“Just before Christmas, 1952, while sitting in his office on the campus of Rutgers University, in New Jersey, Leopold Kohr uncovered the secret of the universe.
“Just after the Royal Wedding, 1981, while sitting in the Great Hall of City University in London, hundreds of people from about thirty nations gathered to hear Kohr’s explanation.
“Reading the book might have been easier.”
So begins “The Only Problem in the Universe,“ an article that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly for May, 1982. Freelance journalist Rory O’Connor goes on to describe what took place at ”an intellectual jamboree” called the First Assembly of the Fourth World. The “center of attraction” at that event, which included a “curious mixture of ethnic, linguistic, religious, and cultural minorities, ranging from Celts and Kurds to Syrians and Scots”: none other than Ivan Illich.
Kohr, of course, is the author of The Breakdown of Nations, in which he argues that many, and perhaps all, social problems are the result of overgrowth - of the body politic growing too large for its own good. Easily the most succinct summation of Kohr’s ideas is the widely-touted phrase, “small is beautiful,” which is attributed to British economist E.F. Schumacher.
In 1994, Illich spoke in honor of his friend Kohr - they met in Puerto Rico - at a meeting of the E.F. Schumacher Society. Illich used that talk, available here, to put forth an engaging description of his own ideas about proportionality, or “fit,“ a key concept in his thinking about the modern world and its differences from the past and one for which he credits Kohr’s ideas about social morphology as a direct inspiration.
Two key words reveal Kohr’s thought, Illich writes:
Verhältnismässigkeit and gewiss. The first means proportionality or, more precisely, the appropriateness of a relationship. The second is translated as "certain," as when one says, "in a certain way." For example, Kohr would say that bicycling is ideally appropriate for one living in a certain place, like Oberndorf. An examination of this statement immediately reveals that “certain,” as used here, is as distant from "certainty" as "appropriate" is from "efficient." "Certain" challenges one to think about the specific meaning that fits, while "appropriate" guides one to knowledge of the Good. Taking both "appropriate" and a "certain place" together allows Kohr to see the human social condition as that ever unique and boundary-making limit within which each community can engage in discussion about what ought to be allowed and what ought to be excluded. To consider what is appropriate or fitting in a certain place leads one directly into reflection on beauty and goodness. The truth of one's resultant judgment will be primarily moral, not economic.
Another passage in this paper is one of our favorite statements by Illich that seems to summarize a key aspect of his thinking:
Ethics, in a strong tradition from Aristotle to Mandeville, involved a public controversy about the good to be pursued within a human condition and perhaps grudgingly accepted. Economics, however, demands the evaluation of desirable goals under the assumption of scarcity. It deals in the optimization of values; this leads to the creation of modern economic society, which provides seemingly unlimited fuel for a technological civilization. Such a civilization attempts to transform the human condition rather than debate the nature of the human good.
O’Connor’s account of Illich’s appearance at the meeting in London is great fun to read. We’re glad we clipped it from the magazine back when we were subscribers and managed to preserve the pages intact because somehow, copyright issues still prevent this period of The Atlantic from being available online.
First, O’Connor explains the irony of a gathering that seemed to have grown too large for its own good. Many of the scheduled forums overflowed with people, and moves were taken to split these meetings into ever-smaller units. Often, panels included representatives from many different parts of the world, not all of whom could speak English. May O’Connor forgive us for quoting him at such length:
“Frustration was high, and everyone looked forward to the next morning’s open plenary session, when the unpredictable Illich was scheduled to chair a panel including Kohr, [poet Jeff] Nuttall, and Mildred Loomis, an American ‘decentralist’ theoretician, among others.”
After listening to the panelists, Illich seized control of the proceedings and commenced an infuriating but brilliant oration in which he tried to summarize everything that had been said. His first step was to reject the use of the microphone, castigating it and those who employ it as anti-democratic. If some people in the room could not hear him, Illich maintained, it was because the group was too large.
The assembly he was addressing, Illich claimed, was precisely the right size. “Fifty percent more, and only somebody with a carefully trained voice, specializing to be a politician, would reach then entire group - would dominate.” Of equal importance, however, was “the necessity of straining the ear. It is the best way I know … to really … find out what the person has to say - instead of just letting him irrigate me with words.”
Soon thereafter Illich became infuriated. The occasion was an offhand remark by Jeff Nuttall about “producing ideas.” Illich was incensed when he heard this, and promptly informed Nuttall: “As soon as I am out of the chair, I will take you apart …. Produce ideas … How far can we go?” Illich demanded caustically. “We are not machines!” Language, it turns out, is at the center of Illich’s current work. “If I have problems with a Fourth World, it is that for me a livable world is a world of vernaculars.”
There followed a spellbinding analysis of the purpose and meaning of the assembly, delivered extemporaneously by Illich. “I do not think that producing thoughts fits into any vernacular,” he began. “To apply the term ‘production’ - forgive me for this precision in speech - means to totally misunderstand what is going on. … The term ‘production’ means that you can distinguish between ‘production’ and consumption - and I have no intention of consuming your ideas.”
Illich meant that anyone who wanted to live in a Fourth World where production was necessary could count him out. He employed a technique he called a “subjective appropriation” of everything he had already heard at the assembly to expand this idea. He then summarized the distinctions contributed by five speakers who concerned themselves with what he called “environmental thinking.”
“The next distinction which I heard,” Illich continued, “was … between taught mother tongue and vernacular … a vernacular movement. People who speak one vernacular know that nobody else understands them ever as well as they themselves speak it, because a vernacular you pick up only by listening to people who really say something to each other.”
“Finally, we had someone speak about meaning, sense, as opposed to what is rational,” Illich concluded. “A vernacular environment is profoundly irrational. The term ‘rational,’ when used in the social sciences … means precisely the destruction of that irrationality on which understanding between vernacular people can happen … It’s in a different order.
“I’ve said all this because I have serious problems when the term ‘environmental thinking,’ or ‘ecological thinking,’ is used. Environment usually is conceived as a new kind of professional’s perception of space, which shall be better than that which we have …”
“This way I summed up what went on in my own mind while I listened in a very subjective way to the other speakers this morning,” Illich added. “Because I am working at this moment on an attempt to describe three major, so-called environmental concerns …
“The first one is concerned with the biological environment. … Environmental managers [are] concerned to maintain biological destruction below that level beyond which the industrial system would break down. … A second concern for which you gave for me a very beautiful summary … [is] that growth in product does not only deplete biological and physical resources, both in production and circulation of those resources, but that any kind of growth takes, beyond a certain level, out of the environment precisely those utilization-values which would make it possible for people to get along without further products.”
The third concern, and one that is crucial to Illich’s current intellectual endeavors, is sexism. “I believe that sexism … is a necessary consequence of the splitting of production from consumption,” Illich remarked. “The moment you say ‘producing thought,’ I think already of an erect penis. And the destruction of the conditions for gendered existence is one more … major, converging concern of the environment.”
At that, the assembly seemed to take a collective deep breath and broke for lunch.
An hour later, it was back to the Great Hall for more debate about the propriety of using a microphone. Illich came under increasing attack. The ruckus began when the towering Nigerian Jimoh Omo Fadaka started to use the microphone to ask a question of Illich.
“Stop!” Illich shouted at him. “I cannot believe that you, a member of the Third World, are trying to use this technology. It is not necessary.”
After a time, however, it became apparent that those in the back of the Great Hall could not possibly understand Fadaka’s thickly African-inflected speech without mechanical assistance, and cries of “We can’t hear you!” wafted toward the front until Fadaka finally decided to ignore Illich’s advice.
“We are not interested in such false disputes,” he began. “We are interested in finding solutions to our problems, and we want you to tell us exactly the mechanics of getting there from here. We may or may not decide to agree with you, but we can at least discuss the mechanics … You seem too interested in theory … Can you please give us an idea as to how to get there?”
“Forgive me for being so precise as to harp on this, too,” Illich answered carefully. “I do not have the slightest idea as to what any one of you should do. I do not know what I should do. I know what I have to abstain from - and I have to abstain from speaking to people who can see me through a microphone. You might tell me this is too simple-minded, right? It’s a tiny little thing … for those of you who feel it, it says two dozen other things. And for those who believe that speaking is a production of messages to communicate, it makes no sense!”
Fadaka began to reply, but was again interrupted. “We can’t hear you!” came the chant from the back of the Great Hall. Grasping the microphone, the African told Illich he could not accept what Illich had to say, because ‘if there are difficult solutions to different problems, then there is no point in coming here to discuss them to each other! We might as well go back to where we came from.”
Illich agreed, at least partially. “There might be less sense in coming together than the ‘meeting industry’ assumes. I myself am very, very happy to be here, and I find that the style … this atmosphere of people talking to each other, freely and without feelings of inferiority, is very beautiful … but when [Anglican priest and prominent Fourth World activist] John Papworth first invited me: ‘No, not a Fourth World jamboree! I won’t come!’ … The airplanes are run for the meeting industry.”
Suddenly a well-dressed Englishman in the back of the hall stood up and asked a question. “Your objection to the use of a microphone … I find very difficult to reconcile with the fact that you are wearing the product of high technology - to wit, a pair of spectacles. … How can you [defend this]?”
“Sir, this question was first placed by Goethe, [who] refused in his presence people who wore spectacles,” Illich responded, “because he felt they should see him as clearly or as fuzzily as their nature allowed. I find this very beautiful …”
“I’m afraid I cannot accept that, whatever Goethe says,” his questioner shot back. “You haven’t answered the question I asked.”
“Forgive, I will try to answer in a less Jewish, less metaphorical way," said Illich, as eyebrows shot up around the room. ”I draw the line in my saying of no to television. … I am not a puritan. I believe in dirty, small, forever-courageous attempts of unplugging myself. I purposely, at a meeting which is concerned with scale, try to eliminate the tool which makes the human voice limitless in its reach, because I do believe that now - we have both very good voices - we are aware of three things when we talk without a loudspeaker. We are both aware how distant we are from each other, we are both aware of the limitations a group can have, and, even more importantly, we are both aware of the relative advantage which our personality gives us over [others].”
The debate over the uses of the microphone marked the high point of the assembly, in a sense. Paradoxically, the large-group gatherings seemed to be working better than the small-group forums, some of which were becoming increasingly torn by strife and others of which were falling apart from lack of either interest or focus. Illich went off to spend the rest of his time at a forum on education, which devolved, by reason of his overwhelming personality, into a lecture about his ideas on the necessity of deschooling society, punctuated by occasional questions from the moderator, Henryk Skolimowski - a lecture that was alternately thought-provoking and incomprehensible. (When one poor soul in the education forum interrupted Illich to inform him that she hadn’t understood a word that he said, he snapped back, “I am not trying to communicate with you!” and continued his previous thought.)
The article goes on to describe how, from there on out, the Fourth World assembly devolved into “something that resembled a Marx Brothers movie more than a solemn conclave on pressing world issues.” Disgruntled attendees stormed out, attempts to call votes came to nothing, some people just sat in a circle, holding hands and chanting ”om.”
“Nothing was decided, nothing was declared, and nothing, in fact, was done,” O’Connor writes.
As we understand it, the Fourth World movement went on to spawn a good deal of thinking and activism, even as the term itself, Fourth World, lost much precision as it got adopted by a widening range of groups and activists. John Papworth’s magazine, Resurgence, continues to publish, for instance. And all the while, a key figure in the U.S.'s nascent fourth World movement has been Kirkpatrick Sale, a writer and a devotee of Kohr who has published a good deal about human-scale technology and communities and who has played a leading role in arousing Vermonters to secede their state from the Union. Mr. Sale's forward to a 1978 reprint of The Breakdown of Nations is well worth a look.
In the early 1980s, we had the fortune of hearing Mr. Sale introduce Leopold Kohr in the auditorium of P.S. 41, a primary school on West 11th St. in Greenwich Village. This, Mr. Sale told the small audience, was Kohr’s “first and only New York appearance.“ Just in from Dover in the U.K., where he’d opened a meeting of the Greens, Kohr told us that he’d been “stone deaf” for 40 years, but he went on for a good hour or so to speak in a lively way - through microphone and loudspeaker - about the “terrible seductiveness of bigness.”
“Smallness,” he said, “is a law of nature. Man is the measure of all things.”
And then, with Mr. Sale serving as his amplifier, Kohr took questions from the floor.