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Marey’s Graphic Method

Research Report by James J. Hodge
(created 3/5/06; version 1.0)

Related Categories:New Reading Interfaces

Original Object for Study description

The aim of this entry is twofold: to describe a field of discourse that located around the protean status of the word and suffix graph in latter half of the nineteenth century, and to instantiate that discourse through a consideration of Etienne-Jules Marey’s méthode graphique [graphic method]. The discourse of graph may be considered to be a micro-discourse, a series of signifying practices that loosely—perhaps even unconsciously—organizes meaning not from the standpoint of a unifying discourse such as science or theology that organizes knowledge from the outside in but rather signifies a particular episteme from the inside out. The word and suffix graph appears in the names of many new technologies in the middle and late nineteenth century: photography, cinematography, cardiography, phonautograph, graphophone, heliography, telegraphy, ideograph, phonograph, seismograph, myography, etc. Beyond recognizing graph as a facile gesture of nomenclature, this entry argues that its prevalence signifies a culturally and historically specific micro-discourse with deep implications for the study of writing as such in the broader media ecology of the late nineteenth century. Marey’s graphic method represents a meta-example of this micro-discourse. Marey’s graphic method modernized the study of physiology by helping to displace quasi-mystical theories of vitalism with a positivistic understanding of the human body. As writing, the indexical traces produced by means of the graphic method evidence a radical cultural transformation of the status of writing from transcendent signifying practice to the machinic writing of life based not upon a higher power but rather the movements of the body as machine. The graphic method takes part in a larger cultural and epistemic project of the scientific secularization of writing and inscription.

Vitalism, the anti-mechanistic view that life requires a quasi-mystical “spark” or “vital forces,” still held sway in the early nineteenth century. Influenced by the philosophical writings of Auguste Comte (1798-1857), nineteenth century scientific positivism rejected the metaphysics of vitalism in favor of the empirical method. Positivism formed the necessary intellectual background for the rise of physiology as a legitimate science in the middle of the nineteenth century in its tacit epistemological imperative to discover and describe how things work through direct observation and repetition. More specifically, positivism enabled scientists to consider the body “as an animate machine whose laws were those that governed inanimate nature.”[1] In its use of technology, Marey’s graphic method, an expansion of Karl Ludwig’s (1816-1895) graphic method, constitutes an exemplary practical application of scientific positivism in its ability to depict natural phenomena, and also in its claim to bring natural phenomena under human control. The graphic method served as a stepping stone for developing a photographic method—often referred to as chronophotography—for studying movement that would prove influential in the labor efficiency studies of Frank Gilbreth and F. W. Taylor as well as in the modernist aesthetics of Marcel Duchamp and the Italian Futurists.

Marey devoted his scientific career to the study of movement. His views on science in general reflect his interest in making visible and observable physical processes that occur inside the body and are not directly observable or that happen too quickly for the naked eye to observe. In his 1878 treatise on the graphic method, he stated: “Science has two obstacles that block its advance: first the defective capacity of our senses for discovering truths, and then the insufficiency of language for expressing and transmitting those we have acquired. The aim of scientific models is to remove those obstacles.” Technology, for Marey, constitutes a means of ascertaining truths otherwise unavailable. Technology also served as a means of improving upon human perception. While Marey viewed language as “often improper for the expression of exact measures,” the graphic method provided a means of accessing a universal language, or, “that which, in all epochs and among all peoples, has represented objects in the same manner.”[2] There is, then, a totalizing dream inherent in Marey’s graphic method, which does not escape the metaphysical dream of a pre-Babel universal language. The graphic method does not break completely with metaphysics; Marey’s rhetoric transposes the metaphysical dream of an originary language from a divine Logos to scientific discourse.

More concretely, Marey’s graphic method may be instantiated in one of his inventions: the sphygmograph. The sphygmograph, or pulse writer, recorded the movements of the pulse in real time. Marta Braun writes,

Marey’s instrument was very simple. It comprised a lever, with one end resting on the pulse point of the wrist and the other connected to a stylus, and a clockwork mechanism that moved a strip of smoke-blackened paper under the stylus at uniform speed, converting the pulsations into a fluid inscription. The sphygmograph graphed the pressure changes by giving visual form to the displacement of the arterial wall as it responded to the blood coursing through it. The expansion of the arterial forced the needle upward, and its relaxation was accompanied by a downward movement of the needle. [3]

The graphic trace produced by the sphygmograph visualized what had previously been invisible. Further, it fixed an image of the duration of a fundamentally temporal ephemeral bodily process. The image of the graphic trace allowed the trained observer to extrapolate information about the health of the subject. It fixed time so that the interpreter could break down and analyze the data presented. That is, the sphygmograph produces a text that may be interpreted with its own syntagmatic structure particular to the specific body it records. For example, Marey’s sphygmograph gained notoriety after it detected the irregular pulse of a man who soon dropped dead. Other technologies that follow a similar logic of the graphic method include Marey’s cardiograph, odograph, and myograph.

Research Context:
The discourse of the word graph may be approached through several disciplines and areas of inquiry: the history of science, film and media studies, semiotics, literary studies, sound theory, visual culture, and information theory. The verbal and visual connotations of the word require an approach that may accommodate both dimensions. The study of particular technologies in relation to this broader discourse may require specialized or archival expertise, e.g. sound inscription, the materiality of graphs. The historical and cultural particularity of the discourse require attention to the historical conditions of imagining such a manifold use of the word. More generally, the discourse of graph and Marey’s graphic method may be considered in terms of other efforts to create or distinguish a universal language. As writing and as inscription, Marey’s graphic method challenges the formal limits of language and asks us to delimit the ways in which technological inscription differs from handwriting or printed versions of handwriting. Such theoretical categorizations may be of interest for an archaeology of technological inscription.

Technical Analysis:
The inscriptions produced by Marey’s graphic method challenge the conventional limits of writing. The value of Marey’s graphic method for the historian of writing and technology lies not with its legibility per se. Since the mechanism—sphygmogarph, cardiograph, etc.—effectively displaces the conscious author (in addition to an entire metaphysics of presence), it becomes necessary to differentitate the graphic method from other kinds of linguistic signifiers. Peircean semiotics presents one promising mode of methodological inquiry into the nature of the signs produced by the graphic method. Peirce’s three kinds of signs—symbol, icon, and index—may be conceived as corresponding to three generally recognized categories of writing. Alphabetic writing, like the kind read here, may be conceived as symbolic in that each word has no necessary relation to the object it signifies. For example, the word “dog” corresponds arbitrarily to the animal to which it refers. Pictographic writing, or writing that combines some kind of distilled image of the thing it represents, may be conceived as an iconic sign in that it bears some likeness to the thing it represents. Marey’s writing, however, is indexical. That is, its movements physically and necessarily correspond to their production by the body. The basic and uncontrollable processes of the human body displace the mind as the site of creativity. The body writes, and the body writes of necessity. As Peirce notes, however, none of these three signs are pure; they are always mixed. A particular set of graphic traces produced by Marey’s sphygmograph, for instance, are also iconic because they resemble other graphic traces or other graphic processes.

Evaluation of Opportunities/Limitations for the Transliteracies Topic:
The micro-discourse of graph exemplified by Marey’s graphic method may contribute to the Transliteracies Project in two ways. It may urge consideration of what produces writing, e.g. an author, the body, a machine. It may also challenge the project’s conception of text, especially as it concerns the notion of online reading as “text plus” content. Marey’s graphic method is not a language like English, French, or German and so it may not strictly be conceived of as “text” in a rigid sense. However, it is not quite “plus” either. It is not so much a supplement to traditional text as a re-conceptualization of text, of writing in general as regularly produced by bodily processes and mediated by machines in place of direct human perception. It may serve broadly, then, as a historic heuristic for thinking through the distance between author and reader and the cultural conditions that underlie the reading and interpretation of such “writing.”

[1]Marta Braun, Picturing Time, p. 12.
[2]Marey, La méthode graphique, pp. III-IV, quoted in Hankins and Silverman, p. 139.
[3]Braun, p. 17.

Resources for Further Study:

  • Braun, Marta. Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
  • Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology (1967), trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).
  • Dagognet, François. Etienne-Jules Marey: A Passion for the Trace (1987), trans. Robert Galeta with Jeanine Herman (New York: Zone Books, 1992).
  • Foucault, Michel. The Archeaology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language (1969), trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Parthenon Books, 1972)
  • Gitelman, Lisa. Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999).
  • Hankins, Thomas and Robert J. Silverman. Instruments and the Imagination (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).
  • Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1986), trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999).
  • Marey, Etienne-Jules. “The History of Chronophotography” (1901) in A History of Pre-Cinema, Vol. 1, ed. Stephen Herbert (New York: Routledge, 2000).
  • ———. La méthode graphique dans les sciences expérimentales et principalement en physiologie et en médecine (Paris: Masson, 1878).
  • Mitchell, W. J. T. Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).
  • ———. Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
  • Peirce, Charles Sanders. “What is a Sign?” (1894) The Essential Peirce, vol. 2, ed. Peirce Edition Project (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998).
  • Rabinach, Anson. The Human Motor (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

  tl, 03.05.06

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