Written by Maja Rogač Stančević//
In the age of arrogant „know-it-all“ attitudes, ignorance has become almost taboo. Although in antiquity it functioned as a topos of humility, confronting the limits of one’s own knowledge was until recently considered elemental wisdom. We flee from our own ignorance to such an extent that, at best, it becomes a subject of study, as in Renata Salecl’s book Passion for Ignorance (What We Decide Not to Know and Why), published by Fraktura in 2022.
The author points out the protective and even healing nature of ignorance, which manifests itself in various modalities. It appears in the form of repression (ignoring) unbearable knowledge, as well as the lack of key information through which power over individuals is established. The analysis of electronic traces in the form of photographs, recordings, search history, personal preferences, and, more recently, medical records provides material for corporations and governments to study. Their power lies in processing the data collected about us – a kind of omniscience. Non-recognition and repression as acts of denial are at the center of Renata Salecl’s attention.
Through the description of a clinical case of mirror phobia – eispotrophobia, the author depicts the global pressure exerted by the „beauty industry“ on individuals in the 21st century, making it unbearable for many to confront a realistic image of their own appearance. Japanese psychoanalyst Daisuke Fukuda writes about a case of a woman whose pathology manifests as intense discomfort in the presence of mirrors. She is unable to face her own reflection and therefore attempts to resolve the internal conflict by breaking these objects – symbolically destroying both the mirrors and her reflection in them. The image itself reflected in the mirror cannot be inherently disturbing; it is the context socially attributed to it that becomes significant. The new norm becomes the self-presentation of social media users through various filters (now available on every phone), embellishing photos of their bodies and lives.
„I haven’t forgotten. I don’t want to remember.“ The quoted words of a woman who escaped from the war in Bosnia best illustrate the protective role of repressing unbearable memories and contents that we cannot integrate into our own lives. The author highlights the contradiction in which trauma traps the family members of the victims: the unknown whereabouts of their loved ones’ bodies prevent them from facing the reality of their deaths, freezing them in the moment of their greatest pain. She cites a poignant example shown in Jasmila Žbanić’s documentary film „Red Rubber Boots,“ dedicated to a mother who follows a forensic expert from one mass grave to another in the hope of finally identifying the remains of her children through DNA analysis and burying them.
Renata Salecl herself also confronted silence as a form of protection from a dangerous past, suppressing the family memory of her politically undesirable ancestor’s death after World War II. Due to the imposed silence, she learns about her grandfather’s fate late in life. He was suspected of collaborating with the Nazis and was killed by the partisans when he expressed his intention to move to Austria with his family. One way of appropriating the family history is through the construction of an empty tomb, where the author’s parents perform a symbolic burial. One form of searching for essential information is reflected in the exploration of genetic records, while epigenetics—the influence of life circumstances on the development of genetic predispositions—is often neglected. The question arises as to how tolerable or useful knowledge about the presence of predispositions for serious illnesses and disorders can be for individuals. The accessibility of this information, as well as the possibility of its misuse through surveillance of individuals with undesirable genetics, poses problems. In some countries (Algeria), genetics is even considered a mitigating circumstance in the judiciary when assessing individuals accused of serious crimes.
Nevertheless, our genes are also part of our identity – inheritance can be seen as destiny, which implies our need to know. As Renata Salecl defines it, we hope to find the truth in the body, and this seems to be a misdirected ambition. Most geneticists agree that conscious choice of the future provides us with a kind of freedom after learning about the imperatives of our genes. Alongside the right to know, the author raises an important question about the right not to know, to reject unwanted knowledge.
Repressing difficult and terminal diagnoses in some cases represents a mode of survival during the remaining time of an individual’s life. With the help of their loved ones, terminally ill patients can secure hours and days of „normal“ life in which the illness is not mentioned or acknowledged. As Shlomo Brenic, classifying forms of repression, notes, these behaviors mostly serve to establish hope and can have a healing effect, although some of them can be destructive. No matter how much our notion of „knowing everything“ is encouraged in the culture we live in, the aspiration to appropriate knowledge has its limits, determined by our ability to bear and „survive“ it.
Therefore, Renata Salecl’s study makes a valuable contribution to the self-understanding of contemporary individuals.