david h. colmenares news notes publications talks teaching vitae

Reclaiming the good life from the Segundos Pisos

Ivan Illich

While this winter break has been packed with activities, and a dissertation chapter is due in January, these following weeks I plan to spend as much as possible re-reading one of the intellectual (dare I say: spiritual) heroes of my youth: Ivan Illich. In the past year, I encountered Illich once again while reading about the Medieval encyclopedic tradition and Hugh of Saint Victor’s Didascalicon, the 12th-century treatise on reading to which Illich dedicated a detailed commentary. A few months ago I read the engaging Rivers North of the Future, a series of interviews in which Illich spelled out the theological underpinnings of his criticism of modern society. I also came across a little book, The Prophet from Cuernavaca, the first reconstruction of Illich’s activities at the CIDOC. However, it’s been my recent experiences in Mexico City that have sparked my interest in Illich’s thought once again. Mexico City in many ways stands as an example of the utter failure of the political intervention that Illich thought was still feasible in the 1970s, and through which the “Developing” world could have been spared from the ills of Capitalist modernization. While his reading of the situation, I believe, was correct, he failed to identify or address the possible agents of such an intervenetion, and he squandered his energies chastizising and re-educating American missionaries while entirely neglecting local policy-makers or institutions such as the CEPAL. At any rate, Mexico City and its sprawling net of segundos pisos feels precisely as the kind urban distopia that Illich sought to prevent.

A growing number of recent publications have set out to reassess Illich’s legacy, but my aim is to dive directly into his ouevre through the wonderful FCE’s Obras Completas, edited by Javier Sicilia. I plan to re-read works that had a lasting impact in my coming of age, such as Tools for Conviventiality, but also books I didn’t read back then and that now seem all the more urgent: The Right to Useful Unemployment, Disabling Professions and Energy and Equity. Finally, I will try to breath new life into these books by reading them side by side to Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order, a work that I’ve been meaning to read for a while after spending several months musing over his beautiful Pattern language.