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Featured: Conviviality by Paul Walton

In Book Reviews, Featured, history, politics, psychology, review, society, sociology, technology, writers on December 26, 2013 at 14:41

Paul Walton is a journalist, editor and autodidact from Nanaimo most interested in literature and depth psychology.

Enjoy the essay and feel free to comment.

Featured: Ivan Illich: Tools For Conviviality by Paul Walton

Forty years after the publication of that cantankersome and challenging book by Ivan Illich, Tools For Conviviality has never been more inaccessible and never more vital.

There are many misunderstandings and misconceptions about Illich, and even after an interview series on the CBC in the late 1980s (later to be published as Ivan Ilich in Conversation by David Cayley, published by House of Anansi, 1992) anyone could be forgiven for remembering Illich, who died in 2002, as a man of the mind, a thinker, a philosophe, even a genius. This last perhaps comes closest if we recall the word djinn, a “tutelary spirit,” as the OED puts it. Tools For Conviviality might be termed in educational jargon “gifted,” well beyond its years, but it is more like a happy child who longs to share its joy.

This look at Tools For Conviviality began on a computer and taking a cue from Illich in the Cayley interviews migrated to a yellow pad and black pen. Writing by hand highlights a duality arising from Tools For Conviviality, The qualities of pen and paper include intimacy, a private moment of reflection and, if done well, humility. We can use tools on a human scale or be dehumanized by them. Composing on a computer makes demands very different from script, from posture to adjusting the eye to the glow of the electric monitor. The computer is also tentative, with constant attention to the save function and usurping what Illich later relished in In the Vineyard of the Text, about the 12th century abbot Hugh of St. Victor, who tasted the words during peripatetic readings in his garden.

Tools For Conviviality is arguably as close to a political prescription or ideology as Illich ever got. To Cayley he admitted that the essence of the book, the idea of inverting tools as abused by post-industrial interests, didn’t happen as he expected in 1973 — a dramatic Wall Street-style crash — but began to occur ways he did not anticipate. By 1988, he told Cayley, he was seeing more people recovering misused tools, i.e. resuming mastery over them for their own purposes.

Illich told Cayley that the book represented in 1973 his belief in a “flipping of consciousness.” Instead Illich years later cited a “catastrophic break” with the past that prevents such a movement. Processes antithetical to the human experience have prevented the possibility of a sudden shift of collective awareness.

It’s not the speed of change that has caused rampant anxiety, as we often presume; rather, the experience of being forced to adapt to new processes and technologies without reference to history, culture and tradition is unprecedented. And a past we may either want to recover or use to build a future on a human scale is no longer available to us.

The legacy of Tools For Conviviality, and amplified abundantly today, is how tools when applied under the post-industrial model — for transport, education, health, communication to name a few — become ends in themselves. As means to live well, to be relational or to simply go on a journey, tools have been turned inside out. We now have 40 years of experience to tell us how solid that insight is.

Today it is general knowledge that hospitals make people sicker, roads and efforts to move people at speeds faster than a bicycle hinder transportation and schools prevent children from learning. Clues to the failures of post-industrial methods — mainly 9/11 and the 2008 market crisis — have, for the most part, gone unheeded and unnoticed.

The October 2008 crisis, which was averted only hours before the kind of economic disaster envisioned by Illich in 1973, was not created by corruption alone. The failure to account for and integrate weaknesses like corruption in what was thought to be a perfect closed system, and even asserted as such according to what is now known to be a faulty algorithm, reflects something more simple: Hubris. The belief in the creation of a highly efficient, impermeable and extraordinarily profitable tool for financial transactions only led to a situation of corruptio optimi pessima — the corruption of the best is the worst.

Gangsters and psychopaths saw and exploited weaknesses in what was considered the best system over the period of about two decades, and effectively gained control. Ethical bankers, brokers and financiers lost any refuge that might have once been available, such as a smaller income in a lesser position, and were forced to scrap either their ethics or their employment. There was no work on Wall Street for anyone less than bloody-minded. There was plain greed, criminal money laundering and financing for covert spy operations for and by any number of nations and industrial concerns, as there always has been in any bourse or stock exchange. But it was the effort to create the perfect system, as Alan Greenspan later admitted, that has proven correct Karl Polanyi’s theory that a truly free market can and only result in destruction and chaos.

It was era of purity in haute finance worthy of the American forefathers. Of course the resulting tepid witch trials have failed to reveal the true source of the crisis was the very belief in mammon as supreme. It was a 21st century manifestation of deism.

“Deregulation” is a euphemism for the doctrine not so much that greed is good but that it is better than generosity. Greenspan in his now infamous Congressional testimony in October 2008 admitted there was a flaw in his free market theory. It was not a flaw; it was an error, a mistaken belief that money could be created out of nothing supported by a mathematical theory probably more consistent with the belief in something so good that it had to be true.

The effort to make any tool “better,” Illich argues, disregards “the good” thus failing to acknowledge the reality of imperfection. This thinking, we now know, infects economic theory in general and in a symbiotic relationship with other sectors has now sickened other formerly healthy productive enterprises around the globe.

Carl Jung documented that everything has a shadow, a contrary. The shadow of money is excrement, among the various prima materia named in alchemy that was thought to be the first step in turning lead into gold.

And it is in the antecedent to excrement that we can perhaps be heartened by a nascent awareness of the damage done by the negative use of tools as people fight to recover a human scale in food production. No longer does anyone want to eat highly processed foods, meat from factory-bred, hormone-infused and cruelly treated livestock or genetically modified foods. They at least know there are risks to such foods even if they can’t afford to purchase them.

Such optimism is tainted by the reality that those who cannot afford whole foods are growing exponentially as the so-called health food sector adapts post-industrial methods. Already documented is the rise of the “organic food” industry aimed at profit over nutrition or simply the goodness of wholesome food to be shared among family and friends.

Ideas as slow food and urban agriculture are now also at risk of turning inward as long as they are justified for “food security” and “health” as a better alternative to intensive food production. What is called better, Illich philosophizes, forsakes the good and is a movement toward an effort at perfection that only disguises this new deism.

Illich approaches a political program in Tools For Conviviality but steps back before nearing dogma. The vital idea is creating living spaces in which people, not growth, expansion and profit, are at the centre of social interactions. Economy is pushed to the edges, where it functions best. He provides a framework and the rest we fill it in ourselves. He is not pointing toward what is better but only asking, like Socrates, if this would be good and if so, how.

Eleven years after Illich’s death, there is some awareness of conviviality as a way of being, and if he was accurate in telling Cayley in 1988 that more people were recovering tools from what he calls the “negative” range, it’s also because the negative use of tools has never been more intensive.

There is little doubt that we have passed a watershed in language, the “catastrophic break” he mentioned to Cayley, in which, at least in the West by 1973 and globally today, we remain collectively victims of tools and not their masters. That break prevents us from using language to think beyond our current milieu. As long as we are using a ready-made vocabulary and speak of “values” like education, health, a growing economy, freedom, happiness and so on, we are unable to know and experience of the good.

Illich to Cayley is worth quoting here:

“I am very happy that I wrote about things such as vernacular values which can be discussed and applied by people who want to think one step further. But I have to tell them that the next step is not one you can use in everyday discussion.”

To know what I want I must know who I am, or at least be engaged in the humility of admitting not knowing who I am is who I am.

The word conviviality entered printed English, according to the OED, in 1791, courtesy of Dr. Johnson’s protégé, James Boswell. Conviviality is today associated with joviality and being an agreeable companion, with the inference that conviviality is defined negatively, by not being a humbug.

Its Latin derivative leads us into a spiritual dimension, no surprise since Illich renounced his priestly duties within the Catholic hierarchy, not among Catholics.

The Latin word convivi connotes a feast but festivity has dropped out its meaning in English. And Illich would have known quite well — just as he intended the pun on tools in the title — that the origin of conviviality is to break bread together. That simple act as ritualized in the New Testament has had an influence on human history that cannot be measured. Even an atheist of such religious fervour as Richard Dawkins can’t disagree with that, it’s a fact. Dawkins and his adherents may not like it, and may be neurotic enough to wish it never happened and want to negate it, but its convivial legacy cannot be changed even if science proved long ago transubstantiation is, in the Newtonian universe, hocus pocus.

The immense sustaining power of ritual and faith, now diminished enough for its shadow, science, to become ascendant, is often forgotten, neglected or ignored in arguments about the harm of religion.

Perhaps the hidden invitation in Tools For Conviviality is not to return to pre-Pauline Christian communism or to somehow reinvigorate Christianity, indeed the title could be construed as blasphemous, but to recover the simplicity and profundity of sharing bread and wine as a fundamental custom that is not necessarily Christian.

“Start here,” Illich might be saying, “bring yourself to any feast in which we share our fundamental humanness.”

And I am aware of a persistent and intruding thought in considering Tools For Conviviality in 2013. The memory chip, increasingly powerful and ubiquitous, is now a vast negative tool with potentially grave consequences. Since Illich’s death it has, like the biblical plague of locusts, grown into a huge mass of small objects, embedded uniformly on desks, in cars and telephones.

The memory chip is now the largest and fastest-moving negative-use tool in human history. Its use as a positive tool is becoming negligible. Gone is the health chart Illich wrote about in Medical Nemesis that constituted the patient; the memory chip has resulted in the health professional becoming a cyborg and the ill person only a data bank to be accessed to infuse functionality again.

Various tools now giving way to the memory chip took decades to build up during the 20th century. In about the same time it takes to educate a child — to teach him or her to rely on experts to do what his or her ancestors absorbed from culture, language and tradition or on their own — memory chips have now usurped memory and history.

What we call the Internet was promoted at its inception as a way to recover community and its goodness. But conviviality — which begins in the real and metaphorical breaking of bread together — is the prerequisite to the freedom that only community provides, as I think Illich is saying. The idea that community could be recovered through binary code is informed only by the catastrophic break to which Illich refers. There is no digital bread that can be broken together on the Internet as a continual symbol of death and rebirth. Ones and zeros put together and remembered in increasingly vast repetitive combinations only lead to an increasingly compact Newtonian universe. Memory chips had great potential as an optimal tool and no doubt they remain so in some instances. No one should confuse Illich’s idea of convivial tools with Luddism.

The Snowden NSA leaks are vital beyond revealing nefarious activities of governments, using the reaction to terrorism as “shock doctrine” to implement policies that further subvert democracy. They also reveal governments and corporate interests working together against a tool of communication that could have been used without interference or restriction to great effect. It’s likely use of such tools in just such a way during the Arab Spring, not terrorism, that has alarmed governments and resulted in the vast surveillance Snowden revealed.

Private interests, allied with governments, did what is now expected in the post-industrial ethical void: By gaining control over the delivery of digital services they essentially stole access to the Internet from individuals and small providers and mimicked what oil companies and auto companies did in creating American zaibatsu to control a vast network of inefficient transportation with profit as the primary goal. The real potential of what we call the Internet remains untapped.

I was told by a senior Ontario education bureaucrat at about the same time that Illich was in conversation with Cayley that his ministry had enough software to replace every teaching position in the province. It’s no new insight that the Internet used as a tool on a human scale would allow people to be their own bankers, teachers, doctors, energy providers, food producers, entertainers, authors and more.

It’s not that the memory chip is bad — it’s just a tool — rather its control by a post-industrial technocracy has led us into a benighted era of confusion, fear and suspicion. It is impossible to know with certainty what will become of this struggle to bring convivial methods to digital tools, to know when dawn will arrive: As Tamino in The Magic Flute was told outside the temples of wisdom, reason and nature, dawn will arrive soon or not at all.

But there are some disturbing trends seen in history that may or may not play out. It is not just that snarling post-industrial capitalism is defending the rotting corpse it can no longer feed on, but that a shift to inverting tools to be used on a human scale and not being controlled by them requires a type of thinking and insight not possible to gain if the memory chip remains as presently used.

Illich maintained to Cayley that by 1973 we had broken all bridges to a “normative past.” Memory today is the memory chip and gone forever is history as learning that informs our humanity. Literature and philosophy, crucial for centuries to advance human experience toward the good, are now considered pastimes and luxuries and of no use since they are not easily understood and exploited.

Google’s mission statement is “Do No Evil” ought to arouse suspicion in an era when language is incapacitated. A private interest with the stated aim of possessing every scrap of data ever produced must be suspected of doing contrary to its stated motto.

Tools For Conviviality anticipated this digital infertility. Illich is very clear: The problems caused by excess information are not solved by gathering and studying more data to be brewed into another toxic concoction of more information to be consumed by homo cyborgus.

To see the shocking outcome of the human as a tool of production, slip into any “care” home. Witness people treated as useless since, due to physical or mental infirmity, they can no longer gather, produce or regurgitate data needed to participate in industrial production. These people are neither living nor dying but seen to be suffering the last stages of the neurosis we call “life,” a concept that has no reference to its verbal component, living. The homeless, the narrative goes, have potential to be productive if they could just shape up, quit drinking or drugging, be sane, be more diligent, etc.

“Life” is an abstraction in which the onset of suffering and death are held off through the intervention of technological tools. And as demonstrated again and again, the use of such negative tools only achieves the opposite of what is intended. Death — the ultimate in non-production — arrives only when biological function ceases; until then living is denied.

The usurpation of digital tools by government and private interests will lead ultimately, if left unchecked, to brutal tyrannies. The Snowden revelations herald this. It is unlikely that these mass interceptions are alone aimed at breaking up violent global gangs, but anticipate thought control.

Those who advocate alternatives to right/left scarcity economics —now loosed from its mooring and drifting toward a disaster — will be targeted. Once that horror has run its course will come a tyranny in the name of environmentalism. Maybe dawn will come after that — maybe.

Such thoughts cannot be elaborated on for their full implication, only contemplated in silence if action is to ensue.

That Illich concluded to Cayley that his works like Tools For Conviviality could not be adapted to 20th century English without losing their meaning does not lead to this work being irrelevant, rather the opposite. Illich was concerned in later years that such ideas would be drawn into the realm of data used to make a “better society.” 
But Tools For Conviviality remains a book of hope that ought to be read. It’s difficult but its ideas have never been so important. If such ideas are lost, so are we.

To quote Illich to Cayley:

“Never think about who might want to do something evil to you. If you go under, too bad for you.”

Experienced as a labyrinth — as opposed to Blake’s strait roads of improvement — this book is worth wondering through. We move among a course of ideas and arrive at a centre that is everywhere and nowhere. I do not suggest this is a spiritual experience, far from it with its dense ideas and near-scientific prose.

After 40 years it does retain wisdom, even if many cannot understand its pinpoint prose and dense ideas.

“If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise,” says Blake.

© 2013 Paul Walton & anagnori

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