'Unknown Knowns'

Donald Rumsfeld's (US defence secretary) "theory of knowledge - as expounded in March 2003", ..."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".
Slavoj Zizek - The Guardian, Saturday June 28 2008

The absurdity of what is being said by the US defence secretary quoted here; a nonsense of political and business jargon, is quite clearly an elaborate and in-eloquent cover up that actually amounts to saying nothing of any pertinence to the question posed. The inability of the American secret and official forces to find the evidence required to publicly provide proof for the imminent invasion of Iraq was evident in the say nothing approach of this statement. What it does invite though, and particularly resonant as a result of the specific conditions of its utterance, is a number of other interpretations, both revealing and quite possibly, at the same time, mystifying.

Seemingly unwittingly, Donald Rumsfeld, the then secretary of defence, brings to the proceedings a short enquiry into what might constitute knowledge, within a framework that guides us to arrive at what Zizek refers to as the fourth term; the unknown knowns. In the Guardian article on the global plunge in beehive populations in 2008, he describes these terms:

"In the case of the disappearing bees, there are things (their vulnerability to pesticides) and things we know that we don't know (say, how the bees react to human-caused radiations). But there are, above all, the unknown unknowns and the unknown knowns. There are dimensions of how bees interact with their environs which are not only unknown to us, but which we are not even aware of. And there are many "unknown knowns" in our perception of bees: all the anthropocentric prejudices that spontaneously colour and bias our study of them."

The first two terms; 'known knowns' and 'known unknowns', are self-evident as described. The third is unknowable by nature of being itself, an unknown unknown. It is the fourth term highlighted in Zizeks description that specifically draws attention to what he refers to as the 'unknown knowns'.

Rumsfeld's words acquire a sense of being more than intended almost immediately upon being uttered. Journalists in the room baiting him with questions "is that an unknown unknown sir?" acquiring both levity and gravity in the absurd quality of its apparently contradictory nature. Almost immediately becoming a solid, hanging in the air, holding its shape; lingering in space briefly, as the full semantic impact compounds before disseminating into the mediated air around it... quickly acquiring the presence of an adage, often quoted without context.

With reference to this evocation of a substantial form, the structure of the text is manifest in its arrangement on the page, rendering symbolically the structure of the imbedded ideology central to the text itself. An occular presentation of text as shelving or mantelpiece, Scottass cabinet perhaps.

As a statement essentially designed to put the general public and media off the scent, it displays a remarkable lack of self-awareness, as it alludes to the actual activity of 'covering up' the truth by its very statement. The unuttered fourth term, as Zizek calls it, remains unspoken, as it must be, but by the sequence of statements prior to it, it becomes it's own unknown known. The statement is self-evolving. It runs away with itself. It self-evolves and becomes its fourth unuttered "unknown known".

The unmentionable fourth term that by its absence is persistently caught in a state of evolving.


1. "How to explain the global plunge in hive populations? Look to the unknown knowns". Slavoj Zizek - The Guardian, Saturday June 28 2008
Slavoj Zizek, is a professor at the European Graduate School, Iinternational director of the Birkbeck Institute for Humanities in London and a senior researcher at the University of Ljubljana's institute of sociology.

2. Donald Rumsfelds quoted statement in full... www.defenselink.mil/faq/comment.html
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Presenter: Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld February 12, 2002 11:30 AM EST DoD News Briefing - Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers.