We first encountered his work in 1980, while travelling, backpack-style, in SE Asia. We'd known Illich's name from The Whole Earth Catalog but never bothered to learn more. Then, in a Hong Kong bookshop, we stumbled onto a collection of his essays called Toward a History of Needs. These pieces were, we'll admit, extraordinarily difficult, the writing and language being unlike anything we'd read before, but eventually one of them, entitled "Energy & Equity," yielded to our efforts and in a flash, the light went on. Among other things, Illich argues in "Energy & Equity" that as a means of moving across the landscape, the bicycle is much saner, less destructive, and less expensive, and thereby more equitable, than the automobile. The bicycle amplifies innate human abilities while the car tends to negate and frustrate those abilities. The car pushes the nodes of daily life - home, workplace, shops, schools, etc. - further apart from each other and in so doing, the car makes itself increasingly necessary. In Illich's word, it gains a radical monopoly, pushing pedestrians and cyclists off the road. After a certain threshold of car use, only those with access to cars can traverse the new distances required. Yes, some people can ride buses, but they are now in a different, lower class than the car drivers. But, as Illich makes clear, it's just not possible for everyone to own and operate a car, because of the expense and because the machines get in each other's way. Riding a bicycle, in contrast, doesn't bother anyone else, not to mention that this machine is inexpensive, easily maintained, and produces no pollution. In short, the car's counter-productive side-effects cause it to frustrate the very activity that it is intended to help with, namely moving a good many people from A to B. And even if the gasoline were free or the car ran on pollution-free water, its speed and size would still tend to corrode neighborhood life. And in one now-famous line, Illich noted that Americans had to work so much to support their car habits - that is, to pay for all the machinery, asphalt, gasoline, police services, accidents, insurance, and so forth - that when all was said and done, they managed to move at the same speed as normal walking, or 4 MPH. Reading this essay while travelling in Thailand, Nepal, India, and China (for a single day, just north of Macau) was eye-opening, to say the least. We felt that we were seeing and understanding the world - and especially the world back home, in New York - in a very new way. And when we got to London a few weeks later, we eagerly bought a copy of the first Illich book we could find, which happened to be Tools for Conviviality. Back in the U.S.A., we rounded up as many of his books as we could find, each one analyzing some institution or aspect of modern, industrialized life just as radically as he'd been in debunking the "energy crisis" in "Energy & Equity." In early 1985, we had the opportunity to attend a series of evening lectures he gave in NYC, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. As Duke Ellington might have put it, Illich was beyond category, an historian, theologian, sociologist, philosopher, and social critic who transcended traditional disciplinary boundaries. He was, moreover, an avid slaughterer of sacred cows, whether these be compulsory schooling, modern medicine, taught mother tongue, or the Church. Summarizing Illich's thought is exceptionally difficult, we've discovered, especially for the sake of newcomers. Indeed, it's even difficult to explain that difficulty. This is because his critique is so very radical, thoroughly questioning so many deeply-held assumptions. Illich declines to speak in the usual categories - of left versus right, for instance - and generally works from a very different angle - or, more precisely, from a different platform of axioms - than other social critics. But as we plan to explore in these columns, this different and unexpected angle of attack enables him to throw striking illumination on many subjects and gain marvelous - as in wondrous - insights that will, we have no doubt, continue to challenge readers well into the future. Illich was widely criticized for not offering practical or immediate answers to the problems and faults he was so good at identifying and describing, but he certainly did his utmost to question things as they are, and as they are understood, in the most creative and surprising ways.
NEW SCARE CITY
It's a fictional streetscape we wander, here, a metropolis whose buildings, boulevards, and back alleys are in a constant state of flux. This is every place, and yet, no place at all - a city of dreams and a dream of a city.
Here, we explore the life and work of Ivan Illich and his circle of collaborators. There's no comprehensive index to the articles published, but we invite you to use the Search box, to the left, and to explore the Archive links that appear at the bottom of each page. Comments are welcomed.
Tuesday, November 03, 2009
Illich journal launches
News arrives that the first issue of The International Journal of Illich Studies has just been published, on the Web right here. (There's no charge for access, but one does have to register.) It's pleasing to see a journal devoted to Ivan Illich, who is perhaps our favorite thinker. He is without a doubt the most penetrating critic of industrialized society. And while he fell into disfavor in the early 1980s and is now dead - he died in Bremen, Germany, where he lived much of the year, in late 2002 - we believe that his books and essays remain more than relevant and will enjoy re-discovery by a new generation of thinkers and activists.
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