50 It does hang the same giant question mark over an accepted social institution. The political project of making the prison a question and centering prisoners’ voices on that question was not a project of resolution. It was an enterprise to shift the center weight and the contours of curiosity.
The GIP’s effort met with significant resistance from various quarters, perhaps chief among which were the police and the media. According to organizers, the French police were already part and parcel of the prison problem.51 They targeted the poor, tortured racial minorities, beat detainees, killed protestors, and consistently used a heavy hand for slight infractions.52 The police made special effort to combat the GIP’s attempted shift of curiosity, breaking up groups of visitors, families, organizers, and protestors as they congregated outside prison doors.53 They were also quick to confiscate lists of demands prisoners hurled over the walls and arrest anyone caught collecting them.54 In its turn the media launched smear campaigns, taking swipes at GIP leaders and accusing them of self-aggrandizement.55 It also levied accusations of deception and drunkenness against prisoners involved in the GIP’s various information campaigns.56 And the media refused to publish journalistic submissions from prisoners themselves. As Foucault would remark with exasperation, “When detainees speak, it poses such a problem.”57 The police and the media together, therefore, worked to exclude prisons as well as prisoners from the realm of inquiry, from the purview of political curiosity.
The GIP provides a rich case study of the role of curiosity in the 1970’s French prison resistance movement. For them, the prison must be a question, and it is prisoners who must be asked about it. The GIP’s work cast a staple institution into doubt and recast the field of appropriate informants. It fought to make known what was hidden, to make heard those who were silenced. It cultivated in the French public a new, robust, and ethically informed desire to know what about the penal system remained unknown.
PISSAR and Queer/Crip Coalition
In the United States, bathrooms have always been a political space. As a historical centerpiece of segregation and unequal accommodation, bathrooms have been, by turns, targeted as a feminist issue, a race issue, a disability issue, and a transgender issue. Getting “ladies rooms” in the first place took political organizing, and today many people demand better provisions for menstruation and lactation. After the racial desegregation of restrooms, there remain significantly fewer public restrooms in low-income communities of color. ADA standards, while hard won, are unreliably met across U.S. accommodations. Transgender people consistently face discrimination and violence in whichever restroom they choose to use. Moreover, the inaccessibility of public restrooms for homeless people, low-income people, and street workers has been a sustained national problem. Given these various forms of inequality, scattered across multiple axes of oppression, the bathroom has been an inescapable source of agitation, locus of activism, and object of political resistance movements.58 Curiosity has been a driving force and key tactic for these efforts. Organizers have utilized curiosity to collect necessary information, to make restrooms a question, and to shift the locus of inquiry in bathroom politics.
Curiosity was highly significant for a group called PISSAR (People in Search of Safe and Accessible Restrooms), active at the University of California, Santa Barbara, from 2003 to 2004.59 For PISSAR, which was a coalition between disabled, trans, and/or genderqueer students, including and alongside those with menstruation and childcare needs, the structure of fully accessible public accommodations was unclear and therefore opened up for debate. This made the entire nexus of existing campus bathrooms a locus of politicized curiosity. Bathrooms had to become an issue in campus culture, while current bathrooms had to be mapped, evaluated, and ultimately changed.60 PISSAR members—including undergraduates, graduate students, staff, and community members—started by posing questions to the student body:
What do we need from bathrooms? What elements are necessary to make a bathroom functional for everyone? To make it safe? To make it a private and respectful space? Whose bodies are excluded from the typical restroom? More important, what kind of bodies are assumed in the design of these bathrooms? Who has the privilege (we call it pee-privilege) of never needing to think about these issues, of always knowing that any given bathroom will meet one’s needs?61
By piquing public curiosity, PISSAR problematized the otherwise everyday institution of the bathroom.
The media campaign was only the first step. The second involved the aptly named “PISSAR patrols,”62 which were groups of three people, ideally of varying genders, canvassing campus to catalogue and assess its bathrooms. All PISSAR patrols were equipped with team shirts, gloves, measuring tape, clipboards, and a checklist. Folks on PISSAR patrol were to be scientists, to be investigators and explorers, anthropologists and geographers. They recorded, in meticulous detail, the location, signage, urinal and stall measurements, latches, knobs, grab bars, flush levers, dispensers (toilet-seat covers, tampons, soap, paper towels), and changing tables of each restroom. Members retroactively characterized the four-page checklist as “a manifesto of sorts,” because it modeled “queer coalition-building by incorporating disability, genderqueer, childcare, and menstruation issues into one document, refusing single-issue analysis.”63 Results from the patrols were collated into a map, which helped students locate more accessible restrooms on campus. The map was also, however, a “consciousness-raising tool” for those “who have never had to think about bathrooms.”64 PISSAR’s cartographic effort was ultimately an advocacy effort. Not only did the patrols cultivate members’ own “imagination” about the future of accessible restrooms,65 but they also got chancellors curious enough to ask, “What kind of bodies are we talking about here?”66 and eventually led to renewed university commitments to accessibility.
Activism around restroom access is not alone in its deployment of curiosity. In fact, the culture of segregation and discrimination targeting variously gendered, raced, and abled bodies results repeatedly in the conversion of public accommodations into sharply guarded territories, policed with quick and cutting interrogations, in which accusatory questions are wielded as instruments of control and exclusion. One of the many ways people police restrooms is by inquisition: “Are you lost? Are you a . . . what the fuck are you? Where’s your ID? What kind of plumbing you got, huh? What’s in those pants!”67 Sheila Cavanagh calls it “gender-based interrogation.”68 The Free to Pee group, started at George Brown College in 2012 and self-described as a PISSAR spin-off, highlights the complexity of this moment: “Discrimination comes in many forms, and it is not always easy to know why someone is asking you questions or telling you to leave the restroom.”69 Some may kindly pretend not to notice, while others will call security or attack you physically (sometimes with a weapon). And they may do so out of culturally, religiously, or ideologically bred attachment to this particular sanctuary of the gender binary. Curious stares and accusatory questions serve this end.
Restroom resistance movements have, by and large, worked against this use of the question to target, ostracize, and exclude, to rip away welcome and destroy belonging. Instead, they have deployed curiosity to ask honestly about the pain and institutional failure experienced so heavily by marginalized people. And they have also relied on curiosity to reignite and to reorganize their own political imagination.70
These three cases—the Civil Rights Movement, the Prisons Information Group, and PISSAR—provide material from which to draw an anatomy of politically resistant curiosity. As Nietzsche, Foucault, and Derrida’s accounts suggest, curiosity in these cases is always a force on both sides of political struggle. Curiosity is not essentially insubordinate. Sometimes, and perhaps more often than not, it works in the service of established institutions, which predefine appropriate objects, subjects, and avenues of inquiry. Questions may be used to further this inquiry or to protect it from the threat of other knowledge formations. When curiosity’s insubordinate potential is tapped, however, it investigates the suffering of the marginalized, it casts radical doubt on the status quo, and it fearlessly imagines new and better futures. Insubordinate curiosity also shifts who is consulted, who gets asked for their political wisdom. More than fleshing out the anatomy of resistant curiosity, moreover, these case studies launch a specific challenge to the accounts of canonical philosophers. Dispensing with any illusion of independent—let alone solitary—curiosity, political resistance movements illuminate the undertheorized sociality of curiosity. Curiosity is not, in these cases, the isolated characteristic of a genius or a rebel. It is collective and it is communal. What the anatomy of resistant curiosity produces, then, is a depiction of collective curiosity.
Curiosity in political resistance movements is first of all deployed against already-established configurations of knowledge and inquiry. In the Civil Rights Movement, stories and data of segregation were not being generated through the official channels and needed to be built by the Black community. Perhaps one of the most powerful exemplars of this work is the “Evidence” chapter in We Charge Genocide (1951), which insists that “this widespread failure to record crimes against the Negro people is in itself an index to genocide.”71 But conversely, conservative white media deployed questions in order to resist desegregation by fanning the flames of racism and red fear.72 Likewise, for the GIP the official prison reports failed to represent prisoners’ voices, and the media refused to incorporate them. But when Dr. Edith Rose, a prison psychologist, wrote a damning report of Toul prison in 1971, the penitentiary administration dismissed it with a question: Did you see all of this with your own eyes?73 Restroom organizing, too, has developed hand in hand with data collection, from PISSAR’s rudimentary map to extensive academic reports.74 But questions about users’ genders, moreover, are repeatedly used to police nonnormative bodies in restrooms.75 It is not, therefore, the case that curiosity is absent from the status quo, but rather that it is governed and deployed in maintaining current political structures.
Against this established schematic of inquiry, resistance movements utilize curiosity insubordinately in at least four specific ways. First, they investigate the state of affairs for disempowered groups. What are the elements and effects of segregation, intolerable prison conditions, or inaccessible restrooms? An investigation of this sort asks targeted questions about marginalized experiences, questions that gather the information necessary to inform later strategies of struggle and reimaginations of the political landscape. Second, these resistance movements shifted not only the topic of inquiry but the people being asked. The Civil Rights Movement asked the Black community about segregation, the GIP asked prisoners about prison conditions, and PISSAR asked genderqueer and disabled students about inaccessible bathrooms. In changing the directionality of curiosity, these movements changed who could speak and who could be heard. Insubordinate curiosity transforms the politics of voice and ear. Third, these movements launched major efforts to change what got recognized as a question or a problem. Targeting the government, the administration, and the public, they used questions not only to destabilize the unquestioned character of race, prisons, and restrooms but to make them questionable in their own right. While the formal effect of this effort was external consciousness raising, it also reconfigured the terrain of officially endorsed sites of inquiry. Fourth, they asked, “What do we need? What would a new future of care look like? And how can questions help us dream?” It is the courage to throw off familiar ways, to radically shift perspective, to believe change is possible, and to populate collective visions with the still unthinkable that fuels such movements. This is the anatomy of politically resistant curiosity.
The challenge that these cases pose to traditional theories of political curiosity is their inescapable qualification of curiosity as communal. If political thought is to adequately engage with resistance movements, it is critical that collective curiosity be theorized. Although Nietzsche places curiosity squarely in the midst of political struggle, his privileged figures of liberatory curiosity are himself,76 his ideal reader—that “monster of courage and curiosity,”77 and the free spirit of the future.78 It is his rare references to curiosity as shared, for instance, among “we Europeans of the day after tomorrow,”79 that must be theorized. Likewise, although Foucault describes a battle between institutionalized curiosity and resistant curiosity, his best-known paradigms of resistant curiosity are singular: himself, the parrhesiastes, and the intellectual.80 More work must be done to wrest Foucauldian practices of freedom from the frameworks of solitary askesis and center them in communities of resistance. As Foucault says in a late interview, “What is good is something that comes through innovation. . . . The good is defined by us, it is practiced, it is invented. And this is a collective work.”81 Again, for Derrida, forms of curiosity by turns buoy and belie sovereign displays of power. He locates a curiosity coincident with deconstruction in himself and his cat, Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Melville’s Bartleby.82 Relocating curiosity from the solitary philosopher to the crowd, from the intrepid animal to the packs and the herds, from a single plant to the network of organic life—that is what must be done. Collective curiosity is what we must now think.
Once the role of curiosity in political resistance movements is recognized, a whole series of questions follow relative to the ethics of curiosity. Even if one grants the claim that political resistance, on behalf of marginalized groups, is a good in itself, and the further claim that curiosity used in the service of such a good is ethical, a myriad of issues remain unresolved. What are the best ways to cultivate a collective curiosity? What is the responsibility of an individual to engage in collective curiosity in the service of political resistance? What are the strongest ethical criteria for collecting stories and data from marginalized communities? What are best protocols for facilitating the voices of those who are otherwise silenced? How can publicity be used responsibly in the effort to problematize current political institutions? And what are the constraints of an ethical imagination? Whatever the answers to these questions, ethical and epistemological debates about curiosity can no longer remain depoliticized. Instead, they must engage the undeniably vibrant role curiosity plays in insubordination.
Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister (1947; New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 46.
Perry Zurn, “Busybody, Hunter, Dancer: Three Historical Models of Curiosity,” in Toward New Philosophical Explorations of the Epistemic Desire to Know: Just Curious about Curiosity, ed. Marianna Papastephanou (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2019), 26–49.
Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” in Untimely Meditations, ed. Daniel Breazeale (1874; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), §7.
Nietzsche, “History for Life,” §6.
Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Non-moral Sense,” in The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, ed. Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs (1873; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), §1.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (1873; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), preface §4 and §3.
Perry Zurn, “Curiosities at War: The Police and Prison Resistance after May ’68,” Modern and Contemporary France 26, no. 2 (2018): 179–91.
Michel Foucault, “The Masked Philosopher,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: New Press, 1997), 325.
Michel Foucault, “Power, Moral Values, and the Intellectual,” History of the Present 4 (1988): 1, 13.
Michel Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1981–1982, ed. Frédéric Gros, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2005), 260, 279; cf. Seneca, Naturales Questiones (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972), 1.12.
Michel Foucault, The Courage of Truth: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1983–1984, ed. Frédéric Gros, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2011), 125.
Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 8.
Perry Zurn, “The Curiosity at Work in Deconstruction,” Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy 26, no. 1 (2018): 65–87.
Jacques Derrida, The Beast and Sovereign I, ed. Michel Lisse, Marie-Louise Mallet, and Ginette Michaud, trans. Geoffrey Bennington (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 299.
Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 33.
Jacques Derrida, “Séance 4,” Répondre du secret, December 11, 1991, University of California, Irvine, Archives, MS-C001, box 21, folder 5, 8–9.
Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (New York: HarperOne, 1986), 290.
Dennis Chong, Collective Action and the Civil Rights Movement (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 71.
King, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” 291.
Plato, The Apology, in Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus (Cambridge, Mass.: Loeb Classical Library, 2017), 31c. Here Plato uses one of the Greek cognates for the Latin curiositas: polypragmosyne.
Plato, 19b. Here Plato uses the other cognate: periergon.
Leroy H. Pelton, The Psychology of Nonviolence (New York: Pergamon Press, 1974).
Daniel Berlyne, Conflict, Arousal, and Curiosity (New York: McGraw Hill, 1960), 274.
Pelton, The Psychology of Nonviolence, 117.
George Lowenstein, “The Psychology of Curiosity: A Review and Reinterpretation,” Psychological Bulletin 116, no. 1 (1994): 75–98.
Todd Kashdan, Paul Rose, and Frank Fincham, “Curiosity and Exploration: Facilitating Positive Subjective Experiences and Personal Growth Opportunities,” Journal of Personality Assessment 82, no. 3 (2004): 291–305; Todd Kashdan et al., “The Curiosity and Exploration Inventory-II: Development, Factor Structure, and Psychometrics,” Journal of Research in Personality 43, no. 6 (2009): 987–98.
W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903; Radford, Va.: Wilder, 2008), 5.
Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (1952; New York: Grove Press, 1967), 221.
Michel Foucault, “Toujours les prisons,” Dits et Ecrits II (Paris: Gallimard, 2001), no. 282, 916. See also Perry Zurn and Andrew Dilts, eds., Active Intolerance: Michel Foucault, the Prisons Information Group, and the Future of Abolition (New York: Palgrave, 2016).
Louis Appert (Michel Foucault), François Colcombert, and Antoine Lazarus, “Luttes autour des prisons” (November 1979), Dits et Ecrits II no. 273, 813.
GIP, “Enquête Intolerance” (March 1971), Le Groupe d’information sur les prisons: Archives d’une lutte, 1970–1972, ed. Philippe Artières, Laurent Quéro, and Michelle Zancarini-Fournel (Paris: IMEC, 2003), 53. Hereafter Archives d’une lutte.
Michel Foucault, “Le GIP vient de lancer sa première enquête” (March 15, 1971), Archives d’une lutte, 52.
Daniel Defert, “Quand l’information est une lutte” (May 25, 1971), Archives d’une lutte, 72–73.
Foucault, “Le GIP,” 52.
See, for example, Daniel Defert, “Sur quoi repose le système pénitentiare?” (November 11, 1971), Archives d’une lutte, 129.
GIP, “Nul de nous d’est sûr d’échapper à la prison” (February 8, 1971), Archives d’une lutte, 43.
Defert, “Quand l’information est une lutte,” 69.
GIP, “Intolérable 1: Enquête dans vingt prisons,” Intolérable (Paris: Verticale, 2013), 21–80.
GIP, “Intolerable 1: Investigation in 20 Prisons,” in Marcelo Hoffman, Foucault and Power: The Influence of Political Engagement on Theories of Power (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 160 (translation modified).
GIP, 166 (translation modified).
GIP, 166 (translation modified); cf. “What hazing do you stand ready to denounce?” (165).
Perry Zurn, “Publicity and Politics: Foucault, the Prisons Information Group, and the Press,” Radical Philosophy Review 17, no. 2 (2014): 403–20.
Appert (Foucault), Colcombert, and Lazarus, “Luttes autour des prisons,” 808.
Appert (Foucault), Colcombert, and Lazarus, 813.
Colin Koopman, Genealogy as Critique (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 143.
For them, the penal system involved the police, the courts, and the prison. See Defert, “Quand l’information est une lutte,” 73.
Michel Foucault, “Il y a un an à peu près . . .” (January 17, 1972), Archives d’une lutte, 195; Michel Foucault, “Le Discours de Toul” (January 5, 1972), Dits et Ecrits I, no. 99, 1105; Daniel Defert, “Sur quoi repose le système pénitentiare?” (November 11, 1971), Archives d’une lutte, 131; Michel Foucault and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, “Enquête sur les prisons: Brisons les barreaux du silence” (March 18, 1971), Dits et Ecrits I, no. 88, 1050.
Defert, “Quand information est une lutte,” 69, 72–73; Appert (Foucault), Colcombert, and Lazarus, “Luttes autour des prisons,” 816.
Foucault, “Il y a un an à peu près . . . ,” 198.
Appert (Foucault), Colcombert, and Lazarus, “Luttes autour des prisons,” 812; Michel Foucault and Paul Thibaud, “Toujours les prisons,” Dits et Ecrits II, no. 282, 915–17.
Foucault, “Il y a un an à peu près . . . ,” 195–96.
Michel Foucault, “Le grand enfermement” (March 25, 1972), Dits et Ecrits I, no. 105, 1170.
Perry Zurn, “Waste Culture and Isolation: Prisons, Toilets, and Gender Segregation,” Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 34, no. 4 (2019): 668–89.
Simone Chess et al., “Calling All Restroom Revolutionaries!” That’s Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation, ed. Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press, 2004), 216–36. See also Isaac West’s commentary in “PISSAR’s Critically Queer and Disabled Politics,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 7, no. 2 (2010): 156–75.
Chess et al., “Calling All Restroom Revolutionaries!,” 217.
Chess et al., 216–17.
The choice of “patrol” is perhaps more apt than members knew. It stems from the sixteenth-century French patrouiller, meaning to paddle or puddle in the mud. To patrol, then, is literally to muck about.
Chess, et al., “Calling All Restroom Revolutionaries!,” 225. In this way, it modeled “theory” in action (226). Alison Kafer, in Feminist, Queer, Crip (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), urges subsequent coalitions to move their bathroom politics beyond architecture by integrating work for accessible catheters and diapers (154–57).
Chess et al., “Calling All Restroom Revolutionaries!,” 219.
Chess et al., 227.
Chess et al., 228.
For a rich treatment of interviews on the topic, see Sheila Cavanagh, Queering Restrooms: Gender, Sexuality, and the Hygienic Imagination (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010), chapter 2.
George Brown College, Free to Pee Campaign, https://freetopeegbc.com/victories-2/.
For a broader account of trans and gender-nonconforming people’s resistant curiosity, see Perry Zurn, “Puzzle Pieces: Shapes of Trans Curiosity,” APA Newsletter on LGBT Issues in Philosophy 18, no. 1 (2018): 10–16.
William L. Patterson, ed., We Charge Genocide (Detroit: Civil Rights Congress, 1951), 57–192 (esp. 57).
See, for example, the John Birch Society flyer, “What’s Wrong with Civil Rights?” Palm Beach Post, October 31, 1965, https://birchwatcher.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/whats_wrong_with_civil_rights.png.
Michel Foucault, “Le Discours de Toul,” 1106.
See, for example, Jody Herman, “Gendered Restrooms and Minority Stress: The Public Regulation of Gender and Its Impact on Transgender People’s Lives,” Journal of Public Management and Social Policy 19, no. 1 (2013): 65–80.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufmann (1886; New York: Vintage Books, 1989), §45; Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (1887; New York: Vintage Books, 1989), preface, §3.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann (1908; New York: Vintage Books, 1989), §3.
Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, preface, §3.
Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, §214.
Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, 8; Foucault, The Courage of Truth, 125; Foucault, “The Masked Philosopher,” 325.
Foucault, “Power, Moral Values,” 13.
Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 3, 4, 7; Jacques Derrida, “Séance 1,” Répondre du secret, November 13, 1991, University of California, Irvine, Archives, MS-C001, box 21, folder 4.