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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (addendum)

Updated: Jun 30


San Francisco was founded in 1776—San Francisco is the other America, the better America, founded at a time when, across the continent, the inferior America was founded. When I went to San Francisco I thought, “This is a very beautiful city—it’s one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to.” Now, at the moment, the American right makes hay as regards how San Francisco has fallen, but I suspect it’s a relative fall—that it’s still more beautiful than a random town in Ohio and certainly more beautiful than…Washington, DC.

And why should Washington, DC not be beautiful? It was built on a swamp more or less—a malarial swamp—but we’ll discard that geographic fact for the moment, since that technical problem has been surmounted. The problem with Washington, DC is the problem with America since 1776—it was built to instantiate those values, DC is a synecdoche for “1776” (and it’s really ugly—just like the American Revolution).

In short, DC was built by a French architect on 18th-century rationalist principles. The French helped America in her revolution—perhaps spent a bit too much money helping her (which contributed to their revolution—which the Americans in turn admired). So DC is ugly because it was built on rationalist, Enlightenment principles—like the Constitution. It’s Descartes: you start from first principles, raze everything, and build a nice geometric grid (over a swamp).

San Francisco, by contrast, was founded by Don Gaspar de Portolá and featured a Mission dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi (hence, St. Francis—the city). Washington, meanwhile, like Leningrad was named after the leader of a revolution—so it was secular, rational, practical. Obviously, a utopia in the making—yet you want to live in San Francisco, right? I mean, you’re not a literal “swamp creature”—a baby mosquito in some symbiotic larval relation with a fetid tributary of the Potomac…or are you?

Washington, Brasilia, Milton Keynes—rational plan cities that nobody wants to live in, even though in technical terms the streets are so easy to navigate (1st Street, 2nd Street, 3rd Street). San Francisco—with the “world’s steepest street” that zig-zags in an impractical way down a hill (that happens to have among the most expensive house prices in the world). It turns out people want to live on impractical zig-zag streets that are very steep—but have character in a way that, I suggest, people (and places) in DC do not. “Drain the swamp”—the swamp was only ever technically drained in DC, the swamp is still there (so are the mosquitos).


In the previous article in this series, I noted that the left instantiates perverted religion—so it instantiates in a perverted way what Robert Pirsig calls “Quality”; and Quality exists in contradistinction to rational scientific thought, to Cartesian thought—to the subject-object divide and to the demand that we always start with “no presumptions and prejudices” in our thought (aka “no traditions”).

Hence we have a peculiar situation where the left is religious—it talks about holism, lived experience, and living in harmony with nature—and the right is for techno-science, rightist “realistic” thought means tax cuts, IQ tests, and nuclear reactors.

It’s why you get this peculiar inversion in Western politics, particularly in America but in the West in general, where the populist politician excoriates “out of touch liberal elitists” and celebrates NASCAR, Applebee’s, Walmart—what “just plain folks want”, not these snotty elitists (we talk about bread-and-butter issues, here—real issues). Those liberal elitists always look to Urope—even Tom Wolfe blamed lack of American self-confidence vis-à-vis Europe for bad architecture, American rubes overawed by fancy-dancy European architectural “theorists”. Yes, they look to Europe—or to San Francisco, to the West.

And in Britain, per Brexit, it’s white van man with his pint of Stella and full English (none of that foreign muck) versus la-di-da beardy-weirdy oh-so-precious Remainers (Remoaners) in Hoxton (pint of IPA in hand—extra cloudy and fruity, with a chatty little monologue on the back of the can about its home microbrewery; even the brewery is bijoux not big, and so we hear how the Northerner who founded it did so with a £5,000 loan from a grandparent. I feel like I know the person who brews my beer—not like with some faceless corporation).

Yet, let’s be frank—hipsters, however much you hate them (love to hate them), produce high-Quality products. The artisanal coffee shop with the bare lightbulbs is better than Starbucks, better than Costa. It just is. The IPA, however much you disdain its “effeminate” aspects, just is better Quality than Stella or Budweiser—because it’s not just produced for the Lowest Common Denominator broad demographic as determined by market research (the IPA is an elite product, it’s somewhat personalised—the can even talks to you, even the can has personality *a soul*). The beard—the huge superfluous lumberjack beard—however risible it seems does, you have to admit, conform to an aesthetic that is “a look” and not just a pair of trainers and a jogging set.

“Faith in the tropics - A twist on faith”—as brewed by Brian Dickson, not a faceless corporation. So holy is the IPA, so soulful—praise be!

You see it with the tattoo—the right likes to tut-tut at tattoos, but the current tattoo phase is elite-led and is ironic. The fact you “don’t get it”, that you think a tattoo today is like “I luv mum” or some quasi-criminal symbol, just shows you aren’t a very sophisticated or even a very clever person (per the below chart, derived from a 1926 English manual, irony is used to display smart in-group allegiance to others—and hipsters are very, very ironic; i.e. very, very clever).

“Fowler’s Modern Usage”

So when someone from Oregon arrives covered in tattoos and you don’t have the aesthetic sense to distinguish between the “retro ink” that has retranslated a 1950s Bettie Page pin-up into a primary color cartoon on the forearm—or shows a kraken, in Poe-like ink, consuming a starkly rendered fully-rigged man-o-war—and a tattoo “as was” and you actually think, you’re actually so unsophisticated as to think, this is the same as Bazza’s “I luv mum” tattoo, then that just shows you’re square. You don’t have any individuality, you don’t have any taste or discrimination—you shop at Walmart or, in Britain, if you’re in that higher snobby demographic, technical-professional, you shop at Waitrose.

But you don’t get that this tattoo is entirely unique and ironic, do you? You can’t see that, because, per the chart, irony is for smart people in the know. You’re average and generic, I guess…do what the adverts tell you. You don’t get that we can switch a tattoo as signifier from “lumpenprole scum” to “sophisticated young urban professional, involved in something media-related”, do you? That must be why you vote Republican, vote Conservative—“the stupid party”, for people who can’t understand irony (low-IQ trait, I understand…).


It’s narcissistic, of course—and that’s what’s perverse about the left as a religious expression, it’s about pride (and we can, per San Francisco, take that as a literal statement). The conventional Western right is about greed—mortgages, GDP, IQ tests; we’re practical people, not weirdos—i.e. we’re robots, we do what’s normative (and yet everything the conventional right advocates for is death, is deadness—is the suburbs, the retail park, the phoney corporate advertisement tailored to reach key demographics). To zoom out: we’re between Scylla and Charybdis here—between narcissistic priests and greedy conformists.

This is the problem: the left is a decadent elite; decadent priestcraft, decadent aristocracy—these people still know about “Quality”, they still know about holistic thought; and yet the putative right excoriates them because they’re Quality people—on the basis that they’re not quantitative enough. “You don’t like faceless corporations, tough shit, I’m a real blue-collar trucker-driver/garage-mechanic/assembly-line worker and when I drink a beer I just drink and drink because I went to the pub because the kids are doing me head in (as Ozzy Osbourne’s father used to put it) and this will keep me *sane* over the weekend—to drink meself to extinction in the most economical way possible…”

And you don’t want your can of Budweiser to talk to you, to talk about “the journey we’ve been on”, in slightly ironic tones (even though perhaps the owner of the microbrewery wears a flat cap—ironically); and, as we’ve seen recently, you don’t want your Bud Light endorsed by a young transgender theatre kid from…San Francisco. We don’t have time for *expressing ourselves* here…thanks very much…

Indeed, IPA itself is a whole ironic experience—just like tattoos. When it was first revived, around 2008, there was much hipster talk about it being “India Pale Ale”, the acronym had to be unpacked—it had a whole story behind it, about how it was brewed for export to India (ironic appreciation for the British Empire—Chap magazine, a pith helmet in your Hoxton bar, shades of “Hipster-Nazis”). It was an “undrunk drink”—like Red Stripe—and it was precisely because it was kaputt, just what old geezers drank, that it had to come back.

Because that’s ironic, right? We don’t even need “IPA” because you can fly to India in, like, 12 hours—but we’ll put the whole story on the can. It’s just too precious for words, we’re young trendy people who drink what old geezers drink (it’s hilarious—but don’t *say* it’s hilarious, because then you’re not in on the joke at all).

IPA drinkers seem effeminate because they are camp. The right sometimes claims that “the hops contain xenoestrogens” or some such hormonal or genetic explanation—the IPA will literally make you grow man-tits, turn you into a poofter. The explanation I’ll put forward, without techno-science jargon, is that to be “camp” is to take a trivial thing seriously (like, for example, Judy Garland) and that IPA is a trivial thing—and yet hipsters take it seriously, so they become camp and gay (like if you were a man who worried too much about lint on his suit).

It’s precious, it’s decadent, it’s too cute—ultimately, in the decadence of decadence, IPA has become hazy; it’s not even pale anymore—because it has to be infused with fruity flavours so you can appreciate its “bouquet”, like it’s a wine (except you’re not meant to take beer seriously, like wine—if you do you’re being…camp). IPA, after a decade of being the single-speed bike rider’s favourite tipple, has turned into a dark cloudy product—it’s anything but pale. But it’s certainly still engaged in a fight to be unique, singular.

Anyway, being a normal person, you’re not concerned about the environment or what “IPA” really means—you just want cheap product. Who cares what it looks like? The Walmart consumer is like a mosquito in DC—it is born, lives, and dies without a history; it’s been segmented in a marketing diagram in some satellite office somewhere in Illinois—*data* is applied to tweak the product lines now and again, we have certain lag-times for new products from China…

It’s not like you live in San Francisco, where you are expected to have, somewhat, a personality—a soul, basically. To express yourself—which the American right professes to hate, being composed from greedy people—as opposed to being “just a number” (to sound like a cliché from the 1960s—I don’t want to work at your faceless corporation, I don’t care how efficient it is, I’m not a square!).

This is conservatism as a gut reaction, sans ideas—to preserve what is, if it were the USSR I would preserve it because it is what it is and you’ve got to get on and live in the real world (not be a dreamer—like that religious nut, Solzhenitsyn). Yet, as Pirsig observes, reality is not that practical everyday problem-solving mode, nor even instinct or skill.


“I’m not a square.” What, like the streets of DC—which are geometric, blocks (blocks don’t occur in nature)? The block is death: the concrete block, Pruitt-Igoe—another “rational success story” that lasted barely a decade before they had to blow it up. So elite people—Quality people—want to live in San Francisco, want to live in the other 1776. Want to live in a city with marvellous striated geology—not a flat plain, like DC—that was founded by aristocratic Spaniards who adhered to this sensuous old European religion, Catholicism; and that is named after a saint, not “the American Lenin”.

And there’s even a “Russian Hill”—yes, the Russians were in California too (and Oregon and Alaska). Quaint Orthodox churches—more in my imagination than in actuality; but, you know, I think in a holistic way (so the Russians are still there, even if it was a short colonisation, a short occupation).

You know, if you persist in thinking in this dreamy poetic register you’ll never make Information Manager III at Quantis—which is a holding company that makes, oh, it makes lots things, like Pringles and it’s connected to Taco Bell, and someone showed me an organisation chart at an HR induction once but it doesn’t really matter, I was sort of day-dreaming through that presentation…thinking about playing Modern Warfare when I got home.

This is the problem: the high-Quality people are cosmopolitan—they’re open to blacks, Mexicans, the world; and they think in holistic terms, about what we’re doing to the environment (to the whole planet—the whole self-regulating cybernetic system, as SFer and cybernetician Gregory Bateson might say)—about how ugly the factories are, the industrial estates…and, indeed, from holism to Whole Foods (you have to admit, it is a Quality store, no?).

What is everything about in San Francisco if not exploration of the soul? LSD, DMT, encounter groups, indigenous ways of knowing, Zen—the hipster beer. Who am I? (“Well, not being some liberal elite snob I don’t have time for such ridiculous questions, being interested in earning a living.”). Excuse me, but I have a poem from a black woman that I’d like to read at this commencement…I think we need to take account of her experiences…

Let’s face it: if you’re a Quality person, you should want to live in San Francisco—you’re not going to vote Trump because Trump is a low-Quality person, he’d put plastic pink flamingoes on his front lawn and his taste is like Las Vegas taste (which, as Tom Wolfe noted, is gangster taste—is rich plebeian taste); and his women look like whores, expensive escorts who never read a book and are uneducated—like trash.

San Francisco, by contrast, was founded by a real Don—a real “Sir”, not a Sicilian gangster. The problem is that the contemporary Quality person wouldn’t understand that SF has Quality because it was founded by a Spanish Catholic aristocrat—they’re still “1776” enough, the other 1776, to think that people like that *totally suck* (enslaved Indians, or something).


The appeal of Zen, I realised recently, comes about in the 1960s because that was the first generation to grow up with TV. People in the West had been interested in Buddhism since Schopenhauer and Wagner—and Froude recalls a certain vague that swept drawing-rooms for Buddhism. Yet Zen is different—because there are many forms of Buddhism, many “divine chariots”, but Zen only caught on in the 1950s. The reason the Baby Boomers ate it up—why people like it now—is that they grew up with the TV, and the TV creates this “eternal present” where things change all the time and yet, at some fundamental level, nothing changes.

Murder, She Wrote or The Wire or an advert for Taco Bell—it all merges into one thing in the end, and you can experience or re-experience these things whenever you want (just call them up on YouTube). Zen, as opposed to straight Buddhism, proved popular in places like San Francisco, near cybernetic ground-zero in Silicon Valley, because it’s about the now—and that’s the “electronic village”, it’s channel hopping “nothing’s ever on, even with 145 channels, because everything’s on”. The Internet has extended this sensation—it’s always now, everything changes on the Twitter timeline, and yet it’s all the same, always.

But it was the Boomers, the first people to live in this world from childhood, for whom Zen *just hit different*—because it described what they grew up with so well…the eternal present, the eternal now, the world of illusions that seems more real than reality and yet is total fiction (just 101010 fed into a screen to create an image—digital samsara). Cybernetics describes the empty circle, the empty bowl that Alan Watts strikes, in San Francisco—the plangent sound, BONG **** digital nothingness.


Yet the whole divide originates, as described previously, in the Cartesian approach—the Cartesian approach the right defends—and so we end up with a distorted system. The left is closer to what the right—the true, the righteous, really is—but it reaches for Quality in a distorted form and too often the exploration of “my soul” is feminine narcissism; just the desire to be special and unique, not the desire to individuate—to express the soul not because “I’m special” but because it is a fact, because it is base reality that has to be acknowledged.

“When I came to this site, a voice said ‘build it here’, and so I built the stockade and the Mission in the glade that overlooked the bay, by the boulder that looked like an old crooked woman.” He’s talking about his indigenous ways of knowing again—he’s into his woo again.

Indeed, the American right at its worst talks about “Euro poors” and so on—and yet, given a choice, everyone would live in Italy and not America. But America is so much richer than Italy! Ah, but the Quality of life—the Quality of life; it can’t be bought, you see. Whereas America, 1776 America, was founded on principles that destroy Quality—it’s a problem-solving culture where you should work all the time to make more money, to solve more problems, because money is virtue. You can’t just let a pattern be, it has to be *solved*—the mystery dispelled, quaint custom, the elaborate pattern, rationalised; and then Quality is gone.

It’s why Pirsig is baffled by “Quality”—has to write a book about it. He was a trained biochemist turned philosopher who wrote technical manuals for computers for a living; and so just couldn’t *get* Quality. And that’s why, really, even Trump is trash—it’s gangsters or narcissists in America, and America is the world.

And you only get a break in San Francisco—or in what’s left of the Old South, because that’s organic and aristocratic (and *evil*, for 1776 America—both varietals); and you even get some relief in Seattle, because Seattle grew (the operative word) from a logging concern—the trees, you see. It came about from organic demand, not as a political project (DC) built on compromise. Washington State > Washington, DC.

So, yes, you get high-Quality people in Seattle too—I mean Seattle’s backbone, Boeing, started in wood-working, in lumber, in craftsmanship (in lumber—paper airplanes). There was a time when you could wear a checked-shirt in Seattle like a legitimate lumberjack—today, you can do it as a Quality person (let’s face it—you know Kurt Cobain was a searcher; you know, even if you pretend to think he was annoying, that his whole thing, like Kerouac, was some aborted spiritual quest—the baby chases the dollar bill on the fishhook; and that’s what the Republicans vote for).

The American left really wants to turn into its opposite—it has gone to the far West, started to talk about Zen and yoga, and yearns to drop quantity altogether, but it doesn’t quite know how (so it looks to primitive tribes, to ayahasuca—to anything but what is primordial in the West; the Eastern West, relatively. The python at Delphi doesn’t cut it, perhaps they’re not taught about it, and perhaps it’s not backed by science—like ayahuasca—and, unfortunately, even Quality people in SF still like science, quite a bit). But you know that, really, San Francisco > Washington, DC. That’s where the Quality is.


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