Monday, June 11, 2012

A Few Words on Lila by Robert Pirsig


[ If you haven't read Lila, or ZenMM, then don't bother with this post. Really. Just go read ZenMM, then Lila. I don't want to spoil your enjoyment of Lila. And while its only a small spoiler, it refers to something right at the end of the book. This will effect the build of tension for you. ]

There's a review here that sums up well the criticisms I have of Lila the novel. But as the reviewer points out, what we have here with Lila and ZenMM is not just two (hugely successful) novels, we have a philosophy.

To be clear on this, we don't have philosophology - the analysis of philosophy. We have the real thing. A new explanation of reality.

How to relate to this?

Well, you can do as the reviewer (Russ Allberry) does in the link above. You can coherently and cogently criticise Pirsig's arguments. You can conclude - as Russ does - that the Metaphysics of Quality (MOQ) is thought provoking rather than enlightening. Doing so seems entirely reasonable. And it feels safe.

But this isn't how I relate to Pirsig's philosophy. What I know about it is this. That when I look back, these two books create a dividing line in my life. That may sound overly dramatic. I don't want to give you the impression that reading them guarantees some sort of epiphany. But for me, Pirsig's MOQ is a big brother to my own thoughts about Money. My thoughts aren't reasonable or safe. They are, in the words of my LSE Philosophy Professor, 'plainly crazy'. Well, Mr Professor, my big brother has something to say about that.

So I feel emboldened and invigorated. I have much more to read about the MOQ, of course. And I wouldn't like those who have read Lila to think that I agree with everything Pirsig says. I viewed his application of MOQ to culture primarily as a way of furthering the explanation of MOQ itself, rather than a hard, fast and final explanation of our entire history - if indeed, there can ever be such a thing.

There is so much good stuff. So many connections and so much harmony. I could talk about MOQ's relation to the Theory of Formative Causation (Morphic Field Theory). Or how it seems to chime with Freud's story of civilisation. But I'll limit myself to one small thing in this post. Its going to take a little setting up. There's a scene very near the end that really brings to the fore the resonances I perceive between Pirsig's MOQ and my Money. It's going to take a little setting up.

Firstly, my Money.

It's really hard for me to define what I mean by Money. I've tried. The closest I can get to it is saying in essence 'its closer to gravity than it is to anything else' (that's what my LSE Professor thought was crazy). But let's just take a leaf out of ZenMM and - like Pirsig says of Quality - let's just say Money is undefinable. So instead, let's consider money - in other words, currency - something that seems related to, but separate from, Money. Economonoligists often use the terms interchangeability, but clearly there's a difference. Currencies are a subset of Money*.

Now I have a very broad view about what a currency can be. Generally Anthropologists and Economists set up some sort of definition around its functions. But in the real world, a currency can be anything. I've argued the same for commodity. They're both terms that refer to an aspect of our relationship to something. Whereas in everyday life we think they refer to the thing, itself. In fact, saying thing, isn't actually accurate either. Most currency exists in the abstract, as symbols. And in the form of derivatives, so do many commodities. So rather than thing, what we should say is that a currency (or commodity) refers to our relationship to value. After all, it is this value that makes the symbol a currency and the thing a commodity.  Of course, economonologists would say here that what it actually has is exchange value. (That's where I'd refer them the MOQ and say that they don't have the value, the value has them!)

Anyway, where I wanted to get to with this was to say that I believe that totems were the first currency. (That's a Freudian totem - as in a spiritual representation, usually in the form of an animal, of a group of related people). Odd as this may seem, it's not actually too outlandish (its a conclusion that arises naturally from my understanding of the origins of money [currency] to which I give exposition in my as yet unpublished Owning and Owing essay). My version maybe extreme but there are theories on the origin of money that put forward the idea that money has something to do with the ritualistic sacrifice of oxon and the spits on which meat was distributed, or tokens that were used in temples presumably in recognition of a tribute.

Where this led me to, was to consider that religious artefacts - religious relics in particular - were actually currencies. Obviously not widely circulating currencies (although they did circulate despite strict laws against their sale and purchase), but they undoubtedly acted very successfully as stores of wealth, of value. In fact, in the case of Christ's crown of thorns perhaps the most valuable single item that has ever existed in human history (Louis IX paid over about half of France's annual income for it in 1238).

I think it's our arbitrary definitions of currency - defining it around this or that particular set of functions (see here my recent review of Seaford's Money and the Early Greek Mind) - that prevent us from giving a good answer to the real question, What is Money?

Anyway, the long and the short of it is that a religious icon is a form of money. It's currency.

(Interestingly, this might suggest that the coin in your pocket is a religious icon.)


Secondly, Lila's Doll.

Phaedrus had anchored his boat in a bay. He was concerned about Lila's mental health. Events had conspired to put Lila in the cabin of his boat, hugging a doll that she'd pulled from the river. Lila's real child had died and she was treating the doll as if it was actually her baby, wrapping it in a shirt she had bought for Phaedrus. He was considering what he was going to do about this and how he could help Lila when an old friend of hers, Rigel, who he knew, arrived in his own boat and anchored alongside Phaedrus's boat. After a brief discussion Lila chose to go with Rigel, leaving Phaedrus alone. Lila left her doll on Phaedrus's boat. He wonders what to do with it.

And finally, the passage.

"He [Phaedrus] slipped the shirt over the doll's head. It came down way over the over the doll's feet like a nightshirt. That looked better. He buttoned the collar around its neck. Something about this doll was giving it all kinds of Quality the manufacturer had never built into it. Lila had overlaid a whole set of value patterns on top of it and those values were still clinging to it. It was almost like some religious idol. 

He set it on the edge of the pilot berth, and went back and sat down and stared at it for a while. It looked better with the shirt on. 

An idol, that's what this doll was. It was a genuine religious idol of an abandoned religion of one. It had all those formidable characteristics that idols always have. That's what spooked him. Once they've been ritualized and adored, these idols change in value. You can no more throw them away casually than you can throw an old church statue on a dump." (p.434) (My bold)

As I say this passage really resonated for me. For those of you that have read Lila, I would just say that I think Pirsig is wrong about it being a religion of one. Phaedrus's actions in respect of the doll would allow Lila to believe her reality was shared. It was a genuine religious idol of an abandoned religion of two (at least from Lila's perspective).

Perhaps I'm getting into this too deeply :-)

And having written this out, I'm now not too sure that I've managed to make good music out the resonances I perceive between Pirsig's MOQ and my Money. But its early days.

* The good folks over at Metacurrency don't see it this way. Although they do argue for a very broad definition of currency.

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