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, October 20, 2011

Valentina Borremans

Valentina Borremans, a Belgian deep-sea diver and librarian, has played an important part in the story of Ivan Illich. She helped found CIDOC in Cuernavaca, Mexico, she served as administrator and librarian of that "thinkery," ran its language school, participated in many seminars with Illich, and edited his manuscripts, and to this day, she looks after Illich's library in the village of Ocotepec. If we're not mistaken, he lived in her household there when not in Bremen or other parts of the world.

She also wrote a book. We've just discovered online a scanned microfiche copy of Borremans' Guide to Convivial Tools, published in 1979 by R.R. Bowker. It lists and, in most cases, briefly annotates 858 books and articles about "use-value oriented convivial tools - and their enemies." The materials listed range from books about growing certain hardy agricultural plants to manuals about working with different kinds of alternative energy to collections of articles about composting, bicycles as a mode of transportation, and "science for the people." In short, the guide captures the reading materials and the spirit of the a time - essentially the 1970s - when there was tremendous excitement in the air about creating alternatives to industrial society. The computer had yet to become personal, the Internet was nowhere to be seen, and lots of people shared their newsletters and guides to alternative living by mail. In away, this guide is a more serious, less consumer-oriented form of the Whole Earth Catalog.

In his preface to the guide, Illich notes that "this looks like a book to be used in a library - but the library where it could be used does not yet exist." These were materials that were missing from most research libraries around the world, Illich writes: "This is the champion list of un-listed reference tools; a bibliographic claim to a new kind of territory."

He also describes how Borremans arrived in Mexico from France "to direct a small research library on social change in Latin America." These materials soon became the foundation of CIDOC, which over 12 years, Illich writes, was visited by about 18,000 people. CIDOC also published more than 300 titles of its own. Remarkably, Illich credits Borremans, not himself, as the director and administrator of CIDOC. "I myself conducted all my seminars at CIDOC and felt its most privileged user," he writes.

Our friend Michael Slattery, an American hydrologist living and working in France, has written about Borremans' Guidehere, as part of a website he has devoted to convivial tools.

One of the main collections of materials that Borremans oversaw at CIDOC concerned the history of religiosity in Latin America from around 1830 to 1970. This resulted in some 50,000 fiche pages that she herself created with a portable machine while periodically traveling throughout the continent to visit churches and rummage through their collections of old handbills, posters, bulletins, "serials," and other printed materials. An extensive listing of the materials in this collection is available in several places around the Web, including here, at Rutgers University's Department of Latino and Hispanic Caribbean Studies. While church-related materials from the colonial period have been preserved and edited, Borremans writes, "the imprints of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that reflect local devotions and syncretist rituals, religious iconography and poetry, and the pastoral campaigns of the various churches and sects, [sic] went uncollected and unnoticed until the early 1960s, when Ivan Illich began to search for them and to collect them in the CIDOC library in Cuernavaca." (In his 1983 paper on the "Social Construction of Energy," Illich talks of "superstitious religiosity" as a "hobby" of his for the previous 30 years.)

A paper written by Borremans, titled "Technique and Women's Toil," can be found online, too. It was published in IFDA Dossier 35, for May/June 1983. It looks at "the tools which purportedly lighten women's toil, toil which extends to death."

Research on women and tools has multiplied during the seventies, but is of two profoundly different kinds. One looks
at tools which lighten women's total lifelong toil. This research is done mostly by women who are themselves helped by the new techniques which they adopt. This inventive vernacular adoption of new techniques by women is rarely called "research"; indeed, it is generally overlooked. Few reporters recognize
the genius who makes an oven out of a gearbox as a researcher.

The other kind of research is that for women. Its primary purpose tends to be the increase of women's productivity. It measures the "improvement" of women's well-being as viewed by the expert."

The two types of research are at odds with one another. Research by women tends to keep them outside the market, and to limit the community's productivity in monetary terms. But it also generally lightens the total burden carried by women.

The second type of research drafts women into development. It is carried out by experts, sometimes in consultation with clients and, as I shall show, increases both women's burden and sexist discrimination.


Industrialization, however, has no monopoly on the spread of sexism. AT [alternative technology] can do equally well or better. For this reason I strongly recommend research on the dangers of genderless AT. I do so not because I am opposed to genderless AT, I welcome tools that fit the hands of women as well as those of men.
But I call for research on the sexist effects of genderless AT because, even more effectively than industrial machines, AT can transform proud women into handicapped humans of the second sex. Sometimes this cannot be avoided. But I see no reason for blindly promoting it. Only research by women in each village and neighborhood can ensure that the new wrenches and pliers, the new gauges and glues, the new fish tanks and hand mills, or the new breed of goats, above all empower the hands of women. Such research just cannot be done for a village.

Ivan Illich describes the paper in his book Gender so: "Research for women aimed at providing them with new technologies has been part of development-oriented policies and has always increased the total toil of women. Only research by women, conducted by those who themselves use the new tools and techniques, can reduce women's toil, decrease women's dependence on the cash nexus and consequently the severity of sexism". Borremans states in a footnote at the top that she wrote the paper "while I was revising the proofs of Gender." She ends the paper with a copy of Gender's table of contents.

(IFDA was the International Foundation for Development Alternatives, working out of Switzerland and Rome from 1978 to 1991. An archive of all 81 issues of its newsletter are available online, here, hosted by the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, in Sweden. Several of them include articles by Illich.)

Speaking of fish tanks and alternative technology, we should point out where we found Borremans' Guide to Convivial Tools. Her guide is one of more than 4,000 such documents, all concerning alternative technologies and the like, that an outfit calling itself Faith And Sustainable Technologies, or F.A.S.T., has put online for downloading at no charge.

This archive is described as "the complete CD3WD library (almost 20GB) for community development from Alex Weir." The CD3WD website, here, reveals Mr. Weir as a Scottish-born software engineer who has spent much of his life working in East Africa. Among other things, he has developed what he describes as a "low-cost tamper-proof electronic voting system" designed specifically for use in the Third World.

The F.A.S.T. organization describes itself: "It is our desire to be an encouragement and information resource for all who come here and especially to those who preach the good news of the gospel of Christ by assisting the poor and underprivileged of this world to experience the life of Christ firsthand by living out biblical principles of good stewardship, wise decisions and hard work." Evidently, the founder and principal of the organization is Travis Hughey.

On the F.A.S.T. site, Hughey offers many photos of a journey he made to Kenya where he showed locals how to construct a hydroponic gardening system out of blue plastic barrels. "Cordless drills are a wonderful thing," he captions one photograph of this project. "I brought a good tool kit to assist in building the system quickly. The locals were amazed at hole saws. They thought they were a very good idea."

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