Ivan Illich on the Transition Towards an Age of Systems

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David Caley:

"At this point, I want to introduce Ivan Illich and his critique of the Gaia theory. Illich, for the first twenty years of his adult life, was a Roman Catholic priest. He worked during that time to declericalize and transform the Church. These efforts brought him into conflict with the Roman Curia. In 1968, he was subjected to formal processes of inquisition, and, the following year, the Center for Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC) which he directed in Cuernavaca, Mexico was placed under a ban. He withdrew from church service and during the 1970’s produced a series of ever more wide-ranging critiques of contemporary institutions, techniques, and social practices. Deschooling Society, Tools for Conviviality, Medical Nemesis, and several other such works all argued that modern institutions had become counter-productive monopolies which defeated their own purposes and stifled popular initiative. As he went on, he inquired more deeply into the “certainties” underlying. contemporary ways of life and the ways in which our technologies, through what Marshall McLuhan called their “symbolic fallout,” tell us not just what we should do but what we are. He also explored the ways in which the Roman Catholic Church had served as the incubator of modernity, perfecting not just the institutional forms that would become characteristic of modern societies but also that care of souls that brought the faithful under minute and detailed clerical regulation and created the template for modern service bureaucracies.

I got to know Illich fairly well during the last fifteen years of his life – he died in 2002 – and I had the privilege of doing several extended interviews with him, two of which became books – 1992’s Ivan Illich in Conversation and the posthumous The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich, published in 2005. A third book, Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey, an account of his life and thought many years in the making, has just been published by the Penn State Press. One of the subjects I several times tried to bring up was Lovelock’s Gaia theory, a theme on which I was enthusiastic. As I said earlier, I did three lengthy interviews with Lovelock during my career at Ideas. I featured him alongside David Bohm, Ilya Prigogine, and Rupert Sheldrake in a series called “Religion and the New Science” in 1985; presented a full hour called “The Gaia Hypothesis,” in 1992; and devoted an episode of “How To Think About Science” to Lovelock’s story in 2008. Illich was not really interested, essentially refusing to discuss a theory which he claimed is “inimical to what earth is.” I found this somewhat exasperating. I wanted to discuss the merits of the theory; he insisted that there was nothing to discuss since there was no difference between “that kind of science and religion.” He said little more, but I return to these sparse remarks now, nonetheless, because I want to try and understand what it was that Illich objected to, and then to consider whether Bruno Latour’s construal of the Gaia theory gives a satisfactory answer to Illich’s objections.

Illich concluded, during the 1980’s, that the world in which he was living had reached and was passing a watershed. This change surprised him. It was, he said, “a passage [which] I had not expected, in my lifetime, to observe.”[11] A “catastrophic break” had occurred which had made “the mental space,” “the conceptual and perceptual topology,” in which we now live “non-continuous with the past.” This rupture, he. believed, had invalidated many of the assumptions on which he had based the “call for institutional revolution” that informed many of his books of the 1970’s.[12] He had thought of institutions like education or medicine as instrumental creations, brought into being to serve the purposes of a citizenry or a public who were able to use them for the purposes for which they had been designed. “I was still thinking,” he told me in 1998, “of someone who stood in front of large institutions with the idea, at least, that he could use them for the satisfaction of his own dreams, or his own needs.”[13] It followed that he could address these someones about the dangers these institutions posed when they outgrew their proper size and scale and became what Illich called radical monopolies. And it followed, further, that he could hope to assemble a political majority capable of stopping and permanently limiting this counterproductive growth. His “deschooling” proposal provides a simple example. He wanted to “disestablish” educational systems by removing their legal right to make their services compulsory. Implied was the idea of a citizenry that stood apart from such systems and was capable of evaluating them on instrumental grounds. If schools were frustrating their own stated purposes, then they could be changed.

What Illich began to notice in the 1980’s was that this instrumental logic no longer obtained. A new age had begun in which people were no longer distinct from the systems in which they took part. They had been, he supposed, “swallowed by the system.” He began to speak of the emergence of an “age of systems” or, alternately, of “an ontology of systems” in which being itself was conceived as a system.[14] The word, of course, is tricky – which isn’t? – because it can refer to anything that possesses some over-all integrity or constitutes an established way of doing things – any coherent plan or approach, from Hegel’s philosophy to someone’s special way of making coffee, can be called a system. Illich was not invoking these old meanings but pointing to something radically new – a system so total and comprehensive that there could be no ground or standpoint outside it. The very idea of a tool or an instrumental means, he argued, depended on a distinction between that tool and its user. A system in the contemporary sense incorporates its user – he/she becomes part of the system. One uses a hammer but joins a network.

Behind this distinction between tool and system lay an original historical analysis. The use of tools is often taken as a primordial and defining feature of humanity. The caveman in the museum diorama is already Man the Tool User. Some ethologists even ascribe tool use to the chimpanzees who sharpen sticks to fight or the birds who impale larvae on twigs. Illich thought differently. Until the 12th century, he said, with a few premonitory stirrings earlier, there was no general idea of tools. Tools remained inseparable from their users. Aristotle, for example, uses the same word for the tool and the hand that holds it. Tools remained attached and enculturated, limited to their accustomed uses. Then, for reasons I won’t go into here, a general science of tools began to appear. A technological revolution began. In the 12th century, even the newly defined seven sacraments were conceived as instruments or tools – peculiarly efficacious means of grace selected by theologians from the manifold blessings the Church had formerly pronounced on all the affairs of life and “used by God himself…as instrumental causes towards the desired end.”[15] The spirit of instrumentality, according to Illich, became the leading feature of the age which stretches from the 12th century to our own time, an age characterized by its “extraordinary intensity of purposefulness” and by its idea that to each end some special instrument must correspond. Even love, says Illich, becomes “an instrument for satisfaction”[16] There is nothing that is worth doing for its own sake, nothing good in itself, which will not finally be made to submit to a rational means/ends logic. Modernity, Illich says, was characterized by “the loss of gratuity.”[17] Even the word itself came to mean a negligible consideration – something beside the point, or, at most, a small addition, a tip. The good gave way to the valuable.

But this age is now ending, Illich says, succeeded by an Age of Systems. He left only a partial, sometimes disgruntled, occasionally caricatured account of this new reality, but, from scattered passages in his late works, the following outline can be assembled. I have already referred to the crucial feature: the lack of an outside. “Means of production,” to take Marx’s maximally general characterization of the ensemble of tools, can be put to any purpose – Communism was premised on the idea that changing the ownership of the means of production would be sufficient to turn the means of oppression into the means of liberation. It was already a great part of Illich’s argument in 1973’s Tools for Conviviality that this fond hope overlooked the inherent qualities of tools. “The issue at hand,” he wrote then, “is not the juridical ownership of tools, but rather the discovery of the characteristic of some tools which make it impossible for anybody to ‘own’ them. The concept of ownership cannot be applied to a tool that cannot be controlled.”[18] His solution then was to identify those tools that foster conviviality and proscribe those that lead to domination and monopoly. He spoke of “the roof of technological characteristics under which a society wants to live and be happy.”[19] This was a radical proposal, but it still implied the existence of a citizenry able to stand aside or apart from its technological array and ordain what is fit for use. Technology was no longer a neutral means in this account , but it remained a means. Systems, in the contemporary cybernetic sense, have lost this quality. A system, by definition, includes its user – there is no place to stand outside it. What disappears is what Illich sometimes called “distality,” although I don’t think the word was particularly helpful in conveying what he wanted to say. It’s a term that has its main uses in anatomy, dentistry and horticulture, where it refers to how distant something is from a defined centre or point of attachment – the growing tip of a plant is its distal portion. What Illich wanted, I think, was a term of art describing critical distance or distinction. It wasn’t a question of distality but of difference.

Illich was an apostle of otherness. His Christianity was Incarnational, and he understood the Incarnation as signifying that we encounter Christ in one another. “Whoever loves another,” he said, “loves [Christ] in the person of that other.”[20] When he spoke of the obedient listening that characterizes friendship, he described his posture as “bend[ing] over towards the total otherness of someone.” To “initiate a free relatedness,” he said, required that he “renounce searching for bridges between the other and myself [and] recognize…that a gulf separates us.” Across this gulf, “the only thing that reaches me is the other in his word, which I accept on faith.” The same point was made, again and again, in his misunderstood book Gender. Paraphrasing the argument of that book for me, he said that it described “the transition from one type of duality to another.”[21] In the first type which characterized “all worlds before our own,”[22] there were substantial differences that could be bridged only by imagination. “Otherness, even at the height of intimacy, was what gave ultimate consistency to what today we call consciousness.”[23] Modernity, for him, was defined by “the loss of the idea of otherness.” The constitutive and proportional pairs that had constituted all premodern worlds – heaven and earth, man and woman, here and there, macrocosm and microcosm – gave way to a world of universals. “The human being, the self, the individual became the model of our thinking.” The universal sustained many variations but it was fundamentally consistent. “The Cartesian inside,” Illich said, is only “a special zone within a more general space.” Goods circulate internationally without changing their character at borders. Sex circulates generally in bodies distinguished only by their plumbing.

Otherness was Illich’s great study because he believed that it is by this pathway that God’s word reaches us. The Incarnation, for him, is summed up in the saying, “the Word became flesh.”[24] In his early, more explicitly Christian writing, word is the metaphor by which he most frequently tries to express the meaning of the Christ’s appearance. Speaking of the Annunciation – the Gospel scene in which the angel tells Mary that she is to bear a divine child, a scene of crucial importance for Illich – he characterizes Mary’s stance as “openness to the Word.”[25] This openness has two aspects: one is the “silence” by which she enacts her awareness of “the distance …between…man…and God,” the other a disposition to be surprised. Distance here means difference, I think, as well as spatial extent. The angel’s greeting to Mary is homely and intimate – a domestic scene that has been evoked in countless poems, songs and paintings – and yet it crosses an unimaginable, unfathomable gulf – the ultimate otherness. This otherness, because it cannot be scrutinized or anticipated, can be disclosed only to those able to be surprised. The announcement to Mary – that God was to become “a living person, as human as you or I” – “is.” Illich writes, “a surprise, remains a surprise, and could not exist as anything else.”[26] A surprise, by definition, is what cannot be either anticipated or fully understood. It is also, for Illich, a permanent and desirable condition and not merely a momentary disorientation before we assimilate what has surprised us and learn henceforward to expect it. “Our hope of salvation,” he told the graduating class at the University of Puerto Rico in 1969, “lies in our being surprised by the Other. Let us learn always to receive further surprises. I decided long ago to hope for surprises until the final act of my life – that is to say, in death itself.”[27]

Illich claims that surprise is something more than Mary’s discomfiture at the angel’s unexpected and impossible claim. (“How can this be since I have no husband?”[28]) He says that it is the only mode in which The Incarnation can exist at all – “could not exist as anything else” – its permanent and unalterable condition. This is an inexhaustibly radical assertion. Arguably it contradicts the entire claim of Christian civilization – first to be able to discern God’s plan of salvation and, second, to be able to administer it through the Church and then through the Church’s secular descendants, the service institutions that were, as Illich says, “stamped from its mould.”[29] That’s a theme I have treated elsewhere.[30] What I want to emphasize here is that Illich’s understanding of the Incarnation hinges on otherness – the otherness of God and the otherness of the human other, as marked by that “gulf [that] separates us.” And this otherness is precisely what he thought was being lost with the unexpected “passage” into a new way of thinking, feeling and being, that “new perceptual and conceptual topology,” that startled him in the 1980’s.

Illich’s thinking throughout his life was concerned with borders, boundaries and distinctions. His entire effort in the 1970’s was aimed a writing a constitution of limits for contemporary societies. This required him to describe a boundary or a threshold at which liberal institutions turn into counter-productive “radical monopolies” which frustrate their own purposes. The “roof of technological characteristics under which a society wants to live and be happy” is another such boundary. He drew careful distinctions by which opposing domains could be divided, circumscribed, and kept to a scale at which they could be understood and controlled. He disparaged monopolies, in which one form, style, or mode predominates. The differences by which places, peoples and practices remained separate and defined were always prized. It was precisely this effort that he saw as threatened by the Age of Systems.

Modernity had continually eroded boundaries but had not challenged the boundary of the human person. Personhood, Illich says, is the idea in which Western humanism and individualism is “anchored.”[31] A person is a unique, bounded, and irreducible entity. The idea, for Illich, rests finally on the imago dei, the image of God in which we have been created, but it continues to inform Western humanism long after this creator God has been rejected and the divine spark extinguished. But, in the age of systems, Illich believed, the boundary defining the human person has been breached and erased. Systems recognize no such boundary. This breach was not made all at once at some arbitrarily chosen point in the early 1980’s. Ages overlap, and, once the idea of a new age is accepted, antecedents and precursors, auguries and portents can be discerned throughout the middle years of the 20th century. All Illich claimed was that for him this new age was sufficiently well established by the early 1980’s that its premises had become obvious and largely irresistible."