“I have no expectations from technology, but I believe in the beauty,
in the creativity, in the surprising inventiveness of people,
and I continue to hope in them.”
Ivan Illich (Cayley 1992:111)
This creativity and inventiveness are not, as we often believe, products of extraordinary individual minds. Instead, they originate from a culturally shaped cooperation that they also serve. And this collaboration could be described more aptly as “conviviality.”
“Conviviality” is still a foreign word, one that triggers the question, “Well, what does it mean?” At the same time, it risks becoming an all-purpose word that can be fitted into globalized “Uniquac” (Illich) without further ado, a word that technocrats invented to justify their misdeeds, and that alternative-minded people happily imitate – and which both groups confuse with proper language. It is tempting to protect this beautiful world by not using it – yet that would obviously be futile.
“Con-vivial” has two parts. The prefix “con,” derived from the Latin cum, means “together with,” and “vivial” is easy to recognize as coming from the Latin verb “vivere” = “to live.”
Conviva is a fellow diner; convivium is a party of invited guests, a feast, a circle gathered around a table; convivere means “living together, dining together,” and in English, the adjective means “sociable, joyful,” certainly also in the sense of “slightly tipsy.” The kind of gathering called conviviality apparently requires a table around which people can gather, a pitcher of wine to be emptied and bread to be broken together in order to have a good conversation. Of course, the table can also be an empty circle around which people are seated on the floor. Ivan Illich mentions another utensil: a burning candle. After all: “In other words, our conversation should always go on with the certainty that there is someone else who will knock at the door, and the candle stands for him or her. It is a constant reminder that the community is never closed.” (Illich 2005:105-151) But is “conviviality” in this sense inviting? Or does it rather tend to be a threshold that people can trip over?
The difficulties that this word poses, besides its meaning, lie less in that fact that even people proficient in using foreign vocabulary are not familiar with it, but more in the fact that in our habits of speaking and hearing, we have become entirely deaf to the good sound of the little word cum, just as we have become unreceptive to its meaning because of the circumstances and the practices of our lives. Com/Cum is a very widespread prefix that appears in German as “kom” or “kon.” Yet most of the composite words formed with it have turned its former meaning on its head. The preposition cum, which used to denote cooperation on equal footing – as though it sought to capture the meaning of “commoning” in just three letters – is increasingly serving to describe a sharp, relentless conflict in the struggle for advantages, power, or influence. “Com-petition” no longer describes common striving, but the effort to outdo one another; competitors vie for scarce resources. “Con-sensus” is no longer a spirit generated jointly, but prescribed equality. “Con-sumption” no longer means using something jointly and thoroughly; instead, people consume things to become the object of other people’s envy. “Con-formity” does not mean taking on a form through a common effort, in other words, educating oneself together and through one another, but rather being put in shape to be utilized arbitrarily.
I selected these four distortions of the meaning of words with care. They represent the destructive force of the great monopolies that have set out to rule the world as an alliance: The economy holds the world monopoly on distribution and fuels competition for scarce resources; science has claimed the world monopoly on explanation and demands consensus about its authority to interpret; technology asserts the monopoly on designing the world and is grooming the world for consumability. And bureaucracy claims the world monopoly on regulation and does not rest until everything is brought into line in procedural conformity. “Thou shalt agree with me and trust my evidence,” says natural science. “Thou shalt desire to prevail over your neighbor,” says economy. “Thou shalt have machines work in your place, have them serve you and care for you,” says technology. “Above all, thou shalt not disturb things,” says bureaucracy.
But: “Places devoid of power can always be found. The institutional clutches on life exist partly in appearance only,” wrote Peter Brückner about the possibility of finding such a place, even under the conditions of the Nazi period (Brückner, 1982:16). It would take nerve to ignore the omnipotence of the system. What mattered would be to perceive its enormous power without recognizing it. But where might such places devoid of power be found?
Perhaps they are no longer to be found today, but first need to be established. A place devoid of power is a place for deserters. The deserter is the “no-longer-participant” par excellence; he disobeys orders, he deprives the authorities of his collaboration by going absent on the quiet, but above all, without leave. “Places devoid of power” emerge by people filling them through their presence, people practicing conviviality.
The word “convivial” is still able to resist being disfigured by consumerism and being incorporated into jargon. “Convivial” – as is “commoning” – is still a stumbling block in our path, helping us to remain vigilant in the face of smokescreens muddling both our senses and the meanings of words by devastating the most valuable good from which fruitful cooperation can emerge: our language. And there cannot be enough stumbling blocks in an increasingly bulldozed world in which all thresholds, borders, and obstacles have been made to disappear so that everything runs like clockwork, while at the same time, walls, fences, and insurmountable barricades are erected to keep everything and everyone foreign off our backs.
Conviviality needs a language that is both objectionable and triggers ideas, a language without which there is no understanding but only “consensus” achieved by manipulation, research that speaks a personal language full of experience; practice that does not compete, but cooperates and shares; and technology that helps to make the best out of the power and the imagination that everyone has (Ivan Illich). “Conviviality” aims to be:
– nonviolent, but not tame;
– appealing to the senses, but not inimical to thought;
– power-less, but not without strength;
– regulated, but not bureaucratic;
– modest, but not lacking in aspirations;
– cognizant/in the present, but not trendy;
– self-determined, but not overly self-assured;
– determined by others, but not patronized;
– unpretentious, but not simple;
– in love with success, but not with victory;
– oriented toward complementarity of differences, not toward marginalization of the other.
Commons are either convivial or only a variant of globalized (and institutionalized) sameness.
Brückner, P. 1982. Das Abseits als sicherer Ort, Berlin. [no English translation published, according to Library of Congress and British Library catalogs]
Cayley, D., Editor. 1992. Ivan Illich in Conversation, Ontario.
Illich, I. 2005. In the Rivers North of the Future. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.