For several decades philosophers, psychologists, cognitive scientists, and education theorists have contested once prevalent accounts of human intelligence as a single, unified or monolithic thing, arguing instead for plural models that accommodate some degree of multiplicity in thinking/learning/knowing modes. The result has been controversy, particularly between advocates (like Howard Gardner) of expanded definitions of intelligence and those who propose instead more restrictive, measurable definitions that push various skill sets outside the bounds of “intelligence” proper. As its critics are wont to point out, the argument for multiplicity has less than rock solid empirical support. It’s hard not to sympathize, however, with its willingness to grapple with more fluid, less formal, agile modes of mental performance; with forms of reasoning that, for instance, that conjoin the mind with the hand, the realm of contemplative intellection with that of the bodily-kinesthetic.
One such realm is the world of sports and, in particular, motorsports, where cogitation takes place under extreme spatio-temporal constraints and where dislocations between simultaneous acts of perception (I’m looking up the track 300 meters at an upcoming turn) and moments of execution (I’m running line x through the prior turn right here and now) are the norm. I’ve ruminated a bit about these sorts of pressure-cooker situations in various writings: in “Three Pieces of Asphalt,” (Grey Room 11, [spring 2003]: 1-23); in a pseudonymously authored essay by a certain Pierre Niox–love it when the essay gets cited since Niox is the protagonist of a 1941 novel by Paul Morand–; but also, more recently, in FuturPiaggio – Six Italian Lessons on Mobility and Modern Life, where the intertwining of vehicles and minds in motion is a recurrent theme.
Here’s one snippet from the essay that forms the book’s backbone:
Quickness is never absolute whether on a motorcycle as technically refined as an Aprilia or on another vehicle: all the more so when it comes to negotiating off-road terrain and asphalt twisties (not straight-line speed). Nor can quickness be reduced to abstract indicators such as traction, acceleration, or horsepower. Rather, velocity is a situated kind of performance, dependent upon complex interactions between the technical characteristics of a vehicle, pilot inputs (no two riders are exactly alike), and environmental factors such as the roadway surface, the geometries of the circuit, temperature, and weather. The management of high speed is an asocial, if not antisocial act. Less about adrenaline than on-the-fly calculation skills, it demands self-absorption and an intensely located form of human intelligence that is unlike the impish playfulness of operating a Vespa.
In the case of racing, what would ordinarily be threatening to one’s sense of bodily integrity must become as routine as a nod of the head. There is no such thing as looking too far down a race track, just as there’s no such thing as too much feel for the immediacy of the roadway. To race means to live a split consciousness between the here and now of performance, the onrushing future within the racer’s immediate field of perception, and cognitive processing of the constantly shifting, turbulent realities of competition itself. To neglect the first would be to give up the ability to adapt to the road’s real-time inputs. To neglect the second would be to sharply limit one’s navigational choices. To neglect the third would be to ride without strategic smarts: to forget to take defensive lines, to assume uncalculated risks, to chew through tires in haphazard fashion.
The argument of an essay on mobility and modern life is one thing. But I would be remiss if I didn’t note that, in addition to being a compelling physical object animated by the graphic intelligence of its art director (Daniele Ledda) and of the multiple generations of engineers, artists, and designers whose work it documents, FuturPiaggio is also a book that is conceptually consonant with questions of thinking under pressure, of seeing things before they can be fully “seen,” and of meshings of tunnel-like narrowness of focus and the distracted scanning of a fast-paced, rapidly shifting context. By design, it invites an act of reading that is plural, interleaving long forms with short forms, image assemblages with text, surface inscriptions with depths variously exposed as a function of the transparency of the paper and opacity of the chosen inks. There’s no single or simple line of reading through the stratigraphy of over- and under-printed texts, images, ghosted transparencies, fold-ins and fold-outs, and seams. Sometimes it’s the typography that takes the lead; sometimes it’s gridded arrays of archival photographs. Timelines of the major units that make up the Piaggio Group unfold on the literal fold of the book’s French-fold pages and require a 90 degree rotation in the axis of reading. There are poster-sized foldouts that also read vertically. The volume is in animated by an overall formal coherence, a unified circuit, but also local structures that come and go. In short, there’s work to do and discoveries to be made in the process of moving back and forth between FuturPiaggio‘s bolts on the front and the nuts and cotter pins the hold together the bundle from the back. Here’s a sampling of some of the layers in the mix.
The chapter leads of the six-part essay.
The section headings. These are layered with the main titles printed up front; the wallpapers underprinted either on versos or the next recto.
Two foldouts from a total of seven.
Two “snapshots”; (note the chronologies running along the folds between pages, the reading of which demands that the reader flatten out the fold).
An anthropology of the Vespa.
An entomology of the Vespa or the kickstarter as evolving limb.
The layout of the dictionary (where images from the archive are keyed to over one hundred playful definitions of Piaggio-generated and -related keywords).
Finally, for the impatient among you: go ahead and speed read 200 outward-facing pages + 200 inward-facing pages in a less than a minute (but practice this at least two to three thousand times if you wish to sharpen your speed reading skills):