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, November 10, 2009

A sharing of collectives

We've been enjoying a website called All Sorts, originally brought to our attention by one of our favorite web venues and magazines, Harper's. This self-described linguistic experiment collects newly-minted collective nouns, of the form "a gaggle of geese" and "pod of whales." Except theirs are more clever: a "seemingly empty room of ninjas," a "fixie of hipsters," and a "sneer of critics."

The public is invited to submit new such items solely via Twitter, but since we have yet to avail ourselves of that somewhat frantic messaging scheme - an error of twits? - we'll offer our own collection of collectives right here:

A whisper of gossips

A mood of cows

A freak of zoids

A roid of weightlifters

A pod of casters

A post of bloggers

A bent of bluesmen

A gross of snot

A grip of wankers

A stench of assholes

Insanity in Glasgow

A friend in the UK writes about a report making the rounds over there. Seems that the Politics Department at Glasgow University refused to publicize a talk by Prof. Noam Chomsky "on the hilarious grounds that the event was 'too political'!"

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Sticker shock

Amused, this morning, to read this on the back of a mini-van: "Jesus called, he wants his religion back."

That's up there with the one our pal Robert Kaplow - he of Me and Orson Welles book and movie (premieres Nov. 25) fame - made for his car back in the 1970s: "Honk if you're an idiot." (Many did.)

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Yet another review of The Humbling ...

... and not such a positive one, at that. Adam Kirsch writing at Tablet, A New Read on Jewish Life:

"... whatever power and interest The Humbling possesses comes from the reader’s sense that it does reflect Roth’s apprehensions. After all, Roth is too unsparing a writer not to realize that The Humbling, like its predecessors, represents a dramatic shrinking of his fiction’s power and scope. The book is very short—a novella at most—and thinly imagined, with few surprises in plot or language."

Mandelbrot Tree?


Is this tree proof, perhaps, that "life" is merely the result of a fractal algorithm?

Illich journal launches

News arrives that the first issue of The International Journal of Illich Studies has just been published, on the Web right here. (There's no charge for access, but one does have to register.) It's pleasing to see a journal devoted to Ivan Illich, who is perhaps our favorite thinker. He is without a doubt the most penetrating critic of industrialized society. And while he fell into disfavor in the early 1980s and is now dead - he died in Bremen, Germany, where he lived much of the year, in late 2002 - we believe that his books and essays remain more than relevant and will enjoy re-discovery by a new generation of thinkers and activists.
We first encountered his work in 1980, while travelling, backpack-style, in SE Asia. We'd known Illich's name from The Whole Earth Catalog but never bothered to learn more. Then, in a Hong Kong bookshop, we stumbled onto a collection of his essays called Toward a History of Needs. These pieces were, we'll admit, extraordinarily difficult, the writing and language being unlike anything we'd read before, but eventually one of them, entitled "Energy & Equity," yielded to our efforts and in a flash, the light went on. Among other things, Illich argues in "Energy & Equity" that as a means of moving across the landscape, the bicycle is much saner, less destructive, and less expensive, and thereby more equitable, than the automobile. The bicycle amplifies innate human abilities while the car tends to negate and frustrate those abilities. The car pushes the nodes of daily life - home, workplace, shops, schools, etc. - further apart from each other and in so doing, the car makes itself increasingly necessary. In Illich's word, it gains a radical monopoly, pushing pedestrians and cyclists off the road. After a certain threshold of car use, only those with access to cars can traverse the new distances required. Yes, some people can ride buses, but they are now in a different, lower class than the car drivers. But, as Illich makes clear, it's just not possible for everyone to own and operate a car, because of the expense and because the machines get in each other's way. Riding a bicycle, in contrast, doesn't bother anyone else, not to mention that this machine is inexpensive, easily maintained, and produces no pollution. In short, the car's counter-productive side-effects cause it to frustrate the very activity that it is intended to help with, namely moving a good many people from A to B. And even if the gasoline were free or the car ran on pollution-free water, its speed and size would still tend to corrode neighborhood life. And in one now-famous line, Illich noted that Americans had to work so much to support their car habits - that is, to pay for all the machinery, asphalt, gasoline, police services, accidents, insurance, and so forth - that when all was said and done, they managed to move at the same speed as normal walking, or 4 MPH. Reading this essay while travelling in Thailand, Nepal, India, and China (for a single day, just north of Macau) was eye-opening, to say the least. We felt that we were seeing and understanding the world - and especially the world back home, in New York - in a very new way. And when we got to London a few weeks later, we eagerly bought a copy of the first Illich book we could find, which happened to be Tools for Conviviality. Back in the U.S.A., we rounded up as many of his books as we could find, each one analyzing some institution or aspect of modern, industrialized life just as radically as he'd been in debunking the "energy crisis" in "Energy & Equity." In early 1985, we had the opportunity to attend a series of evening lectures he gave in NYC, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. As Duke Ellington might have put it, Illich was beyond category, an historian, theologian, sociologist, philosopher, and social critic who transcended traditional disciplinary boundaries. He was, moreover, an avid slaughterer of sacred cows, whether these be compulsory schooling, modern medicine, taught mother tongue, or the Church. Summarizing Illich's thought is exceptionally difficult, we've discovered, especially for the sake of newcomers. Indeed, it's even difficult to explain that difficulty. This is because his critique is so very radical, thoroughly questioning so many deeply-held assumptions. Illich declines to speak in the usual categories - of left versus right, for instance - and generally works from a very different angle - or, more precisely, from a different platform of axioms - than other social critics. But as we plan to explore in these columns, this different and unexpected angle of attack enables him to throw striking illumination on many subjects and gain marvelous - as in wondrous - insights that will, we have no doubt, continue to challenge readers well into the future. Illich was widely criticized for not offering practical or immediate answers to the problems and faults he was so good at identifying and describing, but he certainly did his utmost to question things as they are, and as they are understood, in the most creative and surprising ways.

Monday, November 02, 2009

More on 'The Humbling'

The "New Statesman" has weighed in on The Humbling, Philip Roth's latest book, and it's pretty much all thumbs down.

Writes Jason Cowley, editor of the UK-based magazine:

"The Humbling shares most of the preoccupations of Roth's recent fiction: the sorrows and loneliness of old age, illness, the poignancy of lingering sexual desire, and so on. It clearly wants to be read as a companion piece to his impressive late works about the inescapable senselessness of death. Yet it is at times so ridiculous, so stylistically careless and shabbily executed, the characters so thin and artificial, that you think, at first, the whole thing must be an elaborate joke or parody, or else an exercise in character assassination - a novel written by one of Philip Roth's avenging doubles, hypothetical selves or alter egos, whose sole mission is to besmirch the reputation of the celebrated American author we know as "Philip Roth"."

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