The grand discovery of an eye which would catch and a plate which would register the most evanescent of movements has enabled us to discover what was concealed before, and if we fail to avail ourselves of the teachings of this superhuman professor, it will be a confession of willful perversity and an avowal of stupid, mulish ignorance.
—California Spirit of the Times, article about Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope (1880)
In July 2017, the scientific journal Nature reported that a team of Harvard scientists had, in an unprecedented feat, encoded a movie in living organic cells.1 What the scientists encoded was not just any moving picture but British photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s iconic 1878 sequential image of the galloping mare Annie G. (Figure 10). The experiment sought to demonstrate that the state-of-the-art gene editing technology could “capture and stably store practical amounts of real data within the genomes of populations of living cells.”2 While DNA had already been successfully used to store information, it had never been used to record a sequence of images that could, as the New York Times reported, “be retrieved at will and multiplied indefinitely as the host divides and grows.”3 Among the multiple potential applications of the engineered bacteria (such as using them as miniature spies wandering through living bodies to collect information that is otherwise inaccessible), media coverage emphasized the genome’s storage capacities, salivating at the economic prospects opened by the breakthrough in a moment when “data storage is a growing problem”: “Not only are significant amounts [of data] being generated, but the technology used to store it keeps becoming obsolete, like floppy disks. DNA is never going out of fashion.”4
Treating the living as stock—as matter to be reproduced for use or profit—has a long, highly gendered and racialized history. What appears to be new here is the use of live matter as an archiving technology and, more specifically, as a technology for storing time. Stock is traditionally thought in spatial terms as a reservoir or warehouse for merchandise, but here the living cell—itself continually subject to change—is where cinematic time unfolds; it is, so to speak, a time for time. The scientists’ nod to Muybridge is doubtless meant to mark the significance of an experiment perhaps no less groundbreaking than their own: the invention of cinema. And the two experiments mirror each other, for while the “father of the moving picture” encoded animal motion on film, trying to record and reproduce the “original movements of life,” the Harvard scientists instead encoded a film on living cells—using the living itself to host lifelike representation.5 More subtly, the nod sheds light on the kinship that binds genetic editing procedures and cinematic montage, a kinship that is discernible in the method shared by these techniques, of disassembling something, removing parts of it, and reassembling it in a new configuration.6 This return to the primal scene of Muybridge’s early stop-motion experiments indicates an unsuspected continuity between the apprehension of living bodies through apparatuses of capture (particularly the moving image) and the modern notion that living organisms themselves function as, and perhaps even are, technologies of capture.7
Mary Ann Doane has demonstrated how profoundly the advent of cinema altered our conception of time, contributing to its conversion from a lived, subjective experience into an externalized, atomized, and uniformly consistent unit of measurement conducive to the emergence of industrial capitalism, while paradoxically valorizing contingency, ephemerality, and spontaneity.8 Doane argues that the conceptions of time as both measurable and contingent may appear contradictory, but they are not incompatible; in fact, their interdependence is what defines modern temporality—what she calls “cinematic time.” I take the groundbreaking feat of the Harvard geneticists as an invitation to consider whether cinematic grammar—which is not reducible to the mechanical scansion we traditionally associate with capitalist production—might also accommodate the trace of an embodied and subjective duration (although one that is by no means irreconcilable with capitalist reproduction). The critical literature on Muybridge overwhelmingly reads his stop-action experiments as dismantling continuous motion into discrete gestures that are vulnerable to analysis and adjustable to the cadences imposed by assembly lines. This visual (an)atomizing is undeniable, and its consequences are very real, but I detect in Muybridge’s early chronophotography (a technique by which movement is decomposed into a series of snapshots) the expression of something like “horsetime,” which has little to do with the horsepower fetishized by industrial capitalism.9 The horses in Muybridge’s 1870s photographs were taking their own pictures (each photo was taken when the horse passed over a trip wire that triggered a camera) in what may have been the first “selfies,” even as the apparatuses that captured the horses and mechanically reproduced their images contributed to stripping them of any traditional notion of selfhood or singularity.
In this chapter, I argue that the defamiliarization and denaturalization of life and time effected by Muybridge’s protocinematic experiments can be mobilized to ethological and biosemiotic ends. Muybridge’s work compels a radical rethinking of subjectivity, for both the viewing and the viewed subjects of moving images—something that was demonstrated by the ethologist Jakob von Uexküll’s use of the chronophotographic method in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Chronophotography was central to Uexküll’s efforts to represent what the milieus (Umwelten) of various organisms might look like from the organisms’ own point of view—in the words of Uexküll himself, to penetrate “worlds [that] are not only unknown [but] also invisible.”10 The term Umwelt “has proved notoriously recalcitrant to translation,” semiotician Thomas Sebeok notes, and milieu might not be the most accurate term (Sebeok proposes “subjective universe,” “phenomenal world,” and “self-world”).11 I choose to translate Umwelt as milieu, however, to mark a connection between Uexküll and Foucault by way of Canguilhem.12
Canguilhem traces the genealogy of this indispensable “category of contemporary thought” from the present day back to Newtonian mechanics, with a stop on the way at Lamarckian biology and another, more surprisingly, at Balzac, who gives the milieu its lettres de noblesse in his Comédie humaine. It is easy to reduce the milieu to a mechanistic system of external influences on living organisms, a conception evocative of Descartes’s infamous “animal machine” thesis. The definition of the milieu is what is at stake, Canguilhem remarks, in the famous polemic that tore Darwinians and Lamarckians apart in the second half of the nineteenth century. Canguilhem sums up the theses of the two camps as follows: on the one hand, for Lamarckism, the effort comes from the living being and works against a milieu that appears indifferent to its existence; for Darwinism, on the other hand, the initiative originates (though not always and not uniformly) in the milieu itself.13 It is into this debate that Uexküll intervenes to argue that a living being does not merely survive in or adapt to a given milieu but actively configures its milieu.
A living being is not a machine, which responds to excitations with movements, it is a machinist, who responds to signals with operations. . . . Out of the abundance of the physical milieu, which produces a theoretically unlimited number of excitations, the animal retains only some signals (Merkmale). Its life rhythm orders the time of this Umwelt, just as it orders space. . . . Lamarck used to say that time and favorable circumstances constitute the living bit by bit. Von Uexküll turns the relation around and says: time and favorable circumstances are relative to certain living beings.14
Not only does Uexküll reverse Lamarck’s proposition, but he contests the cold teleology of Darwin’s “natural selection” by advancing the idea of something like a “natural election,” the notion that every living being actively participates in the composition of its milieu. By considering animals, not just humans, to experience the world from their own subjective capacities and interests, Uexküll’s ethological work expands on Immanuel Kant’s transcendental epistemology.15 More deeply, his work can be said to operate a Kantian revolution in that it awakens the human observer not just to what they cannot perceive but to the constitutional limit of what is humanly perceptible—to what Walter Benjamin calls the “optical unconscious,” or the registration of “images which escape natural optics altogether.”16 Beyond an analytical method for glimpsing into the worlds of animals, the cinematic technique offered Uexküll the foundational intuition that what we see is contingent on the finitude of our sensorial faculties—an intuition that was spurred by the capture of a motion too rapid to be registered by the human eye. Meaningfully, one of the first cinematic insights into our “optical unconscious” was that of a galloping horse.17
“The Possibility of a Horse”
The man who named himself Eadweard Muybridge18 began working on animal locomotion at the urging of railroad mogul and one-time governor of California Leland Stanford, who asked for the photographer’s assistance in settling a debate: whether horses lift all four hooves off the ground at any one time when running. So goes the legend, at least. In fact, Stanford, who owned one of the largest “stock farms” in the country, had commissioned Muybridge’s work for the purpose of breeding racehorses. Stanford’s interest in heredity and genetics was not limited to horses, as attests his choice of eugenicist David Starr Jordan as the founding president of Stanford University, but the horse was the ideal subject for the magnate’s bioengineering experiments.19 As territorial expansion was drawing to a close, the horse, which was materially and symbolically inseparable from the conquest of the West, became a new frontier to conquer: it could be made better, faster, more efficient, if its inscrutable workings could be unraveled. “When I began breeding horses,” Stanford boasted, “I commenced studying the anatomy of the horse, until at the end I could take the steed apart and put it together with the accuracy that distinguishes a skilled watchmaker.”20 Despite this mechanistic analogy, which puts his technique on a par with divine creation, Stanford avowed a deep fascination for the “great mystery” of life: “the old writers on animal mechanics . . . would test vital force by the laws governing the motion of the pendulum or those of gravity,” reads the introduction to The Horse in Motion (the product of Stanford’s collaboration with Muybridge), but they ignore “a power that must enter into all our estimates of vital force, and that is the will.”21 For the rich industrialist, mechanistic and vitalist views were surprisingly not incompatible but rather complementary.
Sometime in the spring of 1872, Muybridge successfully photographed Occident, one of Stanford’s fastest racehorses, at full speed. To say that Muybridge thought highly of his own accomplishment is an understatement: he prided himself to have solved a mystery as old as art itself, at least as old as Paleolithic cave paintings.
In the spring of the year 1872, . . . there was revived in the city of San Francisco a controversy in regard to animal locomotion, which we may infer, on the authority of Plato, was warmly argued by the ancient Egyptians, and which probably had its origin in the studio of the primitive artist when he submitted to a group of critical friends his first etching of a mammoth crushing through the forest. . . . In this modern instance, the principal subject of dispute was the possibility of a horse . . . having all four of his feet, at any portion of his stride, simultaneously free from contact with the ground. . . . Having constructed some special exposing apparatus . . . the author commenced his investigation on the race track at Sacramento, California, in May 1872, where he in a few days made several negatives of a celebrated horse named Occident, while trotting laterally, in front of his camera. . . . The photographs resulting from this experiment . . . exhibited the horse with all four of his feet clearly lifted, at the same time, above the ground.22
Muybridge had successfully designed the first contraption capable of recording a movement too rapid for the naked eye. A few years later, he conducted his chronophotographic studies more systematically, laying the groundwork for what we now know as motion pictures. He began this work under the patronage of Stanford, who, inspired by the contemporary French physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey’s treatise on animal locomotion, La machine animale, encouraged Muybridge to use a zoetrope (a device consisting of a slotted disk spun in front of a mirror, giving the impression that a discontinuous sequence of images is one single moving image) to faithfully reproduce the appearance of animal motion.23 In order to create the characteristic serial images of racing horses that we associate with his name, Muybridge and his collaborators devised a complex apparatus in which a battery of cameras was triggered by a horse running on a track latticed with trip wires (Figure 11). Muybridge would modify his system when he began conducting his research on animal locomotion at the University of Pennsylvania in 1884. Instead of cameras activated by the horse’s passage over a series of trip wires, Muybridge used three batteries of twelve cameras equipped with a motor clock. Not only did the electrical motor help prevent accidents (avoiding registering “abnormal” behavior), it also went off at pretimed moments rather than when the horse crossed the wire.24 In lieu of equidistant snapshots, there were equal intervals between each exposure. This standardization marks a transition from “horse time” to “human time,” or rather “machine time”: the animal was henceforth expected to move at a given pace, where before its gait had been the source determining the length of the intervals.25
There were only a few years between Muybridge’s invention of an apparatus to capture velocities indiscernible to the human eye and his imposition of a predetermined, uniform temporal pattern, an interim during which Muybridge’s animal models had not yet been fully subordinated to the mechanized order of modern temporality. It is in this interim that I find a space for thinking about what cinematic technique can contribute to biosemiotics and ethology. For Étienne-Jules Marey, Muybridge was but an “ingenious experimenter” who “did not succeed at taking his instantaneous photographs at equal intervals of time.” In other words, Muybridge “decomposed motion into space” instead of time. Marey saw this as evidence of Muybridge’s lack of scientific rigor:26 by segmenting space instead of time, Muybridge made it impossible to determine with exactitude how much time elapsed between two frames and how the photographed subject “moved from one position to the next.”27 In his criticism of the trip wire system, tellingly, Marey almost seems to blame the horses as much as Muybridge for their lack of temporal constancy and precision.28 His judgment, however, assumes an “objective” notion of time as an indifferent, empty, infinitely divisible milieu—as a homogenous principle of commensurability between heterogenous embodied experiences.
Marey was himself a chronophotographer working to record the movement of animals on the other side of the Atlantic. Unlike Muybridge, who linearly juxtaposed separate stills to imply temporal progression, however, Marey’s images typically superimposed several phases of movement on one photographic plate, collapsing several spatial positions into a single temporal frame. His attempt to record movement without fragmenting it into discrete images stems from a desire to “represent all time” without loss, as Doane argues. Marey’s blurry photos have a rather dreamlike, fantastic quality, yet as Jonathan Crary keenly observes, Muybridge’s “first images from Palo Alto in 1878 . . . are finally more disturbing than anything” done by Marey. Crary writes:
[Marey’s work] was based on a reciprocal operation of decomposition and reunification: his analysis of movement, within the frame of a single visual field, preserved a vector of spatial and temporal coherence, giving to movement a new form of legibility and rationality, even if through unprecedented representational practices. Muybridge conducts a more intransigent and blunt dismantling of the apparent continuities of movement and of time. . . . No relations of causal necessity link the positions or sections that are presented in sequence, only an imprecise and disjunct sense of before and after. Hence those who criticize Muybridge as being less “advanced” than Marey because he did not introduce the variable of time into his work are thinking in terms of an impoverished model of time.29
The same chrono-anarchic element that expands our conceptions of time, however, also has the power to destabilize our sense of reality. When Muybridge’s serial photographs fragment subjectively experienced units of time, or moments (from movere, “to move”), into abstract points of time, or instants (from in-stare, “to stand”)—when they convert movement into a series of stills, space into fractions of time—they introduce the unsettling notion that reality itself can be divided, disassembled, then rearranged at will.
Muybridge, in other words, invented a way of dissecting the real that made it uniquely vulnerable to capitalist exploitation insofar as capitalism, in the words of Karl Marx, supposes the “eradication of space by time.”30 Construed as distance and deferral, as a cause of “friction” hampering the circulation of goods and people, space is reframed under capital as a function of time. Paradigmatic of this “eradication of space” in the U.S. context is the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, an event celebrated with great fanfare by Leland Stanford, who planted the “Last Spike” that hitched together the tracks of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific and connected the eastern and western coasts. Discounting the hazardous conditions under which thousands of men—mostly veterans and immigrants—had built the railway, the San Francisco Bulletin touted the accomplishment as “a triumph bloodless, deathless, but no less glorious to the Nation and the State: a victory over space, the elements.”31 This new “epoch of annihilated space,” as Hawthorne calls it, often figured as a cataclysm in the literature of the middle of the century (though for some, like Frederick Douglass, it also heralds the promise of a borderless, less inegalitarian world).32 For Henry Adams, the simultaneous irruption of the steamboat, the train, and the telegraph heralded the end of the world: a “new world was ready for use, and only fragments of the old met his eyes.”33 The fate of the horse, subject of Muybridge’s first studies, perfectly epitomizes this transformation. While it “had been for thousands of years the primary mode of vehicular movement in human societies,” the horse became “symbolically dismantled into quantified and lifeless units of time”—so too were culture, labor, human experience, even time itself, newly subsumed by a standardized economy, running on mechanical time.34
Underlining the convergence of Stanford’s epistemic investment in animal locomotion with his financial investment in locomotives, John Ott argues that the “Muybridge photos encouraged viewers to imagine the horse, and by extension, all of nature, as merely another kind of machine. Fixed within a cold, monotonous grid of six, twelve, or twenty-four, the serial print demanded that viewers reconceptualise a sweaty, snorting, quivering mass of horseflesh as a dynamo performing an endless repetitive sequence of actions.”35 Ott articulates the now-dominant view that Muybridge served, perhaps unwittingly, a socioeconomic regime that privileged the mechanized “industrial gaze” over natural optics. He rightly underlines that the skepticism with which Muybridge’s images were met at the end of the nineteenth century was less a reactionary attachment to retinal vision or a shortsighted hostility toward “progress” (which for Stanford was synonymous with industrialization) than a discerning opposition to the “new corporate industrial order buttressed by scientific authority, managerial supervision, and complex, capital-intense technologies.”36 Characterizing the violence of industrial capitalism in terms of the mechanization of animal life, however, risks presenting animals (and nature more broadly) as pretechnological entities newly vulnerable to the operations of industrial capital. In fact, animals—and horses in particular—had long been a technologically produced laboring machine; as Michael Lawrence notes, the “many centuries of developing . . . various kinds of horses for the purpose of working” that preceded the Industrial Revolution means that “the technological methods utilized to produce these particular images were thus in important respects continuous with the means deployed to produce the subjects of the images.”37
If he warns against the temptation to regard Muybridge’s stop-motion studies as a radical rupture in the technological subjugation of animal life,38 Lawrence ultimately shares Ott’s perception that Muybridge is irredeemably aligned with “a capitalist regime of image production organized around alienation and misrecognition.”39 He wishes to counteract the technocapitalist amnesia that frames the animal as immaterial and insignificant by focusing on an experimental cinematic archive that disrupts the “Muybridgean approach to animal being” and restores the horse’s material and historical “thereness,” producing it again as a “meaningful being”—a subject in its own right. To that end, he endows the animal with a form of “livingness” irreducible to the lifelikeness cherished by capitalist film culture, assuming (somewhat dogmatically) that “the animal will always refer to the ‘outside [of] the film itself.’”40 Yet the “thereness” of filmed animals does not index their externality to film so much as their entanglement with the apparatus of capture.41 That is, instead of supposing that the animal constitutes the “other” of technocapitalist reproduction, what might we gain by considering animals as cinematic subjects? Instead of holding singularity and autonomy as a priori conditions of subjectivity, might we not envision subjectivity as an effect of reproducibility? Let us put this in Benjamin’s terms: instead of privileging the notions of naturality and unicity that pertain to the auratic and the irreproducible, can we discern in technological reproducibility a conception of animal life that does not automatically feed into the biocapitalist agenda described by Ott, Lawrence, and Shukin?42 Is there not an alternative legacy to Muybridge’s experiments?43
In the breakdown of what had before Muybridge seemed to be the natural syntax of motion, I see an opportunity to decouple chronophotography from the representational grammar of biocapitalism. Muybridge’s photographic experiments do not merely atomize animal motion but model a computational logic—one that Philip E. Agre calls “capture.” In “Surveillance and Capture,” Agre explains that the well-known model of “surveillance” employs visual metaphors, following Foucault’s work on panopticism. In contrast, “capture” employs linguistic metaphors and is modeled after information technologies, “taking as its prototype the deliberate reorganization of industrial work activities to allow computers to track them in real time.”44 Capture, Agre explains, devises a grammar of representation that converts hitherto unformalized actions into a series of “parsable” gestures (here we glimpse Foucault’s “anatomopolitics of the body”). These gestures constitute “minimal replicable units”—what artificial intelligence calls “primitives”—that can then be arranged in a variety of ways, like words in a sentence. But capture’s standardizing work, Agre insists, is not a simple mechanical process. Capture does not simply gather data about people, objects, or places, for what it gathers has no reality prior to the act of capture. The data acquires its ontological dignity as data (as given) as a result of a “kind of representational crusade,” which is itself “part of a much larger material process through which these new social ontologies, in a certain specific sense, become real.”45 Capture therefore denotes a realist relation between sign and referent insofar as it assumes a “real” out there that can be faithfully expressed by signs, but Agre shows this realism to be the product of a performative operation. Capture is “attended by a kind of mythology according to which the newly constructed grammar of action has been not ‘invented’ but ‘discovered.’”46 This realist orientation underpins much visual representation (e.g., photography’s conventional pretensions to objectivity and realism), but Muybridge’s work breaks down these assumptions about the relationship of sign to referent. By disjointing time from motion, Muybridge’s proto-animations expose the uncanny temporality of the becoming-real of animal movement. They show that the “real” is not a data so much as a capta, not a given but a taken—or perhaps a given that is haunted by a disavowed, unaccountable form of giving.47 Seeing the biocapitalist grammar of capture as the outcome (rather than the condition) of a representational crusade that is ongoing and can be challenged, we obtain a different picture of the horses caught in the net of Muybridge’s apparatuses of capture.
In a manner reminiscent of Chomel’s tonnelle (Figure 8), Muybridge’s apparatus turns space (the space of the track on which the horses run) into a gigantic trap, an attempt to capture the horses’ motion through time that is visually condensed in the trip wire lines across the track. The motif of the trap is continued in the striated backdrops against which the silhouette of Occident materializes (Figure 12). (The parallel lines in the background, which resemble nothing more than prison bars, and later the photographs taken from three different angles, seem to announce the technology of the mug shot developed by criminologist Alphonse Bertillon a few years later.)
The trapping motif intensifies as Muybridge’s technique evolves; when Muybridge starts working at the University of Pennsylvania, the parallel lines give way to a checkered grid made up of silk threads divided in five-centimeter squares. It is not incidental, Marta Braun observes, that Muybridge first deployed this grid in capturing the image of the “mulatto pugilist” Ben Bailey. Unlike Audubon’s grid, Muybridge’s were not primarily intended “to ensure the accuracy of the proportions in [his] picture”; the grid in Animal Locomotion was an anthropometric instrument “borrowed from one devised by English ethnologist J. H. Lamprey . . . to assist in comparative morphological measurement in his photographs of Malay natives.”48 A tool of scientific racism in the lineage of physiognomy and phrenology, the grid was meant to assist in the production of categories. Here, it helped to produce the category of whiteness, as it worked to distinguish visually between various racial “types” and valorize white male bodies as the norm;49 in other cases, it served to distinguish between “normal” and “pathological” bodies and behaviors, as in Muybridge’s photographs of subjects with disabilities;50 and in the hands of criminologists, it would be used to profile “the criminal.”51 Breaking down everyday actions into measurable discrete gestures, the grid also contributed to forging what Paul Lawrie calls a “laboring race” by subjecting the human body—particularly the male nonwhite body—to increased scrutiny in the name of efficiency, hygiene, and progress.52 Subjected to the depersonalizing effect of the metrological grid, Muybridge’s images of Bailey remind us how post-Reconstruction African Americans came to be routinely criminalized and pathologized, “positioned as captive to their bodies” and characterized as “a depraved race destined for extinction.”53 This uneven targeting of certain populations was enabled by a technology that presumed, paradoxically, the fundamental commensurability of bodies marked by different races, genders, classes—and, of course, species, as suggested by the title Muybridge chose for the twenty thousand images composing his “Electro-Photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements.”
Through the lattice of Muybridge’s anthropometric grid, we can thus glimpse how chronophotography colluded with the heightened supervision and administration to which human and nonhuman bodies were being subjected at the end of the century. The gridification at the level of the body intensifies a larger cultural logic that extends from grids that mapped dead and disappearing animals onto representations (as in Audubon’s painting techniques), to speculative techniques for the occupation of uncharted territories (as in Cooper’s The Prairie), to the gridded layout of city streets (as in Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd”). Before working at the University of Pennsylvania, Muybridge was mostly known for his photographs of North and South American landscapes. Though he was primarily interested in these landscapes’ picturesque dimension, his work had occasionally been commissioned by the U.S. government; he accompanied General Halleck to the recently purchased territory of Alaska in 1868 and mentions interrupting his work as a surveyor to work on Stanford’s Palo Alto Stock Farm in 1872. By fully devoting himself to motion studies at the end of the 1870s, notes Rebecca Solnit, “Muybridge had given up place without motion for motion without place, and mountain ranges had been replaced by a gridded white wall.”54 The grid, Solnit observes, “was everywhere in nineteenth-century America”:
Thomas Jefferson’s great land survey of 1785 had imposed an imaginary grid spreading west from the Appalachians. . . . The grid had been the mental and governmental logic that allowed Americans to proceed into the terra incognita of the West. . . . The grid meant rationality in its regularity and democracy in its equal apportionment of space. It was also a resonant emblem of science in the nineteenth century, of a science that like settlement was trying to manage the wild abundance of the natural world.55
The grid was everywhere, but while it had remained inconspicuous in the structuring of Audubon’s paintings and the settling of the United States, it had now come to the surface. I see the materialization of the grid in Muybridge’s work above all as a testament to its influence on scientific representation.56 After seeing Muybridge’s instantaneous photographs in the French scientific journal La Nature, Marey—the same Marey whose book had inspired Stanford, the same Marey who would later declare Muybridge’s images unscientific—asked Muybridge to help him find a way to record the flight of birds. Reporting that he was “filled with admiration for Mr. Muybridge’s instantaneous photographs,” Marey explained that he was “dreaming of a kind of photographic gun, to seize the bird in a pose, or even better, in a series of poses marking the successive movement of its wings,” a gun that he would invent in 1882.57 The results of Marey’s invention are mesmerizing images showing multiple exposures of birds on a single negative, like a Vitruvian animal (Figure 13).
In Audubon’s elaborate compositions, the “truth” of the species is conveyed by the representation of one archetypal specimen; in the work of Muybridge and Marey, it is shown by a serialized set of pictures of one or several “average” specimens. Audubon’s paintings highly dramatize his animal encounters, demonstrating “his preference for the uncommon or unique event over the repeatable”; the chronophotographers seek to register what hides in plain sight, the everydayness of “normal” animal locomotion.58 Audubon’s animals are “drawn from nature,” flushed out of hiding and brought into visibility by the hunter-naturalist’s artistic talents; in contrast, Muybridge and Marey’s (already captured) animals, deemed “unseeable” by the naked human eye, defy visibility on a different level altogether.59 For Audubon, invisibility is a faculty that animals display in a variety of forms and manners (mimicry, camouflage, ruse); for Muybridge and Marey, it is a property of animality itself. This was true for both, but whereas Muybridge seemed content with the images generated by his apparatuses, Marey despaired over chronophotography’s “need for a hiatus between exposures,” which explains why his photographs were consistently blurry (Figure 14a).60 To represent animals for Marey no longer means to show what they “look like” but to produce a visual analog of the secret processes that animate them.61
The author of La machine animale is usually classified—and classifies himself—as a mechanist thinker, but Marey’s relentless tracking of an ever-active and all-explaining “force,” betrayed by the desire to invent a mode of representation faithful to the assumed continuity of physiological time, confers a vitalist dimension to his work.62 Jonathan Burt is right to note that both Marey’s photographic gun and Muybridge’s trip wire system derived from hunting techniques, but their objective—the capture of live motion—is antipodal to that of the hunt.63 What chronophotography retains from the hunt is a stilling effect that, however minimal, Marey found intolerable. The apparatuses that Marey devised to capture animals’ movements required that animal bodies quite literally disappear from representation, for the scientist “suppressed in black” portions of his (human and nonhuman) models to adapt them to the demands of the camera: “stripes were used: the horse, bird or human subject was coated from head to foot in black except for a few thin streaks of shiny metal, or little dots of white paper stuck to appropriate areas.”64 The models thus found themselves geometrized and desubstantialized so that they could be made intelligible—so that their capturability could be optimized. In Marey’s “partial photographs,” the grid migrates from the background onto the models themselves (Figures 15a and 15b).
Around the same time, American painter and photographer Thomas Eakins used a gridded horse—a living butcher’s chart—as the model for one of his paintings (Figure 16). (Famously, as his first assignment in painting classes, Eakins required students to visit a local slaughterhouse to dissect horses.) Before working with Muybridge at Penn, Eakins had written to the photographer to express his interest in his images, though he complained that the distance between the horse and the gridded wall made it difficult to establish the size of the model.65 Eakins’s collaboration with Muybridge confirms Marey’s prediction that the stop-motion method would revolutionize artistic representation, as does Muybridge’s influence on realist artists like Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier and Frederic Remington. But Muybridge’s images did more than provide “photographic evidence” to correct erroneous ideas about the gait of horses; they radically altered the coordinates of the visible, an alteration that is most perceptible in the significant role they played in redefining the mission and nature of art at the turn of the century.66 The new epistemology encapsulated in Muybridge’s and Marey’s photographs had a direct impact on some of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, from Degas and Duchamp to Francis Bacon, Sol LeWitt, and more recently experimental filmmakers Hollis Frampton and Marion Faller (who parodied Muybridge’s work in Sixteen Studies from Vegetable Locomotion, in which they dropped a watermelon over a gridded plate).
Indirectly, we can see Muybridge’s grids—both the backdrops against which his subjects were photographed and the gridded composition of the pictures in Animal Locomotion—as inaugurating what Rosalind Krauss identifies as the modernist passion for grids. The form of the grid emblematizes modernity, Krauss explains, because, by “abrogating the claims of natural objects to have an order particular to themselves,” it rejects art’s naturalist or mimetic pretensions.67 While the grid is ubiquitous in twentieth-century art, Krauss sees it “nowhere in the art of the last one [the nineteenth],” and fifteenth- and sixteenth-century studies of perspectives formalized by Alberti are in no way the precursors of artists like Mondrian, Malevich, or LeWitt.68 Krauss contends that the Albertian perspective is premised on a mimetic continuity between the material world and its figuration. This is the source of its value for a science premised on representation. In contrast, the modernist grid supposes an irreducible disjointedness between the artwork and the world, relinquishing any pretension to re-present the real. Recognizing Muybridge’s influence on the artists she mentions invites us to revise Krauss’s chronology and brings into relief the epistemological purchase of the modern grid. Contra Krauss’s autotelic interpretation, the modern grid does not discover a radical discontinuity between reality and representation so much as it inverts the primacy of one over the other. Through the grid, representation no longer comes after the real it seeks to reproduce; it is reproducibility that defines what counts (albeit retroactively) as original. It is reproducibility, metaleptically, that engenders the aura of the original. This reversal has a bearing on the image of animals composed by modern representational grammars, which produce nostalgia for something construed as essentially fugitive and vulnerable and, in a sense, already lost.
How can we account for the fact that the animal figures so prominently as this obstinately elusive yet highly exploitable “real” glimpsed by the modern eye of Muybridge’s camera? Perhaps it is, as Lippit suggests, that Muybridge was “racing against the imminent disappearance of animals from the new urban environment.”69 Yet the animals in his catalog were hardly the most marginalized (to use Berger’s terminology), nor were they the most immediately threatened by extinction—indeed, the first volumes of Animal Locomotion feature pigeons, cats, and dogs alongside human beings performing mundane activities such as walking, jumping, or pouring water.70 Animals—including humans perceived as animals—were not merely exemplary case studies for the development of motion pictures; instead, they actively “participated” (albeit not always voluntarily) in shaping modern technologies of capture. But first, they had to be reconceptualized from the perspective of their reproducibility (Figures 17a–e).
The Animal in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility
In the age of mass slaughter and manmade extinction, some animals can barely reproduce fast enough to survive, while others have been made eminently reproducible. This reproducibility was effected both materially, with the advancement of industrialized breeding and factory farming, and symbolically, in the deluge of images precipitated by the advent of photographic and cinematic reproduction. Much has been written about the coeval development of cinematography and the relentless exploitation of animal life. Derek Bousé, for instance, has shown that the killing or harming of charismatic animals for aesthetic and dramatic purposes was integral to the development of cinema. Meant to serve as a “guarantor of authenticity,”71 the “practice of setting up an actual killing for the cameras” began as early as 1884, “when Muybridge arranged at the Philadelphia zoo for a tiger to be set loose on an old buffalo who may even have been tethered,” and Thomas Edison produced in 1903 a short film called Electrocuting an Elephant, which depicted just that: the sensational sacrifice of a rebellious female Asian elephant, Topsy.72
Beyond their mistreatment as “disposable subjects” of cinema, animals have bequeathed an operative mode (animation) and a medium (gelatin) to cinema. Lippit observes that during the second half of the nineteenth century, as animals rapidly vanished from the industrialized West, they were at the same time clandestinely reintroduced by modern technological apparatuses, appearing not only as images on our screens but also through the very notion of animation. Building on (and against) Lippit’s claim, Shukin lays bare the profound interimplications of the “consumption of animal disassembly as affective spectacle,” which normalized “tours of the vertical abattoir, the material rendering of animal gelatin for film stock,” and “the mimicry of seamless animal motion integral to cinema’s and automobiles’ symbolic economies.”73 This collusion between the mass slaughter of animals for human consumption and the advent of the moving image (and automobility), she argues, was prefigured and made possible by the Chicago slaughterhouses’ disassembly lines (the inspiration for Henry Ford’s moving assembly lines) as a primal cinematic scene. Yet the modern tangle of animal mass production with technological reproducibility also demands that we examine how the emergence of this new technological economy altered not only the representation of nature and its figures but the very nature of representation. Recalling that Benjamin extends the significance of his insights on the fate of art in the age of technological reproducibility “far beyond the realm of art,” I briefly return to his essay to examine what became of “the animal” when animals came to be subjected on an unprecedented scale to carnal and figural processes of reproduction.
Capital, and biocapital a fortiori, are predicated on the conflation of production and reproduction (a conflation exemplified by the current ecological crisis, caused in large part by the exploitation of nonrenewable resources as if they were renewable).74 Capitalism is thus assisted and subtended by cultural forms that simultaneously encourage and normalize a certain type of reproduction. But Benjamin’s essay goes further. It posits that while culture ought not be reduced to propaganda in the service of capitalist (re)production, it must be understood as being profoundly shaped by reproduction, for it has assimilated reproduction in and as its very procedures. Shukin makes a similar claim when she advocates in favor of a “biopolitical critique” that debunks the common assumption that the semiotic and the somatic should be treated independently from one another. Biopower’s penetration of all aspects of life, she contends, “never operates solely through the power to reproduce life literally, via the biological capital of the specimen or species, nor does it operate solely through the power to reproduce it figuratively via the symbolic capital of the animal sign, but instead operates through the power to hegemonize both the meaning and matter of life.”75 Here she invokes the double logic of “rendering,” which “signifies both the mimetic act of making a copy . . . and the industrial boiling down and recycling of animal remains,” to denounce the modern “complicity of representational and material economies in the reproduction of (animal) capital.”76 While Shukin emphasizes that rendering is made possible by Western culture’s abiding investment in the “fetishistic currency of animal life”—a life invoked and put to work precisely as that which eludes capital’s inherent constraints, magically “working” without laboring, undying therefore infinitely killable, etc.—my analysis focuses on the technological disposition of modern culture to merge representation and reproduction.77
Here I follow Lippit, whose analysis is grounded in a notion of reproduction that refers “not to the duplication of something that already exists . . . but rather to the introduction of . . . something other through a technology of representation.”78 For him, the paradigmatic technology of representation-as-reproduction is cinema, which finds in animal reproducibility a prototype of sorts:
The function of unheimlich reproduction, the vicissitudes of affect, the dynamics of animation and projection, the semiotics of magnetism, and the fundamental properties of memory can be seen as the basis of cinema, but also of the animal. Cinema is like an animal; the likeness a form of encryption. From animal to animation, figure to force, poor ontology to pure energy, cinema may be the technological metaphor that configures mimetically, magnetically, the other world of the animal.79
The implications of Lippit’s thesis, I believe, have not yet fully been reckoned with, and Lippit himself might not stress enough that cinematic technologies do not just mimetically borrow from animals certain characteristics (reproduction, animation, magnetism) but actively contribute to inventing the modern concept of “the animal” (as undying, as pure energy, as ontologically poor). I would not go so far as to lament with Shukin that Lippit “ends up buying the idea of the undead animal,” thereby unwittingly conspiring with biocapitalist forces that profit from idealizing the animal as a pure, preideological intensity.80 However, I recognize that casting the animal as the mute trope of modernity—as signifying in spite of itself—might foreclose the potential opened by cinema for conjuring the “other world of the animal,” for perceiving and conceiving animals as subjects (unless at stake is a mute subjectivity and not a mere subjection to muteness).
The fetishized concept of animal life to which Shukin refers is less condition than effect, less the provision than the legacy of mass reproduction. By forcing her reader to confront the fact that “capital has become animal,” Shukin suggests that mimesis has been entirely coopted by and subsumed under the figural economy of capitalist biopower and thus cannot be a viable method of either eluding or resisting the all-pervasive market logics. Shukin asserts that all thinkers who do not see mimesis as entirely absorbed into capitalism—Benjamin foremost among them—are guilty of an idealist, primitivist form of escapism that is complicit with said market logics.81 But when Shukin plays tautology (capital has become animal) against Lippit’s simile (cinema is like an animal), she perfectly aligns mimesis with reproduction and reduces any form of alterity to fetishism. Is she not, then, “buying” (to reflect her own criticism of Lippit) the idea that the animal is pure reproducibility? The circuitous logic she (rightly) identifies as integral to capital’s workings makes it seem as if there was nothing outside of capitalism, as Tobias Menely observes.82 Moreover, by equating capital with animal, she implicitly endorses the view that reproducibility constitutes the essence of animality, whereas I would suggest that the reproducibility of the animal should be seen as itself an event in the history of animals, one that constitutes as epochal a shift in the animal condition as any genetic or migrational mutation. Yet here I do not wish to emphasize what stubbornly exceeds biocapitalist reproducibility (for Menely, it is the “animal claim,” the addressive capacity by which nonhuman animals have historically been accounted for by various political communities). Rather, following Benjamin’s brand of immanent critique, I suggest that bioreproduction contains its own antithesis. It is a question of looking not elsewhere but otherwise—of looking at it “slantwise,” as Hawthorne suggests, at the question of reproducibility.
Benjamin’s insights on the work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility prefigure the modern conditions of (re)production of animal bodies, which are well disposed to “neutralize a number of traditional concepts” often manipulated in the interests of biocapitalism. Benjamin’s essay, we recall, hinges on two fundamental insights: First, that technologies of reproduction substitute “a mass existence for a unique existence,” undermining the concepts of unicity and authenticity that are traditionally associated with the original work of art; the artwork’s aura—its “here and now,” what it is said to retain from its unique physical origin—dwindles in proportion to its replicability. Second, he asserts that the unprecedented inflation in quantity afforded by modern conditions of production triggers a qualitative mutation in the works themselves, whose value and function become determined by their degree of reproducibility. One may sum up Benjamin’s contention by paraphrasing Hegel’s famous adage: with the advent of technologies of reproduction, what is reproducible is real, and the real is reproducible.83
I offer two insights, parallel to Benjamin’s, about the lot of animals in the age of their technological reproducibility. First, because to be mass-produced in factory farms animals must be dis-located from their natural habitats, and because industrial slaughter is incompatible with ritualized killing, the animal can be said to have lost its aura, which, for Benjamin, is an intrinsic attribute of “natural objects.” In fact, destroying the aura of the object is a necessary step toward its commodification, as the auratic is by definition that which resists standardization and appropriation.84 This explains why conservation efforts to preserve endangered species sometimes seek to restore the aura of animals “naturally” bad at reproduction: giving proper names to endangered lions and rhinoceroses, underlining the rarity and thus value of endlings (the last known exemplars of a species), etc. Second, with the advent of factory farming, industrialized countries do not “produce” the animals they traditionally consumed; instead, they consume the animals that they can most efficiently and cheaply reproduce. Animals are viewed less as individual specimens than as profitable and manipulable breeds; similarly, from a conservation perspective, animals are primarily regarded through the lens of their impending extinction, perceived as either viable or endangered. Both perspectives view animals statistically, in aggregate, at the level of population or breed—from the vantage of their reproducibility.
This schematic recapitulation is consonant with Foucault’s theory that populations and species, not individuals, constitute the new “subjects” of biopolitical governance.85 Animals fully enter the calculus of biopower once reproducibility has become the principle by which the reality of animal life is apprehended. But at the moment when animals appear to be catastrophically vulnerable to biocapitalist exploitation, a new image of the animal emerges. Cary Wolfe has shown that biopolitics offers a valuable “frame” for posing anew the “question of the animal.” In Before the Law, he deconstructs the relentless “enframing” operations performed by apparatuses of biopower that work to position what is enframed as mere stock or “standing-reserve,” exposing an untold number of animals to a “noncriminal putting to death” insofar as they appear endlessly reproducible. Wolfe, however, also underlines the “fundamental ambivalence” of Foucauldian biopolitics, which points to a fracturing in the categories of animal and species as no longer constitutive (yet still operative) in a biopolitical frame. Biopolitics, he shows, has historically been beneficial to some animals, “not in spite of the fact that they are ‘animals’ but because they are ‘animals’” (pets and endangered species being a case in point).86 The entrance of life into the domain of politics, in other words, has allowed the management, regulation, control, exploitation, overproduction, and extermination of the living at an unprecedented scale, but it has also afforded different ways of caring for and relating with the living.
I share Wolfe’s theoretical premise, but I shift the emphasis away from the ontological and legal economies of “enframing” to the epistemological and representational technology of what I have called “capture.” Addressing the epistemic and aesthetic dimension of capture does not mean disregarding its material conditions and effects. On the contrary, it means examining how new technologies like photography and cinema have altered our conceptions of animals and, at the same time, how animals have materially and figurally informed these technologies to compose the representational grammar of biopolitical modernity. Along with the sea change undergone by representational practices and protocols in the middle of the nineteenth century, a fragile but revolutionary potential arises—an opportunity to gain a new awareness of how the living is enmeshed with technologies of reproduction. I now return to Eadweard Muybridge to argue that the advent of technological reproducibility does not simply mark a transition in the way we perceive and conceive animals. Instead, animality becomes the site of a profound metamorphosis in the nature of knowledge and representation; the technological reproducibility of animals occasions a radical rearticulation of the age-old opposition between physis and technè. The issue at hand is thus not to bring animals back “in focus” but to understand what new animal figures emerge under capture, what becomes newly visible, and how this crisis in representation might indeed “change everything” about the question of the animal.
Counterpoint: Expressionist Creatures
One can hardly emphasize enough the seismic transformation occasioned by Muybridge’s time-motion studies on the way we see—and, in particular, on the way we see animals.87 Animal photography until then had been an art of the still life, and the few nonhuman animals visible in Muybridge’s early pictures were taxidermied animals or the skeletal remains of bison destined to serve as fertilizer.88 Although the amount of time required to fix the photographic image through daguerreotypes was rapidly getting shorter and shorter—from thirty minutes at the inception of photography in 1839 to thirty seconds in 1841—the interval was still too long for the capture of animals in motion.89 It is little surprise, therefore, that the very first moving image with a “real subject” that Muybridge produced with his zoopraxiscope staged not a living horse but a horse skeleton imported from New York in 1881 (Figure 18). The irony was double: what was presumably the first animation ever made with unretouched photographs was both artificially composed and a paradoxical fabrication of lifelikeness that relied on its subject’s death. (Remarkably, Marey called the black and white garments with which he captured human motion his “homme squelette”—“skeleton man”—suits [Figure 15].) This was not live action but a danse macabre. Kittler reminds us that the very first illustration of a print shop figured a “dance of death,” and here, the first animation produces a galloping skeleton, which we can read as the allegory of the entropy on which the medium itself is often thought to be predicated.90 To produce the likeness of life, animation paradoxically seemed to require that the living be stilled.91
Yet cinematic lifelikeness need not be construed as inimical to life. We can also see it as revealing an alternative image of the living predicated on discontinuity and reproducibility. Capture does not consist in arbitrarily reanimating visual fragments that are themselves nonsignificant, like letters in the alphabet (“lifeless units of time and movement,” in Crary’s words);92 rather, it supposes an attunement to a residual motivation in the gesture that is extracted from an apparently continuous motion. In modernity, writes Agamben, “every image is animated by an antinomic polarity: on the one hand, images are the reification and obliteration of a gesture (it is the imago as death mask or as symbol); on the other hand, they preserve the dynamis intact (as in Muybridge’s snapshots or any sports photograph).”93 The emphasis has often been placed on the reifying moment, and the dynamis has been reduced to a fetishized energy in the service of reification. But what is gained in Muybridge’s sequential images is the sense that every still is the fragment of a gesture that in turn expresses the technohistorical milieu in which it took place: “The gesture is the exhibition of a mediality,” Agamben writes: “it is the process of making a means visible as such.” This is the only way that “the obscure Kantian expression ‘purposiveness without purpose’ acquires a concrete meaning.”94 We can reframe Agamben’s intuition in terms of what Benjamin calls the “optical unconscious,” which designates the “salutary estrangement between man and his surroundings [Umwelt]” effected by cinema.95 By its capacity to immerse us in another Umwelt, cinema makes us aware of our environment as environment, not as the world “as such.” Reflexively, the subject at the center of this environment is invited to embrace its own mediality. Subjectivity here does not index the immutable essence of a living being but reveals its inextricable enclosure in a singular Umwelt. Thus, the subject is refashioned as interface, as medium—as itself an elective technology of capture, cutting up or editing the world according to various interests and sensorial aptitudes.
Among the various techniques that orchestrate the new representational regime of capture, Benjamin cites the close-up, slow-motion footage, and bird’s-eye-view perspectives as expanding the realm of the humanly visible and the editing process as artificially recomposing an impression of naturalness. In the hypermediated age of technological reproducibility, perception becomes second nature—a synthetic product. The hallucinatory dimension with which the world becomes imbued, in Benjamin’s account, has often been read as modern man’s fall into technology and loss of nature all over again. This reading is not solely a function of the ever-increasing interpenetration of reality and technology in the latter half of the century but more deeply of the recognition of the technological nature of reality—the recognition that reality is not passively awaiting to be uncovered but is, in effect, constituted by the observer (who, as Crary shows, is construed as a “technique”).96 Muybridge’s stop-motion studies played a key role in prompting this recognition. With “his modular segmentation of images,” Crary explains, Muybridge “breaks down the possibility of a ‘truthful’ syntax, and his aggregate presentations set up an atomized field that an observer cannot seamlessly rebind” but that can be artificially bound through the process of editing.97
These individual images, “although ostensibly part of a linear sequence and syntax,” acquire with Muybridge “a newly autonomous, floating identity” prone to render them complicit with forces of capitalist deterritorializing. Yet for Benjamin, it is precisely this deterritorializing force that holds a revolutionary promise by offering us a means to situate ourselves, if no longer within nature, at least in what he calls our environment, or milieu. “Film can be characterized not only in terms of man’s presentation of himself to the camera,” Benjamin observes, “but also in terms of his representation of his environment [Umwelt] by means of this apparatus.”98 It is this ability to contextualize the self that, for Benjamin, produces the revolutionary potential of film:
On the one hand, film furthers insight into the necessities governing our lives by its use of close-ups, by its accentuation of hidden details in familiar objects, and by its exploration of commonplace milieu through the ingenious guidance of the camera; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of a vast and unsuspected field of action [Spielraum, literally “room for play”]. Our bars and city streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories seemed to close relentlessly around us. Then came film and exploded this prison-world with the dynamite of the split second, so that now we can set off calmly on journeys among its far-flung debris. . . . Clearly, it is another nature which speaks to the camera as compared to the eye. “Other” above all in the sense that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious.99
The camera does not denature reality so much as it defines “another nature,” inviting us to glimpse beyond our conscious human world. It is little surprise then that Uexküll, with whose work Benjamin was familiar, found in photography, and chronophotography in particular, a powerful method for studying and conceptualizing human and animal Umwelten. Uexküll uses what he calls “the grid method” to produce approximations of how various animals experience space according to their singular perceptive capabilities (showing how different the same room will look from the point of view of a human, a fly, and a mollusk). His experiments assume the commensurability of different visual perceptions, but not of the subjective experience of the perceiving subjects. If the “world as seen through a fly’s eye must seem significantly coarsened as compared to its being seen through a human eye,” it does not entail that humans see better, only differently. Such a perspective allows one to understand how, for instance, “the threads of a spider’s web are completely lost to sight” for a fly.100
Chronophotography also offers Uexküll a way to approach how different animals experience time. Though he learned chronophotography from Marey, whose Paris laboratory he visited in 1899, Uexküll’s conception of animals was antipodal to that of the French physiologist. As Inga Pollmann explains, “Marey’s chronophotography was based upon a Helmholtzian notion of the body as energetic machine.” In contrast, Uexküll used chronophotography to analyze the movements of animals, not simply “with respect to their function and efficiency,” but in order to explore the animals’ “ability to organize and reorganize [their attitudes] depending upon the circumstances in which [they find themselves].”101 Put differently: Marey posits time as the shared, objective milieu of all living beings, whereas Uexküll refutes the idea of a homogenous concept of time, instead imagining a manifold of subjective temporalities specific to each organism.102 To illustrate this claim, Pollmann takes the example of a snail (Helix pomatia) for whom Uexküll devises an apparatus to determine what he calls the “snail’s moment” (Figure 19). Here I quote Uexküll at length:
A snail is placed on a rubber ball which, because it is floating on water, can slide freely past beneath the snail. The snail’s shell is held in place with a clamp. The snail is thereby free to crawl and also to stay in the same place. If one places a stick at the foot of the snail, it will crawl upon it. But if one strikes the snail from one to three times a second with it, the snail will turn away. However, if the blows are repeated four or more times a second, the snail begins to crawl onto the stick. In the snail’s environment, a stick that moves back and forth four or more times a second must be at rest. We can conclude from this that the perception time of the snail takes place at a speed between three and four moments a second.103
Uexküll compares the snail’s haptic perception and the human’s optical perception of their respective environments by using a cinematographic analogy: there is a threshold of perceptibility below which the snail does not feel the stick’s quivering, he finds, just as there is a threshold of visibility below which a human eye does not register the flickering of images.104 Of course, the experiment is imperfect, and Uexküll himself is well aware that he can only speculate what the Umwelt of another species (or, indeed, of another individual specimen, animal or human) looks and feels like. As Pollmann suggests, what chronophotography affords Uexküll is neither the objective image traditionally associated with photography nor the subjective experience of nonhuman living subjects but a view that is “other or alien.”105 When Uexküll invites his reader to peer at universes that are both “unknown” and “invisible,” he does not promise to make the invisible visible, nor does he promise to bring into view what was heretofore unseen. He aims instead to disclose these invisible worlds as invisible, without piercing their mystery. Uexküll founds his ethology on the intuition that one can recompose an image of that other that the animal is, however alien it may be, by observing how it interacts with, and composes, its milieu. In this intuition lies the ethical impetus of Uexküll’s ethology, in the Spinozan sense of ethics.106 Muybridge’s trip wires and grids should be seen not as a Cartesian trap rationalizing and mechanizing animal gestures but rather as a spiderweb, recalling Nietzsche’s intuition that “in the last resort, we achieve nothing more by cognition than the spider achieves by weaving its web, hunting and sucking the blood of its prey.”107 Or in Uexküll’s words: “Every subject spins out, like the spider’s threads, its relations to certain qualities of things and weaves them into a solid web, which carries its existence.”108
Uexküll uses the image of the spider to figure what type of “relation” a given animal entertains with its Umwelt and with other animals. Since the spider weaves a web “before it has ever met a physical fly,” it cannot be said to hunt a particular fly, nor even that it builds its web in order to catch flies; its web, rather, “represents the primal image [Urbild] of the fly, which is physically not at all present.”109 The web fits the fly like a tailored suit, Uexküll continues: the spider is fly-like insofar as “it has taken up certain motifs/motives of the fly melody in its bodily composition.”110 Deleuze and Guattari elaborate: “The spider’s web contains ‘a very subtle portrait of the fly,’ which serves as its counterpoint. . . . This is not a teleological conception but a melodic one in which we no longer know what is art and what nature (‘natural technique’). There is counterpoint whenever a melody arises as a ‘motif’ within another melody, as in the marriage of bumblebee and snapdragon.”111 This oft-cited image of the “marriage of bumblebee and snapdragon” can easily be misread as an idealization of “Nature” construed as flawlessly harmonious but ultimately meaningless. Envisioned in “perfect communion” with its environment, the animal appears locked in an unmotivated chain of causality. But what Uexküll describes is precisely not a causal relation: “The web—but never the fly—can be called the goal of forming the web,” he insists. “But the fly does indeed serve as the counterpoint, as the motive for the formation of the web.”112
In his courses at the Collège de France on Nature, Merleau-Ponty invokes Uexküll to counter the causalist and correlationist views promoted by behaviorism with a conditional and chiasmatic perspective:
The organism is not defined by its punctual existence; what exists beyond is a theme, a style, all these expressions seeking to express not a participation in a transcendental existence, but in a structure of the whole. The body belongs to a dynamic of behavior. Behavior is sunk into corporeity. The organism does not exist as the thing endowed with absolute properties, as fragments of a Cartesian space.113
For Merleau-Ponty as for Uexküll, animal behavior cannot be reduced to a series of mechanical reactions to stimuli; the animal is a semiotic subject decrypting what constitutes its lifeworld, its body a site of sensorial impressions and expressions. Marey’s avowed dream, we remember, was to reduce the living animal to its functional mechanisms, to break down the continuous motion of the living into a series of discretized points. “For Marey,” Doane observes, “the mathematical representability of motion/time was dependent upon the concept of the point.”114 But in its isolation, the point betrays its epistemological promise because it loses sight of the movement it seeks to make intelligible. Doane plays Marey’s point (the symbol of perfect rationalization) against Peirce’s point (the mark of contingency, the promise of a real that escapes all predeterminations) only to show their complementarity. The point, she concludes, emblematizes modernity’s passion for the fugitive and its inexorable desire to control it.
When confronted with a taxonomic form of knowledge that accounts for living beings in terms of correlated points, Hawthorne, as we saw in chapter 4, prefers not to disclose what he knows, intimating his reader instead to imagine a different mode of relating to the animal. Uexküll takes stock of the lesson of taxonomy—that organs can be isolated from living organisms and turned into insignificant points—but challenges the idea that any point is thinkable absent its counterpoints, which compose the Umwelt of a given animal. This is the complementary lesson of ethology, which understands living beings on the basis of purposefulness (a purposefulness without purpose) and not of functionality or causality. Ethology asks what a particular animal “takes” in its world and what it remains unaffected by: “Every point has its counterpoints: the plant and the rain, the spider and the fly,” writes Deleuze.115 “So an animal, a thing, is never separable from its relations with the world. The interior is only a selected exterior, and the exterior, a projected interior.” Although the combination of “carriers of significance” is immanently orchestrated on an infinite symphonic plane of composition, Uexküll’s view is resolutely not deterministic, leaving room for unforeseen assemblages and becomings. The animal is never “free” insofar as it is bound to a certain Umwelt—figured at times as a “soap bubble” or a “bodily house”—but neither is it ever fixed insofar as it has the power to improvise and express itself. The word animal here has little to do with the “‘real’ animal,” which for Deleuze and Guattari “is trapped in its molar form and subjectivity.”116 Hyphenated to a dynamic process of becoming, animal signals the possibility, not of an abstract notion of “freedom,” but of a contingent and conditional power to “escape” (think of Kafka’s ape in “A Report to an Academy,” evolving out of necessity by imitating his human captors, preferring to “freedom” the pragmatic possibility of a “way out”).117
Like the spider’s web and its trace of the fly, like the whale secretly shaping Moby-Dick, Muybridge’s experiments contrapuntally draw the portrait of the horse—a portrait of a specific human-machine-horse configuration, a snapshot of a certain historical assemblage. Muybridge’s first apparatus of capture was Uexküllian avant la lettre insofar as it did not stop, decompose, and spatialize animal motion according to a predetermined temporal pattern. In these early experiments, Muybridge’s horses were not (yet) indifferent objects; they were active participants, for the pictures were indexed on their “own times.” Indeed, it is chronophotography’s indexical potential (Peirce’s point) that Muybridge’s trip wire system reveals, to the extent that the index, in the words of Doane, “seems to acknowledge the invasion of semiotic systems by the real.”118 Thinking in terms of indexicality allows us to consider Muybridge’s animal subjects as leaving on the film expressive traces of their passage. The manner in which these traces disappear for our senses does not just show us that we do not “really” see animals; what they reveal is their entanglement with our own (technologically inflected) Umwelt. We do not see the fly—just the web. But in the web, we can glimpse a “subtle portrait of the fly.” Not seeing becomes a specific mode of engagement with our own environment. The ethics of this engagement demands not just that we recognize our own hand in the process of capture (especially because, as we saw with Audubon, capture is premised on the elision of the human hand) but also that we acknowledge that the “hand” animals have in the nature of their representation is fundamentally historical and subject to change.
Horses have always taken their own picture—they have always existed in a way that informed the procedures of their representation—but the trip wire used to be a shrine, a ritual sacrifice, a hunt. The relations humans have with different species imbue the technics of a given cultural era. Cinema, as the paradigmatic aesthetic technology of reproduction, is itself an index of the modern epoch, a period when the West’s relation to the living came to be conceived predominantly in terms of reproducibility. Reproducibility does not erase material or historical consciousness, nor does it freeze the animal in some kind of timeless formalin or embalming fluid; it is the principle that underlies the animal condition in the age of its capture.