Perhaps Donald Rumsfeld summed up a particularly modern differentiation between what is known and what is unknown when he stated:
There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.
This quote was repeated endlessly by the media with endless incredulity. At two faces I suspect. Firstly there was the screeching clumsiness of the language – “known knowns”, viz. was he trying to be a something of a poet or just purposely obscurant? Added to that the exemplification: things we know that we know. It still just sounds redundant and confusing. Why not just say much more eloquently and clearly, “There are facts that we know?”
More jarring though in the context, was the concept of “unknown unknowns”, unknown facts that we have no consciousness of – not of their being unknown, but that we lack even awareness of them being unknown. Implying their non-existence. Which in turn invokes a complex ontological argument playing with concepts of being, non-being and not-being.
What does that mean anyway? How can there be an “unknown” unknown? How can you possibly lack knowledge of something which you have no knowledge of in the first place? The media worldwide smelt a fish it seemed. This line of argument was a trick, a sleight of hand, smoke & mirrors. It played with the pliability of perception.
And yet, something in the argument strikes a nerve. Could it be that perhaps there are things we don't know yet that we don't know? For example, 30 years ago, we didn't know the fact that we didn't know what dark energy and dark matter were made of. Just because we didn't know 96% of the universe was made up of stuff we didn't know about yet. We didn't know that 96% of the universe was missing and we certainly didn't know that that 96% missing stuff would end up being unknown stuff. Stuff we now appropriately call, “dark matter” and “dark energy”, as we can't see it, can't detect it, and don't know anything about it really. Essential stuff, invisible stuff.
96% of the stuff of the Universe is unknown stuff. Now known unknown stuff. But 30 years ago it was unknown unknown stuff. We thought we had with confidence accounted for 100% of the universe, until the picture suddenly fell apart, and the unknown washed right back in like an incessant wave.
But one thing draws us up short: history. This kind of thinking only works with the benefit of what we call hindsight. After all, that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger and what you don't know can't hurt you, until you become aware of it.
Perhaps the ultimate “unknown unknown” is that state of being we refer to as the future, which Derrida, in Of Grammatology aptly described as what “can only be anticipated in the form of an absolute danger. It is that which breaks absolutely with constituted normality and can only be proclaimed, presented, as a sort of monstrosity.”
The unknown, even the unknown modified by the unknown; appears in a state of fear: danger, absolute danger, an absolute break with reality, as a sort of monstrosity. Monstrosity has two etymologies: that of the monster, the unbearably dark and ugly being, an unknown being, that which haunts your nightmares as a 4 year old, that which threatens absolutely to overwhelm; but also that which monstrates – that which demonstrates, that which is or comes to be shown in all its presence, whether horrendous or shining, ugly or beautiful. In the end, the monster demonstrates and delineates, between the known and the unknown.
It's interesting that in Catholicism, the consecrated host, which is the substance of Christ Himself is carried about in what is called a Monstrance. Not quite a monster, but a beautifully adorned object which makes bare by enclosing the presence of the Christ in the form of a wafer to all, which elevates Him and makes the wafer an object of worship, rather than of fear and unknowing. And of distance. And it is the Monstrance, bearing the edge of unknowing which makes the unknown essence knowable and visible.
In Western philosophy everything comes down to this play of division – of essence and substance versus appearance and accident. Of what is invisible and intangible versus what is visible and tangible . Between what we don't know: the unknown, and what is known. And it is a play; for what is unknown, undiscovered, not yet apparent and accidental must be made so. The whole project of western philosophy and science is to uncover, make bare and naked, make visible, place into a monstrance that which yet eludes description and escapes the bounds of knowledge.
And so we come to the fundamental unit of the known: the episteme. As envisaged by Foucault, the episteme is that unit of knowledge, of the known of which it is possible to say “this is acceptable and it is possible of this to say: 'true', or 'false'”. These days, everything acceptable is everything that is visible and apparent: everything about which data can be gathered and about which we can say, “this is true, that is false”. About such things we can say that we know.
Everything else, all that is invisible, about which we cannot collect data using technology and recording instruments, all these remain in the episteme of the unknown, and must be either collected in the circle of the monstrance, or the aura of the Monster for these to have any meaning or differentiation whatsoever, for here we hit the essence; what we would call the spirit, we reach all too soon that which is unknown.
But that which escapes this play and opens us into new spaces altogether is what also escaped the monstrance: it is the future itself, the unknown unknown, the unknown of the unknown, viz, those consequences borne of actions which have not yet even been conceived, let alone born. In these spaces we contemplate an almost totally elusive, totally unwielding nihil, a lack which does not give way, a lack that almost makes us dizzy and drunk with its force; what Lacan might have called a Real which resists symbolization absolutely, in these spaces we approach, but yet gain no knowledge of the unknown.
What remains then is an attempt at representation, of that which cannot hope to be represented for if it did it would become what it is not, if would transgress the bounds of the monstrance/monster from the unknown to the known and would become mundane and vulgar.