It's a fictional streetscape we wander, here, a metropolis whose buildings, boulevards, and back alleys are in a constant state of flux. This is every place, and yet, no place at all - a city of dreams and a dream of a city.

Here, we explore the life and work of Ivan Illich and his circle of collaborators. There's no comprehensive index to the articles published, but we invite you to use the Search box, to the left, and to explore the Archive links that appear at the bottom of each page. Comments are welcomed.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Grassroots Post-Modernism

We are glad to point readers to yet another book deeply influenced by the thought of Ivan Illich. Called Grassroots Post-Modernism, Remaking the Soil of Cultures, it's available in print (Zed Books, 1998) and as a text file available online, gratis - albeit with misspellings galore.

Grassroots Post-Modernism is by Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Suri Prakash, both closely associated with Illich. They write, " ... the promise and the search for a new era beyond modernity are a matter of life and death, of sheer survival, for these struggling billions [of people] - whom social planners call "the masses," "the people" or "common" men and women. Daily, they are compelled to invent post-modern social realities to escape the "scientific" or even the "lay" clutches of modernity. Modernization has always been for them, and will continue to be, a gulag that means certain destruction for their cultures. ... Gazing at the grassroots epic unfolding before us, we focus upon three modern sacred cows that still remain unchallenged" - namely, "global thinking," "the universality of human rights," and "the myth of the individual self."

They write: "The emerging epic of grassroots initiatives for resisting the oppressiveness of modern minorities represents a clear rupture with some of the most fundamental premises of the modern era. In doing so, it leads the way in radically confronting some modern "sacred cows" (with apologies to the Hindus). Even academic post-modernism has still not dared to dissect or deconstruct them. As evident facts, certainties or moral ideals, they cannot be questioned by modern minds. The post-modern topology of the minds of people at the grassroots liberates them from those 'certainties,' seen as a horizon of intelligibility that is unsustainable and unbearable; one that they do not share."

Illich, a master questioner of certainties, is quoted extensively and his work acknowledged throughout. One quotation that caught our eye:

"The most destructive effect of development is its tendency to distract my eye from your face with the phantom, humanity, that I ought to love."

-- Ivan Illich, in conversation with Majid Rahnema, Bremen, December 13, 1994

Prakash studied with Illich at Penn State and now is a professor of philosophy of education there. She contributed a chapter - "A Letter on Studying with Master Illich" - to the 2002 book The Challenges of Ivan Illich: "Like an overloaded and driven donkey, burdened with all the ethics textbooks I had acquired through years of studying professional philosophy, I had much unloading to do before I could get anywhere with [Illich]. I discarded most of those books in order to learn with Illich the virtues grounded in soil, those learned by swimming across the gulf separating traditional virtues from the contemporary domain of values."

Esteva, born in Mexico in 1936, describes himself as a "deprofessionalized intellectual." As a young man, he worked for IBM, among other companies, and eventually worked for the Mexican government. In 1983, he met Illich and his life changed, he has written. He later became an adviser to the Zapatistas, a radical political movement in Oaxaca. In an essay largely about his encounters with Illich, called "Back from the Future," Esteva writes:

Illich’s work held up for me a brilliantly lit torch in the middle of all the intellectual darkness defining the experts’ reality. Illich stood out from the majority of published voices, illuminating for me what I could not make clear sense of before at the grassroots. His was neither a new theory nor an ideology. In my conversation with peasants or marginals, each time I shared Ivan’s ideas, they showed no surprise. I began to call their comfortable familiarity with Illich’s ideas the “aha effect”. “Aha”, they said, every time I quoted Ivan. Yes, they knew, better yet, understood by the seat of the pants, what he was publishing. No surprise there. But hearing their own experiences and ideas so well articulated in Ivan’s words held up for them a magnificent mirror affirming what they already knew from common sense.

We look forward to reading this book, published by the same company that has just re-published The Development Dictionary, in which Illich presented an essay about "Needs."

Monday, January 24, 2011

Illich buys an island? In Scotland?

One of the more half-assed assessments of Illich that we've encountered is the obituary published by a newspaper called The Scotsman on Dec. 10, 2002, a week after his death in Bremen. Written by a certain Peter Clarke, it's full of absurdities like this: "He descended into crankiness in many of his publications and speeches. Energy and Equity was a clever book but little more than a manifesto for pro-bicycle policies. Tools for Conviviality was a testing inventory of how to live the rewarding and moral life, but it was often little more than vegetarianism with a hint of the mystic."

As far as we know - and we just looked - there is no mention at all in Tools of either vegetables or mysticism. And morality is hardly Illich's subject, either.

What's most intriguing in this mean-spirited obit is the following paragraph:

Illich loved Scotland, but he learned only late in his visits it was the
Summer Scotland he enjoyed. He tried to buy some Hebridean islands to
create a community of anarchist-libertarian scholars, but when he first
encountered a Scottish winter his sentiments changed. He returned to
Mexico, and never saw Mull again."

That Illich even eyed, much less actually "tried to buy" real-estate in Scotland or anywhere else is something we've not seen mentioned elsewhere, either before or after his death. Which is not to say that it never happened. But in light of this piece's generally nasty tone and wild misrepresentations of Illich - Clarke writes, for instance, that "Illich’s life [was] one long reaction to the Anchluss," the absorption of Austria by Nazi Germany - it's difficult to take his reporting seriously. Besides, why would Illich want to situate himself or a community of fellow scholars in Scotland, of all places? And why would he need more than one island? Illich frequently described himself a "wandering Jew" of few possessions and no fixed abode. And since when did he work closely with anarchists and libertarians? As we understand it, those are categories with which he declined to work, even if many anarchists and libertarians have adopted him as one of their own.

Still, if anyone knows more, do tell.

'Some Theological Perspectives on Pain and Suffering'

These are remarks made by Ivan Illich at a conference about the "management of pain" conducted in 1987, we believe, by an organization called The Institute for Theological Encounter with Science and Technology. It's located in St. Louis, Mo., and describes itself as focusing "on the many ways that faith and science complement each other in the advancement of human knowledge."

We first happened upon these remarks by Illich in 2002, out on the Web somewhere, and we dutifully stored them away on our hard disk. And then, we promptly forgot about them. Just today, though, they resurfaced, and a quick search with Google reveals that this text is no longer available as we found it. So, as our small contribution to the Illich community, we re-publish it. We've corrected a few misspellings and other typos as best we could.

In this essay, Illich argues that in the West, pain and the experience of the body in pain, have a history, and that this history is deeply informed by Christian thought. He hints, here, at the main thesis he worked on for the rest of his life, namely that the corruption of the best is the worst: "The sub-natural, subhuman horrors, which I consider part of western civilization, cannot be understood, I believe, unless they are seen as the perversion of the above- or super-human vocation which is contained in the history of suffering in the Old and New Testaments."

Originally, these remarks were released along with those of two other speakers at the conference, one an M.D., the other a specialist in social work with experience in drug abuse and treating the pain of cancer patients. A short forward names those gentlemen while introducing the topic at hand:

Philosophers and theologians have wrestled with the "problem of evil" for centuries -- nay, for millenia. From Job until now we have no satisfactory "solution", nor, probably, shall we ever have one. We shall not know "good" until we see God face to face. Then, seeing God, we shall understand evil.

Certainly suffering, and its physical manifestation in pain, is part of the aspect of "evil. We can, at least, generally locate pain in the matrix of a fallen temporality. Our efforts at this Conference have in no way penetrated the mystery, but we can congratulate ourselves for at least throwing some light on several aspects of pain and suffering. John Blaschke, David Joranson and Ivan Illich deserve our thanks for their wisdom and their broadening our horizons and deepening our appreciation of the many aspects constituting our experience of pain and suffering. Pain, as was pointed out several times in the course of the Conference, is an intensely personal and very lonely experience. It is hoped that this set of Proceedings will be a communal help to all of us who hurt and suffer.



by Ivan Illich

I wish to respond as closely as I can to the spirit I have found here and to the framework already established by Dr. Blaschke and Mr. Joranson. I wish to speak with theological competence, always open to criticism by those with similar competences. I am particularly interested in the revelation of God's mystery not only as we find it in the Old and New Testaments but also in the whole history of the Church. I wish to include in the history of the Church the piety and devotion of the Church's people. Indisputably this is a very important, but mostly neglected, source for our understanding of the content of faith. I shall confine my theological references to that part of church history which is common to all western Christians. I will not include references to eastern Christian theological sources simply because these are a different matter.

In a very deep sense, theology is about suffering. Suffering, which I call living, is the acceptance of things which I do not like. I shall argue that the understanding of suffering has developed over the centuries in the west. It is in the west where I am at home. The western appreciation is different from the bearing of burdens in the traditional world of Taoism in China or in the Hindu or Buddhist world. I shall not speak about the extra-European understanding of pain and suffering. I shall consider suffering as an historical reality which comes into existence and which we learn.

My task at this conference is not to speak about suffering in general. I am, rather, considering the suffering of one particular burden which is called pain. I recommended the reading of a chapter on suffering in Medical Nemesis, a book which I wrote some 20 years ago, where I carefully distinguish suffering from pain in a profoundly different way from Dr. Blaschke's approach last evening. And, let me say, this difference is more than a question of language.

I am taking the liberty of speaking of suffering as the culturally shaped way of dealing with the shadow side of life rather than with its lighted, sunny side. I shall use the term suffering to indicate a particular socially and culturally acquired art of dealing with that shadow side, of bearing burdens which come with living. I'm speaking about the art of suffering. Pain is only one narrow, but very special, kind of condition in which one would properly need the art of suffering.

At this point I want to place my consideration of this topic under the image of that whimpering nun whom Dr. Blaschke said yesterday he held in his arms. Shortly after midnight I was dreaming of her. I got up. This was my first night in a Jesuit retreat house in 25 years. Please, let me stress that what I am about to say is said because I feel at home here and with you. I am in my Father's house here. I am not an outsider, not a guest here. I was here in a retreat cell without a crucifix, in a dining room without a crucifix, in a conference room, where we are discussing pain and technology, without a crucifix. The instrumentum salutis (the instrument of salvation) is not present. Finally I went to the chapel, which by the way reminds me of a tea room at an airport, and there I found a cross. God knows what kind of human respect dictated a cross -- without a corpus. I looked for the one symbol in which physical pain, nociception, can be expressed in western culture, and I could not find it.

Therefore, I decided during the night to center my presentation on the history of suffering on the history of the slow discovery and development of the denudation (I mean this literally) of Christ's body on the cross. I now see my task as one of reflecting on the history of the suffering of pain. I can speak of the history of the crucifix without speaking of the history of the stigmata, but I shall mention the stigmata later, so as to lead into a final topic, the history of Christian torture.

Dr. Blaschke mentioned Elain Scarry's book last evening, that wild, beautiful, crazy, mixed-up book which treats very many important things. It's one of the six or seven important books relating to a history of the perception of pain published last year.

I am not going to speak of medicine or of the medical profession as such. I want to raise a more profound issue about the social framework within which medicine is practiced. I would say much the same about the framework in which a voter for the presidency bestows his or her confidence on one who might, under some set of circumstances, have to seriously consider pressing the button that would start a nuclear war. So, I'm not speaking about any special or particular profession here beyond noting that we are talking about pain and suffering in a world of domineering professions.

In speaking about the history of the crucifix, I speak about the crucifix as a butt of ridicule in early Christian times, as a sign of victory over the power of torture in the first millennium, and as the denudation of the horror of physical pain which thereby also comes into conscious existence together with the notion of the independent self.

But before I look to the history of the crucifix, I think I should make some remarks about suffering as it is dealt with in the Bible. I want to consider the evolution of the idea of suffering in Holy Scripture in order to return later to the fact that I cannot identify in the Book of Job any distinction of nociception -- I take that word from you, Dr. Blaschke -- from other forms of evil. I have thought on this issue for 15 years and it has come as an illumination to me that I have to rank the history of nociception being transformed into the human experience of bodily pain. I was told yesterday that nociception can be studied in experimental animals. I'm interested in the transformation of nociception -- through historical circumstances, through its perception in a human mode, into what ancient philosophers called an actus humanus, a human and humane activity -- into pain.

The Old Testament is very rich in words that express a deep, deep sense of suffering: anguish, fear, bitterness, the experience of being lost, forlorn, beaten up, exposed to the wrath of the Lord. It was only very much, later, during the Christian epoch, that rabbis felt the need to assign a specific word for that which we moderns now call pain. When these same rabbis had to talk about physical pain they used the word that designated punishments which I inflict. The English word pain comes the Latin poena, from being punished. The concept of a physical pain, one specifically physical, comes from the experience of being chastised by another. In our language pain does not come from the inside; it is imposed on us from outside.

When the rabbis in Egypt translated the Old Testament into Greek, they found seven or eight words for these different experiences, general words in Greek for the way one could suffer, but none of them fitted the word-field of the Hebrew experiences which they were trying to render in Greek words. Here, let me simply note that we should not forget, when we speak about the exegesis of the Old Testament, that it was done overwhelmingly by people writing Greek or Latin. The only word in which etymologists believe there is a close correlation between the traditional Hebrew word and the Greek word is that which in German we would call Angst, anguish, pressure, being oppressed.

My knowledge of other semitic languages is practically nil. But I am told that the word "suffering" is almost absent from the texts of Egypt. At least for those Egyptians who for 2000 years wrote in hieroglyphics, anxiety and whatever one has to suffer is transmuted into a huge effort to survive beyond the grave. Say, you go to a museum and see presentations of slaves. You would think how terribly these people were pained. When they were whipped, it hurt. But that is not the sort of thing I'm talking about. Assyriologists tell us that bodily decay, destruction, disaster are experienced as a result of gods who hurl something at people. There is nothing rational involved. It is not experienced as an intimate aggression. The Jews experience pain with a strong communal sense for, as the Jewish authors view it, miseries are the outcome of social infidelity to the covenant.

This (the outcome of social infidelity to the covenant) is what misery is about in the Bible. The Bible is a unique book if you want to view theology as the science which heals by giving meaning to any kind of suffering conceivable because ultimately that suffering is referred to a corpus, The corpus, on the cross. When you read the Bible this way, as a science of the faithful of Yahweh -- and of the faithfulness of Yahweh -- you will discover this. Suffering is the coming true of the retribution with which the Lord promised to sanction disobedience at the moment when he gave his Law at Sinai: a privilege for his chosen.

I said that I would speak as a theologian and as a believer who interprets the word, but I've tried especially in front of my most important collaborator and critic, Lee Hoinacki, to do so under the assumption that everybody here can sympathize with a man who wants to believe in the incarnation of pain, of the pained body. I also, though, want to make sense to someone who would say that "what this man believes is not where I belong." But to the person who might say that, I would add, "Be careful." In a subtle and, perhaps, in a very vindictive way, what I'm saying is incorporated from the culture in which I live, from the horrors to which I shall refer. The sub-natural, subhuman horrors, which I consider part of western civilization, cannot be understood, I believe, unless they are seen as the perversion of the above- or super-human vocation which is contained in the history of suffering in the Old and New Testaments.

The Prophets are prophets precisely because they interpret the burden of misery which is breaking the backs of God's people. They interpret it as something which one day shall be lifted. One simply cannot understand the evolution of a people with the Suffering Servant of Yahweh unless one understands that there is, together with the revelation of the possibility of suffering, the promise. Pain and suffering could not be relieved as a human condition without the promise of God.

As we modern historians go through the biblical books, through the Hebrew library that the Bible is, we see that, century after century, the burden is expressed more clearly as something which becomes intimate, which not just hits the entire people but hits a person. Suffering that was once the debt which the children of Israel had to pay for their fathers who had sinned, slowly came to be understood as a sign of Yahweh's predilection who thus tests his elect. I'll return to this notion later.

Because of the very strong element of communal debt, suffering is not yet experienced as what we are calling nociception. But affiliation turns into temptation when suffering becomes too great. Satan appears in suffering. He raises the question of a power. Can the afflicted turn to the magician, other priest or the gods to reveal, the need for suffering, to shake off the burden which is imposed through covenant and election? Or is the afflicted condemned to the terrible Jewish dilemma either to submit like Job and to ask God, please, to withdraw his hand or to curse him? Just read the Old Testament! Christians have unlearned to curse God in their suffering. As I said, I'm thinking of the Carmelite nun whom you held in your hards [hands?], Dr. Blaschke. As one who is faith-full, curse God, because in the Jewish sense a curse is still a sign of faith.

Let us not forget that within this one tradition of the Middle East suffering always make sense. What makes the life and context of the Jew experientially unique is God's transcendence of all suffering, his transcendence of both good and evil. For those who believe, no further reason for suffering has to be given other than "God's way." This is what it means to have fallen into the hands of the living God.

At the time of Christ the Jewish attitude toward suffering was already well defined in its uniqueness. There is no evil that cannot be placed by the Jew in a context simply of the terrible and horrible wrath of a person. Suffering always carries, therefore, a reference to Yahweh, to Yahweh who punishes the infidelity of his people as friend. In suffering at the hands of a friend lies the acceptance of the vocation which is open only for a Jew, acceptance simultaneously of meaningfulness and of the joy of doing so within a covenant. What a contrast this is to the contemporary Stoic attempt to declare that suffering is something which should not even touch the inside of a wise man, of a friend of god, as the Greek Stoics called themselves. And what an even more startling contrast to the Indian transformation of turning suffering into an illusion! Buddha's search for nirvana goes far beyond the Stoic indifference and insensitivity.

For the Jew there is the life-long wrestling with God. To be Israel means a constant wrestling which is not a pleasant experience. It is the life-long attempt to accept adversity as an occasion to be angry with God, to blame him, to face him before engaging in a life-long affirmation of the frame of transcendence within which whatever happens to me happens at his hand. In this sense, the Buddhist monks' recognition that suffering is illusion is the one root, in my understanding, out of which it is possible to declare that the need for a personal God is irrelevant. I was, therefore, clearly quite impressed when a friend returning from Japan after three months in a Zen Buddhist convent told me he was surrounded mostly by German mother superiors and American Jesuits.

God became man. Clearly he wanted to share the scandal of the bodily experience of evil: Christ, it is said in every Mass, suffering for you, for many. He offered himself to the Father in taking unto himself a body which is ours, which came into being in the history of the west. The apostle Paul grasps this mystery to such an extent that people accuse him of dolorism -- which I guess is why the corpus descended from the crucifix in this retreat center.

Take the Letter to the Colossians: "I find my joy in the suffering I bear for you and add my flesh to what is missing in Christ's tribulation" for his church. There is, therefore, a connection between Paul's suffering and the coming about of the body of Christ which is the church. The body, and more particularly the shared body of the church, for Paul is something which comes into existence by the joyful bearing of suffering. By this he extends, he transcends totally, the Stoic denial that misery ought not grip our inmost being. Further, he also transforms Israel -- the word means a "struggle with El," God -- into the extraordinary creativeness of making church.

Job! When we say Job we generally mean a biblical sufferer. Job is a man who has fallen into the hands of the living God and who knows very well that this is what has happened to him. He is being tested by Satan. He has lost everything that is dear to him, his camel herds, his goats, his servants, his tents, his sons, even his daughters. He is covered with running sores. He is the depth of affliction. He is abandoned by his friends. Even worse, he has lost dignity. He is laughed at by his friends and suffers even worse at the hands of his enemies. The Bible praises him because he interprets all this as a test. In his misery he confesses that the hand of God has touched him. He says that he is hurt by El's arrows, that El has fallen on his neck, that he is the butt of God's blows and of his anger. His misery and his dishonor, his deprivations are so many outward signs of a ruinous encounter with his total person, body and soul, physical and psychological, undistinguishable from each other. Not only he, but also his progeny, have fallen into God's hands. The loss of his skin and the loss of his kin are equally hurtful. This theme is repeated several times in the Book of Job.

All through the Old Testament, sores, leprosy, weakness, madness are presented as synonymous and all are a form of enveloping misery. They are never seen as symptoms of a special autonomous kind of misery which we would call disease rather than grief or misfortune for which something could be done bodily for the relief of the total misery. The Old Testament sufferer resents this painful state because it excludes him from the full participation in public song. His iniquity or his impurity make him an exile from ceremonies. Disarray of the body, the disaggregation from the community, together with the derangement of the mind reveal that he is afflicted, that he is a sinner. He is revealed as being in a special way -- in an inner way but one not acceptable to the majority -- in the hands of God.

In the later books of the Old Testament, the social aspect of this affliction is stressed even more. God touches Tobias as he touched Job because he wants to purity him, to make him an example for his people. In all of this, I think it is most important not to impute the possibility of the search for nociception as a special pain which I can suffer. Look to the Old Testament or to the New Testament or to any century before Descartes! It would be a grave mistake to interpret these biblical passages as suggesting that God strikes the sinner with something which we call disease, a disorder which becomes visible in the world in leprosy or some such, a disorder which does not become visible equally in dishonor, loss of status and defeat. Anthropologists tell me that even today in very many cultures there is no word for physical disease.

A crazy, but to most impressive, example of this can be seen in Normandy. There they say "Monsieur est fatigue." It doesn't mean that he's tired; it means that he is sick. And tres fatigue means that he is in the "atrium of death" a phrase which belongs to Hippocratic medicine but which has been eliminated in our kind of medicine. My anger yesterday evening and this morning is increasing: why is terminal pain a medical problem? I have found a new reason for crusading against this bunch of monopolists.

Now let's jump forward to the 12th century. I would like to show you how I can see that the perception of -- I'm using now a word that is new to me -- nociception takes social and psychological shape by looking at the crucifix. You are all aware of the first crucifix. It is that graffito on the outside of what was probably a brothel. There is a man with a donkey's head nailed to a cross. Beneath that there is a not fully readable name: "Anaxi .... adores his God" This first representation of a crucifix which we have is a mark of ridicule. Soon after Constantine the cross of Christians is golden and studded with jewels. Later, the figure of a fully dressed priest or king, the Savior, stands in front of it. Then in the Ottonian period (~1OOO AD) something happens. Occasionally the suffering body of Jesus is unveiled, but it is stiff. By the 12th century the body becomes touchingly realistic. By 1160 the face is alive but the body is already dead. By 1200 the head also sinks down. It is a dead body which we contemplate -- what we call "the body" The whole idea of the crucifix goes through revolution in that 12th century.

As an aside here, in order to stress the fact that there can be such a thing as body history and body experience, let me mention a few things as they were at the beginning of the 12th century. Mystically the body of the Lord is present on the altar in the bread and wine and the real body's around him. By the end of the century transubstantiation becomes a major issue. The body of Christ in the bread and wine is physically present and the mystical body sits around it. At the beginning of that century, we take a bone. We know it's a relic and we elevate it to the altars -- we perceive the odor of sanctity. By the end of the century the Inquisition is there -- in its original role -- to identify and certify that this bone "is really the skullcap of Mary Magdalen." At the beginning of the century, people who are wedded don't give their bodies to each other. They might do it, but they don't know that they do it. By the end of the 1200's, women are recognized as having as human a body as men. This is an incredible step toward the equality of men and women. And suddenly we can give our bodies to each other - a fabulous invention.

At the beginning of the century, the high-points of the liturgy are still the breaking of the bread and the preceding pax, the oratio pacis, the conspiracy of peace. This pax means a blowing into each other's mouth, an osculum, a mouth to mouth kiss among Christians. By the end of the century, the priest bows to kiss the altar and then kisses a wooden object (osculatorium) and hands it down to the others present.

Now, within this complex of change -- I'm not saying that this changing perception is the cause; I'm saying that this happens at the same time -- compassion is added to mercy, which is the Christian virtue of the first 1000 years. We moderns are certain that no one actually feels the pain of another. The other's pain cannot but be believed, as Dr. Blaschke said. True compassion is the result of an act of faith. I would dare to say faith becomes embodied only when it is compassion.

Francis' stigmata witness to the embodiment of his faith in God whom he adores on the crucifix, the God who took on flesh. The breakthrough of Christ's wounds out of Francis' palms, the soles of his feet as well as his heart and side appear historically during those decades within which what historians call the "individual" jells in Europe. Van den Berg, a Dutch phenomenologist, has written beautifully about the process.

It is much later, only in the 16th century, that we begin to see the intimization [sic] of pain, the discovery of the feeling of pain as an individual separated from the community. Then people perceive the suffering of an individual, as a person, not as "one of us."

It is in the towns of northern Italy in the 13th century that people begin to experience an invisible skin that is constitutive of their own body. Suffering, the contemplation of the crucifix, the desire "nudus nudum Christum sequere" (naked to follow the naked Christ) manifests itself in the stigmata. Don't forget that by the end of that century there are 150 at least historically and medically solidly documented stigmatized people crawling around Europe. Whatever you make of it!

I am not suggesting that Augustine or Hugh or Hildegard loved Jesus less than Francis or believed in his incarnation, passion and death [???] than Francis. I only argue that being a man of the 13th century had endowed Francis with a new kind of organ, a border, a frontier, a shell which separates him from the community. Collin Morris ("The Rise of Individualism: 1050-1200 SCM, London, 1984 -- on the first page he quotes the poem by Auden which begins: "Some thirty inches from my nose. . . ") says that modern man knows that there is a skin around him. Without that perceived skin about him, one does not fit into our contemporary society. A Mexican wetback who arrives straight from his village must acquire this "skin" to fit into the U.S. Once you have acquired that frontier or skin, you will never again fit into the old barrio, as you did earlier in life. One has to break down this cultural immunity to our spirit of individual selfhood before one fits into this society.

Francis acquired that skin already in the 13th century. His seraphic faith in the passion of the incarnate God, like Paul's, adds what is missing in Christ's tribulations. That's what he professes -- to build up the church of Christ. But his love embodies itself in the stigmatour [sic] flesh of one person, not in the mystical or social body of Christ.

I have no other way -- sometimes I wish I had another -- a less theological way to speak about the issue of the social creation of pain. I can't. The enfleshment of faith and the love of Jesus reaches here, with Francis as a type, a new stage and with it the constitution of bodily pain as a separate, special, exquisite form of suffering and of compassion becomes available. I can now have compassion with Christ on the cross and compassion with the sick.

I hope to complete by the end of November a history of the discovery that there is a special class of people who are called the sick. Before, there were no institutions for the sick. There was no sense that there are people who are bodily sick outside. There were people who had something wrong with them and went to a doctor, but that's very far from having a social conception of the class of the sick. And a new class of people were arising rejoicing in hoc saeculo, hoc secularis mentis (in this age, in the mind of "the world"). Whole movements arise in the cities, people who tried not to be monks but to install -- the first evidence I have of this is from 1194 -- the sick, as their Lord and Abbot, into the noscomiam, a hospital in our sense of the word. They wanted to practice compassion. The move from the works of mercy to compassion is an inner ideal. Together with compassion, the mysticism and the mystical-spiritual interpretation of bodily pain as something which relates me in a special way to Christ and, therefore becomes psychologically heightened, stems from this century.

Talking about sickness is something other than compassion. To be more modern, let me call it empathy. I wish I had a different word! Someone said very well that empathy is like a rope, a bridge of words across the abyss that separates me from the skin of another. We cannot share the experience of pain, however, across this bridge of words. The more serious the condition is, the less can cross over this bridge. We can share our intent to find meanings to which we can try to refer that which we call pain. We can try to make it meaningful. But the pain itself is and remains, as Dr. Blaschke pointed out last evening, an object-less state. I would add that it has no possible objective referent, because the body is the percept of the subject, the precise opposite of an object.

I wish we could discuss these matters at greater length. We hear today such statements as: "my body belongs to me"; "my baby is mine"; and so forth. These are philosophically loaded discussions. The fact that they're very common does not make them intellectually legitimate. This is the basic position from which I start.

The utterance which denotes pain is not a word but a scream. The stronger the sense of self and individuality, the greater that sense of that skin, the more the projection of the possibility and the positive transformation into stigmata, then the more pronounced is the social compossibility [sic] of the social constitution of nociception -- the body as pain.

I made myself controversial and I feel that one who is controversial should not be a symbol of unity. That is why I do not want to speak as a theologian. But, as I said earlier there is a connection between the stigmata and torture. This is the final point I want to touch upon.

I'm going into this as the only way in which I can legitimate what the title of this conference -- the management of pain -- says to me. I want to raise an issue which is unspeakable and completely wrong in any ordinary setting.

The management of pain in the 20th century, in the last quarter of the 20th century, is a medical problem, a social control problem. But it almost certainly reflects something much deeper which is embedded in our society. Look at this particular body, the medicalized body, which today's young people call "my system," this post-Cartesian body which is managed. This body in our day requires the management of its pains and of its delights. Mr. Joranson gave an extraordinary example when he was talking about the decriminalization of terminal cancer -- I'm simplifying this enormously. For 4.5 million people suffering from more or less serious or very serious pain, relief could be broadly found with oral morphines. This use corresponds totally to my convictions. I am not making a medical statement.

These things about which I'm speaking are real. They are closely related to the medical issue which you came together to discuss. They comprise a concrete instance. There must be about as many people in that state of suffering or pain, which Mr. Joranson described, immediately south of the U.S. border as there are in the U.S. In South America and in Mexico hospitalization for the dying can be achieved for only 2 or 3 percent. Therefore, hospital control over the administration of these drugs is impossible. Providing people with the drugs, of which Mr. Joranson speaks, can happen in Mexico only by their free sale -- if one wants to avoid horrible repression. Most people in Mexico and in poor countries in general do not get medicines, even dangerous ones, and antibiotics on prescription. They can't get the prescription. And even if they got it, the majority of the doctors would fall into one of the four classifications Mr. Joranson mentioned.

To face the medical management of analgesics -- without reference to the religious repression of "highs" in the United States -- requires either establishing even stronger and probably just as useless controls over the import of morphine from South America or it means denying Mexicans what it is claimed should be given to U.S. citizens. This is an issue which cannot be discussed in a society in which management of pain, the very idea of the management of pain, has been put into a medical framework.

But to my point! Parallel with the embodiment of compassion during the late Middle Ages runs a new social concern with the effective infliction of pain. I speak of increasing use of torture. I am emphatically not suggesting that in some physiological sense the instruments used to inflict poena, pain, become more effective. I am suggesting that the torturers set out to achieve something unprecedented. Juridical torture was not unknown in Rome and Greece. The need for torture was an obvious matter for Cicero and Aristotle. We have their texts. It was not used on people who mattered. It was used on slaves, barbarians or the humiliates in later Roman periods, the "proletariat" who, after all, were more or less like beasts according to classical philosophy. That anthropology demanded that they be managed like animals. They had to be broken and broken in a manner which would be exemplary for the members of their kind. I'm saying, in effect, that the illusion of a relationship between Aristotelean and Platonic democracy and Jeffersonion democracy is just that -- an illusion.

There was no grace left in such people nor status nor property through which they could be afflictedOnly their flesh remained which could be torn from them. Juridical torture as punishment was used through 1800. Probably it subsided when imprisonment became legitimate as an alternative.

Inquisitional torture, about which I wish to speak, is another matter. I'm not speaking about Torquemada nor necessarily about Stalin nor precisely about the Brazilian colonels. Inquisitional torture is a type. It is directed against members of one's own body social. Its prime purpose is neither punishment, be it individual or exemplary, nor is it the discovery of truth by anyone other than the one tortured. Inquisitional torture is not the venting of an angry sovereign's wrath on a disobedient subject and who demands that the executioner put the bloody seal of power on the skin, rending the skin of the subject with power from the outside.

Inquisitional torture is not an adjunct to interrogation but makes interrogation a constitutive element of the pain it inflicts. This is my thesis and it has many points on which you can discuss it. It makes of interrogation a constitutive element of the pain it inflicts. It makes the patient's compliance through confession a constitutive element of the treatment given. To speak with Scarry, this new kind of torture seeks to destroy the world of the victim, to destroy what he defines as his truth. It then seeks to objectify this destruction in a confession. Inquisitional torture presupposes the historically constituted self. I cannot conceive of it before the constitution of the self in the 13th century. In fact it comes into existence at that moment because inquisitional torture aims at the destruction of the sense of self and it happens in front of the crucifix.

When Job is tempted by Satan, his faith in Yahweh is threatened, but not his self. When the Christian martyr is tempted to defection, his allegiance to God's people is threatened but not his personality. The Inquisition in our western medieval tradition increasingly threatens the self itself. The inquisitioner used punishment to undo the self together with the self's world. To make this point I restate an often observed fact: pain can be borne, suffered, endured.

Pain can be borne, it can be suffered, endured only so long as it is something that has come upon me but is not altogether I. I do hurt all over but still, I am in pain. The Jew learned through the prophets that there is no suffering which cannot be referred to the transcendent God. But there are some forms of pain that alienate. We torture people so thoroughly that they can no longer recognize that this thing which grips them is not their "I." At this point such a person cannot stand himself any more, bear himself, be himself any more. It is at this point that through confession, through compliance with the torturer's vision of what he is and who he is, the victim recognizes the power of the instrument of torture to create a new reality, that of the institution at the service of which the torturer acts -- no matter for what reason -- and which has entrapped him as a subject. It is this which I wanted to call to your attention. I call for a social history of the kind of self which, once constituted, can be extinguished through the pain which overwhelms it. This is ultimate "compliance."

I want to call you to look at how the pain perception of the self, which our society and our economy creates, has acquired that bodily nature which beings up the issue which you raise. I'm saying that this issue which you are raising is a modern one.

Thank you for your attention.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Guardian's Illich Obit

For our money, The Guardian's obituary for Ivan Illich was the best of those to appear in English: concise, cliche-free, familiar with his life's work, artful. And so, just because we can - and because we think this piece of writing deserves a good audience - we cut and paste it, in its entirety, here. Meanwhile, we think we've finally identified the two authors: Todd, an architect, studied with Illich at Univ. of Pennsylvania; La Cecla is an anthropologist and architect based in Italy.

Ivan Illich

A polymath and polemicist, his greatest contribution was as an archaeologist of ideas, rather than an ideologue


by Andrew Todd and Franco La Cecla

The Guardian, Monday 9 December 2002 02.29 GMT


Ivan Illich, who has died of cancer aged 76, was one of the world's great thinkers, a polymath whose output covered vast terrains. He worked in 10 languages; he was a jet-age ascetic with few possessions; he explored Asia and South America on foot; and his obligations to his many collaborators led to a constant criss-crossing of the globe in the last two decades.

Best known for his polemical writings against western institutions from the 1970s, which were easily caricatured by the right and were, equally, disdained by the left for their attacks on the welfare state, in the last 20 years of his life he became an officially forgotten, troublesome figure (like Noam Chomsky today in mainstream America). This position obscures the true importance of his contribution. His critique of modernity was founded on a deep understanding of the birth of institutions in the 13th century, a critical period in church history which enlightened all of his work, whether about gender, reading or materiality. He was far more significant as an archaeologist of ideas, someone who helped us to see the present in a truer and richer perspective, than as an ideologue.

Illich was born in Vienna into a family with Jewish, Dalmatian and Catholic roots. His was an errant life, and he never found a home again after his family had to leave Vienna in 1941. He was educated in that city and then in Florence before reading histology and crystallography at Florence University.

He decided to enter the priesthood and studied theology and philosophy at the Vatican's Gregorian University from 1943 to 1946. He started work as a priest in an Irish and Puerto Rican parish in New York, popularising the church through close contact with the Latino community and respect for their traditions. He applied these same methods on a larger scale when, in 1956, he was appointed vice-rector of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico, and later, in 1961, as founder of the Centro Intercultural de Documentación (CIDOC) at Cuernavaca in Mexico, a broad-based research centre which offered courses and briefings for missionaries arriving from North America.

The radicalism of CIDOC attracted many young North American priests, but it became a victim of its own success in a rightwing climate, and was wound up 10 years later by the consent of its members. (Illich said of its director, Valentina Borremans, that "she realised that the soul of this free, independent and powerless thinkery would have been squashed by its rising influence... [a positive] atmosphere invites the institutionalisation which will corrupt it".) By this time Illich had also resigned active duty as a priest, thereby sidestepping a potentially bitter conflict with the conservative Vatican authorities, who now opposed CIDOC.

Illich retained a lifelong base in Cuernavaca, but travelled constantly from this point on. His intellectual activity in the 1970s and 1980s focused on major institutions of the industrialised world. In seven concise, non-academic books he addressed education (Deschooling Society, 1971), technological development (Tools For Conviviality, 1973), energy, transport and economic development (Energy And Equity, 1974), medicine (Medical Nemesis, 1976) and work (The Right To Useful Unemployment And Its Professional Enemies, 1978, and Shadow Work, 1981). He analysed the corruption of institutions which, he said, ended up by performing the opposite of their original purpose. He observed the roots of this process in the institutionalisation of charity in the 13th-century church (he frequently cited the Latin maxim "corruptio optimi pessima", the corruption of the best is the worst).

His 1982 book, Gender, argued that the difference between feminine and masculine domains had been sacrificed to the idea of neutral work, capitalism creating and depending on the simplistic coupling of the male wage labourer and the woman as mother to produce new workers.

The late 1980s and 1990s saw the flowering of his interests. There was the historicity of materials (H2O And The Waters of Forgetfulness, 1985), literacy (ABC, The Alphabetisation Of The Popular Mind, 1988, co-written with Barry Sanders) and the origins of book-learning (In The Vineyard Of The Text, 1993). The latter volume was, he said, an attempt to understand the transition from the book to the computer screen through the prism of the changes in 13th-century reading practice.

In essays, papers and through the work of his collaborators, he addressed themes as diverse as the history of the gaze, friendship, hospitality, bioethics, body history (particularly with his close collaborator, the sociologist Barbara Duden) and space.

Illich lived frugally, but opened his doors to collaborators and drop-ins with great generosity, running a practically non-stop educational process which was always celebratory, open-ended and egalitarian at his final bases in Bremen, Cuernavaca and Pennsylvania.

His charisma, brilliance and spirituality were clear to anyone who encountered him; these qualities sustained him in a heroic level of activity over the last 10 years in the context of terrible suffering caused by a disfiguring cancer. Following the thesis of Medical Nemesis, he administered his own medication against the advice of doctors, who proposed a largely sedative treatment which would have rendered his work impossible.

He was able to finish a history of pain which will be published in French next year, as will his complete works. His last wish, which was to die surrounded by close collaborators amid the beginnings of a new learning centre he had planned in Bologna, was not realised.

· Ivan Illich, thinker, born September 4 1926; died December 2 2002

The CIDOC social network, analyzed

From 1961 to 1976, some of the most fruitful and enduringly influential discussions about modern, technological, industrial society took place in a resort town located up in the mountains south of Mexico City. There, in Cuernavaca, Ivan Illich ran the Center for Intercultural Documentation, or CIDOC, as a sort of anti-university that set out to rigorously question and disrupt the major economic development efforts that the U.S. government and the Catholic Church were focusing on Latin America. Running an intensive Spanish language school to fund its activities, CIDOC conducted wide-ranging research seminars and published pamphlets and other documents that involved leading intellectuals in fields such as theology, economics, philosophy, and politics. Many of these people went on to write important books and play important roles in on-going discussions and research. By all accounts, CIDOC seems to have been an exciting place, and not solely due its central figure, Illich.

We recently came across an attempt to map CIDOC's main participants and show their various connections, all using a technique called social network analysis. By analyzing a selected portion of the nearly-complete collection of CIDOC publications located at the University of Vienna, Elisabeth Lemmerer has produced an intriguing document (PDF) that identifies the people who seem to have worked closest to and interacted most with Illich during the CIDOC years. There may not be any major surprises, here, but Ms. Lemmerer's work would likely be interesting to anyone familiar with CIDOC and/or Illich. Her text is rich in biographical detail, as well. And, surprisingly for a student in Vienna, it's written in English.

She includes this graph, which shows the main players in CIDOC's intellectual activity. That large circle in the middle is Illich, surrounded by many names that will be familiar:


Ms. Lemmerer explains this chart as displaying "the strength of scientific cooperation among network actors. I determined this strength by considering the number of references obtained during my literature search which mention collaboration between two actors. The thicker the line between two dots, the more references, and, consequently, a greater amount of scientific cooperation was established. The weaker the tie, the less detectable cooperation occurred. If there is no tie at all, there was no relation detectable at all."

The document, titled "Examining a Sample of the American-Mexican Scientific Cooperation in the 1960s: A Social Network Analysis of the CIDOC-Network," is Ms. Lemmerer's thesis for her Magistra der Philosophie degree - much the same as a masters degree, we're told. The professor guiding her research was Dr. Martina Kaller-Dietrich, who in 2008 published a biography of Illich (in German, and the only book-length Illich bio we're aware of): Ivan Illich (1926-2002), Sein Leben, sein Denken.

Why analyze Illich's social network? "With the closing of CIDOC’s doors in 1976," Ms. Lemmerer notes,

Illich was deprived of his living. He no longer had constant incomes to rely on. Already in 1968 he had resigned from priesthood, hence, the practice of priestly ministry was no longer an option. After he tramped the roads of Southeast Asia, he made use of something which Illich himself might have termed differently: his social network. As CIDOC’s long-time director, Illich had collaborated with scholars from numerous well-known educational institutions in the US. He now intentionally made use of these acquaintances as they facilitated access to visiting professorships and short-term teaching positions at universities across the US. From the late 1970s onwards, Pennsylvania State University, Fordham University in New York, and the University of California, Berkeley, all played large roles in Illich’s professional and institutional relations in the US. Throughout the remainder of his life, he was an itinerant scholar.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Blogging 'In the Vineyard of the Text'

A man named Michael Sacasas is reading and commenting on In the Vineyard of the Text over at his blog, named The Frailest Thing.

Peter Schrag on Illich and Jerry Brown

The Saturday Review for July 19, 1969, featured as its cover story, "Ivan Illich: The Christian as Rebel". The author: Peter Schrag, who quoted Illich as saying that the problem "is not the American way of life lived by a handful of millions . . . but rather the growing awareness that those who live the American way will not tire before the superiority of their quasi-religious persuasion will be accepted by the underdogs."

Illich Sat. Review - 1969.jpg

In today's Sacramento Bee, Mr. Schrag contributes a column arguing that Gov. Jerry Brown is better suited to running California right now than he was back in the 1970s:


At times during those years, [Brown's] talk about an era of limits and the need to lower expectations seemed just a little – well, preachy. Similarly "small is beautiful," the British economist E.F. Schumacher's metaphor for the design of human-scale appropriate technologies that Brown embraced, often seemed almost un-American at a time when "bigger is better" was the rallying cry of national progress.

But limits – whether economic, environmental, political or military – hardly seem so strange now, even if the state, and other states and the nation as a whole, didn't face the monster budgetary crises they now struggle with.

Mr. Schrag, who is the retired editorial page editor at The Bee, goes on to mention Brown's friendship with Illich:

But there's one other major area – beyond the nation's slowly growing awareness of limits – that suits Brown more to this time than to last time around, and that's his deep distrust of large bureaucratic institutions, something he confirmed again in a conversation shortly after his inauguration Monday.

Brown, who like many of his contemporaries once had at least one hesitant foot in the counterculture of the 1960s, was deeply influenced by the anti-institutional ideas of his friend Ivan Illich. Illich, ordained as a priest, later an influential scholar, challenged all conventional ideas of progress – in institutionalized schooling, in modern health care, in technology – as forces that alienated the individual from his own ability to live a confident, self-reliant life.

In his moving tribute after Illich's death in 2002, Brown talked about how Illich took him back to the "Ignatian indifference to secular values of long life, fame and riches," he had learned as a Jesuit seminarian.

Both in his life and his work, Brown said, Illich "bore witness to the destructive power of modern institutions that 'create needs faster than they can create satisfaction, and in the process of trying to meet the needs they generate, they consume the earth.' "

Living in California as we do, we are glad to have Gov. Brown running things. Whether or not he'll be able to draw much from Illich is to be seen. The state's budget is a mess, and as a result so are its schools, for instance. (The previous governor called for all textbooks to be replaced by online courseware.) Californian technology companies are scrambling to develop solar panel technologies and other alternative sources of energy, and the state's environmental laws are some of the most rigorous around. And some remnants of the '70s counterculture still remain. But there won't be any easy way of downscaling things. If nothing else, this state was built up on and around the use of automobiles.

In any case, as we've noted here earlier, it's quite clear to us that Brown is quite sincere in his understanding and appreciation of Illich. The two men were genuinely friends.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Illich on film

Just for the record, there is an interesting film of Ivan Illich available from a German Web merchant as a paid download. Shot by German documentary maker Gordian Troeller in 1976, it shows Illich at CIDOC and includes much footage of the festival held there as that institution shut itself down. (CIDOC spawned a handful of language-instruction schools, many of which are still operating today.)

There's a lengthy description of the 43-minute film at the site of Download-Film on this page. Beware, though, like the film itself, this page is written in German. Prices range from 5 euros to 20 euros, depending on the quality of video encoding.

Given what we know of Illich's general reluctance to give interviews, it's difficult to imagine him cooperating with any film-maker, but the official Troeller site includes a biography that indicates at least partial sympathy with Illich's thought:

From 1963 to 1998 Troeller made 89 films. The main canon of his work dealt with the subject “development leads only to lesser development” – a credo he maintained throughout his working life. Troeller made a conscious decision against the fiction of the “objective documentary” and opted for the concept of complete “editorial partiality” to describe his works. It is precisely for this reason that his films are particularly suitable for pedagogical purposes, far more so than so called neutral reporting: Troeller’s films are all based on theories, that can be critically assessed. Troeller has a definite point of view and his intentions are clearly stated. This is material which is hugely enjoyable and debatable. For every theory put forward reasons are given and evidence provided. It is precisely because of the fundamental questions that his films raise that these films remain so topical and worth seeing today. His canon of work will endure.

Smiling, in 1974

Shamelessly, we re-publish this charming photo of Illich, evidently made in 1974 by Gisèle Freund. We found it - using Microsoft's Bing image search service - at a good-looking Mexican site, all in Spanish, called Letras Libres.


(Gisèle Freund, we're pleased to discover, was a German photographer, of socialist bent - born 1908, died 2000. Among other notable episodes, she shot in England for Life magazine during the Depression, shot many top writers and artists in Paris, was a stringer for the Magnum agency, was hounded by the FBI, and in 1981, ended up as François Mitterand's official photographer. We look forward to learning more about her.)

"The Breakdown of Schools" and Cybernetics

Thanks to The Herbert Brün Society, we're able to see part of the original draft of Deschooling Society, as published at CIDOC in Cuernavaca.


Its table of contents reveals a series of chapters with titles quite similar to those of the final book, albeit in a different order.


Herbert Brün, born 1918 in Berlin, was an avant-garde musical composer and one of the first people to explore the making of music with computers. After fleeing Germany for Palestine in 1936, he ended up in the U.S. In 1968, he was hired by Heinz von Foerster, one of the key figures in cybernetics, at the University of Illinois, in Urbana. At von Foerster's Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL), a hotbed of activity, he taught courses in both musical composition and general cybernetics. Brün died in 2003.

Von Foerster (1911-2002) was a friend of Illich, who gives him special acknowledgement at the beginning of Tools for Conviviality. Originally from Vienna, von Foerster participated in the famous Macy conferences, where the basics of cybernetics were worked out and recognized as being applicable to various fields of inquiry - not just to controlling machines, as originally theorized, by also to biology, neurology, group psychology, family dynamics, and the growth of populations, for instance. He is credited with inventing so-called second-order cybernetics, which takes into account the observer of systems and deals with self-referentiality and self-organizing systems. In theory, at least, this expansion of the field enabled cybernetics to be applied to a wide range of social and political problems.

Evidently - and this is news to us - von Foerster and Brün participated with Illich in six weeks of discussions held at CIDOC in 1971. This "research seminar" went by the title of "Interpersonal Relational Networks," and other participants included Humberto Maturana, a Chilean known for working out the concept of autopoiesis (self-creating, self-maintaining systems, as observed in living organisms) and another member of the BCL in Urbana, and Gordon Pask, an English cybernetician and psychologist. He also spent time at BCL.

Again, the Herbert Brün Society makes available an interesting and relevant document, namely von Foerster's introductory essay for a CIDOC Cuaderno (Spanish for "notebook") that presents a set of papers for discussion in this very seminar (see below). One of these papers is the essay that would eventually become a chapter in Deschooling, the one in which Illich proposes learning webs, skills exchanges, and other practical alternatives. (Before the seminar and before Deschooling hit the stands, this same essay, "Education Without School: How It Can Be Done," was published by the New York Review of Books. This was the third and last piece of Deschooling to show up there. In addition, the Brün Society page offers links to several of the Cuaderno's other papers.)


Looking, today, at "Education Without School," we are struck at how infused it is with cybernetic concepts and vocabulary - struck, we are, because of Illich's later turn against cybernetics. Illich argues in terms of "information" and "networks" and "resources" and "learning exchanges." He even points to the computer - still a costly piece of hardware, back then - as a technology with much potential. Not surprisingly, his enthusiasm for "learning webs," which would use computers to help match people who might want to teach and/or learn from each other, is widely cited today by those advocating Web-based schooling as an alternative to the schooling establishment's rigid, hierarchical model. Yet, Illich was never known for advocating the computer as particularly useful in solving social problems, not in any of its evolving forms - personal, shared, networked, etc. As we plan to explore here in coming months, he maintained a critical distance even as many of his early readers - we're thinking mainly of the Whole Earth Catalog crowd, led by Stewart Brand - flocked to embrace the PC and Web as a technology with truly revolutionary potential.

In fact, Illich's views on cybernetics in general changed a good deal over time. In 1971, as we've just seen, he was discussing the topic fairly explicitly with some of the field's leading theorists. Like most people grappling with social issues at that time, he couldn't help but see the world, even if only unknowingly, in cybernetic terms. With its feedback loops, information flows, and systems, its resources, needs, and exchanges, the vocabulary and concepts of cybernetics had permeated most fields, from biology to economics to sociology to ecology.

Indeed, the CIDOC Cuaderno just cited includes a short forward by CIDOC's Valentina Borremans that describes the seminar as "addressing itself to the development of models of interpersonal relational networks for the personal exchange of services and information according to individual desires rather than according to institutionalized norms. It is imperative that the new insights in neurophysiology, experimental psychology, theory and epistemology of cognitive processes be utilized in formulating conditions, potentials and limitations of interpersonal relational networks whose functional organization is commesurate [sic] with present day knowledge and technology rather than with yesterday's constraints determined by normative institutions." Many of those words, we must say - and especially that phrase "interpersonal relational networks" - would be quite difficult to find in any of Illich's own writing, which makes it all the more surprising to discover them in a CIDOC publication.

In 1974, von Foerster published a book called Cybernetics of Cybernetics, a sprawling, quite '60s-looking collection of charts, typewritten texts, and other graphics. Illich was one of the books contributors, though his piece is only a page or two in length - submitted reluctantly, perhaps, only to serve a good friend?

By the early 1980s, though, Illich was turning against the cybernetic model, almost with a vengeance. He'd come to recognize it as disembodying, particularly as employed in the field of medicine. The modern health-care system, Illich saw, had led people to conceive of themselves less as flesh and blood and instead, as a collection of subsystems. Less and less did people feel themselves in their own bodies; instead, they looked to doctors to tell them how they should feel based on highly-technical measurements of various pressure ratios, cell counts, chemical levels, and computer-generated imagery (CAT scans, etc.). Increasingly, Illich saw, the human was defined as an immune system fighting for survival against this threat and that and competing for scarce resources such as energy and oxygen.

In 1994, Illich spoke to a conference in Hershey, Penn. focused on the topic of Qualitative Health Research. (His lecture, titled "Pathogenesis, Immunity and the Quality of Public Health," is the basis of his preface to the 1995 edition of Limits to Medicine, originally published in 1976 as Medical Nemesis.) There, he spoke of his change of mind about cybernetics:

After nearly a quarter of a century, I am still satisfied with the substance and rhetoric of Nemesis. The book opened up a discussion on counter-productivity and the history of needs. But it did something else also: it brought medicine back into the realm of philosophy. My focus on the culture of suffering was the appropriate antidote to the emerging epidemic of bioethics. By reducing each person to `a life', bioethics is helpless to prevent total management of the person, now transformed into a system.
However, I now see a serious flaw in my approach that would vitiate my current intent. I then conceived of health as `the intensity of autonomous coping ability'. When I wrote that, I was unaware of the corrupting effect that system-analytic thinking would soon have on perceptions and conceptions. I was unaware that by construing health in this self-referentially cybernetic fashion, I unwittingly prepared the ground for a worldview in which the suffering person would get even further out of touch with the flesh. I neglected the transformation of the experience of body and soul when well-being comes to be expressed by a term that implies functions, feedbacks and their regulation. Ten years of research with Barbara Duden on the history of the experienced body, and several seminars on the history of the gendered self at the Wissenschaftskolleg (Berlin), in Marburg and in Penn State still lay before me.


I am chagrined that I formulated an important and coherent statement about the art of suffering and dying in categories that lend themselves to reductionist disembodiment. In Limits to Medicine -- Medical Nemesis, I argued that the fundamental pathogen today is the pursuit of health as this has come to be culturally defined in late-industrial society. I did not understand that in the age of systems management, this pathogenic pursuit of health would become universally imposed. I felt free to speak of health in terms of personal autonomy, and as the `intensity of coping ability'. I conceived of health as `a responsible performance in a social script' which is governed by a `cultural code adapted to a group's genetic make-up, to its history, to its environment...' I wanted to make it plausible to a generation committed to the pursuit of health that throughout history the human condition had been `suffered.' But I was still under Gregory Bateson's influence, believing that concepts like feedback, program, autopoiesis, or information - when shrewdly used - could clarify issues. I thought I could equate suffering with the management of my own balance. I was wrong. As soon as you understand suffering as coping, you make the decisive step: from bearing with your flesh, you `move towards managing emotions, perceptions and states of the self conceived as a system'.

Illich's avoidance of the cybernetic model didn't stop there. Increasingly, the planet Earth was being perceived as a "biosphere" made up of "ecological systems." The clearest expression of this view: the so-called Gaia Hypothesis, put forward by James Lovelock and heartily promoted by Stewart Brand. Furthermore, Illich saw that systems theory, and its close relative, information theory, is infused with the same assumptions of scarcity that underpin modern economic thought.

Another look at Illich's turn away from cybernetics can be found in the paper Barbara Duden wrote for the 2003 symposium on Illich held in Bremen in 2003 - 'Ivan Illich. Beyond Medical Nemesis (1976): The Search for Modernity’s Disembodiment of
“I” and “You”.' She writes:

When Ivan wrote Nemesis in 1975, he had not yet understood - as I have indicated - that importing terms plucked from information sciences and cybernetics to other disciplinary fields actually undermined his goals. The book, like some of his other early works, was full of categories taken from information technology and its systemic reference system. It was only in the late 1980s that he stopped short and began to feel uneasy about what he had written, thanks to the Greek mathematician Costas Hatzkiriaku. He convinced Ivan that concepts bound up with the computer did not work as metaphors, for their substance and form are indivisible. Using computer terms as such inevitably ends up treating the human being as a programmable component in a system, even if this was not an author’s intention. “When process becomes substance” - this would be the most fitting definition - then concepts tied to the language of programming would inform everything described in this way cybernetically. Our uniqueness as humans would essentially be “deleted.”

We will try to write more on these and related topics, shortly. Any thoughts, links, or pointers would be greatly appreciated.

Monday, January 03, 2011

On Illich and empty liturgy

A lengthy and thoughtful consideration of Illich, with a strong focus on his thoughts about how "the long complex process by which liturgical actions animated by grace and trust are replaced by mechanical techniques fostered by mistrust, fear and the desire for assured and assuring measures of one’s sanctity," has been published on the Web by a man named Tom Cheetham.

The paper, called "The Break with the World," is available via Cheetham's blog and Scribd.

We won't try to summarize the paper, as we've not yet read it thoroughly. It does seem to analyze Illich in light of a certain Henry Corbin, a 20th-century philosopher and theologian with an Islamic mystical bent, and Aidan Kavanaugh, a contemporary theologian. The following extracts provide a flavor of what Cheetham, who has written extensively about Corbin, is up to:

Much of Illich’s life was devoted to analyzing and revealing the community-destroying and life-denying nature of the institutions of the modern world. And in the extremities of contemporary life dominated by technologies controlled, or more often let loose, by human agency, too many of us are finally victims of what Illich calls “the break with the world.” What used to be Creation is conceived instrumentally, organized and manipulated by human, or inhuman hands. The world of the person, of flesh and sacrament is gone.
It was Illich’s profound claim 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.” This remarkable assertion can have real meaning for us only if we properly understand the intimate relations among the spiritual rebirth of the individual, liturgical acts of worship, and the communities in which they occur.
Illich speaks to us from a place which is truly a mysterion, truly beyond understanding. The demonic night and our vocation to glory are inseparable. We must accept our vocation to glory, not in spite of, but because of Guernica, Leipzig, Bergen-Belsen, Los Alamos and all the rest. This is Illich’s message.

Cheetham means to write Dresden, not Leipzig, we're pretty sure, and he also writes briefly about Illich here: "Readers of my work will know that I think Ivan Illich was, like Henry Corbin, one of the great religious thinkers of the 20th century. And also like Corbin, Illich's work is relatively little known. I have tried in some of my writing to suggest some common themes the two shared - in spite of profound differences in their personalities and their theologies. Illich's thought is provocative and deeply important."

Cheetham describes Corbin, a name that is new to us, as "a champion of the transformative power of the Imagination and of the transcendent reality of the individual in a world threatened by totalitarianisms of all kinds. ... He introduced the concept of the mundus imaginalis into contemporary thought and his work has provided much of the intellectual foundation for archetypal psychology as developed by James Hillman. But Corbin’s central project was to provide a framework for understanding the unity of the religions of the Book: Judaism, Christianity and Islam."

"All barb and no balm"

A quite personal, colorful, and lengthy remembrance of Ivan Illich appears on the website of Dara Molloy, who describes himself as a Celtic monk and priest. (He's also a pilgrimage and tour guide on the island of Árainn (aka Aran), where he lives and runs an inn.) Molloy is one of the persons behind Aisling Magazine, which over the years has published several pieces by Illich.

Molloy describes his learning of Illich's death in 2002, recalls a visit in 2001 to see Illich in Bremen, and describes in much detail the three days in 1989 when he was host to Illich on a speaking tour of west Ireland. His account of Illich's appearance in a small village called Corofin is well worth a look.

Illich upends everyone's expectations. He declines to submit to interviews by the local radio station, for instance, but he puts on a show that nobody will forget:

The whole scene had completely the wrong effect on Ivan, so that by the time he got his turn to address the crowd he was in a rage. He told the assembled audience that he would not speak to them through a microphone, because he would not have any technology get in the way of his face to face encounter with them. He criticised the adults who had organised the singing and dancing of the children, accusing them of turning something at the heart of their culture into a package for the entertainment of tourists and visitors. And finally he said he would not speak from the stage but wanted everybody to turn their seats towards him while he stood in the middle of the hall. This latter was a major logistical nightmare as the hall was completely packed and it meant every single chair had to be moved.
The ensuing discussion was fiery. Quite a number of people from the audience got involved, and Ivan himself, already hot under the collar from the welcoming reception, got even hotter. Tom Collins, the chairman, had an impossible task trying to contain and direct the discussion. It was not what one would call a pleasant evening, unless one could be so detached from the proceedings as to enjoy the cut and thrust of passion-filled arguments and Ivan's impatience with and intolerance of fools. Many people probably went home feeling insulted. On that particular evening, Ivan was all barb and no balm.

Much to Molloy's surprise, however, Illich invites him to spend some time at Penn State, where Illich teaches for much of each year. "I could stay for a month or two and participate in some conversations he was organising, attend his lectures in the college, use the university library, have access to all his writings, and meet many of his friends. ... This is exactly what I did - an experience that has been a major watershed in my life."

Molloy ends up staying and participating in Illich's discussion group for six weeks. One recollection:

Ivan was a nomad on this earth. He owned no property, never married or had children, lived with friends, and took on work only where he was invited to do so by friends. He told me he made very little money out of his publications. His contracts with universities were always on the basis that he could lecture on topics he had chosen himself. At lectures that I attended in Penn State, most of those attending were members of staff, there out of interest. He was ruthless with college students who chose his courses simply to get points. He would weed them out on their first day, tell them they had their points and order them not to come back.

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