Thinking Time, Drinking Time: A Beginner’s Thought (1)


Somewhere in the world it’s 3 o’clock

Time to get out of school and think

Somewhere in the world it’s 5pm

And quittin time means it’s time to drink

—Boots Riley, lyrics from “Somewhere in the World It’s Midnight,” in Boots Riley: Tell Homeland Security—We Are the Bomb (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015)


Schools have failed our individual needs, supporting false and misleading notions of ‘progress’ and development fostered by the belief that ever-increasing production, consumption and profit are proper yardsticks for measuring the quality of human life. Our universities have become recruiting centers for the personnel of the consumer society, certifying citizens for service, while at the same time disposing of those judged unfit for the competitive rat race.

—Back-cover blurb on a paperbound re-edition of Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society (London: Marion Boyars, 2000)

By my own experience, Boots Riley’s lines about school and thinking are all too true. As I used to tell my own university students, I always learned far more despite school than because of it. Schools present themselves—and the people who work in them (most of whom are good enough, decent enough, caring enough people) typically have to buy the presentation—as places of learning. Schools also like to present themselves, above all to themselves, as devoted to teaching students to think, giving them “critical thinking” skills they can then use to go out and live rich lives of genuine self-awareness. Most schools and teachers would endorse Socrates’ dictum, “The unexamined life if not worth living,” and would claim that the purpose of good schooling is to give students what they need to live an examined, worthwhile life.

However, if we were to judge institutionalized schools and schooling in terms of what they do, rather than what they say, we would be driven to a very different conclusion, by my experience. We would be driven to the conclusion that the real purpose of institutionalized schools and schooling is to teach students not to think—not to dare to do so. In terms of the actual effect on students of being subjected to schooling for year after year from their early years to adulthood, we would have to say that schools do indeed “teach you to think,” but only in the same sense as that in which one might say to an unruly child, “I’ll teach you to sass me!” just before applying the rod the sparing of which the Bible tells us spoils that child. In saying such a thing, one is not promising to help the child acquire effective sassing skills. Rather, one is beginning to inflict punishment on the child for having just done some sassing, punishment designed to teach the child to refrain from doing any more sassing in the future. Judged by their deeds rather than their words, that’s precisely the sense in which schools “teach students to think.” All too many students learn the lesson all too well, though no fault of their own.

Insofar as that is the reality of schools and schooling, then the reality is also that in order to do any thinking, if one doesn’t want to get punished for it one is wise to wait till after the school-bell rings 3 o’clock, announcing the end of the school day. Only once the daily torture of school is finally over is it safe for students to think. Unfortunately, by then it’s unlikely many of them will have enough energy left to try very hard to think, even if despite school they have already somehow managed at least to begin to lean how to do so. About all they will be suited to do is drink—as many will learn soon enough just how to do.


I know that’s how school always was for me, at any rate. It was that way ever since my very first day in Kindergarten, which I hated with a passion. Kindergarten made me sick. At least that’s what I’d tell my Kindergarten teacher regularly—especially when she made the class play with some messy, oily clay, from which I recoiled as from excrement. For a while, when I’d leave the clay or other reeking pile of whatever we were made to foul ourselves with and go up to her desk to tell her I was sick to my stomach and needed to go home, she’d have the office call my mother, who’d come the mile from our suburban home to get me and deliver me from my bondage, at least for the rest of that day. Eventually, however, my Kindergarten teacher wised up to my ways. She scheduled a meeting with my mother, with me also to be present. At that meeting she told my mother, having made sure that I would be there to hear it too, that if I did not change my attitude toward school, I’d never even make it through first grade.

She was wrong. I knew that even when she said it, when I was only five. In fact, I never did change my attitude toward school. If anything, it just grew harder every year. Nevertheless, I not only made it through first grade, but through a whole bunch of other grades after that, long enough to get my Ph.D. degree. Then I even stayed in school forty-five years longer, having had to take on her role—a teacher in a school—myself, since it was the only way I could find to make a living doing what I found myself called to do. Thus, I ended up spending pretty much my whole life “making it” in school. I guess I showed her!

Anyway, reading Boots Riley’s lines above brought back for me all the memories of the years and years of dead and deadening boredom I used to experience in school when I was a child, and how I’d keep looking up at the clock on the wall, which never seemed to move. Each day, I had to endure such eternities till 3 o’clock finally set me free for a little while, so I could think. Yet even then I couldn’t really completely relax and think with full freedom, because the constant threat of having to go back the next day for further “schooling” (i.e., more torture) robbed even my after-school hours of truly free time—real time to think.

As a kid, I loved Saturdays. Saturdays were the closest I ever got to any of the carefree days that are so commonly and so falsely attributed to childhood. Saturday was the first of two whole days without school! Time I could use to read and think and do other things I wanted just because I wanted to!

But after Saturday came Sunday. No matter what thoughts I tried to milk on Sundays, the milk was always curdled by my underlying anxiety. I was never that fond of Sunday. Sunday was always poisoned by my knowing that the next day was Monday, and that then I would have to face five more endless days back in hell. Sundays were days ruined by that anxiety. It wasn’t till I learned to drink that I finally found a way to begin to appreciate Sundays.

To make all that abuse even more abusive, throughout all my schooldays nobody, of course, would ever even acknowledged the abuse that was being inflicting on me and all the other kids. That was not really the teachers’ and other immediate abusers’ fault, since it just went with them having been subjected to the same abuse themselves for so long, so unrelentingly, and so effectively over so many years. That long abuse had made them, regardless of their own desires and intentions, into the abuse-system’s unwitting accomplices. Their own histories of being abused had deadened them to all the abuse going on all around them, now being inflicted—often by their own unwitting hands—on all the new kids on the school-block (a block such as farmers use to cut the heads off chickens).

Thus, that schooling conditions students not to think has nothing essential to do with the conscious intentions of teachers as such. The intentions of those who get shanghaied for service as teachers in the schools of our consumer-production system are often tripped up and trapped by their own good qualities, such as a genuine desire to help children learn (teachers’ pay, after all, is hardly that great, so they’re not in it for the money). Rather, it has to do with the institution itself—which is anything but an institution where thought—or life, I will add—is sanctified.

My own long life in schools confirms what the Deschooling Society blurb above says: that “schooling” is really just pure conditioning, designed to turn out good little consumers—fodder for the market system. Boots Riley’s follow-up about quitting time meaning time to drink says the same thing, in high hip-hop style.

Deschooling Society first came out in the early 1970s, when I was already embarked on my own long career of university teaching, after having spent eighteen years of being schooled myself. I found my own way to it at a bookstore. It was a real gift to me. It showed me I was not alone—and not just some ungrateful whiner. It gave me just the sort of general diagnosis of my condition and its causes that reconfirmed for me just who—or, more precisely, what—I should hate.



            This means, above all, that our job is to think. As consumers of culture, we are lulled into passivity or, at best, prodded toward a state of pseudo-semi-self-awareness, encouraged toward either the defensive group identity of fandom or a shallow, half-ironic eclecticism. We graze, we binge, we pick up and discard aesthetic experiences as if they were cheap toys. Which they frequently are—mass-produced widgets from the corporate assembly line.

—A. O. Scott, “Everybody’s a Critic,” NY Times op-ed section for 1/31/16, adapted from his book Better Living through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth

A few years ago, the thought occurred to me that the next time someone asked me if I would mind a little helpful criticism, I would reply: “How would I know? I’ve never received any.” Unfortunately, nobody’s asked me that pseudo-question since then, so I have not yet had a chance to use that line—at least until now, in this post.

I can only hope that confessing to thinking such critical thoughts about criticism doesn’t expose me as having taken on the defensive group identity of fandom—or, even worse, put on full display my shallow, half-ironic eclecticism. I take pride in not being some mere consumer of culture, prodded toward a state of pseudo-semi-self-awareness, if not altogether lulled into pure passivity. I doubt that I could stand the humiliation if my criticism of criticism revealed me to be no better than one of those who graze among aesthetic experiences, bingeing on them, picking them up and then discarding them as though they were cheap toys. (If I have to binge, I’d rather just go back to bingeing on booze instead. That has its own honesty, and would at least allow me to preserve a modicum of self-respect.)

Be that as it may, I shudder to have to admit that from time to time I do indeed catch myself taking seriously some mass-produced widget from the corporate assembly line passing itself off as a work of art—just as I sometimes, to my shame, take seriously what is really no more than just such a widget passing itself off as a work of thought. Maybe not today, though.

But enough about me! (Or maybe not.)



To philosophize means to begin to think. We must always become beginners again. Those who hold themselves to be advanced easily fall prey to the danger of taking what they assume they already known to be no longer worthy of thought, and thus to hold themselves exempt from needing to begin. To begin means: every time to think every thought as though it were being thought for the first time.

—Martin Heidegger, Leitgedanken zur Enstehung der Metaphysik, der Neuzeitlichen Wissenschaft und der Modernen Technik (Gesamtausgabe 76, 2009), p. 54 (freely translated)

When I was fifteen, I taught myself enough German to be my family’s interpreter when we spent most of a month in Germany. My parents had managed to pay off the mortgage on our family home in Colorado a few years before. But they had taken out a new one just to finance a trip to Europe for themselves and me, the youngest of their three children and the only one still at home—a trip to Europe to visit my brother, who is three years older than I am. My brother had enlisted in the U. S. Army the year before. After boot camp and some extra army training, he had ended up in the Army Security Agency, for God knows what reason, and was stationed at Frankfurt am Main. He managed to get himself a one-month leave, and we drove all over the place in Western Europe crammed into the VW Bug he’d bought for himself while stationed there.

My family on both sides is mainly of German origin, and I’d long had a fascination with Germany and things German. So I had talked my parents into buying me a set of German language vinyl records, and I’d used them to get a beginner’s sense of the language. When the four of us went driving around Germany that summer, I was the one who asked for rooms at inns, meals from waiters in Bierstuben and other places we ate (including angering my brother at one stop when I ordered him a Pilsner beer, rather than a Lager), asking directions, and the like.

But I never really got a good reading knowledge of German, or mastery of German vocabulary much past guide-book level, until I finally got to graduate school, where I was enrolled in a Ph.D. program in philosophy that required a reading ability in two non-English languages, as demonstrated by results on the standardized Princeton ETS language exams of that age. Given my own interests in philosophy, the two languages that made the most sense were the two standard ones of German and French. I did the German first, then the French.

I went about both in the same way, starting with a vinyl record set for learning the language at issue, to get a sense of the grammar, basic vocabulary, and sound of the language. (For the German, I just had to brush up some, since I’d already done the record thing when I was fifteen.) Then I’d get myself a dictionary for translating the language into English, and start reading through some work of philosophy in that language, a work of my own selection. When I started my reading, going was very slow indeed. But by the time I’d finished my selected book, I was ready to take—and ace—the standardized language exam.

For French, I used a book containing Descartes’ Discourse on Method and his Meditations. After scoring well on the standardized language test, I promptly forgot my French, since my philosophical interests didn’t really give me any special reason back then for continuing to read philosophy written in French. What was available in English translations was sufficient for my purposes, and I never went back to French until our daughter did me the favor of marrying a Frenchman. That gave me incentive to teach myself French again, going about it my same old, proven way—only this time I used CDs, rather than vinyl records. Since then, I regularly read philosophy works in French, both to keep my language skills up, and so that I’m not at the mercy of the translation-industry and its market-driven widget-making decisions.

For German, I used Heidegger’s Holzwege, a collection of essays he’d published at the beginning of the 1950s. It contains his famous lecture “Vom Wesen des Kunstwerkes” (“On the Origin of the Work of Art”), which he originally delivered back in 1935. When I first read it in Holzwege, it was still a few years before that lecture was first published in an English translation by Albert Hofstadter. By the time I and my Langenscheidt’s German-English dictionary were done with Holzwege, I could read German. At least I could read philosophical German, stuff like Heidegger’s Zur Sache des Denkens, which came out in the original German version just a couple of years later (it was eventually translated by Joan Stambaugh and published by Harper under the title On Time and Being), or Kant’s Grundlegung der Metaphysics der Sitten (Foundations–or Groundwork/s—of the Metaphysics of Morals). But when it came to reading the daily newspaper, I still had to use my Langenscheidt’s. I had far less trouble reading Kant in German on the transcendental unity of apperception in his Critique of Pure Reason than I did reading the appeal in the local paper for help finding the lost dog who’d jumped over the fence in some Frankfurt suburb, for example.

As I’ve already mentioned, because I had no ongoing use of my own for it at the time, I soon forgot the French that I taught myself in the first place only in order to jump over one of the hurdles the school I attended made me jump over to get my Ph.D. degree, so I could start to sell myself for money. But when my daughter married a Frenchman and I went back through the very same process to teach myself to read French again, I retained what I’d learned, and have been able to keep my reading knowledge of French current ever since. That is precisely because I want to retain it. I want to, in turn, because I have a French son-in-law, of course, but even more (he’s fluent in English) because I have interests that send me regularly to read stuff in French philosophy before it gets translated into English—if it ever does, since quite a bit of what I find most interesting doesn’t seem to fit the market needs of the current crop of translation publishers.

The German I taught myself by reading Heidegger has stayed with me ever since I first learned it. The timing of my thereby teaching myself to read German was in part dictated by the same need to jump a hurdle my school made me jump before it would finally let me get out of school after all the years I had to be in it. But that really only played a secondary role, even in terms of timing. That’s because by then I was already hooked on Heidegger, including knowing I wanted to do my Ph.D. dissertation on his thought. At the time, not all that much of Heidegger had been translated into English. So I knew I’d need to learn to read him in German.

In fact, had I not had to jump over a number of other hurdles my school also put in the way of people like me getting out of school as quickly as possible, without being penalized for the rest of our lives because we left—the way that those who just can’t stand more abuse drop out of high school are made to pay the penalty for their sassing the school system by dropping out that way: the penalty of dead-end jobs for unconscionably low pay—I’d have probably taught myself to read Heidegger in German even earlier than I did. I’ve read (and reread) Heidegger in German ever since I taught myself to read German by reading him. I continue regularly to read him in German to this day, and plan to continue to do so till death or senility stops me.

I read Heidegger in German even when there are English translations of what I’m reading available. He’s better in German. That’s just another thing I learned despite all my schooling.

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To be continued.

Pimps and Pushers

I am interrupting my series on “Sanctifying Life” with this brief (for me) post, to get it off my chest and desk (or at least computer).

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The campaign to defeat a proposal for a single-payer health insurance system in Colorado is kicking off Thursday with some high-profile leaders.

Walker Stapleton, the Republican state treasurer, and Bill Ritter, a Democrat, will co-chair what is being billed as a bipartisan campaign to oppose Amendment 69.

The opposition strategy will be outlined during a morning news conference at the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, which also is contributing campaign contributions.

One prominent target: the cost.

—David Olinger, “Single-payer opponents mobilze,” Denver Post 01/28/16

What we have here in the United States is not a health-care system, but a health-sale system. We have a system based on making profit out of the sale of goods and procedures we are led to believe are essential to procure for ourselves so we don’t get sick–which is how the health-sale system has conditioned us to regard “health” itself: as no more than the absence of illness.

The thought that what we have here in the United States is a system for health-sale rather than health-care came to me during my shower just this morning, Thursday, January 28, 2016. As usual, I took my shower after eating breakfast, drinking a few cups of coffee, and reading the morning newspaper to get my adrenalin flowing.

In this morning’s Denver Post I came across the news article from which I have taken the lines above. In my mind, that article connected up with recent reports I’ve seen both in the paper and on TV about Hilary Clinton’s recent attacks on Bernie Sanders’s proposal for a so called “single-payer” health insurance program at the national level—despite Clinton herself having proposed just such a system when she was First Lady, as she has made a point of reminding voters herself.

Where’s Ivan Illich, just when we need him most? In the grave, unfortunately. That’s where he ended up after putting not his money but his very life where his mouth had been—and his pen too, back in the 1970s, when he published Medical Nemesis.

Talk about cost! That was just what Illich did in that book. Only he talked about the overall social cost of the rampant medicalization, specialization, technologization, and scienticization of health care. Illich argued—with lots of data to back up his already persuasive basic argument—that the institutionalization of health care beyond a certain minimum point ended up becoming “specifically counterproductive.” That is, pursued past that break point, the overall cost to society as a whole of such high-tech medicalization of health care ended up becoming ever greater, the more the whole business was allowed to keep going. But Illich was not focused on the cost of health care reckoned in dollars and cents. His focus was not on how much money had to come out of the pockets of those who had some to keep the whole thing running, but instead on what the costs were in terms of health itself. Pursued past the break point he was talking about, so he argued, the medical pursuit of health ended up making people less rather than more healthy. The whole so-called “health-care” system ended up making the people as a whole sicker, not healthier. That’s what Illich meant by saying the whole system had become “specifically counterproductive.” He meant that something the supposed goal, purpose, or end of which was health ended up generating the opposite of health. So the more one invested in the system supposedly designed to produce health not only didn’t deliver that product, but actually produced the opposite. To put it one way, the “health-care” system “took care” of our health, all right—the same way Vito Corleone took care of those who crossed him.

If you’re interested, you should read Illich’s book. (Then read his others, which concern such matters as schooling, generating energy, and going places rapidly.)

At any rate, when Illich eventually came down with cancer, he declined the surgical intervention that might well have kept him above ground for a number of years longer. That’s what I meant when I said he put his very life where his mouth was—and had been for a long time, in fact.

I can’t imagine a healthier—as well as more socially conscious and responsible—thing for him to have done!



After Genocide and Juice came out, I had this interaction with him. Ice Cube and OutKast were doing a show at the Warfield and I think I was back there and I was saying what’s up to Cee Lo. Then Ice Cube saw me and said, “Hey Boots, come here, I’ve got to tell you something.” And so I walked over to him and he was like, “Your music is very impressive, your work is very impressive.” And then he turned his head as if he was looking to see who else was listening, “But let me tell you something. It’s all about making that money.” And then he walked away. So I don’t know what, maybe he thought he was looking out for me. If you look at what he did during that time, he definitely was following his own advice. But so that was a strange interaction and it didn’t necessarily feel good. But of course, I still hung on to him saying that my work was very impressive as being the highlight. I think that I definitely wouldn’t mind being able to make money from what I am doing, but my reason for getting involved in the first place was something more than that.

—Boots Riley, writing about how Ice Cube significantly influenced his own work, in Boots Riley: Tell Homeland Security—We Are the Bomb (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015, p. 59)

It’s so easy to sell out! We can do it without even knowing we are doing it. It’s hard not to. All the rewards of selling out are constantly and everywhere paraded before us, so that it’s hard to resist. The costs of selling out are carefully hidden from us, and all we can see are the shiny lures—all the money, reputation, power, or simply the sense of security—that the pimps hold out to us. We can have it all, they tell us, if we will just accept whatever they’re pushing.

Another book you should read if you’re interested is the collection of Boots Riley’s lyrics and writings that recently came out, the one the lines above come from. If you do, one thing you’ll find there is the following passage, which actually reminds me of Illich and his analyses of medical and other nemeses (as well as reminding me of various other people and things, including Heidegger and technology). Boots is writing about his song “The Gods of Science,” which The Coup performs on their 2012 album, Sorry to Bother You:

The song is about how the Gods of Science have spoken. The Gods of Science are the ruling class under this system and the last line is: “We’ll get science for the people when we run the economics.” So I think that there are probably a lot of really great areas that science could move to, but when it’s run by folks who have profit as their bottom line or making a more efficient system for profit as their bottom line, we aren’t going to explore other areas. I mean, look at everything that we have that we’re able to do. The things that we’ve invented are the things that were in science fiction books when we were kids, and the reason that they’ve been invented is because they were imagined first in those science fiction books. And why were those things the things that were imagined? It has to do with the way the world was at the time, so when, if there is something that’s imagined that could be of benefit . . . I don’t know, some people talk about scientific development that could help feed the world, we just need to have a system in which food doesn’t get thrown away, you know, and in which it doesn’t cost money to be able to survive. The “Gods of Science” is about the gods that scientific funders have to pray to, or people who need scientific funding have to pray to.

I’m not pimping for Boots Riley or The Coup. And I’m not pushing any music. Not that I’d mind getting a few bucks coming my way for my work, but that’s not why I do it. Especially not now that I’m retired from the profession, and no longer have to make my living by doing for money what should only be done for love.

Shattering Silence of Peace (3)

. . . aren’t the new dead everywhere, on all sides, in every nation? Should I harden myself against the Russians because there are Jews, against the Chinese because they are far away, against the Germans because they are possessed by the devil? Can’t I still belong to all of them, as before, and nevertheless be a Jew?

— Elias Canetti, The Human Province, from a note written in 1944


Just this year of 2015 Fordham University Press brought out an English translation of a book by Jean-Luc Nancy that was first published in France three years earlier, in 2012, a book that addressed the disaster of the tsunami that hit the Fukushima nuclear power plant a year before that, in March 2011. The original French title of Nancy’s book was L’Equivalence des catastrophes (après Fukushima), which in the English translation by Charlotte Mandell reversed the two parts of Nancy’s title, eliminated the parentheses, and added a colon, becoming After Fukushima: The Equivalence of Catastrophes.

I imagine that those changes to the book’s title were made for commercial reasons, but they seem to me to distort things. First of all, they make it look as though Nancy’s primary concern is the still recent disaster at the Fukushima power plant. In the title of the original French edition, however, not only does reference to Fukushima belong to the second part of the title, not the first, but it is also placed in parentheses to emphasize its subordination to the first part of the title—and with no colon between the two parts, a mark that is itself suggestive of an equivalence of the what precedes that with what follows after it.

The reversal of the two parts of the title in the English edition, coupled with the removal of the parentheses and the substitution of a colon, makes Fukushima occupy first place and center-stage. That may indeed sell more copies of the book, but it is likely also to add to the very confusion Nancy is struggling to dispel. For him, the Fukushima disaster is really just a lens through which he focuses his real concern in the book, which is on what’s named in the other part of his title—the first part in the French edition, but made to take second place, like an afterthought, in the English one.

After all, if the Fukushima disaster reveals something such as “the equivalence of catastrophes,” then part of what it reveals is that the disaster at Fukushima in 2011 is interchangeable with one or more other disasters. Thus, one could imagine Nancy writing the book using, perhaps, Three Mile Island or Chernobyl as his focusing example, if the “equivalence” at issue has something to do only with disasters at nuclear installations. Or he might have used just any old disaster—say the fire bombing of Dresden by Allied bombers during World War II, or the American massacre at My Lai during the Vietnam war, or the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE—if it doesn’t. At any rate, going by the remainder of the title (the part besides “after Fukushima,” whether that itself comes after or before the rest, in parentheses or out of them, and with or without a colon between), he could have used any disaster that does counts by his analysis as “equivalent” to the 2011 one at Fukushima.

What’s more—and more importantly—there is a rich ambiguity to Nancy’s title pertaining especially to how one takes the phrase, “the equivalence of catastrophes.” That phrase can be read in at least three different ways.

“The equivalence of catastrophes” could mean, for one thing, that the catastrophes at issue are equivalent to one another, such that the disaster at Fukushima would count as “equivalent to” the earlier ones at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, for example, or to whatever other disasters are at issue.

“The equivalence of catastrophes” could also be taken quite differently, however. It could be taken to mean the equivalence that catastrophes such as Fukushima themselves generate, as it were: How Fukushima and other disasters like it (so: “equivalent disasters,” in the first sense of the phrase at issue) make other things (maybe everything else) equivalent—as a nuclear disaster, for instance, reduces everything within its range to cinders, let’s say.

Finally, “the equivalence of catastrophes” could mean what might be called “catastrophic equivalence.” That is, the phrase could be read as what grammarians call a “subjective genitive,” so that it means “catastrophes’ equivalence.” By such a reading “the equivalence of catastrophes” would be taken to mean the equivalence that belongs to catastrophes of the sort at issue, rather than meaning, say, “catastrophes, those equivalent things,” which would be the first reading again (just as “the house of John” could be taken to mean “John’s house,” rather than, say, “John, the house”).

Thus, by the third reading “the equivalence of catastrophes” would mean an equivalence that itself generates catastrophes, by a sort of inversion of the first sense I just suggested. This third reading would point to some sort of catastrophe generating equivalence, some sort of equivalence that, as such, generates catastrophes (presumably including generating the one at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011).

In fact, Nancy is concerned with the intertwining of all three: the catastrophic equivalence that makes all catastrophes equal in destructive potential.   But it is above all toward the equivalence of catastrophes in the third sense that his analysis drives the reader—at least so did the reading of his book drive me, when I first read it just a couple of weeks ago, after it came out in English.

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What history shows us of gender-based societies, that is, societies that operate “under the sign of gender,” as Ivan Illich puts it in the passage from Gender I used as the second epigraph to my immediately preceding post, are predominantly if not exclusively societies in which women are made “subordinate” to men, as Illich also puts it. That is, in the recorded human past—which is what we mean by history, in the sense that “historians” concern themselves with it—gender-based societies have institutionalized inequality between the genders, where that word gender means what Illich calls an “asymmetrically complementary duality,” the duality, namely, of the “feminine” and the “masculine.”

Inequality is not to be endured. It is to be eliminated.

However, to eliminate an inequality is not to erase all differences, or to pretend that there are none. Far from it! It is to acknowledge, recognize, honor, and celebrate differences. For straights to treat gays as equals, for example, is not for the former to treat the latter as just more members of some snot-slinging, belching, skirt-chasing, gun-toting band of macho brethren—incorporating gays into straight wolf packs, as it were. It is not to deny, overlook, or hide the differences between gays and straights, but rather to acknowledge and attend to them, letting them “come out of the closet.” It is, in short, to let them be, in an active sense: to say Amen! So be it! to all the differences, and not to subject any one any longer to subordination to any other.

Equivalence is interchangeability. If two things are equivalent, then they are interchangeable, which is to say freely substitutable one for the other. Each of two equivalents—for example, the quantity (20-18) and the quantity (1+1)—can be substituted for the other in any given structure to which both belong, without the substitution changing the structure as a whole.

If, for example, all guinea pigs are equivalent when it comes to being beloved pets, then if one’s beloved guinea pig—let’s call that dear one “Fluffy”—were to die, then all one would need to do is go out and buy any other guinea pig as a substitute. If Fluffy goes belly-up on you, no problem! Just go out and get yourself another Fluffy!   Just buy another guinea pig and give it that same name, and everything will once again be “copacetic,” as used to be said.

Thus, establishing equivalence between two things is allowing each to substitute for, to take the place of, the other. Right legs, however, cannot substituted for, or take the place of, left legs. Right legs and left legs are not equivalent. Modern prosthetics takes that very lack of interchangeability into account, producing prosthetic legs of both sorts, right and left, rather than just producing one product that will substitute equally well for either leg, as in the old days of peg-legs such as Captain Ahab’s in Moby Dick.

In a situation already marked by institutionalized inequalities between two or more groups of people all of whom truly are equal in dignity and worth—as are men and women, or gays and straights, or Germans, Jews, Russians, and Chinese—confusing equality with equivalence can only result in a situation in which the already present in-equalities are entrenched ever more deeply and secured by ever more fully impregnable borders. The most truly impregnable of all borders, in fact, are precisely those that are no longer even visible as borders, but are simply accepted by everyone as defining the field of vision and movement—constituting the very world itself, such that it is no longer even possible so much as really to imagine anything different.   Kierkegaard said ago that the very deepest, most utterly, truly hopeless state of despair—the very etymological meaning of which is to be without hope, from Latin de-, “without,” and sperare, “to hope”—is that in which one does not even know any longer that one is in despair. When equality gets confused with equivalence, in a state where forms of subordination and dominance, the denial of equality, have already been institutionalized, then all real equality has truly been utterly despaired of. What looks like equality under such a desperate condition is really just the final closing of all borders against it.

Such equivalence is catastrophic.

*     *     *     *     *    *

Money is the general equivalent in terms of which everything can be assigned a value relative to all other things, so that interchange of those things can occur without bounds. All economies, whether cast in terms of production or consumption, are systems for the circulation of such unbounded interchange.

To be given a price, which is to say assigned a monetary value so that it can enter into such an economic system of circulation, is to be stripped of all worth. What has only a value, has no worth.* It can be replaced by anything else of equal value, with no resulting loss.

If people can be bought and sold, it is only insofar as they have been deprived of their own dignity, stripped of their own worth. Just to the extent that people are interchangeable one with another, each person is worthless. When all are without worth, one’s as good as the other. They are all the same: equivalent in their worthlessness, even as their value fluctuates with the market (after all, the price of slaves in the slave-market varies from slave to slave, as does the pay of the worker from worker to worker in the labor-market).

If, on the other hand, each and every single person (or, for that matter, beloved guinea pig) is irreplaceable, then each and every one has a worth that is strictly speaking incalculable: Worth is not a matter of calculation, only value is. Worth can only be esteemed, not estimated. In that sense, we could also say, correlatively, that value, which is just what can be counted and therefore estimated, is nevertheless—and precisely as being subject to estimation—in-esteem-able: Value is not a matter of esteem at all, but just of calculation. What has value has its price, but what has worth is “priceless,” as we rightly say. Thus, if each and every person has worth, which is to say each and every one of them is priceless, then none of them is any better or worse than any other, one’s as good as the other. They are all the same: equally priceless, available to no market (for example, though there can be a market for guinea pigs, there can be no market for Fluffys—or Janes or Jameses).

So whether it is a matter of equivalence or of equality, people are all the same. That sameness is incomparably different in the two cases, however.   Papering over that difference, making equality equivalent to equivalence, itself fosters sameness of the first sort, the sameness of equivalence. Yet it does so only at the cost of altogether undercutting sameness of the second sort, the sameness of equality.

That making equivalent of equivalence and equality is itself a catastrophic equivalence: an equivalence that engenders catastrophes.

*     *     *     *     *     *

It is in the nature of the economy, at least of the money-based modern economic system of commodity and service interchange, to go global. Exchange as such knows no limits within which it naturally confines itself. Of its nature, we might say, it has no natural limits, but rather just keeps on expanding, until and unless it runs up against some non-economic barrier it cannot overcome. Then it just collapses, since it belongs to its very nature always to expand, always just to keep the interchanges not only going but also always growing, and if it can no longer do that, it can no longer be.

Nietzsche said that life never attains any steady state. Always life is either growing, or else it is dying; it never just maintains itself at any given level. In that way, life, we could say today, is like the global market economy, which is always either growing or diminishing, and can never strike some balance point beyond which it just stays steady. The nature of life, however, is such that when life hits a limit in one of its forms, life can trans-from itself, then keep on growing in its new form—biting the head off any black snake of limits that may crawl into its mouth   The economy, however, is no living thing. It cannot transform itself. When it comes up against a limit to its continuing growth, all it can do is shatter.

In going global and then going on, the economy enmeshes all things ever more deeply with one another in and across global networks of exchange and interchange. All we need to do to confirm that is open any daily paper, online or in print, to the business section, and at a glace we can see how what happens anywhere on the globe has an impact on the worldwide economy, as expressed in global stock-market fluctuations. Accordingly, what used to be local catastrophes cease to be local at all any longer, but have globally catastrophic impact. The very boundary between local and global catastrophe gets washed out, as does the one between “natural” catastrophes and “man-made” ones—which latter boundary has always been somewhat porous anyway: for example, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE would not have been so catastrophic, had a bunch of Romans not chosen to live in such close-by places as Pompeii and Herculaneum.

In his reflections after the 2011 disaster at the Fukishima nuclear power station, Nancy tries to call our attention to all that.

*     *     *     *     *     *

What Jean-Luc Nancy tries to call to our attention in his book pertaining to Fukushima is really the same thing that Ivan Illich tries to call to our attention not only in Gender but also in most of his works. Both Illich and Nancy try to call to our attention how catastrophic our entire economic system” (as well as the entirety of our “politics,” which has become nothing more than the pursuit of the economy by other means, we might add), based as it is on what might well be called “the rule of equivalence” is. It has been catastrophic, that is, generative of catastrophes, from the very start, since to generate catastrophes is nothing less than the very mechanism of its growth—a growth that could belong to no living thing, but only to something man-made.

However, in this age of the equivalence of all things, including men and women, an age in which the typically masculine fear of fear itself at last comes out permanently on top, such calls upon our attention really accomplish no purpose. They are as useless as my daughter’s now long-dead childhood pet guinea pig, Fluffly. So far as it comes to effecting significant changes in the global system, such calls cannot but fall on deaf ears.

They do nothing but break the peace, shattering the silence.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Still more to come, in my next post.

* That’s how I will here use the terms value and worth, at any rate: to mark the difference at issue. Others may prefer other ways of marking that difference. In the end, how we choose to mark the difference at issue makes no difference, just so long as the difference itself gets clearly marked, and remembered—the difference between what I’m here calling value and what I’m here calling worth.

Shattering Silence of Peace (2)

The basic ontogenetic insecurity of males, beginning in the womb amid the mother’s threatening female hormones, is matched by their phylogenetic insecurity. Males are expendable for the good of the species. Intraspecific male-with-male combat, however furious, is normally ceremonial rather than lethal and often effects territorial distancing. This distancing reduces intense individual interaction, thereby among human beings giving more play to the “objective” elements in conscious attention. The corresponding relatively nonceremonial character of combat in females tends to be either perfunctory or furiously real. Masculinity often leans toward braggadocio. Males feel a defensive need to advertise the female as the “weaker sex,” which basically means weaker in ceremonial combat and all that it entails, for in other arenas the female is probably the stronger. . .

— Walter J. Ong, Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness


While under the sign of gender women might be subordinate, under any economic regime they are only the second sex. They are forever handicapped in games where you play for genderless stakes and either win or lose. Here, both genders are stripped and, neutered, the man ends up on top.

— Ivan Illich, Gender

Like the male ego and the capitalist economy, the modern state is founded on fear. All three are founded on the same fear, one fear in particular. In a famous line from a speech he gave in the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” For the male ego, the capitalist economy, and the modern state, that is more than enough. It is specifically that fear—the very fear of fear itself—that founds all three.

To say the same thing differently, and to carry it one step further, the male ego, the capitalist economy, and the modern state are all three founded on the denial and repression of fear itself, specifically on the denial and repression of that fear that is literally root-fear itself, the very root of fear as such: the fear of death. The modern state, the capitalist economy, and the male ego are all three alike founded on the denial and repression of the fear of death.

*     *     *     *     *     *

“From death, from the fear of death, arises all knowledge of the All.”

That is the opening line of Franz Rosenzweig’s introduction to the first part of his great work, The Star of Redemption, first published in German in 1921. What he means by “knowledge of the all” (Erkennen des All) is the presumption to be able to know it, the claim that it is possible to have such knowledge, as the title he gives his introduction makes clear: “Über die Möglichkeit, das All zu erkennen,” “On the Possibility of Knowing the All.”

In a class once, one of my philosophy professors in graduate school defined philosophy itself as “the attempt to give a rational account of all things.” Even back then, that was not what I meant by that word, though I certainly acknowledged then, and still do, that such a definition captures well enough the sense of the term insofar as philosophy takes itself to be what gives birth to what we call “science,” which in the whole is just such an attempt, one “to give a rational account of all things.”

That is also the sense Rosenzweig gives the word in The Star of Redemption—“philosophy” in a sense that he contests in that work. That is philosophy insofar as it “takes it upon itself to throw off the anxiety of earthly existence, to take away from death its poison sting, from Hades its pestilential breath,” as he puts it in the third sentence of the book.

It is nothing but a delusion that such knowledge of the all is even possible, and a dream born of that delusion that through such knowledge “man” might eventually be able to establish “dominion and control” over nature, as Descartes states to be the aim of the “method” he recommends be adopted in his Discourse thereon. That is, to return to Rosenzweig’s terms, it is delusional to think that earthly life can ever be made impervious to anxiety, death deprived of its sting, or hell of it stench.

*     *     *     *     *     *

In my immediately preceding post, the first in this present series under the general title, “Shattering Silence of Peace,” I addressed the process of transition that Walter J. Ong, following Roger Callois, traces in The Presence of the Word: the transition from a society in which war is taken as the rule and peace as the exception, to one in which peace is taken as the rule and war as the exception. As I also already suggested in my preceding post, that process could well be called one of general “de-polemicization.”

What above all gets “de-polemicized” in the process at question is nature—understood as Aristotle understood physis, from which we get our English word “physics,” in opposition to techne, whence come such English words as “technique,” “technical,” and “technology.” War (Greek polemos) gets removed from nature as Aristotle defined that latter notion, namely, as that from which comes whatever emerges of itself and serves no purpose—whatever is an “end in itself,” to use a traditional but distorting way of putting it. War is torn out of nature so conceived and delivered over instead into the domain of the technical, in the broad sense of that which must be made, to serve a purpose.

When peace gets thus cast as the underlying rule and war as the interruptive exception, nature herself ceases to be defined by war any longer. Instead, nature comes to be cast as the place of a sort of original peace. In turn war, removed from nature, becomes itself something essentially “man-made.” War becomes something men wage against one another, instead of belonging to the very nature of nature herself.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Combining what Ong writes in The Presence of the Word with what he writes more than a decade later in Fighting for Life, from which my first epigraph for today’s post is taken, discloses that the process of de-polemicizing nature intersects with another process, that of the de-ceremonializing of war and combat—that is, the de-ceremonializing of the polemical as such. Thus, at the same time war undergoes a process whereby it ceases to belong to nature (physis) and instead becomes something artificial (a matter of techne), war also undergoes a process whereby it becomes less and less ceremonial.

Perhaps that intersection of the two processes of the de-polemicization of nature, on the one hand, and the de-cermonialization of war, on the other, can be at least partially accounted for in terms of what Ong sketches out in my epigraph passage about the thoroughly hostile character of the maternal womb for males of the species—about “[t]he basic ontogenetic insecurity of males, beginning in the womb amid the mother’s threatening female hormones.” Talk of nature herself as a “womb”—as in “the womb of nature”—is an old commonplace.

Perhaps, then, the very ascription of polemos to nature in the first place derives from the predominately male experience of the natural, maternal womb. It would then be expressive not of anything itself “natural” to all premodern societies, but only to so called “patriarchal” ones. To the both ontogenetically and phylogenetically indispensable female of the species, the natural, maternal womb is not such an utterly anxiety-provoking place as it is to the ontogenetically and phylogenetically expendable male. (No wonder we men would want to develop the technology for making “test-tube babies”! We can control a test-tube womb!)

Precisely in becoming something man-made, rather than something belonging to nature herself (the pronoun is telling here, and I have been trying to be consistent in using it: “nature herself”), war ceases to be something against which man must be so driven to build a shelter for himself, a buffer against the hostile environment of nature, that womb. But such shelter and buffering is just what the ceremonialization of the polemical so typical of male combat provides for the genetically insecure male psyche, the psyche that so desperately feels itself in need of them. As Ong describes in such passages of Fighting for Life as the one I’ve used in my epigraph, the “ceremonial” nature of “infraspecific male to male combat”—which is to say man-made “polemics,” or “warfare” in the broadest sense— has precisely the effect of “distancing” the combatants to provide such accommodations.

*     *     *     *     *

As Ong remarks a bit later in the same passage, “Masculinity often leans toward braggadocio.” “Braggadocio,” it bears noting, is a way of posturing, of puffing oneself up like a cat upset by an intruder on its territory. It is only when fluffing up no longer works to keep the intruder at a distance that the catfight begins. In contrast to feline fur-fluffing, however, bragging is a distinctively linguistic activity. Thus, it is only when the boastful words stop flying that the fists start to do so—or the swords to start cutting, the guns to start shooting, the bombs to start dropping, or the like.

Thus, the ceremonialization of warfare guards against the very lethality of war between men. However, if in the very process of what we might well call being “de-natured”— that is, taken out of nature and turned over into men’s hands—war is also de-ceremonialized, then war is loosed from all the restrains with which either artificial ceremonies for distancing and posturing, or natural tendencies for keeping combat perfunctory and brief, guard against war automatically escalating into something lethal whenever it occurs. In being loosed from its ceremonial constraints, having already been loosed from any natural restraints, war is thus freed from all bounds. It is set free to become boundless.

All wars now threaten to become total war. At least in terms of their potential lethality, an equivalence of wars is established.

*     *     *     *     *    *

The process of taking polemos out of the womb of nature and putting it into the hands of man pacifies both nature and the feminine, turning the maternal womb from the scariest of all places for men into something they can handle—indeed, into something that now “nurtures” them, rather than subjecting them to wave after wave of lethal assault. As part of that, women in a man’s world get treated as delicate, requiring masculine “protection” in exchange for all their nurturing: Women become “the weaker sex,” as Ong notes.

Pushed to its limit, this pacification—what we might well call the literal dis-em-powerment—of nature and the feminine as such eventually results in just the sort of situation Ivan Illich describes in my second epigraph for today’s post. That is a situation in which the liberation of women from domination by men comes to present itself as though such liberation were a mater of establishing an equivalence between men and women, but in which that equivalence itself is defined in exclusively masculine terms that, however, can no longer even be acknowledged as such. What is characteristically masculine—in all its from-the-womb anxiety-ridden insecurity—comes to be universalized, which is to say counted as universally true for all human beings without exception. In that sense the masculine gets “neutered,” as Illich puts it. That is, what is really essentially masculine is no longer given as just one side of what Illich, as I’ve discussed in my earlier series of posts on “The Traumatic Word, calls an “asymmetrically complementary duality,” but is instead counted as the unquestioned, exclusively definitive ideal for all, to such a degree that it is no longer even visible as only one side of an irreducible duality.

Thus, equivalence between men and women is projected solely in terms that actually only ensconce the now “neutered” man in a position of dominance that can no longer even be acknowledged, since the very words of acknowledgement have been repressed beyond recall.   In every position that might be adopted after that, “the man ends up on top,” as Illich indecorously but accurately puts it.

*     *     *     *     *     *

We might put Illich’s general point this way: Establishing equivalence is anything but establishing genuine equality, since the very measure of equivalence is determined by only one side of an asymmetrically complementary duality.

Equivalence turns out to be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution—to use a current commonplace of which I’m fond. Indeed, equivalence turns out to be a hardening of the problem itself, what we might well call a petrifaction of the problem, a literal turning of it into stone. Equivalence thus provides a rock-hard organ to penetrate all resistance and guarantee perpetual dominance. Now the man can always stay on top.

(Finally! A safe place at last for all of us who are so constitutionally insecure!)

*     *     *     *     *     *

To be continued again.

Published in: on April 7, 2015 at 10:29 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Traumatic Word (5)

Though for the word’s own sake I could still say much more, this is the final post of my series on “The Traumatic Word.”

*     *     *     *     *     *

It is human to see the world made up of three kinds of things: food, proscribed edibles, and non-food. For a Hindu pork is taboo, not so begonias. These he has never thought of eating. By eating pork, he loses caste. If, however, he joins an Indio from central Mexico eating begonia flowers not he, but the world around him has changed. Begonias have moved from non-food to food.

Issues as well can be thus divided. Some are considered legitimate. Others not to be raised in polite society. A third kind seems to make no sense at all. If you raise these, you risk being thought impossibly vain.


So far, every single attempt to substitute a universal commodity for a vernacular value has led, not to equality, but to a hierarchical modernization of poverty.

— Ivan Illich


Both of the citations above are taken from Ivan Illich’s 1981 book Shadow Work—from which I already cited two lines in a note appended to my previous post, the fourth of this series of five on “The Traumatic Word.” With regard to what he says in the first of the two citations above, about there being some issues the very raising of which runs risks of being thought to be as impossibly vain as a begonia-eater, Illich offers as an example the issue he risks raising in Shadow Work itself. That is the issue of the distinction between what he therein calls “the vernacular domain,” on the one hand, and “the shadow economy,” on the other (the emphasis is Illich’s own in both cases).

Being far less of a risk-taker than Illich himself, I will not risk discussing both sides of that risky conceptual disjunction. I will leave it up to interested readers to read Illich’s book itself for enlightenment (or befuddlement, if Illich loses his wager with those readers) about what he means by “the shadow economy.” For my own risk-averse purposes in this post, I will simply focus on the first disjunct, the notion of “the vernacular domain.” In fact, to minimize my risk even further, I’ll confine my attention to what is named in just the first two words of that three-word phrase—“the vernacular.”

With regard to the vernacular, I will risk saying this: the vernacular is the parochial.

In saying that, just as it stands, I am not risking much. That’s because, just as it stands, it will sound bland and innocuous to most modern ears. Of course the vernacular is the parochial, those who hear with such ears might well remark. After all, both refer to what’s local, informal, and more or less uneducated or “backwoods”-ish—as when we speak of “parochial concerns” and of putting something “in the vernacular,” for example. Such ways of speaking and putting things contain within themselves what amounts (to use the vernacular) to “putting them down,” reducing them to the sorts of concerns and ways of speaking characteristics of “hicks,” more or less (of the mindless masses of “the great unwashed,” to use the educated way of saying it that, as I mentioned in my preceding post, one of my old DU colleagues used to like to use).   That is, having concerns that count as “parochial,” or a tendency toward putting things “in the vernacular,” is just not the sort of thing one wants to do if one is concerned to preserve one’s status as an educated, well-schooled person who would resort to the vernacular only by putting what one says within quotation marks, as I’ve been trying to be careful to do so far. To the well-trained, well-schooled understanding, both the vernacular and the parochial always carry a whiff of vulgarity with them—vulgar being a word derived eventually from Latin vulgus, meaning “the common people,” where that phrase in turn is already pressed into service to put down such people, reducing them to the status of “the multitude,” that is, “the crowd” or “the throng,” the mere and sheer human “swarm” of “the great unwashed.”

At least part of what Illich is trying to call to our attention in his own usage of vernacular is how uppity we are in our dismissal, as always being somewhat vulgar, of everything local, home-grown, and genuinely “convivial,” to use another word he likes to risk using in unusual ways, at least by today’s hoity-toity, “grammatically correct” standards. As I already noted in my immediately preceding post, the word vernacular derives from the Latin vernaculus, which means “domestic, native, indigenous.” What I left out in my preceding post what that vernaculus itself derives from verna, a Latin word of Etruscan origin that meant a “home-borne slave.” By my reading of him, Illich is in effect running the risk of trying to liberate the vernacular itself from its slavery, thereby restoring to it the full, fully ambiguous freedom that is the birth-right of all words as words, whose worth as such is taken violently away whenever they are pressed into service as mere signs or symbols (in the sense of those two words that Walter J. Ong, for one, helps us hear).

Since Illich has already run all the big risks of such a liberation of words with vernacular, I am free to run the much smaller risk of trying to do some of the same for parochial, a word the origins of which are not already tainted by such hierarchies of master and slave as are the origins of the word vernacular.

Parochial derives eventually from Latin parachoia, which means “of or pertaining to a parish.” In turn parachoia derives from the Greek paroikos. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary ( that last word was used by early Christian writers to mean “a sojourner”—after its classical Greek usage to mean “neighbor,” from para, “near, beside,” and oikos, “house.” Insofar as those origins can be heard back into what parochial says, the parochial is that which belongs to home, the place where we dwell, where we are “at home”—the same “home-grown” stuff, in short, as makes up the vernacular, at least in Illich’s liberation of that word from its bondage.   The parochial, the vernacular, is what is of or pertains to where we do indeed sojourn, from Latin sub-, “under, until,” plus diunare, “to last long,” from diurnum, “day.” Where we sojourn is literally where we “spend our day,” day after day throughout our human life from birth to death—“we” being all of us common people, in all the glorious, irremediably vernacular vulgarity of our utter parochialism, our great unwashed-ness.

*     *     *     *     *     *

I claim no special expertise on Gerard Manley Hopkins, and most especially none on the proper scholarly interpretation of his poetry. However, one of his poems once delivered an especially resonant word to me—a word pertaining to trauma. That was during my own traumatic summer vacation of 1987, about which I have written on this blog before, without at that time discussing the contribution my reading of that one of Hopkins’ poems made to my experience then, back when I first read it in 1987. When I recently read Ong’s book on Hopkins, including Hopkins’ own letter to his friend Bridges about the word sake, I was reminded of that contribution.

Hopkins’ remarks in the letter On cites struck me as no surprise when I read them for the first time in my recent reading of Ong’s book, because they struck me as already familiar to me from my much earlier reading of the poem at issue. In the light of Hopkins’ letter I was able to see—or, more accurately put, perhaps, in the resonance of that letter I was able to hear—how that poem, as I first received it years ago, during my summer of 1987, really said the same thing already, at least to me, in a poetic rather than a prosaic way. Here is Hopkins’ poem, #34 in the standard numbering:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.


I say móre: the just man justices;

Keeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –

Chríst – for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.


When I first encountered that poem, during my summer vacation of 1987—when I underwent, in full public display (at least in a rather parochial sense of “public”), a traumatic reliving of a much earlier trauma from my childhood—I heard Hopkins’ two stanzas as constituting what Ivan Illich in Gender calls
a duality, characterized by the asymmetric complementarity of that duality’s own constitutive duo. That duality emerged, and was marked by, my hearing, at the start of Hopkins’ second stanza something that remained unsaid, but nevertheless determinative for my entire understanding of everything said in the poem as a whole, in both its stanzas taken together.

The unsaid I heard then, during my traumatic summer vacation—which was most especially traumatically healing, I will add, with regard to a much earlier trauma from my childhood—of 1987, when I first heard Hopkins’s poem, was but a single word. In fact, it was but that very word: “But.” Though it is not there in what Hopkins actually says, not written there in letters beside all the ones he did write in that poem, I heard (and still do) the second stanza sound a silent “but” at its very beginning, to set the tone not only of what was to follow as that second stanza itself, but also of what lay there already to be found in the first.

According to the first stanza of the poem, “each mortal thing” keeps on redundantly saying over and over again the same old thing. That same old thing is nothing but itself. Each thing says the same thing all the time: “Myself it speaks and spells/Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.”

However, the “I” who speaks in the second stanza, does not just say that same, does not just “fling out broad its name,” crying out always only “Myself.” Rather, the “I” who speaks in the second stanza remains utterly anonymous, which is to say name-less. That nameless speaker does not cry out itself, and beyond that shut up, saying nothing else. Rather, that anonymous “I” says “more”—which Hopkins himself already doubly emphasizes by placing the diacritical mark over that word in the already wholly italicized stanza: “I say móre . . .”

The “I” who speaks the second stanza says “more” than what “each mortal thing” says, according to the first stanza. That is what I heard in hearing a silent “But” sounding to open, and thereby thoroughly to tune, the whole second stanza–and, with it, to attune the reader’s ears for properly hearing what the whole poem gave voice to.

What it gave voice to, when I first heard it during my own doubly traumatic summer vacation of 1987—“doubly traumatic,” because it was an itself-traumatic, asymmetrically complementary reliving of an earlier trauma—was itself dual, precisely in Illich’s sense of that. What I heard was the duality, in short, on the one hand of entrapment in hell—the pure hell of total self-absorption, in which the self, has become so wrapped up and entangled in asserting itself that it has lost itself entirely—and on the other hand of liberation from that entrapment—the very “harrowing of Hell” by Christ himself between his death on the cross and his resurrection on the first Easter Sunday, according to Christian tradition, which was of course the tradition to which Hopkins himself so crucially belonged.

According to another tradition, that of Mahayana Buddhism, samsara and nirvana are said to be “the same.” Well, in the same sense of “the same,” hell and the liberation from hell—which is to say hell and heaven—as Hopkins’ poem 34 long ago now gave me at least to hear, are “the same.” That is, coming to be liberated from hell is not like being taken from one location and transported, by magic or airplane or any other means, to some other, new, different location. It is, rather, being freed from the bondage of self, wherein the self loses itself entirely in the entanglements of claiming its own, into genuinely being oneself, which one can only be in what Ong—glossing Hopkins’ remarks about the sake of such expressions as “for one’s own sake,” in Hopkins’ letter to his friend Bridges—well names one’s “outreach to others.” Only when liberated from the bondage of having always only to be myself alone, am I given to know that I have all along been no one other than myself—but always already and only myself among others.

That’s what I heard when I first heard Hopkins’ poem 34, during my summer vacation of 1987. It’s what I hear still, when I listen through all the noise, rather than to it.

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It is far from accidental that, as Walter J. Ong reminds us in the lines from The Presence of the Word with which I began this whole series of posts on “The Traumatic Word,” the word as word is not only not a “sign,” but also not a “symbol” either. To take each in turn:

The word is not a “sign,” properly speaking, since the word sign itself ultimately bespeaks something visible, something to be seen, whereas the word word bespeaks something audible, something itself spoken, to be heard rather than seen.

What is more, to repeat, the word is not only no such sign, says Ong, but also no “symbol.” That is because, as he tells us, originally “symbolon was a visible sign, a ticket, sometimes a broken coin or other object the matching parts of which were held separately by each of two contracting parties.”

In the concentration upon the visible imposed upon him, regardless of his own will in the matter, by the already now long-standing tradition of treating language as nothing more than an elaborate system of “signs,” and the word itself as no more than a “symbol” of what it names, in the just re-cited passage Ong may himself have misheard some of what sounds in the word word itself.   It is not simply because the word belongs among what sounds, and so gives itself to be heard, rather than belonging among the visible, which gives itself to be seen, that the word as word is no “symbol.” It is also—and in my own judgment above all—because the word as word is no token of coercive power, that drives to make everything fit. The word as word is no sign, such as a torn ticket or a broken coin, the two sides of which fit perfectly together, thus signifying the official authorization of the messenger, who carries one half of the symbol with him, to carry some official message to the officially designated recipient of that message, who proves his own authorization to receive it by providing the matching other half of the symbol, to perfectly fit the messenger’s half. A word as word, as a breaker of the silence to which it gives voice, is no such torn ticket or broken coin or modern digitized equivalent that testifies to such polarized and polarizing authorization. The symbol as such is always a sign of claimed power, claimed “authority.” The word, as word, claims no authority. It just speaks.

That is why the word is no sign. As Ong so rightly observes in the next to last line from the epigraph with which I began this entire blog series: “The word cannot be seen, cannot be handed about, cannot be ‘broken’ and reassembled.” However, he misses, I’d say, the deepest, truest reason that the word cannot be broken, as is every “symbol.

That the word cannot be broken derives not from some timeless or indestructible durability of the stuff of which the word consists, certainly. After all, as Ong himself repeatedly emphasizes, there is nothing more passing, less enduring, more easily destroyed than sound, which is finally all the word consists of. The reason the word cannot be broken—and why it is therefore so unsuitable for being made to do service to coercive power, the sort of power that imposes itself on those it over-powers, as do all institutions that have passed beyond conviviality—has nothing to do with that.

The word cannot be broken because it is always already broken to begin with, and only so does it speak. The name and what it names—the same as glory and the glorious, or luster and the lustrous, or shine and the shining of that which shines of itself—are never two halves of some once presumably unitary totality that somehow got subsequently broken apart, such that the pieces could ever, even in the wildest fantasy of security and authority (beyond even “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” that couldn’t re-fit Humpty-Dumpty back together after he dumped from his wall), be fitted seamlessly back together again.

The name, the very being of what is named—its being “outside” itself, with and among others—on the one hand, and its being “in” itself, “indoors which it dwells,” on the other, constitute a duality, not a polarity. The two are strictly incommensurable: There is no common standard by which they can both be neatly operationalized, measured, ranked, and set to order within a hierarchy.

The name and what it names are really the same, but that is so only in the way that men and women are really the same, which does not in the least mean that the two are “one and the same thing.” If the name and the named were just one and the same thing, then the name could not be the named itself outside itself, given to others. Then neither God nor anything else could ever be honored for its own sake, and nothing would ever have any glory.

The word can never be broken, because it is, as word, the break itself. The word is the very breaking open of the cosmic egg, without which the egg can never attain its own glory, for its own sake. The word itself is traumatic. That’s why I have entitled this whole series “The Traumatic Word.”

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There is no one, all-encompassing, all-comprehending uni-vision, uni-perspective, uni-conception that can reduce everything to one single all-inclusive, all “other” exclusive, totality of beings. As Heidegger already taught in “What Is Metaphysics?”—his inaugural address in 1929 when he took over his mentor Edmund Husserl’s chair of philosophy at the University of Freiburg—we are never given “the whole of beings” (das Ganze des Seienden). We are only—but also always—given “beings in the whole” (das Seiende im Ganzen). Whatever gives itself at all has, as so self-giving and self-given, its own being “outside” itself, as Hopkins so well puts it, that is to say, its being open and given to all the other beings with and among which alone it can be.

To my ears, ever since they were first attuned to hear it during my traumatically healing summer vacation of 1987, Hopkins teaches the very same lesson in poem 34: “As kingfishers catch fire . . .” As I hear them, Heidegger and Hopkins say the same. It’s just that they say it, appropriately, in two radically different, asymmetrically complementary ways.

Such differences can only help us hear if we let them. And only a hearing attuned to such difference can hear at all. So we should let them.

What they help us to hear, among other things, is that, as for the universe, in opposition to the cosmos, at least in the original sense of that latter word—well, there simply is no such thing. There is no “uni-verse,” no one thing that is the whole of everything, and turns everything into just one thing. There is no such all encompassing, all other excluding, single thing. There is only and always what might well be called “the di-verse,” if I may risk putting it that way.

The universe, were it to be, would be nothing but a total, monotone horror, and a colossally monotonous bore, on top of that. The diverse, however, is richly chromatic—we might call it extra-chromatic—and ever entertaining.

Therefore let us thank God that there is no such thing as the universe, but that there is only the diverse. That is, let us give thanks that there is only the being together of each with all—in which all things act for the sake of each other, to the glory of each other’s name: the word by which each is called, the very being of each outside itself, with and among all us others.

Amen! Which is to say: So be it!

The Traumatic Word (4)

As plans have a way of doing, my plan to complete this series on “The Traumatic Word” with today’s post has fallen through. However, this series of posts of my words on the word will end with my next post, most of which is already composed.

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            Sake is a word I find it convenient to use: I did not know when I did so first that it is common in German in the form sach. It is the sake of ‘for the sake of,’ forsake, namesake, keepsake. It mean by it the being of a thing outside itself, as a voice by its echo, a face by its reflection, a body by its shadow, a man by his name, fame, or memory and also that in the thing by virtue of which it has this being abroad, and that is something distinctive, marked, specifically or individually speaking, as for a voice and echo clearness; for a reflected image light, brightness; for a shadow-casting body, bulk; for a man, genius, great achievements, amiability, and so on.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins


Exchange drives partners toward ever clearer fit (homogeneity and not ambiguity), whose asymmetry therefore tends toward hierarchy and dependence. Where exchange structures relationships, a common denominator defines the fit. Where ambiguity constitutes the two entities that it also relates, ambiguity engenders new partial incongruities between men and women, constantly upsetting any tendency toward hierarchy and dependence.

— Ivan Illich


The passage immediately above—that is, the second epigraph for today’s post—comes from Ivan Illich’s 1983 book Gender (Berkeley: Heyday Books, page 76, end of footnote 57). That book was no less controversial when it first appeared than were such earlier Illich publications as Deschooling Society, first printed in 1971, and Medical Nemesis, the first edition of which appeared in 1975 and which probably gained the most widespread attention, and engendered the most controversy, of all his works.

Born in Vienna in 1926, as a young man Illich became a Roman Catholic priest. He remained in the priesthood from then until his death in 2002, despite falling into conflict with the Vatican and—by mutual but non-official agreement, in effect, between him and the institutionalized hierarchy of the Catholic Church—ceasing to function publicly as a priest toward the end of the 1960s, though he even continued to say the Catholic Mass in private on occasion throughout the rest of his life.

Recurrently in his work, Illich argued and documented that the formal institutionalization of practices and processes pursued beyond a certain point becomes counterproductive. That is, pursued beyond that point institutionalization no longer facilitates the realization of that for the sake of which the institution was purportedly established. Instead, it begins to become an obstacle rather than an avenue for such realization, even beginning to generate specifically opposite results.

For example, in Medical Nemesis Illich argues that the institutionalization of medical care, carried beyond a certain point, starts making the society in which such institutionalization occurs less healthy overall, rather than more healthy. Put in different terms, pursued beyond that critical point, the institutionalization of medical care not only passes what economists call “the point of diminishing returns,” but actually sets off an inflationary spiral of ever-rising overall social costs for healthcare. As is true of all such inflation, although it massively benefits an ever more select few, it works to the growing disadvantage of the vast majority of society. In the case of medical care, that means medicine institutionalized past that tipping point starts making the society as a whole sicker, even and especially generating iatrogenic (“doctor- caused”) illnesses—a clear example of which is the disturbingly high rate of hospital-caused infections in the United States today.

In case after case, book after book, Illich advanced the same general argument about institutionalization becoming specifically counterproductive whenever it is pursued beyond such a certain, surprisingly minimal point—“surprising” at least for those of us today who long ago became used to living in a globally over-institutionalized society. Whereas in Medical Nemesis he addressed the counterproductivity of contemporary institutionalized medicine, a few years before that book appeared Illich addressed, in Deschooling Society, the institutionalization whereby education becomes “schooling,” which takes place only in specially designated places called “schools” at specially designated times (“school-time,” as we say) and ages of life (as reflected in talk about someone being “school-aged,” for example—though with the rampant commercialization of education and the emergence of the total horror of “life-long” schooling well under way today, that expression may be well on the way to losing its currency). Illich does a good job of showing how such over-institutionalization of education by enclosing it ever more tightly within schools and schooling ends up making the society as a whole less, rather than more, educated.*

In general, institutionalization becomes counterproductive once it passes the point of what Illich calls “conviviality.” He uses that term in the title of his 1973 book Tools for Conviviality, and means by the “convivial”—which he will also connect with what in various works, including Gender, he calls the “vernacular”—what can be pursued within ongoing local community life as such, and is “expressive” of that community itself.   “Convivial” tools as well as institutions would be those that are established and maintained truly for the sake of those who establish and maintain them, as expressions of themselves.

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The first epigraph for today’s post, from Gerard Manley Hopkins, about the sake of such expressions as “for the sake of,” comes from a letter Hopkins wrote his friend Robert Bridges dated 26 May 1879. Walter J. Ong cites it in his book Hopkins, the Self, and God (University of Toronto Press, 1986, page 38), and then glosses it by writing: “Doing something ‘for my sake’ is doing something for me in so far as I have an outreach to you. What is distinctive about ‘my sake’ is not that I am totally self-contained in a solipsistic, self-sufficient world but that the outreach to you is in this case the outreach that comes from me and only from me, that is distinctive of me, not found in any other.”

All the way back at least to Being and Time, Heidegger distinguished between, on the one hand, what we find or fabricate for use “in order to” (um zu) pursue some extrinsic end (a redundant expression, actually, since any end as such is necessarily extrinsic to the thing we find or fabricate for use to achieve that end) and, on the other hand, what we use all such means for pursuing all such ends “for the sake of” (um willen). His discussion helps make clear that what we do “for its own sake” is precisely what we no longer do “in order to” accomplish something else.

So, for example, what we do “for God’s sake” (in German: um Gottes willen) is nothing that we do for any “ulterior motive,” as we put it—some such motive as currying favor with “the Czar of the universe” (to borrow an apt phrase from AA co-founder Bill Wilson’s telling of his own tale in the first chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous), in order to keep the Big Bully from zapping us for not obeying his orders, or to get him to give us something we want, or the like. What we do “for God’s sake” is just what we do for no other end or reason at all, save adding to God’s own “glory.”

Hopkins is right in what he says in his letter to his friend Bridges about the English word sake, including his remark about the German cognate of that word, which by the conventions governing written modern German would be Sache, meaning “thing” or “matter.” So, for example, a work Heidegger published late in his life was a collection of essays all of which dealt with the same matter—what he called, in the title he gave the whole thing, Zur Sache des Denkens. That title for its own sake might be translated as “On the Thing of Thinking” (or “of Thought”), if we use that word thing the way Baby Boomers such as I still do when we speak on occasion of “doing our own thing.”  Or it might be translated as “On the Matter of Thinking.” At any rate, what Heidegger means by his title could perhaps best be captured by noting that all of the essays in the book address that for the sake of which thinking occurs, that for the sake of which thought takes place.   That is, to ask after die Sache des Denkens is to inquire into what thinking or thought adds to the glory of—what it adds to the luster of, as gold adds to the luster of those suited to wear it.

Hopkins himself is deeply thoughtful to note, for Bridges sake and for his own, that he, Hopkins, himself means by the word sake “the being a thing has outside itself.” That is why I have been speaking in my own turn of what is done “for the sake of” someone or something as done “for the glory” of that one or thing. I will continue to use the example of doing something solely “for God’s sake,” that is, doing it solely to add to God’s own luster, God’s own glory.

The “glory” of God is not something extrinsic to God. It is, rather, to use Hopkins’ own way of putting it, the very being of God as such, God Him-self/Her-self/God-self, “outside” Him-/Her-/God-self. How gloriously Hopkins puts it! The “sake” of a thing is the thing itself as outside itself—as itself there in its shine, its splendor, in short, its glory.

The glory of God’s—God’s very “sake” as such, in Hopkins’ glorious sense of that word—is not there for its own sake, however. The (Hopkinsian) “sake” of God is there to the glory of God, not to it own glory. It is God’s own luster–God’s “name, fame, or memory,” to borrow what Hopkins applies to what he names “man,” but which in his spirit we can happily apply just as aptly (if not even more so) to what we name “God.”

To do something solely “for God’s sake” is thus the same as doing it solely “in the name of God,” or as we also say “for His [sic] name’s sake.” In turn, to act solely “for God’s name’s sake” is not to act to the glory of something apart from God—since God’s “sake” is God’s “name” itself, and both the same are not different from God, but are God’s very being “outside” God Her-/Him-/God-self, that is, what we could aptly and happily call, borrowing from Ong, God’s “outreach” or “presence” to others. To act “in God’s name” or “for God’s name’s sake” is to act to the glory of God God-self. (I hope I have sufficiently indicated by now that I am using that expression God Godself to avoid talking of God Himself or Herself, while still avoiding turning God, that “who” of all “who’s” rather than “what’s,” into any “It”—Id in Latin, and Lat-anglicized Freud. In the name of God let us, to be sure, avoid drafting God’s name into service to sexism, but not at the price of letting that name degenerate to no more than the sign of an “it.”) To act solely for God’s name’s sake is to act in such as way as just to add glory God’s own glory, shine to God’s own shine, luster to God’s own luster. It is to polish the gold in which God always already comes decorously bejeweled. In short, it is to adore the divinely adorned.

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Division by “gender,” as Illich analyses it in his 1983 book of that name, is a convivial duality, as opposed to the non-convivial, specifically counterproductive polarity of division by “sex.” He thereby reverses—or rather “transfigures,” to use a more convivial term, since he does not just turn it around—what still at that time at least (the early 1980s), passed as conventional feminist wisdom. The latter took sex to be less “socially constructed” than gender, and objected above all to distinguishing between two supposedly natural genders rather than the two sexes, of “masculine” and “feminine,” “male” and “female,” “man” and “woman.” Thus, “gender” was commonly taken by feminists to mean something “social” or “cultural,” whereas “sex” was taken to mean something “biological.” In sharp difference, Illich writes (pages 3-4):

I use gender, then, in a new way to designate a duality that in the past was too obvious even to be named, and is so far removed from us today that it is often confused with sex. By ‘sex’ I mean the result of a polarization in those common characteristics that, starting in the late eighteenth century, are attributed to all human beings. Unlike vernacular [from Latin vernaculus, “native, domestic”—so what is “convivial,” in the sense Illich gives that term, which I explained above] gender, which always reflects an association between a dual, local, material culture and the men and women who live under its rule, social sex is ‘catholic’ [that is, claims “universality”—from the literal, etymological meaning of catholic]; it polarizes the human labor force, libido, character of intelligence, and is the result of a diagnosis (in Greek, ‘discrimination’) of derivations from [what, under such a “diagnosis,” becomes] the abstract, genderless norm of ‘the human.’ Sex can be discussed in the unambiguous [a mark of its “catholicity,” since the “vernacular” is always and inescapably ambiguous] language of science [that most universal, or catholic, language of that purely, purified catholic “knowledge” that is science]. Gender [in sharp contrast to the exclusively uniform and uni-forming totality of “sex”] bespeaks a complementarity [What a glorious word for it!] that is enigmatic and asymmetrical.

As he sums that up nicely, much later in Gender (in footnote 101, bottom of page 138): “Gendered speech constantly breathes, whispers, and utters gendered duality, while sexed language imposes discrimination. Grammatical gender (genus), therefore, becomes in sexed language what it could not be in gendered speech: a constant device for a put-down.”

For my purposes in this post, what I will take from such fine passages, and from Illich’s Gender as a whole, will not be the issues of sex, gender, totalization, discrimination, globalism, and feminism, the disconnections and interconnections of which he deftly traces in that book. That discussion is most certainly worthy of careful reading and reflection upon for its own sake, to be sure. But for my purposes here all I want to extract from it is the distinction therein between what he calls “duality,” characterized by the “asymmetrical, ambiguous complementarity” of its two sides or halves, and what he calls “polarity,” characterized by how it “imposes discrimination.”

In a brief footnote discussion entitled “Complementarity and Social Science,” within a chapter called “Vernacular Gender” (footnote 52, to pages 68-69), Illich observes that light, in the sense of the Latin lumen, or “way of looking,” was once thought to “stream” from the eye out to the visible thing—in effect, “palpating” it, as Merleau-Ponty liked to put it in various texts, though Illich doesn’t mention him here. Applying that to the vernacular duality of gender, Illich writes that in the analysis he is attempting to present through using that duality, “each culture appears as a metaphor, a metaphoric complementarity relating two distinct sets of tools, two types of space-time, two domains,” which “find expression in different but related styles in which the world is understood or grasped”—two incommensurably different but related beams of light, streaming out from two incommensurably different but related sets of eyes to palpate the visible.

In contrast, he goes on, science “is a filter that screens from the observer’s eye the ambiguity of gendered [that is dual, asymmetrically complementary] light.” As a result of such filtering out of all such irreducible ambiguity within what is called “social science,” the “asymmetry that constitutes the social reality of each vernacular is effected by the central perspective of cultural anthropology,” which institutionalizes a “monochromatic, genderless [that is, utterly univocal and uni-sighted] lumen”—the single, glaring, contour-blanching light “of such concepts as rule, exchange, and structure.” Such concepts—which word comes from Latin con, “with,” and capare, “take, grasp, seize”—cease to conceptualize (to grasp in and for thought) anything of what Illich calls “the Eigen-value [from the German eigen, “own,’ in the sense of belonging or being “proper to” that which has, manifests, or in short shines forth with and in, it] of each and every vernacular reality,” that is, every local, native, domestic, home-grown and home-growing, concrete, really real reality.

Accordingly: “What the scientific observer sees through his diagnostic spectacles are not men and women who really act in a gendered subsistence society but sexual deviants from an abstract, genderless cultural norm who have to be operationalized, measured, ranked, and structured into hierarchies.” Thus, as Illich then concludes his discussion in this footnote by writing: “Cultural anthropology that operates with genderless concepts is inevitably sexist,” with a sexism that is “much more blinding than old-style ethnocentric arrogance.”

Later in the same chapter, in a footnote discussion entitled “Ambiguous Complementarity” (footnote 57, bottom of pages 75-76), Illich himself nicely grasps in his own thought just what such pseudo-concepts as exchange actually accomplish, which has nothing to do with vision, but everything to do with imposition. I have already given that passage above, as the second epigraph for this post, but it bears repeating here, to end today’s post:

Exchange drives partners toward ever clearer fit (homogeneity and not ambiguity), whose asymmetry therefore tends toward hierarchy and dependence. Where exchange structures relationships, a common denominator defines the fit. Where ambiguity constitutes the two entities that it also relates, ambiguity engenders new partial incongruities between man and women, constantly upsetting any tendency toward hierarchy and dependence.

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My next post will finish the current series on “The Traumatic Word.” (I promise!)

* Of course, a select few are singled out by the schooling system to become hyper-educated (Ph.D.’s like me, for example), but just as the income gap between the monetarily rich and the monetarily poor keeps on widening, so does the education gap between us members of the hyper-educated elite and the common folk whom one of my colleagues at the University of Denver used to like to dismiss by calling them “the great unwashed.”   As to how schooling pursued beyond the tipping point at issue can create its own teacher-caused equivalent to doctor-caused illnesses, I am reminded of something I used to tell the students in my own classes, before I learned more skillful means of subverting the university: “Any idiot can get a Ph.D.—in fact, being an idiot helps.”   In Shadow Work, published in 1981 (Boston and London: Marion Boyars), two years before Gender, Illich himself writes (page 31): “Students ask if they are in school to learn or to collaborate in their own stupefaction. Increasingly, the toil of consumption overshadows the relief consumption promised.”