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THE CAMPAIGN FOR NUCLEAR WAR AND THE UNKNOWN KNOWN

As
Slavoj Žižek explains: ‘in March 2003, Donald Rumsfeld’ – a man whose finger
was never too far from the button – ‘engaged in a little 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.”’
Žižek then fills in the remaining gap: ‘what he forgot to add was the crucial
fourth term: the “unknown knowns,” things we don’t know that we know, which is precisely the Freudian unconscious, the
“knowledge that doesn’t know itself,” as Lacan used to say.’

The
criticism that Jeremy Corbyn has met with
for the fact that he would not be prepared to launch a nuclear bomb or two
should things get a bit hairy – tantamount in itself to something of a campaign
for nuclear war, or at least for Cold
War II – might wish to categorise itself, should it have to, under the ‘known
unknown’ – or even ‘unknown unknown’ – tag. That is, the arguments might run
along the lines of: ‘we know there are a lot of baddies in the world, but we
don’t know what they’re capable of’ – in the first instance – or even: ‘we’ll
never know what might be round the corner, so it’s best to arm ourselves to the
teeth’ – in the second – in support of a ‘nuclear deterrent’ (any launch of
which would expose the oxymoron that the concept is supposedly based on). However,
these logics seem to be operating in the mode of disavowal, specifically in
relation to the latter clause in each (and the former too, in the second): the
‘unknown’. That is, what is truly radical – perhaps even terrifying – about the
unknown is its contentlessness. The ‘known unknown’ argument of ‘there are
things we know we don’t know, which we have to protect ourselves against with a
nuclear deterrent’ elides this precise emptiness. The unknown is not actually unknown
here, but knowledge of it is assumed,
a form of knowledge generally agreed upon as rather reckless. It is the same in
the case of the unknown unknown, except doubled (the liminal point of the
unknown cannot in fact be accessed, as Kant might have argued). In both, the radical
aspect of the contentlessness of the unknown is disavowed: ‘I know very well
that I don’t know, but nevertheless I assume I do know’. These, then, should
rather be categorised under the ‘unknown known’. The unknown known, that is, of
an assumptive unconscious.

What
this continual assumption will lead to – or we could even say, what it has been
creative of, in the stagnation and stalemate of the Cold War and what’s
followed – is the type of paranoiac state recounted in The WikiLeaks Files, that ‘Daniel Ellsberg—later famous for leaking
the Pentagon Papers—[and who] had a top-secret security clearance’ warned Henry
Kissinger of:

‘[I]t will… become very hard for
you to learn from anybody who doesn’t have these clearances. Because you’ll be
thinking as you listen to them: “What would this man be telling me if he knew
what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change
his predictions and recommendations?” You will deal with a person who doesn’t
have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to
believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you’ll have to
lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to
manipulate him. You’ll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger
is, you’ll become something like a moron. You’ll become incapable of learning
from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in
their particular area that may be greater than yours.’

Firstly,
perhaps we should recognise that Corbyn is in effect someone without these
‘clearances’ – currently – that we (and those that do have them) might in fact
be able to learn something from, should we (and they) not let the content of
the clearances get in the way. But secondly, what we see here is that that
content of the clearance is in fact contentlessness itself; what is in exchange
in the paranoid economy laid out above is not the knowledge that that person
with access to it has, but rather the non-knowledge that those without access
to it represent. It is on this contentlessness that the former speculates: to
every response, he must ask: ‘but would that response be the same if they knew
what I know?’ A question which – whether the answer is, ‘yes, the response
would be the same’, or no – could only really lead to dictatorially tying
itself up in solipsistic knots.

The
unconscious of the assumptive ‘unknown known’ would thus lead to action being
taken based upon inklings and hunches, such as was the case in the war with
Iraq – which was started through suspicion that Saddam Hussein possessed
Weapons of Mass Destruction – Bush and Blair’s disavowal of which operated in
the mode of: ‘I know very well that all the reconnaissance suggests he hasn’t,
but all the same…’

So much
of today’s international situation is a result of such an assumption; how much
of tomorrow’s do we want to be? Those calling on Corbyn to (be prepared to)
push the button should perhaps put themselves forward for election to the task
of doing so, for if they truly wish to raise the unknown known of such an
action to the known known of nuclear devastation – that is, to ‘become Death,
the destroyer of worlds’ – in J. Robert Oppenheimer’s words, taken from the Bhagavad Gita – to fight World War III
with the weapons that would insist that World War IV is fought with sticks and
stones, as Albert Einstein put it – then this would represent the ethics of, to
coin a phrase, an unconscience from
which what we could learn not only is already known to us, but should its
result come about would force (once again, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki) the utter
radicality of the contentlessness of the unknown unknown into reality itself.

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