Originally Published on Parallax:
The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben said recently that Ivan Illich has arrived at his ‘hour of legibility.’ In other words, the radical propositions of Ilich — that we need to ‘deschool society’ for instance, or that the present medical paradigm has become a danger to people’s health, make more sense today than they did in the 1960’s when Illich was thought of a ‘the new Karl Marx’ or a maverick at the very least.
Today we can now look at Illich as a prophet as much as a philosopher — even if he himself rejected that role. Illich had an uncanny sense of what was just beyond the horizon: for example, he imagined educational ‘decentralized webs’ way back in the 1960’s. But the age of prophets was over, Illich told us; what mattered was friendship and conviviality in the present moment rather than utopian projections for the future. Sacred friendship, awareness, and intimacy was the remedy to the counter-productivity of our apocalyptic ‘age of systems’.
Illich critiqued modern institutions, which he believed were corruptions of the Christian congregation; he questioned our universal and quasi-religious belief in the ‘divine rights’ of hospitals, schools, and all modern institutions. Schools had become increasingly counterproductive to learning; furthermore, the medical establishment is counterproductive to health — ‘economic sex roles’ are counterproductive to men and women. The institutionalisation of human relationships had created a new kind of zombie or cypher and a social madness on a scale that only a new kind George Orwell could describe.
While Illich’s view of modernity was as damning as it could be, there is an unacknowledged hope he points to. The more and more transparent the corruption of our institutions become, the more we can ‘rediscover the art of living’, to quote the final paragraph of his neglected masterpiece, Gender. And the basis of that art of living is grounded in what Illich called ‘tools for conviviality’. Apocalypse also means a process of revelation of such tools and modes of being.
Many of us involved in the racket of education have been watching the educational…