Convivial Tools Edition
Kicking off your August with Ivan Illich, Derek Walcott, and a pilgrimage to the heart of Byzantium.
This is my semi-regular review of what I’m reading and working on. I also post occasional poetry and prose. Catch up on what this newsletter is about here. Or subscribe here if you like.
Otherwise, welcome friend, and read on.
Agency, institutions, sensuality. In last month’s edition, I linked to a short post by Michael Sacasas, an academic and writer specializing in the history and sociology of technology. He’s particularly interested in the thought of Ivan Illich, a scholar and critic of modernity who was also a homeless hippie and a (somewhat renegade) Catholic priest. I highly recommend this longer interview with Sacasas, who delves into Illich’s perspective and the relevance it has for our current crisis of institutions and epistemic trust.
The central axis of the conversation is sensuality—the importance of the human body and our senses, and the way our own agency and autonomy depend on the cultivation of direct, embodied communion with the world and each other. It’s what Illich approvingly called conviviality, being-with-ness. In Illich’s view, institutions become dysfunctional and oppressive when they alienate us from basic physical and social functions—feasting, learning, building, farming, healing, worshiping, grieving—in favor of bureaucratic and technocratic techniques of rationalization, optimization, and specialization. This “de-skilling” of the human person renders us passive observers to our own lives, and centralizes authority only at the cost of ultimately distancing us from it and soon de-legitimizing it.
The right response to such dehumanization, Illich argues, is to recover ways of receiving the world as a gift, and not something we can ultimately control; to use technologies as limited tools and not totalizing systems; and to find creative ways to build new, human institutions outside of those that have failed us.
As far as I can tell, Illich’s ideas are totally illegible to prevailing ideological buckets of right and left, which is a familiar situation for Christian radicals, from the Catholic Worker founders Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin to Latin American liberation theologists. Some of Illich’s views, as Sacasas notes, could appear right-coded (skepticism of government, religiosity, disdain for rule by technocratic expertise) but more, I think, find resonance on the left (critique of capitalist consumerism, emphasis on communal and non-hierarchical decision making, disdain for rule by technocratic expertise). He is often read as an anarchist, but I’m not sure that really gets at it. I think he would say something more like we need forms of governing and authority, indeed we need them to shape us morally, intellectually, and physically, but to make us flourishing people they must allow for the development and constant exercise of human agency, which usually necessitates smaller scales, more decentralization, more flexibility.
What would this really look like? I don’t have much idea. Illich founded a sort of commune/para-university in rural Mexico to put his ideas into practice, but it didn’t appear to last. And I haven’t read much of him directly, though I’ve just started Deschooling Society, his critique of institutional education. His Limits to Medicine, a broadside against an ideology of medicalization in which normal aspects of life are pathologized in a desperate attempt to control life and death itself, might be even more interesting for our current moment.
One small but important example of a reform to increase agency and autonomy could be something like the Right to Repair movement, which is in the news now thanks to Biden’s anti-monopoly efforts. The ability to repair one’s own machines is particularly crucial for farmers, but also for any industry that relies on computerized tools (which is now most of them). And really, for anyone who wants to be able to fix and maintain their own possessions. At issue is the ability of manufacturers—often wielding dominant market positions—to use their control over software updates or specialized tools to bar owners of things like tractors from making their own fixes or taking repairs to an independent shop.
This imposes additional costs and burdens, but it can be downright disastrous if, for instance, a farmer isn’t able to make a simple repair in the middle of a short harvest window. (Farmers are now getting into bidding wars for 1990s model tractors without such poison pill electronic systems.) It’s an offshoot of a broader fragilizing tendency toward the concentration of ownership and the resulting universalization of the leasing model to things we ostensibly own—music, movies, and cars, yes, but also the very seeds that grow everything we eat. It’s the inverse of distributism, the view that public policy should be oriented toward dispersing ownership of productive assets as widely as possible. Distributism gets an often-deserved bad rap for failing to provide a theory of the case for how this can be achieved—but sometimes just preventing the worst outcome in the other direction is simple enough.
Speaking of intellectual property. In the 13th century, glass making was a lucrative but dangerous affair. Venice, absorbing expertise from Byzantium and the Middle East, was a world center for fine glass production, and the techniques were a closely-guarded secret. Both to maintain privacy and to protect the rest of the city from the threat of fire, Venetian glassmakers were confined to the island of Murano. They lived like princes, including a “summer break” that lasted five months of the year. However, there was just one little footnote in the fine print:
Around 1271 the local glassmakers' guild made rules to help preserve glassmaking secrets. It was forbidden to divulge trade secrets outside of Venice. If a glassworker left the city without permission, he would be ordered to return. If he failed to return, his family would be imprisoned. If he still did not return, an assassin would be sent to kill him.
The quest for reality. Miłosz’s 1980 Nobel Prize acceptance speech is an extended meditation on the “double vision” of the artist. He begins from a mythological trope, employed by 17th century poet Maciej Sarbiewski, of the child who travels the world on the back of Pegasus, seeing everything simultaneously from a great height, as a whole, but also in every tiny detail. The dialectic between the particular and the universal, distance and communion, is the magnetic polarity that has always driven human expression, and Miłosz maps that tension onto the killing fields of the 20th century:
The Earth which the poet viewed in his flight calls with a cry, indeed, out of the abyss and doesn’t allow itself to be viewed from above. An insoluble contradiction appears, a terribly real one, giving no peace of mind either day or night, whatever we call it, it is the contradiction between being and action, or, on another level, a contradiction between art and solidarity with one’s fellow men. Reality calls for a name, for words, but it is unbearable and if it is touched, if it draws very close, the poet’s mouth cannot even utter a complaint of Job: all art proves to be nothing compared with action. Yet, to embrace reality in such a manner that it is preserved in all its old tangle of good and evil, of despair and hope, is possible only thanks to a distance, only by soaring above it—but this in turn seems then a moral treason.
An exercise in tenderness. There’s a lot in this interview with painter Jennifer Packer, including thoughts on the role of visual hierarchies, abstraction vs. representation, and drawing as a form of inchoate pre-language language. I love her description of having her mind blown by the casual ubiquity of the Masters while visiting Rome, and what it taught her about the purpose of painting:
It was seeing Caravaggio’s Saint Matthew series (1599–1602) in the Contarelli Chapel at San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome that I recognize as the moment I became a painter. Caravaggio made me understand what a painting could do. I felt connected to his deep, dark representation that seemed almost blasphemous and also seemed to contradict all the other optimistic images that were in the church and in the city. There’s this break between the entropy you feel in the city and the beauty of the images presented...I saw Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas (c. 1570-1576) when I was in Rome, where he’s strung upside down, and I was thinking about Titian painting this body and deciding how much care to give to Marsyas. I feel the same way: the idea of painting as an exercise in tenderness.
The art of keyif. American culture is desperately in need of a little dose of keyif, the Turkish term for the cultivation of committed languor:
Here’s how it goes: you’re bored at home and looking for people as bored as you are. These people are your friends, who are bored for the same reason you are—they’re not with their friends. Therefore, to lift the dismal weight of alone-time from your collective shoulders (something which can lead to such unsavory habits as thinking, reading and creativity), you and your friends arrange to meet at Taksim (Kadikoy if you’re on the Asian side) and proceed to walk and talk aimlessly until it gets dark and you finally have something to do (i.e. eat dinner). This is in fact what three quarters of the people you see on the street are doing.
Thanks to the memetic power of Taleb, the closely related concept of flaneur-ing has re-gained currency. (It says a lot about us that we need a foreign-language word for “walk around enjoying the vibe” but this what we’ve come to.) Maybe keyif will be next.
Re-rumina(n)ting. Bison by their tens of millions once shaped the ecology of the North American continent, serving as the keystone for a complex and diverse prairie ecosystem, before being slaughtered mindlessly down to a few hundred. Now they are on their way back.
Iceland’s Eydís Evensen.
So much rain, so much life like the swollen sky
of this black August. My sister, the sun,
broods in her yellow room and won’t come out.
Everything goes to hell; the mountains fume
like a kettle, rivers overrun; still,
she will not rise and turn off the rain.
She is in her room, fondling old things,
my poems, turning her album. Even if thunder falls
like a crash of plates from the sky,
she does not come out.
Don’t you know I love you but am hopeless
at fixing the rain? But I am learning slowly
to love the dark days, the steaming hills,
the air with gossiping mosquitoes,
and to sip the medicine of bitterness,
so that when you emerge, my sister,
parting the beads of the rain,
with your forehead of flowers and eyes of forgiveness,
all with not be as it was, but it will be true
(you see they will not let me love
as I want), because, my sister, then
I would have learnt to love black days like bright ones,
The black rain, the white hills, when once
I loved only my happiness and you.
—Derek Walcott, Dark August
What I’ve been working on.
I made an artist portfolio website, which took up altogether too much time. There’s nothing to do, buy, or sign up for there—yet. But check it out if you’d like.
When not wasting time on the computer, I eked out a couple paintings this month, including the first use of my plein air easel, and my first from-life portrait paintings.
The liturgical life.
Henry Hopwood-Phillips reflects quite entertainingly on walking from Athens to Istanbul, which led him unexpectedly to the living realms of the ancient Church, where time does not so much pass as swirl in eddies:
Praying on St Paraskevi’s marble floor (initially to escape the heat) I learned how to assimilate into piety by kissing icons, genuflecting and dissolving into the chants and incense...I walked to Chalkidiki’s second peninsula via the monasteries. My fear of the ostentation, darkness and bejeweled nature of the Orthodox faith had faded. I grew to adore the older icons with their calamitous intensity, as if marinated in all the hopes and fears hurled at them, their slight air of secret and embittered worship and the preternatural feeling that God had a hand in this material intercessor.
...What was once ordinary had become precious. At the heart of this revelation lay the fact that impermanence didn’t drain moments of their meaning; it charged them with an excess of it. Nothing could be taken for granted. Everything had to be drunk, and drunk deep with thanksgiving.
Processions remain an important (if in the West neglected) part of the liturgy because they are an icon of pilgrimage; and pilgrimages, like those that obsessed the medieval world or our own bespoke versions that lurk under guise of tourism, are themselves an icon of our journey on Earth.
Capping off this month, August 28 is the feast day of my confirmation saint, Augustine of Hippo, who once wrote to me:
Some people, in order to find God, will read a book. But there is a great book, the book of created nature. Look carefully at it top and bottom, observe it, read it. God did not make letters of ink for you to recognize him in; he set before your eyes all these things he has made. Why look for a louder voice?
Sermon 68, trans. Edmund Hill O.P.
So much to contemplate! I love the portrait of Don. Re pilgrimages, I'm reminded of an extraordinary film from a few years ago, Paths of the Soul: https://youtu.be/CiIrkWX8L-E