Helmholtz Curves: Tracing Lost Time

Helmholtz Curves: Tracing Lost Time

Helmholtz Curves: Tracing Lost Time

Helmholtz Curves: Tracing Lost Time


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.


Lost time is the temporal gap between sensation and movement, perception and thought, decision and action. It is not a time that is forgotten. It is not the time of missing memories. Nor is it a time squandered or wasted. Lost time is never the time of futility, idleness, or sleeplessness. It is the time of suspension, of opening, of possibility.

In the summer of 2009 I was working in the archives of the Paris Academy of Science, doing research for a larger study on the history of braintime experiments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was there and then that the Helmholtz curves interrupted my stream of thought. What I suddenly had before my eyes were writing-images that oscillated in fascinating ways between transparency and obscurity. the Helmholtz curves immediately captured me, disrupted the work on my larger study, and drove me to write this book. the rest of my work came to a halt. It had to pause. in this sense, the present book owes its existence to a kind of “lost time.”

More than ten years ago, I worked as a clinical psychologist. My main task consisted in placing psychiatric patients in front of computer screens. I instructed them to respond to visual and acoustic signals by quickly pressing buttons or keys. Or I would give them a pencil and confront them with a form on which they had to mark specific letters or characters. Armed with a stopwatch, I tried to determine the time they needed for this task.

A decade later—having in the meantime turned into a historian of science—I found myself in the Paris archives, in a similar situation but with the roles reversed. Now it was I who was sitting at a table with a form . . .

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