San Diego Poetry Guild

notes on guild, poetry, and San Diego


Convivial Productivity

The Web can be pretty unfriendly at times – cool in its heaping of judgments disguised as managerial protocol or, worse, aesthetic experimentation. And the Web is really just the latest metaphor for human productivity in industrialized worlds. If not a metaphor, then maybe the latest front, the newest face, recognized for its old-world imperialist features.

What the Web needs is a dose of conviviality. I borrow the term from Illich, who used it to designate what he considered “the opposite of industrial productivity,” an “autonomous and creative” communion among persons and their environments. The dream (for Ivan) was essentially Marxist and emancipatory, the pursuit of “freedom realized in personal interdependence.”

The Blog affords convivial productivity, I guess, if we bracket the “environment” as a unit of analysis for the time being and measure the potential for autonomy/creativity against what often happens here between people, who are “interdependent” in the sense that writers often become readers of other writers, exchanging points of departure. But this is only part of the story, and again only potentially so.

Illich, most famous for his critique of schooling, historicized “education” as the new “invisible commodity” of the post-Enlightenment West that would bring forth a new “type” of human being better fitted to an environment created by “scientific magic.” Education, by this model, is alchemical, endeavoring to pull us through “successive stages of enlightenment” en route to a golden age of industrial productivity and, by extension, mass consumption.

If you want to bolster the argument that the Web (or the Blog) is conducive to convivial productivity, look to Illich: “A convivial society should be designed to allow all its members the most autonomous action by means of tools least controlled by others. People feel joy, as opposed to mere pleasure, to the extent that their activities are creative; while the growth of tools beyond a certain point increases regimentation, dependence, exploitation, and impotence.”

And here: “Convivial tools are those which give each person who uses them the greatest opportunity to enrich the environment with the fruits of his or her vision. Industrial tools deny this possibility to those who use them and they allow their designers to determine the meaning and expectations of others. Most tools today cannot be used in a convivial fashion.”

This argument could be made on behalf of “convivial” Web use (blogging or otherwise), but then there are questions of control, as well as risks of regimentation, dependence, and exploitation, that complicate the picture. The Web is a tool-rich and potentially interactive/communal domain that nonetheless has all the marks of the industrial and manipulative. The banner above is maybe one such mark, but there are times, I think, when even users themselves (you and I) as “designers” come to “determine” meaning and expectations in ways not necessarily conducive to the convivial.

“Tools foster conviviality to the extent to which they can be easily used, by anybody, as often or as seldom as desired, for the accomplishment of a purpose chosen by the user. The use of such tools by one person does not restrain another from using them equally. They do not require previous certification of the user. Their existence does not impose any obligation to use them. They allow the user to express [his/her] meaning in action.”

Who uses the Web, and how often? To what “accomplishments” do most users – from the poetics blogger to the office assistant to the porn surfer – commit themselves? What are the restraints of use and, as a kind of restraint, what does it take, really, to be certified as a Web user?

The distinction between the convivial and the manipulative, according to Ivan, is “independent of the level of technology of the tool.” Still, I ask these questions because I wonder if the case is different when the tool basically tools itself, when those using the tool are in a way engaged equally in building the tool ad interim.

The Web schools its users (true for the Blog too), so perhaps this comes down to an appeal for more convivial productivity in the realm of Web (blog) use. Writers seem pretty well fit to occupy this space, so I wonder if a kind of “magic” has not transformed us into a new type of industrial producer/consumer, playing out cycles of regimentation and dependence under the guise of liberatory creativity and “vision.” If industrial productivity is possible here, then surely convivial productivity is possible as well as a kind of “counterfoil research” (another Illichism), with writers on the front determining not only “meanings” and “expectations” but also the questions by which meanings/expectations come to be determined in the first place.

At the very least, I want to think that art and education intersect at the point of convivial productivity. Working art, as a learning activity, is perhaps the "convivial" alternative to artwork in the age of industrial tooling and schooling. The accent falls on the working and learning, the action. Art is the outcome of convivial productivity.

All of which, like most everything posted here, is offered in the spirit of inquiry and perhaps more important to SDPG than to a broader audience (a belated disclaimer, sorry). The Poetry Guild is nothing if not an attempt to bring convivial tools (real and virtual) into the hands of writers and other creatives in this particular environment (San Diego), so anyone reading this who is not part of that group or partial to its mission may want to take it in light of that deliberately self-limiting focus.

Otherwise, writers should claim their rightful place as artisans of convivial productivity, and using any technology, finally, new or old.

More Illich here, if you want.


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