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.