27 September 2006

Notions of Quality (1)

One day it came into his mind to make a staff. Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life. He proceeded instantly to the forest for wood, being resolved that it should not be made of unsuitable material; and as he searched for and rejected stick after stick, his friends gradually deserted him, for they grew old in their works and died, but he grew not older by a moment. His singleness of purpose and resolution, and his elevated piety, endowed him, without his knowledge, with perennial youth.
"Conclusion," Walden, Henry David Thoreau

[Saladin] unsheathed his scimitar, a curved and narrow blade, which glittered not like the swords of the Franks, but was, on the contrary, of a dull blue colour, marked with ten millions of meandering lines, which showed how anxiously the metal had been welded by the armourer. Wielding this weapon, apparently so inefficient when compared to that of Richard, [...] he undid the sort of veil which he had hitherto worn, laid it double along the edge of his [scimitar], extended the weapon edgeways in the air, and drawing it suddenly through the veil, although it hung on the blade entirely loose, severed that also into two parts, which floated to different sides of the tent, equally displaying the extreme temper and sharpness of the weapon, and the exquisite dexterity of him who used it.
The Talisman, Sir Walter Scott, XXIII
In addition to varieties of efficiency, there are varied notions of what is meant by "quality." In Robert Pirsig's book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, quality is a major theme of the book, which purports to be an inquiry into values. It's been about 25 years since I read the book, and I was only a teenager at the time, so my recollection is imperfect.

For those of you unfamiliar with the book, it's actually not about either Zen or motorcycle maintenance, although Pirsig alludes to both often. Instead, it's a mixture of narrative journalism, introductory classical philosophy, and curmudgeonly rant on the spiritual shortcomings of industrial society.

Part of the book is addressed to a "metaphysics of quality," which he resisted defining. However, it is clear he is talking about "quality" in the sense of "excellence" or "meritorious." Quality is not so much an attribute or a degree of fulfillment, as it is the epitome of being. There is a continuum of aesthetic fulfillment, which runs from "dynamic reality" to "static patterns of quality"; this is an interesting blend of Platonic and Buddhist notions of ontology. "Static patterns of quality" corresponds roughly to Plato's forms; "dynamic reality" corresponds to observed & contingent reality, as, for example, what I am feeling at this time and in this place, given my state of health and mental activity.

Yet Pirsig's mental state and emotional reactions to the wilderness of mediocrity he perceives in post-industrial America is not at all recondite; he seems, if anything, to have been alienated and mortified by his world view, since the natural human desire to budget time in individual ways strikes him as monstrous. For example, it's natural for someone to perform a task he dislikes, or which is repetitive and unfulfilling, as quickly as he can. I don't like pulling dandelions out of my backyard, and I do it as quickly as I can. To an ordinary person, this is understandable; one wants to get the emotionally unrewarding, uninteresting tasks out of the way so that one can go do something exciting and fulfilling. It's not really a bad thing that humans want to hasten though the business of yardwork and housecleaning so that they can then spend more time flirting and making love, or perhaps even reading philosophy. Pirsig, after his years of brilliant intellectual accomplishment, is distinguished for being disgusted by this.

(Let me clarify: it's natural to resent paying for slipshod service or poorly-made items. But what's aggravating about this is being forced to deal with monopolies whose proprietors clearly understand that there's nothing one can do about it.)

In most respects, Pirsig's critique of contemporary life is that of all curmudgeons in all times; it's incompatible with his notion of quality, which (understandably and perhaps rightly) owes more to the atelier traditions of European applied arts, than to a revived Platonic ontology. One gets the impression he perceives quality--in this sense--to represent the virtue of, and perhaps ultimately, the moral worthiness of, the civilization that created it. A form of quality that he happens to have particular interest is that of machinery, such as motorcycles. He's irritated that people have a hostile attitude toward the technology that maintains them in their material well-being, but he has his own suspicion that excessive ease of use has led to a slipshod aspect to modern life. Hence, the connection between quality and technology: excessive mechanic abstraction from the material world (that is characterized by technique or quality) leads to a life of alienation from material accomplishment (which is what "quality" means, though Pirsig avoids saying this), which leads to the perverse combination of technical potential and disregard for quality we know as "schlock."

It seems to me that, despite the metaphysical component that never quite makes it into the text of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig's notion of quality is actually very intimately familiar to the Western mind. He mentions various attributes of quality when applied to things like a text, but beyond all these and unifying them is a motivation that pursues perfection. He describes his book an inquiry into values, with a rare precision in the choice of that word: values, or ranking of motivations. Enlightment, in this sense, would mean a relentless pursuit of excellence approaching the infinite and the everlasting.

(Part 2)

Narrative Journalism: a genre of books and essays in which the author uses a narrative format to present a body of information. The most famous example is Soul of a New Machine, by Tracy Kidder; John McPhee is another very famous (and very good) author in this genre. Unfortunately, it was adopted by nearly all journalistic outlets everywhere, who often tinted ordinary journalism with it; and naturally much of it lacks the sensitivity or interest of the masters, while lacking the usefulness or conciseness of ordinary journalism.

"Metaphysics of Quality": I am not an expert on this concept, but a group of Pirsig's fans posted this excellent essay by Matt Kundert explaining the probable motives and interpretation of Pirsig's combination of Classical (i.e., Platonic & Aristotelian) philosophy.
Etymologically it means “after physics” or “beyond physics.” What has come to be known as the discipline of metaphysics has more to do with getting “beyond physics,” rather than resting simply as a descriptor for the sequence of Aristotle’s books. Traditionally, metaphysics has named the enterprise in which we attempt to go “beyond” physics (which gets at all the apparent reality we deal with on a day to day basis) to the underlying reality that really structures the world as we know it.


Quality is Pirsig’s salve for the problems of philosophy. Quality is an event, experience itself, undivided reality and for this reason Pirsig famously leaves it undefined. Giving something a definition is an act of division, differentiating it from all other things, but Quality is all-embracing, from which everything else is derived. This is one of the principle lessons of ZMM and it is a point well taken. When Quality, i.e., reality, becomes the same thing as experience, we are no longer posed with the problem of trying to get our experience hooked back up to reality. As soon as you separate them, as the history of philosophy has traditionally done, you have to try and explain how we are to know when experience reflects the underlying reality.
There's a good deal more to the subject than that, but I'm not so sure that Pirsig really communicated that so much as his general frustration with the poor fulfillment of our industrial potential for quality.
SOURCES & ADDITIONAL READING: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig (1974; note: I last read this book in 1982, IIRC); "Narrative Journalism," Nancy Graham Holm, Update (2006); Phaedo, Plato (Phaedo, a disciple of Socrates, narrates the last hours of his teacher. Socrates defends his faith in eternal life using what has become known as Plato's theory of forms).



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