Sunday, October 17, 2010

Rumsfeld's Unknown Known, or Iraq's Initiation into Democratic Practice

In Slavoj Zizek's article "Rumsfeld's Unknown Known, or Iraq's Initiation into Democratic Practice", Zizek examines the nature of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and how they relate to true American values. He does not mention Rumsfeld until near the end, when he mentions a quote from Rumsfeld's philosophies on the known and unknown and reveals that he had missed out on the important term of "unknown knowns". He proceeds to relate this to his argument on the prison scandal to prove his point. At the beginning of his article, he recounts on how the Bush administration regarded the acts of torture at Abu Ghraib as isolated crimes that were not indicative of what America stands for for. From there on, Zizek first compares the torture to Western hazing rituals, mentioning the main difference being that in hazing, the person receiving the humiliation or torment is willingly going along in attempts to fit into an exclusive society. He also claims that when he first got hold of the photos, he thought it was a picture of an art exhibit, comparing the staging of the shot to a scene in a David Lynch film or any sort of humiliating publication in some reality show. Zizek then explains how prisoners at Guantanamo were considered to be homo sacer, meaning legally dead though biologically alive. Because they were accidentally surviving combat, they were simply being brought in under a casualty title. This provides a loophole for all sorts of normally illegal activity, allowing any sort of horror to befall these prisoners as it often does. Then he mentions outsourcing, for both economics and torture, to avoid the restrictions of the First World laws to provide cheaper or more effective ways of getting things done, even if health and ecological factors are dropped for the sake of production.

Finally, using the 'unknown knowns' idea that Rumsfeld failed to acknowledge, he explains how the scandal relates to it. Unknown knowns are what we don't know that we know. These are the practices we enact but don't allow ourselves to be aware of. When we outsource, we start to forget what is being done to others for our sake because it becomes easier to ignore, but we're still doing it. No direct orders were ever given to the soldiers to humiliate and torture the prisoners, but the pressure and the opportunities are still present, and like a secret no one talks about, it just happens. The truth is, just like in any society, the American/Western ideal is still underlined with barbarism, even if there's a refusal to acknowledge it. Democratic values are not quite as spotless as they seek to portray themselves.

I don't really have many questions about this article because I was able to agree with the logic and understand the philosophy around it. I even knew of the 'known and unknown' factors before I read this, so as I read Rumsfeld's quote I knew he was missing the fourth, which is just as important as the other three and can be just as dangerous to be unaware of. The article seemed to be in defense of that fourth forgotten term. If I have one question in mind, it's how this article has to do with art. Or how it has to do with artists in general. When David Lynch was mentioned I thought I was on to something, but his work was only used to compare to the photos taken of Abu Ghraib. Is the purpose of this article to help us think about knowns and unknowns when we make our art? Is it to help us understand what sort of underlying 'inhumanities' exist in humanity so we can make work that exploits it? Because obviously all those television programs with excessive violence really catch attention. I know for a fact that most kids rather watch cartoons with violence than the wishy-washy children's shows that try their hardest to be informative and fun, minus the violence. People are just attracted to that sort of emotional outlet because, like sex, violence is a way of releasing our deepest and strongest emotions and that release often brings about a feeling of satisfaction, like throwing down some heavy baggage you've been carrying about for too long. Though, due to our society and the portrayal of what is 'humane', most violence is followed by an insincere sense of guilt, or sincere if there are consequences towards yourself.

Because I don't know how this article applies to art in general, I don't know how it applies to my art. There are no unknown knowns that I can think about existing within it. If I had to choose however, I'd have to say my work is more about the known unknown. What we know we don't know. No one knows for sure how the world will end, but it will. Whether it does in our lifetime or in millions of years from now, it will. Some people believe they know when it will end, firmly so, and to them it becomes a known known, in that case. But from my perspective, it's the former.

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