Gaia and the Path of the Earth: Lovelock, Illich, Latour (Part 1)

Gaia and the Path of the Earth: Lovelock, Illich, Latour (Part 1)
Published: Nov 28, 2021
“The greatest reimagination of the heavens since Galileo,” says Bruno Latour, but Ivan Illich disagrees. A debate between major thinkers on the value of James Lovelock’s hypothesis, as proposed by Canadian philosopher and Illich biographer David Cayley. Part 1 of 3. ¶ Paintings by Joseph E. Yokum (1891–1972) from an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, until March 19, 2022.

Mt-Grazian (inset), Joseph E. Yokum, MOMA, journal of wild culture ©2021

Joseph E. Yoakum. 'Mt Grazian in Maritime Alps near Emonaco Tunnel France and Italy by Tunnel,' (inset).


I have had a long-standing interest in the claim of British scientist Jim Lovelock that the earth as a whole is self-regulating – his Gaia Hypothesis, so called – and I featured Lovelock several times during my years at Ideas at CBC Radio.1 During those years, the preeminent influence on my thinking was the philosopher of technology Ivan Illich. But, when I tried, on more than one occasion, to discuss the Gaia theory with him, his response was disparaging. Lovelock’s theory, he said, was a travesty, an empty abstraction untrue to the living earth and “inimical to what earth is.”2 Now, nearly thirty years after Illich made these remarks, a new interpretation of Lovelock’s theory has appeared. It comes from French philosopher of science Bruno Latour in a book called Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. Latour claims that Lovelock’s hypothesis, properly understood, is as significant as Galileo’s reimagination of the heavens in the early 17th century, and that it is much less inimical to an embodied experience of place than Illich had supposed. This has challenged me to revisit Illich’s objections to Gaia à la Lovelock, and to ask whether Latour’s new interpretation can answer them. I will begin by introducing Lovelock’s theory:

In 1965 Jim Lovelock was working at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), a joint initiative of NASA and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California. His assignment was to devise instruments that could detect life on Mars, should there be any. In thinking about this problem, he had the inspired idea of turning his question around and asking, in effect, how a Martian would know that there is life on earth. This brought to his attention the earth’s unlikely atmosphere, a mix of gases as unstable, Lovelock has joked, as those mingled in the intake manifold of a car. Why don’t these gases react with one another until they eventually reach that state of chemical equilibrium that had recently been shown to characterize the atmospheres of Mars or Venus? How is such a “giant disequilibrium” maintained? The answer came “in a flash,” Lovelock told me in one of the several interviews I did with him for CBC Radio: “The organisms at the surface [of the earth] must be regulating the atmosphere.”3 “Not just putting gases in the atmosphere,” he reiterated to emphasize his point, but “regulating the atmosphere.” Thus was born the Gaia hypothesis.


He stopped saying that “living organisms” were producing their own environment and began to say that “the whole system” was involved.


Lovelock, as he has now related in more than ten books on the subject, soon discovered many more ways in which living things produce their own environment. He has shown, for example, that marine creatures emit aerosols of sulfur and iodine in exactly the quantities required by creatures on the land where these crucial elements are deficient. He has demonstrated that earth’s biota remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the amounts necessary to maintain a comfortable climate. And he has established that forest fires help regulate the proportion of oxygen in the atmosphere. The discovery of these mechanisms, and others like them, confirmed Lovelock’s initial intuition at JPL that the earth as a whole must engage in some form of self-regulation. The idea of naming this hypothesis after Gaia, the ancient Greek goddess of the earth, came from the novelist William Golding who was Lovelock’s friend, interlocutor and neighbour at the time. Lovelock first began to explore the implications of his “flash” at JPL. So grand a theory, Golding said, deserved an equally grand name, and what better name than Gaia, mother of all, first to arise from primeval Chaos, oldest of the gods. Lovelock, fatefully, accepted his friend’s suggestion. “When you get given a name by a wordsmith of quality like Bill Golding,” he later told me, “you don’t turn it down. But, boy has it given me trouble.”4

The name, as Lovelock says, was a blessing and a curse in one. It attracted media attention, as the several broadcasts I did about it for Ideas testify, and it resonated with many counter-cultural movements – from that branch of feminism in which interest in goddesses was reviving, to the environmental movement which grew out of the first Earth Day in 1970, to the hippie cultural ecologists who were advocating retooling, degrowth and a return to earth. Musician Paul Winter composed a mass, Missa Gaia, that was first presented at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York in 1982; writer William Irwin Thompson made the name a sign of a new way of thinking in a book he edited called Gaia: A Way of Knowing. But, at the same time, this cultural and philosophical resonance became a source of derision amongst Lovelock’s scientific colleagues – the trouble he referred to above. Biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote that the theory struck him as “a metaphor, not a mechanism,” and many other leading biologists rejected it out of hand as well.5 Some of this condescension and disregard was rooted in the theory’s cultural associations, but it also arose from the sense that Lovelock’s hypothesis offended and threatened neo-Darwinian orthodoxy.

Modern sciences rest on the banishment of any idea of end, goal or purpose from their accounts. Aristotle held that each thing was determined by its end or final cause, as well as by its material character and the forces acting on it. Objects fall to earth because they seek their “natural place” – it is in their nature to do so. 17th century natural philosophy subtracted this idea. It held that things move only because some overt and discernible force pushes them – everything can be reduced to matter in motion, “Occult” causes were ruled out. Purpose was driven out of science and thereby fated to return endlessly as heresy. In the neo-Darwinian orthodoxy that ruled evolutionary biology at the time Lovelock first presented his hypothesis, it was an axiom that change could not arise by any purposeful process – e.g., giraffes developed long necks so they could reach high branches – but only by random mutation which might confer an advantage in what Darwin called the struggle for existence – a giraffe with a longer neck, by happy chance, appeared and was then rewarded with more food and more progeny. In this context Lovelock’s idea of planetary self-regulation looked like the latest version of the perennial heresy that had erupted in Jean Baptiste Lamarck’s theory of evolution, in which new “needs” call forth new habits, or in Hans Driesch’s “vitalist” developmental biology in which “entelechies” governed embryological development, and in many other such attempts to reintroduce teleology to biology. (Teleology, from telos the Greek word for end of goal, refers to any sequence determined by its end and not by a chain of antecedent mechanical causes.) What evolutionary advantage could there be for marine creatures in producing dimethyl sulfide or methyl iodide in the exact quantities required on the land, or in producing the nuclei which allow clouds to condense and form in just the amount needed to radiate light away from the earth and preserve its comfortable temperature? These phenomena might demonstrably occur, but they must be only fortunate accidents or coincidences, not elements of self-regulation.

Lovelock learned to answer these objections in several registers. He stopped saying that “living organisms” were producing their own environment and began to say that “the whole system” was involved.6 He drew attention to the baffling properties of cybernetic systems in which causation is circular rather than linear. Once a domestic thermostat is set, the temperature regulates the furnace, and the furnace regulates the temperature in an endless circle of which neither is the cause. The Gaia hypothesis models such a circular process, Lovelock said, whereas modern sciences had previously used linear mathematics to model linear, cause-and-effect processes. He recognized, of course, that a thermostat must be set by someone before it falls into its homeostatic pattern of self-regulation. The system must have a goal or end-state which governs its self-regulation. In the case of Gaia, he claimed that this goal was set by “the properties of the universe.” Because carbon-based life forms are “quite fussy about the range of temperatures and conditions at which they can exist,” these tolerances “set the goal of the self-regulating system Gaia.”7


Grizzly Gulch, Joseph Yokum, MOMA, journal of wild culture ©2021

Joseph E. Yoakum. 'Grizzly Gulch Valley, Ohansburg, Vermont.' n.d.. Black ballpoint pen and watercolor on paper. 7 7/8 × 9 7/8″ (20 × 25.1 cm). At the Museum of Modern Art, New York until March 19, 2022. Photo: Robert Gerhardt.


In effect, Lovelock argued that the earth itself is a unit of evolution, still subject to natural selection but on a cosmic or universal scale where the selection pressures are established by the parameters of life itself. He was not contradicting or replacing Darwinian theory by this hypothesis, he said, he was only supplementing it by enlarging its frame. Just as Newtonian physics had worked fine until Einstein pushed it to the limit at which it broke down, so Darwinian principles of natural selection had been sufficient until the planet as a whole was considered. Only when Earth was observed from outside, as it was for the first time in Lovelock’s thought experiment during NASA’s Mars mission, did it become necessary to ask whether Earth itself evolves. People had known for a long time that it changed – they had, for centuries, hunted fossils, measured the age of rocks, and charted the advance retreat of glaciers – but they had still taken that “Nature” which governs “natural selection” for granted as the context in which evolution operates. Lovelock by considering the earth as a whole had identified properties that belonged to it only as a whole, properties that could not be reduced to more rudimentary terms.

Lovelock’s theory was initially polarizing and controversial. The problems, as I mentioned earlier, began with the grandiloquent name that was William Golding’s equivocal gift. The name expanded the idea’s cultural reach but poisoned its scientific reception, creating the view that Lovelock’s hypothesis was, as an editor at Nature said, “a danger to science.”8 Leading biologists denounced the theory as mystical para-science, rather than as the fruitful and fully testable proposal that Lovelock showed, again and again, that it was. This disdain began to abate during the 1990’s when Lovelock decided it was time he talked directly to opinion leaders in biology. In England, at the time, this group included Robert May, John Maynard Smith and William Hamilton, all or whom Lovelock sought out. They told him they thought his theory was nonsense. He asked if they had read any of his papers. They admitted that they had not and were relying entirely on the opinions of their graduate students. Once they became acquainted with what he was actually saying, Lovelock says, “they swung right round,” accepting the evidence for self-regulation while still insisting on the challenge this evidence posed to neo-Darwinian theory.9 Parallel scientific developments also assisted Lovelock’s cause and made his theory seem less exotic and less threatening. These included the emergence of various new sciences employing similar concepts of self-organization and self-regulation as those which Lovelock was developing. Where things stand today is a question somewhat beyond my competence. There is no body which grants scientific theories the equivalent of the imprimatur – let it be printed – by which the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church certifies books. But I do have the impression that Lovelock’s theory is today better understood and more widely accepted than ever before. In 2001, for example, four scientific organizations, operating “global change research programmes,” met in Amsterdam and released a Declaration on Earth System Science which stated that, “The Earth System behaves as a single, self-regulating system comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components.”


At this point, I want to introduce Ivan Illich and his critique of the Gaia theory. Illich, for the first twenty years of his adult life, was a Roman Catholic priest. He worked during that time to declericalize and transform the Church. These efforts brought him into conflict with the Roman Curia. In 1968, he was subjected to formal processes of inquisition, and, the following year, the Center for Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC) which he directed in Cuernavaca, Mexico was placed under a ban. He withdrew from church service and during the 1970’s produced a series of ever more wide-ranging critiques of contemporary institutions, techniques, and social practices. Deschooling Society, Tools for Conviviality, Medical Nemesis, and several other such works all argued that modern institutions had become counter-productive monopolies which defeated their own purposes and stifled popular initiative. As he went on, he inquired more deeply into the “certainties” underlying. contemporary ways of life and the ways in which our technologies, through what Marshall McLuhan called their “symbolic fallout,” tell us not just what we should do but what we are. He also explored the ways in which the Roman Catholic Church had served as the incubator of modernity, perfecting not just the institutional forms that would become characteristic of modern societies but also that care of souls that brought the faithful under minute and detailed clerical regulation and created the template for modern service bureaucracies.

I got to know Illich fairly well during the last fifteen years of his life – he died in 2002 – and I had the privilege of doing several extended interviews with him, two of which became books – 1992’s Ivan Illich in Conversation and the posthumous The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich, published in 2005. (A third book, Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey, an account of his life and thought many years in the making, has just been published by the Penn State Press.) One of the subjects I several times tried to bring up was Lovelock’s Gaia theory, a theme on which I was enthusiastic. As I said earlier, I did three lengthy interviews with Lovelock during my career at Ideas. I featured him alongside David Bohm, Ilya Prigogine, and Rupert Sheldrake in a series called “Religion and the New Science” in 1985; presented a full hour called “The Gaia Hypothesis,” in 1992; and devoted an episode of “How To Think About Science” to Lovelock’s story in 2008. Illich was not really interested, essentially refusing to discuss a theory which he claimed is “inimical to what earth is.” I found this somewhat exasperating. I wanted to discuss the merits of the theory; he insisted that there was nothing to discuss since there was no difference between “that kind of science and religion.” He said little more, but I return to these sparse remarks now, nonetheless, because I want to try and understand what it was that Illich objected to, and then to consider whether Bruno Latour’s construal of the Gaia theory gives a satisfactory answer to Illich’s objections.

Illich concluded, during the 1980’s, that the world in which he was living had reached and was passing a watershed. This change surprised him. It was, he said, “a passage [which] I had not expected, in my lifetime, to observe.”11 A “catastrophic break” had occurred which had made “the mental space,” “the conceptual and perceptual topology,” in which we now live “non-continuous with the past.” This rupture, he. believed, had invalidated many of the assumptions on which he had based the “call for institutional revolution” that informed many of his books of the 1970’s.12 He had thought of institutions like education or medicine as instrumental creations, brought into being to serve the purposes of a citizenry or a public who were able to use them for the purposes for which they had been designed. “I was still thinking,” he told me in 1998, “of someone who stood in front of large institutions with the idea, at least, that he could use them for the satisfaction of his own dreams, or his own needs.”13 It followed that he could address these someones about the dangers these institutions posed when they outgrew their proper size and scale and became what Illich called radical monopolies. And it followed, further, that he could hope to assemble a political majority capable of stopping and permanently limiting this counterproductive growth. His “deschooling” proposal provides a simple example. He wanted to “disestablish” educational systems by removing their legal right to make their services compulsory. Implied was the idea of a citizenry that stood apart from such systems and was capable of evaluating them on instrumental grounds. If schools were frustrating their own stated purposes, then they could be changed.

What Illich began to notice in the 1980’s was that this instrumental logic no longer obtained. A new age had begun in which people were no longer distinct from the systems in which they took part. They had been, he supposed, “swallowed by the system.” He began to speak of the emergence of an “age of systems” or, alternately, of “an ontology of systems” in which being itself was conceived as a system.14 The word, of course, is tricky – which isn’t? – because it can refer to anything that possesses some over-all integrity or constitutes an established way of doing things – any coherent plan or approach, from Hegel’s philosophy to someone’s special way of making coffee, can be called a system. Illich was not invoking these old meanings but pointing to something radically new – a system so total and comprehensive that there could be no ground or standpoint outside it. The very idea of a tool or an instrumental means, he argued, depended on a distinction between that tool and its user. A system in the contemporary sense incorporates its user – he/she becomes part of the system. One uses a hammer but joins a network.


Big-Hole-Pass, Joseph Yokum, MOMA, journal of wild culture ©2021

Joseph E. Yoakum. 'Big Hole Pass Jackson Montana,' n.d.. Graphite pencil and black and blue ballpoint pen on paper. 8 x 10″ (20.3 x 25.4 cm). Photo: Robert Gerhardt.


Behind this distinction between tool and system lay an original historical analysis. The use of tools is often taken as a primordial and defining feature of humanity. The caveman in the museum diorama is already Man the Tool User. Some ethologists even ascribe tool use to the chimpanzees who sharpen sticks to fight or the birds who impale larvae on twigs. Illich thought differently. Until the 12th century, he said, with a few premonitory stirrings earlier, there was no general idea of tools. Tools remained inseparable from their users. Aristotle, for example, uses the same word for the tool and the hand that holds it. Tools remained attached and enculturated, limited to their accustomed uses. Then, for reasons I won’t go into here, a general science of tools began to appear. A technological revolution began. In the 12th century, even the newly defined seven sacraments were conceived as instruments or tools – peculiarly efficacious means of grace selected by theologians from the manifold blessings the Church had formerly pronounced on all the affairs of life and “used by God himself…as instrumental causes towards the desired end.”15 The spirit of instrumentality, according to Illich, became the leading feature of the age which stretches from the 12th century to our own time, an age characterized by its “extraordinary intensity of purposefulness” and by its idea that to each end some special instrument must correspond. Even love, says Illich, becomes “an instrument for satisfaction”16 There is nothing that is worth doing for its own sake, nothing good in itself, which will not finally be made to submit to a rational means/ends logic. Modernity, Illich says, was characterized by “the loss of gratuity.”17 Even the word itself came to mean a negligible consideration – something beside the point, or, at most, a small addition, a tip. The good gave way to the valuable.

But this age is now ending, Illich says, succeeded by an Age of Systems. He left only a partial, sometimes disgruntled, occasionally caricatured account of this new reality, but, from scattered passages in his late works, the following outline can be assembled. I have already referred to the crucial feature: the lack of an outside. “Means of production,” to take Marx’s maximally general characterization of the ensemble of tools, can be put to any purpose – Communism was premised on the idea that changing the ownership of the means of production would be sufficient to turn the means of oppression into the means of liberation. It was already a great part of Illich’s argument in 1973’s Tools for Conviviality that this fond hope overlooked the inherent qualities of tools. “The issue at hand,” he wrote then, “is not the juridical ownership of tools, but rather the discovery of the characteristic of some tools which make it impossible for anybody to ‘own’ them. The concept of ownership cannot be applied to a tool that cannot be controlled.”18 His solution then was to identify those tools that foster conviviality and proscribe those that lead to domination and monopoly. He spoke of “the roof of technological characteristics under which a society wants to live and be happy.”19 This was a radical proposal, but it still implied the existence of a citizenry able to stand aside or apart from its technological array and ordain what is fit for use. Technology was no longer a neutral means in this account , but it remained a means. Systems, in the contemporary cybernetic sense, have lost this quality. A system, by definition, includes its user – there is no place to stand outside it. What disappears is what Illich sometimes called “distality,” although I don’t think the word was particularly helpful in conveying what he wanted to say. It’s a term that has its main uses in anatomy, dentistry and horticulture, where it refers to how distant something is from a defined centre or point of attachment – the growing tip of a plant is its distal portion. What Illich wanted, I think, was a term of art describing critical distance or distinction. It wasn’t a question of distality but of difference.

Illich was an apostle of otherness. His Christianity was Incarnational, and he understood the Incarnation as signifying that we encounter Christ in one another. “Whoever loves another,” he said, “loves [Christ] in the person of that other.”20 When he spoke of the obedient listening that characterizes friendship, he described his posture as “bend[ing] over towards the total otherness of someone.” To “initiate a free relatedness,” he said, required that he “renounce searching for bridges between the other and myself [and] recognize…that a gulf separates us.” Across this gulf, “the only thing that reaches me is the other in his word, which I accept on faith.” The same point was made, again and again, in his misunderstood book Gender. Paraphrasing the argument of that book for me, he said that it described “the transition from one type of duality to another.”21 In the first type which characterized “all worlds before our own,”22 there were substantial differences that could be bridged only by imagination. “Otherness, even at the height of intimacy, was what gave ultimate consistency to what today we call consciousness.”23 Modernity, for him, was defined by “the loss of the idea of otherness.” The constitutive and proportional pairs that had constituted all premodern worlds – heaven and earth, man and woman, here and there, macrocosm and microcosm – gave way to a world of universals. “The human being, the self, the individual became the model of our thinking.” The universal sustained many variations but it was fundamentally consistent. “The Cartesian inside,” Illich said, is only “a special zone within a more general space.” Goods circulate internationally without changing their character at borders. Sex circulates generally in bodies distinguished only by their plumbing.

Otherness was Illich’s great study because he believed that it is by this pathway that God’s word reaches us. The Incarnation, for him, is summed up in the saying, “the Word became flesh.”24 In his early, more explicitly Christian writing, word is the metaphor by which he most frequently tries to express the meaning of the Christ’s appearance. Speaking of the Annunciation – the Gospel scene in which the angel tells Mary that she is to bear a divine child, a scene of crucial importance for Illich – he characterizes Mary’s stance as “openness to the Word.”25 This openness has two aspects: one is the “silence” by which she enacts her awareness of “the distance . . . between . . . man . . . and God,” the other a disposition to be surprised. Distance here means difference, I think, as well as spatial extent. The angel’s greeting to Mary is homely and intimate – a domestic scene that has been evoked in countless poems, songs and paintings – and yet it crosses an unimaginable, unfathomable gulf – the ultimate otherness. This otherness, because it cannot be scrutinized or anticipated, can be disclosed only to those able to be surprised. The announcement to Mary – that God was to become “a living person, as human as you or I” – “is.” Illich writes, “a surprise, remains a surprise, and could not exist as anything else.”26 A surprise, by definition, is what cannot be either anticipated or fully understood. It is also, for Illich, a permanent and desirable condition and not merely a momentary disorientation before we assimilate what has surprised us and learn henceforward to expect it. “Our hope of salvation,” he told the graduating class at the University of Puerto Rico in 1969, “lies in our being surprised by the Other. Let us learn always to receive further surprises. I decided long ago to hope for surprises until the final act of my life – that is to say, in death itself.”27


Mt-Popocatepel, Joseph Yokum, journal of wild culture, ©2021

Joseph E. Yoakum. 'Mt Popocatepel of Sra Madre Occidental Range near Mexico City C.M.,' 1967. Blue and brown ballpoint pen and colored pencil on paper. 12 x 19″ (30.5 x 48.3 cm). Gift of the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc. 1175.2011. Photo: Robert Gerhardt.

Illich claims that surprise is something more than Mary’s discomfiture at the angel’s unexpected and impossible claim. (“How can this be since I have no husband?”28) He says that it is the only mode in which The Incarnation can exist at all – “could not exist as anything else” – its permanent and unalterable condition. This is an inexhaustibly radical assertion. Arguably it contradicts the entire claim of Christian civilization – first to be able to discern God’s plan of salvation and, second, to be able to administer it through the Church and then through the Church’s secular descendants, the service institutions that were, as Illich says, “stamped from its mould.”29 That’s a theme I have treated elsewhere.30 What I want to emphasize here is that Illich’s understanding of the Incarnation hinges on otherness – the otherness of God and the otherness of the human other, as marked by that “gulf [that] separates us.” And this otherness is precisely what he thought was being lost with the unexpected “passage” into a new way of thinking, feeling and being, that “new perceptual and conceptual topology,” that startled him in the 1980’s.

Illich’s thinking throughout his life was concerned with borders, boundaries and distinctions. His entire effort in the 1970’s was aimed a writing a constitution of limits for contemporary societies. This required him to describe a boundary or a threshold at which liberal institutions turn into counter-productive “radical monopolies” which frustrate their own purposes. The “roof of technological characteristics under which a society wants to live and be happy” is another such boundary. He drew careful distinctions by which opposing domains could be divided, circumscribed, and kept to a scale at which they could be understood and controlled. He disparaged monopolies, in which one form, style, or mode predominates. The differences by which places, peoples and practices remained separate and defined were always prized. It was precisely this effort that he saw as threatened by the Age of Systems.




Modernity had continually eroded boundaries but had not challenged the boundary of the human person. Personhood, Illich says, is the idea in which Western humanism and individualism is “anchored.”31 A person is a unique, bounded, and irreducible entity. The idea, for Illich, rests finally on the imago dei, the image of God in which we have been created, but it continues to inform Western humanism long after this creator God has been rejected and the divine spark extinguished. But, in the age of systems, Illich believed, the boundary defining the human person has been breached and erased. Systems recognize no such boundary. This breach was not made all at once at some arbitrarily chosen point in the early 1980’s. Ages overlap, and, once the idea of a new age is accepted, antecedents and precursors, auguries and portents can be discerned throughout the middle years of the 20th century. All Illich claimed was that for him this new age was sufficiently well established by the early 1980’s that its premises had become obvious and largely irresistible.


The fate of language — as a modern certainty that had lost its definition, privilege and limit — was something Illich saw happening across the board.


Let me take some examples. In 1943 German physicist Erwin Schrödinger lectured in Dublin on the theme, What is life? In his lectures, he supposed, in Illich’s paraphrase “that genetic substance could best be understood as a stable text whose occasional variations had to be interpreted as textual variation.”32 This was a novel hypothesis at the time, but it was only ten years later that James Watson and Francis Crick revealed the “letters” in which they supposed that the genetic code is written. Around the same time that Schrödinger was lecturing in Dublin, Roland Jakobson, a Russian émigré linguist, working in the United States, “cracked the atom of linguistics, the phoneme.”33 The phoneme, as the basic sound unit of speech, had been taken as irreducible, but Jakobson argued that it was an effect of an underlying set of binary contrasts and not a thing in itself at all. “A phonetic system must therefore be analyzed,” anthropologist Adam Kuper writes, “as a…system of relationships rather than as a series of individual sounds.” Jakobson’s finding was a “revelation” to Claude Lévi Strauss and many other “structuralist” thinkers in his wake. Not only was language becoming a metaphor for a bio-chemical code, as with Schrödinger, it was itself decomposing, in the hands of structural linguistics, into a set of patterns or relationships. Language, Illich had argued, was an effect of the alphabet, text a consequence of the clarification of the manuscript page in the 12th century. Now something new was happening. Language, in the older sense of something stable, privileged, and unique, was disappearing. When germ plasm can compose a text with no author, and Levi-Strauss can stretch linguistic analysis into an account of all the “elementary structures” of society, language has dissolved into code. And this was what Illich claimed had happened: in place of language we have “a communications medium” or an “information process.”

Speech and writing have become instances of something more general. The embodied word, capable of expressing a personal intention, has lost its contour, its defining boundary has been blurred. Text is now written everywhere – in the genome, in the kinship structure of Bororo society, in the computer’s binary code. Literacies abound, as “print literacy” is joined by “computer literacy,” “media literacy,” “cultural literacy” etc. “Intertextuality” links text to text in a blur of interpenetrating tropes. Language is naturalized and deprived of its unique relationship to personality. This deprivation is summed up in the word “meme.” Coined by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, it’s a term that imitates the word gene, and implies that processes analogous to natural selection determine how ideas and expressions spread within a culture. It is no longer clear whether we use language, or language uses us.

The fate of language, as a modern certainty that had lost its definition, privilege and limit, was an instance of something Illich saw happening across the board. When he revisited his Medical Nemesis a decade after it was published, he pointed to a similar process of “systemization.”34 He had assumed, he said, a certain agency and a certain autonomy on the part of both doctors and patients, which had in the meanwhile disappeared. Medical Nemesis had begun with the bold statement that, “The medical establishment has become major threat to health.” A decade later Illich claimed that the concepts which gave that sentence its power and its purchase had dissolved. There was no meaningful “medical establishment,” since doctors had become mere technicians – “adjuncts,” he said – in the administration of treatments based entirely on system parameters and system protocols. “Health” had become equally vast and indistinct – its obsessive pursuit now itself a “threat to health” in the older sense of the term. Patients had ceased to be persons and become a collage of risks and probabilities. This amounted, Illich claimed, not just to a loss of personhood, but to a loss of embodiment. A simple example is the role that risk now plays both in medicine and in everyday life. Risk is “disembodying,” Illich argues, because it invites people to think of themselves in purely mathematical terms as items of population. “When I think of risk,” he says. “[I] place . . . myself … into a base population for which certain events, future events, can be calculated.”35 The subject of risk, in other words, is not the individual person but the general class to which he or she belongs. The unique irreplaceable one is supplanted by an abstract. Pursued beyond a certain intensity, this “self-algorithmization” leads to disembodiment. I abandon “the mysterious historicity” of my particular life in favour of the general life, the life that can be opened, enumerated and managed.36 Medical Nemesis had still harboured the obscure hope that medicine could be recalled to its proper vocation as a moral undertaking in which the relationship between physician and patient was the crux. Now he saw that this personal dimension had been permanently and decisively erased.




The figure within which the Age of Systems coheres for Illich is life. Illich’s engagement with this theme began in the mid-80’s when he was approached after a lecture in Macon, Georgia by a man who introduced himself as “Will Campbell, who has to ask you for a great favor.”37 Illich recognized the name. Campbell had been a close associate of Martin Luther King’s – the only white person present at the founding of Southern Christian Leadership Conference – and Illich was so impressed that he agreed to the favour without even asking what it was. “Command and I will obey,” he recalls himself saying in a memoir of this meeting. The favour turned out to be an address to an ecumenical meeting Campbell would assemble on the subject of life, a subject Campbell told Illich which is “tearing our churches apart.” Campbell mentioned abortion, ecology, nuclear disarmament, and capital punishment as life-related issues on which Christians were at each other’s throats.


Mt-Grazian, Joseph Yokum, MOMA, journal of wild culture ©2021

Joseph E. Yoakum. 'Mt Grazian in Maritime Alps near Emonaco Tunnel France and Italy by Tunnel,' c. mid-1960s (stamped 1958). Black ballpoint pen, blue felt‑tip pen, and colored pencil on paper. 12 x 19″ (30.5 x 48.3 cm). Gift of the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc. 1174.2011. Photo: Robert Gerhardt.


The meeting took place within the year. The atmosphere was tense – so tense that a representative of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference who was present approached Illich before his speech and suggested that he begin with a mollifying prayer. Illich began instead with a curse – an improvised anathema in which he solemnly repeated the phrase “To Hell with Life” three times. “Life,” he said, “is the most powerful idol the Church has had to face in the course of her history.”38 I found this idea absolutely galvanizing when I encountered it, a few years later, in the text of a lecture Illich had given to a congress of the Lutheran Church in Chicago in 1989, but it was not an idea which Illich ever succeed in conveying to more than a handful of his co-religionists.39 Mostly he met blank incomprehension, as I discovered for myself, when I asked him to do an interview with me for Ideas on the themes of his Chicago talk. The transcript of this interview became the last chapter of my book Ivan Illich in Conversation, but, when it was broadcast on Ideas as “Life As Idol” in 1992, it landed with a very dull thud, occasioning less reaction, I think it’s fair to say, than any other program I ever broadcast on Ideas. It was as if I had farted, and everyone was politely pretending that I hadn’t. What I had thought was a dramatic, and perhaps somewhat scandalous claim, passed without comment. Illich had the same reaction when he lectured on the subject in Germany and the United States. “In neither place,” he told me, “did I get the impression that one person understood what I was speaking about.”40 Illich had thought he was pointing to an epochal crisis for Christian faith – “the most powerful idol the Church has had to face in her history” – but, in the meanwhile, this new reality had become so obvious, and so utterly taken-for-granted that it could not even break the surface of attention and register as a topic. I will return to the reasons for this – powerfully on display in the current pandemic when the saving of “lives” utterly dwarfs and dominates every other consideration – but first let me try to spell out what Illich wanted to say.

It should be said first that Illich regarded contemporary veneration for life as the corruption of a Christian original. The Gospels assert, in various ways, that Jesus is the Lord of Life, that in him is Life, and that this Life is not known in merely living but is a gift of the Spirit. This usage in his view shaped the mind and soul of Christendom and created the very matrix from which contemporary attitudes have emerged. According to Illich contemporary lives could neither be “saved” nor enhanced – Coke adds life is a famous instance – were it not for this deep and largely unconscious cultural preformation. That argument is beyond my scope here but must be acknowledged, since it is an open question to what extent Illich’s view is determined by his sense that ascribing divinity to mere life is a blasphemy. His argument was that it is a blasphemy, whatever the blasphemer may believe, because it misattributes and misplaces divinity. Illich knew that faith was not his to confer or withhold and never presumed its presence in his audiences or among his readers. “Recourse to faith provides an escape for those who believe,” he wrote in Medical Nemesis, “but it cannot be the foundation for an ethical imperative, because faith is either there or it’s not there; if it’s absent, the faithful cannot blame the infidel.”41 He spoke of blasphemy “as a historian and not as a theologian.”42 And “as a historian” what he claimed was that the life that is reverently spoken of in various contemporary discourses has a secret and unacknowledged tap root in the “life more abundant” that was offered on the Cross.43

What Illich wanted to point out was that life, in recent times, had ceased to be a quality or attribute and become rather a substance or stuff, able to be possessed, managed and manipulated in a new way. Life had become, as one now says, a thing – “an essential referent” in the discourses of law, medicine, politics and ethics. An egregious example, in the field of law, is the so-called “wrongful life” suit: an action, now permitted in four U.S. states, in which a disabled person can sue a parent on the grounds that the plaintiff’s life should have been prevented.44 The administration and surveillance that ought to have been carried out in cases where life is “wrongfully” given is also implied in the no-longer-remarkable terms “human resources” and “manpower” – each suggests manageable quanta of life. The same quantification is now a reflex in news media where lives saved or lost – the death toll – now index newsworthiness. Medicine counts in years of life expectancy. Ecology defends life on earth. In all cases, life is a palpable, measurable and manageable entity – a unit of value. a unit of administration, a unit of political power. Life had been abstracted from persons, Illich thought. The word person describes a unique, storied and bounded destiny; a life is an amorphous instance of something unimaginably general and impossibly indistinct – the ultimate resource.

At the time Illich was writing, life was still a questionable term in the academy – there were “life sciences” but many still doubted that life could ever itself become a scientific object. Modern science had pursued mechanism – the how of things, the world through the lens of “matter in motion.” British Biologists Peter and Jean Medawar summed up this old orthodoxy when they wrote in 1983, “From a strictly scientific point of view, the concept of life makes no sense.”45 Life, from this “strictly scientific point of view,” was the kind of “occult” factor that science had banished from its explanations. Scientists who tried to bring it back in were tarred as “vitalists.” British biologist Rupert Sheldrake was still given this treatment in 1983, the same year the Medawars wrote, when his book A New Science of Life was denounced in Nature and called, by the journal’s editor Sir John Maddox, “the best candidate for burning there has been in many years.”46 But things were changing. Eight years after l’affaire Sheldrake, in 1991, Canadian bio-physicist Robert Rosen published Life Itself: A Comprehensive Inquiry into the Nature, Origin and Fabrication of Life.47 It took up the very question the Medawars had pronounced, by scientific consensus, nonsensical. Rosen argued that “the machine metaphor” which had dominated biology must be replaced. Addressing the question, what is life?, will generate, he says, a “relational biology” which is unafraid of the previously neglected topics of complexity and internal organization. Rosen’s work was a harbinger of the emergence of what is sometimes called “systems biology” – that is a biology which studies whole systems rather than reducing them to simpler component parts. Complexity, emergence, and self-organization became the new scientific frontiers. “Our vision of nature,” wrote Nobel laureate physical chemist Ilya Prigogine and philosopher Isabelle Stengers, “is undergoing a radical change towards the multiple, the temporal and the complex.”48


A-Rock-in-the-Baltic-Sea, Joseph E. Yokum, journal of wild culture ©2021

Joseph E. Yoakum. 'A Rock in the Baltic Sea near Stockholm Sweden E. Europe,' n.d.. Carbon transfer, black ballpoint pen, and colored pencil on paper. 12 x 19″ (30.5 x 48.3 cm). Gift of the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc.1172.2011. Photo: Robert Gerhardt.


I was an enthusiastic chronicler of this new scientific turn. Many of the people I have just mentioned, including Ilya Prigogine, Robert Rosen, Rupert Sheldrake, and James Lovelock, were featured in a 1985 Ideas series I did called “Religion and the New Science.”49 This was another reason why I found Illich’s claim that life was an idol so provoking. His argument was that in the effort to describe what Rosen called “life itself” a crucial collapse had occurred – the boundary between reality and representation had been erased. The Gaia hypothesis was, for him, a similar instance. Speaking, not specifically of Gaia, but more generally of the idea that the world as a whole can be modelled, he says, that this style of ecology involves “thinking in terms of a cybernetic system which, in real time, is both model and reality, a process which observes and defines, regulates and sustains itself. Within this style of thinking, life comes to be equated with the system: it is the abstract fetish that both overshadows and simultaneously constitutes it.”50 When the cosmos – the whole – is understood as a system, he goes on, it is imagined as something that can be “rationally analyzed and managed.” But, when this abstraction is “romantically identified with life,” it is transformed into “something mysterious” whose weakness evokes pathos and “tender protection.” The procedure by which we slide between these positions, as life’s master and as its reverent servant, is described by Illich as ‘epistemic sentimentality.”51 This ability to slip unnoticed between a commanding managerial stance – we will defeat the virus - and facile feeling – one life lost is too many – has been a hallmark of public discourse throughout the current pandemic.

Epistemic sentimentality is, I think, a useful and illuminating expression, though it may at first seem pretentious and hard to parse. Why epistemic? Why not just sentimentality? Sentimentality is false or corrupted feeling – feeling whose sympathy for its object is compromised by self-interest. It may be what Milan Kundera calls “the second tear” – the tear aware of itself as “me being moved.”52 It may be an affectation or dramatization of a state that sustains a pleasant image of myself. Or it may be a way of avoiding action. Always one dwells on the feeling, rather than simply suffering it and passing on. What makes sentimentality epistemic is that it attaches to an object of knowledge – to some certainty whose “objective” features justify and compel the feeling. If it is a sufficiently compelling object, as life is, any perception or awareness of self-interest can be easily and unobtrusively erased from one’s attachment to it. During the pandemic the “saving” of “lives” has been an object so obviously and transcendently good that no question can be entered about it or cost charged against it. This is epistemic sentimentality. Behind it, in the case of life, is our attitude to death, as the ultimate and unspeakable obscenity interfering with out enjoyment of life, but that’s outside my purview in this essay.

What is central to Illich’s analysis of systems is the claim he makes that in many of the discourses of systems the distinction between model and reality has been annulled. When DNA is called “the language of life,” or Robert Rosen mathematically depicts “life itself” as part of his new “relational biology,” one loses awareness that a metaphor is being deployed. Gaia, as a schematic or abstract of the planet, collapses into the goddess without residue. To illustrate, Illich sometimes told the story of a visit he made to the apartment of some graduate students who were studying with him at Penn State, where he taught during the fall term between 1985 and 1995. On the fridge door he found two pictures pasted: one was of the blue planet, floating in space, the other was a microscopic image of a fertilized human egg – macrocosm and microcosm, “the blue disk and the pink disk,” as Illich came to call them.53 When he showed an interest in these images, one of his hosts described them as “our doorways to the understanding of life.” The term doorway stuck with Illich, and a little reflection made him see in it what historian of religions Mircea Eliade calls a sacrum. As Illich later explained,

A sacrum describes a particular place in the topology of any culture. It refers to an object, a locality, or a sign which, within that culture, is believed to be… a doorway. I had always thought of it as a threshold, a threshold at which the ultimate appears, that which, within that society, is considered to be true otherness, that which, within a given society, is considered transcendent. For Eliade, a society becomes a conscious unity not just in relation to neighbouring societies – we are not you – but also by defining itself in relation to what’s beyond.54

What was novel about the sacrums on the fridge door was that they were not conventionally religious signs, objects or places. Indeed, they were not signs at all but. rather, as Illich put it, “emblems for scientific facts” – visions obtained not by faith but by technology. That scientific facts should function as religious symbols suggested to Illich that we have entered “a new stage of religiosity.”55 (Illich always distinguished religiosity as a broad sensibility from religion as a circumscribed set of formal beliefs.) What was unique about the “doorways” at which Illich’s young interlocutors experienced reverence for life was that they led into a beyond that was not a beyond, a beyond that was only an infinitely extendable here. Like a bridge erected on only one side of a river, or the computer “icon” which opens only into the endless virtuality of cyberspace, these thresholds stood at the edge of a here with no there, “a frontier with no beyond.”56 What Illich had discovered was a religiosity of pure immanence. He thought it quite unprecedented. The dialectical tension between transcendence and immanence may have been adjusted differently in each religion, but both were always in some way present. Even ostensibly atheist faiths in which there was no personified “master in heaven” recognized a transcendent dimension, constitutionally out-of-reach, and other to what is present and at hand.57 Here, for the first time, was a world with no correspondent, no complement, no other – a “wombless world,” Illich said, self-enclosed and unbegotten.


A world to be a world must stand apart from us, as other than we are. It must possess a mysterious agency that we cannot fully anticipate or fully understand.


Illich asserted, as I quoted earlier, that people around him had begun to conceive of the world as a “a cybernetic system which, in real time is both model and reality, a process which observes and defines regulates and sustains itself.” He was certainly not alone in this claim. Some of his contemporaries went even further. A prominent example is French media theorist Jean Baudrillard with his claim that the world has become a “simulacrum” – an artifice in which reality has been so thoroughly absorbed by its models that now “the map generates the territory.”58 Models, Baudrillard says, have now become “more real than the real” and exert such a preponderant influence that the ostensibly real itself is shaped in their “magnetic field."59 This is extreme. Illich claims only that model and reality have become indistinguishable and exclusive. When people now speak of their systems, it is of themselves that they speak. There is no sense that a model or metaphor is being applied. Nature is an ecosystem; you are an immune system; the CAT-scan of my brain or the angiogram of my heart is me. The element of deprivation in this, for Illich, is that nothing is ever only itself. An account British theologian John Milbank once gave me of the principle of analogy in medieval theology captures well what Illich would also have said. “Nothing that’s created exists in itself,” Milbank said. “It only exists by sharing in the divine reality. So, in that sense, it’s always other to itself. It’s speaking of itself but also of God. By speaking of itself it speaks of something other to itself which is God.”60 And what applies to our relationship to the “divine reality” applies equally to our relationships to one another. I know myself only in and through others. I move towards myself by moving away from myself. I have my beginning and my end in what is other than me. ‘We are creatures that find our perfection only by establishing a relationship,” Illich says.61

Systems are self-contained. Nothing escapes their gravity by definition. Whoever uses them becomes part of them, whoever tries to dissent or depart from them is reincorporated as feedback, whoever claims individual exception or exemption is reminded of the holistic or “systemic” properties that condition them. The pandemic is their perfect embodiment – each one constantly reminded that they are part of a global immune system, responsible for the health of all. What systems thinking produces, in Illich’s view is nothing less than the “disappearance” of the world. A world to be a world must stand apart from us, as other than we are. It must possess a mysterious agency that we cannot fully anticipate or fully understand. Only in this way can it surprise us, and surprise, for Illich, represents the most crucial and most indispensable dimension of existence – its messianic dimension. A system can be known because it is composed of the same ground patterns as I am and is consistent throughout. A world, in the sense I am using the term, can only be very partially known – I cannot know, by assumption or in advance, from which direction or by which means what I need will appear. A world embodies, in infinite variety, otherness – abstract and general logics cannot comprehend it. An understanding of the world as system thus deprives it of its most precious and needful quality. Life, unsurprised, dwindles. “Only smoke remains,” Illich wrote to his friend Hellmut Becker in 1992, “from the world-dwindling we have experienced . . . Exciting, soul-capturing abstractions have extended themselves over the perception of world and self like plastic pillowcases.”62

Gaia, to now return to my theme, conceives the world as system, and that was all Illich needed to know to condemn Lovelock’s theory as an “a-gaia hypothesis. . . inimical to what earth is.” “Earth,” he says, “is something you have to use all your senses to grasp, to feel. Earth is something that you can smell, that you can taste.”63 And then he adds the kicker: “I am not living on a planet.” This is an extravagantly and provocatively reactionary touch, given that earth is demonstrably a planet, but presumably he means to say that he will continue to live in a created world, whatever geology and astrophysics may discover about the matter. I have already described how I chafed under Illich’s position, while still seeing something invaluable in it. The question I now want to raise is whether Bruno Latour’s account of the Gaia theory in his Facing Gaia can in any way reconcile Illich and Lovelock and thus, in a larger sense, bring Illich’s radically humanist and incarnational Christianity into conversation with the political ecology that Latour hopes to foster. ≈ç


REFERENCES (Repeated Illich titles are abbreviated]

1  “Religion and the New Science,” Part Two, Nov. 4, 1985; “The Gaia Hypothesis,” April 30, 1992; and “How to Think About Science,” Part Six, Jan. 2, 2008. Transcripts at
2  Cayley, David. Ivan Illich in Conversation. House of Anansi, 1992 [IIC], p. 287.
3  Lovelock, James; Margulis, Lynn. "Atmospheric homeostasis by and for the biosphere: the Gaia hypothesis." Tellus, 1974; Series A. Stockholm: International Meteorological Institute, p. 4.
4  “How To Think About Science,” op. cit., p. 48.
5  Gould, Stephen Jay. “Kropotkin Was No Crackpot.” Natural History, Vol. 97, No. 7, 1988, p. 21.
6  “The Gaia Hypothesis,” op. cit., p. 4.
7  “How To Think About Science,” p. 51; Ideas on the Nature of Science, p. 120.
8  “The Gaia Hypothesis”, p. 7; Lovelock relates that he had submitted a paper with several other scientists that showed a connection between marine algae and cloud condensation nuclei. The paper was accepted as valid, but the editor insisted that all reference to the Gaia hypothesis be stricken from it on the grounds that the theory was “a danger to science.”
9  “How To Think About Science,” p. 50; Ideas on the Nature of Science, p. 118.
11  Quotations about this watershed come from IIC. p. 124 and pp.169-170.
12  “A Call for Institutional Revolution” was the subtitle of Illich’s first book, Celebration of Awareness. Doubleday/Anchor Books, 1970.
13  Illich, Ivan; Cayley, David. The Rivers North of the Future. [RNF] House of Anansi, 2005, p. 162.
14  Illich, Ivan. “Brave New Biocracy: Health Care From Womb to Tomb,” NPQ: New Perspectives Quarterly. Winter, 1994, Vol. 11, Issue 1, p. 9.
15  RNF, p. 79.
16  RNF, p. 266.
17  Ibid., p 227.
18  TC, p. 27.
19  Illich, Ivan. The Powerless Church and Other Selected Writings, 1955-1985. Penn State Press, 2018, p.165.
20  RNF, p. 47.
21  IIC, p. 184.
22  RNF, p. 132.
23  IIC, p. 185; following quotations in this paragraph on the same page.
24  John 1:14.
25  Illich, Ivan. Celebration of Awareness: A Call for Institutional Revolution, p. 33 – subsequent quotes, until noted, same page.
26  RNF, p. 48.
27  “Commencement Address  at the University of Puerto Rico,” New York Review of Books. Oct. 9, 1969, p. 15.
28  Luke 1:34.
29  RNF, pp. 47-48.
30  Cayley, David. Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey. Penn State Press, 2021.
31  Ivan Illich, In the Mirror of the Past, Marion Boyars, 1992 [IMP], p. 220.
32  IMP, p. 200.
33  Kuper, Adam. "Philosopher among the Indians." Times Literary Supplement. (Review of Emmanuelle Loyer, Lévi-Strauss.) Oct. 14, 2016, p. 4; following quotes, same place.
34  Illich dealt with this subject of what had changed since he wrote Medical Nemesis sin two places. The first was “Twelve Years After Medical Nemesis: A Plea for Body History,” in IMP; the second was “Death Undefeated” in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), Dec. 23, 1995, Vol 311, pp. 1652-1653.
35  RNF, p. 210.
36  RNF, p. 184.
37  My account here is based on an unpublished memoir Illich wrote of this event.
38  IMP, p. 220 (This quotation comes from a presentation to a Lutheran congress in Chicago in 1989.  No text survives of Illich’s speech at the event Campbell organized, but I’m quite confident that this quote represents what he said on the earlier occasion.)
39  “The Institutional Construction of a New Fetish: Human Life,” IMP, pp. 218-232.
40  IIC, p. 279.
41  Illich, Ivan. Limits to Medicine. Penguin, 1976, p. 269.
42  Illich, Ivan. “Blasphemy: A Radical Critique or Technological Culture,” Science Technology and Society Working Paper No. 2, Penn State University, 1994. (This program has been discontinued and this paper is no longer available.)
43  John 10:10.
45  Peter and Jean Medawar, Aristotle to Zoos: A Philosophical Dictionary of Biology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983, pp. 66-67.
46  John Maddox, “A Book for Burning?”, Nature 293, Sept. 24, 1981, pp. 245-246; Sheldrake discusses the affair in my radio series “How To Think About Science,” transcript p. 81. The transcript is here:
47  Robert Rosen, Life Itself: A Comprehensive Inquiry into the Nature, Origin and Fabrication of Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991, p. xiii.
48  Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Order Out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature. New Science Library, Boulder: Shambala, 1984, p. xxvii.
49  Religion and the New Science.
50  IMP, pp.229-230.
51  Ibid., p. 222 ff.
52  Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984.
53  IIC, pp. 263-264.
54  Ibid., p. 264.
55  IIC, p, 276.
56  RNF, p.137; the image of a bridge that stays on the same side of a river I owe to one Illich’s former German students, Andreas Calic of Bremen.
57  When Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci appeared at the Chinese court at the end of the 16th century, one of the complaints brought against him was that his belief in “a master in heaven” could potentially disturb the perfect balance between heaven and earth. French scholar Jacques. Gernet has told the story in his China and the Christian Impact: A Conflict of Cultures (Cambridge University Press, 1981). Illich repeats it in RNF, p. 133 ff.
58  Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, 2nd edition, Polity Press, 2002, p. 169.
59  Ibid., p. 178.
60  Myth of the Secular, Part 6. Part Six.
61  RNF, p. 52.
62  The letter is unpublished. A translation of it by Barbara Duden and Muska Nagel, entitled “The Loss of World and Flesh” was read out at Illich’s funeral by Wolfgang Sachs, and I am quoting from that text.


Read part 2 and part 3 of this three-part essay.



DAVID CAYLEY has worked as a writer and broadcaster from 1981-2012, on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program, Ideas, where he has written and presented more than 250 radio programs. The scope of his subjects is vast, verging between ‘How to Think About Science’, ‘William Blake: Prophet of a New Age,’ ‘The Earth is Not an Ecosystem,’ ‘Prison and Its Alternatives,’ and ’Markets and Society: The Life and Thought of Karl Polyani’. He lives in Toronto. View David's website.





Submitted by Andres king cobos (not verified) on Tue, 11/30/2021 - 21:37


Wonderful introducción to Illich comments on otherness as transcendence and reality. Life in the experience of philosophy, science and mysticism as a doorway to be here on Earth and still be in surprise and search for happiness through consciousness. Thanks!

Andres king cobos
Tue, 11/30/2021 - 21:37

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