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.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

"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.


Unknown said...

hi, i'm looking for this "cuaderno" of 1974, but the link to the pdf is not working? could you please upload it again? or give me another adress where i might download it? thanks a lot!

Winslow said...

Please write me c/o winslow17 "at" I have a copy of only the first few pages of the document titled "Interpersonal Relational Networks," Cuaderno No. 1014 .

Anonymous said...

I could not resist commenting. Very well written!

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