Part Moon, Part Travelling Salesman: Complementarity in the Thought of Ivan Illich

This paper was prepared for a small gathering of friends held at a monastery in the small Italian town of Pescia (between Florence and Lucca)  in the summer of 2014...





In one of the titled footnotes in Gender, Ivan Illich suggests that a promising  philosophy of complementarity died still-born within the social sciences.  The footnote, titled Ambiguous Complementarity, discusses the work of the Frenchman Robert Hertz who died in the trenches during the First World War.  Hertz, Illich says, had “tried to incorporate this notion into the social sciences at a time when the concept had begun to be fruitful in the physical sciences.”  The essay Illich commends is “The Pre-eminence of the Right Hand: A Study in Religious Polarity” and, in it, Hertz claims that “dualism is the essence of primitive thought [and] dominates primitive social organization.”   But this idea, Illich goes on, was declawed and domesticated by Marcel Mauss, on whom the inheritance of Hertz’s youthful and foreshortened genius fell.  Mauss, according to Illich, took “the disconcerting asymmetry and ambiguity contained in Hertz’s idea of complementarity” and made it the foundation of a universal process of exchange.  Mauss was then annointed by Claude Levi-Strauss, who claimed that Mauss had been “the first to have treated the total social fact as a system of exchanges and that Hertz had been his inspiration.  “The fuzzy, partly incongruous complementarity that can be understood only by means of metaphors which Hertz had begun to recognize as the root of all culture,” Illich concludes, “was repressed in the social sciences in favour of operational concepts such as role, class, exchange, and, ultimately, “system”. 


I leave it those better acquainted with the work of Marcel Mauss to say whether this is fair to Mauss.  I can say that when I looked into Hertz’s essay I found what one sometimes does when dipping into Illich’s sources – that he had read more into Hertz than the latter may have intended, or, indeed, could have intended, writing, as he was, during the very infancy of his science.  I was also disturbed to find that, in Hertz’s essay, as its title suggests, the preeminence of the right hand is so total in much of his evidence that the left hand is as much scapegoat, victim and pariah as it is the ambiguous complement of the right hand.  I’ll let a Maori proverb Hertz cites stand for a great deal more of the same tenor.  “All evils, misery and death,” it says, “come from the female element” which is, of course, associated with the left hand.   Hertz ends his essay by approving the contemporary tendency, as he says, “to level the value of the two hands.”  “A liberated and foresighted community, he concludes, “will strive to develop better the energies dormant on our left side.”  Now this does not sound to me like the words of a man who wants to make complementarity either the horizon of social science or a bulwark against all universal concepts.  But, whether a philosophy of complementarity in the social sciences died aborning with Hertz or not, Illich’s attempt to construct its genealogy got me thinking about how the quest for such a philosophy motivated Illich’s own work. 


As it happened, not long before I reread Gender and was impressed by this footnote, I had finally braved a 500+ page tome entitled The Complementary Nature of Reality – a book that had been sent to me unsolicited by its publisher after he had heard and liked a long radio series I had done called How To Think About Science.  The book’s author Peter Barab argues that:   “Today’s science is akin to magic: it manipulates nature with dazzling technological displays and mathematical acrobatics, but the primary theories…, especially of physics, lack all meaning, in that scientists cannot explain what they are doing or identify the broader patterns that are involved.”  The consequence is, and here he quotes Neil Postman: “The world we live in is incomprehensible…but never surprises us for long, since we have no consistent picture which new events could alter.”  The solution, according to Barab, is to take complementarity seriously, not just as a pragmatic description of what occurs, but as the deep structure of reality.  In physics this task was begun by the Danish physicist Niels Bohr who reflected on the experimentally demonstrated fact that a given quantum might manifest now as a wave, now as a particle, and also on his German colleague Werner Heisenberg’s finding – the famous Uncertainty Principle – that there is a limit to how precisely one can measure certain paired qualities like position and momentum at the same time.   Bohr’s Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, as it came to be called, held, in effect, that everything comes in pairs.  The findings of quantum physics were not paradoxes or artifacts or mere appearance which would all eventually be resolved, as Einstein hoped, in a unified theory.  Nature is fundamentally dual, not unitary, according to Bohr, and Barab thinks that this can be elaborated into a comprehensive and consistent philosophy of science which thinks in pairs and not always of a reduction to one underlying principle or substance. 


Peter Barab’s book confines itself to physics, but I was led next along the pathways of my eccentric reading to Carl Jung who I think can be said to have advanced a philosophy of complementarity in psychology.  I don’t want to tarry long here with Jung except to say that he insists that nothing can be illuminated without casting a commensurate shadow, that man is unconsciously woman and woman unconsciously man, and that consciousness and unconsciousness exist in a compensatory, or complementary relationship.  Two others also deserve mention before I go on to Illich: the first is Nicolas of Cusa, with whom, I confess, I have only a slight acquaintance.  His idea that we can grasp God only as a complexio oppositorum, a complex of opposites, an idea Jung took over and bent somewhat to his own purposes, I understand as a way of unifying without reducing, of resolving without dissolving you might say.  He yearns beyond duality but never tries to deny it, and I think this is very much in Ivan’s spirit, though I never remember him mentioning Cusanus.  The second is the English poet William Blake who says memorably that “Opposition is true friendship” and that “Without contraries there is no progression.”


I mention these names in passing to hint at possible lineages, and in the hope of starting conversations with those who may know more than me, but what I mainly want to do here is to focus on Illich’s philosophy of complementarity and how it informs his work.  Gender is surely its centerpiece, but I would argue that the idea is there from at least the time of Tools for Conviviality.  There we find the idea of multi-dimensional balances.  And what is balance? Opposing forces in equilibrium, a scale on which opposing weights are suspended, domains that restrict and limit one another in a harmonious way. This idea is developed in various ways, but always a single mode of production, a single mode of thought, the radical monopoly of a single institution is deprecated.  “Well being,” as defined in Shadow Work, is “a balance,” which occurs when “use values and commodities fruitfully mesh in synergy.”  Modernity and the industrial mode of production are not rejected – rather they are to be brought into a complementary relationship with vernacular and communal imperatives.


Gender brings this idea into new relief, and begins to make visible some of its underlying assumptions.  The book was criticized, most pointedly and substantially, in my view, by Nancy Scheper Hughes, a professor of Anthropology at Berkeley, and one of the seven women who responded to Illich’s performance of the text of Gender in Berkeley in the fall of 1982.  Drawing on her own work, she claims that Illich is a naïve and partial anthropologist who has mistaken ideology for practice, exaggerated the extent to which tasks are gendered in pre-capitalist society, and downplayed the perverse, destructive, and arbitrary elements of gender.   “No society or culture could sustain itself for very long,” she says, “under the kind of extreme sexual segregation that Illich posits as characteristic of pre-industrial ‘Vernacular Gender’ societies.” (Feminist Issues 3:1, Spring ‘83, p.34)  This critique may have merit and, I would even say, justice – Gender, to me, is an arrogant book, inasmuch as its author is so preoccupied by his own discoveries and his own agenda that he pays almost no attention to the milieu he is addressing, and is, in addition, quite free with his insults.  For example, “Women academics grab at the semblance of legitimacy that comes from putting on the hand-me-down Marxoid categories discarded by social historians.”  This might be true of some woman academic, or even a whole school of women academics but carelessly aimed, as it appears to be, at all women academics, it seems more inflammatory than enlightening. However, now that I’ve got that off my chest, my point is that Illich is not finally writing anthropology.  Listen to the ways he talks about gender – he calls it “the best heuristic he has yet discovered for the investigation of the pre-industrial past” – this is from memory and I can’t place its source – it may have been written or said somewhere other than in Gender – but clearly a heuristic is a way of seeing, an aid to discovery, rather than an historical claim as such.  He speaks of gender and sex as ideal types.  He says that what is needed more than anything else is an epistemology of gender – that gender, in other words, is a way of knowing and not just a historical object to be known.  He asserts that his understanding of gender is “rooted in the deepest mystical experiences” and that it is nourished by the scholastic concept of relation subsistens.  Relatio subsistens, as Lee Hoinacki would later explain, is a scholastic redescription of the mystery of the Trinity with its three persons who are one and yet distinct, independent as a whole and yet dependent among themselves.  He claims that “gender is a metaphor for the ambiguous symbolic complementarity that constitutes each of the two genders…as metaphors for each other” – in short a metaphor for a metaphor which reminds of Marshall McLuhan’s witty twisting of Robert Browning’s “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp/ Else what’s a heaven for?” into “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp/ Else what’s a meta-phor?”  He also calls gender a way of “incarnating symbolic duality.”


All of this suggests to me that gender is something much more than a historical category for Illich, though I’m not at all denying that it is that as well.  It’s a way of reinstating here and there, and you and me in their proper relation of mutually dependent otherness.  I can still remember the relief I felt in reading the book – that in place of the unlimited and impossible demand that seemed to arise from feminism, as it had from earlier revolutions, an inexhaustible mystery was being restored – along with the possibility of respect, limitation, modesty and friendship.  Illich sums this up in the idea of gender as metaphor – that each, in a beautiful sense, stands for the other.


What this points to is that Illich is not actually all that interested, as he may sometimes appear to be and as many critics claimed he was at the time the book was published, in vindicating this or that historical form of vernacular gender.   Gender, as he explicitly says, stands for a principle of mutual dependence and mutual limitation, and for an otherness that cannot, by definition, be overcome.   It represents the idea that a stable and sustainable social order can only stand on two legs.  And, above all, it blocks what I can only call mon-ism, though it’s ungainly and unfamiliar word.  Monism is universal competition, unlimited growth, denatured language - whatever circulates without impediment because it has no necessary complement by which it could be limited.


Illich struggled for words in which to expound this philosophy.   At the time of Gender, he was still leaning heavily on the idea of ambiguity and asymmetry.  Later on he hit on the idea of di-symmetry, of opposing domains that fit each other and are answerable to each other without being an identical image of each other.  The word didn’t make much of a slogan, dissymmetric complementary being even more of a mouthful than the earlier paradoxical counterproductivity, but it says what Illich wants to say:  that only by opposition do things hold together, only by a plurality of powers can freedom be nourished, only by limitation can language live.


A beautiful statement of this philosophy occurs in Ivan Illich in Conversation: “I like to walk along the watershed,” he says, “and to know that left and right are profoundly different from each other and contradictory to a high degree. The world of sex holds together only because of the rests of gender that survive in it and sprout in it.  The world of cybernetic modeling, of computers as root metaphors for felt perception, is dangerous and significant only as long as there is still textual literacy in the midst of it.  Transportation systems can function only as long as people have legs to walk to the car and open the door.  Hospital systems can make sense only as long as people still engage in that totally intransitive activity which is living.  I wish I could find a way of never appearing like a preacher who focuses your attention on the scenery on only one side of the watershed…Once thinking becomes a monocular perception of reality it’s dead.” (Ivan Illich in Conversation, p. 241)


Complementarity is two-sidedness – not the two-sidedness that William Blake calls “the cloven fiction,” the divorcing of subject from object, but the two-sidedness of man and woman, night and day, breath and heartbeat.  It can also be contradiction, depending on what one wants, at a certain moment, to emphasize – mutual dependence or mutual limitation – the fact that I can’t do without you or the fact that you’re in my way.  It expresses the condition of existence of a world – world in the sense in which Hannah Arendt says that we are now world-less – a limited, bounded state in which action, submission, gratitude and unobstructed listening are still possible.  Without the sense of complementarity we lose what I can only call the otherness of the other, and it was Illich’s conviction that, after the Incarnation, after God has emptied himself into a human person, that it is only through the other that God’s word can reach us.  What is at stake for him, in other words, is not less than everything.


Recognition of complementarity is a mode of awareness, sometimes of tragic awareness, insofar as it’s a principle of opposition, limitation and ultimately nemesis.  And awareness is an important term in Illich’s thought.  It’s what he unreservedly recommends in place of programmes, plans and agendas intended to bring the future into line.  Reality is refractory to our will – it has aspects not just that we haven’t seen yet but that are and must remain, in the very nature of things, beyond our horizon because our horizon always moves with us.  Our salvation doesn’t lie within ourselves – it comes to us and perhaps in an unexpected form.  “I fear the Lord is passing me by,” was one of Illich’s watchwords.   All this is part of complementarity, I think, because complementarity is the very constitution of the reality that allows us to be surprised.


Illich, as I am beginning to understand him, has several rhetorical modes.  Let me call them the prophetic – a term I can’t avoid using, even though I understand why he foreswore it in favour of friend; the sociological; and the satirical.  The prophetic is an inspired seeing that invokes judgment – when Ivan says, as he does in his “Health As One’s Own Responsibility: No, Thank You”, that our world is marked by “a growing matter-of-fact acceptance of a bottomless evil which Hitler and Stalin did not reach” he cannot be refuted with statistics that point to a reduction in poverty or an improvement in dental hygiene. If one could erase the “Onward Christian Soldiers” overtones from the word salvation, then one could say that salvation is his point of view in this mode.   The second mode is the sociological – and it was in the sociology section that Illich was generally filed when his books were still to be found in bookstores (and there were still bookstores to find them in).  This is the Illich of laws, who says, for example, that beyond a certain rate of acceleration mobility is inversely proportional to speed, that shadow work will necessarily expand in lockstep with waged employment, that there are identifiable thresholds at which institutions will begin to get in their own way and frustrate their own purposes, that the wage gap between men and women will never close or be reduced.   These laws, in my view, are sometimes doubtful, but they are certainly essays in social morphology which are subject to evidence and argument.  And finally the satirical.  The existence of this mode only dawned on me gradually, and I don’t know why since Illich very often referred to his productions as caricatures, and he said much the same when he called his more polemical works of the 70’s pamphlets.  When we hear of “life-long bottle babies wheeled from medical centre to school to office to stadium” or “apartment towers that store people between trips to the supermarket” or “the colourless mumbling” of American college students, then we are in this satirical mode. Like the prophetic mode, it has to be taken for what it is – a nightmare vision of modern existence which can’t really be refuted because it takes no account of whatever meaning and purpose these mumblers and bottle-babies may themselves find in their wheeled existence.


I doubt if these three modes exhaust Illich’s considerable rhetorical spectrum, but three are enough for me to make the point I want to make here, which is that these different inflections change the way complementarity is treated.   Illich says that when he walks the watershed he very much appreciates the profound difference between left and right, and he hopes never to be found to be a preacher who directs his reader’s attention to only one side.  And yet when, in prophetic mode, he exposes the contemporary world as a revelation of evil, when he says, in a white hot passage at the end of the essay on shadow work, that modern forms of enclosure are not just cruel and degrading but actually demonic (p. 115), it would seem that he is not just calling for a balanced and complementary relationship between use values and exchange values, or a vernacular sphere and a free market, he is denouncing the modern entirely.  I know Illich can and should be read in very different ways, as befits someone who spoke only as friends, occasions and the urgencies of his time seemed to demand, who never proposed a consistent system of thought, and who definitely did not speak all of his mind on all occasions.   I simply want to raise the question here of whether there is, in Illich’s work, a conflict, a tension if you want, between the Romantic modernist who looks for a reformed and rebalanced modernity, a recovered art of living, as he says at the end of Gender, and the Catholic anti-modernist who was still required to swear the Oath against Modernism before his ordination, and who never really renounced it.


Let me take another example of the way in which I think the understanding of complementarity can be vitiated by the prophetic mode even when Illich is ostensibly working as an historian.  In the essay on Vernacular Values in Shadow Work, he describes the petition the humanist grammarian Antonio Nebrija submitted to Queen Isabella of Spain in the hope, vain as it turned out, that the Queen would patronize his project of creating a grammar of the Castilian language.  This was in the same year that Columbus sailed fatefully westward.  Nebrija’s project is presented in an entirely negative light – a 500 year long war on subsistence is being initiated, and the Castilian people are losing their vernacular, which will be taken away for processing by a new professional elite and then sold back to them as taught mother tongue.  It’s a wonderful essay, full of insight and instruction, but I could never help wondering, as someone who grew up loving grammar and parsed sentences with a relish that many of my contemporaries seemed to reserve for the workings of internal combustion engines, whether a grammar could really be that destructive.  Was not Cervantes also waiting in the wings, or Shakespeare, or Rabelais if one switches the national context?  Wasn’t the ideal a balance between an ever-evolving vernacular and the scholarly anatomy of language Nebrija proposed. Was there nothing good in getting the European vernaculars out of the shadow of Latin?  Could not lengua and habla, tongue and language have made peace and co-existed?  Again a vision of balance seems to be pitted against an all devouring monism, which causes the monopolizing mode to lose its legitimacy altogether, and puts the very idea of a possible balance into the shadows.


One final point: Complementarity, as I have been trying to say, has both its harmonious and its tragic aspect.  There is no action without an equal and opposite reaction – that’s Newton’s third law of motion which can be paraphrased as all forces exist in pairs, or as whenever one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body will exert a force of equal magnitude in the opposite direction.  Christ invokes anti-Christ.  This was the mystery that Illich spent a life-time contemplating, that caused him to say to me - that “the more you allow yourself to conceive of the evil you see as evil of a new kind, of mysterious kind, the more intense become the temptation – I can’t avoid saying it, I can’t go on without saying it – of cursing God’s Incarnation.” (Rivers North of the Future, p.61) You can probably imagine the trepidation with which I broadcast this statement, the layers of script in which I defensively muffled it, and the rueful amusement I then felt when no listener ever even commented to me on what I had thought was an utterly explosive statement; but I quote it here a master instance of complementarity – that the world is “called to glory,” as he put it elsewhere, but the paradoxical consequence is that it ends up enveloped in “demonic night”. (Hospitality and Pain, p. 1) Could this fate, this mysterious darkness, have been avoided?  Yes, Illich says, but not by eliminating the possibility of its occurrence.  It was in the nature of things that the Incarnation would cast a proportionate shadow.  Awareness of this necessity, however, might have mitigated its effect, and produced a church less “brutally earnest” – Illich’s words again – and less fatally convinced of its own rectitude.  Here again I find Illich converging with Jung and Cusanus.  One cannot avoid the opposites, for that is how the world is constituted, but one can dance with them and laugh.