Curiosity in an Age of Distraction
Curiosity: A Whimsical History analyzes the longstanding association of “curiosity” with the figure of the monkey, so as to demonstrate the relevance of curiosity’s pre-modern history to the way we pay attention now. Contesting Hans Blumenberg’s influential intellectual history whereby modern curiosity is said to have disciplined and “rehabilitated” an erstwhile medieval vice, Ingham’s study offers instead the whimsically inventive disruptions of curious monkeys found in wide-ranging contexts, high and low, then and now: in the margins of manuscripts of medieval Books of Hours, as decoration in tapestries, or inventive bestiaries; as key to popular children’s literature (and literacy campaigns); in ancient etymologies of “ape” and philosophical writings linked to processes of colonial racialization; in the mythological “ink-pot” monkey found in Chinese folklore, recast in Jorge Luis Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings; from dismissive accounts of poetic imitation to what Henry Louis Gates calls the “signifying monkey.” The curious monkey careens from flittering hyper-attention (the “monkey-mind”) to bored and boring imitations (“aping”). All of which highlights a key fact: not a single one of curiosity’s “medieval” problems has been “rehabilitated” in the Age of the Brain. This book faces up to that unruly history.
Patricia Clare Ingham is the Biggerstaff Jones Professor of British Literature and director of the Institute for Advanced Study at IU Bloomington. She is also an affiliate of the Medieval Studies Institute, Gender Studies, and Religious Studies. She has published widely on medieval literatures, their legacies in cultural and intellectual history. Books include Sovereign Fantasies: Arthurian Romance and the Making of Britain (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001); The Witch and the Hysteric: The Monstrous Medieval in Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan (with Alexander Doty; Punctum Books 2014); and The Medieval New: Ambivalence in an Age of Innovation (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).