Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Quality, Zen and Motorbikes - Do you get it?

Having recently finished Zen And The Art of motorcycle Mechanics, by  Robert M. Pirsig, I was inspired to write this post.  I wish I’d read it years ago, well actually I tried and didn't get it at the time.  I’m not going to spoil the plot or the discourse contained within. Suffice to say this is not a conventional book. It's philosophy pinned around a fictional framework. 

The antagonist of the story, Phaedrus, is highly subversive, a radical in the true sense of the word.  In fact I'm going to elaborate here because I feel that term has been tainted over the past decade-and-a-half. Radicalism Western history were movements that sought to subvert the political paradigm of that period, in an attempt to kickstart social/political reform. The radical movement that flourished in Britain during the late 1700’s is a classic exemplar (other radicals would include the Leveller movement of the mid 1600's and the Diggers). Essentially the organisation of folks, mainly from the so-called lower orders, who mobilised to fight for things such as the right to vote, better working/living conditions, education for the people etc. Radical movements in this sense include the Suffragettes, the Anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: those seeking a fairer social and political climate through means other than signing online petitions. Even the student protests that flared across the globe in the late 1960s were ‘radical'. 

So the word’s been demonised by the media's fixation with Radicalised Muslims and with terrorism etc - but these are movements to whom the notion of liberty is far removed. Although the term radical may be  interpreted as the instigation of ‘fundamental’ change to a political situation or governance, I believe, if we apply common sense, we can see that the student movements of the 60’s and the machinations of IS are ‘fundamentally' opposed. There is nothing radical in IS. So with that in mind when I say Pirsigs’ book contains a radical idea please don’t get me wrong. 


As I've said I’m not going to spoil the book for you. What I wish to discuss here  is a  key element that flows through the story. This being the concept of Quality which is expounded as  something unquantifiable yet concrete. It exists, though we can’t measure it. In ways this ties into the Taoist conception of Zen (however Phaedrus elaborates the details much more eloquently than I). 

The reason this concept struck me, and why I’m writing so fervently about it in this blog, is that it’s so relevant to what I do. It is relevant to all of us. Now, here’s the tricky part, Quality in Pirsig’s opinion is something that permeates everything, but it is something many of us are steadily losing awareness of. He explains it thus:

Quality, or its absence doesn’t reside in either the subject or the object… at the moment of pure quality there is no subject and there is no object... At the moment of pure quality subject and object are identical… it is this identity that is the basis of craftsmanship in all the technical arts. And it is this identity that modern, dualistically conceived technology lacks. The creator feels no particular sense of identity with it. The owner feels no particular sense of identity with it. The user of it feels no particular sense of identity with it. Hence, by Phaedrus’ definition it has not Quality.

The book seeks to help the reader realise that the technically minded person and the artistic minded should not be at odds with each other. They are products of  dualism, or as the book's narrator terms it Classic or Romantic modes of thought. I’m the latter  - I’m totally unpractical, an artist baffled by mechanics and technical things. But I really got the book, and again the reason I’m dropping chucks of quotation in this post is because I’m hoping you’ll get it too! It is the idea  that craftsmanship is a tool for the manifestation  of Quality into the world. The following quote, though written nearly fifty years ago, is even more relevant in contemporary Western culture when wholesale, unadulterated consumerism is stripping away this sense of Quality. Again let’s try to expound this concept here:


Such personal transcendence of conflicts with technology doesn’t have to involve motorcycles. Of course, it can be at a level as simple as sharpening a kitchen knife or sewing a dress or mending a broken chair. In each case there’s a beautiful way of doing it and and ugly way of doing it, and in arriving at the high quality, beautiful way of doing it,  both an ability of being able to see what ‘looks good’ and an ability to understand the underlying methods to arrive at that ‘good’ are needed. Both classic and romantic  understandings of Quality must be combined. 

The nature of our culture is such that if you were to look for instruction on how to do any of these jobs, the instruction would always give only one understanding of Quality, the classic. It would tell you how to hold the blade while sharpening the knife, or how to use a sewing machine, or how to mix and apply glue with the presumption that once these underlying methods were applied, ‘good’ would naturally follow. The ability to see directly what ‘looks good’ would be ignored. 

The result is rather typical of modern technology, an overall dullness of appearance so depressing that it must be overlaid with a veneer of ’style' to make it acceptable. And that, to anyone who is sensitive to romantic Quality, just makes it all the worse. Now it’s not just depressingly dull, it’s also phoney.  Stylised cars and stylised outboard motors and stylised typewriters and stylised clothes. Stylised refrigerators filled with stylised food in stylised kitchens in stylised homes. Plastic stylised toys for stylised children, who at Christmas and birthdays are in style with their stylish parents… it’s the style that gets you; technological ugliness syruped over with romantic phoniness in an effort to produce beauty and profit by people who, though stylish, don’t know where to start because no one’s ever told them there’s such a thing as Quality in this world and it’s real, not style. Quality isn’t something you lay on top of subjects and objects like tinsel on a christmas tree. Real Quality must be the source of the subjects and objects, the cone from which the tree must start. 

That makes the hairs on the back of my neck rise. It's so true. It's the way we should approach everything.  Of course being a craftsperson it's doubly pertinent but it can be applied to many layer of our lives.  Anyway, I hope in reading this you ‘get it’ too, because this notion of Quality affects us all. 









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