Knowing, Not Knowing, Knowing Better

“Well, you’ve certainly been busy,” says the detective, ominously dropping a binder the size of a phone book onto the table in front of you. 

“So this is all you do here,” says the consultant, half to themselves, half to you, or at least in your general direction, looking over your cubicle with an air of distaste.

“Interesting that you of all people would say that,” replies the infuriating stranger online. “Interesting … but not surprising.”

There is something familiar in each of these scenes. Of course, by “familiar,” we do not mean to imply that you, reader, have spent time under interrogation by the local constabulary or justifying your paycheck to a twenty-something from McKinsey. We hope not! We likewise cannot presume anything about the attitude of your psychotherapist (if you have one) nor about your interactions with trolls online (may you be spared them!). Rather, the familiarity in all these scenes consists not in their cast of characters per se, but in a kind of structure that underwrites them. 

At the bare minimum, this structure is grammatical. Our use of the second person plural “you” does not necessarily name you—but it does somehow call you out and tug you in all the same. To use the lexicon of certain critical theorists, idiomatic in their original French but not so much in English translation, the “you” pronoun in these scenes “interpellates” you. Linguistically speaking, “you” is a shifter, an impersonal pronoun that, when addressed towards us, we tend to take to reference ourselves, personally. And what could be more familiar than hearing “Hey you!” and having part of yourself automatically respond to that hail with a reflexive “Why yes, that’s me!” even as another part may also feel, “Who, me?”

Already we can sense that the structure here is about more than the mere grammatical function of personal pronouns. The police interrogation, the workplace performance review, the fight with some asshole online: the familiarity of these scenes also consists in how they convey a feeling. The person saying “you” is doing more than just addressing you: they are also telegraphing that they have something on you, that they can hold something over you. They have you figured out, you see; they know what your deal is. You may feel indignant about their presumption, certainly—but part of you still feels indisputably anxious. Even if the structure of the encounter in question is entirely impersonal, we still inevitably hear their use of “you” in the first person. 

And thus does a suite of distressing questions proliferate in our heads. What is in that detective’s bulging folder—what are they about to pin on you? What did management really hire that consultant to do, what conclusions are they drawing, and what will their final report recommend? And just what is that troll implying? They may just be some rando, but isn’t there a chance that they’ve been keeping tabs on your posts and associations—or even that they have an archive of damning and possibly Photoshopped screenshots? Even if you know that the detective may just be pulling a stunt, that the consultant’s whole deal is in many ways a grift, and that that internet stranger likely doesn’t know you from Adam. Still their performance of knowingness can activate your insecurities and set you on edge.

Consider one more example, a scene that crystallizes this structure of interpellation, and does so all the more since the referential “you” is not even spoken aloud. 

“Ah,” says the therapist, nodding as they scribble onto their notepad, “I see. Please go on.”

What are they writing? What did you just say to make them write it? What diagnosis are they now formulating, what suspicions are they seeing validated? What sudden insight have they gleaned into you, into who you are, into your problems? What interpretation has your speech set in motion, an interpretation which they now withhold? A moment ago you thought you were simply telling them how something made you feel, or relating some mundane story from your childhood or the day before. And yet now it seems you have in fact disclosed something, maybe even betrayed yourself. Your therapist now knows you better than you know yourself, and while you came to them for help with this whole problem of self-knowledge in the first place, still some part of you squirms.

The throughline in all these scenes is that the question of knowledge is never just abstract or purely impersonal. Instead, it is something we experience structured in a relational field. Knowledge does not reside inert in the pages of some dusty book or passively stored as bytes on some server in the cloud. Knowledge is something other people possess. We ourselves may want to gain it, to have them share it with us, or at least to earn access to it for ourselves. But knowledge is never simply information, mere data—it is something we invest with feelings of desire, something around which we build fantasies of paranoia and from which we weave narratives of persecution or opportunity. 

Knowledge is something other people possess and that we want too (even as we may also dread it). Whether that knowledge directly pertains to us or merely tantalizes us, we cannot be sure, since we don’t have it yet. Still we are drawn to it, gravitationally, and thus we could say that it is always about us. Like the young child who gets increasingly frustrated when they hear adults use words that the child doesn’t understand, we want to know what’s going on, and can feel simultaneously excluded from knowledge and haunted by the possibility that this knowledge is about us. We want to sit at the grown-ups’ table, to know what those adults mean when they say, “Mary finally had enough of John’s affairs,” or “once it’s B-E-D-T-I-M-E we can break out the W-E-E-D.” 

All of this is to say that the question of knowledge is inextricably bound up with dynamics of authority, anxiety, power, yearning, and more. This situation is what the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan indexes by what he calls the sujet supposé savoir (“S.s.S”) This phrase has variously been translated as “the subject supposed to know,” “the subject presumed to know,” or “the supposed subject of knowledge.” We might even translate it as “the somebody who must know,” as an answer to the ostensibly rhetorical question “who knows?” or as “the subject who knows better,” as in, the somebody who knows better than you do. This abstract subject, who exists out there, somewhere, in a hypostatized relationship of transparent access to knowledge, formally expresses our vexed relationship to the idea of knowledge as an abstraction versus the reality of our affectively saturated encounters with knowledge in the relational field. The sujet supposé savoir is the structural form into which we can slot that detective, that consultant, that ominous and annoying stranger online. They are the ones who know, who know us, and to whom we find ourselves in such anxious epistemological relationships. It expresses all our fantasies of knowledge as a commodity to which different people have starkly asymmetrical access, and that they can weaponize and deploy in all sorts of alluring and anxiogenic ways. 

These fantasies are powerful, and you can weaponize them too—although we can’t recommend it, at least not ethically. Get into a fight with a family member or lover, and just when their barbs hit too close to home, reply with “Oh, that’s rich coming from you.” When they stop short and ask, “What’s that supposed to mean?,” you can then get gnomic while seeming to take their hypocrisy as self-evident, even beneath mentioning, and say “You know what I mean.” Domestic bliss is sure to ensue.

Or be in the audience for an academic’s delivery of a conference paper, wait till the Q&A, and ask that classic question that’s “actually more of a comment, really.” In that question-comment, you can then benevolently acknowledge how insightful the speaker was, but then wonder whether they might not also speak to some other study, some other text, some other buzzword, something else they did not mention in the body of their talk but of course they must have read and which you yourself obviously know so well. You can thus undermine the expertise they have so painstakingly established, intimate that you yourself know more and better, and leave them to connect the dots and pick up the pieces. Or, if your target is good at playing the same game too, they can keep their poker face and acknowledge how interesting your question was, but of course the really productive angle to explore would be to turn to yet some other obscure concept or perspective, which of course we’re all familiar with already, but in any event that would actually shift the entire frame of debate now, too, wouldn’t it? 

We might say that such encounters capture in a nutshell how entire fields of academic pursuit can boil down to exercises in jockeying for the position of being the S.s.S. as a matter of professional formation. The credential of a Ph.D. can thus be seen as a sign of having won at that kind of performance, although those who earn it rapidly realize that the security of being the S.s.S. lasts only until the next job application, feedback from Reviewer Number Two, or faculty meeting. In the realm of what sometimes gets called “knowledge-work,” the only thing piled higher and deeper than the bullshit can be the anxiety, a sort of Augean-stables meets Sisyphus’-boulder situation, if you will. What applies to the academy can apply, mutatis mutandis, to any other profession where performances of having and withholding knowledge are a way to climb the ladder, kick others off, or otherwise get paid. Beta blockers or being a psychopath can certainly help, too.

All this, we should stipulate, is a rather glass-half-empty way of thinking about the subject supposed to know. The S.s.S. is not necessarily just about paranoia, false performances of erudition, and weaponized anxiety. By the same token, we would be misguided to fantasize about an escape from the dynamics of the S.s.S. and about some sort of regime of social interactions characterized by perfect transparency and communication. We must reconcile ourselves both to the limits of our own capacity for knowledge and to the fact that our interactions with one another are inevitably marked by the dynamics of the S.s.S. anyway.

At this point you may be saying, so far, so good – but also: so what? We have identified the structure of the S.s.S., and recognized our inevitable interpellation in the relational fields of desire, suspicion, etc., that surround the question of knowledge. It’s very humbling to see, and maybe even rather pretty to put into words, especially if those words are in French. But you’re still stuck in the room with that detective, squirming on the hot seat in front of that consultant, and getting increasingly pissed off at that troll online. Saying “Ah, so we find ourselves in a subject supposed to know situation, n’est ce pas?” means neither a get out of jail free card nor job security nor online serenity. Here as in so many other contexts, recognizing structures of power does not mean escaping them. Sometimes your only recourse is to ask for a lawyer, update your resume on LinkedIn, or simply log off. Acknowledging your anxiety in the face of the ominously knowing Other will not stop you from having a panic attack unless you also happen to have a Xanax on hand. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something, which is just another way of saying that you’re about to get caught in the structure of the S.s.S all over again.

Fair enough. Recognizing the dynamics of the S.s.S. may not mean we escape its gravitational pull. But it also doesn’t leave us entirely without room to maneuver. We may not be able to transcend its structure, but perhaps we can traverse it. In other words, we may not be able to transform the relationships it inflects altogether, but we can change how we relate to those relationships.  Instead of being trapped by either the narcissistic fantasy of trying to occupy the position of the S.s.S. or by the paranoid fantasy of constantly living in its shadow, we can put its logic to some strategic use. 

Lacan opens his Seminar XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, by introducing the concept of the S.s.S., with an overdetermined question: “Am I qualified to do so”? The qualification he means, in context, is his, and bears on his credibility to introduce those titular fundamental concepts. He formulates this as first and foremost a problem of credentials, and it certainly is in his case, especially given his expulsion from the International Psychoanalytic Organization (IPA) ten years before. That expulsion—a revocation of credentials—stemmed from Lacan’s unorthodox innovations, above all for the legendary “short session,” an approach whereby the analyst could cut off the previously standard analytic hour at any moment. Lacan theorized this innovation as a way of shaking things up, making the patient’s own unconscious knowledge “precipitate” in a new way, without the safety of a predictable 50-minute hour. The analysand free associates, talking and talking, when suddenly, the analyst declares “And that’s it!,” leaving the former to sit, brought up short, and primed to search themselves as to what the analyst saw, meant, or in any event knew in that moment. The short session, in other words, is a particularly devilish deployment of the dynamics of the S.s.S. For their part, Lacan’s detractors in the IPA saw the short session as both a technical and ethical failure, and many deemed Lacan little more than a charlatan. He was selling something, they basically charged, and that something was a fancy theoretical warrant for Doctor Lacan to double-bill multiple patients for a single therapeutic hour.

But however one may see Lacan (on a continuum, let’s say, from con artist to arrogant genius), in both the short session itself and in his discussion of transference in Seminar XI, he masterfully activates the way in which the desires that swirl around knowledge and our fantasies of the S.s.S. can be mobilized as a therapeutic matter.

Consider the analytic scene, and the stark asymmetries of knowledge that define that encounter on the level of structure. We do not even need to imagine the superadded feature of the “short session” to perceive the intensely overdetermined stakes of knowledge in this encounter. You, as an analysand, spend a lot of time talking about yourself in the most intimate dimensions: your childhood, your dreams, your relationships, your fears. You do so for an audience of one, a credentialed expert in psychoanalysis, who asks you questions and probes for more details, all while writing in a notebook, emitting ambiguous nonverbal noises, and sometimes—only sometimes—offering a vatic interpretation. They do so from a kind of unknowable remove, i.e., they don’t tell you about their childhood traumas, trade you dream for dream, or complain about their love life. Something would be shattered, a transgression would occur, if the analyst were to respond to some experience you had just related by saying “That’s wild – the same thing happened to me too! So just yesterday I was ….” The therapeutic frame would be shattered. The analyst, whose expertise in general involves what makes people tick, and who is rapidly becoming a kind of expert in you, must remain in many respects a blank slate throughout the process. But as analysts from Freud onwards have discovered and insisted, this strange state of affairs, with no real analogues outside the confessional, and not quite there either, is actually the condition of possibility for the therapeutic action of psychoanalysis itself. 

The strange expertise and mysterious knowledge of the analyst leads us to imbue them with outsize power and wisdom, and to rank them unconsciously alongside other influential authority figures in our lives. We make them a central character in our recurrent anxieties and fantasies – in other words, our relationship with them becomes a site of what analysts call transference. And so when they utter a “hmm” at the right moment or ask us an apparently innocent question, part of us behaves in those moments as if in reenactment of previous encounters with those influential others. We respond as though that “hmm” must have been skepticism, or that their question about facts was actually a question about our motives, and we suddenly find ourselves treating the analyst as though they were, say, our undermining father or our patronizing boss. At this point, the analyst, instead of fulfilling this expectation, can instead call attention to this repetition. They will ask us to reflect on what prompted it, bringing us to confront the fact that the analyst is neither our dad nor that boss at all, and that the baggage of past projections we carry about with us need not entirely determine our future. 

In other words, the strange relationship we build with the analyst teaches us to see how much we can go about repeating, fleeing, or otherwise re-enacting basic relationship patterns towards others in our lives. We see our fantasies for what they are, and may realize that we can traverse them—that is, change how we relate to our relationships—to ourselves and others, going forward. All this is catalyzed by the analyst’s occupying the position of the S.s.S., of supposedly even knowing us better than ourselves, but then evacuating that position by revealing how much that structure was underwritten by our fantasies in the first place. This is a situation where the idea of the S.s.S. is marshaled to help us to know ourselves better, and ultimately allows us to leave analysis less trapped by the compulsion to repeat otherwise unexamined patterns. We emerge, we hope, no longer so bound by the previous straitjacket of our anxieties about what others must know or must think about us.

The deployment of the S.s.S. in the context of psychoanalysis, where it is used for therapeutic purposes, clarifies a lot of other human relationships as well. Consider what’s at work in the practice of education, for example. If you close your eyes and picture the Platonic form of a classroom, you might envision a grid of desks, with a bigger desk up front by a blackboard. This is the teacher’s desk, and they will either be at it or on patrol circling among the smaller ones. This is what you might call classroom-as-Panopticon, the schoolroom (as Foucault explicitly reminds us) just a variant on the factory or the prison. Its students are tidily ordered for maximum surveillance, set up to receive prompt disbursements of knowledge or quick administrations of punishment should they stop working or set a toe out of line. In terms of this classroom’s physical layout and hierarchical structure, the teacher holds both knowledge and power. The teacher has the answer, the teacher wants you to have the answers, and the teacher will grade you depending on how you fulfill that expectation. If you do not have the answer, some other, luckier student will, and your lack of knowledge will quickly see you embarrassed if not outright humiliated. Who among us has not had a nightmare of returning to such a scene, of having to go back to school, of not having the right answer? This primal scene of being subjected (so to speak) to the structure of the S.s.S. gets seared deep, and comes to stand in, unconsciously, for so many other kinds of pain.

The case of education, and the anxieties and fantasies of knowledge we associate with it, is instructive for another reason: it illustrates how those anxieties and fantasies apply to everybody involved in transactions involving knowledge more generally. Recognizing the structure of the S.s.S. has, in other words, a leveling or even democratizing effect, without wholly flattening asymmetries that are necessary for our emotional and intellectual development.

In the case of psychotherapy, our consideration of the dynamics of the S.s.S. was concerned primarily with the experience of the analysand. They are the ones, after all, on the vulnerable side of a singularly bizarre asymmetry in knowledge and power, and their anxieties in that situation understandably draw our attention and provoke our identification with them. The experience of the analysand may also be easier for us to imagine than the feelings behind the seemingly unnatural reserve of the psychotherapist. In thinking about education, and conjuring scenes in the classroom, we will also likely first cast ourselves among the students. This also is understandable and warranted. The students are the ones in a more vulnerable relationship to power and knowledge, and whether or not we have ever been in therapy ourselves, we have all been students in some way for some long period of time.

To be sure, all this underscores the core dynamics of the S.s.S. We could narrate it as: knowledge is a thing we don’t have, but that someone else does, and which we want, or at least are supposed to want, but in any event they can wield it over us, which makes us anxious. Thus we seek out therapists and have teachers, who paradoxically promise us knowledge but often wind up leaving us more anxious—or we become adept at weaponizing the S.s.S. for ourselves. But if we take the ubiquity and inescapability of the S.s.S. seriously as a structure, then we also must attend to how it is experienced by those who ostensibly occupy it. The perspective of psychotherapists involves, technically, managing what is called countertransference and, institutionally, consultations with colleagues, and we must set this aside here. In the case of the teacher, there are endless possibilities for creating less hostile pedagogical arrangements than the Panopticon classroom. There are endless ways of being a teacher who helpfully harnesses rather than weaponizes or abandons the position of the S.s.S, and that go beyond rearranging classroom desks into a circle, although that’s good too. But the perspective of teachers reveals something crucial. 

As those of us who are professional educators know, it’s an absolute revelation to walk into a classroom that you don’t have to run. Teachers appreciate as an ultimate luxury those rare spaces where you can let go and trust the person at the front of the room to guide you. To consciously adopt the position of the S.s.S.—to take a deep breath in the hallway outside your classroom, silence all of the objections you can make to your own lack of totalizing Absolute Knowledge and up-to-the-moment expertise and fling yourself in there anyway—is a weight, a mantle so heavy that you often forget you’re always wearing it until your trapezius muscles start to scream. Once firmly out of childhood (when you’re desperate to begin to make your own choices), it’s actually deeply relaxing not to be the person in charge. 

This is not a pity party, an airing of the woes of teachers and therapists. We want our students to feel their own kind of relaxation and sense of safety – and our role is to provide it for them. But teachers perhaps more than anyone (except therapists) appreciate how the credentialled subject supposed to know is never immune to the anxieties of that structure. No matter how much you know, you still know you do not know it all. The teacher thus faces what seem to be some impossible choices. Should they claim the pretense of total knowledge, and banish their own anxieties by punishing their students instead? Should they simply give up on knowing things at all? A kind of professional failure, even an ethical transgression, occurs when a teacher drives a student to tears by calling a student up front to the blackboard and demanding they write the answer to a math problem that eludes them. And something would get lost, too, if the teacher were simply to put their own desk alongside their students, look in the same direction as them, and ask “So, is there a teacher in this class?” Neither doubling down on nor disavowing the dynamics of the S.s.S. seems tenable here. For a good teacher, the way forward must lie in traversing these fantasies of either knowing everything or knowing nothing. What that means is simultaneously accepting that you must occupy the position of S.s.S. as a kind of inevitable burden, but also embracing it as a kind of buoy. These are the conditions of possibility for real learning.

Sustainable, meaningful teaching demands occupying the uncomfortable position of the S.s.S. structure while taking a certain refuge in the awareness that it is just a structure after all – in other words, that it’s not actually about you. Much as the asymmetry of transference is the condition of possibility for the therapeutic action of psychotherapy, oftentimes what allows other people to learn something is the willingness of someone else to assume the position of already knowing it—and it doesn’t really matter if they actually do so or not. It doesn’t even matter if the educator actively thematizes and disavows that position, as in the throwaway refrain of teachers that they learn more from their students than they teach them. This configuration of student to S.s.S. is largely an emotional one, and in any given classroom it might look like someone creating a safe space or containing environment for anxieties about learning, acting as a cheerleader or a role model, and/or a horizon for becoming, the promise that you will know more and differently. When this is done well, like the analyst who helps you to reconfigure your early patterns of relating, the S.s.S. in the classroom can help you reconfigure your relation to knowledge itself—and soothe your worries that your failures of mastery are uniquely your problem.  

Freed from experiencing the S.s.S. as an endlessly punishing series of double binds, the teacher can strategically deploy their position as S.s.S. for creative engagements to rework the anxieties of their students and their own anxieties into a pedagogical encounter that helps their pupils develop a better relationship to the anxieties of knowledge in general. Their students will not only learn some specific things, but they will also have had an experience of and model for approaching knowledge less as an anxious competition for possession and control than as an ongoing experience of collective inquiry and growth. The relational field around knowledge opens up; new possibilities emerge. What an educator, like a psychotherapist, can do, in other words, is help us traverse the structure of the S.s.S. ourselves, and help navigate, reshape, and renew the many relationships that unfold around it.

Lacan’s question—“Am I qualified?”—extends well beyond the question it seemingly addresses. It ramifies in practically every situation where people must attend to the most urgent matters of care, responsibility, and love. Am I qualified to teach this class, to review this book, to heal this patient, to parent these children? Am I qualified to be the person you invest with abilities that at any given moment I do not feel myself, in a tangible way, to possess, even if I have seemed to possess and use them in the past again and again? Even if I’m using them right this moment? It is a position that one can only fully inhabit with either anxiety or delusion. 

And yet awareness of the structure gives you new maneuverability around it, and awareness of the very impersonality of this structure as a structure can be liberating. Your anxious questioning of yourself—what some might call “imposter syndrome”—could more precisely be called an inevitable complex arising from personal experiences and the institutional realities of the dynamics of the S.s.S. Your own self-doubt is a feature of a structure that implicates everyone involved around it too. But if the dynamics of this structure are inevitable, and making something good out of them an endless challenge, there’s some comfort in knowing that working through them mostly consists of just showing up and muddling through.