Vernacular Values by Ivan Illich (tratto
[Note: These essays from CoEvolution
Quarterly were the basis of most of Illich's book Shadow Work
(Marion Boyars, 1981).]
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 need them.
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
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
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
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
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
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 burden.
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
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", "social reproduction".
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
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
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
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
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 home.
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 (canoe), appeared.
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
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 Nebrija.
Unbound and Ungoverned Speech Finds a New Ally in
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 state.
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 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 or clergy.
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
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 productive agency.
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 formation.
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
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 can settle.
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
"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 world.
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 education.