Ami Clarke





www.unknownunknowns.co.uk  (2009)

Web address, text, responsive to web hits, and tagged by the four terms;

Known Knowns
Unknown Knowns
Unknown Unknowns
Known Unknowns


The page is responsive to web hits and judders as visitors to the site pass their cursor over the page of text.

With technical assistance from Gabrielle Omar.

Unknown Unknowns - Campbell Works 05.09.





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.