The Practice of Theoretical Curiosity

Reviewed by Michael E.

Mark Zuss, The Practice of Theoretical Curiosity (New York: Springer, 2012)

Mark Zuss introduces The Practice of Theoretical Curiosity as an attempt to develop “a historical profile of curiosity’s places and appearances in contemporary life.” This assumes that “theoretical projects are always socially and institutionally conditioned,” that they transpire in a space of relative uncertainty, that the capacity for critical thinking and action is both indispensable to any critical engagement with power in the interest of justice and social progress, that critical thought depends to some extent on a capacity to be curious in regard to things normally taken for granted, and that the capacity for curiosity is relatively autonomous of institutional and structural forces often thought responsible for “false consciousness.”

Curiosity is a necessary part of the historical/critical effort to question “the nature of everyday life and practice.” There is both a theoretical and a pedagogical side to this since curiosity, taken as an attitude rather than a technique or set of prescriptions, is instrumental to opening “the shades of objectivity to allow for what Merleau-Ponty…artfully describes as a ‘primordial layer at which both things and ideas come into being’” (xi).

It is in this respect that Zuss addresses the relationships between pedagogy and politics and between intellectual disciplines and everyday life.The historically intimate connection between what are only artificially taken as distinct – knowledge and culture – requires “theoretical curiosity” in order for one to explore the points of difference between representation and ostensibly justified belief. This implies that “theoretical inquiry, in its materiality, is embodied thought and activity.” He cites Marx to the effect that “we have the historical conditions given to us” and a stake in making the future (195).

Appropriately, Zuss approaches his subject matter from an inter-disciplinary point of view that challenges both the compartmentalization of knowledge and the common assumption that culture and technology are separate domains subject to different rules governing the assignment of truth value and different procedures for clarifying the knowledge and practices associated with each. In this regard Zuss brings considerable erudition to bear on the interdependence of science, political economy, and culture, and, by implication, on the weaknesses of the claim that the STEM curriculum (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) should be the foundation of education. He also stresses the importance of sustaining a sense of the tension between theory and practice rather than emphasizing one over the other. His approach, which he describes as phenomenological and genealogical, is interdisciplinary in the sense of emphasizing, first, the critical practice that underlies theoretical developments in every discipline and across the disciplines, and, second, the irreducible relationship between technical and social concerns: “Theoretical curiosity, driven by critique of everyday life, is a channel between possible and actual modes of practice” (195). It is “continually rooted in the perceptual engagement with the contingent worlds of its practitioners” (137).

This suggests a “new materialism,” the object of which is “life” conceived of as the activity of “living” rather than as a category within a state of nature (initially seen as a universe of things, excluding life and consciousness) (176). This is consistent with Marx’s critiques of idealism and utopian socialism, but it adds to them by identifying curiosity with the capacity to envision possible futures. Theoretical curiosity is inherently progressive in the significance it places on raising questions about what is often fatefully taken for granted about the connections among representation, belief, justification, and action. Thus, Zuss’s account of critical pedagogy is also an account of a crucial aspect of critical politics. It presents an alternative to the idea that there is a recipe for bringing about change and to the idea that a critique of the mode of production aimed at showing that it cannot reproduce itself (as in Marx’s Capital) is sufficient in itself to rationalize a progressive politics that goes beyond merely uniting against capitalist exploitation.

Consideration of the future of that politics follows from the Marxian understanding of modern exploitation as immanent to and aimed at universalization within, as Marx put it, “societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails.” That is, if there is to be a movement that sustains theoretical curiosity, a politics geared solely against exploitation is necessary but not sufficient to a socialist politics. This admits that such a politics may place limits on theoretical curiosity and therefore on the capacity to imagine futurity beyond its own possible accomplishment – and hence on the possibility of joining a criticism of the limits of politics with the practice of politics as such. The point is not to imagine a particular future apart from historical circumstances but to imagine the limits of any political project so far as it ignores the possibility of moving beyond what is momentarily achievable. The revolutionary desire is put at risk not by sustaining the critical disposition, but rather by foregoing critical curiosity in favor of the discipline of a particular goal, no matter how revolutionary it might be.

Correspondingly, Zuss offers a thoughtful discussion of the legitimate limits of curiosity, one that will appeal to readers familiar with and interested in the writings of philosophers as diverse as Kitcher, Putnam, Foucault, Agamben and Merleau-Ponty and with the literature on the relationship of technology to culture and society.

Sustaining theoretical curiosity assumes that it is more general than its relevance to a particular project, no matter how universal the interest is that the project represents. This is particularly relevant to the relationship between pedagogy and a progressive politics. The grounds for thinking of politics and pedagogy together – and according to the internal relation of the humanities and the technical disciplines – is apparent in Zuss’s summary of the genesis of critical curiosity: “Curiosity is generated in the same layers of specific, geographical, historical, and technical milieus as are languages, images, and affect. Sense, images, and ideas adapt and detach through the niches of their living milieus; they can pass beyond them but not without them. Out of the places of everyday life and relation, novel forms of experience, thought, and theory can conjoin and take flight” (195).

Zuss’s book can be read as an attempt to separate the humanist perspective, which is crucial to his ideas, from the ideology-driven idea of human nature. It is the former that links the various authors he cites and interprets with other traditions of critical thinking. Zuss is particularly good at drawing from various authors – those mentioned above and others such as Butler, Kac, and important figures in “French theory” – in order to show how the concept of everyday life stands with current ideas of embodiment, especially in regard to the “continual reimaging and refiguring of bodies” in the context of technological change, and changing conditions of critical thought and action. His work bears significantly on the problems posed by the ambiguous idea of “representation” and, therefore, on notions of personal identity and subjectivity as well as the question of “who speaks for whom?”

Finally, this book contributes to the growing literature on bio-politics and the neo-liberalist attempt to generalize itself as an approach to life. But Zuss provides little support for the pessimism that runs through a great deal of the literature on neo-liberalism. Without denying the significance of the contradictions of capitalist accumulation, and, in fact, supplementing that critique, he reminds us that there is no status quo, that society is always in flux, that groups no less than identities are impermanent, and that structure, inertia, and identity are constructs that reflect their ideological conditions. In this, he joins a number of writers in altogether different traditions, from Dewey to Deleuze, Castoriadis, and Badiou, in identifying an emergent critical humanism that seeks to reconcile curiosity and respect for the ongoing project of human society with conditions, e.g., technology and deterritorialization, that are so often said to undermine the revolutionary force of humanist ideas and of what Marx ultimately referred to as “the society of the producers.”

Reviewed by Michael E. Brown Northeastern University, Boston