Ignorance: a global story

Eliezer Markowich Lissitzky, Companies, factories, wells, mines, Photography, 1939


Considerations from Peter Burke's book

Ignorance: a global history, by Peter Burke, is fresh out of the oven (2022, by Yale University Press; 2023, by Editora Vestígio). For the The New York Times Book Review, the work “explores the ways in which obstacles, forgetfulness, secrecy, denial, uncertainty, prejudice, misunderstanding, and gullibility have impacted the course of history, from the redrawing of borders to climate change denial and more.” The essay is dedicated “To the teachers of this world, heroes and heroines in the daily attempt to remedy ignorance”. Our category tries.

Renato Janine Ribeiro, in the presentation of the Brazilian edition, praises the timely intellectual effort at a time that makes ignorance “arrogant”. For fascists, culture is a target of hatred and lack of culture is a source of pride. The reflection is divided into two broad parts. In the first, “Ignorance in society”, he discusses especially the areas of religion, science and geography. In the second, “Consequences of ignorance”, covers war, business, politics, catastrophes, secrets, doubts and forgetting the past. The conclusion, “The new knowledge and the new ignorance”, projects the cyclical (Machiavellian) conception of the icon in cultural history, from the University of Cambridge.

From who? For whom?

Ignorance is one of the “five giants” to be defeated by the civilizing process, along with poverty, disease, misery and idleness. It is read in the report that founded the British welfare state, created by the Labor government of 1945. Under the hegemony of finance, this program gave way to the reverse – the “production of ignorance” in the masses.

Result: more poverty, due to increased inequalities; more illness, due to the lack of a universal health system; more misery, due to the abandonment of social policies and the hope born more than 500 years ago with the Utopia, by Thomas More, of a basic income against crime and; more forced idleness, due to the rapid expulsion of millions of people from formal activity. The neoliberalism of Société du Mont Pèlerin caused a toxic overload of barbarism and indifference in society.

To the list, it is possible to add the ignorance propagated by the dominant classes about the economy, under capitalism. Whether to mystify the lexicon used to justify “austerity” and the elimination of state contributions to health, education, housing, social assistance, converting rights into paid services in Europe; whether to naturalize the interest rates defined by a so-called independent Central Bank, in Brazil – whose? for whom? In consumption, misinformation also plays an important role. “Market agents don’t miss the chance to benefit from other people’s ignorance”, as explained by Flávio Fligenspan, in the article “The fallacy of interest-free installments” (On the 21, 11/09/2023).

In order not to be restricted to the unknown-unknown (what is unknown without being aware of not knowing), it is worth mentioning the known-unknown (knowledge that does not know itself), as Slavoj Zizek refers to the Freudian-Lacanian unconscious. Unconsciousness is general. We are all impervious, to one extent or another. The refusal to know is not innocent. It can worsen pseudo-natural disasters. The floods in the municipalities of Rio Grande do Sul provide proof. The poor in vulnerable areas perceived the dangers and had no decision-making power; senior administrators were aware of the potential damage, and held command. They did nothing except cry over spilled milk. Or diffuse the calamity at an Ivete Sangalo show in São Paulo, as the governor of Rio Grande do Sul.

Ignorance is costly

Those who make ignorant decisions are dangerous (nihil science), with his back to the community's disasters. The “ethics of responsibility” imposes on political representatives, first, to guarantee the right to security of those represented in the territory they inhabit and; second, provide non-pro forma solidarity to those dependent on official institutions. After everything, those affected by the waters that swept away homes and dreams, it is up to quick legal representatives with those “above” in the privatization of public assets and, bureaucratically, with those “below” in need. Grief requires circumspection. “You know: bread or loaves, it’s a matter of opinions”, you learn there on the paths of the great hinterland.

The Northern power's persecution of Julian Assange occurs due to the disclosure of confidential documents about the invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and the CableGate – spying on foreign leaders through illegal access to Gmail. The argument goes back to “state secrets” or “state reasons”. In the democratic rule of law, the value of transparency for the public interest prevails. If it does not prevail, it is because the truth shakes the foundations of status quo imperialist.

A gait Neoliberal invests in the inevitability of progress that generates social chaos and environmental crisis. For Peter Burke, the rise of new knowledge brings new ignorance. If the species in total knows more today than ever, individually perhaps the same cannot be said. The study of the classics fell into disuse. The fragmentation of knowledge creates technicians without sapience, accuses centenarian Edgar Morin. In medicine, where ignorance is studied early on, many doctors embraced scientific denialism during the pandemic, in contradiction to the Hippocratic oath.

Significant totality

It is necessary to articulate existing knowledge based on what Lucien Goldmann calls “significant totality”. In the dialectical view, unlike the positivist one, “the whole is not synonymous with everything”. What counts for cognition are the pieces relevant to understanding the phenomena of reality. The power of thought lies in its ability to structure and mean knowledge in an intelligible way, and not in the random and disordered amount of data stored by Doctor Google.

“Infocracy” exploits the ignorance of the masses with the technology of the Big Data. The manipulation of consumerist and even electoral trends is far from equivalent to an enhancement of the rationality of behaviors, and even less, to the understanding of events as a whole. Conscience is the stage for the dispute between socialist criticism and capitalist greed that weaves modalities of domination to cheat the naive. The emancipation or subjection of humanity is at stake. Luckily, you can't fool all the people all the time, although it's pretty easy to fool yourself.

The “information society” does not resolve any contemporary impasse – the climate catastrophe, the abysmal inequalities, the destruction of democracy and the threat of nuclear conflict. The class struggle is not a nostalgia for the analogue era, but a symptom of the revived class equation. For those who perform command roles, we recommend the chapter where Peter Burke addresses “Political Ignorance” from three angles: those of the rulers (kings, prime ministers or presidents), the ruled and the organization of the governance system. The 366 pages are based on Thomas Jefferson's quote: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, and still in a condition of civilization, it expects something that has never happened and will never happen.” But that is up to the reader to decide.

* Luiz Marques is a professor of political science at UFRGS. He was the state secretary of culture in Rio Grande do Sul during the Olívio Dutra government..


Peter Burke. Ignorance: a global story. Translation: Rodrigo Seabra. Belo Horizonte, Vestígio, 366 pages. [https://amzn.to/46DeKdT]

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