They won’t thank me for saying so, no doubt, but, despite this being the second successive World Cup the Central Americans have qualified for, Honduras remain what the commentators winkingly term ‘an unknown quantity’. We can perhaps use this as a stick with which to beat those indolent pundits happy enough to berate a player they believe is not trying hard enough but who consistently shirk the research element of their job. Every tournament seems to set a new low for this, and Euro 2012 was negatively exceptional in the propensity of those tasked with analysing the games to declare, almost proudly, their lack of knowledge about teams and players. It is scarcely believable that, in an age where amateur-staffed websites like In Bed With Maradona can produce consistently informative material about footballing minutiae from across the globe, the likes of Alan Shearer and Mark Lawrenson can’t seem to memorise a few useful facts about, say, a Greek right-back who has had the temerity to stymie England or France’s ‘rightful’ passage to victory.
Because it has become so prevalent, the insouciant ignorance displayed on the studio sofa is a regular target of critique. I think, perhaps, we need to go a bit further and think about the resonance of the ‘unknown’ in football, for it signifies not only a lack of research but also, perhaps, a whole erotics of the sport. To not know about something, for it to be unknown, is a stimulus for anxiety, but it is also, paradoxically, a form of stabilisation in the world in as much as it represents a remainder, a banked guarantee against the death-in-life of boredom. In my piece on Toni Kroos, I mentioned Ernest Jones’ formulation of ‘aphanisis’, which he called the ‘total, and of course permanent, extinction of the capacity […] for sexual enjoyment’, something we might generalise as the extinction of libido. Such an extinction would appear to occur in the sense that there is nothing left to discover, the the world’s capacity for enjoyment has been exhausted.
In all walks of existence, an encounter with something emanating from the unknown heralds the certainty of additional potential existing elsewhere: there is always more. That there is a ‘greater unknown’ speaks to us, offers the (false) promise that our curiosity, or our capacity for curiosity, is limitless. As a kid I used to invent imaginary worlds which had dimensions bordering on the limitless, not so much as a result of the prodigiousness of my creativity but because I wanted to ensure that there would always be space on the ontological drawing-board in which creation could happen. The ‘blank spaces’ which Marlow recalls poring over as a youth in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are only partially there to be explored; more pointedly, they indicate a future of exploration which, ideally, will remain virtual because to actually explore is to finalise the world.
Yes, once again, all very highfaluting for football, or its sister sport ‘it’s only football’. But these points would appear to be applicable to so many of our formative experiences as fans of the game. For so many, peer pressure or familial influence can only provide a spark, and the more resonant memory of the early part of following football is one of deep, borderline obsessive curiosity, a curiosity which speaks simultaneously of the desire to know and of the desire for there to be more to know. At the age of eight or nine, no part of football in England is more exciting than the first round of the FA Cup, in which several teams will come into the national spotlight from regional leagues, indicating that the professional set-up is only the visible arborescence of a vast root structure. You start to go into the small-printed part of the results section of the Sunday newspapers, reading about games between teams representing places you’ve never heard of, and it turns out that there are thousands of these clubs, and that football is unlikely to burn out your interest any time soon.
The most famous twenty-first century consideration of the unknown was, of course, Donald Rumsfeld’s gnomic meditation on Iraq’s ability to supply WMDs to terrorist groups in 2002. Although it may well be scorched into your brains by now, here it is again:
there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
In Rumsfeldian terms, the fantasy structure of football fans’ unknowing attaches itself most closely to the ‘known unknowns’, the still-to-be-discovered which is already posited as such. But it might be profitable to link this to Slavoj Žižek’s characteristically provocative extension of Rumsfeld’s speculation in How to Read Lacan:
What [Rumsfeld] forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the ‘unknown knowns’, things that we don’t know that we know – which is precisely the Freudian unconscious, the ‘knowledge that doesn’t know itself’, as Lacan used to say, the core of which is fantasy. If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq are the ‘unknown unknowns’ […] what we should say in reply is that the main dangers are, on the contrary, the ‘unknown knwons’, the disavowed beliefs and suppositions we are not even aware of adhering to ourselves, but which nonetheless determine our acts and feelings.
What is disavowed in the fantasy of ‘known unknowns’, to put Žižek’s point to a different purpose, is the repressed knowledge of the finitude of our curiosity, that sense of an ending which we must by necessity forget in order to give meaning to our lives. We can shift this idea onto a more political level. Capitalism itself sustains its existence through its determination that there is always more to be commodified in order to maintain growth, even as its acts of commodification become increasingly divorced from the material in the form of derivatives and comparable ‘products’. With this in mind, we can perhaps perceive another logic at work in the declaration of the ‘unknown quantities’ on the part of commentators and pundits, namely the avoidance of the death of interest and even, perhaps, of death itself. What would happen if, as the internet occasionally seems to make possible, football became ‘known’ in an absolute sense? Would anybody still care? Apologies, then, to Honduras for the lack of a proper detailing of their prospects at this World Cup, but their reputation as a kind of anti-reputation opens onto something fundamentally unsettling about our entire engagement with the sport that deserves addressing.
Posted by Joe Kennedy