A Turbulent Priest in the Global Village Ivan Illich, 1926—2002

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The Challenges of Ivan Illich, a collection of personal reflections by friends and colleagues of this writer, teacher, radical thinker and controversial Roman Catholic priest, was published shortly before his death in December 2002.

In a thoughtful and interesting review of the book, Christopher Shannon wrote that "the essays assume a familiarity with Illich quite rare among readers under the age of 50," but "for those who read Illich 25 years ago and wonder what happened to him, this collection is a good place to start."

Much better indeed than the smugly self-referential and mean-spirited put-down published in the New York Times by way of an obituary, and a good complement to the large number of more thoughtful and intelligent tributes and recollections published since then. Particularly good among these were the obituary in the Guardian and Aaron Falbel’s In Memoriam in Peacework.

Who Was Ivan Illich?

Because of his apparent retreat into silence and the official neglect of his work over the last 30 years, many of today’s readers may not even know who Ivan Illich was. For many of those who did know and were influenced by his work, the obituary notices and tributes jolted the memory, and left many wondering what had happened to him since the heady countercultural days of the books which made him, for a time, a global intellectual celebrity: Deschooling Society (1971), Tools for Conviviality (1973) and, above all, Medical Nemesis (1975).

With these books Illich generally subverted and questioned the holiest trinity of modernity’s sacred cows: school, technological and developmental progress, and the medical establishment.

His fundamental argument, widely admired in some quarters and ridiculed and caricatured in others, was that once our institutions developed beyond a certain scale, they became perverse, counterproductive to the beneficial ends for which they were originally conceived. The end result of this paradoxical counter-productivity was schools which make people dumb, complacent and unquestioning; hospitals which produce disease; prisons which make people violent; travel at high speed which creates traffic jams; and u2018aid and development’ agencies which create more and more u2018needy’ and u2018underconsuming’ people.

Paradoxes

Part of the problem is that Illich’s work does not come easily. His erudition and the fiery complexity of his style and thought make it difficult to unravel the many threads in his polemics. The other part of the problem is that undermining long-inculcated certainties in people’s lives tends to create anxiety in them, especially when the critique of those certainties rings true, but they do not know what to do about it. Too often the response is simple denial.

The fact is that he was in himself a succession of paradoxes:

  • He was a highly trained Roman Catholic priest who had studied at the Gregorian University in Rome and was expected to go far in the Church, yet he fell out with the powers in that Church, incurring the disapproval of the Vatican.
  • He was a polymath who craved simplicity, and increasingly came to see and appreciate it in the customs and institutions of earlier, vanished times and places less touched by the ravages of u2018progress.’
  • He was a polyglot, speaking any number of languages, but could not abide the sloppy use of any one language, firmly resisting what one writer has called u2018the cultural devastation of impoverished language.’ As a result, he seriously discombobulated eager but inarticulate new arrivals who showed up at his missionary training center in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in the late 1960s, and later complained about the u2018self-conscious, self-important, colorless mumbling that, after a long stay in villages in South America and Southeast Asia, always shocks me when I visit an American college..’
  • He never wore a watch, believing it needlessly forced an artificial structure on our lives, but was always asking how much time he had before he had to catch a plane or give a lecture.
  • He was a traveler at jet-age transportation speeds who advocated the measured speed and humbler energy efficiency of the bicycle.
  • He was, in his own words, a u2018wandering Jew and Christian pilgrim’ — born of a Sephardic Jewish mother and a Christian Dalmatian (Croatian) father. For his part-Jewish ancestry in 1941 he was expelled from Vienna, his birthplace and home, by the National Socialist state.

Small wonder therefore that, even in death, Illich has been both praised and abused. To this day people having difficulty making him out, and those who have had particularist, factional expectations of him, such as feminists and coercive environmentalists, have emerged sorely disappointed from the revelation that, despite his trenchant criticisms of the status quo, he was not partial to their cause.

Thus it is that he has been described with a bewildering variety of names: radical, reactionary, leftist, conservative, Marxist-lite, anarchist, liberation theologist, prophet, guru, convivial guru, teacher, dreamer, thinker, philosopher, non-conformist, critic of institutions, intellectual sniper, and man of mystery — even u2018libertarian.’

Maybe he was all of these things, but another friend, Lowell Levin, writing about him after his death, expresses the opinion that all these seeming contradictions were u2018really set up to turn our minds around. [Illich] despised linear thinking, and worked to rid us of it whenever and however he could."

The Roman Catholic priest

Ivan Illich was, first and foremost, trained to be a priest. An important truth which some commentators are now starting to perceive is that, despite his break with the Church, he never let go of the austere personal discipline this training had given him. It informed all of his work, and indeed his attitudes to life and death.

He came to the United States in the early 1950s, to work with Puerto Rican immigrants at Incarnation Parish in the Washington Heights section of New York City. Here already he viewed the task of ministering to parishioners’ needs not as trying to improve or uplift them, but as u2018presence’ — being with them and helping them u2018to sustain their traditional liturgical and devotional practices in their new environment.’

I believe Illich’s increased concern, later in life, with the just measure of things, and with the appropriate ways of suffering and dying, and how the modern world has sought to control, manage and sterilize these so that most Westerners are damagingly isolated and protected from them in their day-to-day existence, should also be seen in the light of his own priestly training, and his awareness that suffering and pain have traditionally always been seen as a part of life. They cannot simply be willed away by a Promethean impulse to sanitize and control everything and everyone.

The Critic of Institutions, and the Tyranny of Good Intentions

Influenced by those he had met during his time in New York, and subsequently at the Catholic University of Ponce in Puerto Rico, Illich had begun to write polemical essays from the late 1960s onwards. They appeared in Saturday Review, the New York Review of Books and similar journals. An early collection was published in 1970 under the title Celebration of Awareness — A Call for Institutional Revolution.

The book’s title was faddy, but the content was explosive. Illich always had a knack for catching the reader’s attention with his opening lines, and those of its second chapter were telling:

"The compulsion to do good is an innate American trait. Only North Americans seem to believe that they always should, may, and actually can choose somebody with whom to share their blessings. Ultimately this attitude leads to bombing people into the acceptance of gifts."

One has only to think of the confessedly counterproductive US Air Force food drops in Afghanistan in late 2001 to realize the prophetic truth of this remark.

"Each chapter in this volume," Illich wrote in the foreword, "records an effort of mine to question the nature of some certainty. Each therefore deals with deception — the deception embodied in one of our institutions. Institutions create certainties, and taken seriously, certainties deaden the heart and shackle the imagination. It is always my hope that my statements, angry or passionate, artful or innocent, will also provoke a smile, and thus a new freedom — even though the freedom come at a cost."

Those statements were soon to become more focused, with blistering effect, on the institution of school, and later on the medical establishment.

On Education and Learning

Many reckon Deschooling Society to have been Illich’s best work. It certainly placed him firmly in the limelight of educational and learning theory, and has had a lasting influence which can be seen in the work of such as John Taylor Gatto, Joel Spring and John L. McKnight (who worked with Illich), the homeschooling movement in general, and many others. Here is the opening paragraph:

"Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby ‘schooled’ to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is ‘schooled’ to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve those ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question."

Deschooling Society was primarily a call for disestablishment — not only of school, but of the institutions which we believe do us good simply because we have come to believe — falsely — that they necessarily embody and fulfil the original stated purpose of the beneficial function we attribute to them.

Our failure is that we have abdicated to the u2018experts’ who work in those institutions our personal responsibility for thinking and acting in our own lives.

Their failure is the failure to consider the unintended consequences, the elements of human action and human nature which foil all best-laid plans and systems, especially the well-intentioned ones.

Illich would have argued, however, that we cannot and should not even attempt to plan, program and control life in this way: instead, we should relish and prepare ourselves for the surprises that life brings.

In a graduation speech he gave in Puerto Rico during his time as vice-rector of the Catholic University, he said:

"Education implies a growth of an independent sense of life and a relatedness which go hand in hand with increased access to, and use of, memories stored in the human community. The educational institution provides a focus for this process. This presupposes a place within the society in which each of us is awakened by surprise; a place of encounter in which others surprise me with their liberty and make me aware of my own. The university itself, if it is to be worthy of its traditions, must be an institution whose purposes are identified with the exercise of liberty, whose autonomy is based on public confidence in the use of that liberty.

My friends, it is your task to surprise yourselves, and us, with the education you succeed in inventing for your children. Our hope of salvation 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."

On Health, Medicine, Life and Death

In 1974—5 Illich set his sights on the medical establishment which, in the now famous opening words of Medical Nemesis, had "become a major threat to health." The book upset and disturbed many a doctor, and caused many medical students to pause and seriously consider what they were doing.

"A professional and physician-based health care system which has grown beyond tolerable bounds is sickening for three reasons: it must produce clinical changes which outweigh its potential benefits; it cannot but obscure the political conditions which render society unhealthy; and it tends to expropriate the power of the individual to heal himself and to shape his or her environment. The medical and para-medical monopoly over hygienic methodology and technology is a glaring example of the political misuse of scientific achievements to strengthen industrial rather than personal growth. Such medicine is but a device to convince those who are sick and tired of society that it is they who are ill, impotent and in need of technical repair."

Public health professional Alex Scott-Samuel comments:

"Ivan Illich was well ahead of his time in identifying and classifying the health hazards of the u2018medicalisation of society.’ …He used medicine as an example of his general thesis that industrialisation and bureaucracy were appropriating areas of life previously regarded as personal. In particular, he identified how drugs and other medical technologies remove personal responsibility for suffering and create dependence on health care, which itself has a wide range of hazardous side effects."

Richard Smith, editor of the British Medical Journal, in commenting that Illich’s radical polemic of 1975 has by 2002 become almost mainstream, adds:

"Health, argues Illich, is the capacity to cope with the human reality of death, pain and sickness. Technology can help, but modern medicine has gone too far — launching into a god-like battle to eradicate death, pain and sickness. In doing so, it turns people into consumers or objects, destroying their capacity for health….

Illich sees three levels of iatrogenesis (doctor-induced disease). Clinical iatrogenesis is the injury done to patients by ineffective, toxic and unsafe treatments… Illich points out that 7% of patients suffer injuries while hospitalised….. Social iatrogenesis results from the medicalisation of life. More and more of life’s problems are seen as amenable to medical intervention. Pharmaceutical companies develop expensive treatments for non-diseases…

Worse than all this.. is cultural iatrogenesis, the destruction of traditional ways of dealing with and making sense of death, pain and sickness. "A society’s image of death," argues Illich, "reveals the level of independence of its people, their personal relatedness, self-reliance, and aliveness." For Illich, ours is a morbid society…."

I believe Illich would have derived little satisfaction from the many facts of 21st-century life which provide ample confirmation of the validity of his theories: antibiotic-resistant strains of disease, hospital-induced illnesses and deaths, the barrage of Viagra and Cialis ads which plague e-mail inboxes and the studied media sanitisation of the death and long-term destruction being wrought in the Middle East, even on America’s own soldiers.

On the Rain Dance of Development

Illich fundamentally mistrusted the goals of infinite progress and economic development as implemented by aid agencies and the like, and especially ideas such as u2018sustainable development,’ which he felt was just one more mechanism of artificial control, leading mainly to a mushrooming of self-perpetuating international bureaucratic organizations.

Statistical arguments for the impossibility of achieving universal living standards based on the indices prevailing in the US and other u2018developed’ economies, let alone anything approximating to them, are liberally sprinkled throughout his work. He best summed up his views on this in 1981:

"Development based on high per capita energy quanta and intense professional care is the most pernicious of the West’s missionary efforts — a project guided by an ecologically unfeasible conception of human control over nature, and by an anthropologically vicious attempt to replace the nests and snakepits of culture by sterile wards for professional service. The hospitals that spew out the newborn and reabsorb the dying, the schools run to busy the unemployed before, between and after jobs, the apartment towers where people are stored between trips to the supermarkets, the highways connecting garages form a pattern tattooed into the landscape during the short development spree. These institutions, designed for lifelong bottle babies wheeled from medical centre to school to office to stadium, begin now to look as anomalous as cathedrals, albeit unredeemed by any aesthetic charm."

— Vernacular Values (Shadow Work) — 1981

Illich was also intensely critical of the notion of the u2018developed’ world’s institutions catering to u2018underdeveloped’ people’s needs. Implicitly he criticized the consensus which emerged in the US in the late 1950s and 1960s that "most people are needy, these needs give them rights, these rights translate into entitlements for care, and therefore impose duties on the rich and powerful." In his unpublished essay entitled u2018Needs’ (1990), he wrote:

"No matter where you travel, the landscape is recognizable; all over the world it is cluttered with cooling towers and parking lots, agribusiness and megacities. But now that development ends — earth was the wrong planet for this kind of building — the growth projects rapidly turn into ruins, junk among which we must learn to live. Twenty years ago, the consequences of growth worship already appeared u2018counterintuitive'; today, Time (magazine) publicizes them with apocalyptic cover stories. And no one knows how to live with depletion, pollution, the breakdown of various immunities, rising sea levels and annual wanderings of fugitives in the range of millions. Simply to address these issues, one is caught in the impossible dilemma of fostering either panic or cynicism. But even more difficult than to survive with these u2018environmental’ changes is the horror of living with the habits of needing which four decades of development have established. The needs that the rain dance of development kindled not only justified the despoliation and poisoning of the earth, they also acted on an even deeper level. They transmogrified human nature. They reshaped the mind and senses of homo sapiens into those of homo miserabilis. u2018Basic needs’ may be the most insidious legacy left behind by development."

Illich and the Philosophy of Technology

Carl Mitcham, perhaps the foremost philosopher of technology of our times, and former director of the Science-Technology-Society Program at Pennsylvania State University where Illich also taught in his later years, was an important influence on him and has written eloquently of their friendship. He also clarifies the nature of Illich’s thinking in the last decade of his life:

"He increasingly questioned the notions of environmental responsibility and the new ideology of life. Calls for environmental responsibility were, he argued, just another excuse for advancing a technological management of the world, and even pro-life movements gave too much ground to science, when they defined human life as originating with a conception that could not be directly experienced. What was at work in history was a counterproductivity writ large. [He] fingered [this] with a Latin phrase, corruptio optimi quae est pessima, the corruption of the best is the worst. Contemporary attempts to better the human condition ultimately undermined their own ends. In the face of such temptations, one must seek out new forms of asceticism, silence, and withdrawal."

Illich had first set out what he saw as the need for simpler, more balanced goals in Tools for Conviviality (1973). Contrary to those environmentalists who wished to claim him for themselves, Illich was rational and sober in his assessment:

"Honesty requires that we each recognize the need to limit procreation, consumption and waste, but equally we must radically reduce our expectations that machines will do our work for us or that therapists can make us learned or healthy. The only solution to the environmental crisis is the shared insight of people that they would be happier if they could work together and care for each other. Such an inversion of the current world view requires intellectual courage, for it exposes us to the unenlightened yet painful criticism of being not only anti-people and against economic progress, but equally against liberal education and scientific and technological advance. We must face the fact that the imbalance between man and the environment is just one of several mutually reinforcing stresses, each distorting the balance of life in a different dimension. In this view, overpopulation is the result of a distortion in the balance of learning, dependence on affluence is the result of a radical monopoly of institutional over personal values, and faulty technology is inexorably consequent upon a transformation of means into ends."

In a key section of the book, Illich lays out his objection to "overprogramming," which occurs when centralization and specialization grow beyond a certain point and require highly programmed operators and clients. In this situation, "more of what each man must know is due to what another man has designed" and "the combination of widely shared information and competence for using it, [which] is characteristic of society in which convivial tools prevail" is gradually lost. When this happens, people start to demand to be managed and skill-trained, defer to experts for solving their own troubles (and then too readily blame them when that policy inevitably fails), and lose interest in what goes on around them:

"Observations of the sickening effect of programmed environments show that people in them become indolent, impotent, narcissistic and apolitical. The political process breaks down, because people cease to be able to govern themselves; they demand to be managed." — Silence is a Commons’ (1983)

Self-government and the just measure of proportionality

This theme of personal autonomy and a certain austere self-government runs like a silver thread through Illich’s work. I use u2018austere’ in the sense to which Illich refers in Tools for Conviviality, defined by Thomas Aquinas as a virtue which does not exclude all enjoyments, but only those which are distracting from or destructive of personal relatedness. For Thomas u2018austerity’ is a complementary part of a more embracing virtue, which he calls friendship or joyfulness.

Illich wrote, "I believe that if something like a political life is to remain for us in this world of technology, then it begins with friendship. Therefore my task is to cultivate disciplined, self-denying, careful, tasteful friendships."

It was to this task, and to an exploration of the historical, religious and mythical beginnings of modern institutions, that I discovered Illich had devoted the latter part of his life. Far from disappearing, he had produced a substantial body of work after his period of celebrity in the early 1970s.

The Archaeologist of Modernity

In fact, he had embarked on a fantastic intellectual and spiritual journey through the history of ideas, going back into medieval times and even earlier, becoming a surprising u2018archaeologist of modernity': one who, concerned with the long-term adverse effects on the human spirit of the underlying assumptions of our technocentric age, sought to trace the origins of the ideas which had brought that age into being, and which he had so sharply critiqued in his books.

Some have argued that in this journey back in time Illich was turning into a reactionary. I believe this is too simplistic an interpretation. His abiding concern, which is hardly even conservative, was that modern, man-made institutions, in alleviating or mending certain problems of life in the past such as disease and poverty, should not end up swamping the free human spirit and our relationships with each other. Such deadly control materializes when those institutions and the often well-meaning endeavours of their officers become ends in themselves, rather than means to a finer end.

Philia — The Gift of Loving Friendship

More than this, I also discovered the more intimate value of the later, less well-known material: the often intensely personal accounts of how Illich, through the practice of an involved, understanding and loving friendship, had inspired certain individuals to self-realization and self-reliance, against the hostile backdrop of what he himself called u2018managerial fascism’ — the bureaucratic-managerial culture which has increasingly taken the management of people’s lives away from them, entrusting it to state-approved and accredited educators, carers, and experts.

Illich would not have denied the sincerity of many of those professionals, but typically he would have said that (a) their ministrations were not for him, nor for any self-respecting, whole human being and (b) it was the most sincere and the best-intentioned who ended up doing the most harm — because of the generally unobserved perversity and ultimate irrationality of the underlying dynamics of the institutions in which they u2018serve.’

This subtle and invasive process, driving humanity to ever-increasing control and artificiality in life, ultimately leads many people (today increasingly defined as users or consumers of services rather than autonomous human beings) to a sincere belief that alienation — giving away control over the whole of their own lives to others — is not only in their best interests, but that they need and are entitled to it.

And so are the sheeple led to the slaughter.

Literacy and Communication

Illich’s sometime collaborator and friend Barry Sanders, co-author of ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind, has described a revealing incident where Illich hammered home to an audience his wariness of technology and his concerns about the death of books and reading.

"At one point during a talk in Maine, in the midst of Ivan describing his mistrust of electronic technology and in particular his terror of e-mail, a young man leapt to his feet and shouted out, u2018But, Mr. Illich, don’t you want to communicate with us?’ Ivan immediately shouted back, u2018No. I have absolutely no desire to communicate with you. You may not interact with me, nor do I wish to be downloaded by you. I should like very much to talk to you, to stare at the tip of your nose, to embrace you. But to communicate — for that I have no desire.’ Illich taught one to be fearless — on stage or in the audience."

While Illich was no doubt right about how impersonal electronic communication can be, I think with a little bit of coaxing he might have come to see that a form of technology — the world wide web of the Internet — does have benefits in terms of creating and linking communities of like-minded individuals all over the world. Indeed he himself had used the expression u2018learning webs’ back in 1971, as a chapter title in Deschooling Society, in which he speculated u2018whether it is possible to conceive of a different style of learning.’ Even some of his very words are prescient:

"I intend to show that we can depend on self-motivated learning instead of employing teachers to bribe or compel the student to find the time and the will to learn; that we can provide the learner with new links to the world."

"What are needed are new networks, readily available to the public and designed to spread equal opportunity for learning and teaching."

Deschooling Society — Chapter 6

Of course, as with any technological instrument, the Internet can be and is abused. Perverts and paedophiles can also meet online. The subsequent instinct to regulate and institutionalize it, however, in order to prevent such abuse, is fatal, and we should resist the understandable impulse, in this sphere of life as in every other, to satisfy our call for u2018something to be done about it’ by controlling and restricting the thing to death.

The solution, Illich would say, is all about proper discrimination, about proportion and the just measure of things: we should educate ourselves, our children and our students to use the tools and mechanisms available to us in a moderate, discriminating, wise and justly proportioned way, not allowing them to take us over and become ends in themselves, and always remaining vigilant of their tendency to create dependency and addiction. "The truth of beauty and goodness is not a matter of size, nor even of dimensions or intensity, but of proportion," he wrote in his 1997 essay, u2018The Wisdom of Leopold Kohr.’

Conclusion — A Bridge Too Far

Ivan Illich was a holy man and prophet. Like all prophets, in his life and work he attacked and punctured many manifestations of absurd human pretentiousness, for which he will never be forgiven — from the inflated, thoroughly modern, managerial-bureaucratic ego imbued with the virtuous notion of doing good to others through service to the state, to political and social engineers, to techno-geeks addicted in perpetuity to the latest wizardry.

He also inspired many others to live, to love, to find their calling and, again in his own words, to u2018cultivate conspiracy’ — in the Latin sense of conspirare, to breathe together in life — for which, in my estimation at least, he will never be forgotten.

Reading him can be electrifying and inspirational, yet the task of disentangling the many strands in his life and work, and the influence he has had, is like trying to comb the head of Medusa. Having had the presumption to embark on it and get this far, I beg the reader’s indulgence for my realization, in the end, that an essay such as this cannot do it justice.

So I strongly recommend you try out some of the links below. They lead to a large volume of available material on, and by, Ivan Illich. Because so much of it is warm, personal recollection, it not only fills the gaps which the rather threadbare official record has left, whether consciously or otherwise, but helps to show how the memory and soul of Ivan Illich lives on in the lives and work of his friends, colleagues and collaborators.

Ivan Illich, a man who belonged to many nations and yet to no particular nation, was a turbulent priest in the global village. He disturbed the sheep, who mostly just want a quiet life, offended the shepherds, who believe in their own righteous virtue and selflessness, and he set many a passer-by on fire.

The gnomes may have silenced him for a time, but more likely, it seems to me, he himself finally decided to retreat into a more personal sphere where, like Albert J. Nock before him, who also was once ordained a churchman (in the Episcopal Church) but gave it up, and also believed in u2018doing the right thing‘ for liberty, he could mingle and thrive in a community of scholars and the "fellowship of fine minds in all parts of the globe."

I am convinced that this fellowship and that community will not only keep the memory of Ivan Illich alive for a long time to come, but will continue to provide a place of conversation and encounter u2018in which others surprise me with their liberty and make me aware of my own.’

January 2, 2005

Links and References

Books by Ivan Illich — a Selection

Articles by Ivan Illich — a Selection

Articles and Books about Ivan Illich

Related reading

Other Resources with links to more articles by and about Ivan Illich

Appendix: Ivan Illich in his own words — a selection of quotes

On u2018environmental justice':

"Everyone knows about the issues: people in the industrial system not only need, but also consume and use up, nature. Further, they leave behind, not only their s__t and dead bodies, but also poisonous mountains of ashes. Trash is not an occasional side effect, but an essential trait common to all forms of modern technology. Progress, then, might be better understood and gauged according to the ways nature is consumed rather than by looking at the increasing distance between wealth and poverty. Questions of social justice may actually be a distraction, hindering thought about real solutions. It’s true that the average American and European exhaust nature with an intensity hardly imaginable to the poor of the world. And those who gather to discuss such matters are altogether atypical — they are experts. Being such, the protection of nature obligates them to exploit nature — through sophisticated travel and meeting facilities — far beyond the public average. But these kinds of consideration may be a smokescreen."

~ The Wisdom of Leopold Kohr — 1997

On improvement schemes promoted by politicians:

"The aim to make life better — vulgarly understood as the politician’s promise to continually raise the standard of living — has played havoc with the search for the appropriate proportionate, harmonious or, plainly, good life. The quest for such a life is easily written off by some academic intellectuals as overly simplistic or even irresponsible. To cut through the verbiage of their prose, I see that only sober, unsentimental vernacular rhetoric can possibly demonstrate the ultimate character of complex mathematical modeling or related systems management. All such conceptual schemes are incompatible with the pursuit of faith and love. These abstract artefacts, typical of our time, are much more subtly and intimately powerful as obstacles to the understanding of revealed truth than any historic res bellica or res mechanica."

~ Philosophy, Artefacts, Friendship — 1996

On economic development and underdevelopment:

"No matter where you travel, the landscape is recognizable; all over the world it is cluttered with cooling towers and parking lots, agribusiness and megacities. But now that development ends — earth was the wrong planet for this kind of building — the growth projects rapidly turn into ruins, junk among which we must learn to live. Twenty years ago, the consequences of growth worship already appeared u2018counterintuitive'; today, Time (magazine) publicizes them with apocalyptic cover stories. And no one knows how to live with depletion, pollution, the breakdown of various immunities, rising sea levels and annual wanderings of fugitives in the range of millions. Simply to address these issues, one is caught in the impossible dilemma of fostering either panic or cynicism. But even more difficult than to survive with these u2018environmental’ changes is the horror of living with the habits of needing which four decades of development have established. The needs that the rain dance of development kindled not only justified the despoliation and poisoning of the earth, they also acted on an even deeper level. They transmogrified human nature. They reshaped the mind and senses of homo sapiens into those of homo miserabilis. u2018Basic needs’ may be the most insidious legacy left behind by development."

The idea of development entered Western political discourse through the Inaugural Address of Harry Truman in 1949. Truman sounded altogether credible when he advocated the need to intervene in foreign nations with u2018industrial progress’ in order to u2018raise the standard of living’ in the u2018underdeveloped areas.’ He did not mention revolution. His aim was to u2018lighten the burden of the poor.’ And this could be accomplished by u2018producing more food, more clothing, more materials for housing and more mechanical power.’ He and his advisors saw u2018greater production as the key to prosperity and peace.’

When Truman spoke, poverty — in terms of a market economy — was still the common lot of the overwhelming majority in the world. Surprisingly, a few nations appeared to have overcome this fate, thereby stimulating the desire in other to do the same. Truman’s common sense led him to believe that a universal law of progress was applicable, not only to isolated individuals or groups, but also to humanity at large through national economies. Thus he used the term u2018underdeveloped’ for collective social entities, and spoke of the need to create u2018an economic base’ capable of meeting u2018the expectations which the modern world has aroused’ in people all over the planet.

Twelve years later, Americans heard that u2018…people in huts and villages of half the globe struggle to break the bonds of mass misery […] we pledge to help them to help themselves [..] we pledge this, not because we seek their votes, but because it is the right thing.’ Thus spoke John F. Kennedy in his Inaugural Address. The statement symbolized an emerging consensus in the US that most people are needy, these needs give them rights, these rights translate into entitlements for care, and therefore impose duties on the rich and powerful."

"Progress reveals its face when it is understood, basically, as a revolt against necessity."

~ Needs (unfinished manuscript) — 1990

"Development based on high per capita energy quanta and intense professional care is the most pernicious of the West’s missionary efforts — a project guided by an ecologically unfeasible conception of human control over nature, and by an anthropologically vicious attempt to replace the nests and snakepits of culture by sterile wards for professional service. The hospitals that spew out the newborn and reabsorb the dying, the schools run to busy the unemployed before, between and after jobs, the apartment towers where people are stored between trips to the supermarkets, the highways connecting garages form a pattern tattooed into the landscape during the short development spree. These institutions, designed for lifelong bottle babies wheeled from medical centre to school to office to stadium begin now to look as anomalous as cathedrals, albeit unredeemed by any aesthetic charm."

~ Vernacular Values (Shadow Work) — 1981

Later views on health and responsibility:

"Physicians are taught today to consider themselves responsible for lives from the moment the egg is fertilized through the time of organ harvest. They have become the socially responsible professional manager not of a patient, but of a life from sperm to worm. Physicians have become the bureaucrats of the brave new biocracy that rules from womb to tomb."

"Health and responsibility have been made largely impossible from a technical point of view. This was not clear to me when I wrote Medical Nemesis, and perhaps was not yet the case at that time. In hindsight, it was a mistake to understand health as the quality of "survival," and as the "intensity of coping behavior."

Adaptation to the misanthropic genetic, climatic, chemical and cultural consequences of growth is now described as health. Neither the Galenic-Hippocratic representations of balance, nor the Enlightenment utopia of a right to "health and happiness," nor any Vedic or Chinese concepts of well-being, have anything to do with survival in a technical system.

"Health" as function, process, mode of communication; health as an orienting behavior which requires management — these belong with those post-industrial conjuring formulas which suggestively connote much, but denote nothing that can be grasped. And as soon as health is addressed, it has already turned into a sense-destroying pathogen, a member of a word family which Uwe Poerksen calls plastic words, word husks which one can wave around, making oneself important, but which can say or do nothing.

The situation is similar with responsibility, although to demonstrate this is much more difficult. In a world which worships an ontology of systems, ethical responsibility is reduced to a legitimizing formality. The poisoning of the world is not the result of an irresponsible decision, but rather of our individual presence, as when traveling by airplane or commuting on the freeway, in an unjustifiable web of interconnections. It would be politically nave, after health and responsibility have been made technically impossible, to somehow resurrect them through inclusion into a personal project; some kind of resistance is demanded.

Instead of brutal self-enforcement maxims, the new health requires the smooth integration of my immune system into a socio-economic world system. Being asked for responsibility is, when seen more clearly, a demand for the destruction of sense and self. And this proposed self-assignment to a system stands in stark contrast to suicide. It demands self-extinction in a world hostile to death.

Precisely because I favor those renunciations which an a-mortal society would label suicide, I must publicly expose the idealization of "healthy" self-integration.

To demand that our children feel well in the world which we leave them is an insult to their dignity. Then to impose on them responsibility for their own health is to add baseness to the insult."

On Health — a manifesto for u2018hygienic autonomy':

Let us look at the conditions of our households and communities, not at the quality of "health care" delivery; health is not a deliverable commodity and care does not come out of a system.

I demand certain liberties for those who would celebrate living rather than preserve "life":

  • the liberty to declare myself sick;
  • the liberty to refuse any and all medical treatment at any time;
  • the liberty to take any drug or treatment of my own choosing; the
    liberty to be treated by the person of my choice, that is, by
    anyone in the community who feels called to the practice of
    healing, whether that person be an acupuncturist, a homeopathic
    physician, a neurosurgeon, an astrologer, a witch doctor, or
    someone else;
  • the liberty to die without diagnosis.

I do not believe that countries need a national u2018health’ policy, something given to their citizens. Rather, the latter need the courageous virtue to face certain truths:

  • we will never eliminate pain;
  • we will not cure all disorders;
  • we will certainly die.

Therefore, as sensible creatures, we must face the fact that the pursuit of health may be a sickening disorder. There are no scientific, technological solutions. There is the daily task of accepting the fragility and contingency of the human situation. There are reasonable limits which must be placed on conventional u2018health’ care. We urgently need to define anew what duties belong to us as persons, what pertains to our communities, what we relinquish to the state.

Yes, we suffer pain, we become ill, we die. But we also hope, laugh, celebrate; we know the joy of caring for one another; often we are healed and we recover by many means. We do not have to pursue the path of the flattening out of human experience.

I invite all to shift their gaze, their thoughts, from worrying about health care to cultivating the art of living. And, today, with equal importance, to the art of suffering, the art of dying.

~ Brave New Biocracy: Health Care from Womb to Tomb — 1994

On the paradox of atmosphere (in connection with the closing down of CIDOC in Cuernavaca in 1976)

[I am certain] that a hospitable atmosphere invites institutionalization by which it will be corrupted.

~ The Cultivation of Conspiracy — 1998

On gender:

"At the end of the 20th century, the modern myth of sexual equality has finally triumphed completely over the complementarity of gender, in which the plurality of cultures — distinct ways of living, dying and suffering — was rooted. The reign of vernacular gender marked a profoundly different mode of existence than what prevails under what I call the regime of economic sex. They are male/female dualities of a very different kind: Economic sex is the duality of one plus one, creating a coupling of exactly the same kind; gender is the duality of two parts that make a whole which is unique, novel, nonduplicable.

By u2018economic sex’ I mean the duality that stretches toward the illusory goal of economic, political, legal and social equality. Male and female are neutered economic agents, stripped of any quality other than the functions of consumer and worker.

By u2018complementary gender’ I mean the eminently local and time-bound duality that sets off men and women under circumstances that prevent them from saying, doing, desiring, or perceiving u2018the same thing.’ Together they create a whole which cannot be reduced to the sum of equal, merely interchangeable parts; a whole made of two hands, each of a different nature."

~ The Sad Loss of Gender — 1990

On the eco-systemic way of thinking (coercive environmentalism):

"I cannot conceive of a metaphysical ecology. I have neither the heart nor the brain to let a Green Khomeini become something tangible for me.

… in the ecological discourse, ecology is no longer the [ancient and time-honoured] correlation between living forms and their habitat, and between one another. Rather, it signifies a cybernetic system of separate entities that defines, regulates and sustains itself as a unity. Life is now equated with the system and is the abstract fetish that overshadows it.

The self-regulating system of life thus becomes the model for opposing industrial destruction.

…This idea of life leads to an administrative-intensive ecology. In an attempt to come to grips with Nemesis, man expands his measureless presumption to the management of the cosmos!

It is a very seductive idea; it simplifies everything; it makes us certain of life. In the name of nature, ecology idolizes Promethean man."

~ The Shadow that the Future Throws — 1989

On the u2018implosion of science fetishism’ in the university, which has caused "the collapse of literature into deconstructive fetishism, the collapse of biology into genetic engineering, the collapse of language studies into communications and, most critically, the vanishing of science into engineering."

On his explorations into the past:

"I cannot be careful enough in the choice of my words to avoid being misunderstood. …I speak about what has been, I try to describe what has been forgotten, because I hope that I may in some way recover its essence without giving up the enormous beauty and wealth of the bibliophilia of my nurture in youth and pleasure in my adult teaching. My argument is not a lamentation, but a cautionary tale. The new scribal product has decisively distanced later generations from lectio divina, which can only be practised today as a form of heroism by small circles of committed friends."

"Our academic faculties are split between those who would assign to the university the task of higher information management and facility of communications, and those who treasure the university mainly as the milieu of freedom allowing us to create niches of intense face-to-face inquiry, controversy and conversation."

~ Text and University — 1991

On speaking clearly and articulately, and not mumbling:

"In most cultures, we know that speech resulted from conversation embedded in everyday life, from listening to fights and lullabies, gossip, stories, and dreams. Even today, the majority of people in poor countries learn all their language skills without any paid tutorship, without any attempt whatsoever to teach them how to speak. And they learn to speak in a way that nowhere compares with the self-conscious, self-important, colorless mumbling that, after a long stay in villages in South America and Southeast Asia, always shocks me when I visit an American college. I feel sorrow for those students whom education has made tone deaf; they have lost the faculty for hearing the difference between the desiccated utterance of standard television English and the living speech of the unschooled. What else can I expect, though, from people who are not brought up at a mother’s breast, but on formula? — on tinned milk, if they are from poor families, and on a brew prepared under the nose of Ralph Nader if they are born among the enlightened? For people trained to choose between packaged formulas, mother’s breast appears as just one more option. And in the same way, for people who were intentionally taught to listen and to speak, untutored vernacular seems just like another, albeit less developed, model among many."

~ Vernacular Values (Shadow Work) — 1981

On death:

"The ability to die one’s own death depends on the depth of one’s embodiment. Medicalisation spelled dependence, not disembodiment. Disembodied people are those who now think of themselves as lives in managed states — like the RAM drive on their personal computer. Lives do not die; they break down. You can prepareto die — as a Stoic, Epicurean, or Christian. But the breakdown of life cannot be imagined as a forthcoming intransitive action. The end of life can only be postponed. And for many, this managed postponement has been lifelong; at death, it is an uninterrupted memory. They know that life began when their mother observed a foetus on the ultrasound screen. A life, they were then anobject of environmental, educational, and biomedical health policies. Today, it is not sophisticated terminal treatment but lifelong training in misplaced concreteness that is the major obstacle to a bittersweet acceptance of our precarious existence and subsequent readiness to prepare for our own death.

When this situation is widespread, one can justifiably speak of an amortal society. There are no dead around; only the memoryof lives that are not there. The ordinary person suffers from the inability to die. In an amortal society, the ability to die — that is, the ability to live — no longer depends on culture but on friendship. The old Mediterranean norm — that a wise person needs to acquire and treasure an amicus mortis, one who tells you the bitter truth and stays with you to the inexorable end — calls for revival. And I see no compelling reason why one who practises medicine could not also be a friend — even today.

~ Death Undefeated — 1995

Richard Wall (send him mail) has a Master’s degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics & Political Science, and lives in Estoril, Portugal, where he currently works as a freelance writer and translator.

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