[Excerpt of an essay forthcoming in Cabinet Magazine's 10th-anniversary book. To read the full essay, buy the book!]
...A curious thing happens as curiosity is legitimated, over the course of the modern period, through its transformation into what would be called 'science': it is coopted by the state. And so begins the next chapter, the late modern chapter, of curiosity’s history. Murals go up on the sides of public buildings depicting atoms, bridge-builders, men in lab coats. Science becomes conflated with national glory.
This chapter of curiosity’s history dominated most of the 20th twentieth century, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and began its decline only in the past generation. Now the state grows jealous of the curiosity of individuals, seeking not so much to squelch it as simply to channel it for the state's own interests. Every competence must have a license, and every interest an official association. State support easily crosses over into state control, and this is a circumstance in which the true curiosus is unable to thrive.
A telling illustration of the conflict between state science and individual curiosity is given by the life-work of Vladimir Nabokov, who appears to have seen his love of lepidoptery --which yielded up a new bit of Linnean nomenclature: the Nabokovia genus of the order Lepidoptera— precisely as a defiance of the form of life from which he escaped when he fled to Berlin in 1922. Nabokov’s butterflies stand for a celebration of the possibility of a life that includes the non-political. In the circumstances of the early Soviet Union, in which he did not ask to live, attachment to such a possibility itself becomes deeply political.
But what happens when the individual who embodies the state is himself a curiosus? Consider the late Emperor Hirohito’s marine-biological endeavors, which yielded up serious scientific publications. The curiosity of the emperor, demoted from his pre-war status as an incarnate divinity, was coupled with a lifelong indifference to what one might imagine would be the heavily freighted matter of Japan’s role in World War II and the build-up to it.
In 1975, when asked, “Does your majesty feel responsibility for the war itself, including the opening of hostilities?,” the emperor replied: “I can't answer that kind of question because I haven’t thoroughly studied the literature in this field” (1). The Japanese emperor is not an expert on the Japanese empire; he's more interested in marine worms and hydroids. One can’t help but detect in the emperor a fairly selective variety of curiosity, one that is evasively non-political, and very much unlike Nabokov’s defiantly apolitical lepidoptery...
(1) Herbert P. Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), p. 676.