Musings: Etienne-Jules Marey and the Pre-History of Tracking

In the Bay Area techtopia, the quantified self / self-tracking trend is fresh and compelling: social media, wearables, handheld devices, and apps make information visible with a stunning level of detail across time. We can see our bodies and our behaviors; we can track how we spend our time it. It seems undeniable that our lives are moving into levels of abstraction that are increasingly fine and deep. Today I’m thinking about that move towards the abstraction and instrumentalization of the human body, and my past work on similar themes in a different context. Can the self-tracking movement that is flourishing be connected to the history and work of 19th century chronophotographer and physiologist, Etienne-Jules Marey?


Etienne Jules Marey’s “Joinville soldier Walking,” 1883

Etienne-Jules Marey, whose work in physiology spanned the 1860s-1890s, translated the living body into metrical traces – angles, flows, durations, volumes, intervals – that could be visualized and analyzed in the interest of producing better efficiencies in human movement. His insight – that all different levels of movement in the human body from the beating of the pulse at the wrist to running and jumping could be produced as metrical abstraction – was assuredly an informational perspective that anticipated developments over the next century. He pursued this vision at every scale. His work broke the body down visually and objectified it into slices of abstraction that could be analyzed to develop a mathematical understanding of human movement, and human life more generally. This view of life anticipated major medical advancements like blood transfusion and organ transplantation.

Marey’s work in abstraction was metaphorical up to a point. His research transformed the way we understood our bodies; he was participating in a general trend of the period that re-imagined life, human and otherwise, as a closed world of energy that had to be harnessed and put to work – (pre)Taylorist dreams backed by the science of the time. Since he was working in the wake of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, Marey was largely interested in questions of fatigue, efficiency, and energy in the human body. These preoccupations are perhaps not so different from what motivates many self-trackers today. Self-trackers measure their own breathing patterns, heart rates, and the number of steps they’ve taken in a day – often, in order to render them into graphical form. They look for trends and use that information to make improvements.

Of course, Marey was tracking a generalized idea of the human form. He used soldiers as models for his studies in human movement. He was also interested in animal locomotion and movement more general – air streams, water, he wanted to track it all. To pin down curvatures, speed, flow – to graph that movement. To enter into that type of research with the self as object is another thing again, perhaps. It is highly individualized, personal, not to mention it turns the object into agent. According to Dawn Nafus it is also highly idiosyncratic, and following along in that vein, the (bio)politics of self-tracking are distinct as well.

I don’t doubt that there is a resonance here, though. Deborah Lupton has also linked the history of what she calls “visualizing and monitoring practices in medicine,” or a mechanical view of life, towards trends in digital innovations that increasingly promote patient self-surviellance and self-care (her blog posts on QS on that and more can be found here). I’m interested in the ways those resonances between Marey’s work, and other work that emerged from the notion of technology as an interface between the human body and a drive for efficiency, open up questions about what self-tracking is, how its history is told, what its implications are.

This was a quick one, so just for fun, here’s a picture of Lillian Gilbreth’s turn-of-the-century time-motion study of a golfer’s swing:


Lillian Gilbreth’s chronocyclograph of a golf swing, 1915

And an iPhone screenshot of the Zepp Golf app in the iPhone 5S ad:


Which one looks like the better golfer?


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