The Joyful Uselessness of Ivan Illich: Reply to Scialabba | Simon Ravenscroft

Glasses Guy

Mar 31, 2017

In his essay for The Baffler, George Scialabba does a fine job summarizing Ivan Illich’s most famous period of writing, from 1971 to 1982. He foregrounds the Roman Catholic priest and philosopher’s peculiarity as a leftist intellectual who was resolutely opposed to most “progressive” political solutions, on the grounds that they amounted simply to adjustments in the distribution of goods and services, lacking a deeper analysis of the social construction of needs. Illich has always been difficult to categorize, and therefore easy to miscategorize, and Scialabba deftly evades the most common miscategorizations. This response ought to be read as an addendum to his essay rather than anything more severe.

That said, it is unfortunate that Scialabba cuts his analysis off at Illich’s 1982 work Gender. Illich lived for an another twenty years after Gender and produced several more (less famous) books, alongside other essays, lectures, and interviews. Most important, in this later period Illich was openly ambivalent about the 1970s works that are the focus of Scialabba’s essay. They were, he argued, written for a very specific historical moment and their constructive proposals (and the ‘revolution in perception’ necessary to bring them about) had soon become unachievable.

Illich’s criticism evolved in the 1980s and 90s to incorporate what he saw as a fundamental shift in the “root metaphor” of the age, from the “age of tools” to the “age of systems.” Instrumental reason – the image of humans standing over against their institutions manipulating them – was out, and systems-thinking was in, with the computer and its calculating power at its heart. Individuals were now conceived as sub-systems within more complex social systems, programmed to respond to signals they receive (a targeted “nudge”, perhaps). Self and society had come to be represented via complex algorithms, with the political consequence that seem to require expert management in order to generate optimal outcomes. There are both continuities and discontinuities here.

If Illich’s work retains relevance today, however, it must be principally on the basis of this later critique, which chimes with contemporary analyses of managerial neoliberalism. The ‘algorithmization’ of the self, for example, has been explored recently in William Davies’ excellent The Happiness Industry. In a way that echoes Illich, Davies uncovers the reductive, utilitarian economic ideology that underlies attempts to quantify, measure, and optimize “happiness”.

Discontinuities aside, the later Illich retained some basic concerns, which, thanks to posthumously published work, we can now see were more theological than he let on. In the end, for all its sharp edges, Illich’s work is about love, understood in the traditional Catholic sense as social bond. His problem with modernity is that its institutions, oriented toward increased production, tend to rip up the social fabric in order to construct societies that are ever more impersonal and managerial. For Illich, modernization threatens the spark of gratuity that lies at the heart of ordinary existence, understood as created gift. The latter is encountered pre-eminently in the richness of shared experience, and is linked to an existential attitude defined by openness to surprise – the opposite of managed life.

Scialabba’s essay raises the question of the usefulness of Illich’s radical criticism, and indeed a common complaint is that his work is not useful or constructive enough. In later writings, Illich openly refused to offer political ‘answers’, preferring simply to leave the future open, and promote the practice of friendship. Is this an unfortunate quietism? I would argue not. Rather, Illich’s refusal to be “useful” in this way was itself a kind of politics, his way of resisting the dominant utilitarian ethic (for ‘what is the use of use?’, as Lessing and Arendt both asked) in order to create space for that all-important spark of gratuity. Interestingly, this coheres with some of his earliest published remarks from the 1960s, in which he called us to “the joyful acceptance of our uselessness”, and defended “the autonomy of the ludicrous in the face of the useful, of the gratuitous as opposed to the purposeful, of the spontaneous as opposed to the rationalized and planned”.

Olivier Clément has written that the first task of any renewal in the West would be to promouvoir le gratuit, l’inassimilable, ce qui ne sert à rien mais éclaire tout – “to bring to prominence the gratuitous, the unassimilable, that which serves no use but illuminates all.” For all that Illich seems to have been ‘against everything’, it was for the sake of just this kind of joyful, illuminating uselessness.

Simon Ravenscroft is Murphy Research Fellow at the Von Hügel Institute for Critical Catholic Inquiry, St Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge.


Good News For Religious Pluralism….Sort of | Mara Willard


March 24, 2017

When your democratic republic and unchecked global, political, and ecological trends feel as though they’re hurtling in chaos toward the sun, it’s nice to receive good news.

A recent study by the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public life puts that good news right up in the title, “Americans Express Increasingly Warm Feelings Toward Religious Groups.” Even the subtitle is mild: “Jews, Catholics, continue to receive warmest ratings, atheists and Muslims move from cool to neutral.” The study frankly reads to me as though pant-suited normality sat in the Oval Office or in the Situation Room, and November ninth hadn’t run America off the norms of civil discourse and of reciprocal toleration.

“Asked to rate a variety of groups on a ‘feeling thermometer’ ranging from 0 to 100, U.S. adults give nearly all groups warmer ratings than they did in a June 2014 Pew Research survey,” says the February 2017 report. I’d like to live in that America.

In my America, the headline news is grim: “US Islamophobia: Threats and acts of vandalism against mosques double so far in 2017.” Some state house offices are downright refrigerator-chilly to Muslims. The office of Representative John Bennett (R., Oklahoma) handed an Islamophobic questionnaire to three students that tried to meet with him.

Similarly, Jewish Americans may be up on the “feeling thermometer,” topping out all rivals at 67 degrees. But the desecration of cemeteries in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Rochester made national news, while there has been a spate of bomb threats made against Jewish centers. The Anti-Defamation League is keeping a running tally.

This Pew report presents some perplexities for “Religion and its publics.” Among them, how can we hold together these competing truths?

Like many scholars of religion trained in the humanities, I’m dubious about social science surveys as a method of knowledge production. American’s cultural appetite hungers for insights that are quickly consumed. This shapes a preference for the data of social scientific methods.

Then again, I’ve learned of late to check my “confirmation bias” around data: to be alert to that trip-wire. I don’t want to be a cynic. But the Pew report prompts my skepticism. Here’s why.

A conspicuous factor of this survey is its “thermometer scale.” Why did Pew select a temperature gauge as its preferred metric? As a scholar of religion with feminist convictions, I am gratified to see Pew acknowledge the power of affect. But I am also alert to gaps between expressed affective warmth and action. Do expressions of relative warmth or coolness track with values of liberal democracy, such as public demonstrations of respect and mutual accountability?

For instance, it strikes me that Christians at least are primed to understand that affirming love is a virtue that speaks well of the practitioner. Indeed, the test of Christian love is not whether the object of love is worthy of mutual respect. Love to the stranger, the prostitute, the taxpayer. “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” For members of this religious community, at least, expressed warmth toward another religious or non-religious group may say more about the respondent.

In theory this bias toward affective affirmation would be controlled by the comparative/longitudinal nature of this survey. This publication, for instance, emphasizes change over time.

Nevertheless, we must consider the power of performance among those surveyed. After all, respondents are explicitly primed in the interview to be alert to themselves explicitly as religious practitioners/non-practitioners. In their responses, they are making a certain kind of public appearance. That is to say, even if the data are aggregated, even if they are coded and anonymous, individual respondents are nevertheless declaring their values to themselves. Survey respondents may well be performing aspirations of their community of formation. These aspirations may be civic, “More perfect union,” or may be religious/non-religious, “Do unto others….”

From that position of curiosity, we could then consider further how these reports, gathered at a particularly tense national moment, might be conditioned by felt anxieties of crisis and division? The dates on which this survey data were collected, Jan 9-23, 2017, are conspicuously close to the inauguration of America’s 45th President. The trend of affirmation of other religious groups is conspicuously elevated from the prior survey date (June 2014), and leads me to wonder whether they are aspirational?

As noted in the survey analysis, the survey was carried out “On the heels of a contentious election year in which partisan politics increasingly divided Americans.” To get inter-textual on social science, perhaps it’s not incidental that in January 2017, Pew found that, “Fully 86% describe the country as more politically divided today than in the past.” 71 percent expected the political divisions to persist or to worsen.

Perhaps given the opportunity to assess their fellow citizens on a metric other than party, Americans chose to affirm. On this analysis, is it conspicuous that evangelical Christians, the group that tracked most closely with support for President Trump, was the only religious group whose “likability” did not rise substantially?

Similarly, it would be interesting to consider with Pew whether and how perceptions of religious “others” track with the reported experience of those co-citizens. At stake in this question is whether it matters to members of religious groups (as majorities or minorities) how they are perceived by a statistical sample. Or do we learn more about America and religion when we take the “temperatures” of how we are perceived by others?

Does statistical expression of how one’s in-group is perceived (not, as the survey asks, how one perceives one’s in-group) cohere or contrast with these data on how one’s group perceives an out-group? Then we can better ask such questions as: what is the power of exceptionally “frigid” acts or actors, such as desecration of a gravesite? Or similarly, do reports of affective “warmth” by silent majorities toward an out-group track with actions, such as advocacy and intervention? What metric of relative religious co-existence does or should the American media report? The affective silent majority? Or the statistical outliers, perhaps more likely to commit acts of aggression and discrimination? Finally, if Americans of a particular community report anxieties that track with the actions of bad actors – actors who may be statistically a disproportionate minority – to what end is the Pew data informative or misleading?

Do scholars of “Religion and its publics” in the humanities need to learn more about, and perhaps be more involved in, the metrics and design of these studies? More importantly, are academics doomed to be masters of suspicion? Or will I one day know when good news crosses my desk?

Mara Willard is assistant professor in the department of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Patience, Impatience, and Political Life Today | Paul Dafydd Jones


March 15, 2017

To say that 2016 was a politically tumultuous year is, at this point, to state the blindingly obvious. Sooner or later, my home country (the United Kingdom) will abandon the European Union, a multistate organization that helped maintain peace in a continent that has made a habit of war. Meanwhile, the country in which I live (the United States) awaits a president who has scorned the scientific consensus on climate change, stoked hostility towards immigrant communities, and promises – with seemingly little awareness of the history of the phrase – to put “America First.” The broader international situation also disquiets. The promise of the Arab Spring recedes, along with hopes for a mitigation of the Israel-Palestine conflict; Russian and China look to expand their “spheres of influence”; continued turmoil throughout South America seems likely. More could be said, but the point is obvious. If you think 2016 was bad, hold tight; 2017 could be much worse.

What should an academic Christian theologian do in this context? How might his or her work encourage the enhancement of life in unsettled times? Karl Barth, a guiding voice in my research, offered an intriguing answer to such questions in Theological Existence Today!, which was written soon after the Nazis seized power in 1933:

I endeavor to carry on theology, and only theology, now as previously, and as if nothing had happened. Perhaps there is a slightly increased tone, but without direct allusions: something like the chanting of the hours by the Benedictines nearby in the Maria Laach, which goes on undoubtedly without break or interruption, pursuing the even tenor of its way even in the Third Reich.

A recipe for political quietism? Certainly not. For Barth, a principal task of Christian theology was the toppling of idols, of which demagogic strongmen are an exemplary instance. This does not mean, however, that theologians ought necessarily to busy themselves with literal or figurative hammers. Barth favored a different approach: a style of theological writing that, in refusing to esteem that which is ethically and politically inexcusable, in declining to “normalize” the new status quo, focuses attention on the future that God promises,and provides a thick description of what it means for human beings to turn their backs on sin and commit themselves to realizing the “two commandments” on which “hang all the law and the prophets”: love of God and love of neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40). Theological reflection and political resistance, at this point, form two sides of the same coin; they motivate a style of writing that traces the shape of a spiritual counter-world, in order that those who encounter it might – should God so will – play their part in transforming the quotidian in which they exist. To be sure, none of this helps citizens decide how they should vote, or how they should comply (or not comply) with discrete laws, policies, and programs. Yet a theology that can’t be easily “operationalized” is a theology that stands some chance of resisting cooptation, and – at least in principle – urges individuals and communities to act differently in the here and now.

So: should Christian theology today follow Barth’s lead? Ought theologians committed to the project of enhancing life to proceed “as if nothing has happened”? Bracketing the vexed issue of whether the political situation today is analogous to the 1930s, there is here a deep and difficult question about whether theological discourse and rhetoric, which proceeds “without direct allusions” and does not dwell on particulars, is the right way to encourage political engagement and activity. And this isn’t a question that theologians may dodge. If we are committed to the enhancement of life, we have to reckon with the possibility that certain forms of intellectual activity amount to academicism of the worst kind – a mere spinning of the wheels, a self-indulgent instance of cerebral escapism. Indeed, the last fifty years have been marked by a glorious array of liberationist theologies, which forcefully insist on direct allusions, given longstanding patterns of discrimination, and which fulfil the prophetic mandate ingredient to Christian theology by speaking truth to power in very concrete, targeted ways.

However, I remain convinced that Barth recognized something of abiding importance. A theology without “direct allusions” needn’t be a theology divorced from context; it can still address that context, and it can play some part in trying to transform it, operating in tandem with liberationist projects. Marx’s admonition notwithstanding, interpretations of the world can have the purpose of changing it – especially when that world that is described is a counter-world, linked to a spirituality that stands apart from the quotidian in which we live. (The Nazi regime, incidentally, had some sense of this: Theological Existence Today! was banned in July 1934, and Barth was later expelled from Germany.)

This brings me back to my current research on patience. Rather than being a “merely academic” concern, the last few months have led me to believe, more than ever before, that this motif can help us address the present political moment. It affords us an opportunity to think about the counter-world that God holds forth, while alsobringing diverse ethical and political obligations into focus.

First, I believe that patience as endurance is a virtue that is important to cultivate. If the scriptures present endurance as a matter of holding on to one’s faith and one’s character, some theologians – Augustine of Hippo, in particular – have also suggested that endurance entails suffering a political context that one would likely not choose. One endures in light of the belief that this political context comprises, in somemysteriousway, an episode in the still-unfolding historical drama that God oversees. Does this bespeak a fatalist attitude, wherein all events are treated as an expression of God’s sovereign will? Absolutely not. Belief in providence oughtn’t be complemented with the belief that God approveseverything that happens, nor need it be accompanied with a diminished sense of human beings’ responsibility to challenge injustice. My point is different. Patience as endurance means reckoning with the world as it is. It means avoiding the delights of a constant state of indignation, granting that the arc of history bends in ways that we cannot anticipate or understand, and recommitting oneself to the counter-world that God reveals.

This brings me to a second point. In an unsettled context, patience as perseverance ensures that endurance of the world doesn’t become acquiescence to the world. In Hebrews, perseverance is described in terms of a quiet grittiness, born of a community’s focus on Jesus, which enables us to “run the race…set before us” and helps us to “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees.” In the months and years to come, something of this grittiness may well be needed, especially among those who identify with the religious left. While the ascendance of a range of reactionary voices can serve as a goad to action, disappointments, setbacks, and some degree of failure is likely forthcoming. The challenge, then, will be to hold fast to the counter-world that Jesus launched, and to persist in believing thiscounter-world will prevail. Indeed, we need to understand that the bleaker chapters of human history are rarely closed in a hurry. Their ending depends on something different: the quiet toil of committed individuals and communities, whose basic modus operandi is to keep going, and whose constancy and industry is an analogue of God’s own.

Third and finally, I would commend impatience as a virtue. That word sits a bit uneasily alongside talk of endurance and perseverance, but valuably so. It names the way in which God’s counter-world is provocative of action that refuses to accept injustice, and which makes good on God’s patience – the patience that gives human beings the time and space to work out how we are – by hurrying, sometimes intemperately, towards the future that God promises to us. The last few years have seen salutary instances of such impatience. Think of the Black Lives Matter movement; think of the protestors gathered at Standing Rock; think also of those, from a variety of political backgrounds, who are readying for the Women’s March on Washington. The impatience exhibited here is of a kind that Christians can surely appreciate: it bears obvious resemblance to our wait for the Kingdom, a time and space in which the sick are cured, the marginalized are embraced, and, at long last, the “poor have good news” (Luke 7:22). Absent impatience, endurance and perseverance cannot flourish—they lack for purpose and passion. But with impatience flanking them, we have a trio of virtues that might help us prepare for the journey ahead, with an end-destination being the enhancement of life for all.

Paul Dafydd Jones is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, and Co-Director for Religion and its Publics.

Originally published by the Enhancing Life Project