Monday, 28 March 2011

Time, Labour, Social Domination

Manual labour. Time entering into the body. Through work man turns himself into matter as Christ does through the Eucharist. Work is like death.- Simone Weil

Film-time and work-time are intimately connected not only in their opposition - the history of cinema as leisure is only half the picture. Etienne-Jules Marey's photographic gun fired 12 times per second at subjects - the bearers of qualities - which passed its sights. Eadweard Muybridge's experiments further deepened the division of time and the framing of space just as it divided bodies in movement. Gesture would no longer be received as complete nor in its singularity, but in it's divisible and reproducible parts. The human and animal body became partitioned and studied as a motion/labour or work/energy machine. Time was counted into fractions and allotted equivalent space producing a frame. The actions within this frame could now be meticulously studied. It was not an accident that the camera looks like a gun, points like a gun but kills only somewhat differently: 'Cinema is death [or truth] 24 times a second'. Frank B. Gilbreth's truth was the scientific management of Frederick Winslow Taylor with a cinematic plugin. Applied to the 19th and early 20th century worker this science could yield more work from less gestures and in less time. Time was squeezed, labour was squeezed and the body calibrated and managed. Gilbreth's time-motion studies 'saved' labour in order to make workers able to do more. Off-screen are the new management structures Gilbreth's studies empowered: time-keepers and task-setters on the factory floor, bigger boardrooms upstairs, clerks on the phone lines to Wall St stock-traders. In a lifetime of 56 years Gilbreth shot over 250,000 feet of 35mm film.

An excerpt from Giorgio Agamben's essay 'Notes on Gesture' follows:

Notes on Gesture
1. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Western bourgeoisie
had definitely lost its gestures.

In 1886, Gilles de la Tourette, "ancien interne des Hopitaux de Paris et de la Salpetriere," published with Delahaye et Lecrosnicr the Etudes cliniques et physiologiques sur la marche [Clinical and physiological studies on the gait].

It was the first time that one of the most common human gestures was analyzed with strictly scientific methods.Fifty-three years earlier, when the bourgeoisie's good conscience was still intact, the plan of a general pathology of social life announced by Balzac had produced nothing more than the fifty rather disappointing pages of the Theorie de la demarche [Theory of bearing]. Nothing is more revealing of the distance (not only a temporal one) separating the two attempts than the description Gilles de la Tourette gives of a human step. Whereas Balzac saw only the expression of moral character, de la Tourette employed a gaze that is already a prophecy of what cinematography would later become:

While the left leg acts as the fulcrum, the right foot
is raised from the ground with a coiling motion that
starts at the heel and reaches the tip of the toes, which
leave the ground last; the whole leg is now brought
forward and the foot touches the ground with the
heel. At this very instant, the left foot-having ended
its revolution and leaning only on the tip of the toes leaves
the ground; the left leg is brought forward, gets
closer to and then passes the right leg, and the left foot
touches the ground with the heel, while the right foot
ends its own revolution.1

Only an eye gifted with such a vision could have perfected that footprint method of which Gilles de la Tourette was, with good reason, so proud. An approximately seven- or eight-meter-Iong and fifty-centimeter wide roll of white wallpaper was nailed to the ground and then divided in half lengthwise by a pencil-drawn line. The soles of the experiment's subject were then smeared with iron sesquioxide powder, which stained them with a nice red rust color. The footprints that the patient left while walking along the dividing line allowed a perfect measurement of the gait according to various parameters (length of the step, lateral swerve, angle of inclination, etc.).

If we observe the footprint reproductions published by Gilles de la Tourette, it is impossible not to think about the series of snapshots that Muybridge was producing in those same years at the University of Pennsylvania using a battery of twenty-four photographic lenses. "Man walking at normal speed," "running man with shotgun," "walking woman picking up a jug," "walking woman sending a kiss": these are the happy and visible twins of the unknown and suffering creatures that had left those traces.

The Etude sur une affection nerveuse caracterisee par de l'incoordination motrice accompagnee d'echolalie et de coprolalie [Study on a nervous condition characterized by lack of motor coordination accompanied by echolalia and coprolalia] was published a year before the studies on the gait came out. This book defined the clinical profile of what later would be called Gilles de la Tourctte syndrome. On this occasion, the same distancing that the footprint method had enabled in the case of a most common gesture was applied to the description of an amazing proliferation of tics, spasmodic jerks, and mannerisms - a proliferation that cannot be defined in any way other than as a generalized catastrophe of the sphere of gestures. Patients can neither start nor complete the simplest of gestures. If they are able to start a movement, this is interrupted and broken up by shocks lacking any coordination and by tremors that give the impression that the whole musculature is engaged in a dance (chorea) that is completely independent of any ambulatory end. The equivalent of this disorder in the sphere of the gait is exemplarily described by Jean-Martin Charcot in his famous Lecons du mardi:

He sets off-with his body bent forward and with his
lower limbs rigidly and entirely adhering one to the
other - by leaning on the tip of his toes. His feet then
begin to slide on the ground somehow, and he proceeds
through some sort of swift tremor.... When the
patient hurls himself forward in such a way, it seems
as if he might fall forward any minute; in any case, it
is practically impossible for him to stop all by himself
and often he needs to throw himself on an object
nearby. He looks like an automaton that is being
propelled by a spring: there is nothing in these rigid,
jerky, and convulsive movements that resembles the
nimbleness of the gait.... Finally, after several attempts,
he sets off and-in conformity to the aforementioned
mechanism-slides over the ground rather
than walking: his legs are rigid, or, at least, they bend
ever so slightly, while his steps are somehow substituted
for as many abrupt tremors. 2

What is most extraordinary is that these disorders, after having heen observed in thousands of cases since 1885, practically cease to be recorded in the first years of the twentieth century, until the day when Oliver Sacks, in the winter of 1971, thought that he noticed three cases of Tourettism in the span of a few minutes while walking along the streets of New York City. One of the hypotheses that could be put forth in order to explain this disappearance is that in the meantime ataxia, tics, and dystonia had become the norm and that at some point everybody had lost control of their gestures and was walking and gesticulating frantically. This is the impression, at any rate, that one has when watching the films that Marey and Lumiere began to shoot exactly in those years.

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