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An Invitation to Peace Corps Critic Ivan Illich
An Invitation to Peace Corps Critic Ivan Illich
An Invitation to Ivan Illich
An enemy of conventional wisdom and a sage against the machine
—By Marilyn Snell, Special to Utne magazine
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In a half-filled auditorium on the campus of Pennsylvania State University, Ivan Illich spied a friend. Though it was time for him to begin his remarks, Illich, one of the 20th century’s leading philosophers, leapt off the stage and knelt in front of a small boy named Krishna who had come to the lecture with his mother.
The former Catholic priest and deliberately itinerant scholar with degrees in theology, history, and chemistry - the intimidating author who has enjoyed infuriating “experts” for several decades by questioning what he calls their “socially constructed certitudes” - came down to Krishna’s level so he could look him in the eyes when he spoke.
The moment was typical of Illich, a man who has often bucked academic protocol. Unwilling to associate himself with any one institution, Illich splits each academic year between guest professorships at Penn State and in Bremen, Germany, and spends the remaining months in a Mexican village outside Cuernavaca working on various writing projects. Illich, who speaks 11 languages and has studied a vast range of subjects for his dozen books and many essays, is as intent on avoiding the physical constraints of institutions as he is on keeping his distance from much of the research pursued there. In his words, he’s not interested in “spending too much time with particle splitters, wave mechanics, discourse deconstructionists, and their ilk.”
This independent, piercing intellect has been brought to bear on some of contemporary society’s most sacred cows. Over the years, Illich has called for the “deinstitutionalization” of education, transportation, religion, and medicine, arguing that such institutions are a “corruption of the best which turns out to be the worst.”
In his 1971 book Deschooling Society (Harper & Row), for example, he takes on compulsory education, which is, in his view, more like a compulsory lottery: A few win but more lose, and because most people expect schools to lead to an education, good jobs, and success, those who drop out or fail to come up with the winning numbers (grades) are stigmatized for the rest of their lives. Just as cruel, argues Illich, is higher education, which is geared more to reproducing privilege than to inspiring scholarship and forming democratic citizens - killing curiosity and stupefying students in the process.
Twenty-five years after Deschooling Society’s radical critique of the way American schools “reflect, prop up, and reinforce prevailing forms of discrimination,” fights over the cannon and multicultural curricula seem kind of silly.
In Tools for Conviviality (Harper & Row, 1973), a broad examination of the institutions that dominate modern life, Illich outlines both a philosophy and a social critique of technology, Illich elaborates the major themes of this exceptional work in several subsequent books. In Energy and Equity (Harper & Row, 1974), he argues that high energy consumption inevitably overpowers and degrades social relations, while addiction to speed - cars, planes- is a debilitating and ultimately dehumanizing social disease. Medical Nemesis (Pantheon, 1976) explores the history of concepts like “health care” and proposes that the medicalization of health beyond a certain point is actually counterproductive and “sickening.”
In his 1982 book Gender (Pantheon), Illich attempts to show that sexism is the inevitable condition of industrial society, which deforms the “dyssymetric complementarity” of men and women into a “legally engineered equality” - creating a world not of men and women but of competitive economic beings. In such a world, argues Illich, the majority of women will always lose out economically. Needless to say, Gender did not endear him to feminists.
His most recent book, In the Vineyard of the Text (University of Chicago Press, 1993), holds a mirror to the past and explores Illich’s beloved 12th century in order to contrast the way we read today with the way a dear friend of his - a monk, Hugh of St. Victor - experienced the art of reading 800 years ago. In fact, Hugh was the subject of Illich’s speech at Penn State.
Speaking to an audience consisting mostly of friends and a few academic colleagues, Illich announced the imminent end of the university as we understand it, a place of learning based upon the book. He cautioned that a certain type of reading skill was disappearing - in effect, a physical intercourse between reader, printed text, and the world beyond. Hugh delighted in the written page, savoring words from line to line like grapes picked from the monastery vineyard. (Illich informed us that page, or pagina in Latin, derives from espalier, the trellis on which grapevines are grown.) Reading for Hugh was a physical activity as well as a search for wisdom. It was a way of life.
In contrast, said Illich, reading today is veering off “in the direction of masturbation in hyperspace.” According to Illich, when the sensual, textural, actual book-as-body goes, so goes a vital, human form of interaction. What’s wrong with a little fooling around in hyperspace? Illich didn’t say, but by the time he had finished his story about Hugh’s feast of words, hyperspace seemed like a virtual wasteland. Illich, an elegant man of 68 with a lilting accent derived from the German, French, and Italian he spoke at home as a child, left the final denunciation of Progress to the poets, ending his speech with these lines: “The sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds; Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” Though he hadn’t attacked technology or even higher education, a radical critique of modern techniques of living and learning hung heavily in the air.
In David Cayley’s Ivan Illich in Conversation (Anansi Press, 1992), Illich says, “I often have the impression that the more traditionally I speak, the more radically alien I become.” This may be true. In an age that assumes the perfect word for a poem can be found by accessing WordPerfect, or that genetic engineering is part of a natural order, Illich’s insights may no longer make sense. In a society that has gotten used to standing on its head – preferring the drum machine to the drum, for example, or the Discovery Channel to a slow walk in the woods – it may be impossible to embrace a man who still uses his feet.
Hugh’s story is a classic example of the way Illich often illustrates his complex thinking. In the past, he has often made use of the vivid stories and characters of Greek myth as handrails for unfamiliar, even disorienting, philosophical territory. In this same way, a contemporary story involving Illich and his friend and collaborator Lee Hoinacki helps explain the essential impulses behind Illich’s life work.
In 1993, Hoinacki, also a former priest, decided to take Illich’s advice and make a thousand-kilometer pilgrimage to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela – a destination of European pilgrims since the ninth century. In honor of the decision, Illich retrieved a pair of sturdy walking shoes from his closet and presented them to his friend.
Illich remembers when he bought those shoes, in 1973, the day Chilean president Salvador Allende was killed: “When I heard the news of Allende’s death, I remembered that the last time I had seen him we had had an argument. I told him he should be riding his bike to work and he had said that the president of a country doesn’t do that sort of thing, and besides, it was too dangerous to ride out in the open like that. I had replied, ‘Wouldn’t it be better to be killed on your bike than in your office?’”
The day Illich bought his shoes, Allende’s term as a democratically elected socialist president ended with a gunshot to the head, in the president’s office.
The walking shoes, which had been used only rarely in the 20 years, fit Hoinacki perfectly. But pilgrimages are a test of the soul as well as the body, and on the very first day Hoinacki remembers looking up toward the steep mountain pass still blanketed in snow and thinking he would never be able to make it through – much less all the way to Santiago de Compostela.
He leaned against a rock and concentrated on the thousands, perhaps millions, who had already passed by this spot. He concentrated on the great mystery of faith that led these pilgrims into northern Spain, and the great mystery of friendship that led him there.
Hoinacki says he must have lost consciousness; he does not remember making his way up to the pass. The next thing he knew, he was walking down the other side – a great mystery to him to this day – and realizing he could complete the pilgrimage.
At its simplest, this is a tale about the exceptional use of unexceptional tools: a pair of simple shoes. It also offers a window into Illich’s long-standing opposition to “development.” When Illich challenged Allende to ride his bike to work, he was asking him to use alternative forms of transportation that were naturally adapted to his nation’s circumstances and resources. A tireless detractor of development policies that “institutionalize the values” of technological society and impose on poor nations expectations that could never be met, Illich saw that Allende’s pedaling could have legitimized if not glamorized a “No! Thank you” to the Alliance for Progress’ Peace Corps as well as the International Monetary Fund – two organizations he has often criticized as agents of development at its worst.
The story of the pilgrimage is also about discipline, suffering, and “walking the walk.” Granted, these are odd concepts today. In the age of quick fixes, self-help, and instant gratification, even the word pilgrimage sounds quaint, anachronistic. Why tramp a thousand k’s when you can drive to the music store and buy Chant by some Benedictine monks and have a religious experience in your living room? Both Hoinacki and Illich would consider this question absurd.
The story also offers the briefest glimpse of Illich’s strong but complicated religious faith. Though Illich remains a devout Catholic, his bond with the church has almost always been strained. This tension, which culminated in 1968 when Illich was called on the world’s biggest carpet, the Vatican’s, had been in the making almost from the day of his ordination in 1951.
Illich’s work with Puerto Ricans in Spanish Harlem between 1951 and 1956 led him to criticize the American church, which he said was imposing its values on minority groups. Later, as vice rector of the Catholic University in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Illich took aim at the educational system he was charged with running.
But it was as founder and director of the Center for Intercultural Documentation in Mexico that Illich really started ringing alarm bells in Rome. An intensive language school and training center for U.S. priests, nuns, and brothers on their way to Latin America, the center, known by its Spanish acronym, CIDOC, was also the meeting ground for the dissident intellectuals and lay religious workers, who were encouraged by Illich to question the founding assumptions of volunteer programs for the Peace Corps to Catholic missions. Described as a think tank for radicals, CIDOC ran counter to everything the politically conservative church held sacred. After several years of “success,” Illich was summoned to Rome.
Illich refused to defend himself – inside or outside the Vatican. Within the year he had resigned as an “employee” of the church-as-institution – as what he has called an “It.” But he has never stopped viewing himself as a humble servant of the church as “She,” a familiar and beloved place of beauty, truth, awareness, and mystery.
Finally, and perhaps fundamentally, the story of those simple shoes is one of friendship. Illich is deeply, irrevocably committed to his friends. He will do everything he can for them – give love, guidance, comfort, and a sense of community – but he cannot and will not help them avoid life, which for him is not separate from pain and suffering. The shoes helped Hoinacki make the journey but did not insulate him from either the elements or his own inner torments.
Illich notes that today people “surrender themselves to atrocious debaucheries of images and representations in order not to see.” In an age that denies death and deforms reality, simple acts of kindness, personal relations bound by friendship, are celebrations of sense – the embrace, the kiss, the face-to-face conversation – in a sense-less world of artificial intelligence and electronic communities.
In 1973, the same year Allende died, the same year he bought those shoes, Illich published Tools for Conviviality. In his introduction, Illich clearly states his belief in the importance of friendship and its crucial component, self-limitation: Today, the idea of “austerity” has “been degraded and has acquired a bitter taste,” he notes, but for Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas it gave rise to the “disciplined and creative playfulness” that formed the foundation of friendship. He argues with Aquinas that austerity is a “virtue which does not exclude all enjoyments, but only those which are distracting from or destructive of personal relatedness.” In this sense, friendship and self-limitation are inextricable halves of the good life.
But self-limitation as Illich understands it is in direct opposition to currently fashionable ideas like self-help, self-management, or even responsibility for oneself and the environment (all of which he dismissively calls “liberation psychology”). One doesn’t renounce gas-guzzling cars or nuclear power in response to ecomail that solicits funds while it encourages “sustainable development” of the “global community” (oxymorons to Illich). One doesn’t embrace a circumscribed lifestyle, a “convivial” life in which individual freedom is realized in personal inter-dependence, out of an abstract sense of “responsibility” or an imposed “ought,” but because one wants to stand with those who speak, simply, of decency.
This sense of friendship has been the guiding principle in much of Illich’s writing, just as it has been a guiding force in his life. At times, it has been the cause of apparent contradictions, as his philosophy confronts the day to day: For example, at a friend’s request for his presence Illich will get on a plane – something he condemns in his writing on transportation. Or he will use a microphone, out of friendship, though he despises the way it destroys the intimacy with his audience.
In the end, what drives Illich is deep fellow feeling and a drive to explain a few last things, even as pain from a large growth on the side of his face – which he refuses to have diagnosed or treated by what he views as an inhumane medical industry – transforms his days into an endurance test.
In a society ravenous for pop stars and cultural icons, even intellectuals can fall prey to the cult of personality. Though the people in Illich’s universe are clearly devoted to him, there is nothing of the cult in the air. Sezer GONCUOGLU, whose husband teaches at Penn State, said she spends two months each fall in Illich’s seminars and ten months waiting for his return. Sezer, who is Turkish, described a ritual she grew up practicing: As a child, whenever she met an elder, she was expected to kiss that person’s hand and then touch the back of that hand to her forehead. It was a sign of respect.
She had forgotten about this ritual until she met Illich. One day, after weeks of anxiety, Sezer greeted her teacher in the traditional Turkish manner. Illich absorbed the grace of the gesture, then in turn kissed Sezer’s hand and placed it on his forehead. Without disrespecting the spirit of her action, Illich in his reciprocation denied any imbalance of feeling. An incredibly decent thing to do.