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Ivan Illich

Ivan Illich . . . was one of the world's great thinkers, a polymath whose output covered vast terrains. He worked in 10 languages; he was a jet-age ascetic with few possessions; he explored Asia and South America on foot; and his obligations to his many collaborators led to a constant criss-crossing of the globe. . .

Illich lived frugally, but opened his doors to collaborators and drop-ins with great generosity, running a practically non-stop educational process which was always celebratory, open-ended and egalitarian at his final bases in Bremen, Cuernavaca and Pennsylvania.

His charisma, brilliance and spirituality were clear to anyone who encountered him; these qualities sustained him in a heroic level of activity over the last 10 years in the context of terrible suffering caused by a disfiguring cancer. Following the thesis of Medical Nemesis, he administered his own medication against the advice of doctors, who proposed a largely sedative treatment which would have rendered his work impossible.

-The Guardian obituary,

Best known for his polemical writings against western institutions from the 1970s, which were easily caricatured by the right and were, equally, disdained by the left for their attacks on the welfare state, in the last 20 years of his life he became an officially forgotten, troublesome figure (like Noam Chomsky today in mainstream America). This position obscures the true importance of his contribution. His critique of modernity was founded on a deep understanding of the birth of institutions in the 13th century, a critical period in church history which enlightened all of his work, whether about gender, reading or materiality. He was far more significant as an archaeologist of ideas, someone who helped us to see the present in a truer and richer perspective, than as an ideologue.

{Illich's] erudition and the fiery complexity of his style and thought make it difficult to unravel the many threads in his polemics. The other part of the problem is that undermining long-inculcated certainties in people's lives tends to create anxiety in them, especially when the critique of those certainties rings true, but they do not know what to do about it. Too often the response is simple denial.

Ivan Illich portrait
Ivan Illich

Ivan Illich was born in Vienna in 1926. He studied theology and philosophy at the Greorgian University in Rome and obtained a PhD in history at the University of Salzburg. He came to the United States in 1951, where he served as assistant pastor in an Irish-Puerto Rican parish in New York City. From 1956 to 1960 he was assigned as vice-rector to the Catholic university of Puerto Rico, where he organized an intensive training center for American priests in Latin American culture.

Illich was co-founder of the widely known and controversial Center for Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC) in Cuernavaca, Mexico. From 1964 onward, he directed research seminars on `Institutional Alternatives in a Technological Society', with special focus on Latin America. After 10 years, the radicalism of CIDOC began to bring the institution into conflict with the Vatican, and in 1976 the center was shut down with the consent of its members. Several of them subsequently formed language schools in Cuernevaca, some of which still exist.

Illich resigned as a priest in the late '60s. From the 1980s, he traveled extensively, spending time in the United States, Mexico, and Germany. He held an appointment as Visiting Professor of Philosophy and of Science, Technology, and Society at Penn State, and also taught at the University of Bremen. Ivan Illich died in Bremen on December 2, 2002.

His books include:

After Deschooling, What?
Celebration of Awareness: A Call for Institutional Revolution
Deschooling Society
Disabling Professions
Energy and Equity
H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness: Reflections on the Historicity of "Stuff"
In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh's Didascalicon
Limits to Medicine: Medical Nemesis, the Expropriation of Health
Shadow Work
The Right to Useful Unemployment: And Its Professional Enemies
Tools for Conviviality
Toward a History of Needs





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