On 19th January 2022 I interviewed Prof Henry Gurr and David Matos over Zoom, about their ZMM-Quality project(s) around the life and work of Robert Pirsig, author of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and “Lila, an Enquiry into Morals”.
Ian Glendinning (IG): Since this is the first time we’ve done one of these, I’m going to record it, so that I can capture the interview as a transcript but, who knows, this might be the start of future podcasts? However, before we get into who you are and the motives behind these Robert Pirsig web resources, we should probably clarify exactly which web sites we are talking about today?
Henry Gurr (HG) & David Matos (DM): Yes, good question. There are actually 3 separate resources (or 4 depending how you count them).
(1) Most active is https://www.facebook.com/zmmquality
“ZMMQuality: On Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig”
Facebook Page administered by David.
(Wide-ranging general Pirsig interest, despite the ZMM title, it has 2000+ followers with a regular 5000+ reach in Facebook terms.)
(2) Then there is https://www.facebook.com/AWomanofQualitySarahVinke
“A Woman of Quality: Sarah Vinke”
Facebook Page administered by David.
(Set up to promote the book of that title co-authored by Henry Gurr and James Essinger. Sarah is credited with being the “seed crystal” that gave Pirsig “Quality” as the name for his quest, but Sarah was much more than that. Much less active than ZMMQuality, to which many items are cross-posted in order to stimulate interest.)
(3) Behind both of these is http://venturearete.org/ResearchProjects/ProfessorGurr/Main/HomePage
The original “ZMMQuality”
Web Page content managed by Henry, on his home-based web-server.
(We’ll say more about this project when Henry describes his work later.)
(4) Confusingly, there is also https://www.facebook.com/groups/2208675115/
“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance/Lila/MOQ/Robert PIrsig” (sic)
Facebook Public Group unmoderated and nominally administered by a third party.
(Although this page is not connected to Henry and David’s work, David regularly cross-posts from the ZMMQuality and Sarah Vinke pages to stimulate interest. Although it has 1500+ members, the group is otherwise mostly inactive and unmoderated.)
Ian: Excellent, thanks for the clarification. I think I’d always appreciated that Henry’s work was somehow behind the Facebook pages, but that 4th page did create some confusion over the other two. So Henry, let’s start with you. In a sense, you don’t really need much introduction to the Pirsig community, your pages have been around since before the 2006 conference, but if new members were to ask, who is Henry?
Henry: Well, if people are really interested they will find a full description on my university web pages:
Professor Henry Gurr – Distinguished Professor Emeritus
The University of South Carolina at Aiken
Ian: Ah yes, I remember that page and the picture of you with the extended periodic table of nucleotides. It reminds us of your time in nuclear research and development projects at Savannah River before – in your words on that page – deciding to devote your time to “finding better and more satisfying ways for students to learn physics” at USCA-Aiken. (A fascinating life story in itself, but for anyone interested in engineering physics and sustainable technologies, there is an inspiring range of Henry’s interests and projects – ahead of his time – across the USCA and ZMMQuality pages.) But, for today’s audience Henry, in a few sentences, how did a physics professor come to create the ZMMQuality initiative?
Henry: As part of teaching my students “more satisfying ways to learn physics” I had them reading Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in the 90’s, having read it myself in the 80’s. When it came to the last few years before retirement, like all my projects, I was looking for ways to turn it into something practical. So I started planning the trip to record and photograph the route and the places and to relate the physical geography to the Chautauqua messages in the book. In 2002, my first summer in retirement, I made the trip and set up the ZMMQuality website to publish the record of it.
Ian: And the rest as they say is history. As I said earlier, Henry you have a fascinating collection of project resources, not just for “Pirsig Pilgrims” but for engineering physics geeks too. We’d need another session or two to cover more of those, who knows, but now as ever it seems, David you are the low-profile guy in the background – “helping” Henry so far as the rest of the community can tell. So why don’t you introduce yourself.
David: Yes, I have been hiding behind the scenes. I went to USCA Aiken, the same school as Henry, although I never took any of Henry’s classes, I was more in the liberal-arts department. In fact I was a Political Science major though Henry originally assumed I was an English major because of my involvement in writing and publishing media, when Henry approached me in the early 2000’s for some editorial assistance with his web pages. Which I did on and off until at some point as I was also working on Facebook and social media pages I realised hey, Henry’s got all these great photos and details of the route and there was a natural match with such visual media platforms. And, I remember exactly when I made the suggestion to Henry to set-up the Facebook page for his ZMMQuality content. It was when he had just gotten all the new pictures from the MSU Chautauqua event (Montana State Uni, Dec 2012). So I helped him with that, but Henry didn’t really need my ongoing help with his web-pages, so my focus was getting his visual content out to a wider audience via the Facebook page. In terms of audience interaction what’s been very successful has been the annual July retrace of the original 1968 ZMM trip in daily updates.
Ian: Yes, that’s an important example of what is seen as successful from the outside. With such a wealth of resources on Henry’s site, finding opportunities for regular daily or every few days updates on existing topical content keeps it active, not just the annual trip timeline but anniversaries of events in the lives of all the parties associated with Pirsig and his work.
David: Yes, it’s become a little bit of juggernaut, we get about 50,000 Facebook visitors to the annual event. So it’s been an evolving process, and since about 2018 I’ve been working seriously on putting stuff up consistently and regularly … and in sharing via other social media to maintain attention to Pirsig and his books and his philosophy.
Ian: Your own enthusiasm shows David, you’re not just doing Henry a favour here, are you?
David: Henry’s enthusiasm is what completely drove this, and I was one of those that it took three times to finish, to get through reading ZMM. I stalled-out a few times, but now I consider myself beyond a fan – I know so much about details of the book and the people these days.
Henry: David really knows the inside of that book, there isn’t anything I can mention that he doesn’t already know, including say names of secondary contacts for example of the De Weese’s and those researching their artistic activities.
Ian: Yes, expanding the connections through people is an important part of what you’re bringing to ZMMQuality and the effort which goes into it is there for all to see. Henry has previously mentioned that for him simply maintaining the content and photographs of the ZMMQuality pages is effectively a full-time job. What occupies your time David, beyond these ZMM activities.
David: For about the past ten years I’ve volunteered as the director of the non-profit Carolina Peace Resource Centre.
Henry: I might say that Peace is a major interest of David’s and what can be done about it. He does a lot of work and travel – activism – in pursuit of peace.
David: Juggling between odd-jobbing to make a living while being a backsliding activist and being a good activist backsliding on making money. My background is in education, I’ve taught middle-school in social studies and its likely I will go back into the educational field. Right now, I’m basically juggling, but the majority of time is in fact on ZMMQuality.
Henry: I more or less pay for David’s ZMMQuality activities but he also does for example, summertime landscaping and gardening jobs. So we have a flexible arrangement that allows us both to maintain our activities. He takes the lead on his own initiative on the Facebook pages and I occasionally interject suggestions there or have him do updates on the web-pages – where we have quite a few longer term editing and content updates to do. Since we moved the ZMMQuality web hosting from USCA we have a web-server on a home computer that is set-up with the back-end software maintained by my son David Gurr who is the computing expert. Which reminds me, I have a question. Our site, I don’t know about yours, hasn’t been crawled by the WayBack Web Archive for many years. How do we get that to happen?
Ian: My psybertron pages do seem to be crawled each time there is a home page update, which is every post, but since all posts and pages are database driven, I’m not sure how complete or reliable the Pirsig Pages content record really is. We can check-out why yours isn’t being crawled, but in fact, this brings us to the underlying objective of this session – preserving the Pirsig legacy for the future.
Next Time …
At this point we three continued the conversation around the future of the Pirsig legacy and about previous ideas and attempts to pick this up. What is clear is that we need a community effort or association that has a life beyond any one of us enthusiasts, none of us is getting any younger, this much has been agreed before. We started from very basic things like back-ups and mirror sites for the various existing web-pages, as well as the web archive, but topics for future follow-up included:
- Learning the hard-way about other sites (beyond the control of we three) that fall into disuse and then need resurrecting (eg Gary Wegner sites, Anthony McWatt sites.) and “link-rot” generally.
- The other institutional archives (Smithsonian, Harvard, Montana State Uni, and Liverpool Uni?) and plans for public displays (eg Harvard Houghton Library, spring-summer 2022 TBC).
- A community, previously suggested as the RPA (Robert Pirsig Association), involving institutional as well as individual membership. The Facebook pages and messaging to other social media and email channels form a good public communications channel. But there also needs also to be a curated forum for more academic dialogue about Pirsig literary and philosophical content and managed links relating these to even wider communities including the permanent archives. The algorithms mean Facebook is really not the vehicle for this.
- Various false-start attempts have already been drafted and even part implemented. We agreed to share existing “RPA” ideas and drafts.
- It was noted that one reason to have an active forum was to encourage constructive feedback on content that was already published. We all recognised the frustration of zero feedback to publishing efforts.
- It was noted that with a professional independent entity managed by a group keeping each other accountable, funding and matching funding would be forthcoming.
- One of David’s strongly supported suggestions was linking the launching of these arrangements to coincide with the 2024 50th Anniversary of ZMM itself. And indeed, events associated with that, including (say) a rally travelling between events at locations on the ZMM route as well as at the main member institutions. (Note – the Lila route is part of the US “Great Loop” too.)
- Biographies – as well as the Sarah Vinke biography, there were biographies needed for the De Weeses not to mention Bob himself.
- Other witness and writer resources for such biographies. Several were identified.
- Students of Bob and of Sarah. Contacts have been made and followed-up piecemeal with limited success. These need to be concerted projects.
- What happened to the filmed (and other) record of the 2012 Chautauqua – that included additional such contacts. (A highlights-only version of the Forrester video is on YouTube.)
We have plenty of material for future calls. Thanks to Henry and David for their time.
This page posted on the Psybertron blog.
And posted on the Psybertron Pirsig Pages.