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.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Of Jerry Brown and Ivan Illich

In case anyone missed it, Jerry Brown has just been elected governor of California. This will be his third term in that office, as he served two terms starting in the mid-1970s. For anyone who’s unaware, we’re here to tell you that Jerry Brown was a good, longtime friend of Ivan Illich.

The two met for the first time in 1976, as Brown has recalled, at a place called Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, still operating just north of San Francisco. After that, their paths crossed a few times, including Brown’s joining others at least twice - at events held at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., and at Penn State, in State College, and perhaps at others we're not aware of - to honor Illich after his death in late 2002.

We attended both of those events, held in March and November, 2004, respectively, and we heard and spoke with Brown both times. He impressed us with his humility and knowledge and sincerity, we must say. We recognize that Brown is first and foremost a politician, and we don’t agree with certain of his political stands and actions, but we did vote for him in the recent election. Let this sketch of his relationship with Illich serve as both our tribute to Brown’s victory and as an introduction to those who might wish to learn more.

By the time they met in 1976, both men were public figures. In 1970, Illich had been profiled in The New Yorker as a radical ex-priest based in Mexico whose calls for the “deschooling” of society were arousing great controversy. Brown had just been elected to his first term as governor, at age 39 the youngest person ever to hold that office. (And at 72, today he'll soon be the oldest.)

At the 2004 symposium at Pitzer College, Barry Sanders, a professor of English there, recalled that it was two years before their face-to-face meeting, however, that Illich and Brown first got mentioned publicly in the same sentence, as it were:

One day, in 1974, the Los Angeles Times carried a picture of Jerry Brown holding quite casually two books, two small paperbacks that packed a huge wallop, he told the Times reporter. Every informed citizen had to read these two books, Brown insisted, for they pointed the way to nothing less than the very survival of the planet. But the article neglected to say exactly what they were. The title of the first one we could make out fine: Small is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher. To decipher the second, Grace [Sanders’ wife] needed a magnifying glass. Despite its tiny typeface, she could just make out a pair of three-syllable, six-letter words, Energy and Equity, written, it appeared, by some obscure Russian or Slav with the improbable name, Ivan Illich. We speculated why anyone would bother to write a book connecting money--equity--with feeling energetic. We knew it could not be a diet book, or an exercise manual. At any rate, we were right; it was certainly obscure. The library did not own a copy, we could not find it through inter-library loan, and we spent several weeks and lots of searching before we could find one in a used book store.

Almost a decade later, Pitzer College would invite Illich to lecture on his latest book, the highly controversial Gender, and this enabled Sanders to get to know Illich quite well. His witty telling of his first encounter with Illich - in a house throbbing with strobe lights and over-amped recordings of music by Karlheinz Stockhausen - and their subsequent friendship and collaboration - they went on to co-author a book titled ABC, The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind - is well worth a read. Called “Illich and Literacy,” it’s available at the Pudel site in Germany as a .PDF download.

Chances are quite good that Brown was introduced to Illich by Stewart Brand, the founder and editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, a figure of some renown in the counterculture, and a regular at Green Gulch. Illich’s call for the disestablishment of schooling and the adoption of what he called convivial tools had struck a strong chord among the back-to-the-land movement and the broad spectrum of alternative thinkers who flocked to the Catalog for inspiration and, to use the Catalog’s own slogan, for “access to tools.” It wasn’t long before Illich was listed up front in the Catalog, right next to biologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson.

Brown was well-attuned to the Whole Earth credo. In 1977, for instance, his administration authorized tax incentives for rooftop solar-energy panels. Brown stood up to the oil industry and he named Bateson, then a professor at the University of California’s Santa Cruz campus, to the state’s Board of Regents. And this bachelor governor, who as a young man had entered a Jesuit seminary, was known - and in some circles, admired - for living a fairly ascetic life: While governor, he lived in an apartment, with a mattress on the floor as his bed, instead of using the official governor’s mansion in Sacramento. Instead of being chauffeured in a limo, Gov. Brown drove himself to work in a Plymouth Satellite. (Which raises an obvious question: Did Brown play the B-52s during this short commute?)

He may not have quoted Illich specifically, we're not sure. But Brown was brave enough to talk to his constituents about an age of "limits," create a state “office of appropriate technology” and publicly Brand as an advisor. Around this same time, Brand was publishing essays by Illich in a spin-off from the Catalog, a widely-regarded, advertising-free journal called Co-Evolution Quarterly (later renamed Whole Earth Review).

Brown left the governor’s job in early 1983, having decided to run not for a third term but instead, for a seat in the U.S. Senate. He lost that race, however, and pretty much drifted away from politics. Among other activities, he studied Buddhism in Japan and visited and even worked with dying patients at Mother Teresa’s operation in Calcutta. In 1992, of course, he made his third run for president, advocating the idea of a “flat tax” on incomes, using various alternative channels to reach voters and raise funds, and winning a good number of early primaries against Bill Clinton.

In 1995, Brown began hosting a call-in radio show, called "We the People," broadcast on Berkeley’s Pacifica station, KPFA, and syndicated nationally. Featuring invited guests, it explored politics, culture, and social issues, often with leftist or alternative bent that hardly seemed to be in Brown’s political interest. Brown is a curious thinker, not afraid to be different from the average pol.

On March 22, 1996, Brown was visited on the air by Illich and Carl Mitcham, then a professor at Penn State. (Mitcham, we believe, is the person responsible for inviting Illich to teach for much of the year at Penn State, which he did for a long period of time beginning in the mid-1980s. During more or less this same period, Illich also spent half the year teaching at the University of Bremen, in Germany.)

A transcript of this conversation, touching on such topics as “the gaze,” the senses, proportionality, and hospitality, is available at We the People’s website along with those of shows featuring Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, and others. Brown comes across as a gracious and curious host, more than willing to give Illich all the time he needs to explain himself.

The home page of this same site, features Brown’s tribute to Illich, as originally published - along with tributes by a variety of other individuals, including Brand and Mitcham - in a 2003 issue of Whole Earth Review.

In 1999, Brown was elected mayor of Oakland, an economically struggling city across the bay from San Francisco, and his public relationship with Illich continued to deepen. In 2000 and again in 2001, Brown’s We the People organization hosted Illich as resident scholar for a 6-week series of lectures, all open to the public, called The Oakland Table. Illich and close friends and collaborators such as Lee Hoinacki, David Cayley, John McKnight, and Silja Samerski joined others, including architectural scholar Joseph Rykwert, in reflecting on first, the distinction between place and space, and in 2001, on “the history of hospitality”:

We looked at the recent loss of hospitality for the old, the ill, and the crippled; for children, and for those who waste away or who die. And we examined how the institutional provision of services undermines the sense for hospitality in the home, and facilitates ways of inhabiting spaces unfit for neighborly aid, family care, common mourning and mutual commitment.

Since the middle of the 20th century, experts make their living by convincing people that, due to so-called progress they are no longer capable of taking care of each other in any of the many ways different cultures have been cultivating for centuries. New professionals such as educators, obstetricians, vocational advisors, marriage psychologists and dietary counselors succeeded in transforming citizens into needy clients who become dependent on professional services in ever more areas of their life. For those activities that once took place at home, that once created a place, "needy" clients are now moved to institutions where they consume professional inputs to satisfy their needs. Homes and neighborhoods desiccate; they are transformed into hygienic garaging units where no one is born, is sick or dies anymore.

Pretty heady stuff, no?, for a guy who would soon become Attorney General of California and later, its governor. Detailed notes taken during the lectures and discussions are available here.

At a website run by a certain Dr. Braulio Hornedo Rocha, a remarkable photo is shown of that man - a Mexican critic of education with whom we're not familiar - sitting with Brown and Illich at 2000's Oakland Table gathering. This photo, close to the very bottom of the page, shows Illich about a year before he died. Hornedo is rector of something called Universidad Virtual Alfonsina, which is, we gather, located in Cuernavaca, the city where Illich made his home for many years and where his CIDOC center operated until 1976.

On Dec. 2, 2002, Ivan Illich died. Two days later, the New York Times published a condescending obituary about the “onetime Roman Catholic priest who,

through a steady flow of books and articles preached counterintuitive sociology to a disquieted baby-boom generation.
His intellectual ordnance of anarchist panache, hatred of bureaucracy, Jesuitic argumentation, deep reverence for the past and watered-down Marxism, was applied to many targets, including relations between the sexes. More often than not, his conclusions were startling: he thought life was better for women in pre-modern times.

A few days later, much to our surprise, the paper ran the following:

To the Editor:

Your Dec. 4 obituary of Ivan Illich, the priest, philosopher and historian, failed to capture the essence of this extraordinary man's life -- his profound critique of modern assumptions of scarcity and the dehumanizing effects of technological dependency.

Mr. Illich was a deeply spiritual man who embodied in his way of life a radical Christian simplicity. His understanding of the past and his cheerful embrace of suffering set him apart. He called for asceticism and the art of friendship, not ''watered-down Marxism'' or ''anarchist panache.''

In a world obsessed with longevity and freedom from pain, Mr. Illich studied and practiced the art of suffering. He was a man of rare genius and classic erudition. He was also a wonderful friend.

Oakland, Calif.

Dec. 4, 2002

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