A Passion for Ignorance:
What We Choose Not to Know and Why
by Renata Salecl
From The Philosopher, vol. 109, no. 2 ("Authority and Knowledge").
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Artwork by Joanna Borkowska
A Passion for Ignorance: What We Choose Not to Know and Why
by Renata Salecl
(Princeton University Press, 2020)
Reviewed by Linsey McGoey
Does being loving, whether it’s as a partner, a child or a parent, require truthfulness at all times? And if so, does this mean that people have a duty to track their own ignorance, like it’s a sort of prey, in order to trap and contain it? Does being a “good” human necessarily entail striving to be a better knower?
These questions animate a growing body of literature known as “ignorance studies”, and Renata Salecl’s A Passion for Ignorance makes a valuable contribution to this emerging subfield. Ignorance studies draws insights from numerous disciplines – sociology, anthropology, analytical philosophy – and reviewing each approach is beyond the scope of this review.
But each shares a perspective that Salecl also adopts in her book, which is that ignorance is more than the mere absence of knowledge or information, but rather is an active force in itself with the capacity to shape social and political structures. Ignorance can be a type of power in commercial and political negotiations, a wellspring of anxiety when it comes to “being ignored”, and a source of hopefulness when it comes to love. Ignorance can be a tool of oppression, as exemplified by Charles Mills’ concept of “white ignorance”. For Mills, white ignorance is not a residual but rather a constitutive force enabling white supremacy to persist today.
Salecl’s book sits at the interstice of sociology and philosophy, and she offers a series of compelling sociological vignettes that ask the reader to look at ignorance in new ways in order to better understand the role that it plays both in sustaining human relationships and in destroying them. Her empirical canvas is broad, from interpersonal relationships at the level of a father and daughter grieving the early death of a mother, to Bosnian refugees living in St. Louis after the Bosnian war in the 1990s. Through these vignettes, Salecl argues that the human “passion for ignorance” (a term she takes from Lacan) is not necessarily an irrational tendency, but can in fact serve both as an avenue for reaching new, deeper truths about ourselves and others, and as a tool for helping people to endure the extremities of despair and hope when it comes to a range of human events like military trauma, bereavement or love. Ignorance can be cathartic as well as a catalyst of anger and violence; it can be imbued with a social, political and psychological importance that can only be assessed analytically once the tendency to see it as the “mere” lack of knowledge is abandoned.
The most original and compelling element of Salecl’s book lies in its use of insights from psychoanalysis to examine the role that ignorance can play in sustaining different types of love. She offers the example of a woman she knows who was happy to receive, each year, letters from her mother who died when the woman was a young girl. Then one day the woman explains to Salecl that she knows that the letters are not “real” – they were not written by her mother, who died not wanting to burden her daughter with that type of memento as she thought that leaving such as legacy might be too much of a psychological imposition on her daughter. But soon after her death, the daughter longed so much for such a letter that her father wrote her one, repeating the ritual each year. Both daughter and father knew the truth, but colluded in a kind of cherished, almost sacred, ignorance.
Salecl’s point is that despite being false the letters created a type of memory that cannot simply be dismissed as “ignorance” but neither do they represent “accurate” knowledge about the mother’s inner beliefs or thoughts. For the daughter, they helped to alleviate and to mitigate a deeper type of ignorance: the reality of how little about her mother the daughter could actually know. This moving example helps Salecl to defend her main proposition: that ignorance is a complex phenomenon that can be at times a source of morality, love and hope.
IGNORANCE IS A COMPLEX PHENOMENON THAT CAN AT TIMES BE A SOURCE OF MORALITY, LOVE AND HOPE.
Our identities are shaped by the constant acting and performance demanded by living in communities – in the sense that Simone de Beauvoir attributed to the theatre of gender performance, which would in turn influenced Erving Goffman’s notion of dramaturgy. Because the need to live in social groups inherently demands a degree of acting and concealment, it is hard to separate the performance of unknowing from the reality of unknowing, because acting ignorant can often be a way to veil oneself from learning more unsettling knowledge.
To understand what I mean by the performance of ignorance versus the reality of it, take the example of a situation where people who are living in authoritarian regimes censor themselves from speaking publicly or even in their homes about the atrocities inflicted on vulnerable groups. To speak up anywhere, even in private, threatens one’s survival, and so staying quiet about things that are suspected but not fully known becomes a coping mechanism to avoid lethal reprisals.
At first, as the criminologist Stanley Cohen has pointed out, people’s denial requires a type of wilful ignorance not to investigate further. People might suspect brutality in unseen realms – they might even be able to smell and see smoke from afar, from the furnace in a concentration camp – but they ignore it, pretending they can’t see.
Later on, reflecting back, they can say genuinely that they didn’t know. Not because they couldn’t know, but because they refused to. This deliberate ignoring gives them what I call an “ignorance alibi” or a “useful unknown” that helps them to alleviate their guilt. It might be a spurious type of exoneration, but their willed unknowing nonetheless still has important psychological, legal and political implications. The longer they gaze away, the more durable their ignorance becomes: their performed ignorance gradually becomes genuine ignorance. Even when you are the one who is purposefully keeping yourself in the dark, the room is still black.
Salecl’s book offers different examples which illuminate why people can crave this type of darkening, this immersion in unknowing. She doesn’t aim to categorize these different types of unknowing (as she notes, other scholars like Ann Kerwin and Nancy Tuana have already developed robust taxonomies of ignorance), but rather draws on personal examples as well as the psychological and sociological literature to analyse different practices of unknowing as they unfold in social life.
One of Salecl’s most personal case studies looks at a St. Louis community home for Bosnian refugees forced to leave during and after the war in the mid-1990s. This is especially personal because Salecl, as a Slovene, has some cultural and regional ties with the Bosnians she meets. In a chapter titled “Empty Graves: Ignorance, Forgetting, and Denial in War”, she looks at how different forms of forgetting, on the one hand, and both intentional commemoration and forced acknowledgement, on the other hand, can help different survivors to balance traumatic memories with the challenges of economic and social survival in St. Louis. She writes about meeting older women in Little Bosnia who work exhausting hours in low-paid jobs. The work is gruelling, but it also offers a chance to disengage from the mental exhaustion of constant remembrance of past atrocities such as the genocide in Srebrenica in 1995. “They need the money. But for many of these women, work also offers refuge from a painful past”, Salecl writes, drawing on psychological studies of the ways that repression of traumatic events can be a “desperate attempt to go on living” (39).
This chapter also addresses the effort to use DNA testing to reach conclusive knowledge about lost family members buried in mass graves across Bosnia and Herzegovina. Salecl’s point is that often ignorance is forced on people – it’s not wilful but a rather a curse that people hope can be dissipate by furnishing evidence that human remains are definitely the remains of a loved one. Even then, further questions and further unknowns will always linger, but the confirmation can be a catalyst bringing people some peace, even while certain questions remain forever unanswered.
In another provocative and important chapter, “The Fear of Being Ignored: From Incel to Imposter”, Salecl offers new insights into a topic that has received very little attention to date in “ignorance studies”, namely the social effects of feeling ignored or shunned. Most work to date has looked at the productive use of ignorance in order to secure different institutional and political advantages. Salecl flips the lens, giving a notion like “strategic ignorance” new salience by pointing out that claims of being ignored are a central aspect of incel identity, enabling them to strive to self-justify, however speciously, their own heinous acts of violence and hatred for women.
Drawing on Freud, Salecl suggests that jealousy of what incels call “Chads” – a nickname for the imagined perfect man, with strong chins and razored jaws, who they think women want more than them – is like Freud’s “primal horde” theory, his suggestion that ancient human history might have once featured communities led by a sole patriarch who monopolizes women, killing male offspring. There is no evidence that Freud’s theory is a true reflection of any early communities, and yet, Salecl suggests, some version of it seems to recur in the delusions of men who feel ignored. Salecl is not at all trying to rationalize their violence, but simply seeks to assess and to reflect upon it. Today, this need is greater than ever as many people, including academics, don’t want to know or speak of motives in such matters, because the “will to understand” incel motivations seems too much like an extension of closeness or even sympathy that is undeserved. But this is an abdication of responsibility. It is itself a form of wilful ignorance. Heinous motives, such as the deluded fantasies that underpin incel violence, are shaped by larger structures of white supremacy and the cultural forgetting and scapegoating that bulwarks white domination. To peel back the layers of delusion, to encourage others to look, seems like a duty. Salecl is willing to look.
A Passion for Ignorance is more of a portrait of the social life of ignorance than a social theory of ignorance. Forms of structural power that make ignorance more “available” to some groups and individuals than to other are rarely explored. As Mills’ work on “white ignorance” shows, ignorance about the past is rarely accidental. In nations with education systems that largely overlook the teaching of colonial pasts, for example, lack of wider knowledge is not simply an individual failing, but is structurally conditioned by institutional forms of deliberate forgetting. Those with influence over curriculum development could thus be said to be more “elite” at ignorance, an idea that I use in my analyses of the hierarchy of ignorance in different social and political settings.
While Salecl’s book is generative of new ways of visualizing ignorance, it is also sometimes rather “thin” sociologically. In her case studies, Salecl has a tendency to privilege psychological studies at the expense of attention to earlier sociological studies of human interaction. For example, in an otherwise compelling section on “imposters” in which she draws on the work of Polish psychoanalyst Helene Deutsch, Salecl tells us that Deutsch, who had spent her career developing new psychological ideas about the act of lying and who wrote about “imposters”, gradually grew more pessimistic as she aged, dismayed to “see imposters everywhere: among her friends and acquaintances, even herself. Everyone seems to fabricate their identity in accordance with some imaginary concept of self” (127). Is there, Deutsch asked, a difference between the “normal” and the “pathological” imposter? Salecl suggests this constant shifting of identity is not necessarily a problem in itself, but rather that the deeper problem is that people are always “guessing whom they would like to be and which of their images might be socially desirable” (127). This is certainly an interesting point, but why is such guessing so problematic?
IT IS NOT KNOWLEDGE BUT RATHER IGNORANCE THAT HELPS US TO BELIEVE THAT NEW TYPES OF EMANCIPATION ARE SOMEDAY POSSIBLE
Salecl implies that that the onus to endlessly question external perceptions of ourselves, the endless guessing game in which we find ourselves enmeshed, is a sort of negation of our “true” identity. But it seems to me that such guessing, and the uncertainty that surrounds it, is an inevitable feature of social life. We see ourselves through other people’s eyes, and yet this universality can have very different, stratified social implications, as scholars like Du Bois, Fanon, Beauvoir, and Sartre have pointed out. Salecl’s discussion in this section felt undertheorized. While drawing richly on psychoanalysis, this section would surely have benefited from delving more explicitly into theories of existentialism or dramaturgy. One reason why such “guessing” is so problematic is because, as both Beauvoir and Goffman’s work suggests, the tendency to modify one’s actions in line with assumptions about how others would like one to act can be a stubborn source of social stratification. An important insight from dramaturgical social theory is how social “performances” tend to reaffirm dominant norms and “officially credited values”, as Goffman puts it. This can entrench status quos, and cement racist, gendered and classist hierarchies of power.
On the other hand, it is also true that the human capacity for invention, for rebirth, for “guessing” which role to adopt, can be a source of new enlightenment. It is possible that the better performer has an enhanced ability to know, as Du Bois suggests, honed from a “double-consciousness” that people who have more ease performing “officially credited values” tend to lack. I think that a degree of visionary uncertainty can lie behind “guessing”. A sort of hopeful, anticipatory ignorance compels us, in a positive way, to constantly guess whether we are in communion or conflict with others, endlessly seeking a type of human accord, however fleeting or self-defeating.
It is not knowledge but rather ignorance that helps us to believe that new types of emancipation are someday possible. Try to insist that someone else’s hope is deluded, and you can’t, because hope, by its very definition, eludes that type of negation. The important contribution of Salecl’s elegant and compelling book is to convey this sense of hopeful ignorance.
Linsey McGoey is Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex, and author of No Such Thing as a Free Gift (2015) and The Unknowers: How Strategic Ignorance Rules the World (2019). She is co-editor of the Routledge Handbook of Ignorance Studies.