Caring about Quality

For me, Pirsig is most interesting not when he is trying to justify his philosophical argument that Quality is the ultimate reality but, rather, when he suggests ways to bring Quality into our everyday lives and argues that doing so will begin to repair the rift between technologists and antitechnologists (terms I much prefer to classical and romantic, as suggested earlier).

I think he’s right on when he argues:

There has been a haze, a backup problem in this Chautauqua so far; I talked about caring the first day and then realized I couldn't say anything meaningful about caring until its inverse side, Quality, is understood. I think it's important now to tie care to Quality by pointing out that care and Quality are internal and external aspects of the same thing. A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who's bound to have some characteristics of Quality.

Thus, if the problem of technological hopelessness is caused by absence of care, both by technologists and antitechnologists; and if care and Quality are external and internal aspects of the same thing, then it follows logically that what really causes technological hopelessness is absence of the perception of Quality in technology by both technologists and antitechnologists. Phaedrus' mad pursuit of the rational, analytic and therefore technological meaning of the word "Quality" was really a pursuit of the answer to the whole problem of technological hopelessness. So it seems to me, anyway.

Both those who produce crap and those who consume it because they get it cheaper and can buy more of it ultimately suffer from the lack of caring and the lack of quality. Craftsmen who were forced to compete with factories that massfactured furniture rather than making them by hand (manu-facture) bemoaned the loss of quality, while those who took their job by working in the factory complained of the deadly boredom from mindlessly reproducing a single part. Buyers usually get an inferior product that looks cheaper and doesn’t last as long.

Quality was sacrificed in the name of cost, a tradeoff that probably made sense when most people squatted or sat on the ground because they could not afford furniture, but makes little sense today when people repeatedly replace their furniture because it falls apart or, worse yet, because it is out of style. In the end, both the consumer and those consumed by massfacturing lose.

Looking back, way back to junior high, I strongly felt quality was more important than quantity. I earned the only “D” I ever got in grades 1-12 in Woodshop because I wanted to produce something I could be proud of and the teacher rewarded quantity rather than quality. The more projects students turned out in the quarter, the higher their grade. I threw more projects away than some students made, but I wasn’t about to give my parents something I wasn’t proud of. The shop teacher, seemed more interested in producing students to work in a factory than craftsmen who could make a good piece of furniture.

I’d also like to believe that Pirsig’s correct when he says that

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.

Phaedrus felt that at the moment of pure Quality perception, or not even perception, at the moment of pure Quality, there is no subject and there is no object. There is only a sense of Quality that produces a later awareness of subjects and objects. At the moment of pure quality, subject and object are identical. This is the Tat tvam asi truth of the Upanishads, but it's also reflected in modern street argot. "Getting with it," "digging it," "grooving on it" are all slang reflections of this identity. 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 of it feels no particular sense of identity. with it. The owner of it 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 no Quality.

Making a good piece of furniture is an awful lot like playing a good game of basketball where things just fall into place without ever really thinking about them. Of course, that only happens once you’ve practiced enough to reach a certain skill level. People used to ask me why I didn’t make furniture to sell, and I might have if I’d needed the money, but I felt a real closeness to the best pieces I made, and, the more I live with them the more they are a part of me. I think that’s the reason that traditional craftsmen took pride in their work, it was a part of them.

I agree with when Pirsig when he says that

The way to solve the conflict between human values and technological needs is not to run away from technology That's impossible. The way to resolve the conflict is to break down the barriers of dualistic thought that prevent a real understanding of what technology is — "not an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both.

I do know that most of the artistic things I’ve done have been made possible because of advances in technology. Working full time as a high school teacher, I didn’t have time to learn skills the way traditional craftsmen did. If I had had to use just hand tools, I could never have made the furniture that I did. I envied Vietnamese carpenters who could create handsome pieces of furniture from packing crates using only the hand tools they carried with them, but it takes a lifetime to learn how to do that and I didn’t have a lifetime.

Nor could I have produced the photos that I post here without a digital camera and Photoshop. I’ve studied watercolors in a junior college, but I didn’t have the time to maintain those skills while teaching and raising kids. Without my computer, not to mention my digital camera, I’d be pretty much limited to snapshots as my parents were.

4 thoughts on “Caring about Quality

  1. What do you think the writer means by quality (why is it capitalized?) Do you think he’s saying it’s some objectively recognizable characteristic of art as opposed to the process of attention given to creating it, regardless of how the final product turns out? It’s my understanding that an object of zen practice is to strip from activity any added thing to action, such as pride, shame, ambition. When we do something and we’re thinking “I’m really doing something great!” that attitude takes something away from the experience. You might be producing something that people would recognize as quality, but it’s not a genuine value.
    Agree?

  2. The whole book is his attempt to explain what he means by Quality, Tom.

    There’s actually very little Zen in the book, which he refers to in his next book, Lila, as “mystic,” not metaphysical.

    He often refers to Quality as one, equating it to Plato’s “Truth,” though he argues that it precedes “Truth.”

    Though I’m sympathetic to the idea that Quality is missing in too much of modern life, I’m not entirely convinced by his Metaphysical arguments.

    There is one passage in the book where Pirsig suggests that egotistical feelings are one way of blocking Quality.

  3. Thank you for this, it really helped me write my paper pertaining to Quality. I really enjoy Pirsig’s take on Quality and it’s importance to life. I get lost in his words though at times. Like here “…pursuit of the rational, analytic and therefore technological meaning of the word ‘Quality’ was really a pursuit of the answer to the whole problem on technological hopelessness” (Pirsig 248). He’s an interesting guy. Thanks again!

What do you think?