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, December 07, 2009

In the Graveyard of the Text

It's remarkable the range of present-day issues that Ivan Illich's work is able to illuminate even now, 7 years after his death and many more years after he was writing, speaking, and publishing to such acclaim. This is a function of his radical and ever-deepening analysis of modern, industrialized life and its institutions and even more, his desire to understand what it has meant to be human.

Take something as arcane as the mounting concern for the future of the book - the book as repository of knowledge, source of entertainment, centerpiece of schooling, most-respected form of expressing one's self, and product of a huge industry. Whenever we stumble onto speculation about what the effect on the book and publishing industry will be from gizmos like's Kindle or from Google's already-huge library of digitally scanned books, and whenever we see discussions about, say, the merits of students relying on Wikipedia instead of Britannica, we can't help but think back to In the Vineyard of the Text, a 1993 book about reading in the 12th century as well as what Illich saw as the demise of "bookish" culture - a term he borrows from George Steiner. For 800 years, Illich writes, "universal bookishness [has been] the core of western secular religion, and schooling its church." But this era is coming to an end, Illich writes:

"The book has now ceased to be the root-metaphor of the age; the screen has taken its place."

By describing in detail a momentous set of changes in the physical act of reading that took place in the 12th century, Illich shows that bookish reading had a beginning. Most people alive today have taken this kind of bookish, or scholastic reading for granted, as the only one worth doing, but Illich argues that it is but one of many possibilities, contingent on the existence of various societal forces and techniques. And what's more, because it had a beginning, this kind of reading will come to an end - an end that Illich saw coming 16 years ago and that now seems to be accelerating as bandwidth increases, screens improve, batteries last longer, and the Internet penetrates daily life more fully.

Bookish reading can now clearly be recognized as an epochal phenomenon and not as a logically necessary step in the progress toward the rational use of the alphabet; as one mode of interaction with the written page among several; as a particular vocation among many, to be cultivated by some, leaving other modes to others.

Illich is not so interested in the mechanics of reading - whether books are made from paper or silicon - as he is in the book's symbolic fallout. Bookish reading ushered into being a very new and different mental space, Illich explains, with text now disassociated, or abstracted, from its out-loud vocalization and even from a particular page or book. Reading aloud from the page gave way to silent, contemplative engagement with the text, and once the text itself was organized into paragraphs and chapters and its topics indexed according to the entirely arbitrary order of the alphabet, scholars could think about, dissect, and refer to the text and its ideas in entirely new ways. And even those who could not read books at all - for many centuries, the great majority of people - were affected by these changes. The book shaped the popular mind and people's understanding of themselves and their world. Everyone, reader or not, came to believe in the "book of life," for instance, and the modern conscience was perceived as a book that could be read by priests and perhaps re-written with sufficient effort. Illich points out, too, that the separation of words by spaces, a new device in the 12th century, coincided with early glimpses of what we now understand as the modern individual, quite separate from others.

Today, those of us living in the intensely bookish culture wrought by these changes cannot fully grasp the mental space in which our pre-bookish predecessors lived and thought. There's no way, in other words, of undoing literacy - of unlearning what it is to understand the world through and as text. Likewise, there is no way for purely oral cultures to understand our literate culture. And now, Illich sees a similarly unbridgeable chasm opening up between our book-centric culture and the future culture that will be mentally shaped by screen, network, and instant hyperlink.

Many pundits strive to extrapolate from today's hardware and networking trends to predict the shape, power, size, and price of future reading devices, and to figure out what new business models those devices might support, and to imagine what all these changes will have on learning and living and playing. Illich, however, declines to engage in any such speculation, understanding that what's more important - even if it's much less graspable - is the entirely new symbolic landscape whose construction we are witnessing.

And even before the advent of computers and TV, he notes, how Western culture has understood itself and the world is increasingly through a flood of visual means and metaphors: charts, graphs, risk profiles, hand-drawn and photographic images, comics, X-rays, and computer-simulated virtual realities, for instance. And this development, he argues, can be traced all the way back to the earliest Christians - a topic we may try to tackle in another post.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I am overjoyed to find your writings on Illich. Thank you for sharing his work and continuing the conversation of autonomous and authentic living.

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