Jumbo Rock Glacier

Scale

In preparation for teaching college field studies in the Wrangell Mountains:

…to speak of atoms, cells, bodies, planets, galaxies, and the whole cosmos in relation to each other…

… a means of attending to one’s own perceptual field, systematically applying a measure to consistently compare the relative appearance of things. Scale is a phenomenological apparatus that permits us to speak of atoms, cells, bodies, planets, galaxies, and the whole cosmos in relation to each other. Scale is likewise a notation, a reference point whereby we relate one object (a galaxy) to our normal perceptual field (a meter). As a notation, scale’s significant rhetorical power manifests in its capacity to transform our understanding of our usual experience: in the capacity to conceive of this world, this body, and oneself according to these different scales. 


I explore scale through the scalar practices of both science and mysticism, with occasional reference to political conceptions of scale. The project finds that mysticism, the perennial aspects of spirituality that aims for union with a higher being, is an unavoidable and essential part of understanding scale since scalar terminologies tend to arise from mystical experience and encountering scale tends to generate decidedly mystical questions. Looking at mysticism in relation to science permits a fresh exploration of why science finds itself struggling with mystical concepts, such as wholeness, vastness, transcendence, hierarchy, or infinity, which are particularly notable within astronomy and ecology. Likewise, looking at how science develops and systematizes scalar descriptions permits a reworking of these mystical concepts in a manner that retains a clearer reference to empirical practices, while not remaining strictly within a material conception of the cosmos.

Joshua DiCaglio, “On Being Scaled: Rhetorical Practices of the Cosmos.” Dissertation, English Department, Pennsylvania State University, 2016. Abstract.

This point of bewilderment…

The disorientation provided by scale and the fact that it relates to a transformation of ourselves means that it launches us necessarily into territory that is less comfortably scientific. This point of bewilderment is where those invested in scientific discourse tend to retreat back to the concrete productions of scientific study. We consider the cellular diagram rather than that my body is made up of cells; we return to studying images of stars and avoid contemplating our relationship to these vast distances; we reinscribe quantum fields as particles rather than consider the interpretive implications of quantum uncertainty. Again and again, the products of scale tempt us to retreat in this way, in part, because to do otherwise just seems too mystical. …But what if scale is mystical? The problem is that we don’t understand why it’s mystical or what this mean. …

… mysticism describes a particular experience, particular practices designed around that experience, and a particular configuration toward reality that arises from and works out a scalar perspective. When scientists take the time to dwell on the larger implications and effects of scale, they find themselves entering the discursive realm of mysticism. In turn, those who have mystical experiences often find that the scalar descriptions of science provide a language that fits their experience. What if, to fully orient ourselves to scale, we have to set aside this repeated dismissal of mysticism? I will show how scale brings some surprising clarity to what mystics have always been going on about and, in turn, that mysticism helps clarify essential difficulties presented by scale.

To this end, mysticism can be defined in scalar terms as that branch of inquiry that aims to induce and integrate encounters with nonhuman scales, particularly the cosmic scale. Mysticism arises in the experience of an existence larger than oneself, in the experience of experience exceeding itself. This glimpse of a vaster totality beyond human bounds reorients the “individual” outside of the typical scale of the human being. This person must then try to make sense of, describe, and develop this new orientation. …

…Scale is not the exclusive purview of science or the technologies that produce any scalar observations. Rather, these modes of inquiry and extensions of observation (e.g., in microscopes, telescopes, and the many more complicated apparatuses) examine basic aspects of experience…

Joshua DiCaglio, Scale Theory: A Nondisciplinary Inquiry. U of Minnesota Press, 2021.

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