The Helmholtz Curves: Tracing Lost Time

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Fordham University Press, 2014 - Philosophy - 228 pages
This book reconstructs the emergence of the phenomenon of 'lost time', i.e. the gap between stimulus and response, by engaging with two of the most significant time experts of the 19th century: the German physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) and the French writer Marcel Proust (1871-1922). It combines original research in the history of science with a new reading of Proust's famous "In search of lost time" and a thought-provoking exploration of Gilles Deleuze's philosophy.

The starting point of the book is the archival discovery of two curve images that Helmholtz produced in the context of his path breaking experiments on the temporality of the brain and the nervous system in 1851. When naming the recorded phenomena, Helmholtz introduced the term "temps perdu," i.e. lost time. From 1870 on, Etienne Jules Marey popularized this expression and the corresponding curves as examples for the creative use of the 'graphic method.' Marcel Proust was well aware of this. He had excellent contacts with the biomedical world of late 19th-century Paris and was familiar with physiological tracing technologies such as sphygmography and chronophotography.

Extensively drawing on the machine philosophy of Deleuze, "The Helmholtz Curves" highlights the resemblance between the respective machinic assemblages and rhizomatic networks within which Helmholtz and Proust pursued their respective research projects. Helmholtz's "frog drawing machine" allowed for producing physiological curves that were "movement images" as well as "time images" of the living organism. With these images the 'lagging behind' of the organism behind the exterior world and the delay of consciousness with respect to brain, nerve and muscle activity was established as a scientific fact. Up until today, it has remained a core issue in debates between neuroscientists and philosophers---from Benjamin Libet to Brian Massumi.

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About the author (2014)


Henning Schmidgen is Professor of Media Studies at the Bauhaus University in Weimar, Germany.

Nils F. Schott studied philosophy and comparative literature at the American University of Paris and at the Johns Hopkins University, where he completed a dissertation on the relationship between religion and Enlightenment in catechetical literature. His publications include reflections on conversion as well as many translations.

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