Friday, December 01, 2006

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

One reason I haven't been posting: I've been reading, and it's hard for me to do both at the same time.

One of the books I finished recently: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig. I may have more to say about the book later; for now, here's an excerpt.
The ugliness the Sutherlands were fleeing is not inherent in technology. It only seemed that way to them because it's so hard to isolate what it is within technology that's so ugly. But technology is simply the making of things and the making of things can't by its own nature be ugly or there would be no possibility for beauty in the arts, which also include the making of things. Actually a root word of technology, techne, originally meant "art." The ancient Greeks never separated art from manufacture in their minds, and so never developed separate words for them.

Neither is the ugliness inherent in the materials of modern technology – a statement you sometimes hear. Mass-produced plastics and synthetics aren't in themselves bad. They've just acquired bad associations. A person who's lived inside stone walls of a prison most of his life is likely to see stone as an inherently ugly material, even though it's also the prime material of sculpture, and a person who's lived in a prison of ugly plastic technology that started with his childhood toys and continues through a lifetime of junky consumer products is likely to see this material as inherently ugly. But the real ugliness of modern technology isn't found in any material or shape or act or product. These are just the objects in which the low Quality appears to reside. It's our habit of assigning Quality to subjects or objects that gives this impression.

The real ugliness is not the result of any objects of technology. Nor is it, if one follows Phaedrus' metaphysics, the result of any subjects of technology, the people who produce it or the people who use it. Quality, or its absence, doesn't reside in either the subject or the object. The real ugliness lies in the relationship between the people who produce the technology and the things they produce, which results in a similar relationship between the people who use the technology and the things they use ...

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 phony. Put the two together and you get a pretty accurate basic description of modern American technology: stylized cars and stylized outboard motors and stylized typewriters and stylized clothes. Stylized refrigerators filled with stylized food in stylized kitchens in stylized homes. Plastic stylized toys for stylized children, who at Christmas and birthdays are in style with their stylish parents. You have to be awfully stylish yourself not to get sick of it once in a while. 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 has ever told them there's such a thing as Quality in the 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 subjects and objects, the cone from which the tree must start.


Brett Keller said...

Nice and perceptive. I've been meaning to read Zen for quite sometime. It seems to offer a valid critique rather than some nonsensical Ludditic attacks I've read. Peace.

Connor said...

No!!!!, I remember friends reading this book during college taking the Christianity and culture classes which I somehow luckily skipped. I figured it must be stupid, but this little excerpt might just change my mind. I hate when that happens.

Richard Beck said...

Man, I love this book. One of my all-time favorites. I'm very interested in what your take on it will be.

crystal said...

I remember it from college too, but I've never read it - sounds interesting.

Matthew said...

@Brett -

Yeah, I had been meaning to read it for a while too. There must be some "Zen and the art" meme running around, though, 'cause I have no idea where I heard of it.

Coleman Yoakum said...

I am also reading this book right now, been a busy semester so it has been a slow progress. I am really enjoying it though.

I had a really good conversation in an air-port bar and grill with the server about this book. I am looking forward to finishing it.

Cole Yoakum

kelly said...


i love this book. i'm looking forward to your thoughts on it.


Steve said...

I read this book 32 years ago in the beginning weeks of PhD program in Engineering Physics. At the time the book felt profound in places but I have to admit that I didn't "get it". Never figured out his use and meaning of the word quality. Perhaps I might now after all this time.


Matthew said...

@steve - Yes, he does go on about his definition of Quality, doesn't he?

Let me know if you get it all figured out. =)