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."

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