Ivan Illich and the Idol of Lifestyle

Ivan Illlich, the Austrian philosopher, Catholic priest and iconoclast, was asked to give a lecture to a group of American Lutheran pastors on the topic of life. Rather outlining a philosophy of life, Illich called life an idol.

Illich said the pastors were dismayed by his characterisation. After all Jesus is the ‘bread of life’, ‘the way, the truth and the life’, and promises abundant life.

"Ivan Illich" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ivan_Illich.jpg#/media/File:Ivan_Illich.jpg

“Ivan Illich” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ivan_Illich.jpg#/media/File:Ivan_Illich.jpg

What could it mean to call life an idol?

For Illich, life is an idol worshiped and used by marketers, theologians, politicians, scientists, journalists, and activist to motivate, reveal and hide all sorts of responses, actions and emotions. Yet, there is never any attempt to provide an adequate definition.

In his acerbic style Illich says ‘when I used the word life today, I could just as well just cough or clear my throat or say “shit”’.

For Illich, life becomes an idol because it is an empty signifier that can be filled with whatever meaning an authoritative and persuasive speaker gives. In his terms, life is an amoeba word. A word that when thrown into a conversation ‘makes waves, but it doesn’t hit anything. It has all these connotations, but it does not designate anything precisely’.

Other amoeba words could be freedom, family, democracy, race, secular, or gender. Illich was not suggesting that the things these words signify or represent are necessarily unimportant or shit. Rather they tend to hide or assume what is at stake.

Amoeba words are imprecise yet produce deep cultural and emotional resonance. Perhaps the more important a topic is the more amoeba words appear.

The use of lifestyle is a case in point. Despite its banal appearance it is a divisive word. It divides lives as “in” and part of “us” from those that are “out” and part of “them”. Sure, lifestyle is used to market insurance or sell funeral packages, but it is also used to identify what is valued and can be disregarded.

The idol of lifestyle is used to justify the careful inclusion of some lives and in the same movement violent exclusion of others.

George H.W. Bush infamously told the 1992 Rio Earth Summit that the American way of life was not negotiable. The rest of the world may burn, but the American lifestyle has such a high value that it will not be compromised.

Tony Abbott’s recent comments about lifestyle choices and remote Aboriginal communities reveal the divisive nature of the term.

“What we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have”

There are lifestyles that ‘fully participate in the life of our country’ and there are lifestyles that are outside of “our country”. Being “inside” grants security, celebration and flourishing, while being “outside” leads to abandonment and exposure. Of course, to be outside is a choice and therefore removes responsibility for care from the “inside”.

Screenshot 2015-03-11 18.26.22

Like Illich’s observations, the idol of life and amoeba words continue to abound in political and popular discourse. Perhaps coughing or saying shit in their stead may interrupt the pronouncements of false prophets and disrupt the flow of worshiping these false gods.

See – Cayley, David. 1992. Ivan Illich in conversation. Concord, Ontario: House Of Anansi

Continental Approaches in Bioethics (2015)

Hall, Melinda. C. (2015). “Continental Approaches in Bioethics.” Philosophy Compass 10(3): 161-172.

DOI: 10.1111/phc3.12202

Abstract

Bioethics influences public policy, scientific research, and clinical practice. Thinkers in Continental traditions have increasingly contributed scholarship to this field, and their approaches allow new insights and alternative normative guidance. In this essay, examples of the following Continental approaches in bioethics are presented and considered: phenomenology and existentialism; deconstruction; Foucauldian methodologies; and biopolitical analyses. Also highlighted are Continental feminisms and the philosophy of disability. Continental approaches are importantly diverse, but those I focus upon here reveal embedded models of individualized autonomy in medical discourses and encourage awareness of medicine’s normalizing edges, thereby drawing attention to lacunae in traditional bioethical frameworks.

E.O. Wilson, Eusociality & the Limits of Science

While a post-doc at Penn State (2011-13), renowned sociobiologist E.O. Wilson gave a lecture on eusociality – an understanding of the evolution of social cooperation and alturism among insects, such as ants, through: i) cooperative care of offspring; ii) overlapping generations within a colony of adults; and iii) a division of labour into reproductive and non-reproductive groups. Wilson extends these observations to human interactions and evolution.

To explain the link to human sociality, Wilson used Paul Gauguin’s “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” According to Wilson, Gauguin’s three questions are the central questions of religion and philosophy. However neither is equipped to answer them.

Paul_Gauguin_-_D'ou_venons-nous

“Paul Gauguin – D’ou venons-nous” by Paul Gauguin – Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Wilson asserts that religions do not have the necessary scientific understanding of the universe. And since the decline of logical positivism, philosophy has “scattered in a kind of intellectual diaspora and into those areas not yet colonized by science”. Not afraid of a non-sequitur, Wilson concludes – “by default therefore, the solution to the great riddle, if it has an answer, has been left to science”.

Wilson claims that eusociality and evolutionary biology provide the best answer to Gauguin’s questions. Rather than address the veracity and usefulness of Wilson’s eusociality, I want to focus on the type of answer that Wilson’s eusociality is and whether it address Gauguin’s questions.

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Make good choices, kid: biopolitics of children’s bodies and school lunch reform in Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution (2015)

 

Perhaps my favourite description of Jamie Oliver is “mockney gobshite”. This analysis, however, seems a little more sophisticated and looks at the biopower of moralizing discoursed around food, schools and young bodies in the US.

Foucault News

Gibson, K.E., Dempsey, S.E.
Make good choices, kid: biopolitics of children’s bodies and school lunch reform in Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution
(2015) Children’s Geographies, 13 (1), pp. 44-58.

DOI: 10.1080/14733285.2013.827875

Abstract
In recent debates surrounding childhood nutrition and US school lunch reforms, the child’s body serves as a contested battleground in a destructive politics of blame over obesity and diabetes. Scalar discourses of the body play a significant role in constructing food-related problems and their solutions. We illustrate our claims through a critical analysis of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution; a celebrated national television program centered on chef Oliver’s attempts to address childhood nutrition through school lunch reform. Informed by Foucault’s biopolitics, our analysis highlights how moralizing scalar discourses of the body frames nutrition as an individual problem of personal choice. Food politics, when played out at the scale of young bodies, masks class divisions, marginalities, and governmental policies that…

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Don’t be surprised by Abbott’s comments about ‘lifestyle choices’

By Christopher Mayes, University of Sydney and Jenny Kaldor, University of Sydney

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s claim this week that people living in remote communities were making a “lifestyle choice” that taxpayers shouldn’t be obliged to fund was not just the result of an unguarded moment. Rather, the phrase reveals an underlying view that social circumstances are the responsibility of individuals, rather than societies.

Commentators as well as Abbott’s top advisers on Indigenous affairs were quick to criticise the characterisation. Others suggested it was just another prime ministerial gaffe that shouldn’t distract us from the real issues.

Abbott is infamous for his gaffes and “dad jokes”, but this was not one of those moments. A day after he made the remark, the prime minister defended his use of the phrase on the Alan Jones Show.

“Lifestyle choices” was not a gaffe but a neoliberal mechanism of government that adopts a consumer logic to: i) shift responsibility for ‘closing the gap’ on to individuals; ii) trivialise Aboriginal ontological connection to land; and iii) ignore the effects of colonization, while “continuing settler colonial ‘logic o elimination’“.*

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Foucault and Neoliberalism Today (2015)

 

“If the claim that Foucault was a neoliberal is not a new one, the claim that Foucault might have had less than radical politics is much less novel still. Attempts to paint Foucault as a crypto-Right-winger date back to the publication of his The Order of Things in 1966, which was attacked by Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes, Satre himself denouncing Foucault as the “last rampart of the bourgeoisie.”
The essential stake of this discussion, and I think some of the continuing invective, is that Foucault was articulating a radical position that was explicitly anti-Marxist. Foucault has been consistently opposed by the more doctrinaire sections of the Marxist Left, who view his challenging of their dogmas as reactionary insofar as it stands in the way of the single path to revolutionary progress.”

Foucault News

Mark G. E. Kelly, Foucault and Neoliberalism Today, Contriver’s Review, March 2015

Late last year, a PhD student in Belgium, Daniel Zamora, published a smallish edited collection of essays in French called “Criticising Foucault” (Critiquer Foucault). An interview he gave in relation to the book was translated into English for the Leftist journal Jacobin and then widely shared on social media. This interview contains some interesting and worthwhile discussion, but the strapline of the English translation (absent in the French original) focuses on an allegation that Michel Foucault had an “affinity” for neoliberalism, and indeed it is this claim of Zamora’s that leads the subsequent interview. The interviewer sets up the claim that Foucault was a neoliberal as something new and shocking, but it has been aired in Foucault scholarship for a decade at least (not least in articles now reprinted in Zamora’s collection). Despite…

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Lifestyle choice: a brief note

I’m currently completing a book manuscript called ‘The Biopolitics of Lifestyle’. So when Tony Abbott made his comments that Aboriginal’s living in remote communities are making a ‘lifestyle choice’, I thought “great, I may need to write another chapter”.

This is not simply a poor choice of words, but reflects a governmental rationality that seeks to place responsibility on to individuals. Education, health, welfare, employment all become ‘lifestyle choices’ for which the individual is responsible.

The affluent, gainfully employed, highly educated sections of society make good ‘lifestyle choices’, while the poor, sick, Indigenous and asylum seekers are characterised as making bad ‘lifestyle choices’.

Abbott is not the first to use this phrase to justify . In 2002, Philip Ruddock described asylum-seekers as making ‘lifestyle choices’.

“In the main, people who have sought to come to Australia and make asylum claims do not come from a situation of persecution; they come from a situation of safety and security,” he said.

“They may not be able to go back to their country of origin but they are making a lifestyle choice.” The Australian, ‘Ruddock blames “lifestyle” refugees’ by Alison Crosweller and Megan Saunders

This governmental rationality shifts responsibility away from governments and communities, and on to individuals. It also serves to trivialize some claims (living in a remote community or seeking asylum) by comparing them to frivolous consumer lifestyle choices (Pepsi or Coke, holden or ford, apple or pc).

Of course, when we talk about the Australian Lifestyle of ANZACs, footy, beach, sun, boats, and weekends, things get very serious. Governments use this notion of lifestyle to build monuments, go to war, and demonize minorities. But that is another matter all together.

In the current context the rationality of ‘lifestyle choice’ shifts responsibility onto individuals in remote communities and justifies the Western Australian government’s decision to cut services and remove people.