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Report from the Workshop: 05/15/2022

Earlier this week I wrote this post about my birthday last month, describing how M got me some cool stamps and offering some ruminations on my mobile Wunderkammer full of personal trinkets and their memories.

Also for my birthday, I treated myself to a book I had anxiously awaited for some time: On Quality: An Inquiry Into Excellence, edited by Wendy K. Pirsig. This slim volume collects some important excerpts from Robert M. Pirsig’s two groundbreaking novels, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila, as well as previously unpublished letters and transcripts of a few talks the famously reclusive Pirsig gave over the course of his life.

Robert Pirsig’s work has influenced me deeply. I’ve probably re-read Lila about five times, although I’ve only read Zen once I think. I’ll have a full review of On Quality up probably by the end of next week, but until then I wanted to talk a bit about tools.

In addition to excerpts and other occasional writings clarifying Prisig’s understanding of Quality, the book includes photographs of some of Pirsig’s tools taken by his nephew, David Lindberg. The photos are quite stark, in black and white, and depict wrenches, planers, sockets, and other implements that one might find in any well-appointed garage. The tools don’t appear to consist of anything really all that special – Pirsig seems to have preferred the Craftsman brand – but the photos demonstrate something that resonated quite strongly with me as I considered the treasures in my Wunderkammer: these tools were clearly used.

I have a long-time interest in tools and their use. I’ve been re-reading Samuel R. Delaney’s wonderful Nova this week, which also has some relevance here. Taking place in the third millenium of the Common Era, the characters of Nova are equipped with sockets at their wrists, ankles, the base of their spine and the nape of the neck that allow them to “plug in” to machinery ranging from P.A. systems to starships, controlling the machines with their own neural impulses.

Nova was written long before The Matrix saw the silver screen in 1999, but the idea of plug-in interfaces between humans and machines is probably about as old as machines that could be plugged in at all. [This would be an interesting research project. I’ll add it to the Compost Heap, about which more in an upcoming series on my index card catalogue, but will probably never get around to following it up.] What interests me about the plugs in Nova, versus the single “jack” at the back of the neck in The Matrix, is that the characters of Nova have plugs on their extremities as well – there’s something bodily, something somatic about their “plugging in” to the machines, and these allow one to “plug in” to the real world. While The Matrix deals with philosophical questions of the “brain in a vat” type, Nova addresses the idea that the brain by itself is not what makes humans capable of using tools. In a real sense, the brain does not stop at the inside of one’s skull. Nor does it stop at the tips of one’s fingers, or the palm of one’s hand. The brain is not separable from the body, and the body is not separable from the tools it uses.

To return to the photos of Prisig’s tools. Apart from photos of what appears to be some kind of garage-grade hair dryer, a drill bit, and a set of router attachments, Lindberg’s photos depict hand tools, and these tools have clearly been used. The shining steel wrenches are blemished and worn. Some are probably quite old – Pirsig lived into his seventies and died in 2017 – but their wear and tear is clearly the result of use as well as age. There is also a photo of Prisig’s 1966 Honda Super Hawk motorcycle, now housed in the National Museum of American History. One can easily imagine Pirsig using his tools to keep the machine in good repair.

From the photos in On Quality one gets the impression that Pirsig kept his tools organized and neat – but not too neat. The photo on the book jacket depicts a drawer of wrenches and sockets pulled out from a cabinet. They are laid neatly in the drawer, but not, it appears, in any particular order. While the viewer cannot know whether the objects in the photo were staged this way or not, I like to think that this depiction is an honest representation of how Pirsig arranged them. The photo gives, for me anyway, the sense that though these tools were not organized by size or type, Pirsig would have immediately known where they were when he needed them, probably without even having to think about it. Like the objects in my Wunderkammer, or the files and stacks of papers in my office, the tools and their arrangement represent the life of their user.

I have some wrenches and sockets, but they have yet to see anything like the use Pirsig clearly put his own tools to. Rather, I have pens, pencils, index cards, notebooks, and a laptop. How could these things be similar?

Nova depicts humans interacting “directly” with machines, making the machines parts of themselves through neural connections that obscure the separation between human and machine. The self, then, and I think Pirsig would probably find this thought amenable, does not exist “inside” one, separate from the world “outside,” but rather takes its existence in part through the tools one uses, the “external” aspects of the body that one takes up. Sometimes, when I’m writing something with a pencil, or typing on a laptop keyboard, I lose all sense that the computer, the pencil, the paper, is “outside” of me. I don’t have to think about what I’m doing, because part of what it means for me to do anything at all means taking up things outside of my body (which, as Emanuele Coccia points out in The Life of Plants, is both inside and outside, container and contained, of the atmosphere responsible for the possibility of my life). The computer is made of metal and silicon rather than flesh, the pencil is made of cedar instead of bone and sinew, but at some point I don’t remember this at all, and it becomes one thing.

When I write, it feels like I’m working on something, bringing something out, tuning something up. It’s like working on a motorcycle without knowing whether the thing in question actually is a motorcycle rather than an outboard boat engine, or even a clockwork windup toy. I arrange my tools, get the material in front of me, and get to work, staying out of my own way. We don’t need to “plug in” to machines and technological devices external to us – that tools are not foreign to us, that they are, in a sense, not even really “outside” of us, is probably the single most natural thing to human Being.