David Cayley, Concerning life, 2021

an open letter to Jean-Pierre Dupuy and Wolfgang Palaver


“And the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No”.

They said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right; then then seized him and slew him in the fords of the Jordan. And there fell at that time forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites.” (Judges 12: 3-6)


A shibboleth is a dividing line, and dividing lines are sharpest when they are razor thin. For the Ephraimites the price of forty-two thousand lives was nothing more than what linguists call an unvoiced fricative. Things are not yet quite so bad with us, but the pandemic has certainly brought division between friends. (And how great, after all, were the differences between Ephraimites and Gileadites, if all that distinguished them was the ability to make this crucial sound?) One of the shibboleths dividing us seems to be life. Recently two admired friends have taken issue with me over this word and the interpretation I have given of Ivan Illich’s views on the subject [see here].

Theologian Wolfgang Palaver, in an interview in the German weekly Die Zeit for Dec. 23, 2020, expresses concern that Illich’s claim that life has become “a fetish” is being abused as a justification for “sacrificing the weak.” And French philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy, in an article for the website AOC called “The True Legacy of Ivan Illich,” argues, similarly, that those who follow “the fashion of covidoscepticism” misunderstand and misappropriate Illich’s strictures on “the idolization of life.” Dupuy’s article is the second of two on the “alleged ‘sacralisation of life.’” The first denounces what Dupuy calls “the blindness of the intellectuals.”

In Dupuy’s essay I am named in a way that flatters my achievements as an interlocutor of Illich’s before I “succumbed to the times.” “Alas, a thousand times alas,” he says, that “David Cayley himself” has “succumbed to the times” and now “multiplies his clichés and manifests his ignorance” while engaging in a “classic minimization of the severity of the pandemic.” Palaver is milder and doesn’t name me directly, but since I have been prominent amongst those who have tried to argue that “the idolization of life” has played a pernicious part in political responses to the pandemic, I include myself within that company whom he thinks have pushed Illich into dangerous territory, far beyond Illich’s intention.

The stakes are high here. “Saving lives” has justified every policy adopted to counteract the pandemic during the last year, and life is likely to continue as the sacred sign in which the revised social order that emerges from the pandemic will root its legitimacy. Accordingly, it seems important to seek some clarity on what is now meant by this word. (I hope my frequent resort to italics will be understood as a way of marking the usage I want to question.). I will begin by trying to understand what is worrying Palaver and Dupuy, then present what I take to be Illich’s view, and conclude with some reflection on the role of life in the present, and emerging, social order.

Palaver and Dupuy are concerned with what they call the protection or preservation of life. Both argue that those who “minimize” the pandemic, criticize the measures taken against it, or flout the rules for its containment are recklessly endangering their neighbours. Both focus particularly on Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben as the epitome of this recklessness.  Agamben has argued throughout the pandemic that the official response has amounted to destroying the village in order to save it. By leaving the old to die alone and unconsoled, by making people afraid of one another, and by banning funerals, church services and other elementary forms of social and cultural life, he has written, we have eviscerated what is left of our way of life, and allowed medicine to establish itself as an all-powerful and virtually incontestable religious cult. Dupuy is outspoken in his criticisms. Agamben’s “intellectual posturing,” he writes, is the “soft version” of the same “reactionary violence” as one sees in “American far-right groups…shouting, guns in hand, in front of the steps of their legislatures.” This is already unfair and entirely ad hominem, but then Dupuy goes further. With respect to Agamben’s concept of “bare life,” by which Agamben clearly and explicitly means life without the cultural qualifications that give life narrative shape and dignity, Dupuy claims as an implication of this concept that Agamben must “despise… the simple, ‘animal’ life of the poor landless peasants of the Brazilian northeast.” This seems to me to verge on slander as well as willful misreading.

Palaver, again, is milder and more temperate, but he too says that he is “upset” with Agamben. The relevant passage in Palaver’s interview with Die Zeit: where he expresses this consternation is worth quoting in full:

Agamben really upsets me. He is more papal than the Pope and more ecclesiastical than the Church. He claims that the Church has given up salvation and sacrificed it to health: because it sought salvation in history, it could only end in health. Nonsense! Why did Jesus heal people and take care of physical ailments? The many healings alone contradict Agamben’s theological escape from the world. I am the LORD, your doctor. Or think of the miracle of the multiplication of bread. When people are hungry, you have to do something! Agamben practices bad theology when he tears salvation and health apart.

… Agamben rightly laments an attitude for which health and survival are the most important things in life. But here one would have to ask: is it about my own life? Or is it the concern that applies to other people?

I can’t overlook the possibility that this is mistranscribed, mistranslated or just spoken hastily off the cuff, but, if this is what Palaver meant to say, I think he goes too far. Jesus certainly fed people and healed people, but he didn’t heal everyone or feed everyone. Indeed he fed and healed people so sparingly that it seems fair to say that such actions, when he performed them, were intended illustratively rather than administratively or programmatically. This is the great issue in Dostoevsky’s fable of the Grand Inquisitor. The Inquisitor reproaches his Lord for not turning stones into bread when he was challenged to do so. Because of this failure to allow for the weakness of suffering humanity, which cries always, “Enslave [us] but feed us!”, the Inquisitor says, it was necessary for the Church to step in to “correct and improve” the Gospel. I don’t mean to imply that Palaver takes his stand with the Grand Inquisitor, but only to point to a profound ambiguity in the Gospel view of Jesus as physician. Yes, there are feedings and healings, but there are also declarations that the Kingdom is “not of this world” and references to a way or a path so narrow or so arduous that “few find it.” It seems unwise therefore for Palaver to accuse Agamben of a “theological escape from the world.” Agamben has never claimed to be a theologian, and his defence of particular “forms of life,” like funerals for the dead or human solace for the dying, seems to me eminently worldly. What he lays at the Church’s door is to have forgotten the messianic, and therefore to have lost a necessary “dialectical tension” between history and what exceeds or interrupts history. It is only between “these poles,” Agamben claimed in an address to “the Church of our Lord” in Paris in 2009, that “a community can form and last.” Palaver may disagree, but, in that case, I would expect arguments rather than irritation and dismissal (“Nonsense!”)

The second point that Palaver makes is that the masked and distanced citizen is not necessarily concerned with his own life, but with the lives of others. Dupuy says just the same – it is not for myself that I take precautions but for others. Some of this is quite uncontroversial. Long before COVID I would have declined to go out into society with an infectious disease, and hoped for the same courtesy from others. But in a world where everyone is a danger to everyone else, and the threat of “asymptomatic transmission” inhibits all social interaction without exception, it seems to me that a limit of “responsibilization” has been reached and surpassed. Reconceptualizing society as an immune system writ large is a formula for social dissolution.

Palaver argues further that those who argue against lockdown and similar measures are preparing to “sacrifice the weak”. Behind this willingness he says stands “scapegoat logic” – the logic of the High Priest when he says, in the Gospel narratives of the Passion, that “it is better that one man should die than that the whole people should perish.” In the understanding that Palaver shares with his teacher René Girard, this was the archaic principle – timely sacrifice preserves social order – that first Judaism and then Christianity began to question and overturn. All “utility thinking,” Palaver says, reasserts “scapegoat logic.” “Only life can provide orientation,” he concludes. I agree, but much turns, as we shall see, on what is meant by life.

Before turning to Illich I can’t avoid saying, though with some trepidation, that in both Palaver and Dupuy, I feel I detect a note of panic. Once, long ago, after a lecture of Illich’s on Medical Nemesis, a member of his audience turned to a friend of Illich’s and asked in innocent perplexity, “What does he want? Let people die?” Both Dupuy and Palaver are more sophisticated, and more conversant with Illich’s work, than was this bemused young man, and yet both seem, finally, to have reached the same sticking point. Lives must be saved – more or less at all costs – and anyone who argues otherwise has blindly forsaken “the height of humanism” (Dupuy) and succumbed to “scapegoat logic” and “social Darwinism.” (Palaver)

Both my interlocutors think that “covidosceptics” are mistaking and abusing Illich’s claim that life has become “an idol” and “a fetish.” Palaver admits that Illich issued a salutary warning, but feels that Illich is being taken too prescriptively. Dupuy claims that’s Illich’s strictures on the “idolization of life” were intended only to prevent life’s degradation, not to in any way limit its protection and preservation. To get to the bottom of this we will first have to establish what Illich, in fact, said.

Sometime in 1985 a Baptist minister by the name of Will Campbell approached Illich after a lecture to a group of social workers in Macon, Georgia. In his private papers, Illich left behind a brief account, written ten years later, of this fateful meeting:

[Following the lecture] I noticed [a] man with…a…knotted walking stick coming towards me. He introduced himself as a preacher: “Will Campbell…who has to ask you for a great favour.” I gasped, because that name I knew, “If you are the one who animated Martin Luther King, do not ask me but simply command, I obey.” He mumbled something which ended in “…you darn papists” and then said, “You refused to speak about ‘life’. You see, ‘life’ is tearing our churches apart. There are those who condemn capital punishment, but not the A-bomb, and others who call for the execution of abortionists. I will gather the representatives of our Churches so that you can talk to them.”

I was frightened. I cast about in my mind what to make of such a call. Many months later, somewhere in Ohio, I faced the room full of ‘church leaders’ that Campbell had assembled. The mood was tense. A clergyman in the front row identified himself as the representative of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference and urged me to start with a prayer. This trap I had to refuse; I told him that I would start with a solemn, formal curse and asked those who did not stand for such a ceremony to leave. Then, dramatically, I raised my hands and repeated three times, “To Hell With Life.”

Beyond the curse I do not know what Illich said on this occasion – Ohio is a big place, the meeting left no further trace in Illich’s papers, and I’ve never encountered anyone who can tell me anything more about it – but four years later, in Chicago, Illich addressed a conference convened by the American Lutheran Church on the same subject. This lecture, called “The Institutional Construction of a New Fetish: Human Life” was published, three years later, in Illich’s book, In the Mirror of the Past. On that occasion Illich told his auditors, without qualification, that “life is the most powerful idol the Church has had to face in her history.” “More than the ideology of empire or feudal order, more than nationalism or progress, more than Gnosticism or enlightenment, the acceptance of substantive life as a God-given reality lends itself to a new corruption of the Christian faith.” The word “substantive” is important here, and I will return to it in a moment, but first I want to examine the claim that contemporary reverence for life corrupts Christian faith.

In the gospels, Jesus asserts, repeatedly, that He is Life.  “He does not say, ‘I am a life,’” Illich comments. “He says, ‘I am Life,’ tout court.” What is meant is more than merely being alive. The Life which Jesus incarnates and exemplifies can be given and received, Illich says, only as a gift. As such, it can be encountered, celebrated and shared, but it can never be ours to define or delimit, administer or control. This way of thinking and speaking about life, in which the word always implies a relationship to the One in whose gift Life lies, saturated the culture of Christendom for many centuries. “For much more than a millennium,” Illich says, “it was quite clear that people can be among the living and be dead, and other people can be dead and have life. This is not simply a religious statement; this…became an ordinary everyday assumption.” This everyday character is significant because it was Illich’s argument that the “preconditions for modernity” were created by this acculturation of “Gospel truths.” Modernity bent, folded and mutilated these truths, in his view, but it could never have come to be without them. This is why Illich dares to say that contemporary usage “abuses the word for the Incarnate God.” He considered this a historical rather than a theological judgment. Trace the word life back through its many expressions in the Western theological, philosophical and scientific tradition, he said, and it will become evident that its meaning, however altered, continues to be shaped within the field that emanates from Latin Christendom.

The way we speak of life is rooted in a civilization once suffused with belief in the Incarnation. And this “Christian ancestry,” is shared with “other key verities defining secular society.” But at the same time the word’s meaning has completely changed. It has become “substantive,” Illich says. By this he means both that it has taken on the character of a stuff – of something palpable – and that it has acquired substance in the more philosophical and theological sense of something that can exist in itself – it has become self-standing and self-sufficient.  That life has become a stuff can be seen, Illich claims, in the discourses of law, medicine, economics and ecology – all of which claim this stuff as both their jurisdiction and their justification. The law protects it – in several U.S. states one can even sue for “wrongful life” – medicine extends it – corporations administer it – as manpower or human resources – and ecology studies it. The science of genetics now knows its “language.” Demography and journalism tirelessly count its units. Lives lost index disaster; lives saved index social progress. The pursuit of health prolongs it; technology enhances it. Life is known, as never before and it is managed, as never before.

But, at the same time, life transcends all management as what Illich calls a “fetish.” This was a favourite word, chosen more for its power to shock than for any particular anthropological resonance. A fetish is a magical object with the power of channelling or fixating certain feelings. “Technological society,” he says, “is singularly incapable of generating myths to which people can form deep and rich attachments.” And yet such a society, just for its “rudimentary maintenance,” requires some way of commanding sentimental and not just rational allegiance. This is the role of the fetish. It is “a Linus blanket…that we can drag around to feel like decent defenders of sacred values”. Life is managed as a biopolitical resource, but, as a fetish, it is also something that can be “spoken about in hushed tones as something mysterious, polymorphic, weak, demanding tender protection.” What Illich calls ‘epistemic sentimentality” can thus attach itself to life, at the same time that life is being intensively managed. To live under the sign of life is to become adept at eliding these seemingly contradictory connotations. One learns to slide smoothly from one to the other without this operation ever having to come into consciousness as such. With a single verbal gesture, we revere what we manage, and manage what we revere.

Life, Illich says, “tends to void” both the moral and the legal “concept of a person.” For him, it is in “the notion of ‘person’ [that] the humanism of Western humanism is anchored.” A person possesses a clear boundary, and an inviolable integrity. A life does not. One is a person; one can, as the saying goes, “get a life.” Lives can be a evaluated and improved in ways that persons cannot. A doctor, facing me as a person, faces a certain story and a certain unknown destiny – there is a lot he or she must learn in order to treat me. A doctor facing me as a life can discern everything he or she needs to know from my test results. Lives vary, of course, as the skillful physician will recognize, but not quite in the same way that persons vary.

Life, for Illich, was also the sign of a profound change in “religiosity” – a term that he used to refer to the feelings, gestures and barely conscious dispositions that might not be captured by the more formal word religion. “My nose, my intuition, and also my reason tell me,” he said in 1992, “that we might be at a historical threshold, a watershed, a point of transition to a new stage of religiosity.” This idea had first taken hold of him a couple of years earlier, he told me, while he stood in the kitchen of the apartment of a group of graduate students whom he was visiting:

On the icebox door two pictures were pasted. One was the blue planet and one was the fertilized egg. Two circles of roughly the same size – one bluish, the other one pink. One of the students said to me, “These are our doorways to the understanding of life.” The term doorway struck me profoundly. This stuck with me for quite a few months, until, for a totally different reason, I…took down a book of Mircea Eliade[’s]. Eliade has been for many of us a teacher of religious science…And, going through this book, I came to the conclusion that better than anyone else I had studied he brings out the concept of sacrum. The term sacrum, the Latin noun corresponding to our sacred, has been used by religious scientists to describe a particular place in the topology of any culture. It refers to an object, a locality, or a sign which, within that culture, is believed to be – this young lady was right – a doorway. I had always thought of it as a threshold, a threshold at which the ultimate appears, that which, within that society, is considered to be true otherness, that which, within a given society, is considered transcendent. For Eliade, a society becomes a conscious unity not just in relation to neighboring societies – we are not you – but also by defining itself in relation to what’s beyond.

The pink disk and the blue disk, Illich concluded, performed, very precisely, the function Eliade described. Just as much as the megaliths at Stonehenge, the Ka’bah in Mecca, or the omphalos of the earth at ancient Delphi, they were sacrums. But, as “emblems for scientific facts,” they were sacrums of an entirely new kind. The “ultimate” which appeared at earlier “doorways” beckoned from a beyond that was transcendent – the opposite and other of this world with which it was understood to be radically discontinuous. What appears in the doorway of the two disks is more of the same – a realm of the invisibly small or the invisibly large to which we can gain access only with electron microscopes or the vast explosive power required to overcome gravity but which is yet no different than what is at hand. The doorways at which life is experienced and understood are, in Illich’s words, “a frontier with no beyond.” Like the endless virtuality that extends beyond the computer screen, they open to an infinity without difference. The new religiosity he had discovered was a “spirituality” of pure immanence, in which virtual objects, conjured out of the womb of technology, present both a here and a beyond at once.

Life as pure immanence is uniquely available – it opens itself to our microphones and our cameras, our microscopes and our scanners. Life is at our command, even as we are at life’s command. We manage what we praise, administer what we venerate. Both aspects are at play in the notion of responsibility for life which has played such an important role in the discourses of the pandemic and which seems to be the main concern of both my interlocutors. Palaver says, “We are responsible for each other’s life. It is our highest responsibility, for which we may even have to sacrifice our lives.”  Dupuy evokes “the risk of infecting one’s loved ones” as the standard one should apply to one’s own behaviour. To criticize either the ideological construction of the pandemic or the counter-productive measures adopted against it is to flirt with irresponsibility – the reckless disregard for the lives of others which both Dupuy and Palaver deprecate and fear. But the word responsibility, according to Illich, is something of a trap – a word that’s easier to get into than to get out of. The key issue for him is whether the thing for which I am said to be responsible is within my reach, within my power, and within my understanding. “Responsibility catches,” he says, by imputing to the one being made responsible some imaginary power– it might be the power to overcome racism, save life on earth, or end the pandemic by staying home. But very often Illich says this power “turns out to be phoney.” And that makes responsibility “the ideal base on which to build the new religiosity of which I speak, in the name of which people become more than ever administrable, manageable.”

No challenge is offered here to behaviour that is prudent, considerate or courteous. Illich’s concern was with illusion, moral grandiosity and epistemological confusion. The last is particularly important in the present case. Despite immediate domestication in a thousand cartoons as a spikey malevolent little demon, little was known about SARS COV-2 when it first appeared, and much is still in question, including its origins, the mortality it causes, its mode of transmission, and how it is best prevented and treated, But, at the same time, “consistent messaging” and “following the science” having been emphasized. This has been seen to require an effective censorship, first to keep perfectly normal scientific dissensus out of the news, and second to lend an air of obviousness and impregnability to what are in fact scientifically doubtful precautions. (An example of the first is the marginalization of dissenting public health experts like former Ontario chief medical officer of health Richard Schabas and former Manitoba head Joel Kettner in Canada. The best example of the second is the use of masks, dismissed as useless at the beginning of the pandemic, then, without new evidence, made compulsory and indisputable.)  This creates a strange situation with regard to responsibility. Real response-ability depends on an intelligible situation in which I can respond and reach a practical judgment about what to do. But the pandemic, while real for those who are ill, has also been played out in the realm of hypothesis, model, and metaphor. This means that responsibility is often exercised not in the face of an actual neighbour but in relation to a risk profile. This hypothetical neighbour, in effect, goes on for ever. And so we are, as Illich says, “caught.”

How we are caught is best illustrated by the idea of risk. This was the contemporaty preoccupation that most worried Illich, who called it today’s “most important religiously celebrated ideology.” “Risk awareness” he said is “an invitation to intensive self-algorithmization,” and, as such, it is “disembodying.” The crucial point is that risk does not pertain to an individual person – no one knows what will happen to me individually. It is a calculation of the frequency with which a given event will happen in a population or class that shares some attribute or set of attributes – a prediction of what might happen to someone like me. The individual is displaced or decentred and replaced by a mathematical construct. To speak about “my risk” is, therefore, to conflate what should be two entirely distinct ways of speaking, and to introduce a hypothetical dimension into my own flesh. Illich became aware of this predicament through the German legal regime which requires pregnant women to undergo genetic counselling, so that they can become conversant with the various risks attending their pregnancies and then make an informed choice – a responsible decision – about whether to proceed. Illich found this horrifying, particularly when he found out, through his friend and colleague Silya Samerski’s study of these counselling sessions, that women regularly mistook statements about risk as statements about their own pregnancies.

Risk in its colloquial meaning is part of living. No one could safely walk to the corner store without some estimate of possible hazards based on past experience. But, when formalized and mathematized risk defines a new type of social order that German sociologist Ulrich Beck called a “risk society” (Risokogesellschaft). In such a society an unprecedented intrusion of the hypothetical into the actual occurs. This is enacted in two ways. The first is that advanced modernity as a whole is a giant uncontrolled risk – an ongoing science experiment. We will find out what it means to have “weapons of mass destruction” stockpiled all over the world after the fact – the experiment is still in progress. The same is true for homelier examples like mobile phones or the internet – to take just two everyday technologies that are currently transforming social life in completely unpredictable ways. This element of uncontrolled and uncontrollable risk is inherent a way of life in which constant technological innovation is regarded as good, necessary and inevitable. “When you see something that is technically sweet,” said physicist Robert Oppenheimer, with reference to his leading role in the creation of nuclear weapons, “you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success.”

This uncontrolled, universal and barely endurable risk generates, it seems to me, a compensation: a zealous attention to those risks which apparently can be controlled. This is the second way in which Beck’s risk society is enacted – in our preoccupation with safety, our “zero tolerance,” our constant scanning for incipient “problems.” “Risk awareness” – “religiously celebrated,” as Illich says – is the complement to uncontained risk. This type of awareness requires people to live outside and beyond their embodied experience. It also requires them to dominate the future in a novel way. Once the likelihood of some unwanted eventuality has been ascertained, one can take steps to prevent its occurrence – the at-risk pregnancy is terminated, security cameras are installed, safety become the promise of every institution. Prudence passes over into obsession; “be safe” becomes the new farewell.

Illich, by his own account, lived for surprises. “Our hope of salvation,” he told the graduating class the University of Puerto Rico in 1969, “lies in our being surprised by the Other. Let us learn always to receive further surprises. I decided long ago to hope for surprises until the final act of my life – that is to say, in death itself.” In the first half of his career, he saw the routinization of charity through service institutions as the main threat to the spirit of surprise. Service institutions replace the fitful, spontaneous unreliable workings of personal vocation with a guaranteed response. Later I believe he saw “risk awareness” in the same light. A risk is a probability distribution in a population, it is not a person. A person invites discernment – careful attention to an unrepeatable story – a risk is an algorithm, an operational rule that tells you what to do in a case like this. But there may a world of difference between this case and a case like this. Surprise is the enemy when following a rule.

This is not to say that risk has no proper place in the world. An actuary needs precise knowledge of the frequency of certain adverse events; a surgeon would be remiss in not weighing the harms of intervention versus the benefits. Like much in Illich’s thought this is a question of degree, or balance. In medicine for example, one needs to ask whether knowledge of risk supplements personal knowledge of the patient, or replaces it, so that the patient, in effect, becomes the risk. The same question applies to the genetic counselling sessions for pregnant women that made such a big impression on Illich through Silya Samerski’s research. Does the woman being counselled know the difference between herself, and the risk that she carries as a member of a class?. To internalize risk is to become, in effect, somebody else. The unique is replaced by the general; the possible gives way to the probable; hope yields to calculable expectation. Risk becomes a problem when it moves from the position of a qualified and partial form of knowledge to a “religiously celebrated ideology”.

The god that rules the realm of risk is life. All is done to enhance, to extend and to save life. “I have got up each morning,” said British Health Minister Matt Hancock the other day, in extenuation of his conduct during the pandemic, “and I have asked, what must I do to protect life?” The interests of life mandate and superintend risk awareness. The concepts are akin in their generality. Both absorb the particular and the personal into the abstract and synoptic. One attends to risk, finally, in order to conserve life.

This astonishing and stupefying generality make life, according to Illich a plastic word. A plastic word is a word which is all connotation and no denotation, a word which can go anywhere and do anything because it is subject to no limit. It is a bare, unshaded light that is never turned off. Illich first spoke of such words as “amoeba words,” a term he used in Deschooling Society for a term “so flexible” that it can fit “any interstice of [a] language.” When Illich found a kindred spirit in Uwe Pörksen, a novelist and a professor of German literature at the University of Freiburg whom Illich met at the newly-established Wissenschaftkolleg in Berlin in 1980, they developed this concept further under the name of plastic words. Pörksen continued to work on what they began together and in 1988 published his book Plastikwörter: Die Sprache einer Internationalen Diktatur, which was translated into English as Plastic Words: The Tyranny of a Modular Language in 1995.

Plastic words, among other things, are words plucked from the vernacular and put through what Illich once called “a scientific laundry.” They then return to everyday use with a fresh scent of expertise and the appearance of wearing a lab coat. In the movie Cool Hand Luke, when the chain gang “captain” utters the often-quoted line, “What we’ve got here is…failure to communicate,” the irony depends on communication’s character as a plastic word. To communicate is no longer just to connect, as a communicating passageway connects, it is to engage a process which can be studied and formalized with scientific precision. To speak of communication is to refer to a realm in which an expert knows, better than you, when you’re communicating and when you’re not. The word information goes through a similar history. An old colloquial term was coopted by “information science” and reconstructed as a matter of signal to noise ratio or of bits and bytes. This lent the word an aura or halo which it retained in common use, so that when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation introduced “Information Radio,” it invoked a “communication” from this higher plane of science. The CBC wasn’t just telling you something – it was providing Information. Plastic words become professional resources. With communication or development, experts can build and make the world as malleable as the words themselves.

It was with “a sense of sudden horror,” therefore, that Illich realized that life might have become a plastic word – a word that functions primarily as a professional resource. He shared his reluctant intuition with Uwe Pörksen and found that his old friend was even more appalled than he at the idea that the word life could ever become a member of this egregious category:

When I came to Pörksen and said, “Uwe, I think I’ve found the worst of them, life, he became very silent. For the first time…I had the impression that he became angry with me, disappointed in me. He was offended. And it took about six months or nine months before we could speak about that issue again, because it is just unthinkable that something as precious and beautiful as life should act as an amoeba word.

Pōrksen’s horror was an index of Illich’s own.

To summarize then, before moving on to our current circumstances: Illich regarded life as an idol – a man-made god in whose form we worship ourselves, while at the same time generating a sacred which mandates and justifies our manipulation of living.  He claimed that life had become the object and anchor of “a new stage of religiosity” – a further perversion of the Biblical understanding of life as an implication of God’s breath. He thought that life had become a “substantive” – a stuff to be counted and conserved, a resource to be enhanced and administered. He held that the idea of each one as a person – a unrepeatable and inscrutable being pervaded by a “mysterious historicity” – was being replaced by system concepts in which individuality dissolves. And he believed finally that the word life had become the site of a fateful “conceptual collapse of the borderline” between “model and reality” and between “process and substance.” This collapse is expressed in our thinking that in becoming the protectors, champions and devotees of life we have touched life itself without remainder, reservation or detour.


How does all this pertain to the present situation, and to the fears of my interlocutors that Illich is being recklessly misappropriated by Dupuy’s “covidoskeptics”? Well the thing that impressed me most about the onset of the pandemic was the blind certainty with which everyone acted once the W.H.O. uttered the magic word pandemic on March 11, 2020. Formerly, the conventional wisdom in public health would have urged prudence, calm, and targeted action to quarantine the sick and protect the vulnerable. But, now, suddenly, it was understood by all, seemingly, that fear was our friend and ally, that as many as possible must be quarantined for as long as possible, and that any policy that hinted at accommodation with this new reality was reckless – “Herd immunity’s a great strategy, if you don’t mind millions of dead,” as one Canadian headline read. To my amazement, the ugly term lockdown, previously used mainly in prisons and occasionally in schools, completely changed its valence and became an expression of our regard for one another. Other surprises, for me, were that the “health care system” had to be “protected” from a health emergency and that we would religiously “follow the science” long before there was any relevant science to follow. Epidemiologist like John Ionannidis of Stanford were ignored when they warned of a “fiasco” amounting to “jumping off a cliff” if draconian policies were adopted before anyone knew for sure just how infectious and how lethal the new disease actually was.

It quickly became difficult to question the costs of lockdown. Scientific dissensus, though widespread, was largely swept under the carpet. “Canada is at war” declared a major Canadian newspaper, and dissent, in wartime, can be construed as treason. In Canada a distinguished group of public health veterans, including several former chief medical officers of health, released a statement calling for the restoration of “a balanced approach” in which harms are intelligently weighed against benefits and a single disease is not the sole focus and preoccupation of government policy. This statement was ignored, and those who signed it were largely excluded from major media. An effective censorship was established. When three eminent epidemiologists – Sunetra Gupta, Jayanta Bhattacharya and Martin Kulldorf – produced the Great Barrington Declaration, calling for a policy of what they called “Focused Protection” in place of universal quarantine, their intervention was not even reported in major Canadian media, despite the fact that all they were arguing for was the restoration of the status quo ante in public health. More recently the College of Physicians of Ontario, the medical governing body in my native province, has threatened “investigation” and “disciplinary action” against physicians questioning vaccination, the utility of masks and social distancing, and the value of lockdowns. Whether in the media, in medicine or in government only approved opinions are to be expressed.

Of particular concern to me in this has been the reinforcement of what I have written about elsewhere as the myth of Science, by which I mean essentially the idea that there is an institution called Science which speaks in a single unquestionable voice. Whenever someone speaks of “the science” this myth is engaged. Sciences, by their nature, are plural, contestable and subject to endless messy revision. To speak of them in the singular, and then treat this conflation as an oracle, has two profoundly pernicious consequences. First it pre-empts policy. Neither the harms supposedly averted by lockdowns nor the harms supposedly created by them are definite data. There is no science that can precisely ascertain either because, in both cases, certain questionable founding assumptions will be involved, along with many other models and might-have-beens. (Not to belabour what should be obvious, but the same society cannot be, at the same time, locked down and not locked down, which is the only way that a definitive “scientific” comparison between the two conditions could be undertaken.) This is why people, at the moment, are so passionately and, I would claim, quite legitimately divided on the effectiveness of lockdowns – they are starting from different assumptions, comparing dissimilar cases, and making varying allowances and adjustments for these dissimilarities. To imagine that “Science” could sort all this out is, in my opinion, a destructive and reactionary fantasy. Politics is the sphere of moral choice – the sphere in which decisions about how we are going to live are properly made. Science simply cannot tell you whether it’s right to let an old person die alone in order to obviate some necessarily hypothetical risk of spreading infection. “Following the science” in cases where science either doesn’t apply or doesn’t exist is, therefore, a formula for the complete hollowing out of politics. I have for a long time agreed with the view of French philosopher of science Bruno Latour who holds that we can only get “down to earth” through a revival of politics and that this revival will depend on a redefinition of the sciences that breaks the stranglehold of mythified Science on politics. It seems to me, accordingly, that the reinforcement of the myth of Science that the pandemic has made possible is something that must be fought.

The second pernicious consequence of this myth is the injury to the sciences themselves. Despite the censorship that has been exercised during the pandemic, anyone with an open mind and a variety of sources will still have noticed the fundamental disagreements that have divided epidemiologists, virologists, infectious disease specialists and public health experts from the outset. These disagreements are normal, expectable and healthy. What has been unhealthy is the fiction of unanimity upheld by those claiming to know and to follow the science. This fiction, in my view, perpetuates a false image of the sciences in which all variability, contingency and bias is suppressed. Worse, its fundamentalism breeds the very anti-science which it intends to oppose. The sciences will thrive and serve their proper purposes only when they are no longer mistaken for the voice of Nature or the voice of God.

The policies of mass quarantine followed by many governments during the last year have sown various ominous and fateful consequences. Basic rights have been eliminated; livelihoods have been lost; a crippling debt has been incurred; social relations have been virtualized; panic has been encouraged; the arts have been decimated; and a hundred other troubles have festered as a result of an exclusive focus on COVID-19. Whether the benefits of these policies have offset these costs is, as I’ve tried to show, a political question. I’m obviously doubtful and inclined to think that the “focused protection” option put forward by the Great Barrington Declaration would have been the wiser course. But what really preoccupies me is why something so clearly debatable cannot, seemingly, be debated.  And this is where I think Illich comes back into the picture.

Illich, as far back as the 1980’s, detected among his contemporaries a new “conceptual and perceptual topology,” a new “mental space,” he said, which was “non-continuous with the past.” It seems to me that the concepts behind which most have obediently lined up in the last year belong to this new topology. Notable are the concepts of risk, safety, management, and, above all, life. We have been “practicing” and acculturating these ideas for many years, but it took a pandemic to show how completely they have taken hold. Mass quarantine appeared as an unquestionably necessary step, and not as a debatable novelty, because life must be protected, risk must be averted, safety must be paramount. The damage to established styles of conviviality and engrained cultural habits was endurable because these new concepts increasingly determine our way of life – they are our culture. The idea of distancing and avoidance as a practice of solidarity worked because enough people already thought of themselves as components of an immune system – a life writ large – rather than as members of a polity or culture. The contrast was stark in the case of religious worship. The rituals of health and safety were approved and encouraged; religious rituals were banned. The first were treated as consensual, substantive, and mandatory; the second as empty optional husks practiceable only at the pleasure of the state.

When Illich wrote on “deschooling,” promoting it as the sine qua non of any “movement for human liberation” he argued not for the elimination of schools but for their “disestablishment” – a word most of his readers would have associated entirely with religion. The government, says the first amendment to the U.S. constitution, may “make no law with respect to an establishment of religion.” Illich’s proposal failed because few shared his opinion that schooling should be considered “an establishment of religion” rather than as something more utilitarian. Religion becomes perceptible as such only when it becomes an optional belief, rather than a self-evident way of life. It was precisely in order to marginalize and contain it that religion was redefined as belief, rather than as practice, during the modern period.

My point is that Illich’s “new stage of religiosity,” centred on life, is not easy to perceive as such. It may stand out for committed members of the Abrahamic faiths which centre life in the One in whom “we live and move and have our being” and so do not see the preservation and prolongation of life as either an exclusive good or as the highest good. But for those who live within the horizons of this religiosity, it must necessarily take the form of something obvious and unquestionable. When I spoke recently to a surgeon who wanted to convince me to have a surgery which he believed would extend my “life expectancy,” I had the impression that he simply could not understand how any other object – a seeking after the proper “hour of my death” for example – was even possible.  Life, for him, is an unlimited good, death an unqualified evil. Whatever is made sacred becomes untouchable and unquestionable. Before life, as that precious stuff which we must at all hazards save, all must bow and fall silent. This allows government to go on behind a veil, as it were. The image is precise inasmuch as it was a veil which sheltered the Holy of Holies from view in the Second Temple in Jerusalem. It was this veil which the Gospels say was torn in two at the hour of the Crucifixion, profaning the old sacred and opening the door, eventually, to our reverence for life-in-itself, life as its own god.

To sum up: I believe that during the last year people have been made less competent, less aware, more frightened and more prone to ritualism and sentimentality. Fatal myths, like the myth of the Science, have been strengthened. More people have been consigned to the new proletariat whose only remaining job is to collect welfare, consume entertainment and cheer on command. The World Economic Forum has been emboldened to cook up its Great Reset by which monopoly capitalism will be finally made indistinguishable from socialism. Disabling professional hegemonies have been reinforced. Difficult conversations – about Covid vaccination, let’s say – have been more difficult, if not impossible, by reckless polarization. The sovereign who authorizes these developments is Life, along with the lesser, attendant divinities who carry its train, like risk, safety and management.  I believe that Illich saw this coming, and that I remain in tune with him on this point.

Earlier I told the story of the young man who wondered, after listening to Illich lecture on Medical Nemesis whether Ilich’s proposal was to “let people die.” I’m sure the same question could now be asked of me. It’s a strange question become it implies that it’s up to me, or Illich, or whoever else might be challenged in this way, to allow or not allow death. Ancient images of the Fates show them spinning and cutting the cloth of destiny, allotting each one an unchangeable portion at birth. The contemporary image is the opposite. Nothing determines our fates except the vigilance of the institutions that protect us. We will live until, at the termination of treatment, we are “let” die. The hubris of this image mirrors the fatalism of the earlier one. Illich was a man of “the middle way,” which for him meant not mediocrity but the razor’s edge of constantly renewed discernment. He did not advocate wantonly letting people die, and no more did he advocate keeping them alive whatever the cost. Nothing will tell us in advance where the balance should lie, but we will certainly never find it by outlawing discussion.

The idea that life and death, or good and evil are inextricably tangled in the world is not a new idea, and should not be a controversial one. Christians have the parable of the wheat and the tares to teach it to them; Buddhists have the idea that good and evil are of “co-dependent origin.” Only in a civilization completely seized by what Illich once called “a compulsion to do good” would this idea require defense or explication. But, having to defend it puts the defender in the peculiar position of seeming to speak for whatever evil the latest war is supposedly rooting out. I believe it was Illich’s view, expressed in his wonderful essay “Research by People”, that a rough and ready distinction can be drawn between technology that “remedies” certain ills and incommodities of the human condition and technology that aims, in Francis Bacon’s words, at “mastery over nature.” This idea of technology as remedy which he ascribes to Hugh of St. Victor, is as close as he ever came, and as close as he thought he was ever likely to come, to specifying a principle of enoughness, sufficiency or limit on which a new post-Promethean, post-Baconian philosophy of technology could be founded. However, this principle is construed it will certainly stipulate things not to be done as well as things to be done. Life, on the other hand, exerts an unlimited demand. It is the monotonous, unshadowed and endless good that corrupted Christianity bequeaths to modernity.  In the last year we have pursued it as never before and without even noticing the watershed that is being crossed. To “save lives” we have turned the world upside down, accepting censorship and intrusive social control, abandoning the old, and immolating the economically marginal. We have allowed a further mythification of what was already badly mythified – Science as an immaculately conceived and infallible oracle. We have opened the door to intensive virtualization, increased fear, and injured conviviality. Was it worth it? is my question.

To conclude then: Both Wolfgang Palaver and Jean-Pierre Dupuy have suggested that Illich is either being misinterpreted or pressed too far. In response, I have tried to draw out the implications of Illich’s denunciation of life as an idol, and to show that what his “nose, his intuition and his reason” told him forty years ago has been much more fully revealed and realized in the meanwhile. What I would now like to know is where the difference with my interlocutors lies. Do they think I am wrong about the damage done in the last year? Do they think I am misrepresenting Illich? Or do they think that Illich himself is wrong?

David Cayley,
june 11, 2021.


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