On unknown unknowns

Dan Wilder

‘No, no – there are depths, depths! The more I go over it the more I see in it, and the more I see in it the more I fear. I don’t know what I don’t see, what I don’t fear.’

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw[1]

In 2002, Donald Rumsfeld made a much repeated claim. During his term as US Secretary of Defence, Rumsfeld explained the lack of evidence, that the Iraqi government of the time had been supplying weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups, in rather confusing terms – especially in context… He stated:

[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.[2]

This amateur philosophy has been the subject of some sizeable linguistic and political debate. Groups such as the Plain English campaign viewed this quotation as a torture of language (presenting a ‘Foot in Mouth’ award for it), but there were also more positive, theoretical engagements with these ideas by persons such as Slavoj Žižek. Žižek added the category of unknown knowns, the unconscious, to the classifications offered by Rumsfeld, as the major manner of atrocity during the second Gulf War. He defines unknown knowns as, ‘the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values’[3]. If we re-examine these ideas in terms of their applicability to literature, we are probably inclined to think of Althusserian theoretical approaches to text: Macherey’s silences, the things a text does not say, can be compared in this understanding to unknown knowns, the text itself considered to be a known known. It is when we attempt to reach beyond a text to the things that we do not know (which, in acknowledging an awareness that we do not know them, I have set up as known unknowns) that Rumsfeld’s musings become difficult. What is there beyond our understanding of a text?

As texts are simple constructions of finite sets of ideas held captive on the page, what can there be, other than what there is? Do texts even possess known unknowns? We can of course muse on the absence of female perspective in much of detective fiction, or the unknowable sexuality of Shakespeare, even search for something as broad as the purpose a work aims to fulfil; but surely any of these studies rely on the imposition of our own ideas, our own known knowns, to a captive body of knowledge. These apparently unveiled, once hidden truths of literary works are our own personal attempts to fill the void which literary knowledge leaves for us – they are not textual known unknowns, but contemporary known knowns. And yet, literature relies upon the notion that it does possess a known unknown – the Conradian ‘horror’, a Derridian trace, a Lacanian petit objet a – something we cannot know but are always aware of. This notion of unknowable end meaning, the idea beyond what is written, is held in doubt as to its existence, but has equally been examined as that which constructs textual meaning: the idea behind the ideas as it were. I find it interesting to dwell on this idea – a space for meaning constantly filled with false shadows, pretenders of meaning, yet always the absence that defines the substance.

And to think we never even considered a text’s unknown unknowns. Can we?


[1] Henry James, The Turn of the Screw and the Aspern Papers (London: Penguin, 1984) p.183

[2] BBC News, ‘Rum remark wins Rumsfeld an award’ (December 2 2003) <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/3254852.stm&gt; [accessed 10th June 2012]

[3] Slavoj Žižek, ‘What Rumsfeld doesn’t know that he knows abouts Abu Ghraib’ in In these times (May 21 2004) <http://www.lacan.com/zizekrumsfeld.htm&gt; [accessed 10th June 2012] paragraph 10 of 11

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