November 7, 2023

The Force of Ignorance

Boris Groys

Checking identity papers in the Marx Brothers, Monkey Business (1931)

When I emigrated from the USSR in 1981 and came to the border of Germany to ask for political asylum, an immigration officer asked me: “What is your profession?” Already expecting his question, I replied: “Philosopher.” He was patient with me and tried to explain: “Coming from a different culture, you probably don’t know what it means to be a philosopher in the West, especially here in Germany. A philosopher is an old person, often with a grey beard, who has written a lot of thick books.” I wanted to tell him: “What you call a philosopher is, actually, a wise man. But a philo-sopher is somebody who does not have Wisdom but only loves it, has a desire for it. Thus, a philosopher can also be young.” But I did not take this road. Instead, I asked myself what irritated me to such a degree that I wanted to provoke this officer, if only mildly, by pretending to be a philosopher. Of course, I knew that a fugitive had no chance to be recognized as a philosopher. That is why Socrates preferred to die rather than leave his native city.

My irritation came from the officer’s questions: “What is your name? What is your date of birth?” These questions suggested that I somehow know my name, my date of birth, and other similar data. This suggestion was made even more obvious by a warning from the officer: I was legally responsible to give correct, true answers to these questions. But how was I supposed to know all this stuff? If you are called to court as a witness, you are asked to say what you have seen or heard. In this case, the court can indeed expect a sincere answer. But I was not a witness to my birth, and I was not consciously present at the moment when I received my name. I trust, of course, that my name is my name, that I was born at this time and place—but again: I do not know it. I cannot certify it. I can only repeat it, without any inner conviction. It irritated me to state something and take personal responsibility for this statement without having any subjective evidence that this statement is true. And it irritated me that after learning my name, date of birth, and country of origin, the immigration officer had the impression that he knew precisely what I was. So I reacted by saying something he did not suspect—calling myself a philosopher. This kind of irritation seemed to me to be a typically philosophical irritation.

The knowledge that a philosopher desires is self-knowledge. The scientist seeks knowledge about the world, the philosopher seeks to know the self. Searching for knowledge of the self, philosophers are immediately confronted with the fact that there is a very easy answer to the question of who they are. First of all, they are humans. And humans are immediately recognized as things, as bodies in space. The race, gender, and other characteristics of these bodies can be established by visual inspection. Age can also be established visually to a certain degree. However, the same in not true of a person’s name or precise date of birth. It was famously said that when you examine the human body, you do not find a soul. But nor do you find a name and date of birth. That is why, during a hospital stay, a patient is required to repeat their name and date of birth over and over again. These characteristics neither belong to my body nor to my “inner world” of memories. They can be found only in documents. These documents contain my name, date of birth, place of birth, gender, and citizenship. They almost always contain a photograph, and maybe also the names of parents, biometric data, and so forth. This information is produced and imposed on a person by the global bureaucratic system in which they live. A person is obliged to repeat this information time and again—when checking into a hotel, boarding a plane, crossing a state border. The same information is required when starting a new job, paying taxes, renting an apartment, getting married, and so forth. One is even obliged to “believe” this information, to internalize it, to take responsibility for it.

We can speak of a global bureaucracy because, even if our world remains politically divided into nation-states, every national bureaucracy accepts the birth certificates and identity documents of other national bureaucracies. During the Cold War, Western bureaucracy and Eastern communist bureaucracy seemed to be mortal enemies. But as a migrant from East to West, I saw that Western bureaucracy relied completely on the birth, educational, and marriage documents issued by Eastern bureaucracy. Thus, a person’s official identity remains stable across all ideological, political, and cultural borders. It also remains stable until a person’s death, when all this documentation culminates in a death certificate. Identity documents mark the way in which I am inscribed into the networks of global bureaucracy—and thus into historical time.

Indeed, there is no other way to make a person historical. Our bodies are natural. Our thoughts are hidden. It is due to my name and date of birth that I become inscribed into human history as a part of “my generation,” sharing an historical identity and fate with others around my age. Global bureaucracy is a secular mode of control over our existence in time. In this sense it substitutes for the Church. The Church believed that our immortal souls remain self-identical throughout our life on this earth. Secular global bureaucracy secures our identities by keeping our documents throughout our earthly existence and even after. There is only one difference: the soul was thought to be inside our body, but documents are outside it. From the standpoint of global bureaucracy and official sociology, I belong to my generation as I belong to my race and gender—whether I want to or not. To escape religious control, a person had to accept that they had no soul. To escape global bureaucratic control, a person has to accept that they are nameless and ignorant about their date of birth.

Indeed, we are ignorant about our origin. We are insofar as we remain faithful to this ignorance. This ignorance is our actual identity. That is why we experience a spontaneous unease when we are defined by others who pretend to know us—when we are “objectified” by the gaze of others. This unease is not a sign that we know ourselves better than others know us. Nor is it a sign that we are “subjects”; the subject was deconstructed and proclaimed dead long ago. It is simply a manifestation of the force of ignorance in us that rejects any restrictions and categorizations. What we call philosophy interprets this ignorance as the universal human condition. Indeed, every piece of knowledge is concrete but ignorance is universal. I am ignorant of my name and date of birth in the same way that everybody else is. According to Plato, we are embodiments of our souls, and our souls have their origin in the realm of pure ideas. Thus, souls are nameless and unborn. The Cartesian “I” is also a nameless I. When I say that I am because I think, it does not mean that my “I” has this or that particular name: the thinking process is nameless and infinite. Tao is the universal path that all things, including humans, follow. Buddhism speaks about the great void that is our true origin. There are people who believe in metempsychosis and even say that they can remember their earlier incarnations. Other people believe that they can access their subconscious and the nameless, anonymous forces that govern it. All these philosophical teachings and traditions have time and again been falsely presented as forms of knowledge. In fact, they are forms of universal ignorance, directed against the claims of knowledge and identification. As such they offer a culturally recognized escape from global bureaucracy and the human sciences that serve it: sociology, psychology, ethnology, anthropology, and so forth.

We can accept the origin and identity that are ascribed to us by global bureaucracy and at the same time be dissatisfied by the place in the global hierarchy this identity gives us. It is a widespread phenomenon: people struggle to attain a better place for themselves and their generation without putting into question their officially certified identities. However, this struggle never goes far enough because power over the universal remains with global bureaucracy. People betray the universality of their ignorance and accept the knowledge of the world in which they are only insignificant particles. Only if we commit ourselves to our universal, nameless origin are we able to undermine and potentially destroy global bureaucratic control and its domination over us.

In Germany, academic advisers are often called Doktor-Vater or Doktor-Mutter (“doctoral father” or “doctoral mother”). Here biological ancestry is replaced by spiritual ancestry. The birth of our body is replaced by a spiritual birth. In medieval times, kings invented genealogies for themselves that included not only Adam but also Greek heroes and Roman celebrities, such as Julius Cesar. In this way, they designed genealogies that justified their exercise of power. Nothing stops us from designing our own genealogies as genealogies of philosophical ignorance that relieve us from the duty to follow the common trajectory of our generation as imposed on us by global bureaucracy. We can choose a spiritual origin leading back to Plato and Plotinus, or a revolutionary one leading back to Trotsky and Gramsci. By designing our own genealogies, we define our social and political place here and now.

Recalling the beginning of my text, you might ask: How did I respond to the question posed by the immigration officer? I will tell you: on my application I changed the word “philosopher” to the word “mathematician.” After that I was allowed to cross the border and enter the territory of the Western world.

Philosophy, Borders & Frontiers

Boris Groys is a philosopher, essayist, art critic, media theorist, and an internationally renowned expert on Soviet-era art and literature, especially the Russian avant-garde.


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