Perry Zurn. Curiosity and Power. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021; 304 pp. ISBN: 978-1-5179-0719-8 

Reviewed by rl goldberg, Princeton University, Prison Teaching Initiative

War, it is said, is politics by other means. That is, in fact, a misquote. More accurately, Clausewitz wrote that war is the continuation of politics “with the addition of other means.” In the first formulation, war is a modality of politics, an expression that is like politics but is not identical to it. In the latter case, however, as Clausewitz intended it, the preposition—with rather than by—is additive. These disagreeing prepositions offer two ways of understanding the relationship between war and politics. In the first, misquoted formulation, war is something altogether different from politics, an adjacent means to achieve similar outcomes. But if war is a continuation of politics—an addition, an amplification, say—politics becomes a substrate to which many means might attach. In political theory and in philosophy, the relationship between war and politics is so macerated a relation that, too often, it seems like Clausewitz’s intended preposition disappears, shunted and slighted, with to by. But what if we consider other means that politics might be extended, beyond war and peace? In his stunning 2021 Curiosity and Power: The Politics of Inquiry, Perry Zurn offers a thorough examination of curiosity, not war, as another political means. Like war, curiosity as a political means is something that illuminates the entangled workings of power. Unlike war, however, curiosity hinges on the promise of generative and shared practices of intimacy and aspiration. It hinges, that is, on connection. Here we might understand Zurn as talking about war’s true opposites: creation, connection, and the moments of curiosity that inspire them. 

Zurn’s foundational claim—that politics are constitutive of curiosity and that curiosity is constitutive of politics—requires an examination of curiosity that is historically and socially situated; only in this way can we understand the unique social and political value of curiosity. Zurn’s contention is that, too often, curiosity is depoliticized and dehistoricized in contemporary discourse. Such depoliticization means that questions like: who is afforded the opportunity to be curious? What methodologies for exploring curiously are valued? Where is curiosity supported?, can never be addressed beyond the individual subject. Curiosity is thus misrepresented as proper to the individual, defanged from political architectures that, in reality, underpin it. “Indeed,” Zurn writes, “the very scaffolding of curiosity in a given society is the product of political architectures” (2). The implication certainly means, at a superficial level, turning away from the mythology of the cult of individual genius; it also means rethinking curiosity as intrinsically political and politicizing. 

Zurn defines curiosity “as a social praxis tuned to specific political formations. Curiosity is a series of investigative practices that are informed by and constructive of political architectures.” He adds that curiosity is “less what one person feels than what one or more persons do, always within existing and shifting sociopolitical contours” (12). From the outset of the project, Zurn maintains that curiosity is at least bivalent, and the theorists he cites seem to agree—but for each thinker of curiosity precisely what the content of the dual nature of curiosity is varies. Schematically, however, most theories can be said to offer two visions of curiosity: one which fetishizes and one which mobilizes. “The one curiosity divides and segregates, like cut glass; the other culls and connects, like mycelium threads” (2). In typing that sentence I, characteristically, made two errors. First, I wrote “divides and degradates”; next “like mycelium threats.” Slips, to be sure, but revealing of the stakes of Zurn’s project, of the various angles through which he renders curiosity prismatic. Opening with two examples of curiosity, Zurn tells a compelling story about how curiosity might simultaneously thread or threat, connect, segregate or degrade. In the introduction’s first example, Zurn gives an account of the spectacularization of Sarah Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman exhibited in Europe as “The Hottentot Venus.” In both life and death, Baartman was displayed as a “curiosity,” figured with the kind of curiosity that degrades. As a counterpoint, Zurn points to Zora Neale Hurston’s life-giving curiosity: one that privileged relationships, sought out dialogue, and, like mycelium threads, connected through her work Black literary and vernacular experience across temporalities. As a window into the two modalities of curiosity—segregating and connecting, respectively—these narratives clearly articulate the political stakes for Zurn: curiosity connects us to political architectures, some of which promise openness, flexibility, and communion, while others damn us to the architectures of the carceral.  

The upshot of Zurn’s argument is that curiosity is one angle through which we can more deeply consider power, whether that power is institutional, sovereign, or social. It also means that because curiosity is bivalent, it can work on the side of sovereign power as well as that of  resistance. To study curiosity, then, is to simultaneously look back into deep histories and formations and ask: how did we get here? But also: how might things change? What are the political architectures that determine how a question might be asked, by whom, and when? These questions chart curiosity’s movement from an individualized and epistemological conception, to one that accounts for the sociohistorical developments of curiosity as not only a concept but also as a practice. Early on Zurn writes that curiosity is, by another name, care; curiosity teaches us about our politics. His book—what he describes as an attempt to “re-root” curiosity as care and connection—is replete with rigor, beauty, and humility. And it models just that re-rooting. Zurn compellingly traces curiosity from Plato and Aristotle to the Middle Ages to the Modern, highly attuned to the ways in which curiosity is tied to changing regimes of hygiene, technology, and epistemology. Part of the work means tracing what is essentially a shifting question about the nature of curiosity from Hellenic thought (is curiosity good or bad?) to Medieval exegesis (is curiosity a sin?) to the modern, where the age of discovery and colonialism adds a different orientation to the question of curiosity’s value: who gets to be curious and why? 

Following an introduction that offers a political history of curiosity, the book bifurcates into absorbing parts: in the first, Zurn offers three case studies, which he calls Episodes from Political Theory. Reading Nietzsche, Foucault, and Derrida, and their intellectual and political investments in curiosity, Zurn reflects on the ways in which curiosity is intrinsic to their political and philosophical theorizing. In part two, Archives of Political Experience, Zurn turns from specific theorists towards methodologies and fields to reconstruct the ways in which political activism, crip theory, and trans studies engage curiosity—and what curiosity studies might adopt from these dynamic fields. The first part of the book, Episodes from Political Theory is magisterial. Zurn is a stunning reader of Nietzsche and Derrida; he is, in particular, a brilliant reader of Foucault (a lodestar for Zurn across his other books). What seems most compelling about these chapters is his careful excavation of the various ways curiosity shows up for these three theorists. Without sacrificing any nuance, Zurn, an impeccable archaeologist, is able to explicate these theories individually and comparatively, and trace the ways curiosity variously shows up in each writer’s exhaustive corpus. 

As he moves into chapters on methodology, his argument becomes a bit less specific—which isn’t shocking: that seems a natural and nearly unavoidable outcome when one writes about the breadth of an entire field rather than a single author (for all of an author’s texture and differences internal to their corpus). In these moments the argument feels less specific than schematic: curiosity can be pathologizing and objectifying, or it might be liberating is the common theme of the book’s final chapters. These concluding chapters look to contemporary theorists working in crip studies, trans studies, and political activism to see how their work recenters curiosity from the previously disavowed and de-subjectified position. In his chapter on crip theory, for instance, Zurn offers a field-encompassing sense of curiosity: within crip studies, it seems, the focus of curiosity is avoiding the demeaning, superficial stare that degrades and objectifies. Zurn argues against this and for the need to crip curiosity itself. Essentially, this means reclaiming curiosity for disabilities studies, for disabled perspectives, with a keen awareness of curiosity’s ableist history. Zurn writes, “To crip curiosity, then, is to assert the potential for nonnormative curiosity—that is, a curiosity not only housed within but fundamentally haunted by nonnormative bodyminds” (160). Drawing from crip theory, or trans theory, or political theory, Zurn points to the broadest theoretical undercurrents within the field; they are particularly compelling cartographies, but occasionally, as maps, they lack some of the specificity of the first part of the book, thereby sacrificing some of the curious questions that electrify the book’s first half. Nevertheless, these chapters continue to offer archives of “politically resistant” curiosity that help us to contextualize the ways in which scholars and activists of difference move beyond the curio into something genuinely more life-giving. 

What seems most generous about Zurn’s book is his theorizing curiosity not as a singular, individual endeavor, but as an intimate one. Curiosity reveals to us the space between known and unknown, self and other. It’s a matter of proximity, a matter of relation. Zurn emphasizes the humility and gentleness of this kind of intimacy. If the politics of curiosity determine force, gaze, and meaning, Zurn points us to a vision of curiosity as both politics and philosophy that might see but not spectacularize; graze but not force; and leave meaning open and unsettled, even as curiosity wends through us.