Just as I was wrapping up my little series on the way insurance as an instrument of governmentality insinuates itself into local decisions, I ran across an article by David Bollier about Ivan Illich and the commons, which provides another way of talking about what we do when we act as good, well-governed subjects. What follows depends completely on Bollier's piece, and I need to go to the source, but the ideas connect too closely with what I was just writing on governmentality for me to wait. No way I'll be able to do justice to Illich or Bollier.
For Illich, the commons was "the realm of everyday life in which people create and negotiate their own sense of things – how they learn about the world, how they find meaning and spirituality, how they manage the resources they love and depend upon" (Bollier). It is importantly a non-market domain. Classic examples include the organization of pre-modern communities in Britain, where manorial tenants shared grazing rights. Another key idea for Illich was the "
I see the commons as the informal spaces where people are allowed to be active and engage in the work of the vernacular domain. I think of spaces where friends, associates and I have been able to engage in creative and communal activities. For instance, the HotHouse in Chicago opening up for panel discussions on a Saturday afternoon. One of my favorites was the space Stuart McCarrell had in Wicker Park. He owned a building at the corner of Damen and North, the Lodge Hall, where he had the offices for his engineering company but also housed an independent press and provided storage for artist associates. For a time my friend Warren lent me a key to the building, and I was able to go there late at night to woodshed and write music. I went up to the open top floor, which was filled with stage sets and costumes from independent theatre and dance productions over the years. The building was old, and it breathed. You had to love its location--it backed on the El, the building across the El housed the Busy Bee, a venerable Polish restaurant, and across the street were the Coyote Building and the Flatiron Building. These buildings served as locations for a beautiful temporary commons, the Around the Coyote festival. Every imaginable space was opened up for artists to show their work and throw together experimental projects and temporary installations, and you wandered from one space into the next and then the next. It seemed endless in a good way. A deep well.
Downtown Presbyterian Church's art studios have some quality of the commons. And we have in our best times embraced the church as commons, and let space all over the building be used for concerts, performances, exhibits, discussions, and planning. Churches have a long history of being a commons, with open doors and offering sanctuary. The commons quality has been contested for sure. Notably during the 80s when the Sanctuary movement would have opened churches to refugees from conflict in Central America. My understanding is that a former minister of DPC, Rev. Hogan Yancey, was forced out for sympathy to these ideas.
Historically, the commons such as land where all members of a village shared grazing rights gives way with modernism to enclosure, through which common land and resources are split up, each parcel or piece established as the property of an individual. Ownership documented in a legal deed, rights defined by contract. What was a common resource became one person's capital. And the owner of that capital would need insurance to protect their ownership and rights.
The insurance negotiations at DPC would have us in effect enclose the art studios, remove any trace of the commons. What is interesting to me is that the process entices us to do it to ourselves. The impulse is already there among (like a reverse Spirit of God)--the impulse for clarity, for good business-like practices, for modeling responsible subjecthood. It is not imposed, but comes about through a collaboration within this disciplinary system, within this risk dispositif. We experience a kind of solidarity within the disciplinary system--we are being responsible together--at the same time we truncate other forms of solidarity.
When one thinks of enclosure of the commons, you think of elites seizing resources, but I believe there has always been this element of action upon the self. Nietzsche saw human potential arising from "imposing a form on onself" (Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals). While Bollier says "Enclosure is not an abstraction. It's the great, unacknowledged scourge of our time," and I don't disagree with that--I mourn the loss of these spaces--it's important to recognize the extent to which most of us collaborate in the process.
Stuart McCarrell died in 2001, not long after I was the beneficiary of his radicalism as second nature. I'm sure that the Lodge Hall got sold on his death and has been converted into private residences. I don't know where I would go to practice today. But to honor Stuart, let me give you one of his poems. Stu was best known in Chicago as first a buddy to Nelson Algren and then a champion for his work. (Algren is a story for another time, but everyone should at least read Chicago: City on the Make, and a good source for information is the doc by Dennis Mueller, Ilko Davidov, and Mark Blottner, Nelson Algren: The End is Nothing, The Road is All.)
compassion, humor, rage.
I saw her suffering, struggling,
dancing on a noisy, smoky stage.
But the decades grew greedy, dark--
the battles seemed vain.
Cruelty, callousness ruled
and mocked at the pain.
I turned a wry joke here,
a lusty one there,
to ease the anguish
and tame the terror.
So now, to their taste,
each reader can choose
soft flecks of laughter,
or hard midnight news.
Stuart McCarrell, from Voices, Insistent Voices (Xenia Press)
David Bollier. (2013) "Ivan Illich and the Contemporary Commons Movement." https://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-08-05/ivan-illich-and-the-contemporary-commons-movement/