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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, January 11, 2014

Ivan Illich, Breaking the Silence

We are pleased to present an essay about Ivan Illich written by Fabio Milana, an Italian researcher who has been looking closely at Illich's early years -- from his birth in 1926 to his move to New York City in 1951. He originally wrote this essay to serve as the afterword to the Italian publication of a transcript of The Corruption of Christianity, the CBC broadcast prepared by David Cayley. The transcript was published in 2008. Mr. Milana kindly provided us with an English translation of the essay, written with help from Milena Ibro and Jane Upchurch. Mr. Milana's professional Web page may be viewed here; he is affiliated with the Fondazione per le Science Religiose Giovanni XXIII, located in Bologna. We look forward to seeing the results of his research, which he says will likely be completed this year. (May he excuse us for making some small edits, mainly in the spelling of certain words, and for leaving out the paper's footnotes. A complete copy of the paper is available for downloading from his Web page.)

Ivan Illich, Breaking the Silence

by Fabio Milana

The Corruption of Christianity is the text of the homonymous programme that the Canadian national radio broadcasted, maybe not by chance, in the first few days of the year 2000. Later on, CBC itself put the recordings of the five parts on sale (remarkably, you can find them on the website of a philanthropic organisation) as well as the cerlox-bound transcript, which circulated in Europe as a German translation with parallel text; this Italian one is the first edition of the text as a volume.

It can't be strictly called ‘conversations’, it is more of an assembly of excerpts from the conversations between Ivan Illich and David Cayley (1997 and 1999), connected and organized by the interventions of Cayley himself, in order to create a summary of the huge material he recorded during those sessions. A redactio longior of this same material was authorized by Illich as a consequence of the great interest the radio Corruption aroused, as Cayley relates while publishing it, with the title inspired by Celan’s The Rivers North of the Future (Anansi 2005; the German translation, C.H. Beck 2006, and the French one, Actes Sud 2007, are now available). Not even this latter version is drawn up in ‘conversation’ form, but as themed accounts, given by Illich himself to an interlocutor who withdraws into the paratext: a gesture of implied adhesion, midway between the philosophical interview pattern, the same Cayley used in the large and well-deserving Ivan Illich in Conversation (1992), and the partnership he achieved in this kind of a ‘two voices self-portrait’ which is the Corruption. This confirms the common wavelength gradually reached by the catholic Canadian journalist with a thinker who was programmatically hostile to the mass media.

In any case, a comparison between the two drafts speaks in favour of a kind of effectiveness of our text, which is not just due to the significance of Illich’s ‘own voice’ passages selected here, or to the editor’s qualified interventions, or even to the ‘dramatic’ intensity of the script, resulting from its necessary concision and from the ‘game of roles’ itself. Naturally, Cayley reminds the reader, who has less familiarity with Illich’s intellectual and human story, of its essential parts, which we could recognize in different phases. The first one is the ‘militant’ one, embracing almost three decades from his arrival in New York in 1951 and including his fifteen-year activity in the Centro Intercultural de Formación, later de Documentación (1961-1976), that he founded in the Mexican city of Cuernavaca to support the campaign against the ‘export’ of development to third world countries; during this period, a crisis occurred in his relationship with the Catholic Church, which led to his giving up the sacerdotal functions with their related privileges (1968-1969). The following phase consisted of mainly anthropological-historical studies, taking on a position of critical distance, rooted in his beloved 12th century, in order to reconstruct the origin of modern certainties, the unconscious axioms of a world submitted to an intense and prolonged technological development; this latter period began in 1978 as a consequence of something similar to an ‘existential breakdown’, according to some witnesses very near to him, and ended fifteen years later with texts of a summarizing nature like the essay collection In the mirror of the past (1992), the retrospective Conversation mentioned above, and the last one in his own hand, the comment on Ugo di San Vittore In the vineyard of the text (1993): inside this work, that has an almost elegiac intonation, for the first and last time Illich recognizes himself too, personally and not in a polemic way, as participating in a typically modern adventure, the ‘bookish text’, which is closed between the two watersheds that forever divide it from the lectio divina of monastic tradition and the era of digital screens. About a possible third phase of Illich’s research, our Corruption documents the most important paths in its three central chapters: the survey on the origin of some modern ‘categories of the political’ from the Christian thought and praxis in the late Middle Ages; the study of the experience of the sight inside a project on a ‘history of the body’, aimed at the affirmed contemporary disappearance of the living and sentient flesh; the ethical problem in a world that has lost a substantial notion of limit, and of the ontological order established by it. Here, though not chiefly here, also lies the newness and the interest of our text.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Obamacare in light of Ivan Illich

The cost of medical care continues to escalate, inexorably and, to an outsider, unexplainably. Medical expenses now account for 18 percent -- almost one-fifth! -- of the nation's GNP, or $2.6 trillion. With the new year, our own monthly premium for family health insurance has risen to $2,200 from $1,860. We recently were given a single injection that was billed at $5,000 -- a price, our doctor told us, that is mainly a function of the drug maker's monopoly, not the medicine's actual cost of production. Meanwhile, millions of Americans struggle to make sense of and sign up for coverage under Obamacare, aka the Affordable Care Act. This is, in a word, a bureaucratic nightmare. Call an insurance company or a state-run insurance agency right now to learn the status of your application for a new health plan and you're likely to be put on hold for 2 hours or more. Accredited insurance agents know very little and have been given no special access to those in the know. Doctors look the other way, telling patients it's not their job. Many families are seeing their insurance premiums rise quite significantly under the new law. And so forth and so on. It's enough to give both big government and big business a bad name.

Obamacare, of course, turns out to be a mere tweaking of a medical system that for many years, now, profit-seeking insurance companies have been running as they see fit. What has been missing from all the discussion and debate about the ever-rising costs of medical care is any consideration of what it means to be healthy and of what limits might be put on the consumption of medical care -- not as a means of simply saving money but more as a way of freeing people to live better, more satisfying lives. Perhaps most detrimental, the current discussion has pretty much avoided the topic of death, of what it might mean for society to consider mortality as something other than simply a problem whose onset medical technology can, and should, postpone at any cost.

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