Thursday, 17 December 2009

Ian McKay, "Rebels, Reds, Radicals: Rethinking Canada’s Left History" (2005).

Ian McKay, Rebels, Reds, Radicals: Rethinking Canada’s Left History (2005).

I’m torn about the value of this book, for a number of reasons.

1) It contains a significant material that McKay has published elsewhere. At a little more than 200 pages, much of two of the five chapters were published in 2000. That being said, these chapters had been widely recognized as important reading for scholars of 20th-century Canadian history.

2) A goodly portion of the book (the first three chapters) reads like a very general introduction to socialist/Marxist/Gramscian thought. While this is entertaining to read, and well-written, it does not seem particularly necessary to add to material that is already widely available elsewhere.

3) The fifth chapter, which ‘maps’ Canadian left history between 1890 and 1990 over five stages is an extremely interesting and helpful initial reconnaissance of a widely overlooked area of national historical experience that is often misrepresented or misunderstood when it is investigated. Of the entire book, it is this fifth chapter that makes the text memorable.

Mackay does clarify usage of a number of terms that I note here for personal reference:
1) Matrix-events: A term from the Annales school. The shock of the new. “[…A] moment that reshapes hegemony at both its profoundest structural levels and its conscious levels.” (95)

2) Moments of refusal: When the order’s appearance of permanence gives way to an appearance of historical transience, resistance which before had been silent and passive breaks out in a multitude of unexpected and often violent ways. (103)

3) Moments of supersedure: A term from Gramsci. Those times when an individuals understanding of the world and its order significantly changes, when these changes are widespread, and when the urgency of discovery compels sharing with others.

4) Moment of systematization: As the heat of the moment of supersedure passes, the knowledge must be tested against other examples, and given a common language and program. It must also be tested against and applied to past methods and concepts of resistance.

5) Formations: Systematization leads to “a way of disseminating [each left organizations’] concepts through a much wider social network.” (112) Similar to Gramsci’s ‘historic bloc’; a new historical agent, united by an overriding political objective.

Robert Persig, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" (1974)

Robert M. Persig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (1974).

This book was certainly not what I thought it was. Perhaps gauged from the title, I had always thought it was something like Kerouac’s On The Road. …and it is. The book documents a motorcycle road trip across the American Midwest by a man and his son. On the other hand, it is quite different as well. We come to learn that the man is recovering from some sort of psychological collapse, brought on in part from his consideration of philosophical issues related to the nature of quality.

I read this text purely on the recommendation of someone whose opinions about such things I respect. The philosophic nature of the writing, the real sense of struggle with concepts and ideas struck me as being similar to Dostoyevskii at his best (in The Brothers Karamazov, for instance). On the other hand, as the text progressed, I found the portions dealing with the father’s mental illness less and less clear, and hardly necessary to the story. I fear that perhaps I might be missing some allusion to a famous or important philosophic parable, but none came to mind. If this comparison was intended, I wish it had been made ever so slightly clearer.

In the context of conversations with the recommender, the portion of the text I found most valuable dealt with ‘Gumptionology’, or “an examination of affective, cognitive and psychomotor blocks in the perception of Quality relationships. In other words, the things that cause us to “lose one’s enthusiasm for what one is doing.” Let me reiterate what Persig says about these blocks, as he attempts to explain them in relation to motorcycle repair (of course, they apply to many other tasks as well, which is part of the value of the text).

There are two types of ‘gumption’ blocks: those arising from external circumstances (setbacks) and those from internal conditions (hang-ups). My notes on these blocks are primarily for my own use, and so might raise as many questions as they answer (and if you have questions, feel free to raise them here…).

1) Out of sequence re-assembly: discovering that you’ve taken something apart that you’re having trouble putting back together. Strategy for overcoming it: a) keep a notebook as you disassemble something, noting positions of parts and other observations that seem useful in the re-assembly process; b) keep the parts spread out on newspaper, in order, as you disassemble, so that in re-assembly you don’t overlook parts.
2) Intermittent failure. The problem that appears only occasionally, giving the illusion that it has fixed itself, or that you have fixed it. Strategy for overcoming: Take advantage of the opportunities for monitoring the problem. Compare and note what the context of the problem is; what else is going on when the problem appears that might indicate its roots, or be noted as another symptom of the problem.
3) Setback: parts are hard to find, expensive, and don’t always fit like the originals. Strategy for overcoming: a) find a cooperative parts dealer, and get to know them well; b) always take the old part with you to show the parts dealer exactly what it is you are looking for; c) consider machining your own parts, if you have some money and time to spare.

Affective (“value traps”)
1) Value rigidity: “If your values are rigid you can’t learn new facts.” The problem might be staring you in the face, but your value system (where you expect and look for the problem) can’t accommodate for problems from outside the spectrum you’ve prioritized. Strategy for overcoming: a) look at the machine like you look at your line when you’re fishing: slow down, observe, look for subtle inconsistencies, set your presumptions aside.
2) Ego: “If you have a high evaluation of yourself then your ability to recognize new facts is weakened.” You tend to make stupid mistakes, or work too fast based on overconfidence or a desire to impress. Strategy for overcoming: “Deliberately assume you’re not much good…”
3) Anxiety: the opposite of ego; assuming that you are no good, which paralyzes you. Strategy for overcoming: a) read a lot about the task, b) make a list of what you are going to do, how you are going to do it, and why.
4) Boredom: you’ve lost your ‘beginner’s mind’ and assume that what you’re doing doesn’t require real attention or thought. Strategy for overcoming: a) Walk away for a while and do something else to refresh your mind; b) be attentive to the aesthetics of the familiar.
5) Impatience: Underestimating the amount of work and attention required, and the carelessness that results. Strategy for overcoming: a) allow more time than you think you’ll need; b) scale down the scope of what you want to do to ensure it is manageable within your skills and experience.

Cognitive (“truth traps”)

1) Yes-no logic: Elementary two-term discrimination. Strategy for overcoming: Consider the Japanese word mu, “no thing.” A test or experiment that comes up with an answer outside the two-term binary is not a failure, but an indicator that the test might be internally limited in its capacity to measure the problem.

Psychomotor (“muscle traps”)
1) Inadequate tools: Pretty straightforward. Strategy for overcoming: if you depend on your tools, adequately invest in them.
2) Bad surroundings: Pretty straightforward, as well. If you want to do a job well, don’t force your body to enter into the task in an uncomfortable position, temperature, lighting, or sound environment.
3) Muscular insensitivity: Not paying proper respect to precision parts and material elasticity. Precision parts require precision handling, and although you might be working on something that appears rugged, most machines involve some parts that are sensitively tooled. Strategies for overcoming: In short, respect. Your machine is a lot of costs, and a refined and really, quite miraculous object. Treat it accordingly.

In summary, in what I think was the most thought-provoking and wisest statements in the book, Persig offers this advice: “It’s the way you live that predisposes you to avoid the traps and see the right facts. You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally. That’s the way the experts do it. The making of a painting or the fixing of a motorcycle isn’t separate from the rest of your existence."