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.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Ivan Illich and the night watchmen

In 1973, Ivan Illich spoke at the Newman Center on UC Berkeley's campus. His theme was limits to growth and the counter-productivity that tools inevitably display when their usage crosses a certain threshold of intensity. (Much of his talk, of which a recording exists, was close to the text of Tools for Conviviality.) In one passage, he told an amusing story as a way to slow down and help his audience understand a key point:

… Ninety-percent of all medical care provided to patients with terminal illness cannot be scientifically sustained or supported. Furthermore, the net effects of such treatment is usually in the direction of increased pain and suffering and disabilities without resulting in a demonstrable lengthening of time.

There are upper limits to the possibility of investing in medical care. At a certain level, medical bills measure the health of a patient in the same manner in which GNP measures the wealth of a nation. Both add on the same scale the market value of benefits and add to them the defensive expenditures which have become necessary to offset the unwanted side-effects of their production.

When I was writing this sentence, it was 4 o'clock in the morning. I hadn't been able to boil it down better. And Decino (sp?) came along, one of our night watchmen, about who somebody else had told me he was so dumb that they didn't know if they could keep him as a night watchman.

And he said, "Don Ivan, what are you doing there? I can't quite understand. I see you all night long with your lamp on the balcony putting a paper into the typewriter, type something, read it, take the paper, tear it to pieces, and throw it away. What are you writing about?"

I told him, "About waste."

(Audience laughs.)

Then, "What is it what is so difficult?"

So, I read him this sentence: "Both GNP and medical bills measure wealth, or well-being, in the same way. Both add on the same scale the market value of benefits and then, add to these benefits, the defensive expenditures which have become necessary in society to offset the unwanted side-effects of production."

He didn't understand right away. But finally, we took a cup of coffee together. Half an hour later, after great silence, he says to me, "Don Ivan, do I get you right? Economists are people who add onto the same side of the scale -- he said a special word in Spanish which means the scale on which you put animals -- all what the people eat and all what the people shit?"

And this man, they tell me, was stupid!

Another night watchman shows up in Deschooling Society, in the first section, titled "Phenomenology of School":

Since most people today live outside industrial cities, most people today do not experience childhood. In the Andes you till the soil once you have become "useful." Before that, you watch the sheep. If you are well nourished, you should be useful by eleven, and otherwise by twelve. Recently, I was talking to my night watchman, Marcos, about his eleven-year-old son who works in a barbershop. I noted in Spanish that his son was still a "ni–o.” Marcos, surprised, answered with a guileless smile: "Don Ivan, I guess you're right." Realizing that until my remark the father had thought of Marcos primarily as his "son," I felt guilty for having drawn the curtain of childhood between two sensible persons. Of course if I were to tell the New York slum-dweller that his working son is still a "child," he would show no surprise. He knows quite well that his eleven-year-old son should be allowed childhood, and resents the fact that he is not. The son of Marcos has yet to be afflicted with the yearning for childhood; the New Yorker's son feels deprived.

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