Ivan Illich and the Enclosure of Vernacular Domains

Every few months I find myself circling back to writings by Ivan Illich, the iconoclastic Catholic priest who decried the institutionalization of life and the great promise of “vernacular domains” as a source of regeneration.

I came back to Illich this time via a chapter about him in a book by Trent Schroyer, Beyond Western Economics:  Remembering Other Economic Cultures (Routledge, 2009).  The chapter is easily one of the most illuminating things I’ve read about Illich and his critiques of modernity.

The vernacular domain, as Illich calls it, is the realm of everyday life in which people create and negotiate their own sense of things – how they should educate themselves, how they should embrace their spirituality, how they should manage the resources they need and love.  Vernacular culture consists of those spaces that exist for self-determination in the broadest sense of the term.  As Schroyer puts it:

The vernacular space is the sensibility and rootedness that emerges from shaping one’s own space within the commons associations of local-regional reciprocity.  It is the way in which local life has been conducted throughout most of history and even today in a significant proportion of subsistence- and communitarian-oriented communities.  It is also central to those places and spaces where people are struggling to achieve regeneration and social restorations against the forces of economic globalization.

Unfortunately, the primary enterprise of modern life, as Illich sees it, is for institutions and credentialed experts to appropriate such spaces  and impose their own logic on them.  Although Illich did not usually use the term “enclosure,” that was exactly what he meant. 

Schroyer elaborates a history of Illich and his thought that is quite revealing, even surprising.  As he writes, Illich saw the very origins of modernity in the Roman Catholic Church’s enclosure of spirituality.  The Church (writes Schroyer) “empowered its spiritual ‘professionals’ to dominate the cure of souls and the pastoral services, which were heretofore defined within the vernacular world itself.”  In an Illich essay called “The War Against Subsistence,” Schroyer continues, “Illich shows that the fundamental ideologies of the industrial age are derived from the monastic reforms from the ninth to the thirteen century, where the personal pastoral services of the professional priests were more and more asserted to be essential for salvation.”

The Catholic Church proceeded to monopolize, regiment and institutionalize the realm of the spiritual – a dynamic that has been replicated in all sorts of professions, disciplines and institutions in the 19th and 20th Centuries (and continuing today, of course).  The state soon began to see the advantages of colonizing vernacular life.  Thus “Spain became the first European state to develop a formal grammar – or a taught mother tongue,” in the late 15th century.  Writes Schroyer:

"Dependence on formal teaching of the mother tongue is the paradigm for all other dependencies created in an age of commodity-defined existence.  The general framework implied here is that every attempt to substitute a universal commodity for a vernacular activity ‘has led, not to equality, but to a hierarchical modernization of poverty’….Step by step the war against subsistence has defined as commodities what was essential for living communities, and in each case has resulted in new hierarchies and new forms of domination.”

Illich was no reactionary.  He wrote:  “I do not oppose growth oriented societies to others in which traditional subsistence is structured by immemorial cultural transmissions of patterns.  Such a choice does not exist.  Aspirations of this kind would be sentimental and destructive.”  The point, however, as Schroyer elucidates, is that Illich wanted “to secure political or participatory space for forms of governance that enable exceptions to national-international forced development…. and the totalities of the left and right ideology.”

Schroyer’s chapter on Illich is a remarkable “excavation” and interpretation of Illich’s thought and the psycho-spiritual-social dimensions of the commons, or vernacular domains.  Schroyer’s book, Beyond Western Economics, is well worth the read as well – but that’s a longer story. 


More on Illich and the commons

You might be interested to read a small, quirky but relevant piece by Illich about "Hair and the History of the City," which touches on the history of the commons, too:




I'm really appreciating reading these writings of Illich on the commons.

Illich and the commons

I've read only the limited preview of this chapter available via Google Books. But I agree, Schroyer does an excellent job of reviewing Illich's thought.

You might want to seek out the book The Rivers North of the Future, subtitled 'The Testament of Ivan Illich as told to David Cayley,' in which Illich lays out fully his analysis of how the modern West came to be so very different than anything known before. It can be understood only as a perverse working out of the Christian gospel, Illich argues. Illich is a man of faith, but his argument is based on historical evidence of that gospel's influence, not on a reading of scripture. As Cayley puts it in his introduction - itself a wonderful bio of Illich and easily the best overview available of Illich's thought and its evolution over the decades - Illich shows "that a whole constellation of modern notions, most too obvious even to raise a question in most minds, are distortions of Christian originals - from the 'citizen' on whose shoulders the state rests tothe services which are its raison d'etre, from the planetary 'life' that right-thinking people want to conserve to the technology that threatens it. ... these notions would have been unthinable without their Christian originals. They owe their very existence, in other words, to the ancestry which they distort, deny, and conceal. ... Illich invites us to see in the chirpy contemporary discourses of health, responsibility for life, and lifeling education neither a fulfillment nor a forgetting of Christian faith but its demonic parody." 

Some other items I would recommend, in case you are not aware of them: Barbara Duden, a close and longtime collaborator of Illich's, wrote a lengthy overview of the work Illich undertook during the last 20 years or so of his life. It's available at the Pudel site in Bremen, home to a trove of Illich's papers - and those by others in his circle. Or, Google "Beyond Medical Nemesis." 

The interviews on which Rivers North is based were used by Cayley to create a 5-hour radio program called The Corruption of Christianity. It's available as a recording from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. or - and don't tell anyone I told you this (!) - in a bootleg MP3 version (the digital commons?) here: Ivan Illich - Audio, MP3 and Other Files to Download. These programs provide a good overview of the arguments Illich lays out in the book, with the added benefits of Cayley's interpolations and the ability to hear Illich in his own distinctive voice.

Finally, as I am sure you are aware, Illich wrote more than once specifically about the notion of the commons, distinguishing it from the world of commodities and scarcity. As I recently noted on another blog with which you are associated (On the Commons), I recently unearthed a piece by Illich about the commons that seems to have been missed by most online archives of his work. It's from 1983, and it's called “Eco-Pedagogics and the Commons." It’s available (in PDF) from, of all places, The Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation.

I look forward to catching up with the rest of your work on the commons, if only to feed my own aspirations as a blogger. I'll send more thoughts your way as they occur to me. It's good to see others reading and thinking about Illich.


Illich on the commons

Winslow, thanks for such a rich and informative comment!  I am eager to read the "forgotten" commons essay by Illich (the other one being "Silence as a Commons"); I had not known about it. The Cayley radio show sounds great, too.  Much appreciated.  --David