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, September 20, 2011

Lice, hair, and city space

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

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


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

Stirrings of Culture

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

Hair and the History of the City
by Ivan Illich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 16, 2011

An appreciation of Illich in light of "climate change"

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

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

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

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

Ivan Illich speaks about water in Dallas, 1984

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

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

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

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

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

Here's Part 2 of the Dallas video:

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

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Illich in Maine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another blog devoted to Ivan Illich

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

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

Friday, September 02, 2011

The State as Employment Agency

Ivan Illich, 1983:

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

NY Times, today ...

Job Growth Halts, Putting Washington Under Pressure

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

and …

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

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