Crafting Gentleness

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Ivan Illich on the challenges of thinkering

"Learned and leisurely hospitality is the only antidote to the stance of deadly cleverness that is acquired in the professional pursuit of objectively secured knowledge. I remain certain that the quest for truth cannot thrive outside the nourishment of mutual trust flowering into a commitment to friendship. Therefore I have tried to identify the climate that fosters and the "conditioned" air that hinders the growth of friendship. ...

"My early suspicion that a certain atmosphere was necessary for the kind of studium to which I had dedicated myself became a conviction through my contact with post-Sputnik American universities. After just one year as vice-chancellor of a university in Puerto Rico, I and a few others wanted to question the development ideology to which Kennedy no less than Castro subscribed. I put all the money I had ... into the purchase of a one-room wooden shack in the mountains that overlook the Caribbean. With three friends I wanted a place of study in which every use of the personal pronoun, nos-otros, would [236] truthfully refer back to the four of us, and be accessible to our guests as well; I wanted to practice the rigor that would keep us far from the "we" that invokes the security found in the shadow of an academic discipline: we as sociologists, economists, and so forth. As one of us, Charlie Rosario, put it: "All departments smell - of disinfectants, at their best ... and poisons sterilize aura." The casita on the road to Adjuntas soon became so obnoxious that I had to leave the island.

"This freed me to start a "thinkery" in Mexico, which five years later turned into the Centro Intercultural de Documentación or CIDOC. ... [Bundestag deputy Freimut Duve] told you about the spirit prevailing in that place: a climate of mutually tempered forbearance. It was this aura, this quality of air, through which this ephemeral venture could become a world crossroads, a meeting place for those who, long before it had become fashionable, questioned the innocence of "development." ...

"CIDOC was closed by common accord on April first, ten years to the day after its foundation. With Mexican music and dancing we celebrated its closing. Duve told you about Valentina Borremans, who had organised and directed CIDOC from its inception. He then spoke about his admiration for the style in which she ended its work with the mutual consent of its sixty three collaborators. She realized that the soul of this free, independent, and powerless thinkery would have been squashed soon by its rising influence.

"CIDOC shut its doors in the face of criticism by its most serious friends, people too earnest to grasp the paradox of atmosphere. These were mainly persons for whom the hospitable climate of CIDOC had provided a unique forum. They thrived in the aura of CIDOC, and wholly rejected our certainty that atmosphere invites the institutionalization that will corrupt it. You never know what will nurture the spirit of philia, while you can be certain what will smother it. Spirit emerges by surprise, and it's a miracle when it abides; it is stifled by every attempt to secure it; it's debauched when you try to use it."

Ivan Illich, "The Cultivation of Conspiracy," in The Challenges of Ivan Illich: A Collective Reflection, 2002, pp. 235-236.


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