The Challenges of Ivan Illich

I was first challenged by Ivan Illich (September 4, 1926 – December 2, 2002) when I heard him interviewed by David Cayley for a CBC Radio IDEAS program called “Part Moon Part Travelling Salesman” which aired in 1989. Subsequently I was challenged by his writings, in particular, his work Tools for Conviviality, a manifesto originally published in 1973 against technologies that advance the industrialization of systems such as education, transportation and health care. Thus, he became one of those extremely influential thinkers, along with Martin Heidegger and Jacques Ellul, who permeate my own thought but rarely receive mention in my own work. This is not a matter of tacit plagiarism. It is simply that some authors have changed me in a way that is radical and at the same time impossible to pin down to quotations. Sometimes the impact of a good book is like the inspiration of a dear friend whose influence is appreciated yet difficult to articulate. I myself never met Ivan Illich, and given the fact that he died almost a year ago, I can say that I never will meet him. However, a few months before he died, two of his friends, Lee Hoinacki and Carl Mitcham edited and published The Challenges of Ivan Illich: A Collective Reflection, containing 19 essays written by friends of Illich and a transcript of an address given by Illich. In this way, this diverse group of friends, who range from students and activists to publishers and professors, attempts to articulate how Illich influenced them.

In Part I: Introductions, the editors each take their turn. Hoinacki’s essay focuses on the challenge of reading, interpreting and teaching the works of Illich given that his interdisciplinary approach has led to his being identified at various times as a social critic, a historian, a philosopher and a theologian, which, I might add, is one reason why it is next to impossible to find his books in one section of a bookstore. Mitcham’s essay describes how Illich became widely read in the 1970s through the publishing of Deschooling Society (1971), Tools for Conviviality (1973), Energy and Equity (1974), Medical Nemesis (1976) and Toward a History of Needs (1978). Although he continued to publish in the 1980s, with books such as Shadow Work (1981) and Gender (1982), in the 1990s, with books such as In the Vineyard of the Text (1993), his earlier works remain among his best known. Mitcham also presents a summary of some of the central issues in Illich’s thought ranging from social criticism to cultural lament, concluding with an annotated bibliography. For those who are unfamiliar with Illich’s works, the chapter is an excellent introduction, and for those who are familiar with them, it is a something of a celebration.

In Part II: The Person, five contributors present their personal relationships with Illich and offer much in the way of biography. In Part III: Arenas of Thought, four contributors describe how they have been intellectually influenced by Illich, in particular there are two psychologists who take up the challenges very differently and an educator who, in the manner of Illich, rejects the notion of “challenge” altogether. (By the way, the back of the book contains descriptions of the contributors and I found myself flipping to them before reading each essay.) In Part IV: Facing Society, four contributors grapple with finding their own ways to live authentically in the midst of the mess of “modern certainties” that Illich brought to their attention, but whether the challenge be the American Nightmare or how to critique education as an educator, there remains an overall sense of hope. In Part V: Extending Interpretations, four contributors take up the challenge of challenging the work of Ivan Illich and do so with critical respect, making this chapter of particular interest to those who would like to push Illich’s thought further through academic debate over, for example, the ways historical analysis might unnecessarily inhibit finding present solutions. In Part VI: Epilogue, Illich himself has the last word in the form of an address given upon receiving the Culture and Peace Prize of Bremen, Germany, in which he comments on his personal convictions, challenges and aspirations concerning hospitality and community.

I would like to make one remark by way of conclusion: these essays have dispelled my concern that Ivan Illich may have turned friendship into a project poised as a corrective against the professionalization of services he believed we should provide for ourselves as much as possible while living in the grip of technological systems. When I learned some time ago that Illich regularly invited people to attend gatherings while travelling and living in various parts of the world like Puerto Rico, Mexico, Germany, and theUnited States, I had the impression he may have become a professional host, a kind of Martha Stewart of many lands and languages. It also occurred to me that those who went to these gatherings may not actually be friends but rather fans of an intellectual celebrity. Although this may have been true to a very limited extent, I am now convinced that it was not what Illich himself aspired to when he held these occasions marked by food, drink and conversation. On the contrary, he was simply putting his convictions into practice. In fact, I now appreciate that the thread in his thought was, as one contributor put it, a philosophy of hospitality. I should have known better, for it was actually Carl Mitcham who gave me a copy of the book, and I had experienced his hospitality when he invited me to dinner with several of his friends at the Society for Philosopy and Technology conference in Park City, Utah, the summer of 2003. Back when the book was first published in 2002, it stood as a collective testimonial. As the ninth anniversary of Illich’s death approaches, it stands as a collective memorial. I highly recommend it to all those who have been challenged by Illich’s writing over the years, and to anyone who would like to be introduced to the works of someone whose friends so appreciated being challenged by his words and deeds that they published a book in his honour even before he died.

The Challenges of Ivan Illich: A Collective Reflection.
Hoinacki, Lee and Carl Mitcham, eds., New York: StateUniversityofNew YorkPress, 2002, 256 pages, ISBN 0-7914-5422-3.

Note: The original version of this review appeared in Environments Vol 31, No 2 (2003).

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