The Annihilation of Space and Time: Rebecca Solnit on How Muybridge Froze the Flow of Existence, Shaped Visual Culture, and Changed Our Consciousness
By Maria Popova
The great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky described the art of cinema as “sculpting in time,” asserting that people go to the movies because they long to experience “time lost or spent or not yet had.” A century earlier, the English photographer Eadweard Muybridge (April 9, 1830–May 8, 1904) exposed the bedrock of time and devised the first chisel for its sculpting in his pioneering photographic studies of motion, which forever changed the modern world — not only by ushering in a technological revolution the effects of which permeate and even dictate our daily lives today, but also, given how bound up in space and time our thinking ego is, transforming our very consciousness. For the very first time, Muybridge’s motion studies captured what T.S. Eliot would later call “the still point of the turning world.”
With her unparalleled intellectual elegance and poetic prose, Rebecca Solnit tells the story of that transformation in River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (public library).
Solnit frames the impact of the trailblazing experiments Muybridge conducted in the spring of 1872, when he first photographed a galloping horse:
[Muybridge] had captured aspects of motion whose speed had made them as invisible as the moons of Jupiter before the telescope, and he had found a way to set them back in motion. It was as though he had grasped time itself, made it stand still, and then made it run again, over and over. Time was at his command as it had never been at anyone’s before. A new world had opened up for science, for art, for entertainment, for consciousness, and an old world had retreated farther.
Technology and consciousness, of course, have always shaped one another, perhaps nowhere more so than in our experience of time — from the moment Galileo’s invention of the clock sparked modern timekeeping to the brutality with which social media timelines beleaguer us with a crushing sense of perpetual urgency. But the 1870s were a particularly fecund zeitgeist of technological transformation by Solnit’s perfect definition of technology as “a practice, a technique, or a device for altering the world or the experience of the world.” She writes:
The experience of time was itself changing dramatically during Muybridge’s seventy-four years, hardly ever more dramatically than in the 1870s. In that decade the newly invented telephone and phonograph were added to photography, telegraphy, and the railroad as instruments for “annihilating time and space.”
The modern world, the world we live in, began then, and Muybridge helped launch it.
His trajectory ripped through all the central stories of his time — the relationship to the natural world and the industrialization of the human world, the Indian wars, the new technologies and their impact on perception and consciousness. He is the man who split the second, as dramatic and far-reaching an action as the splitting of the atom.
Shining a sidewise gleam at just how radically the givens we take for granted have changed since Muybridge’s time, Solnit writes of that era in which a man could shoot his wife’s lover and be acquitted for justifiable homicide:
In the eight years of his motion-study experiments in California, he also became a father, a murderer, and a widower, invented a clock, patented two photographic innovations, achieved international renown as an artist and a scientist, and completed four other major photographic projects.
With the invention of cinema still more than a decade away, Muybridge’s shutters and film development techniques fused cutting-edge engineering and chemistry to produce more and better high-speed photographs than anyone had before. In a sense, Virginia Woolf’s famous complaint about the visual language of cinema — “the eye licks it all up instantaneously, and the brain, agreeably titillated, settles down to watch things happening without bestirring itself to think,” she scoffed in 1926 — was an indictment of this new visual language of time and, indirectly, of Muybridge’s legacy. Had he not rendered time visible and tangible, Bertrand Russell may not have proclaimed that “even though time be real, to realize the unimportance of time is the gate of wisdom”; had his pioneering photography not altered our relationship to the moment, Italo Calvino would not have had to issue his prescient lamentation that “the life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself.”
In a testament to the notion that all creative work builds on what came before, Muybridge made significant improvements on the zoetrope — a rotating device, invented in 1834, which creates the illusion of motion by presenting a series of spinning images through a slot. But alongside the practical improvement upon existing technologies, he also built upon larger cultural leaps — most significantly, the rise of the railroads, which compressed space and time unlike anything ever had.
In 1872, the railroad magnate Leland Stanford — who would later co-found Stanford University with his wife, Jane — commissioned Muybridge to study the gaits of galloping and trotting horses in order to determine whether all four feet lifted off the ground at once at any point. Since horses gallop at a speed that outpaces the perception of the human eye, this was impossible to discern without freezing motion into a still image. So began Muybridge’s transformation of time.
With her penchant for cultural history laced with subtle, perfectly placed political commentary, Solnit traces the common root of Hollywood and Silicon Valley to Muybridge:
Perhaps because California has no past — no past, at least, that it is willing to remember — it has always been peculiarly adept at trailblazing the future. We live in the future launched there.
If one wanted to find an absolute beginning point, a creation story, for California’s two greatest transformations of the world, these experiments with horse and camera would be it. Out of these first lost snapshots eventually came a world-changing industry, and out of the many places where movies are made, one particular place: Hollywood. The man who owned the horse and sponsored the project believed in the union of science and business and founded the university that much later generated another industry identified, like Hollywood, by its central place: Silicon Valley.
It would be impossible to grasp the profound influence Muybridge and his legacy had on culture without understanding how dramatically different the world he was born into was from the one he left. Solnit paints the technological backdrop of his childhood:
Pigeons were the fastest communications technology; horses were the fastest transportation technology; the barges moved at the speed of the river or the pace of the horses that pulled them along the canals. Nature itself was the limit of speed: humans could only harness water, wind, birds, beasts. Born into this almost medievally slow world, the impatient, ambitious, inventive Muybridge would leave it and link himself instead to the fastest and newest technologies of the day.
The first passenger railroad opened on September 15, 1830 — mere months after Muybridge’s birth. Like any technological bubble, the spread of this novelty brought with it an arsenal of stock vocabulary. The notion of “annihilating time and space” became one of the era’s most used, then invariably overused, catchphrases. (In a way, clichés themselves — phrases to which we turn for cognitive convenience, out of a certain impatience with language — are another manifestation of our defiant relationship to time.) Applied first to the railways, the phrase soon spread to the various technological advancements that radiated, directly or indirectly, from them. Solnit writes:
“Annihilating time and space” is what most new technologies aspire to do: technology regards the very terms of our bodily existence as burdensome. Annihilating time and space most directly means accelerating communications and transportation. The domestication of the horse and the invention of the wheel sped up the rate and volume of transit; the invention of writing made it possible for stories to reach farther across time and space than their tellers and stay more stable than memory; and new communications, reproduction, and transportation technologies only continue the process. What distinguishes a technological world is that the terms of nature are obscured; one need not live quite in the present or the local.
The devices for such annihilation poured forth faster and faster, as though inventiveness and impatience had sped and multiplied too.
But perhaps the most significant impact of the railroads, Solnit argues, was that they began standardizing human experience as goods, people, and their values traveled faster and farther than ever before. In contracting the world, the railways began to homogenize it. And just as society was adjusting to this new mode of relating to itself, another transformative invention bookended the decade: On January 7, 1839, the French artist Louis Daguerre debuted what he called daguerreotypy — a pioneering imaging method that catalyzed the dawn of photography.
With an eye to the era’s European and American empiricism, animated by a “restlessness that regarded the unknown as a challenge rather than a danger,” Solnit writes:
Photography may have been its most paradoxical invention: a technological breakthrough for holding onto the past, a technology always rushing forward, always looking backward.
Photography was a profound transformation of the world it entered. Before, every face, every place, every event, had been unique, seen only once and then lost forever among the changes of age, light, time. The past existed only in memory and interpretation, and the world beyond one’s own experience was mostly stories… [Now,] every photograph was a moment snatched from the river of time.
The final invention in the decades’s trifecta of technological transformation was the telegraph. Together, these three developments — photography, the railroads, and the telegraph — marked the beginning of our modern flight from presence, which would become the seedbed of our unhappiness over the century that followed. By chance, Muybridge came into the world at the pinnacle of this transformation; by choice, he became instrumental in guiding its course and, in effect, shaping modernity.
Before the new technologies and ideas, time was a river in which human beings were immersed, moving steadily on the current, never faster than the speeds of nature — of currents, of wind, of muscles. Trains liberated them from the flow of the river, or isolated them from it. Photography appears on this scene as though someone had found a way to freeze the water of passing time; appearances that were once as fluid as water running through one’s fingers became solid objects… Appearances were permanent, information was instantaneous, travel exceeded the fastest speed of bird, beast, and man. It was no longer a natural world in the sense it always had been, and human beings were no longer contained within nature.
Time itself had been of a different texture, a different pace, in the world Muybridge was born into. It had not yet become a scarce commodity to be measured out in ever smaller increments as clocks acquired second hands, as watches became more affordable mass-market commodities, as exacting schedules began to intrude into more and more activities. Only prayer had been precisely scheduled in the old society, and church bells had been the primary source of time measurement.
Simone Weil once defined prayer as “absolutely unmixed attention,” and perhaps the commodification of time that started in the 1830s was the beginning of the end of our capacity for such attention; perhaps Muybridge was the horseman of our attentional apocalypse.
Solnit considers the magnitude of his ultimate impact on our experience of time:
In the spring of 1872 a man photographed a horse. With the motion studies that resulted it was as though he were returning bodies themselves to those who craved them — not bodies as they might daily be experienced, bodies as sensations of gravity, fatigue, strength, pleasure, but bodies become weightless images, bodies dissected and reconstructed by light and machine and fantasy.
What they had lost was solid; what they gained was made out of air. That exotic new world of images speeding by would become the true home of those who spent their Saturdays watching images beamed across the darkness of the movie theater, then their evenings watching images beamed through the atmosphere and brought home into a box like a camera obscura or a crystal ball, then their waking hours surfing the Internet wired like the old telegraph system. Muybridge was a doorway, a pivot between that old world and ours, and to follow him is to follow the choices that got us here.
In the remainder of her rich and revelatory River of Shadows, Solnit goes on to follow the Rube Goldberg trajectory of these choices, linking Muybridge and his legacy to aspects of our daily lives ranging from the internet to how we inhabit our bodies. Complement it with Susan Sontag on the aesthetic consumerism of photography, the revisit Solnit on how to nurture our hope in times of despair, the rewards of walking, what reading does for the human spirit, and how modern noncommunication is changing our experience of time, solitude, and communion.
Published May 26, 2016