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.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Some "new" images of Ivan Illich

Getty Images, we just discovered while browsing with Google's image-searching service, now has five relatively rare photos of Ivan Illich available - a refreshing sight after seeing the same small handful of Illich photos get used ad nauseum across the Web.

Prices vary depending on the use to which one wants to put a particular image - for a Web page vs. a printed brochure, for instance. Three of the images were made by a Bernard Diederich, shooting for Life magazine in 1976. Another, from 1980, is by Sigfrid Casals and another, showing Illich speaking in Claremont, Calif., in 1975, is by George Rose.

Rather than risk the wrath of Getty by posting its preview versions of these copyrighted images here in this blog, we suggest you go to the Getty site to view the five photos.

The one time we saw Illich in person, when he gave some talks in New York City back in 1985, he discouraged picture-taking, but some people in the audience flashed away anyway. Evidently, when Life magazine was in need of photos, he cooperated.

Illich's Wikipedia Page

Is it a measure of anything particular that Wikipedia's page about Ivan Illich is so barren of information and analysis, especially as compared to the pages devoted to many other philosophers and social critics?

The main body of the Illich page offers a few paragraphs about his "personal life," a paragraph or two about each of three books, and a paragraph each about three "concepts": counterproductivity, radical monopoly, and conviviality. The total word count for this material: 1,500 words. At the bottom, there is a list of Illich's many books, but none gets any more info than its title, year, and ISBN code. (And one of these books doesn't actually exist: no book called 'Blasphemy: A Radical Critique of Our Technological Culture' was ever published - nor was it ever written, as far as we've been able to determine. Evidently, its title continues to linger in the Books in Print directory.)

Perhaps Illich doesn't have that many followers who care to write about him. More likely, we believe, is that Illich's thinking is too radical and intricate to be easily summarized and so far, nobody has come forward who's ready to tackle it in full.

Perhaps we'll take a shot at expanding Wikipedia's page. Stay tuned.

Illich on YouTube

Videos relating to Illich are rare on YouTube, but recently, two interesting items have shown up - not exactly motion pictures, but worth a look, and a listen, nonetheless:

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

On our way to Illich's "Global Classroom"

Upon reading one of the articles considering technology and schooling in this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, we couldn’t help but recall Ivan Illich’s observations about the shift from an epoch of tools to systems, and about his views on the emerging “global classroom.”

Former Wired editor Kevin Kelly writes about how, while homeschooling his son this past year, he made sure to teach his boy how to think about technology. “[A]s technology floods the rest of our lives,” Kelly writes, “one of the chief habits a student needs to acquire is technological literacy - and we made sure it was part of our curriculum.”

This technological literacy, Kelly writes, is different from traditional, book-related literacy. By technological literacy, Kelly means ”proficiency with the larger system of our invented world. It is close to an intuitive sense of how you add up, or parse, the manufactured realm. … we need to be literate in the complexities of technology in general, as if it were a second nature.”

The alphabet and the book, Illich argued, are tools in the traditional sense of the word: They are instruments that one can use to solve a specific problem or perform a specific task. The user of these tools remains in control and maintains a separateness, or “distality,” from the tool in question. One picks up a book, reads it, and puts it down. Only in a metaphysical sense does the reader remain inside a book he or she read an hour or a year ago. Kelly, however, seeks to master technology itself, which he understands as practically another form of nature - an all-encompassing order from which there is no stepping away. People don't use systems, they get incorporated, or subsumed, into systems. Kelly, it appears, welcomes technology as the sea in which we all must swim, a milieu, or realm, from which we cannot escape. Indeed, he admits there’s no way of gaining “expertise with every invention” - with any of the subsystems that make up this systematized technological realm: “that is not only impossible, it’s not very useful.”

Not useful? How so? This technology, he writes, “will change faster than we can teach it.” In other words, our knowledge about this all-encompassing system, this technological cocoon, will inevitably be scarce. There will be no way to master it, or even to grasp a good part of it, because it constantly and endlessly will morph and extend itself in new directions. (Once upon a time, "the computer" referred to mainframes, each one an island unto itself; today, "the computer" usually refers a node on that vast, ever-expanding system called the Internet.)

As part of his article, Kelly proposes a list of lessons to be learned in technological literacy. These two statements caught our eye: “Get comfortable with the fact that anything you buy is already obsolete.” And, “Before you can master a device, program or invention, it will be superseded; you will always be a beginner. Get good at it.”

What these statements imply is that you’ll always be in need of education. You’ll never be at ease with these tools, or the system, or its component inventions, because they will constantly change and obsolete themselves. And therefore, you will always find that the know-how needed to operate or work with this system as scarce - available only to those with the proper credentials or those will to pay the right price. Which is quite the opposite of the world of convivial tools that Illich envisioned back in 1973. His idea was of a world in which tools were not subject to constant obsolescence and whose users therefore did not require constant re-training. In Kelly’s world - which, like it or not, is pretty much the world we’re all coming to accept as normal - training and education will be a given, a never-ending necessity that we had better just get used to paying for, one way or another. (Training will be another form of what Illich calls shadow work - labor that's required to perform a certain job or task but that doesn't directly contribute to that task.)

Indeed, concluding on a note of pride, Kelly describes his son as having “learned the most critical thing:
how to keep learning. A month ago he entered high school eager to be taught - not facts, or even skills, but a lifelong process that would keep pace with technology’s rapid, ceaseless teaching.”

As we read this sentence, Kelly will be gladl to watch his son submit to a life of constant scarcity. Instead of getting on with living life, Kelly Jr. will, in effect, never get out of school, for there will always be another user-interface, another set of commands, another programming language to learn, simply because yesterday’s interface is no longer available or viable.

In fact, what Kelly's boy will be learning, it seems to us, is how he can best meld himself into "the system." Which isn't to say, of course, that any of us has much say in the matter.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Best Recap of Illich's Intellectual Journey

Ivan Illich, we've read here and there, was fond of telling people who snapped his picture or turned on a tape recorder when he spoke to an audience that, "you can never capture me." We're sure he was smiling when he said this, but he was quite serious. In part, he meant by this that he never stopped in his intellectual inquiries. Yesterday's book or essay was just that, yesterday's, and today, he might have something quite different to say about the very same topic. Or, he might have simply moved onto another field of interest.

One of the best overviews of those always-evolving, always-surprising inquiries, and especially of those Illich undertook in the incredibly fruitful later decades of his life, is a paper by his German collaborator Barbara Duden, entitled 'Ivan Illich, Beyond Medical Nemesis (1976): The Search for Modernity’s Disembodiment of “I” and “You”.' It is available at the Pudel site at the University of Bremen and at several other places around the Web.

For anyone interested in Illich, and especially if they've read his early books such as Deschooling Society or Medical Nemesis, this paper is as indispensable as David Cayley's two books: Ivan Illich in Conversation and The Rivers North of the Future.

Duden wrote this paper - her original text, in German, is also available at the Pudel site - as part of her contributions to a symposium on Illich that was held in Bremen in Feb., 2003, just more than one year after his death.

Her introductory paragraphs offer a good taste of the paper's tone of continuing wonder and heartfelt appreciation:

The many obituaries of Ivan Illich’s life and work had one thing in common: they suggest that by the end of the 1970s his hold on the public imagination had grown faint. It is as if his life and thinking stopped there. Almost all of these posthumous testimonials focus on the period between the 1950s and the late 1970s; they describe the unparalleled challenge that Ivan Illich’s “independent and catalytic thought” in the Center for Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC) presented to the vision of development nurtured by church and state. They recall Ivan’s studies of the disabling gestalt of modern institutions, his argument - hardly controversial any more - that modern institutions alienate a majority of people from the goals for which they had been planned, created, and financed. With growing intensity they instead place their consumers at an unbridgeable distance from that goal: compulsory schooling had derailed our capacity to think and learn freely; the speed of our cars and the proliferation of traffic and machines had blocked our ability and desire to walk out into the world; medicine itself threatens the health of its patients; planned, standardized housing had made it difficult for us to make homes for ourselves. Occasionally an author takes a cue from Medical Nemesis, the book that secured Illich’s reputation, and lays out the three specific levels on which medicine has become a disabling profession: medical treatment harms the patient (medical iatrogenesis), the medical system has made it almost impossible to give birth, die, or be sick at home (social iatrogenesis), and in particular, through the creed that health is an attainable goal, it has destroyed our capacity for suffering and the art of dying (cultural iatrogenesis). This is how the memorial tributes have described Ivan, as the most important critic of the global development project of the postwar period, as someone who saw and uncovered the underside of that project clearly while all the world still clung to the promise of setting the world right. Finally, these memorialists never fail to mention that while Illich left the priesthood, he did not leave the church. But they did not ask what this meant.
It is not possible in my short account to lay out a complete map of Ivan’s life in these years, even to guide you fleetingly around all the crucial corners he turned and on to all the paths he traversed. It would also be premature. [...] I spent a long night thinking about how best to characterize the fruit of these years and, in the end, three insights emerged that I would like to comment.
First, the enormously wide range of subjects that he pursued simply astounds me, themes that led him again and again into new terrains. Second, the many memorial tributes summing up his life left me perplexed, for in paying homage to a man they saw as a social critic who went his own way, they left out the most vital thing about him. All of Ivan’s works during these last decades were deeply collaborative projects hewn from long-lasting friendships and from close work with like-minded colleagues. He inspired friends to embark on new research or propelled their projects in new directions; these in turn furnished new material for Ivan’s own thinking, insights that he would weave into his own work. Finally, Ivan, the teacher, scholar, and author, was deeply anchored in the riches of hospitality in these last decades, held fast in the embrace of a long stream of guests and visitors.
I will now turn to some of Ivan’s major intellectual preoccupations, revisiting conversations of his peripathetic "academy" citing some of the friends whose work and ideas he struggled with and fostered. He would have been pleased if I succeed in identifying - amid the long series of subjects that he pursued - the continuous ascending spiral of his insights, the underlying pulse that drove his intellectual quest. One of his favorite metaphors for history was the image of a hemp-rope continually reinforced with new strands, in which the short segments of hemp disappear but the line holds fast and runs through times. The person writing history searches for signs of rupture, breaking points in the rope running through the past. My object here, then, is to hold fast to the twists and turns in Ivan’s thinking against the ruptures of his life and times.

The subheds of Duden's text provide a brief summary of the topics into which she delves as she reviews Illich's ever-evolving thinking:

From a Critique of Development to the “Archaeology of Modern Certainties”

Emblems that Elicit Empathy: “Life” as an Idol

The Mathematization of Speech and Conceptual Frameworks

From “Vernacular Customs” and “the Commons” into the Past as point of departure, orientation and repoussoir

The Waters of Forgetfulness: On the Historicity of “Stuff”

Mumblers in the Vineyard of the Text: A Way Station in the Quest for a History of Sense -Perception

A Call for an "Ascesis of the Gaze": A History From the Seeing Person to the Recording Eye

Beyond Medical Nemesis


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