unknown knowns and Zizek: why are the Americans fighting this war?

Why are the Americans fighting this war?

This war--all wars. (The French plantation owner poses the question in Apocalypse Now Redux.)

The question has to be posed at each level, yet, beyond the three levels that Slavoj Zizek mentions: "First, a sincere ideological belief that the destiny of the United States is to bring democracy and prosperity to other nations; second, the urge to brutally assert and signal unconditional U.S. hegemony; and third, the need to control Iraqi oil reserves."

Beyond these levels, which means integral to all of these levels is this question.

Beyond the fact that "we were the true ideological and political targets"--that it is us who are to take heed and listen at the show of force (and this "us"--this means all of us).

This question that asks the impossible question, a question that is closer to the unknown, the unknown that led to the posing of the question in the first place: why.

"In February 2002, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld engaged in a bit of amateur philosophizing about the relationship between the known and the unknown: '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.' For Rumsfeld forgot to add the crucial fourth term: the unknown knowns, things we don't know that we know-which is precisely the Freudian unconscious, the 'knowledge which doesn't know itself,' as the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan used to say. In many ways, these unknown knowns, the disavowed beliefs and suppositions we are not even aware of adhering to, may pose an even greater threat. That is indeed the case with the reasons for this war."

Perhaps, in the drive to take a political stance--and one applauds Zizek for doing so--Zizek simplifies his analysis, he makes it sound as if the unconscious is simply a repressed set of unknowns that are in a hidden yet causal relation to the "reasons for this war." And that these unknowns were once known -- "beliefs and suppositions." Although, for Lacan, as unconscious, as structurally unconscious, the unconscious is not mere "adherence," these are not simply "disavowed beliefs and suppositions." However, Zizek's unknown causes are just that: causes bearing rational effects, inheriting their rationality in a repressed form that is soon to be known, revealed as such. Zizek makes this known through a process of revealing the unknown knowns:

"What is 'unknown' (disavowed, ignored) is not primarily the problematic nature of those reasons as such (say, the fact that in spreading democracy, the United States is imposing its own version of democracy), but, rather, the inconsistency among those reasons. The United States is pursuing a series of goals (spreading democracy, asserting its hegemony, securing oil supplies) that are ultimately incompatible."

Sidestepping Lacan, perhaps for the sake of political effect, Zizek says that what is apparently unknown is inconsistency. Now inconsistency is apparently already known, or at least, endlessly theorized: that the aims of US force are incompatible, that the three, four (however many there are) aims are inconsistent, contradictory, is a staple of Left analysis (notably, in terms of strategy, in the work of Chomsky). It is somewhat ironic in itself, or even surprising, that for Zizek the revealing of inconsistency (perhaps, in an older vocabulary, contradiction) is the revealing of the unknown. Is Zizek telling us all he has to say, here? For "inconsistency" is a rather open--i.e., known--"unknown." Perhaps his gesture is "Marxist" in a reductive sense of analysis or critique. Yet, Zizek does not say that by revealing inconsistency, the structure is made to collapse, or that a sense of (self)consciousness arises from the knowing of the unknown known. Zizek ends with inconsistency; granted he is consistent by ending with inconsistency (this is where Zizek is not surprising). He equates inconsistency with the unknown known, makes this known, and reveals the unknown known as inconsistency--thereby configuring it as a known known. Does Zizek tell us anything, then, that we didn't already know? Can he?

In so doing, performing this revealing, something is missing. "Inconsistency" is hardly a compelling unknown; it's a fall-back at the limit of not knowing, at the limit of Zizek's epistemology, and one where he has perhaps sacrificed Lacan for political effect (or, this is his interpretation of the Lacanian unconscious--we will leave the implications of that aside for the moment). But has he performed this sacrifice? Is Zizek not trying to gesture at something else that remains in the shadow of what is revealed here--another unknown known? For Zizek has also left the unknown--alone.

This move may have been necessary. For what is this "inconsistency"?
(And an inconsistency different from the "problematic nature of these reasons as such").

With the ambiguity of the unknown known, where it slips, is where Rumsfeld, for all of his "amateur philosophizing," philosophized well. For the unknown known is also, or perhaps partially, at least structurally and according to Lacan, always becoming, or alluding to, allegorically, an "unknown unknown." The absolute unknown, in the sense of Paul de Man's allegories--the impossible reading. The unknown known is what Lacan would call the lure. The petit objet a, that "obscure object of desire," that captivates our attention, feeds it (what it desires to see). It is what captures our eye--the inconsistency to which the analysis attaches, as if rationality was a given that can be toppled by riddling its foundations through its own inconsistencies. But inconsistencies are like girders: they built the edifice in the first place.

Inconsistencies are what allow the rest to seem so normative--so consistent.

Inconsistency draws analysis along the path of desire and in so doing, it reveals not the unconscious but only reduces the three reasons to a primary term: inconsistency.

It reveals not the unconscious save for the desire (hence, the unconscious), to turn unknown unknowns to unknown knowns--and thus, knowable. The will to knowledge. This is all, also, and always has been, known. Everything that can be written, here, is already known. One cannot write the unknown unknown, which would regress, infinitely, and never arrive, from the abyss of the unconscious, the abyss of the other (I leave "other" uncapitalized--not Lacan's grand Autre, "just" the other, as I leave "unconscious" here undefined).

What surrounds the inconsistent but the invisible--for we elude the consistent. It is the stuff of everything else, the endless variations and differences and shades, multiplicities that are the molecules of what is, too, always here and there, but never as an unknown known, waiting for its uncloaking, never there, never present (nor absent).

It may be that affects, or, forces move this far--always moving, and thus, consistent. Forces that are always at the edges of our understanding of context--context being that other name for consistency, even though context is always a thing of change (and so, not a thing, nor, an is).

What remains consistent, enshrouded in the American imagination of mist and fog, the ghost of Vietnam: but for the desert? What is the American imaginary of the desert? What conflict is being played out in heightened technological warfare in the sand and heat? Is the US Army in Iraq as botched and fucked as it was in Vietnam? There is no LSD and counter-culture contradicting this war (yet what remains uncanny about this context?). If Kurtz is the final destination of American power, the occult death, pagan ritual, the rewriting of Conrad's Heart of Darkeness as Apocalypse Now--then the scenario has shifted from the hidden fog of the jungle to the open desert of white heat and blinding sun, rolling dunes, rocks. No longer a romantic journey on a single river to the dark past of the imaginary evil, the inner imaginary and deepest unconscious of desire as the descent into the drive toward death--something else in the desert is being sought, but it seems so familiar, somehow (for it's all out in the open).

If the desert is the context--this flat plane, of consistency. Each inconsistent hill and bunker that only reinforces the consistency of the death to be found (yet each death inconsistent, each death unimaginable by any of us).

No longer romantic, save for the spaghetti western, but perhaps the same journey--this time accompanied by night vision for the hottest noon.

posted. Mon - April 19, 2004 @ 01:13 AM           |