Over the last few years it has become increasingly prominent and publicized that Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, to whom Everyday Analysis is much indebted, has been writing regularly for The Guardian. The collaboration is benefitting both, making The Guardian seem to be a space for truly radical thought, and making Žižek seem to be in touch with the ‘real world,’ not confined to the ivory tower of academia.
Žižek writing for The Guardian, like his film-making (A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, his third film, has recently hit the cinema) is part of a popularized Žižek which, for his close followers, has often been troubling. It is part of Žižek’s success that he has been able to turn himself into a kind of commodity, an object of desire himself. Speaking of Žižek’s early career, Ian Parker comments that ‘readers found themselves bewitched and fascinated by something inside his first book – something like the ‘sublime object’ itself – that they could not grasp.’ Žižek has since then developed this further, and has been continually able to make people feel there is something more about him, above and beyond what he writes, something charming, attractive and alluring about Slavoj Žižek himself. His writing for The Guardian is a major part of this construction.
In 2008 Žižek wrote what is probably by far his most talked-about article for The Guardian. In it he made a smart point, bouncing off Donald Rumsfeld, and in his typically charming way, made clear what is often an obscure point in psychoanalysis. Žižek quoted Rumsfeld’s comment:
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 adds his own bit of genius:
What Rumsfeld forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns” – things we don’t know that we know, all the unconscious beliefs and prejudices that determine how we perceive reality and intervene in it.
The point is wonderful, and makes clear what the Lacanian unconscious is: it is the thing which we don’t question, which we assume is a ‘given’ but which is really crucial in structuring our thoughts.
We are charmed once again, in the typical Žižekian way, by this smart quip lobbied against someone we already want to think is stupid; he charms us by gratifying our desire. But there is a blindspot of Žižek’s own here, which shows an issue with the charming newspaper-writing and film-making part of his persona. While focussing on making a clever quip, he leaves the biggest problem with Rumsfeld unquestioned – the idea of ‘unknown unknowns’.
Unknown unknowns, meaning things that we don’t even have the ability to realize we don’t know, implies the future. The gesture is; we cannot even imagine what we are yet to know, since the future brings with it all sorts of new and revolutionary knowledges that we are nowhere near even perceiving the possibility of. It feeds into Žižek’s belief in the revolution-to-come: he has for years insisted in a revolution from nowhere, from outside, which could come and shatter current thinking, an unknown unknown that could change our problematic status quo. The thought of Jacques Derrida can point out a problem with this; he writes that revolution is always deferred, always ‘to come,’ something we project into our future. Lee Edelman’s fantastic recent Queer Theory book No Future has made a similar point; any projection of the future is a projection from within your own present, created by the terms in which you live. Even when we say that we can never know what the future will be, this ‘unknown,’ something undefined, is not really ever unknown, it is rather what we mean by unknown in our present moment; it is determined, even when we claim that it isn’t.
The point here is something that other elements of Žižek’s project could themselves point out: in fact there is no ‘unknown unknown’. There are only ‘known unknowns,’ and nothing beyond them. In other words, there is nothing beyond what we know that we don’t know, because what we don’t know is conditioned by what we do know; it is the other side of it. The desire to believe in ‘unknown unknowns’ betrays a desire to believe in something out there, something other than our own limited knowledge, which is potentially more dangerous and radical, a future that is or could be coming. In fact this ‘unknown unknown’ is one of the ‘unknowns knowns’ that Žižek so cleverly points out to us. What he fails to question shows his own point; he, like Rumsfeld, thinks he does not know what he means by unknown unknowns, but in fact, unconsciously, he does knows what he means by it.
The Zizek Commodity