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My Politics of Quality, Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality
What does it mean when something is made well?
Lately I’ve been wondering what that really means while encountering all sorts of product failures during the NYC heat... I know I’ve felt a certain feeling of quality of craft before when my nostrils weren’t filled with burning asphalt and eyes stinging with cement dust from a soulless building’s construction site. It’s always always a feeling of wonder, awe, and of realization, and can come from the seemingly simplest physical product to the most complex art. Damn, someone really put time and effort into this to make this experience so pleasant. Curious to see what others thought, I asked my friends about their favorite things. When asked, I said it could be an object as mundane as a doorknob… it just needed to feel right when they use it. These were their responses:
Taco: Peak Design camera backpack
Anastasia: Shoe horn, a well weighted knife with cover, a silicon ice tray made of mini hexagons (really fun to take the ice hexagons out)
Grace: Face toner spray, iPad because of games, Swiffer
Spencer: A drill (no brand, plain and simple), Ninja blenders
Michelle: Swiffer! Particularly HATES Ninja blenders (sorry Spencer)
Cata (my dad): top loading water dispenser
Lily: Bic lighter, when knobs are weighted/geared correctly and make good noises
David: Nespresso coffee machine
Alex: kitchens with hidden appliances and efficient layouts
When I think of craftsmanship, I think of Robert Pirsig. Pirsig wrote entire books to define a certain concept of Quality… mainly following the philosophical tradition and therefore hard to follow. Because some of you may be interested to follow Quality’s philosophical roots, I will attempt to gloss over his core argument in the next paragraph, but feel free to skip it:
Robert Pirsig argued for a Metaphysics of Quality (with a capital Q) over two novels: first establishing his argument in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and then expanding it in its successor, Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals. I will briefly summarize his argument’s approach. Pirsig generally incorporated aspects from the Sophists, East Asian philosophy, Pragmatism, and indigenous American philosophy among others into his theory of Quality. To help simplify his definition, Pirsig split Quality into both dynamic and static Quality. He defined dynamic Quality as ‘a force of change in the universe’ — something that cannot be defined clearly because it precedes any other intellectual construction… it’s the ‘knife edge’ of experience. “Dynamic Quality cannot be defined. It can only be understood intellectually through the use of analogy" said Dan Glover in his book Lila's Child: An Inquiry Into Quality. Pirsig goes even further and equates dynamic quality to the Tao, or God - an undefinable entity that motivates amorphous intangibles like ideas. On the flipside, dynamic Quality becomes static when repeated and eventually defined. For example, everything found in a dictionary is a static Quality pattern. Pirsig divides static quality in inorganic, organic, biological, social, and intellectual patterns, making up reality.
While I disagree with some of the further reaches made by Pirsig, I do appreciate his encompassing view of Quality. I find his assertion that Quality is the culmination of Classic and Romantic thought - since Pirsig does away with these two distinctions entirely (vehemently denouncing their polarity) - very true. Instead, he argues that Quality is essentially the culmination of the two. Further, his focus on care as an aspect of Quality is especially important today - things with Quality need and deserve to be maintained. I thought it’d be an interesting exercise to try and adapt Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality (the aspects with which I agree, at least) to today.
The biggest evolution in product-land has been the introduction of digital interfaces since Pirsig’s time. Unfortunately, I don’t think digital experiences convey much Quality. Some may say they do because they assign words like joyful or smooth to the interaction, but I don’t think they get close to the sense of Quality I feel with analog experiences. Perhaps this is because of the general increase in possibility digital interfaces provide. We are at such a point of infancy when we compare, say, digital to physical product design, that there are likely huge amounts of unexplored learnings to apply to digital product design. There is a rich (maybe even genetic, given the tired arguments surrounding humans and tools) history of physical product design that does not apply well to digital product design. It is no mistake that artists have corrected back towards emulating analog qualities in digital art (’roughing it up’ i.e. adding grain). Therefore, I believe it is still easier to apply Pirsig’s Quality to new trends regaining popularity today in the physical world.
I also find it ironic that some of the strongest examples of ‘good’ digital design rely on their physical components. Apple’s haptics have long been heralded as a big part of why their products feel so right. Digital camera dials and buttons have mostly remained tactile - most championed by Fujifilm’s cameras. In the late 20th century, computer product designers were aware of this when designing the first keyboards, finding it important to make them feel just as tactile as a typewriter’s keys to increase computer adoption. (Perhaps this is a reason why mechanical keyboards have made such a large comeback in the last 5 years.) I am sure you can come up with a handful of examples of your own over the next few days if you try.
Broadly speaking, beauty conveyed modestly is my generally preferred style… but don’t take this to mean that I am a minimalist. Neither do I appreciate subtlety because of its occasional exclusionary “if you know you know” application. I simply appreciate the care a designer puts into their work to include nuanced details (which can fit into any aesthetic) because it conveys Quality. Below I’ve assembled some rough categories where I think crafts-folk approach their work with Quality.
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Simon Sarris is writing a mini series on why modern homes lack so much Quality, and how he built his home with Quality. I find it inspiring. He touches on that part of Quality akin to ‘care’ or ‘love’ that people say you can feel in certain dishes, products, designs, etc.
In In Praise of the Shadows, Tanizaki argues that traditional Japanese architecture is all about shadows. This contrasts starkly with todays phone-photo lighting-driven interior design trends.
I think this Croatian building was restored with Quality — working with its original design.
Many Midcentury Modern homes in the Midwest were designed to be ‘Solar Homes’ and work with the sun across the seasons.
While slightly preachy, I think the ethos of this Ted Talk about more humane buildings aligns with my argument.
When I think of clothing made with Quality, it has a few tenets. First, form (Romantic design) and function (Classic design) need to both be melded beautifully into the garment. Second, respecting the context and unique properties of materials (performance and end-of-life) also contributes to the quality of a garment. Third, the garment must make you feel as if it is one of quality with the way you wear it.
and Wander is one of my favorite brands. A Japanese outdoors brand, they make garments that combine innovative materials with extreme attention to detail. Every zipper is shaped in such a way to be operated well in its location, and jackets drape in such a way that they never get in your way.
Cottle uses amazing materials in made-to-order garments.
Similarly, Bode is inspired by older fabrics and designs.
I think food conveys extreme Quality when it is an experience in and of itself. For example, a dining table setup with Quality can liven the experience of eating in various ways by pandering to the other senses and emotions with the use of lighting, seating, scent, etc. beyond food.
Lucas Sin celebrates fusion (especially culinary fusion’s history, i.e. how food has been influenced by globalization in the last 200 years in particular.
Portland’s Han Oak was one of my favorite restaurants. It featured communal dining and an intimate eating experience - the restaurant was essentially in the chef’s family’s home.
Charles Michel attempts to use each ingredient to their fullest by leveraging his training as a scientific researcher and artist. His particular focus right now is ecology and sustainable cooking.
Alinea made quite the splash when it first appeared in the fine dining circuit because of its holistic approach beyond the table to dining. I don’t know much about the fine dining world, but this appears to have quality to me.
I believe this is where I will be stretching Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality beyond his original scope. I believe Quality can be evident in everything, even intangible goods. I will use mixed media as an example, specifically when music meets visuals. This isn’t some novel combination, but one I find particularly exciting nonetheless.
Kendrick Lamar’s ELEMENT. music video deepens and extends the narrative told through music. (Fun fact, I once wrote an entire essay about how he accomplished this!)
Kanye West made an entire film for Runaway that extends the album’s universe.
In another vein, a former professor of mine created ‘invisible sculptures’ that are experienced via various technologies. This different approach to sculpture helped unlock the creativity of many visitors.
Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca mixed the mediums of dance and video in their film Swinguerra (currently at the New Museum!) to great effect. A two-channel film (two videos played on opposite sides of a room, facing each other) used video to convey narrative through dance in a way I’d never experienced before.
Misc. Physical Products (cars, cooking & eating equipment, fountain pens, etc.)
This Toyota Century valet vehicle has an insane amount of attention to detail.
This YouTube channel compares and contrasts public transportation infrastructure in North America and Europe.
Many of the artisans discussed in Hannah Kirshner’s Water, Wood, and Wild Things embody this ethos as well.
I believe I am driven by a certain Politics of Quality in many ways. I work towards a future that I think is made of Quality - this is the defining thread in both my curiosities (art, fashion, HCI, interfaces, architecture, etc.) and politics (urban planning, taxation, community, etc.). The importance of maintenance is especially relevant in my Politics of Quality; there is no Quality without maintenance and reevaluation. A life of Quality isn’t necessarily a life of luxury - at least using luxury’s current cultural definition, although it could easily be considered as one in the future. Writing this paper has made this common thread much clearer for me personally - I hope it may have sparked a thought in you as well. I challenge you to write down what you believe conveys a certain sense of Quality over the next few days, so you may begin to understand your own Metaphysics of Quality.
Since I believe that the world I find myself in isn’t of Quality in many ways, I can be very critical of it and myself. Molly Mielke tangentially addresses this idea in their recent post ‘critical.’ I digress, the Politics of Quality and my inner critic are another discussion best saved for another post. I will leave you with this.
Misc. Fun Links
“Much of this is not inflation in the strict sense, but more like ‘inflation culture’ — a swelling, insatiable demand for everything, intensified by a growing rift between our ability to fulfill digital and physical desires. There’s a saying that you shouldn’t complain about being stuck in traffic, because you are traffic. The same may be true of inflation: What if it’s just us?” - Drew Austin
Upcoming doc about MIT’s history from WW2-Covid19 - the Reboot gang never disappoints.
I recently read Spatial Interfaces by John Palmer. He had the idea that perhaps one could leave a small mark on sites during a browsing session. At the end of the session, one could revisit the trail of cookie-crumbs and review, share, etc. … a different way of thinking spatially.
That’s all for this month! I will be doing some special travelling towards the end of August, and will be experimenting with a very different format for August’s post. It may be delayed into the first few weeks of September because my travels end right at the end of August.
Take care everyone,