Tyson E. Lewis
Often when people ask a question (especially students), they preface it with the simple saying, “I am just curious.” Such a phrase is more than a mere social lubricant. It also has philosophical implications. For instance, prefacing a question with the phrase “just curious” indicates that what follows is not really that serious. The interlocutor is asking on a whim, nothing more than that. Further, this phrase could indicate that the question is harmless or of little consequence or not meant to be offensive in any way. This is no grand inquisition. It is a friendly, incidental conversation. For both participants, the stakes are exceedingly low. Such common ways of speaking about curiosity indicate that there is a tendency to reduce it to the level of a secondary, peripheral form of intentionality. There is nothing rigorous about being just curious. It is an occasional, fleeting thought that will not likely matter to any of the participants in the exchange, whatever the results of the question happen to be. Indeed, one can quickly move on without being distressed.
But whereas the common, everyday use of curiosity in the phrase, “I am just curious . . . ,” emphasizes the harmless nature of curiosity, philosophy finds this seemingly benign appearance a ruse, concealing a very dangerous possibility: when we become just curious, we become distracted from the important questions of life. I am thinking here of a particular strand of philosophy that leads from Augustine (a fourth-century North African Christian theologian) to Martin Heidegger (a twentieth-century German phenomenologist) and up to Bernard Stiegler (a twentieth-century French poststructuralist).
In this chapter I want to focus on the educational implication of this particular line of analysis and see if curiosity has any educational value. Is it ever educationally desirable to be “just curious” about something? I will start with an overview of several philosophical arguments that warn against curiosity as a distraction, in particular those found in the phenomenologies of Augustine and Heidegger. Mis-educative at best, at its worst, curiosity, for these philosophers, can become anti-educative. But here I would like to take a different approach and argue that Augustine, Heidegger, and other contemporary figures have missed something important in their own analyses of curiosity. Instead of seeing the distracted nature of curiosity as a deficit, I want to use Paul North’s work on distraction as a starting point for a new philosophy of education that embraces the distracted qualities of curiosity as an asset. As an example of how distraction can educate, I will end with a brief analysis of the Coen brothers’ film The Big Lebowski. Although not ostensibly about education, I argue that the film has certain educational implications, especially concerning the nature of curiosity’s relationship with distraction. In this film the lead character embraces distraction—or what he calls “abiding”—in order to accidently and absentmindedly solve a mystery. In short, this film reveals that there are indeed positive lessons from being in a distracted state of mind, and that there should be room in education for daydreaming, flights of fancy, and intellectual wandering even if such activities are not quantifiable in terms of prescripted outcomes or efficient/effective measures.
Being Attentive to Attentiveness
A number of philosophers are prone to chastise curiosity as a deficient form of engagement with the world. For instance, in the book Confessions, Augustine argues that curiosity is a form of distractedness from our search for the Truth. The mind has a tendency, for Augustine, to use the senses of the body for the “satisfaction of its own inquisitiveness.”1 Such curiosity might call itself science but, in reality, it is driven by nothing more than a lust for gratification. For Augustine, there are three problems here. First, curiosity is focused on knowledge acquired through the senses and, in particular, sight. Knowledge acquired through sight is concerned with what is finite, contingent, and therefore mutable rather than what is infinite, absolute, and unchanging. Because of this, curiosity can only lead us away from the Truth. Second, curiosity is not driven by pleasure in the Truth (in God’s infinite wisdom) but rather by a perverse form of inquisitiveness for its own sake. Indeed, curiosity is uniquely related to sight, and to the pleasure in the act of seeing. The result is knowing for the sake of knowing and a gratification in investigation and discovery as such. Third, the overarching result of this curiosity is an increasing sense of drifting away from God’s path to the Truth. As Augustine summarizes, curiosity is a temptation for the mind to wander and as such poses a problem. He confesses that curiosity “might easily hold my attention and distract me from whatever serious thoughts occupied my mind.”2
This description, I find, resonates with a peculiar moment before Augustine’s conversion in which he finds himself truly in a state of indecision. He writes, “So, treating everything as a matter of doubt, as the Academics are generally supposed to do, and hovering between one doctrine and another, I made up my mind at least to leave the Manichees, for while I was in this state of indecision I did not think it right to remain in the sect now that I found the theories of some of the philosophers preferable.”3 In an indecisive state, Augustine is hovering between belief systems rather than subscribing to any one of them. He is curious as to what each system offers him, and he is testing them all out. This state is one akin to wandering about, without the clear direction provided by belief in God. And for Augustine, this state is decisively dangerous, as it could lead the wanderer further and further away from Christ. As such, it appears that curiosity is always on the verge of becoming mis-educative. It is a state that lacks a clear path, a clear light to guide the way, or a voice to call the wanderer back home. It is a state veiled in darkness and silence. Nevertheless, in this darkness and silence, the curious wanderer is also radically exposed to all the possibilities of thought without discretion.
But this is precisely what Augustine fears the most. Without the Truth orienting knowledge toward God, knowledge falters and becomes an end in itself. While Augustine admits that it might very well be Truth that “we learn better in a free spirit of curiosity,”4 this natural predilection is also a sign of our sin and the ultimate form of intellectual distraction and indulgence. Sadly, in Augustine’s assessment, teachers fall prey to the trap of curiosity, encouraging students to do well in their studies simply for instrumental reasons. Or they expose students to curiosities (such as Greek myths) without understanding how raising such interests might actually tempt their minds to abandon God’s Truth. Indeed, Augustine goes so far as to suggest that only God can be a teacher because only God fully understands the Truth. He writes, “My God . . . I believe that it was you who taught me . . . because it is the truth and there is no other teacher of the truth besides yourself.”5 All other teachers are marked by their own curiosities, and thus given to perpetuating distraction. We might say that the original sin of the teacher is precisely the sin of failing to cultivate attentiveness to Truth in his or her students.
Heidegger, a careful reader of Augustine, reiterates many of these claims. In his analytic of the human, Heidegger argues that there are essentially three dimensions of its everydayness: idle talk, ambiguity, and curiosity. While Heidegger is clear that he does not want to judge these dimensions—and thus presents us with a neutral description of how the human gets around in its most banal, day-to-day activities in the world—nevertheless, there are moments in his description that at least warn the reader of the potential downsides of idle talk, ambiguity, and curiosity. Take, for instance, curiosity. According to Heidegger curiosity is, as with Augustine, related to seeing. And like Augustine, Heidegger thinks that when humanity is curious, “it has a tendency to let itself be carried along solely by the looks of the world.”6 Once carried away, humanity can no longer be attentive to the existential question defining the meaning of being and instead dwells on a rather superficial level of experience. Curiosity “concerns itself with seeing, not in order to understand what is seen (that is, to come into a being towards it) but just in order to see.”7 Pleasure is pure seeing, and the novelty of seeing overtakes any attentiveness to what is seen. The result is the “constant possibility of distraction.”8 The floating, drifting, absentmindedness of curiosity can only leap from one novelty to the next without attunement to being in its Truth. In this suspended, or hovering state, “circumspection has been set free,” opening “the possibilities of seeing the ‘world’ merely as it looks.”9 These looks are superficial. Thus curious freedom is the freedom to skim the surface of experience without ever attaching one’s being to something meaningful. The uprootedness of humanity means that it leads a distracted existence where it “keeps floating unattached”10 and aimless, always in danger of being lured by the next curiosity, by the next inauthentic temptation.
Curiosity flees from the experience of being “amazed” or “marveling”11 at the miracle of being, and therefore our everyday condition is a fundamental threat to our understanding of being. Instead of the experience of wonder, which stops humanity in its tracks and forces it to take up the question of its being, curiosity derails humanity by submerging it in trivial experiences. In such a state of suspended hovering, the human can never own its experiences, can never really care about anything at all, let alone its relationship to the question of its own being. This is a vision of humanity’s everydayness as falling away from being. Curiosity has estranged us from a philosophical and educative mood: wonder. Indeed, in Basic Questions of Philosophy: Selected “Problems” of “Logic,” Heidegger traces the slow degeneration of wonder into curiosity. To do so, he returns to the basic definition of wonder found in ancient Greek sources. Instead of hovering from one appearance to the next in a curious state, Heidegger argues that “in wonder, what is most usual of all and in all, i.e., everything, becomes the most unusual. . . . Everything in what is most usual (beings) becomes in wonder the most unusual in this one respect: that it is what it is.”12 This state of mind is educationally relevant for Heidegger because it is “the basic disposition that primordially disposes man into the beginning of thinking.”13 We are no longer distracted by the flow of beings but rather stop and think about the very being of these beings, what makes them beings at all. This is why the experience of wonder is, for Heidegger, the most fundamental form of attunement. If curiosity is a kind of absentminded drifting among beings (lured forever by the appearance of the new), then wonder is the mindfulness of being as such (that which is not new at all but has always already been there in the background of our experience as that which makes all experience possible). And when curiosity becomes our dominant attunement, education is precisely what is at stake. From the moment that humanity becomes curious, “then in place of the basic disposition of wonder, the avidity [Gier in German is closely related to the word for curiosity, Neugier] for learning and calculation enters in. Philosophy itself then becomes one institution among others, it becomes subjected to a goal which is all the more insidious the higher it is . . . ‘education.’”14 Again, echoes of Augustine can be heard here. For both, curiosity is a temptation because it finds pleasure in learning as such, in seeing as such. Education is no longer in the service of Truth, does not stay with the Truth but rather offers restless excitement through continual change.
Taking these warnings seriously, there is a strong movement in educational philosophy to return to the virtues of attentiveness. Informed by the recent work of Bernard Stiegler, educational theorists argue that the distracted dimension of curiosity is a major danger to youth and to society as a whole. Indeed, for Stiegler, without the intellectual capability to be attentive, youth become careless consumers who are lazy, cowardly, irresponsible, and infantile. As opposed to a culture industry that “destroys attention along with the ability to concentrate on an object of attention,”15 “scholarly education . . . consists entirely of psychotechniques for capturing and fashioning attention.”16 Thus instead of the infantile state of interminable immaturity caused by media and consumer culture, scholarly education produces individuals who are mature precisely because of their attentiveness to the self and the world. Here attentiveness means caring for ideas, things, and language so as to think them and give them meaning and significance in a world. Importantly, Stiegler avoids any discussion of curiosity in his reconstruction of education as a system for forming attention. This is no coincidence, for curiosity has been linked with precisely the forms of distractedness of which Stiegler is critical. While frequently aligned with inquisitiveness, curiosity is also characterized negatively as something that leads astray. Its educational value is therefore dubious.
In short, there is a philosophical lineage here that questions whether or not “just curious” is educationally relevant. Or, perhaps worse, this same lineage could indicate that “just curious” is a condition that needs to be overcome in order for real, authentic education to happen at all. To call into question this lineage, I want to make a surprising move. I want to leave behind philosophical texts and take a curious leap into the world of film. I want to do so for a simple reason: according to Walter Benjamin in his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” film is the distracted medium par excellence.17 As such, if one wants to explore the meaning of distraction, then it is best to go directly to the source.
OK, I lied a bit. We still have some philosophical setting up that needs to happen before we move on to film. In particular, I want to point to another tradition in philosophy—a minor one—that is interested in distraction as a positive, rather than a negative, state. I want to leverage this minor tradition in order to argue that educationalists should not reject the distracted dimension of curiosity but rather yield to it. Instead of disparaging what is most suspect about curiosity, embrace it fully. What would we find in this movement into rather than beyond the curious? Key to answering this question is liberating curiosity from comparison with attentiveness, therefore thinking it on its own terms (even if these terms are rather distracting).
Distractedness is a marginal mental phenomenon that always tends toward that which is on the verge of or has already disappeared, hence philosophy’s suspicions of it. In other words, it always concerns the presence of a nonbeing, a specter, or a nonthought within thought. For Paul North distraction is “a paradoxical capacity to receive non-beings” in the form of daydreams, flights of fancy, and so forth, while at the same time “resist[ing] becoming an object of thought.”18 Distraction happens when the mind lets go of bonds to intellectual structures, determining concepts/categories, and passionate attachments to norms. And when such bonds are loosened, the mind can drift off topic (“Where was I again?”), the eye can be caught by something appearing in our peripheral vision that escapes the mind (“What was that?”), and there can be moments of interruption where the flow of thought gives way to the blankness of no thought (“I seem to have lost my train of thought . . .”). While Stiegler argues that attentiveness is the fulcrum of caring for the world, North argues that attention focuses on stretching out and taking possession of the world (ad-tenere). Attention is therefore concerned with a will to possess that is capable of providing continuity and unity to the self. Distraction on the other hand “gives itself away”19 and is therefore a form of dispossession. The unity of self provided by attention (as a possession of experience) suddenly loses itself, exposing itself to dispersal.
On North’s reading, we can approach Heidegger’s theory of curiosity with new eyes and see something that Heidegger himself had missed. In order to guard against the dangers of dissipation and dispersal—as in a curious state of being—Heidegger turns toward an ontology of care. Care steps in to stop the dispersal process and to provide some kind of ontological unity to humanity’s everyday being. What is avoided here is, for North, a theory of dispersal–distraction as such—a theory of curiosity that does not fall back on the normative value placed on wholeness, unity, and attentive concentration. What Augustine, Heidegger, and later Stiegler avoid at all costs is a theoretical confrontation with not caring, with a kind of being that loses itself in what it yields to, that disperses itself to the margins. This would be a state of being that is careless, directionless, and open to the contingencies of what happens to it. By maximizing distractibility, a carefree life would help throw into high relief the features of curiosity that are most curious. I mean this in two senses. First, this life would be curious in that it would be strange, unfamiliar, and perhaps shocking for those of us who value the long-established norms of attention and care. Indeed, such a life might appear meaningless, disorderly, silly, if not a total waste of time. Second, in its dispersion, distracted life would threaten any foundational social system predicated on the predictable certainty and regularity of an attentive, consistent, and unified identity. In this sense, distraction would prove to be the politically anarchic dimension of being “just curious.” If philosophy cares about and promotes care for an arche, then the distractive excess of curiosity would threaten this arche with anarchic digression and disorientation.
The Educational Value of Distractedness: A Comparison of Two “Detectives”
The question becomes: How can North be used as a new starting point for theorizing curiosity as an educational virtue without losing curiosity’s distracting qualities? Here I will turn to an unlikely example of how the distractible dimension of curiosity can be educational: the Coen brothers’ cult classic The Big Lebowski.20 The character referred to as “the Dude” is perpetually distracted and, in this distraction, is open to the contingent flow of experiences as they drift by. He is caught up in things and yields to what appears. Even his speech is infected by the meaningless phrases he haphazardly adopts from the other characters he meets (“in the parlance of our times . . .”). But more important, I argue the form of the film itself is distracted. I will conclude this section by contrasting the content and form of The Big Lebowski with another Coen brothers’ film, No Country for Old Men,21 which, in many ways, also offers a commentary on curiosity, but this time from an opposing existential angle.
The opening sequence of The Big Lebowski summarizes many of these points. The stranger who narrates the story starts with a series of perplexing observations about the curiously enigmatic character of the Dude. “A lot about the Dude didn’t make a whole lot of sense,” the narrator ponders. The narrator goes on to warn the audience that the Dude might appear to be the “laziest [man] worldwide.” Playing in the background of the voiceover is the cowboy classic “Tumbling Tumble Weeds,” as sung by Sons of the Pioneers. The song lazily “drifts along” as we literally see a tumbleweed roll aimlessly through Los Angeles (a place that is full of drifters, strangers, displaced peoples, and hapless wanderers). The metaphor is clear: the Dude is a tumbleweed himself—drifting, hovering, aimlessly meandering through life. But what is unique here is that the narrator embraces this condition and even praises it as somehow suitable to the times. Indeed, the rest of the film is a demonstration of what we can yield by fully yielding to a tumbling, distracted form of curiosity.
The rootlessness of the Dude means that he is radically passive, the brunt of a series of misadventures and misunderstandings (his rug is pissed on, his car is stolen, and so forth). And despite all these distractions, the Dude “solves” the crime precisely by not paying attention to it. He almost literally stumbles over the solution to the mystery that defines the dramatic plot of the film. Unlike other famous detectives, the Dude remains absentminded throughout. He admits, “I am adhering to a pretty strict drug regimen to keep my mind limber.” The limberness of his mind refers to a state of maximal flexibility wherein tangential and seemingly unrelated bits and pieces of information can hang loosely together. Instead of forcing connections between these fragments, he simply abandons himself to the flow of experiences with a curious ease, and through his misadventures tumbles headlong into various solutions and/or answers to interconnected mysteries.
The proper term to describe this state of maximal distractibility is “abiding.” When the stranger tells the Dude to “Take it easy,” he replies, “The Dude abides.” For North, such abiding could be conceptualized as a particular form of curious yielding.22 Yielding means giving in but also giving over (as in yielding a crop). Only by yielding to the situation through curiosity, only by abiding through distraction, can the Dude’s actions yield anything at all. This is not the picture of the detective who is driven by a will to solve a case, who is characterized by superhuman attentiveness (as in the TV show “Monk” or even Sherlock Holmes), but a kind of absentminded drifter who allows the case to come to him, wash over him in a series of mishaps and comical reversals of fortune. Yielding to these forces with casual, absentminded curiosity produces a yield.
On this reading, the Dude embodies precisely those qualities that the proponents of attentiveness and wonderment abhor. Unlike Stiegler’s mature, attentive, and responsible adult, the Dude is immature, inattentive, and irresponsible throughout most of the film. He lacks a job; he is a “bum”; he is a pothead; and he has an abiding personality. And yet, instead of viewing these from the perspective of attentiveness as a normative ideal, the film asks the audience to view distraction on its own terms, and therein find a new kind of intelligence in giving one’s self over and giving in to the experiences that float by. Of course, the Dude’s narrative begins with a certain desire for compensation after his rug had been mistakenly pissed on, yet it would be incorrect to interpret the film as a series of events centered on his desire to right this particular wrong. Such a reading would be reductive at best as it would take what is merely an accidental (and largely inconsequential) moment that jumpstarts the narrative as an unconscious, motivating force behind all the Dude’s actions. Missed here is how the Dude abides, giving way on even this desire in order to be taken up by the world around him. Likewise, it would be wrong to reduce the motive driving the film to the Dude’s love of bowling. Although the impending bowling tournament is always in the background of the narrative, providing some kind of continuity to the action, it never happens, and, indeed, this does not seem to matter at all to the Dude, who merely keeps abiding. Thus, it is crucial to note that, in the end, he has no rug, no monetary compensation for the loss of his rug, and no bowling trophy, yet he continues to abide.
Because the film does not satisfy audience expectations to see the Dude at home with a decent rug (what will tie his room together?) or engaged in a hilarious bowling tournament (would the Dude’s team win against Jesus Quintana?), many felt that the film was somewhat of a failure.23 The rug fiasco led nowhere (except to the death of the Dude’s friend, Donny) and the bowling tournament never materialized. Even the mystery concerning Bunny Lebowski and her abduction is somewhat of an anticlimax. Thus the fundamental plotlines of the film do not yield to our expectations for any genre of film or, even worse, the film does not yield to our expectations for what a Coen brothers’ film should be. The tight, intricate, and driven plots of Fargo or Miller’s Crossing (two more famous Coen films) are missing here, leaving the audience with what seems to be a half-hearted, half-baked try that might have needed a few more drafts before it was screen ready.
But I would suggest another reading. Not only do the characters in the film embody curiosity, the form of the film itself exemplifies the distracted nature of cinema that Benjamin describes. The film is a tumbling tumble-weed, meandering around absentmindedly in the world of the Dude. This is not simply a depiction of abiding but is an abiding form of cinema. The Coen brothers are pulled in this way (to the rug), then in another way (to a kidnapping), then in another (to a bowling tournament). Yet they do not follow through on any one of these narratives. Instead, we get a weirdly suspended, hovering, inattentive feeling that fully embraces the distracted and distracting nature of cinema. This is a cinema that is dispossessed of itself (its genre conventions) and dispersed (across a series of plotlines that lead nowhere in particular). The form of the film comes to mimic its content, producing a truly abiding, and thus anarchic, cinematic experience.
I conclude my analysis with a comparison between the Dude and another famous Coen brothers’ character: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in the film No Country for Old Men. One of the central mysteries of the film revolves around the killer’s preferred weapon: a bolt gun. The gun shoots out a bolt using compressed air. In the film, the hired assassin, Anton Chigurh, employs this device several times to mysteriously kill victims without leaving behind any bullet casings and to break into the house of the protagonist, Llewelyn Moss. Sheriff Bell is informed that a man with a hole in his head without a trace of a bullet was found dead by the side of the road. He subsequently discovers the lock cylinder of Llewelyn’s trailer home blown out. The link between these two incidents remains largely undetected by Sheriff Bell throughout the film.
In discussing the danger that Llewelyn is facing with Clara Jean (Llewelyn’s wife), Sheriff Bell tells the story of a man who was accidently shot in the arm with a bullet that was intended for a steer. He then concludes with the observation that ranchers now use bolt guns to slaughter their livestock. Clearly shaken by the chilling story, Clara Jean asks Sheriff Bell why he told her the story. He pauses and then answers, “I don’t know. My mind wanders.”
Like the Dude, Sheriff Bell’s mind wanders, indeed he is absentminded, often raising tangential or oblique questions that stupefy his deputy and others. He hits upon the connection between the mysterious blown-out lock cylinder found at a crime scene and the use of a bolt gun. Yet his distraction is not so complete that free association can drift into his conscious mind. The connection found him, yet he could not find it! To use North’s language, Sheriff Bell was not willing to yield to his curiously distracted state of mind. Thus the association passed without notice. Indeed, we might argue that because he was so attentive to the situation, he willfully pulled himself out of this loose state of mental wandering back to his job. Stated differently, Sheriff Bell is too responsible or too mature to solve the mystery. This maturity did not allow him to contemplate the seemingly irrelevant details of his own free association. It is no coincidence that he is an officer of the law, and thus is held to the pressures of institutional norms, values, and practices. He is a representative of the state, and curiosity, as indicated above, is fundamentally disruptive of state power to control and centralize (see Zurn, this volume). The anarchic strain running through curiosity is suspicious to Sheriff Bell (and to others around him) as it might indicate a faltering or falling off the prescribed path. Thus his mind cannot fully embrace the aleatory wandering of the Dude; he cannot abide.
In another scene, Sheriff Bell relates the disturbing story of a couple who rented out a room to senior citizens, tortured them, killed them, and then collected their social security checks. This continued for some time until a neighbor noticed a man wearing a dog collar fleeing the neighbor’s house. In disbelief, Sheriff Bell states, “But that’s what it took to get someone’s attention. Digging graves in the backyard didn’t bring any.” Sheriff Bell emphasizes the need for attentiveness as a key virtue in taking responsibility for the world. It is the lack of attentiveness that he finds fundamentally disturbing about the current state of affairs, and that is a central reason why he ultimately resigns from being sheriff at the end of the film. Without attentiveness, this is indeed no country for old men.
Toward the end of the film, Sheriff Bell pays a visit to his uncle Ellis, an ex-lawman, to discuss his early retirement from law enforcement. He confesses to his uncle, “I always felt that when I got older God would come into my life somehow, but he didn’t.” Like Augustine, Sheriff Bell waits for God to teach him, to help him see the Truth of the world. Indeed, he is attentively waiting for God’s lesson, yet no such lessons reveal themselves. Sheriff Bell is left with only one decision: to retreat from a world that has outmatched him. Unlike the Dude, who is not dependent on a teacher to keep him on the right path or to lead him to Truth, Sheriff Bell remains in a system of hierarchical and centralized dependencies. The result is that he continues to search for a teacher even though he does not need one. In fact, we might make the argument that this search for a teacher or a guide to Truth is precisely the obstacle that hides what his absentminded wandering has already discovered!
Unlike The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men has one of the Coen brothers’ tightly woven and intricate plotlines. Yet it also unravels toward the end, leaving more loose ends than earlier films such as Miller’s Crossing. After the apparent climax of the film, we have a scene of Sheriff Bell, now retired, recalling two dreams involving his father—a scene that radically slows the pacing of the film and extends for an uncomfortable amount of time. In a state of suspension (a retirement without direction or work), Bell has time to be distracted, to be curious, to freely let his mind wander. Yet he does not know what to do with himself except exist in a state of agitation. He cannot abide. His dreams do not illuminate but rather bother him, once again reminding him of the rootless nature of his current state of existential disorientation in a country that is not meant for old men. Here we find the Coen brothers cinematically exploring a thesis not unlike that offered by Augustine, Heidegger, and Stiegler: that distraction is a deficit, a disconcerting existential break with meaning and continuity that unravels the fabric of our lives, leaving us shipwrecked somewhere in foreign lands. But unlike Augustine, Heidegger, or Stiegler, Bell cannot return or progress toward a state of attentive wonderment. And unlike the Dude, he cannot seem to abide. Distraction is now a fact of the world . . . one that is regrettable, if not nihilistic. The audience is therefore left hanging, without resolution, feeling the dread pass over Bell as if it were their own. Distraction overwhelms and turns into distress. We cannot possess a meaning or a direction in life and are therefore adrift.
In both cases, wandering, absentminded curiosity is infused with distractedness. But whereas one example willingly yields to the yield, the other willfully resists this yield. The first strategy ends in anarchic abiding, the second in fatalistic nihilism. If wonderment is off the table in the Coen universe, then it seems that these are the two political and existential options that remain.
But perhaps there is a deeper and more interesting lesson to be learned here. The audience of these films is itself encouraged to experience the two dialectical sides of curiosity’s most troublesome feature: distraction. While certainly most viewers will not exit the theatre consciously contemplating distraction, they nevertheless obliquely experience a cinematic experiment (in both form and content) that might pique their curiosity. What emerges here is a new kind of collectivity: one that is curious about curiosity without being overtly attentive to this curiosity. For instance, The Big Lebowski does not ask the audience to care about the Dude or the tangled plot he finds himself in. Rather, it only asks that they find him curious in an absentminded way. And it does so through subtly playing with the inherently distracting qualities already present in the cinematic medium. Rather than merely depicting individual drifters, loners, or rebels, these films produce an experience that massifies the problems and possibilities of curiosity’s distractibility for their audiences. And in this way, curiosity spreads out, swarms, and multiplies beyond any centralized control. This is the educational and political value of a cinematic experience of curiosity.
Anti-climax: Educational Philosophy as Cinematic
In this sense, film might enable educational philosophers to imagine a new relationship with curiosity. For educational philosophy, there is the potential for a performative contradiction when dealing with curiosity, for how can one be attentive to curiosity without betraying what is most unique about curiosity: its distracted, dispersed qualities. What is philosophical inquiry if not a form of intellectual attentiveness to a concept? Curiosity, which, as North seems to indicate, avoids becoming an object of thought, is therefore a perplexing problem. But perhaps cinema, and in particular, the Coen brothers’ films, offers a pedagogical solution to this conundrum. To take a line from the Dude, educational philosophers might opt for abiding as a way to approach curiosity in an inattentively curious way. To do so would mean that educational philosophy about curiosity would have to embody a curious form, one that is fitting for its content. This would not necessarily result in an argument or in a systematic examination of a topic or in a definitive definition or in an operationalized formulation. Rather, it would be a form of writing that wanders, that yields to the features of curiosity that ensure it remains curious. It might also be an irreverent form of writing, one that might risk appearing “silly” or “unprofessional” because of its stylistic quirks or odd, carefree subject matter. Indeed, it would be a decisively cinematic form of educational philosophy, one that is distracted all the way down. While the dramatic and sublime qualities of wonder still hold the imagination of philosophers of education, the more mundane, average, and everyday abiding of curiosity’s willingness to yield might produce an educational yield all its own, including a new form of writing and thinking that draws inspiration from cinematic experiences of absentmindedness. As the Coen brothers’ films remind us, “just curious” does indeed have some merits for education. Instead of the phrase being a mere disclaimer, I feel we should embrace it as a new form of educational life and educational writing with all its problems and possibilities.
Augustine, Confessions (London: Penguin Classics, 1961), 241.
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (New York: Harpers Perennial, 2008), 216.
Martin Heidegger, Basic Questions in Philosophy: Selected “Problems” of “Logic” (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 144.
Bernard Stiegler, Taking Care of Youth and the Generations (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2010), 13.
Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (New York: Shocken Books, 1968).
Paul North, The Problem of Distraction (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2012), 13.
Ethan and Joel Coen, dirs., The Big Lebowski (Working Title Films, 1998).
Ethan and Joel Coen, dirs., No Country for Old Men (Scott Ruden Productions, 1998).
Paul North, The Yield: Kafka’s Atheological Reformation (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2015).
William Goldman, Which Lie Did I Tell? More Adventures in the Screen Trade (New York: Vintage, 2001).