Wikileaks and the Toothless Politics of Exposure

What we didn’t know that we knew about Afghanistan

In his book Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, philosopher Slajov Zizek laid out an ad-hoc taxonomy for various kinds of knowledge, via a reference to then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumseld. Zizek says:

In March 2003, Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophizing about the relationship between the known and the unknown: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns,” the things we don’t know that we know–which is precisely, the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself,” as Lacan used to say.

Zizek suggests that we know very well on some level what is going on, and that this latent knowledge is tacitly approved of so long as it remains at the level of the unknown known. One of the key differences between Abu Ghraib and previous torture was that the Bush administration had already admitted to the possibility of torture via its arguments about its political effectiveness in preventing further terrorist attacks. Conservative thought-games about “ticking time bomb” scenarios implicitly allowed and normalized the torture of terror suspects and the concurrent suspension of human rights. Continue reading