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

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. […]


Anonymous said...

I *think* I've read this before. Not sure though. I'll let you know if I find it.

Gene Burkart said...

The quote is from Gender, on page 82 in my edition. It's in the text
above the footnote to social

Gene Burkart

Winslow said...

We're thrilled - and flattered - to hear from Mr. Burkart. Thank you!

He's correct, Illich's comments about the snail appear on page 82 of Gender. Illich's actual words, it turns out, are slightly different from those we originally quoted here after seeing them at a number of Slow Food-related websites. Evidently, someone rephrased Illich and that new text has been floating around the Web.

"Gender," Illich writes, "can be grasped only by means of morphology; its existence depends in turn on the size and shape of the dual world it structures. A snail, after adding a number of widening rings to the delicate structure of its shell, suddenly brings its accustomed building activities to a stop. A single additional ring would increase the size of the shell sixteen times. Instead of contributing to the welfare of the snail, it would burden the creature with such an excess of weight that any increase in its productivity would henceforth be literally outweighed by the task of coping with the difficulties created by enlarging the shell beyond the limits set by its purpose. At that point, the problems of overgrowth begin to multiply geometrically, while the snail's biological capacity can at best be extended arithmetically. So gender sets limits to the social structure it forms, a structure expressed in every aspect of life-style, but first of all in kinship."

Illich makes similar comments in his tribute to Leopold Kohr, whom he credits with alerting him to the idea that "the truth of beauty and goodness is not a matter of size, nor even of dimensions of intensity, but of proportion:

"I see Kohr as the one social thinker who picks up the biological morphology of D'Arcy Thompson and J. B. S. Haldane as the starting point of a social morphology. These scientists studied the proportion between form and size in living creatures. Mice appear only within rather narrow parameters of size. One intuitively grasps mousyness—that familiar form of a small, compact body with a tail that scurries across the floor on four swift and delicate legs. Such beings come in sizes from an inch to a foot. Haldane demonstrated that the form of mousy proportions cannot exist outside this lower and upper limit. Since the weight increases with the cube of its size, legs able to move a larger rodent would have to thicken beyond mousy proportions. Kohr discusses society in analogy to the way plants and animals are shaped by their size and sized by their shape. He is uninterested in the timeless and weightless critters fabricated by social scientists. As a friend remarks, these abstractions appear to come out of 'social thought about mice on the moon'."

Mr. Burkart, for those not familiar, contributed a fine piece to the book, The Challenges of Ivan Illich, a piece we've gone back to several times since that book appeared in 2002. It's called "From the Economy to Friendship: My Years Studying Ivan Illich," and it describes Mr. Burkart's visiting CIDOC in the early 1970s, his studying and practicing law, and his later friendship with Illich. He also addresses the dilemma that all serious readers of Illich eventually run into: If Illich is correct in identifying economics, the market, and the assumption of scarcity as the source of much trouble in the modern world, how is one to act? What's the right thing to do? Drop out? Quit your job? Grow your own food?

(He probably doesn't remember it, but we met Mr. Burkart briefly in 2004 at a symposium devoted to Illich, held at Penn State. We sat at the same table at a group dinner held the first evening, in an Indian restaurant.)

Melinda Kapor said...

After much search, I found it attributed here:

Ivan Illich, “Le Genre vernaculaire”, in Oevres complètes, vol. 2, Paris: Fayard 2005, p.192 [Translated by Ronnie Richards]

Melinda Kapor said...

After much search, I found Illich's quote attributed to this version of Gender: Ivan Illich, “Le Genre vernaculaire”, in Oevres complètes, vol. 2, Paris: Fayard 2005, p.192 [Translated by Ronnie Richards]


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