Form and function

I’m sure there are plenty of BMW enthusiasts who’ve detected beauty in the motorcycles produced by the marque throughout its long and convoluted history. To my eye, however, beautiful Beemers populate only the current era, maybe going back as far as the early aughts, with many since then still not qualifying for the adjective. Wait—that’s a bit overstated. Certainly, there have been a handful of lovely offerings over the past century, but the vast majority seemed to have been designed according to a crystal-clear hierarchy regarding form and function, with the latter taking all three positions on the podium.

This is not a criticism. I have always thought of it as a perfectly respectable priority and exactly what the faithful wanted. My longstanding image of the stereotypical Beemerphile was a late-middle-aged man in an engineering-related occupation who eschewed fashion (both visual and technical) in favor of reliable, practical, real-world functionality, looks be damned. An ugly bike or part served as evidence the manufacturer and owner subscribed to the philosophy of “pretty is as pretty does.” (Ironically, the only person I ever heard utter this phrase was in fact a late-middle-aged engineer, but one who owned old Ducatis! So much for my stereotype—and his application of the phrase, since Italian machinery has often represented its antithesis. To be fair, he was referring to his preference for the stability and grunt of his plain-Jane ‘90s-era 900SS over the flashier, twitchier, peakier sport bikes from Japan at that time.)

Ducati 900SS. Visit BikeSocial for more information.

In recent years, I’ve come to appreciate the tremendous diversity within the BMW community, just as I’ve been awed by the extensive diversification of genres and models on offer from Berlin. I’ll readily concede BMW now makes some of the most gorgeous motorcycles on the planet, partly because they’ve genuinely stepped up their styling game, but also because so much of the competition has morphed into garish cartoon-like monstrosities. Maybe I’ve also simply reached some tipping point in late-middle-age. For the most part, this enhanced visual appeal has been accompanied by even greater functional proficiency, a decidedly win-win proposition for buyers. After all, homeliness is no guarantee of operational superiority.

Listen to this column as Episode 21 of The Ride Inside with Mark Barnes. Submit your questions to Mark for the podcast by emailing [email protected].

There’s a relevant principle in psychology I’d like to apply here. (If there are any Lacanian psychoanalysts in the audience, please forgive my extremely loose use of the following terms.) There are signifiers, and there are the things signified. Human beings very often treat these as interchangeable, and this can cause problems. To use a simplistic illustration, let’s say I view the blue and white roundel as a symbol of prestige, broadcasting my sophistication, financial means and sporty, adventurous character. I may not actually possess any such attributes, but adorning myself with that emblem could reassure me that I do, especially if I believe it evokes the desired image in onlookers’ eyes. The emblem is the signifier, the idealized identity is what’s signified. This is obviously the currency of marketing efforts, and it can be extremely effective without having any veracity whatsoever. An embroidered logo on a shirt may have nothing to do with the quality of the garment, and it may bear no relation to the socioeconomic status of its wearer, yet it can sell a product in great quantities at premium prices if the signifier is enshrined as the signified in public opinion; never mind the shirt’s seams start to unravel during the second wash.

German fire truck by Alexas Fotos.

Likewise, we might feel compelled to act in a way that signifies something it actually isn’t. Again, to use a simplistic example: If I immediately and meticulously clean/service my bike after every ride so it’s in perpetually pristine condition, this may represent to me a sort of immortality—I’m resetting my motorcycle’s aging clock back to zero, over and over again, preserving it for eternity. By extension, to whatever degree I’m identified with this machine, I may feel repeatedly restored to a state of ageless perfection, ready to weather any storms that might come my way. I’m a shiny fire truck sitting poised in the station, always kept in tip-top shape by the firemen between calls, totally prepared for the next alarm. In reality, there are certainly benefits to keeping a bike in good shape, including the careful examination of its condition during regular cleanings. However, this is most definitely not the same as ensuring it will last forever or never fail during use, and it certainly has no connection to my own invulnerability or mortality. Yes, if I live my life in a state of continual preparedness, I’m apt to fare better than if I surrender to entropy, but there are countless limits on my capacities for prediction, awareness, and control; unexpected catastrophe can befall anyone at any time, regardless of their proactive investments, and one can spend a lifetime preparing instead of living. If I really buy into the immortality signifier, whether for my bike or myself, I will be baffled and enraged when problems arise despite my efforts. I may also neglect more realistic ways of improving my chances of survival.

Perhaps the most common areas wherein people get tripped up by signifiers are interpersonal relations and jobs. We imagine a friend or romantic interest is a certain type of person based on a specific feature we consider emblematic. Continuing with simplistic possibilities, we see a fit, muscular person and imbue them with qualities of strength, determination, and self-discipline. While that may well be true when it comes to physical exercise, they may display none of those characteristics in other areas of their life. This doesn’t only apply to positive attributes. We may write off a particularly attractive person as probably an entitled, shallow airhead, with physical beauty signifying empty conceit. As a result of errors in both directions, we can end up entangled with people we eventually conclude are tremendous disappointments and forfeit relationships with much better choices. It’s important not to mistake an impeccable suit for professional integrity, or a pair of faded jeans for irresponsibility.

We may be drawn to a profession or a workplace because of various trappings, like its social status or monetary compensation, imagining these are proof it will be rewarding. Then, after living within it for a while, we realize neither of those promises have been fulfilled – or, even if they have, the position may leave us thoroughly unrewarded in other, more important, ways. We need the ability to distinguish between the signifier and the signified if we are to invest wisely and have a realistic set of expectations regarding the world around us. This is even true of our own identity. When we reify some element – a job title, family role, group membership, medical diagnosis, etc. – as though it is who we are, we’ve again reduced the whole to a part (or worse, an abstract label), confusing a signifier with what’s supposedly signified; we’ve bought into our own PR, replacing something complex and multifaceted with a unidimensional façade.

A particularly infuriating example of deliberately calculated signifier abuse is what we all hear on the recordings pumped through our phones while we wait endlessly on hold. The saccharine voice assures us with threadbare phrases our call is terribly important to the company we’ve contacted, or that all manner of frustrating, dehumanizing indignities in the interaction are somehow a function of their most sincere efforts to ensure the very highest quality of service. Do you really believe the health insurance company is denying your claim because it has your best interests at heart and is tirelessly protecting you from your doctor’s greed and incompetence? The assurance of concern is most definitely not the same thing as actual concern. Corporate insistence on this count is usually so transparently incongruent it fools absolutely no one, and instead alienates and antagonizes customers even more. It’s unimaginable anyone would mistake signifier for signified in this domain.

Do you see the forest or the trees? Does it matter? Photo by Lumn.

I trust you get my point by now, so I’m going to give the concept a fresh shake. It occurs to me there are cases wherein the form is the function. We call this art. What if the electro-mechanical operation of my gorgeous R 1250 RS isn’t the main attraction? What if I just wanted it for its body(work)? Who’s to say this would be an illegitimate justification for its purchase? Its form might edify me by virtue of its sheer visual, tactile presence – the graceful curves and sensual creases of its surface providing delight without its motor ever turning. I could take pleasure in the elegant engineering evident in the visible elements of its motor and chassis, as did those admirers of BMW motorcycles before the modern era. The aesthetics of design can be inspiring, comforting, or exhilarating. Why would this be any less genuine a function than transportation, sporting prowess, or touring competence? What seems superficial to one person might be the whole point to someone else.

As for the issue of signifier and signified, the concepts don’t really change. I would still be dealing with an abstraction, an element, and mistaking it for a larger whole that has been symbolized. Perhaps a bike’s lines call to mind a fierce creature; owning it is then tantamount to possessing that beast’s raw power, not because of the horsepower the motor generates, but because of the “facial” expression of its headlights. Obviously, I’d be no more fierce in real life. Another bike’s form represents something more maternal, a luxurious cocoon providing refuge from turbulence and pain. Regardless of the profile it cuts, a machine’s precision craftsmanship might transport me to parallel universe where order and logic coexist with careful, patiently applied lovingkindness. It’s just plastic and aluminum, but I can infuse it with meaning of any magnitude, according to my emotional needs and imaginative tendencies.

Ultimately, a deeper layer of emotion drives our imagination and shapes our perception and interpretation of signifiers. We’re never free of such distortions; we never observe the world or ourselves from a truly detached, objective viewpoint. We can only recognize our propensity to mistake signifiers for the signified and try to carefully reassess such substitutions in the areas that matter most to us. In a very real sense, we live in a realm of self-manufactured illusions and things are not as they seem. Alas, the blue and white roundel on my bike doesn’t really accrue to the perfection of my soul, no matter how much I admire my bike’s form or function. Berlin can’t do that work for me.

Mark Barnes is a clinical psychologist and motojournalist. To read more of his writings, check out his book Why We Ride: A Psychologist Explains the Motorcyclist’s Mind and the Love Affair Between Rider, Bike and Road, currently available in paperback through Amazon and other retailers.