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.

Monday, August 01, 2011

"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.

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