Whose Curiosity? A very uncurious manifesto for curiosity

In my last post I mentioned that I have been following Brain Pickings a lot lately. I’m especially drawn to all the great visuals in her posts. I also like her focus on curation and her book lists. ┬áIn that same post, I also mentioned that while I enjoy reading and engaging with the site, something is just a little off about it. I’ve been thinking about it more, and I’ve realized one reason why: She really really likes TED. I don’t. Thinking about how much I don’t like TED gave me an inspiration for a new social/online media project (details TBA). Her love of TED, with its business self-helpy tone and its pedagogical model that idolizes Experts-who-enlighten, influences the overall tone of the blog. For a number of reasons, which I’ll leave for another post or a series of posts, I don’t like business self-helpy shtuff and my vision of pedagogy comes into conflict with the Expert-as-awesome model.

Recognizing what is off about this site doesn’t make me want to stop reading it or to reject it altogether; I still find lots of value in her curation and am very impressed with what she has developed and maintains (and without ads! that’s pretty sweet!). Instead, it simply helps me to understand my own troubling sense of unease when I read certain posts and learn about others’ projects via her site–like the one I want to write about today: Skillshare and their video, The Future Belongs to the Curious: A Manifesto for Curiosity.

The Future Belongs to the Curious from Skillshare on Vimeo.

Taken at face value, this video manifesto seems awesome. Valuing curiosity as the future. Encouraging the asking of lots of questions. Promoting life long learning. Yes! However, the video bothers me…and the more I watch and thinking critically about it, the more bothered I get. From the hyper-masculine voiceover to the heteronormative male POV throughout the video (we literally view the film through the eyes of a growing boy), I don’t see any space for my own vision of feminist curiosity–or even my own practicing of curiosity as a girl/woman. I also don’t any space for a whole lot of folks, that is, anyone not fitting the mythical norm of white, male, middle-class, etc!

The representation of women and the imagining of them in the past/present/future of who “we” are (of course the “we” = the universal white Male subject) as curious beings is as follows:

1. loving/caring Mom (twice: when boy is born and when boy breaks his leg) who doesn’t ask questions, just encourages others

2. teenage girl sitting in corner, passively listening to music while “we” play/experiment with guitar in a band

3. teenage girl in closet, looking shy/coy and puckering up as “we” move in to kiss her (hello male gaze!). I should mention that it was this image that first made me stop, question and rethink this whole manifesto. I find this to be a really problematic image–is it possible to read a counter-narrative into it? While it seems to imply that she is being kissed by a boy, could we imagine it otherwise?

4. the back of a girl’s head in Driver’s Ed as “we” playfully throw a paper airplane at her

5. smiling woman who seems to be dancing (but not questioning or being curious herself) just for us and for our camera

6. pregnant woman who is fixing up the nursery, presumably for our child

Maybe I missed it, but I didn’t see any girls/women asking questions and being curious. I didn’t see any girls/women having any agency in this heteronormative narrative at all. The only purpose that any of these women seem to serve is to further the narrative of the male thinking, acting, playing, kissing, filming, experimenting, networking, questioning, working self. Speaking of heteronormativity, the vision of the curious future is not that innovative, interesting or curious. Instead, it’s the standard normative model of future = grow up + marry + have kids. For some (myself included) that’s a nice future/present, but it’s not the only one that we should imagine and represent. If we’re truly being curious, why not be imaginative about how we represent the future. Why not include a wider range of folks in our visions of what it could be?

For Cynthia Enloe, in The Curious Feminist, curiosity is about taking the lives of women (I want to expand it to state: not just women, but a wider range of folks) seriously: being open to other stories, listening deeply to the experiences of those beyond ourselves, using our imagination to create spaces where they are agents who have curiosity and can imagine their own better futures.

Wow, this video really got me going. One final bothering thought: In light of all of the attention being given recently to the lack of girls/women in science and math (where successful, “productive” curiosity usually happens) and the need to value and encourage girls in these fields, why would Skillshare develop a manifesto that reinforces the idea that only boys/men are curious and that girls/women are only object and props to men’s practices of curiosity?

OH BOTHER! I might just need to create my own manifesto for feminist curiosity!

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.