The Graphic Method

Etienne-Jules Marey’s graphic method wasn’t simply a replacement for observation with the senses, but also a representational method that sought greater insight into phenomena by non-linguistic means. While in San Francisco, I picked up a discounted copy of Dagognet’s A Passion for the Trace which, although flawed, really whet my appetite for looking into him. Past research on Muybridge was interesting to me, but ultimately didn’t go anywhere. I think looking into Marey may get me closer to understanding the struggle for redefinition of time and space in the late nineteenth century—Bergson, Husserl, et al.

When we follow the development, which is now so rapid, of the experimental sciences, we observe that each new progress is the result of some improvement in the methods employed. The telescope, the microscope, the chemical balance, the galvanometer, etc., are in the hands of every investigator. No one would presume to substitute the powers of his unaided senses for the employment of these marvelous apparatuses, to which are due nearly all the modern conquests of science.

By a singular exception, the study of living beings was for a long time limited to unaided observation. Thus the physiologist and the physician, while displaying the greatest sagacity in the observation of the phenomenon of life, only arrived at imperfect notions. By the side of the exact sciences, physiology and medicine seemed to have but little precision. People had even come to deny that the acts of life were subject to rigorous laws, because these laws could not yet be discerned in it.

Skillfully practiced experiments on living animals, however, showed that in animals, as in the inorganic world, a phenomenon can always be reproduced, identical with itself when the experimenter places himself under well determined conditions; on the other hand, the precise means of a medical diagnosis, auscultation and percussion, permitted skilled clinical observers to determine with admirable precision the seat and the extend of certain lesions. The possibility of really scientific physiology and medicine could thus be conceived.

But in the laboratory, as at the bedside of the patient, the skill of the individual, his practiced tact, and the subtlety of his perceptive powers played too large a part. To render accessible to all the phenomena of life—movements which are so light and fleeting, changes of condition so slow or so rapid, that they can escape the senses—an objective form must be given to them, and they must be fixed under the eye of the observer, in order that he may study them and compare them deliberately.

Such is the object of the graphic method, of which I shall have the honor of showing you some of the applications.

M. Marey, “The Graphic Method in the Experimental Sciences, and on its Special Application to Medicine” Delivered at the Medical Congress in Brussels, September 21st, 1875. British Medical Journal January 1, 1876.

Marey describes one apparatus consisting of a series of “writing levers” where the waves of blood flow might inscribe themselves. In the second part of the 1875 lecture quoted above published a few weeks later, he describes a similar apparatus for tracing respiration, going on to suggest:

It would be premature to put forward on this subject affirmations of too absolute a character; further researches can alone lay the foundations of the semeiology of the respiratory movements. One point seems, however, now well established; that is, that the functions of the heart and lungs may undergo, by muscular exercise frequently renewed, profound modifications.

While Marey steps back from claiming that he has discovered systematic meaning within bodily movements, attributing a different sort of knowledge—a systematic, learnable, choreographed movement over time—seems to him to be beyond dispute. Provided, of course, that the movement is rendered intelligible through graphic methods—a language of curves rather than discrete numbers or representational images:

Still more, all kinds of statistics lend themselves to this method, and thus yield to the first essay results which that could only be disengage by a long and assiduous study. Therefore the use of the curve becomes daily more widely diffused, though not with sufficient rapidity for the wishes of those who realize the sum of its usefulness. How is it possible not to anticipate with impatience the day when long and obscure descriptions will give place to satisfactory representations? All those who occupy themselves experimental study or observations, readers overwhelmed and invaded by the accumulation of written documents, the economist, the statistician, the financier, the statesman, who accumulate around them volumes full of figures, one of these days will find, on one atlas containing some luminous curves, the whole essence of these crude materials.

So, there, in a nutshell is the essence of the graphic method—it wasn’t simply to employ writing machines to measure, but the creation of a new class of representations functioning without words or numbers—a direct expression without exposition:

If the graphic method, however, possesses such great advantages from the aspect of the exposition of observed facts, how great is its superiority when the phenomenon of which it gives up the tracing belongs to those which entirely escape the perception of our senses! Here, there is no longer any intermediary between the act and its graphic expression.

A unique body of knowledge, formed by pulse and blood, by movement and breath—without the barrier of mathematics or language. Adventurous, to say the least, and curiously coincident with C.S. Peirce’s attempt to construct an alternate sort of graphic representation for logic and mathematics—but I’d have to check the dates. I am reasonably certain that they corresponded with each other, but it’s been a while since I read Peirce.

Muybridge sought the depiction of movement, whereas Marey was more concerned with more complete detection of movement calculated and compared against measured slices of time.