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.