The Gift of Gender: Ivan Illich, Feminism, Infrapolitics

Gabriela Méndez
Universidad Iberoamericana

Volume 15, 2024

Let us now begin with: how am I to listen to you?

Irigaray, I Love to You 115

With the aim of exploring the relevance of Ivan Illich’s thinking for infrapolitical reflection, this article focuses on his book Gender (1982) and what it suggests about feminism today, at a time of perishing (Williams). Beyond problematizing, as academic feminism did swiftly at the time of the book’s publication, Illich’s seemingly nostalgic representation of pre-modern patriarchal societies, I set out to reflect on the less explicit stakes of Illich’s challenge to liberal feminism. My argument is inspired by David Cayley’s interpretation of Illich’s intellectual journey, which not only explains, in part, the hostile reception of Gender by North American academic feminism, but most importantly for my argument, renders intelligible the connection between Illich’s existential understanding of the Christian faith on the one hand, and the various aspects, including gender, of his radical critique of modernity, on the other. Paradoxical as it seems, it is in Illich’s understanding of “faith” –as freedom –that I find resonances of his intellectual journey with both infrapolitical reflection and minoritarian strands of post-liberal feminist thinking. 

In Cayley’s account, Illich became interested in the category of gender through the insights of pioneering gender scholars such as his longtime friend Barbara Duden but developed a sui generis understanding of it in the context of his own ambitious project of a history of “scarcity,” that is, of the economic logic of Western civilization that gives abstract ideas of science, equality, and the human, the status of everyday certainties. If, as Duden thought, capitalism could be read as the demise of traditional gender roles, gender itself could be theorized as an epistemic barrier to the expansion of a principle of equivalence, which Illich attributed, ultimately, to the power-driven institutionalization of the Christian faith. The ultimate stakes of Illich’s project were completely (and understandably) lost to the early feminist readers of Gender, who took the book’s argument narrowly as an apology of “lost” patriarchal relations. Not helped by a tone “often polemical and, at times, pontifical” (Cayley 205), Gender and its author were banished from the scholarly record of gender studies and feminist theory globally. While writing about the global hegemony of North American feminism as an instance of what Bolívar Echeverría called “the americanization of modernity,” Mexican feminist Marta Lamas (2022 [2007]) questioned the erasure of Illich’s Gender from Latin American feminist and gender studies. Since it would be naïve to assume that there has ever been something like a hegemony of academic feminism in Mexico or the Latin American region, one might still expect to find some discussion of Gender among feminists at the grassroots level wherein Illich was influential.

As is well-known, due to the establishment of the Centre of Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC) in Cuernavaca, Mexico during the sixties and seventies, Illich left an imprint –and various, mostly political interpretations –among groups of radical, often independent scholars and “intercultural” activists from Mexico and other Latin American countries (Rengifo 2003; Beck 2016; Esteva 2019; Sbert 2019; González Gómez 2022, to cite just a few). In a way that seems consistent with the book’s reception, Illich’s legacy has been largely disarticulated from feminist activism and scholarship in the Latin American region.  Beyond brief, discreet commentaries by CIDOC fellow Sylvia Marcos –a renowned scholar of religions –the silence around Gender is apparent within the emergent decolonial feminisms (eg. Antivilo) and even within the closely related discourse of feminist theologies –with the notable exception of Brazilian ecofeminist theologian Ivone Gebara. The silence might suggest that a new reading of Illich is in order that would hopefully illuminate, perhaps even reconcile, some of the painful rifts in feminist politics old and new, such as that between the cosmopolitan, theoretically informed feminism of “gender studies” and the vernacular “womanism” of popular and indigenous movements (Garrigós). However, if I take up here the story of Gender’s early rebuke by Berkeley feminists I do it not so much from the standpoint of an academic seeking to produce more, and better, feminist knowledge, or more and better feminist politics. Rather, I write as a perplexed witness of the ways in which an unquestioned political demand has come to permeate existence in the current technical accelerations, including the acceleration of academic knowledge production on feminism, sex, and gender. My question is then about an infrapolitical attunement in feminist thinking: something, or somewhere, that resists the accumulative logic of university discourse, wherein Illich might be read again and received otherwise, in his own terms. 

In what follows, I draw attention to some overlooked resonances between Illich’s admittedly ambiguous position on gender, Luce Irigaray’s “ethics of sexual difference,” and perhaps most strangely, Claire Colebrook’s thoughts on “sexual indifference,” in the framework of wider resonances between Illich’s critique of modernity and Gareth Williams’s infrapolitical take on technical globalization. My articulation of these references is not meant to represent or to feed an activist common sense by “breaking the silence” on Illich’s Gender. On the contrary, is meant to claim that silence in a different way, as a space of listening, thinking, existing-with. In this sense, Illich suggests to me that an infrapolitical attunement within feminism is ultimately a question of faith, yet in an existential, rather than an epistemological, doctrinal, or even ethical interpretation of “faith.” Such is the resonance, the question, that I take as the gift of Gender.1

The Report of the Loser

In this essay I have not tried to explain why society places the man on top and the handicap on the woman. I have controlled my curiosity in order to be free to listen more attentively to the report of the losers, to learn not about them but about the battlefield that is the economy.

Illich, Gender 178

In Gender Illich is concerned with showing how the demise of what he calls “gender” gives way to an economic reign of equivalence. Crucial to Illich’s understanding of Western civilization is his recognition that in all vernacular–or untaught, unregulated –languages there is a clear demarcation between male and female activities, times, spaces, and tools. In this context “gender” stands for a resulting perception of duality that would organize the whole lives of non-modern or non-Western societies. In a way that reminds of Walter Ong’s contemporaneous distinction between orality and literacy, gender and sex appear in Illich’s work as “ideal types” of consciousness, perception, or experience. Even if they cannot work as measures any a concrete situation or action, they describe and explain the basic structures and the major turning points of Western history. Illich’s thesis is that gender, understood in that way, functions as a self-limiting mechanism of vernacular cultures, as a way of keeping them within the limits of material subsistence. As in Ong’s oral societies, which are strictly defined by action and in which action is strictly oriented towards the conservation of cultural memory, in vernacular cultures men and women would be what they are strictly by doing what they do according to the local interpretation of a basic duality of male and female. However variable the local interpretations of this duality, what is significant for Illich is that as long as the duality itself is taken as given and necessary, no abstract norm of the human emerges against which people can measure themselves as equals. In the absence of a common abstract measure such as “reason,” no critique of hierarchy emerges as we know it (no emancipatory aspiration in the modern sense of feminism, for example), but at most a tension around something, a mystery that is too obvious to be named:

I use gender, then, in a new way to designate a duality that in the past was too obvious even to be named, and is so far removed from us today that it is often confused with sex. By “sex” I mean the result of a polarization in those common characteristics that, starting with the late eighteenth century, are attributed to all human beings. Unlike vernacular gender, which always reflects an association between a dual, local, material culture and then the men and women who live under its rule, social sex is “catholic”; it polarizes the human labor force, libido, character of intelligence, and is the result of a diagnosis (in Greek, “discrimination”) of deviations from the abstract genderless norm of “the human.” Sex can be discussed in the unambiguous language of science. Gender bespeaks a complementarity that is enigmatic and asymmetrical. Only metaphor can reach for it.

(Illich 3-4)

Illich insists that, for institutionally shaped modern minds, it is nearly impossible to apprehend the lived reality of gender, since modern language and experience have been shaped by what gender is not, namely, either biological or socially constructed “sex.” Whereas Ong attributes the gradual demise of “pristine orality” to a single revolutionary technology, alphabetic writing, in Gender Illich attributes the gradual demise of gender to the institutionalization of the Christian faith, which is to say, to the power-driven eradication of the vernacular first by the Church and then by the nation-state. Therefore, Illich’s theological position, while not very explicit in Gender, is at least as important for the discussion as –if not more than –the historical and anthropological viability of his argument. In this vein, Cayley observes that the most important element of “gender” in Illich’s thinking is its suggestion of substance, and that the concept reflects, ultimately, the divine complementarity of the relation subsistens –which is how scholastic philosophy understood the Holy Trinity, or the way in which God can be plural and singular, independent, related and subsistent at the same time (225). In The Rivers North of the Future Illich confirms this when explaining that what is really at stake for him in the demise of gender are the civilizational consequences of a loss more fundamental than the material subsistence of any given vernacular culture. The loss corresponds to the classical conception of the universe as a harmonic whole, as having form and purpose, a teleological world or a “sense of fit”:

The correspondence of heaven and earth was fundamental to all classical thinking. I once, as you know, I analyzed this correspondence in relation to what I called “gender,” by which I did not intend what that word later came to be used for, the social aspects of sex, but rather a certain way of perceiving duality. In the world from which we come, and in which in certain residual ways we remain, things are what they are because something inevitably corresponds to them. Nothing can be thought, felt, or experienced unless it has this correspondence. Thomas Aquinas, of whom we spoke earlier, says that you can’t think about anything — anything! — without knowing that it corresponds in some way to a will that is good, that is essentially good, that something fits it and it fits something. The idea of objects, concepts, perceptions that don’t have a fit might occasionally have dawned on thinkers of the past, but it was not something that could really be lived. The loss of this sense of fit can be traced from the early years of the seventeenth century on into the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

(Illich, The Rivers 134)

Again, in Gender the connection is not clear between an epistemological principle of duality and a cosmological “sense of fit.” Moreover, whereas Illich references, in Gender, the work of ecofeminist thinkers such as Carolyn Merchant to locate the loss of gender as “the death of nature” in the seventeenth century, in The Rivers North of the Future the demise of gender appears to have begun much earlier, even before the invention of mother tongues in the fifteenth century. Illich refers to a combination of technological and ecclesiastical developments in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that turned vernacular relations between women and men into an object of administration by the Church. The sacraments of marriage and confession, and the criminalization of sin, appear to have been, for him, the first steps toward an economic sense of “equality” (before God) in the context of an expansion of ecclesiastical power. Such a theologico-political dimension of the demise of gender, which goes deeper into Christian history than the modern “death of nature,” appears in passing within Gender’s narrative. Illich’s last interview with Cayley suggests that all of the above must have begun with Christ, as the mysterium iniquitatis. For it is with the Incarnation that a classical sense of fit gives way to a sense of contingency, and it is contingency’s development into an anxiety about the world that gives way gradually to the modern subjectivist drive to know or control what now appears as disenchanted matter. Illich follows Blumenberg in reading modernity as an attempt to escape a world of contingency: a situation in which “the connection between God and the world can be easily cut” (2005, 68). Man takes God’s sovereign function to guarantee the world –mastery at the expense of mystery, knowledge at the expense of faith –through science, technology, and politics. The demise of vernacular gender would drive the attempt to stave off anxiety, which is the Christian existential condition, the corruption of which would manifest as an economic mindset, a catastrophic expulsion from paradise:

As far as I can understand, I live in a world which has lost the sense for good, the Good. We have lost the certainty that the world makes sense because things fit together, that the eye is made to grasp the sunlight, and is not just a biological camera which happens to register this optical effect. We have lost the sense that virtuous behavior is fitting and appropriate for human beings, and we have lost it in the course of the late seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries with the rise of the concept and the experience of value. Good is absolute: the light and the eye are simply made for each other, and this unquestioned good is deeply experienced. But once I say that the eye has value for me because it allows me to see or to orient myself in the world, I open a new door. Values can be positive but also negative, so the moment I speak, in philosophy, about values, I assume the existence of a zero point, from which values rise or decline in two directions. The replacement of the good by the idea of value begins in philosophy, and is then expressed in an ever-growing economic sphere within which my life becomes a pursuit of values rather than a pursuit of what is good for me, which can only be another person. What else could it be?

(Illich, The Rivers 62-63)

Thus, in The Rivers North of the Future the onset of gender’s demise keeps moving ever farther back in time, as far back as the philosophical, self-fathering logos that displaces a mythical world sustained by a duality of principles or forces, male and female. But wherever one locates its origin –philosophy, the Incarnation, the Church, mother tongues, or modern science –it is clear that what follows from it is an instrumental or administrative relation with vernacular language/existence. First philosophical and theological languages, and then scientific and political languages, substitute “genderless key words” for the gendered domains of vernacular cultures, making speaking beings unable to perceive duality as enigmatic complementarity, rather than as a hierarchy of binary opposites. The consequence of such a harnessing of language would be nothing less than economic history, or capitalism: a war in which invidious comparison replaces awe as the reaction to (a sacred) morphological difference among persons. Even the critical discourses of modernity including Marxism, psychoanalysis, and feminism, would reveal the world –and the word –in terms of “sexism” which is, for Illich, synonymous with the economic sphere. Marx and Freud would have merely produced “labor” and “sex” as refined categories of economic value, while feminism, as a project of women achieving equality with men in the terms of economic society, would have in fact degraded women’s vernacular (sacred) position, and even sanctioned new forms of violence against them that result, in Illich’s view, from the economic unleashing of an invidious, competitive relation among persons. Such is Illich’s faith-based challenge to liberal feminism, which was nevertheless offered as the discourse of an intellectual historian aiming to “bring into view the chasm that divides the present from the past,” in order to confront the present with “its lack of legitimate ancestry” (Illich Gender, 177).

Obviously, Gender was not conceived above all as a feminist work. In it, Illich merely distinguished patriarchy, “a power imbalance under the assumption of gender,” from sexism: “the personal degradation of each individual woman who (…) is forced to compete with men” (34 fn21). It describes how, as the economy displaced vernacular gender, sexism displaced patriarchy by turning gendered subsistence-oriented activities into unisex (that is, sexist) labor. By refusing to explain the connection between gender and patriarchy, Illich placed his work outside the trajectory of feminist scholarship and critical gender theory. What the following sections suggest is that Illich, nevertheless, left a radically uncomfortable question for feminism that has infrapolitical dimensions. What is ultimately at stake in “the loss of gender”? Is it, like the North American feminists thought, men’s loss of patriarchy, or is it, simultaneously, an existential task to invent “a contemporary art of living” (179)? 

Gendered is the Battlefield

We had expected better of you and from you, Ivan Illich –a less tainted and tired vision –and we “have right,” as the Irish peasant would say, to chide you. In your yet to be completed history of human needs, the long chapter on women and gender has still to be written.

Scheper-Hughes 37

Unsurprisingly, among early feminist listeners and readers of Illich’s work on Gender, suspicions quickly grew into certainties regarding Illich’s positing of stark dichotomies between past and present, gender and sex, the vernacular good and the evil economy. Framed as such dichotomies were by an explicitly anti-feminist lamentation over “the sad loss of gender,” it was only logical for feminists to ask: was Gender not itself gendered in the nowadays more conventional sense of codifying and reinforcing a masculine privilege or norm? Why did Illich not interrogate the legitimacy of vernacular patriarchy as much as he rejected the legitimacy of modern feminist demands for equality and freedom? While Cayley regards most of the early feminist reactions to Gender as an unfortunate incomprehension of Illich’s radical critique of science, it seems to me that all of the critics understood very well the argument’s implications for feminism in its liberal humanist form. This form has never been simply replaced by more sophisticated second, third or fourth “waves” of feminist thinking. Instead, it persists, for all practical purposes, as the very ground of feminism’s claim to university knowledge, or of women’s attachment to the university as a political space. 

Anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hugues, for instance, rejected the empirical plausibility of a past where there did not exist any task that could be done by both men and women, implying that historically, men and women never needed to cooperate under a variety of circumstances –for instance, environmental hardship –that themselves did not always respect the culturally established gender line. But Scheper-Hughes did not only question the academic solidity of Gender, but did so in the name of equality, “a fragile conception” that needed all of Illich’s political support in dark times of social conservatism. While it is true –and disturbing –that Illich displays no particular concern about women’s political equality while he indicts economic sameness in Gender, what I find notable in Scheper-Hughes’s response is a presumed alliance between feminism and the anthropological discipline: 

…what I wish to defend here is the basic, perhaps untestable assumption of my discipline that has been under siege in your lectures for the past eight weeks. This is the contention that beneath the perception of human differences lies a fundamental, shared, and common humanity that can be reached through the process of “translation,” i.e., the ability and the imagination to cross cultural, linguistic, class, racial, and gender boundaries. This process of translation, which you seem to deny, is not only a possible, but a liberating and moral enterprise.


Scheper-Hughes’s disagreement pertains, then, to “equality” understood, specifically, as the Enlightenment’s dream of universal emancipation through “reason” or universal knowledge. From the outset of Gender, Illich made clear that he was aware of how and how much his reasonings interfere with such a progressive dream. He did reject, through the book’s argument, that the search for a universal translation into a common humanity is a liberating enterprise. In fact, it was the very search for such a universal translation that, in his view, amounted to sexism:

The bias against gender is built into anthropology because anthropology tries to be a science. Its scientific logic makes it an analytical tool that studies men and women as anthropoi, reduces gender to sex, and makes of a metaphorical complementarity, which only a culture’s own poets can describe, a system of two homogeneous opposites. This raises a more basic question: If anthropology cannot get at gender as subject, how can it explore anything in the vernacular domain?

(Illich, Gender 131-132)

In Illich’s view, not just anthropology, but also linguistics and political economy are an obstacle to the understanding of what he calls “gender.” All of them, he says, reduce men and women to humans, that is, “to economic neuters of either male or female sex,” while “economic existence and gender might be literally incomparable” (66). That might be the case, of course, but was it accidental that Illich’s hypothesis was felt as an attack on his audience’s basic political assumptions? Where was Illich speaking from? And what was he doing at Berkeley? As Cayley explains, Illich was just “soberly milking that sacred cow,” but one can still ask: how could he not appear as “an ideologue in scientists’ clothing,” a priest attempting to “re-Church the de-schooled society,” as sociologist Arlie Hoschild put it? Wasn’t he also dismissing the legitimacy of non-Western or non-white women’s struggles against the male use of “vernacular woman” as a political instrument all over the post-colonial world? The latter was Barbara Christian’s objection to Illich on behalf of African women writers, whose very existence, she said, transgressed the masculine monopolization of intellectual tools and activities, and who called into question, through their own writing, the neo-patriarchal representation of the African woman “as mother earth, the source of all life, who in her traditional gender sphere remained intact, untouched by the West” (Christian 25). Was Illich sanctioning such uses of Woman, and was he denying that African women writers could ever be their culture’s own poets in the same way he denied that modern women could ever achieve any non-sexist self-understanding, knowledge or liberation by joining the modern institutions of labor and science?

In his reflection on the whole episode, Cayley acknowledges a couple of fair questionings related to the scientific deficits of Illich’s historico-anthropological narrative of vernacular gender. But his view is that it could not have been so much Illich’s argument as Gender’s unconventional form –replete with long footnotes –and the priestly manner of the author’s performance at Berkeley that contributed most to a hostile reception on the part of feminist academics. At any rate, like Marta Lamas, he finds it “remarkable, if not terrifying, how completely Illich has been erased from the academic record” (Cayley 207). In my view, some of the early feminist objections to Gender were not just fair but inevitable and symptomatic of the very mindset that Illich had set out to challenge. If the problem with the feminists was that they did not understand Illich’s radical critique of science, it is equally important to recognize that the feminists understood Gender very well as feminists, and strongly disagreed with it on the practical basis of their political aims, their critical tools and their institutional activities. It must also be emphasized that Illich both anticipated and dismissed the reaction that he would face by interpellating feminism in ways that were bound to be perceived as unfair. Because he chose not to acknowledge the democratic legitimacy of feminism, and instead chose to represent it narrowly in terms of its historical complicity with an economic order, Illich’s otherwise powerful critique of this order was bound to escalate the very “sex war” that he openly condemned –though disavowing such a war’s deeper roots in patriarchal domination. Since both economic sexism and the complex legacies of patriarchy constitute the medium of university life, it is hard to imagine, in retrospective, what else –other than Gender’s ostracism –could have happened at Berkeley when Illich conveyed to its feminist academics that they could not even understand what he was talking about, however it essentially concerned them, precisely because they had chosen the unfortunate path of becoming academics. Was Illich the plain victim of a feminist inquisition, or did he in some sense call for and even stage the public chiding that he endured exemplarily, like a good Christian martyr? Rather than answer this predictable question conclusively I want to ask a new one which is directed not to Illich or Gender but rather to us contemporary witnesses (and forced participants) of micropolitical wars inside and outside of the university. 

The question is not, for me, whether the Berkeley feminists were right and Illich was wrong, but rather whether feminism was ever so unified and reducible to a politics of university knowledge. As inevitable as the feminist chiding and the subsequent ostracism of Gender may now seem, there was perhaps nothing essentially feminist about the hostile reception of Gender. That the broader feminist reception of Gender could have been different is suggested by the fact that, at the time it was published, academic feminism was not one and was certainly not naïve regarding its own liberal institutionalization.2 To construct his argument Illich drew extensively on the work of feminist historians of science and technology, including technoscience feminist Donna Haraway, whose own epistemology of situated knowledges and partial perspectives (1984) would become, very soon after Gender, a standard feminist position on modern science –basically coinciding with Illich’s critique of epistemological sexism (except, of course, for the sadness at the “loss of gender”). As for Illich’s critique of institutions and bureaucracies, it also found independent articulations in feminist scholarship of anarchist inspiration, as in Kathy Ferguson’s The Feminist Case Against Bureaucracy (1984). Perhaps, after all, Cayley is right to point out that Illich’s argument could not, per se, be so injurious to feminism, given feminism’s capacity to think for itself and to develop similar arguments in its own terms. But does this also mean that there is nothing fatal about feminism’s investments in university discourse, so that we can now unequivocally celebrate the success of feminism as knowledge production? I do not think so, and I instead find that the time of modernity’s consummation as technoscientific tyranny and climate breakdown makes it urgent to listen again to Illich’s discourse, and to do so from the generosity of feminist thinking, rather than from the scarcity of feminist science. What sort of interlocution, then, could take place at this time between Illich and feminist thinking, one that is not based on the political affirmation (or the rejection) of a “common humanity,” but on an infrapolitical attunement to the perishing of modernity? What would it mean to “listen freely” to the loser’s challenge?

Gender, it seems, stops short of imagining feminism as anything more than sexism, politics as anything more than economics and, indeed, thinking itself as anything more than mourning for a lost perception in which things just fit. Yet the book ends with a modest call for a contemporary art of living, which I would translate into the infrapolitical question of how such an art could be different not just from a re-valorization of patriarchy, but from the sanctioning of any form of domination or sacrifice. 

In Illich’s history of scarcity, “lost” gender seems to operate metaphorically as a natural ground or medium that the economy transcends and destroys, suggesting that his vernacular narrative is gendered in the more conventional sense of being structured by a fantasy in which “gender” would stand for something like Woman, an object of fantasy that sanctions women’s sacrifice. Yet it also seems possible to interpret the loss of gender, and Illich’s call for a contemporary art of living, in affinity with Heidegger and Irigaray, that is, in terms of a forgetting of ontological/sexual difference, giving way to antiphilosophical thinking, an experience of nearness or air (Irigaray, The Fogetting of Air). In one of Gender’s footnotes, Illich praises Luce Irigaray’s contribution to thinking “the near impossibility of using twentieth-century language to speak about gender (and what survives of it)” (74 [fn56]). Unfortunately, his engagement with her work pretty much ends there. He positions, instead, his own history of scarcity as the hypothetical starting point for “a fleshed-out philosophy of gender” which, as far as he could see, remained to be written (126). In fact, Illich’s reflections, within Gender, on invidious competition between the sexes took shape, almost simultaneously, with Irigaray’s existential project or “ethics” of sexual difference (1984). If we read them alongside each other, it turns out that perhaps it really was, after all, something like a faith-informed ethics of sexual difference that Gender was gesturing towards by means of a history of the economic mindset. Depending on how the question of “faith” is approached, it will become possible, or not, to apprehend Gender as an infrapolitical gift to feminism.

As is well known, Irigaray is categorical in her understanding of human nature as “at least two: male and female” (I Love to You 36). Given that such a duality is “the manifestation of and the condition for the production and reproduction of life” (36-37), the problem for her is not duality itself, but how duality is negated through hierarchical oppositions between active-passive, form-matter, subject-object, and so forth, instead of being achieved as a desired interaction “between two free subjects” (37). What is crucial here, then, is that while (human) nature cannot be one, sexual difference is not, for that reason, simply given as a biological fact, or simply imposed as a social fact. Irigaray suggests that sexual difference is instead a task that requires, for its realization, an existential decision to embrace “abundance and life” over economics or knowledge, which are premised, as Illich dedicated his life to insist upon, on scarcity and survival (An Ethics of Sexual Difference 124). In such an existential sense, sexual difference has never, for Irigaray, even “…had its chance to develop, either empirically or transcendentally” (15). By formulating sexual difference as a project, Irigaray provides a way of rethinking Illich’s vernacular gender in a feminist sense, as not “lost” but rather as not yet.

Irigaray’s sexual difference echoes Illich’s vernacular gender both in its reference to “nature” as morphological and in its conviction that “[w]ithout a cultural identity suited to the natural identity of each sex, nature and the universal are parted, like heaven and earth; with an infinite distance between them, they marry no more” (I Love to You 13). Moreover, Irigaray shares Illich’s view that the parting of heaven and earth results from an authoritarian imposition of “divine commandments, existing marriage laws, and a hierarchy of social power tied to the prevalence of genealogical familial authority” (13-14). Her own understanding of the historical unhappiness of sexual difference develops, though, not as a history of the economic mindset but as a philosophical disagreement with Hegel: the one who thought the dialectic as masculine, love as labour, and labour as an abstract duty for which women (and men) had to sacrifice life itself. It is against this deadly dialectical imperative that Irigaray’s project offers an alternative possibility that would require the achievement of female form as positive difference. By turning “the negative, that is, the limit of one gender in relation to the other, into a possibility of love and of creation” (11), the project of sexual difference would set out to ensure that difference does not turn into sacrifice. Illich’s “contemporary art of living” could be taken, in a similar spirit, as a call for the cultivation of a sexed –he would prefer to say “gendered” –subjectivity against “uninterpreted historical determinations” (or gender, in the more conventional sense of the term) including the “unjust division of dignity and labour” (Irigaray, I Love to You 13-14).

Having said that, it is also the case that Irigaray shares with Illich some problematic expressions. In particular, she seems to position heterosexual embodiment as a ground for ethics when writing about heterosexual love as “the salvation of the community and of nature, both together” (28). The ethics of sexual difference would thus seem to be, like all ethics, sacrificial, insofar as it normalizes human nature (and life itself) as we know it: “through its sexed representatives, man and woman” (30). This resonance with Illich’s own spiritual privileging of an all too human vernacular gender over an inhuman economic sex could be based on a reluctance to embrace the full implications of the psychoanalytic thesis of a non-reproductive sexuality or, as Illich certainly regretted: an indifferent psychic force that exceeds biological as well as cultural determinations, seeking else than a reproduction of life (Edelman). But if in Irigaray’s case the notion of sexual difference as temporal, embodied, and poetic (rather than merely reproductive) has been interpreted as opening, rather than closing the door to queer or non-humanist understandings of “abundance and life” (Colebrook, Gender), one can also try to imagine how Illich’s embodied understanding of gender (as perception) might give way to something other than humanist heterosexual conservation or “subsistence,” and how, if it is a task rather than an eternal essence, it can be other than denoting Woman as a (feminine) ground or medium that is necessary for the (male) economy to emerge (and sacrifice/mourn). While Irigaray’s ethics of sexual difference suggests a way of thinking Illich’s call for a contemporary task of living with feminism rather than against it, I will now try to show that Illich’s understanding of the Christian faith (Cayley 407-408) by itself suggests a way of thinking the ethics of sexual difference as an infrapolitical, rather than as an ethical or political task. Such would be, in my view, the gift of Gender. 

Illich refused to identify himself as a theologian because he was critical of theology’s institutional role. Yet as Cayley brilliantly demonstrates, a counter-institutional theology (or perhaps an a/theological position qua decision of faith) operated indirectly, yet continuously, throughout Illich’s intellectual journey, including Gender.3  While, as we have seen, Illich deliberately refrained there from offering an explanation/critique of patriarchy –a power imbalance under the assumption of gender –in The Rivers North of the Future he offered an account of domination in the Western (Christian) world which I suggest undermines patriarchal values as much as it condemns modern sexism. Here, the institutionalization of Christian faith through the historical Church not only displaced vernacular (that is, spontaneous, decentralized, gendered) ways of doing and speaking, but did so within the dynamics of a new kind of sin, a new kind of betrayal made possible by the Incarnation itself. Illich’s interpretation of sinfulness (an existential condition and, therefore, a call for faith) refers to a fundamental conflict between the Christian faith and the ethico-political realm. The Christian, Illich says, is called to be faithful not to the gods, or to the city’s rules, but to a face, a person, who could be anyone (The Rivers 93). If, before the Incarnation, “I was limited by the people into which I was born and the family in which I was raised. Now I can choose whom I will love and where I will love. And this deeply threatens the traditional basis for ethics, which was always an ethnos, a historically given “we” which precedes any pronunciation of the word “I”” (47). From this perspective, Illich’s regret about “the sad loss of gender” could not refer to gender as inscribed by ethnos –that is, to patriarchy –but rather to the embodied, finite –and therefore tragic –condition of freedom, or “sin.” The ultimate cause of womens’ oppression would not be vernacular gender as such, but a negation of that limited, divided condition via the criminalization of sin, which in historical terms is nothing but the patriarchal administration of faith or the Church. Yet rather than a merely empirical, mundane event, the demise of gender would be, for Illich, the revelation of the mysterium iniquitatis. Insofar as gender depends on ethnos, it is the Incarnation already marks the structural possibility, in that sense the necessity, of its demise. What the New Testament calls “sin”, Illich says in Rivers North of the Future, “is not a moral wrong but a turning away or a falling short” (53), in a way perhaps not unrelated to Heidegger’s realization, concerning metaphysics, that it is not us human subjects who forget being, but being itself that, qua time, forgets itself.4

Whether we call the institutional administration of sexual relations patriarchy, religion, ethics, Enlightenment, political economy, the human sciences, or feminism, for Illich it is sin “because sin is the decision to make faith into something that is subject to the power of this world” (57). For Illich marriage is the crucial historical development that installs economic sex in the heart of Western society: “The idea that households are founded by the free choice of one man and one woman marks a major epoch in the formation of the individual. It is the first attempt to give women the same status as men and to attribute to them the same legal and physiological capacities. Marriage is torn out of the family and community nexus in which it was formerly embedded and put into the hands of individuals. And this is the foundation of the idea that social entities come into existence by mutual contract.” (88) Alongside other modern emancipatory projects (or religions), liberal feminism would be an idolatrous faith, a false escape from the tragic condition of sinfulness. Against the reification of ethical “love,” or idolatry, Illich invokes the notion of “a gift beyond full understanding,” “a relationship which is free” (54). Like faith, sin is for Illich a condition, rather than a mere act of the will. To believe in sin is to affirm one’s limits through embodied love, necessarily an existential risk given the structural necessity of failure, which is also a call for contrition and forgiveness. Only faith is free because it is not subject to the power of this world, even if it can only be incarnated, embodied, “gendered” or, as many feminists would prefer to say, sexed. If we take Illich’s existential theology into account, as well as his explicit call not for an impossible recuperation of vernacular gender (“culture” and therefore patriarchy), but for a contemporary art of living, what we are left with is not a communitarian or onto-theological demand, but rather, it is an infrapolitical call. I now turn to reflect on whether this “gift of Gender,” as I have called it, pertains not just to feminism as one political option among others, but to infrapolitical reflection itself as an antiphilosophical call for freedom at the time of the consummation of metaphysics.

The Other Side of Perishing

Gigantic expenditures pile up, but there is a widespread sense of insufficiency, shortage, and cutback. The same paradox is expressed in the current battle against norms –of race, class, gender, sexual identity, or appearance –a battle that is inevitably conducted in highly normalizing environments, like schools, which have no natural basis and so can only exist on the basis of their rules. The result is what can only be called the norm of normlessness –a rule against rules that produces endless blind and fruitless conflict and perfectly summarizes our apocalyptic extremity. A chronic shortage of time makes it difficult to come into the present, though everything appears to be present and available on demand as never before. We have, in other words, reached a limit but without any sense that we have arrived or could ever arrive.

Cayley 404-405

I am listening to you rather as the revelation of a truth that has yet to manifest itself –yours and that of the world revealed through you and by you. (…) This is not a hostile or restrictive silence. It is openness that nothing and no one occupies, or preoccupies –no language, no world, no God.

Irigaray, I Love to You 117

In Infrapolitical Passages (2021) Gareth Williams thinks current globalization as a way of revealing that experiences itself as perishing. Existentially, perishing denotes a meaningless life, a life that clings fast to the same. Ontologically, it describes the structure of an aporia: a passage without passage, a limit without limit, an end without end. Globalization would be “a perpetual form of hollowing out and ending” in which “the world is coming to nothing, or there is nothing for the world to come to other than surplus value and destruction” (101). More specifically, a relentless tyranny of the market-state duopoly would destroy the very representability of Western political form. Williams points out that the latter, or hegemony, descends from the Christian metaphor of the katechon as featured in Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, in which it appears alongside the mysterium iniquitatis –itself an essential element of Illich’s main thesis in The Rivers North of The Future. The katechon, or the restrainer, is in Williams’s view a figure of onto-theology that allows for “temporalization, or Christian history, as the placeholder, the restraining force, in which anxiety is overcome by self-certainty (56). If classical politics has the form of “the containment of and safeguarding against despotism,” then the current despotism of the commodity form, in its decontained planetary technological mode, would endlessly explode the foundational metaphor of the polis or the agora. Quite literally it would transform human life into “a never-ending battle (via the fully integrated TV, mobile phone, computer, and tablet screen) for the measurement, extraction, and valorization of adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin –that is, for the increasingly shortened attention span and distracted awareness –of the species” (64). 

Williams’s interpretation (and departure from) Western political theology touches on the underlying thread of Illich’s intellectual journey, which concerns the meaning of Church history. Both think the current “age of systems” as apocalyptic, that is, as revelatory. While Williams approaches it ontologically as revelatory of being, or truth, in terms of value extraction, Illich approaches it in terms of the mysterium iniquitatis, as it reveals itself in Church history. The Church would begin as the katechon of the Gospel, “containing its power and shielding society from its effect. It announces the kingdom and at the same time defers its arrival (since that would mean the end of the Church as an institution)” (Cayley 392). In that sense, the current one would be “the most obviously Christian epoch, which might be close to the end of the world” (389). Unlike the vast majority of contemporary political thinkers, Williams refuses to argue for a new political (theological) solution; instead, he switches to an infrapolitical register, or a reflective form of bearing witness to perishing that, in his view, could only start with a Heideggerian turn to existence or being towards death. Similarly, after an initial effort at politically reforming Church-descended modern institutions –as in “deschooling society” –Illich gave up and set out to investigate, instead, the history of modern certainties that would be at the root of economic thinking. He did not theorize endless perishing in his last interview, and instead meditates on faith and prayer: the underlying thread of his lifelong investment in an ethics of conviviality. 

Would Illich’s faith “fit” in an infrapolitical register? Theoretically speaking, any talk of “faith” would seem hard to distinguish from onto-theology, or that which infrapolitical reflection seeks to destroy, and take a step back from. According to Williams, whether on the Left or on the Right the political struggle basically revolves around the same ontic, calculative relation to the Final Judgment (69). The infrapolitical register of thinking would strive to stay away from such political calculation, from “the facile theologisms of the will to power, its metaphysical attachments to historicism, hegemony, and the vacuous promises of a beyond to disillusionment grounded in the political will of the militant subject” (102). Is this the subject of Illich’s faith? Is it possible to listen to it otherwise? The question seems not unlike the one confronted the Berkeley feminists back in 1982, when they encountered Illich’s strange apology of “gender” for the first time. Unlike feminism, however, or any political program for that matter, infrapolitical reflection is “a practico-speculative space that is not regulated by even the slightest certainties, which are always ideological and which determine our relation with the everyday…” (Moreiras, Against Abstraction 185). A stable definition of infrapolitics would be less important than invoking “a reflexive process that would allow for a liberation of the ear, the eye, the touch, and that leaves space, or makes it possible to conceive an alternative site of thought” (186).5  With that in mind I propose to distinguish at least some aspect of Illich’s faith from belief, “self-certainty,” or politics. Given Illich’s thorough rejection of modern economic thinking, it would be difficult to reduce his Christian faith to “the modernist faith in the revamping of both biopolitics and the Hegelian dialectic in the name of salvation” (Williams 120). Such modernism would not be, for Illich, true faith, but rather an idolatrous faith, and therefore a betrayal of faith, in an sense that can be further clarified by no one less than Heidegger’s close interlocutor, theologian Rudolf Bultmann. 

If the dominant concept of Jesus’s message is eschatological, “new” would be the certainty with which it says: “Now the time is come! God’s Reign is breaking in! The end is here!”” (Bultmann 6). Yet the Christian interpretation of God’s demand simultaneously appears as a vehement protest against Jewish legalism. Instead of conforming with everyday obedience to law, religion, and morality, the Gospel introduces a subversive demand for “radical obedience” from each individual. Bultmann interprets the certainty of Jesus’s message as a call for individual decision and explains that a decision for the Christian God (salvation) over the worldly goods does not amount to asceticism but is rather “a simple readiness for God’s demand” (11).This interpretation –which asserts the unity of the eschatological and the ethical message of the Gospel –radical obedience entails becoming aware of a paradox, namely, that achieving freedom (or salvation) only comes from surrendering to the demand of another (15, 18). Bultmann writes: “Since the believer experiences the possibility of the faith-decision as grace, it is only as a gift of grace that he can understand his decision –his own decision! And because he knows that it is God who accomplishes his willing and doing –his concrete, historical existing in “faith” –he is conscious not of being relieved of responsibility for it but on the contrary of being made responsible for it” (329). Like Bultmann, Illich privileges the story of the Good Samaritan as told in Luke (10: 29-37), but what is important for both thinkers is the priority of faith as a decision of existence, or that which determines the relation of each with him- or herself.

Thrown into globalization’s turmoil and perplexity, infrapolitical thinking would call to step back from the exploitative automatisms of militancy and bear witness to how they feed a reactive persistence of humanism: “a relation of subordination to the persistent onto-theological order of the Idols (first God, then Man)” (Williams 46). Is Illich’s God, his “anarchist Christ,” an onto-theological construct and nothing more? There can be no certainty of that within an infrapolitical register, but if infrapolitics is a condition of possibility that could only be reached “through a certain labor of destruction” (Moreiras, Against Abstraction 190), Illich’s indictment of the power-driven institutionalization of faith, of Church-descended institutions and modern professions, could be read as in affinity with that destructive labor. Moreover, I would suggest that such a destruction is itself a labor of “faith” in the sense of an existential decision, not to be confused with intellectual, emotional, or political voluntarism. For Illich, as for existential theologians, what the Christian faith was not, is self-certainty. In fact, one of the signs of an apocalyptic world was, for him, “an invincible belief in one’s own goodwill, along with a dogmatic indifference to the source of this self-confidence” (Cayley 404). Faith belongs, instead, to the counter-apocalyptic current of Illich’s thinking, one that might have stronger affinities with infrapolitical reflection than with organized religion or political subjectivism. In fact, his apocalyptic history of the Church can be seen as coextensive to theology without being theological per se, while his distance from both religion and politics can be seen as “an inventive non-conformity” to the politico-theological itself. Faith would perform here as something analogous to infrapolitical posthegemony, which is, according to Williams, an only ever democratizing critique of democracy (102). Finally, is that not the sense of faith that Heidegger failed to safeguard from politics?6 In the light of “grace,” the Samaritan could be re-written as the infrapolitical partisan: a heteronomous instance in every political positioning, a commitment to something non-political that negates the autonomy of the political realm: its absolute limit.

In his reading of Illich’s beloved poet, Paul Celan, Derrida observed in passing that testimony is a condition of Heidegger’s existential analytic, for “Dasein must be able to testify about itself” (2005, 80).Nevertheless, Heidegger excluded faith and belief –as later technics –from an authentic register of thinking. For Derrida, however, there is no thinking without witnessing, which is ultimately “a matter of death, if death is what one cannot witness for the other, and above all because one cannot witness it for oneself” (“Poetics and Politics” 91). If he distinguishes the value of testimony from “the value of certitude, of warrant, even of knowing as such” (68), that is because witnessing is for him neither a logical nor an empirical question but, at bottom, an ethical situation involving a prohibition and a drive. The force or the virtue of a poem signal that “bearing witness is not through and through and necessarily discursive. It is sometimes silent. It has to engage something of the body, which has no right to speak” (77). If both Irigaray and Illich wrote in the name of the body as a condition of thinking and freedom but, were they then advocating for the body’s “right to speak”? At any rate, even as Irigaray attempted to establish an ethical ground for politics conceived as sex-specific civil rights, what she arrived to was “absolute silence”: “an openness that nothing and no one occupies, or preoccupies –no language, no world, no God” (I Love to You 117). In turn, Illich arrived to a “mutual mutedness of gender domains” (Gender 130 fn89), with the consequence that “a vernacular language as such can never be heard” (134, fn94). Whatever the prohibition and the drive that animated such statements, silence remains a question for both, as it does for infrapolitical reflection. Anyone can remain silent before a world they have not yet learned to speak, and they can also turn silence into a space for celebration, a communion that “must remain nameless or use only provisional and temporary names” (Cayley 416), especially in prayer, which is connected to death, as both its rehearsal and its premonition. 

Illich understood the Gospel, Cayley insists, as an invitation to live in freedom and spontaneity, rather than to invest in planning, law, bureaucracy, or pastoral edification. In tension with his own apocalyptic understanding of Church history, he practiced faith as a sensibility for which “heaven is here and the kingdom is now, if only in an evanescent and momentary way” (406). This is, continues Cayley, the Jesus that Paul never wrote about, the Jesus that was not a redeemer, but a friend: “What can only exist as a surprise, as unwarranted and unexpected gift, cannot at the same time be said to be necessary in order to settle the cosmic score with an aggrieved God” (409). Thus, Illich’s outlook might have been nostalgic, melancholic or tragic in the sense that it recognized absolute limits, beyond which sin –a loss of freedom –waited to unfold, yet with a feminist thinker like Irigaray he still shared a faith in the possibility of turning limits into abundance and life. In turn, Illich’s Gender inspires an infrapolitical re-reading of Irigaray’s ethics as, in which the latter gives way not to a heteronormative representation of humanity but to an existential task. It is only because sexual difference is not a substance that Irigaray could regard it as a task that becomes “…all the more inescapable when it lacks the horizon of the divine, of the gods, of an opening onto a beyond, but also a limit that the other may or may not penetrate” (I Love to You 17). Over any question of God, the task creates, through its very openness or temporality, a space for singular desire, which amounts to the possibility, for each woman, of “being faithful to a process of the divine which passes through her” (An Ethics of Sexual Difference 118). Even if a space for each woman’s singular desire is not Illich’s explicit focus in Gender, from that point of view his book makes sense more as the shriek of a Nietzschean mad man than as the pamphlet of a reactionary priest. Irigaray helps to appreciate this point when she indicts the liberal feminist demand for equality as unfaithful to the positive existential task “of incarnating our happiness as living women and men” (I Love to You 15). Any such incarnation would be premised for both thinkers on an encounter with absolute difference, something forever beyond the powers of this world, including representation or speech. A free encounter, which is for Illich the gift of faith, also opens the possibility of bearing witness to the other side of perishing: the passing through of the divine.

Epilogue: Is That All There Is? 

Hell is no longer in the beyond: it is here and now. It has the gift of ubiquity and a renewable temporality. It is plural and diversified as if human History did not exist without it. Some promote hell more than others, and some live it more than others. But there are organized forces, especially of women, who are attentive to its development. 

Ivone Gebara 40

…having dared to walk this path, full of shadows, lights, and voices, has taken me to feel, as my queq’chi Mayan grandmother, that each one of us is born with her own cha’ím, her own mission, her own star in the path of life. To write, for me, is to remember them, and it is an acknowledgement too, of the indigenous ancestors who died thinking that the world is like that, that we women were born to suffer…

Lorena Cabnal 24

By the time Illich published Gender he was already engaged in a project riskier than his early political pamphleteering, a project that he understood as historical rather than political. As I suggest above, there is an ethical call in that project that Irigaray’s ethics of sexual difference helps to illuminate. “Ethics,” however, can only become concrete within a particular culture’s morality, which is in turn a source of self-certainty and therefore the problem with “vernacular gender,” as evinced by popular confusions of Illich’s position with a kind of liberation theology or decolonial subalternism. To read Illich as thinker of infrapolitics requires taking distance from interpretations immersed in political and ethical calculations, in a conception of the world as a subjective project, and in a denial of tragedy or structural forgetfulness: the ultimate driving force of our modern suicidal legacy, but it also requires, as we learn from Irigaray, a new thinking of life and the body, which could be inseparable from “faith”. I have suggested that Illich’s existential conception of faith admits an infrapolitical reading, and not just a political reading as it has been more frequent to find among Illich’s followers.7 But what, then, about feminism in perishing? Should not a distinction be drawn between feminist politics and feminist thinking, between feminist theory and an infrapolitical/sexuated decision of existence? 

Thinker of infrapolitics Alberto Moreiras suggests that we translate the 1960s mantra that “the personal is the political” as “let infrapolitics be.” If the former expression was first invoked as a challenge within and among social movements to recognize the limits of their own vision as to what constituted the political, it also came to be associated with individuals or groups who began “to take things personally” and engage in destructive power relationships. As Renee Heberle sums it up, “the personal became political as radical egalitarianism devolved into conflicts over prerogative and visibility,” which is to say into “sex wars,” “race wars,” “culture wars,” and so on (596-597). The phrase came to operate as a constative utterance, rather than as a way of calling for a demotic process. To let infrapolitics be would be to recuperate the performative force of language, which belongs to the things themselves, time, or what happens. Illich’s basic argument is no longer unpopular that beneath the modern political war between women and historical forms of male dominance there lies an epistemic war between the realm of subsistence and the economic realm. The political history of globalization, in the half-century that has passed since Illich published Gender, attests to the thorough complicity of liberal humanist narratives, including those of feminism, with the current decontainment of general equivalence. It is now more evident that the true challenge of the women’s movement was to win the capitalist war on subsistence.

It was only a decade ago that one of the women that met Illich and pioneered women’s studies at CIDOC, Sylvia Marcos (2012), published a short, but precise commentary on Gender, in the 30th anniversary of its publication. She stresses that there is nothing in Gender that installs itself within an existing institutional discourse on men and women (feminist academia). In her view, the book “escapes” the present, travels through history and “comes back to us as an inspirational echo of convivial forms that are indifferent to modernity’s demands”. Marcos goes on to praise, not the person f Ivan Illich, but the space of CIDOC, as the first venue for a seminar on women in Mexico. The value of Illich’s view on gender resides, for her, on its accommodation of diversity, which is especially relevant for indigenous women, in so far as these remain outside of a regime of economic “sex”. Marcos argues that the most valuable aspect of Ivan Illich’s legacy is how it helps to understand and support the priorities and the particularities of most women and indigenous women: “It could even ground another possible feminist theory,” based on the concept of asymmetric and ambiguous complementarity.” She agrees with Illich that we moderns (including feminists) have lost the sense of gender as the organization of time and space, and that feminists “colonize the past” when they apply the criteria of economic sex. In turn, she agrees with Zapatista Mayor Ana María that women and men “are equal because they are different.” More recently, Marcos attributes to Zapatista women an “immersion” in “ancestral Mesoamerican philosophies” (“Un Bosque de Mujeres” 177) where something like Illich’s vernacular gender would be indeed found, making their separatist claims something essentially different from feminist separatism: “For Zapatismo, the women-only is for certain times and certain spaces of vernacular gender” (184). But is this change in political common sense what Illich had in mind when he speculated about a fleshed-out philosophy of gender? Was feminism ever reducible to a politics of knowledge, or to knowledge as political representation, which often imposes state-mediated meanings to social change, among them images of indigenous women, for example, as the bearers of authentic culture and responsible for its preservation (Aguilar 39)? How else could feminism think once the truth has been revealed and there is nothing for the world to come to, other than surplus value and destruction? 

As globalization is branded, via the recognition of ecological catastrophe and the threat of (literal) extinction, as “the Anthropocene,” one would expect that perishing finally gives way to an inception in thinking. In this vein, philosopher Claire Colebrook describes the Anthopocene situation as one in which the modern indifference to kinds or essences “is giving way to [other] differences and distinctions that force themselves upon us” (“We Have Always Been Post-Anthropocene” 3). Differences of scale now force us to recognize that “the personal is geological,” and therefore, what we are witnessing is nothing else than the hollowing out of feminist politics as we know it. In the Anthropocene, theoretical debates over sex and gender, which had evolved to the point of reducing sex to gender (that is, to an effect of language), once again confront the resistance and recalcitrance of matter: Colebrook’s own take on this problem is built as a counter-factual challenge to the narrative that repositions (masculine subjectivist) humanity as the agent of history. Her challenge is critical, but at the same time strives to think something else, from somewhere else –echoing Illich’s own efforts in Gender. What she strives to think, however, is not “another person,” a sexual other, and much less is it a hope for salvation; instead, it is life’s inherent tendency to indifference, including indifference to human persons as we (think we) know them, through sexual difference. 

Colebrook conceptualizes sexual indifference as “the thought of production and ‘life’ that does not take the form of the bounded organism reproducing itself through relation to its complementing other” (“Sexual Indifference” 167). She creates the concept by staging a dialogue between the contemporary life sciences and queer feminist literary theory, in which the biological contingency of sexual reproduction, and the possibility of its literal extinction as part of the broader evolution of life (including climate chaos), comes to work as a provocation to think beyond the humanist imaginary of sexual difference. Besides showing how the gendered image of a “redemptive unity-in-otherness,” the fantasy of Woman (167) and (political) “love” (175) reactively permeates most politico-philosophical commentaries on global collapse, Colebrook distinguishes at least two senses of “sexual indifference” as an alternative possibility of thought. One sense refers to bearing witness, rather than occluding, to those “forces of life, mutation, generation and exchange without any sense of ongoing identity or temporal synthesis”, which “have always been warded off as evil and unthinkable, usually associated with a monstrous inhumanity” (171). Another sense of sexual indifference refers, in fact, to what Colebrook positions as “bad sexual difference,” or a re-thinking of sexual difference from within the aporia of life, as a difference beyond the bounded organism and kinds (179). Sexual indifference would be, for once, an indifference to “good sexual difference”: the heteronormative imaginary that in Colebrook’s view, underpins the suicidal logic of the so-called Anthropocene. 

From this perspective, Illich and Irigaray would both seem remain too close to “good sexual difference”. And yet, the embodied logic of “faith” that makes of sexual difference a task of freedom rather than a fact of life opens the door, like the Good Samaritan, to the Other that is my death, and perhaps the extinction of “us” as well. Both Irigaray’s ethics and Colebrook’s thought experiment are ironic in comparison with Illich’s attempt to historically locate the demise of gender. When did we become “Anthropocene humans?” she asks, “With the invention of the steam engine, with nuclear energy, or perhaps earlier, with the forms of the sedentary polity that generated the ideas behind this technology?” (11) Ecological catastrophe might have not happened if life had not generated sexual difference and if sexual difference had not been given a gendered meaning that is inseparable from the civilizational processes that caused the Anthropocene, namely: the family, the state, imperialism, slavery, and mass production. In Illich’s language, ecological catastrophe might have not happened if the gift of freedom had not been made subject to the powers of this world in order to hide the time, the secret of death. But unlike Illich, Colebrook does not regret the loss of a stable nature that was disturbed by humans, and instead emphasizes that a stable nature, if it ever existed, would be indissociable from a specific history of metaphysics, gender, and violence. Then again, because she shares Illich’s tragic, apocalyptic understanding of Western history (now “the Anthropocene”) her own thought experiment comes to confront feminism with its inconvenient truth: had a nonglobal, nonindustrial, non-technoscientific “vernacular” world been preserved, feminism would not exist. As Illich well knew, women could only start to demand equality when in a certain portion of the world industrial capitalism “extended the leisure time once reserved for the very few” (15). Is it now the time for liberated women to attain development and care for the rest of the world? Or is it now the time for sexual indifference?

Colebrook thinks sexual indifference as a destruction “of the disjunction between either a closed (fully differentiated) world whose intrinsic sense, difference, and life we need to respect or a void that is differentiated or qualified by reason” (“We Have Always Been” 4). Politically, this can be regarded as a post-feminist position because it calls into question the legitimacy of any gendering (or institutionalization) of sexual difference. Attuned to life’s own tendency to indifference, sexual indifference would reject Man’s resuscitation of Woman, via ecofeminism, as the Church image and fantasy that “she and she alone can offer a proper, connected, natural, and attuned relation to the earth” (19). Yet something of sexual indifference also resonates with infrapolitics, and that might be the refusal to make the world different and better, to valorize different forms of utopian humanity, outside capital, outside history, supposedly “beyond” humanism. The thought of sexual indifference stages a pushing of the limits of the political, as well as creating a line of flight, in a way that might appear foolish to common sense, towards life’s inherent freedom from the human, but which is nevertheless a way of confronting the modern humanist indifference to the histories of sacrifice that the Anthropocene narrative of a unified, homogeneous humanity attempts to occlude. Neither “gender” nor “sex,” to use Illich’s terms, it is a thought, or perhaps a faith, in “an ‘essentially’ rogue or anarchic conception of life that is destructive of boundaries, distinctions, and identifications” (4).  In this vein, a feminist counter-apocalypse (Zylinska) would remember Illich as one who challenged the idea that suffering and death exist to be cared for, administered, monitored, and redeemed by a Motherly (Church). From the highlands of Guatemala to North American gyms, at least some women thinkers are refusing to comply with the expectation that their sex will save the world. Perhaps, in this sense, Illich’s “anarchist Christ” could be today silently re-written as “let sexual indifference be”, especially if we think of embodiment, or Incarnation, as a gift: the impossible, “faith,” or freedom.


  1. I want to thank Marta Lamas, Joanna Zylinska, and Ilya Semo Bechet for their friendly reading of the first draft of this paper, their questions and bibliographic/editing suggestions over the past year, which greatly helped me to revise in response to the two anonymous reviews of this paper. ↩︎
  2. Gloria Bowles, one of Illich’s critics at Berkeley, wrote about the latter’s “concern” for the women around Illich whom they felt were in a token position, “being used as the necessary female apologists for Illich’s ideas” (4). It is not clear why such women did not participate in the symposium organized to respond to Illich’s views on gender, nor as authors in the event’s memoir in Feminist Issues↩︎
  3. As Cayley observes, Illich’s position was not unique in his time, and can be further clarified through reading and comparison with the work of existential theologians such as the Lutheran Paul Tillich, whose exposition of the “dynamics of faith” I find, indeed, particularly helpful to apprehend Illich’s “anarchist Christ”. Tillich writes about the moral types of faith: “The question of faith is not Moses or Jesus or Mohammed; the question is: Who expresses most adequately one’s ultimate concern? The conflict between religions is not a conflict between forms of belief, but it is a conflict between expressions of our ultimate concern. The question is whether the manifestation of the divine in the juristic realm is its ultimate manifestation. All decisions of faith are existential, not theoretical, decisions.” (Tillich 76). ↩︎
  4. Andreas Grossman’s analysis of Heidegger’s place in existential theology, from Edith Stein to Paul Tillich, includes Jacques Maritain, one of Illich’s mentors, who figures there more as a political than as an existential theologian. In the end, Illich seems to have more in common with the dialogical ethics of Martin Buber, Emmanuel Lévinas and Gabriel Marcel, as well as the already mentioned Lutheran Paul Tillich, than with the Roman-Catholic politics of Maritain. For example, the idea that freedom should be thought otherwise than as subjectivism or Kantian autonomy, as an originary/mysterious relationality that is creative or calling of an existential leap of faithis indispensable for Illich –and present, as we have seen, in Gender –but also prefigures some critical strands of contemporary feminist thinking, which rethink both relationality and technics in terms of (creative/undetermined) originary technicity (e.g. Zylinska). I find Grossman’s argument persuasive that existential theology remains key to any current infrapolitical turn informed by Heidegger, in so far as Heidegger not only developed his thinking at the intersection of philosophy and theology –the epistles of St. Paul providing the paradigm for the elucidation of facticity –but also stated that (his own) radical antithesis between philosophy and theology yielded, nevertheless, the possibility of “something like a community of sciences” (Grossman 188). ↩︎
  5. While the first explicit thematizations of infrapolitics appeared on 2006-2007 in the work of Alberto Moreiras, the critical dimension of that thinking developed earlier as a fiercely theoretical position on subalternity within US-based Latin Americanist humanities. Debates took place between “those who saw in testimonio a salvation, almost the proof that the subaltern can speak, and those who saw (…) a flawed affirmation giving way to an implicit restitution’ of literary criticism as an academic discipline” (Gugelberger 6). From the perspective of Spivak’s conception of the subaltern, at stake in the Latin Americanist debates around testimonial narrative were the shifting material and geopolitical conditions of university knowledge production and the ethical and political blind spots of regional intellectuals, or epistemic violence. What remains significant today from such early debates is the non-transparency of any visibility to ourselves as witnesses, and the need for a non-subjectivist understanding of witnessing that might be not incompatible with Illich’s understanding of faith. ↩︎
  6. As Alberto Moreiras notes, Heidegger’s problem was the hypostasis, the appropriation or repetition of a cultural legacy as the instrument of a new politics –what the theologians would call an idolatrous faith. As an alternative to such a metaphysical relapse, he finds in María Zambrano a search for democracy, a thinking of forgetfulness that amounts to an abyssal relation with the divine (Infrapolítica 25). That is also a thinking of deslegación, a renunciation to the legacy as that which keeps idols in place. If, as Heidegger argued, onto-theology is founded on the Roman-Catholic notion of sovereign presence, and democracy becomes onto-theological wherever it becomes sacrificial, Illich’s counter-institutional (and counter-apocalyptic, as Cayley insists) understanding of “faith” might constitute, alongside Zambrano’s thinking of deslegación, among others, an infrapolitical antidote to the hypostasis of the legacy: an idolatrous faith. ↩︎
  7. Gustavo Esteva (2019), for instance, vehemently rejects any reading of Illich as an intellectual, and therefore as a theologian. In Esteva’s moral-political view, Illich should be remembered as a good man, who renounced his whiteness, his European privilege, so as to treat others –and very specifically, the peasant and indigenous cultures of Mexico –as equals. This is a major instance of the political/decolonial reading of Illich, which I claim is not the only possible one. If decolonial politics was the only possible implication of Illich’s Gender, for example, it would be indeed impossible to distinguish Illich’s thoughts from an apology of patriarchy, as the Berkeley feminists thought. My own argument regarding Illich’s Gender goes more along the lines of Brett Levinson’s argument (1996) regarding neo-patriarchy in Rigoberta Menchú’s testimonio, in which the secret of indigenous survival is the death of the ancestors, which is indigeneity itself. Thus gender, in Illich’s sense, is itself a metaphor, a secret, a “mystery”, which might be no other than death, in the sense of the mysterium iniquitatis. ↩︎

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