Poster for Ivan Illich's lecture

Ivan Illich was a theologian, philosopher, historian, and sociologist. Forced to leave Austria during the Second World War because of his mother’s Jewish ancestry, his family moved to Italy, where he completed school and earned a PhD in history from the University of Salzburg. His books, including Deschooling Society and Medical Nemesis, critiqued modern medical and educational practice. His later works critiqued technocratic society and argued for the return of practical knowledge to the domain the average citizen. Before he became a critic of industrialized society, he was a Catholic priest in a Puerto Rican community in New York. He died in 2002.

Illich’s lecture was a part of the series “1984: George Orwell’s and Ours,” which focused especially on the responsibility of the individual in society. In his remarks, he addressed Orwell’s attempt to caricature what happens when ordinary language is treated by speakers as if it could be reduced to a code, something like what we know of now as a computer language (though Orwell’s allegory pre-dated computers). In the 1980s, language was full of words that, once appropriated by scientists, had now re-entered everyday language, becoming emphatic words with little meaning. For instance, the use of the word “energy” in the sense of energy crises, energy conservation, and alternative energy, had little relation to its original or scientific meanings: it had become almost a nonsense word. The spread of such nonsense words through language, Illich said, was a phenomenon he called uniquack. Illich distinguished uniquack from Newspeak since Newspeak is an attitude toward language, not a description of a feature of language. Illich concluded by suggesting that Newspeak and uniquack were together essential for understanding modern language, including the new attitudes of speakers toward language, which they conceive as a code, and the pollution of language by “nonsense words.”

Illich’s lecture was held on February 29, 1984. Listen to it below.

Ivan Illich delivers his Dunning Trust lecture.