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.

Friday, December 31, 2010

A book about the "Pop-Gene," by Silja Samerski

Silja Samerski, a friend of Illich's and student of Barbara Duden in Bremen, has just published a book: Das Alltags-Gen, or, as it will soon be translated into English, The Decision Trap; how genetic education incapacitates society. We look forward to reading it.


The book is based on the research project "The Pop-gene," undertaken over the past decade or so with Duden, and is about what Samerski calls "the perversion of autonomy: Namely, the freedom to think and act by oneself:"

It is genes, we are told, which determine the health of our children, cause our early death or early dementia. Therefore, only those ones who allow geneticists to educate them are considered capable of autonomous and responsible thought and action. On the basis of observed and recorded genetic counseling sessions Samerski demonstrates the paralyzing and incapacitating effects of professional education on genes and risks. Thereby, she questions a dogma of our time: that being counseled into scientific knowledge necessarily leads to freedom and autonomy.

Samerski and Duden spoke about their work on the "Pop-gene" on a Canadian radio program - How to Think about Science - prepared by David Cayley. It can be streamed here or downloaded as a podcast via iTunes or from this page. (This is a direct link to podcast.) This radio series, in 24 parts of an hour each, is superb.

Several related papers by Samerski and Duden are available at the Pudel site in Bremen. Among them is "Risk-Anxiety and the Myth of Informed Decision Making."

We've also touched on the topic of genetic risk counseling - namely, some videos of Duden speaking (in English) on this topic - that are available via YouTube, in this blog.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Illich's brother Sascha - 1928-2009

The following obituary was published by an MIT alumni organization, concerning one of Illich's younger, twin brothers. We met him briefly at State College, Pa., in Nov. 2004:

Alexander J. Illich died on June 30, 2009 in Nantucket, MA after enduring eight years of Parkinson's disease. Born Aleksandar Ilic in Vienna, Austria on November 30, 1928, he changed his name to Alexander John Illich, but he went by Sascha most of his life. During the war his family was forced to leave the family villa in Vienna, relocating to Florence where he received his architectural training at the University of Florence. In September 1949, after working for a period of time in Florence creating housing and academic buildings, he immigrated to the U.S., living in Milwaukee from 1949 to 1951, designing and detailing religious and industrial structures. In 1951 he joined the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, serving in Munich in the European theatre during the Korean War and using his skills to design and supervise construction of post-War military installations. Upon his return to the U.S. in 1953 he continued his career with Raymond Loewy Associates as an interior designer. From 1954 to 1955 he completed his architectural degrees at MIT in Boston. Between 1955 and 1971 he worked for Designs for Business in NYC, where he rose to the position of vice-president. Sascha spent several years in the early 70s in Cuernavaca, Mexico, leading seminars with his brother, Ivan Illich at the Center for Intercultural Documentation. From 1971 to 1991 he was an independent architectural and design consultant, working in the U.S. and Europe. He was at the forefront of space planning, alternative architecture, energy efficient design and computer graphics. Sascha was predeceased by his brother Ivan Illich. In addition to his wife Beverly, he is survived by his twin brother Micha of Watermill, N.Y. and Vienna; four children Yvonne, John and Peter Illich, and Anne-Helene Illich Desseaux; and five grandchildren. He is also survived by his first wife Daisy C. Illich and second wife Anne Ide-Kostic.

Book chapter about Illich

We've just learned of a book published in 2009 that contains a lengthy discussion of late Illich. The book is Beyond Western Economics: Remembering other economic cultures, and the author is Trent Schroyer. He is professor of sociology-philosophy in the School of Social Science and Human Services at Ramapo College, in NJ.

This book, an blurb states, "combines intellectual history with contemporary events to offer a critique of mainstream economic thought and its neoliberal policy incarnation in global capitalism. The critique operates both theoretically, at the level of metaphysics and the philosophy of science, and concretely, in case studies of globalization and world events."

Schroyer is possibly the only academic to have published a review of The Rivers North of the Future - in Philosophy & Social Criticism, May 2009. And this book's chapter on Illich is an expanded version of that review. Both sketch out the general outline of Illich's thought, summarize Illich's argument in Rivers North, and draw conclusions about the current relevancy of Illich's historical discoveries and observations. For Illich, Schroyer writes,

... modern evils can best be discerned through the eyes of faith. This is because modernity has been ‘dis-eviled’ by secularizations which transform the felt body and substitute abstractions that sacrifice the present to virtual futures – such as ‘progress’, ‘development’, ‘globalization’, etc. Illich sees these future-oriented categories as ‘man-eating idols’.

A limited preview of Schroyer's book is available at Google Books. Amazon sells the book, but surprisingly, it charges $200.00 - not what we'd call convivial. An eBook version is available from Google for $41.60.

A page about the book, shown here, lists the table of contents. The Illich chapter:

Part II Critical Traditionalist Cultural Visions

Chapter 4 Illich's Genealogy of Modern Certitudes

4.1 Who Was ivan Illich ?

4.2 Illich's Regenerative Methodologies

4.3 Ecclesiology as Critical Regeneration Theory

4.4 Origins of Modernity in Perversions of Roman Church 'Reforms'

4.5 From Mother Church to Mother State

4.6 Cultural Colonization of Vernacular Speech

4.7 Perversions of the Contingency Axiom that 'Reformed' the Church

4.8 New Fears and New Psycho-Spiritual Pathologies

4.9 Disembodiments of Modern Sensibility

4.10 Creating Vernacular Free Spaces

4.11 Convivial Living as Post-Industrial Society Practice

4.12 Loss of Vernacular Gender as Condition for Economism

4.13 Truth-Seeking Presupposes Friendship: Illich and Gandhi

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

On Meeting Ivan Illich

There is no fanfare when Ivan Illich sweeps into the room, no formal announcement of “here he is, ladies and gentlemen,“ but the man’s arrival this evening sparks definite excitement, the kind of medium-voltage electricity that a second-tier movie star might generate. Heads turn, a hush falls over the room, several Nikons click into action.

Most of the 35 people seated or standing among the curved rows of metal folding chairs, ourselves included, recognize Illich even if he doesn’t look quite as we know him from the few photographs we’ve seen. Many of this crowd - or so we imagine - are avid readers of his, aware of his intellect and reputation but seeing him, now, for the first time. We’re fans, in other words, eager to watch this dashing and sometimes fierce intellectual swordsman show off his skills.

As it turns out, we won’t be disappointed.

The audience Illich has drawn is a mixed one. Among others, we notice several graying gents, perhaps professors at Columbia University, just a few blocks away, along with some young Europeans - or so we peg them, based on their short hair and foreign-looking boots. A few elderly women have seated themselves as a group, and over there we notice a priest.

It’s February 1985 and the bunch of us have convened in a room within Cathedral House, the rectory of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, located at 110th St. and Amsterdam Ave. in Manhattan. This room has a large fireplace at each end, and in-between a series of beams, its ceiling is painted red and purple. On the walls hang architectural renderings and watercolors showing the cathedral, which has gone through many re-designs since construction began maybe 100 years earlier; the plan is to never finish the building, to always keep it as a work in progress.

We’ve come this far - in our particular case, all the way from a studio apartment in Brooklyn - to hear Illich talk for four evenings. The advertisement in the New York Review of Books that alerted us to this “opportunity with Ivan Illich“ cited several topics: gender, which is the focus (and title) of Illich’s most recent book; water in the city, as investigated in a book he’s about to publish in Dallas; and quite appropriate for this, the largest gothic church in the Western Hemisphere - it’s big enough, in theory, to swallow New York’s more-famous St. Patrick’s Cathedral - the 12th-century roots of the modern individual.

Illich removes his woolen serape - hardly the most common garment to be seen during winter in New York. He’s wearing a blue blazer, a blue sweater, grey pants. His greying hair is “scattered,” we pencil into a blue-and-white-covered German steno pad we’ve brought along for the sake of posterity.

Having inspected the table where he is to sit for the evening, Illich embarks on a tour of the room. To our surprise, he makes a point of introducing himself to each and every person in the audience, face to face, shaking their hands. “Hello, I am Ivan Illich, I am supposed to speak here tonight.”

“Very curious,” we overhear him saying to the old ladies.

“My name is Ivan Illich. I’m speaking here tonight.”

Nobody is overlooked. Everyone appears pleased by this gesture.

Illich approaches us, extends his hand, says, “Hello, I am Ivan Illich.”

“Very nice to meet you,” we stand and reply, adding that we’ve “read all of your books.”

“Oh, then I’ll have to stay on my toes,” he replies, or something to that effect. Another groupie, we imagine he’s thinking, another sycophant, and yet, there’s a warm, genuine smile on his face. He looks us in the eye.

We can’t help noticing the lump on his right cheek, just below the temple, beneath his sideburn, about the diameter of a 50-cent piece.

Illich moves on and finds several friends are present. The first to catch his eye is that Catholic priest we’d noticed - black clerical suit, white hair, Irish complexion - and as Illich approaches him, his hand out, it is obvious that these two go back a long way. They chat, Illich looking down at the shorter man, and then he moves on.

There’s a youthfulness about Illich, and he’s certainly “on,” we take note. He smiles a good deal and sometimes, he blinks both eyes at the same time. Several people are taking photos, with flash and available light, all from a discreet distance. The show has begun.

We had discovered Illich four years earlier, almost by accident while travelling in Asia, and since then, we’ve attempted to read everything by and about him that we can find. This has meant scouring alternative bookshops in Greenwich Village, running down the microfilm of old Saturday Review articles at the Brooklyn Public Library’s main branch at Grand Army Plaza, and wangling introductions to friends of friends who’ve actually spent time at CIDOC, Illich’s “anti-university” down in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and who have documents and audio cassettes to share.

It was at a bookshop in Hong Kong, at the Kowloon terminal of the Star Ferry, that we bought our first book by Illich, the late-’70s collection of essays called Toward a History of Needs. Until that moment, we knew only Illich’s name, and that only in passing, mainly from the Whole Earth Catalog. (Later, we’d realize that that countercultural publication took one of its main slogans, “Access to Tools,” from Illich’s 1973 book, Tools for Conviviality. That book was a major inspiration to the alternative, or appropriate, technology movement.)

Toward a History of Needs turned out to be a major challenge for us, an exceedingly difficult book to make sense of. With its dense language, unfamiliar terms like use-value, and concepts like scarcity and conviviality, it was like nothing we’d ever attempted to read before. On paper, at least, we’d always been sympathetic to the Whole Earth credo - back to the land, off the grid, appreciate good tools, and so forth - but we’d never read much in the way of economics, sociology, politics, history, or the philosophy of technology. About the closest we’d come to the critique of technology we’d soon encounter in Illich was Joseph Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason, a marvelously lucid analysis of what computers should and should not be used for. Fortunately, we’d bought a couple of other books in Hong Kong, so we were not without something to read when Illich’s essays proved so difficult.

Our next stop was Thailand, where we met up with our father, then 72, who was working there for six months (helping the national oil company to plan a new refinery), and he was largely responsible for getting the Illich lightbulb to switch on for us. One evening at our hotel, he happened to skim the Illich essays and then, he explained to us how the essay called “Energy & Equity” argues that the car, for various reasons, is not good for society but the bicycle is.

This simple contrast made immediate, intuitive sense to us, and grasping it encouraged us to try Illich’s book again. We’d never much liked cars and had never owned one, and here we were, travelling by bus and train and foot in a still-relatively car-free Asia.

Indeed, just before arriving in Thailand, we’d taken a one-day jaunt into mainland China - north by bus from Macau - and there, we’d seen a bike-centric culture up close, albeit for a brief moment. Even pre-Illich, the sight of so many bikes - groaning under the load of many sacks of rice while moving quietly along country roads, a cacophony of bells at a busy city intersection, thousands of bikes parked in along row in front of a university - had been eye-opening. (And yes, we’d been prepared to appreciate such scenes by photos from China that we’d seen earlier.) To say the least, we were primed to understand and to agree with Illich’s radical endorsement of the bicycle.

Within days of getting that first real taste of “Energy & Equity,” we were off to Nepal and then India, settling into the rhythm of traveling on the cheap in the “Third World” and greatly enjoying its challenges and what we soon came to understand was a sprawling scene, a great feast that moved north and south with the seasons. And now that the code to Illich had been cracked, even if only a little, we were able, in our own limited way, to understand more of the book, to enjoy its aphoristic language, and to have its observations and arguments underscored by what we were seeing and experiencing each day. It was a powerful combination, to be reading Illich while traveling in a world so far and so incredibly different from New York City and the New Jersey suburbs, where we came from.

Upon hitting London, we immediately acquired a copy of Tools for Conviviality, and this book managed to engage and impress us even more. Here is a book, we soon came to believe, that everyone should read: It is so sane, so well-reasoned, makes so much sense, and its language is so free of jargon and down to earth. It offered such a gentle and alluring vision of a well-organized and soft-impact society - what the Whole Earth people had been trying, all along, to bring into being, even if they never stated their vision explicitly in Illich’s terms.

We were, in a word, jazzed - and even more so, four years later, sitting here in Cathedral House, waiting for Illich to start. His talk, someone informs us, is one of a series of so-called Gaia Lectures, organized by the church and a New Age outfit called The Omega Institute, headquartered in Rhinebeck, NY. The Very Reverend Dean James Morton, top cleric at St. John the Divine, introduces Illich, recalling his meeting this strange, impressive man in the 1960s, at Saul Alinsky’s Urban Training Center in Chicago.

Illich starts by inviting us to engage in a conversation with him, to refrain from taking notes or recording his talk. There is, though, a microphone situated on the table where he’s sitting, and he follows its wire off to his left to find his brother Sascha fiddling with a tape recorder on the floor. Illich laughs and says OK, there’s not much he can do about that. (Sascha is an architect, we learn, living in New York; he eventually moves to Nantucket and in 2009, passes away.)

Next, Illich moves to introduce someone in the audience, that priest we’d noticed. It’s none other than Joseph P. Fitzpatrick, S.J., a longtime friend and collaborator of Illich’s, we happen to be aware, a renowned Fordham University sociologist who worked with Illich in the 1950s and 1960s, first in the Washington Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan, then in Puerto Rico, and then as a co-founder of CIDOC. Illich calls Fitzpatrick “my teacher.” Only years later, when hearing David Cayley’s first radio program about Illich, for which Fitzpatrick was interviewed, do we grasp how important this man is, and not only in relation to Illich.

Illich starts his talk. He tells us it has been a “strange route to his concern with sewer systems.” He talks of the “basic heterogeneity of Western society,” “issues of self,” and how it is “highly illegitimate to write history as I was taught,” applying modern concepts to earlier times.

In the old days, he says, people “walked,” but today that activity is referred to as “self-transport.“ But, he says, “one couldn’t talk to Napoleon about ‘transporting’ troops to Russia.”

From 1974 to 1980, he explains, he worked on a “cultural history of Western ideas, looking at the Church from 12th to 17th centuries and trying to explain what he saw in the language of the Far East” - an attempt to “take me out of the present.”

“I failed,” he says.

He then tried to “make my home in the 12th century and very early 13th century,” writing a history of scarcity. “Values and scarcity could not have been discussed 200 years ago. As a theologian, the Western world of education, technology, health care, ends-means relationship with which I have to … cannot be understood unless he frames philosophical discussion in a theological search.” Our notes are full of gaps.

He states that his “basic hypothesis” has been informed for 25 years by “my teacher” Gerhard Ladner, author of a book called The Idea of Reform.

Modern, Western society “can best be understood as a perversion of the glorious uniqueness of the Message,” Illich states. The “reform” that Ladner writes about is an attempt to “become one with God by turning away from social reality. … by turning to somebody else, a new individualism comes into existence.”

As he would later discuss at length in Rivers North of the Future, Illich speaks about how the Gospel frees people to establish loving relationships in an unprecedented by volatile way: “I pick who will be my neighbor.”

“Christian origins of economic concepts is the corruption of something beyond” our understanding, he says, “more horrible than reason can grasp.”

He speaks of the “institution of the body,” notes that “to have a body is a modern concept.”

Somehow, he segues to the topic of water - or, more accurately, waters. Many, perhaps all cultures, it seems, speak in their creation myths about the “separation of waters.” Ancient Rome “turned water into fountains as way of demonstrating its power.”

The idea of circulation - of fluids that flow through a circuit and return to their place of origin pretty much unchanged - is a quite modern idea, or image. The idea that the human body circulated blood was first put forward by William Harvey. French physicians, Illich notes, couldn’t accept that blood circulated in French bodies - perhaps in those of English people, but not us.

Closely related to the discovery of blood’s circulation is “the three-dimensional sense of the inside of the body,” Illich tells us. And soon, he explains, people such as Gregory Bateson and Heinz von Foerster, a friend of Illich’s develop the concept of cybernetics, in which a stuff called information flows through circuits and feedback loops. Some part of this concept, Illich says, is “profoundly irrational.”

He seeks to contrast the “free gift” of nature’s water with “the control of water.”

Ecology, he says, is “a projection of economic concepts onto the world,” the main one of which is, of course, scarcity. The “history of scarcity” has been Illich’s Big Topic for years, now. And tonight, he is telling us that the assumption of scarcity permeates our thinking and conception of the world, all the way down to the level of birds and fish competing for specific niches in the ecosystem and even microbes fighting for oxygen.

It is the “circulation of value that underpins economics. Energy, information, value, sexuality - all of these are said to circulate,” Illich says.

And the concept of “information presumes that binary bits exist and are circulated as a ‘stuff,’” he states.

Later, while taking questions from the audience, Illich elaborates on his thinking about information, a topic that happens to interest us a good deal. Perhaps it’s on everyone’s mind, because outside this room, in the cubicles of Corporate America and in the living rooms of its worker bees, the “personal computing revolution” is well underway and this, we’re told, is the Information Age.

Illich points out that information is conceived of in terms of “bits” that people, or machines, “exchange” with each other. And underlying this exchange, he says, is the assumption that one side of the transaction has fewer bits, or less information, than the other.

A man in the audience challenges Illich on this, referring at some length to Gregory Bateson, a biologist who was largely responsible for applying the concepts of cybernetics - messages, feedback loops, homeostasis, systems theory, and so forth - to not just machinery but the dynamics of families, the AA cure for alcoholism, and schizophrenia. Famously, Bateson has defined information as “a difference that makes a difference.”

Illich is not impressed and unleashes a blast of sarcasm. Palms together, walking back and forth, he gazes upwards in mock prayer: “Ah, Saint Gregory, Saint Bateson.” (Alas, so rapt are we by this performance that we fail to make any notes of what’s actually said; memory will have to serve.) As it happens, we share a fascination, albeit naïve, with Bateson and his use of cybernetics but still, it’s great fun to see what another hero of ours thinks of him.

Later that evening, we come to understand that our fellow Batesonian has a near-religious attachment to Bateson. In fact, he is acknowledged by Morris Berman in a 1981 book, The Reenchantment of the World, which argues for a cybernetically-based healing of modern consciousness. A few years later, we will read - in In the Mirror of the Past, a collection of essays - Illich’s critique of this book; rather than a re-enchantment through cybernetics, Illich speaks of the disembodied “cybernetic nightmare.”

After Illich’s talk this particular evening, Dean Morton invites a few of us to his private quarters to sit and have a beer with Illich. We gladly accept. While we and others sit on chairs and a couch, Illich sits on the floor, his back to wall and his legs splayed out like an overgrown teenager, loose, relaxed, and limber. Morton asks if anyone wants a beer. “I will have two,” Illich states. And he does. The beer, served in aluminum cans, is of some quite pedestrian brand and “light,” as well. Illich, the celebrity guest, makes no fuss, and he definitely seems to enjoy the beer.

The group of us are no great match for Illich but graciously, he answers our questions and hangs out with us for 30, maybe 45 minutes. The Batesonian is there and challenges Illich’s comments on the commodification of seemingly everything. (And again, we listen carefully but take no notes.) Illich tries to explain his thoughts but this interlocuter is not to be persuaded. Later, in a car headed downtown, he tells us and several others that due to the time he once spent in a seminary, he understands that it’s celibacy that most likely causes Illich’s gruffness and somewhat odd interpretation of things.

Several of Illich’s evenings at St. John the Divine involve two separate sessions. The first is about his thinking on Gender and it involves only ten of us, at most, sitting around a table with him. He eats some dinner while talking and drinks red wine, but he doesn’t share the bottle with us. Two incidents during these sessions make a lasting impression. At some point, Illich has an exchange with a woman at the table. She doesn’t understand part of his argument, he explains it some more, she responds and then, suddenly, he smiles warmly. “You’ve helped me understand something I didn’t know before,” he tells her. “Thank you.” We wonder if he’s just flattering her, putting on a show for his rapt audience, perhaps even flirting. The woman is obviously pleased to be commended this way.

Another evening, we’re mid-discussion when a guy from the Omega Institute enters the room. “Folks,” he announces, “don’t forget that Dr. Illich will be speaking later, upstairs. Please pay at the door and ….”

At this, the mention of money, Illich glares and then, rips into him. “How dare you ask these people to pay you? These are my friends, my guests! I refuse to have anything to do with an organization that holds weekend yoga retreats on Caribbean islands.” His disgust is palpable. (Has he truly been unaware of Omega’s involvement, tricked into appearing under its logo? Is this just the last straw, unleashing an anger that was building all along? It seems unlikely that Illich would have knowingly associated himself with such an outfit, but who knows?)

Omega man is speechless, blushing at the door. He hears Illich out and is together just enough to respond that “we should discuss this later, Ivan.”

Quietly amused at seeing this pipsqueak put in his place by the great Ivan Illich, the rest of us struggle to keep a straight face. Illich is a bit ruffled but is quick to get back to explaining the sad loss of gender, and the evening continues.

(There is more to this money story. At that evening’s second session, someone who identifies himself as a community organizer stands up to ask why people are being charged for admission to these talks. “Many people in the neighborhood would like to attend but cannot afford it,” he says.)

It’s during one of the early sessions around gender that we ask Illich if he has seen the issue of a journal called Feminist Issues, in which some California University at Berkeley professors respond to his lecture series at that campus a few years before. Those lectures were jam-packed and highly controversial, and papers presented in this small-circulation journal, which we’d stumbled onto a few months ago at the St. Marks Bookstore, are highly critical of Illich. No, he says, I’ve not seen it. We promise to get him a copy.

And the next evening, we present it to him. “May I pay you for this?” he asks. No, we tell him, we’re pleased to make this small contribution to his work.

At the very end of Illich’s series of talks, we ask Illich to sign a copy of his Gender book for us. He is more than happy to do so, and writes a small paragraph thanking us for the opportunity to converse as we have.

“You know where to reach me?” he asks, sincerely - a somewhat surprising but flattering question, considering how little we’ve contributed to the week’s discussions. (We had tried to ask smart questions, but nothing had truly clicked with Illich. Clearly, we just weren’t sufficiently well-read in history or other topics to respond well. Our enthusiasm was evident, however, we’re quite sure.) In fact, we do know how to reach Illich, for he regularly publishes in his books the number of a postal box in Cuernavaca. “Thank you very much,” we tell him.

That evening, there is a small party upstairs in the rectory. It’s for the Illich family, no more than two dozen people. We’re not invited, and we’re polite enough not to crash, but somehow, we end up hanging around just outside the room where it’s taking place, and we can’t resist taking a quick peek. The room is busy with adults but there is Illich, on the floor again, playing and chatting with several delighted young children. And he looks delighted, too. It obviously is a family scene and we stay removed.

Hanging out with us is an elderly woman whom we’ve met at the talks earlier in the week. She lives in a home for the elderly a few blocks away. She’s quite alert and very happy to have heard Illich speak. We’ve been chatting and at some point the two of us decide it’s time to leave. We hold her hand to help her down the stairs. We walk slowly. Suddenly, Illich himself shows up just behind us. He’s wrapped in his serape, leaving his party and family behind. As we move out of his way, he pauses, rests his hand on our shoulder, and says, “That’s very good.” (That we’re helping this person so directly, we assume he means.) And then, he’s gone, down the stairs, around a corner, out into the cold.

Illich's house in Vienna

We have just stumbled across a description and some photos of the villa in Vienna in which Ivan Illich lived from the early 1930s and early 1940s. It was known as Villa Regenstreif and it was grand:


Inside, too:


This building was erected in 1916 by the family of Illich's mother, Ellen 'Maexie' Regenstreif. Ivan and his twin brothers Sascha and Micha, a few years younger lived there with their mother, the father remaining in Dalmatia.

Alas, Villa Regenstreif no longer exists. It was replaced in the 1960s. All that's left of the original structure are some of its surrounding fence, a gate or two, and some lighting fixtures:


It lives on, in a way, though, with its own page on Facebook.

Friday, December 17, 2010

What's the frequency, Ivan?


The graph above plots mentions in books of the name "Ivan Illich" between the years 1960 and 2008, as calculated by Google's newly released Book Ngram Viewer. It's a fun service to play with. We read about this today in the NYTimes.

No surprises, here. As would be expected, mentions of Illich take off in the late 1960s as he starts publishing his own books and the mentions drop off as he moves on to new and more challenging topics.

Interestingly, though, running the same search across the years 1800 to 2000 reveals a small rise in frequency around the turn of the last century. (see below) Zoom in and Google reveals that these mentions most likely refer to a certain Ivan Illich Petrunkevich, identified in a 1900 journal as "a veteran leader of the Russian liberals" who were then urging the Czar to adopt reforms. He ought to have listened.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Trove of Satchmo photos hits web, fans rejoice

A museum in Queens, New York, devoted to the life and music of monster trumpeter Louis Armstrong has put the catalog of its three largest collections online. The catalog, including hundreds, possibly thousands of photographic images, is available for browsing by anyone and everyone. We've looked, and it's a joyous thing.

Armstrong a monster? That's the word Gary Giddins uses in his brilliant description of Armstrong's enormous and unprecedented fame in the late 1920s and early 1930s (in the wonderful Satchmo, itself filled with photos). Over a period of a few years, Armstrong revolutionized the art and technique of trumpet playing, re-invented jazz improvisation with his searing, soaring, incredibly sophisticated solos, and lived as a bigger-than-life character - a character who was, as Giddins brilliantly explores, a master artist and a master entertainer. At some point, Armstrong was, by far, the most-widely recognized American in the world.

Monday, December 13, 2010

On the barricades


Protesters in London, fighting against cutbacks in the funding of university education. Originating in Italy, these placards are known as Book Bloc. As noted on a blog called artsagainstcuts, from which we grabbed this photo (credit?):

"Books are our tools – we teach with them, we learn with them, we play with them, we create with them, we make love with them and, sometimes, we must fight with them."

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Three thoughts

Three thoughts, not necessarily related, that happen to be careening around our skull, lately:

"I eventually concluded that the best way to understand Illich's work is as a detailed study of the myriad and varied barriers to friendship that exist in modern life."

- Eugene J. Burkart, in The Challenges of Ivan Illich (2002)

"The modern state could be interpreted as an employment agency with a gun to protect the fuel pump."

- Ivan Illich, "The Social Construction of Energy" (1983)

"The ability to die one's own death depends on the depth of one's embodiment. Medicalisation spelled dependence, not disembodiment. Disembodied people are those who now think of themselves as lives in managed states--like the RAM drive on their personal computer. Lives do not die; they break down. You can prepare to die--as a Stoic, Epicurean, or Christian. But the breakdown of life cannot be imagined as a forthcoming intransitive action. The end of life can only be postponed. And for many, this managed postponement has been lifelong; at death, it is an uninterrupted memory. They know that life began when their mother observed a fetus on the ultrasound screen. A life, they were then an object of environmental, educational, and biomedical health policies. Today, it is not sophisticated terminal treatment but lifelong training in misplaced concreteness that is the major obstacle to a bittersweet acceptance of our precarious existence and subsequent readiness to prepare for our own death."

- Ivan Illich, "Death Undefeated" (1995)

Friday, December 03, 2010

Next up, the digital truant officer?

In writing Deschooling Society, Illich warned against an institution - compulsory schooling - that imposed a myth-making ritual on society. While advertising itself as a great leveler, giving everyone an equal chance to "make it," school actually reinforces social inequality. Even before the book was published, however, Illich saw that the schooling industry had embarked on a mission to turn the entire world into a classroom. This global classroom, as a later book called it, would, whether people asked for it or not, constantly teach them about what to think and do in all aspects of life, from getting along at work to thinking about their bodies to playing games to choosing food to making love.

The upshot is that teaching is seemingly everywhere, now, from endless shelves of "self-help" books to every kind of workshop in "personal growth" to the quasi-scientific nutrition labels on jars of jam.

And now, thanks to digital technology, the instructional lessons built into objects of all kinds are taking a grand leap in intensity. Consider Nikon's new model D3100 camera, with a "guide mode" that suggests different effects and adjustments for each photo it snaps - soften the background, or freeze motion, as the NY Times describes in a brief article today. Its headline: "A Camera With A Tutor Built In."

This is only the beginning, we're sure. Built-in "help" routines have been standard fare in desktop computer programs for many years now, with perhaps the most intrusive one being that animated paperclip that once coached users of Microsoft Windows. Now, though, almost every gizmo is potentially its own best tutor, quietly watching over our shoulders, kibitzing, and perhaps even insisting that we do things the "right" way. What's more, these tools - as desktop computers already do - will periodically report back to their manufacturers about their own status and about how we're using them, too. Tools are no longer tools; increasingly, they are simply the extensions, or limbs, of a much larger machine, a colossal system that, by system-theoretic definition, incorporates us, as well.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Ivan the inspirer

Illich's work - his radical critique of the modern, Western way of life - has influenced many thinkers over the years, many quite deeply and some working in fields seemingly quite distant from those normally associated with him.

It's easy to see how Medical Nemesis, for example, would find an audience among those writing about medicine and health care, as that book has done and continues to do. Likewise, one can see how the essay "Energy & Equity" would find as strong a following as it has among advocates of "green energy," urban planners, critics of the automobile and the suburbs, and as noted in these columns the other day, among anarchistic cyclists. But those writing about music, or architecture, or art?

In fact, Illich's work has moved not only a wide range of people writing books but also, a wide range of artists. The movies Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Powaqqatsi (1988), and Naqoyqatsi (2002), conceived and directed by Godfrey Reggio, each cite Illich as a primary guiding light. (Similarly credited are Jacques Ellul, the French Marxist-Christian philosopher of technology; Guy Debord, of Situationist fame; Leopold Kohr, author of The Breakdown of Nations and friend of Illich's; and a Hopi spiritual leader named David Monongye.)

In 2006, at the prestigious summer dance festival Jacob's Pillow, dancer-choreographer Tania Pérez-Salas, based in Mexico City, presented a piece called "Waters of Forgetfulness." It was "inspired by a book by philosopher/polymath Ivan Illich," The Boston Globe wrote - namely, his 1985 book about H2O, the waters of Lethe, smells in the city, sewers and water closets, the 'historicity of "stuff"', and sundry related topics:

Pérez-Salas's work for seven dancers is not only visually
arresting but unabashedly sensual, subliminally erotic, and achingly

With each kick, each curve of the arms through space or flick of the
head, vivid spumes of water catch the light, tracing sparkling arcs
and splashes. But this is no freeform frolic. Pérez-Salas uses the
500-gallon pool as a symbol of life's elemental forces. Imagery
evokes birth, death, cleansing, and coupling. At the work's end, all
gather beneath a curtain of falling sand, as if finally arising out
of the water to embrace the earth.

Recently, we've become aware of several books that cite Illich - and in two cases, his collaborator Barbara Duden, as well - as a major source of inspiration. In Technology as Sympton & Dream (1989, Routledge), Robert D. Romanyshyn sets out to describe how Western society's embrace of technology has changed profoundly how people experience and visualize the world and their own bodies. A good portion of his text - ie. the part of the book that we've read, so far - is concerned with dramatic changes that have taken place in visual representation of the world. Artists' adoption of linear perspective, Romanyshyn argues, reflects how, under the influence of technology and its symbolism, we've come to remove our selves, our very bodies, from our experience of the world in which we live and dream. He pays special attention to windows, particularly as they are portrayed, explicitly and implicitly, in paintings, drawings, and etchings. The window offers a peculiar outlook on the world, framing what we see and determining a single, disembodied point of view. Romanyshyn also writes about changing perceptions and understandings of the human body, such as when it becomes a specimen for scientific dissection and understanding, or an historically new kind of corpse. Technology, as the book's title implies, has shaped not only the material world but our dream of the world, too, making us increasingly spectators as opposed to bodily occupants.

Romanyshyn writes in the opening of his book: "I must ... acknowledge the very generous and critically detailed reading that Ivan Illich, Barbara Duden, Wolfgang Sachs and Dirk von Boetticher gave to the entire text. Their patient efforts have greatly improved the manuscript ... My debt to Ivan and Barbara, moreover, extends to their generosity in inviting me to be a part of their annual seminars on the cultural history of the body. ... Ivan's invitation to Göttingen, Germany, in the summer of 1985 to meet Rudolf Zur Lippe has proved to be a lasting benefit. Zur Lippe's work on the geometrization of humanity has been most helpful in guiding my own thinking about the historical and cultural consequences of linear perspective vision." Romanyshyn mentions, too, that he had participated in a seminar with Illich held in Dallas in February 1985. (A moment about which we'll have something to say here, shortly.) Illich's "water book" was solicited and published by Dallas Institute for Humanities and Culture.

In 1996, Joseph Rykwert, a renowned professor of architecture and art history at the University of Pennsylvania published a book called The Dancing Column: On Order in Architecture (MIT Press). It traces the relationship of body and building from the classical world through the Renaissance, paying special attention to the column. Architects in Ancient Greece worked with this fundamental architectural element in three basic styles, or orders - Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian - that to this day continue to exert great influence on architectural design.

We've not read this book, though we've been aware of it for many years. (When living and working in New York City years ago, we whiled away many a lunchtime at the Urban Center bookstore on Madison Ave., just across the street from St. Patrick's Cathedral.) But we certainly have been meaning to and we've just seen that the book - or parts of it, anyway - are available for viewing on Google Books. And there, we find this acknowledgement:

The seminars on the image of the body summoned by Ivan Illich allowed me to give many of my ideas a new orientation, and the bibliography that Barbara Duden prepared in connection with them has been very valuable.

Illich and Rykwert go back a long way. Illich's H2O book draws on Rykwert's dense but fascinating book (this one we have read), The Idea of a Town: The Anthropology of Urban Form in Rome, Italy and the Ancient World (1976; still in print at MIT Press) for its description of how cities were founded in ancient times. This involved, among other things, a study of the stars for the proper orientation of the city's avenues and then the plowing of a circular furrow - performed by a specially trained augur; this word shows up in "inauguration" - that defined the city's perimeter and drew a line between "inside" and "outside." [It's in this description, following close on the heels of something similar in Gender (1982), that Illich starts laying out what will emerge as the Big Idea of his later years: proportionality. As he sees it, the classical world was based not on assumption of scarcity and or the measurement and pursuit of values that we live by today but by the search for the good and for the appropriate fitting of things that are distinctly different from each other yet also "mutually constitutive." Man and woman, heaven and earth, city and nature: Each gives shape to the other, neither can exist without the other.]

In the 1990s, Illich resided and taught for part of each year at Pennsylvania State University, in State College, perhaps 200 miles west of Phildelphia, where Rykwert was teaching. (He also spent time living and teaching at the university in Bremen, Germany.) But at some point, perhaps even in the 1980s, Rykwert invited Illich to U. Penn to hold a regular seminar on topics relating to architecture: the senses, the body, dwelling, proportionality, and the like. (Whether or not any of Illich's utterances during these sessions were recorded or transcribed, we're not aware.)

At some point in 1996, Illich participated in a weekend conference in honor of Rykwert, who was retiring - an event we were actually aware of and even made plans to attend but in the end, for various reasons, did not.

And in 2000, Rykwert joined Illich at The Oakland Table, a series of public lectures and discussions put together by Jerry Brown and his We The People Foundation. The main topic was "the distinction between place and space" and Rykwert spoke about the "city in the 20th Century," according to a Web page at the foundation's site. (Also participating in the Oakland talks was William Braham, a teacher of architectural design and lighting at U. Penn. Several of his papers reference Illich in their discussion of candles as convivial sources of lighting. They are available here and most readable, here.

Duden, meanwhile, published a paper in 2005 titled "Heterosomatics: Remarks of a historian of women's bodies (à propos the history of the Greek orders of columns by Joseph Rykwert)." Dedicated to Rykwert, this piece was originally delivered as a lecture at U. Penn in March, 1996 - at that event in honor of Rykwert. [In fact, a book has been published that collects several of the lectures given than weekend: Body and building: essays on the changing relation of body and architecture, by George Dodds, Robert Tavernor, Joseph Rykwert (2002, MIT Press), available in limited preview form online.]

In the 1970s, Illich's Deschooling Society held great sway, inspiring the home-schooling and alternative schooling movements as well as the nascent personal computing community. (Illich's idea of "learning webs" and using computers to connect teachers and students is still discussed widely on the Web, today, though with great misunderstanding. Illich was not calling for a simple replacement of schools with possibly more-efficient teaching technologies. Deschooling is as much about reforming society as it is that red-brick building on the corner.) Unrecognized by many people, the book also made a strong, albeit indirect, contribution to the fad for "world music" that eventually burst into public awareness through the work of Western pop artists such as David Byrne, Brian Eno, Ry Cooder, and Peter Gabriel.

Here's how that happened: In 1977, a New Zealand-born (1927) composer named Christopher Small came out with a book called Music, Society, Education. It set out to explain that while Western classical music truly is a marvel - "one of the most brilliant and astonishing cultural phenomena of human history" - it is hardly, in a worldly sense, the only game in town. It embodies but one form of music-making and in certain ways, it falls far short of other forms of music from other parts of the world. Western classic music, for instance, is generally played in halls where there is a strict physical and symbolic boundary between the orchestra or ensemble and the audience. In Africa, however, this boundary is quite porous, with listeners and musicians occupying and moving together within a shared space. And African music has developed much more sophisticated rhythms than those heard in the West. East Indian musical scales are more finely graded than the ones we're used to in the West. And so forth.

Small went further, though, making the connection between music-making and consciousness, or state of mind. Music, he wrote, is a process, not an object. Musicking, he called it, an activity that takes place no matter if someone is bowing a violin, beating a drum, or listening to The Beatles on the radio. And at its best, as art, musicking enables artist and listener alike to explore their inner and outer environments and to learn how to live in those environments.

"Art," Small writes in the introduction to his book, "is knowledge as experience, the structuring and ordering of feeling and perception, while science is abstract knowledge divorced as completely as possible from experience, a body of facts and concepts existing outside of and independently of the knower."

Central to Illich's argument in Deschooling, of course, is that one of the main things wrong with the modern educational program is that it is rooted in the assumption that learning is best pursued as an isolated activity, quite independent of and removed from everyday life. Or, to put it another way, that knowledge exists independent of mind and that all the school system needs to do is figure out how best to pour that knowledge into children's heads - as quickly and with as little cost as possible. Historically speaking, this concept of education is entirely new, Illich understood, and it has led us, he believed, into the world of endless consumption - and myriad ill effects - with which we're all so familiar right now.

Small writes that the "knowledge as experience" component has been rigorously ironed out of both Western music and Western music education. He contrasts the heavily formalized, pre-packaged concepts and lessons that go into such an education - learning certain scales, for instance, and learning always to play them "in tune" - with the seat-of-the-pants, on-the-job "schooling" that enabled many jazz musicians - including and especially such greats as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong - to invent a radically new kind of music.

And this works both ways, Small writes: A society that educates its musicians in a way that leaves them in a straightjacket may be putting society as a whole into a straightjacket, too. More different kinds of musicking, in other words, may help society as a whole to think differently and understand itself better and so forth. As its title suggests, Small's book is as much about society as it is about music and education; each of the three reflects and refracts the others. And with such an abundance of different musics, and especially those from Africa, Small says, the U.S. may be in a unique position to reap the benefits of a well-deschooled musical milieu.

There's no question Small had read Illich closely and systematically, and he applied the latter's thinking quite explicitly. Just look at these chapter titles: "Children as Consumers, Education and Music in Education as they are," followed by "Children as Artists, Music and Music in Education - a model for change." The former begins with these words:

The point at which the twin concepts, the producer-consumer relationship and knowledge as essentially outside of and independent of the knower, come together most significantly is in the field of education, or rather, to use Ivan Illich's valuable distinction, in schooling, since schooling and education are by no means synonymous; contrary to popular supposition, one does not need to go to school to become educated, and, conversely, going to school does not necessarily give one an education, as thousands of frustrated pupils and ex-pupils can testify.

We won't try to summarize Small's full take on de-schooling music. Suffice it his book is a real ear-opener, so to speak, offering a surprising observation or insight on seemingly every page - about all three of its stated topics. It's one to which we often return.

After this book, Small went on to develop his ideas about musicking and to write more books. Music, Education, and Society, though, lit a real fuse. It enjoyed immediate acclaim from music critics, theorists, and a raft of intellectually-minded musicians like Byrne and Gabriel. And soon enough, thanks to an explosion of avid listening, joint musicking, devilish appropriation, endless mash-ups and polyrhythmic experimentations, and countless cross-fertilizations, "world music" had earned its own bin in virtually every music store. Granted, many of the disks landing there were mere kitsch, if not total crap, but we've all been better off for it, no?

In 1996, Music, Education, and Society was reissued with a new forward, an edition that's currently available for partial viewing on Google Books. Elsewhere, one can read interviews - here and here - with Small conducted by Robert Christgau, the distinguished former music critic of The Village Voice, in New York.

Organic harvest

Grim news in The Times the other day. Soon, it seems, two kinds of ambulance will be dispatched in response to certain 911 emergency calls in Manhattan. As usual, a traditional vehicle will go to the scene, its crew trained to administer first-aid and save lives. But should that effort fail, a shadow ambulance will be ready to swoop in from a nearby hiding place to "harvest" the victim's kidneys and rush them on ice to a hospital for use in transplant operations.

City officials tell the newspaper that they've spent much time addressing various ethical and legal issues. No harvesting at crime scenes, for instance, and they're limiting the 'bright red and white ambulance marked “Organ Preservation Unit”' to working solely on victims of heart attack. But a doctor at Bellevue Hospital says he's eager to see car crashes and homicides covered, too.

In the NYC metro area last year, 7,600 people were waiting for organ transplants, but the number of freshly-dead donors amount to just 285. Scarcity, indeed.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Small Irony

In Fall 1982, as the invited Regents Lecturer at the Berkeley campus of the University of California, Ivan Illich stirred up a storm of controversy and protest.

For eight weeks, it was standing room only in the hall where he gave a series lectures on the topic of what he called "gender." At that time, according to Illich, this term was rarely used in the study of relations between men and women. In his Conversations with David Cayley, page 181, Illich states:

It's amazing how quickly things change. When I used the term gender in 1980, and told my publisher, Pantheon, that I wanted to write a book with that title, they told me that the only thing anyone understands as gender is the article you put in front of a noun. In certain special sciences, it means gender as distinct from species. I do know, my editor said, that some anthropologists also identify gender and sex.

Then I went back to the library - in 1980 - and looked at feminist literature. It was all a question of sexism. Sex and gender were used identically. A few people had begun to speak about the social aspects of women's behavior as gender and their physiological differences as sex. One year after my book was published, in 1983, the two major indices for scientific literature in the United States introduced, for the first time, as a new word in the subject index gender. Today, we take its use for granted, but as a completely arbitrary way of speaking about the social reflections of sex, in a certain kind of literature.

At Berkeley, feminist professors and others in Illich's overflowing audiences reacted to his lectures with outrage. Why, they asked, had a man been invited to speak about issues involving the economic plight of women in the first place? And what business did this particular man, who'd long served as priest in the Roman Catholic Church, have in telling women that they'd lived better in the gendered past than they do now, in the economically-defined, market-driven, de-gendered present?

Illich's argument would soon reach a much wider audience in the book called Gender. The few reviews it received were mostly negative, including one appearing in the Sunday New York Times by Arlie Hochschild, a Berkeley professor of sociology. (Perhaps the fairest and most insightful appreciation of this book can be found in David Cayley's splendid introduction to The Rivers North of the Future.)

In response to Illich, Hochschild and other women professors at Berkeley held a public discussion to rebut his thesis and, as they saw it, the perverse ways in which he had interpreted much of the wide-ranging evidence that he presented. ("Scholars of sex discrimination will be surprised to see their work cited to support the contention that sexual equality is out of the question," Prof. Hochschild wrote in the Times.)

A year later, these women's responses to Illich were published as eight pieces in a Berkeley-based journal called Feminist Issues (Vol. 3, No. 1), several or possibly all of which are available here and there for downloading off the Web. Illich responds to these critiques in Conversations, dismissing them as essentially "a witch-hunting trial" and "gossip," but we won't go into that just now.

What's the irony, you're asking? Last night, we noticed that the journal that attacked Illich's gender thesis so famously and so vociferously now calls itself Gender Issues.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Barbara Duden on Body Perception and Gender - an hour on YouTube

One of Illich's closest collaborators, the German professor Barbara Duden, can be seen on YouTube speaking in a seminar about the history of gender and body perception. Held in 2008, in Sofia, Bulgaria, the event has yielded an hour of video. Duden describes her work in women's studies in general and, in particular, her study of how the modern medical system now teaches women to understand their bodies in terms of abstract risks and probabilities.

Unfortunately, the sound quality on this series of seven video clips leaves much to be desired. One has to listen carefully to understand Duden. She speaks in English - not her first language - but is filmed from a distance with a simplistic video setup.

Still, it's an interesting talk. Duden, a pioneer in the German women's movement, was a crucial collaborator of Illich's, working closely with him on studying the history of the human body and the history of the senses. Duden's work has focused on how women lost their traditional sense of their bodies and flesh. In the past, she has shown, women experienced their bodies in terms of fluids and flows. "From antiquity until well into the eighteenth century women spoke about their flesh as that which teems and whirls and gushes, that which ebbs and flows, that which upsets when it lumps and relieves when it streams" is how she puts it in a paper from 2005 on what she calls "heterosomatics."

Duden has paid special attention to pregnancy. Today, the pregnant woman is aggressively encouraged by doctors and the popular press to understand her body and her pregnancy not in traditional terms, such as the quickening of the fetus (the moment when the mother first feels its movements), for instance, but in terms of virtual reality: in terms of computer-generated images from ultrasound scans and in terms of highly-technical and jargon-laden "genetic risk profiles." The woman is informed by specialists that there is an inherent danger in her condition, a danger whose severity can be expressed only in terms of probabilities and statistics; "For women of your age and family background, ...".

A genetic counseling session often presents the woman with a series of terror-filled decisions that are arguably impossible to make in any rational way. And they quite radically deny her direct bodily experience. First, she must decide whether or not to undergo amniocentesis - a procedure that involves puncturing the amniotic sac with a needle and withdrawing some of its fluid for chromosomal analysis. This procedure is itself risky; in a non-trival number of cases, the fetus is harmed and must be aborted. But the risks involved are only risks - statistical probabilities expressed in numbers. And then, assuming the woman decides to go forward with this procedure, she may then be faced with another choice, based on the analysis of her amniotic fluid. The results of this analysis, though, are again presented by the doctor solely in terms of probable risks - more abstract numbers that the woman must make sense of as best she can. The decision about whether to abort rests entirely on her, as it should, but now, she has to deal with the full weight of techno-science and its mysteries bearing down upon her.

Illich credits Duden with helping him see the importance of studying body history, which he pursued in later years. As she explains in the 2005 paper:

The "stuff" out of which the historian's sources are made, be they words, or skills, or the shape taken by emotions is that epoch's flesh. And this flesh is not that of an abstract "human." It is always "gendered." Ivan lllich - and with him several friends - saw body history as the antidote to the spread of biologization in the humanities. We wanted to stress history as a radical enfleshment more deeply rooted than amere periodic social reconstruction of ideology about invariant genes or phenotypes. To attempt this reduction of the flesh into cultural variances to a biological given was far from our understanding of the body as the source of the cosmos of an epoch!

For Illich, the body, and our experience of our body's flesh, was of prime importance. It led him to see how the medical system has taught us to understand our bodies not as lived-in - and suffering, as he noted - flesh but in system-theoretic terms: in terms of sub-systems that have needs and that compete for scarce resources with other systems, and so forth. Indeed, the human being is now perceived increasingly as merely an immune system struggling to survive within a larger planetary system called Gaia. And this "algorithmization" of humanity was, of course, in direct contradiction to Illich's belief in the Incarnation - the fact that God showed up in the form of a fleshy, human body. But that, dear reader, is a topic too big and too daunting even for this blog.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Another "new" Photo

Another photo of an older but attentive Illich has surfaced here, on a page titled "EL PENSAMIENTO INCÓMODO DE IVÁN ILLICH." The text is written in Spanish, and our best guess is that this title translates into English as "The Uncomfortable Thoughts of Ivan Illich." May we be forgiven for re-publishing the image here:


"President of the world"?

We just stumbled onto an interview with Marion Boyars, who published many of Ivan Illich's books. She remembers him here, in a journal called archipelago, as well as in her chapter - entitled "The Adventure of Publishing Ivan Illich" but, alas, incomplete because Boyars died before finishing it - in the 2002 book The Challenges of Ivan Illich.

[Katherine] McNAMARA: There is a cohesiveness and an intelligence to your list: it seems to me the literature of a refined or observant taste.

BOYARS: Well, it has quality. That is always hard. These are things I like; fortunately, enough readers agree with me. Of course, there have been many failures.

McNAMARA: Esthetic failures?

BOYARS: No: I’m not sorry I’ve published any books that are on the list. I’ve published books I thought would sell well, and they didn’t: I still find them interesting. There has been some attempt by me to share something that I like, and shape the culture.

One of my best authors is Ivan Illich (MEDICAL NEMESIS, etc). He shares my ideas about authority and responsibility. What he says is not: “You shouldn’t go to the doctor.” What he says is: “You are responsible for your own health.” He doesn’t attack doctors, he attacks the medical establishment.

A lot of people minded that he wouldn’t tell them how to live. They came to him with problems; he said: “You solve it.” That’s all. I admire that, because it was so easy, so easy, to have done the opposite, when he could have become president of the world at the time, he was so popular. Extraordinarily modest man. Yet, Cuernavaca was the most undemocratic place you can imagine. He’s very authoritarian. He’s very severe, in many ways. But also, the people around him would of course take care of him, protect him.

We published his recent lectures a little while ago [IN THE MIRROR OF THE PAST: Lectures and Addresses 1978-1990]. He’s putting together another volume, and I said, “Yes, I’ll publish it.” He’s such a beautiful man. And it was a terrific adventure, publishing him in an active way. But it was also very hard work.

From Boyar's unfinished essay about Illich, in which she calls him "the most severe and uncompromising taskmaster I have ever met":

In my publishing career, I have had fantastic privleges meeting some of the best minds in literature, music, and philosophical thought. Do I fall into hero worship, too? Yes, up to a point. Do I think Illich is the devil incarnate? Sometimes. If one is allowed to love a mind, I plead guilty. If loving the mind one loves the man, so be it.

A passage from the introduction to the interview excerpted up top, here:

Marion Boyars, director of her firm, was a tiny woman of indeterminate age and bright, sharp eyes. Her mouth was handsome; she smiled widely and often. Her voice was soft but emphatic, her accent not quite placeable; she was born in America but in 1950, had come to England to live, and had adapted its form to her intention. She was pleased her visitor did not mind the smoke.

Acquaintance was made, the tape recorder set up, the cigarette lit, the invitation given to go ahead. She was asked to reflect on why she became a publisher.

Illich and Sontag

Illich states in his book of Conversations with David Cayley that he greatly admired Paul Goodman. He describes Goodman talking at CIDOC about the law and being interrupted and brought to tears by a woolly-red-haired young man - a self-proclaimed anarchist whom Illich had earlier discovered in the process of stuffing forks down the toilet.

We just came across the following passage in a remembrance of Goodman - written upon his death in 1972 - by Susan Sontag, who also admired him a good deal. Her full piece is available on a site that's promoting a new documentary about Goodman:

... Each time he rebuffed me and I retreated. I was told by mutual friends that he didn’t really like women as people — though he made an exception for a few particular women, of course. I resisted that hypothesis as long as I could (it seemed to me cheap), then finally gave in. After all, I had sensed just that in his writings: for instance, the major defect of Growing Up Absurd, which purports to treat the problems of American youth, is that it talks about youth, as if it consists only of adolescent boys and young men. My attitude when we met ceased being open.

Last year another mutual friend, Ivan Illich, invited me to Cuernavaca at the same time that Paul Goodman was there giving a seminar, and I told Ivan that I preferred to [c]ome after Paul Goodman had left. Ivan knew, through many conversations, how much I admired Paul Goodman’s work. But the intense pleasure I felt each time at the thought that he was alive and well and writing in the United States of America made an ordeal out every situation in which I actually found myself in the same room with him and sensed my inability to make the slightest contact with him. In that quite literal sense, then, not only were Paul Goodman and I not friends, but I disliked him – the reason being, as I often explained plaintively during his lifetime, that I felt he didn’t like me. How pathetic and merely formal that dislike was I always knew. It is now Paul Goodman’s death that has suddenly brought him home to me.

We never knew of Illich and Sontag's connection, but it's quite interesting that she calls him a friend. This makes sense, actually, as they must have been avid readers of each other's work. Both explored the topics of sickness and pain as well as the modern world awash in images - Illich in his history of the gaze, Sontag in her book On Photography. (We received this book as a Christmas present during college - from our mother - then read it with great relish, and have been meaning to re-read now that we are older and, perhaps, wiser. It sits on the shelf next to Janet Malcolm's Diana & Nikon, which we have heard much about but have yet not opened.) Meanwhile, the great encyclopedia in the sky informs us that David Rieff, Sontag's only child, dropped out of Amherst College and "went through a vagabond period, during which he labored for the radical Catholic priest Ivan Illich in Mexico and worked as a cab driver." He's now a political writer and analyst.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"Dreaming Illich" - What the bicycle might entail

Over at a site called Dysophia, devoted to “green anarchism” and the like, someone named Dónal O’Driscoll has published a thoughtful article called “Dreaming Illich.” Billed as an "open letter to the Lancaster Symposium on the Politics of the Bicycle,” it ponders some of the political, sociological, economic, and even health-related consequences and challenges that might arise from a large-scale societal shift away from the car in favor of bicycles. O’Driscoll views this shift as inevitable, if not exactly around the next corner, but he’s brave enough to raise some good questions about what might happen were the car to finally lose its dominance.

Illich, of course, is widely hailed by many of those who advocate just such an elimination of the car. His “Energy & Equity” pamphlet, published in the early 1970s, just as the notion of an “energy crisis” was gaining acceptance as a fact of modern life, argued that modern society’s over-consumption of energy, particularly as used to fuel high-speed transportation systems, hinders any and all attempts at improving social equity. In short, the crisis relating to energy consumption and production exists if and only if one is wed to, and ignores alternatives to, the car.

Because they operate well beyond a certain threshold of speed, transportation systems like the car and the airplane actually generate and enforce great disparity, Illich argued. They are anti-thetical to true democracy and socialism. Such systems inevitably and inexorably segment society into two classes of people, namely those who can and those who cannot afford to jet or drive themselves from here to there on a regular basis.

Illich held up the bicycle as almost a perfect alternative. In terms of energy consumption, it is one of the most efficient vehicles around, for it effectively amplifies the human body’s ability to move itself - its auto-mobility, in other words. The bicycle is relatively inexpensive to build and maintain, and my use of a bike neither forces you also to use one nor does it impede your use of a bicycle, either.

In contrast, it is impossible for everyone in a community to own and drive their own car all or even most of the time; very quickly, the mass of vehicles reaches a point where it permanently clogs all available roads and makes driving more or less impossible. Or, as has happened across much of America, the community will opt to physically reconstruct and further disperse itself just to accommodate the car and all of its trappings (e.g., parking lots, gas stations, and highways) at which point the community, for all intents and purposes, will cease to exist.

O’Driscoll notes that by now, “society is optimized to the combustion engine to the point that we are now blind to its pervasive effects. “ And so, “the challenges of energy descent are under-estimated. If the dream of Illich is to be achieved then we need to be aware of the social ecology of the bicycle - that is, the network of infrastructures throughout society, physical and otherwise, that not just maintain it, but also limit it.”

He then proceeds to identify a variety of those challenges. Road surfaces easily traversed by cars may not be good for mass use of bicycles. Replacing cars with bikes would limit the distances that individuals could cover each day, and that would require a disruptive re-arrangement of urban, suburban, and rural geographies. The distribution of food would have to change in dramatic ways once oil-fueled access to distant farms is eliminated. But what would the enviromental effects of these changes be, given that so much material and energy would likely be needed to rebuild towns, for instance? As energy consumption is lowered, might that not drive up the cost of producing raw materials and therefore the cost of bicycles, too? Would a shift to cycling foster the re-emergence of small-scale businesses - what O’Driscoll calls “crofter-style industries that return skills and manufacturing to communities.” Would different classes of bicycle evolve, much as there are different classes of car today, each one affordable to people of a certain level of income?

And so forth.

O’Driscoll’s thinking is a good, well-considered step in the right direction, though we tend to believe that some of his assumptions bear questioning. For instance, he seems to believe that bicycles must be of fairly advanced design, and therefore costly, to be of much use. But that’s not so, as shown by the bicycle-centric culture that existed until recently in China, for instance. Bicycles that we in the high-income West would consider to be clunky and backwards are for many people in this world a tremendous leap forward. Carbon-fiber frames and hydraulic disk brakes are just icing on the velocipedic cake, as it were. Still, we applaud his making this effort and hope that it didn't land on deaf ears in Lancaster.

Alas, 40 years after Illich published "Energy & Equity," its call for a radical turn in transportation has been pretty much ignored beyond certain eccentric circles of radical activists. China's roads, once teeming with bikes, have been given over almost completely to the car. India is only a few steps behind. And in the U.S., there's great hope for electric and hydrogen-fueled cars which, even if they prove viable, will still be cars, operating at high speeds, spoiling landscapes, and wrecking communities.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Illich in a nutshell

We’ve been giving “The Wisdom of Leopold Kohr” a close reading and we’re pleased to find it striking some new chords. We discovered this 1994 address by Ivan Illich to the E.F. Schumacher Society years ago and read it several times after that, but only casually. This time around, we’ve been intrigued by a particular passage that may be as concise a statement of Illich’s analysis of modern, Western society as we’ve ever seen:

Ethics, in a strong tradition from Aristotle to Mandeville, involved a public controversy about the good to be pursued within a human condition and perhaps grudgingly accepted. Economics, however, demands the evaluation of desirable goals under the assumption of scarcity. It deals in the optimization of values; this leads to the creation of modern economic society, which provides seemingly unlimited fuel for a technological civilization. Such a civilization attempts to transform the human condition rather than debate the nature of the human good. [emphasis in original]

It has been our experience that re-visiting earlier Illich in light of later Illich works to deepen one’s understanding of what he was up to. New connections reveal themselves, certain keywords and metaphors gain meaning and relevance, the general landscape of his analysis becomes brighter, more vivid, and more revealing. And this works in both directions, of course, with old and new each illuminating the other. As we put it in a comment posted to a blog called World Streets, where Illich’s essay “Energy & Equity” was recently put up for discussion, “The more you read of Illich, the more he seems to say, the sharper his scalpel, the brighter his torch.”

Illich used the Schumacher lecture to elaborate on a concept - what he called proportionality - that he would develop as the main explanation for how very different - how monstrously different, as he might have put it - the modern, Western world has come to be from anything preceding it.

Illich speaks of proportionality at length in Rivers North of the Future, the book billed as his “last testament,“ and that is where we first began to grasp the concept and its important to Illich. But now, reading the 1994 paper again, the idea comes into even sharper focus.

Proportionality was the organizing principle, so to speak, of the pre-modern world and of society’s understanding of itself - of its cosmology, so to speak. Proportionality is Illich’s term for the way that things and people fit each other, give shape to and define each other, how each is indispensable to the other. There is no earth without heaven, for instance, and no heaven without earth. Man and woman, while much alike are also distinctly different, too, and that enables each to help define the other. Proportionality, moreover, gets at the idea that these two entitites, whatever they happen to be, keep each other in check. Their interdependence prevents either one from growing too large or losing its shape or destroying the harmony that the two of them share.

According to Illich, it was the pre-modern world’s overarching sense of proportion that kept it more or less in balance - in ecological balance, as we would say today, and in other ways, too. And by the same token, it has been an abandonment, or breakdown of proportionality that marks the modern world. In simplistic terms, the fit and harmony and appropriateness and common sense of the old world have given way to a world in which limits and bounds are almost made to be broken.

Today, it is difficult, indeed, to avoid seeing a world that is, in many ways, far out of balance and out of control: the global climate is out of whack and economic disparities are more extreme than ever before, to name just two obvious examples. Too much pollution, not enough food and water, too many people, inadequate finances, mounting crises in energy, education, and economics - the list of imbalances and ignored limits seems to be, well, almost limitless. And by now, these imbalances are apparent not only to highly-trained experts but to the average person, as well.

Barbara Duden, one of his closest collaborators, describes Illich’s inquiry into proportionality in his later years:

Ivan’s lecture courses in Bremen in the 1990s and the work of his closest associates, those in the “Poodle Group,” focused on the bygone proportionality between the inner and outer senses, on the ways in which heart and mind were attuned to one another. Here he again entered a completely uncharted realm of historical knowledge: the demise of the ‘sensus communis,’ a sense that recognizes and judges the fit among perceptions, and which ancient philosophers had conjectured in a bodily organ behind the eyes. Ivan pushed his friends to study the “proportionality” - the mutual constitutiveness - of all being in the premodern age and the decline and disappearance of a sense for this proportionality.

One of the first examples of this “mutual constitutiveness” that Illich identified for his readers was the traditional existence of man and woman. As Illich argued with considerable courage and enthusiasm in his book Gender, men and women once lived in fairly separate domains, using different words in many cases, occupying different kinds of space, working with different kinds of tools, experiencing their bodies and the world in different but mutually compatible ways. They depended on each other for subsistence, each contributing to the household and each giving form and definition to the other. Like the left and right hands of a person eating with knife and fork, man and woman divided the necessary work between them. The gender line, as Illich called it, varied by locale: In this valley, men and women divided the tasks involved in, say, harvesting crops differently from the way those tasks were divided in that valley, over there. Everywhere, though, a pattern held: men undertook tasks that were quite different from those handled by women, the result being that each sex contributed equally to the subsistence of the home.

Later, according to Illich, this gender divide broke down: Men and women came to be regarded as merely different versions of a new construct, the human being, and that, in turn, opened the door to economics and its underlying assumption of scarcity and thus, to new forms of discrimination. For instance, men and women were now seen as merely providers of another construct called energy - think “labor force” - and they began to compete for many of the same industrial jobs. And women, in virtually every place and situation, Illich points out, have ended up the losers in this game, particularly as now, they’re told that they are “equal” to men.

In short, Gender reflected Illich’s emerging awareness of proportionality and the way in which it pervaded pre-industrial, pre-economic life. The book describes the catastrophic breakdown in one particular aspect of the old world’s proportionality. Two entities that once complemented and shaped each other - man and woman - were re-conceived as simply two different versions of the same entity, the human being, which had not existed before.

Clearly, even if he did not rely on quite the same terms to express his pre-Gender thinking, the ideas of fit and proportionality lurk beneath the surface of Illich’s early texts. What is Tools for Conviviality “about,” after all, if not the search for human scale and balance, the setting of limits, and the search for a proper fit of man and machine? Many modern, industrial technologies simply do not help people live in a balanced way, Illich showed - not in balance with their surroundings and not in balance with their neighbors. The car, for example, wrecks communities by stretching the landscape apart, thus ruining it for pedestrians, and by fouling it with noxious gases, noise, and ugliness. And ever since Tools was published, words such as balance, appropriate, and small-scale have been key to the on-going discussion of alternative, “green” technologies and tools. Likewise Schumacher’s famous phrase, apparently due to Leopold Kohr, “small is beautiful.”

Let’s look more closely at those sentences of Illich’s that caught our eye. His aim is to contrast the classical world, in which being is governed by the search for proportionality, with the modern world, shaped by scarcity and economics. Of the old world, he writes:

Ethics, in a strong tradition from Aristotle to Mandeville, involved a public controversy about the good to be pursued within a human condition and perhaps grudgingly accepted.

In the past, Illich states, each community of people accepted the conditions under which it lived, a condition shaped by its physical surroundings and its understanding of what it was to be human. To use another of Illich’s key concepts, people knew and practiced an art of suffering, by which he means that each culture provided its members ways of making sense of existence, including the limits of that existence imposed by locale and available means.

And within such limits, each society tried to work out an ethics, or set of guiding principles, for how to live virtuously and how to know “the good” when it was encountered. The good, as we understand it, is another word for proportionality, for that common sense understanding of when two things, or two people, fit together properly, or harmoniously. (The word “proper” is rooted in the Latin proprius, or “one’s own, special.” “Proportion” stems from pro portione, for ‘with respect to [its or a person's] share.’ Harmony’s Latin root is harmonia, meaning ‘joining and concord’; the Greek harmos meant ‘joint.’)

Now, Illich looks at today’s world, shaped by the assumption that any and every thing of value is scarce - knowledge, transportation, health, jobs, money, energy, you name it:

Economics, however, demands the evaluation of desirable goals under the assumption of scarcity. It deals in the optimization of values; this leads to the creation of modern economic society, which provides seemingly unlimited fuel for a technological civilization.

Here, Illich is describing how “the good” gives way to values, which are incommensurable. The good is perceivable through common sense, not through numerical measurement. Values, Illich explains elsewhere in this paper honoring Kohr and in other writings, imply the existence of a zero point. He writes:

It's true that "value" is an old word; it stood near "dignity" in meaning, pointed out what was precious, indeed magnificent, and early on indicated the selling price of an object. Since the beginning of the eighteenth century, "value" has had these uses and has denoted what was always desirable, useful, even what was due; it then entered discourse in place of the good. By the time of my youth, it simply stood on the positive side of zero. Today, however, one needs a qualifier—values can be either positive or negative. To resolve this convertibility, to make it determinate, there is no stable criterion. With values, anything can be transposed into anything else, ...

And once “anything can be transposed into anything else,” the door is open to a world in which society understands itself in a radically different way. Writes Illich: “Such a civilization attempts to transform the human condition rather than debate the nature of the human good.”

And it is precisely this attempt to transform the human condition that Illich criticized so vehemently in his early writing. The service institutions that Illich analyzed - schools, the medical system, the transportation system - promise to overcome the human condition, to break its limits and eliminate barriers, all in the name of progress. And they do this with technology - not actual machinery, necessarily, but always with refined technique. This is what Illich means by “tools.”

Yet, when people put their faith in technology - in inappropriate technology, that is - they can lose their autonomy and end up conceiving of themselves as more or less poverty-stricken consumers of inexorably scarce goods and services. One obvious example: Instead of accepting death as inevitable and dying in ways that are meaningful to themselves and those close to them, people have been encouraged by the medical system to fight death at all costs. The doctor, as Illich explained in Medical Nemesis, used to be the last person one would consult at the time of death, but over time, doctors took over these last moments of life, redefining death and redefining people as mere consumers of medical services. And as the medical system comes up with ever-more exotic and aggressive treatments for, say, cancer, each one more expensive than the last, it is inevitable that a growing majority of people end up dying with the awareness that they are suffering a new kind of poverty. They and their loved ones are keenly aware that they have failed to obtain the fullest possible, aka the best, treatment. Most people know that have not been able to afford the latest high-tech procedures. They know, now, that there was more to consume if only they’d had the means. In short, the last and arguably the most important act of their life has been taken away from them.

And this, we believe, is much of what the current debate raging about health care and health insurance is about. People today are convinced that they are entitled to it all, to the most extreme and most expensive forms of care. This is also reflected in how intensely society dwells on statistics like “average life expectancy.” Lifespan itself if perceived as scarce, as opposed to living more fully for however much time one is given on this earth. In fact, we all will die, but for a moment, anyway, the medical industry succeeds in persuading us to consume its services in lieu of living fully now and dying peacefully when the time comes, cared for by our family and neighbors. As Illich once told an interviewer, his aim was to show how living more deeply might be better than simply striving at all cost to live longer.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Actualité d'Ivan Illich

Under the title "Actualité d'Ivan Illich," a French journal called Esprit recently published nine articles pertaining to Illich. Several are translations of papers previously published in English and German. The first article, an introduction by Jean Robert et Thierry Paquot, is available for downloading at no charge. A fee - exactly how much, we're not sure - is charged for the others, though the first page of each is available gratis.


Actualité d'Ivan Illich

Jean Robert et Thierry Paquot
Introduction. Monument ou chantier ?
L'héritage intellectuel d'Ivan Illich (1926-2002)

1. Construction et autocritique d'une œuvre

Denis Clerc
Un penseur "contre-productif" ?

Barbara Duden
Illich, seconde période

Jean Robert
Les instruments d'un pouvoir sur autrui

Ivan Illich
Le texte et l'université : idée et histoire d'une institution unique

2. Anticipations et resonances

Sajay Samuel
Le rôle des professions

Silvia Grünig Iribarren
Promenades et questions d'une urbaniste

Silja Samerski et Ivan Illich
Critique de la pensée du risque

Ivan Illich
L'énergie, un objet social

Illich's work has appeared in Esprit since the 1960s, it turns out. Esprit is offering a set of all the articles by and about Illich that it has published for 50 Euros. This includes three editions from the 1970s that are largely devoted to Illich.

On page 120 of the book Ivan Illich in Conversation, Illich notes that it was Esprit's publisher, Jean Domenach, who suggested that he study Japanese as way to gain distance from the Western society he wished to dissect. Evidently, Illich tried but, he told David Cayley, "I found out that my brain was already too used up. I couldn't do it" - an artifact of age that we ourselves have come to know only too well.

Friday, November 05, 2010


What's there to say about someone who describes Ivan Illich as a major player in a fascist conspiracy weaving together "Croatian Monsignor Krunoslav Draganovic," a "Vatican ratline of Eastern Europe that created secret havens for wanted Nazi war criminals," and that equally well-known "underground Jesuit Priest, soldier of Christ and foot soldier of the Pope" Jerry Brown, soon to be governor of California - not to mention boatloads of Nazi gold, IG Farben (makers of Zyklon B, a pesticide that the Nazis used to kill Jews and others on an industrial scale), Proctor & Gamble (makers of Tide laundry soap, Pringles potato thingies, and Mr. Clean detergent), Patty Hearst, and - you guessed it - Adolf Hitler?

Well, we could say he reads too much Pynchon, but without taking the right drugs. Or something.

Dare we quote such crap? Dare we point you, gentle reader, to the source from which this jive-ass junk oozes, unseen, like ... well, that oozes unseen through the Web's deepest, darkest, most tangled plumbing like a steaming tide of turd?

OK, a wee bit more for you connoisseurs of poppycock and piffle (gee, ain't Roget's fun?) Seriously, we couldn't make this stuff up if we tried - and we've read lots of Pynchon:

Illich may have known about the Nazi’s plan to setup (Dr. Clarence J. Gamble, Margaret Sanger) eugenic concentration camps for Black children before it was leaked to the public. Illich’s book, DESCHOOLING SOCIETY (1971), may also have been a pretext to that plan. Additionally, Illich had known that Nixon had been under SS control before he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1950.

Illich was part of a secret ring of Nazis and collaborators tied into vast reserves of Nazi gold and the 1000 Year Reich. Right under our noses in Oakland, Jerry Brown harbored Illich at “We the People Foundation” around the Third Reich’s second and third wave in what he called, “The Oakland Table.”

There's more - too much more - of this over-cooked baloney right here: The Gregory Files, Part IV: The Oakland Secret Matrix & The Man that Nobody Knows, Charles Alex Gregory. It's on a blog by someone named Prince Ray who describes himself as more or less a revolutionary in the mold of the Black Panthers. Clearly, he needs to watch more TV. Or something.

Of Jerry Brown and Ivan Illich

In case anyone missed it, Jerry Brown has just been elected governor of California. This will be his third term in that office, as he served two terms starting in the mid-1970s. For anyone who’s unaware, we’re here to tell you that Jerry Brown was a good, longtime friend of Ivan Illich.

The two met for the first time in 1976, as Brown has recalled, at a place called Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, still operating just north of San Francisco. After that, their paths crossed a few times, including Brown’s joining others at least twice - at events held at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., and at Penn State, in State College, and perhaps at others we're not aware of - to honor Illich after his death in late 2002.

We attended both of those events, held in March and November, 2004, respectively, and we heard and spoke with Brown both times. He impressed us with his humility and knowledge and sincerity, we must say. We recognize that Brown is first and foremost a politician, and we don’t agree with certain of his political stands and actions, but we did vote for him in the recent election. Let this sketch of his relationship with Illich serve as both our tribute to Brown’s victory and as an introduction to those who might wish to learn more.

By the time they met in 1976, both men were public figures. In 1970, Illich had been profiled in The New Yorker as a radical ex-priest based in Mexico whose calls for the “deschooling” of society were arousing great controversy. Brown had just been elected to his first term as governor, at age 39 the youngest person ever to hold that office. (And at 72, today he'll soon be the oldest.)

At the 2004 symposium at Pitzer College, Barry Sanders, a professor of English there, recalled that it was two years before their face-to-face meeting, however, that Illich and Brown first got mentioned publicly in the same sentence, as it were:

One day, in 1974, the Los Angeles Times carried a picture of Jerry Brown holding quite casually two books, two small paperbacks that packed a huge wallop, he told the Times reporter. Every informed citizen had to read these two books, Brown insisted, for they pointed the way to nothing less than the very survival of the planet. But the article neglected to say exactly what they were. The title of the first one we could make out fine: Small is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher. To decipher the second, Grace [Sanders’ wife] needed a magnifying glass. Despite its tiny typeface, she could just make out a pair of three-syllable, six-letter words, Energy and Equity, written, it appeared, by some obscure Russian or Slav with the improbable name, Ivan Illich. We speculated why anyone would bother to write a book connecting money--equity--with feeling energetic. We knew it could not be a diet book, or an exercise manual. At any rate, we were right; it was certainly obscure. The library did not own a copy, we could not find it through inter-library loan, and we spent several weeks and lots of searching before we could find one in a used book store.

Almost a decade later, Pitzer College would invite Illich to lecture on his latest book, the highly controversial Gender, and this enabled Sanders to get to know Illich quite well. His witty telling of his first encounter with Illich - in a house throbbing with strobe lights and over-amped recordings of music by Karlheinz Stockhausen - and their subsequent friendship and collaboration - they went on to co-author a book titled ABC, The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind - is well worth a read. Called “Illich and Literacy,” it’s available at the Pudel site in Germany as a .PDF download.

Chances are quite good that Brown was introduced to Illich by Stewart Brand, the founder and editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, a figure of some renown in the counterculture, and a regular at Green Gulch. Illich’s call for the disestablishment of schooling and the adoption of what he called convivial tools had struck a strong chord among the back-to-the-land movement and the broad spectrum of alternative thinkers who flocked to the Catalog for inspiration and, to use the Catalog’s own slogan, for “access to tools.” It wasn’t long before Illich was listed up front in the Catalog, right next to biologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson.

Brown was well-attuned to the Whole Earth credo. In 1977, for instance, his administration authorized tax incentives for rooftop solar-energy panels. Brown stood up to the oil industry and he named Bateson, then a professor at the University of California’s Santa Cruz campus, to the state’s Board of Regents. And this bachelor governor, who as a young man had entered a Jesuit seminary, was known - and in some circles, admired - for living a fairly ascetic life: While governor, he lived in an apartment, with a mattress on the floor as his bed, instead of using the official governor’s mansion in Sacramento. Instead of being chauffeured in a limo, Gov. Brown drove himself to work in a Plymouth Satellite. (Which raises an obvious question: Did Brown play the B-52s during this short commute?)

He may not have quoted Illich specifically, we're not sure. But Brown was brave enough to talk to his constituents about an age of "limits," create a state “office of appropriate technology” and publicly Brand as an advisor. Around this same time, Brand was publishing essays by Illich in a spin-off from the Catalog, a widely-regarded, advertising-free journal called Co-Evolution Quarterly (later renamed Whole Earth Review).

Brown left the governor’s job in early 1983, having decided to run not for a third term but instead, for a seat in the U.S. Senate. He lost that race, however, and pretty much drifted away from politics. Among other activities, he studied Buddhism in Japan and visited and even worked with dying patients at Mother Teresa’s operation in Calcutta. In 1992, of course, he made his third run for president, advocating the idea of a “flat tax” on incomes, using various alternative channels to reach voters and raise funds, and winning a good number of early primaries against Bill Clinton.

In 1995, Brown began hosting a call-in radio show, called "We the People," broadcast on Berkeley’s Pacifica station, KPFA, and syndicated nationally. Featuring invited guests, it explored politics, culture, and social issues, often with leftist or alternative bent that hardly seemed to be in Brown’s political interest. Brown is a curious thinker, not afraid to be different from the average pol.

On March 22, 1996, Brown was visited on the air by Illich and Carl Mitcham, then a professor at Penn State. (Mitcham, we believe, is the person responsible for inviting Illich to teach for much of the year at Penn State, which he did for a long period of time beginning in the mid-1980s. During more or less this same period, Illich also spent half the year teaching at the University of Bremen, in Germany.)

A transcript of this conversation, touching on such topics as “the gaze,” the senses, proportionality, and hospitality, is available at We the People’s website along with those of shows featuring Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, and others. Brown comes across as a gracious and curious host, more than willing to give Illich all the time he needs to explain himself.

The home page of this same site, features Brown’s tribute to Illich, as originally published - along with tributes by a variety of other individuals, including Brand and Mitcham - in a 2003 issue of Whole Earth Review.

In 1999, Brown was elected mayor of Oakland, an economically struggling city across the bay from San Francisco, and his public relationship with Illich continued to deepen. In 2000 and again in 2001, Brown’s We the People organization hosted Illich as resident scholar for a 6-week series of lectures, all open to the public, called The Oakland Table. Illich and close friends and collaborators such as Lee Hoinacki, David Cayley, John McKnight, and Silja Samerski joined others, including architectural scholar Joseph Rykwert, in reflecting on first, the distinction between place and space, and in 2001, on “the history of hospitality”:

We looked at the recent loss of hospitality for the old, the ill, and the crippled; for children, and for those who waste away or who die. And we examined how the institutional provision of services undermines the sense for hospitality in the home, and facilitates ways of inhabiting spaces unfit for neighborly aid, family care, common mourning and mutual commitment.

Since the middle of the 20th century, experts make their living by convincing people that, due to so-called progress they are no longer capable of taking care of each other in any of the many ways different cultures have been cultivating for centuries. New professionals such as educators, obstetricians, vocational advisors, marriage psychologists and dietary counselors succeeded in transforming citizens into needy clients who become dependent on professional services in ever more areas of their life. For those activities that once took place at home, that once created a place, "needy" clients are now moved to institutions where they consume professional inputs to satisfy their needs. Homes and neighborhoods desiccate; they are transformed into hygienic garaging units where no one is born, is sick or dies anymore.

Pretty heady stuff, no?, for a guy who would soon become Attorney General of California and later, its governor. Detailed notes taken during the lectures and discussions are available here.

At a website run by a certain Dr. Braulio Hornedo Rocha, a remarkable photo is shown of that man - a Mexican critic of education with whom we're not familiar - sitting with Brown and Illich at 2000's Oakland Table gathering. This photo, close to the very bottom of the page, shows Illich about a year before he died. Hornedo is rector of something called Universidad Virtual Alfonsina, which is, we gather, located in Cuernavaca, the city where Illich made his home for many years and where his CIDOC center operated until 1976.

On Dec. 2, 2002, Ivan Illich died. Two days later, the New York Times published a condescending obituary about the “onetime Roman Catholic priest who,

through a steady flow of books and articles preached counterintuitive sociology to a disquieted baby-boom generation.
His intellectual ordnance of anarchist panache, hatred of bureaucracy, Jesuitic argumentation, deep reverence for the past and watered-down Marxism, was applied to many targets, including relations between the sexes. More often than not, his conclusions were startling: he thought life was better for women in pre-modern times.

A few days later, much to our surprise, the paper ran the following:

To the Editor:

Your Dec. 4 obituary of Ivan Illich, the priest, philosopher and historian, failed to capture the essence of this extraordinary man's life -- his profound critique of modern assumptions of scarcity and the dehumanizing effects of technological dependency.

Mr. Illich was a deeply spiritual man who embodied in his way of life a radical Christian simplicity. His understanding of the past and his cheerful embrace of suffering set him apart. He called for asceticism and the art of friendship, not ''watered-down Marxism'' or ''anarchist panache.''

In a world obsessed with longevity and freedom from pain, Mr. Illich studied and practiced the art of suffering. He was a man of rare genius and classic erudition. He was also a wonderful friend.

Oakland, Calif.

Dec. 4, 2002

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Santa Rosa, California, United States
Writer, photographer, music fan; father and husband living in northern Calif.