Thinking after Illich
Last update: 11/01/2007 (c) Bremen, Germany  
On the death of
Ivan Illich


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Circle for Research on Proportionality (CROP)
Bremen, September 1999 (originally adressed to Jerry Brown)

This memorandum will introduce you to our project and to some of our group's members. We are a circle of friends who have come together through Ivan's lectures and around the spaghetti table of Barbara Duden at Penn State and in Bremen. This circle includes among others: Johannes Beck, professor of education, and Antje Menk, professor of linguistics (University of Bremen, Germany). Professor Barbara Duden is a historian at the University of Hanover (Germany). Constantine Hatzikiriakou is professor of mathematics at the University of Crete (Greece). Sajay Samuel teaches accounting at University of Connecticut and Samar Farage is professor of sociology at Penn State University, both in the United States. Matthias Rieger and Silja Samerski are completing their dissertations in musicology and biology, respectively. Lee Hoinacki is a philosopher and theologian and a long-standing collaborator of Ivan Illich. In order to discuss the loss of the sense for proportionality, we have met over the last three years with fellow-thinkers in Germany, Italy, the United States, and Mexico.

In these conversations, each of us in a peculiar way, tries to follow a line of inquiry provoked by Illich. To say what we are about with one term we have found no better word than proportionality. In using this term we try to recover the sense that fit, good, even true, had in other times. Delving into history, we track the loss of this correspondence, the sense for which has withered. Through this quest, we do not seek a nostalgic revival of the past nor a contribution to new age spiritualism. Instead, by looking from the past into the present, we hope to gain a perspective on the contemporary absence of proportionality and its consequences for how we perceive others and ourselves.

The I-Thou relation is crucial to our understanding of proportionality. In his Bremen lectures, Illich explored this historically unprecedented relation in the West through the parable of the Samaritan. In this relation only a second person --a Thou-- gives orientation to an I. According to Illich, this act of freely turning towards another was revolutionary because it was neither determined by the common nativity in the Greek Polis, nor by being subject to Roman law, nor by the fear of a divine legislator, nor by the interiorization of norms either as conscience or as moral imperative. For decades, Illich has argued that, to understand two millennia of Western existence it is necessary to start out from this Christian calling to friendship. The institutionalization of charity perverts this calling by turning friendship into services. Beginning with third-century shelters for the homeless and well beyond the emergence of asylums in France during the late eighteenth century, service institutions have turned neighbors into clients. The emergence of a service economy is by now well understood. What we want to clarify is a transformation of the social domain that happened during the last couple of decades: institutions no longer service clients, they now manage their profiles.

Genetic counseling is an extreme example of such a managed relationship. In the counseling session, a woman expecting a child faces an expert in risk management and in the statistics of chromosomal distributions. He instructs her on the biological facts of conception and of her risks from fertilization. Referring to her condition and related variables, the geneticist defines her as member of a statistical population. Every biological abnormality correlated to that population now appears as a threat: either to her or to the expected child. The geneticist reinforces these threats by pictures of malformed children, Mendelian diagrams and risk curves. She is asked to recognize the child, the 'Thou' she was expecting, as a chimera of numbered chances. At this stage, the geneticist assures her that she is informed enough to make a decision. As the last and final step of the ritual, she has to make a judgment using this information. It is she who must decide whether, based on a statistical profile of the fetus, she prefers to deliver it alive or dead.

Today, there are many examples for pressures to identify either you or me with data profiles. Judges send people to jail, doctors pronounce them dead, teachers certify them, managers pay them, and they are no more than a composite of data. Management increasingly manipulates personnel to comply with imputed characteristics. It is in this milieu when Thou has become a technogenic datum profile that we raise the question of friendship.

Over the next five years, we want to find out how judgment and resolve were replaced by decision-making, how care and responsibility have leached out that which we want to cultivate. Our different backgrounds strengthen our grasp of the desiccation of the I-Thou relation. Sajay Samuel clarifies how in modern management such techno-scientific 'objects' as lifestyles, human resources, and quality of life have replaced persons. Focusing on genetic counseling, Silja Samerski describes how management techniques refashion motherly love. Barbara Duden shows how the misplaced concreteness of the scientifically recoined term, 'pregnancy at risk', ravages the somatic constitution of women. In contrast to the contemporary management of the sick, Samar Farage investigates the relatedness, grounded in Philia, between physician and patient in the Galenic tradition. Matthias Rieger provides us with a detailed model for the breakdown of proportionality through his study of the dissolution of musical harmony in the eighteenth century. For Kostas Hatzikiriakou, the identification of unity and number in the seventeenth century is a key for understanding how values could replace the good in ethics.

We are in the midst of a series of symposia on these topics. We offer our written exchanges and minutes of our meetings to a broader circle of readers. In the tradition of Ivan and Barbara's practice of hospitality, we invite friends and others to our little thinkery. We invite everybody who would like to share in our conversations to join our meetings as a guest around the spaghetti table, to critically read and contribute to our writings.