As we know,
There 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 do not know.
Finally, there are unknown knowns
We do not want to know.
— Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald H. Rumsfeld by Hart Seely and Donald Rumsfeld
On the 12 February 2002, Donald Rumsfeld – two-time US Secretary of Defense, former CEO and White House Chief of Staff, one of the most outspoken and forceful civilian military leaders in recent history – used a framework, a string of words evocative of Dadaist poetry, in order to justify the invasion of Iraq: Knowns and Unknowns.
Rumsfeld’s famed remark, from those distant pre-Twitter days, actually states the obvious, and perhaps even says nothing new or interesting. Nonetheless, as the COVID-19 pandemic both exposed and exacerbated existing social, political, health, and economic crises, just as Russia’s war on Ukraine is raising its own set of issues, it is a fitting time to revisit Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns”. In the post-truth era, our perception and analysis of evidence and reality, knowledge and non-knowledge have become quite tricky. The relationship between what we know, what we do not know, what we cannot know and what we do not like to know, determines our cognitive frame for political practice, and also creates a certain anxiety and uncertainty. From the personal to the collective, we strive to know or at least pretend to know enough to outweigh any unknowns. Our reactions to uncertainty make sense in evolutionary terms, as the brain constantly tries to predict what will happen next, and we attempt to prepare the body and mind in the most efficient ways possible for what they are about to experience.
In 1993, the philosopher Ann Kerwin elaborated on “knowns” and “unknowns” in a paper titled “None Too Solid: Medical Ignorance” in which she formulates known unknowns as all the things we know we do not know, unknown unknowns as all the things we do not know we do not know, error as all the things we think we know but do not, tacit knowing as all the things we do not know we know, forbidden knowledge as all taboos, and things too painful to know, so we suppress them. In an age of post-truth politics, knowledge has become more precious than ever, and perhaps it’s no surprise the definition remains more varied than ever.
Known unknowns which can also be described as conscious ignorance – the things we know we do not know – weigh heavily on two factors: how we process our current state of being, as well as how we deal with the past. In 2016 The Oxford English Dictionary chose the term “post-truth” as its word of the year, an adjective that it defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. When deciphering what are facts and what are lies, we need tools to assess and confirm the validity and reliability of what is claimed. Apart from our own psyches, we rely on different types of knowledge to achieve this because knowledge is more valuable than mere belief.
The documentary archival format is especially appropriate when it comes to unravelling the notion of the unknown. Rather than taking this format as offering fixed and objective representations of the truth, it opens up possible space for new inquiries. A wonderful piece illustrating this possibility is Deimantas Narkevičius’s 2009 work, Into the Unknown, created on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and which utilises archival footage compiled from East Germany’s official film studio, DEFA. The film theorist Michael Zryd argues that archival footage is an official institution that separates a historical record from an outtake. Through archival footage, Narkevičius depicts the everyday lives of East Berliners, with the film originally shot with the aim of capturing the well-being of the citizens. The contrasts that are made between the notion of an idealized society and the reality, in which subjective slices of scenes belonging to individuals and their private lives are interwoven, shows how successful the use of an interrogative style can be when examining the immanent information and privacy politics of political regimes. Overall, the film alludes to the tension between political history and personal memory by using such footage.
Through archival footage it is possible to trace the tensions and contradictions between the mechanisms of social power and everyday life, established history and personal memory, and between regimes of truth and the unconscious. Such powerful imagery can be used in diverging ways – as a tool to seek the truth or as a tool to bend or break reality. Narkevičius captures the slippery correlation among truth, reality and deception. W.J.T. Mitchell elaborates on this duality, and suggests we “grasp both sides of the paradox of the image: that is alive – but also dead; powerful – but also weak; meaningful – but also meaningless.”
As much as Rumsfeld’s notion of the known unknown reminds us of a delusional Western hegemony, it also raises a red flag and calls for caution – how careful and lightly we must tread with the weight of visual and verbal information. From the personal to the collective, the effort to seek the truth begins with challenging the narratives of tyranny’s power.