Extracts from talk at Haus der Elektronischen Künste (HeK) Basel



“Commodifying Ignorance” 

“Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body 
of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public.” (Internal memo of the 
Brown & Williamson tobacco company. 1969)



Confected doubt - commodified ignorance - manufactured controversy - post-truth 
- false-flag - alternative facts - junk-data – These morbid symptoms of a 
deeper epistemic crisis are not simply a phenomenon of the internet. They are 
the unintended consequence of moving knowledge to the centre of what we take 
democratic politics to be. The politicisation of knowledge has unwittingly 
empowered knowledge’s dark sibling, ignorance. Not ignorance as blank space, 
but ignorance as a deliberately crafted commodity. And a force to be reckoned 


1. epistemic/anti-epistemic -


In 2017 *How Much of This is Fiction* was an exhibition featuring artists as 
tricksters using tactics of simulation, deception, and subterfuge for nominally 
progressive ends. For example, the artist Ian Alan Paul staged a representation 
of ‘The Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History’ as if such a museum actually 
existed and occupied the current site of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre 
(like the Robben Island Museum, Cape Town). This kind of conceit or thought 
experiment used fiction as a method to allow the curators and artists to flesh 
out this imaginary space in enough detail to trigger the imagination of 


But one of the artists, Paolo Cirio, took issue with the exhibition’s 
curatorial premise, arguing that he was advocating the very opposite of 
fiction, instead he was foregrounding fact, data, computation, evidence and 
above all ‘truth telling’. 


Cirio had already introduced the term Evidentiary Realism to capture the 
emergence of a wider 21st century realist movement. More recently this approach 
has been further developed by Matthew Fuller and Eyal Weisman under the rubric 
of ‘Investigative Aesthetics’ in a book of the same name, in which the authors 
represent the likes of Forensic Architecture and others as an ‘epistemic’ 
movement operating in opposition to the anti-epistemic (their term) background 
conditions facilitating the rise of reactionary populists typified by the likes 
of Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro, Orban, Putin et al.


I want to push back on the epistemic/anti-epistemic binary. All populism, 
reactionary or otherwise, is also an epistêmê. But one based on the 
knowledge-claim that it is they who ‘know’ the authentic will of the people. 
There is thus an inadvertent complicity underlying the (phoney) war between 
technocracy and populism. Anyone who doubts this need look no further than the 
empty spectacle of the contest between Le Pen and Macron.


2. Artificial Stupidity - 


The lure of the technocratic in both art and politics is that it appears to 
offer itself as a bulwark against populism. There are however non-populist 
alternatives to the rise of a technocratic art. One such avenue is suggested by 
the work of the artist Micheal O’Connell (aka Mockism) who has written of his 
encounter with Margaret Boden, an eminent Professor of cognitive science who, 
after a lecture on the dangers of AI, inquired of O’Connell as to the subject 
of his PhD to which he replied ‘artificial stupidity’. Its an answer that 
reflects O’Connell’s wider practice of intervening in the virtual public sphere 
in ways that illuminate the dysfunctionality of many supposedly intelligent or 
‘smart’ systems [..] His term ‘Artificial Stupidity’ acts as a shorthand for 
lack of general awareness or inability to think about all ‘embracing systems”. 
O’Connell’s work is one example that suggests an emerging curatorial space that 
goes beyond the visual rhetoric of incontrovertibility. And seeks instead to 
dramatize and articulate the “contours, scope and structure of our ignorance”.  


The ‘epistemic turn’ in both art and politics has had the unintended 
consequence of weaponizing ignorance. Not ignorance as a void but ignorance as 
a “solid or shifting body”.  


Thomas Pynchon put it well in his introduction to a book of early short 
stories, in which he reflects on the insights arising from re-reading his early 


''Everybody gets told to write about what they know, the trouble with many of 
us is that at the earlier stages of life we think we know everything - or to 
put it more usefully, we are often unaware of the scope and structure of our 
ignorance. Ignorance is not just a blank space on a person's mental map. It has 
contours and coherence, and for all I know rules of operation as well…”  
[Pynchon T. Slow Learner Brown. 1984.]


“Unaware of the scope and structure of our ignorance.” remains a resonant 
phrase and although he was speaking of individual writerly psychology the 
observation has, with the passing decades accrued far wider currency in the 
politics in the post-truth era. 


3. From Junk Bonds to Junk Data


The attack on the Capital was US liberal democracy's near-death experience. It 
was the political equivalent of Capitalism’s heart attack of 2008, signified by 
the collapse of Lehman Brothers. But in place of CDOs, ‘junk bonds’ and 
‘sub-prime mortgages’, the events of 2019 substituted ‘junk-facts and 
‘sub-prime data’. 


Multiple images from Trump's attempted coup revealed just how many of his most 
ardent followers, were simultaneously declaring their allegiance to the 
mysterious conspiracy cult of QAnon. This visible overlap of support for both 
Trump and Q demonstrated in real-time that the crisis in knowledge and the 
crisis in politics really had become one and the same thing. We might (as Geert 
Lovink declared) have reached peak data but there is little likelihood of 
reaching peak ignorance any time soon.


4. Pinker's Question


As is well known, QAnon's calling card was ‘Pizzagate’, one of the more 
deranged of the recent spate of conspiracy theories, in which it was alleged 
that children were kidnapped and ritually abused by a satanic cabal of 
paedophiles directed by Hillary Clinton who imprisoned the kids in the basement 
of a well-known Pizza parlour. This unhinged narrative circulated freely on the 
internet right up until the moment that a lone avenger, Edgar Welch, took it 
upon himself to rescue the kidnapped children, only to discover that not only 
were there no children in the basement. But the Pizza parlour in question 
didn’t even have a basement.  


Edgar Welsh’s hapless rescue mission prompted psycholinguist and pundit, 
Stephen Pinker, to ask a useful question: “why, given the popularity of QAnon 
and Pizzagate, did only one lone avenger, take it upon himself to attempt to 
rescue the children?” 


The reason, Pinker concludes, was a kind of willed ignorance. The other 
followers of Q, Pinker speculates, tacitly understood that the story was a 
fiction but suspended disbelief and continued to engage with an entertaining 
story. Pinker goes on to compare this kind conspiracy to “a multi-player game 
that gave participants a readymade community and was too enjoyable to fact 
check. "Myths like these” he concludes “are a lot more appealing than 


Pinker’s conclusion that the absence of a mass uprising to free the children 
points to a specific variant of ignorance as something ‘willed’ a form of 
social agency. A “selective choice (or Passive Construct). It’s the variant 
that “recognises that ignorance’s “political geography […]. less like a vacuum 
than a solid or shifting body – which travels through time and occupies space”. 
(R. Proctor-Agnotology)

The historian of science Robert Proctor together with linguist Ian Boal, 
introduced the term agnotology (the study of ignorance) and thus convened the 
discussion on ignorance as more than the “not yet known “. At an early stage, 
Proctor provisionally identified three variants : ignorance as a native state 
(or resource), ignorance as a lost realm (or selective choice), and ignorance 
as a deliberately engineered and strategic ploy (or active construct).

The conclusion Pinker reached as to why there were no more than one solitary 
rescue mission is an example of the second variant of “ignorance as selective 
choice”. And is extremely common in all walks of life. A classic example of 
ignorance of this variant is the stereotypical case of the English High Court 
judge interrupting council “to ask who the Spice Girls were, when that 
girl-band were at the peak of its popularity. Among the elite of British, 
education, which is to say the administration of knowledge and learning, at 
places like Eton, Harrow, Oxford, and Cambridge, is about ensuring ignorance of 
all the right things”.


It echoes Zizek’s ingenious addition to Donald Rumsfeld’s famous taxonomy 
(known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns) to which Zizek adds 
*unknown knowns*, for those truths one knows but refuse to acknowledge one 


5. ‘Conspiracy Without a Theory’

The Soviet-born British journalist Peter Pomerantsev, described how in 2014 
Vladimir Putin smirked all the way through a TV interview, during the 
annexation of Crimea, all the while proclaiming that Russian soldiers “were 
just locals who had bought Russian military uniforms”.  This argued Pomerantsev 
wasn’t so much “lying as effectively “removing the space where one can make a 
rational case…”. 

The refusals embedded in Putin’s smirking denial/non-denial is an example of a 
relatively new mode of conspiracism: the so called ‘conspiracy without a 
theory’,  identified by Russel Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum’s in their book ‘A 
Lot of People Are Saying’. 

The book’s title is taken from one of Trump’s most familiar catch phrases. And 
it captures a form of that unlike classic conspiricism WITH a theory avoids any 
engagement with actual arguments, focusing instead on inuendo, repetition and 
raw assertion coupled with a ‘blatant disregard for the facts’. Muirhead and 
Rosenblum contrast this new mode with the more established classic conspiracy 
theories which retain the armature of reasoned research, elaborate detective 
work and the detailed evidence gathering required to uncover the hidden truth 
below the surface. The new conspiracists dispense with these niceties. 

6. Origins of Agnotology

Study and reflection on the nature of knowledge has ancient pedigree 
encompassed by a familiar term, epistemology. Until relatively recently however 
the study of ignorance has not been so fortunate. This omission was eventually 
remedied by the introduction of the neologism ‘agnotology’. This term which 
combines the Greek agnosis (‘not knowing’ e.g. agnostic) with ontology, was 
coined by linguistic researcher, Ian Boal, when historian of science Richard 
Proctor asked him to identify or generate a suitable candidate. 


This was no academic game. Proctor’s insistence that a new term was required 
came off the back of the decades spent researching the tobacco industry’s 
malign and sophisticated campaign to obscure the medical evidence for the 
harmful effects of smoking. Proctor’s research culminated in the publication of 
The Golden Holocaust, a monumental and damning account of big tobacco’s 
industrial scale corporate crime. Beyond its intrinsic importance the book acts 
as a handbook in recognising similar tactics currently being undertaken by the 
fossil fuel industry in their efforts to create phoney controversy around the 
evidence for man-made climate change. 

The nature of the tactics uncovered by the book is shockingly captured in an 
internal memo circulated in 1969 by the Brown & Williamson tobacco company. The 
key section is: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing 
with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is 
also the means of establishing a controversy.” Proctor goes on to ask “what 
evil geniuses came up with the scheme to associate the continued manufacture of 
cigarettes with prudence, using the call for more research to slow the threat 
of regulation, but it must rank as one of the greatest triumphs of American 
corporate connivance? ” 

7. New Circles of Ignorance


These new realist movements are not restricted to the visual arts. The literary 
scholar, Toral Gajarawala has written an insightful analysis of so-called 
‘Finance Fiction’, a genre of novel that emerged after the financial crash of 
2008.  Notable examples are Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know, 
Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, John Lanchester’s Capital and Mohsin Hamid’s How 
to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. 


Though analytical and data rich these fictions go beyond the straightforwardly 
evidential, as Gajarawala points out that, “for all the information these 
novels provide, their ultimate achievement is to draw a circle around our 
ignorance. Yes, it makes much of the raw data of experience, but only in order 
to direct our attention to the full range of our illiteracy.” Towards the end 
of the article Gajarawala reminds us that the early modern realists were not 
just by-standers. Artists like Courbet and “novelists like Dreiser and Zola 
were committed socialists’ naturalism was a political project as much as an 
investigative or an aesthetic one.” “Who” she asks, “are their counterparts 


David Garcia. June 2022 








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