It was my pleasure back in June to enjoy a conversation with Carl Mitcham about the life and work of Ivan Illich. A couple of weeks ago, I had the similar pleasure of speaking with Gustavo Esteva, an activist and scholar who, despite having earlier rejected Illich as a “reactionary priest,” went on to become Illich’s close friend and collaborator in the early 1980s. Gustavo is also the founder of the Universidad del la Tierra in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico.
Wonderful, enlightening conversation of Illich's life, work and philosophies to live by. Thank you.
Thank you for this - really enjoyed it, and it has inspired me to get on and finish In the vineyard
I tripped over his comments at the beginning about Illich drawing his terminology and concept from "common discourse." It does not immediately make sense to me how Illich's terms like "convivial" and "vernacular" could be drawn from popular sources in Latin America, but they are very Latin! Maybe Gustavo meant not these particular terms but others? I would like to know if there are distinct Spanish and indigenous analogs Illich used. (And did he write his own translations for his books at all? If so, that might offer more clues about his word choices.)
I have to read «Gender» to understand this all better, but my sense is that Illich's theological mind and life as a diaspora church of one — his sense of himself as a wandering Jew — jibes well with non-/less/differently modern mentalities, especially where early modern Catholic religiosity with its medieval legacies has mixed with the indigenous rather than erasing older stories, rituals, and symbols — the "nonsense" that gets "reformed" out of them (as a Flannery O'Connor Southern Baptist character says) in the dominant rationalist trajectories of the Reformation and Enlightenment. Illich was not just a demystifier or debunker but a re-enchanter and re-mixer, a hybrid shamanic figure who showed up with a capacity to talk about loss, displacement, suffering, preservation, and perseverance that would make sense to the common people on the edges of "modern development."
Michael, do you know that Illich helped collect an archive of folk superstitions and heresies? This is new to me and very interesting. He understood these as popular, vernacular discourses that grow in the shade of a powerful church, and it was his oldest intellectual project to understand science and modernity similarly — as a syncretic religion built out of its ecclesial precursors. All institutional regimes of expert curates tend to colonize and subjugate the indigenous and vernacular as the locus of ignorance and potential heresy or witchcraft. While this comes at the cost of the common and convivial, they also leave some pockets of shade, cryptic refugia where a rōnin-priest like Illich would naturally find shelter and disciples for his style of heterodoxy. (Call it the Waldensian or Moravian Option?)
I imagine Gustavo may see Illich as foreseeing the resurgence of things like Andean philosophy and Pachamama — the recovery of a syncretic indigenous and Christian vernacular for the divine feminine, the understanding of nature as mother. This is at once troubling to Enlightenment positions that value rights and freedoms in the individualistic sense Gustavo talks about later — and also any reactionary traditionalism that can only see rival symbols as heresy. (For example, opposition to Pachamama was an explicit part of the ideology of the recently ousted Unión Juvenil Cruceñista in Bolivia, a falangist, Franco-style fascism friendly to its extractive and colonialist North American backers.)
Recall too that «Tools for Conviviality» describes contraceptives and abortion as essential convivial tools to rapidly integrate into the global south in the 1970s. Coupled with Illich's and Barbara Duden's later work where they attack common modern conceptions of mothers and infants, the construction of the "fetus," and other ways of diminishing life, death, the body, the maternal etc. Illich is very hard to place and really does not exist on the map of contemporary first-world ideological categories. It is surprising and not surprising that he would be received as intuitive and familiar in the puts-itself-first world's shadow.