Ivan Illich and the Vernacular – D. A. Dean

Below are some excerpts that I strung together from “Dwelling,” an essay by Ivan Illich that appears in In the Mirror of the Past (1992). The essay originated as an address given to the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1984. These excepts pivot on the concept of the vernacular. But I didn’t pick the excepts because they illustrate it, so it occurs to me that a few words about term might be in order.

The vernacular for Illich is closely associated with the idea of the commons, understood to be a space of resources in pre-capitalist societies held in common and freely available to members of a community. In European history, a vernacular language or culture meant the local language or culture, what wasn’t the transnational Church (and Latin). Today, then, the “vernacular” can refer to what isn’t part of the globalized economy or the culture and capture of global capitalism. Writer David Bollier described Illich’s use of word this way:

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

Illich was an early and vocal critic of international economic development programs undertaken after World War II, and he remains an important resource for alternative economic theorizing. In Beyond Western Economics: Remembering Other Economic Cultures (2009), Trent Schroyer highlights the relevance of Illich’s “vernacular” to struggles against globalization. The vernacular, for Schroyer, is “central to those places and spaces where people are struggling to achieve regeneration and social restorations against the forces of economic globalization.” I sometimes think that the “vernacular” is a perfect supplement or response — fluid, rich, and creative — to rigid political concepts like the “popular” of populism or the “social” of socialism.

It’s helpful to note that the struggle for the vernacular names the same struggle whether the people in question are living in the center or in the periphery, in the developed North or the developing South. The selection below illustrates this when Illich speaks of “Indians who break in and settle on fallow land in Lima” in the same breath as “students who dare to convert ruins in Berlin’s Kreuzberg into their dwelling.” Also, these examples illustrate that the vernacular, as a local response to a local situation, is also often a provisional one.

And now, Ivan Illich on the “unpluggers who seek new forms of dwelling”:

From commons for dwelling the environment has been redefined as a resource for the production of garages for people, commodities and cars. Housing provides cubicles in which residents are housed […] The vernacular space of dwelling is replaced by the homogeneous space of the garage. Settlements look the same from Taiwan to Ohio and from Lima to Peking. Everywhere you find the same garage for the human — shelves to store the work-force overnight, handy for the means of its transportation.

Those who insist now on their liberty to dwell on their own are either very well off or treated as deviants. This is true both for those whom so-called ‘development’ has not yet untaught the desire to dwell , and for the unpluggers who seek new forms of dwelling that would make the industrial landscape inhabitable — at least in its cracks and weak spots. They will be branded as intruders, illegal occupants, anarchists and nuisances, depending on the circumstance under which they assert their liberty to dwell: as Indians who break in and settle on fallow land in Lima; as favellados in Rio de Janeiro, who return to squat on the hillside from which they have just been driven by the police; as students who dare to convert ruins in Berlin’s Kreuzberg into their dwelling; as Puerto Ricans who force their way back into the walled-up and burnt buildings of the South Bronx. They will all be removed, not so much because of the damage they do to the owner of the site, or because they threaten the health or peace of their neighbors, but because of the challenge to the social axiom that defines a citizen as a unit in need of a standard garage.

‘Build-it-yourself’ is thought of as a mere hobby — or as a consolation for shanty-towns. The return to rural life is dubbed romanticism. Inner-city fishponds and chickencoops are regarded as mere games . Neighborhoods that ‘work’ are flooded by highly-paid sociologists until they fail. House-squatting is regarded as civil disobedience, restorative squatting as an outcry for better and more housing. But in the field of housing, as much as in the fields of education, medicine, transportation or burial, those who unplug themselves are no purists. I know a family that herds a few goats in the Appalachians and in the evening plays with a battery-powered computer. I know an illegal occupant who has broken into a walled-up Harlem tenement and sends his daughters to a private school.

Neither ridicule nor psychiatric diagnosis will make the unpluggers go away.

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