#29 of Podcast: Conversation with David Cayley

#29 of Podcast: Conversation with David Cayley

I talk to David Cayley about Ivan Illich and where the response to the pandemic comes from.

David Cayley is a Toronto-based Canadian writer and broadcaster, who is known for documenting the philosophies of prominent thinkers of the 20th century – among them, the work of Ivan Illich.

Recently, Cayley has been written several powerful works on the Pandemic, including the Prognosis, which was published in Literary Review Canada. He joined me on my podcast to discuss the philosophy of Ivan Illich and how it might be understood in light of recent developments.

Radically Human; Episode #29. / / Youtube link

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Frieda Vizel

Hi, I’m Frieda Vizel, and this is Radically Human.

David Cayley

Careful analysis is going to be necessary and above all friendship.

Frieda Vizel

Today for episode 29, I speak to David Cayley. David Cayley is a Toronto-based writer and broadcaster who is known for documenting the philosophy of prominent thinkers of the 20th century, among them, the radical Ivan Illich, who I have talked about a little bit in some of my previous episodes. Recently, Cayley has been writing several very powerful works on understanding the pandemic, among them ‘The Prognosis’ which was published in Literary Review Canada, as well as on his blog, and in his other published works. And I asked him to join me to talk about how we can make sense of this moment we’re in.

Okay, so you wrote various works on Ivan Illich, most recently you wrote a book In Conversation with Ivan Illich that was recently published, a dialogue, a series of interviews transcribed that you had with Ivan Illich. And a lot of people have turned to Ivan Illich now during the pandemic, as we’re dealing with these huge philosophical questions of what’s the right course? And I want to ask you how you got to know Ivan Illich, and why he was relevant to you now, to write about him now?

David Cayley (1:39)

I went in 1966, as a 20-year-old Canadian boy-man, living then in the US, I had gone to university in the US, I went to Northern Borneo for two years, Eastern Malaysia, with an organization called the Canadian University Service Overseas, which, although differently structured and actually a predecessor of the Peace Corps, Americans would know it as like the Peace Corps. So, two years in international development, but they were two very peculiar and puzzling years for me. And when I came back to Canada, in a package of materials sent to returned volunteers, as we were called, was an essay by Ivan Illich, a talk he had given in Chicago, it’s still widely circulated on the internet, usually under the title ‘To Hell with Good Intentions’ but that’s not what he called it. But it was a talk to a group of young Catholics bound for Mexico, through an organization called CIAS, the Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects. And he basically said you’re very welcome to come to Mexico as tourists, but why don’t you check these other ideas you have about how you’re going to help and so on. So, you could say, it was a sharp check to the myth of progress and of development, that he was the one who questioned the development myth for me. And it resonated. It really, really resonated.

Frieda Vizel

Had you already experienced during your missionary work the seedlings of doubt?

David Cayley (3:21)

Well, yes, because I was in a very peculiar situation in a Chinese village. This is rather a long story so I don’t think I should tell it all here. But the community were divided about my presence because their school had been forcibly, or at least under government duress, converted to English…

Frieda Vizel

I see.

David Cayley (3:45)

In order to participate in the school system of Malaysia. So, I had quite an extensive experience of school systems. And, you know, it disposed me, let’s say it disposed me to hear questions, my experience, yes, very much so.

Frieda Vizel

You were a teacher?

David Cayley (4:01)

I was a teacher there, yeah. So that’s how I first met Ivan. And then this group of us who were more quizzical about the development enterprise, so I got to know, on coming back to Toronto in ’68 eventually put on a big teach-in called Crisis in Development, Crisis in Development, Crisis in Development.

Frieda Vizel

Ah, it’s a pun.

David Cayley (4:24)

The man we wanted was Ivan to be our star. And he came and at that time, he was a celebrity on the world stage. He was in demand everywhere. And I mean, we turned people away from a very large auditorium that night, who wanted to hear him. So, he went through a period of very intense fame…

Frieda Vizel

What in particular catapulted him to so much fame?

David Cayley (4:52)

Well, I…that’s a good question. Probably hard to answer. The most commented book that he ever wrote was Deschooling Society, which was published in 1970. An acolyte assembled a bibliography of citations and I think came up with 800 or something like that, either full length, article length, reviews, discussions, whole books were devoted to discussing Deschooling Society. So, it created a sensation, although it never created any deschool… it never created much deschooling… But it did create a sensation, an intellectual sensation, and so I would say probably more than anything else. But he then built on that analysis, you know, with energy and equity which analyzed speed, transportation.

Frieda Vizel

Can you summarize what his main thesis was in Deschooling Society?

David Cayley (5:49)

Well, it had two… let me take two aspects of it. He came to the United States as a kind of highly educated refugee from Rome. His family were half Jewish. His mother was Jewish, although a convert, but still, as far as the Nazis were concerned after 1940, he and his brothers were half Jews, they fled to Florence. He was educated in Salzburg and Rome. He was a man of very impressive gifts. And so, he naturally, what everyone in Rome had their eyes on him to remain in the papal bureaucracy and the man who became Pope Paul VI, Giovanni Montini, particularly asked him to stay, go to the college and, you know, become a prince of the church.

He ran away to New York, ended up in a little, I mean in a parish, in northern Manhattan, in Washington Heights, when the Puerto Rican migration was at its maximum. He got totally fascinated with the Puerto Ricans, became a spokesman for the Puerto Ricans in the American church, partly because he was interested in different styles of Christianity. You know, that was his first great interest. And he became a kind of theorist or philosopher of mission. But as a result of his work with the Puerto Ricans, he won the favor, strangely, of Cardinal Spellman, who was a great power in the New York church. And in fact, a great, an arch reactionary, you know, blessing the bombers that flew missions over Vietnam and so on in the 60s. But he was always loyal to… he loved Ivan; he was loyal to him. And he was a loyal man. That was one of his virtues.

So, Spellman sent him to Puerto Rico as Vice Rector of the university. And there he discovered the development enterprise, which was, I mean, young Puerto Ricans were then required by law to have more schooling than the state was able to give them in fact. So, he almost immediately said he sensed that this must be some kind of religious enterprise. And he began to analyze carefully what was the result and came to the conclusion that schools were a system for producing dropouts. I mean, that was the kind of slogan he used. So, most of the young Puerto Ricans were not going to get far in this system. But as they dropped out, they would drop out with a sense of, a new sense of inferiority, and a new sense of being uneducated.

So, he saw schooling from the start as a system of concentrating privilege, indoctrination, and in fact, his first intuition that this was indeed a transposition of the Roman Church, was the first intuition of what would become his master thesis at the end of his life, that modernity itself can be studied, as he put it, as an extension of church history. So, he came to the conclusion that deschooling, and by deschooling, he meant something quite specific, which was a constitutional idea that if this is indeed a church, then it constitutes an illegal establishment, i.e., the Second Amendment, or is it the First Amendment of the American Constitution? The first, I guess.

Frieda Vizel

The freedom of religion?

David Cayley (9:26)

Yes, no preference is to be given to anyone on the basis of religion. Right? No religious establishment. So, you can’t say that the Secretary of the Interior must be a Roman Catholic. But you can say that to empty a garbage can in Toronto or probably in New York, you need to have gone through 12 grades of education, which have nothing to do with the emptying of the garbage can, to just take an ordinary example.

Frieda Vizel

Right, right.

David Cayley (9:57)

So, he said that this is a constitutional issue, the schools. He didn’t speak against schools for whatever limited purposes they might serve. He himself had a very good language school at the center he established eventually in Cuernavaca. It’s a perfectly functional way to teach language. He said it should not be established. So, disestablished school was what he meant by deschooling. And so, now to answer the second half of your question, this became a kind of model of a radical monopoly, schooling became a model of what he came to call a radical monopoly.

Frieda Vizel

Meaning what?

David Cayley (10:35)

Well, you can’t do without it. You can’t empty the garbage can.

Frieda Vizel

Okay, yes.

David Cayley (10:41)

You can’t… if you’re in New York, during the Moses era, and still, in the after math of the Moses era, you can’t get across the freeway, you’re subject to a radical monopoly. You can’t get anywhere without a car. You can’t get anywhere without grade 12. Right?

Frieda Vizel


David Cayley (11:01)

Those who don’t wish to be vaccinated in Canada right now are anti-social persons.

Frieda Vizel


David Cayley (11:08)

I mean, they’re being seriously denounced as anti-social persons. In other words, you can’t get along without the vaccine. You’re not allowed to get along without it. And that’s a strong example because if you don’t go to school, you’re just a drop out. But if you don’t have the vaccine, you’re actually compromising the health of your fellow citizens. So, at one point, this I think is in Deschooling, he imagines what he calls the institutional spectrum. So, institutions that are freely available, but not compulsory – a public library, a telephone exchange, are what he calls the convivial end of the spectrum. The school is at the opposite end.

Frieda Vizel

The radical monopoly end?

David Cayley (11:50)

Yeah, you can’t do without it. And it actually disables you.

Frieda Vizel

If you try to opt out of the system.

David Cayley (11:56)

Yeah, you may be disabled. So, this leads on then to a whole theory of institutions and what he calls paradoxical counter productivity. So, he began to suppose that all institutions, modern institutions, have a period in which they’re helpful, maybe minimal schooling really age and creating mass literacy, which Illich never questioned as good as long as people were free. Medicine becomes effective at a certain point.

And then he hypothesized a second threshold at which a limit is surpassed, and the institution becomes counterproductive. It begins to defeat its own purposes. Its ambition becomes… what don’t schools do now? Right? And what won’t they be asked to do? Schools are supposed to overcome evil; they’re supposed to do everything. So, then all these theories of counterproductivity, dominant or radical, dominant professions, radical monopolies, they all follow roughly the same lines, although they were… the analyses, Medical Nemesis, for example, which was published in 1975, is a highly original and very stimulating critique of medicine. It’s not just a cookie cutter application of a theory of paradoxical counterproductivity to a new field. No, I’m not saying that, but there is a narrative shaped to the whole period. Yeah.

Frieda Vizel

So obviously, I think the arc of all of his, especially from reading your writing, is to question this bureaucracy that is supposed to, as you said, improve society. And then at some point, it becomes about the self-preservation of the bureaucracy at the destruction of the ends it’s supposed to be there for, for instance, medical treatment or education. And before we talk about how that plays in today – which the question I want to get to is how it’s relevant today – I’m curious about the context of the time, what the reaction was. Was it controversial? Was he eaten alive? Was he…?

David Cayley (14:15)

No, it’s more paradoxical than that. There’s a passage in Ivan Illich In Conversation, which is the transcription of an interview we did over many days in 1988, in which he says people forget what that atmosphere was in the 1960s, that there were people who sincerely wanted to make a new world right now. So, he was one of them. And he actually believed that, I mean, this defines the Messianic, that it was now or never.

Frieda Vizel

That the 1960s was the chance to turn it around?

David Cayley (14:57)

That if there wasn’t deschooling, if there wasn’t de-medicalization, if there wasn’t, to speak more generally, the institution of a roof or a constitution of limits or an actually agreed what is enough, how can we live and be satisfied and have enough that there would have to endlessly be more. And if that did not occur, the chance to institute it might not come again. He believed, he said now, this must be done now. He believed that was the character of that moment in time. And many other people also felt that that was the character of that moment in time, including myself. But what he saw fairly quickly was that, although, it was such a moment, it wasn’t going to happen. The myths were too deeply anchored for anyone to really think of radically changing things.

And you know, there would be people like me, who wouldn’t send their children to school who were inspired by deschool… you know, Deschooling Society had an influence amongst that little community of people who grew up and were not deschooling in the sense of creating the better school at home but were actually… John Holt had a little journal that he started called Growing Without Schooling. And now that actually is sometimes called deschooling or unschooling, and Ivan certainly helped to inspire that movement, but it’s a tiny marginal movement. It’s not a great movement of the society. And he saw that and that led him to feel, well, he had to take the next step in his analysis. He had had this period as a pamphleteer, as he called it, he couldn’t have been more successful in getting heard. So, he had a tremendous role, but nothing happened you could say.

Frieda Vizel

So, people enjoy to hear the critique, but in the end, they still wanted the success of the system, or… there weren’t enough people who were willing to walk the walk?

David Cayley (17:18)

Yeah. Yeah.

Frieda Vizel

That was essentially the 60s, right?

David Cayley (17:23)

Yeah, that was essentially the 60s. But it’s important to me that it be remembered that way because I would say after 1980, a retrospective myth was introduced, which began to cover that up, right?

Frieda Vizel

In what way? What myth?

David Cayley (17:42)

Well, the Boomers right.

Frieda Vizel

Oh, I see.

David Cayley (17:45)

That’s a demographic phenomenon. It’s like a landslide or a tidal wave. It’s purely a demographic phenomenon.

Frieda Vizel

Oh, I see.

David Cayley (17:54)

The Messianic moment is lost in that story, right. That’s just part of the Boomers’ myth. They’d like to believe that because, you know, it suits them.

Frieda Vizel

That what? They’d like to believe what exactly?

David Cayley (18:07)

That was a messianic moment, a moment when time is interrupted, when a new possibility is introduced, when people can break free of habits that would hold them at other times. I mean, it’s an individual experience. It’s also a social experience at certain moments, right?

Frieda Vizel

What is the Boomer narrative? Because the narrative I know is that 60s was this moment of revolution that was dissipated somehow… the machine was very big and events in history, and it was the last real gasp at changing the system.

David Cayley (18:45)

Well, I mean, that partly goes with Illich, doesn’t it? I mean, he certainly made proposals as to what direction and what form those changes might take. Yeah. But I just mean at the beginning of the 80s, this was very striking to me, suddenly, within it seemed to me a matter of moments, a new figure appeared on the scene who was called the yuppie, the young, urban professional. And this, you see this all the time now, that a new sociological figure is launched, and suddenly, everyone speaks that way. Right? Within two weeks, everybody is suddenly saying get a life or something like this, right? So, the yuppie appears, and the yuppie kind of absorbs the hippie. It absorbs the yippie, the Youth International Party. It says that what was going on all along was the doings of this big self-interested generation, and what they were creating, in fact, as young urban professionals, we now see them was a more stylish form of capitalism, a more liberated, stylish form of capitalism.

Frieda Vizel

I appreciate that you explain that. I hear what you’re saying. And you want to talk about that moment that was real with Illich…

David Cayley (20:12)


Frieda Vizel

…on the scene as well, where there was a real moment of sort of thinking about… and you, were you a parent of young children at that time?

David Cayley (20:20)

I have one daughter born in ’68. My other three children were born in…later, but yes.

Frieda Vizel

But you write about meeting Illich and impressing him by doing something different with the way you were raising the children. I think they weren’t in school.

David Cayley (20:40)

Yeah, that came later. That came a little bit later. But yes.

Frieda Vizel

So um, you know, this is something you write about also in the book, and I’m going to quote here, because you were talking about how Illich believed that this is the moment to change things. I don’t remember exactly the word you were using. But Illich sees the choice of austerity or self-limitation as the only alternative to intensified surveillance and management by technocratic elites. And in this sense, the book has disturbingly apocalyptic undertone. So, in fact, Illich expressively predicts a gruesome apocalypse if society does not master its tools.

David Cayley (21:20)


Frieda Vizel

What did he envision?

David Cayley (21:22)

Well, you’re seeing it…Yeah, I mean, more or less, more or less this. I mean, it’s obviously the details are debatable. And it’s a strange irony I think that climate science is made a kind of shibboleth, you have to accept it or not, or you’re a denier. In fact, lots of forms of weather that have been seen before in the world, it becomes now an article of faith – is this part of the apocalypse? Is this part of the of the climate apocalypse or not? I mean, he would not have been attached to that. He feels that it’s an overall deterioration.

I mean, it’s complicated, because he himself in the early 1980s, came to the conclusion that something had happened which he had not expected, foreseen, or predicted, which was the beginning of what he came to call the age of systems, which maybe at its root you would say is the replacement of the book as the root metaphor of knowledge, by the computer or the cybernetic system. So, he felt that an entirely new mentality… he was becoming aware of it suddenly being expressed in the, you know, once you see it, then you begin to construct its history. So, he felt changes took place that were not imagined by him when he wrote these books.

As a pamphleteer – he called himself a pamphleteer – he’s addressing citizens who he imagines could conceivably change these modern institutions, right? Actually, institute limits on them, disestablish schooling, write a constitution of limits for the size and intensity of tools, rein in the medical system and say this much we want, this more we can live without. That was based on a certain order of society, which he came to think of as an age of tools or an age of instrumentality, a certain way of conceiving society that was coming to an end, was dissolving in what he called the age of systems, in which we imagine ourselves not as standing outside things we might change but as inside them, part inside the system, inextricably part of the system. And the best example is currently where everyone in my milieu and presumably in yours is being asked to think of themselves as components in a global immune system and seemingly are willing to do so as their primary identification, that they’re elements in a global immune system. This is very different than being a person, a local person.

Frieda Vizel

Yeah, an individual.

David Cayley (24:30)

An individual, a citizen of a state, a husband, a father, a son, right. The abandonment of the old in order to save them and protect them, whether they wish to be protected or not, whether they wish to be left alone or not, is a vivid sign of it, I think, and that seems to happen almost everywhere, right? That the old had to be immured and kept away from the ones they love for their own safety.

Frieda Vizel

Was that the new system that he saw in the 80s, was this the cybernetic change?

David Cayley (25:03)

Well, that’s what I said, whether he would have said that, when I wrote about the pandemic because I was… I mean, the pandemic was a moment of astonishment for me. And you know, astonishment is a philosophical emotion. But perhaps one shouldn’t be as surprised as one is, and maybe someone can say but you predicted this. Okay, yeah, I predicted it, but I didn’t expect it. I wasn’t ready for it. Suddenly it was there in a very impressive way, as a form of rationality. And I felt and wrote that you could see over a generation or two how the preconditions for that form of thought were established. And I took it that assumptions about life, about management, about risk, about safety, were a long time establishing themselves, constellating themselves as archetypal ideas, to put it in a more [yomian 26:03] kind of language.

So, the astonishing moment in March of last year, when everybody seemed to know that a lockdown and [hold 26:17] lockdown, a term previously used mainly in prisons and occasionally in schools, where it was already shocking to find the high school was locked down, excuse me, the high school and the prison are now using the same term. And then suddenly the whole society could be locked down. And everyone would agree that this was a rational and necessary procedure before they knew the infection mortality of the disease, before they had considered what harm this might do, and without it ever having been done before, which quite a few older public health doctors, professors, etc. said.

In fact, in Canada, in the summer of 2020, a statement was released, we’re calling for a balanced approach – that was the term they used – involving deans of medicine, former chief medical officers of health in two Canadian provinces, deputy ministers, like quite a stellar group of people who said almost helplessly but this wasn’t the way we did public health before. Why are we doing this? Well, because it seemed to most overwhelmingly rational, and those who tried to hold out, if I’m found correct in my observation of what happened in England, the Johnson government were accused of following the herd immunity strategy as if there could be such a thing. And were shamed within about a week, every society except Sweden was shamed. And I guess Sweden was the last place where the old public health orthodoxy was sufficiently insulated from political power for semi accidental constitutional reasons where they could not join the parade. But other than that, everybody agreed that this was rational, correct, inevitable, and that anyone who disagreed with it was a right-wing yahoo. And the Premier of Ontario who himself has some claim on being a right-wing yahoo or would have, immediately called the demonstrators who appeared outside the legislature, they began to assemble by May, called them yahoos. Amazing.

So, it seems like there’s a moment, there are moments in time, this goes back to our 60s discussion, where something happens, and everybody knows what it means almost before it’s happened as if they’ve been expecting it. 9/11, the beginning of the First World War, I’m sure there are other examples, where it seems like you sleepwalk into the War on Terror, that everybody knows, nobody says okay, so these eight Muslim men, yes, they created an astonishing coup d’etat, it is terrible. The building has falling down. The step to setting the Middle East on fire isn’t obvious. The number of people who are finally going to suffer in Syria 20 years later or 15 years later is staggering, the harm that came out of the invasion of Iraq. But somehow that prior event made it seem obvious. Something has happened in the collective mentality and presumably it has preconditions that has been prepared in some way so that it can then appear as rational. And that’s how the beginning of the pandemic appeared to me.

Frieda Vizel

So, what in particular was it that prepared people? Because I wasn’t prepared. The entire dismissal of risk as a part of life came to me as a completely incoherent absurdity.

David Cayley (30:18)

You can trace the risk story. Medicine has been completely dominated by risk for how long? Two generations, a generation and a half. It’s been gradual. But I mean, a risk is something that applies to a group, a population, it doesn’t say anything about an individual. It says what will happen to someone like me under specified circumstances, some group to which I can be assigned, right. And that way of thinking was a very powerful critique of the mighty doctor and his clinical judgment, or very occasionally her clinical judgment. So, it seemed like, well, this would be progressive. Everything will be subject to randomized trial, we’ll have evidence-based medicine, and, you know, we’ll get over this clinical judgment. Only you find when you get to that, that everybody has to do what the trials have shown is the correct thing to do, whether it’s the correct thing in their case or not, it’s generally the correct thing. So, you, everyone becomes generalized in a certain way.

Frieda Vizel

Inside this system?

David Cayley (31:36)

Yeah. And that’s risk that I think of myself as someone else. The risk factor, I mean, just, it’s just a personal story, but my wife and I, and particularly her, were very much involved in questions of midwifery here in Toronto. And through this, we heard a story of a woman who was particularly expert in managing breech presentations in turning babies, which was her gift. But once trials had shown the correct way of managing breach, then everything had to be managed that way. This skill falls into desuetude.

So, you get the habit of thinking in general categories. That’s what I think. That’s one example. Right? I mean, security would be another example, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, where I worked my whole career, was an open building until well into the 1980s. It seems incredible now. It’s not obvious, it’s not easy to prove that our world is more dangerous than that world was. It may be less dangerous. But it doesn’t seem… like nobody there could imagine now just letting people enter, come and go. Crazy, seems mad. So that’s the assumption about security, right? The standard of security expected. And I would say, and not to go on too long, that there’s a score of those things that you could analyze that would finally bring you to the mentality in which lockdown seems obvious. And in which the opponents – well, that’s another question, isn’t it? How did the opponents get to be villains, or you know, people about whom you need… for whom you need to show no regard? No standard of civility, or saying, oh, you don’t agree, well, why don’t you agree? Or what is your view? No, these are idiots. These are Trumpians.

Frieda Vizel

So, to bring it back to Illich, I suppose I’m asking you to purely speculate. How do you think – you knew the man quite well, right? You had all of these interviews, and you really warmed him up and you gave him no choice but to open up to you. So how do you think he would see what we have here in light of his larger philosophy?

David Cayley (34:09)

Well, from where we were talking before, he took several steps. But the first one was to see that the modern institutions are anchored in deeper certainties. Right? He came to the conclusion that the deepest certainty, or the most pervasive, the one he should work on and create a history, was scarcity. So, let’s say go back to schooling, he said schooling is learning under the assumption of scarcity. It’s not obvious that the means for my education or your education are scarce. There’s a library, we’re free to talk.

Frieda Vizel

I can learn an infinite amount.

David Cayley (34:55)

But the resources for learning must be husbanded in specialized institutions is an assumption of scarcity, right? That the means will always be scarce – only a few will get to go to Harvard, etc.

Frieda Vizel


David Cayley (35:10)

So, he began to explore a whole series of ways in which this way of thinking is created. And the most controversial one was a book called Gender, which was published in 1982 and was based on a series of lectures he gave at University of California, Berkeley, the region selectors for that year, in which he… he was tremendously excited by the discovery, as he was told by a couple of women, historians, friends, that the beginnings of capitalism could be quite correctly described as the demise of gender, all forms of universal circulation presuppose the destruction of this fundamental duality, which seems to structure every society up till the modern one. I mean, it’s a construction, it’ll be different in different places. Here, the women do this, and the men do that. And over here, it’s the opposite. But there will always be the duality.

So, the destruction of that fundamental sense of duality in the world, he connected to the integrity of boundaries, to limits of size, that a community could not outgrow its proper size necessarily. There were simply things for which I must depend on you or you on me, there were things about you that I couldn’t know, I could only imagine, I could reach for them metaphorically, likewise. So, the relationship of gendered men and women in this old world, he took as the kind of bottom floor of a symbolic universe, which reaches, in his view, all the way to the throne of God, that we also can imagine God.

And so, he laid all this out in this wild book. It’s truly a miracle of a book. But he created it very quickly. And it’s the story of an old Canadian humorous called [Steven Lee Cox 37:22], in which he describes the distractive lover who rides madly off in all directions. So, Ivan on is kind of writing madly off in all directions in gender, right? There’s all these titled footnotes. It would be very hard for a reader to keep their footing. And at the beginning, it’s not the beginning, it’s the beginning of the strongly institutionalized phase of second wave feminism. It just sounds like he’s saying, you know, back to the kitchen, girls, if you don’t listen. And in fact, seven feminist professors in Berkeley arranged an after conference, and that was then published as a whole issue of a journal called Feminist Issues. And I would say, Illich’s reputation as a progressive sank in the wake of that critique.

Frieda Vizel

Can I tell you, because I’m not sure I follow because the term gender has become so muddled. And I did read in your conversations with him about gender. I didn’t read the book on gender, but my understanding was that he was critical of a capitalistic feminism, a feminism that makes progress for the few into the patriarchal or consumerist or the competitive markets, while destroying female spaces, female roles. Was that to some degree…?

David Cayley (38:50)

That’s exactly right. That’s what he said in the book. He used the term gender was not in wide use. He remembered going to his publisher Pantheon, and they said what? Gender – like that’s the article you put in front of the noun. Like what are you talking about? I found a little bibliography that Donna Haraway did in the 70s on writings on gender. So, it’s not as if nobody was beginning to use the term in the new way. But if we, let’s say, date it from Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble in 1990, then… and Illich is then completely written out of this story. You will never find a reference to him in any of these writings. But essentially, that term is now used in the opposite way. He tried to create…

Frieda Vizel

Sex definitions, and now it’s the opposite.

David Cayley (39:43)

Yeah, a definition of, you know, like he made sex and gender one of these classical sociological pairs, right?

Frieda Vizel

Uh huh. And now it’s been unpaired. Now you can be male sex but female gender.

David Cayley (39:59)

Yeah, yeah.

Frieda Vizel

I see.

David Cayley (40:00)

Well, and gender stands with the old regime, sex symbolizes the modern way. So, the term was taken over but completely changed. This is a whole other study. Although the book is starting to be read again. And it was reissued in Italy not that long ago with a forward by Giorgio Agamben. So, it is not a lost cause, but it’s a badly misunderstood book. So that kind of brought an end to this history of scarcity project.

Frieda Vizel

I see.

David Cayley (40:39)

But he went on to write about text and modernity and the computer metaphor and then laterally to explore with me the whole question of the church and modernity and what the idea of modernity as an upside down or inside out Christianity is explored in a series of radio broadcasts I did in 2000… which became the book called the The Rivers North of the Future, which was published after he died. So, I haven’t answered your question because I don’t really want to transplant poor Ivan into this.

Frieda Vizel

He’s already been.

David Cayley (41:17)

I think if you go back to the 80s, when he is asked to revisit Medical Nemesis ten or twelve years later by the British Medical Journal, he says a lot of these things. He begins Medical Nemesis with a strong sentence – the medical establishment has become the major threat to health. But 12 years later, he says what medical establishment? There’s a system of which this supposed establishment are functionaries, but you can no longer find the medical establishment.

Frieda Vizel


David Cayley (41:54)

Because people are following system parameters, system protocols. This is who we do it, this is what our ethics code says, this is what our vision is. The system has completely eclipsed the individual.

Frieda Vizel

I see. The group of doctors.

David Cayley (42:10)

Yeah. I’m not saying there isn’t still a skillful surgeon who is more skillful than this other surgeon or something like that. I am just saying generally the way he imagined the medical establishment has completely changed. And he is convinced by the later 80s that the pursuit of health is now the major threat to health. The cult or the worship of health itself, which is a form of the worship of life, which is not the individual person.

Frieda Vizel

But about breathing and pumping heart…

David Cayley (42:43)

Yeah, saving lives… I think if you carefully analyze the discourse of saving lives in the pandemic, you can see that it doesn’t have to do with individual persons. A person who is 91 or 86 who wants to see their son or daughter is quite prepared to die if that’s going to happen now, ready to die, who may be warehoused in a place that they don’t really… etc. It’s not about that. It’s about saving lives. How many lives have we saved?

Frieda Vizel

Yeah. Almost a commodity.

David Cayley (43:22)

Those lives are a resource. They are some sort of institutional resource.

Frieda Vizel

Yeah. I think, clearly, that it would be very clear to him from his writing that risk aversion was sloganary, saying this kind of security at all costs. But he didn’t have a problem making statements that presumably put him at risk at the time of the denouncement to say we should take these risks in life, we shouldn’t make life sacred.

David Cayley (43:54)

Well yes, that’s true, but whenever you are criticizing a form of society, you can be easily caricatured or mocked as if you didn’t have any sense of prudence.

Frieda Vizel

Yeah. Was he?

David Cayley (44:11)

Well, yeah, but you were in a different form a society then if you exercise… How can a contemporary person exercise a virtue of prudence, right?

Frieda Vizel


David Cayley (44:24)

It’s not easy to do it, right? It will help in happen in little sub societies perhaps. But so, to say he was willing to take risks, it would be better to say he invited people to imagine a world in which risk wasn’t the primary way of constructing what is going on. It is an invitation to think differently. But yes, other than that, I would say yes, the answer to your question is yes. He did not, he didn’t think that people ought to live in order to save their lives.

Frieda Vizel

Right. You know, as you were also writing about, he abhorred people being placed in categories of, for instance, with the women who are told you have to do prenatal consultation, right? These are all part of the same system of thinking where odds are more important than the individual and their circumstances.

David Cayley (45:15)

Yeah, that is exactly right.

Frieda Vizel

Yeah, yeah. So, I guess what I am not clear on, and I want to make sure that I follow, is I’m trying to better understand what we are saying about he saw, for instance, schools as a system to fix and then with the cybernetic metaphor, with the systems as the overarching diagnosis, I am not sure what the distinction was. Was there more agency before?

David Cayley (45:45)

I think you can’t… Okay, I’m going to mention another book, a wonderful book from 19- I think it was ’93 called In the Vineyard of the Text which is the study of how Hugh of Saint Victor who was the abbot of a monastery on what today would be the left bank of Paris, but then was just outside the walls of Paris, how did Hugh of Saint Victor read? Hugh of Saint Victor was a great inspiration, a friend Ivan would say to him. And he concludes that in the 12th century, a new form of society is coming into existence. So, what he calls monkish reading from which his metaphor of the vineyard of the text in which the words are tasted, in which reading is a sensual sensory engrossment recommended by some antique authorities as a form of exercise because you voice the words. And… what you mainly read was scripture. The scripture encompassed you, you did not encompass it.

Whereas he imagines, now he has never really received credit for this because Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy and Elizabeth Eisenstein’s companion book on modern printing have said, well, print literacy really, we date this from the Renaissance. But Illich says there were a series of changes in the page in the 12th century, in the scribal page that created the modern book, turned it into a scholarly tool. Imagine reading unseparated letters, for example. But a whole lot of other changes are made – paragraphs, glosses, footnotes, chapter headings. The whole thing becomes perspicuous, visible he said in a new way. He called it visible text. And a visible text can be the mirror of a mind. So, the modern reader, even beginning in the twelfth century, he overlooks the text, the text doesn’t any longer overlook him or her. Which encompasses which?

So, this is a metaphor of what he calls the age of tools, the age of instrumentality, which he imagines as lasting into our time and being marked by an extraordinary intensity of purposefulness not previously seen amongst human beings. And it’s obvious enough that this society took over the world and dictated the way of life which now prevails everywhere for whatever reason. It should be said just in passing that all these things he regards as implications of a certain way of taking Christianity, a certain way of taking the gospel. That’s another question. But so, this is the age of tools and one of the things implied is a certain difference, a distinction between me and that text which I see but I am distinct from, on which I perform operations.

If you move ahead to the contemporary age, you can see, yes, the cybernetic system but even ideas of text began to change as early as Schrodinger’s lectures on the genome as a form of text. This is the German physicist Erwin Schrodinger who did a series of lectures called What Is Life, it is published as What Is Life in Dublin, Trinity College Dublin in the 1940s. And he says you can conceive it. So, everything becomes textual in a certain way. The genome is a text without an author. But even an authored text in the work of [Barte or Dukida 49:42] or whoever begins to greatly exceed its author’s intentions and to overcome and reshape its authors intentions and the death of the author is spoken of. So this is all breaking down, this age of instrumentality is breaking down in our time. So that’s what he is thinking.

Frieda Vizel

I see.

David Cayley (50:07)

So, we are incorporated in a new way. Yeah.

Frieda Vizel

Are you saying in this continuous process since we started to make text something that we can read it with our eyes, right? Is that a continuous process?

David Cayley (50:20)

Well, he says that he, in the early 80s, began to suddenly understand that a new way of thinking was present, that it was radically different.

Frieda Vizel

I see.

David Cayley (50:35)

So, there is a moment but then when you begin to analyze it, then you go and find Schrodinger’s book and you think okay that’s a precursor…

Frieda Vizel

I see.

David Cayley (50:45)

How does Turing conceive his universal machine which is not really a machine?

Frieda Vizel

It’s organic.

David Cayley (50:52)

Yeah, so these are things you can trace back to the 40s, but he’s saying it comes to him. He’s saying I was still in the age of instrumentality when I wrote those books, in some ways when I wrote those books of the early 70s. But now I see that this is a definitive change in mentality.

Frieda Vizel

I see. And he starts to analyze institutions from this new perspective?

David Cayley (51:20)

Yes. Or he sees that institutions have so absolutely lost their boundary that there’s no real point in pressing the reform idea. How are you going to reform what you cannot even comprehend, what’s comprehending you in a certain way, right?

Frieda Vizel

Ah. So, if we are left with that powerlessness, where did that leave him? If you can no longer just change the constitution in terms of what school is…

David Cayley (51:51)

Well, since his Lord Jesus Christ he defines as the powerless one, the one who submits to ostracization and to crucifixion outside the walls of the city, who shows loyalty to his people, who shows love for his people by accepting to be ostracized and then be killed by his people and killed even in this astonishing indignity of being lifted off the ground, not even touching that earth any longer, if that is God, then he has known he is powerless all along. But he says that he has a new experience of powerlessness in this age that he thinks is dawning because he says that power itself reveals its void characteristics. It is nonexistence, which is quite a statement.

He understood all of modernity as a misapprehension of the incarnation, the primary idea of being, that it’s all been given to you and you can now institute it, increasingly you can guarantee it, you can insure it, you can make it available to others, you can police others to make sure they have received it correctly, heresy, and so on, right? So, the church is the model, and the unique power of the church is the truth of the gospel for him. It isn’t an illusion. He believes that God is revealed in Jesus Christ. And that what is revealed above all is the freedom to love, that the Samaritan which was his paradigm of the New Testament, he says it, is the stranger, the foreigner, or the enemy, the Palestinian in contemporary terms, who turns to his wounded enemy in the ditch and takes care of him. Which he’s not supposed to do, which is outside all bounds. He might not even be vaccinated.

So that moment of the freedom to love and of a kind of proto universal humanity that you see there is also a moment of the most extreme danger because everything that has contained and limited people is put at risk. The globalized society is there in embryo. So, I mean that’s the root of it all is that as the church grows in power, as the church grows in confidence through many or several stages, of which the most important for him is the Reformation of the 12th century, that that the institution begins to reach, you know… Charles Taylor says in the secular age, you know, that the message is and we are going to take Christianity fully seriously, we are going to realize this. If we believe this, then we are going to make a Christian society. And that attempt at making tells everything about modernity finally, and if you are a Christian, it drives you back to the beginning to look again. That’s what I think.

So this powerlessness is also a moment of beautiful opportunity which he also says at the end of The Rivers North of the Future that he is meeting young people, the people who formed his community in later years, who are blessedly free of the spirit of instrumentality, who have come into the light in a certain way on whom the new assumptions haven’t settled yet, who are freed a little bit from the old assumptions, you know, and this is our freedom now I think to form marginal communities. I think the monastic metaphor for this is probably more misleading than not, but I don’t have another one. If you take it as some people do, Giorgio Agamben would be a good example of people who have seen in monasticism important scenes of this society to come. Pope Benedict and his brothers weren’t planning this, and we don’t know what we are planning or what we are doing, but we are just trying to keep certain things alive, trying to keep certain freedoms in relation to one another, certain ways of thinking alive.

So that although he realized his powerlessness in one sense, that he wasn’t, you know, there wasn’t going to be deschooling society. There was going to be a rag-tag bunch of unschoolers or deschoolers, yes there was going to be. And there were going to be a lot of us, and we were going to have to take care of one another. So, there is always a, I dare to say this in my big book on Illich, he was always creating churches, it just didn’t look like churches, and to that extent, they were churches so it’s mystifying to call them churches. And the whole idea of a new way of thinking when you’re living in an old way of thinking requires the greatest tact, delicacy, balance, forbearance to do it at all, doesn’t it? But he was a man of great hope and he always lived in hope, and he was a lover and a friend, and he was a lot of fun.

Frieda Vizel

He had a big personality.

David Cayley (57:36)

Yeah, yeah. And his own journey, I think, was because he was such a world straddling personality at the beginning and because that was quite fitting given his astonishing gifts. A lot of that pride burned away in later years also and willingly. I mean, he watched it consumed, he allowed it to be consumed. Yeah.

Frieda Vizel

Wow. What was he like as a personality?

David Cayley (58:08)

I don’t think I can answer that. He was an enthusiast. I’ll tell you a story, which doesn’t really speak on personality, but he came to Toronto in 1987 to address a conference on morality and literacy. So, this is what we were talking about with In the Vineyard of the Text, the book he later wrote. At that time, he had just finished a book called ABC the Alphabetization of the Western Mind, or the Popular Mind maybe it is.

Anyway, I was covering that conference, I was a radio broadcaster, and I was working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. And in the course of interviewing him for a series about this specific conference, which was sort of created by the successors of Marshall McLuhan at the University of Toronto, I said could I come and see you and do a more extensive series of broadcasts on your thinking? Out of the question. I don’t do that kind of thing anymore, I haven’t done it for years, I have no desire to do it, basta. Okay. So, the next day, the conference is over, we are standing outside in the sunshine, outside Emmanuel College in Toronto. And my wife, [Uta 59:20] and our three young children show up. They just came to meet me after the conference. But Ivan is standing over here, and he looks over at us. Something happens. He comes over and says you know that idea you had, you could write to my colleague Wolfgong Sachs about that, which I did a while later. It wasn’t right away by any means. I get a letter from Ivan that looks like he’s had his fingers on the wrong keys of the typewriter, like it’s… and it says that he will do what I ask and that he will… and he promises me his obedience. And I had no understanding at that time of what obedience meant. Because it certainly didn’t mean doing what I told him, but it meant a kind of attentiveness or kind of opening to another one that he would be true to that, he would follow that. It wouldn’t be a submission; it would be a dance, but in the dance, he would follow as well as lead. And that’s what happened. That is exactly what happened.

So, for me, that moment was not just watching that happen to Ivan, but then knowing I can do that too and perhaps I’ve been doing that all along, but now I see what it is. It is actually living from a call or from a calling which is not a planning, but it is a kind of attentive, and it is also not a giving up of all safety, of all precaution, of all… we would get to the corner if we lived like that. We have to… the discretion remains always the mother of the virtues. Judgment is always necessary, but one can, within that framework, attend to a call and that is a way to live. And that is the way he lived. So that almost everything he created can be traced to either a person or an exigent circumstance. But fundamentally to a person, those young Puerto Ricans who were turned into dropouts you can say inspired Deschooling Society and so it goes. So, he was a friend.

Frieda Vizel

Yeah. It’s interesting that when you talk about him saying that he is going to be obedient, to you it made a powerful impression that he was saying I’m going to have an openness to this serendipitous encounter I’ve had with you and your children and I’m going to follow it.

David Cayley (1:02:09)

So, there is a series of terms in his thought which lead to the surprise, and this helps me a little bit because… go back to the beginning when I used perhaps a bit recklessly the term Messianic, because it was imposed on him to live outside the church. He was a priest and a very devoted priest. His friend Joe Fitzpatrick said that the reason the Puerto Ricans loved him so in New York was the devotion with which he said his mass, the evident devotion. Joe Fitz used that term, devotion with which he said his mass. So, that was him, but he was also an apostille of a new church, as he put it, right.

And essentially a new church meant a de-clericalized church, a church that would begin to shed its bureaucracy and would begin to shed the image of itself is a monarchy. A church that would adopt new models of what kind of community it is and not the ones that are still dying everyday under the image of papal monarchy. So anyway, long story short, he was summoned to Rome in ’68 and subjected to inquisition. I mean it was formal inquisition and it was under the auspices of what by then was called the Holy Office, but the Holy Office was a mutation of what had originally been the inquisition. So, he was subjected to inquisition. He refused to cooperate. The next year, his then thriving educational center in Cuernavaca, Mexico, was put under a ban by the Vatican, and he said enough, I will withdraw from all formal exercise of my priesthood. So, he never renounced his priesthood; he never ceased to be a priest as far as the church is concerned, but he never functioned as a priest again. So, he had to learn how to function outside the church.

Now some writers about him have said that he went underground in effect, that he created an apathetic theology so that Deschooling Society is really a Roman a clef about the church or that he was only disguised. I don’t think that is at all truth. I think he learned to speak in a new… to put his gospel, if you want to call it that, into… putting his gospel in to terms which he can share with others, he changed it. He didn’t change its nature, but he showed it in a new light. And so, I think he is one of the ones who shows how Christianity can be present without becoming a religion that then necessarily is in competition with another religion or contradicts another religion.

He shows a way of taking his faith, and one of the terms he uses consistently is surprise. From the very beginning, he says I want to live for surprises. To the graduating class of the University of Puerto Rico in ’69, he says I decided at the beginning that I would live for surprises, and I hope to be surprised always and above all at the moment of my death. So, surprise outside of Emmanuel College, that moment of spontaneity, surprise. Right? But… surprise can be really easily misunderstood because the conditions for surprise rarely exist and can never be planned because then there is expectation, right? I can get a nice surprise from you, then in fact, I expect it or whatever. A real surprise is a radical surprise. It is what I didn’t see coming. It is what changed me. It is what opened a new door. So, he used a series of words – spontaneity, surprise – to indicate that openness to others and the primary meaning of the incarnation for him is, I think, in the Rivers North of the Future, he puts this first, the freedom to love is the freedom to encounter God in one another. So, it is the essential element of Christianity is that God has become one of us, is present. And that also tells you why there was such a horror of this disembodying trend that you see for example in risk discourse. It is because it’s in the body that this is found.

Frieda Vizel

This godliness.

David Cayley (1:07:10)

Yeah, it’s the fleshiness, it is the sight of this happening. And again, I don’t want to be misunderstood. I very much enjoyed this encounter with you, and I’ve only seen an effigy or an apparition of you. And I lived my whole life as a broadcaster doing, you know, as a presence to others, as a disembodied voice, and I know the difference that made to people sometimes to hear some of those things, and that it made to me and so on. So, it is not to make a thing of the flesh as it were, and in fact, we have a perverse form of embodiment very often with this endless…

Frieda Vizel

Obsession with the body.

David Cayley (1:07:55)

Yeah, the body image and the right vitamins and all the of that. But if embodiment is understood, the voice that goes between us is also body, then yeah, that’s what’s the horror of disembodiment, of actually thinking of myself as another.

Frieda Vizel

Did he hear of all the transhumanists plans upload the brain into a cyber…?

David Cayley (1:08:22)

If he did, he never spoke about it. But obviously he wouldn’t have cared much for it.

Frieda Vizel

How do you feel about that? What do you think on that?

David Cayley (1:08:33)

I think it’s the end of humanity. Yeah, I don’t think our destiny is to live in a vat, no.

Frieda Vizel

It wouldn’t be very pleasant, I think.

David Cayley (1:08:45)

But I mean, I do see the pandemic as a step forward, pardon the expression. And I do, I am kind of amazed at how readily it has been accepted and not seen that way by even people I’m close to. So, it has been quite a year in that respect.

Frieda Vizel

Yeah, I was actually going to wrap up by asking you how you’ve been coping the last year-and-a-half. I did read about certain philosophers criticizing your… Oh, one named you for your interpretations of Illich and I did see from some of your writing that people ask you are you still critical of the response to the pandemic, so…

David Cayley (1:09:30)

I think it’s created a whole series of divisions. And the incident you mentioned was a couple of essays by a French philosopher called Jean-Pierre Dupuy who worked with Illich in the 70s, who certainly knows his work well. And he felt I was being reckless. So yeah, I think careful analysis is going to be necessary and above all friendship. This is the thing that I am obsessed by is the willingness to condemn the other one and to say… you can’t say that. So the opposite of… the very thing I find in the pandemic, which is that… right at the beginning, like just a week or so in after, maybe it was two weeks, after the WHO declares ‘Pandemic’ and that seems to be the signal to everybody, maybe it was the pan part of the demic – the panic – that it seems as if all apocalyptic fear suddenly was called into this one figure of the pandemic and assembled there.

And an epidemiologist and a student of medical statistics called Ioannidis who’s a Stanford wrote a piece that was I think pretty widely circulated, saying wait a minute, let’s not go over a cliff here. There are a bunch of things that have to be understood here. We do not know the crucial thing about this, which is the infection mortality rate, which he later established himself in an article for the WHO. And it’s a little bit worse than most flus, yeah, for sure. Bad flu, really bad flu. But when you look at certain age groups, it is not worse than the flu, including those that were hiding under the bed.

So yeah, it was an amazing unwillingness to enter into the discussion or even to recognize that could or should be a discussion. It was more like pulling up the drawbridge and saying that everything outside was now an enemy. Our major newspaper here has declared that Canada is at war. We are at war. But like most wars, it’s threatens to become permanent. The Second World War World is over but oops you are in the Cold War. This is the beginning of, and everyone is saying, talking this way, that all these dangerous phrases like the new normal and we have to be on the alert for the next pandemic, these are all invitations to a permanent war footing and therefore for a permanent injury to civility and to the very thing that is necessary, which is to start talking about what this unprecedented world condition really is. How are we going to understand it, right?

Frieda Vizel

Yeah. But there is no talking. People don’t want to have a conversation.

David Cayley (1:12:42)

Well, some don’t, some do.

Frieda Vizel

Some do? Oh good.

David Cayley (1:12:45)

You and me.

Frieda Vizel

Well, we are on the side that is already written off. So, the people who believe this is a war, that needs society to grind to a halt, every precaution to be taken, they are not having a dialogue. Are you finding that people in your circle who don’t understand it are open to hearing?

David Cayley (1:13:09)

Well, it varies. It varies. But there is the residuum of civil rights being asserted in some places. So, Ontario will not count – Ontario is the province in which Toronto lives – will not count as vaccine passports for example. So, I take comfort in some of those things, and I still think that because there is major scientific descensus, as I have called it, there is quite a variety of opinions within virology, within epidemiology, and within public health that I mentioned, this older generation, I don’t think it is over yet. I don’t think the conversation is over yet. So, in the end, you can only do what you can do and let the chips fall where they may.

Frieda Vizel

Yeah. So, I want to thank you so much for your time and for sharing all of these very thought-provoking bits. And I guess I am just curious how you are dealing with the restrictions. Are you going out in Toronto? Everything is…?

David Cayley (1:14:24)

Everything is pretty much open now. It is pretty good. The baseball team is coming home next week… and people are going to be allowed to go.

Frieda Vizel

Are you going to go?

David Cayley (1:14:32)

I’m getting old. I do love baseball, but whether I’ll go I don’t know. So yeah, it is pretty good. And I have to confess that we’ve never quite gone along. So, we have not. I know quite a few people who never saw their grandchildren even.

Frieda Vizel

That’s terrible.

David Cayley (1:14:56)

You know, I’m speaking as an elder now so, but that wasn’t us.

Frieda Vizel

Yeah, no. Well, I admire that. I think it’s a strange time when we have to say it takes courage to see our grandkids, to see grandkids and do things like that. But such is this very unusual time.

David Cayley (1:15:14)

Well, Frieda, this has been a joy to talk to you. Thank you.

Frieda Vizel

Thank you so much.

David Cayley (1:15:19)

And a final word from Ivan, a favorite saying of his, I doubt he made it up was that the gift of good counsel is in the ear. So, thank you.

Frieda Vizel

It’s a compliment.

David Cayley

And I’ll look forward to hearing from you.

Frieda Vizel

Yes. You will, you will. Thank you for your time. I appreciate it. Have a good rest of your day. We will be in touch.

David Cayley

Okay, bye.

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