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Ghostly Spirits - continued...


Duchenne de Boulogne's vivid dead bodies

The difference between galvanic and alternating current in terms of physiological stimuli is that alternating current makes it possible to freeze a body in poses, even if it is dead, whereas galvanic current only makes bodies quiver. Duchenne de Boulogne, who worked at the Salpêtrière in the 1850s and 1860s and who may be described as one of the most important forerunners of Jean-Martin Charcot and his studies of hysterical women, combined both alternating current and photography in his physiological experiments. By experimentalizing life through the dead body, Duchenne was able to study the path of nerves—research not possible with vivisection. This was an important step in the study of physiology, similar to the way that X-rays made it possible to see bones without the destruction of the body's outer surface.

The ability to freeze bodies in poses using electricity also improved the photography of them. Electrically induced transformations freeze the body in a way similar to photography; the manipulation of the body is analogous to the manipulation of a photographic negative in the dark room. Therefore Duchenne de Bologne's experiments can be described as the realization par excellence of the close connection between photographic and electrophysiological discourse during the second half of the nineteenth century. Duchenne was able to produce facial expressions by changing the currents that he induced in the experimental object. He could create emotional expressions by evoking two or more facial expressions at the same time which usually corresponded to different emotions and thereby produced disconcerting photographic portraits of incomprehensible mimicked expressions.

Reference: Solhdju, Katrin. 2004. Ghostly Spirits. Three Cases of the Experimentalization of Life and Death in late 19th-Century Science.. The Virtual Laboratory (ISSN 1866-4784), http://vlp.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/references?id=art29&page=p0002