In a recent article for The Philosophical Salon, Slavoj Žižek offers a number of well-trodden ideas on the relationship between ignorance and knowledge. In doing so, he shuts a window creaked open by recent scholarship on the political economy of ignorance.
Žižek’s understanding of ignorance is typical of philosophy and the social sciences for centuries, yet this staleness is masked by a posture of novelty. Like the three wise monkeys chosen to illustrate his commentary – wise because they see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil – it’s easy to ignore the problems in this piece. But this theoretical posture would miss a chance to consider its larger theoretical implications.
Surely, the three overworked monkeys who are constantly used to depict the power of ignorance must be exhausted. Their hands are permanently frozen in a hackneyed pose: one with her hands over her mouth, one playing peekaboo with hands across her eyes, and the last with hands clasped over her ears.
I’m guilty myself of making workhorses out of these monkeys. My recent book, The Unknowers: How Strategic Ignorance Rules the World, features this same image on the jacket.
Can an image that is used with such promiscuity be theoretically useful? I think the answer is yes, but only if the monkeys are allowed at least two weeks off. Preferably paid, but let’s face it, especially in the America that Žižek has endeavoured to bring about – Trump’s America – who’s getting a paid holiday? Paid, unpaid, give the monkeys a rest. Picture Žižek instead.
Once you’ve got that as a mental image, Žižek with his hands over his ears, eyes and mouth, it becomes easier to see the limitations of Žižek’s recent take on unknowing.
Žižek does make some good points, including a reference to Johann Fichte’s notion of a closed commercial society. Published in 1800, Fichte’s study contested theories of free trade that were on the rise. He believed that unrestrained economic competition undermined the quest for political equality, which the French Revolution and related struggles sought to achieve, and he called for deliberate protectionism to advance a just economy. Žižek rightly notes that Fichte’s ideas are relevant today, but it’s hardly a new point to make. Fichte was integral to a generation of German early romantic thinkers such as Novalis who helped to inaugurate a different, holistic understanding of nature and industry. What’s odd is Žižek’s main point: that Covid-19 has illuminated in an unprecedented way the need to ‘repoliticize’ the economy and bring it to heel through deliberate government planning. There’s really nothing new about this long-standing (even if continually ignored) imperative.
Writing about lawsuits brought against governments in the effort to recoup corporate profits lost to the pandemic, Žižek argues that governments need to brutally intervene, or ‘it will be a clear sign that the worst capitalist barbarism is returning.’ Really? To return, this barbarism needs to have fled somewhere, and clearly it hasn’t. The reality, of course, is that different varieties of economic barbarism have stayed with us since the time of Fichte. My book, The Unknowers, describes how this economic violence is veiled through different forms of strategic ignorance.[i]
This leads to the main problem with Žižek’s claim that we are all demonstrating a newfound ‘will not to know’ about the threat that Covid-19 presents. He puts it as follows: ‘It may appear that, at a time like ours, when the virus threatens us all, the predominant stance would have been that of the will to know, the will to understand fully the workings of the virus in order to control successfully and stop its spread. However, what we witness more and more is a version of the will not to know too much about it.’
The question is: who is the ‘we’ referring to? As the article unfolds, the answer becomes clear. He thinks that it’s all of us; that we’re equally guilty of a collective will not to know. The article beseeches everyone not to submit to a desire for unknowing: ‘THIS is the choice we all have to make: will we succumb to this temptation of the will-to-ignorance, or are we ready to really think the Covid-19 pandemic not only as a biochemical health issue, but as something that is rooted in the complex totality of our (humanity’s) place in nature.’
This flattens out different hierarchies of access to and desire for knowledge. The desire not to know is conditioned by a range of economic, gendered, racialized, and national advantages and disadvantages. Žižek is blind to the dynamism of ignorance, to the fact that not all social actors ‘refuse’ to know with equal conviction, motivations or liability.
When Donald Trump (whom Žižek famously backed and supported until at least 2019), states “I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please’” – pointing out that too much testing uncovers too many cases – that’s an explicit admission of Trump’s personal ‘will to ignorance.’ Such wilful unknowing shouldn’t be taken as a general reflection of the citizen’s flight from knowledge. Even the ‘no-maskers’ aren’t necessarily ‘ignorant’ in the same way as Trump. Their stance may be misanthropic, selfish and unscientific, but their actions, however misguided, seem rooted in legitimate anxiety over the fact that the corporate goals of different medical actors, including big pharma, are not always aligned with the public interest. In other words, it has been a particular type of strategic ignorance – big pharma’s legal right to commercial confidentiality – that has contributed to another, second-order type of ignorance among a suspicious, anxious public. Just because flagging trust in corporate science has led to lamentable, dangerous outcomes, doesn’t mean that scholars should ignore conflicts of interest within big pharma. These different levels of unknowing are flattened out in accounts like Žižek’s, which claim that ‘we’ are all demonstrating a shared ostrich-like attitude to the implications of Covid-19.
There is ‘no hierarchy of ignorance,’ Jacques Rancière once wrote in The Ignorant Schoolmaster,[ii] but on this point he was wrong, just as Žižek is to dismiss differences between social actors when it comes to retaining legal control over knowledge and ignorance. This power is something that I term ‘oracular power’: the capacity to use economic, cultural and national advantage to establish the boundaries between ignorance and power. As the philosopher Renata Salecl points out in her latest book, there is an ‘economy of ignorance,’ just as there is an economy of knowledge.[iii]
After Trump made his repeated comments about ‘slowing’ down the testing, his staffers insisted that he was only joking. To this day, an intricate dance takes place. Trump repeatedly makes statements so ludicrous that it’s easier for his team to insist they are too outrageous to be taken literally. Just as Peter Thiel once remarked that Trump’s plan to build a wall shouldn’t be seen as literal (it was), so today, Trump’s will to foment ignorance about transmission rates is dismissed as a sort of joke, even though testing clearly remains sluggish and inadequate across the country.
Underlying this dance is a type of power that Žižek’s article misses: the power of the powerful to inflict their own ‘will to ignorance’ on others. As the social theorist Jana Bacevic has pointed out in The Guardian, throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, authorities have sought to reduce their perceived liability for disastrous policy choices by asking as few questions as possible: ‘it matters what questions politicians don’t ask, such as whether coronavirus will disproportionately affect people from black and ethnic minorities communities, or whether the effects of the lockdown will be worse for women.’[iv]
The privilege of not asking questions is not shared by society’s most vulnerable and exploited people, for whom the effects of Covid-19 are not a question to avoid, but an inescapable reality. This is why Žižek is wrong to ask ‘will we succumb to the temptation of the will-to-ignorance?’ Wrong, because it assumes that in non-Covid times, people exist in some elevated lofty sphere above ignorance. We don’t: humans have long cultivated ignorance, especially powerful people who have the most to gain from remaining ignorant of the negative effect of their privilege on others.
A better question is: why is a centuries-old image of three monkeys a cross-cultural favourite used to illustrate the human economy of ignorance, as if to unknow is an animalistic, anti-rational urge? There is an important literature on the folklore of this cross-cultural image.[v] And clearly contributing authors, such as Žižek, don’t usually choose the associated image with their comment pieces. But my point holds. Why do we relegate the act of unknowing to the non-human? Or assume, as Žižek does, that we are collecively blind rather than selectively silenced, heard or seen?
The more daring goal – the necessary goal – should be to substitute an image of our human selves. Once we do, it’s easier to see that the will to ignorance depends on economic and political power that is unjustly distributed. This will is never uniform, nor are its pernicious effects shared equally.
A SHORT REPLY
It would be boring to go through all the passages where my critic, after the first paragraphs of rather tasteless and forced comic remarks, goes on to misread and misrepresent my claims. Just a couple of cases should suffice.
She writes: “Žižek rightly notes that Fichte’s ideas are relevant today, but it’s hardly a new point to make.” Really? I am talking about Fichte’s book The Closed Commercial State, which is largely ignored or dismissed as proto-Fascist and proto-totalitarian.
“There’s really nothing new about this long-standing (even if continually ignored) imperative of politicizing economy.” Of course not; all I am saying is that this imperative got an unprecedented boost because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Writing about lawsuits brought against governments in the effort to recoup corporate profits lost to the pandemic, Žižek argues that governments need to brutally intervene, or ‘it will be a clear sign that the worst capitalist barbarism is returning.’” Her counter-argument: this barbarism never disappeared, “different varieties of economic barbarism have stayed with us since the time of Fichte”… Sure, but what I have in mind is a very specific mode of barbarism: making the state responsible for the profits lost due to a health catastrophe, which has nothing to do with state politics. This measure is definitely new.
But let’s turn to my critic’s main reproach: I think that “it’s all of us, that we’re equally guilty of a collective will not to know.” In this way, I am said to ignore the specific levels and modes of ignorance. The will not to know “is never uniform, nor are its pernicious effects shared equally”: those kept in ignorance are always certain strata (classes, sexes, races), and ignorance is imposed on them by those in power, in whose interest this ignorance is…
I must admit this line of argumentation surprises me: I simply don’t recognize myself in these reproaches. My critic quotes me: “what we witness more and more is a version of the will not to know too much about it”, and then raises the question: “who is the ‘we’ referring to? As the article unfolds, the answer become clear. He thinks that it’s all of us, that we’re equally guilty of a collective will not to know.” No: we all “witness” (see the reports in our media) signs of this will to ignorance, such as the anti-mask protests, resistance to social distancing and to vaccines, or claims that the pandemic is but a conspiracy, but we are not all succumbing to it—I never claimed that.
As for the specific modes of ignorance allegedly ignored by me, in the text targeted by my critic, I don’t speak about the will not to know in general. Rather, I talk about its very specific case: the refusal to take the pandemic seriously displayed all around the world, mostly by new Right populists, but also by some Leftists (Agamben in Italy, some circles in France and Germany). This refusal has different forms: an outright denial of the pandemic, conspiracy theories, the interpretation of measures imposed by state powers as ways to impose social control… In this respect, there are five crucial points I made in my texts on Covid-19 that I want to emphasize.
(1) What interests me is that, in most of the forms of refusal to think Covid-19, ignorance assumes the positive form of a special insider-knowledge, of an insight into what most of the people don’t see. For instance, those who deny the serious character of the pandemic talk about secret conspiracies, a project of the ”dark state” to impose total social control, etc. In short, ignorance mostly takes the form of an excess-knowledge accessible only to the initiated. That’s why, incidentally, I would never use the image of the three monkeys: those with the will not to know have their eyes wide open (for pseudo-facts invisible to others) and listen with attention (to conspiracy theories).
(2) One of the prevalent forms of defence against the knowledge of Covid-19 is not its direct denial, but what psychoanalysis calls the fetishist disavowal, which follows the formula “I know very well (that the epidemic is serious), but…” – but I cannot accept it , I suspend the symbolic efficiency of my knowledge and continue to act as if I don’t know it. A similar thing often happens when I learn that someone close to me has died: rationally I know it, but I don’t really subjectively assume this knowledge…
(3) Although I think that science is one of the few hopes today, I absolutely don’t simply trust science. Not only scientists can be corrupted by big pharma (and other) companies, there are also at least two other points to be made here: (a) the science itself is not monolithic; there are different theories about Covid-19 that are not the result of economic and political corruption; (b) there are immanent limitations in the scientific procedure as such (if by science we mean modern positivist natural science), which is why Heidegger wrote that “science doesn’t think.” This is what I aim at in the final sentence of my text quoted by my critic: “‘THIS is the choice we all have to make: will we succumb to this temptation of the will-to-ignorance, or are we ready to really think the Covid-19 pandemic not only as a biochemical health issue, but as something that is rooted in the complex totality of our (humanity’s) place in nature.” To “think” means here also a reflexive procedure, which brings us into the picture. And this is not what science does: science cannot fully reflect its own social and ideological presuppositions and implications.
(4) This brings me to the next point: I am also fully aware of the positive side of ignorance. Heidegger points out that the fact that science doesn’t think is its strength. Hegel made this clear when he praised abstraction as the absolute power of Spirit: to grasp the essence of a phenomenon, one has to erase many things out of the picture, i.e., abstract from them. To function in our daily lives, we have to ignore numerous things, and this holds even for ethics. When someone who committed a great crime is trying to justify or relativize it by telling us how he experienced his act, what for him was its deeper meaning, we should flatly dismiss his endeavour. Behind every ethnic cleansing. there is always some “deep” poetic or religious vision. So, when a criminal says “try to understand me,” the answer is: no, thanks, the way you understand and justify the horror you did is a lie you are telling yourself to be able to live with it, not the “inner truth” of it… However, this general insight has nothing to do with the present efforts to discredit science.
(5) The last and, perhaps, most important point: the will not to know should absolutely not be reduced to how those in power selectively manipulate, spin and constrain the knowledge of those whom they oppress. Two things disturb this image. First, manipulators are always also manipulated in their own way. Those in power also don’t know and can reign only in this way: that’s the point of Marx’s notion of ideology. Second, the ignorance of those who are oppressed is not just imposed on them from outside; it is immanent to their way of life. Let’s take thousands who protest against masks and social distancing from the US to Germany: they act, often even violently, because they see their freedom and dignity threatened. In Slovenia, many parents protested against their children putting on masks in the schools, saying: “Our children are not dogs who should wear a muzzle in public!” One can understand them: the epidemic has undermined our ingrained sense of “normality,” some of the basic customs that define our way of life, compelling us to live in a way which we have to experience as “unnatural.” So, they “ignore” the full truth about the pandemic not because of some epistemological limitation or animalistic will not to know, but because of a deep existential anxiety: are we still human, when we are forced to act like that?
[i] McGoey, L. 2019. The Unknowers: How Strategic Ignorance Rules the World. Zed.
[ii] Rancière, J. 1991.The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five lessons in intellectual emancipation. Stanford University Press, p. 32. See McGoey, The Unknowers, for a longer discussion of the hierarchy of ignorance. As an ontological statement of individual equality, Rancière’s important point holds, but, I argue, operational hierarchies of unknowing are mobilized by the powerful to obscure this ontological reality.
[iii] Salecl, R. 2020. A Passion For Ignorance. Princeton University Press.
[iv] Bacevic, J. 2020. ‘There is no such thing as just ‘following the science’ – coronavirus advice is political’ (The Guardian, April 18).
[v] Smith, A. 1993. ‘On the Ambiguity of the Three Wise Monkeys’ Folklore 104 (1/2): 144-150