The biggest secret is the one already known.

8/6/20238 min read


Žižek (somewhat dismayingly) compliments former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld on his contribution to contemporary philosophy when, shortly before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he presented his version of the theoretic threats to be found there, which were then used as a major reason for the invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Rumsfeld stated:

Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because 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 don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend [sic] to be the difficult ones.[i]

In its original context, and against the backdrop of the ‘war on terror’ that began after the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001, the premise and a vital element in Rumsfeld’s justification for the military invasion of Iraq was presented as the ‘certainty’ of the presence of weapons of mass destruction. The invasion of Iraq was – in contrast to many other proactive acts of war in history – solely based and justified on the (assumed) possession of information. As we discovered from hindsight, no weapons of mass destruction were ever found or proven to have existed. But by that time the invasion and the hunt for Saddam Hussein had been achieved, and it was due to the type of reasoning Rumsfeld used that public opinion swung just enough to support the invasion. It makes perfect sense to assume Rumsfeld constructed this classification with the sole intention of manipulating public opinion to support the invasion. The instrument of classification is very powerful in overcoming the relativity of probability, because the mere existence of a category creates the psychological effect that it should be filled, regardless of the sense or relevance of this: it is a purely formalistic exercise with great impact on collective perception. If we were to assess every situation on the basis of all possible outcomes (including those of a category so far removed that we don’t even know of its existence: the ‘unknown unknowns’) we would be instantly paralysed by anxiety. The absence of any means to qualify the information (how relevant is this information?) or even to quantify it (how great is the chance of this information being relevant?), makes this a rhetorical case of the ‘Mean World Syndrome’ under the auspices of a version of the ‘cultivation theory’ in communication studies.[ii] Rumsfeld openly talked about the unknown unknowns with a certainty about the effect this would have (justifying the war through the cultivation of public fear), but without the risk of creating a direct outburst of panic (War of the Worlds was also a tale about the unknown unknowns, but with the intention to create panic.). This suggests that the military intelligence gathered on the possible existence of any unknown unknowns was negative and indicated the opposite of Rumsfeld’s insinuations. The absence of any indication of weapons of mass destruction already dramatically reduced the probability of actually finding any unknown unknowns, yet the ‘commodification’ of this information in the propaganda favouring the invasion was significant.

In other words, Rumsfeld exaggerated a risk so that the US public would sanction his action against this risk, which he well knew was not as real as the public was made to believe. Using this device, he created a win/win situation. Firstly, ‘permission’ in terms of public opinion was granted, thus invasion assured; and secondly, there was no indication to suggest the presence of any unknown unknowns that could not be handled by the military forces, so their defeat was unlikely. In the case of victory, the military forces would have overcome an enemy force associated with the almost mysterious power of the big ‘unknown unknown’. The brilliance of this construction lies in the fact that even if the initial premise is found to be false, it does not undermine what is gained by the invasion itself.

The category left out

Rumsfeld’s communication was very precisely crafted within a set of strategic parameters, a clear case of the rhetoric of governmental entrepreneurship (oxymoron intended). The real shrewdness lies in Rumsfeld’s omission of the last of the four categories: the unknown knowns, which, as Žižek rightfully points out, refers to the 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 core of which is fantasy’.[iii] Rumsfeld had very good reasons to exclude the unknown knowns from his list. During the war in Vietnam, the USA fought itself on various levels. Its army had to fight against the psychological effects of the one-year ‘tour of duty’, which undermined the soldiers’ incentive to invest in fighting the war as opposed to focusing on their return home. The average age of nineteen was considerably younger than had been the case with American soldiers in the Second World War, and the young troops brought a completely different mindset to the battlefield. Unlike participants in the Second World War, the average soldier in Vietnam was not wholly convinced of the cause he was fighting for. There was also a cultural imbalance that resulted from drafting policies: most of the soldiers came from minority and working-class backgrounds. This added several pre-existing problems to the military situation in Vietnam. The discussion on whose war was actually being fought (that of the minorities or that of the white imperialists) was openly taking place. Moreover, the US soldiers’ training had left them completely unprepared for the Vietcong war strategy, causing a loss of morale among the troops and commanding officers. Meanwhile, on the home front, other problems exacerbated the war situation. The public debate over the involvement of the US in Vietnam led to increasing tension in American society, which resulted in a prominently hostile attitude towards the entire operation, and often prompted a lukewarm or even inimical reception of the veterans on their return home. Many of the veterans were (and some are still) struggling with their encounter with the monstrosities of war. Depending on the source and the time at which the assessments were done, the surveys show that as many as thirty per cent of Vietnam veterans suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even the most conservative estimate is nineteen per cent.[iv] The war in Vietnam was a morass of loneliness, psychosis, alcohol, despair, drugs, violence and abuse, together with a fundamental shattering of the American dream in all its representations. Not surprisingly, this set of conditions led to a reverse ‘battle’ of disillusioned veterans against society, and created the myth of the chronically compromised Vietnam trouper, unable to reintegrate into society and, even more importantly, unable to reintegrate into him- or herself. No wonder Rumsfeld was very careful not to draw any attention to the unknown knowns since these belong to the domain of the realest fears, extreme despair, the vilest desires, most lethal drives, and all the other subliminal agencies that humans experience.

Of specific interest is the role of the media (in particular television) in the context of war. Unlike any earlier medium, television provided two fundamental elements of trust. Firstly, there is the obvious visual aspect. Unlike radio, the audience can directly watch events evolve. In this regard, television reached a new dimension during the Iran-Kuwait Gulf War (1990-1991), when millions of viewers worldwide were able watch live combat on TV in their homes. The adage ‘seeing is believing’ was weighted in favour of the coalition forces, a mechanism that had failed during the war in Vietnam, when the media had acted as a semi-independent body that often encouraged a critical stance towards the war. By shifting the focus between several elements in specific and changing orders, the media was able to influence public opinion significantly. There were the elements of the war itself, (its evolution, intensity, boundaries), its organisational aspects (requirements, logistics, supplies, infrastructures, communications), the inter- and intrahuman affects (its casualties, terror, deprivation, morale) and its political effects (who gained control, its costs, its imperialist agenda). These elements were exposed and, depending on the political colour of the TV news agency (the sender) concerned, it either favoured military actions or opposed them.

As for US citizens who watched the TV war coverage (the receiver), there were several effects of exposure that also determined the impact on the spectator. These include the elements working directly on the audience (its needs, demands, wishes, opinions, inhibitions and saturation points), the economics of the media (the networks’ interests, saleability, exposure, development of culture), and the effects on society (the development of opinion and a ‘moral fatigue’ caused by the continuous stream of negative news). Both realms (sender and receiver) were at least partly and in fluctuating intensities affected by a system of control and influence implemented by elements of national security, international politics, economic interests, concealment and political self-interest. The trust that audiences placed in what was presented to them on television, believing and judging what they saw, gave the medium significant dominance over other types of media in that era.

The second factor that promotes trust in television is that it has always been designed to be like furniture in the home, making it part of family life. In contrast, the newspaper has always been a foreign element: it arrives one morning and is gone the next; its information is only valid for one day, whereas television is a permanent and controllable feature. We can choose when to access information and, to a certain degree, we can select what we want to see. Media theorist Lev Manovich distinguishes two types of modern media technology: representational technologies such as film, music and videotape, and real-time communication technologies, most of which begin with ‘tele’ (telegraph, telex, telephone etc.). He argues that television (and radio before it) operates at the junction of these two systems.[v] This makes television an unreliable source for forming an accurate opinion on events. Its preselection of information bifurcates into the fictitious world of representation and the factual world of real events. With the rise of the Internet, this problem seemed to have been overcome: unrestricted access to a wide variety of sources suggests that a well-informed use of this medium could provide broader and more accurate information. Yet Internet and computer-based interfaces have already lost much of their strength in terms of independence and objectivity. Many forces steer our search for objective information, whether these be opportunistic (commercially driven results) or regulatory (restricted areas on the Internet). Still, the awareness of the ubiquity of media and the ‘nature’ of their ungraspable organisation has increased.

Photo-credit: Alfred T. Palmer, photographer, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. No known restrictions on publication.

Title: This girl in a glass house is putting finishing touches on the bombardier nose section of a B-17F navy bomber, Long Beach, Califoria, USA. 1942.

[i] Secretary Rumsfeld and General Myers, ‘DoD News Briefing, 12 February 2002’, http://archive.defense.gov/Transcripts/Transcript.aspx?TranscriptID=2636 [accessed 25 July 2016].

[ii] ‘Mean world syndrome’ describes a state of mind whereby consumers of mass media perceive the world as being (far) more dangerous than it actually is. Mean world syndrome falls under the larger study of mass media influence (in particular television), regarding the way in which consumers perceive the(ir) world. See George Gerbner and Nancy Signorielli, Violence and Terror in the Mass Media (Westport: Greenwood Publishers, 1988).

[iii] Slavoj Žižek, How to Read Lacan (London: Granta Books, 2006), p. 53.

[iv] William M. Hammond, Reporting Vietnam (Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1998) and Daniel C. Hallin, The Uncensored War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

[v] Manovich, The Language of New Media, p. 162.

[vi] Robert Pfaller, Illusionen der Anderen (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2003).

[vii] The term ‘prosumer’ was coined by Alvin Toffler to describe a person who produces content for (online) publishing whilst also actively consuming similar content from the same platform, such as YouTube, Facebook etc. It is also used to describe electronic devices (cameras etc.) that fill the niche that exists between professional and consumer quality standards.

[viii] The symbolic Big Other refers to (fictitious) anonymous authoritative powers or knowledge. Examples are God, Science, Nature, History, Society, etc.

[ix] Žižek, How to Read Lacan, p. 27.

[x] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy? (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

[xi] The term ‘network society’ (coined in 1981) was further developed by Jan van Dijk in his book De Netwerkmaatschappij; sociale aspecten van nieuwe media (Alphen aan de Rijn: Samson uitgeverij, 1991). The concept is probably more widely known through the work of Manuel Castell.

[xii] Screen text taken from the app ‘ik condoleer’ (‘I condole’), offered by the Dutch insurance company PC Hooft.

[xiii] Žižek, How to Read Lacan, p. 53.