Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: Ivan Illich (page 1 of 1)

exhaustion, its causes and treatments

I thought of calling this post, “You’re Exhausted Because You Don’t Have Enough to Do” – which, yeah, I know: a trolling, clickbaity headline if there ever was one. But bear with me: I have a point. And it’s not accusatory.

Let’s begin with a few things we all know – for instance, that everyone is exhausted. We know this because people keep telling us so. So. Tired. The universal declaration.

As Anna Katharina Schaffner shows in her 2016 book Exhaustion: A History, people have always been exhausted, though they have explained that experience in a wide variety of ways. And the different explanations often arise from legitimately different causes. For instance, there are very good reasons to believe that a common exhaustion of our time and place – of the social environment of, say, people who read the news online – arises largely from the ways that alway-on connectivity allows us no boundaries: emails from work can arrive at any time, and while we might try to tell ourselves that they can wait until the next time we are officially on the clock, in practice we often find it less stressful to get it off (a) and (b) our plate by answering immediately. Which results in a ping on our co-worker’s phone, which may promot her to think that she needs to get it off her mind and off her plate … and so the cycle continues.

It continues in another way also: seeking refuge from the stress, we turn to social media or streaming videos – that is, to the very same devices that have made us anxious in the first place. Devices that can still ping us … and so the cycle continues. An endless sequence of stimulus and response, as we are gradually transformed into mere servers.

Thus also – we’re still talking about things we know – the proliferation of articles and books and YouTube videos and podcasts on the inestimable blessing of disconnection. Silence, or at least quiet; Off rather than On. And there’s no doubt that for those who are able to manage it, such disconnection is a Good Thing. But maybe not the best thing.

The problem with the imperative to disconnect is that it operates still within the world of stimulus and response. Its only real point is to remove the stimulus in hopes that after a while we’ll stop twitching. And maybe that’s how it works, for some of us anyway. But eventually we have to turn our phones back on, and … well, once more, the cycle resumes. The cycle of being frayed by a certain set of stimuli and responding to the fraying by taking refuge in a different set of stimuli. But this does not relieve our exhaustion or restore our good health because constant stimulation is exhausting in itself – even when the stimulation comes from things we like, or think we like.

What’s necessary, I think, is breaking the circuit that keeps the cycle going. And the key to how to do that may be found, I think, in a single claim made by Ivan Illich in his 1973 book Tools for Conviviality. Here it is: “institutions are functional when they promote a delicate balance between what people can do for themselves and what tools at the service of anonymous institutions can do for them.” Let’s unpack this:

  • Our “anonymous institutions” – especially the international and transnational media companies – are always telling us what they can do for us: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” (Google, back in the day); “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” (Meta);
  • But what they do for us always comes packaged in the stimulus/response model;
  • And constant immersion in the stimulus/respons environment exhausts us;
  • So the “delicate balance” Illich speaks of has not been achieved – we are constantly being pressured to forget what we can do for ourselves;
  • Therefore our institutions are not functional, and neither are we.

This is what my title means: We’re exhausted because we don’t have enough to do. Instead of meaningful action, we have only responses to stimuli.

The first step in making ourselves and our institutions more functional is simply this: To try doing for ourselves what the anonymous media companies are always telling us they can do for us.

Think, then, of a social ill you want to see remedied; now, with that ill fixed firmly in your mind, imagine that there are no social media – no internet even. What do you do? Throw up your hands in despair? That wouldn’t be necessary. You write letters; you see if a local organization devoted to that cause needs volunteers; you attend city council or school board meetings; you change your own behavior in whatever ways might make a small difference. You have more time to do these things because you are no longer trapped in the stimulus/response cycle that is the only thing our media institutions have to offer us. You may well discover that while in one sense you’re doing more – you’re taking action rather than responding digitally to digital stimuli – you’re not as tired. In many circumstances – not all, to be sure, but many, especially in our part of the world – the world of atoms is less wearisome to us than the world of bits.

So, paradoxically but truly, the way out of our current exhaustion is not to do less but do other – or rather, genuinely to do rather than merely to react. And then when you do return to the media world, you’ll do so as someone who has helped to re-establish that “delicate balance” Illich speaks of. You’ll have taken a step towards healing yourself, and taken a step towards healing our institutions. What do you have to lose except your Pavlovian chains?

James R. Roberts, Ivan Illich Leading Seminar at the Centro Intercultural De Documentación, Cuernavaca, Mexico, 1971. Courtesy of the Northwestern University Archives.

the habitual passenger

The habitual passenger cannot grasp the folly of traffic based overwhelmingly on transport. His inherited perceptions of space and time and of personal pace have been industrially deformed. He has lost the power to conceive of himself outside the passenger role. Addicted to being carried along, he has lost control over the physical, social, and psychic powers that reside in man’s feet. The passenger has come to identify territory with the untouchable landscape through which he is rushed. He has become impotent to establish his domain, mark it with his imprint, and assert his sovereignty over it. He has lost confidence in his power to admit others into his presence and to share space consciously with them. He can no longer face the remote by himself. Left on his own, he feels immobile.

The habitual passenger must adopt a new set of beliefs and expectations if he is to feel secure in the strange world where both liaisons and loneliness are products of conveyance. To “gather” for him means to be brought together by vehicles. He comes to believe that political power grows out of the capacity of a transportation system, and in its absence is the result of access to the television screen. He takes freedom of movement to be the same as one’s claim on propulsion. He believes that the level of democratic process correlates to the power of transportation and communications systems. He has lost faith in the political power of the feet and of the tongue. As a result, what he wants is not more liberty as a citizen but better service as a client. He does not insist on his freedom to move and to speak to people but on his claim to be shipped and to be informed by media. He wants a better product rather than freedom from servitude to it. It is vital that he come to see that the acceleration he demands is self-defeating, and that it must result in a further decline of equity, leisure, and autonomy.

— Ivan Illich, “Energy and Equity” (1974)

School, by its very nature, tends to make a total claim on the time and energies of its participants. This, in turn, makes the teacher into custodian, preacher, and therapist.

In each of these three roles the teacher bases his authority on a different claim. The teacher-as-custodian acts as a master of ceremonies, who guides his pupils through a drawn-out labyrinthine ritual. He arbitrates the observance of rules and administers the intricate rubrics of initiation to life. At his best, he sets the stage for the acquisition of some skill as schoolmasters always have. Without illusions of producing any profound learning, he drills his pupils in some basic routines.

The teacher-as-moralist substitutes for parents, God, or the state. He indoctrinates the pupil about what is right or wrong, not only in school but also in society at large. He stands in loco parentis for each one and thus ensures that all feel themselves children of the same state.

The teacher-as-therapist feels authorized to delve into the personal life of his pupil in order to help him grow as a person. When this function is exercised by a custodian and preacher, it usually means that he persuades the pupil to submit to a domestication of his vision of truth and his sense of what is right.

The claim that a liberal society can be founded on the modern school is paradoxical. The safeguards of individual freedom are all canceled in the dealings of a teacher with his pupil. When the schoolteacher fuses in his person the functions of judge, ideologue, and doctor, the fundamental style of society is perverted by the very process which should prepare for life. A teacher who combines these three powers contributes to the warping of the child much more than the laws which establish his legal or economic minority, or restrict his right to free assembly or abode.

Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society

This man who speaks to you was born 55 years ago in Vienna. One month after his birth he was put on a train, and then on a ship and brought to the Island of Brac. Here, in a village on the Dalmatian coast, his grandfather wanted to bless him. My grandfather lived in the house in which his family had lived since the time when Muromachi ruled in Kyoto. Since then on the Dalmatian Coast many rulers had come and gone – the doges of Venice, the sultans of Istanbul, the corsairs of Almissa, the emperors of Austria, and the kings of Yugoslavia. But these many changes in the uniform and language of the governors had changed little in daily life during these 500 years. The very same olive-wood rafters still supported the roof of my grandfather’s house. Water was still gathered from the same stone slabs on the roof. The wine was pressed in the same vats, the fish caught from the same kind of boat, and the oil came from trees planted when Edo was in its youth.

My grandfather had received news twice a month. The news now arrived by steamer in three days; and formerly, by sloop, it had taken five days to arrive. When I was born, for the people who lived off the main routes, history still flowed slowly, imperceptibly. Most of the environment was still in the commons. People lived in houses they had built; moved on streets that had been trampled by the feet of their animals; were autonomous in the procurement and disposal of their water; could depend on their own voices when they wanted to speak up. All this changed with my arrival in Brac.

On the same boat on which I arrived in 1926, the first loudspeaker was landed on the island. Few people there had ever heard of such a thing. Up to that day, all men and women had spoken with more or less equally powerful voices. Henceforth this would change. Henceforth the access to the microphone would determine whose voice shall be magnified. Silence now ceased to be in the commons; it became a resource for which loudspeakers compete. Language itself was transformed thereby from a local commons into a national resource for communication. As enclosure by the lords increased national productivity by denying the individual peasant to keep a few sheep, so the encroachment of the loudspeaker has destroyed that silence which so far had given each man and woman his or her proper and equal voice. Unless you have access to a loudspeaker, you now are silenced.

I hope that the parallel now becomes clear. Just as the commons of space are vulnerable, and can be destroyed by the motorization of traffic, so the commons of speech are vulnerable, and can easily be destroyed by the encroachment of modem means of communication.

Ivan Illich: Silence is a Commons, a talk given in Japan in 1982. This is something I will reflect on and, later, write about.

So what makes a tool “convivial?” For Illich, “tools foster conviviality to the extent to which they can be easily used, by anybody, as often or as seldom as desired, for the accomplishment of a purpose chosen by the user.” That is, convivial technologies are accessible, flexible, and noncoercive. Many tools are neutral, but some promote conviviality and some choke it off. Hand tools, for Illich, are neutral. Illich offers the telephone as an example of a tool that is “structurally convivial” (remember, this is in the days of the ubiquitous public pay phone): anyone who can afford a coin can use it to say whatever they want. “The telephone lets anybody say what he wants to the person of his choice; he can conduct business, express love, or pick a quarrel. It is impossible for bureaucrats to define what people say to each other on the phone, even though they can interfere with — or protect — the privacy of their exchange.”

A “manipulatory” tool, on the other hand, blocks off other choices. The automobile and the highway system it spawned are, for Illich, prime examples of this process. Licensure systems that devalue people who have not received them, such as compulsory schooling, are another example. But these kinds of tools, that is, large-scale industrial production, would not be prohibited in a convivial society. “What is fundamental to a convivial society is not the total absence of manipulative institutions and addictive goods and services, but the balance between those tools which create the specific demands they are specialized to satisfy and those complementary, enabling tools which foster self-realization.”

Why the Landline Telephone Was the Perfect Tool – Suzanne Fischer