A time for the vernacular

Rediscovering the home economy inside our COVID-19 quarantines

Apr 27, 2020 by

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My wife cut my hair this weekend. In recent years, I had become accustomed to the pleasures and precisions of professional haircuts.

The home hairdo was a bit nerve-wracking for both of us. When your hairdresser says, “Well, there’s always hats. You like wearing hats,” you do not feel the same boost in your confidence and sense of your own handsomeness as when you walk out of a professional barber shop.

But it was fine. I looked in the mirror and did feel handsome. And loved and taken care of in a way I don’t get from the barber. That’s the difference between a professional haircut and what the late Croatian-Austrian Catholic priest and philosopher Ivan Illich would call a vernacular haircut.

My wife has been rendered unemployed by the COVID-19 crisis, and my own work hours have shrunk to about five hours a week. Many others are suddenly in similar situations.

But our un- or under-employment does not mean we are doing nothing. It does not mean we have no economy. Many of us are rediscovering the skills and joys of a home economy.

I have a friend who is taking up beading again. Another is playing her violin for the first time in five years. Another started a YouTube channel and has taken up baking bread for his family. Prairie Flour Mill at Elie, Man., is suddenly milling around the clock trying to keep up with the demand for flour as thousands of home bakers have suddenly rediscovered this vocation.

Rethinking ‘normal’

According to Illich, the vernacular used to refer not only to home-spoken dialects but to the economy of the homemade, the homespun and the homegrown. A vernacular cow was an animal born on your farm, as opposed to one purchased at the market.

Illich reclaimed this term to refer to activities “not motivated by thoughts of exchange . . . autonomous, non-market-related actions through which people satisfy everyday needs — the actions which by their nature escape bureaucratic control . . . [and] that we want to defend from measurement or manipulation.”

I do not want to make light of the terrific economic pain a predicted 30 percent unemployment rate will cause in Canada, and the even greater pain it will cause in the world’s first rich failed state on our southern border, where the social safety net is weak, polarization and inequality are extreme and private gun arsenals are vast.

But I also don’t want to miss out on a rediscovery of the pleasures of a slower, more home-based economy that is underway on a massive scale.

A restauranteur friend tells me that despite COVID-19’s terrible impact on her business, she is hoping we actually don’t return to normal as we knew it. She is reading about signs all across the world of animals and birds coming back, of ecosystems healing as the pollution and noise of economic activity abates. She is experiencing a badly needed rest and rediscovering parts of herself coming back out into the open like shy woodland creatures banished by the noise and bustle of her business.

Another friend is suddenly much happier in his marriage. How much was the pain and alienation he had been locating between himself and his wife really just collateral damage of the double income young suburban family structure that has become the normal formula in hyper-capitalist late modernity? When every morning is a frantic race to get everyone out the door, who can hold a space in which family can come home to one another?

I wonder whether some part of the drop in business in family therapy is not fear of a coronavirus infection but the fact that just being in each other’s presence with few outside pressures is the healing balm many couples and families have been aching for.

Why do it yourself?

The last century has seen the professionalization and monetization of many tasks that used to be exchanged in the informal economy of human community. Decade by decade, we capitulated to the logic that it does not make sense to bake your own bread, grow your own garden, educate your own children, carry your own teachings, perform your own ceremonies or do your own healing work if you can specialize in one of these areas as a professional and get paid a rate that is worth more per hour than your time would be worth if you did any of those things for your loved ones. You can buy all that stuff with fewer hours of your time.

You could. And now perhaps you can’t. What are you discovering about the trade-off? Illich once calculated that for all the extra time and labor it took to pay for a car and the infrastructure of a car-based society, we weren’t actually getting anywhere more efficiently than if we walked or rode bicycles.

One more consideration. As it was in the 1970s, the option of the stay-at-home economy is the luxury of a certain class. One of the greatest evils Illich documented about our present age is that it has destroyed the world in which it was possible to live without money. This is perhaps the greatest injustice our present society has done to the poor.

The poor among us are those who have lost access to both the economy of “good jobs” and to the intact land base and the human communities in which the pleasures of the vernacular economy can be found. If you are finding a new satisfaction in your days at home in this strange time, do not forget about them.

Marcus Peter Rempel is a farmer, author and speaker who lives at Ploughshares Community Farm in South St. Ouen’s, Man., and the author of Life at the End of Us Versus Them. He cohosts The Ferment podcast and blogs at Brokenheaded Sojourn, where a longer version of this post first appeared.


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