Friday, April 07, 2006

The Unknown Knowns: Quagmire of Lies

"Drive all the way to Reno, on the wrong side of the road."

-Tom Waits

In the beginning there was the Word, but it was sluggish and lacked Context. When you’ve only got one Word it’s difficult to build meaning. Sometimes if I type too fast the clogged and muddy processor has to think a bit before it shows me what I have written. My thoughts are languishing momentarily in a limbo, their faults as yet unknown to the visible world. (This mechanical limbo resembles a tiny mud puddle, while the limbo of unrevealed and unrealized thought behind my forehead is more like the Pacific Ocean.) As for the invisible world, once called the id by Mr. S. Freud, more and more we seem to know that it resides not only in the tumbledown shacks and dirty cellars on the outskirts of consciousness, but in our machines themselves. Such essential mechanical elements of our world system such as software, the street layout of D.C. and the tax code, to name only a few, have outgrown our ability to entirely control or understand them, and they display a witty and willful wickedness in their mad proliferation.

Donald Rumsfeld has begun to elucidate a basic taxonomy or ontology of knowledge. There are the known knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns. Presumably this is a tool of military analysis: we know the enemy has weapons; we know that we don’t know precisely what they are or how they are deployed, but we want to know those things and are actively seeking them out; and we also presume that there are things we don’t know that we should know, but we have no idea of where to start looking for them because we know nothing about them at all. This leaves out the fourth possibility, and the most difficult: the unknown knowns. These are things that we should know, and in fact do know, except that we have deliberately or accidentally hid or mislaid or denied or forgotten or disguised them, so that we are now in the territory of the false knowns, and every step takes us farther from actual knowledge. Some say the human species has been lost in this territory ever since the first Word was spoken, but I say, with others: no matter how far down the wrong road you have gone, turn back! Perhaps fatalism is the only true faith, but I reject it now and forever just on principle; I stand up and testify for the free mind and the unknown future, for these make me glad. No idea or image of Heaven has ever been able to make me want to trade away my front yard. The idea of a final and settled universe, the Eternal Reward, seems to me lifeless, an oil painting and nothing more. Even though the Tree of Knowledge has a huge dying limb with an infinite involution of complexity, full of rotting self-deceit, I am still willing to use my reason. I just wish everyone sitting on that limb would go straight to Heironymus Boschland when the limb falls off, and leave the rest of us in peace.

Ha! You reply heatedly: an oil painting can have a lot more life in it than most people. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Good luck falling in love with that marble bust of Helen. True, she don’t talk back and she stays faithfully on the pedestal. But the killing boredom! You’d be a lot happier with the widow next door, Edith, who like to polka and has that big old wart. So what if she’s been married seven times before?

But I digress. (And why the hell not?) There is no magic Word, Rummy. You’re an unusually straightforward guy, or so you seem. Think about the unknown knowns, and try to admit that mistakes, as they say, were made, and lies told. Otherwise we’ll be stuck in this mud until Kingdom Come or the next election, whichever comes first.

Copyright 2006 by David Warren Rockwell

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