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Land of Found Friends

Conversation among Ivan Illich, Jerry Brown, and Carl Mitcham

  Parts of this conversation made me wish to weep. If we can begin to grapple with the profundity of what Ivan Illich is saying about friendship, we will have enriched our lives one hundred fold. Here is a conversation between three men that explores how to gain access to a way of being from which technological screens and mechanical interfacing has cut us off.
The idea that people are born with needs, that needs can be translated into rights, that these rights can be translated into entitlements, is a development of the modem world...

Illich: During the late sixties I had a chance to give a dozen addresses to people who were concerned with education and schooling. I asked myself, since when are people born needy? In need, for instance, of education? Since when do we have to learn the language we speak by being taught by somebody? I wanted to find out where the idea came from that all over the world people have to be assembled in specific groups of not less than fifteen, otherwise it's not a class, not more than forty, otherwise they are underprivileged, for yearly, not less than 800 hours, otherwise they don't get enough, not more than 1,100 hours, otherwise it's considered a prison, for four-year periods by somebody else who has undergone this for a longer time. How did it come about that such a crazy process like schooling would become necessary? Then I realized that it was something like engineering people, that our society doesn't only produce artifact things, but artifact people. And that it doesn't do that by the content of the curriculum, but by getting them through this ritual which makes them believe that learning happens as a result of being taught; that learning can be divided into separate tasks; that learning can be measured and pieces can be added one to the other; that learning provides value for the objects which then sell in the market.

And it's true. The more expensive the schooling of a person, the more money he will make in the course of his life. This in spite of the certainty, from a social science point of view, that there's absolutely no relationship between the curriculum content and what people actually do satisfactorily for themselves or society in life. That we know, since that beautiful book by Ivar Berg, The Great Training Robbery. In the meantime, there are at least thirty or forty other studies, all of which show the same thing. The curricular content has absolutely no effect on how people perform. The latent function of schooling, that is, the hidden curriculum, which forms individuals into needy people who know that they have now satisfied a little bit of their needs for education, is much more important.

Not all people whom I knew as a young man had needs. We were hungry but we couldn't translate the hunger into a need for food stuff. We were hungry for a tortilla, for comida, not calories. The idea that people are born with needs, that needs can be translated into rights, that these rights can be translated into entitlements, is a development of the modem world and it's reasonable, it's acceptable, it's obvious only for people who have had some of their educational needs awakened or created, then satisfied, and then learned that they have less than others. Schooling, which we engage in and which supposedly creates equal opportunities, has become the unique, never-before-attempted way of dividing the whole society into classes. Everybody knows at which level of his twelve or sixteen years of schooling he has dropped out, and in addition knows what price tag is attached to the higher schooling he has gotten. It's a history of degrading the majority of people.

Brown: So you take somebody who's poor and you modernize the poverty by not only having a person that doesn't have a lot of material goods but now lacks the mental self-confidence that his father or grandfather had before that.

Illich: And I can create a world for him in which he constantly needs something: context-sensitive help. You know, when you are in front of a computer and when you are in that program and put in WordPerfect it tells you what help you need at the point you are at. We have created a world in which people constantly are grateful if they are taken by the hand to know how to use a knife or to use the coffee maker or how to go on from here in text composing.

Increasingly people live in an artifact and become artifacts themselves, feel satisfied, feel fit for that artifact insofar as they themselves have been manipulated. That is the reason why the two of us concern ourselves with the things in the world as they are, as determinants of the possibility of friendship, of being really face to face with each other. Usually the people who do the philosophy of things, of artifacts, of technology, are concerned about what technology does to society. Inevitably modern technology has polarized society. It has polluted the environment. It has disabled very simple native abilities and made people dependent on objects.

Brown: Like an automobile.

Illich: An automobile which cuts out the use value from your feet. Like an automobile which makes the world inaccessible, when actually in Latin "automobile" means "using your feet to get somewhere." The automobile makes it unthinkable. I was recently told, "You're a liar!" when I said to somebody I walked down the spine of the Andes. Every Spaniard in the sixteenth, seventeenth century did that. The idea that somebody could just walk! He can jog perhaps in the morning, but he can't walk anywhere! The world has become inaccessible because we drive there

  [Objects and artifacts] change who you are and, even more deeply, the way your senses work. Traditionally the gaze was conceived as a way of fingering, of touching. The old Greeks spoke about looking as a way of sending out my psychopodia, my soul's limbs, to touch your face and establish a relationship between the two of us. This relationship was called vision. Then, after Galileo, the idea developed that the eyes are receptors into which light brings something from the outside, keeping you separate from me even when I look at you. People began to conceive of their eyes as some kind of camera obscura. In our age people conceive of their eyes and actually use them as if they were part of a machinery. They speak about interface. Anybody who says to me, "I want to have an interface with you," I say, "please go somewhere else, to a toilet or wherever you want, to a mirror." Anybody who says, "I want to communicate with you," I say, "Can't you talk? Can't you speak? Can't you recognize that there's a deep otherness between me and you, so deep that it would be offensive for me to be programmed in the same way you are."
Today my main concern is in which way... technology has devastated the road from one to the other, to friendship.

Mitcham: As Ivan has pointed out, we are undergoing a fundamental transformation in what he referred to as "context-sensitive help" screens. We spend more time now in front of a screen of one kind or another than we used to spend face to face with other humans beingseither the screen of the television set, the screen of the computer, the screen of my little digital clock right here in front of me. And we begin to experience the world, like when we're driving in a car the windshield becomes a kind of screen. The world becomes flattened to that screen.

Illich: I found at the Penn State Library a report on the Texas meeting of windshield technicians. Last year there were three volumes with some 870 contributions about how to engineer the windshield view which always makes you be where you're not yet. You're looking at what lies ahead, where you are not yet, like when you are with somebody and he always wants to know where we will be next week, where we will be the next hour, instead of being right here. It makes facing each other increasingly more difficult because people can't detach themselves anymore from the idea that what we look at has been manipulated and programmed by somebody.

Until quite recently, all cultures which we know of were determined by the idea of hierarchy being natural, being a given. Hierarchy being something in which I live, which I have to learn to suffer. The [hierarchical] human condition can be that of the tropics or of a cold climate; of a very highly sophisticated Greek politaea with slavery or God knows what horrors, or of a monastery in the twelfth century.

People didn't speak of a "culture." The word didn't exist. But they spoke about the style of the art of suffering that they had here and not somewhere else. Somewhere else people knew how to suffer that human condition in their own style. All this has been blown away.

The two of us haven't seen each other for a year now, and when we saw each other we bowed in front of each other. This very idea of bowingyou don't bow in front of a screen. It's made impossible, or very difficult, for people who constantly see non-persons on the screen. I remember the day when that kid told me, "Yes, but I did see, this evening, Kennedy, and then President Bush, and then also E.T." For goodness sake, I am not something like them. I am somebody who wants to respect you, who wants to look up to you. This has been deeply undermined.

The world has lost our sense of proportionality, the sense that our friendship is not Jerry-plus lvan-and-some-interaction-between-them, as if we were two screens, two programs, two machines, but something which is beautiful in itself. That sense seems to me something that I would like to save. I can't do that in politics. I can't do that in public life. I can do that only by cultivating, when we get together around spaghetti and a glass of wine.

I am surrounded for the first time in my life with people over twenty-five who were born in the year, or shortly after the year, when I had the experience of what is called medically, in America, a "depression" of two weeks. I called it melancholia. I called it acedia, which is the inactivity which results from a man seeing how enormously difficult it is for a man to do the right thing. In good English: sloth. I had a period of very black sloth and didn't want to continue writing on that book Tools for Conviviality.

I understood what it meant to have to move into the world of the technological shell of which we spoke before. And now these people have been born in that age. I can speak differently to these people than I could speak to people of the sixties. In I968, when I made people aware of the horrors inevitably effected by sickening medicine, because it creates more sick people than it can help, by stupefying education of which we just spoke, by time-consuming acceleration of traffic so that the majority of people have to spend many more hours in traffic jams in order to make a few people like you and me, and perhaps even Mitcham, omnipresent on radio, that was our main concern. Today my main concern is in which wayand these people understand ittechnology has devastated the road from one to the other, to friendship. Yet it is not our task to run out into the world to help others who are less privileged than we are. Some people must do this and I must collaborate with it. The real task is to remove from my own mind the screen.

It is from your eye that I find myself... It is not my mirror. It is you making me the gift of that which Ivan is for you. Brown: You had a focus on these larger societal issues, and now you're coming to focus in recent years on more immediate friendship. I'm very struck by the fact that you say computers communicate but people talk. I think the same thing is also true of the word "relationship." You can have a relationship among instruments or between instruments, but you can only have a friendship between two people or among human beings. I guess one of the obvious points about the modern sophisticated world would be the technological terms that invade our own understanding of ourselves and our immediate life.

In this book that Ivan has written, In the Vineyard of the Text, he called my attention to footnote 53, which is from the Latin, by Hugh of St. Victor, where he says love never ends:

To my dear brother Ronolfe, from Hugh, a sinner. Love never ends. When I first heard this I knew it was true. But now, dearest brother, I have the personal experience fully knowing that love never ends. For I was a foreigner. I met you in a strange land. But that land was not really strange for I found friends there. I don't know whether I first made friends or was made one, but I found love there and I loved it and I could not tire of it for it was sweet to me and I filled my heart with It and was sad that my heart could hold so little. I could not take in all that there was but I took in as much as I could. I filled up all the space l had but I could not fit in all I found, so I accepted what I could and, weighed down with this precious gift, I didn't feel any burden because my full heart sustained me. And now, having made a long journey, I find my heart still warmed and none of the gift has been lost, for love never ends.
I do think that if I had to choose one word to which hope can be tied, it is hospitality.

Illich: It's so beautiful. Today we would immediately say if a man writes to a man like that he must be a gay. But if he writes to a woman they would say what a marvellous sexual relationship. But do I need these alienating concepts? I want to just go back to a great rabbinical and also, as you see, monastic, Christian development beyond what the Greeks like Plato or Cicero already knew about friendship. That it is from your eye that I find myself. There's a little thing there. They called it pupilla, a "puppet" of myself which I can see in your eye. The black thing in your eye.

Pupil, puppet, person, eye. It is not my mirror. It is you making me the gift of that which Ivan is for you. That's the one who says "I" here. I'm purposely not saying, this is my person, this is my individuality, this is my ego. No. I'm saying this is the one who answers you here, whom you have given to him. This is how St. Hugh explains it here. This is how the rabbinical tradition explains it. That I cannot come to be fully human unless I have received myself as a gift and accepted myself as a gift of somebody who has, as we say today, distorted me the way you distorted me by loving me.

Now, friendship in the Greek tradition, in the Roman tradition, in the old tradition, was always viewed as the highest point which virtue can reach. Virtue, meaning here, "the habitual facility of doing the good thing," which is fostered by what the Greeks called politaea, political life, community life. I know it was a political life in which I wouldn't have liked to participate, with the slaves around and with the women excluded, but I still have to go to Plato or to Cicero. They conceived of friendship as a supreme flowering, of the interaction which happens in a good political society. But I do not believe that friendship today can flower out, can come out, of political life. I do believe that if there is something like a political life to be, to remain for us, in this world of technology, then it begins with friendship.

Therefore my task is to cultivate disciplined, self-denying, careful, tasteful friendships. Mutual friendships always. I-and-you and, I hope, a third one, out of which perhaps community can grow. Because perhaps here we can find what the good is.

To make it short, while once friendship in our western tradition was the supreme flower of politics, I think that if community life exists at all today, it is in some way the consequence of friendship cultivated by each one who initiates it. This goes beyond anything which people usually talk about, saying each one of you is responsible for the friendships he/she can develop, because society will only be as good as the political result of these friendships. This is, of course, a challenge to the idea of democracy [as a necessary political context for friendships to bloom].

Brown: We started with a world where the good society creates virtue and virtue is the basis of friendship. Now it's reversed. Now we have to create the friendship and, in the context of the friendship, virtue is practised and that might lead to a community which might lead to a society which might be a whole other kind of politics.

Mitcham: In some sense that's what you're trying to do, Jerry, with We the People. You've created a context, at your place in Oakland, in which what comes first is your friendship with other people and the friendship, the relations, between the people of that community. And out of that may grow some politics, but what I experienced when I visited We the People is primarily your hospitality and the hospitality of others there with you.

Illich: Here is the right word: hospitality was a condition consequent on a good society in politics, politaea, and by now might be the starting point of politaea, of politics. But this is difficult because hospitality requires a threshold over which I can lead you. TV, the Internet, newspapers, the idea of communication, abolished the walls between inside and outside, and therefore also the friendship, the possibility of leading somebody over the door. Hospitality requires a table around which you can sit and if people get tired they can sleep. You have to belong to a subculture to say, we have a few mattresses here. Hospitality is deeply threatened by the idea of personality, of [educational] status. I do think that if I had to choose one word to which hope can be tied, it is hospitality. A practice of hospitality recovering threshold, table, patience, listening, and from there generating seedbeds for virtue and friendship on the one hand. On the other hand, radiating out for possible community, for rebirth of community.

I have to make my mind up whom I will take into my arms, to whom I will lose myself, whom I will treat as a vis-a-vis, that face into which I look, which I lovingly touch with my fingering gaze, from whom I accept being who I am as a gift. Brown: I know you've written about the story of the Good Samaritan who is my neighbour and now we come up to this world of the needs, the rights, and the institution to take care of all that. Can you say a little bit about what institutionalization does, and then this reality that we're discussingof friendship, of love, of basing anything we might want to call community on that very immediate, unconstrained, uninstitutionalized way of being together?

Illich: Hospitality, that is, the readiness to accept somebody who is not from our hut, [across to] this side of our threshold, to this bed in here, seems to be, among the characteristics which anthropologists can identify, one of the most universal, if the not the most universal. But hospitality, wherever it appears, distinguishes between those who are Hellenes and those who are "blabberous," barbarians. Hospitality primarily refers to Hellenes who believed there is an outside and an inside. Hospitality is not for humans in general. Then comes that most upsetting guy, Jesus of Nazareth, and by speaking about something extraordinarily great and showing it in example, he destroys something basic.

When they ask him, "Who is my neighbour?" he tells about a Jew beaten up in a hold-up and a Palestinian (called a Samaritan, he came from Samaria, actually he's a Palestinian). First two Jews walk by and don't notice the beaten Jew. Then the Palestinian walks by, sees that Jew, takes him into his own arms, does what Hellenic hospitality does not obligate him to, and treats him as a brother. This breaking of the limitations of hospitality to a small in-group, of offering it to the broadest possible in-group, and saying, you determine who your guest is, might be taken as the key message of Christianity.

Then in the year 300 and something, finally the Church got recognition. The bishops were made into something like magistrates. The first things those guys do, these new bishops, is create houses of hospitality, institutionalizing what was given to us as a vocation by Jesus, as a personal vocation, institutionalizing it, creating roofs, refuges, for foreigners. Immediately, very interesting, quite a few of the great Christian thinkers of that time, I600 years ago (John Chrysostom is one), shout: "If you do that, if you institutionalize charity, if you make charity or hospitality into an act of a non-person, a community, Christians will cease to remain famous for what we are now famous for, for having always an extra mattress, a crust of old bread and a candle, for him who might knock at our door." But, for political reasons, the Church became, from the year 400 or 500 on, the main device for roughly a thousand years of proving that the State can be Christian by paying the Church to take care institutionally of small fractions of those who had needs, relieving the ordinary Christian household of the most uncomfortable duty of having a door, having a threshold open for him who might knock and whom I might not choose.

This is what I speak about as institutionalization of charity, the historical root of the idea of services, of the service economy. Now, I cannot imagine such a system being reformable, even though it might be your task and the task of courageous people whom I greatly admire. The impossible task they take on is to work at its reform, at making the evils the service system carries with it as small as possible. What I would have chosen is to awaken in us the sense of what this Palestinian example meant. I can choose. I have to choose. I have to make my mind up whom I will take into my arms, to whom I will lose myself, whom I will treat as that vis-a-vis, that face into which I look, which I lovingly touch with my fingering gaze, from whom I accept being who I am as a gift.

Born in Vienna, Ivan Illich currently divides his time among Mexico, Germany, and the US. His latest book is In the Vineyard of the Text, (University of Chicago paperback, 1996).

Jerry Brown, governor of California from 1974 to 1982, practices community level organizing through his Oakland-based organization, We the People.

Carl Mitcham is professor at Penn State University.

This article was excerpted with permission from Brown's radio program, also called "We the People" (March 22, 1996, Pacifica Network). It was published in Whole Earth Review No.90 Summer 1997. Whole Earth is published quarterly by Point, a nonprofit educational organisation located at 1408 Mission Avenue., San Rafael, CA 94901 (415-256-2800)


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