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, August 12, 2011

Madhu Suri Prakash interviews Javier Sicilia

Yes! magazine has published a brief interview with Javier Sicilia, the Mexican poet and friend of Ivan Illich's whose 24-year-old son was shot dead by a drug gang early this year. The interview was conducted by Madhu Suri Prakash, another of Illich's friends and a professor at Penn State.

As noted here earlier, Sicilia has emerged as spiritual leader to thousands of Mexican citizens who are demanding that their government radically change how it deals with illegal drugs and the people who are in the business of shipping those drugs into the U.S.A. In this interview, he states:

If from the very beginning drugs were decriminalized, drug lords would be subjected to the iron laws of the market. That would have controlled them. That would have allowed us to discover our drug addicts and offer them our love and our support. That would not have left us with 40,000 dead, 10,000 disappeared and 120,000 displaced...

The war is caused by puritan mentalities: like those of [Mexican President Felipe] Calderón and [former US President George] Bush. In the name of abstractions — the abstraction of saving youth from drug addiction — they have brutally assassinated thousands of young people, while transforming others into delinquents.

Albert Camus spoke a terrible truth. “I know something worse than hate: abstract love.” In the name of abstract love, in the name of God and Country, in the name of saving the youth from the drug, in the name of the proletariat, in the name of abstractions, our politicians and war policy makers have committed the most atrocious crimes on human beings, who are not abstractions, who are bones and flesh. That is what our country is living and suffering today: in the name of an abstract goodness, we are suffering the opposite: the horror of war and violence, of innocents dead, disappeared, and mutilated.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Illich in Turkey

They are reading Illich in Turkey, too, it appears. Here's a page discussing him, and here, we believe, is the cover of the translated Deschooling Society.


Illich in Poland

A 96-minute video of a discussion about Illich held by some young Poles has been posted to Vimeo, here. We're unable to understand what's being said, but the focus appears to be on the book Deschooling Society, which recently became available in a new Polish translation. We read about that edition here:

A new Polish translation of Ivan Illich’s book Deschooling Society is released 34 years after the first edition. The book, discussed worldwide by progressive educators, artistic milieus demanding radical changes in culture and cultural education, is an excellent point of reference for the current Polish debate on the future of culture and social life. Deschooling Society was first published in Poland in 1976 in a then microscopic 3000 copies. The new translation features a slightly modified title and an introduction by Piotr Laskowski, Jan Sowa’s conversation with Zbigniew Libera, Hanna Kostyło’s text on the life of Illich, and drawings by Hubert Czerepok.

Instead of another reform of education, Illich postulates society without school, i.e. society that independently establishes educational networks: ephemeral, changeable, dynamic educational groups, somewhat of temporary autonomous spheres. Their creation depends on the needs that ever easier to satisfy in the era of the Internet – unrestricted access to educational resources, possibility of getting across to people who are willing to share desired abilities. But also a change in the structure of knowledge – from the pyramid, or taproot trunk into the rhizome. [Piotr Laskowski, from the introduction: Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, Bęc Zmiana, 2010]

Illichprzod 3

Do join us at the debate around Ivan Illich’s book, featuring: Prof Przemysław Czapliński, Piotr Laskowski and Jan Sowa.
Time: 8.12.2010 (Wednesday), 19.30
Venue: Solec, 44 Solec St., Warsaw

Ivan Illich (1926-2002) – Austrian thinker and critic of contemporary society, „humanist radical”, as Erich Fromm put it, one of the most original thinkers of the 20th century.

Przemysław Czapliński (b. 1962) – researcher in Polish culture, essayist, translator. Member of the jury of the Nike Literary Award, co-founder of the Department of Anthropology of Literature at AMU in Poznań, Ordinary Professor since 2002.

Piotr Laskowski (b. 1976) – Egyptologist, ideological historian, teacher. Co-founder and the first director of Jacek Kuroń Multicultural Humanist High School in Warsaw. Assistant Professor at the Jagiellonian university in Cracow. Published Sketches from the History of Anarchism [in Polish].

Janek Sowa (ur. 1976) – Doctor of Sociology, psychologist. Co-founder of Ha!Art Corporation Publishing House. Author and editor of books in psychology, sociology and social ciritque. Lectures at the Institute of Public affairs and Centre for Humanist Studies at the Jagiellonian University. Co-author of the initiative Goldex Poldex /

Friday, August 05, 2011

Cyborgs, All of Us

If anyone had any doubt about Illich's observation that we moderns have taken to perceiving ourselves in cybernetic terms, look no further than the NY Times for Aug. 3, 2011.

A story appears there - in the "Home & Garden" section, of all places - under the headline "A Dashboard for Your Body."

The Times article reviews a handful of colorful iPod-like gadgets that collect, analyze, and display physiological data: how many steps a person walks during the day, temperature, pulse and heart rate, weight, and blood pressure. Several of these gizmos send their data wirelessly to a computer, or a company website, where the data is collected over time for viewing and comparison with others'. One, called Fitbit, gets special attention:

"Although Fitbit doesn’t explicitly acknowledge this in its marketing materials, the gadget makes you feel bad about yourself. The device ($100) is a super-powered pedometer; it monitors movement while you sleep as well as counts your steps, and it sends all the data back to Fitbit’s Web-based tracking program, which displays your lethargy on the sort of precise charts and graphs that economists use to monitor recessions."

It's only a matter of time, we predict, before people start posting physiological readings to the Web, perhaps even sharing them with each other via Twitter, so that "friends" can view and perhaps even experience each other's bodily functions in "real-time."

Monday, August 01, 2011

Where might Illich have written this?

Does anyone know where - or even if - Ivan Illich actually wrote the following? It is quoted here and there on the Web, with explicit attribution to Illich, primarily on sites relating to the Slow Food movement, which takes Illich's concept of conviviality as one of its touchstones and the snail - soon to be escargot? - as its mascot:

The snail constructs the delicate architecture of its shell by adding ever increasing spirals one after the other, but then it abruptly stops and winds back in the reverse direction. In fact, just one additional larger spiral would make the shell sixteen times bigger. Instead of being beneficial, it would overload the snail. Any increase in the snail’s productivity would only be used to offset the difficulties created by the enlargement of the shell beyond its preordained limits. Once the limit to increasing spiral size has been reached, the problems of excessive growth multiply exponentially, while the snail’s biological capability, in the best of cases, can only show linear growth and increase arithmetically.

We've looked but we cannot find an authoritative source for this piece of text. It certainly sounds like something Illich might have written, possibly in a discussion of the kinds of topic that he picked up from Leopold Kohr: scale, morphology, proportionality. But where?

[UPDATE: As described in the comments appended to this item, we have the answer: Illich wrote about the snail, in slightly different words, on page 82 of his 1983 book Gender. Thanks so much to those who answered our query!]

Illich's inspiration on Slow Food is noted here, in a 2008 notice of a conference about "the spirituality and sacredness of food":

The moderator was Carlo Petrini and the speakers were Enzo Bianchi, prior of the monastic community of Bose in Piedmont, Italy, and Satish Kumar, friend and disciple of Gandhi, founding director of the Schumacher College in Dartington (UK) and editor of Resurgence magazine.

Bianchi and Kumar were both friends of Ivan Illich, the Austrian philospher, theologist and anarchist social critic who, combining spirituality and social commitment, created the concept of ‘conviviality’ in opposition to productivity.

It's at another Slow Food page that we read Serge Latouche quoting Illich on the snail. Latouche is a contributor to The Development Dictionary - he contributes an essay about the concept of "standard of living" - which we recently wrote about here, and his brief Slow Food piece is quite interesting. It begins:

The idea of an autonomous economical society, implicit in the concept of degrowth, is not something that developed yesterday. But you do not need to go back to the utopias of early socialism or the anarchic traditions of situationism: the idea of degrowth was formulated in a similar form to ours at the end of the 1960s by André Gorz, François Parlant, Cornelius Castoriadis and, in particular, by Ivan Illich. The failure of development in poor countries and feelings of disconnectedness in richer countries led various thinkers to revive debate about the consumer society and its illusions, progress, science and technology. Realization of the developing environmental crisis has brought about a new attitude in which a society based on growth is not only undesirable but not even sustainable. So we have to change, and the sooner the better.

In the degrowth project, autonomy is understood in a strong sense with its etymological meaning (autos–nomos: issuing its own laws), in contrast to the heteronomy of the market’s invisible hand and the dictates of science and technology in our (over)modern society. Criticizing modernity does not imply a pure and simple rejection but aims to evolve beyond it. It is through our emancipation as a result of the Enlightenment and the construction of an autonomous society that we can now denounce the failure of this model, so arrogantly and triumphantly controlled by financial markets. The conviviality that Ivan Illich borrows from the great 18th-century French gastronome, Brillat-Savarin (The Physiology of Taste: Or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy), aims to recreate the social linkages that have been broken by ‘economic horror’ (Rimbaud). Conviviality reintroduces the spirit of giving to social relations alongside the law of the jungle, and re-establishes philia, Aristotelian friendship. […]

Scarcity reconsidered

Anyone familiar with the work of Ivan Illich understands the significance he attributed to the notion of scarcity. Education, Illich concluded, was learning under the assumption that valuable knowledge is scarce. High-energy transport, measured in units such as miles-per-hour and miles-per-gallon, assumes that time and space and fuel are scarce. Walking and cycling, in contrast, do not involve space that is scarce. Modern service institutions, he explained, actually create scarcity when clients, as they inevitably seem to do, demand more services than the institutions are able to deliver. (Exhibit No. 1: The current medical care system and the ongoing debate over Medicare and the affordability of health insurance.)

Indeed, scarcity lurks beneath every discussion of "resources," whether that word is used to describe workers in a corporation or fuel as a source of energy to drive the economy or fresh water as something for which global demand seems to be outstripping available supplies.

In short, scarcity is the basis for all economic thought, which Illich contrasted with "the good" and how things fit with each other. In the late 1970s, he proposed writing a "history of scarcity," and many of his subsequent papers worked at developing that theme.

In a world of scarcity-based economics, which historically is quite new, many things suffer. "Where scarcity rules," Illich wrote in "The Wisdom of Leopold Kohr," "ethics is reduced to numbers and utility. Further, the person engaged in the manipulation of mathematical formulas loses his or her ear for ethical nuance; one becomes morally deaf.

"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."

Late last year, it seems, a book was published under the title The Limits of Scarcity. It's a collection of papers edited by a Lyla Mehta, a sociologist who studies climate change, water, sanitation, and yes, scarcity.

We mention this book not because it is the last word on scarcity - there is no scarcity of thought on scarcity, we're quite sure - but because one of its essays is written by two people in the Illich circle, Jean Robert and Sajay Samuel. Their contribution is titled "Water runs and ought to run freely: reflections on 'scarcity' in economics." What appears to be the full text of this essay, albeit marked up with some alterations that are not entirely self-evident, is available at a site called ECOMUNIDADES, which appears to be based in Mexico. (It's subtitle, translated as best we can: Red Independent Ecological network of the River basin of Mexico. Economic contraction [?] or barbarism!") The Robert-Samuel paper builds on Illich's thoughts about "the good," as formulated by Aristotle and about "needs" and scarcity, and his contrast of commons versus resources, especially as seen in the changing laws regarding the use and diverting of naturally flowing water.

Meanwhile, a review of Ms. Mehta's scarcity book can be read here and the text of her introduction is available here. She describes her book as an attempt to explore the social construction of scarcity, "to question scarcity’s taken-for-granted nature and assumptions. While not denying that scarcities exist for many and that our planet is in peril (not least due to the wanton overexploitation of resources and climate change), our contention is that scarcity is not a constant variable that can be blamed for all our woes. Instead, we need to be aware of the politics of allocation and the ways in which scarcity is politicized, especially to suit the interests of powerful players."

She writes: "Part I discusses why scarcity matters and provides a review of diverse disciplinary understandings of scarcity. It also discusses the profound implications of scarcity politics by drawing on the energy policy and the vast reach of neo-Malthusianism in the USA. Part II engages with diverse perspectives of scarcity within economics. Modern (neo-classical) economics is premised on scarcity in many different ways. The essays in this section ask where this came from, what the impacts are and considers both mainstream and heterodox perspectives of scarcity within economics. Part III turns to empirical concerns and traces scarcity politics in the domains of food, water and energy."

"The Two Lives of Ivan Illich" and their thematic consistency

A site called Books & Ideas has published an article reviewing the life and thought of Ivan Illich as presented in an issue of the French journal Esprit - an issue we previously noted here. (The article is presented in English translation; the original, in French, is here.)

"The Two Lives of Ivan Illich," by Augustin Fragnière, a PhD candidate at the University of Lausanne, reviews the two period's of Illich's thought. First, M. Fragnière explains, Illich analyzed the counter-productivity of certain modern tools - the car, schools, hospitals, and so forth. This results in "a concrete analysis using technical and economic language." Around 1980, though, Illich turned to examine the symbolic effects of tools, how they give way to systems that disembody their users.

"These reflections naturally signal a break, coming in the form of self-criticism, with his past research, which itself borrowed terms from science and other various institutions. Ivan Illich 'had understood that it was not from technology and institutions that we had to free ourselves but rather from the representations and ways of seeing things that they generate.' … Putting aside criticism of technology and economy, Illich took on the role of historian and linguist, tracking down the convictions that scientific vocabulary generates or the social conditioning which results from the slow modification of everyday objects such as the text."

M. Fragnière continues: "Beneath this break with past methodology and this radicalisation in his criticism of modernity, there lies a thematic consistency that maintains remarkable continuity with the body of his work. There are even parallels which emerge rather clearly between the two periods of his intellectual life. He moves from criticism of school and education, to history of the text and of its transformation from the 13th century up until its technological form on computers; criticism of medicine becomes the history of the body and analysis of concepts of bioethics; criticism of transport becomes the history of technological paradigms, from Hugues de St-Victor (12th century) to today, with commentary on the notion of energy or reflections on the art of living and on the relationship that man has with his territory. Esprit thus brings us on a journey through the erudite universe of the second Illich, a journey where the reader repeatedly and constantly encounters the same figure at the bend in each road, that of the man or woman from the real world, the person made of flesh, whose disappearance under assault from the abstract individual of contemporary institutions Illich so feared. Despite the thematic and methodological eclecticism of the two periods of Ivan Illich‘s life, the one overriding preoccupation with man and his autonomy remained."

Fragnière comments on Illich's paper about the social construction of energy, too. It's "a beautiful text by Illich … on the history of the term ‘energy’ in terms of it being a concept of theoretical physics and a social object. For Illich, the ascendance of the word ‘energy’ in contemporary language, associated with that of ‘work’, marks the birth of a new concept of nature and of the emergence of the modern individual defined by need. From the moment when work and energy are elevated to the rank of fundamental need, there is nothing left to oppose the reign of the ‘ecocrat’ (p. 225) who, not content with organising men and institutions, extends his power to all of nature, which is considered a reserve of energy to be used by man. And once the goal becomes to extract the maximum from our natural energy resources, the loss in autonomy becomes apparent, since human action remains bound to the law of demand and supply, motivated by need. Illich’s contribution, to an era when debate on energy management is ever-present, lies in the fact that he pushes us to question once more the convictions which stem from terms taken as unquestionable evidence."

M. Fragnière, we read, is conducting research on "mechanisms of climate regulation and philosophy of the environment." His PhD dissertation focuses on "the connection between individual liberty and environment protection." That's a topic Illich addressed, if only briefly, in his discussions of "life" and of how systems thinking leads people to consider themselves as merely immune systems and as subsystems struggling to survive as part of the larger "environmental system" called Earth, or Gaia.


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