Ivan Illich, Disvalue, 1986

Professor Tamanoy’s Forum

This first public meeting of the Japanese Entropy Society provides us with an occasion to commemorate Professor Joshiro Tamanoy. Most of us knew him as friends and as pupils. The questions he asked bring together today 600 physicists and biologists, economists and green activists.

While a Professor of Economics at Tokyo University, he translated Karl Polanyi into Japanese. But in his own teaching and writing he brought a uniquely Japanese flavor to ecological research by relating cultural to physical dimensions. He did so by focusing on the interaction between an epoch’s economic ideology and the corresponding soil-water matrix of social life. He was an active environmental politician and a master teacher. And no one who experienced his friendship will ever forget its delicacy.

How to name an evil

He had few illusions. Courageously he reflected on the causes of modern war, modern ugliness and modern social inequity to the point of facing almost unbearable horror. But no one will forget Tamanoy-sensei’s balance. He never lost his compassion and subtle humor. He introduced me to the world of those who survived with the marks of the Hiroshima bomb, the hibakusha. And I think of him as a spiritual hibakusha. He lived the “examined life” in the shadow of Hiroshima and Minamata. Under this cloud he forged a terminology to relate historical spaces to physical place. To this purpose he used “entropy” as a semeion, a signal for the impending threat to an exquisitely Japanese perception of locality referred to with terms which seem to have no comparable Western equivalent, like fudo. And entropy was central to our conversations. In this lecture I want to explore the limits within which the notion of entropy can be usefully applied to social phenomena by comparing it to the notion of waste. I will then propose the notion of “disvalue” in the hope that through it entropy, when used outside of physics and information theory, will be more clearly understood.

Clausius, a German physicist, first introduced the word. In 1850 he studied the ratio between the heat content and the absolute pressure in a closed system and felt the need for a word to name this function. He was an amateur classicist and picked the Greek word entropy in 1865. Since then it is used for the algorithm that describes a previously unrecognized phenomenon. By choosing this word, Clausius did us a favor. Entropeo in classical Greek means to turn, to twist, to pervert or to humiliate. More than a century after its introduction in physics, the Greek word still seems able to bespeak a previously unknown frustrating twist that perverts our best social energies and moral intentions.

In a few years the word has become a catchall for a variety of paradoxical twists which have two things in common. They are so new that everyday language has no traditional defined meaning for them and are so maddening that people are happy to avoid mentioning them. To taboo their own implication in non-sustainable consumption of goods and services, people grab at the non-word “entropy” to make social degradation appear as just another instance of a general natural law.

When people discuss the cultural impoverishment that appears in stupefying schooling, sickening medicine and time-killing acceleration, they are talking about perversions of good intentions, not about instances of energy or information flow. They mean the evil effects of untoward social goals that have none of the innocence of the inexorable determinism we associate with entropy in physics. The degradation of cultural variety through transnational organization of money flow is a result of greed, not a law of nature. The disappearance of subsistence cultures tied to local soils is a historical and dramatic part of the human condition only in recent times. The disappearance of “ideologies” that favor the water-soil matrix is due to human enterprise and endeavor. What late twentieth-century people take for granted is not something which has always been.

Tamanoy made me understand that it is possible to include soil, water and sun in philosophical anthropology, to speak of a “philosophy of soil”. After my conversations with him I rediscovered Paracelsus, who calls for the same approach. A philosophy of soil starts from the certainty that reason is worthless without a reciprocal shaping of norms and tangible reality; seeing the culturally shaped body cum “environment” as it is in a concrete place and time. And this interaction is formed by esthetic and moral style as much as by the “spirits” which ritual and art evoke from the earthly matrix of a place. The disappearance of corresponding matrices of soil and society is an issue which we cannot examine deeply enough. And for this, comparison between the wasting of cultural variety and the cosmic degradation of energy can be useful, but only under one condition: that we clearly understand the limits within which science can still generate metaphors. As a metaphor, entropy can be an eye opener. As an explanatory analog it cannot but mystify.

Entropy as a metaphor versus entropy as a reductive analog

My last conversation with Dr Tamanoy took place after a long tour of his native island. He took me around Okinawa to meet with his friends, to battlefields, cave-refuges and refineries. From a curve on a mountain road we looked at the Japanese oil reserves and the bay which now lay waste. The shellfish, gardens and village life were gone. Our conversation turned to the danger of extrapolating from a dying tree to global pollution. No doubt, the latter evil is world-wide. But such world-wide despoliation and its tangible evidence ought never to distract us from sadness about this tree, this landscape, this man’s clam bed. Expert talk can easily deaden our speechless anger over known wetlands that have turned into concrete or asphalt. To speak about the destruction of beauty as an instance of entropy is difficult. The metaphor tends to hide the sordid wickedness which we would otherwise deplore, and in which each one who drives or flies is involved. Words made out of technical terms are notoriously unfit for metaphorical use. When technical terms are ferried into an ethical discourse, they almost inevitably extinguish its moral meaning.

Real, words have a nimbus. In contrast, terms are shorn of connotations. A nimbus of connotation surrounds words like a wind chime moved by the voice. Entropy is not such a word, although many try to use it as one. When it is so used, it is delimited in two ways: it both loses the sharp edge it had as a term and it never acquires the overtones of a strong word. In a poem it is a stone and in a political discourse a cudgel.

The words people use when they want to say something of importance are neither arbitrarily picked from a dead language – like ancient Greek – nor given their meaning only through definition. Each genuine word has its native place; it is rooted like a plant in a meadow. Some words spread like creepers, others are like hardwood. But what they do is under the control of the speaker. Each speaker tries to make his words mean what he wants to say. But there is no clear meaning in entropy when it is not used as the name of a cypher. No one can tell the person who utters this word with his mouth that he uses it wrongly. There is no right way to use a technical term in ordinary conversation.

When “entropy” is used as part of ordinary speech, it loses the power to name a formula: it fits neither sentence nor system. But it also lacks the kind of connotation that strong words have. The term gives off a halo of evocation that, unlike the meanings of sound words, is vague and arbitrary. When “entropy” appears in a political statement the usage gives the impression of being scientific while in fact it is probably meaningless. If it convinces, it does so not by its own strength but by irrational seduction. It veils a moral perversion from which the speaker would otherwise recoil because it gives the impression that something weighty and scientific is being said.

What I see, what I cry over, what deeply disturbs me on that degraded island of Okinawa is the result of presumption, aggression and human greed. Entropy powerfully suggests a strict analogy between the realm of human dignity and freedom and cosmic laws. By speaking about aggression, greed and despair within the context of entropy, I excuse crime and carelessness by evoking cosmic necessity. Instead of confessing that I advance an evil through my own lifestyle, I suggest that the elimination of beauty and variety is the unavoidable way of, equally, nature and culture. This is the issue about which Tamanoy spoke out. He defined the ideologically shaped local interaction of man and earth as the center of the cosmos.

Yet in spite of this ambiguity, entropy remains a valuable word. When used as a suggestive, ever-limping metaphor, rather than as a reductive analogy, it serves to alert some to social degradation, the loss of beauty and variety, growing triviality and squalor. It helps us to recognize random noise; the senseless and meaningless waves that bombard all our inner and outer senses. If I could be sure that its limitations were kept in mind, I would not want to lose it.

Disvalue versus entropy

When taken literally, metaphors produce absurdities. To insist that my child’s brain is a computer expresses nothing more than a trendy paternal vanity. Yet much of a metaphor’s effectiveness comes from the shock evoked in the hearer by an intentional misuse of language. And metaphor works only when the two realms between which this meta- ferry plies are shores within the reach of the hearer. Now, there could hardly be more distant and obscure realms than those which entropy as metaphor seeks to connect. For the typical listener, the world of science is formidable – by definition, its mathematical language is foreign to the man on the street. On the other hand, the realm in which the metaphor of entropy is supposed to act as a guide – the universe of monitored pollution, apocalyptic security, programmed education, medicalized sickness, computer-managed death and other forms of institutionalized non-sense – is so frightening that I can only face it with the respect due the devil; a constant fear of losing my heart’s sensitivity by becoming accustomed to evil.

This is the danger associated with using the term “entropy”, for the frustrating and pervasive socio-economic twist that morally perverts almost every aspect of postmodern life. And yet the word did us a favor. It forced us to recognize that we are speechless in the face of a social evolution which (falsely) gives the impression of being as natural as the hypothetical chaos resulting from the irreversable run of the universe.

The word that names this twist ought to be one that includes the historical and moral nature of our sadness, the perfidy and depravity that cause the loss of beauty, of autonomy and of that dignity which makes human labor worthy. Entropy implies that despoliation is a cosmic law, which started with the Big Bang. The social degradation that must be named is not co-equal with the universe, but something which had a beginning in mankind’s history and which, for this reason, might be brought to an end.

I propose “disvalue” as the appropriate word. Disvalue can be related to the degradation of value as entropy has been related to the degradation of energy. Entropy is a measure of the transformation of energy into a form that can no longer be converted into physical “work”. “Disvalue” is a term that bespeaks the wasting of commons and culture with the result that traditional labor is voided of its power to generate subsistence. On this point the analogy between the two concepts is close enough to justify the metaphorical jump from astronomy to modern lifestyles and back.

I know well that the word “disvalue” is not in the dictionaries. You can devalue something which was formerly held to be precious: stocks can lose their value; old coins can rise in value; critical sociology can take a value-neutral stance; feigned love can be valueless. In all these applications of value the speaker takes “value” for granted. In current usage, then, value can stand for almost anything. Indeed, it can be used to replace the good. It is born from the same mind set which in the third quarter of the last century also brought forth “labor force”, “waste”, “energy” and “entropy”.

By coining the concept of disvalue both the homologies and the contradictions that exist between social and physical degradation can be shown. While physical “work” tends to increase entropy, the economic productivity of work is based on the previous dis-valuation of cultural labor. Waste and degradation are usually considered as side effects in the production of values. I suggest precisely the opposite. I argue that economic value accumulates only as the result of the previous wasting of culture, which can also be considered as the creation of disvalue.

The parable of Mexico’s “waste”

Mexico City presents the world with a new plague. In this place salmonella and amoebas are now routinely transmitted through the respiratory tract. When you first arrive in the valley of Technochtitlan, surrounded by mountains and 8,000 feet above sea level, you inevitably struggle to breathe the thin air. Half a century ago it was crisp, clean air. What you now draw into your lungs is an atmosphere heavily polluted by a smog containing a high density of solid particles, many of which are pathogenic agents. A specific set of social conditions incubates and disperses the city’s bacteria. Some of these illustrate how cultural breakdown, ideology and university-bred prejudice combine to create disvalue. The evolution of Mexico City during the last three decades is a cautionary tale describing the highly productive manufacture of disvalue.

In the last four decades, the city grew from one to over twenty million persons. The single experience which most newcomers share before their arrival is nearly unlimited open space. Pre-Columbian agriculture did not use large domestic animals. Cow, horse and donkey were imports from Europe. Animal droppings were at a premium. The dispersal of human excrements was the rule. Most of the recent immigrants come from rural areas. They do not possess inbred toilet habits appropriate for a densely populated habitat. And Mexican notions of defecation have never been shaped by the attention paid to these matters by Hindu, Muslim or Confucian disciplines. No wonder that in Mexico City today between four and five million people lack any proper place to deposit their stool, urine and blood. The ideology of the W.C. paralyzes the cultural urbanization of patterns native to the immigrants.

Elitist blindness to the cultural nature of excrements, when these are produced in a modern city, is compounded by highly specialized fantasies implanted in the minds of Mexican bureaucrats by international schools of hygiene. The Anglo-Saxon prejudice that physiologically blocks bowel movements unless one sits over water with a roll of paper at hand has become endemic among the Mexican governing elite. As a result, the Mexican leadership is singularly blind to the real issue at hand. Further, this elite was stimulated to megalomanic planning during the oil boom of the early seventies. At that time, huge public works were undertaken which were never completed, and the ruins of unfinished projects are taken as symbols of development which will soon restart. While many of the poor move on, recognizing that the end of development is at hand, the government continues to speak of a temporary economic crisis that has momentarily throttled the flow of dollars and water. Toilet training, combined with the illusion of living in a short-term crisis, blinds the planners and sanitation experts to the evidence that the body excrements of their four million toilet-less neighbors will only continue to remain, rot and atomize in the thin air of the high plateau.

The Mexican earthquake

Then, in September, 1985, an earthquake shook not only the capital but also the complacency of some professionals. Engineers and health planners in countries like Mexico almost inevitably belong to the class who, by definition, use the W.C. But in 1985 many of these had no water at home or at work for several weeks. For the first time, some editorial writers began to question whether hygiene inevitably means the dilution of feces and the generation of black water. What should have been obvious long ago suddenly became evident conclusions for a few: it is beyond the economic power of Mexico to provide water for several million additional toilets. Further, even if there were enough money and stringent rules applied on the use of flush, the generalization of the W.C. would be a serious and disastrous aggression against rural Mexico. The attempt to pump the necessary millions of gallons would devastate the semi-arid farm communities within a radius of more than a hundred miles. It would thus force new millions into the city. Then thousands of acres of fragile soil on the terraces, some built before the Spaniards, if left untended, would wash away. The center of the Meso-American plateau would become a permanent desert. All this loss would be the result of an ideology that treats humans as natural waste producers. Thinking differently, a new political opposition arose and picked up the slogan of composting units for rich and poor.

It was interesting to observe how this small but potentially influential group reacted in the absence of the toilet ideology. The ideal of la normalidad, which in Spanish means perpendicularity, went to pieces for them. These people, including some professionals but most quite poor, prisoners of the world’s greatest megacity, rejected the symbols of urban life, such as skyscrapers, deep tunnels and monster markets. The ruins of the inner city became for them a sign of hope. Hitherto unexamined certainties about water and excrement became the source of laughter. Economic development became the butt of jokes in the pulquerias. Obviously it did not lead to the distribution of accumulated value, but to the generation of a huge turd composed of cement and plastic needing to be tended by professional services. Sewers became the symbol for remedies required in a city set up for the economic toilet training of homo osconomicus.

The history of waste

The social definition of excrements, which in the opinion of those who generate them cannot be turned into compost, has become a cypher for the junking of people. The latter learn that they depend on services even when they act under the urge of the most elementary needs. In this perspective, the W.C. is a device to instill the habit of self-junking or self-disvaluation, which prepares one for dependence on scarce services in other spheres. It brings into existence the body percept of homo the generator of waste. When people grasp that several times a day their physical needs for evacuation produce a degradation of the environment, it is easy to convince them that by their very existence they cannot but contribute to “entropy”.

Waste is not the natural consequence of human existence. Professor Ludolf Kuchenbuch, who is working on a history of waste, has gathered the evidence. A concept that we take for granted does not appear before 1830. Before that date “waste”, as a verb and as a noun, is related to devastation, destruction, desertification, degradation. It is not something that can be removed. Professors Tamanoy and Murata have built their theory on a similar assumption: if a culture steadily enhances the interaction of sun, soil and water, its net contribution to the cosmos is positive. Human societies that create waste are those which destroy the soil-water matrix of their locality and become expansive centers for the devastation of those around them. Entropy appears as a result of the destruction of cultures and their commons.

It is therefore unwarranted to attribute waste management to all cultures. Miasma and taboo are in no way ancestors of modern pollution. They are the symbolic rules that enhance integration and protect subsistence cultures. So-called development is a programmed disvaluation of these protections.

Disvalue versus waste

Disvalue remains invisible as long as two conditions obtain. The first of these consists in the widespread belief that economic categories, whose task it is to measure “values”, can be used in statements about communities whose “business” is not values but the good. The good is part of a local “ideology” related to the mixture of elements native to a specific place – to speak with Paracelsus or Tamanoy – while values are a measure which fits the abstract ideology of science. The second source of blindness to disvalue is an obsessive certainty about the feasibility of progress. This reduction of conviviality to primitive economics and the abhorrence of tradition, masked as a commitment to the progress of others, together foster the myopic destruction of the past. Tradition comes to be seen as a historical expression of waste, to be discarded with the trash of the past.

Only a decade ago it still seemed possible to speak of twentieth-century progress with assurance. The economy appeared to be a machine that increases the flow of money. Energy, information and money all seemed to follow the same rules – the laws of entropy were equally applicable to each. The development of productive capacity, multiplication of trained workers and rise in savings were seen as parts of “growth” which, sooner or later, would bring more money to more people. In spite of wider social disintegration due to the increase of money flow, ever more money was proposed as the fundamental requirement to satisfy the basic needs of more people! Entropy then seemed a tempting analog for the social degradation resulting from the pervasive flow.

In the meantime, a new and radical questioning of economic verities began. As recently as twenty years ago, it was not yet ridiculous to look for a world community based on equal dignity and fairness that could be planned on the thermodynamic model of value flows. This is no longer so in the mid-eighties. Not only the promise of human equality, but even the provision of an equal chance for survival, sounds hollow. On a world scale it is obvious that growth has concentrated economic benefits, simultaneously disvaluing people and places, in such a way that survival has become impossible outside the money economy. More people are more destitute and helpless than ever before. Further, those privileges which only higher income can buy are increasingly valued primarily as an escape from the disvalue which affects the lives of all.

The ideology of economic progress throws a shadow of disvalue on almost all activities that are culturally shaped outside of money flow. People like the immigrants to Mexico City, and beliefs such as those in local health rules, are de-valued long before effective toilets can be provided. People are forced into a new mental topology in which locations for bowel movements are scarce, even though resources to create these places are beyond the reasonable reach of the new economy in which they find themselves. The ideology of production and consumption under the implied condition of “natural” scarcity takes hold of their minds while neither paid jobs nor money are attainable for them. Self-degradation, self-junking, self-wasting are different ways to name this creation of the necessary conditions for the legitimate growth of a money economy.

This is where Joshiro Tamanoy comes in. He not only translated but he taught Karl Polanyi. He picked up the distinction between formal and substantive economies that goes back to Polanyi. Forty years after Polanyi, Tamanoy – whom I know only from conversation, since most of his writings are in a language of which I am ignorant – brought this distinction into modern Japan. It can be used to sum up our argument. Entropy is probably an effective metaphor to stress de-valuation in the formal economy. The flow of money or information can in some way be compared to the flow of heat. But it is now obvious that macro-economics tells us nothing about what people consider good. Therefore, entropy cannot be relevant to explain the devastation of substantive cultural patterns by which people act outside the formal money economy. This is true because the “exchange” of gifts or movements of goods in the substantive economy are, by their very nature, heterogeneous to the flow-model of values postulated by a formal economy. And, as the thermodynamic flow model spreads, it extinguishes a way of life to which entropy will forever be foreign.

Ivan Illich


Lecture to the first public meeting of the Entropy Society Tokyo, Keyo University, 9th November 1986.

Enlarged and combined with “Disvaluation: The Secret Capital Accumulation” and “Beauty and the Junkyard” two unpublished manuscripts completed in March 1987

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