It's a fictional streetscape we wander, here, a metropolis whose buildings, boulevards, and back alleys are in a constant state of flux. This is every place, and yet, no place at all - a city of dreams and a dream of a city.

Here, we explore the life and work of Ivan Illich and his circle of collaborators. There's no comprehensive index to the articles published, but we invite you to use the Search box, to the left, and to explore the Archive links that appear at the bottom of each page. Comments are welcomed.

Tuesday, November 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


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