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.

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.

1 comment:

Dean Bavington said...

Thank you for your wonderful blog. I have been and continue to be influenced by Ivan's ideas and his international circle of friends.


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