In Defense of Vernacular Ways

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The crises continue to accumulate: the economic crisis, the ecological crisis, the social crisis, crises upon crises. But as we try to create “solutions,” we distressingly find ourselves up against a limit, discovering that the only alternatives we can imagine are merely modifications of the same. Proposed solutions to the economic crisis toss us back and forth between two immobile poles: free market or regulated market. When we face the ecological crisis, we decide between sustainable technology or unsustainable technology. Whatever our personal preference, a little to this side or a little to that side, we all unwittingly play according to the same rules, think with the same concepts, speak the same language. We have forgotten how to think the new – or the old.

Ivan Illich, priest, philosopher, and social critic, is not a figure that most would expect to read about in a Marxist magazine. But he identified this problem long ago, and argued that the only “way out” was a complete change in thinking. His suggestion, both as concept and historical fact, was the “vernacular.” We will not escape from capitalism through the rationality of the scientist of history; nor will we get any help from the standpoint of the proletariat. The firm ground of Illich’s critique was precapitalist and preindustrial life in common.

Even those who reject this position must meet its challenge. Those for whom politics is embedded in the proliferation of postmodern “lifestyles,” inflected with pseudo-Marxist jargon, will have to recognize that the only model we have of forms of life based on direct access to the means of subsistence is precisely the “vernacular” that Illich proposes. Alternatively, those who locate emancipation in a Marx-inflected narrative of technological progress must to face Illich’s deep criticisms of developmentalism, scientism, and progressivism. The following is a challenge not only to capitalism and the experts who defend it, but also to its critics.

Mind Trap 1: the economic crisis

Ignoring his own contributions to the festivities, George W. Bush recently scolded those on Wall Street for getting drunk on the profits from selling unpayable debts.1 The resulting collapse of financial markets heralded the end of the party. The drunks seem to have sobered up without themselves suffering the consequent hangover. Instead, in the U.S. and elsewhere, a growing number of people are left stranded without homes, jobs, food, or medicines in the wake of that twenty-year long binge. In the opinion of some, the prospects of full employment or secure retirements for US citizens are a distant and unlikely dream. As recently as April 19th 2011, The McDonald Corporation conducted a national hiring day. Almost one million people applied for those jobs, known neither for their lavish pay nor for their agreeable working conditions. McDonald’s hired a mere six percent of these applicants, as many workers in one day as the number of net new jobs in the US for all of 2009.2

Unsurprisingly, diagnoses of what went wrong have proliferated fast and furiously. Of the many explanations offered, three stand out.3 First, in a spirit of self-examination, economists have concluded that their scientific models of how people behave and asset prices are determined were wrong and contributed to their inability to anticipate the crisis. That is, economists confessed to their ignorance of how economies work. Since their earnest attempts to improve these models are unlikely to question the credulity that forms the shaky foundations of financial markets, it is likely that the future of financial and macroeconomics will resemble the epicycles and eccentricities of Ptolemaic astronomy in the time of its decline.4

Second, journalists, policy makers, and economists who began to sing a different tune after the crisis erupted, find fault with the ideology of neo-liberalism. There is widespread recognition now that deregulated and unregulated markets allowed commercial and investment banks to invent and trade in financial instruments that carried systemic risks and contributed to the failure of credit and capital markets. This doctrine that unfettered markets produce the greatest economic benefit for the greatest number, while embarrassed, is not in full retreat, at least in the U.S.5 That neo-liberal ideology is not vanquished by its evident failures is related to the third cause identified in these diagnostic exercises.

If ignorance excused economists and policy makers from anticipating the crisis and widely worn ideological blinkers exacerbated it, then it is badly designed incentives that are generally fingered as the most prominent and proximate cause of the crisis. Accordingly, much ink has been spilled on redesigning incentives to more effectively rein in the “animal spirits” that derail economies from their presumed path of orderly growth. As such, incentives are a flaw that recommends itself as remedy.

This conceit is perhaps best exposed in the report authored by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission of the US government.6 For instance, in indicting the process and methods for generating and marketing mortgage-backed securities, the commission emphasizes that incentives unwittingly encouraged failures at every link of the chain. Low-interest rates allowed borrowers to refinance their debts and use their homes as ATM cards; lucrative fees drove mortgage brokers to herd up subprime borrowers; the demand for mortgages from Wall Street induced bankers to lower lending standards; rating agencies stamped lead as gold because paid to do so by investment bankers; the latter distributed these toxic assets worldwide relying on mathematical models of risk; and the C-suite of the finance, insurance, and real estate sectors presided over the house of card because handsomely rewarded for short term profits. Unsurprisingly, changing these incentives through more stringent regulations and better-specified rewards and punishments to guide the behaviors of different market participants occupy most of its recommendations for the path forward.7

This peculiar combination of ignorance, ideology, and incentives used to explain the economic crisis, also illuminates the space of contemporary politico-economic thought. Most of the heated debates on how to ensure orderly growth, center on the quantum of regulation necessary to control economic motives without stifling them. Accordingly, thinking about economic matters vacillates on a fixed line anchored by two poles-free markets on the one end and markets fettered by legally enforced regulations at the other. Only a brief exposé can be afforded here of the lineaments of this thought-space circumscribed almost two centuries ago.8

Around 1700, Bernard Mandeville acerbically exposed the mechanism driving economic growth. Poetically, he pointed out that it was the vices—vanity, greed, and envy—that spurred the expansion of trade and commerce. In baring the viciousness that nourished the desire to accumulate riches, he also left to posterity the problem of providing a moral justification for market activity.9 Adam Smith provided a seemingly lasting rhetorical solution to this moral paradox. First, he collapsed the vices into “self-interest” and so removed the sting of viciousness from the vices by renaming them. Second, he grounded “self-interest” in a natural desire to “better our condition” that began in the womb and ended in the tomb and so moralized it.10 Third, he invoked an invisible hand to transmute the self-interest of individuals into socially desirable benefits. Not only was the passage from the individual to the social thereby obscured by providential means but the private pursuit of riches was also justified by its supposed public benefits.

Thus, Smith hid the paradox unveiled by Mandeville behind a rhetorically pleasing façade. The uncomfortable insight that private vice leads to public benefit was defanged by the notion that public benefits accrue from the unflinching pursuit of self-interest. Whereas the former revealed the vicious mechanism fueling commercially oriented societies, the latter made it palatable. Faith in the efficacy of the inscrutable invisible hand thereby underwrote the purported “natural harmony of interests,” according to which the butcher and the baker in each pursuing his own ends unwittingly furthers the wealth of the nation at large.

Smith’s rhetorical convolutions were necessary because he excised use-value from political economy and founded the latter entirely on exchange-value. In contrast to his predecessors for whom the economic could not be separated from ethics and politics, Smith carves out a space for the economic by defining its domain by the determinants of market prices.11 He accepted Locke’s arguments: that labor is the foundation of property rights; that applying labor transforms the commons into private property; that money ignites acquisitiveness; and that accumulation beyond use is just.12 Smith deliberately ignores the commons and emboldens the market because it is the sphere in which acquisitiveness flourishes. He curtails his inquiry to exchange-value in full awareness of the contrasting “value-in-use.” Even if not in these precise terms, the distinction between “exchange-value” and “use-value” was known to both Aristotle and Smith. Yet, Smith is perhaps the first who recognizes that traditional distinction and nevertheless rules out use-value as a legitimate subject of an inquiry on wealth.13 For Aristotle, it was precisely the distinction between use and exchange that grounded the distinction between appropriate acquisition and inappropriate accumulation. More generally, it is when considerations of justice and the good constitute the starting point of thinking about man that profit-seeking becomes visible as a force that rends the political community into a commercial society. By encouraging self-interestedness, Smith allows the vainglorious pursuit of wealth to overshadow virtue as the natural end for man.14 By focusing economic science on exchange values, Smith privileges the world of goods over that of the good. The price Smith pays for ignoring use-value is the need to invoke providential the mystery by which self-interest becomes socially beneficial. Since Smith, neo-classical economics has either disavowed the distinction between use and exchange value or confessed to being incapable of understanding use-value.15 By insisting that the valuable must necessarily be useful, Marx, unlike Aristotle, could not rely on the latter to criticize the former.16

Nevertheless, it was soon discovered that individual self-interest did not “naturally” produce social benefits. Vast disparities in wealth, endemic poverty, miserable living conditions, and persistent unemployment constituted some of the many socially maligned consequences of unfettered market activity. To account for these visible failures in the natural harmony of interests, a second formula, due to Jeremy Bentham, was therefore paired to it. An “artificial harmony of interests” forged through laws and regulations were deemed necessary to lessen the disjunction between private interests and public benefits. That is, state interventions in the form of incentives – whether coded in money or by law- were thought necessary to prod wayward market participants to better serve the public interest.17

Accordingly, it is this dialectic between the natural and artificial harmony of interests that encodes the poles of the Market and the State and constitutes the thought-space for contemporary discussions on economic affairs.18 Too little regulation and markets become socially destructive; too much regulation and the wealth-creating engines fueled by self-interest begin to sputter. And yet, the continuum constituted by these two poles is unified by a common presupposition: that use-value is of no use to commerce and that the egoism implied by self-interest is both necessary and natural to commercial expansion.

Though the economic crisis has, once again, exposed the Mandevillian foundations of commercial society, thinking about it continues to function in the space marked out by Smith, Bentham and the founders of that philosophical radicalism, which erected the morality of a society oriented by exchange value on the foundation of egoism. When confined to this thought-space, one is condemned to relying, in alternating steps, on the interrelated logics of free and regulated markets. The question remains whether there is an alternative to the thought-space constituted by the State and the Market. Perhaps the answer to this question lies in taking a distance to what these logics presume: that exchange-value is of preeminent worth and that possessive individuals are to be harnessed to that cause.

Mind Trap 2: the environmental crisis

Boarded up homes and idle hands are to the ongoing crisis in economic affairs, what disappearing fish and poisoned airs are to the oncoming environmental crisis. A generation after Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner, scientists are now of almost one mind: humankind’s activities on the earth have so changed it, that the species is now threatened by disaster on a planetary scale.19 What poets and prophets once warned in verse, scientists now tell us through statistics and models. Lurking beneath those dry numbers is a growing catalog of horrors – rising seas, raging rivers, melting glaciers, dead zones in the oceans, unbearable hot spots on land – that foretell an unlivable future.

Were the picture they paint not so dire, it would be laughably ironic that scientists and technocrats now disavow the fruits of the very techno-scientific machine they once served to midwife. But it is certainly tragic that in thinking about what can be done to avert the impending crisis, scientists and engineers no less than politicians and corporate bosses insist on more of the same. Attention is now directed at inventing methods to not only mitigate the physical effects of runaway industrialization, but also to re-engineer the human psyche to better adapt to such effects. Thus, from recycling plastic and increasing fuel mileage in cars to devising towers to sequester carbon undersea and engineering carbon eating plants, the proposed solutions range from the mundane to the bizarre. More generally, the debate on what to do about the conflict between economic growth and ecological integrity is anchored by two poles: at the one end, “eco-friendly” or “sustainable” technologies, and at the other, presumably “unsustainable” or environmentally destructive ones.

Thus man’s survival appears as a choice between the Prius, solar panels, biodegradable paper bags, local foods, and high density urban lofts on the one hand, and the Hummer, oil tanks, plastic bags, industrialized foods, and suburbia on the other. Eco-friendly technologies may change the fuel that powers our energy slaves but does nothing to change our dependence on them. That the fruits of techno-science have turned poisonous is seen as a problem calling for more and improved technical solutions implying that the domain of technology forms the horizon of ecological thought.20 That more and different technology is the dominant response to its failure suggests that the made (techne) has replaced the given (physis). Ecological thought is confined to the space framed by technology partly because of the unstated assumption that knowledge is certain only when it is made.

It was Vico who announced the specifically modern claim that knowledge is made, that verum et factum convertuntur (the true and the made are convertible; have identical denotation). It is true that the schoolmen, in thinking through the question of the Christian God’s omnipotence and omniscience, argued his knowledge was identical to his creations. They argued this by insisting that through his creative act (making something from nothing) he expressed elements already contained within Himself. God knows everything because he made it all from his own being. However, the schoolmen humbly held that the identity of making and knowing applied only to God. Man, being created, could not know himself or other natural kinds in the manner akin to God. Since scientia or indubitable knowledge was the most perfect kind of knowledge, and nature or physis was already given to man, it implied that man could not scientifically know the sublunary world. It took a Galileo and a Descartes to turn this understanding on its head.21

These early moderns were “secular theologians” who tried to marry heaven and earth. They argued that geometrical objects or forms – such as triangles and squares – were unearthly. At best, such mathematical objects were “ideas” formed by the creative act of the imagination. The imagination as a site of creative activity entailed that it be unhinged from what is given. Exemplified by mathematical objects, whose perfection owes little, if anything, to the imperfect beings of the world, the secular theologians thus argued that the truth of ideas is guaranteed by the very fact that they are made.22

The perfect and timeless shapes of geometry were once thought to be applicable only to the unmoving heavens. The sublunary sphere of generation, change, and decay was not susceptible to immobile mathematical forms. But according to the secular theologians, what was good for the heavens was good enough for the earth. By insisting that the book of nature was written in “measure, weight and number,” these early moderns raised the earth to the stars.

For them, beneath the blooming, buzzing, phenomenal world lurked the laws of nature inscribed in mathematically formulated regularities. Thus the made lay beneath the given, it required arduous experimentation – the vexing of nature – to unveil these insensible but imagined laws. Accordingly, mathematical forms and laboratory experiments constituted the preeminent methods for constructing knowledge of the world. Unhinged from the given because committed to the cause of the made, techno-science shook off its Aristotelian roots, where experience was the memorable formed from long immersion in the regularities of the world, genesis and movement were impossible to know with certainty but only for the most part, and beings in the world were possessed of substantive natures.23

Prideful immodesty was not the only reason that early modern philosophers brought the heavens to the earth. They also did so for charitable reasons. Moved by concern for the poor this-worldly condition of man, they sought to improve man’s estate by escaping what is given – food technologies to erase hunger, cars and planes to overcome the limits of time and space, medicines to eliminate disease, and now genetic manipulations to perhaps even cheat death. Thus, pride and charity infuse that potent and world-making brew we call techno-science.24

Modern techno-science grew, a bit topsy-turvy, but always cleaving close to these founding impulses. The pride that compels to know-by-construction continues to be wedded to the charity fueling the production of artifacts that better our condition by transmogrifying it. Whether TV’s or theorems, the modern techno-scientific endeavor is one by which, Entis rationis, creations or constructions of the mind, are projected and given form as entis realis, things realized. Caught in this closed loop between mind and its projections, everywhere he looks, man now sees only what he has made. Instead of recovering the garden of his original innocence, modern man is now faced with the growing desert of his own making. Yet, trapped by the premise of the identity between knowing and making, contemporary thought remains unable to think of anything other than remaking what has been badly made.25

Perhaps it is this commitment to the proposition that we can know only what we make, to knowledge by construction, that forces us to be trapped within the techno-scientific frame. The environmental crisis has exposed the Achilles heel of unrestrained techno-scientific progress. Yet, faith in Progress and in Knowledge as the currency of Freedom remains unshaken. Shuttling between the poles of “sustainable” and “unsustainable” technologies, the former is proffered as the new and improved cure for the diseases caused by the latter. And once more, disinterested curiosity and solicitous concern for the welfare of others justify and reaffirm faith in salvation through technology. To escape this debilitating confine perhaps requires being disabused of the prejudicial identity between knowing and making, which animates techno-science.

Planely speaking, but not entirely

The space constituted by the dialectic between a natural and artificial “harmony of interests” enfolds the relation between free and regulated markets. The politics of a commercial republic is oriented to the satisfaction of human needs through commodities. To continually increase the satisfaction of needs, market societies must expand the sphere of commodity dependence, that is, the relentless pursuit economic growth. The production and consumption of commodities presupposes the worker and the consumer, and regardless of who owns the means of production or how profits are distributed, economic growth requires workers/consumers. Even if workers are no more likely to find well-paying jobs than are debt saturated consumers likely to buy more stuff, the social imaginary formed of workers and consumers persists. Accordingly, any effort to see beneath or beyond this confining thought-space must take its distance to this industrial mind-set formed by the thoroughgoing dependence on commodities.

Similarly, the debate on the necessity of “eco-friendly” technologies that carry a lower “ecological footprint” presupposes man as operator instead of as user.26 The user is transformed into an operator when the power of a tool overwhelms that of its user. Thus, whether it is a Prius or a Hummer, both aim to improve man’s condition by frustrating his natural ability and capacity to walk. Both demand skilled operators to steer, and neither permits the degrees of freedom necessary for autonomous use. Whether promoted by the technocrat or ecocrat, men are disabled by and become dependent on their artifacts when the latter are designed for operators instead of enabling users.

The ordinary and everyday meaning of usefulness embeds it within both human purposes and human actions. A thing is useful insofar as it unleashes and extends the capacities of the user; as long as it can be shaped, adapted, and modified to fit the purposes of its users. Therefore, the capacity of a thing to be useful is limited by the innate powers or natural thresholds of the user. For example, a bicycle calls for users because it only extends the innate capacity for self-mobility. In contrast, the automobile requires immobile if adept machine operators. In this sense, the former is a convivial technology where the latter is manipulative. A hand-pump or a well can be used to raise water for drinking or bathing. In contrast, a flush-toilet or a dam must be operated to pipe or store a liquid resource. Thus, to bring to light was has been cast into the shadows requires exposing the disabling features of some technologies.

Accordingly, whatever lies beyond the thought-space marked by the dialectic of the State-Market on the one hand and that of the sustainable-unsustainable technology on the other, it must be heterogeneous to both the worker/consumer and the operator. In this search, two caveats are to be kept in mind. First, even if the question is addressed to the present, the answer must be sought for in the past. One is obliged to rummage in the dustbin of history to recover what was once muscled into it. Otherwise, imagined futures would give wing to utopian dreams just like those that have now turned nightmarish. Second, there is no going back to the past and there is no choice between the (post)industrial and the traditional immured in habit and transmitted by memory. The dependence on commodities and manipulative technologies has been and continues to be established on the destruction of alternative modes of being and thinking. There is little of the latter around, even as millions of peasants and aboriginal peoples are daily uprooted and displaced in China, India, and Latin America. But it would be sentimental and dangerous to think that one can or should bring back the past. Instead, the task for thought is to find conceptual criteria to help think through the present.27

The Vernacular Domain

Ivan Illich proposed to revivify the word “vernacular” to name a domain that excludes both the consumer and the operator. The appropriate word to speak of the domain beyond dependence on commodities and disabling technologies is fundamental to avoiding one or both of two confusions. First, the presuppositions of economics and techno-science are likely to be anachronistically projected into forms-of-life that lie outside or beyond the thought space constituted by them. This is obvious when economists retro-project fables of the diamond and water “paradox,” “utility-maximization” and “scarcity” into pre-modern texts. So does the historian of technology who indifferently sees the monkey, Neanderthal man, and the university student as tool users. In a related vein, forms-of-life orthogonal to techno-scientifically fueled economies are likely to be misunderstood. Thus, those who today refuse modern conveniences are labeled Luddites or just cussed, while those who get by outside the techno-scientific and commodity bubbles are classified as backward or poor.

A second, more potent, confusion flourishes in the absence of a word adequate to the domain outside technologically intensive market societies. Disabling technologies no less than wage work can produce or generate unpaid toil. That the spinning jenny and the computer have put people out of work is well-known. But it is less familiar that waged work necessitates a shadowy unpaid complement. Indeed, wage work is a perhaps diminishing tip of the total toil exacted in market-intensive societies. Housework, schoolwork, commuting, monitoring the intake of medicines or the outflows from a bank account are only a few examples of the time and toil devoted to the necessary shadow work compelled by commodity-intensive social arrangements. To confuse the shadow work necessitated by the separation of production and consumption with the unpaid labor in settings where production is not separated from consumption is to misunderstand shadow work as either autonomous action or the threatened and shrinking spaces outside the market.28

Indicative of this confusion is the use of such terms as “subsistence economy,” “informal economies,” or “peasant economy” to refer to what has been cast into the shadows. By adding an adjective to the “economy,” historians and anthropologists unwittingly reinforce the grip of what they intend to weaken. By merely modifying the “economy” they are nevertheless beholden to its presuppositions. A similar weakness attends the term “subsistence.” While its etymology is noble and invokes that which is self-sufficient and stands in place, its modern connotations are irredeemably narrow and uncouth. In primarily invoking the modes by which people provided for their material needs – food and shelter – “subsistence” reinforces the economic by negation. With its connotations of “basic necessities” or “bare survival,” subsistence desiccates the varied and multifarious forms-of-life once and still conducted beyond the space circumscribed by the machine and the market. One cannot speak of “subsistence architecture” as one can of vernacular architectures. “Peasant” or “informal” does not modify dance and song, prayer and language, food and play. And yet, these are integral to a life well-lived, and at least historically, were neither commodified nor the products of techno-science. It is to avoid such blinding confusions that Illich argued for rehabilitating the word “vernacular.”29

Though from the Latin vernaculum, which named all that was homebred, homemade, and homespun, it was through Varro’s restricted sense of vernacular speech that the word “vernacular” enters English. The history of how vernacular speech was transmuted into a “taught mother tongue,” is an exemplar of not only what lies beyond the contemporary thought-space but also for what may be worthy of recuperation in modern forms.30

Elio Antonio de Nebrija was a contemporary of Christopher Columbus. In 1492, he petitioned Queen Isabella to sponsor a tool to quell the unruly everyday speech of her subjects. In the Spain of Isabella, her subjects spoke in a multitude of tongues. To discipline the anarchic speech of people in the interest of her power Nebrija noted, “Language has always been the consort of empire, and forever shall remain its mate.” To unify the sword and the book through language, Nebrija offered both a rulebook for Spanish grammar and a dictionary. In a kind of alchemical exercise, Nebrija reduced lived speech to a constructed grammar. Accordingly, this conversion of the speech of people into a national language stands as a prototype of the forays in that long war to create a world fit for workers/ consumers and operators.

Nebrija fabricated a Spanish grammar as a tool to rule enlivened speech. Because standardized and produced by an expert, his grammar had to be taught to be effective. Moreover, following grammatical rules for speech conveys the belief that people cannot speak without learning the rules of grammar. By this dispensation, the tongue is trained to repeat the grammatical forms it is taught; the tongue is made to operate on language. Hence, the natural ability to speak that can be exercised by each and all is transformed into an alienable product requiring producers and consumers. The conversion of everyday speech into a teachable mother tongue thus renders what is abundant into the regime of scarcity – to the realm of exchange-value. Instruction in language not only disables the natural powers of the speaker but also makes her dependent on certified service providers. Thus, Nebrija’s proposal at once discloses and foreshadows the world populated by workers and operators, by the market and the machine.

The war against the vernacular has been prosecuted for some 500 years.31 Once the commodity and market occupied the interstices of everyday life. Today, it is everywhere. For most of human history, tools were shaped by the purposes and limited by the natural abilities of its users. Today, their machines enslave the majority of people, particularly in advanced industrial societies. Though this transformation has and is occurring in different places at different times and rates, it nevertheless duplicates the diagram of how standardized Spanish grammar disembedded the speech of people. For instance, the rapacious “primitive accumulation” that enclosed the commons in the 17th century, uprooted English peasants from the land to make them fully dependent on wages. A similar dispossession now occurs in China and India, where hundreds of millions move from farms to factories and slums. Aboriginal tribes of the Amazon are being dispossessed and killed now with the same impunity as those in Australia and the Americas once were. For entertainment, children now operate PlayStations where they once kicked around a ball on the street. Mega-churches in the US indoctrinate the flock with power point slides and music, much as teachers, trainers, and coaches do in classrooms around the country. Food scientists, nutritionists, and plant pathologists provide just some of the inputs that consumers depend on for their daily calorie intake. Whether in single-family homes or boxes piled on top of each other, people live in houses seemingly cut from an architect’s template. Women in India now demand valentine cards with as much enthusiasm as Turkish men purchase hair, calf, and chest implants. The historical record is rife with examples that stand as witnesses to the continuing destruction of the vernacular –whether of food, shelter, song, love, or pleasures.

It is by attending to the historical specificity of our present predicament in the mirror of the past that Illich thus reveals a third axis that lies orthogonal to the plane circumscribed by the axes of commodity intensity and disabling technologies. On this z-axis are located forms of social organization anchored by two heterogeneous forms. At the point of origin of this three-dimensional space, are social arrangements that plug people into markets and machines and thereby prevent them from exercising their freely given powers. At the other end of this z-axis is found a profusion of social forms, each different from the other, but all marked by suspicion towards the claims for techno-science and the commodity.

For these modes of social organization, the difference between “sustainable” and “unsustainable” technologies is a chimera. Instead, what matters is the real distinction between convivial and disabling technologies. Similarly, the purported difference between regulated and free markets, between public and private property does little to shape these social forms. Instead, they are animated by the distinction between the household and the commons. Thus, the Amish of Pennsylvania curtail their use of such power tools as tractors. The Bhutanese limit the number of tourists to whom they play host. Some cities in Germany and Denmark have banned the car to make way for the bicycle and walking. Whether on a rooftop in Chicago or by the rail track in Mumbai, diverse groups rely on their vegetable patches for some their daily sustenance. While community supported agriculture build bonds of personal dependence, ceramic dry toilets and related forms of vernacular architectures allow people to dwell. In a fine essay by Peter Linebaugh on the Luddites and the Romantics, one is persuaded by the implicit claim that communism for the 21st century may need to mimic in a new key, the courageous Luddite defense of the vernacular.32 Even Marx, in his last years, was less of a Marxist than many of those who spoke in his name. He was far more open to the peasant communes of Russia and Western Europe than usually assumed.33

These modes and manners of living in the present are informed by the past. Those engaged in the attempt to unplug from the market and the machine know that the reign of property – whether private or public-was erected on the ruins of the commons and that the ubiquity of disabling technologies-whether sustainable or not-was achieved by denigrating convivial tools. Yet, crucially, knowing what is past has gone, they are not dogmatic in their fight. They practice a form of bricolage, opportunistically taking back whatever they can get. A shared lawnmower here, an overgrown and weed infested garden there, a political struggle to retain artisanal fishing in Kerala, a move to the barricades in the Chiapas, the willingness to peddle cocaine derived home remedies in Peru and building illegal tenements on public lands in Sao Paulo, each effort is aimed at reducing the radical monopoly of commodities and disabling technologies. Such ways – of fishing, farming, cooking, eating, dwelling, playing, praying or study – are as diverse and varied today as the people who engage in them. However, what they have in common is being oriented by the same genus, the vernacular.

Epistemic Prudence

The effort to fight against the continuing war on the vernacular also extends to the activity of thinking.34 What is confused for knowledge today is largely R&D funded and deployed by government and industry. Scientists, whether in the employ of universities, governments, or corporations, produce objective knowledge for use by others. The pertinent question for those affected by these circuits of knowledge production and sale is to ask if there are vernacular styles of thinking. Is there a kind of thought justified by neither pride nor charity? What is the nature of rigorous thought that is nevertheless conducted among friends and aimed at shaping one’s own modes of life in more beautiful ways? Are some styles of thinking better suited to comprehending the vernacular?

It is likely that the intellectual effort appropriate to bringing vernacular ways out of the shadows might itself be self-limiting. I suggest the now discarded notion of common sense as a criterion to both comprehend the vernacular domain and to recognize the styles of thought appropriate to it. Though the history of common sense is too tangled a story to be told here, it is sufficient to note its primary meaning, at least in English. The first meaning of common sense is the Aristotelian “sensus communis”: “The common bond or center of the five senses; the endowment of natural intelligence possessed by rational beings.”35 This understanding of the common sense stretches from at least Plato to Descartes and, in this primordial sense, refers to the faculty necessary for the exercise of reasonable judgments. Contrary to popular prejudice today, common sense does not refer to the content of what is known but rather how knowledge is achieved. Common sense is not reducible to a body of propositions or of knowledge-claims: instead, it is the ground from which judgments are reached, particularly, the judgment of what is appropriate, fitting, or adequate.36

Briefly, common sense is that faculty which synthesizes sense impressions into perceptions of the world. In turn, the active intelligence abstracts concepts from these sensible perceptions. An echo of this activity of the intellect still resonates in the word “concept,” etymologically related to grasping or touching. That concepts are tethered to percepts, which are rooted in the sensual, underwrites that Aristotelian commonplace, “nothing in the intellect that is not first in the senses.” Concepts are abstractions. But precisely because they are abstractions from the real, they maintain an accord between the world and the mind. Stated simply, both perception and the concepts that flow from them are dependent on what is given to the senses; conceptions of the world depend on grasping the world as it is.

Yet, techno-science is based on precisely turning this understanding on its head. Indeed, the announcement of Vico may be taken as the slogan behind which a common sense understanding of the world was slowly suffocated. From the very beginning of modern science, knowing is understood to be the same as making: the Cartesian plane is as constructed as an airplane; the Poisson distribution is as fabricated as a pipette in the laboratory. Modern scientific ideas are not concepts tethered to the senses; instead they are constructs. Constructs, as the word suggests, are made and not given. As Einstein famously said, “Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and not…uniquely determined by the external world.” Though wrong to use the word “concepts,” his acknowledgement that scientific theories are created underscores how scientific constructs fractures the common sense tie between perception and reality.

The sharp distinction between concepts and constructs recalls that the modern world is constructed and that people and things are often resized to fit in. Concepts are forms of thought engendered by the common sense, which itself expresses the union between the world and the senses. Concepts reflect a way of knowing things from the outside in – from the world to the mind. In contrast, constructs are forms of reflexive thought expressing a way of knowing from the inside out – from the mind to the world.In modern times, what is made up does not ideally conform to what is given. Instead, what is given is slowly buried under the made-up world.

Scientific constructs are therefore not rooted by a sense for the world. Indeed, given the contrast between concepts and constructs, it follows that scientific ideas are non-sense. They are not abstracted from experience but can often be used to reshape it. They can be experimentally verified or falsified. But experiments are not the stuff of ordinary experience. No experiment is necessary to verify if people breathe, but one is required to prove the properties of a vacuum. Experiments are necessary precisely to test what is not ordinarily evident, which is why they are conducted in controlled settings and also used to propagandize the unusual as ordinarily comprehensible. Experimental results are neither necessarily continuous with nor comprehensible to everyday experience; they do not clarify experience but usually obfuscate it.

Unlike R&D, vernacular styles of thought are neither institutionally funded nor directed at the purported happiness and ease of others. Moreover, vernacular thinking also cleaves closely to the common sense understood as the seat of reasonable judgments. Thus, it avoids the monstrous heights to which thought can rise on the wings of the unfettered imagination. Accordingly, the ability to grasp the vernacular demands not only the courage needed to buck academic pressures but also to avoid those flights of theoretical madness powered through the multiplication of constructs.37

To draw out some features of the form of thought adequate to the vernacular domain, consider Illich’s essay titled Energy and Equity, where he distinguishes between transport, transit, and traffic. Whereas transit bespeaks the motion afforded to man the self-moving animal, transport refers to his being moved by heteronomous means, whether car, train, or plane. There, a bullock cart transports villagers headed to the market. Here cars transport commuters to the workplace. By common sense perception, transport – whether by cart or car – perverts transit, which is embodied in the freely given capacity to walk. To those who cannot perceive the sensual and carnal difference between walking and being moved as a Fedex package, the distinction between transport and transit is unpersuasive. It is equally unpersuasive to those mired in that constructed universe where all motion is identified with the displacement of any body in space. The ritualized exposure to passenger-miles – whether in cars or classrooms – is the likely reason for the inability to perceive the felt distinction between transport and transit. Thus, the elaboration of concepts to properly grasp the vernacular domain cannot but begin by placing the constructions of the economy and techno-science within epistemic brackets.

Yet, if it is to be reasonable, such an exercise in epistemic hygiene cannot be immoderate.38 The contrast between transport and transit is clear and distinct, rooted as it is in phenomenologically distinct perceptions. Yet, traffic is a theoretical construct, proposed to comprehend any combination of transport and transit. This necessity for constructs is nevertheless undermined by their being tethered to and by concepts. Accordingly, the conceptual grasp of the world hobbles the free construction of it. The distinction between concepts and constructs does not imply refusing the latter at all costs but rather entails seeing the hierarchical relation between them. That is, vernacular styles of thinking do not exclude theoretical constructs but only seek to keep them in their place.

A second and related feature of vernacular thought-styles confirms its moderate and indeed, modest nature. In accord with vernacular ways, vernacular thought does not demand the exclusion or excision of that which is antithetical and foreign to its domain – the market or the machine. For instance, vernacular thought does not demand the erasure of transport so that transit can flourish. Instead, because rooted in the perceived accord or just proportion between the transit and transport, vernacular thought insists only that the capacity for auto-mobility impose a binding constraint on transport. The suggestion that the speed limit for cars be roughly the same as that reached by a bicycle is rooted in the argument that traffic be calibrated by the lexicographic preference for transit over transport.

Thus, vernacular ways of thinking in consonance with doing and being do not deny constructs – whether imagined or realized. It merely refuses the characteristically modern identification of knowing and making, of reducing thinking to calculating, of displacing the relation between subjects and their predicates by quantitative comparisons. In seeing beyond the prejudice that compares beings in terms of “measure, number, and weight,” vernacular thought reanimates a second form of quantitative measurement that, with it, was also cast into the shadows. Recall, as Einstein admitted, scientific constructs are free creations of the mind, exemplified by mathematical constructs – equations, calculations, and the like. But such mathematical measurement is only the inferior of two kinds of quantitative measurement.

In The Statesman, Plato argues for the distinction between arithmetical and “geometric” measures.39 While both are forms of quantitative measurements, arithmetical or numerical measure is independent of the purposes of the calculator and either correct or incorrect. In contrast, “geometric” measurements of too much or too little are inextricably bound to intentionality and therefore never simply correct or incorrect but always measured with respect to what is just right or fitting. To clarify the distinction, consider the following two points. Given a conventional measure – gallons or liters – a quantity of water can be precisely and universally measured as 4. However, whether 4 is too much or too little depends on whether one intends to fill a 3 or 5 gallon pail; or to put out a blazing fire or to water a horse. The frame of intentionality or purpose thus defines the quantitative measurement of greater or lesser, of more or less. Accordingly, the numerical measure of plus or minus 1 gains its meaning from and is therefore subordinate to the non-numerically measure of too much or too little. Moreover, it is also relative to purpose that 3 or 5 is considered fitting, appropriate or just right.

But there is a second point to be emphasized about the relation between so-called arithmetical and “geometrical” measurements. Arithmetical measures are utterly sterile when it comes to answering the question of purpose, of what is to be done. That is, the question of whether a given end is appropriate or fitting cannot be debated in mathematical symbols. In fact, the opposite is true. It is always possible to ask if applying arithmetical measures to a particular situation is appropriate. Thus, whether one should fill a 5-gallon pail, or construct a mathematical model of human behavior or fabricate a measure called ecological footprint are unanswerable in numerical terms.40

That arithmetical measurements cannot adjudicate its own appropriateness shows they are inferior in rank or hierarchically subordinate to “geometric” measurement. The question concerning purpose is preeminently a question of ethics, of justice among persons. Moreover, since personal relationship cannot but be grounded in the embodied sense of and for another, it follows that ethical judgments must be rooted in common sense. Thus, geometric measures of what is just and right, of what is appropriate and fitting, are judgments formed of the common sense. Accordingly it follows that concepts should regulate and serve as norms for constructs and, analogously, that vernacular ways should regulate techno-scientific constructions.

Past or Future?

Illich’s plea to resuscitate the vernacular must be taken seriously – especially now, when the ongoing economic and ecological crises reveal the restricted thought-space within which contemporary debates continue to be conducted. Just as the demand for more regulated markets expose exchange-value as the presupposition of economic thought, so also the call for sustainable or eco-friendly technologies expose the grip of techno-science on the modern imaginary. The vernacular, we could say, lies orthogonal to these axes of markets and machines, offering us a unique standpoint from which to interrogate the present. While the object of an almost 500 year long war, it nevertheless persists within the interstices and byways of modern life, ready for reactivation.

2. Andy Kroll, “How the McEconomy Bombed the American Worker,” TomDispatch. While advanced industrialized economies cannot find enough jobs for its unemployed populations, so called emerging economies are actively creating employment. By inverse symmetry, to satisfy the demand of economic growth through industrialization, notably in China and India, peasants are converted into factory workers in the hundreds of millions.

3. Of the raft of books on the causes and consequences of the current economic situation, there are those who argue, rightly in many particulars, that this was only the most severe of the crisis prone dynamics of capitalism. In this vein, see for example most recently, Paul Mattick, Business As Usual (London: Reaktion Books, 2011); David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); and John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, The Great Financial Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009). I ignore these accounts since they are and were largely ignored in policy circles and mainstream economic thinking.

4. Notably, George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, Animal Spirits (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009). But see also Justin Fox, The Myth of the Rational Market (New York: Harper Business Books, 2009); and Paul Krugman, “How did economists get it so wrong?” New York Times, September 9, 2009.

5. Joseph Stiglitz in Freefall (New York: Norton Books, 2010) is perhaps the most trenchant of the well-known economists to finger free market ideology as an important cause of the crisis. Also see, N. Roubini & S. Mihm, Crisis Economics (New York, Penguin Press, 2010); and S. Johnson & J. Kwak, 13 Bankers (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010). Worthy of special mention in this regard, is Richard Posner’s, A Failure of Capitalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), which stands as a model for retrospective hand-wringing by a booster of neo-liberalism.

6. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Report (New York: Public Affairs, 2011). Most if not all of the writings on the financial crisis cite incentives as both cause and remedy. The U.S. Congressional report published after two years of study and investigation is exemplary since failed or inadequate incentives—whether in the form of regulation or compensation- comprise the sum of causal factors driving the crisis. But also consult among any of the above-mentioned books, Laurence Koltikoff’s, Jimmy Stewart is Dead (New York: Wiley & Sons, 2010) for a sensible proposal to limit financially induced boom-bust cycles through limited purpose banking. The latter is designed to dampen the ill-effects of debt financing.

7. The paradox of designing incentives to determine future behavior seems not to have been fully comprehended. Indeed, in a forthcoming work, I intend to argue that incentive mechanisms assure only one consequence: they will certainly fail.

8. For a fuller account, see Sajay Samuel & Jean Roberts, “Water can and ought to run freely: reflections on the notion of “scarcity” in economics” in The Limits to Scarcity, ed. Lyla Mehta(London: Earthscan, 2010), 109-126.

9. Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Publick Benefits (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1924).

10. “It is because mankind are disposed to sympathize more entirely with our joy than with our sorrow, that we make parade of our riches, and conceal our poverty…Nay, it is chiefly from this regard to the sentiments of mankind, that we pursue riches and avoid poverty. For to what purpose is all the toil and bustle of this world? What is the end of avarice and ambition, of the pursuit of wealth, of power, and preheminence? Is it to supply the necessities of nature? The wages of the meanest labourer can supply them… If we examined his oeconomy with rigour, we should find that he spends a great part of them upon conveniencies, which may be regarded as superfluities, and that, upon extraordinary occasions, he can give something even to vanity and distinction…From whence, then, arises that emulation which runs through all the different ranks of men, and what are the advantages which we propose by that great purpose of human life which we call bettering our condition? To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency, and approbation, are all the advantages, which we can propose to derive from it. It is the vanity, not the ease, or the pleasure, which interests us. But vanity is always founded upon the belief of our being the object of attention and approbation.” Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments (London: A Millar, 1759/1858), pt. 1, sec. 1, ch. 3, emphasis added. Consult Louis Dumont, From Mandeville to Marx (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1977) whose close textual analysis of classical authors shows that it is the idea of a natural harmony between individual self-interest and the general interest, that allows, in principle, acquisitiveness to be free of ethico-political restraints. Though he includes William Petty and John Locke among “economists,” William Letwin’s judgment is instructive: “…there can be no doubt that economic theory owes its present development to the fact that some men…were willing to consider the economy as nothing more than an intricate mechanism, refraining for the while from asking whether the mechanism worked for good or evil”; Origins of Scientific Economics (London, 1963), 147-48. See CB Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962) for supporting arguments that root economic liberalism in 17th century political thought.

11. “…money has become in all civilized nations the universal instrument of commerce, by the intervention of which goods of all kinds are bought and sold, or exchanged for one another. What are the rules which men naturally observe in exchanging them either for money or one another, I shall now proceed to examine”; Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, book 1, ch. 4.

12. The importance of Locke to Smith is evident in his paean to property. “The property which every man has in his own labour, as it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable” (Wealth of Nations, book 1, ch. 10, part 2). For reasons of space, I cannot do full justice to Locke’s arguments. However, the following statements sufficiently support the four points I emphasize. “Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined it to something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state Nature placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men”; “And as different degrees of industry were apt to give men possessions in different proportions, so this invention of money gave them the opportunity to continue and enlarge them”; “…the exceeding of the bounds of his just property not lying in the largeness of his possession, but the perishing of anything uselessly in it”; John Locke, Concerning Civil Government, Second Essay, ch. 5.

13.. “…These rules determine what may be called the relative or exchangeable value of goods. The word value, it is to be observed, has two different meanings, and sometimes expresses the utility of some particular object, and sometimes the power of purchasing other goods which the possession of that object conveys. The one may be called ‘value in use’; the other, ‘value in exchange.’” (Wealth of Nations, book 1, ch. 4).

14. Smith argues that “virtue consists not in any one affection but in the proper degree of all the affections.” For him, Agreeableness or utility is not a measure of virtue. Instead, it is ‘sympathy’ or the “correspondent affection of the spectator” that “is the natural and original measure of the proper degree (of virtue).” ***TMS, Part 8, Sec. 2, Ch.3. But such sympathy is not a virtue. At best it is a mirror of social prejudices.

15. The blindness to subsistence in contemporary economics is evident in the judgment of George Stigler in his review of late 19th century efforts to grasp use-value: “…and there were some mystical references to the infinite utility of subsistence.” See his “Development of Utility Theory II,” Journal of Political Economy, 58 (1950), 373. Stigler is only capable of equating the useful, which is price-less, with the mystical.

16. “A thing can be a use-value without being a value. A thing can be useful and a product of human labor, without being a commodity. …Nothing can be a value without being an object of utility..” Marx, K.(1976) Capital, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin Books), 131.

17. The fundamental, though largely overlooked, essay on the elaboration of the twinned yet polemically related “natural” and “artificial” harmony of interests remains, Elie Halevy The Growth of Philosophical Radicalism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955).

18. It would take a longer essay to show the function of law in commercial society. Summarily, Commercial society transforms Law into an instrument of social engineering; and thus of regulation. It began to be used to engineer society towards more or less market-intensive relations. Classical liberalism predicated on the “natural harmony of interests” requires economizing on law. In contrast, to mitigate the destructiveness of rampant market society requires shackling commercialism without destroying it, forging an “artificial harmony of interests” through punitive regulations. Hence both the minimal state of liberalism (whether classical or neo-liberalism) and the expanded state of welfare liberalism implies the instrumentalization of Law. See Michel Foucault, “On Governmentality,” in The Foucault Effect, eds. Colin Gordon, G. Burchell and P. Miller (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998). The newest crinkle to this old tale is that markets are no longer thought natural. Instead, markets can be designed, often by market participants themselves. Thus moderating markets through incentives becomes a matter of auto-engineering of and by markets around the late 20th century.

19. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1962) and Barry Commoner Science and Survival (New York: Viking Books, 1967) are perhaps the two most prominent scientists to have jump-started the environmental movement with the blessings of science. By now, despite a few if noisy detractors, widespread anthropogenic environmental destruction is, as it is said, “scientific fact.” Over 2000 scientists worldwide contribute to the reports and recommendations produced by The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the environmental effects of industrialization at perhaps the most general environmental register. See Climate Change 2007 for its most recent report.

20. A pair of recent books authored by French philosophers suggests the philosophical ambit within with the environmental crisis is comprehended. On the one hand, Michel Serres’s The Natural Contract (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995) insists on the necessity of a contract with the Earth now that Humanity presses against it as does any mammoth natural force. Such a natural contract, presupposes a new metaphysics, according to which humanity cannot be reduced to individuals and Earth is not underfoot but whirling in empty space; both so comprehended by Science and Law. In some contrast, Luc Ferry’s The New Ecological Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995) fears the new metaphysics. Cleaving to modern ways, he believes “it will ultimately be by means of advancements in science and technology that we manage one day to resolve the questions raised by environmental ethics” (127). Nevertheless, neither doubt the path forward to be illuminated by a suitably reformulated techno-science.

21. Lynn White, Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science Magazine, 155:3767, argued for anthropocentric singularity of Christianity and its attendant bequest of nature to man for fueling techno-science that has caused the ecological crisis. In this section I focus on the metaphysics of modern science. For a recent statement on how historians of science who raise their heads from the dusty archives deal with the metaphysics of modern science, see Lindberg, The Beginning of Western Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), ch.14. He agrees with E.A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (New York: Doubleday, 1932), whose judgment of the presuppositions and implications of Newtonian mechanics has not been fundamentally challenged. Hannah Arendt, “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man” in Between Past and Future (New York: Random Books, 1993) offers a succinct sketch of the groundlessness presumed by techno-science.

22. For a fuller account of the theological and philosophical debates that prepared this view from nowhere, see Amos Funkenstein, Theology and the Scientific Imagination, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986). It is he who names as secular theologians, “Galileo and Descartes, Liebniz and Newton, Hobbes and Vico” among others. I rely heavily on him (particularly part 5) and on Peter Dear, Discipline and Experience: The Mathematical Way in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995) to grasp the central lines in the mathematization of physis. Also consult Peter Dear’s textbook, Revolutionizing the Sciences (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001) cast as a pithy summary of the seismic changes between 1500 and 1800 in what was worth knowing and how it was known.

23. See A. Mark Smith’s “Knowing things inside out: the scientific revolution from a Medieval Perspective,” The American Historical Review, 95:3 (1990) for an excellent summary on the reversal of the hierarchy between sense and reason in modern scientific thought. Also, consult Eamon Duffy, Science and the Secrets of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994) for a persuasive account of scientific experiments as vexing nature in order to extract her secrets.

24. To appreciate the brew of pride and charity that constitutes modern techno-science we need only to attend to Descartes. “…It is possible to reach knowledge that will be of much utility in this life… instead of the speculative philosophy now taught in the schools we can find a practical one, by which, knowing the nature and behavior of fire, water, air, stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies which surround us, as well as we now understand the different skills of our artisans, we can employ these entities for all the purposes for which they are suited, and so make ourselves masters and possessors of nature. This would not only be desirable in bringing about the invention of an infinity of devices to enable us to enjoy the fruits of agriculture and all the wealth of the earth without labor, but even more so in conserving health, the principal good and the basis of all other goods in life.” Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method (Indianapolis: Library of Liberal Arts Press, 1960), part six.

25. The term construction refers to things – whether physical or symbolic – made. The mathematical roots of construction and constructivism are thoroughly explored with special note of Descartes in David Lachterman, The Ethics of Geometry (London: Routledge 1989). Funkenstein, Theology, especially chapter 5, describes well the philosophical shift from the contemplative ideal of knowing to the ideal of knowing-by-doing or made knowledge. A cursory glance at any scientific book should convince that “theoretical constructs” are a staple of the modern scientific enterprise. Those (so-called postmodern philosophers, historians and sociologists of science) who think they challenge techno-science by emphasizing that scientific knowledge is constructed only repeat in prose what Bacon, Gassendi, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton said in verse. Those who think they defend scientific knowledge by invoking, as the last trump card, its technical productions merely reconfirm the founding conceit of modern techno-science: that knowing and making are interchangeable.

26. In this section I rely on the most extensive statement of Illich on critical technology, Tools for Conviviality (London: Marion Boyars, 1973). Note especially the Chapter 4, “Recovery” (84-99) calling for the demythologization of science, the rediscovery of language and the recovery of legal procedure. He supersedes this statement only in some respects with his later thinking: on systems; on the historicity of the instrument as a category; and the emphasis on the symbolic power of technology.

27. Louis Dumont, Essays on Individualism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), shows precisely the consequences of attempts to recover the past, whose signal dimension has been the relative embeddedness of the individual within the social whole. To insist on recovering that past today is thus to court a species of inhumanity the Western world has once already encountered in the mid 20th century.

28. The chilling conclusion of this confusion is the dishonest sentimentalism fostered in industrial societies, to wit “that the values which industrial society destroys are precisely those which it cherishes” Ivan Illich, “Shadow Work” in Shadow Work (London: Marion Boyars, 1981), 99. Thus, the radical dependence on work promotes the cherished value of Freedom.

29. “Vernacular comes from an Indo-Germanic root that implies ‘rootedness’ and ‘abode.’ Vernaculum as a Latin word was used for whatever was homebred, homespun, homegrown, homemade, as opposed to what was obtained in formal exchange. The child of one’s slave and of one’s wife, the donkey born of one’s own beast, were vernacular beings, as was the staple that came from the garden or the commons. If Karl Polanyi had adverted to this fact, he might have used the term in the meaning accepted by the ancient Romans: sustenance derived from reciprocity patterns imbedded in every aspect of life, as distinguished from sustenance that comes from exchange or from vertical distribution… We need a simple adjective to name those acts of competence, lust, or concern that we want to defend from measurement or manipulation by Chicago Boys and Socialist Commissars. The term must be broad enough to fit the preparation of food and the shaping of language, childbirth and recreation, without implying either a privatized activity akin to the housework of modern women, a hobby or an irrational and primitive procedure. Such an adjective is not at hand. But ‘vernacular’ might serve. By speaking about vernacular language and the possibility of its recuperation, I am trying to bring into awareness and discussion the existence of a vernacular mode of being, doing, and making that in a desirable future society might again expand in all aspects of life.” Ivan Illich, “The War against Subsistence” in Shadow Work, 57-58. The argument of this essay belies its title.

30. For the following section, I gloss “Vernacular Values” and The War on Subsistence,” both in Illich, Shadow Work.

31. A more comprehensive analysis of the themes in this section would include a selective survey on the historical and anthropological literature on vernacular ways and its destruction. As a first orientation to the extensive literature on the war on the vernacular, consult Ivan Illich, Gender, (Berkeley: Heyday Press, 1982). The works of Karl Polanyi, preeminently, The Great Transformation, (NY: Reinhart, 1944); but also the essays collected in Primitive, Archaic and Modern Economies, ed. George Dalton, (NY: Anchor Books, 1968) and those in Trade and Markets in Early Empires,eds. K. Polanyi, C. Arensberg, and H. Pearson (NY: The Free Press, 1957) clarify the historicity of commodity-intensive societies, made visible when nature and human action become widely priced as land and labor respectively. Marshall Sahlins in Stone Age Economics, (NY: Adline, 1972) and M.I. Finley in The Ancient Economy, (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1985) confirm that pre- modern societies, whether Aboriginal Australia or Western Antiquity, got on quite well without it. Jacques Le Goff, in Medieval Civilization, 400-1500 emphasizes the aim of the medieval “economy” as that of subsistence, of providing for necessities (London: Blackwell, 1988). The continuing modern war on subsistence and the resistance to it is well documented. Consult for example, E.P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the Crowd,” reprinted in The Essential E.P. Thompson, ed. Dorothy Thompson (NY: The New Press, 2000), and the essays collected in Customs in Common (New York: New York Press, 1993); Eric Wolf, Peasant Wars of the 20th Century (NY: Harper & Row 1969), Teodor Shanin, The Awkward Class (London: Cambridge, 1977) and Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, Our Word is our Weapon (NY: Seven Stories Press, 2001). James Scott, in Seeing Like a State (Princeton: Yale University, 1999) argues that visionary plans to modernize society invariably fail and usually leave their beneficiaries worse off for the attention. Study the key terms collected in The Development Dictionary, ed. Wolfgang Sachs (NY: Zed Books, 1992) as commands that rally the troops to the war against subsistence.

32. Peter Linebaugh, Ned Ludd, Queen Mab: Machine Breaking, Romanticism, and Several Commons 1811-12 (Oakland: PM Press/Retort, 2012).

33. Consult the well-documented essay by Teodor Shanin, “Late Marx: Gods and Craftsmen” in Late Marx and the Russian Road, ed. T. Shanin (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983), for a persuasive case that “…to Marx, a timely revolutionary victory could turn the Russian commune into a major ‘vehicle of social regeneration.’”

34. This section is derived from Ivan Illich, “Research by People” in Shadow Work (London: Marion Boyars, 1981), and his unpublished manuscript titled The Wisdom of Leopold Kohr which makes reference to the common sense.

35. This sentence from the OED weakly summarizes the following: “The senses perceive each other’s special objects incidentally; not because percipient sense is this or that special sense, but because all form a unity: this incidental perception takes place whenever sense is directed at one and the same moment to two disparate qualities in one and the same object, e.g., to the bitterness and the yellowness of bile…” De Anima, III, 425a 30-425b 1. And: “Further, there cannot be a special sense-organ for the common sensibles either, i.e, the objects which we perceive incidentally through this or that special sense, e.g, movement, rest, figure, magnitude, number & unity…. In the case of the common sensibles, there is already in us a common sensibility (or common sense) which enables us to perceive them non-incidentally; there is therefore no special sense required for their perception,” De Anima, III 425a 15-26.

36. I do not fully explore here the transformation from a faculty into the “innate capacity” of any person to reason and judge correctly after Descartes. The judgment of Funkenstein in Theology, especially page 359, is instructive. He suggests that the “militant, missionary ideal” of education over the 17th and 18th centuries is related to “the shift in the connotation of the term ‘common sense.’” The connotations of the terms “le bon sens,” “gemeiner Menschenverstand,” and “common sense” after the 17th century imply the capacity to be educated; for all men to become philosophers. Indeed, the propagation of a method for thinking presupposes the commonsense as that which is in need of education. More recently, Sophia Rosenfeld, Common Sense: A Political History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011) traces the twinned logics generated by the degradation of common sense from a faculty. On the one hand, it serves as a touchstone for the wisdom of people against elites; on the other, the mulishness of the masses needed re-education. For a conspectus of writers on the common sense consult, AN Foxe, The Common Sense from Heraclitus to Pierce (Turnbridge Press, 1962). It is however frustrating for the lack of a bibliography and a historically insensitive reading of the authors surveyed. In contrast, JL Beare, Greek Theories of Elementary Cognition from Alcemaeon to Aristotle (Clarendon Press, 1926); WR Bundy, The Theory of the Imagination in Classical and Medieval Thought (University of Illinois Press, 1927); David Summers, The Judgment of Sense (Cambridge University Press, 1987) are excellent treatments of the history of the common sense as faculty from Aristotle to the late Renaissance when read serially. See also E. Ruth Harvey, The Inward Wits: Psychological Theory in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (London, 1975); and HA Wolfson, “The Internal Senses in Latin, Arabic and Hebrew Philosophical Texts,” Harvard Theological Review, 25 (1935).

37. Stanley Rosen, The Elusiveness of the Ordinary (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002) argues spiritedly for the commonsense foundations of thought. Such foundations support but cannot rise to heights reached by extraordinary thought, which by necessity, exceed its grasp. In the so-called “science wars” of recent decades, the issue was framed as that between the social constructivists and the realists. In the light of the foregoing distinction between concepts and constructs, it is clear that both parties to the debate agree that scientific knowledge is made, that is to say, constructed.

38. In much of his writings, Illich insists on elaborating conceptual distinctions built on the perception of autonomous human actions. Between Deschooling Society and The History of Homo Educandus he contrasts learning to education and schooling; in Medical Nemesis, between autonomous coping and healthcare; between Research by People and R&D. In some cases, he invents or gives new shades of meaning to terms to recover perceptions buried by constructs – for example, disvalue, shadow work, gender and vernacular. Let the triple, housing, dwelling, and habitation stand as a parallel example to transport, transit, and traffic used in the text above. A general case for the commonsensical Illich still awaits a careful exegesis of his texts.

39. I take some liberties with interpreting The Statesman, 283d-284e in Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Hackett Publishing, 1997).The relevant distinction as described by the visitor reads as follows: “It is clear that we would divide the art of measurement, cutting it in two in just the way we said, posting as one part of it all sorts of expertise that measure the number, lengths, depths, breaths, and speeds of things in relation to what is opposed to them, and as the other, all those that measure in relation to what is in due measure, what is fitting, the right moment, what is as it ought to be-everything that removes itself from the extremes to the middle” (384e).

40. It is a weak recognition of this hierarchy that is reiterated in the widely accepted disjunction or discontinuity between “science” and “values.”

Author of the article

is a Clinical Associate Professor of Accounting at Penn State University. He has spoken on science, economic thought, and the vernacular for Canadian radio. His academic publications aim to undermine the current fascination with accounting and related numbers as a modality of management.