Vernacular Values by Ivan Illich (tratto
[Note: These essays from CoEvolution
Quarterly were the basis of most of Illich's book Shadow Work (Marion
Part 1: The Three Dimensions of Social Choice
Where the war against subsistence has led can best be seen in the mirror
of so-called development. During the 1960's, "development" acquired a status
that ranked with "freedom" and "equality". Other peoples' development became
the rich man's duty and burden. Development was described as a building program
- people of all colors spoke of "nation-building" and did so without blushing.
The immediate goal of this social engineering was the installation of a balanced
set of equipment in a society not yet so instrumented: the building of more
schools, more modern hospitals, more extensive highways, new factories, power
grids, together with the creation of a population trained to staff and
Today, the moral imperative of ten years ago appears naive; today, few critical
thinkers would take such an instrumentalist view of the desirable society.
Two reasons have changed many minds:
First, undesired externalities exceed benefits - the tax
burden of schools and hospitals is more than any economy can support; the
ghost towns produced by highways impoverish the urban and rural landscape.
Plastic buckets from Saõ Paulo are lighter and cheaper than those made of
scrap by the local tinsmith in Western Brazil. But first cheap plastic puts
the tinsmith out of existence, and then the fumes of plastic leave a special
trace on the environment - a new kind of ghost. The destruction of age-old
competence as well as these poisons are inevitable byproducts
and will resist all exorcisms for a long time. Cemeteries for industrial wastes
simply cost too much, more than the buckets are worth. In economic jargon,
the "external costs" exceed not only the profit made from plastic bucket production,
but also the very salaries paid in the manufacturing process.
These rising externalities, however, are only one side of the bill which
development has exacted. Counterproductivity is its reverse side.
Externalities represent costs that are "outside" the price paid by the consumer
for what he wants - costs that he, others or future generations will at some
point be charged.
Counterproductivity, however, is a new kind of disappointment which arises
"within" the very use of the good purchased. This internal counterproductivity,
an inevitable component of modern institutions, has become the constant frustration
of the poorer majority of each institution's clients: intensely experienced
but rarely defined. Each major sector of the economy produces its own unique
and paradoxical contradictions. Each necessarily effects the opposite of that
for which it was structured. Economists, who are increasingly competent to
put price-tags on externalities, are unable to deal with negative internalities,
and cannot measure the inherent frustration of captive clients which is something
other than a cost.
For most people, schooling twists genetic differences into certified degradation;
the medicalization of health increases demand for services far beyond the
possible and useful, and undermines that organic coping ability which common
sense calls health; transportation, for the great majority bound to the rush
hour, increases the time spent in the servitude to traffic, reducing both
freely chosen mobility and mutual access. The development of educational,
medical and other welfare agencies has actually removed most clients from
the obvious purpose for which these projects were designed and financed. This
institutionalized frustration, resulting from compulsory consumption, combines
with the new externalities. It demands an increase in the production of scavenging
and repair services to impoverish and even destroy individuals and communities,
affecting them in a class-specific manner. In effect, the peculiarly modern
forms of frustration and paralysis and destruction totally discredit the description
of the desirable society in terms of installed production capacity.
Defense against the damages inflicted by development, rather than access
to some new "satisfaction", has become the most sought after privilege. You
have arrived if you can commute outside the rush hour; probably attended an
elite school; if you can give birth at home; are privy to rare and special
knowledge if you can bypass the physician when you are ill; are rich and lucky
if you can breathe fresh air; by no means poor, if you can build your own
shack. The underclasses are now made up of those who must
consume the counterproductive packages and ministrations of their self-appointed
tutors; the privileged are those who are free to refuse them. A new attitude,
then, has taken shape during these last years: the awareness that we cannot
ecologically afford equitable development leads many to understand that, even
if development in equity were possible, we would neither want more of it for
ourselves, nor want to suggest it for others.
Ten years ago, we tended to distinguish social options exercised within the
political sphere from technical options assigned to the expert. The former
were meant to focus on goals, the latter more on means. Roughly, options about
the desirable society were ranged on a spectrum that ran from right to left:
here, capitalist, over there, socialist "development". The how
was left to the experts. This one-dimensional model of politics is now passé.
Today, in addition to "who gets what", two new areas of choice have become
lay issues: the very legitimacy of lay judgment on the apt
means for production, and the trade-offs between growth and freedom. As a
result, three independent classes of options appear as three mutually perpendicular
axes of public choice.
On the x-axis I place the issues related to social hierarchy, political authority,
ownership of the means of production and allocation of resources that are
usually designated by the terms, right and left. On the y-axis, I place the
technical choices between hard and soft, extending these terms far beyond
a pro and con atomic power: not only goods, but also services are affected
by the hard and soft alternatives.
A third choice falls on the z-axis. Neither privilege nor technique, but
rather the nature of human satisfaction is at issue. To characterize the two
extremes, I shall use terms defined by Erich Fromm. At the bottom, I place
a social organization that fits the seeking of satisfaction in having;
at the top, in doing. At the bottom, therefore, I place a
commodity-intensive society where needs are increasingly defined in terms
of packaged goods and services designed and prescribed by professionals, and
produced under their control. This social ideal corresponds to the image of
a humanity composed of individuals, each driven by considerations of marginal
utility, the image that has developed from Mandeville via Smith and Marx to
Keynes, and that Louis Dumont calls homo economicus.
At the opposite end, at the top of the z-axis, I place - in a fan-shaped
array - a great variety of societies where existence is organized around subsistence
activities. In its unique way, each of these cannot but be skeptical about
the claims of growth. In such new societies where contemporary tools ease
the creation of use-values, commodities and industrial production in general
are deemed valuable mainly insofar as they are either resources or instruments
for subsistence. Hence, the social ideal corresponds to homo habilis, an
image which includes numerous individuals who are differently
competent at coping with reality, the opposite of homo economicus, who
is dependent on standardized "needs". Here, people who choose their independence
and their own horizon derive more satisfaction from doing and making things
for immediate use than from the products of slaves or machines. Therefore,
every cultural project is necessarily modest. Here, people go as far as they
can toward self-subsistence, they themselves producing what they are able,
exchanging their surplus with neighbors, avoiding - insofar as possible -
the products of wage labor.
The shape of contemporary society is the result of the ongoing choices along
these three independent axes. And a polity's credibility today depends on
the degree of public participation in each of the three option sets. The beauty
of a unique, socially articulated image of each society will, hopefully, become
the determining factor of its international impact. Esthetic and ethical example
may replace the competition of economic indicators. Actually, no other route
is open. A mode of life characterized by austerity, modesty, constructed by
hard work and built on a small scale does not lend itself to propagation through
marketing. For the first time in history, poor and rich societies would be
effectively placed on equal terms. But for this to become true, the present
perception of international north-south relations in terms of development
must first be superseded.
A related high status goal of our age, full employment, must also be reviewed.
Ten years ago, attitudes toward development and politics were simpler than
what is possible today; attitudes toward work were sexist and naive. Work
was identified with employment, and prestigious employment confined to males.
The analysis of shadow work done off the job was tabu. The left referred to
it as a remnant of primitive reproduction, the right, as organized consumption
- all agreed that, with development, such labor would wither away. The struggle
for more jobs, for equal pay for equal jobs, and more pay for every job pushed
all work done off the job into a shadowed corner hidden from politics and
economics. Recently, feminists, together with some economists and sociologists,
looking at so-called intermediary structures, have begun to examine the unpaid
contribution made to an industrial economy, a contribution for which women
are principally responsible. These persons discuss "reproduction" as the complement
to production. But the stage is mostly filled with self-styled radicals who
discuss new ways of creating conventional jobs, new forms of sharing available
jobs, and how to transform housework, education, childbearing and commuting
into paid jobs. Under the pressure of such demands, the full employment goal
appears as dubious as development. New actors, who question the very nature
of work, advance toward the limelight. They distinguish, industrially structured
work, paid or unpaid, from the creation of a livelihood beyond the confines
of employment and professional tutors. Their discussions raise the key issues
on the vertical axis. The choice for or against the notion of man as a growth
addict decides whether unemployment, that is, the effective liberty to work
free from wages and/or salary, shall be viewed as sad and a curse, or as useful
and a right.
In a commodity-intensive society, basic needs are met through the products
of wage-labor - housing no less than education, traffic no less than the delivery
of infants. The work ethic which drives such a society legitimates employment
for salary or wages and degrades independent coping. But the spread of wage-labor
accomplishes more - it divides unpaid work into two opposite types of activities,
while the loss of unpaid work through the encroachment of wage-labor has often
been described, the creation of a new kind of work has been consistently ignored:
the unpaid complement of industrial labor and services. A
kind of forced labor or industrial serfdom in the service of commodity-intensive
economies must be carefully distinguished from subsistence-oriented work lying
outside the industrial system. Unless this distinction is clarified and used
when choosing options on the z-axis, unpaid work guided by professionals could
spread through a repressive, ecological welfare society. Women's serfdom in
the domestic sphere is the most obvious example today. Housework is not salaried.
Nor is it a subsistence activity in the sense that most of the work done by
women was such as when, with their menfolk, they used the entire household
as the setting and the means for the creation of most of the inhabitants'
livelihood. Modern housework is standardized by industrial commodities oriented
towards the support of production, and exacted from women in a sex-specific
way to press them into reproduction, regeneration and a motivating force for
the wage-laborer. Well publicized by feminists, housework is only one expression
of that extensive shadow economy which has developed everywhere in industrial
societies as a necessary complement to expanding wage-labor. This shadow complement,
together with the formal economy, is a constitutive element of the industrial
mode of production. It has escaped economic analysis, as the wave nature of
elementary particles before the Quantum Theory. And when concepts developed
for the formal economic sector are applied to it, they distort what they do
not simply miss. The real difference between two kinds of unpaid activity
- shadow-work which complements wage-labor, and subsistence work which competes
with and opposes both - is consistently missed. Then, as subsistence activities
become more rare, all unpaid activities assume a structure analogous to housework.
Growth-oriented work inevitably leads to the standardization and management
of activities, be they paid or unpaid.
A contrary view of work prevails when a community chooses a subsistence-oriented
way of life. There, the inversion of development, the replacement of consumer
goods by personal action, of industrial tools by convivial tools is the goal.
There, both wage-labor and shadow-work will decline since their product, goods
or services, is valued primarily as a means for ever inventive activities,
rather than as an end, that is, dutiful consumption. There, the guitar is
valued over the record, the library over the schoolroom, the back yard garden
over the supermarket selection. There, the personal control of each worker
over his means of production determines the small horizon of each enterprise,
a horizon which is a necessary condition for social production and the unfolding
of each worker's individuality. This mode of production also exists in slavery,
serfdom and other forms of dependence. But it flourishes, releases its energy,
acquires its adequate arid classical form only where the
worker is the free owner of his tools and resources; only then can the artisan
perform like a virtuoso. This mode of production can be maintained only within
the limits that nature dictates to both production and society. There, useful
unemployment is valued while wage-labor, within limits, is merely tolerated.
The development paradigm is more easily repudiated by those who were adults
on January 10, 1949. That day, most of us met the term in its present meaning
for the first time when President Truman announced his Point Four Program.
Until then, we used "development" to refer to species, real estate and moves
in chess - only thereafter to people, countries and economic strategies. Since
then, we have been flooded by development theories whose concepts are now
curiosities for collectors - "growth", "catching up", "modernization", "imperialism",
"dualism", "dependency", "basic needs", "transfer of technology", "world system",
"autochthonous industrialization" and "temporary unlinking". Each onrush came
in two waves. One carried the pragmatist who highlighted free enterprise and
world markets; the other, the politicians who stressed ideology and revolution.
Theorists produced mountains of prescriptions and mutual caricatures. Beneath
these, the common assumptions of all were buried. Now is the time to dig out
the axioms hidden in the idea of development itself.
Fundamentally, the concept implies the replacement of general competence
and satisfying subsistence activities by the use and consumption of commodities;
the monopoly of wage-labor over all other kinds of work; redefinition of needs
in terms of goods and services mass-produced according to expert design; finally,
the rearrangement of the environment in such fashion that space, time, materials
and design favor production and consumption while they degrade or paralyze
use-value oriented activities that satisfy needs directly. And all such worldwide
homogeneous changes and processes are valued as inevitable and good. The great
Mexican muralists dramatically portrayed the typical figures before the theorists
outlined the stages. On their walls, one sees the ideal type of human being
as the male in overalls behind a machine or in a white coat over a microscope.
He tunnels mountains, guides tractors, fuels smoking chimneys. Women give
him birth, nurse and teach him. In striking contrast to Aztec subsistence,
Rivera and Orozco visualize industrial work as the sole source of all the
goods needed for life and its possible pleasures.
But this ideal of industrial man now dims. The tabus that protected it weaken.
Slogans about the dignity and joy of wage-labor sound tinny. Unemployment,
a term first introduced in 1898 to designate people without a fixed income,
is now recognized as the condition in which most of the world's people live
anyway - even at the height of industrial booms. In Eastern Europe especially,
but also in China, people now see that, since 1950, the term, "working
class", has been used mainly as a cover to claim and obtain privileges for
a new bourgeoisie and its children. The "need" to create employment and stimulate
growth, by which the self-appointed paladins of the poorest have so far squashed
any consideration of alternatives to development, clearly appears suspect.
The challenges to development take multiple forms. In Germany alone, France
or Italy, thousands of groups experiment, each differently, with alternatives
to an industrial existence. Increasingly, more of these people come from blue-collar
homes. For most of them, there is no dignity left in earning one's livelihood
by a wage. They try to "unplug themselves from consumption", in the phrase
of some South Chicago slum-dwellers. In the USA, at least four million people
live in the core of tiny and highly differentiated communities of this kind,
with at least seven times as many individually sharing their values - women
seek alternatives to gynecology; parents alternatives to schools; home-builders
alternatives to the flush toilet; neighborhoods alternatives to commuting;
people alternatives to the shopping centre. In Trivandrum, South India, I
have seen one of the most successful alternatives to a special kind of commodity
dependence - to instruction and certification as the privileged forms of learning.
One thousand seven hundred villages have installed libraries, each containing
at least a thousand titles. This is the minimum equipment they need to be
full members of Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad, and they may retain their
membership only as long as they loan at least three thousand volumes per year.
I was immensely encouraged to see that, at least in South India, village-based
and village-financed libraries have turned schools into adjuncts to
libraries, while elsewhere libraries during these last ten years have become
mere deposits for teaching materials used under the instruction of professional
teachers. Also in Bihar, India, Medico International represents a grassroots-based
attempt to de-medicalize health care, without falling into the trap of the
Chinese barefooted doctor. The latter has been relegated to the lowest level
lackey in a national hierarchy of bio-control.
Besides talking such experiential forms, the challenge to development also
uses legal and political means. In an Austrian referendum last year, an absolute
majority refused permission to Chancellor Kreisky, politically in control
of the electorate, to inaugurate a finished atomic generator. Citizens increasingly
use the ballot and the courts, in addition to more traditional interest group
pressures, to set negative design criteria for the technology of production.
In Europe, "green" candidates begin to win elections. In America, citizen
legal efforts begin to stop highways and dams. Such behavior was not predictable
ten years ago - and many men in power still do not recognize it as legitimate.
All these grassroots-organized lives and actions in the Metropolis challenge
not only the recent concept of overseas development, but also the more fundamental
and root concept of progress at home.
At this juncture, it is the task of the historian and the philosopher to
clarify the sources of and disentangle the process resulting in Western needs.
Only thus shall we be able to understand how such a seemingly enlightened
concept produced such devastating exploitation. Progress, the notion which
has characterized the West for 2000 years, and has determined its relations
to outsiders since the decay of classical Rome, lies behind the belief in
needs. Societies mirror themselves not only in their transcendent gods, but
also in their image of the alien beyond their frontiers. The West exported
a dichotomy between "us" and "them" unique to industrial society. This peculiar
attitude towards self and others is now worldwide, constituting the victory
of a universalist mission initiated in Europe. A redefinition of development
would only reinforce the Western economic domination over the shape of formal
economics by the professional colonization of the informal sector, domestic
and foreign. To eschew this danger, the six-stage metamorphosis of a concept
that currently appears as "development" must first be understood.
Every community has a characteristic attitude towards others. The Chinese,
for example, cannot refer to the alien or his chattel without labeling them
with a degrading marker. For the Greek, he is either the house guest from
a neighboring polis, or the barbarian who is less than fully man. In Rome,
barbarians could become members of the city, but to bring them into it was
never the intent or mission of Rome. Only during late antiquity, with the
Western European Church, did the alien become someone in need, someone to
be brought in. This view of the alien as a burden has become consititutive
for Western society; without this universal mission to the world outside,
what we call the West would not have come to be.
The perception of the outsider as someone who must be helped has taken on
successive forms. In late antiquity, the barbarian mutated into the
pagan - the second stage toward development had begun. The pagan
was defined as the unbaptized, but ordained by nature to become Christian.
It was the duty of those within the Church to incorporate him by baptism into
the body of Christendom. In the early Middle Ages, most people in Europe were
baptized, even though they might not yet be converted. Then the Muslim appeared.
Unlike Goths and Saxons, Muslims were monotheists, and obviously prayerful
believers; they resisted conversion. Therefore, besides baptism, the further
needs to be subjected and instructed had to be imputed. The pagan mutated
into the infidel, our third stage.
By the late Middle Ages, the image of the alien mutated again. The Moors
had been driven from Granada, Columbus had sailed across the ocean, and the
Spanish Crown had assumed many functions of the Church. The image of the wild
man who threatens the civilizing function of the humanist replaced the
image of the infidel who threatens the faith. At this time also, the alien
was first described in economy-related terms. From many studies on monsters,
apes and wild men, we learn that the Europeans of this period saw the wild
man as having no needs. This independence made him noble, but a threat
to the designs of colonialism and mercantilism. To impute needs to the wild
man, one had to make him over into the native, the fifth stage.
Spanish courts, after long deliberation, decided that at least the wild man
of the New World had a soul and was, therefore, human. In opposition to the
wild man, the native has needs, but needs unlike those of civilized man. His
needs are fixed by climate, race, religion and providence. Adam Smith still
reflects on the elasticity of native needs. As Gunnar Myrdal has observed,
the construct of distinctly native needs was necessary both to justify
colonialism and to administer colonies. The provision of government, education
and commerce for the natives was for four hundred years the white man's assumed
Each time the West put a new mask on the alien, the old one was discarded
because it was now recognized as a caricature of an abandoned self-image.
The pagan with his naturally Christian soul had to give way to the stubborn
infidel to allow Christendom to launch the Crusades. The wild man became necessary
to justify the need for secular humanist education, The native was the crucial
concept to promote self-righteous colonial rule. But by the time of the Marshall
Plan, when multinational conglomerates were expanding and the ambitions of
transnational pedagogues, therapists and planners knew no bounds, the natives'
limited needs for goods and services thwarted growth and progress. They had
to metamorphose into underdeveloped people, the sixth and present
stage of the West's view of the outsider.
Thus decolonization was also a process of conversion: the worldwide acceptance
of the Western self-image of homo economicus in his most extreme form
as homo industrialis, with all needs commodity-defined. Scarcely twenty
years were enough to make two billion people define themselves as underdeveloped.
I vividly remember the Rio Carnival of 1963 - the last before the Junta imposed
itself. "Development" was the motif in the prize-winning samba, "development"
the shout of the dancers while they jumped to the throbbing of the drums.
Development based on high per capita energy quanta and intense professional
care is the most pernicious of the West's missionary efforts - a project guided
by an ecologically unfeasible conception of human control over nature, and
by an anthropologically vicious attempt to replace the nests and snakepits
of culture by sterile wards for professional service. The hospitals that spew
out the newborn and reabsorb the dying, the schools run to busy the unemployed
before, between and after jobs, the apartment towers where people are stored
between trips to the supermarkets, the highways connecting garages form a
pattern tatooed into the landscape during the short development spree. These
institutions, designed for lifelong bottle babies wheeled from medical centre
to school to office to stadium begin now to look as anomalous as cathedrals,
albeit unredeemed by any esthetic charm.
Ecological and anthropological realism are now necessary - but with caution.
The popular call for soft is ambiguous; both right and left appropriate it.
On the z-axis, it equally serves a honied beehive, or the pluralism of independent
actions. The soft choice easily permits a recasting of a maternal society
at home and another metamorphosis of missionary zeal abroad. For example,
Amory Lovins argues that the possibility of further growth now depends on
a rapid transition to the soft path. Only in this way, he claims, can the
real income of rich countries double and that of poor countries triple in
this generation. Only by the transition from fossil to sun can the externalities
of production be so cut that the resources now spent on making waste and hiring
scavengers to remove it be turned into benefits. I agree. If growth is to
be, then Lovins is right; and investments are more secure with windspinners
than with oil derricks. For the traditional right and left,
for managerial democrats or socialist authoritarians, soft process and energy
become the necessary rationale to expand their bureaucracies and to satisfy
escalating "needs" through the standardized production of goods and services.
The World Bank makes the matching argument for services. Only by choosing
labor-intensive, sometimes less efficient forms of industrial production can
education be incorporated in apprenticeship. More efficient plants create
huge and costly externalities in the formal education they presuppose, while
they cannot teach on the job.
The World Health Organization now stresses prevention and education for self
care. Only thus can population health levels be raised, while expensive therapies
- mostly of unproven effectiveness, although still the principal work of physicians
- can be abandoned. The liberal egalitarian utopia of the 18th
century, taken up as the ideal for industrial society by the socialists of
the 19th, now seems realizable only on the soft and self-help path. On this
point, right and left converge. Wolfgang Harich, a highly cultured communist,
refined and steeled in his convictions by two stretches of eight years in
solitary confinement - once under Hitler and once under Ulbricht - is the
one East European spokesman for the soft path. But while for Lovins the transition
to decentralized production depends on the market, for Harich the necessity
of this transition is an argument in favor of Stalinist ecology. For right
and left, democrats or authoritarians, soft
process and energy become the necessary means to satisfy escalating "needs"
through the standardized production of goods and services.
Thus, the soft path can lead either towards a convivial society where people
are so equipped to do on their own whatever they judge necessary for survival
and pleasure, or towards a new kind of commodity-dependent society where the
goal of full employment means the political management of activities, paid
or unpaid. Whether a "left" or "soft" path leads towards or away from new
forms of "development" and "full employment" depends on the options taken
between "having" and "being" on the third axis.
We have seen that wherever wage-labor expands, its shadow, industrial serfdom,
also grows. Wage-labor, as the dominant form of production, and housework,
as the ideal type of its unpaid complement, are both forms of activity without
precedent in history or anthropology. They thrive only where the absolute
and, later, the industrial state destroyed the social conditions for subsistence
living. They spread as small-scale, diversified, vernacular communities have
been made sociologically and legally impossible - into a world where individuals,
throughout their lives, live only through dependence on education, health
services, transportation and other packages provided through the multiple
mechanical feeders of industrial institutions.
Conventional economic analysis has focused on only one of these complementary
industrial age activities. Economic analysis has focused on the worker as
wage-earning producer. The equally commodity-oriented activities performed
by the unemployed have remained in the shadow of the economic searchlight.
What women or children do, what occupies men after "working hours", is belittled
in a cavalier fashion. But this is changing rapidly. Both the weight and the
nature of the contribution made by unpaid activities to the industrial system
begin to be noticed.
Feminist research into the history and anthropology of work has made it impossible
to ignore the fact that work in an industrial society is sex-specific in a
manner which cuts deeper than in any other known society. In the 19th
century, women entered the wage-labor force in the "advanced" nations; they
then won the franchise, non-restricted access to schooling, equal rights on
the job. All these "victories" have had precisely the opposite effect from
that which conventional wisdom assigns them. Paradoxically, "emancipation"
has heightened the contrast between paid and unpaid work; it has severed all
connections between unpaid work and subsistence. Thus, it has redefined the
structure of unpaid work so that this latter becomes a new kind of serfdom
inevitably borne by women.
Gender-specific tasks are not new; all known societies assign sex-specific
work roles. For example, hay may be cut by men, raked by women, gathered by
men, loaded by women, carted away by men, fed to cows by women and to horses
by men. But no matter how much we search other cultures, we cannot find the
contemporary division between two forms of work, one paid and the other unpaid,
one credited as productive and the other as concerned with reproduction and
consumption, one considered heavy and the other light, one demanding special
qualifications and the other not, one given high social prestige and the other
relegated to "private" matters. Both are equally fundamental in the industrial
mode of production. They differ in that the surplus from paid work is taxed
directly by the employer, while the added value of unpaid work reaches him
only via wage-work. Nowhere can we find two such distinct forms through which,
in each family, surplus is created and expropriated.
This division between unpaid work off the job and paid work through employment
would have been unthinkable in societies where the whole house served as a
framework in which its inhabitants, to a large extent, did and made those
things by which they also lived. Although we can find traces of both wage-work
and its shadow in many societies, in none could either become the society's
paradigm of work, nor be used as the key symbol for sex-specific tasks. And
since two such types of work did not exist, the family did not have to exist
to couple these kinds of opposites. Nowhere in history is the family, nuclear
or extended, the instrument for linking two complementary but mutually exclusive
species of work, one assigned primarily to the male, the other to the female.
This symbiosis between opposite forms of activity, inseparably wedded through
the family, is unique to commodity-intensive society. We now see that it is
the inevitable result of the pursuit of development and full employment. And
since such kinds of work did not exist, sex-roles could not be defined with
such finality, distinct natures could not be attributed to male and female,
families could not be transformed into a solder to weld the two together.
A feminist analysis of the history of industrial work thus removes the blindspot
of economics: homo economicus has never been sexually neutral; homo
industrialis appeared from the beginning in two genders: vir laborans,
the workingman, and femina domestica, the hausfrau. In no society
that developed toward the goal of full employment has shadow-work not grown
apace with that employment. And shadow-work provided a device, effective beyond
every precedent, to degrade a type of activity in which women cannot but predominate,
while it supported one which privileged men.
Quite recently, the orthodox distinction between production and consumption
functions ceased to hold. Suddenly, opposing interests turn the importance
of unpaid work into a public issue. Economists put shadow prices on what happens
in the "informal" sector: S. - the contribution that the work done by the
client in choosing, paying for and carrying his cake adds to the value of
the cake; G. B. - the calculus of marginal choices made in sexual activities;
L. - the value of jogging over heart surgery.
Housewives claim pay for housework at the rate for such services in motels
and restaurants. Teachers transmogrify mothers into trained but unpaid supervisors
of their own children's homework. Government reports recognise that basic
needs as professionally defined can be met only if laymen also produce these
services, with competence but without pay. If growth and full employment retain
their status as goals, the management of disciplined people motivated by non-monetary
rewards will open up as the latest form of "development" in the 1980's.
Rather than life in a shadow economy, I propose, on top of the z axis, the
ideas of vernacular work: unpaid activities which provide and improve
livelihood, but which are totally refractory to any analysis utilizing concepts
developed in formal economics. I apply the term, "vernacular" to these activities,
since there is no other current concept that allows me to make the same distinction
within the domain covered by such terms as "informal sector", "use value",
Vernacular is a Latin term that we use in English only for the language that
we have acquired without paid teachers. In Rome, it was used from 500 B. C.
to 600 A. D. to designate any value that was homebred, homemade, derived from
the commons, and that a person could protect and defend though he neither
bought nor sold it on the market. I suggest that we restore this simple term,
vernacular, to oppose to commodities and their shadow. It allows me to distinguish
between the expansion of the shadow economy and its inverse - the expansion
of the vernacular domain.
The tension and balance between vernacular work and industrial labor - paid
and unpaid - is the key issue on the third dimension of options, distinct
from political right and left and from technical soft and hard. Industrial
labor, paid and otherwise exacted, will not disappear. But when development,
wage-labor and its shadow encroach upon vernacular work, the relative priority
of one or the other constitutes the issue. We are free to choose between hierarchically
managed standardised work that may be paid or unpaid, self-selected or imposed
on the one hand and, on the other, we can protect our freedom to choose ever
newly invented forms of simple, integrated subsistence actions which have
an outcome that is unpredictable to the bureaucrat, unmanageable by hierarchies
and oriented to the values shared within a specific community.
If the economy expands, which the soft choice can permit, the shadow economy
cannot but grow even faster, and the vernacular domain must further decline.
In this case, with rising job scarcity, the unemployed will be integrated
into newly organised useful activities in the informal sector. Unemployed
men will be given the so-called privilege to engage in those production-fostering
types of unpaid activity that, since their emergence as housework in the 19th
century, have been considerately earmarked for the "weaker sex" - a designation
that was also first used at that time, when industrial serfdom rather than
subsistence was defined as the task of women. "Care" exacted for the sake
of love will lose its sex-specific character, and in the process become manageable
by the state.
Under this option, international development is here to
stay. Technical aid to develop the informal sector overseas will reflect the
new sexless unpaid domestication of the unemployed at home. The new experts
pushing French rather than German self-help methods or windmill designs already
crowd airports and conferences. The last hope of development bureaucracies
lies in the development of shadow economies.
Many of the dissidents that I have mentioned take a stand against all this
- against the use of soft technology to reduce the vernacular domain and to
increase professional controls over informal sector activities. These new
vanguards conceive technical progress as one possible instrument to support
a new type of value, neither traditional nor industrial but both subsistence-oriented
and rationally chosen. Their lives, with more and less success, express a
critical sense of beauty, a particular experience of pleasure, a unique view
of life cherished by one group, understood but not necessarily shared by the
next. They have found that modern tools make it possible to subsist on activities
which permit a variety of evolving life styles, and relieve much of the drudgery
of old time subsistence. They struggle for the freedom to expand the vernacular
domain of their lives.
Examples from Travancore to Wales may soon free those majorities who were
recently captivated by the modern "demonstration model" of stupefying, sickening
and paralyzing enrichment. But two conditions must be met. First, the mode
of life resulting from a new relation between people and tools must be informed
by the perception of man as homo habilis and not homo industrialis.
Second, commodity-independent life styles must be shaped anew by each
small community, and not be imposed. Communities living by predominantly vernacular
values have nothing much to offer to others besides the attractiveness of
their example. But the example of a poor society that enhances modern subsistence
by vernacular work should be rather attractive to jobless males in a rich
society now condemned, like their women to social reproduction in an expanding
shadow economy. The ability, however not only to live in new ways, but to
insist on this freedom demands that we clearly recognise what distinguishes
the perception of homo economicus from all other human beings. To this
end I choose the study of history as a privileged road.
Part 2: The War Against Subsistence
What may not be done is tabu; even more so what may not be thought. The unthinkable
is a tabu of the second order. Ibn tells of a saintly Muslim who would have
died rather than eat pork; he did die of hunger, with his dog watching beside
him. Pork would have defiled his faith - eating the dog would have destroyed
his self image as a man. Succulent pork is forbidden; dog or clay or begonias
are simply non-food. Old Mexicans, however, appreciated all three! Watch out
for your begonias if you have a Mexican peasant for tea.
Just as the environment is divided by each society differently into food,
poison and what is never considered as digestible, so issues are divided by
us into those which are legitimate, those one leaves to the fascists, and
those which nobody raises. However, these latter are not actually illegitimate.
But if you raise them you risk being thought a fiend, or impossibly vain.
The distinction between vernacular and industrial values is of this kind.
With this essay, I want to draw this distinction into the realm of permissible
Since 1973, the annual commemoration of Yom Kippur reminds us of the war
which triggered the energy crises. But a more lasting effect of that war will
be its impact on economic thought. Since then economists have begun to eat
pork, to violate a tabu which had been implicit in formal economics. They
add to the Gross National Product goods and services for which no salary is
paid and to which no price tag is attached. One after another they reveal
the good news that one-third, one-half or even two-thirds of all goods and
services in late industrial societies are produced outside the market by housework,
private study, commuting, shopping and other unpaid activities.
Economists can only deal with realms they can measure. For forays into the
non-marketed, they need new sticks. To function where money is not the currency,
the concepts must be sui generis. But to avoid splitting their science,
the new tools must be consistent with the old. Pigou defined the shadow price
as one such tool. It is the money needed to substitute through a good or service
something which is now done without pay. The unpaid and, perhaps, even the
priceless thus become consistent with the realm of commodities, enter a domain
that can be operationalized, managed and bureaucratically developed. The unpaid
becomes part of a shadow economy and is related to the wares in supermarkets,
classrooms, and medical clinics as the wave to the particle - electrons are
not intelligible unless one examines both theories.
Close analysis reveals that this shadow economy mirrors the formal economy.
The two fields are in synergy, together constituting one whole. The shadow
economy developed a complete range of parallel activities, following the brightly
illuminated realm where labor, prices, needs and markets were increasingly
managed as industrial production increased. Thus we see that the housework
of a modern woman is as radically new as the wage-labor of her husband; the
replacement of home-cooked food by restaurant delivery is as new as the definition
of most basic needs in terms which correspond to the outputs of modern institutions.
I argue elsewhere that the new competence of some economists, enabling them
to analyze this shady area, is more than an expansion of their conventional
economic analysis - it is the discovery of new land which, like the industrial
market, emerged for the first time in history only during the last two centuries.
I feel sorrow for such economists who do not understand what they are doing.
Their destiny is as sad as that of Columbus. With the compass, the new caravel
designed to follow the route the compass opened, and his own flair as a mariner,
he was able to hit on unexpected land. But he died, unaware that he had chanced
on a hemisphere, firmly attached to the belief that he had reached the Indies.
In an industrial world, the realm of shadow economics is comparable to the
hidden side of the moon, also being explored for the first time. And the whole
of this industrial reality is in turn complementary to a
substantive domain which I call the vernacular reality, the
domain of subsistence.
In terms of 20th century classical economics, both the shadow
economy and the vernacular domain are outside the market, both are unpaid.
Also, both are generally included in the so-called informal sector. And both
are indistinctly viewed as contributions to "social reproduction." But what
is most confusing in the analysis is the fact that the unpaid complement of
wage-labor which, in its structure, is characteristic of industrial societies
only, is often completely misunderstood as the survival of subsistence activities,
which are characteristic of the vernacular societies and
which may continue to exist in an industrial society.
Certain changes can now be discerned. The distinction between the market
economy and its shadow weakens. The substitution of commodities for subsistence
activities is not necessarily experienced as progress. Women ask whether the
unearned consumption which accompanies homemaking is a privilege or whether
they are actually forced into degrading work by the prevailing patterns of
compulsory consumption. Students ask if they are in school to learn or to
collaborate in their own stupefaction. Increasingly, the toil of consumption
overshadows the relief consumption promised. The choice between labor-intensive
consumption, perhaps less inhuman and less destructive, better organized,
and modern forms of subsistence is personally known to more and more people.
The choice corresponds to the difference between an expanding shadow economy
and the recovery of the vernacular domain. But it is precisely this choice
which is the most resistant blind spot of economics, as unpalatable as dog
or clay. Perhaps the most unlikely candidate can help dispel some of the darkness.
I propose to throw light on this issue through an examination of everyday-speech.
I shall proceed by contrasting the economic nature of this speech in industrial
society with its counterpart in pre-industrial epochs. As I shall show, the
distinction finds its origin in a little-known event which occurred at the
end of the 15th century in Spain.
Columbus Finds the Nightingale
Early on August 3, 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed from Palos. The neighboring
and much more important Cadíz was congested that year - it was the one port
from which Jews were allowed to leave. Granada had been reconquered, and Jewish
service was no longer needed for a struggle with Islam. Columbus headed for
Cipangu, the name for Cathay (China) during the short reign of the long dead
Tamerlane. He had calculated the earth's degree as equivalent to forty-five
miles. This would place Eastern Asia 2,400 miles west of the Canaries, somewhere
close to the Antilles in the Saragossa Sea. He had reduced the ocean to the
range of the ships he could master. Columbus had on board an Arabic interpreter
to enable him to speak to the great Khan. He set out to discover a route,
not new land, not a new hemisphere.
His project, however, was quite unreasonable. No learned man of the early
Renaissance doubted that the earth was a globe - some believing that it rested
at the center of the universe, and some that it whirled in its sphere. But
not since Eratosthenes had anyone underestimated its size as badly as Columbus.
In 255, Eratosthenes of Cyrene measured the distance from the great library
that he directed in Alexandria to Syene (now the site of the Aswan dam) as
500 miles. He measured the distance using the camel caravan's remarkably steady
gait from sunrise to sunset as his "rod." He had observed that on the day
of the summer solstice, the rays of the sun fell vertically at Syene, and
seven degrees off the vertical at Alexandria. From this he calculated the
earth's circumference to about 5 percent of its real dimension.
When Columbus sought Isabella's support for his venture, she asked Talavera,
the sage, to evaluate its feasibility. An expert commission reported that
the West-to-the-Orient project lacked a firm foundation. Educated authorities
believed its goal to be uncertain or impossible. The proposed voyage would
require three years; it was doubtful that even the newest kind of ship, the
caravel - designed for distant explorations - could ever return. The oceans
were neither as small nor as navigable as Columbus supposed. And it was hardly
likely that God would have allowed any uninhabited lands of real value to
be concealed from his people for so many centuries. Initially, then, the queen
rejected Columbus; reason and bureaucratic expertise supported her. Later,
swayed by zealous Franciscan friars, she retracted her earlier decision and
signed her "stipulations" with Columbus. She, who had driven Islam from Europe,
could not refuse her Admiral who wanted to plant the Cross beyond the Ocean
Seas. And, as we shall see, the decision for colonial conquest overseas implied
the challenge of a new war at home - the invasion of her own people's vernacular
domain, the opening of a five-century war against vernacular subsistence,
the ravages of which we now begin to fathom.
For five weeks Columbus sailed well-known waters. He put in at the Canary
Islands to repair the rudder of the Pinta, to replace the lateen sail of the
Niña, and to pursue a mysterious affair with Dona Beatriz de Peraza. Only
on September 10, two days out of the Canaries, he picked up the Easterlies,
tradewinds on which he chanced, and which carried him rapidly across the ocean.
In October, he came upon land that neither he nor the queen's counselors had
expected. In his diary entry for October 13, 1492, he beautifully described
the song of the nightingale that welcomed him on Santo Domingo, though such
birds never lived there. Columbus was and remained gran marinero y mediocre
cosmógrafo. To the end of his life he remained convinced of having found
what he had sought - a Spanish nightingale on the shores of China.
Nebrija Engineers The Artifact: August 18, 1492
Let me now move from the reasonably well known to the unreasonably overlooked
- from Columbus, immediately associated with 1492, to Elio Antonio de Nebrija,
outside of Spain almost forgotten. During the time Columbus cruised southwest
through recognizable Portuguese waters and harbors, in Spain the fundamental
engineering of a new social reality was proposed to the queen. While Columbus
sailed for foreign lands to seek the familiar - gold, subjects, nightingales
- in Spain Nebrija advocates the reduction of the queen's subjects to an entirely
new type of dependence. He presents her with a new weapon, grammar, to be
wielded by a new kind of mercenary, the letrado.
I was deeply moved when I felt Nebrija's Gramatica Castellana in my hands
- a quarto volume of five signatures set in Gothic letters. The epigraphy
is printed in red, and a blank page precedes the Introduction:
A la muy alta e assi esclarecida princesa dona Isabela la tercera deste
nombre Reina i senora natural de espana e las islas de nuestro mar. Comienza
la gramática que nuevamenta hizo el maestro Antonio de Nebrixa sobre la
lengua castellana, e pone primero el prólogo. Léelo en buena hora.
The Conqueror of Granada receives a petition, similar to many others. But
unlike the request of Columbus, who wanted resources to establish a new route
to the China of Marco Polo, that of Nebrija urges the queen to invade a new
domain at home. He offers Isabella a tool to colonize the language spoken
by her own subjects; he wants her to replace the people's speech by the imposition
of the queen's lengua - her language, her tongue.
Empire Needs "Language" as Consort
I shall translate and comment on sections of the six-page introduction to
Nebrija's grammar. Remember, then, that the colophon of the Gramática Castellana
notes that it came off the press in Salamanca on the 18th of August,
just fifteen days after Columbus had sailed.
My lllustrious Queen. Whenever I ponder over the tokens of the past that
have been preserved in writing, I am forced to the very same conclusion.
Language has always been the consort of empire, and forever shall remain
its mate. Together they come into being, together they grow and flower,
and together they decline.
To understand what la lengua, "language," meant for Nebrija, it is
necessary to know who he was. Antonio Martinez de la Cala, a converso,
descendant of Jewish converts, had decided at age nineteen that Latin,
at least on the Iberian peninsula, had become so corrupted that one could
say it had died of neglect. Thus Spain was left without a language (una
lengua) worthy of the name. The languages of Scripture
- Greek, Latin, Hebrew - clearly were something other than the speech
of the people. Nebrija then went to Italy where, in his opinion, Latin was
least corrupted. When he returned to Spain, his contemporary Herñan Nunez
wrote that it was like Orpheus bringing Euridice back from Hades. During the
next twenty years, Nebrija dedicated himself to the renewal of classical grammar
and rhetoric. The first full book printed in Salamanca was his Latin grammar
When he reached his forties and began to age -as he puts it - he discovered
that he could make a language out of the speech forms he daily encountered
in Spain - to engineer, to synthesize chemically, a language. He then wrote
his Spanish grammar, the first in any modern European tongue. The converso
uses his classical formation to extend the juridic category of consuetudo
hispaniae to the realm of language. Throughout the Iberian peninsula,
crowds speaking various languages gather for pogroms against the Jewish outsider
at the very moment when the cosmopolitan converso offers his services
to the Crown - the creation of one language suitable for use wherever the
sword could carry it.
Nebrija created two rule books, both at the service of the queen's regime.
First, he wrote a grammar. Now grammars were not new. The most perfect of
them, unknown to Nebrija, was already two thousand years old - Panini's grammar
of Sanskrit. This was an attempt to describe a dead language, to be taught
only to a very few. This is the goal pursued by Prakrit grammarians in India,
and Latin or Greek grammarians in the West. Nebrija's work, however, was written
as a tool for conquest abroad and a weapon to suppress untutored speech at
While he worked on his grammar, Nebrija also wrote a dictionary that, to
this day, remains the single best source on Old Spanish. The two attempts
made in our lifetime to supersede him both failed. Gili Gaya's Tesauro
Lexicográfico, begun in 1947, foundered on the letter E, and R.S. Boggs
(Tentative Dictionary of Medieval Spanish) remains, since 1946, an
often copied draft. Nebrija's dictionary appeared the year after his grammar,
and already contained evidence of the New World - the first Americanism, canoa
Castilian Passes Through Its Infancy
Now note what Nebrija thinks about Castilian.
Castilian went through its infancy at the time of the judges... it waxed
in strength under Alfonso the Learned. It was he who collected law and history
books in Greek and Latin and had them translated.
Indeed, Alfonso (1221 - 1284) was the first European monarch to use the vulgar
or vernacular tongue of the scribes as his chancery language. His intent was
to demonstrate that he was not one of the Latin kings. Like a caliph, he ordered
his courtiers to undertake pilgrimages through Muslim and Christian books,
and transform them into treasures that, because of their very language, would
be a valuable inheritance to leave his kingdom. Incidentally, most of his
translators were Jews from Toledo. And these Jews - whose own language was
Old Castilian - preferred to translate the oriental languages into the vernacular
rather than into Latin, the sacred language of the Church.
Nebrija points out to the queen that Alfonso had left solid tokens of Old
Spanish; in addition, he had worked toward the transformation of vernacular
speech into language proper through using it to make laws, to record history,
and to translate from the classics.
This our language followed our soldiers whom we sent abroad to rule. It
spread to Aragon, to Navarra, even to Italy ... the scattered bits and pieces
of Spain were thus gathered and joined into one single kingdom.
Nebrija here reminds the queen of the new pact possible between sword and
book. He proposes a covenant between two spheres, both within the secular
realm of the Crown, a covenant distinct from the medieval pact between Emperor
and Pope, which had been a covenant bridging the secular and the sacred. He
proposes a pact, not of sword and cloth - each sovereign in its own sphere
- but of sword and expertise, encompassing the engine of conquest abroad and
a system of scientific control of diversity within the entire kingdom. And
he knows well whom he addresses: the wife of Ferdinand of Aragon, a woman
he once praised as the most enlightened of all men (sic). He is aware that
she reads Cicero, Seneca, and Livy in the original for her own pleasure; and
that she possesses a sensibility that unites the physical and spiritual into
what she herself called "good taste." Indeed, historians claim that she is
the first to use this expression. Together with Ferdinand, she was trying
to give shape to the chaotic Castile they had inherited; together they were
creating Renaissance institutions of government, institutions apt for the
making of a modern state, and yet, something better than a nation of lawyers.
Nebrija calls to their minds a concept that, to this day, is powerful in Spanish
- armas y letras. He speaks about the marriage of empire and
language, addressing the sovereign who had just recently - and for a painfully
short time - seized from the Church the Inquisition, in order to use it as
a secular instrument of royal power. The monarchy used it to gain economic
control of the grandees, and to replace noblemen by the letrados of
Nebrija on the governing councils of the kingdom. This was the monarchy that
transformed the older advisory bodies into bureaucratic organizations of civil
servants, institutions fit only for the execution of royal policies. These
secretaries or ministries of "experts," under the court ceremonial of the
Hapsburgs, were later assigned a ritual role in processions and receptions
incomparable to any other secular bureaucracy since the times of Byzantium.
Language Now Needs Tutors
Very astutely, Nebrija's argument reminds the queen that a new union of armas
y letras, complementary to that of church and state, was essential to
gather and join the scattered pieces of Spain into a single absolute kingdom.
This unified and sovereign body will be of such shape and inner cohesion
that centuries will be unable to undo it. Now that the Church has been
purified, and we are thus reconciled to God [does he think of the work
of his contemporary, Torquemada?] , now that the enemies of the Faith
have been subdued by our arms [he refers to the apogee of the Reconquista],
now that just laws are being enforced, enabling all of us to live as equals
[perhaps having in mind the Hermandades] , what else remains but
the flowering of the peaceful arts. And among the arts, foremost are those
of language, which sets us apart from wild animals; language, which is
the unique distinction of man, the means for the kind of understanding
which can be surpassed only by contemplation.
Here, we distinctly hear the appeal of the humanist to the prince, requesting
him to defend the realm of civilized Christians against the domain of the
wild. "The wild man's inability to speak is part of the Wild Man Myth whenever
we meet him during the middle ages....... in a morally ordered world, to be
wild is to be incoherent mute ... sinful and accursed." Formerly, the heathen
was to be brought into the fold through baptism; henceforth, through language.
Language now needs tutors.
A Loose and Unruly Language
Nebrija then points out:
So far, this our language has been left loose and unruly and, therefore,
in just a few centuries this language has changed beyond recognition. If
we were to compare what we speak today with the language spoken five hundred
years ago, we would notice a difference and a diversity that could not be
any greater if these were two alien tongues.
Nebrija describes the evolution and extension of vernacular tongues, of the
lengua vulgar, through time. He refers to the untutored speech of Castile
- different from that of Aragon and Navarra, regions where soldiers had recently
introduced Castilian - but a speech also different from the older Castilian
into which Alfonso's monks and Jews had translated the Greek classics from
their Arabic versions. In the fifteenth century people felt and lived their
languages otherwise than we do today. The study of Columbus’ language made
by Menendez Pidal helps us to understand this. Columbus, originally a cloth
merchant from Genoa, had as his first language Genovese, a dialect still not
standardized today. He learned to write business letters in Latin, albeit
a barbarous variety. After being shipwrecked in Portugal, he married a Portuguese
and probably forgot most of his Italian. He spoke, but never wrote a word
of Portuguese . During his nine years in Lisbon, he took up writing in Spanish.
But, he never used his brilliant mind to learn Spanish well, and always wrote
it in a hybrid, Portuguese-mannered style. His Spanish is not Castillan but
is rich in simple words picked up all over the peninsula. In spite of some
syntactical monstrosities, he handles this language in a lively, expressive,
and precise fashion. Columbus, then, wrote in two languages he did not speak,
and spoke several. None of this seems to have been problematic for his contemporaries.
However, it is also true that none of these were languages in the eyes of
Unbound and Ungoverned Speech Finds a New Ally in Printing
Continuing to develop his petition, he introduces the crucial
element of his argument: La lengua suelta y fuera de regla, the unbound
and ungoverned speech in which people actually live and manage their lives,
has become a challenge to the Crown. He now interprets an unproblematic historical
fact as a problem for the architects of a new kind of polity - the modern
Your Majesty, it has been my constant desire to see our nation become great,
and to provide the men of my tongue with books worthy of their leisure.
Presently, they waste their time on novels and fancy stories full of lies.
Nebrija proposes to regularize language to stop people from wasting time
on frivolous reading, "quando la emprenta aun no informaba la lengua de
los libros." And Nebrija is not the only late fifteenth-century person
concerned with the "waste" of leisure time made possible through the inventions
of paper and movable type. Ignatius of Loyola, twenty-nine years later, while
convalescing in Pamplona with a leg shattered by a cannonball, came to believe
that he had disastrously wasted his youth. At thirty, he looked back on his
life as one filled with "the vanities of the world", whose leisure had included
the reading of vernacular trash.
...And Must Be Repressed
Nebrija argues for standardizing a living language for the benefit of its
printed form. This argument is also made in our generation, but the end now
is different. Our contemporaries believe that standardized language is a necessary
condition to teach people to read, indispensable for the distribution of printed
books. The argument in 1492 is the opposite: Nebrija is upset because people
who speak in dozens of distinct vernacular tongues have become the victims
of a reading epidemic. They waste their leisure, throwing away their time
on books that circulate outside of any possible bureaucratic control. A manuscript
was so precious and rare that authorities could often suppress the work of
an author by literally seizing all the copies. Manuscripts
could sometimes be extirpated by the roots. Not so books. Even with the small
editions of two hundred to less than a thousand copies - typical for the first
generation of print - it would never be possible to confiscate an entire run.
Printed books called for the exercise of censorship through an Index of
Forbidden Books. Books could only be proscribed, not destroyed. But Nebrija's
proposal appeared more than fifty years before the Index was published
in 1559. And he wishes to achieve control over the printed word on a much
deeper level than what the Church later attempted through proscription. He
wants to replace the people's vernacular by the grammarian's language. The
humanist proposes the standardization of colloquial language to remove the
new technology of printing from the vernacular domain - to prevent people
from printing and reading in the various languages that, up to that time,
they had only spoken. By this monopoly over an official and taught language,
he proposes to suppress wild, untaught vernacular reading.
Vernacular Allied to Printing Would Challenge the
To grasp the full significance of Nebrija's argument - the argument that
compulsory education in a standardized national tongue is necessary to stop
people from wanton reading that gives them an easy pleasure - one must remember
the status of print at that time. Nebrija was born before the appearance of
movable type. He was thirteen when the first movable stock came into use.
His conscious adult life coincides with the Incunabula. When printing was
in its twenty-fifth year, he published his Latin grammar; when it was in its
thirty-fifth year, his Spanish grammar. Nebrija could recall the time before
print, as I can the time before television. Nebrija's text, on which I am
commenting, was by coincidence published the year Thomas Caxton died. And
Caxton's work itself furthers our understanding of the vernacular
Thomas Caxton was an English cloth merchant living in the Netherlands. He
took up translating, and then apprenticed himself to a printer. After publishing
a few books in English, he took his press to England in 1476. By the time,
he died (1491), he had published forty translations into English, and nearly
everything available in English vernacular literature, with the notable exception
of William Langland's Piers Plowman. I have often wondered if he left
this important work off his list because of the challenge it might present
to one of his best sellers - The Art and Crafte to Knowe Well to
Dye. This volume of his Westminster Press belongs to the first series
of self-help books. Whatever would train for a society well informed and well
mannered, whatever would lead to behavior gentle and devout, was gathered
in small folios and quartos of neat Gothic print - instructions on everything
from manipulating a knife to conducting a conversation, from the art of weeping
to the art of playing chess to that of dying. Before 1500, no less than 100
editions of this last book appeared. It is a self-instruction manual, showing
one how to prepare to die with dignity and without the intervention of physician
Four categories of books first appeared in the peoples' languages: vernacular,
native literature; translations from French and Latin; devotional books; and
already there were the how-to-do-it manuals that made teachers unnecessary.
Printed books in Latin were of a different sort, comprising textbooks, rituals,
and lawbooks - books at the service of professional clergymen and teachers.
From the very beginning, printed books were of two kinds: those which readers
independently chose for their pleasure, and those professionally prescribed
for the reader's own good. It is estimated that before 1500, more than seventeen
hundred presses in almost three hundred European towns had produced one or
more books. Almost forty thousand editions were published during the fifteenth
century, comprising somewhere between fifteen and twenty million copies. About
one-third of these were published in the various vernacular languages of Europe.
This portion of printed books is the source of Nebrija's concern.
Books Henceforth Shall Be Seen and Not Heard
To appreciate more fully his worry about the freedom to read, one must remember
that reading in his time was not silent. Silent reading is a recent invention.
Augustine was already a great author and the Bishop of Hippo when he found
that it could be done. In his Confessions he describes the discovery.
During the night, charity forbade him to disturb his fellow monks with noises
he made while reading. But curiosity impelled him to pick up a book. So, he
learned to read in silence, an art that he had observed in only one man, his
teacher, Ambrose of Milan. Ambrose practiced the art of silent reading because
otherwise people would have gathered around him and would have interrupted
him with their queries on the text. Loud reading was the link between classical
learning and popular culture.
Habitual reading in a loud voice produces social effects. It is an extraordinarily
effective way of teaching the art to those who look over the reader's shoulder;
rather than being confined to a sublime or sublimated form of self-satisfaction,
it promotes community intercourse; it actively leads to common digestion of
and comment on the passages read. In most of the languages of India, the verb
that translates into "reading" has a meaning close to "sounding." The same
verb makes the book and the vina sound. To read and to play a musical instrument
are perceived as parallel activities. The current, simpleminded, internationally
accepted definition of literacy obscures an alternate approach to book, print,
and reading. If reading were conceived primarily as a social activity as,
for example, competence in playing the guitar, fewer readers could mean a
much broader access to books and literature.
Reading aloud was common in Europe before Nebrija's time. Print multiplied
and spread opportunities for this infectious reading in an epidemic manner.
Further, the line between literate and illiterate was different from what
we recognize now. Literate was he who had been taught Latin. The great mass
of people, thoroughly conversant with the vernacular literature of their region,
either did not know how to read and write, had picked it up on their own,
had been instructed as accountants, had left the clergy or, even if they knew
it, hardly used their Latin. This held true for the poor and for many nobles,
especially women. And we sometimes forget that even today the rich, many professionals,
and high-level bureaucrats have assistants report a verbal digest of documents
and information, while they call on secretaries to write what they dictate.
To the queen, Nebrija's proposed enterprise must have seemed even more improbable
than Columbus' project. But, ultimately, it turned out to be more fundamental
than the New World for the rise of the Hapsburg Empire. Nebrija clearly showed
the way to prevent the free and anarchic development of printing technology,
and exactly how to transform it into the evolving national state's instrument
of bureaucratic control.
At the Queen's Service, Synthetic Castillian Shall Replace
the People's Speech
Today, we generally act on the assumption that books could not be printed
and would not be read in any number if they were written in a vernacular language
free from the constraints of an official grammar. Equally, we assume that
people could not learn to read and write their own tongue unless they are
taught in the same manner as students were traditionally taught Latin. Let
us listen again to Nebrija.
By means of my grammar, they shall learn artificial Castilian, not difficult
to do, since it is built up on the base of a language they know; and,
then, Latin will come easily…
Nebrija already considers the vernacular as a raw material from which his
Castilian art can be produced, a resource to be mined, not unlike the Brazilwood
and human chattel that, Columbus sadly concluded, were the only resources
of value or importance in Cuba.
Speech Nurtured from Roots is Replaced by Language Dispensed
from the Crown
Nebrija does not seek to teach grammar that people learn to read. Rather,
he implores Isabella to give him the power and authority to stem the anarchic
spread of reading by the use of his grammar.
Presently, they waste their leisure on novels and fancy stories full
of lies. I have decided, therefore, that my most urgent task is to transform
Castilian speech into an artifact so that whatever henceforth shall be
written in this language may be of one standard tenor.
Nebrija frankly states what he wants to do and even provides the outline
of his incredible project. He deliberately turns the mate of empire into its
slave. Here the first modern language expert advises the Crown on the way
to make, out of a people's speech and lives, tools that befit the state and
its pursuits. Nebrija's grammar is conceived by him as a pillar of the nation-state.
Through it, the state is seen, from its very beginning, as an aggressively
The new state takes from people the words on which they subsist, and transforms
them into the standardized language which henceforth they are compelled to
use, each one at the level of education that has been institutionally imputed
to him. Henceforth, people will have to rely on the language they receive
from above, rather than to develop a tongue in common with one another. The
switch from the vernacular to an officially taught mother tongue is perhaps
the most significant - and, therefore, least researched - event in the coming
of a commodity-intensive society.
The radical change from the vernacular to taught language foreshadows
the switch from breast to bottle, from subsistence to welfare, from production
for use to production for market, from expectations divided between state
and church to a world where the Church is marginal, religion is privatized,
and the state assumes the maternal functions heretofore claimed only by the
Church. Formerly, there had been no salvation outside the Church; now,
there would be no reading, no writing - if possible, no speaking - outside
the educational sphere. People would have to be reborn out of the monarch's
womb, and be nourished at her breast. Both the citizen of the modern state
and his state-provided language come into being for the first time - both
are without precedent anywhere in history.
The Bosom of Alma Mater
But dependence on a formal, bureaucratic institution to obtain for every
individual a service that is as necessary as breast milk for human subsistence,
while radically new and without parallel outside of Europe, was not a break
with Europe's past. Rather, this was a logical step forward - a process first
legitimated in the Christian Church evolved into an accepted and expected
temporal function of the secular state. Institutional maternity has a unique
European history since the third century. In this sense, it is indeed true
that Europe is the Church and the Church is Europe. Nebrija and universal
education in the modern state cannot be understood without a close knowledge
of the Church, insofar as this institution is represented as a mother.
From the very earliest days, the Church is called "mother". Marcion the Gnostic
uses this designation in 144. At first, the community of the faithful is meant
to be mother to the new members whom communion, that is, the fact of celebrating
community, engenders. Soon, however, the Church becomes a mother outside of
whose bosom it is hardly worthwhile to be called human or to be alive. But
the origins of the Church's self-understanding as mother have been little
researched. One can often find comments about the role of mother goddesses
in the various religions scattered throughout the Roman Empire at the time
Christianity began to spread. But the fact that no previous community had
ever been called mother has yet to be noticed and studied. We know that the
image of the Church as mother comes from Syria, and that it flourished in
the third century in North Africa. On a beautiful mosaic near Tripoli, where
the claim is first expressed, both the invisible community and the visible
building are represented as mother. And Rome is the last place where the metaphor
is applied to the Church. The female personification of an institution did
not fit the Roman style; the idea is first taken up only late in the fourth
century in a poem by Pope Damasus.
This early Christian notion of the Church as mother has no historical precedent.
No direct gnostic or pagan influence, nor any direct relationship to the Roman
mother cult has thus far been proven. The description of the Church's maternity
is, however, quite explicit. The Church conceives, bears, and gives birth
to her sons and daughters. She may have a miscarriage. She raises her children
to her breast to nourish them with the milk of faith. In this early period,
the institutional trait is clearly present, but the maternal authority exercised
by the Church through her bishops and the ritual treatment of the Church building
as a female entity are still balanced by the insistence on the motherly quality
of God's love, and of the mutual love of His children in baptism. Later, the
image of the Church as a prototype of the authoritarian and possessive mother
becomes dominant in the middle ages. The popes then insist on an understanding
of the Church as Mater, Magistra, and Domina - mother, authoritative
teacher, sovereign. Thus Gregory VII (1073-1085) names her in the struggle
with the emperor Henry IV.
Nebrija's introduction is addressed to a queen intent on building a modern
state. And his argument implies that, institutionally, the state must now
assume the universally maternal functions heretofore claimed only by the Church.
Educatio, as a function first institutionalized at the bosom of Mother
Church, becomes a function of the Crown in the process of the modern state's
Educatio prolis is a term that in Latin grammar calls for a female
subject. It designates the feeding and nurturing in which mothers engage,
be they bitch, sow, or woman. Among humans only women educate. And they educate
only infants, which etymologically means those who are yet without speech.
To educate has etymologically nothing to do with "drawing out" as pedagogical
folklore would have it. Pestalozzi should have heeded Cicero: educit obstetrix
- educat nutrix: the midwife draws - the nurse nurtures, because men do neither
in Latin. They engage in docentia (teaching) and instructio (instruction).
The first men who attributed to themselves educational functions were early
bishops who led their flocks to the alma ubera (milk-brimming breasts)
of Mother Church from which they were never to be weaned. This is why they,
like their secular successors, call the faithful alumni - which means
sucklings or suckers, and nothing else. It is this transfer of woman's functions
to specialized institutional spheres governed by clergies that Nebrija helped
to bring about. In the process the state acquired the function of a many-uddered
provider of distinct forms of sustenance, each corresponding to a separate
basic need, and each guarded and managed by the clergy, always male in the
higher reaches of the hierarchy.
Bureaucratic Control as the Stone of Wisdon
Actually, when Nebrija proposes to transform Castilian into an artifact,
as necessary for the queen's subjects as faith for the Christian, he appeals
to the hermetic tradition. In the language of his time, the two words he uses
- reducir and artificio have both an ordinary and a technical
meaning. In the latter case, they belong to a language of alchemy.
According to Nebrija's own dictionary, reducir in fifteenth-century
Spanish means "to change", "to bring into obeisance," and "to civilize." In
this last sense, the Jesuits later understood the Reducciones de Paraguay.
In addition, reductio -throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries
- means one of the seven stages by which ordinary elements of nature are transmuted
into the philosopher's stone, into the panacea that, by touch, turns everything
into gold. Here, reductio designates the fourth of seven grades of
sublimation. It designates the crucial test that must be passed by grey matter
to be promoted from the primary to the secondary grades of enlightenment.
In the first four grades, raw nature is successively liquefied, purified,
and evaporated. In the fourth grade, that of reductio, it is nourished
on philosopher's milk. If it takes to this substance, which will occur only
if the first three processes have completely voided its unruly and raw nature,
the chrysosperm, the sperm of gold hidden in its depth, can be brought forth.
This is educatio. During the following three stages, the alchemist
can coagulate his alumnus - the substance he has fed with his milk
- into the philosopher's stone.
The precise language used here is a bit posterior to Nebrija. It is taken
almost literally from Paracelsus, another man born within a year of the publication
of the Gramatica Castellana.
The Expert Needed by the Crown
Now let us return to the text. Nebrija develops his argument:
I have decided to transform Castilian into an artifact so that whatever
shall be written henceforth in this language shall be of one standard tenor,
one coinage that can outlast the times. Greek and Latin have been governed
by art, and thus have kept their uniformity throughout the ages. Unless
the like of this be done for our language, in vain Your Majesty's chroniclers
… shall praise your deeds. Your labor will not last more than a few years,
and we shall continue to feed on Castilian translations of foreign tales
about our own kings. Either your feats will fade with the language or they
will roam among aliens abroad, homeless, without a dwelling in which they
The Roman Empire could be governed through the Latin of its elite.
But the traditional, separate elite language used in former empires for keeping
records, maintaining international relations, and advancing learning - like
Persian, Arabic, Latin, or Frankish - is insufficient to realize the aspirations
of nationalistic monarchies. The modern European state cannot function in
the world of the vernacular. The new national state needs an artificio,
unlike the perennial Latin of diplomacy and the perishable Castilian of
Alfonso the Learned. This kind of polity requires a standard language understood
by all those subject to its laws and for whom the tales written at the monarch's
behest (that is, propaganda) are destined.
Social Status from Taught Language Rather than Blood
However, Nebrija does not suggest that Latin be abandoned. On the contrary,
the neo-Latin renaissance in Spain owed its existence largely to his grammar,
dictionary, and textbooks. But his important innovation was to lay the foundation
for a linguistic ideal without precedent: the creation of a society in which
the universal ruler's bureaucrats, soldiers, merchants, and peasants all pretend
to speak one language, a language the poor are presumed to understand and
to obey. Nebrija established the notion of a kind of ordinary language that
itself is sufficient to place each man in his assigned place on the pyramid
that education in a mother tongue necessarily constructs. In his argument,
he insists that Isabella's claim to historical fame depends on forging a language
of propaganda - universal and fixed like Latin, yet capable of penetrating
every village and farm, to reduce subjects into modern citizens.
How times had changed since Dante! For Dante, a language that had to be learned,
to be spoken according to a grammar, was inevitably a dead tongue. For him,
such a language was fit only for schoolmen, whom he cynically called inventores
grammaticae facultatis. What for Dante was dead and useless, Nebrija recommends
as a tool. One was interested in vital exchange, the other in universal conquest,
in a language that by rule would coin words as incorruptible as the stones
of a palace:
Your Majesty, I want to lay the foundations for the dwelling in which
your fame can settle. I want to do for our language what Zeno has done
for Greek, and Crates for Latin. I do not doubt that their betters have
come to succeed them. But the fact that their pupils have improved on
them does not detract from their or, I should say, from our glory - to
be the inventors of a necessary craft just when the time for such invention
was ripe. Trust me, Your Majesty, no craft has ever arrived more timely
than grammar for the Castilian tongue at this time.
The expert is always in a hurry, but his belief in progress gives him the
language of humility. The academic adventurer pushes his government to adopt
his idea now, under threat of failure to achieve its imperial designs. This
is the time!
Our language has indeed just now reached a height from which we must fear
more that we sink, than we can ever hope to rise.
The Expert as Tutor of the Subject's Interest
Nebrija's last paragraph in the introduction exudes eloquence. Evidently
the teacher of rhetoric knew what he taught. Nebrija has explained his project;
given the queen logical reasons to accept it; frightened her with what would
happen if she were not to heed him; now, finally, like Columbus, he appeals
to her sense of a manifest destiny.
Now, Your Majesty, let me come to the last advantage that you shall gain
from my grammar. For the purpose, recall the time when I presented you with
a draft of this book earlier this year in Salamanca. At this time, you asked
me what end such a grammar could possibly serve. Upon this, the Bishop of
Avila interrupted to answer in my stead. What he said was this:
"Soon Your Majesty will have placed her yoke upon many barbarians who speak
outlandish tongues. By this, your victory, these people shall stand in a
new need; the need for the laws the victor owes to the vanquished, and the
need for the language we shall bring with us." My grammar shall serve to
impart to them the Castilian tongue, as we have used grammar to teach Latin
to our young.
Nebrija's Project Scandalizes Her Majesty
We can attempt a reconstruction of what happened at Salamanca when Nebrija
handed the queen a draft of his forthcoming book. The queen praised the humanist
for having provided the Castilian tongue with what had been reserved to the
languages of Scripture - Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. (It is surprising and significant
that the converso, in the year of Granada, does not mention the Arabic
of the Koran!) But while Isabella was able to grasp the achievement of her
letrado - the description of a living tongue as rules of grammar -
she was unable to see any practical purpose in such an undertaking. For her,
grammar was an instrument designed solely for use by teachers. She believed,
however, that the vernacular simply could not be taught. In her royal view
of linguistics, every subject of her many kingdoms was so made by nature that
during his life time he would reach perfect dominion over his tongue on
his own. In this version of "majestic linguistics," the vernacular
is the subject's domain. By the very nature of things, the vernacular is beyond
the reach of the Spanish Monarch's authority. But the ruler forging the nation
state is unable to see the logic inherent in the project. Isabella's initial
rejection underscores the originality of Nebrija's proposal.
This discussion of Nebrija's draft about the need for instruction to speak
one's mother tongue must have taken place in the months around March, 1492,
the same time Columbus argued his project with the queen. At first, Isabella
refused Columbus on the advice of technical counsel - he had miscalculated
the circumference of the globe. But Nebrija's proposal she rejected out of
a different motive: from royal respect for the autonomy of her subject's tongues.
This respect of the Crown for the juridic autonomy of each village, of the
fuero del pueblo, the judgement by peers, was perceived by people and
sovereign as the fundamental freedom of Christians engaged in the reconquest
of Spain. Nebrija argues against this traditional and typically Iberic prejudice
of Isabella - the notion that the Crown cannot encroach on the variety of
customs in the kingdoms - and calls up the image of a new, universal mission
for a modern Crown.
Ultimately, Columbus won out because his Franciscan friends presented him
to the queen as a man driven by God to serve her mystical mission. Nebrija
proceeds in the same fashion. First, he argues that the vernacular must be
replaced by an artificio to give the monarch's power increased range
and duration; then, to cultivate the arts by decision of the court; also,
to guard the established order against the threat presented by wanton reading
and printing. But he concludes his petition with an appeal to "the Grace of
Granada" - the queen's destiny, not just to conquer, but to civilize the whole
Both Columbus and Nebrija offer their services to a new kind of empire builder.
But Columbus proposes only to use the recently created caravels to the limit
of their range for the expansion of royal power in what would become New Spain.
Nebrija is more basic - he argues the use of his grammar for the expansion
of the queen's power in a totally new sphere: state control over the shape
of people's everyday subsistence. In effect, Nebrija drafts the declaration
of war against subsistence which the new state was organizing to fight. He
intends the teaching of a mother tongue - the first invented part of universal