Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Mainenance

Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values is a well known book by Robert Pirsig which is part travel journal, part philosophy book, part novel. It's really a meditation on lessons learned both in academia and on the back of a motorcycle. Well worth the read.

It comes up in my mind today because Stanley Fish referenced it in his latest blog entry. In it, Fish summarizes Pirsig's phenomenological approach:
Pirsig’s example is describing the parts of a motorcycle, an exercise that has no natural stopping point. But, he insists, no matter how much data the exercise heaped up, true comprehension would still not have been achieved, for the motorcycle “so described is almost impossible to understand unless you know how it works.” Rather than building up from particulars to generals (the empiricist method), you must begin with generals — with an in-place, intuitive awareness of what motorcycles are for, of what can go wrong with them, of what can go right with them — and within that tacit knowledge you will know where to direct your analytic attention. You can’t just begin with analytic attention, with “mere” or “pure” observation, and expect to get anywhere; you must already, in a sense, be there.

The problem is that once the parts or facts are made to appear, they seem to possess an independence, and it is (literally) tempting to rest in them and to believe that they are the foundation of things. (In theology this mistake is called idolatry.) “The division of the world into parts,” says Pirsig, “is something everyone does,” but in doing it, “something is always killed” — and what is killed is an awareness of and contact with the world before analytic thought has done its (necessarily) reductive work. (source)

The paradox is that a phenomenological approach, where we begin with what can be grasped will necessarily limit us to what we are able to pay attention to. Inevitably, we will focus on the wrong things. In maintenance terms, when you have a problem you tend to want to make it into a problem you have experience with in the past, even though it may be an entirely new malfunction. Trying to solve this paradox drove Prisig nearly insane.

In Matthew Crawford's recent book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work also uses mechanical labour as a way to explore grand themes of both philosophy and father-son dynamics.
In time, this realization leads him to a position like Pirsig’s, but he holds it polemically and without anxiety: “To regard universal knowledge as the whole of knowledge is to take no account of embodiment and purposiveness.” We should not, he says, “separate knowing from doing,” and it makes sense that his model of the true “knowledge worker” is not his father the theoretician, but the mechanic or craftsman whose knowledge resides in his hands and in his hands-on experience.

It follows then that the modern tendency to move further and further from the site of physical labor (by, for example, designing automobiles on a computer or teaching people to fly in a simulated cockpit) is disastrously wrong. As computer diagnosis takes the place of fiddling around with the machinery, “we have too few occasions to do anything because of a certain predetermination of things from afar.” (source)

Again, a worthwhile read--especially as regards the nature of work and craftsmanship. Though he can be a bit polemical at times.

But we shouldn't loose sight of one of the other main points of these books: relationships between father and son mediated through metal. It's a trope so common as to almost slip into cliché. (Here is a picture of Prisig with his son, Chris, on the trip that became the basis for the book.) Yet I know a lot of men who bonded with their fathers in precisely this way. Indeed, the time spent with my father working on his old TR-3 are a very special memory to me. Other examples abound: a writer helps his son assemble a Shelby Cobra kit as a reward for good grades. A university professor learns to find joy in work again when he reconnects with his motorcycle mechanic father.

It's a form of benign triangulation--introducing a third party into a relationship between two tends to stabilize the emotional system and lower the anxiety in the system. (Cf. Friedman) Other father-son relationships might use sports in the same way. Really, any hobby can function to facilitate the father-son bond.

I don't know how this plays out in mother-daughter relationships. I suspect it is similar, but I've obviously never observed it from the inside. Maybe someone will comment about that.

This is on my mind for obvious reasons. Father's day approaches. And I've been thinking of what kind of father I will be by the time it comes again next year. Obviously, I hope to be a good one, but how does one go about becoming "good" at a thing like parenting without trial-and-error experience? Perhaps for this reason we should just start saving up for therapy now (advice someone gave me on Sunday), and focus instead on the second or third child. By then we may have learned something about the craft of parenting!


No comments: