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.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Latest issue of Illich journal available

A new issue of The International Journal of Illich Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2, is now available on the Web, here. It includes articles by Dana Stuchul, Gene Bazan, Roger C. Shouse, Lakshman Yapa, Sajay Samuel, and Samar Farage. In addition, there is a transcript of a 2003 roundtable at UCLA that commemorated Ivan Illich.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Illich, Girard, and "the detour of production"

This paper was presented at the Illich conference in Oakland, Calif., last summer. It embellishes on the chapter Jean-Pierre Dupuy contributed to The Challenges of Ivan Illich.

The religious underpinnings of Ivan Illich’s thought

by Jean-Pierre Dupuy (École Polytechnique, Paris, and Stanford University)

I won’t talk about the role Christianity played in the formation of Illich’s thought as David Cayley will certainly tackle this complex subject matter, as he has already done in the wonderful book he wrote with Ivan, The Rivers North of the Future. I will broach a more elusive issue, namely the connections between the Illichian critique and the anthropology of religion in general – I will say “the sacred”, since I’d like to bring together René Girard’s and Illich’s thoughts.

1. As we all know here, Illich has given us a powerfully original critique of the industrial mode of production. What defines the latter, according to him, are not the relations of production, as the Marxist characterization of capitalism would have it. Instead, the fundamental trait in his view is the logic of the detour of production. This logic, in turn, is rooted in religion.

Max Weber famously showed that there are close affinities between the spirit of capitalism and the Calvinist ethics grounded in the belief in predestination. In a similar way, Illich brought out the close affinities between capitalism and the philosophical system of Leibniz. The author of the Theodicy is famous for having formulated the thesis that human beings are characterized by their capacity to make detours as a means to better attain their ends. They are able to take a roundabout path if it will allow them to reach their destination faster. They can refrain temporarily from consuming and invest so as to increase their overall consumption. They may refuse a good opportunity in order to take advantage of a better opportunity later. And so on. For ethologists, this capacity defines intelligence; it seems intimately tied to what Max Weber called instrumental rationality.

Economic theory is consistent with this thesis since it holds that acting rationally means maximizing a given value. This principle of maximization must be understood as entailing a global maximization rather than a merely local one. Suppose that we find ourselves atop a peak. A loftier peak is visible in the distance ahead of us. If we are not content with local maximization, then we must be willing to descend before climbing higher. The opposite attitude would amount to committing the "first-step fallacy." If, hoping to go to the moon, you succeed only in reaching the top of a tree, you must resign yourself to coming down to earth before resorting to a more effective technique.

By seeing man as that singular being able to "step back in order to leap forward" ("reculer pour mieux sauter") Leibniz makes him out to be the faithful image of his Creator. In order to realize the best of all possible worlds, God had to allow a dose of evil to subsist, for otherwise the actual world would have been even worse overall. Everything that appears evil from the finite vantage point of the individual monad is, from the vantage point of the totality, a sacrifice necessary for the greater good of the latter. Evil is always sacrificial in this sense, and sacrifice is a detour.

Justification of evil, instrumental rationality, economics: these three forms appear to be closely linked and to constitute the matrix of modern Reason. Economic rationality is in the first place a moral economy: it entails the rational management of sacrifice. Sacrifice is a “production cost”: it is the detour indispensable to the attainment of the maximum of net good.

2. The Illichian critique of industrial society has made it clear that modern Reason in so far as it is rooted in the capacity to make detours can go berserk and become counterproductive to the highest degree. This transmogrification of rationality into folly has itself religious origins.

Anyone who is driven by the spirit of the detour runs the risk of falling into its trap and losing sight of the fact that the detour is, precisely, only a detour. When you step back in order to leap forward, you must keep your eyes fixed on the obstacle to be surmounted. If you step back while looking in the opposite direction, you run the risk of forgetting your objective and, seeing your regression as progress, of taking the means for ends. In that case, rationality turns into counter-productivity; it takes the form of the torture of Tantalus.

Every use value can be produced in two ways or modes of production, the one autonomous and the other heteronomous. Learning, for example, may take place spontaneously in a setting that stimulates the imagination; one may also choose to receive instruction from a teacher who is paid for this purpose. One can keep oneself in good health by leading an active, wholesome style of life; one may also choose to be treated in case of illness by a trained physician. One may have a relationship to the space one inhabits that grows out of the use of low-speed forms of locomotion such as walking or bicycling; one may also choose to have an instrumental relationship to this space, with the aim of passing through it--of being done with it--as quickly as possible, by using motorized transport. One may render service to someone who asks you for assistance; one may also say to this person, there are services that will give you the assistance you seek.

Unlike the products of the heteronomous mode of production, what the autonomous mode produces cannot in general be measured, evaluated, compared with, or added to other values. The contributions of the autonomous mode of production therefore elude the grasp of the economist, which is why they do not figure in reckonings of gross national product. This, of course, is not to say that the heteronomous mode is intrinsically harmful--far from it. But the great question that Illich had the merit of posing has to do with the manner in which the two modes are related to each other. No one denies that heteronomous production can dramatically enhance autonomous capacities for producing use values: schools are indispensable for education, medicine for health, etc. But heteronomy is only a detour, a turning away from autonomy in order to better enhance autonomy. The “positive synergy” between the two modes of production is possible only under a set of very precise conditions. Beyond certain critical thresholds, heteronomous production leads to a complete reorganization of the physical, institutional, and symbolic environment of a society, with the result that autonomous capacities are stymied. This in turn sets in motion a vicious circle, which Illich called counterproductivity. With the paralysis of human autonomy, there arises a powerful demand for heteronomous substitutes that make it possible to endure life in an increasingly alienating world while at the same time reinforcing the conditions that make them necessary. This in turn yields the paradoxical result that, beyond certain critical thresholds, the more widespread heteronomous production becomes, the more it becomes an obstacle to the realization of the very purposes that it is supposed to serve. Thus medicine ruins health, education makes us stupid, transport immobilizes, communication makes us deaf and dumb, information destroys meaning, and fossil fuels, which reactualize the dynamism of a vanished world, threaten to extinguish the possibility of life in the future.

Illich believed, or pretended to believe, that this runaway phenomenon of self- deregulation, this uncontrollable chain reaction, could be apprehended only in religious terms borrowed from Greek mythology — the jealousy of the Gods leading them to punish the humans guilty of hubris by sending them the goddess of vengeance, Nemesis. Did Illich really believe that? Of course not. But he believed that traditional myths set limits to the human condition. The desacralization of society – which Weber called the disenchantment of the world (die Entzauberung der Welt) – inevitably leads to hubris and its punishment, counterproductivity.

As a case in point, let us consider work – I mean the kind of work that corresponds to the heteronomous of production: it constitutes the detour of production par excellence. In principle, work (labor, travail) is a production cost. As such economic calculus aims at minimizing it. However, the spirit of the detour of production has been so thoroughly perverted by industrial society and the extreme division of labor that characterizes it, that it is the detour, its length, the energy spent traversing it, which comes to be sought after as an end in itself. Is work an input, or is it the supreme output? Forms of production that are commonly judged superfluous or even harmful are legitimized by the work that they furnish the population. Planned obsolescence of objects, squandering of non-renewable natural resources, needless energy consumption, and heedless environmental pollution—no one dares do anything about them because they guarantee work. Everything occurs as if the ultimate end sought by industrial society was indeed the production of a detour of production, namely, work in the form of jobs.

According to Illich, then, the heteronomous mode of production and the work that corresponds to it are, like the Greek pharmakon, at the same time poison and remedy.

3. This leads me naturally to bring together Illich and Girard.

At the heart of the Girardian "hypothesis" is the proposition that the sacred is nothing other than the violence of men, expelled, exteriorized, in the form of rituals, myths, and prohibitions. The sacred is fundamentally ambivalent: it uses violence to hold back violence. The sacred is like the Greek pharmakon, at the same time remedy and poison. As Girard puts it, citing the Bible, only “Satan can cast out Satan.” It is a case of what is known in philosophy as self- transcendence(1). The sacred contains violence, in both senses of the word. This is clear in the case of the sacrificial ritual that restores order. It is never other than one more murder, even if it is meant to be the last one. That is equally true of the system of prohibitions and obligations. The social structures that unify the community in normal times are the very same ones that tear it apart in times of crisis. When a prohibition is transgressed, the obligations of solidarity, leaping over the barriers of time and space (as in the mechanism of the vendetta), draw into an ever wider conflict people who were in no way concerned by the original confrontation.

According to Girard, the Passion and Resurrection of the Christ have undermined forever this delicate structure, by revealing the violence inherent in all human institutions. Such is the modern world, described as a "low-gear mimetic crisis," "without catastrophic escalation or resolution of any kind." The question that Dumouchel and I tackled in this framework (2) is the one the "Girardian system" raises, but to which it offers no answer; namely, what gives modern societies the capacity, not only to resist, but even to feed on the growing undifferentiation of the world and the exacerbation of the resulting mimetic phenomena?

We answered: the economy. Not that we claimed that the economy was in any sense another incarnation of the sacred, despite what facile metaphors suggest (the "Almighty dollar," etc.). But, like the sacred before it, the economy is ambivalent in its relationship to violence: it "contains" it, in both senses of the word—thus reconciling Marx (the economy entails exploitation and alienation) and Montesquieu (“le doux commerce”).

Like the sacred before it, the economy today is losing its capacity to produce itself the rules that limit it, in other words its capacity for self-transcendence. Such is the profound meaning of the crisis. If economic rationality, i.e. the moderate management of resources, has turned into the boundlessness of economic growth, it is in the final instance because the economy is no longer able to play the role that the sacred played in traditional societies: keep human violence in check.


An illustration: transportation. Following up on an idea of Illich's in the early 70’s, I undertook with my research team a series of bizarre but rigorous calculations that led to the following results. The French devoted an average of more than four hours a day to their car, whether entrenched in its cockpit on their way from one point to another, or buffing its chrome with their own hands, or, above all, working in factories or offices in order to obtain the resources necessary to its acquisition, use, and maintenance.

If one divides the average number of miles traveled on all types of trips by the "generalized time" devoted to the car, one obtains something like a "generalized" speed. This speed turns out to be a little more than four miles an hour, somewhat faster than a person walking at an ordinary pace, but considerably slower than a bicycle.

From a purely arithmetical point of view, the meaning of the result obtained is as follows. On average, if the French were deprived of their cars and thus presumably freed of the need to work long hours to pay for them, they would devote less "generalized time" to transportation if they made all of their current trips on a bicycle—and I mean all of their trips, not only their daily commute between home and work, but also the weekend outings to a distant country house and the holiday expedition to the golden shores of a far-off riviera. Now, anybody would judge such an "alternative" scenario intolerable or absurd. And yet, it would economize time, energy, and scarce resources while going easier on the environment. What, then, is the difference that makes the absurdity of the situation patent in one case while allowing it to remain hidden in the other? For, after all, is it any less comical to spend a good part of one's time working to pay for the means of getting to work?

The foregoing calculation assumes an hour of transportation to be the equivalent of an hour of work, each being counted as a mere means in the service of an external end. One may contest it, but it should first be noted that it does no more than take seriously the logic of the detour of production. Neither work nor transportation is an end in itself. The mission of economic calculus is to tally up rigorously human pains and toil so that the sum total may be reduced to a minimum through efficient management. And, as their etymology reveals, both "travel" and travail — the French word for "work" — are sources of pain and torment: the two terms are doublets, each deriving from tripalium — a medieval instrument of torture.

In truth, if the absurdity of a way of life and a structuring of social space-time that leads so many people to devote so much generalized time to getting from place to place with so little average efficiency is hidden, that is because they substitute work time for travel time. Their work is, in principle, that principle we call the detour of production, only a means to obtain faster and more efficient transportation, which, in turn, is only a means to something else again—for example, "bringing nearer those who are close to our heart," to quote from an old automobile advertisement. Faithful to the logic of the detour (the better to reveal its ideological character), our calculation shows that the time spent designing and manufacturing powerful engines meant to help us "save time" more than cancels out the time they actually economize. The hare labors feverishly in the office suites and on the assembly lines, but, as in the fable, it is the tortoise who comes in first. Alas! The tortoise is an endangered species. Economics ought to mean economizing people's pains and toil? What naivety! Who cannot see that everything happens as if the objective were, on the contrary, to occupy them without respite, even at the cost of making them run faster and faster in place?


(1) - Or, in contemporary American English, a bootstrap.

(2) - Paul Dumouchel and Jean-Pierre Dupuy, L’Enfer des choses. René Girard et la logique de l’économie, Paris, Seuil, 1979. See also Jean-Pierre Dupuy, L’Avenir de l’économie, Paris, Flammarion, 2012; soon to be published by Michigan State University Press under the title Economics and the Crisis of the Future.

"The religious roots of contemporary predicaments"

The following is a paper presented by David Cayley at the Illich conference held last summer in Oakland, California.


by David Cayley

The heading of today’s session is politics and religion, so I’d like to begin by reflecting on these terms, both of which can be extremely slippery. I know they have practical, everyday meanings – we will usually agree in ordinary talk that what goes on in churches and mosques, synagogues and temples is religion, while what is discussed in legislatures and government offices, is politics – but if we inquire a little more deeply, they become quite difficult to distinguish. One of the hallmarks of the modern age was the distinction between a private sphere in which one was free to cultivate one’s religion, and a public realm governed by the canons of secular reason. This regime began to take shape at the beginning of the modern age, roughly the 16th century, and it’s arguable that before that time there was no such thing as religion in the sense in which the word is used today. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, the great Canadian scholar of religion writing in the 1960’s says: “religion as a discrete category of human activity separable from culture, politics and other areas of life is an invention of the modern West.” Before the 16th century - at the earliest - the word can denote a virtue, a disposition, a habit – a practice let’s say - but not the adoption of a set of propositions or beliefs as “my religion.” In fact, Cantwell Smith goes on to say that “the rise of the concept of religion is in some ways correlated with a decline in the practice of religion itself.” (Just as an aside here some of the slipperiness of the word religion can be seen in that quote, in which Smith, having just said that religion is not a transhistorical essence but a modern invention then goes on to speak of “religion itself” as if it were just such an essence. This shows, I think, the difficulty we still have in speaking of these matters.) By the beginning of the eighteenth century, according to the historian of Christianity John Bossy, the idea of religion is well established. “By 1700,” he writes, “the world was full of religions, objective social and moral entities characterized by system, principles and hard edges.” And religion once distinguished from politics became in many ways its scapegoat: the conflicts between the nascent national states of the 16th and 17th centuries, to take just one example, became known as the wars of religion, when they could just as plausibly – more plausibly - have been called the wars of state-making, and taken as illustrating the arbitrary and violent character of state power, rather than the violent and arbitrary character of religious belief.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Photo for sale on eBay

This photograph is up for sale on eBay, priced at $23.88, plus $3.00 shipping. The photo, printed on 8x10-inch paper and dated June 15, 1969, is said to be part of something called the Rogers Photo Archive, "the largest individually owned photo archive in the world." (Indeed, it contains more than 33 million images, according to the archive's website.) The eBay listing describes the photo as a "press photo" issued by CIDOC.


Two things strike us about this image. One is how very lean Illich looks, the other is that he is wearing a watch. We happen to have heard a recording of him being introduced to an audience ca. 1970 and the speaker notes that Illich is known for not wearing a watch.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Letters from the Desert

The following is the foreword that Ivan Illich wrote in 1972 for the English edition of a small but highly popular book called Letters from the Desert, originally published in 1964, in Italian, by Carlo Carretto.


My friend Carlo Carretto has asked me to introduce him to the American and English readers of these pages, which were written originally for his European friends. I find it as embarrassing to speak about a friendship which matured in the desert as I find it presumptuous to comment on meditations as personal as these. Allow me therefore to acquit my duty of friendship by telling you how I myself met Carlo.

It was October, 1959, shortly after General Massu had taken command of Algeria. Towards noon I finally reached the market place of Tamanrasset, deep in the Sahara. I was looking for the house of the Little Brothers, the religious community established here fifty years before by Charles de Foucauld. I was unable to speak a word of Arabic, and no French word I tried elicited a reaction: not “La Fraternité” nor “Le Père de Foucauld” nor “Eglise.” So I tried again: “Le Pere Charles de Foucauld?” Immediately a bunch of youngsters began to shout, “Frére Carlo, Frére Carlo” They grabbed my bag, charged across the road and led me to the shoemaker’s shop.

It took some time to realize who it was that earned his living by cutting up old tires and making indestructible sandals. It was Carretto. It was the same Carretto whom I had last known when he held a key post in Italian “Catholic Action,” at a time when this church organization played a frequently sinister role in anti-communist politics under Pius XII.

For years I had tried not to think about Carretto, since I feared that by now he would be even more powerful as one of those lay or clerical churchmen who dominate Christian Democratic politics in Italy.

Indeed, it was Carretto, who had now become Brother Carlo to children and cripples and pilgrims at the tomb of de Foucauld.

Carlo hobbled out of his shop to lead me to the chapel in the adobe fort in which de Foucauld had been murdered: Foucauld the gourmet turned ascetic, the officer turned monk, the monk turned priest and hermit. The French nobleman had wanted to live here as poor and powerless as the least of the natives; he had died here because he had been asked to guard sixteen French rifles. On the way to the chapel Carlo stopped in front of a tombstone put up by the French Army:

Le Vicomte de Foucauld

Frére Charles de Jesus

More pour la France

The words haunted me while I crouched beside Carlo in the deep sand and peace of the chapel. In Algeria, France meant empire, even at the cost of torture. In Algeria, to be a priest meant (with very few exceptions) to be chaplain to French colonials and soldiers. In Algeria, to be a Christian meant either to make the ideology of “peace” a reason for withdrawal or -- for a very, very few -- a reason for joining the underground. And here, in Algeria, I had to read, “He died for France.” Carlo must have noticed what went on in me. When we left the chapel he pointed to the tombstone and simply said, “If you want to live like Jesus you must accept being misunderstood like him.. He too dies for the people -- and it was the High Priest of the Jews who said so.”

I came to know Carlo: this man who was dying to the world of power, the world of good causes, the world of big words and world of political parties. I came to experience the naked simplicity in the statements of his love for the Lord. I came to marvel at his lack of embarrassment at being judged childish when he said something true: his concern when he was judged escapist because he refused to be militant.

I first lived as his guest in Tamanrasset. Later, he installed me in a cave below the peak of Asekrem, two days, as the donkey trots, from his shop. He had furnished the cave with a bed of stone and protected it from the icy winds which blow without cease at several thousand feet in the Ahaggar mountains.

We became friends. When he came to visit me he told me stories. Remembering them I always felt that outside the desert they would sound out of place. The immensity of the desert overwhelms both the power and weakness of men. The Muslim shepherd’s song envelops the Franciscan tenderness of Italian in the austerity of unambiguous faith. The emptiness of the desert makes it possible to learn the almost impossible: the joyful acceptance of our uselessness. I fear that outside this context and not knowing Carlo in person, many readers will have to make a great effort to learn from Carlo what he taught me.

But I do hope that at least some readers of these pages in English will do so on a day of complete silence -- to which they rarely treat themselves -- or, more often, to which they are condemned. I hope they will open this book in an Anglo-American desert: a lonely flat in Watts or Kensington, the ward of a hospital, in an asylum or prison cell, or on a commuter train.

Ivan Illich
Cuernavaca, Mexico

Born in Italy in 1910, Carretto earned his degree in philosophy, but he was confined to Sardinia during the Fascist era. After the war, he served as National President of Catholic Youth in Italy. At the age of 44, he was summoned by a voice: "Leave everything, come with me into the desert. I don't want your action any longer. I want your prayer, your love." Though he did not fully understand this call, he left Italy for North Africa, where he joined the Little Brothers, a religious congregation in the Catholic church that is inspired by the life and writings of Charles de Foucauld. Carretto died in 1988.

Here is an 11-minute video of "l'Ascension de l'Ahaggar" that gives some idea of the remarkable terrain that Illich must have encountered:

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

LA Times story

The LA Times has just published a piece about Jerry Brown's attendance at the recent Illich event in Oakland, his hometown. Accompanying the piece is this photo, which we've not seen before:

La me pc jerry brown ivan illich political the 001

(credit: LA Times)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Ivan Illich and the night watchmen

In 1973, Ivan Illich spoke at the Newman Center on UC Berkeley's campus. His theme was limits to growth and the counter-productivity that tools inevitably display when their usage crosses a certain threshold of intensity. (Much of his talk, of which a recording exists, was close to the text of Tools for Conviviality.) In one passage, he told an amusing story as a way to slow down and help his audience understand a key point:

… Ninety-percent of all medical care provided to patients with terminal illness cannot be scientifically sustained or supported. Furthermore, the net effects of such treatment is usually in the direction of increased pain and suffering and disabilities without resulting in a demonstrable lengthening of time.

There are upper limits to the possibility of investing in medical care. At a certain level, medical bills measure the health of a patient in the same manner in which GNP measures the wealth of a nation. Both add on the same scale the market value of benefits and add to them the defensive expenditures which have become necessary to offset the unwanted side-effects of their production.

When I was writing this sentence, it was 4 o'clock in the morning. I hadn't been able to boil it down better. And Decino (sp?) came along, one of our night watchmen, about who somebody else had told me he was so dumb that they didn't know if they could keep him as a night watchman.

And he said, "Don Ivan, what are you doing there? I can't quite understand. I see you all night long with your lamp on the balcony putting a paper into the typewriter, type something, read it, take the paper, tear it to pieces, and throw it away. What are you writing about?"

I told him, "About waste."

(Audience laughs.)

Then, "What is it what is so difficult?"

So, I read him this sentence: "Both GNP and medical bills measure wealth, or well-being, in the same way. Both add on the same scale the market value of benefits and then, add to these benefits, the defensive expenditures which have become necessary in society to offset the unwanted side-effects of production."

He didn't understand right away. But finally, we took a cup of coffee together. Half an hour later, after great silence, he says to me, "Don Ivan, do I get you right? Economists are people who add onto the same side of the scale -- he said a special word in Spanish which means the scale on which you put animals -- all what the people eat and all what the people shit?"

And this man, they tell me, was stupid!

Another night watchman shows up in Deschooling Society, in the first section, titled "Phenomenology of School":

Since most people today live outside industrial cities, most people today do not experience childhood. In the Andes you till the soil once you have become "useful." Before that, you watch the sheep. If you are well nourished, you should be useful by eleven, and otherwise by twelve. Recently, I was talking to my night watchman, Marcos, about his eleven-year-old son who works in a barbershop. I noted in Spanish that his son was still a "ni–o.” Marcos, surprised, answered with a guileless smile: "Don Ivan, I guess you're right." Realizing that until my remark the father had thought of Marcos primarily as his "son," I felt guilty for having drawn the curtain of childhood between two sensible persons. Of course if I were to tell the New York slum-dweller that his working son is still a "child," he would show no surprise. He knows quite well that his eleven-year-old son should be allowed childhood, and resents the fact that he is not. The son of Marcos has yet to be afflicted with the yearning for childhood; the New Yorker's son feels deprived.

'The Convivial City'

Silvia Grünig informs us that her PhD. thesis, titled "Ivan Illich (1926-2002): la ville conviviale," is now available for reading on the Web. It's posted at the website of the CNRS-Conseil national de la recherche scientifique. It's written in French, but the English abstract describes it thus:
Ivan Illich (1926-2002) : The Convivial City

In his work, Ivan Illich (1926-2002) makes a radical critique of "institutions" (the Church, schools, hospitals, transport, machines, etc.), alleging that at some stage in their development they become all counterproductive. Can these analyses be transposed to the urban domain? If so, how can they help to make what "shapes " cities intelligible in the age of global urbanisation? This research proposes an Illichian reading of "the business-city" and suggests ways to leave the productivist impasse it is now experiencing. It is structured around two axes: Firstly, in the context of the economic model of scarcity and of the cybernetic model of systems, the City has been replaced by a counterproductive urban business: an anti-city, in which Urbanism becomes iatrogenic. It is " the vast enclosure ". Secondly, Ivan Illich's ideas transposed to the habitable space significantly contribute towards nurturing a new model for leaving industrialism and reconstructing the territory through processes of reduction and reconduction. This is the convivial city.

Monday, August 12, 2013

More on Illich and Jerry Brown

Hakim Bey is described on Wikipedia as "an American anarchist political and cultural writer, essayist, and poet, known for first proposing the concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ), based, in part, on a historical review of pirate utopias." Born Peter Lamborn Wilson in 1945, Bey traveled extensively in Central Asia in the 1960s and '70s.

In an article called "Media Creed For The Fin De Siecle," which is available at a site called, Bey describes an encounter with Ivan Illich long ago:

… In 1974, I was seated at a dinner table in Tehran, Iran, at the house of the very hip Canadian ambassador, James George, with Ivan Illich, when a telegram arrived from Governor Brown of California, inviting Illich to fly there at Brown's expense to appear with him on TV and accept a post in the administration. Illich, who is a fairly saintly individual, lost his temper for the first and only time during his stay in Iran, and began cursing Brown. When the Ambassador and I expressed puzzlement at this reaction to a cordial offer of money, fame, and influence, Illich explained that Brown was trying to destroy him. He said he never appeared on television because his entire task was to offer a critique of institutions, not a magic pill to cure humanity's ills. TV was capable of offering only simple answers, not complex questions. He refused to become a guru or media-star, when his real purpose was to inspire people to question authority and think for themselves. Brown wanted the display of Illich's image (charismatic, articulate, unusual-looking, probably very televisual) but not the task of thinking about Illich's critiques of consumer society and political power. Furthermore, said "Don Ivan", he hated to fly, and had only accepted our invitation to Iran because our letter was so full of typing errors!

In fact, for the rest of his life Illich continued to be friends with Brown. Bey continues:

Illich's answer to the question, "Why do you not appear in the media?", was that he refused to disappear in the media. One cannot appear in "the media" in one's true subjectivity (and the political is the personal just as much as the personal is the political); therefore one should refuse the Media any vampiric energy it might derive from the manipulation (or simply the possession) of one's image. I cannot "seize the media" even if I buy it, and to accept publicity from, say, the New York Times, Time magazine, or network TV, would simply amount to the commodification of my subjectivity, whether aesthetic ("feelings", art) or critical ("opinions", agitprop). ...

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

David Bollier on Illich and the commons

David Bollier has posted to the Web the talk he gave at the recent Illich conference in Oakland. It's here, at, and it's called "The Quiet Realization of Ivan Illich's Ideas in the Contemporary Commons Movement." It begins:

I come here today as an ambassador of the commons movement – a growing international movement of activists, thinkers, project leaders and academics who are attempting to build a new world from the ground up. It’s not just about politics and policy. It’s about social practices and the design of societal institutions that help us live as caring, intelligent human beings in spiritually satisfying ways.

Many Americans have not heard of the commons except in connection with the word “tragedy.” We’ve all heard the famous tragedy of the commons parable. It holds that any shared resource invariably gets over-exploited and ruined. Since the “tragedy meme” appeared in a famous 1968 essay by Garrett Hardin, it has been drummed into the minds of undergraduates in economics, sociology and political science classes. It serves as a secular catechism to propagandize the virtues of private property and so-called free markets.

Thanks to the tragedy smear, most people don’t realize that the commons is in fact a success story – that it is a durable artifact of human history, that it is a way to effectively manage shared resources, and that it lies at the heart of a growing political and cultural movement.

I have been a part of this movement for the past fifteen years, writing books, blogging, organizing conferences, giving talks, writing strategy papers, working with partners and trying to raise money. On this journey, I have discovered that the commons contains vast worlds within worlds, most of which are invisible to the Harvard-trained policy wonks who dominate Washington and the neoliberal economists from the great universities. […]

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Friends of Illich meet in Oakland

Some photos we made at the Oakland, Calif., event celebrating Illich last week.


Sajay Samuel


Gustavo Esteva


Trent Schroyer and Jerry Brown, governor of California

Marina Cayley

Marina Illich, Ivan Illich's niece, talking with David Cayley


Kirsten Vogeler, Lee Swenson, and Jean Robert at lunch in Berkeley


Jean Robert listens to Jean-Pierre Dupuy, who spoke about Illich and René Girard

Bollier Trent Gustavo

David Bollier, Trent Schroyer, Gustavo Esteva, and Jean Robert

Wolfgang Palaver

Wolfgang Palaver making a point


Richard Westheimer


Dan Grego

Carl Mitcham

Carl Mitcham

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Ivan Illich and Jacques Ellul

Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) is a thinker who often gets mentioned in the same breath as Ivan Illich. An historian, sociologist, philosopher, Christian theologian, and social critic, Ellul is perhaps best known for a book called The Technological Society. A generation of activists and others concerned with the perils of industrial society viewed this book (published in English in the early 1960s) and Illich's Tools for Conviviality (along with a number of titles by Lewis Mumford) as key texts for understanding the history and nature of technology and its impact, symbolic and otherwise, on society and humanity.

In 1993, in Bordeaux, France (a city that Ellul once served as mayor), Illich gave an address in honor the Frenchman, expressing "my gratitude to a master to whom I owe an orientation that has decisively affected my pilgrimage for forty years." Illich's address is well worth reading, if only for its sly humor in a certain passage concerning the Church and its views on contraception.

We're pleased to have discovered just now that the International Jacques Ellul Society has made available on its website a seemingly complete collection of back issues of its newsletter. We've subscribed to this newsletter off and on for several years, now, but here we find many issues we've missed. And among them are several that feature essays by and about Illich.

The Ellul Studies Forum for January, 1992 (PDF), for instance, offers a collection of seven pieces on "Illich's critique of technology and its theological implications." As guest editor, Carl Mitcham chose to include several pieces by Illich himself, two by Lee Hoinacki, and one by David B. Schwartz. Also included is an interview conducted with Illich in 1990, in Berlin.

The Spring 2003 issue, partially devoted to "remembering Ivan Illich," includes essays by several of his collaborators.

July, 1996's issue offers a review of Illich's In the Vineyard of the Text.

The issue for July, 1994, "In Memory of Jacques Ellul," includes Illich's Bordeaux address.

We look forward to exploring this rich trove of material.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Illich's resting place

A few days after Ivan Illich died on Dec. 2, 2002, friends gathered for a funeral mass at a local Bremen church, St. Johann. A Roman Catholic church built by the Franciscans in 1380, St. Johann is located in Bremen's Schnoor, a district of tiny streets dating back to the 10th century. This is St. Johann:

616px StJohann 01

Illich was buried, though, at another church, also called St. Johann but unrelated. This church, located in a part of the Bremen city-state called Oberneuland, is Protestant. There is, we gather, no Catholic burial ground in Bremen. Barbara Duden has told how she had to make a special appeal to this church to get permission for Illich, a Catholic and non-German citizen, to be buried there. There is a tradition, or rule, she learned, that makes special provisions for those are traveling far from home when they die.

This is St. Johann in Oberneuland, as seen in the winter of 2003; we walked there from the center of town, which took most of an hour:


Illich is buried in the yard behind the church. His grave is marked by a well-constructed wooden cross and, when summer arrives, by sunflowers.


Wolfgang Palaver, a speaker in Oakland

One of the speakers at the upcoming Illich event in Oakland will be Wolfgang Palaver, a professor at the University of Innsbruck, in Austria. His name being new to us, we did some quick research:

Prof. Palaver is Professor of Catholic Social Thought and Chair of the Institute for Systematic Theology at Innsbruck. Early this year, his book René Girard's Mimetic Theory (Studies in Violence, Mimesis, & Culture) was published in English. YouTube offers a short interview with him about Girard, with whom he has worked closely. Evidently, he also has lectured on Illich's ideas about the roots of modernity.

UPDATE: Prof. Palaver has written (see Comments below) to point out that in addition to a piece in German about Illich, he has reviewed -- in English, no less -- The Rivers North of the Future. The review appears in a newsletter called The Bulletin of the Colloquium on Violence & Religion, which "explores, criticizes, and develops Girard's mimetic model of the relationship between violence and religion in the genesis and maintenance of culture."

(For anyone not familiar with Rene Girard's mimetic model, we heartily recommend listening to David Cayley's 5-hour radio series about this important thinker. "The Scapegoat: René Girard's Anthropology of Violence and Religion" is available for streaming on the Web. It is just as compelling and fascinating as Cayley's two in-depth programs about Illich. Our advice: Run, don't walk.)

Jean-Pierre Dupuy in Oakland

We're excited to learn about a last-minute addition to the agenda for this week's Illich symposium in Oakland: Jean-Pierre Dupuy of the École Polytechnique and Stanford University will be speaking there on Saturday Aug. 3. He will be part of Sat. evening's program devoted to Illich's thoughts on politics and religion.

Prof. Dupuy has been associated with Illich for many years, starting in the 1970s when he began visiting CIDOC. He contributed to the The Challenges of Ivan Illich (2002) an essay about the intersection of Illich's and Rene Girard's thinking. He also collaborated with Jean Robert on a 1976 book, La trahison de l'opulence (The Treason of Opulence) and another, Les Chronophages (1978), which both elaborated on Illich's arguments in Energy & Equity. Prof. Dupuy also has written extensively about, among other topics, nanotechnology, cognitive science, and cybernetics.

Friday, July 26, 2013

'Beyond Economics and Ecology' to be available in Oakland

Those attending the upcoming Illich symposium in Oakland next week (Aug. 1-3) will be able to purchase the newly-published book of Illich's essays, Beyond Economics and Ecology. Copies of the book, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who has contributed the book's preface, will be on sale at the event. This will be the book's first availability. The 128-page paperback, released by Illich's longtime publisher Marion Boyars, reprints four of Illich's most incisive essays:

Energy & Equity (1974) -- After Deschooling Society, this is the most widely-quoted of Illich's works, shining a penetrating light on industrial society's addiction to fossil fuels. Intensive consumption of energy, Illich shows, inevitably leads to social inequity: While a few get to enjoy jet travel, the majority is forced to wait for the bus.

Shadow Work (1981) -- Here, Illich looks at industrial society's need for a "bifurcation of work," an "apartheid" much like what was then the norm in South Africa: While much effort, generally paid for, goes into producing commodities, much additional effort is required to make those commodities useful. And this latter, which he calls shadow work, draws on unpaid labor that is largely provided by women -- the housewife, in particular. A key essay in his effort to write a history of scarcity, "Shadow Work" is where we see Illich getting started on the far-ranging analysis and research that culminated a few years later in Gender.

War Against Subsistence (1981) -- In which Illich relates the story of how Elio Antonio de Nebrija in 1482 urged Queen Isabella of Spain, fresh from seeing Columbus off at the dock, to enforce on her subjects a taught "mother tongue" -- a key chapter in the history of compulsory schooling and of the determined eradication of vernacular ways.

The Social Construction of Energy (1983) -- Here, Illich looks closely at how the meaning and connotation of the words energy and work have expanded and morphed, particularly in the 19th century as Marx formulated his theories concerning the "labor force." The energy that Einstein famously equated with matter is not, for instance, the same energy that today we are all urged to conserve or harvest from alternative sources. This essay, not available until now in English book form, offers some of Illich's most trenchant thinking about the computer and automation, as well.

Here is an excerpt from Sajay Samuel's introduction to the new book:

Forty years ago, Ivan Illich (1921-2002) foresaw the coming crises. He then argued that the industrialized societies of the mid-twentieth century, including communist Russia and capitalist USA, were already burdened by too much employment and too much energy. Arguing that habituation to paid work frustrates and destroys self-reliance, and that the increasing power of machines deepens the dependence on them, he warned against those whose misunderstanding of ‘crisis’ would perversely bring on what they sought to avoid. Even though that is precisely what they have wrought, politicians and scientists continue to stubbornly insist that the ‘economic crisis’ is a matter of not enough jobs and the ‘ecological crisis’ is a matter of not enough clean energy. ‘Not enough jobs’ channels attention to producing more employment by expanding the economy, just as ‘not enough clean energy’ confines debate to getting more of it through techniques that reduce carbon emissions. This persistent fixation on more employment and more energy has now found expression in dreams of a so-called ‘green economy’, which at one stroke is expected to wipe out unemployment and renew the environment. The fixation blinds us, Illich then noted, to recognizing the thresholds beyond which useless humans will have to occupy uninhabitable environments.

Doubtless, the fear and anxiety of a jobless life is palpable to the intern who must pay to work. So are the incomprehension and anger of the homeless family displaced by a hurricane. But even others, who may be luckier, now feel trapped between the pincers of shrinking paychecks and rising costs, whether of gas, heating oil, or food. For the increasingly many who must bear it, this feeling of vulnerability and precariousness need not lead to paralyzing despair. Instead, forced by their circumstances to acknowledge that widespread unemployment and a ravaged environment are likely here to stay, they may, with a flinty humor, reinvent ways to live well. And precisely because they have become scarce, it is perhaps now possible to begin this task by rethinking the once dearly held attachment to ‘employment’ and ‘energy’.

Selected from Illich’s many essays, pamphlets, and drafts, the four items reprinted here remain vitally important to that task. Though written between 1973 and 1983, they have an urgent relevance to those who must inhabit a world without secure employment or supportive environments. Employment is good’, ‘economic growth is necessary’, ‘technical innovations liberate’ -- these were thought obvious when Illich wrote these pages. Though not as obvious now, such notions still dimly maintain their hold on the popular imagination. Just as words on a page blur when a book is held too close, so also one must take sufficient distance to what one thinks obvious to better question it. This effort at distancing becomes all the more difficult when an assumption has been left unquestioned long enough to be taken for a certainty and to even congeal into the way the world is perceived. Unlike many of his time and later, Illich’s thought is radical in the sense of going to the roots of such modern perceptions. These still unsettling and disturbing pages are likely to be useful now to those who seek to find a way, for whatever reason, beyond economics and ecology.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Illich, birds, and astrology

Two months after Ivan Illich died in late 2002, more than 150 of his friends and colleagues gathered at Bremen University to celebrate his spirit. Barbara Duden describes this symposion (Greek for "drinking together," as Illich liked to point out) in a short paper.

She relates, among other things, how she herself had told the crowd of "Ivan's extraordinary astrological constellation which Annis Fromm, the widow of Erich Fromm, once had cast in an image."

Annis Fromm had seen Illich as "like a broad leaf-less bush with hundreds of birds squatting on its branches."

"So here they were," Ms. Duden continues, "Ivan's 'birds,' his lame ducks and migrant birds, tippet grebes, paradise birds, eagles and cranes. Nils Christie from Norway, Fjedor Shanin from Moscow, Uwe Pörksen from Freiburg, Christine von Weizsäcker from Bonn, Hanns Steger from Erlangen." And many more.

It was about one year after this event that we first heard Ms. Duden use this figure of speech, while speaking at a celebration of Illich held at Pitzer College. Illich's work, we took her to say, was such that thinkers in all sorts of other fields were able to use and build on it. Illich's explorations delved into many different branches of knowledge, from architecture to medicine, from sociology to economics, from history to theology, from linguistics to education.

We've never forgotten this image of birds gathering on the tree of Illich. We've always assumed it was something Ms. Duden had come up with, but having recently re-read her article about that long-ago symposion, we realize not. (It was only after we chose the graphical theme for this page, one of the stock themes offered by Google, that we noticed those birds up in the corner. A sign of some sort?)

At that same Pitzer College gathering, someone who'd known Illich told us something else quite interesting. It seems Illich's uncle was an astrologer of some renown and one of his clients was none other than Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher and social reformer who is perhaps best known for having created the Waldorf school program. Illich spent most of his childhood in Austria and it wouldn't be surprising if Steiner had been a family friend.

(The same person who told us about the star-gazing uncle also recalled Illich saying that had he himself had children, he certainly would have had them attend a Waldorf school. Funnily enough, someone close to this same person told us of Illich having described Steiner's anthroposophical program, the basis of Waldorf schools, as humbug, or some such. Knowing Illich, he might easily have made both remarks.)

Saturday, July 20, 2013

House in Bremen

Here is a photo we made in Summer, 2008 of Kreftingstrasse 16, the home of Barbara Duden in Bremen, Germany. This is where Ivan Illich stayed while teaching at the University of Bremen over the years, where many people were his (and Ms. Duden's) guest, and where he died on Dec. 2, 2002.


A lecture in San Francisco, 1999

A lecture we'd like to have heard:

USF lecture series kicks off

San Francisco EXAMINER

Tuesday, October 5, 1999

IVAN ILLICH, philosopher and social critic, leads a series of lectures Thursday for the University of San Francisco's Louise Davies Forum, which runs through Dec. 9.

Illich, 72, will be speaking on de-institutionalizing society and his relationship with the Catholic Church. The lecture is set for 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Gershwin Theater on campus, 2350 Turk. Admission is free.

The lecture series, titled "Voice, Memory and Landscape," will be held every week through the beginning of December. It's hosted by Davies Professor Vijaya Nagarajan.

"The notion of landscape is a reference to our natural world and how it shapes the perception of memory and voice," said Nagarajan, who suggested that modern man is losing touch with the natural world.

"How do we re-embody our landscapes through the interwining [sic] of voice and memory?" she asked.

Nine speakers will attempt to answer that question, beginning with Illich. In the weeks that follow, scheduled speakers are essayist Rina Swetzell, Oct. 14; Arundhati Roy, best-selling author of "The God of Small Things," Oct. 28; Nicaraguan poet Daisy Zamora, Nov. 1; African American writer Melba Pattilo Beals, 1999 winner of the Congressional Gold Medal, Nov. 4; ecologist Bernie Krause, Nov. 11; novelist Peter Matthiessen, Nov. 18; Catherine Sneed, author of "The Garden Project," Dec. 2, and author Maxine Hong Kingston, Dec. 9.

Friday, July 19, 2013

John Holt on 'deschooling society,' 1971

Reason magazine, published by the libertarian, free-marketeers at The Cato Institute, has republished a piece from 1971 written by John Holt. His topic is "deschooling society," as put forth by Ivan Illich.

Holt was a close collaborator of Illich's and is widely recognized as the founding father of the home-schooling movement. In this piece, he sets out to interpret Illich's notion of deschooling. As Holt puts it, "we must dissolve the schools back into society. They seem to me to have precipitated or congealed—a little like a lump in a cream-of-wheat—and the thing we have to do is stir them back into the mix, so to speak." Holt also gives credit to Paul Goodman for informing his thinking.

'Osculatorium' and the 'conspiratio'

Anyone who has read or listened to Illich's last interviews with David Cayley will have encountered him discussing the conspiratio. This was one of two high points in early Christian celebrations, a sharing of the Holy Spirit through a mouth-to-mouth kiss. (The other was the comestio, a meal shared by all in attendance.) Conspiratio turns out to be a key element of Illich's intriguing explanation of modernity's origins.

This kiss signified "that each one of those present around the dining table contributed of his own spirit," Illich says, "or, if you want, the Holy Spirit, which was common to all, to create a spiritual community, a community of one spirit. … Slave and master, Jew and Greek, each contributed equally to making the community to which, through his contribution, he could then belong."

This ceremony, Illich goes on to say, "gave its participants the idea that community could come into existence outside of the community into which they were born, and in which they fulfilled their legal obligations -- a community in which all those who are present share equally in the act of its establishment."

By the high Middle Ages, however, this bodily contact and radical equality among all sorts of people was quite out of harmony with the "feudal ideal" of a strict social hierarchy, Illich states, and conspiratio's importance faded. Indeed, Illich explains, the bodily, mouth-to-mouth kiss was replaced by "an instrument … called an osculatorium, a kissing object. You can see it in museums, sometimes made of beautiful wood with precious stones. The priest would kiss it after kissing the altar and then hand it down to the community so that it could make its rounds through the church."

What does this osculatorium look like? We, for one, began to wonder. The Web provides a few images, though none seem to be as impressive as those Illich mentions. Here is one from Italy ca. 1550-1650, as explained by a page at James Madison University:


And here is another, from 18th-century Venice, as noted here:


Illich delves into the notion of conspiratio in some depth in a talk given in 1998 when he was awarded the city-state of Bremen's Culture and Peace Prize. (The talk is available from the Pudel site as "The Cultivation of Conspiracy.") "Community in our European tradition," Illich says, "is not the outcome of an act of authoritative foundation, nor a gift from nature or its gods, nor the result of management, planning and design, but the consequence of a conspiracy, a deliberate, mutual, somatic and gratuitous gift to each other."

Indeed, Illich sees conspiratio as the source of today's social contract. "During the period of the Gregorian reform," he tells David Cayley, "the attempt to establish, legalize, and formalize the conspiratio reached a high point." The Church attempted to establish a "worldly solidity and clarity and definition and to create, through legal, contractual means, a social body entitled to recognition as an equal by the Emperor and the civil law."

"In order to understand the general idea of corruptio optima quae est pessima [the corruption of the best is the worst] as it applies to the political, it is necessary to observe throughout history this fading of the conspiratio, and the monumental elaboration of the conjuratio, or contractual arrangement."

Restoring the commons of a Greek island

We're pleased to learn about a Greek project inspired by Ivan Illich 's work at CIDOC, in Mexico. It's called The Ikarian Documentation Pages, and it's a website that aims to serve as "a bank of knowledge and memory" relating to the Greek island of Ikaria. (Inhabited since 7000 BC, the island takes its name from Icarus, who fell into the sea nearby.)

The website (published in English and Greek) is closely related to the Ikarian Regeneration Project, which seeks to protect and revivify the island's commons in the face of the austerity programs imposed by the EU on Greece as a nation. This project, we're told, also has taken inspiration from Illich as well as from Trent Schroyer, a professor at Ramapo College in NJ. Schoyer writes about alternatives to economics. Schroyer also authored one of the more engaged reviews of The Rivers North of the Future, as noted here a few years ago.

"In this blog," the Ikarian Documentation Pages site states, "we will publish index catalogs of available documents that are housed in the Documentation, Research and Action Center of Ikaria and -soon hopefully- in the General Archives of the State, located in Ikaria. In addition, we will publish catalogs of photographic material, articles from the local press (from early 20th century), bibliographies, abstracts and reviews of books that are related to Ikaria."

Silence in the face of social media

An essay has appeared in First Monday, a peer-reviewed online journal about the Internet and its culture (for lack of a better description), that draws a good deal on Ivan Illich's thinking. In a nutshell, "Silence, delirium, lies?," by Caroline Bassett, argues that the best response to today's ubiquitous social media and its "monopoly" is simply to "stop communicating."

A call for "less communication," she writes,

at its most extreme a call for silence — is currently regarded as heretical in conditions of social media. But such a call should be made — because it can confront the fetishizing of the more associated with technological progress, when the latter is regarded as inseparable from progress in general — and when both are aligned with discourses that value growth as a social good. [emphasis in original]

Bassett is Reader in Digital Media and runs the Centre for Material Digital Culture, University of Sussex, UK. Her focus is on "digital transformation and cultural form, critical theories of new media."

Social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter are not what they purport to be, she writes. They actually don't amplify every individual's voice in the rising din of digital "conversation." More "communications" doesn't automatically produce "more freedom," as is widely assumed. "With this in mind," the abstract reads, "this paper asks if a media politics might be generated based on the potentials of silence, on speaking in tongues — and on relying on the resources of metaphorical language rather than on learning to speak or write in ways more amenable to code."

"The contract is very clear; social media demands personal data donation as the price for full engagement in those forms of communication that are becoming intrinsic to everyday life and that increasingly shape it. This exchange is the central component of what has emerged over at least a decade and a half as the standard model for the commoditized virtual community of all kinds … ."

So, Bassett urges, "find a way to resist terminal integration into expanding communicative circuits reaching far beyond the screen. There are various options: switch off, turn away, misspeak, refuse to play — or become silent. Don’t make the social noise that generates the exploitable signals."

She explicitly names Illich:

The work of the twentieth century activist and thinker Ivan Illich is key to the arguments developed here. Illich both analysed technologically based (social) monopolies (Illich, 1973) and in connected work explored silence as a response to earlier electronic media systems (Illich, 1983). As part of this he called for the establishment of the silent commons as a response to what he saw as the tyranny of the amplified voice and the evisceration of human relations within the electronically organized spaces such amplifications produced.

Illich was writing about television and associated media systems, but in this article I ask if a return to silence might enable new forms of common space to be created today — so that individual and collective voices might be heard again beyond the personalized enclosures of the commercial social media platforms. Something Illich’s thinking can open up is the sense that there are ways of thinking about language — perhaps in terms of volume, audibility/silence, voice, complexity, and polysemy — that provide the basis for a response to social media monopoly; for a communication politics that might, despite beginning in the symbolic, be able to spill over into something — some places — more material.

Bassett cites two of Illich's essays, "Silence is a commons" (1982), and Tools for Conviviality. Somewhat surprisingly, she doesn't mention his essay, "I Too Have Decided to Keep Silent" (1983), in which Illich suggests that people standing silently (and in public) is the best way of protesting the deployment of nuclear bombs. We look forward to reading this intriguing essay more closely.

An op-ed against egg harvesting cites Illich

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley whose work has been informed by Ivan Illich, has jointly written an op-ed appearing in the Sacramento Bee. It cites Illich in arguing against the idea that women should be paid for donating unfertilized eggs for research purposes. A bill in front of Gov. Jerry Brown, a friend of Illich's, would overturn California's current ban on such payments. Evidently, the medical industry is eager to see this ban lifted.

The "traffic" in new reproductive technologies," writes Scheper-Hughes and Diane Tober, associate executive director at the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley, "calls for a cautionary flashing signal, not red perhaps, but amber: beware of the propensity to regard the human body as a site for the expansion of medical, pharmaceutical and technological markets."

If [Calif. bill] AB 926 becomes law, we will witness a disturbing national trend. Women's research eggs become the hot new bio-product, increasing the profits of the multibillion-dollar-per-year infertility industry at the expense of women's health, safety and possibly, their future fertility. Is this the "equity" we want for ourselves, our sisters and our daughters?

The late historian of science and technology, Ivan Illich, warned against the processes of medical industries which "create new needs and control their satisfaction and turn human beings and their creativity into objects." Before this bill becomes law, we need publicly funded scientific studies to determine the risks of multiple egg donations by women who are being financially compensated.

The two authors relate the horrific experience one egg donor endured and denounce the idea that egg harvesting is "saving starving follicles" from dying (as supposedly put forth by one infertility specialist), as "a medical fairy tale." This notion, they write,

makes egg harvesting sound like a save-the-child campaign, as if follicles are proto-persons who could become babies in someone else's empty belly. There is no mention of the dangerous artificial stimulation needed to manipulate the endocrine system to produce many times the normal number of mature eggs. Women are taught to imagine their eggs as super-abundant (with medical help) and being 'wasted' when they could be put to better use.

Scheper-Hughes is known for, among other work, her investigations into the commodification of human organs and the global trafficking therein. In the book, Ivan Illich in Conversation, Illich touches on this subject, noting that the human body increasingly is perceived as just another a mechanism that may be fixed using spare parts.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Illich on Canadian radio

Mention Ivan Illich and Canadian radio in the same breath and immediately we think, David Cayley. After all, he's the one who conducted some marvelous interviews with Illich that resulted in several radio programs broadcast by the Canadian Boradcasting Corp. (CBC) and two key books, Ivan Illich in Conversation (1992) and The Rivers North of the Future (2005).

But just now, we've stumbled across a program about Illich done for Canadian radio by someone other than David Cayley. In fact, it was broadcast last December 2nd, 10 years after Illich died, by Radio-Canada, the CBC's French-language division. The show, titled "Duo philo: De la pensée d'Ivan Illitch aux tableaux intelligents," or "The thought of Ivan Illich on intelligent tablets." Or, to quote a website blurb, does the iPad have a place in class? (Why the odd spelling of Illich, we don't know.)

The show is still available for listening online (here). It features Normand Baillargeon, a professor of education at the University of Quebec at Montreal, and Xavier Brouillette, who teaches philosophy at Cégep du Vieux Montréal, a pre-university and technical college. Baillargeon, born 1958, is described elsewhere as a "militant libertaire." He writes regularly for À Bâbord, an alternative magazine. One of his pieces, published in 2005, was about Illich's thoughts on the car and bicycles.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

More about the Oakland meeting Aug. 1-3

We've been informed that copies of the new book of Illich's essays, Beyond Economics and Ecology, will be available for purchase at the upcoming Illich event in Oakland, Calif. -- Aug. 1,2, and 3, as described here.

A number of these copies will be signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who has contributed a preface to the book. It would be much appreciated, the events' planners say, if those who plan to attend the Oakland event might purchase copies of the book there, rather than at Amazon, for instance.

It's likely there will be a small charge ($10 max) at the door to cover the cost of food being served each evening.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

New book of Illich's essays

Here is the cover of a book soon to be published that will contain four essays by Ivan Illich: "Energy & Equity," "The Social Construction of Energy," "War Against Subsistence," and "Shadow Work." The volume is edited by Sajay Samuel and includes a preface by Jerry Brown, the governor of California.

BeyondEconomics cover v1

Oakland event update

Here is the latest flyer concerning the upcoming Illich symposium in Oakland, Calif. A third speaker has been arranged for Friday evening, Trent Schroyer. Mr. Schroyer teaches sociology and philosophy at Ramapo College, in NJ. He has written several essays about Illich, including one of the few reviews of The Rivers North of the Future and this one, called "Secularisation and the Loss of the Feeling Self," which reflects on Ivan Illich's sense of the vernacular. He also has written a book about alternatives to Western economics.


Monday, July 01, 2013

An introduction to Ivan Illich, en français

We've just learned of a book published in France late last year, Introduction à Ivan Illich, written by Thierry Paquot. Mr. Paquot, a professor of urban studies and architecture in Paris, was a friend of Illich's and frequent interpreter of his work. Among other things, he wrote Illich's obituary for Le Monde Diplomatique.

His new book, 128 pages long, is published by La Découverte. More information is available here and a brief article (in French, by one Thomas Le Guennic) about the book is posted here.


Meanwhile, we've also come across a paper, "Penser Ivan Illich," (translated as 'Why to think “with” Ivan Illich?') presented by Mr. Paquot in Nantes, France, last April. Dedicated to "Barbara" (Duden, we assume), it considers how Illich thought about things and used language. "[Illich] thinks in order to exist," he concludes, "aware that friendship is a miracle to be cultivated. And, knowledge is a path with no known destination." The paper, in PDF, is here.

As an urban philosopher, Mr. Paquot likes to think about many subjects. A book of his called The Art of the Siesta, has been published in English translation by Marion Boyars, Illich's publisher for many years:

a series of vignettes on the importance of the siesta in paintings, literature, and sculpture. In Preliminary, we hear of the rhythm of sleep, including the fear babies have of going to sleep. In The Midday Demon, death in life and erotic dreams take form. The last vignette, The Siesta Fights Back, shows how the economic necessities of Western society are conquering the siesta.

This is a translation from the French of a book that helps reinstate the values that the siesta stands for, with reference to philosophy, art and music. From mosques, where guards sleep under the protection of Allah, to 'slow-food' restaurants in Berlin in 2001, it explores the part sleep plays in human life.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Turkish Take on Illich

We don't read Turkish, but based on some wanderings around the web, it appears that the man has a strong following in that part of the world. Here, for instance, is a lengthy blog article about Illich -- on a blog using the same Blogger template as ours, we're pleased to see!

And here is the Turkish edition of one of Illich's books. (A small prize for those who can figure out which of his books this is; no Google allowed.)

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In fact, here one can see eight editions of Illich in Turkish. And this is the Turkish Wikipedia page about Illich.

Monday, June 24, 2013

"The People's Priest"

A perceptive profile of Ivan Illich that argues for the relevance of his thinking today was published in February, 2010 at The American Conservative. The author is Chase Madar, a civil rights attorney whose most recent book is The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story behind the Wikileaks Whistleblower. His conclusion:
Famous or forgotten, Ivan Illich remains relevant, for the Age of McNamara and Rostow is hardly over. Not long ago, Paul Wolfowitz was rewarded for his reckless, idealistic war-making with the leadership of the World Bank. If Illich opposed the ’60s gold rush of rich-country reformers to Latin America, what would he make of today’s militarized onslaught of reform and development? He would have had plenty to say about our benevolent conquest of Afghanistan, which many fervently believe to be a kind of Peace Corps/feminist/human-rights NGO empowerment zone, one that will soon just happen to have 110,000 soldiers in it -- and that’s not counting the mercenaries. The unaccountable power of aid groups in the sociopolitical fabric of Uganda, Bangladesh, and elsewhere would also have taxed Illich’s rich gifts for diatribe. Back in the industrialized world, the professions of education, healthcare, and law are being ruthlessly integrated into the corporate-service sector in which the bottom line is frequently the only line. One highly doubts that Illich would applaud any of these events—but are there opportunities amid the wreckage?

Why did Ivan Illich leave Puerto Rico?

The story about why he was ousted from Puerto Rico that Ivan Illich relates in a 1972 French TV interview with Jean Marie Domenach differs substantially from what he tells David Cayley in 1988, in the book Ivan Illich in Conversation.

In brief, the 1972 telling centers on Illich’s calling for the island commonwealth to spend more money on public education. In 1988, Illich talks of his running afoul of Church leaders when he criticizes them for getting involved in politics. Quite possible, both reasons contributed to his departure.

Here is the exchange from 1972:

Illich: Yes, I was a priest [in upper Manhattan]. I did my four years of work as a priest I suppose, but in the middle of a situation that’s very difficult to describe. But I had, I don’t know why, but I was reminded of the years playing hide-and-seek from Hitler, being declared a Jew from one moment to the next during the war. That’s how I ended up leaving; life took me to Puerto Rico, and Puerto Rico threw me out. Domenach: Threw you out. Illich: Yes. Domenach: The government? Illich: The government and the Church together because I was ridiculing the foolishness. Domenach: Foolishness. You mean the ostentatiousness. Illich: Yes, yes, yes. The incorporation, the charity through incorporation into the North American market. Domenach: So you came back to New York right away— Illich: No, no, no, no, no. A group of friends and I, we decided that we needed an independent base of operations, an independent intellectual republic. In Cuernavaca, we established this centre ...


Domenach: Why did they throw you out of Puerto Rico? Why was that? Illich: Because at that time, I was one of five members of the committee that directs all public education in Puerto Rico as well as the Rector of the Catholic university. I was insisting that the 42% of Puerto Rico’s national budget that went to education was not enough. I wanted more money for public education, because I believed that the private colleges, the Catholic colleges, were creating unfair competition by trying to become more prestigious and in doing so, reducing public schools to second-class education. I found myself at odds, whether with the liberal establishment or with the ecclesiastical, right-wing establishment. And, well, I’m a bit ashamed to speak of it now because later, the analysis of Latin America, where I travelled for a year going from Cuernavaca to Puerto Rico, I mean, Puerto Rico to Cuernavaca—

And here is what Illich tells Cayley some years later (p.87 in the book):

Illich: By 1959, I felt that I had done more or less what I wanted to do in PUerto Rico. I had established, at the Catholic University in Ponce, a major summer institute, which in fact ran on for twenty-five years, and I had created a few other very simply institutional bridges for people from Nueva York, which included in a Puerto Rican view, the barrio of Chicago. I felt very much attached to Puerto Rico. ….

But the time had come and a situation presented itself in which I felt that I had to intervene in a political way. The two Irish Catholic bishops, Bishop James Davis, a self-seeking, vain careerist in San Juan, and Bishop James McManus in Ponce, a well-meaning Irish turkey, had gotten themselves into politics by threatening excommunications for anybody who voted for a political party which didn’t proscribe the sale of condoms in the drugstores. And this was a month before the nomination of a Catholic, John Kennedy, as the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party. It was not that I wanted to support Kennedy. But I felt that it was highly unsound to allow the religious issue to creep back into American politics, just because two American bishops had an absolute Catholic majority as their subjects At the same time, with the assistance of the papal nuncio responsible for the area, they had also sponsored the creation of a Christian Democratic-like party on the island. So I had to do something, since most people didn’t take it seriously and those who did would not intervene. I attracted to myself the full odium of exploding that situation. I knew that I was sacrificing any possibility of doing anything publicly in Puerto Rico for many years without being mixed up with the memories of that political intervention.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Spanish book cover

We believe this is the cover of a Spanish edition of Ivan Illich's book Medical Nemesis, as published in Barcelona by Seix Baral. Exactly when, we're not sure.


"The False Ideology of Schooling"

A 1970 essay by Ivan Illich, "The False Ideology of Schooling," is available for viewing on the Web at a site called, an eclectic library of periodicals, books, and other materials. The essay was published in The Saturday Review for Oct. 17. 1970, which the Unz site makes available in its entirety, here. The issue's cover story package is Revolution and Education in Latin America, and it includes two articles in addition to Illich's: "Cuba's Schools, Ten Years Later," and "Brazil, a Giant Begins to Stir."

A taste of the text:

The central issue of our time remains the fact that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. This hard fact is often obscured by another apparently contradictory fact. In the rich countries, the poor have access to a quantity and quality of commodities beyond the dreams of Louis XIV, while many of the so-called developing countries enjoy much higher economic growth rates than those of industrialized countries at a similar stage of their own histories. From icebox to toilet and from antibiotic to television, conveniences Washington could not have imagined at Mount Vernon are found necessary in Harlem, just as Bolivar could not have foreseen the social polarization now inevitable in Caracas. But rising levels neither of minimum consumption in the rich countries nor of urban consumption in the poor countries can close the gap between rich and poor nations or between the rich and poor of any one nation. Modern poverty is a by-product of a world market catering to the ideologies of an industrial middle class. Modern poverty is built into an international community where demand is engineered through publicity to stimulate the production of standard commodities. In such a market, expectations are standardized and must always outrace marketable resources.


The cultural revolutionary must be distinguished from not only the political magician but also both the neo-Luddite and the promoter of intermediary technology. The former behaves as if either the noble savage could be restored to the throne or the Third World transformed into a reservation for him. He opposes the internal combustion engine rather than oppose its packaging into some product de- signed for exclusive use by the man who owns it. Thus, the Luddite blames the producer; the institutional revolutionary tries to reshape the design and distribution of the product. The Luddite blames the machine; the cultural revolutionary heightens awareness that it produces needless demands. The cultural revolutionary must also be distinguished from the promoter of intermediary technology who is often merely a superior tactician paving the road to totally manipulated consumption.

Let me illustrate what I mean by a cultural revolution within one major international institution, by taking as an example the institution that currently produces education. I mean, of course, obligatory schooling: full-time attendance of age-specific groups in a graded curriculum.

Latin America has decided to school itself into development. This decision results in the production of homemade inferiority. With every school that is built, another seed of institutional corruption is planted, and this is in the name of growth.

Schools affect individuals and characterize nations. Individuals merely get a bad deal; nations are irreversibly degraded when they build schools to help their citizens play at international competition. For the individual, school is always a gamble. The chances may be very slim, but everyone shoots for the same jackpot. Of course, as any professional gambler knows, it is the rich who win in the end, and the poor who get hooked. And if the poor man manages to stay in the game for a while, he will feel the pain even more sharply when he does lose, as he almost inevitably must. Primary school dropouts in a Latin American city find it increasingly difficult to get an indus- trial job.

(The Illich essay is listed towards the bottom of this table of contents page. To download a copy of the essay in PDF format, the following actions seem to be necessary: First, click on the PDF tag associated with the Illich essay's title; a new page will appear showing four pages the magazine, which you can scroll through vertically. Only the first three of these pages are part of Illich's essay. Now, click on the words "Full Page" to bring up a new window, at the Google Docs site. [This may require being signed into a Google account, which we happened to have done previously.] There, you will see the same four pages again along with, at upper right, a button marked 'Download original.' Click that button and you'll be shown the pages in standard PDF, ready to save.

Unfortunately, Illich's piece jumps to page 68, outside of these four initial pages, and retrieving that last page requires a similar sequence: Back at the table of contents, click on the PDF link associated with the listing "Asking the Right Questions … pp. 66-70." Again, a new page pops up and now, click on "Full Page" there. A Google Docs page will appear showing a scrolling set of magazine pages, from p. 66 to p.71; click on 'Download original' button up top and again, you'll see the pages in standard PDF, ready to save.)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Holt's 'Escape from Childhood,' back in print

A book called Escape from Childhood, The Needs and Rights of Children, written by the late John Holt, has been republished for the first time in 20 years. Controversial but well-received when originally published in 1974, the book argues that children should have all the rights that adults enjoy: the right to vote, work for wages, travel, choose their own guardians, learn what they want when they want, and more. Holt, who was close to Ivan Illich and who is seen as a major figure in the home-schooling/unschooling movement, also explores the fairly recent social construction of the very category "child."

The book has been re-published by HoltGWS, in Medford, Mass. It's available in paperback ($8.99) and in electronic format ($2.99) from; wholesalers may order from (One book merchant selling through Amazon is asking precisely $491.42 for a pristine first edition of this book in hardback.)


Writes one slightly spelling-challenged reader at Amazon:

"This is my favorite book of the many Holt has written. It does not cover any aspects of learning/educational issues as do his other books. Instead it addresses the matter of looking at children as whole individuals who should be treated respectably, as any adult would want to be.

"Our culture too readily encourages parents, and adults in general, to use their voice in a excessively authorative manner which only serves to bully and demean children. No one would want to be spoken to or treated in such a condensending manner. This book will open your eyes to the damage we are doing to our beloved kids when we accept the cultural standard way of parenting. Highly recommended!"

Like Holt, Illich drew on the work of Phillipe Aries (1914-1984), a medievalist and historian of the family and childhood. In the book Ivan Illich in Conversation, David Cayley draws Illich out on Aries:

CAYLEY: In your book, Gender, you say that you could not have written either that book or Deschooling Society without the work of Philippe Aries.

ILLICH: It is through Aries that I was introduced to the historicity of the notion of "the child," and that in this sense it is a modern construct. I probably fell for Aries because I had always disliked it when the children of my friends would take the attitude "I'm a child and you must pay attention to me." Since I was fifteen, I had refused to notice or to enter into any kind of intercourse with such a person. Some of my friends, better friends, family friends, have considered me all my life a brute. But an interesting thing has happened a number of times. When these kids had difficulties with their parents, they suddenly appeared on my doorstep - at age fourteen or fifteen. In two cases, they came to another continent, seeking refuge. My intuition is that one of the most evil things our modern society does is produce children in this specifically modern sense. As a young man, I decided that I wouldn't do that. That was the reason I decided at age twelve not to marry.

CAYLEY: To stay with childhood for a moment - does identifying it as a specifically modern idea invalidate it? Is it not also in some sense an advance?

ILLICH: It's just that with all advances, the greater they are, the more they are an extreme form of privilege. We are sitting here and having this conversation together because I was, at one glance, so impressed by the feeling between you and your children, whom you have kept out of school. Now for them, the fact that you have abandoned the idea of childhood in order to take these kids who live in a world of childhood fully seriously as kids is an extraordinary advantage. But this is not a model. This is something to be emulated, not imitated. It's the spark of uniqueness that must be cherished.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

"Ivan Illich, Postmodernism, and the Eco-Crisis"

An essay from 1994 titled 'Ivan Illich, Postmodernism, and the Eco-Crisis: Reintroducing a "Wild" Discourse' and written by David A. Gabbard, has shown up on the Web, right here. (This website appears to be written in Turkish.) The essay originally appeared in a journal called Educational Theory.

Gabbard currently is on the faculty of East Carolina University. He is author of a 1993 book called Silencing Ivan Illich, A Foucauldian Analysis of an Intellectual Repression.

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