More than any other thinker, Illich’s work marks the paths which led me to Dark Mountain, and I continue to find it a rich ground from which to think about “the shadow that the future throws”, how we face that shadow honestly and what it means to live well in the face of it.
If the name of Ivan Illich is still familiar in certain circles, it is mostly for the books he wrote during the 1970s: ‘Deschooling Society’, ‘Tools for Conviviality’, ‘Medical Nemesis’. Brilliant critiques of the institutions of modern industrial society, for a time these texts gave him the status of an intellectual celebrity, not so different to that of Slavoj Zizek today.
From around 1980, for various reasons, he largely fell from public view. However, it is his writings from that period onwards which have influenced me most deeply. In those years, he turned his attention to a historical enquiry into the buried assumptions on which modern industrial societies were founded. He saw that the industrial age was coming to an end, and that in its ending, other ways of being and knowing the world might emerge from the shadows of history and play an unexpected role in the years ahead.
Before we parted company last week, I sat down with Sajay Samuel, one of the group that lived and travelled with Illich in the last decade of his life, to record a conversation about Illich’s understanding of those shadowed ways of being and knowing — what he termed “the vernacular”. Together, we do our best to tease out the difference between this Illichian attitude to the past, and the kind of romanticisation of a “golden age” for which it might be mistaken. From there, we trace the increasing relevance of his arguments, as the economic and ecological crises he anticipated become harder to ignore.
Since we met in Cuernavaca in 2007, at the gathering to mark the fifth anniversary of Illich’s death, I have found Sajay’s philosophical rigour a vital counterweight to my own wandering, storytelling approach to the world. I often feel like he is clearing the ground and doing the hard intellectual work which makes my own thinking and writing possible. Yet very little of his own work has made it into circulation — something I hope I can help to rectify over the next few years. As a first step towards this, it is a pleasure to be able to share our conversation, and hopefully with it a glimpse of “the cultivation of conspiracy” towards which Illich calls us:
Learned and leisurely hospitality is the only antidote to the stance of deadly cleverness that is acquired in the professional pursuit of objectively secured knowledge. I remain certain that the quest for truth cannot thrive outside the nourishment of mutual trust flowering into a commitment to friendship.
The conversation is about fifty minutes long and we do our best to explain the specific concepts and references to Illich’s work and elsewhere as they come up. But this is also a fragment from a larger conversation, stretching over many years, to which Sajay and I are making one small contribution — and to which I hope Dark Mountain, through our publications and our gatherings, can offer some hospitality. For those new to the conversation, I have added a set of references to key passages from Illich’s work, and to other parts of that wider conversation which came to mind as we spoke.
(Apologies for a few issues with the audio quality, due to wind on the microphone.)
This audio is also available to download under a CC license from the Internet Archive.
1. The concept of ‘the vernacular’ emerges as a key term in Illich’s thinking with ‘Vernacular Values’, an essay written for Stewart Brand’s Coevolution Quarterly in 1980.
2. The ‘sliding scales’ which Sajay and I discuss — between State and Market, and between Dirty and Clean technology — correspond to a diagram in that essay, on which Illich adds a third axis, between Industrial and Vernacular modes of activity.
3. When Sajay and I talk about ‘systems administrators’, we are not singling out the community of SysAdmins who keep our electronic networks running. Rather, I introduce this as a looser term for the style of management which arises when we treat the world, or ourselves, as ‘systems’. The critique of ‘the age of systems’ emerges in Illich’s later work, and is perhaps most clearly summarised in this passage from an interview with David Cayley.
4. More generally, Cayley has played an important role in documenting the conversations and ideas of Illich and his friends. Besides the two books of interviews with Illich — Ivan Illich: In Conversation and The Rivers North of the Future — there is also an excellent radio series, ‘How to Think About Science’, several of whose contributors were part of our conversations last month.
5. Two of these programmes offer case studies in the critique of systems thinking: Dean Bavington’s work on fisheries management, and in the work of Silja Samerski and Barbara Duden on the gene in popular culture.
6. In a third programme, Sajay discusses in more detail his work on the intellectual origins of modern quantitative rationality and the loss of our senses, which we touch on in the last ten minutes of our conversation. For another route through this story, see the discussion on William Petty in my dialogue with David Abram (in Dark Mountain: Issue 2 or online as a text and as a video). Abram himself spent time living with Illich and his friends at Penn State during the 1980s.
7. We also make some connections between the Epimethean attitude of ‘walking backwards into the future’ and the return of the vernacular, something I’ve written more about in ‘Remember the Future?’ (in Dark Mountain: Issue 2 or online here).
8. For the critique of ‘the view from nowhere’, which Sajay and I touch on, check out the recording and transcript of my talk from Nature Inc?, ‘It’s wrong to wish on space hardware: The power and failure of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth mythos’. This is a theme I will be returning to in my contribution to the commemoration and reexamination of the Luddites at this year’s Dark Mountain festival. (By the way, it’s worth underlining – in the light of that talk – that Illich’s first statement on “the vernacular” was written in response to a request from Brand.)
10. Finally, for a broader sense of the many paths explored by what I like to think of as the Illich Conspiracy, the website Thinking After Illich gathers together the work of some of his friends and co-conspirators.