Three recent books on scale throw a sharp light on attempts at human-based measurements.
Andrew James Hamilton
(Princeton University Press, 2018)
(University of Chicago Press, 2021)
(University of Chicago Press, 2019)
In 1793, after the French Revolution, it was decided to ground measurement in universal cosmological reality rather than local custom. The new basis for all measures of length was to be the meter, a word derived from the Greek word for measure, metron. The meter’s length was calculated at one/ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the north pole along a meridian through Paris. From that measure a material prototype meter in brass was created in 1795, which was then recreated in 1799 in platinum, a material famed for its durability and inalterability. That platinum bar became the material point of reference for the communication of the new measure to other parts of the world. In the following decades, advances in surveying in fact came up with new and more accurate measurements that would have produced a slightly different value for the length of the meter, but it was too late. The platinum prototype had become, in effect, the new king’s foot; it was replaced by another bar in platinum-iridium of the same length in 1889, which sustained its promotion as the standard meter. In the 20th century, this meter was correlated to universal constants rather than earthly platinum bars—in 1960, the meter was calculated as 1,650,763.73 wavelengths of orange-red light, in a vacuum, produced by burning the element krypton (Kr-86), and in 1983, the Geneva Conference on Weights and Measures defined the meter as the distance light travels, in a vacuum, in 1/299,792,458 seconds with time measured by a Cesium-133 atomic clock. Yet, none of these space-age definitions changed or regrounded the definition of the meter; they only allowed the precise duplication of the original 1793 measure as concretized in the 1889 prototype platinum-iridium bar, even though surveying technology had since revealed the original calculation of that distance to be inaccurate. Thus, the attempted escape from human-based standards of measure ended up confirming an all-too-human error of 1793.
The three books under review throw a sharp light on this parable of human (and in particular European) folly. Emanuele Lugli’s The Making of Measure and the Promise of Sameness (2019) gives us the prehistory of the story of the meter, introducing us to the many efforts to establish standards of measure in Europe between 1200 and 1800. Zachary Horton’s The Cosmic Zoom (2021) puts that entire European history into perspective as an artifact of a Western and human-based understanding of scalar relations, which has entered into crisis in the last century. And Andrew James Hamliton’s Scale and the Incas (2018) reveals a world of scalar relations that is foreign to Western understanding and that now emerges as a critical alternative as we confront the unsustainability of prevailing models of global “progress.”
Lugli’s book proceeds as a series of short, punchy chapters beginning with the debates in Europe around 1800 over the establishment of the meter and then proceeding backward, plunging us into the various ways Europeans (mostly Italian communities in this account) grappled with the problem of how to go about measuring things and getting people to agree on and abide by methods of measuring, all the way back to the rise of medieval cities in the 12th century. I cannot remember the last time I read a book so unconfined by any known field, yet claiming the attention of so many. It contributes to the history of science and the history of ideas, to political and social history, and to the history of material culture, but it is not really any of these, while working at the foundations of all of them. Bristling with detailed history and punctuated by some startling discoveries in highly specialized areas, it is at the same time written with the express purpose of reaching a wide readership.
I can imagine artists whose work I admire obsessively dog-earing Lugli’s book and drawing spirals from it into their next projects. Despite—or perhaps because of—the intricate histories this book tells, it constantly brings its reader back to the quixotic nature of the enterprise of subjecting the matter of the world to consistent standards in which a whole community can believe and in turn regulate itself by. This is why, as Lugli repeatedly points out, the business of measuring is always a matter of political power and control. One of his more spectacular findings was hiding in plain sight in one of the most famous frescoes of 14th-century Italy, the Allegory of Good and Bad Government (1338–39) by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico, where we see the figure of Commutative Justice handing down to two citizens objects that art historians have interpreted as a strongbox, a spear, and a torch. Lugli points out that they are in fact measuring tools: the staio, the passetto, and the canna, units of capacity and length standardized by the Sienese authorities. They figure prominently in this allegory of functioning government because they serve as weapons against deception and as a means of holding the community to common standards.
From the vantage of Zachary Horton’s more recent The Cosmic Zoom (2021), Lugli’s history of Western European measuring is a central episode of pan-scalar humanism, “a tradition that tames the alterity of different scales by relativizing it, binding unfamiliar scales to the familiar ones of the human.” This tradition, argues Horton, masks the basic fact that scale is relative, and therefore encounters with different scales are not a matter of expanding our native scale, as the reassuring Western story of progress has presented it. Rather, different scales present encounters with non-human difference, producing radical discontinuities that throw into question the centrality of human ordering as such. The fiction of a humanist master scale, Horton points out, is “bound to run up against its absolute limits relatively quickly, whether those limits take the form of a financial crash, a global pandemic, a massive loss of biodiversity, the tipping point of global climate dynamics, technological singularity, or the structural collapse of human civilization.” The game is up, and one hears talk of scale everywhere. Horton points to recent video releases such as Alexander Payne’s Downsizing (2017) and Marvel’s Ant-Man franchise (2015 and 2018), as well as books such as Hooft and Vandoren’s Time in Powers of Ten (2014) and Caleb Scharf’s The Zoomable Universe (2017), and repeatedly returns to Alice in Wonderland as a prescient fable about the scale-instability of humans and our deficient capacity to contend with it.
Horton’s goal is to take on what he sees as the real scope of the challenge—to ask not how scales are established, occupied, or used by humans, but rather how human self-definition emerges out of the dynamics of scale. He does this by analyzing several works in book production, film, and database-driven design of the last 70 years that have grappled with normative mediatic accommodations to human scale and thus taught us how to think about scalar ideology and the role that media play in resolving it. The book takes the form of an elegant history of remediations, beginning with the Dutch educator Kees Boeke’s book Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps (1957), which was designed as an effort to situate limited human perception in its larger surroundings, understood as a set of nested scales, a pedagogical exercise that would broaden humans’ understanding of their place in the cosmos. The book, whose illustrations shift in scale from page to page, was then remediated as the continuous animation Cosmic Zoom (1968) by Eva Szasz and as two films by Ray and Charles Eames: A Rough Sketch of a Proposed Film Dealing with the Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe (1968) and Powers of Ten (1977) (which was in turn remediated as a 1982 book for Scientific American).
The upshot of this granular media history is an urgent theoretical insight into how humans have handled differences in scale and how they might do so differently, urgent because the mishandling of the question threatens to impose an early end to our existence and that of many other species. The books, films, and digital media that Horton studies are a powerful scaffolding for this argument, but the real material he wants us to consider are the theoretical armatures themselves, the ones that our various media and our accommodations in the world are built on. The final chapter offers deft analyses of Neil Burger’s 2011 film Limitless, Oliver Stone’s 2016 Snowden, and Joan Paüls’s 2016 Lucy, complete with maps of their recursive logics, all of which reveal processes by which humans become entangled with the logic of databases. These visions inspire Horton to imagine the emergence of a new “recursive self,” by which you become milieu and milieu becomes you, now invested with “news from another scale.”
It would be hard to find stronger counter-examples to pan-scalar humanism than in Inca material culture, whose subtle and pervasive engagements with scale relationships are brought out in Andrew James Hamilton’s wide-ranging Scale and the Incas (2018). Scale, this book argues, is a key to Inca art, allowing new readings of well-known bodies of material and bringing understudied artifacts to the surface, and occasionally overturning received truths about Inca culture. A review of conopas (household deities) and the figurines found at Inca burial sites leads to considerations of less familiar materials, such as the very carefully calibrated scaled use of stone in Inca architecture and terracing, which Hamilton shows was designed to enhance an effect of diminishment in size from base to top. He also considers landscapes carved out of living rock, which imitate aspects of the surrounding landscapes at Ollantaytambo, Teteqaqa, and Machu Picchu. Rather than adopt a view that privileges the work, Hamilton reminds us that in the Andes-dominated Inca cosmology mountains survey their domains, inducing interventions that articulate the site’s belonging to the purview of the mountain. Hamilton proposes that the water poured into a channel in Teteqaqa and that passes down through rocks to caves underneath was understood as a rain and irrigation ritual in which the human role in its functioning are both subservient to larger forces and able to play some part in impelling them.
A centerpiece of his study is the Sayhuite Stone, a work well known since the 19th century and yet slow to be integrated into prevailing understandings of Inca culture, not least because its figurations—an ecosystem of mammals, reptiles, avians, amphibians, and invertebrates—contradict orthodox views of Inca art as an art of abstraction and ornament. In a bravura reading, Hamilton shows how the Sayhuite Stone functions in rain rituals and sets it in relation to other reduced-scale landscapes at Teteqaqa and Machu Picchu, thus giving it an integrated place in future understandings of Inca culture.
Hamilton shows how manipulations of scale allowed Inca practitioners to enter into relationships with forces that exceeded human reckoning, such as powers that regulated rain cycles, sheltering mountain gods, and the three-tiered cosmology of heaven, earth, and underground. He thinks with the materials, using them to check and revise the accounts given by early Spanish colonizers and observers of Inca culture, who occasionally noted the materials under study but with varying interest and acuity, and from a European and Christian point of view. One point that comes through the variety of examples is an overwhelming Inca preference for reduced-scale relationships. Even the Sayhuite Stone, though taller than a human, is a miniature in relation to the worldscape it recapitulates—part of a consistent pattern in the materials to enter into relations with non-human referents. It is in seeing these scale relationships, and in beginning to understand how they are deployed in different yet logically consistent ways throughout Inca art, that we can gain, Hamilton proposes, a sense of the logic of the material culture of a civilization that did not leave behind texts. Gaining a scale-competency in Inca culture, his book shows, can provide a set of controls on our reading of early accounts by Spanish colonizers, allowing us to see where they touched on important facts about what they were seeing and also where their cognitive toolkit fell short.
All three books induce a humbling sense of the limitations of human efforts to understand themselves in relation to their environment, an incipient awareness that also suggests the possibility of imagining alternatives. In bringing to light the long European search for standards of measure, Lugli’s aim is not to present the chaotic prehistory to the more rational grounding offered since the Enlightenment, but to make us aware that under the guise of scientific certainty we are still grappling with our own material and conceptual limitations. Horton reads several 20th-century and contemporary experiments with scale relations as calls to re-imagine our relation to non-human scale before we march ourselves into global catastrophe. Hamilton’s book in turn opens a view onto an alternative scalar consciousness that reads like an answer to Horton’s urgency. Each book, in its own way, presents us with a limit situation: Lugli reveals us to be (still) part of a quixotic European quest to standardize measure; Horton points us to visualizations of our own scalar collapse; and Hamilton unearths a previous understanding of the place of humans in the cosmos from under layers of colonial misunderstanding and destruction. At the end of Hamilton’s book, we have partially unlearned a way of seeing an inherited world while still learning to find our way around in another.