Valid Invalid?: exploring visibility and viability, from laboratory to clinic
Dr Asha HornsbyZoom
By the 1870s and 80s, ‘new’ nervous disorders, such as hysteria and neurasthenia, and those following wartime injuries, such as selective paralysis, loosened the relationship between tissue damage, sensation, and signs of suffering. The unreliability of patients’ accounts raised questions about pain’s function, and scientists used animal experiments to find answers. To establish a direct correspondence between sensation and expression, many physiologists tried to replace ordinary language with the universal, wordless language of graphic registration and recording technologies. By avoiding human intervention between nature and representation, machines that made heartbeats and muscle contractions visible on the page offered a new kind of testimony that was, supposedly, more ‘authentic’.
This paper closely studies the depictions and descriptions of manometers, kymographs, and sphygmomanometers in nineteenth-century scientific accounts as well as the contemporary responses to them. It considers the absence or mechanisation of the animal body, the denial of individual interiorities, and the implications for human patients. Finally, it argues that despite concerted attempts to circumvent the slippery qualities of linguistic expression, descriptions of these devices – and the beings attached to them – could never quite escape from ‘ordinary language’, let alone inventive literary responses like ‘animalography’ which sprung up to rival their authority.