In many respects, this book might derail some readers. All those who prefer to know what to expect, to reason on the basis of well-established analytical frameworks and not to risk wasting their time on uncertain ramblings, are thus strongly advised to go on their way.
Seducing an audience – attracting the attention of a reader, catching a client’s attention, converting a non-believer, responding to a user’s expectations, persuading a voter, etc. – often involves building technical devices which play on people’s social dispositions. The excerpt above is one such device (the irony!): it is a small, rhetorical machine which attempts to play on the reader’s disposition towards conservatism and/or exploration. And there are many others, especially within marketing settings, which will be my field of choice here. For example, in order to attract customers, we can use a slogan promoting their penchant for repeating a habit (‘Nutella, spreading happiness every day’); suggest a loyalty card which employs calculative capacities so as to better tie them to a future routine (‘5% discount on the brand’s products for cardholders’); propose a brand which appeals to a propensity for altruism (‘Max Havelaar: great coffee [for] a great cause’); and so on. In other words, each one of these little machines for equipping the relationship between an organisation and its audience ascribes an attitude to people, in both senses of the word: they assume that the intended targets already behave according to this or that logic, and/or supply them with a possible mode of action; they suggest a way of behaving which this or that person did not necessarily have in mind (as something inbuilt/as a possible idea) but in which they can recognise themselves or which is likely to catch their attention. With captation1 devices, the opposition between human and non-human entities disappears, as does that between their supposed privileges and respective ‘ontologies’, given that artefacts play a key role in defining or activating motives for action (and vice versa).
I would like here to explore the dynamics of these devices and dispositions, by focusing on a particular disposition in greater depth – curiosity – and on the particular devices which allow it to be expressed and spread throughout society. Why curiosity? In my view, it would be better to answer this by asking the opposite and even more intriguing question on which it is grounded: why not curiosity? Why should it be curious to experience curiosity about curiosity? This book is the fruit of a twin astonishment: on the one hand, twenty years of observing commercial scenes convinced me that of the dispositions activated by marketing devices, curiosity features prominently as a force behind everyday action; and on the other, this finding only makes it more surprising that this banal disposition is almost completely absent from the current sociological lexicon, or at least it was until very recently.2 Classical sociology, it seems, prefers conservative modes of action, first and foremost habit, which curiosity, however – with the support of a related but equally neglected disposition: boredom – calls into question. Curiosity leads us to move beyond ourselves, and thus helps us to finally experience a little boredom, or perhaps more precisely weariness, about this ‘habit’ we know so (too?) well; and to be curious about this curiosity (which, if not newer, is at least unusual) which calls habit into question. I am willing to wager that curiosity can help us understand how market professionals and technologies, and more generally all specialists in interpersonal relations, are able to reinvent a person’s identity and their mobility.3 They do this by playing on people’s inner motivations, in the hope of being better able both to draw these people toward them and to make them act according to their wishes.
I propose to conduct this exploration of curiosity by starting with an analysis of Bluebeard, the fairy tale written by Charles Perrault, given that this story is itself a pure curiosity machine which operates at the intersection (as we shall see) of mythical history and the contemporary anthropology of this particular disposition. The fact that exploring curiosity leads me to take a detour via popular culture – as well as religion, literature, literary criticism, history, philosophy, economics, psychology, management, and others – instead of sociology, which is my primary discipline, merely illustrates the necessity that confronts the sociologist who deals with curiosity, of drawing on sources other than those from his own discipline. It also illustrates the refreshing and potentially fertile nature of an exercise which consists in using the object being considered – curiosity, that is – as the means of its own exploration.
As is often the case in stories, in Bluebeard it is what is said at the beginning rather than at the end that matters most. The best way of dealing with this text is to quote the opening directly:
There was once a man who had fine houses, both in town and country, a deal of silver and gold plate, embroidered furniture, and coaches gilded all over with gold. But this man was so unlucky as to have a blue beard, which made him so frightfully ugly that all the women and girls ran away from him.
One of his neighbors, a lady of quality, had two daughters who were perfect beauties. He desired of her one of them in marriage, leaving to her choice which of the two she would bestow on him. Neither of them would have him, and they sent him backwards and forwards from one to the other, not being able to bear the thoughts of marrying a man who had a blue beard. Adding to their disgust and aversion was the fact that he already had been married to several wives, and nobody knew what had become of them.
Bluebeard, to engage their affection, took them, with their mother and three or four ladies of their acquaintance, with other young people of the neighborhood, to one of his country houses, where they stayed a whole week.
The time was filled with parties, hunting, fishing, dancing, mirth, and feasting. Nobody went to bed, but all passed the night in rallying and joking with each other. In short, everything succeeded so well that the youngest daughter began to think that the man’s beard was not so very blue after all, and that he was a mighty civil gentleman.
As soon as they returned home, the marriage was concluded. About a month afterwards, Bluebeard told his wife that he was obliged to take a country journey for six weeks at least, about affairs of very great consequence. He desired her to divert herself in his absence, to send for her friends and acquaintances, to take them into the country, if she pleased, and to make good cheer wherever she was.
‘Here,’ said he, ‘are the keys to the two great wardrobes, wherein I have my best furniture. These are to my silver and gold plate, which is not everyday in use. These open my strongboxes, which hold my money, both gold and silver; these my caskets of jewels. And this is the master key to all my apartments. But as for this little one here, it is the key to the closet at the end of the great hall on the ground floor. Open them all; go into each and every one of them, except that little closet, which I forbid you, and forbid it in such a manner that, if you happen to open it, you may expect my just anger and resentment.’
She promised to observe, very exactly, whatever he had ordered. Then he, after having embraced her, got into his coach and proceeded on his journey.
Her neighbors and good friends did not wait to be sent for by the newly married lady. They were impatient to see all the rich furniture of her house, and had not dared to come while her husband was there, because of his blue beard, which frightened them.4
All French readers (and certainly many people in other countries!) know what happened next:5 along with her friends, seduced by all the things, chests, and other furniture which she had been allowed to see, Bluebeard’s wife inevitably succumbed to the curiosity which drove her to explore, alone, the cabinet which she had promised not to open. There, reflected in a mirror of blood, she discovered the hanging bodies of all the other wives who had preceded her. She was so horrified by the sight that she dropped the key to the floor; this then became marked by a bloodstain, which proved impossible to remove. Returning home, Bluebeard discovered that his wife had not kept her promise, and decided that, like his previous wives, she must die. After begging Bluebeard and shouting for help by desperately calling for her sister (‘Anne, sister Anne, do you see anyone coming?’), the poor woman was fortunate to see her brothers arrive in time to save her and to kill Bluebeard. The inheritance from Bluebeard allowed his surviving wife to remarry and to marry off her sisters, and to buy captains’ commissions for her brothers.
In the arguments that follow, I propose to draw on this tale reflexively. In spite of Bluebeard, but also thanks to him, I intend to be (and to make those of my readers who are not already) curious about curiosity. I will try to find keys and rooms in addition to the small – all things considered! – number that appear in the story of the man with the strange shock of facial hair. As we shall see, there are two other secret rooms in Bluebeard’s house that are yet to be explored. These rooms are neither those more sumptuous ones located upstairs, nor on the ground floor, like the room of horrors; we will nonetheless visit these many rooms carefully (chapter 2). Like the archaeological foundations of the house, the first forgotten room was built well before Bluebeard somewhere in the cellar. This room contains the complete ancient anthropological history of curiosity, and more specifically, the Bible and the cabinets of curiosity that precede, but also modify this early history (chapter 1). The second room was built later and is higher up, in the attic, and is filled with the contemporary uses of curiosity in markets, whether window displays (chapter 3) or ‘teasing’ devices, intended to activate curiosity further and in different ways (chapter 4). By exploring the very smallest nooks in each of the rooms in the story of Bluebeard, I aim to uncover a deeper level through which the tale operates (a transitional space between the two forgotten rooms), as well as to reveal both the anthropological persistence and constant renewal of curiosity which constitutes – as we come to realise by the end of the fairy tale, and occurring today as much as it ever has – one of the principle modes of action capable of changing both people and their worlds.