This morning when I was picking up a prescription at the drugstore, there was an ad on the counter that said something like, “One in six will get the flu (here there were 6 gendered figures, one of whom was a sickly green), protect yourself with the flu shot! 20%-off shopping coupon when you purchase your flu shot from us!” Then when I got home, I took a note about the ad because I wanted to write this post, and Tex, seeing the note, asked innocently, “Are you writing that to remind your folks to get their flu shots?”
Reading Ivan Illich is like eating the densest, most complex flourless chocolate cake imaginable. I have to go slowly and sometimes I have to take an extended break. But I’ve been reading Tools for Conviviality again recently, and am almost to the end. The reason the flu shot ad caught my eye is because Chapter V, “Political Inversion,” begins like this:
If within the very near future man cannot set limits to the interference of his tools with the environment and practice effective birth control, the next generations will experience the gruesome apocalypse predicted by many ecologists….The bureaucratic management of human survival is unacceptable on both ethical and political grounds….Man would live in a plastic bubble that would protect his survival and make it increasingly worthless. Since man’s tolerance would became the most serious limitation to growth, the alchemist’s endeavor would be renewed in the attempt to produce a monstrous type of man fit to live among reason’s dreams. A major function of engineering would become the psychogenetic tooling of man himself as a condition for further growth. People would be confined from birth to death in a world-wide school-house, treated in a world-wide hospital, surrounded by television screens, and the man-made environment would be distinguishable in name only from a world-wide prison.
Oh, Ivan. I know you knew that there was no stopping us from going where you warned us not to go. Look at us now! “Did you get your flu shot?” “What was your SAT score?” “I love your playlist!” and all the personalized ads everywhere. Recently, my sister-in-law sent us a screamingly funny email about all the ways you can use the poop emoticon on your phone, and anyone at all can faff about with untold numbers of computer programs that allow you to change up photos, use packaged beats to make a song, design faux movie trailers, and more more more. Looks like creativity, smells like Big Brother.
My copy of Tools was published in 1973, part of the World Perspectives series edited by Ruth Nanda Anshen. It smells terribly musty, the pages are yellow, the cover indicates that it’s a serious book in the hoary design language of yore. A holy object.
I may never know for sure, but I wonder if Ivan was queer – I mean, I know he was queer in the broader sense of being outside the norm – but I like to imagine that he co-founded the Center for Intercultural Documentation in Cuernavaca, Mexico in part because he had a thing for hunky Mexican men.
The worries of the world come upon me at any time of the day or night. I am in despair. There is no way out and we are doomed.
And yet Ivan bravely wrote and left his brave, brilliant words for me.
At the homeschool QSA, I wax lyrical about the work we’re doing in our community, and one of the members sighs and says, “That was so inspiring!” I read my erotica story about a very late-blooming boi at a sparsely attended event and afterwards hear from two of the audience members that that story was dear to them. One of my ESL students begins to question her mercenary-like concept of the reason you go to college – maybe it’s not so much about getting a diploma so you can get a high paying job, she’s thinking now, maybe it’s more about self-reflection and global connection. Both my sons agree that it’s important for them to attend a QSA-sponsored meeting to discuss ways of supporting local queer youth; Owen can’t come because he’s sick, but Seth shows up and stays for the whole time, and later tells me he thinks we’re on the right track and that there are definitely folks who will benefit. These things are not nothing and they are the best I can do.
I hear voices: Noam Chomsky’s exhausted monotone, Amy Goodman’s nerdy intonations, Mia McKenzie’s succinct, no-fucking-around turn of phrase, and (glancing at my bookshelf and picking out just a few) Lee Lynch, Christopher Isherwood, Bill McKibben, bell hooks, Radclyff Hall, Sarah Waters, Mary Renault, Tove Jansson, Amber Hollibaugh — and Ivan, oh, Ivan! I’m listening.
“Witness. Companion. Perservere. Stay human.”