Why did we stop asking questions?

I am really enjoying using my course blogs (here and here) as a way to experiment with and further enhance my pedagogical practices. With all of the organizing of the blogs and posting entries and comments, I haven’t posted much here. I would like to find a way to balance my time on the different blogs. Any suggestions?

Okay, now to the purpose of this post: curiosity. I have been interested in curiosity and its connections to troublemaking and care as feminist virtues for some time on this blog (like in these entries). As I was preparing for my feminist debates course this semester, I was really pleased to find Cynthia Enloe’s book, The Curious Feminist. I know I have looked at the book before–it’s from 2004–but I don’t remember paying attention to how cool her introduction is. It’s called, “Being Curious about Our Lack of Feminist Curiosity.” I was so excited that someone had spent time reflecting on the importance of curiosity from a feminist perspective that I assigned it to my feminist debate class. We will be discussing this introduction in connection with my own reflections on the topic: What is feminist debate?

In her essay, Enloe is primarily concerned with exploring why so many of us have stopped being curious. As her title indicates, she is curious about our lack of feminist curiosity. Enloe attributes this lack to a variety of factors: laziness and an unwillingness to exert too much effort; the desire to conserve energy for more “important” activities; an over-reliance on what is “natural,” “traditional, “always” and “oldest”; a strong encouragement by those in power to not question or think about why things are they way they are and how they could or should be different; and a desire to remain comfortable (because thinking too hard and asking too many questions might be too disruptive or unsettling to ourselves and/or others).

Enloe reflects on this lack of curiosity by offering up an example of her own laziness. She writes:

for so long I was satisified to use (and think with) the phrase “cheap labor.” In fact, I even thought using the phrase made me sound (to myself and to others) as if I were a critically thinking person, someone equipped with intellectual energy. It is only when I begin, thanks to the nudging of feminist colleagues, to turn the phrase around, to say instead “labor made cheap” that I realized how lazy I had been. Now whenever I write “labor made cheap” on a blackboard, people in the room call out, “By whom?” “How?” They are expanding our investigatory agenda. They are calling on me, on all of us, to exert more intellectual energy (2).

I really like this idea of creating phrases that encourage (and sometimes even demand) that we ask questions about our basic assumptions or the ideas that we become (almost) too comfortable with using. It is relatively easy to throw around the phrase “cheap labor” without really thinking about what that means and at whose expense. “Labor made cheap” invites us to take the topic seriously.

But, what does it mean to take a topic seriously? Here is Enloe’s explanation, from pages 3-4:

  • listening carefully
  • digging deep
  • developing a long attention span
  • being ready to be surprised
  • recognizing that something (and/or someone) is worth thinking about
  • paying close attention to

And, what is the aim of our curiosity? Why should we exert so much effort? Enloe argues that being curious about and giving serious attention to women enables us “to throw into sharp relief the blatant and subtle political workings of both femininity and masculinity” and to expose patriarchy, in its many forms. In other words, being curious about the world enables us to become aware of how power structures work–“inside households, within institutions, in societies, in international affairs” (3)–and at whose expense. And, that awareness enables us to organize, to connect with others and to develop strategies for transforming unjust structures/cultures/societies.

In her promotion of curiosity, Enloe wants to encourage/inspire/entreat us to be curious; to never stop thinking and paying attention and, most importantly for me and my thinking about feminist virtue ethics, to care about the world. What is really cool about her brief essay is that her framing of a discussion of curiosity participates in that very effort. Instead of merely telling us that curiosity is important (for feminist thinking or as a way to connect all of her essays), she asks us to think about why we need to be convinced of that in the first place. Why, she wonders, aren’t we curious about the world? Where does our lack of curiosity come from and who is invested in preventing us from asking questions and wondering about the world? By focusing on our lack of curiosity instead of on the value of curiosity, Enloe creates an opportunity (much like “labor made cheap”) for investigation. Maybe writing “Feminists lack curiosity” instead of “Feminists value curiosity” on the blackboard would be followed by, “Why do they lack curiosity?” or “Why did we stop asking questions?”

One more thing…In my feminist debates class, we recently read bell hooks’ feminism is for everybody. Hooks uses the phrase “white supremicist capitalist patriarchy” instead of just patriarchy (see my class blog entry for more information). In contrast, Enloe continues to emphasize “patriarchy,” which she describes as “the structural and ideological system that perpetuates the privileging of masculinity” (4). Later in the essay, Enloe suggests that patriarchy is only one of many forms of oppression and she encourages us to investigate, “How much of what is going on here is caused by the workings of patriarchy? Sometimes patriarchy may be only a small part of the explanation. Other times patriarchy may hold the causal key” (7). Yet, even as she recognizes other forms of oppression and their connections to patriarchy, she still wants to separate out patriarchy and focus on it. So does one of these phrases, hooks’ “white supremicist capitalist patriarchy” or Enloe’s “patriarchy” encourage more curiosity and require more (potentially productive) effort? What do you think?

Note: I was planning to post this entry yesterday (1.31), but some trouble occurred. See my recent “oh bother” post for some details.

Questions, questions, and more questions

Do you like being asked lots of questions? Or are you like me, and find asking lots of questions to be much easier than answering them? Does being asked lots of questions ever tire you out? Or does it energize you? Does it get you thinking about other ideas? Or does it overwhelm you? Have you ever or are you now living with a child between the ages of 3 and 5? Do you find yourself being called to answer a lot of questions for which you don’t (for whatever reason) have answers? Does this unsettle you? Do you think that asking questions is valuable? Do you find yourself answering a child’s questions with more questions? Does this ever work? Did you ask a lot of why questions when you were younger? What made you stop? Was it because someone told you to “stop asking so many questions!!” or did you just stop caring about what other people knew or claimed to know? Did you stop asking questions because you reached a point when you thought you already knew more than anyone else? Or when you felt it necessary to pretend that you knew? Why are you reading this blog? Did you find it when you did a search for the bullshit detector? Have you grown tired of my relentless questions?

Wow, that is surprisingly fun to do. Last week I bought The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? by Padgett Powell.  The entire novel, all 165 pages of it, is questions. Because of the connections that I see between troublemaking and asking questions, I was immediately intrigued by this book when I read a mini review of it in The New Yorker. So far I am enjoying it. There are two things that strike me as I read it (I can only read it a little at a time–otherwise my brain might melt from so many questions): 1. Even though the questions seem random and disjointed (which they are on some level), they are telling a story (but not a linear or complete one) about the poser of the questions and the reader/object of those questions. 2. The process of reading so many questions can really get you thinking about (perhaps too) many things all at once. I think that Powell has put together a nice balance of questions–some you have immediate (gut reactions?) answers for while others make you wonder. This might make a very effective pedagogical technique.  Hmmm…

Is there ever a point when too many questions are asked (by you or to you)? Is 165 pages of questions just too much? Can you imagine asking that many questions? Is it a problem that I can? Should I stop this entry now? Yes.

Judith Butler wants us to disobey. Why? Exactly.

I first came across this interview with Judith Butler at Engage: Conversations in Philosophy. In this excerpt, Butler talks about disobedience and how we can shift from being obedient subjects who willingly accept and follow the rules/regulations by those in power to being critical thinkers who, through the process of questioning and challenging, become disobedient troublemakers. The emphasis in bold is mine.

But in the moment we begin to ask ourselves about the legitimacy of this power we become critical, we adopt a point of view that is not completely shaped by the state and we question ourselves about the limits of the demands that can be placed on us. And if I am not wholly formed by this power of the state, in what way am I, or might I be, formed?  Asking yourself this question means you are already beginning to form yourself in another way, outside this relation with the state, so critical thought distances you to some extent.  When someone says “no” to power, they are saying “no” to a particular way of being formed by power.  They are saying: I am not going to be subjected in this way or by these means through which the state establishes its legitimacy.  The critical position implies a certain “no”, a saying “no” as an “I”, and this, then, is a step in the formation of this “I”.  Many people ask about the basis on which Foucault establishes this resistance to power.  What he is saying to us is that in the practice of critical thought we are forming ourselves as subjects, through resistance and questioning.

So, when we begin to ask about why we are formed in the way that we are or why the rules exist as they do, we create a critical distance from those rules. This distance enables us to (occasionally or more frequently) resist those rules and it also prevents us from being completely shaped by them (or in the shadow of them) into good little obedient people/subjects/citizens. Instead of being overly influenced by the rules, we can be shaped by our questioning of them into critical thinkers who disobey and never merely accept anything without questioning it once or twice or three times, etc. Ah ha! Critical thinking. Being disobedient. Questioning authority. Sounds a lot like troublemaking. Yep. Well, it should. Butler (along with Foucault who is she referencing) is a big source of inspiration for my own thinking about troublemaking (It also reminds me of my discussion of Foucault’s link between curiosity and care in this entry).

I really like how Butler (with the help of Foucault) links disobedience with critical thinking and turns asking “why” into an act of resistance. The mere (or not so mere) act of wondering why something is the way that it is or why it isn’t any other way opens up distance between you and the things (like regulatory power) that shape you. It gives you an “outside” perspective from which to reflect on your own experiences. And it allows for the possibility of an alternative idea of the subject/self–not as one who is wholly constructed by the norms and regulations that surround us and give us meaning but as one who is constructed as a being-in-resistance, a self-who-questions. That’s cool.

Here, let me explain that idea in another way. Butler argues that asking why things are the way that they are is a form of disobedience (or is way of not being obedient if obedience requires unquestioned acceptance). The emphasis here is not on disobedience as a refusal to follow the rules or a rejection of rules altogether–some rules are necessary and important and helpful.  No, Butler wants to emphasize disobedience as the refusal to be/become subjects who accept and willingly/unthinkingly obey the dictates that we are given without question. Again, in this sense, the disobedience is not to Rules or Law or the State (although that is important as well), but to the formation of us as subjects-who-merely-obey. So, Butler is particularly interested in how our obedience or disobedience functions on the level of self-(re)making (or what Butler would call subject formation).

Now, this idea of disobedience is not just about how and who we are as political subjects who engage in those practices that are traditionally considered to be political (like voting or protesting or being a part of activist communities or even participating in civic organizations). This idea of disobedience is about how and who we are as selves as we engage in our everyday activities and as we work (intentionally and not so intentionally) on our moral/ethical/intellectual development. And it happens when we ask “why”–not once or twice but everyday and all the time.

Kids are really good (sometimes too good) at asking “why”–from the mundane (why isn’t yellow your favorite color?) to the scientific (why can’t it snow in the summer?) to the existential (why can’t Nana live forever?) to the defiant (why do I have to eat my vegetables?) to the disturbing (why can’t I eat my own poop?) to the repetitive (Why? Why? Why?). The asking of these questions can be tedious for parents, but they are (most often) not done by children in order to be destructive or disrespectful. At their best, these “why” questions demonstrate curiosity and an interest in (caring about) the world and how it works. And, they are an assertion of a self-in-process who is claiming their independence from the forces that shape them.

The “why?” is our chance to disobey (more precisely, to not obey) and to make a claim as someone who questions, who resists being fed easy answers, who is willing to make trouble and stay in trouble for the sake of learning and understanding more. Of course, the asking of “why” is not enough to transform the world or to topple unjust ideologies and institutions. But, it is a good start. And, it is something that almost all of us do all of the time. Many of us are taught (directly or indirectly) that asking “why” is tedious, disruptive and only productive up to a point. We need to remember that “why” is always a proper and appropriate question. Okay, sometimes it should only be posed to ourselves, but maybe we should take that up in a different post…