Ivan Illich on community cohesion and alternate modes of knowledge production

“People need not only to obtain things, they need above all the freedom to make things among which they can live, to give shape to them according to their own tastes, and to put them to use in caring for and about others [1].”

Perry
Image credit: Mike L. Perry

In 1973, Ivan Illich, a Catholic priest and Professor at Penn State University published his epilogue to the modern industrial age. Tools for Conviviality stood as an ode to a need for multiplicity in modes of knowledge production in order to connect individuals with themselves and others in the community. Illich’s argument is built on the premise that the advancement in mass industrial and mechanical production has removed people’s free use of their natural abilities, coming at the expense of human’s connection with themselves and others in the community. Industrial forms of production and education have led to isolation, social polarization and the deterioration of the fabric of community.

Tools for Conviviality came two years after the release of Deschooling Society, Illich’s critique of institutionalised education and his belief of its connection to the institutionalisation of society. Illich is often categorised as a social critic yet this restricts the multidisciplinary nature of his work, which deeply intertwines educational, medical, technological, scientific, social and cultural theory.

Illich’s constructs his definition of conviviality in opposition to industrial production controlled by others:

“conviviality is the autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment. I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value [2].”

He connects this with the notion of ‘tools,’ which are broadly defined not just to include handtools such as hammers, brooms and saws but also extends his interpretation to institutions and systems of production that create intangible commodities such as education and healthcare. Convivial tools permit people to learn in different ways and personalise their lives in response to their own interests and natural abilities, granting people the ability to build the skills needed to connect and synthesise information into original and personalised forms. This then allows for individualised, participatory and meaningful experiences which allow people to work at their own pace and level of understanding, moving away from a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Convivial tools grant man the ability to express meaning through action.

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Radio building at the Mt. Elliott Makerspace in Detroit. Image credit: Melanie Freeman

Illicit does not dismiss all necessity for industrial production but rather advocates for a balance in the relationship between what people need to do by themselves and what industry can do for them. When this equilibrium is lost and industrial production takes over, the over-programming of man deadens his creative imagination. A complex balance is therefore needed between industrial growth and alternate individual modes of knowledge production.

“…to the degree that a man masters his tools, he can invest the world with his meaning , to the degree that he is mastered by his tools, the shape of the tool determines his own self-image [3].”

Illich constructs an evaluative framework to analyse the complex theories and ideologies driving the industrial crisis. In this he points to the need for a common language amongst people which can be used to critically discuss the situation from multiple perspectives. Unlike Marx, Illich does not construct his solution on the design of a utopian society. Alternatively he formulates a methodological approach in a series of steps embedded in our current society which allows for the critical reflection. Within this, he emphasises the need for a shift in perception and language people use towards ‘manipulative’ industrial tools in which they take ownership of their tools and recognise their role as active agents in their lives. For example, instead of the education and healthcare system dictating them and how the connect with others, people need to recognise their control over ‘their education,’ ‘their health’ and ‘their transportation.’ Through this, the controlling and standardised nature of industrial production is broken through individual’s defending their own right and need for conviviality and personalised modes of knowledge production within their own lives. Tools for Conviviality exemplifies the necessity of constructing convivial environments within our community. When curating spaces for children in art galleries, it raises the question as to how we can design for a balance of individual creative knowledge production alongside the transmission of existent cultural knowledge and values.

References

  1. Illich, I. (1973), Tools for Conviviality, Harper & Row, p.6.
  2. Ibid, p.6.
  3. Ibid, p.21.
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