[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know.” United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

Reading Paul Taylor's book Žižek and the Media reminded me of Donald Rumsfeld widely ridiculed comment about "known knowns" – and it reminded me that I never thought it was ridiculous! Don't get me wrong, Rumsfeld is a warmonger, and whatever comes out of his mouth should be treated exactly the same way as anything that comes out of the mouth of any politician, that is with extreme prejudice. But, in and of itself, Rumsfeld's "known knowns" address strikes me as perfectly cogent, if not surprisingly illuminating: we know stuff; we know we don't know other stuff; but there is some stuff that is so outside our ken that it cannot be factored into our thinking. The world surprises us. Plans will always be scuppered by the unforeseen – and that, itself, is worth factoring into one's planning.

Žižek, of course, gives it a further spin:

If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the 'unknown unknowns,' that is, the threats from Saddam whose nature we cannot even suspect, then the Abu Ghraib scandal shows that the main dangers lie in the 'unknown knowns' - the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values.

The danger for Žižek isn't the unforeseen, but the seen yet unacknowledged. Our plans suffer self-sabotage because we don't readily recognise how incoherent our selfhood actually is. It seems to me that here is where both Žižek and Rumsfeld have something unexpected to say about the novel.

Rumsfeld warns us against the limits of planning; Zizek that our planning is always already predicated on what shouldn't be unpredictable but is. It strikes me that these suggestions about the limits of knowledge, one from a realist's point of view and one from a psychoanalytical point of view, can be read as warnings to a writer: you don't know what you know, nor what you don't know, nor hardly even who you are, and it is only in the writing that you might find out.

Readers Comments

  1. Hi Mark,

    I think you've picked up on exactly the fascinating thing about Rumsfeld's comments - the irony that at one of the few moments in which he actually spoke any truth, everyone made fun of him for talking nonsense ...

    Inadvertently or not, this was when Rumsfeld's realpolitik converged with Zizek's politics of the Lacanian Real and he said much more than he (we) initially realized he was saying ...

    As a further example ... in the satirically-compiled (but based upon actual Rumsfeld utterances) "Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald H. Rumsfeld" my favourite "poem" entitled by the editor "What Should be Spoken When Saddam Speaks" provides a neat illustration of the psychoanalytical notion of "projection" ...

    He's an accomplished liar,
    And every time he lies,
    It's carried in televisions all across the globe,
    And no one says that,
    "This is a man who has repeatedly lied!
    "And when you listen to him,
    "You should be on notice:
    "He's a liar!
    "He doesn't tell the truth!
    "He's got a history of denying
    "And deceiving and tricking people!
    "And so, listener,
    "We're going to show it to you!
    "But be on notice:
    "It's probably not true!"
    No one says that.

    Well, in a way Donald, you just did ...

  2. I'm fairly certain that Rummy learnt about the knowns & unknowns from Dave Snowden -

    The one combination missed out is the "unknown known" - an intriguing enough little philosophical poser. Time to dig Theaetetus out!

  3. Hi Robin,

    Zizek refers to the "unknown knowns" in the second quotation Mark cites, or didn't you know you that you already knew that?? :-)



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