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.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Illich on YouTube, in Spanish and French

We just came across some fairly new videos about Illich, two in Spanish and one in French. The first two are not particularly interesting, at least not to us as non-Spanish speakers. (We'd be glad to hear from anyone who can provide even a cursory translation, however.)

The first appears to provide a brief biography of Illich. The main focus seems to be on Illich as a critic of the educational system. It's 7:45 long and features the music of Carl Orff, Carmina Burana.

The second video is narrated by a woman.

The video in French is somewhat comical. It's an extract from a 1972 film showing some people - hippies? - trying to figure out if an automobile is a convivial tool, an exercise that involves ripping the machine apart!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Shadow Work in the NYTimes

In today's Times there appears an essay that references Ivan Illich and his notion of shadow work. We take the liberty of reprinting the entire piece here, but not without a critique: Illich's did not see shadow work a source of jobs, as this person does. He didn't worry that shadow work jobs are disappearing as computers and self-service take over from people. Rather, Illich saw all shadow work as a burden shouldered by people living in modern, industrialized societies. The term, he writes, "designates the consumer's unpaid toil that adds to a commodity an incremental value that is necessary to make this commodity useful to the consuming unit itself." It is a "burdensome loss of time … associated with (and preparatory to) the act of consumption."

And much of this unpaid shadow work, Illich argues, has been thrust onto women. "To a greater extent and in a different manner from men, women were drafted into the economy. They were - and are - deprived of equal access to safe labor only to be bound with even greater inequality to work that did not exist before wage labor came into being." Illich goes onto compare the modern woman, who drives to the market to buy eggs, takes an elevator to her apartment, and turns on a stove to cook the eggs in butter from the fridge, to her grandmother, who went out back, found some eggs in the chicken coop and cooked them in lard on a fire made from wood that comes from the same domicile. "Shadow work could not have come into existence before the household was turned into an apartment set up for the economic function f upgrading value-deficient commodities."

Much education - especially on-the-job training and adult education - is shadow work, too.

With that in mind, read on:

Our Unpaid, Extra Shadow Work

By Craig Lambert, in Cambridge, Mass.

THE other night at the supermarket I saw a partner at a downtown law firm working as a grocery checker, scanning bar codes. I’m sure she earns at least $300,000 per year. Even so, she was scanning and bagging her purchases in the self-service checkout line. For those with small orders, this might save time spent waiting in slower lines. Nonetheless, she was performing the unskilled, entry-level jobs of supermarket checker and bagger free of charge.

This is “shadow work,” a term coined 30 years ago by the Austrian philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich, in his 1981 book of that title. For Dr. Illich, shadow work was all the unpaid labor — including, for example, housework — done in a wage-based economy.

In a subsistence economy, work directly answers the needs of life: gathering food, growing crops, building shelters and fires. But once money comes into play, a whole range of tasks arises that do not address basic needs. Instead, such work may enable one to earn money and buy both necessities and, if possible, luxuries.

To do the work requires extra jobs, like commuting. The commuter often has to own, insure, maintain and fuel a car — and drive it — just to get to work and back. These unpaid activities ancillary to earning one’s wages are examples of shadow work.

In the industrialized world, few of us live in a subsistence mode, so shadow work is ubiquitous: shopping, paying bills, housework. Digital technology — with its spam, e-mail, texting, smartphones and so on — is steadily ramping up the burden of shadow work for all whose lives revolve around its magnetic field.

Science fiction novels of a half-century ago dramatized conflicts between humans and robots, asking if people were controlling their technologies, or if the machines were actually in charge. A few decades later, with the digital revolution in juggernaut mode, the verdict is in. The robots have won. Although the automatons were supposedly going to free people by taking on life’s menial, repetitive tasks, frequently, technological innovation actually offloads such jobs onto human beings.

The conventional wisdom is that America has become a “service economy,” but actually, in many sectors, “service” is disappearing. There was a time when a gas station attendant would routinely fill your tank and even check your oil and clean your windshield and rear window without charge, then settle your bill. Today, all those jobs have been transferred to the customer: we pump our own gas, squeegee our own windshield, and pay our own bill by swiping a credit card. Where customers once received service from the service station, they now provide “self-service” — a synonym for “no service.” Technology enables this sleight of hand, which lets gas stations cut their payrolls, having co-opted their patrons into doing these jobs without pay.

Examples abound, helping drive unemployment rates. Airports now have self-service check-in kiosks that allow travelers to perform the jobs of ticket agents. Travel agents once unearthed, perused and compared fares, deals and hotel rates. Shadow-working travelers now do all of this themselves on their computer screens. Medical patients are now better informed than ever — as a result of hours of online shadow work. In 1998, the Internal Revenue Service estimated that taxpayers spent six billion hours per year on “tax compliance activities.” That’s serious shadow work, the equivalent of three million full-time jobs.

Once upon a time, retail stores had employees who were not cashiers but roamed the floor, assisting customers. Go into a Wal-Mart or Target or Staples and find someone to help you locate and choose a product. Good luck. You’re on your own, left to wander the aisles in search of an unoccupied staff person. (Meanwhile, you might stumble on and purchase some item you hadn’t planned on buying.) Here, it’s not technology, but a business tactic that cuts payroll expenses by trimming the service provided to customers — and prolongs the time those customers spend rambling around inside the store. Regardless, the result is still more shadow work, as customers take on the job that retail salespeople once did.

Shadow work isn’t always unpaid; sometimes it shows up at one’s salaried job in the form of new tasks covertly added to one’s responsibilities. Not long ago, human resources departments kept track of employees’ vacation, personal and sick days. In many organizations, employees now enter their own data into absence management software.

One nostalgic appeal of the “Mad Men” television series is the way it evokes memories of certain amusingly dated aspects of business life, like “support staff,” and even “secretaries.” Support staff is becoming a quaint, antiquarian concept, a historical curiosity like typewriters, stenography and executive washrooms. We all have our own computers, of course, and we type and print our own letters, copy our own reports and mail our own missives. Even those in senior management perform these humdrum jobs.

Of course, these shadow chores never appear in one’s job description, let alone justify any salary increase. Shadow work is just covertly added to our daily duties. As robotic devices replace human workers, end-users like customers and employees are taking on the remnant of the transaction that still requires wetware — a brain. New waves of technology change how things are done, and we docilely adapt — unavoidably so, as there’s usually no alternative. Running a business without e-mail is hardly a viable option, but with e-mail comes spam to be evaluated and deleted — more shadow work.

To be sure, shadow work has its benefits. Bagging one’s own groceries or pumping one’s own gas can save time. Shadow work can increase autonomy and enlarge our repertoire of skills and knowledge. Research on the “Ikea effect,” named for the Swedish furniture manufacturer whose products often require home assembly, indicates that customers value a product more highly when they play a role in constructing it.

Still, doctors routinely observe that one of the most common complaints today is fatigue; a 2007 study pegged its prevalence in the American work force at 38 percent. This should not be surprising. Much of this fatigue may result from the steady, surreptitious accumulation of shadow work in modern life. People are simply doing a huge number of tasks that were once done for them by others.

Doing things for one another is, in fact, an essential characteristic of a human community. Various mundane jobs were once spread around among us, and performing such small services for one another was even an aspect of civility. Those days are over. The robots are in charge now, pushing a thousand routine tasks onto each of our backs.

Craig Lambert is the deputy editor of Harvard Magazine.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Ivan Illich Observed, Up Close

The all-knowing Google alerted us today to a new document that contains some quite personal, unedited observations of Illich in action. The title: "In Conversation with John Ohliger and Ivan Illich — April 8-10, 1978." The author: Jeff Zacharakis, of Kansas State University.

The paper is available for download in PDF at the Adult Education Research Conference site.

John F. Ohliger (1926-2004) was a friend of Illich's, a prolific writer, and a radical activist. He was perhaps best known as a sharp critic of adult education, whose social functions and myths he analyzed and dissected largely using the insights of Illich's deschooling argument. Ohliger occasionally collaborated with Illich and, long before the Web was available, helped to disseminate his ideas in a newsletter. An official site devoted to Ohliger and his work is here.

The new paper we cite here recounts Ohliger's account, as recorded on the scene, as it happened, of a visit he made to Cuernavaca 2 years after CIDOC closed. He went there to work with Illich and Valentina Borremans on a bibliography of Illich's writings. Zacharakis has listened to Ohliger's tapes, summarizes their contents, and sometimes quotes long, often emotional passages verbatim. The tapes offer a highly personal view of Illich, whom Ohliger finds to be quite intimidating and frustrating. (Ohliger recorded the tapes as an audio diary, kept for the sake of his future wife who stayed back home in Wisconsin.) The author also provides some good background on Ohliger.

A sample, in which Zacharakis quotes Ohliger's talking into his tape recorder:

[This] fatigue leads to depression. It always seems to get to me. I can also say that something that attributes to this is a feeling of inferiority to Ivan and Valentina....they are so adept to making a life. A good life in terms of economics at writing and speaking and I suppose this is something I would like to be able to do. That is just depressing to be around. They are so facile with words, and so mildly aggressive. I guess it is in an OK way. I don’t know. At this point I’m ready again to start walking to the airport in Mexico City. I could take a taxicab or hitchhike...

Another: "Throughout these conversations there is tense intimacy where John wants to finish the annotated bibliography and Illich wants to discuss new ideas, as well as take John to the marketplace and introduce him to other friends. John is the taskmaster while Illich is relaxed and enjoying each minute of the day. Though they are friends with mutual respect, Illich controls the pace and is the dominant partner."

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Dr. Henrik Blum on visiting CIDOC and having Illich visit UC Berkeley

Henrik Blum (1915-2006) was an M.D. and widely-regarded name in the field of public health - "one of the real leaders of the field of comprehensive health planning,” according to a profile in The Lancet.

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For many years, it seems, he taught at UC Berkeley, and in 1997, he participated in an oral history project conducted by the university's Bancroft Library. The full transcript is available online, and what follows is an excerpt discussing Blum's encounters with and thoughts about Illich. Blum visited Illich at CIDOC and later was instrumental in having Illich invited to lecture at Berkeley for a semester in 1983. This series of lectures, about the topic of vernacular gender and its loss to economic sex, was controversial, to say the least.

Interviewer: "In 1976, you published Expanding Health Care Horizons. …"

Blum: That book originated as an invitation to present up-to-date
thinking on what health was and what health care might best be.
Each of three authors was given a week in which to present
their views. Ivan Illich presented Medical Nemesis, Rick
Carlson did the End of Medicine, and I presented what health
care should be doing if it were based on our understanding of
what caused good and bad health, something a lot different than
the repair concept of Western medicine.

Roz Lindheim, an architect whose work in health opened many
new avenues in health care, appears in several contexts in this
book because she influenced many of us in many ways, got me
invited to Cuernavaca to CIDOC, Centre Intercultural de
Documentation, which was Ivan Illich's own institute and which
enjoyed the protection of the liberal archbishop of Cuernavaca.
Illich was a priest who came from Yugoslavia, was trained at
the Vatican and was reputed to be a protege of Pope John.

He had written many controversial books, all of which
sounded a strong anti-organization theme, probably built out of
his experience and objections to bureaucratic, authoritarian
organizations like the Catholic Church. As the one-time rector
of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico, he had strong
feelings about the limitations of traditional universities and
CIDOC was his own creation.

The institute earned its way by teaching Spanish to well-
off persons needing a rapid and reasonably thorough Spanish
grounding. But its overriding purpose was to piggy-back high-
level discussions of all major social issues, as well as
maintain an elegant library and a place for him to think and
work. His medieval-style university CIDOC was an unlikely
mixture of the ultra-technical reception machinery, and a
freedom to wander, imbibe, and disperse information and ideas
in an almost market-like intellectual setting.

When one arrived, one was set down in front of a suitcase-
sized mechanized monster which took your fifty dollars, took
your picture and a small ticket you had filled out, and turned
out a wallet-sized plastic-encased I.D. card that allowed you
to attend for the rest of the year. That allowed the card
holder to attend any and all presentations, of which there were
a dozen or more going on at any one moment.

It might be medicine one month, a four-hour-a-day series,
with half presentation, half discussion, history of the
Philippines which we attended, or philosophy, whatever.

Illich toured each series at least once a week and gave a
resume of all the courses that were being presented, truly an
unbelievable tour de force. We had attendees in ours from
twenty-three countries, and since presenters were paid
according to the number of attendees (out of their $50.00
fees), we were paid more money than it cost us to travel and to
stay there for a week.

To prepare myself, I put all my ideas into paradigms,
chains of logic, summaries, and presented about a hundred
charts and tables in my week. Given its success with an
international audience, I did what any respectable professor
would do: turned it all into a book, Expanding Health Care
, a title suggested by a confrere who then denied
vigorously that he had ever named anything, even though he
approved of the book. I obtained a contract from Warner, and
Harry Specht, the dean of the School of Social Work at UC
Berkeley, was the editor for them.

Harry had worked under me as the CEO of the Contra Costa
Health and Welfare Council for the one year I was its
president, and we enjoyed one another. He went on a sabbatical
to Europe, injured his back, and lay on the floor of their
leased van for months while his wife drove, and that was where
he edited my book. He did a magnificent job sharpening and
clarifying, never once ruining what I was getting at.

After all that, Warner was sold, perhaps it became Time-Warner,
it cancelled its contracts, and here I was. I wanted
the book for my classes. Because it laid out the new look for
health care that I wanted to use, a pair of former students,
Helen and Paul Mico, who created a publishing house at that
moment, Third Party Publishing, took it as their first venture.
Since they had so few books, they had no budget for
advertising, so it remained mostly for local consumption. It
brought all my major themes together and from time to time I
get asked to sit in on the founding of a health care venture
based on the premises held forth in that book.

We had a lot of dealings with Illich while we were there,
partly fascinated, partly repulsed by this formidably talented,
educated, and experienced empiricist. Fascinated by the
searching questions he asked, repulsed by the elitist answers
he typically gave.

Wasn't organized education creating a great subclass of
those who never could get any of it, therefore shouldn't we do
away with organized schooling? Similarly for medicine, and so
on. My preface to Expanding Health Care Horizons
responds to that philosophy rather vigorously.

Anyhow, we thought he would be good for Berkeley, got him a
Chancellor's professorship, and he spent a semester in
presenting a formal course on gender [1982-1983] and holding
parallel seminars and soirees on various related issues. I did
all the necessary paperwork and petitioning. Roz was in
Europe, and I sat back to enjoy what could only become an
intellectual fracas.

His class drew 500-700 people for every single lecture.
The large home he rented with his stipend was busy at all hours
with truly intellectual forays. This was old-time intellectual
fare of the highest order. Several UCB women faculty were
truly indignant over what this maybe celibate priest had to say
about gender issues, and proceeded to write heated responses in
book form.

He has been at Heidelburg the last few years and is, by my
standards, becoming more respectable or less controversial.

A profile in Portuguese

The Web is full of many wondrous things, including a profile of Illich in Portuguese onto which we recently stumbled. We don't read that language, but this caricature of Illich, which it contains, caught our eye:


And on closer examination, we see that the text of this pamphlet is essentially the same as this profile of Illich (PDF), published by UNESCO in 1993. The author, Marcela Gajardo, being Chilean, we imagine she originally wrote this in Spanish. After a brief discussion of Illich's background and CIDOC, it reviews the arguments of Deschooling Society with a somewhat critical eye:

… The radical nature of his denunciation prevented him from constructing a realistic strategy for those educators and researchers who might have associated themselves with his protest. In addition, Illich’s writings were founded essentially on intuitions, without any appreciable reference to the results of socio-educational or learning research. His criticism evolves in a theoretical vacuum, which may explain the limited acceptance his educational theories and proposals find today.

Indeed, Illich is widely accused of being a Utopian thinker and is further criticized for his early withdrawal from the wider educational debate. A deeper involvement and the development of viable strategies for putting his ideas into practice, plus a solid theoretical foundation to sustain them, might have led him along different paths.

Notwithstanding all this, Ivan Illich must be recognized an educational thinkers who helped to give life to the educational debate of the 1970s. ...

Valentina Borremans

Valentina Borremans, a Belgian deep-sea diver and librarian, has played an important part in the story of Ivan Illich. She helped found CIDOC in Cuernavaca, Mexico, she served as administrator and librarian of that "thinkery," ran its language school, participated in many seminars with Illich, and edited his manuscripts, and to this day, she looks after Illich's library in the village of Ocotepec. If we're not mistaken, he lived in her household there when not in Bremen or other parts of the world.

She also wrote a book. We've just discovered online a scanned microfiche copy of Borremans' Guide to Convivial Tools, published in 1979 by R.R. Bowker. It lists and, in most cases, briefly annotates 858 books and articles about "use-value oriented convivial tools - and their enemies." The materials listed range from books about growing certain hardy agricultural plants to manuals about working with different kinds of alternative energy to collections of articles about composting, bicycles as a mode of transportation, and "science for the people." In short, the guide captures the reading materials and the spirit of the a time - essentially the 1970s - when there was tremendous excitement in the air about creating alternatives to industrial society. The computer had yet to become personal, the Internet was nowhere to be seen, and lots of people shared their newsletters and guides to alternative living by mail. In away, this guide is a more serious, less consumer-oriented form of the Whole Earth Catalog.

In his preface to the guide, Illich notes that "this looks like a book to be used in a library - but the library where it could be used does not yet exist." These were materials that were missing from most research libraries around the world, Illich writes: "This is the champion list of un-listed reference tools; a bibliographic claim to a new kind of territory."

He also describes how Borremans arrived in Mexico from France "to direct a small research library on social change in Latin America." These materials soon became the foundation of CIDOC, which over 12 years, Illich writes, was visited by about 18,000 people. CIDOC also published more than 300 titles of its own. Remarkably, Illich credits Borremans, not himself, as the director and administrator of CIDOC. "I myself conducted all my seminars at CIDOC and felt its most privileged user," he writes.

Our friend Michael Slattery, an American hydrologist living and working in France, has written about Borremans' Guidehere, as part of a website he has devoted to convivial tools.

One of the main collections of materials that Borremans oversaw at CIDOC concerned the history of religiosity in Latin America from around 1830 to 1970. This resulted in some 50,000 fiche pages that she herself created with a portable machine while periodically traveling throughout the continent to visit churches and rummage through their collections of old handbills, posters, bulletins, "serials," and other printed materials. An extensive listing of the materials in this collection is available in several places around the Web, including here, at Rutgers University's Department of Latino and Hispanic Caribbean Studies. While church-related materials from the colonial period have been preserved and edited, Borremans writes, "the imprints of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that reflect local devotions and syncretist rituals, religious iconography and poetry, and the pastoral campaigns of the various churches and sects, [sic] went uncollected and unnoticed until the early 1960s, when Ivan Illich began to search for them and to collect them in the CIDOC library in Cuernavaca." (In his 1983 paper on the "Social Construction of Energy," Illich talks of "superstitious religiosity" as a "hobby" of his for the previous 30 years.)

A paper written by Borremans, titled "Technique and Women's Toil," can be found online, too. It was published in IFDA Dossier 35, for May/June 1983. It looks at "the tools which purportedly lighten women's toil, toil which extends to death."

Research on women and tools has multiplied during the seventies, but is of two profoundly different kinds. One looks
at tools which lighten women's total lifelong toil. This research is done mostly by women who are themselves helped by the new techniques which they adopt. This inventive vernacular adoption of new techniques by women is rarely called "research"; indeed, it is generally overlooked. Few reporters recognize
the genius who makes an oven out of a gearbox as a researcher.

The other kind of research is that for women. Its primary purpose tends to be the increase of women's productivity. It measures the "improvement" of women's well-being as viewed by the expert."

The two types of research are at odds with one another. Research by women tends to keep them outside the market, and to limit the community's productivity in monetary terms. But it also generally lightens the total burden carried by women.

The second type of research drafts women into development. It is carried out by experts, sometimes in consultation with clients and, as I shall show, increases both women's burden and sexist discrimination.


Industrialization, however, has no monopoly on the spread of sexism. AT [alternative technology] can do equally well or better. For this reason I strongly recommend research on the dangers of genderless AT. I do so not because I am opposed to genderless AT, I welcome tools that fit the hands of women as well as those of men.
But I call for research on the sexist effects of genderless AT because, even more effectively than industrial machines, AT can transform proud women into handicapped humans of the second sex. Sometimes this cannot be avoided. But I see no reason for blindly promoting it. Only research by women in each village and neighborhood can ensure that the new wrenches and pliers, the new gauges and glues, the new fish tanks and hand mills, or the new breed of goats, above all empower the hands of women. Such research just cannot be done for a village.

Ivan Illich describes the paper in his book Gender so: "Research for women aimed at providing them with new technologies has been part of development-oriented policies and has always increased the total toil of women. Only research by women, conducted by those who themselves use the new tools and techniques, can reduce women's toil, decrease women's dependence on the cash nexus and consequently the severity of sexism". Borremans states in a footnote at the top that she wrote the paper "while I was revising the proofs of Gender." She ends the paper with a copy of Gender's table of contents.

(IFDA was the International Foundation for Development Alternatives, working out of Switzerland and Rome from 1978 to 1991. An archive of all 81 issues of its newsletter are available online, here, hosted by the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, in Sweden. Several of them include articles by Illich.)

Speaking of fish tanks and alternative technology, we should point out where we found Borremans' Guide to Convivial Tools. Her guide is one of more than 4,000 such documents, all concerning alternative technologies and the like, that an outfit calling itself Faith And Sustainable Technologies, or F.A.S.T., has put online for downloading at no charge.

This archive is described as "the complete CD3WD library (almost 20GB) for community development from Alex Weir." The CD3WD website, here, reveals Mr. Weir as a Scottish-born software engineer who has spent much of his life working in East Africa. Among other things, he has developed what he describes as a "low-cost tamper-proof electronic voting system" designed specifically for use in the Third World.

The F.A.S.T. organization describes itself: "It is our desire to be an encouragement and information resource for all who come here and especially to those who preach the good news of the gospel of Christ by assisting the poor and underprivileged of this world to experience the life of Christ firsthand by living out biblical principles of good stewardship, wise decisions and hard work." Evidently, the founder and principal of the organization is Travis Hughey.

On the F.A.S.T. site, Hughey offers many photos of a journey he made to Kenya where he showed locals how to construct a hydroponic gardening system out of blue plastic barrels. "Cordless drills are a wonderful thing," he captions one photograph of this project. "I brought a good tool kit to assist in building the system quickly. The locals were amazed at hole saws. They thought they were a very good idea."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Lice, hair, and city space

In the early 1980s, Ivan Illich accepted an invitation to join a group of thinkers to discuss various topics: "ideas," education, the city, street life, architecture, the economy, and more. This was the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, formed in 1980 and still going strong.

This photo, undated, shows people gathered at the Institute; that's Illich, sixth from the left in the back:


For Illich, one result of this activity was the writing of a short but unusually poetic and wide-ranging book called H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness, which the Institute originally published in 1985. The following year, the Institute published an eclectic, 250-page collection of pieces by its members and guests that had appeared in its newsletter, a book called Stirrings of Culture. (The book is still for sale at the Institute's website and, for less money, via In addition to Illich, contributors included African-American novelist and essayist Albert Murray, Jungian psychologist James Hillman, city theorist William H. Whyte, architects Robert Venturi and Vincent Scully, and poet-farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry.

Stirrings of Culture

We're pleased to share, here, in full, one of the pieces by Illich that appears in this book. (The other two of his are concerned with water and with "Health as Disease." There's also a piece by Barbara Duden, "Women's Illnesses in the 18th Century.") It appears to be the partial transcript of a talk he gave, offering further thoughts about the historicity of city space as first explored in H2O. (We recall reaching for this essay when the youngster in our household brought lice home from grammar school - an increasingly common occurrence, it seems; for a moment, anyway, we enjoyed the spark of suddenly feeling connected to history.)

Hair and the History of the City
by Ivan Illich

The moment I began to think and read on the relationship between hair and the city, so much wealth and strange information began to heap up that all I can do is take a few minutes to introduce some ideas on hair and the city.

When I was a young man, the world was still very much full of bed bugs and lice and fleas. Only well after DDT, bugs became a word for mechanical foul-ups. Lice and fleas and bugs were the regular visitors on the human body. In reading the encounters between doctors and patients in the past, it is clear that people were quite used to living with a festering sore. The doctor couldn’t do anything about it, and it is not that people didn’t mind - they simply didn’t go to the doctor to stop that festering. That is just what the human condition was. But it's always difficult to speak with people about the fact that a festering sore, for example, was something you were stuck with and you had it. That was a pretty common statement until about 1908. Until that time, a patient had about one chance in two that the doctor could do something, anything at all, about the condition which they brought to the doctor. And, certainly in most of the world, it was quite obvious and normal to scratch and itch.

Until recently, human beings never lived with their own surface out of contact with animal life. They shared their skin with other animals.

As a historian, I find it very often difficult to explain to a younger generation what was taken for obvious - what could not be changed, what the human condition was like only a couple of generations ago. DDT is interesting because it extended down into the most underdeveloped countries. The poorest people are rich enough in the world now to get effective flea powder.

Living with an uninhabited skin makes us much less aware of our body surface, aware of what hair is - this fuzzy fuzz which we still carry with us, which has always been an extremely important symbol. … There is a very strange gulf between ourselves and the way past people lived.

The gulf between past and present which makes it so hard for us to understand how people have lived, this gulf which makes us separated from ourselves, is a major reason we no longer have in the city a concept of “the commons.” We no longer have commons. Today we have private and public spaces. As far as I know, “private” and “public” are concepts which are simply not applicable to a traditional city. The difference between the opposition of private and public is as a sharp line. That line is like we today imagine our body covering, our skin, a line dividing inside and outside. Hair, inhabited hair, belonging at the same time to inside and outside, makes the division more “fuzzy,” makes our life and animal life more alike; and when there is a commons, our life and the lives of others are experienced in common; life in the city, a gathering around a commons. …

A precise line does not separate me from the rest of the world. Transitions are much more imprecise. In the past, people carried an aura which surrounded them, an aura that had to be washed away, deodorized, to accommodate people in the kind of cities we live in today. … Only sometime after washing became possible, lice and flea killing became effective, and therefore we became even more possessive individuals. Fur became then a symbol for luxury, but not any more for the duplicity of inside and outside which the fur implies. In the fourteenth century, it became so important for a person who had an important aura to carry a fur that trained - for kings and nobles. This royal coat became so large - 140 to 200 square feet, weighing about fifty pounds - that one needed assistants to move around. The royal person wanted to shine in the aura which covered him all around. It is a projection of an animal inside - both an expression of the animal as well as an expression of shame of my fur as it is and therefore have to cover it with clothes. …

I thought as a contribution to this discussion about growth and undergrowth I want to point out that the undergrowth of cities is a place where people are aware that the surface of the city, just like the surface of their bodies, is constantly shared for many purposes. A commons is not a public space. A commons is a space which is established by custom. It cannot be regulated by law. The law would never be able to give sufficient details to regulate a commons. A typical tree on the commons of a village has by custom very different uses for different people. The widows may take the dry branches for burning. The children may collect the twigs, and the pastor gets the flowers when it flowers, and the nuts from it are assigned to the village poor, and the shadow may be for the shepherds who come through, except on Sundays, when the Council is held in the shadow of the tree.

The concept of the commons is not that of a resource; a commons comes from a totally different way of being in the world where it is not production which counts, but bodily, physical use according to rules that are established by custom, which never recognizes equality of all subjects because different people follow different customs. Their differences can be recognized in the way they share the commons. …

Once we really have the experience of uninhabited skin, it is enormously difficult for people to understand that commons in the city are typical, are characteristic of the perception of space in past time, and not the distinction between private and public space.

Friday, September 16, 2011

An appreciation of Illich in light of "climate change"

A man named Robert Hutchison, a member of the city council in Winchester, U.K., spoke about Ivan Illich in 2009 as part of a series of talks called "Prophets for Our Time." A recording of his talk (in MP3) and the text (PDF) are available for downloading from this page.

Mr. Hutchison's articulate, half-hour talk provides a good overview of Illich's thought and life, from his critique of important institutions to his explorations of how the Church has profoundly shaped Western thought and society.

He summarizes: "To recap on these three of Illich's ideas – and I hope that I am not caricaturing them: the institutionalising of charity has inadvertently resulted in a betrayal of Christian faith. In the last 30 years we've been through a terrifying change – the incorporation of our lives into a world of systems that cannot effectively be controlled – but that friendship is a pre-condition for the search for truth and the search for truth must continue even while recognising our 'radical powerlessness'."

Mr. Hutchison frames his discussion of Illich with the issue of climate change, aka global warming. He is a founder of an outfit called Winchester Action on Climate Change - a "network of local people, businesses and organisations working together to transform Winchester into a low carbon district."

Ivan Illich speaks about water in Dallas, 1984

We're delighted, today, to have discovered online some 40 minutes of video showing Ivan Illich speaking to an audience in 1984. His topic: the changing metaphors of water - how the ancients saw water as a magical stuff that separates this world from that of the dead and how today, water is merely a solvent that washes dirt and excrement from the city.

Illich spoke as part of a conference on "What Makes a City: Water and Dreams" that was held by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. The Institute had originally approached him to address the issues raised by plans - discussed and debated for many decades - to create an artificial lake in the center of Dallas. Somewhat to his own surprised, Illich accepted the invitation. The result was a series of discussions held in Dallas, this lecture, and a short but wonderfully provocative and poetic book, H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness, published by the Institute in 1985. In it, Illich discusses how the ancients founded their cities; how city space differed from that of nature; how people experienced city space as much through their noses as their eyes; how urban water and images of the female nude came to be so intertwined; the histories of smells, of sewers and indoor toilets, of soap and, of course, of water itself. The book's subtitle is "Reflections on the Historicity of 'Stuff'."

Perhaps the book's most widely-quoted sentence: "[W]e do not feel free to question the natural beauty of water itself because we know, yet cannot bear to acknowledge, that this 'stuff' is recycled toilet flush."

The video is available for downloading from the Internet Archive in two parts, each in a variety of encodings. Part 1 is here, part 2 here. We've embedded both parts for viewing right here, as well:

We're not aware of any other such video showing Illich speaking publicly. A good number of audio recordings of him are available, but not video, as far as we know, probably as a result of Illich's well-known aversion to being recorded in any way. ("Modern-day pornography," he testily described the commercial recording of his "conversation" about de-schooling with an evangelical audience in the 1970s.)

Here's Part 2 of the Dallas video:

Illich's water book draws a good deal on the thinking of Gaston Bachelard, who wrote about the "poetics of space," and that of Joseph Rykwert, an architectural historian with whom Illich worked at the University of Pennsylvania. For anyone interested in the study of cities, as we are, Illich's book provides a wonderful bibliography and many detailed footnotes.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Illich in Maine

In July, 1984, Ivan Illich and friends convened for a week-long conference in Maine. The subject: "The History of Economic Man."

Among those who attended were Eugene J. Burkart, a lawyer practicing in Massachussets who in the early 1970s had visited Illich's CIDOC research center in Mexico. Mr. Burkart has written about that CIDOC visit and the Maine gathering in the essay he contributed to The Challenges of Ivan Illich, a book published shortly before Illich's death in 2002.

Listening to Illich speak at CIDOC, he writes, he found the man "to be brilliant; his intellect was dazzling and formidable, like none I had ever encountered; he was charismatic, too. There was a remarkable presence and aliveness about him."

Despite being impressed with the atmosphere of CIDOC, Mr. Burkart had doubts about how or if the activities taking place there could possibly do anything for the poor of Latin America. "After much thought," Mr. Burkart concluded "that Illich was a phony, someone enmeshed in his own cleverness, a dangerous distraction from the pressing social concerns of the day."

"I felt my anger grow with each word he spoke," he writes. "And then a strange thing happened: [Illich] suddenly turned toward me. To see where I sat he had to turn quite far, but I was not sure whether he saw me because I was on the periphery of his vision; and he did not know me. I wondered, Had he sensed my anger? He continued speaking, all the while looking intensely at me, as if he really wanted me to understand what he was saying. I returned his gaze and although I did not understand a word he said, I felt the confusion of my thoughts and feelings inexplicably lifted from me. In those few moments I had the experience of intimately seeing this person, Ivan Illich, for the first time; I then knew he was someone I could trust. But I would not have a direct conversation with him for many years to come."

That conversation took place, as it turned out, at the conference in Maine. There, Mr. Burkart and Illich became friends. Mr. Burkart went on to meet up many times with Illich at Penn State and at his home down in Mexico. He writes:

"The more I came to know Illich personally, the more I would see that friendship was the very center of his life and work. While he never wrote an essay or treatise explicitly on the subject, friendship is a theme that consistently appears in his writing, a connecting thread through all his books. I eventually concluded that the best way to understand Illich’s work is a detailed study of the myriad and varied barriers to friendship that exist in modern life. The kinds of withdrawal and resistance he encouraged, what he later would call askesis, was a new kind of asceticism, practices that are a necessary condition for friendship to flower in our modern deserts."

Identifying Illich's work as a "detailed study of the myriad and varied barriers to friendship that exist in modern life" strikes us as exactly right.

Also participating in the Maine conference were Susan Hunt, who had worked closely with Illich on his book Gender, and Bill Ellis, a key figure (and founder?) of an organization called TRANET, short for "transnational network about alternative technology." We recall reading about TRANET in the 1970s. Its activities and newsletter (meshing well with Illich's notion of convivial tools) often were mentioned in the Whole Earth Catalog and Co-Evolution Quarterly. (Mr. Ellis works out of Rangeley, Maine, a place we happen to know as the one-time home and final resting place of the controversial psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. Reich's house, full of "orgone boxes," "cloudbusters," and other questionable apparatus, is open to visitors.)

Google ("knows all, tells all") reveals another memoir of the Maine Summer Institute conference. "Voices in the Wilderness," written in 1985 by Richard Yanowitz as a contribution to a post-conference volume. Evidently, his experience of the conference was not entirely positive: "All week long at the Institute I felt on the verge of going home, variously infuriated, frustrated, perplexed, exhilarated and intellectually energized."

He recalls Illich as an "aloof, imposing, brilliant, erudite, charismatic figure with superbly polished oratorical skills."

He uses gaunt body, voice and language with precision and authority, and even his unspecific foreign accent lends him an air of distinction and perspicacity. His encyclopedic command of his material combined with his philological dexterity give one that helpless feeling of having neither right nor ability to debate (I almost wrote “compete”) intelligently.
While Illich affects to exchange ideas (rather than engage in loathsome “communication”), I experienced many of his statements as pronouncements. He seemed to go out of his way to irritate newcomers to his personality, summarizing complex ideas in pithy terms that sounded outrageous to the uninitiated. At the same time, disagreement appeared both to vex and perplex him: faced on the one hand with the absolute clarity of his Truths in his own mind and on the other with the inability of many listeners to grasp what he had to say (= to agree with him), he must have been torn between frustration over his own apparent failure at lucid articulation and bemusement at the appalling scarcity of rationality (= sanity) in the people he was addressing.
When Ivan joined a discussion, I was dealing with a personality as well as ideas. My mind had to become an intellectual and emotional centrifuge, whirling to separate out the impact of his persona from both the ideological content of a discussion and my own resistance, in the face of his alienating behavior, to hear his contributions with sympathy. The problem was compounded by the Institute’s being a kind of reunion for Illich acolytes and friends, so that I felt like a court hanger-on with mutually unsavory choices: to insinuate myself into the intellectual aristocracy, or, wallowing in alienation, to turn up my nose at this incestuous coterie.

Also attending the Maine conference, Mr. Yanowitz recalls, was John Ohliger (not Ohlinger, as he spells it), a critic of education and especially the adult-education industry and its promotion of "life-long learning."

Another blog devoted to Ivan Illich

We've just learned of another person's blog that's devoted to the work and thought of Ivan Illich. It's called Celebration of Awareness, A Collaborative blog inspired by Ivan Illich, and it's here.

There is only a handful of articles posted there, now, but we look forward to exploring it.

Friday, September 02, 2011

The State as Employment Agency

Ivan Illich, 1983:

The modern state could be interpreted as an employment agency with a gun to protect the fuel pump.

NY Times, today ...

Job Growth Halts, Putting Washington Under Pressure

The nation’s employers failed to add new jobs in August, a strong signal that the economy has stalled and that policy makers can no longer afford inaction.

and …

Obama Pulls Back Proposal To Tighten Clean Air Rules
The Obama administration is abandoning its plan to immediately tighten air-quality rules nationwide to reduce emissions of smog-causing chemicals after an intense lobbying campaign by industry… .
The White House announcement that it was overruling the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to adopt a stricter standard for ground-level ozone came just hours after another dismal jobs reports ... The president is planning a major address next week on new measures to stimulate employment […]
Leaders of major business groups — including the United States Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Petroleum Institute and the Business Roundtable — met with Ms. Jackson and with top White House officials earlier this summer seeking to moderate, delay or kill the rule. They told William Daley, the White House chief of staff, that the rule would be very costly to industry and would hurt Mr. Obama’s chances for re-election.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Madhu Suri Prakash interviews Javier Sicilia

Yes! magazine has published a brief interview with Javier Sicilia, the Mexican poet and friend of Ivan Illich's whose 24-year-old son was shot dead by a drug gang early this year. The interview was conducted by Madhu Suri Prakash, another of Illich's friends and a professor at Penn State.

As noted here earlier, Sicilia has emerged as spiritual leader to thousands of Mexican citizens who are demanding that their government radically change how it deals with illegal drugs and the people who are in the business of shipping those drugs into the U.S.A. In this interview, he states:

If from the very beginning drugs were decriminalized, drug lords would be subjected to the iron laws of the market. That would have controlled them. That would have allowed us to discover our drug addicts and offer them our love and our support. That would not have left us with 40,000 dead, 10,000 disappeared and 120,000 displaced...

The war is caused by puritan mentalities: like those of [Mexican President Felipe] Calderón and [former US President George] Bush. In the name of abstractions — the abstraction of saving youth from drug addiction — they have brutally assassinated thousands of young people, while transforming others into delinquents.

Albert Camus spoke a terrible truth. “I know something worse than hate: abstract love.” In the name of abstract love, in the name of God and Country, in the name of saving the youth from the drug, in the name of the proletariat, in the name of abstractions, our politicians and war policy makers have committed the most atrocious crimes on human beings, who are not abstractions, who are bones and flesh. That is what our country is living and suffering today: in the name of an abstract goodness, we are suffering the opposite: the horror of war and violence, of innocents dead, disappeared, and mutilated.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Illich in Turkey

They are reading Illich in Turkey, too, it appears. Here's a page discussing him, and here, we believe, is the cover of the translated Deschooling Society.


Illich in Poland

A 96-minute video of a discussion about Illich held by some young Poles has been posted to Vimeo, here. We're unable to understand what's being said, but the focus appears to be on the book Deschooling Society, which recently became available in a new Polish translation. We read about that edition here:

A new Polish translation of Ivan Illich’s book Deschooling Society is released 34 years after the first edition. The book, discussed worldwide by progressive educators, artistic milieus demanding radical changes in culture and cultural education, is an excellent point of reference for the current Polish debate on the future of culture and social life. Deschooling Society was first published in Poland in 1976 in a then microscopic 3000 copies. The new translation features a slightly modified title and an introduction by Piotr Laskowski, Jan Sowa’s conversation with Zbigniew Libera, Hanna Kostyło’s text on the life of Illich, and drawings by Hubert Czerepok.

Instead of another reform of education, Illich postulates society without school, i.e. society that independently establishes educational networks: ephemeral, changeable, dynamic educational groups, somewhat of temporary autonomous spheres. Their creation depends on the needs that ever easier to satisfy in the era of the Internet – unrestricted access to educational resources, possibility of getting across to people who are willing to share desired abilities. But also a change in the structure of knowledge – from the pyramid, or taproot trunk into the rhizome. [Piotr Laskowski, from the introduction: Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, Bęc Zmiana, 2010]

Illichprzod 3

Do join us at the debate around Ivan Illich’s book, featuring: Prof Przemysław Czapliński, Piotr Laskowski and Jan Sowa.
Time: 8.12.2010 (Wednesday), 19.30
Venue: Solec, 44 Solec St., Warsaw

Ivan Illich (1926-2002) – Austrian thinker and critic of contemporary society, „humanist radical”, as Erich Fromm put it, one of the most original thinkers of the 20th century.

Przemysław Czapliński (b. 1962) – researcher in Polish culture, essayist, translator. Member of the jury of the Nike Literary Award, co-founder of the Department of Anthropology of Literature at AMU in Poznań, Ordinary Professor since 2002.

Piotr Laskowski (b. 1976) – Egyptologist, ideological historian, teacher. Co-founder and the first director of Jacek Kuroń Multicultural Humanist High School in Warsaw. Assistant Professor at the Jagiellonian university in Cracow. Published Sketches from the History of Anarchism [in Polish].

Janek Sowa (ur. 1976) – Doctor of Sociology, psychologist. Co-founder of Ha!Art Corporation Publishing House. Author and editor of books in psychology, sociology and social ciritque. Lectures at the Institute of Public affairs and Centre for Humanist Studies at the Jagiellonian University. Co-author of the initiative Goldex Poldex /

Friday, August 05, 2011

Cyborgs, All of Us

If anyone had any doubt about Illich's observation that we moderns have taken to perceiving ourselves in cybernetic terms, look no further than the NY Times for Aug. 3, 2011.

A story appears there - in the "Home & Garden" section, of all places - under the headline "A Dashboard for Your Body."

The Times article reviews a handful of colorful iPod-like gadgets that collect, analyze, and display physiological data: how many steps a person walks during the day, temperature, pulse and heart rate, weight, and blood pressure. Several of these gizmos send their data wirelessly to a computer, or a company website, where the data is collected over time for viewing and comparison with others'. One, called Fitbit, gets special attention:

"Although Fitbit doesn’t explicitly acknowledge this in its marketing materials, the gadget makes you feel bad about yourself. The device ($100) is a super-powered pedometer; it monitors movement while you sleep as well as counts your steps, and it sends all the data back to Fitbit’s Web-based tracking program, which displays your lethargy on the sort of precise charts and graphs that economists use to monitor recessions."

It's only a matter of time, we predict, before people start posting physiological readings to the Web, perhaps even sharing them with each other via Twitter, so that "friends" can view and perhaps even experience each other's bodily functions in "real-time."

Monday, August 01, 2011

Where might Illich have written this?

Does anyone know where - or even if - Ivan Illich actually wrote the following? It is quoted here and there on the Web, with explicit attribution to Illich, primarily on sites relating to the Slow Food movement, which takes Illich's concept of conviviality as one of its touchstones and the snail - soon to be escargot? - as its mascot:

The snail constructs the delicate architecture of its shell by adding ever increasing spirals one after the other, but then it abruptly stops and winds back in the reverse direction. In fact, just one additional larger spiral would make the shell sixteen times bigger. Instead of being beneficial, it would overload the snail. Any increase in the snail’s productivity would only be used to offset the difficulties created by the enlargement of the shell beyond its preordained limits. Once the limit to increasing spiral size has been reached, the problems of excessive growth multiply exponentially, while the snail’s biological capability, in the best of cases, can only show linear growth and increase arithmetically.

We've looked but we cannot find an authoritative source for this piece of text. It certainly sounds like something Illich might have written, possibly in a discussion of the kinds of topic that he picked up from Leopold Kohr: scale, morphology, proportionality. But where?

[UPDATE: As described in the comments appended to this item, we have the answer: Illich wrote about the snail, in slightly different words, on page 82 of his 1983 book Gender. Thanks so much to those who answered our query!]

Illich's inspiration on Slow Food is noted here, in a 2008 notice of a conference about "the spirituality and sacredness of food":

The moderator was Carlo Petrini and the speakers were Enzo Bianchi, prior of the monastic community of Bose in Piedmont, Italy, and Satish Kumar, friend and disciple of Gandhi, founding director of the Schumacher College in Dartington (UK) and editor of Resurgence magazine.

Bianchi and Kumar were both friends of Ivan Illich, the Austrian philospher, theologist and anarchist social critic who, combining spirituality and social commitment, created the concept of ‘conviviality’ in opposition to productivity.

It's at another Slow Food page that we read Serge Latouche quoting Illich on the snail. Latouche is a contributor to The Development Dictionary - he contributes an essay about the concept of "standard of living" - which we recently wrote about here, and his brief Slow Food piece is quite interesting. It begins:

The idea of an autonomous economical society, implicit in the concept of degrowth, is not something that developed yesterday. But you do not need to go back to the utopias of early socialism or the anarchic traditions of situationism: the idea of degrowth was formulated in a similar form to ours at the end of the 1960s by André Gorz, François Parlant, Cornelius Castoriadis and, in particular, by Ivan Illich. The failure of development in poor countries and feelings of disconnectedness in richer countries led various thinkers to revive debate about the consumer society and its illusions, progress, science and technology. Realization of the developing environmental crisis has brought about a new attitude in which a society based on growth is not only undesirable but not even sustainable. So we have to change, and the sooner the better.

In the degrowth project, autonomy is understood in a strong sense with its etymological meaning (autos–nomos: issuing its own laws), in contrast to the heteronomy of the market’s invisible hand and the dictates of science and technology in our (over)modern society. Criticizing modernity does not imply a pure and simple rejection but aims to evolve beyond it. It is through our emancipation as a result of the Enlightenment and the construction of an autonomous society that we can now denounce the failure of this model, so arrogantly and triumphantly controlled by financial markets. The conviviality that Ivan Illich borrows from the great 18th-century French gastronome, Brillat-Savarin (The Physiology of Taste: Or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy), aims to recreate the social linkages that have been broken by ‘economic horror’ (Rimbaud). Conviviality reintroduces the spirit of giving to social relations alongside the law of the jungle, and re-establishes philia, Aristotelian friendship. […]

Scarcity reconsidered

Anyone familiar with the work of Ivan Illich understands the significance he attributed to the notion of scarcity. Education, Illich concluded, was learning under the assumption that valuable knowledge is scarce. High-energy transport, measured in units such as miles-per-hour and miles-per-gallon, assumes that time and space and fuel are scarce. Walking and cycling, in contrast, do not involve space that is scarce. Modern service institutions, he explained, actually create scarcity when clients, as they inevitably seem to do, demand more services than the institutions are able to deliver. (Exhibit No. 1: The current medical care system and the ongoing debate over Medicare and the affordability of health insurance.)

Indeed, scarcity lurks beneath every discussion of "resources," whether that word is used to describe workers in a corporation or fuel as a source of energy to drive the economy or fresh water as something for which global demand seems to be outstripping available supplies.

In short, scarcity is the basis for all economic thought, which Illich contrasted with "the good" and how things fit with each other. In the late 1970s, he proposed writing a "history of scarcity," and many of his subsequent papers worked at developing that theme.

In a world of scarcity-based economics, which historically is quite new, many things suffer. "Where scarcity rules," Illich wrote in "The Wisdom of Leopold Kohr," "ethics is reduced to numbers and utility. Further, the person engaged in the manipulation of mathematical formulas loses his or her ear for ethical nuance; one becomes morally deaf.

"Ethics, in a strong tradition from Aristotle to Mandeville, involved a public controversy about the good to be pursued within a human condition and perhaps grudgingly accepted. Economics, however, demands the evaluation of desirable goals under the assumption of scarcity. It deals in the optimization of values; this leads to the creation of modern economic society, which provides seemingly unlimited fuel for a technological civilization. Such a civilization attempts to transform the human condition rather than debate the nature of the human good."

Late last year, it seems, a book was published under the title The Limits of Scarcity. It's a collection of papers edited by a Lyla Mehta, a sociologist who studies climate change, water, sanitation, and yes, scarcity.

We mention this book not because it is the last word on scarcity - there is no scarcity of thought on scarcity, we're quite sure - but because one of its essays is written by two people in the Illich circle, Jean Robert and Sajay Samuel. Their contribution is titled "Water runs and ought to run freely: reflections on 'scarcity' in economics." What appears to be the full text of this essay, albeit marked up with some alterations that are not entirely self-evident, is available at a site called ECOMUNIDADES, which appears to be based in Mexico. (It's subtitle, translated as best we can: Red Independent Ecological network of the River basin of Mexico. Economic contraction [?] or barbarism!") The Robert-Samuel paper builds on Illich's thoughts about "the good," as formulated by Aristotle and about "needs" and scarcity, and his contrast of commons versus resources, especially as seen in the changing laws regarding the use and diverting of naturally flowing water.

Meanwhile, a review of Ms. Mehta's scarcity book can be read here and the text of her introduction is available here. She describes her book as an attempt to explore the social construction of scarcity, "to question scarcity’s taken-for-granted nature and assumptions. While not denying that scarcities exist for many and that our planet is in peril (not least due to the wanton overexploitation of resources and climate change), our contention is that scarcity is not a constant variable that can be blamed for all our woes. Instead, we need to be aware of the politics of allocation and the ways in which scarcity is politicized, especially to suit the interests of powerful players."

She writes: "Part I discusses why scarcity matters and provides a review of diverse disciplinary understandings of scarcity. It also discusses the profound implications of scarcity politics by drawing on the energy policy and the vast reach of neo-Malthusianism in the USA. Part II engages with diverse perspectives of scarcity within economics. Modern (neo-classical) economics is premised on scarcity in many different ways. The essays in this section ask where this came from, what the impacts are and considers both mainstream and heterodox perspectives of scarcity within economics. Part III turns to empirical concerns and traces scarcity politics in the domains of food, water and energy."

"The Two Lives of Ivan Illich" and their thematic consistency

A site called Books & Ideas has published an article reviewing the life and thought of Ivan Illich as presented in an issue of the French journal Esprit - an issue we previously noted here. (The article is presented in English translation; the original, in French, is here.)

"The Two Lives of Ivan Illich," by Augustin Fragnière, a PhD candidate at the University of Lausanne, reviews the two period's of Illich's thought. First, M. Fragnière explains, Illich analyzed the counter-productivity of certain modern tools - the car, schools, hospitals, and so forth. This results in "a concrete analysis using technical and economic language." Around 1980, though, Illich turned to examine the symbolic effects of tools, how they give way to systems that disembody their users.

"These reflections naturally signal a break, coming in the form of self-criticism, with his past research, which itself borrowed terms from science and other various institutions. Ivan Illich 'had understood that it was not from technology and institutions that we had to free ourselves but rather from the representations and ways of seeing things that they generate.' … Putting aside criticism of technology and economy, Illich took on the role of historian and linguist, tracking down the convictions that scientific vocabulary generates or the social conditioning which results from the slow modification of everyday objects such as the text."

M. Fragnière continues: "Beneath this break with past methodology and this radicalisation in his criticism of modernity, there lies a thematic consistency that maintains remarkable continuity with the body of his work. There are even parallels which emerge rather clearly between the two periods of his intellectual life. He moves from criticism of school and education, to history of the text and of its transformation from the 13th century up until its technological form on computers; criticism of medicine becomes the history of the body and analysis of concepts of bioethics; criticism of transport becomes the history of technological paradigms, from Hugues de St-Victor (12th century) to today, with commentary on the notion of energy or reflections on the art of living and on the relationship that man has with his territory. Esprit thus brings us on a journey through the erudite universe of the second Illich, a journey where the reader repeatedly and constantly encounters the same figure at the bend in each road, that of the man or woman from the real world, the person made of flesh, whose disappearance under assault from the abstract individual of contemporary institutions Illich so feared. Despite the thematic and methodological eclecticism of the two periods of Ivan Illich‘s life, the one overriding preoccupation with man and his autonomy remained."

Fragnière comments on Illich's paper about the social construction of energy, too. It's "a beautiful text by Illich … on the history of the term ‘energy’ in terms of it being a concept of theoretical physics and a social object. For Illich, the ascendance of the word ‘energy’ in contemporary language, associated with that of ‘work’, marks the birth of a new concept of nature and of the emergence of the modern individual defined by need. From the moment when work and energy are elevated to the rank of fundamental need, there is nothing left to oppose the reign of the ‘ecocrat’ (p. 225) who, not content with organising men and institutions, extends his power to all of nature, which is considered a reserve of energy to be used by man. And once the goal becomes to extract the maximum from our natural energy resources, the loss in autonomy becomes apparent, since human action remains bound to the law of demand and supply, motivated by need. Illich’s contribution, to an era when debate on energy management is ever-present, lies in the fact that he pushes us to question once more the convictions which stem from terms taken as unquestionable evidence."

M. Fragnière, we read, is conducting research on "mechanisms of climate regulation and philosophy of the environment." His PhD dissertation focuses on "the connection between individual liberty and environment protection." That's a topic Illich addressed, if only briefly, in his discussions of "life" and of how systems thinking leads people to consider themselves as merely immune systems and as subsystems struggling to survive as part of the larger "environmental system" called Earth, or Gaia.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Development Dictionary

Somebody - but who? - has put online a complete scan of a smart, fascinating 1992 book called The Development Dictionary, ready for reading, searching and, for a fee, downloading in PDF or text format.

The book is available at Scribd, a site that enables the sharing of documents, including complete books, often without necessarily respecting the originals' copyrights. Whether or not Scribd is infringing on the copyright of this book, we cannot determine, but The Development Dictionary is there, for anyone to read or to copy. (see below)

We highly recommend this book to anyone interested in following the thought of Ivan Illich, who wrote one of its essays, titled "Needs." The book's editor is Wolfgang Sachs, an early student of Illich's. He was one of the people whom Illich credits for having informed him, while the book was being prepared for publication, that Deschooling Society had missed the fact that the educational system, under increasing attack in the early 1970s, had already begun to seek additional venues, beyond traditional schools, in which to sell its services. (See p.70, Ivan Illich in Conversation.)


The Development Dictionary calls itself a "guide to knowledge as power," and offers itself as an obituary for the post-war era of Euro-centric socio-economic development. "Development," the book argues, is a "perception that models reality, a myth which comforts societies and a fantasy which unleashes passion."

Writes Sachs, introducing the essays:

… each chapter will dip into the archaeology of the key concept under examination and call attention to its ethnocentric and even violent nature. The chapters identify the shifting role each concept has played in the debate on development over the last 40 years. They demonstrate how each concept filters perception, highlighting certain aspects of reality while excluding others, and they show how this bias is rooted in particular civilizational attitudes adopted during the course of European history. Finally, each chapter attempts to open a window on to other, and different, ways of looking at the world and to get a glimpse of the riches and blessings which survive in non-Western cultures in spite of development. Each chapter will be of worth if, after reading it, experts and citizens alike have to blush, stutter or burst out laughing when they dare to mouth the old word.

Here is the table of contents, showing the book's wide range of inter-related topics. Many of the authors' names ought to be familiar to anyone acquainted with Illich and his work; all of them, Sachs writes, engaged in discussions together that eventually led to the creation of this book:

Introduction - Wolfgang Sachs

Development - Gustavo Esteva

Environment - Wolfgang Sachs

Equality - C. Douglas Lummis

Helping - Marianne Gronemeyer

Market - Gerald Berthoud

Needs - Ivan Illich

One World - Wolfgang Sachs

Participation - Majid Rahnema

Planning - Arturo Escobar

Population - Barbara Duden

Poverty - Majid Rahnema

Production - Jean Robert

Progress - Jose Maria Sbert

Resources - Vandana Shiva

Science - Claude Alvares

Socialism - Harry Cleaver

Standard of Living - Serge Latouche

State - Ashis Nandy

Technology - Otto Ullrich

Illich's essay on "Needs" is available, in slightly different form, at the Pudel site in Bremen.

We must admit, we're not sure of the ethics of this book's being published, as it were, by Scribd - or, for that matter, of our mentioning it as we have. We're pleased to find the book online, if only as evidence of someone's interest in Illich, but is it proper to subvert the usual publishing process this way? Is it right for us to point it out and thereby encourage more people to grab a copy?

This scan of The Development Dictionary happens to be only one instance of the many complete copies of Illich's books that we've seen available on the Web. (And Google Books, of course, provides limited access to many more.) Some of these copies are facsimile scans whose text is not searchable, others are fully searchable in text and PDF formats. Illich himself, we understand from those who knew him, was not upset at seeing the text of books like Deschooling Society and Tools for Conviviality made available on the Net. But it does strike us as wrong to deny someone like Wolfgang Sachs - not to mention his publisher - any royalties that might come his way from legitimate sales of the book. On Amazon, the first edition sells for $35; a second edition, released in early 2010, is priced at $24 in paperback and $126 in hard cover.

We're happy to say that we bought this book years ago, when it was first published, and we've not downloaded a copy from Scribd. (We admit, we did try to download it, but we balked when asked to subscribe to the entire Scribd site for $9 a month or pay $5 for a 1-day pass. Another, no-charge option also was offered: In exchange for uploading a document of one's own - "give back to the community," the site urges - one can obtain the Sachs book and 24-hour download access to all of Scribd. That's something to consider, but it still doesn't put any money into Sachs' pocket.)

We urge anyone interested in Illich to buy the book in paper form, or find it in a library. Dense with insight and argument, it's one that anyone seriously interested in Illich's thought and its influence on others will want to read closely, as it was intended to be read - on paper, not screen. (No, Amazon doesn't sell it as an e-book.)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Jean Robert and Illich on "energy"

In a previous post here, we wrote about and attempted to summarize a paper of Ivan Illich's called "The Social Construction of Energy." Originally presented in 1983 at a seminar in Mexico City, the paper was published only in 2009, in a Harvard journal called New Geographies. (It's not available online.)

In the same issue of that journal appeared a closely related piece by Illich's collaborator Jean Robert - a Swiss who lives in Cuernavaca. His paper is titled "Alternatives and the Technogenic Production of Scarcity." (Mr. Robert, we've read, invented a composting toilet that requires no water - a boon, it would seem, in the extremely dry climate of Mexico.)

It has just come to our attention that another energy-related paper by Mr. Robert is available at the website of a Dutch anti-nuclear research and communications outfit called WISE. The paper is called "Genesis and development of a scientific fact: the case of energy," and discusses some of the same topics as those addressed by Illich and Mr. Robert himself in New Geographies, namely how the modern and quite fuzzy and contradictory modern concepts of energy - ie. everything is made of energy yet the stuff is so scarce that we perpetually face an "energy crisis" - have come to be. We look forward to reading it.

Meanwhile, we've noticed another paper that refers extensively to Illich's social construction argument (and to much of his other work, as well): It's called "Environmental History During the Anthropocene" and it's available here, at the website of an organization called Niche, or Network in Canadian History & Environment.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"Life as Idol" - a CBC radio show

Canadian Broadcasting (CBC) is making available in MP3 format a recording of David Cayley's program, "Life as Idol." It is a 54-minute interview with Ivan Illich, conducted in the late 1980s, that explores the concept of "life."

We highly recommend the program to anyone interested in Illich. He delves into the substantive usage of "life" - how humans have come to be conceived of as "a life" - and how this concept has affected the practice of medicine and Church doctrine (including its views on abortion; Illich criticizes pope-to-be Ratzinger by name) and how the entire planet (the "biosphere") has come to be considered a living system, aka Gaia. And much more. Ultimately, Illich declares himself a hedonist and calls for us all to "live it up" - without wasting the gift that is this world, this life.

CBC is offering the program as part of a series it calls Listener's Choice, here. Its description of the program:

As a young couple, without television or internet, Andrea Wilhelm and her husband were ripped out of their nightly routine, spellbound by a voice full of character, critiquing what society does in the name of "life" and questioning the very concept. The voice was educator, and social critic Ivan Illich and we represent that Ideas interview from 1986.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Sajay Samuel, interviewed about Illich and "the vernacular"

A group of radical environmentalists in the U.K. called The Dark Mountain Project has published an interview with Sajay Samuel that touches on Ivan Illich and his ideas about "the vernacular." Sajay looks carefully at the charge that Illich was a romantic. The interview is available for listening here with an MP3-based recording of the interview available, as well.

We've always been impressed and intrigued by Sajay. His credentials are in the discipline of business, and he now serves as Clinical Associate Professor of Accounting & STS at Penn State's Smeal College of Business. Yet, he was a member of Illich's inner circle. He also was one of the people that David Cayley interviewed for his series of radio programs, 'How to Think About Science':

"Today it is a commonplace that science requires us to renounce the evidence of our senses if we are to understand the true nature of things. The truth lies behind or beneath the appearances. This loss of the senses has fateful consequences, according to Sajay Samuel, a professor at the Pennsylvania State University. Without common sense, he says, science fills ours entire horizon - leaving us no place to stand outside of science, and no basis on which to judge what science produces."

The 49-minute interview with Sajay was conducted in June, 2011, by Dougald Hine, a fellow Illich admirer. He describes himself as "a speaker, a writer or a creator of organisations, projects and events."

The Dark Mountain Project describes itself so:

This project starts with our sense that civilisation as we have known it is coming to an end; brought down by a rapidly changing climate, a cancerous economic system and the ongoing mass destruction of the non-human world. But it is driven by our belief that this age of collapse – which is already beginning – could also offer a new start, if we are careful in our choices.

The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop.

Deeper than oil, steel or bullets, a civilisation is built on stories: on the myths that shape it and the tales told of its origins and destiny. We have herded ourselves to the edge of a precipice with the stories we have told ourselves about who we are: the stories of ‘progress’, of the conquest of ‘nature’, of the centrality and supremacy of the human species.

It is time for new stories. The Dark Mountain Project intends to conjure into being new ways of seeing and writing about the world. We call this Uncivilisation.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Searching for Lee Hoinacki

Lee Hoinacki is one of Illich's closest collaborators, meeting him in 1960 when, as a Dominican priest, he went to CIDOC to learn Spanish. Illich credits him in several of his books as having contributed much to their clarity and substance. Mr. Hoinacki has written three books of his own: El Camino: Walking to Santiago de Compostela, Stumbling Toward Justice, and Dying is Not Death. The last of these includes a lengthy chapter about Illich. He also has published a number of papers relating to Illich, including "Why Philia?", and helped to translate books by others in the Illich circle.

Mr. Hoinacki joined Carl Mitcham in editing The Challenges of Ivan Illich, a collection of essays published in 2002. His opening essay, "Reading Ivan Illich," is available from the publisher's website, here. He writes:

Illich was trained in ecclesiology and was especially intrigued by liturgy. He understood, I would argue, that the most ominous expression of secularization in the West was not the death of nature (although this was related), nor a misnamed materialism, nor sexual “freedom,” but the decline of liturgy, the routinization and emptying out of religious ritual in the churches. As he suggests, this process began with clerical actions to establish various assured institutional responses to God’s calling, later legitimated by a juridical or legal order; men hesitated to rest all hope on gratuitous gifts of grace. Illich captures the dénouement of this lack of faith with the ancient Latin adage corruptio optimi quae est pessima (the corruption of the best turns out to be the worst). He has attempted to show that this apothegm accurately reveals the origins of “normative notions of a cruelty, of a horrifying darkness, which no other culture has ever known.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov, portrays institutional mistrust as a demonic temptation in Ivan’s poem, “The Grand Inquisitor,” perhaps literature’s most terrifying image of the betrayal of the freedom graciously given to people by Jesus.

There is a Facebook page for Mr. Hoinacki, but it doesn't provide any information that's not available elsewhere - a short, widely-quoted bio is all. But here, there is a lengthy interview with him, recorded in 2000, in which he discusses his training as a priest, his encountering and working with Illich, his working a subsistence farm with his family in Illinois, and his exchange of letters with Theodore Kaczynski, known as the "Unabomber." And other topics.

Another interview, from 2010, appears at a site called Radio Free School. (This interview is also available as a podcast.) Mr. Hoinacki speaks about his long friendship with Illich, the futon bed he built for Illich, and the latter's thoughts on technology. For example:

Q: Illich's concerns around technology, what it’s doing to society - can we talk a little more about that?

Hoinacki: He was interested first of all in the effects of technology - the actual effects first of all and later the symbolic effects. He would use an example, say a photograph. The photograph was introduced in the 19th century and into history. But this technological artifact changed people’s perception so he thought it was a serious question which people should try to look at, figure out, whether anyone sees anything today. Period.

Recently, we found Mr. Hoinacki listed as part of a loosely-organized consulting organization calling itself New Paradigm Design, which includes architects, writers, artists, and others. Together, they focus on "sustainable solutions." Last we heard, Mr. Hoinacki was living in Philadelphia.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The marketing of 'Medical Nemesis'

Here is how the paperback edition of Illich's book Medical Nemesis looked in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This is the edition we first bought (in December, 1981) and read - at the big Barnes & Noble store on lower Fifth Ave. in NYC - though our copy is priced at $2.75:


Read it and marvel, indeed. Note the heated language in that subhed. On the rear cover, it says "CAUTION: The medical establishment may be hazordous to your health," with that first word in red. "In this landmark book, one of the most brilliant social critics of our time exposes the many ways modern medicine is robbing us of power, money, dignity - even life itself."

And here, below, is the book as it is sold in paperback today, considerably more serene. This edition contains a new introduction by Illich, which is well worth reading for his reassessment of the book's argument and understanding of how systems-theoretic concepts were moving people to re-conceive their bodies in a radically new and quite flesh-less way. He expresses dismay that then, in 1995, sales of the book were mainly to medical students.


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