The Helmholtz Curves: Tracing Lost Time

The Helmholtz Curves: Tracing Lost Time

Henning Schmidgen
Translated by Nils F. Schott
Stefanos Geroulanos
Meyers Todd
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    The Helmholtz Curves: Tracing Lost Time
    Book Description:

    This book reconstructs the emergence of the phenomenon of "lost time" by engaging with two of the most significant time experts of the nineteenth century: the German physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz and the French writer Marcel Proust. Its starting point is the archival discovery of curve images that Helmholtz produced in the context of pathbreaking experiments on the temporality of the nervous system in 1851. With a "frog drawing machine," Helmholtz established the temporal gap between stimulus and response that has remained a core issue in debates between neuroscientists and philosophers. When naming the recorded phenomena, Helmholtz introduced the term temps perdu, or lost time. Proust had excellent contacts with the biomedical world of late-nineteenth-century Paris, and he was familiar with this term and physiological tracing technologies behind it. Drawing on the machine philosophy of Deleuze, Schmidgen highlights the resemblance between the machinic assemblages and rhizomatic networks within which Helmholtz and Proust pursued their respective projects.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-6198-7
    Subjects: History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-25)

    At the beginning, two images. Both were created in the middle of the nineteenth century, both of them are signed “Helmholtz,” and both are movement-images as well as time-images. Our first look at them is deeply anachronistic. They appear to be horizontal filmstrips or elongated negatives of black-and-white photographs. Around 1850, however, such a use of celluloid was only a remote possibility. Not until the 1880s was celluloid turned into the quintessential storage medium for photographic and cinematographic images. And yet, our two images already deal with cinematics.

    Both are carefully mounted on white cardboard. Mounted that way, scratches and...

  6. ONE Curves Regained
    (pp. 26-40)

    On September 1, 1851, a note from Hermann Helmholtz was read in the Académie des sciences in Paris. Helmholtz had been professor of physiology and anatomy at Königsberg University since 1849, and in this note, he reported on his continued studies on the propagation speed of nerve stimulations. A routine event in nineteenth-century scientific circles, we might think.

    On closer inspection, however, we quickly find ourselves caught up in a deconstructive movement that unstoppably slides from author to writing and from text to technics. We might accept that the title of the note (which, in translation, reads “Second Note on...

  7. TWO Semiotic Things
    (pp. 41-54)

    Bruno Latour has dedicated one of his most insightful texts to the gesture of scientific showing. In “Circulating Reference,” he takes the example of pedology to investigate how a discipline produces and secures the connection between scientific representations and the realities that correspond to them. How do pedological depictions of things relate to the things themselves? How, for example, are the connections between a map and an actually existing place or between a soil sample and the actual terrain it is taken from established and secured? “Is the referent what I point to with my finger outside of discourse, or...

  8. THREE A Research Machine
    (pp. 55-84)

    Let us, therefore, go back to the beginning. This beginning does not correspond to a point but to a “tangle,” a “multilinear ensemble” in whichalllines—not just the lines of art but the lines of technology also—are “subject to changes in direction, bifurcating and forked.”²

    The winter of 1849–50 was Helmholtz’s first winter in Königsberg. Together with his wife Olga, he had moved from Potsdam to the city of Kant at the end of August to become Ernst Brücke’s successor at the university there. After his studies in medicine under Johannes Müller in Berlin, Helmholtz had...

  9. FOUR Networks of Time, Networks of Knowledge
    (pp. 85-114)

    We can also observe an interlocking of the internal with the external in the way the Königsberg research machine worked, especially in the way it coordinated its effects in time. Although it functioned in physiological backwaters and in the calm of a university building in East Prussia, this machine closely connected with comparatively hectic scientific and technological activity in Berlin and Paris.

    Besides the publications that picked up on the work of the machine one after the other—including the “Preliminary Report” and the “Measurements”—Helmholtz used in particular his correspondence with du Bois-Reymond to keep his scientific milieu apprised...

  10. FIVE Time to Publish
    (pp. 115-129)

    In practice, the research conducted by Helmholtz, Proust, and others who experimented with time in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries referred to a collective labor on materializing simultaneity, an enterprise to which constructors of telegraphs and clockmakers, factory owners and newspaper companies, postal services and railroad companies contributed in their different ways and often independently of one another.² This is apparent in Pouillet’s method but also in the drafts for the opening scene of Proust’sRecherche.

    These drafts show Marcel, lying in bed, reading the morning paper. Then, Proust has his narrator determine the time it takes his brain...

  11. SIX Messages from the Big Toe
    (pp. 130-146)

    While, in the spring of 1850, du Bois-Reymond was in Paris, promoting Helmholtz’s time experiments, the research machine in Königsberg was fully engaged in drifting. A short time after the “Preliminary Report” had been drafted and sent off, the assemblage of frog frame, galvano-chronometer, and reading telescope was already moving from working with weakened winter frogs to operating with fresh spring frogs, and had passed from dealing with nerve stimulation as a temporally conditioned phenomenon to engaging with this stimulation as a phenomenon that was, equally, thermally conditioned.

    Helmholtz reported on these shifts in great detail in the “Measurements,” the...

  12. SEVEN The Return of the Line
    (pp. 147-171)

    What followed for Helmholtz was a further drifting of the experimental process and a return to the method of the curves. The drift this time led from psychophysiology to physics. In the human time measurements, it had been necessary to work with “strong apparatuses,” that is, with powerful resistors that kept the electric shocks so weak that they were “just barely noticeable.”² This drew attention to a problem that had not until then been taken into account: When exactly does an induction shock take effect physiologically? Does it act as if immediately—at the same high speed as electricity—or...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 172-178)

    Proust and Helmholtz never met. When the “Reich Chancellor of Sciences” died in Berlin in 1894, the budding author was all of twenty-three years old. Proust never went to Berlin, and Helmholtz didn’t want to go to Paris. He preferred traveling to England or the United States. Proust probably never read a single line of Helmholtz. It seems that the discourse of “temps perdu” was delivered to the future author of theRecherchevia Marey.

    Where Helmholtz and Proust meet nevertheless is in a creative use of dynamization technologies for distancing themselves from social and cultural modernity within its very...

    (pp. 179-182)
  15. NOTES
    (pp. 183-214)
    (pp. 215-220)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 221-228)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 229-230)