In defense of vernacular ways

Submitted by Juan Conatz on October 27, 2013

The crises con­tinue to accu­mu­late: the eco­nomic cri­sis, the eco­log­i­cal cri­sis, the social cri­sis, crises upon crises. But as we try to cre­ate “solu­tions,” we dis­tress­ingly find our­selves up against a limit, dis­cov­er­ing that the only alter­na­tives we can imag­ine are merely mod­i­fi­ca­tions of the same. Pro­posed solu­tions to the eco­nomic cri­sis toss us back and forth between two immo­bile poles: free mar­ket or reg­u­lated mar­ket. When we face the eco­log­i­cal cri­sis, we decide between sus­tain­able tech­nol­ogy or unsus­tain­able tech­nol­ogy. What­ever our per­sonal pref­er­ence, a lit­tle to this side or a lit­tle to that side, we all unwit­tingly play accord­ing to the same rules, think with the same con­cepts, speak the same lan­guage. We have for­got­ten how to think the new – or the old.

Ivan Illich, priest, philoso­pher, and social critic, is not a fig­ure that most would expect to read about in a Marx­ist mag­a­zine. But he iden­ti­fied this prob­lem long ago, and argued that the only “way out” was a com­plete change in think­ing. His sug­ges­tion, both as con­cept and his­tor­i­cal fact, was the “ver­nac­u­lar.” We will not escape from cap­i­tal­ism through the ratio­nal­ity of the sci­en­tist of his­tory; nor will we get any help from the stand­point of the pro­le­tariat. The firm ground of Illich’s cri­tique was pre­cap­i­tal­ist and prein­dus­trial life in common.

Even those who reject this posi­tion must meet its chal­lenge. Those for whom pol­i­tics is embed­ded in the pro­lif­er­a­tion of post­mod­ern “lifestyles,” inflected with pseudo-Marxist jar­gon, will have to rec­og­nize that the only model we have of forms of life based on direct access to the means of sub­sis­tence is pre­cisely the “ver­nac­u­lar” that Illich pro­poses. Alter­na­tively, those who locate eman­ci­pa­tion in a Marx-inflected nar­ra­tive of tech­no­log­i­cal progress must to face Illich’s deep crit­i­cisms of devel­op­men­tal­ism, sci­en­tism, and pro­gres­sivism. The fol­low­ing is a chal­lenge not only to cap­i­tal­ism and the experts who defend it, but also to its critics.

Mind Trap 1: the eco­nomic crisis

Ignor­ing his own con­tri­bu­tions to the fes­tiv­i­ties, George W. Bush recently scolded those on Wall Street for get­ting drunk on the prof­its from sell­ing unpayable debts.1 The result­ing col­lapse of finan­cial mar­kets her­alded the end of the party. The drunks seem to have sobered up with­out them­selves suf­fer­ing the con­se­quent hang­over. Instead, in the U.S. and else­where, a grow­ing num­ber of peo­ple are left stranded with­out homes, jobs, food, or med­i­cines in the wake of that twenty-year long binge. In the opin­ion of some, the prospects of full employ­ment or secure retire­ments for US cit­i­zens are a dis­tant and unlikely dream. As recently as April 19th 2011, The McDon­ald Cor­po­ra­tion con­ducted a national hir­ing day. Almost one mil­lion peo­ple applied for those jobs, known nei­ther for their lav­ish pay nor for their agree­able work­ing con­di­tions. McDonald’s hired a mere six per­cent of these appli­cants, as many work­ers in one day as the num­ber of net new jobs in the US for all of 2009.2

Unsur­pris­ingly, diag­noses of what went wrong have pro­lif­er­ated fast and furi­ously. Of the many expla­na­tions offered, three stand out.3 First, in a spirit of self-examination, econ­o­mists have con­cluded that their sci­en­tific mod­els of how peo­ple behave and asset prices are deter­mined were wrong and con­tributed to their inabil­ity to antic­i­pate the cri­sis. That is, econ­o­mists con­fessed to their igno­rance of how economies work. Since their earnest attempts to improve these mod­els are unlikely to ques­tion the credulity that forms the shaky foun­da­tions of finan­cial mar­kets, it is likely that the future of finan­cial and macro­eco­nom­ics will resem­ble the epicy­cles and eccen­tric­i­ties of Ptole­maic astron­omy in the time of its decline.4

Sec­ond, jour­nal­ists, pol­icy mak­ers, and econ­o­mists who began to sing a dif­fer­ent tune after the cri­sis erupted, find fault with the ide­ol­ogy of neo-liberalism. There is wide­spread recog­ni­tion now that dereg­u­lated and unreg­u­lated mar­kets allowed com­mer­cial and invest­ment banks to invent and trade in finan­cial instru­ments that car­ried sys­temic risks and con­tributed to the fail­ure of credit and cap­i­tal mar­kets. This doc­trine that unfet­tered mar­kets pro­duce the great­est eco­nomic ben­e­fit for the great­est num­ber, while embar­rassed, is not in full retreat, at least in the U.S.5 That neo-liberal ide­ol­ogy is not van­quished by its evi­dent fail­ures is related to the third cause iden­ti­fied in these diag­nos­tic exercises.

If igno­rance excused econ­o­mists and pol­icy mak­ers from antic­i­pat­ing the cri­sis and widely worn ide­o­log­i­cal blink­ers exac­er­bated it, then it is badly designed incen­tives that are gen­er­ally fin­gered as the most promi­nent and prox­i­mate cause of the cri­sis. Accord­ingly, much ink has been spilled on redesign­ing incen­tives to more effec­tively rein in the “ani­mal spir­its” that derail economies from their pre­sumed path of orderly growth. As such, incen­tives are a flaw that rec­om­mends itself as remedy.

This con­ceit is per­haps best exposed in the report authored by the Finan­cial Cri­sis Inquiry Com­mis­sion of the US gov­ern­ment.6 For instance, in indict­ing the process and meth­ods for gen­er­at­ing and mar­ket­ing mortgage-backed secu­ri­ties, the com­mis­sion empha­sizes that incen­tives unwit­tingly encour­aged fail­ures at every link of the chain. Low-interest rates allowed bor­row­ers to refi­nance their debts and use their homes as ATM cards; lucra­tive fees drove mort­gage bro­kers to herd up sub­prime bor­row­ers; the demand for mort­gages from Wall Street induced bankers to lower lend­ing stan­dards; rat­ing agen­cies stamped lead as gold because paid to do so by invest­ment bankers; the lat­ter dis­trib­uted these toxic assets world­wide rely­ing on math­e­mat­i­cal mod­els of risk; and the C-suite of the finance, insur­ance, and real estate sec­tors presided over the house of card because hand­somely rewarded for short term prof­its. Unsur­pris­ingly, chang­ing these incen­tives through more strin­gent reg­u­la­tions and better-specified rewards and pun­ish­ments to guide the behav­iors of dif­fer­ent mar­ket par­tic­i­pants occupy most of its rec­om­men­da­tions for the path for­ward7

This pecu­liar com­bi­na­tion of igno­rance, ide­ol­ogy, and incen­tives used to explain the eco­nomic cri­sis, also illu­mi­nates the space of con­tem­po­rary politico-economic thought. Most of the heated debates on how to ensure orderly growth, cen­ter on the quan­tum of reg­u­la­tion nec­es­sary to con­trol eco­nomic motives with­out sti­fling them. Accord­ingly, think­ing about eco­nomic mat­ters vac­il­lates on a fixed line anchored by two poles-free mar­kets on the one end and mar­kets fet­tered by legally enforced reg­u­la­tions at the other. Only a brief exposé can be afforded here of the lin­ea­ments of this thought-space cir­cum­scribed almost two cen­turies ago.8

Around 1700, Bernard Man­dev­ille acer­bically exposed the mech­a­nism dri­ving eco­nomic growth. Poet­i­cally, he pointed out that it was the vices—vanity, greed, and envy—that spurred the expan­sion of trade and com­merce. In bar­ing the vicious­ness that nour­ished the desire to accu­mu­late riches, he also left to pos­ter­ity the prob­lem of pro­vid­ing a moral jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for mar­ket activ­ity.9 Adam Smith pro­vided a seem­ingly last­ing rhetor­i­cal solu­tion to this moral para­dox. First, he col­lapsed the vices into “self-interest” and so removed the sting of vicious­ness from the vices by renam­ing them. Sec­ond, he grounded “self-interest” in a nat­ural desire to “bet­ter our con­di­tion” that began in the womb and ended in the tomb and so mor­al­ized it.10 Third, he invoked an invis­i­ble hand to trans­mute the self-interest of indi­vid­u­als into socially desir­able ben­e­fits. Not only was the pas­sage from the indi­vid­ual to the social thereby obscured by prov­i­den­tial means but the pri­vate pur­suit of riches was also jus­ti­fied by its sup­posed pub­lic benefits.

Thus, Smith hid the para­dox unveiled by Man­dev­ille behind a rhetor­i­cally pleas­ing façade. The uncom­fort­able insight that pri­vate vice leads to pub­lic ben­e­fit was defanged by the notion that pub­lic ben­e­fits accrue from the unflinch­ing pur­suit of self-interest. Whereas the for­mer revealed the vicious mech­a­nism fuel­ing com­mer­cially ori­ented soci­eties, the lat­ter made it palat­able. Faith in the effi­cacy of the inscrutable invis­i­ble hand thereby under­wrote the pur­ported “nat­ural har­mony of inter­ests,” accord­ing to which the butcher and the baker in each pur­su­ing his own ends unwit­tingly fur­thers the wealth of the nation at large.

Smith’s rhetor­i­cal con­vo­lu­tions were nec­es­sary because he excised use-value from polit­i­cal econ­omy and founded the lat­ter entirely on exchange-value. In con­trast to his pre­de­ces­sors for whom the eco­nomic could not be sep­a­rated from ethics and pol­i­tics, Smith carves out a space for the eco­nomic by defin­ing its domain by the deter­mi­nants of mar­ket prices.11 He accepted Locke’s argu­ments: that labor is the foun­da­tion of prop­erty rights; that apply­ing labor trans­forms the com­mons into pri­vate prop­erty; that money ignites acquis­i­tive­ness; and that accu­mu­la­tion beyond use is just.12 Smith delib­er­ately ignores the com­mons and embold­ens the mar­ket because it is the sphere in which acquis­i­tive­ness flour­ishes. He cur­tails his inquiry to exchange-value in full aware­ness of the con­trast­ing “value-in-use.” Even if not in these pre­cise terms, the dis­tinc­tion between “exchange-value” and “use-value” was known to both Aris­to­tle and Smith. Yet, Smith is per­haps the first who rec­og­nizes that tra­di­tional dis­tinc­tion and nev­er­the­less rules out use-value as a legit­i­mate sub­ject of an inquiry on wealth.13 For Aris­to­tle, it was pre­cisely the dis­tinc­tion between use and exchange that grounded the dis­tinc­tion between appro­pri­ate acqui­si­tion and inap­pro­pri­ate accu­mu­la­tion. More gen­er­ally, it is when con­sid­er­a­tions of jus­tice and the good con­sti­tute the start­ing point of think­ing about man that profit-seeking becomes vis­i­ble as a force that rends the polit­i­cal com­mu­nity into a com­mer­cial soci­ety. By encour­ag­ing self-interestedness, Smith allows the vain­glo­ri­ous pur­suit of wealth to over­shadow virtue as the nat­ural end for man.14 By focus­ing eco­nomic sci­ence on exchange val­ues, Smith priv­i­leges the world of goods over that of the good. The price Smith pays for ignor­ing use-value is the need to invoke prov­i­den­tial the mys­tery by which self-interest becomes socially ben­e­fi­cial. Since Smith, neo-classical eco­nom­ics has either dis­avowed the dis­tinc­tion between use and exchange value or con­fessed to being inca­pable of under­stand­ing use-value.15 By insist­ing that the valu­able must nec­es­sar­ily be use­ful, Marx, unlike Aris­to­tle, could not rely on the lat­ter to crit­i­cize the for­mer.16

Nev­er­the­less, it was soon dis­cov­ered that indi­vid­ual self-interest did not “nat­u­rally” pro­duce social ben­e­fits. Vast dis­par­i­ties in wealth, endemic poverty, mis­er­able liv­ing con­di­tions, and per­sis­tent unem­ploy­ment con­sti­tuted some of the many socially maligned con­se­quences of unfet­tered mar­ket activ­ity. To account for these vis­i­ble fail­ures in the nat­ural har­mony of inter­ests, a sec­ond for­mula, due to Jeremy Ben­tham, was there­fore paired to it. An “arti­fi­cial har­mony of inter­ests” forged through laws and reg­u­la­tions were deemed nec­es­sary to lessen the dis­junc­tion between pri­vate inter­ests and pub­lic ben­e­fits. That is, state inter­ven­tions in the form of incen­tives – whether coded in money or by law- were thought nec­es­sary to prod way­ward mar­ket par­tic­i­pants to bet­ter serve the pub­lic inter­est.17

Accord­ingly, it is this dialec­tic between the nat­ural and arti­fi­cial har­mony of inter­ests that encodes the poles of the Mar­ket and the State and con­sti­tutes the thought-space for con­tem­po­rary dis­cus­sions on eco­nomic affairs.18 Too lit­tle reg­u­la­tion and mar­kets become socially destruc­tive; too much reg­u­la­tion and the wealth-creating engines fueled by self-interest begin to sput­ter. And yet, the con­tin­uum con­sti­tuted by these two poles is uni­fied by a com­mon pre­sup­po­si­tion: that use-value is of no use to com­merce and that the ego­ism implied by self-interest is both nec­es­sary and nat­ural to com­mer­cial expansion.

Though the eco­nomic cri­sis has, once again, exposed the Man­dev­il­lian foun­da­tions of com­mer­cial soci­ety, think­ing about it con­tin­ues to func­tion in the space marked out by Smith, Ben­tham and the founders of that philo­soph­i­cal rad­i­cal­ism, which erected the moral­ity of a soci­ety ori­ented by exchange value on the foun­da­tion of ego­ism. When con­fined to this thought-space, one is con­demned to rely­ing, in alter­nat­ing steps, on the inter­re­lated log­ics of free and reg­u­lated mar­kets. The ques­tion remains whether there is an alter­na­tive to the thought-space con­sti­tuted by the State and the Mar­ket. Per­haps the answer to this ques­tion lies in tak­ing a dis­tance to what these log­ics pre­sume: that exchange-value is of pre­em­i­nent worth and that pos­ses­sive indi­vid­u­als are to be har­nessed to that cause.

Mind Trap 2: the envi­ron­men­tal crisis

Boarded up homes and idle hands are to the ongo­ing cri­sis in eco­nomic affairs, what dis­ap­pear­ing fish and poi­soned airs are to the oncom­ing envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis. A gen­er­a­tion after Rachel Car­son and Barry Com­moner, sci­en­tists are now of almost one mind: humankind’s activ­i­ties on the earth have so changed it, that the species is now threat­ened by dis­as­ter on a plan­e­tary scale.19 What poets and prophets once warned in verse, sci­en­tists now tell us through sta­tis­tics and mod­els. Lurk­ing beneath those dry num­bers is a grow­ing cat­a­log of hor­rors – ris­ing seas, rag­ing rivers, melt­ing glac­i­ers, dead zones in the oceans, unbear­able hot spots on land – that fore­tell an unliv­able future.

Were the pic­ture they paint not so dire, it would be laugh­ably ironic that sci­en­tists and tech­nocrats now dis­avow the fruits of the very techno-scientific machine they once served to mid­wife. But it is cer­tainly tragic that in think­ing about what can be done to avert the impend­ing cri­sis, sci­en­tists and engi­neers no less than politi­cians and cor­po­rate bosses insist on more of the same. Atten­tion is now directed at invent­ing meth­ods to not only mit­i­gate the phys­i­cal effects of run­away indus­tri­al­iza­tion, but also to re-engineer the human psy­che to bet­ter adapt to such effects. Thus, from recy­cling plas­tic and increas­ing fuel mileage in cars to devis­ing tow­ers to sequester car­bon under­sea and engi­neer­ing car­bon eat­ing plants, the pro­posed solu­tions range from the mun­dane to the bizarre. More gen­er­ally, the debate on what to do about the con­flict between eco­nomic growth and eco­log­i­cal integrity is anchored by two poles: at the one end, “eco-friendly” or “sus­tain­able” tech­nolo­gies, and at the other, pre­sum­ably “unsus­tain­able” or envi­ron­men­tally destruc­tive ones.

Thus man’s sur­vival appears as a choice between the Prius, solar pan­els, biodegrad­able paper bags, local foods, and high den­sity urban lofts on the one hand, and the Hum­mer, oil tanks, plas­tic bags, indus­tri­al­ized foods, and sub­ur­bia on the other. Eco-friendly tech­nolo­gies may change the fuel that pow­ers our energy slaves but does noth­ing to change our depen­dence on them. That the fruits of techno-science have turned poi­so­nous is seen as a prob­lem call­ing for more and improved tech­ni­cal solu­tions imply­ing that the domain of tech­nol­ogy forms the hori­zon of eco­log­i­cal thought.20 That more and dif­fer­ent tech­nol­ogy is the dom­i­nant response to its fail­ure sug­gests that the made (techne) has replaced the given (physis). Eco­log­i­cal thought is con­fined to the space framed by tech­nol­ogy partly because of the unstated assump­tion that knowl­edge is cer­tain only when it is made.

It was Vico who announced the specif­i­cally mod­ern claim that knowl­edge is made, that verum et fac­tum con­ver­tun­tur (the true and the made are con­vert­ible; have iden­ti­cal deno­ta­tion). It is true that the school­men, in think­ing through the ques­tion of the Chris­t­ian God’s omnipo­tence and omni­science, argued his knowl­edge was iden­ti­cal to his cre­ations. They argued this by insist­ing that through his cre­ative act (mak­ing some­thing from noth­ing) he expressed ele­ments already con­tained within Him­self. God knows every­thing because he made it all from his own being. How­ever, the school­men humbly held that the iden­tity of mak­ing and know­ing applied only to God. Man, being cre­ated, could not know him­self or other nat­ural kinds in the man­ner akin to God. Since sci­en­tia or indu­bitable knowl­edge was the most per­fect kind of knowl­edge, and nature or physis was already given to man, it implied that man could not sci­en­tif­i­cally know the sub­lu­nary world. It took a Galileo and a Descartes to turn this under­stand­ing on its head.21

These early mod­erns were “sec­u­lar the­olo­gians” who tried to marry heaven and earth. They argued that geo­met­ri­cal objects or forms – such as tri­an­gles and squares – were unearthly. At best, such math­e­mat­i­cal objects were “ideas” formed by the cre­ative act of the imag­i­na­tion. The imag­i­na­tion as a site of cre­ative activ­ity entailed that it be unhinged from what is given. Exem­pli­fied by math­e­mat­i­cal objects, whose per­fec­tion owes lit­tle, if any­thing, to the imper­fect beings of the world, the sec­u­lar the­olo­gians thus argued that the truth of ideas is guar­an­teed by the very fact that they are made.22

The per­fect and time­less shapes of geom­e­try were once thought to be applic­a­ble only to the unmov­ing heav­ens. The sub­lu­nary sphere of gen­er­a­tion, change, and decay was not sus­cep­ti­ble to immo­bile math­e­mat­i­cal forms. But accord­ing to the sec­u­lar the­olo­gians, what was good for the heav­ens was good enough for the earth. By insist­ing that the book of nature was writ­ten in “mea­sure, weight and num­ber,” these early mod­erns raised the earth to the stars.

For them, beneath the bloom­ing, buzzing, phe­nom­e­nal world lurked the laws of nature inscribed in math­e­mat­i­cally for­mu­lated reg­u­lar­i­ties. Thus the made lay beneath the given, it required ardu­ous exper­i­men­ta­tion – the vex­ing of nature – to unveil these insen­si­ble but imag­ined laws. Accord­ingly, math­e­mat­i­cal forms and lab­o­ra­tory exper­i­ments con­sti­tuted the pre­em­i­nent meth­ods for con­struct­ing knowl­edge of the world. Unhinged from the given because com­mit­ted to the cause of the made, techno-science shook off its Aris­totelian roots, where expe­ri­ence was the mem­o­rable formed from long immer­sion in the reg­u­lar­i­ties of the world, gen­e­sis and move­ment were impos­si­ble to know with cer­tainty but only for the most part, and beings in the world were pos­sessed of sub­stan­tive natures.23

Pride­ful immod­esty was not the only rea­son that early mod­ern philoso­phers brought the heav­ens to the earth. They also did so for char­i­ta­ble rea­sons. Moved by con­cern for the poor this-worldly con­di­tion of man, they sought to improve man’s estate by escap­ing what is given – food tech­nolo­gies to erase hunger, cars and planes to over­come the lim­its of time and space, med­i­cines to elim­i­nate dis­ease, and now genetic manip­u­la­tions to per­haps even cheat death. Thus, pride and char­ity infuse that potent and world-making brew we call techno-science.24

Mod­ern techno-science grew, a bit topsy-turvy, but always cleav­ing close to these found­ing impulses. The pride that com­pels to know-by-construction con­tin­ues to be wed­ded to the char­ity fuel­ing the pro­duc­tion of arti­facts that bet­ter our con­di­tion by trans­mo­gri­fy­ing it. Whether TV’s or the­o­rems, the mod­ern techno-scientific endeavor is one by which, Entis ratio­nis, cre­ations or con­struc­tions of the mind, are pro­jected and given form as entis realis, things real­ized. Caught in this closed loop between mind and its pro­jec­tions, every­where he looks, man now sees only what he has made. Instead of recov­er­ing the gar­den of his orig­i­nal inno­cence, mod­ern man is now faced with the grow­ing desert of his own mak­ing. Yet, trapped by the premise of the iden­tity between know­ing and mak­ing, con­tem­po­rary thought remains unable to think of any­thing other than remak­ing what has been badly made.25

Per­haps it is this com­mit­ment to the propo­si­tion that we can know only what we make, to knowl­edge by con­struc­tion, that forces us to be trapped within the techno-scientific frame. The envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis has exposed the Achilles heel of unre­strained techno-scientific progress. Yet, faith in Progress and in Knowl­edge as the cur­rency of Free­dom remains unshaken. Shut­tling between the poles of “sus­tain­able” and “unsus­tain­able” tech­nolo­gies, the for­mer is prof­fered as the new and improved cure for the dis­eases caused by the lat­ter. And once more, dis­in­ter­ested curios­ity and solic­i­tous con­cern for the wel­fare of oth­ers jus­tify and reaf­firm faith in sal­va­tion through tech­nol­ogy. To escape this debil­i­tat­ing con­fine per­haps requires being dis­abused of the prej­u­di­cial iden­tity between know­ing and mak­ing, which ani­mates techno-science.

Planely speak­ing, but not entirely

The space con­sti­tuted by the dialec­tic between a nat­ural and arti­fi­cial “har­mony of inter­ests” enfolds the rela­tion between free and reg­u­lated mar­kets. The pol­i­tics of a com­mer­cial repub­lic is ori­ented to the sat­is­fac­tion of human needs through com­modi­ties. To con­tin­u­ally increase the sat­is­fac­tion of needs, mar­ket soci­eties must expand the sphere of com­mod­ity depen­dence, that is, the relent­less pur­suit eco­nomic growth. The pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion of com­modi­ties pre­sup­poses the worker and the con­sumer, and regard­less of who owns the means of pro­duc­tion or how prof­its are dis­trib­uted, eco­nomic growth requires workers/consumers. Even if work­ers are no more likely to find well-paying jobs than are debt sat­u­rated con­sumers likely to buy more stuff, the social imag­i­nary formed of work­ers and con­sumers per­sists. Accord­ingly, any effort to see beneath or beyond this con­fin­ing thought-space must take its dis­tance to this indus­trial mind-set formed by the thor­ough­go­ing depen­dence on commodities.

Sim­i­larly, the debate on the neces­sity of “eco-friendly” tech­nolo­gies that carry a lower “eco­log­i­cal foot­print” pre­sup­poses man as oper­a­tor instead of as user.26 The user is trans­formed into an oper­a­tor when the power of a tool over­whelms that of its user. Thus, whether it is a Prius or a Hum­mer, both aim to improve man’s con­di­tion by frus­trat­ing his nat­ural abil­ity and capac­ity to walk. Both demand skilled oper­a­tors to steer, and nei­ther per­mits the degrees of free­dom nec­es­sary for autonomous use. Whether pro­moted by the tech­no­crat or eco­crat, men are dis­abled by and become depen­dent on their arti­facts when the lat­ter are designed for oper­a­tors instead of enabling users.

The ordi­nary and every­day mean­ing of use­ful­ness embeds it within both human pur­poses and human actions. A thing is use­ful inso­far as it unleashes and extends the capac­i­ties of the user; as long as it can be shaped, adapted, and mod­i­fied to fit the pur­poses of its users. There­fore, the capac­ity of a thing to be use­ful is lim­ited by the innate pow­ers or nat­ural thresh­olds of the user. For exam­ple, a bicy­cle calls for users because it only extends the innate capac­ity for self-mobility. In con­trast, the auto­mo­bile requires immo­bile if adept machine oper­a­tors. In this sense, the for­mer is a con­vivial tech­nol­ogy where the lat­ter is manip­u­la­tive. A hand-pump or a well can be used to raise water for drink­ing or bathing. In con­trast, a flush-toilet or a dam must be oper­ated to pipe or store a liq­uid resource. Thus, to bring to light was has been cast into the shad­ows requires expos­ing the dis­abling fea­tures of some technologies.

Accord­ingly, what­ever lies beyond the thought-space marked by the dialec­tic of the State-Market on the one hand and that of the sustainable-unsustainable tech­nol­ogy on the other, it must be het­ero­ge­neous to both the worker/consumer and the oper­a­tor. In this search, two caveats are to be kept in mind. First, even if the ques­tion is addressed to the present, the answer must be sought for in the past. One is obliged to rum­mage in the dust­bin of his­tory to recover what was once mus­cled into it. Oth­er­wise, imag­ined futures would give wing to utopian dreams just like those that have now turned night­mar­ish. Sec­ond, there is no going back to the past and there is no choice between the (post)industrial and the tra­di­tional immured in habit and trans­mit­ted by mem­ory. The depen­dence on com­modi­ties and manip­u­la­tive tech­nolo­gies has been and con­tin­ues to be estab­lished on the destruc­tion of alter­na­tive modes of being and think­ing. There is lit­tle of the lat­ter around, even as mil­lions of peas­ants and abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples are daily uprooted and dis­placed in China, India, and Latin Amer­ica. But it would be sen­ti­men­tal and dan­ger­ous to think that one can or should bring back the past. Instead, the task for thought is to find con­cep­tual cri­te­ria to help think through the present.27

The Ver­nac­u­lar Domain

Ivan Illich pro­posed to reviv­ify the word “ver­nac­u­lar” to name a domain that excludes both the con­sumer and the oper­a­tor. The appro­pri­ate word to speak of the domain beyond depen­dence on com­modi­ties and dis­abling tech­nolo­gies is fun­da­men­tal to avoid­ing one or both of two con­fu­sions. First, the pre­sup­po­si­tions of eco­nom­ics and techno-science are likely to be anachro­nis­ti­cally pro­jected into forms-of-life that lie out­side or beyond the thought space con­sti­tuted by them. This is obvi­ous when econ­o­mists retro-project fables of the dia­mond and water “para­dox,” “utility-maximization” and “scarcity” into pre-modern texts. So does the his­to­rian of tech­nol­ogy who indif­fer­ently sees the mon­key, Nean­derthal man, and the uni­ver­sity stu­dent as tool users. In a related vein, forms-of-life orthog­o­nal to techno-scientifically fueled economies are likely to be mis­un­der­stood. Thus, those who today refuse mod­ern con­ve­niences are labeled Lud­dites or just cussed, while those who get by out­side the techno-scientific and com­mod­ity bub­bles are clas­si­fied as back­ward or poor.

A sec­ond, more potent, con­fu­sion flour­ishes in the absence of a word ade­quate to the domain out­side tech­no­log­i­cally inten­sive mar­ket soci­eties. Dis­abling tech­nolo­gies no less than wage work can pro­duce or gen­er­ate unpaid toil. That the spin­ning jenny and the com­puter have put peo­ple out of work is well-known. But it is less famil­iar that waged work neces­si­tates a shad­owy unpaid com­ple­ment. Indeed, wage work is a per­haps dimin­ish­ing tip of the total toil exacted in market-intensive soci­eties. House­work, school­work, com­mut­ing, mon­i­tor­ing the intake of med­i­cines or the out­flows from a bank account are only a few exam­ples of the time and toil devoted to the nec­es­sary shadow work com­pelled by commodity-intensive social arrange­ments. To con­fuse the shadow work neces­si­tated by the sep­a­ra­tion of pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion with the unpaid labor in set­tings where pro­duc­tion is not sep­a­rated from con­sump­tion is to mis­un­der­stand shadow work as either autonomous action or the threat­ened and shrink­ing spaces out­side the mar­ket.28

Indica­tive of this con­fu­sion is the use of such terms as “sub­sis­tence econ­omy,” “infor­mal economies,” or “peas­ant econ­omy” to refer to what has been cast into the shad­ows. By adding an adjec­tive to the “econ­omy,” his­to­ri­ans and anthro­pol­o­gists unwit­tingly rein­force the grip of what they intend to weaken. By merely mod­i­fy­ing the “econ­omy” they are nev­er­the­less beholden to its pre­sup­po­si­tions. A sim­i­lar weak­ness attends the term “sub­sis­tence.” While its ety­mol­ogy is noble and invokes that which is self-sufficient and stands in place, its mod­ern con­no­ta­tions are irre­deemably nar­row and uncouth. In pri­mar­ily invok­ing the modes by which peo­ple pro­vided for their mate­r­ial needs – food and shel­ter – “sub­sis­tence” rein­forces the eco­nomic by nega­tion. With its con­no­ta­tions of “basic neces­si­ties” or “bare sur­vival,” sub­sis­tence des­ic­cates the var­ied and mul­ti­far­i­ous forms-of-life once and still con­ducted beyond the space cir­cum­scribed by the machine and the mar­ket. One can­not speak of “sub­sis­tence archi­tec­ture” as one can of ver­nac­u­lar archi­tec­tures. “Peas­ant” or “infor­mal” does not mod­ify dance and song, prayer and lan­guage, food and play. And yet, these are inte­gral to a life well-lived, and at least his­tor­i­cally, were nei­ther com­mod­i­fied nor the prod­ucts of techno-science. It is to avoid such blind­ing con­fu­sions that Illich argued for reha­bil­i­tat­ing the word “ver­nac­u­lar.“29

Though from the Latin ver­nac­u­lum, which named all that was home­bred, home­made, and home­spun, it was through Varro’s restricted sense of ver­nac­u­lar speech that the word “ver­nac­u­lar” enters Eng­lish. The his­tory of how ver­nac­u­lar speech was trans­muted into a “taught mother tongue,” is an exem­plar of not only what lies beyond the con­tem­po­rary thought-space but also for what may be wor­thy of recu­per­a­tion in mod­ern forms.30

Elio Anto­nio de Nebrija was a con­tem­po­rary of Christo­pher Colum­bus. In 1492, he peti­tioned Queen Isabella to spon­sor a tool to quell the unruly every­day speech of her sub­jects. In the Spain of Isabella, her sub­jects spoke in a mul­ti­tude of tongues. To dis­ci­pline the anar­chic speech of peo­ple in the inter­est of her power Nebrija noted, “Lan­guage has always been the con­sort of empire, and for­ever shall remain its mate.” To unify the sword and the book through lan­guage, Nebrija offered both a rule­book for Span­ish gram­mar and a dic­tio­nary. In a kind of alchem­i­cal exer­cise, Nebrija reduced lived speech to a con­structed gram­mar. Accord­ingly, this con­ver­sion of the speech of peo­ple into a national lan­guage stands as a pro­to­type of the for­ays in that long war to cre­ate a world fit for workers/ con­sumers and operators.

Nebrija fab­ri­cated a Span­ish gram­mar as a tool to rule enlivened speech. Because stan­dard­ized and pro­duced by an expert, his gram­mar had to be taught to be effec­tive. More­over, fol­low­ing gram­mat­i­cal rules for speech con­veys the belief that peo­ple can­not speak with­out learn­ing the rules of gram­mar. By this dis­pen­sa­tion, the tongue is trained to repeat the gram­mat­i­cal forms it is taught; the tongue is made to oper­ate on lan­guage. Hence, the nat­ural abil­ity to speak that can be exer­cised by each and all is trans­formed into an alien­able prod­uct requir­ing pro­duc­ers and con­sumers. The con­ver­sion of every­day speech into a teach­able mother tongue thus ren­ders what is abun­dant into the regime of scarcity – to the realm of exchange-value. Instruc­tion in lan­guage not only dis­ables the nat­ural pow­ers of the speaker but also makes her depen­dent on cer­ti­fied ser­vice providers. Thus, Nebrija’s pro­posal at once dis­closes and fore­shad­ows the world pop­u­lated by work­ers and oper­a­tors, by the mar­ket and the machine.

The war against the ver­nac­u­lar has been pros­e­cuted for some 500 years.31 Once the com­mod­ity and mar­ket occu­pied the inter­stices of every­day life. Today, it is every­where. For most of human his­tory, tools were shaped by the pur­poses and lim­ited by the nat­ural abil­i­ties of its users. Today, their machines enslave the major­ity of peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly in advanced indus­trial soci­eties. Though this trans­for­ma­tion has and is occur­ring in dif­fer­ent places at dif­fer­ent times and rates, it nev­er­the­less dupli­cates the dia­gram of how stan­dard­ized Span­ish gram­mar dis­em­bed­ded the speech of peo­ple. For instance, the rapa­cious “prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion” that enclosed the com­mons in the 17th cen­tury, uprooted Eng­lish peas­ants from the land to make them fully depen­dent on wages. A sim­i­lar dis­pos­ses­sion now occurs in China and India, where hun­dreds of mil­lions move from farms to fac­to­ries and slums. Abo­rig­i­nal tribes of the Ama­zon are being dis­pos­sessed and killed now with the same impunity as those in Aus­tralia and the Amer­i­cas once were. For enter­tain­ment, chil­dren now oper­ate PlaySta­tions where they once kicked around a ball on the street. Mega-churches in the US indoc­tri­nate the flock with power point slides and music, much as teach­ers, train­ers, and coaches do in class­rooms around the coun­try. Food sci­en­tists, nutri­tion­ists, and plant pathol­o­gists pro­vide just some of the inputs that con­sumers depend on for their daily calo­rie intake. Whether in single-family homes or boxes piled on top of each other, peo­ple live in houses seem­ingly cut from an architect’s tem­plate. Women in India now demand valen­tine cards with as much enthu­si­asm as Turk­ish men pur­chase hair, calf, and chest implants. The his­tor­i­cal record is rife with exam­ples that stand as wit­nesses to the con­tin­u­ing destruc­tion of the ver­nac­u­lar –whether of food, shel­ter, song, love, or pleasures.

It is by attend­ing to the his­tor­i­cal speci­ficity of our present predica­ment in the mir­ror of the past that Illich thus reveals a third axis that lies orthog­o­nal to the plane cir­cum­scribed by the axes of com­mod­ity inten­sity and dis­abling tech­nolo­gies. On this z-axis are located forms of social orga­ni­za­tion anchored by two het­ero­ge­neous forms. At the point of ori­gin of this three-dimensional space, are social arrange­ments that plug peo­ple into mar­kets and machines and thereby pre­vent them from exer­cis­ing their freely given pow­ers. At the other end of this z-axis is found a pro­fu­sion of social forms, each dif­fer­ent from the other, but all marked by sus­pi­cion towards the claims for techno-science and the commodity.

For these modes of social orga­ni­za­tion, the dif­fer­ence between “sus­tain­able” and “unsus­tain­able” tech­nolo­gies is a chimera. Instead, what mat­ters is the real dis­tinc­tion between con­vivial and dis­abling tech­nolo­gies. Sim­i­larly, the pur­ported dif­fer­ence between reg­u­lated and free mar­kets, between pub­lic and pri­vate prop­erty does lit­tle to shape these social forms. Instead, they are ani­mated by the dis­tinc­tion between the house­hold and the com­mons. Thus, the Amish of Penn­syl­va­nia cur­tail their use of such power tools as trac­tors. The Bhutanese limit the num­ber of tourists to whom they play host. Some cities in Ger­many and Den­mark have banned the car to make way for the bicy­cle and walk­ing. Whether on a rooftop in Chicago or by the rail track in Mum­bai, diverse groups rely on their veg­etable patches for some their daily sus­te­nance. While com­mu­nity sup­ported agri­cul­ture build bonds of per­sonal depen­dence, ceramic dry toi­lets and related forms of ver­nac­u­lar archi­tec­tures allow peo­ple to dwell. In a fine essay by Peter Linebaugh on the Lud­dites and the Roman­tics, one is per­suaded by the implicit claim that com­mu­nism for the 21st cen­tury may need to mimic in a new key, the coura­geous Lud­dite defense of the ver­nac­u­lar.32 Even Marx, in his last years, was less of a Marx­ist than many of those who spoke in his name. He was far more open to the peas­ant com­munes of Rus­sia and West­ern Europe than usu­ally assumed.33

These modes and man­ners of liv­ing in the present are informed by the past. Those engaged in the attempt to unplug from the mar­ket and the machine know that the reign of prop­erty – whether pri­vate or public-was erected on the ruins of the com­mons and that the ubiq­uity of dis­abling technologies-whether sus­tain­able or not-was achieved by den­i­grat­ing con­vivial tools. Yet, cru­cially, know­ing what is past has gone, they are not dog­matic in their fight. They prac­tice a form of brico­lage, oppor­tunis­ti­cally tak­ing back what­ever they can get. A shared lawn­mower here, an over­grown and weed infested gar­den there, a polit­i­cal strug­gle to retain arti­sanal fish­ing in Ker­ala, a move to the bar­ri­cades in the Chi­a­pas, the will­ing­ness to ped­dle cocaine derived home reme­dies in Peru and build­ing ille­gal ten­e­ments on pub­lic lands in Sao Paulo, each effort is aimed at reduc­ing the rad­i­cal monop­oly of com­modi­ties and dis­abling tech­nolo­gies. Such ways – of fish­ing, farm­ing, cook­ing, eat­ing, dwelling, play­ing, pray­ing or study – are as diverse and var­ied today as the peo­ple who engage in them. How­ever, what they have in com­mon is being ori­ented by the same genus, the vernacular.

Epis­temic Prudence

The effort to fight against the con­tin­u­ing war on the ver­nac­u­lar also extends to the activ­ity of think­ing.34 What is con­fused for knowl­edge today is largely R&D funded and deployed by gov­ern­ment and indus­try. Sci­en­tists, whether in the employ of uni­ver­si­ties, gov­ern­ments, or cor­po­ra­tions, pro­duce objec­tive knowl­edge for use by oth­ers. The per­ti­nent ques­tion for those affected by these cir­cuits of knowl­edge pro­duc­tion and sale is to ask if there are ver­nac­u­lar styles of think­ing. Is there a kind of thought jus­ti­fied by nei­ther pride nor char­ity? What is the nature of rig­or­ous thought that is nev­er­the­less con­ducted among friends and aimed at shap­ing one’s own modes of life in more beau­ti­ful ways? Are some styles of think­ing bet­ter suited to com­pre­hend­ing the vernacular?

It is likely that the intel­lec­tual effort appro­pri­ate to bring­ing ver­nac­u­lar ways out of the shad­ows might itself be self-limiting. I sug­gest the now dis­carded notion of com­mon sense as a cri­te­rion to both com­pre­hend the ver­nac­u­lar domain and to rec­og­nize the styles of thought appro­pri­ate to it. Though the his­tory of com­mon sense is too tan­gled a story to be told here, it is suf­fi­cient to note its pri­mary mean­ing, at least in Eng­lish. The first mean­ing of com­mon sense is the Aris­totelian “sen­sus com­mu­nis”: “The com­mon bond or cen­ter of the five senses; the endow­ment of nat­ural intel­li­gence pos­sessed by ratio­nal beings.”35 This under­stand­ing of the com­mon sense stretches from at least Plato to Descartes and, in this pri­mor­dial sense, refers to the fac­ulty nec­es­sary for the exer­cise of rea­son­able judg­ments. Con­trary to pop­u­lar prej­u­dice today, com­mon sense does not refer to the con­tent of what is known but rather how knowl­edge is achieved. Com­mon sense is not reducible to a body of propo­si­tions or of knowledge-claims: instead, it is the ground from which judg­ments are reached, par­tic­u­larly, the judg­ment of what is appro­pri­ate, fit­ting, or ade­quate.36

Briefly, com­mon sense is that fac­ulty which syn­the­sizes sense impres­sions into per­cep­tions of the world. In turn, the active intel­li­gence abstracts con­cepts from these sen­si­ble per­cep­tions. An echo of this activ­ity of the intel­lect still res­onates in the word “con­cept,” ety­mo­log­i­cally related to grasp­ing or touch­ing. That con­cepts are teth­ered to per­cepts, which are rooted in the sen­sual, under­writes that Aris­totelian com­mon­place, “noth­ing in the intel­lect that is not first in the senses.” Con­cepts are abstrac­tions. But pre­cisely because they are abstrac­tions from the real, they main­tain an accord between the world and the mind. Stated sim­ply, both per­cep­tion and the con­cepts that flow from them are depen­dent on what is given to the senses; con­cep­tions of the world depend on grasp­ing the world as it is.

Yet, techno-science is based on pre­cisely turn­ing this under­stand­ing on its head. Indeed, the announce­ment of Vico may be taken as the slo­gan behind which a com­mon sense under­stand­ing of the world was slowly suf­fo­cated. From the very begin­ning of mod­ern sci­ence, know­ing is under­stood to be the same as mak­ing: the Carte­sian plane is as con­structed as an air­plane; the Pois­son dis­tri­b­u­tion is as fab­ri­cated as a pipette in the lab­o­ra­tory. Mod­ern sci­en­tific ideas are not con­cepts teth­ered to the senses; instead they are con­structs. Con­structs, as the word sug­gests, are made and not given. As Ein­stein famously said, “Phys­i­cal con­cepts are free cre­ations of the human mind, and not…uniquely deter­mined by the exter­nal world.” Though wrong to use the word “con­cepts,” his acknowl­edge­ment that sci­en­tific the­o­ries are cre­ated under­scores how sci­en­tific con­structs frac­tures the com­mon sense tie between per­cep­tion and reality.

The sharp dis­tinc­tion between con­cepts and con­structs recalls that the mod­ern world is con­structed and that peo­ple and things are often resized to fit in. Con­cepts are forms of thought engen­dered by the com­mon sense, which itself expresses the union between the world and the senses. Con­cepts reflect a way of know­ing things from the out­side in – from the world to the mind. In con­trast, con­structs are forms of reflex­ive thought express­ing a way of know­ing from the inside out – from the mind to the world.In mod­ern times, what is made up does not ide­ally con­form to what is given. Instead, what is given is slowly buried under the made-up world.

Sci­en­tific con­structs are there­fore not rooted by a sense for the world. Indeed, given the con­trast between con­cepts and con­structs, it fol­lows that sci­en­tific ideas are non-sense. They are not abstracted from expe­ri­ence but can often be used to reshape it. They can be exper­i­men­tally ver­i­fied or fal­si­fied. But exper­i­ments are not the stuff of ordi­nary expe­ri­ence. No exper­i­ment is nec­es­sary to ver­ify if peo­ple breathe, but one is required to prove the prop­er­ties of a vac­uum. Exper­i­ments are nec­es­sary pre­cisely to test what is not ordi­nar­ily evi­dent, which is why they are con­ducted in con­trolled set­tings and also used to pro­pa­gan­dize the unusual as ordi­nar­ily com­pre­hen­si­ble. Exper­i­men­tal results are nei­ther nec­es­sar­ily con­tin­u­ous with nor com­pre­hen­si­ble to every­day expe­ri­ence; they do not clar­ify expe­ri­ence but usu­ally obfus­cate it.

Unlike R&D, ver­nac­u­lar styles of thought are nei­ther insti­tu­tion­ally funded nor directed at the pur­ported hap­pi­ness and ease of oth­ers. More­over, ver­nac­u­lar think­ing also cleaves closely to the com­mon sense under­stood as the seat of rea­son­able judg­ments. Thus, it avoids the mon­strous heights to which thought can rise on the wings of the unfet­tered imag­i­na­tion. Accord­ingly, the abil­ity to grasp the ver­nac­u­lar demands not only the courage needed to buck aca­d­e­mic pres­sures but also to avoid those flights of the­o­ret­i­cal mad­ness pow­ered through the mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of con­structs.37

To draw out some fea­tures of the form of thought ade­quate to the ver­nac­u­lar domain, con­sider Illich’s essay titled Energy and Equity, where he dis­tin­guishes between trans­port, tran­sit, and traf­fic. Whereas tran­sit bespeaks the motion afforded to man the self-moving ani­mal, trans­port refers to his being moved by het­eronomous means, whether car, train, or plane. There, a bul­lock cart trans­ports vil­lagers headed to the mar­ket. Here cars trans­port com­muters to the work­place. By com­mon sense per­cep­tion, trans­port – whether by cart or car – per­verts tran­sit, which is embod­ied in the freely given capac­ity to walk. To those who can­not per­ceive the sen­sual and car­nal dif­fer­ence between walk­ing and being moved as a Fedex pack­age, the dis­tinc­tion between trans­port and tran­sit is unper­sua­sive. It is equally unper­sua­sive to those mired in that con­structed uni­verse where all motion is iden­ti­fied with the dis­place­ment of any body in space. The rit­u­al­ized expo­sure to passenger-miles – whether in cars or class­rooms – is the likely rea­son for the inabil­ity to per­ceive the felt dis­tinc­tion between trans­port and tran­sit. Thus, the elab­o­ra­tion of con­cepts to prop­erly grasp the ver­nac­u­lar domain can­not but begin by plac­ing the con­struc­tions of the econ­omy and techno-science within epis­temic brackets.

Yet, if it is to be rea­son­able, such an exer­cise in epis­temic hygiene can­not be immod­er­ate.38 The con­trast between trans­port and tran­sit is clear and dis­tinct, rooted as it is in phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cally dis­tinct per­cep­tions. Yet, traf­fic is a the­o­ret­i­cal con­struct, pro­posed to com­pre­hend any com­bi­na­tion of trans­port and tran­sit. This neces­sity for con­structs is nev­er­the­less under­mined by their being teth­ered to and by con­cepts. Accord­ingly, the con­cep­tual grasp of the world hob­bles the free con­struc­tion of it. The dis­tinc­tion between con­cepts and con­structs does not imply refus­ing the lat­ter at all costs but rather entails see­ing the hier­ar­chi­cal rela­tion between them. That is, ver­nac­u­lar styles of think­ing do not exclude the­o­ret­i­cal con­structs but only seek to keep them in their place.

A sec­ond and related fea­ture of ver­nac­u­lar thought-styles con­firms its mod­er­ate and indeed, mod­est nature. In accord with ver­nac­u­lar ways, ver­nac­u­lar thought does not demand the exclu­sion or exci­sion of that which is anti­thet­i­cal and for­eign to its domain – the mar­ket or the machine. For instance, ver­nac­u­lar thought does not demand the era­sure of trans­port so that tran­sit can flour­ish. Instead, because rooted in the per­ceived accord or just pro­por­tion between the tran­sit and trans­port, ver­nac­u­lar thought insists only that the capac­ity for auto-mobility impose a bind­ing con­straint on trans­port. The sug­ges­tion that the speed limit for cars be roughly the same as that reached by a bicy­cle is rooted in the argu­ment that traf­fic be cal­i­brated by the lex­i­co­graphic pref­er­ence for tran­sit over transport.

Thus, ver­nac­u­lar ways of think­ing in con­so­nance with doing and being do not deny con­structs – whether imag­ined or real­ized. It merely refuses the char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally mod­ern iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of know­ing and mak­ing, of reduc­ing think­ing to cal­cu­lat­ing, of dis­plac­ing the rela­tion between sub­jects and their pred­i­cates by quan­ti­ta­tive com­par­isons. In see­ing beyond the prej­u­dice that com­pares beings in terms of “mea­sure, num­ber, and weight,” ver­nac­u­lar thought rean­i­mates a sec­ond form of quan­ti­ta­tive mea­sure­ment that, with it, was also cast into the shad­ows. Recall, as Ein­stein admit­ted, sci­en­tific con­structs are free cre­ations of the mind, exem­pli­fied by math­e­mat­i­cal con­structs – equa­tions, cal­cu­la­tions, and the like. But such math­e­mat­i­cal mea­sure­ment is only the infe­rior of two kinds of quan­ti­ta­tive measurement.

In The States­man, Plato argues for the dis­tinc­tion between arith­meti­cal and “geo­met­ric” mea­sures.39 While both are forms of quan­ti­ta­tive mea­sure­ments, arith­meti­cal or numer­i­cal mea­sure is inde­pen­dent of the pur­poses of the cal­cu­la­tor and either cor­rect or incor­rect. In con­trast, “geo­met­ric” mea­sure­ments of too much or too lit­tle are inex­tri­ca­bly bound to inten­tion­al­ity and there­fore never sim­ply cor­rect or incor­rect but always mea­sured with respect to what is just right or fit­ting. To clar­ify the dis­tinc­tion, con­sider the fol­low­ing two points. Given a con­ven­tional mea­sure – gal­lons or liters – a quan­tity of water can be pre­cisely and uni­ver­sally mea­sured as 4. How­ever, whether 4 is too much or too lit­tle depends on whether one intends to fill a 3 or 5 gal­lon pail; or to put out a blaz­ing fire or to water a horse. The frame of inten­tion­al­ity or pur­pose thus defines the quan­ti­ta­tive mea­sure­ment of greater or lesser, of more or less. Accord­ingly, the numer­i­cal mea­sure of plus or minus 1 gains its mean­ing from and is there­fore sub­or­di­nate to the non-numerically mea­sure of too much or too lit­tle. More­over, it is also rel­a­tive to pur­pose that 3 or 5 is con­sid­ered fit­ting, appro­pri­ate or just right.

But there is a sec­ond point to be empha­sized about the rela­tion between so-called arith­meti­cal and “geo­met­ri­cal” mea­sure­ments. Arith­meti­cal mea­sures are utterly ster­ile when it comes to answer­ing the ques­tion of pur­pose, of what is to be done. That is, the ques­tion of whether a given end is appro­pri­ate or fit­ting can­not be debated in math­e­mat­i­cal sym­bols. In fact, the oppo­site is true. It is always pos­si­ble to ask if apply­ing arith­meti­cal mea­sures to a par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion is appro­pri­ate. Thus, whether one should fill a 5-gallon pail, or con­struct a math­e­mat­i­cal model of human behav­ior or fab­ri­cate a mea­sure called eco­log­i­cal foot­print are unan­swer­able in numer­i­cal terms.40

That arith­meti­cal mea­sure­ments can­not adju­di­cate its own appro­pri­ate­ness shows they are infe­rior in rank or hier­ar­chi­cally sub­or­di­nate to “geo­met­ric” mea­sure­ment. The ques­tion con­cern­ing pur­pose is pre­em­i­nently a ques­tion of ethics, of jus­tice among per­sons. More­over, since per­sonal rela­tion­ship can­not but be grounded in the embod­ied sense of and for another, it fol­lows that eth­i­cal judg­ments must be rooted in com­mon sense. Thus, geo­met­ric mea­sures of what is just and right, of what is appro­pri­ate and fit­ting, are judg­ments formed of the com­mon sense. Accord­ingly it fol­lows that con­cepts should reg­u­late and serve as norms for con­structs and, anal­o­gously, that ver­nac­u­lar ways should reg­u­late techno-scientific constructions.

Past or Future?

Illich’s plea to resus­ci­tate the ver­nac­u­lar must be taken seri­ously – espe­cially now, when the ongo­ing eco­nomic and eco­log­i­cal crises reveal the restricted thought-space within which con­tem­po­rary debates con­tinue to be con­ducted. Just as the demand for more reg­u­lated mar­kets expose exchange-value as the pre­sup­po­si­tion of eco­nomic thought, so also the call for sus­tain­able or eco-friendly tech­nolo­gies expose the grip of techno-science on the mod­ern imag­i­nary. The ver­nac­u­lar, we could say, lies orthog­o­nal to these axes of mar­kets and machines, offer­ing us a unique stand­point from which to inter­ro­gate the present. While the object of an almost 500 year long war, it nev­er­the­less per­sists within the inter­stices and byways of mod­ern life, ready for reactivation.

Sajay Samuel is a Clinical Associate Professor of Accounting at Penn State University. He has spoken on science, economic thought, and the vernacular for Canadian radio. His academic publications aim to undermine the current fascination with accounting and related numbers as a modality of management.

  • 1BBC, “‘Wall Street got drunk’ says Bush.”
  • 2Andy Kroll, “How the McE­con­omy Bombed the Amer­i­can Worker,TomDis­patch. While advanced indus­tri­al­ized economies can­not find enough jobs for its unem­ployed pop­u­la­tions, so called emerg­ing economies are actively cre­at­ing employ­ment. By inverse sym­me­try, to sat­isfy the demand of eco­nomic growth through indus­tri­al­iza­tion, notably in China and India, peas­ants are con­verted into fac­tory work­ers in the hun­dreds of millions.
  • 3Of the raft of books on the causes and con­se­quences of the cur­rent eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion, there are those who argue, rightly in many par­tic­u­lars, that this was only the most severe of the cri­sis prone dynam­ics of cap­i­tal­ism. In this vein, see for exam­ple most recently, Paul Mattick, Busi­ness As Usual (Lon­don: Reak­tion Books, 2011); David Har­vey, The Enigma of Cap­i­tal (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 2010); and John Bel­lamy Fos­ter and Fred Magd­off, The Great Finan­cial Cri­sis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009). I ignore these accounts since they are and were largely ignored in pol­icy cir­cles and main­stream eco­nomic thinking.
  • 4Notably, George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, Ani­mal Spir­its (Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press, 2009). But see also Justin Fox, The Myth of the Ratio­nal Mar­ket (New York: Harper Busi­ness Books, 2009); and Paul Krug­man, “How did econ­o­mists get it so wrong?” New York Times, Sep­tem­ber 9, 2009.
  • 5Joseph Stiglitz in Freefall (New York: Nor­ton Books, 2010) is per­haps the most tren­chant of the well-known econ­o­mists to fin­ger free mar­ket ide­ol­ogy as an impor­tant cause of the cri­sis. Also see, N. Roubini & S. Mihm, Cri­sis Eco­nom­ics (New York, Pen­guin Press, 2010); and S. John­son & J. Kwak, 13 Bankers (New York: Pan­theon Books, 2010). Wor­thy of spe­cial men­tion in this regard, is Richard Posner’s, A Fail­ure of Cap­i­tal­ism (Cam­bridge: Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Press, 2009), which stands as a model for ret­ro­spec­tive hand-wringing by a booster of neo-liberalism.
  • 6The Finan­cial Cri­sis Inquiry Report (New York: Pub­lic Affairs, 2011). Most if not all of the writ­ings on the finan­cial cri­sis cite incen­tives as both cause and rem­edy. The U.S. Con­gres­sional report pub­lished after two years of study and inves­ti­ga­tion is exem­plary since failed or inad­e­quate incentives—whether in the form of reg­u­la­tion or compensation- com­prise the sum of causal fac­tors dri­ving the cri­sis. But also con­sult among any of the above-mentioned books, Lau­rence Koltikoff’s, Jimmy Stew­art is Dead (New York: Wiley & Sons, 2010) for a sen­si­ble pro­posal to limit finan­cially induced boom-bust cycles through lim­ited pur­pose bank­ing. The lat­ter is designed to dampen the ill-effects of debt financing.
  • 7The para­dox of design­ing incen­tives to deter­mine future behav­ior seems not to have been fully com­pre­hended. Indeed, in a forth­com­ing work, I intend to argue that incen­tive mech­a­nisms assure only one con­se­quence: they will cer­tainly fail.
  • 8For a fuller account, see Sajay Samuel & Jean Roberts, “Water can and ought to run freely: reflec­tions on the notion of “scarcity” in eco­nom­ics” in The Lim­its to Scarcity, ed. Lyla Mehta(London: Earth­scan, 2010), 109-126.
  • 9Bernard Man­dev­ille, The Fable of the Bees or Pri­vate Vices, Pub­lick Ben­e­fits (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 1924).
  • 10“It is because mankind are dis­posed to sym­pa­thize more entirely with our joy than with our sor­row, that we make parade of our riches, and con­ceal our poverty…Nay, it is chiefly from this regard to the sen­ti­ments of mankind, that we pur­sue riches and avoid poverty. For to what pur­pose is all the toil and bus­tle of this world? What is the end of avarice and ambi­tion, of the pur­suit of wealth, of power, and pre­hem­i­nence? Is it to sup­ply the neces­si­ties of nature? The wages of the mean­est labourer can sup­ply them… If we exam­ined his oecon­omy with rigour, we should find that he spends a great part of them upon con­ve­nien­cies, which may be regarded as super­fluities, and that, upon extra­or­di­nary occa­sions, he can give some­thing even to van­ity and distinction…From whence, then, arises that emu­la­tion which runs through all the dif­fer­ent ranks of men, and what are the advan­tages which we pro­pose by that great pur­pose of human life which we call bet­ter­ing our con­di­tion? To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sym­pa­thy, com­pla­cency, and appro­ba­tion, are all the advan­tages, which we can pro­pose to derive from it. It is the van­ity, not the ease, or the plea­sure, which inter­ests us. But van­ity is always founded upon the belief of our being the object of atten­tion and appro­ba­tion.” Adam Smith, The­ory of Moral Sen­ti­ments (Lon­don: A Mil­lar, 1759/1858), pt. 1, sec. 1, ch. 3, empha­sis added. Con­sult Louis Dumont, From Man­dev­ille to Marx (Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press 1977) whose close tex­tual analy­sis of clas­si­cal authors shows that it is the idea of a nat­ural har­mony between indi­vid­ual self-interest and the gen­eral inter­est, that allows, in prin­ci­ple, acquis­i­tive­ness to be free of ethico-political restraints. Though he includes William Petty and John Locke among “econ­o­mists,” William Letwin’s judg­ment is instruc­tive: “…there can be no doubt that eco­nomic the­ory owes its present devel­op­ment to the fact that some men…were will­ing to con­sider the econ­omy as noth­ing more than an intri­cate mech­a­nism, refrain­ing for the while from ask­ing whether the mech­a­nism worked for good or evil”; Ori­gins of Sci­en­tific Eco­nom­ics (Lon­don, 1963), 147-48. See CB Macpher­son, The Polit­i­cal The­ory of Pos­ses­sive Indi­vid­u­al­ism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 1962) for sup­port­ing argu­ments that root eco­nomic lib­er­al­ism in 17th cen­tury polit­i­cal thought.
  • 11“…money has become in all civ­i­lized nations the uni­ver­sal instru­ment of com­merce, by the inter­ven­tion of which goods of all kinds are bought and sold, or exchanged for one another. What are the rules which men nat­u­rally observe in exchang­ing them either for money or one another, I shall now pro­ceed to exam­ine”; Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, book 1, ch. 4.
  • 12The impor­tance of Locke to Smith is evi­dent in his paean to prop­erty. “The prop­erty which every man has in his own labour, as it is the orig­i­nal foun­da­tion of all other prop­erty, so it is the most sacred and invi­o­lable” (Wealth of Nations, book 1, ch. 10, part 2). For rea­sons of space, I can­not do full jus­tice to Locke’s argu­ments. How­ever, the fol­low­ing state­ments suf­fi­ciently sup­port the four points I empha­size. “What­so­ever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath pro­vided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined it to some­thing that is his own, and thereby makes it his prop­erty. It being by him removed from the com­mon state Nature placed it in, it hath by this labour some­thing annexed to it that excludes the com­mon right of other men”; “And as dif­fer­ent degrees of indus­try were apt to give men pos­ses­sions in dif­fer­ent pro­por­tions, so this inven­tion of money gave them the oppor­tu­nity to con­tinue and enlarge them”; “…the exceed­ing of the bounds of his just prop­erty not lying in the large­ness of his pos­ses­sion, but the per­ish­ing of any­thing use­lessly in it”; John Locke, Con­cern­ing Civil Gov­ern­ment, Sec­ond Essay, ch. 5.
  • 13“…These rules deter­mine what may be called the rel­a­tive or exchange­able value of goods. The word value, it is to be observed, has two dif­fer­ent mean­ings, and some­times expresses the util­ity of some par­tic­u­lar object, and some­times the power of pur­chas­ing other goods which the pos­ses­sion of that object con­veys. The one may be called ‘value in use’; the other, ‘value in exchange.’” (Wealth of Nations, book 1, ch. 4).
  • 14Smith argues that “virtue con­sists not in any one affec­tion but in the proper degree of all the affec­tions.” For him, Agree­able­ness or util­ity is not a mea­sure of virtue. Instead, it is ‘sym­pa­thy’ or the “cor­re­spon­dent affec­tion of the spec­ta­tor” that “is the nat­ural and orig­i­nal mea­sure of the proper degree (of virtue).” ***TMS, Part 8, Sec. 2, Ch.3. But such sym­pa­thy is not a virtue. At best it is a mir­ror of social prejudices.
  • 15The blind­ness to sub­sis­tence in con­tem­po­rary eco­nom­ics is evi­dent in the judg­ment of George Stigler in his review of late 19th cen­tury efforts to grasp use-value: “…and there were some mys­ti­cal ref­er­ences to the infi­nite util­ity of sub­sis­tence.” See his “Devel­op­ment of Util­ity The­ory II,” Jour­nal of Polit­i­cal Econ­omy, 58 (1950), 373. Stigler is only capa­ble of equat­ing the use­ful, which is price-less, with the mystical.
  • 16“A thing can be a use-value with­out being a value. A thing can be use­ful and a prod­uct of human labor, with­out being a com­mod­ity. …Noth­ing can be a value with­out being an object of util­ity..” Marx, K.(1976) Cap­i­tal, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Pen­guin Books), 131.
  • 17The fun­da­men­tal, though largely over­looked, essay on the elab­o­ra­tion of the twinned yet polem­i­cally related “nat­ural” and “arti­fi­cial” har­mony of inter­ests remains, Elie Halevy The Growth of Philo­soph­i­cal Rad­i­cal­ism (Boston: Bea­con Press, 1955).
  • 18It would take a longer essay to show the func­tion of law in com­mer­cial soci­ety. Sum­mar­ily, Com­mer­cial soci­ety trans­forms Law into an instru­ment of social engi­neer­ing; and thus of reg­u­la­tion. It began to be used to engi­neer soci­ety towards more or less market-intensive rela­tions. Clas­si­cal lib­er­al­ism pred­i­cated on the “nat­ural har­mony of inter­ests” requires econ­o­miz­ing on law. In con­trast, to mit­i­gate the destruc­tive­ness of ram­pant mar­ket soci­ety requires shack­ling com­mer­cial­ism with­out destroy­ing it, forg­ing an “arti­fi­cial har­mony of inter­ests” through puni­tive reg­u­la­tions. Hence both the min­i­mal state of lib­er­al­ism (whether clas­si­cal or neo-liberalism) and the expanded state of wel­fare lib­er­al­ism implies the instru­men­tal­iza­tion of Law. See Michel Fou­cault, “On Gov­ern­men­tal­ity,” in The Fou­cault Effect, eds. Colin Gor­don, G. Burchell and P. Miller (Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press, 1998). The newest crin­kle to this old tale is that mar­kets are no longer thought nat­ural. Instead, mar­kets can be designed, often by mar­ket par­tic­i­pants them­selves. Thus mod­er­at­ing mar­kets through incen­tives becomes a mat­ter of auto-engineering of and by mar­kets around the late 20th century.
  • 19 Rachel Car­son, Silent Spring (New York: Houghton Mif­flin Co, 1962) and Barry Com­moner Sci­ence and Sur­vival (New York: Viking Books, 1967) are per­haps the two most promi­nent sci­en­tists to have jump-started the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment with the bless­ings of sci­ence. By now, despite a few if noisy detrac­tors, wide­spread anthro­pogenic envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion is, as it is said, “sci­en­tific fact.” Over 2000 sci­en­tists world­wide con­tribute to the reports and rec­om­men­da­tions pro­duced by The Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change (IPCC) on the envi­ron­men­tal effects of indus­tri­al­iza­tion at per­haps the most gen­eral envi­ron­men­tal reg­is­ter. See Cli­mate Change 2007 for its most recent report.
  • 20 A pair of recent books authored by French philoso­phers sug­gests the philo­soph­i­cal ambit within with the envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis is com­pre­hended. On the one hand, Michel Serres’s The Nat­ural Con­tract (Ann Arbor: Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan Press, 1995) insists on the neces­sity of a con­tract with the Earth now that Human­ity presses against it as does any mam­moth nat­ural force. Such a nat­ural con­tract, pre­sup­poses a new meta­physics, accord­ing to which human­ity can­not be reduced to indi­vid­u­als and Earth is not under­foot but whirling in empty space; both so com­pre­hended by Sci­ence and Law. In some con­trast, Luc Ferry’s The New Eco­log­i­cal Order (Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press, 1995) fears the new meta­physics. Cleav­ing to mod­ern ways, he believes “it will ulti­mately be by means of advance­ments in sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy that we man­age one day to resolve the ques­tions raised by envi­ron­men­tal ethics” (127). Nev­er­the­less, nei­ther doubt the path for­ward to be illu­mi­nated by a suit­ably refor­mu­lated techno-science.
  • 21Lynn White, Jr., “The His­tor­i­cal Roots of Our Eco­log­i­cal Cri­sis,” Sci­ence Mag­a­zine, 155:3767, argued for anthro­pocen­tric sin­gu­lar­ity of Chris­tian­ity and its atten­dant bequest of nature to man for fuel­ing techno-science that has caused the eco­log­i­cal cri­sis. In this sec­tion I focus on the meta­physics of mod­ern sci­ence. For a recent state­ment on how his­to­ri­ans of sci­ence who raise their heads from the dusty archives deal with the meta­physics of mod­ern sci­ence, see Lind­berg, The Begin­ning of West­ern Sci­ence (Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press, 1992), ch.14. He agrees with E.A. Burtt, The Meta­phys­i­cal Foun­da­tions of Mod­ern Sci­ence (New York: Dou­ble­day, 1932), whose judg­ment of the pre­sup­po­si­tions and impli­ca­tions of New­ton­ian mechan­ics has not been fun­da­men­tally chal­lenged. Han­nah Arendt, “The Con­quest of Space and the Stature of Man” in Between Past and Future (New York: Ran­dom Books, 1993) offers a suc­cinct sketch of the ground­less­ness pre­sumed by techno-science.
  • 22For a fuller account of the the­o­log­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal debates that pre­pared this view from nowhere, see Amos Funken­stein, The­ol­ogy and the Sci­en­tific Imag­i­na­tion, (Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press, 1986). It is he who names as sec­u­lar the­olo­gians, “Galileo and Descartes, Lieb­niz and New­ton, Hobbes and Vico” among oth­ers. I rely heav­ily on him (par­tic­u­larly part 5) and on Peter Dear, Dis­ci­pline and Expe­ri­ence: The Math­e­mat­i­cal Way in the Sci­en­tific Rev­o­lu­tion (Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press, 1995) to grasp the cen­tral lines in the math­ema­ti­za­tion of physis. Also con­sult Peter Dear’s text­book, Rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing the Sci­ences (Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press, 2001) cast as a pithy sum­mary of the seis­mic changes between 1500 and 1800 in what was worth know­ing and how it was known.
  • 23See A. Mark Smith’s “Know­ing things inside out: the sci­en­tific rev­o­lu­tion from a Medieval Per­spec­tive,” The Amer­i­can His­tor­i­cal Review, 95:3 (1990) for an excel­lent sum­mary on the rever­sal of the hier­ar­chy between sense and rea­son in mod­ern sci­en­tific thought. Also, con­sult Eamon Duffy, Sci­ence and the Secrets of Nature (Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press, 1994) for a per­sua­sive account of sci­en­tific exper­i­ments as vex­ing nature in order to extract her secrets.
  • 24To appre­ci­ate the brew of pride and char­ity that con­sti­tutes mod­ern techno-science we need only to attend to Descartes. “…It is pos­si­ble to reach knowl­edge that will be of much util­ity in this life… instead of the spec­u­la­tive phi­los­o­phy now taught in the schools we can find a prac­ti­cal one, by which, know­ing the nature and behav­ior of fire, water, air, stars, the heav­ens, and all the other bod­ies which sur­round us, as well as we now under­stand the dif­fer­ent skills of our arti­sans, we can employ these enti­ties for all the pur­poses for which they are suited, and so make our­selves mas­ters and pos­ses­sors of nature. This would not only be desir­able in bring­ing about the inven­tion of an infin­ity of devices to enable us to enjoy the fruits of agri­cul­ture and all the wealth of the earth with­out labor, but even more so in con­serv­ing health, the prin­ci­pal good and the basis of all other goods in life.” Rene Descartes, Dis­course on Method (Indi­anapo­lis: Library of Lib­eral Arts Press, 1960), part six.
  • 25The term con­struc­tion refers to things – whether phys­i­cal or sym­bolic – made. The math­e­mat­i­cal roots of con­struc­tion and con­struc­tivism are thor­oughly explored with spe­cial note of Descartes in David Lachter­man, The Ethics of Geom­e­tr (Lon­don: Rout­ledge 1989). Funken­stein, The­ol­ogy, espe­cially chap­ter 5, describes well the philo­soph­i­cal shift from the con­tem­pla­tive ideal of know­ing to the ideal of knowing-by-doing or made knowl­edge. A cur­sory glance at any sci­en­tific book should con­vince that “the­o­ret­i­cal con­structs” are a sta­ple of the mod­ern sci­en­tific enter­prise. Those (so-called post­mod­ern philoso­phers, his­to­ri­ans and soci­ol­o­gists of sci­ence) who think they chal­lenge techno-science by empha­siz­ing that sci­en­tific knowl­edge is con­structed only repeat in prose what Bacon, Gassendi, Galileo, Descartes, and New­ton said in verse. Those who think they defend sci­en­tific knowl­edge by invok­ing, as the last trump card, its tech­ni­cal pro­duc­tions merely recon­firm the found­ing con­ceit of mod­ern techno-science: that know­ing and mak­ing are interchangeable.
  • 26In this sec­tion I rely on the most exten­sive state­ment of Illich on crit­i­cal tech­nol­ogy, Tools for Con­vivi­al­ity (Lon­don: Mar­ion Boyars, 1973). Note espe­cially the Chap­ter 4, “Recov­ery” (84-99) call­ing for the demythol­o­giza­tion of sci­ence, the redis­cov­ery of lan­guage and the recov­ery of legal pro­ce­dure. He super­sedes this state­ment only in some respects with his later think­ing: on sys­tems; on the his­toric­ity of the instru­ment as a cat­e­gory; and the empha­sis on the sym­bolic power of technology.
  • 27Louis Dumont, Essays on Indi­vid­u­al­ism (Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press, 1983), shows pre­cisely the con­se­quences of attempts to recover the past, whose sig­nal dimen­sion has been the rel­a­tive embed­ded­ness of the indi­vid­ual within the social whole. To insist on recov­er­ing that past today is thus to court a species of inhu­man­ity the West­ern world has once already encoun­tered in the mid 20th century.
  • 28The chill­ing con­clu­sion of this con­fu­sion is the dis­hon­est sen­ti­men­tal­ism fos­tered in indus­trial soci­eties, to wit “that the val­ues which indus­trial soci­ety destroys are pre­cisely those which it cher­ishes” Ivan Illich, “Shadow Work” in Shadow Work (Lon­don: Mar­ion Boyars, 1981), 99. Thus, the rad­i­cal depen­dence on work pro­motes the cher­ished value of Freedom.
  • 29Ver­nac­u­lar comes from an Indo-Germanic root that implies ‘root­ed­ness’ and ‘abode.’ Ver­nac­u­lum as a Latin word was used for what­ever was home­bred, home­spun, home­grown, home­made, as opposed to what was obtained in for­mal exchange. The child of one’s slave and of one’s wife, the don­key born of one’s own beast, were ver­nac­u­lar beings, as was the sta­ple that came from the gar­den or the com­mons. If Karl Polanyi had adverted to this fact, he might have used the term in the mean­ing accepted by the ancient Romans: sus­te­nance derived from reci­procity pat­terns imbed­ded in every aspect of life, as dis­tin­guished from sus­te­nance that comes from exchange or from ver­ti­cal dis­tri­b­u­tion… We need a sim­ple adjec­tive to name those acts of com­pe­tence, lust, or con­cern that we want to defend from mea­sure­ment or manip­u­la­tion by Chicago Boys and Social­ist Com­mis­sars. The term must be broad enough to fit the prepa­ra­tion of food and the shap­ing of lan­guage, child­birth and recre­ation, with­out imply­ing either a pri­va­tized activ­ity akin to the house­work of mod­ern women, a hobby or an irra­tional and prim­i­tive pro­ce­dure. Such an adjec­tive is not at hand. But ‘ver­nac­u­lar’ might serve. By speak­ing about ver­nac­u­lar lan­guage and the pos­si­bil­ity of its recu­per­a­tion, I am try­ing to bring into aware­ness and dis­cus­sion the exis­tence of a ver­nac­u­lar mode of being, doing, and mak­ing that in a desir­able future soci­ety might again expand in all aspects of life.” Ivan Illich, “The War against Sub­sis­tence” in Shadow Work, 57-58. The argu­ment of this essay belies its title.
  • 30For the fol­low­ing sec­tion, I gloss “Ver­nac­u­lar Val­ues” and The War on Sub­sis­tence,” both in Illich, Shadow Work.
  • 31A more com­pre­hen­sive analy­sis of the themes in this sec­tion would include a selec­tive sur­vey on the his­tor­i­cal and anthro­po­log­i­cal lit­er­a­ture on ver­nac­u­lar ways and its destruc­tion. As a first ori­en­ta­tion to the exten­sive lit­er­a­ture on the war on the ver­nac­u­lar, con­sult Ivan Illich, Gen­der, (Berke­ley: Hey­day Press, 1982). The works of Karl Polanyi, pre­em­i­nently, The Great Trans­for­ma­tion, (NY: Rein­hart, 1944); but also the essays col­lected in Prim­i­tive, Archaic and Mod­ern Economies, ed. George Dal­ton, (NY: Anchor Books, 1968) and those in Trade and Mar­kets in Early Empires,eds. K. Polanyi, C. Arens­berg, and H. Pear­son (NY: The Free Press, 1957) clar­ify the his­toric­ity of commodity-intensive soci­eties, made vis­i­ble when nature and human action become widely priced as land and labor respec­tively. Mar­shall Sahlins in Stone Age Eco­nom­ics, (NY: Adline, 1972) and M.I. Fin­ley in The Ancient Econ­omy, (Berke­ley, Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 1985) con­firm that pre- mod­ern soci­eties, whether Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralia or West­ern Antiq­uity, got on quite well with­out it. Jacques Le Goff, in Medieval Civ­i­liza­tion, 400-1500 empha­sizes the aim of the medieval “econ­omy” as that of sub­sis­tence, of pro­vid­ing for neces­si­ties (Lon­don: Black­well, 1988). The con­tin­u­ing mod­ern war on sub­sis­tence and the resis­tance to it is well doc­u­mented. Con­sult for exam­ple, E.P. Thomp­son, “The Moral Econ­omy of the Crowd,” reprinted in The Essen­tial E.P. Thomp­son, ed. Dorothy Thomp­son (NY: The New Press, 2000), and the essays col­lected in Cus­toms in Com­mon (New York: New York Press, 1993); Eric Wolf, Peas­ant Wars of the 20th Cen­tury (NY: Harper & Row 1969), Teodor Shanin, The Awk­ward Class (Lon­don: Cam­bridge, 1977) and Sub­co­man­dante Insur­gente Mar­cos, Our Word is our Weapon (NY: Seven Sto­ries Press, 2001). James Scott, in See­ing Like a State (Prince­ton: Yale Uni­ver­sity, 1999) argues that vision­ary plans to mod­ern­ize soci­ety invari­ably fail and usu­ally leave their ben­e­fi­cia­ries worse off for the atten­tion. Study the key terms col­lected in The Devel­op­ment Dic­tio­nary, ed. Wolf­gang Sachs (NY: Zed Books, 1992) as com­mands that rally the troops to the war against subsistence.
  • 32Peter Linebaugh, Ned Ludd, Queen Mab: Machine Break­ing, Roman­ti­cism, and Sev­eral Com­mons 1811-12 (Oak­land: PM Press/Retort, 2012).
  • 33Con­sult the well-documented essay by Teodor Shanin, “Late Marx: Gods and Crafts­men” in Late Marx and the Russ­ian Road, ed. T. Shanin (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983), for a per­sua­sive case that “…to Marx, a timely rev­o­lu­tion­ary vic­tory could turn the Russ­ian com­mune into a major ‘vehi­cle of social regeneration.’”
  • 34This sec­tion is derived from Ivan Illich, “Research by Peo­ple” in Shadow Work (Lon­don: Mar­ion Boyars, 1981), and his unpub­lished man­u­script titled The Wis­dom of Leopold Kohr which makes ref­er­ence to the com­mon sense.
  • 35This sen­tence from the OED weakly sum­ma­rizes the fol­low­ing: “The senses per­ceive each other’s spe­cial objects inci­den­tally; not because per­cip­i­ent sense is this or that spe­cial sense, but because all form a unity: this inci­den­tal per­cep­tion takes place when­ever sense is directed at one and the same moment to two dis­parate qual­i­ties in one and the same object, e.g., to the bit­ter­ness and the yel­low­ness of bile…” De Anima, III, 425a 30-425b 1. And: “Fur­ther, there can­not be a spe­cial sense-organ for the com­mon sen­si­bles either, i.e, the objects which we per­ceive inci­den­tally through this or that spe­cial sense, e.g, move­ment, rest, fig­ure, mag­ni­tude, num­ber & unity…. In the case of the com­mon sen­si­bles, there is already in us a com­mon sen­si­bil­ity (or com­mon sense) which enables us to per­ceive them non-incidentally; there is there­fore no spe­cial sense required for their per­cep­tion,” De Anima, III 425a 15-26.
  • 36I do not fully explore here the trans­for­ma­tion from a fac­ulty into the “innate capac­ity” of any per­son to rea­son and judge cor­rectly after Descartes. The judg­ment of Funken­stein in The­ol­ogy, espe­cially page 359, is instruc­tive. He sug­gests that the “mil­i­tant, mis­sion­ary ideal” of edu­ca­tion over the 17th and 18th cen­turies is related to “the shift in the con­no­ta­tion of the term ‘com­mon sense.’” The con­no­ta­tions of the terms “le bon sens,” “gemeiner Men­schen­ver­stand,” and “com­mon sense” after the 17th cen­tury imply the capac­ity to be edu­cated; for all men to become philoso­phers. Indeed, the prop­a­ga­tion of a method for think­ing pre­sup­poses the com­mon­sense as that which is in need of edu­ca­tion. More recently, Sophia Rosen­feld, Com­mon Sense: A Polit­i­cal His­tory (Cam­bridge: Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Press, 2011) traces the twinned log­ics gen­er­ated by the degra­da­tion of com­mon sense from a fac­ulty. On the one hand, it serves as a touch­stone for the wis­dom of peo­ple against elites; on the other, the mul­ish­ness of the masses needed re-education. For a con­spec­tus of writ­ers on the com­mon sense con­sult, AN Foxe, The Com­mon Sense from Her­a­cli­tus to Pierce (Turn­bridge Press, 1962). It is how­ever frus­trat­ing for the lack of a bib­li­og­ra­phy and a his­tor­i­cally insen­si­tive read­ing of the authors sur­veyed. In con­trast, JL Beare, Greek The­o­ries of Ele­men­tary Cog­ni­tion from Alcemaeon to Aris­to­tle (Claren­don Press, 1926); WR Bundy, The The­ory of the Imag­i­na­tion in Clas­si­cal and Medieval Thought (Uni­ver­sity of Illi­nois Press, 1927); David Sum­mers, The Judg­ment of Sense (Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Press, 1987) are excel­lent treat­ments of the his­tory of the com­mon sense as fac­ulty from Aris­to­tle to the late Renais­sance when read seri­ally. See also E. Ruth Har­vey, The Inward Wits: Psy­cho­log­i­cal The­ory in the Mid­dle Ages and the Renais­sance (Lon­don, 1975); and HA Wolf­son, “The Inter­nal Senses in Latin, Ara­bic and Hebrew Philo­soph­i­cal Texts,” Har­vard The­o­log­i­cal Review, 25 (1935).
  • 37 Stan­ley Rosen, The Elu­sive­ness of the Ordi­nary (New Haven: Yale Uni­ver­sity Press, 2002) argues spirit­edly for the com­mon­sense foun­da­tions of thought. Such foun­da­tions sup­port but can­not rise to heights reached by extra­or­di­nary thought, which by neces­sity, exceed its grasp. In the so-called “sci­ence wars” of recent decades, the issue was framed as that between the social con­struc­tivists and the real­ists. In the light of the fore­go­ing dis­tinc­tion between con­cepts and con­structs, it is clear that both par­ties to the debate agree that sci­en­tific knowl­edge is made, that is to say, constructed.
  • 38 In much of his writ­ings, Illich insists on elab­o­rat­ing con­cep­tual dis­tinc­tions built on the per­cep­tion of autonomous human actions. Between Deschool­ing Soci­ety and The His­tory of Homo Edu­can­dus he con­trasts learn­ing to edu­ca­tion and school­ing; in Med­ical Neme­sis, between autonomous cop­ing and health­care; between Research by Peo­ple and R&D. In some cases, he invents or gives new shades of mean­ing to terms to recover per­cep­tions buried by con­structs – for exam­ple, dis­value, shadow work, gen­der and ver­nac­u­lar. Let the triple, hous­ing, dwelling, and habi­ta­tion stand as a par­al­lel exam­ple to trans­port, tran­sit, and traf­fic used in the text above. A gen­eral case for the com­mon­sen­si­cal Illich still awaits a care­ful exe­ge­sis of his texts.
  • 39 I take some lib­er­ties with inter­pret­ing The States­man, 283d-284e in Plato, Com­plete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Hack­ett Pub­lish­ing, 1997).The rel­e­vant dis­tinc­tion as described by the vis­i­tor reads as fol­lows: “It is clear that we would divide the art of mea­sure­ment, cut­ting it in two in just the way we said, post­ing as one part of it all sorts of exper­tise that mea­sure the num­ber, lengths, depths, breaths, and speeds of things in rela­tion to what is opposed to them, and as the other, all those that mea­sure in rela­tion to what is in due mea­sure, what is fit­ting, the right moment, what is as it ought to be-everything that removes itself from the extremes to the mid­dle” (384e).
  • 40 It is a weak recog­ni­tion of this hier­ar­chy that is reit­er­ated in the widely accepted dis­junc­tion or dis­con­ti­nu­ity between “sci­ence” and “values.”



10 years 9 months ago

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Submitted by fnbrill on October 27, 2013

Illich had a major influence on me, trying to understand the differences in world outlooks between pre-industrialized/capitalist European organization of society. That led both to the esoteric later marx that Franklin Rosemont discusses in "Marx and the Iroquois" but also William Morris' work which influenced the impossibilist/libertarian tendancies in marxism.