Introduction: Questions of Scale

by Meredith Bak and Daniel Reynolds


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A town, a country-place, is from afar a town and a country-place. But, as we draw near, there are houses, trees, tiles, leaves, grass, ants, limbs of ants, in infinity. All this is contained under the name of country-place.[1]— Blaise Pascal


Print ads for Michael Crichton’s posthumous techno-thriller Micro, completed after Crichton’s death by Richard Preston, promise “fear on a scale you’ve never seen.” Micro conceptually foregrounds the invisible threats of nanotechnologies and microorganisms via the plot device of a miniaturization machine that shrinks several central characters.[2] The advertising tagline inverts the familiar cinematic blockbuster rhetoric of large-scale production and onscreen spectacle while retaining the promise of narrative events that are outside our quotidian frames of reference—outside, that is, events on a human scale. The promise of media production on a previously unseen (large) scale is exchanged for the promise of diegetic threats on a (small) scale that cannot be seen; nanotechnologies and microorganisms are too minuscule to be perceived with the naked senses. As with large-scale cataclysms, their perceptual unfamiliarity contributes to a sense of our lack of causal power over them.  Their scale makes them functionally impossible to resist.

But what scale of action and perception, then, is our scale? The “human scale” is arguably in a period of rapid change; it remains constrained by the sizes and perceptual capacities of human bodies, but it is extended by an ever-developing repertoire of technologies that allow us to perceive further, deeper, and with higher resolution than we could before. These technological tools fundamentally affect the perceptual and enactive capacities of their users, as Aldous Huxley points out:

Consider the change in his being which the scientist is able to induce mechanically by means of his instruments. Equipped with a spectroscope and a sixty-inch reflector an astronomer becomes, so far as eyesight is concerned, a superhuman creature; and, as we should naturally expect, the knowledge possessed by this superhuman creature is very different, both in quantity and in quality, from that which can be acquired by a stargazer with unmodified, merely human eyes.[3]

In Huxley’s account, the astronomer, equipped with a powerful spectroscope, becomes something perceptually more than the stargazer. Indeed, without the benefits afforded by spectroscopy, we would know only a tiny fraction of what we do about the spatiotemporal scale of the universe. Likewise, perceptual and causal capacity have been technologically extended downward in scale, facilitating less-invasive surgeries and more-invasive surveillance, new sources of energy and new sources of destruction.

Reconfiguration of scale, including spatial extension of perceptual and causal capacity and augmentation of scalar precision, is a central function of media technology. The development of the written word extended the temporal scale of narrative language and the invention of the printing press extended the scope of its dissemination. Photography and cinema have allowed for scalar distortions of space and time, while digital media have facilitated the construction of virtual worlds via novel depictions of spatial and temporal scale. In each case, large-scale patterns and minute details become ready objects for perception in ways that they had not previously been. As Walter Benjamin writes,

Mass movements are usually discerned more clearly by a camera than by the naked eye. A bird’s-eye view best captures gatherings of hundreds of thousands. And even though such a view may be as accessible to the human eye as it is to the camera, the image received by the eye cannot be enlarged the way a negative is enlarged. This means that mass movements...constitute a form of human behavior which particularly favors mechanical equipment.[4]

In an example of the systemic analysis that characterizes his work, Benjamin thinks here about how the human favors the mechanical just as much as the mechanical favors the human. Media technology does not only facilitate human activity but also plays an essential constitutive role in it. In particular, media technology extends and inflects the scales at which it is possible to perceive and to act. In their ability not only to reproduce but also to expand, excerpt from, condense, and summarize both space and time, media reconfigure key aspects of human scalar perception—and thus ask us to rethink what it means for our actions to be perceptible.

As digital media technologies have proliferated and decreased in size, their capacities for physical mobility, processing speed, and data transmission have increased exponentially. Scale has concurrently become a pervasive theoretical concern in media scholarship. Consideration of scalar issues is central not only in the delineation of a range of cultural objects and phenomena for study, but also in the evaluation of methodological approaches to these phenomena. Mark Andrejevic’s work on the omnipresent networks of surveillance technologies indicates the scale at which the National Security Administration and other bodies are able to monitor consumer activity,[5] while Colin Milburn’s studies of nanotechnology investigate how the concept of micro-scale material intervention has reverberated across contemporary media and cultural imagination.[6] Laura U. Marks has suggested that “due to the ability of subatomic particles to communicate along traceable pathways, we can fairly say that electrons remember.”[7]; Such observations have profound implications for memory, creativity, and personhood.

Looking at macro-scale patterns via the use of abstracting tools in Graphs, Maps, Trees, Franco Moretti discusses the historical evolution of genres, subgenres, and particular stylistic devices, which he calls “three distinct ‘sections’ of the literary field,” descending in scale of analysis. Moretti espouses at each level a “pragmatic view of theoretical knowledge” necessary in constructing “a materialist conception of form” capable of contributing to an explanatory hierarchy for literature as described at varying degrees scalar abstraction.[8] The cinematic measurement device “Cinemetrics,” developed by Yuri Tsivian and Gunars Civjans, facilitates the mapping of larger-scale formal patterns in cinema,[9] making them much easier to perceive and to compare. Such approaches are increasingly called for as media become more pervasive in our lives, and as they manifest themselves at ever larger and smaller scales. Relationships of scale determine what is visible, perceptible, and knowable; the overlapping networks of forms and technologies that characterize the contemporary mediascape present a complex system that calls for the consideration of its scalar relationships.

As the epigraph by Pascal suggests, scale is often an epistemological issue, as thinking about scale leads to thinking about the relationships between the sizes of things and how we perceive and represent them. How does our scalar relationship to things contribute to our understanding of what they are and what they mean?  To what degree does our position as observers determine our understanding of that which we observe?  How do the names we give to collections of things influence our understanding of them?

In assembling this issue, we sought to incorporate material that addressed relationships between scale and media from as many different perspectives as possible. Foregrounding the term’s implications of both difference and measurability, we asked authors to think about issues such as the sizes and durations of media objects, depictions of scale in media, the scale of media production, scalar relationships within production processes, the representation and inflection of scalar relationships in media, and the relationships between mediation and measurement. In response, we received an excellent and varied range of proposals; among the essays that followed, several thematic strands emerged.

Scale as a perceptual phenomenon is taken up in depth by a number of essays, including Ethan de Seife’s examination of scalar perception through cinema history, focusing on John Smith’s short film gargantuan (1992); Renato Bressan’s essay on what he calls the avatarization process in board game and videogame play; and Chris Lukinbeal’s consideration of human geography and anthropometric scale in film. Each of these essays highlights, in its own way, the capacity of media to shift our perceptual and enactive scalar relationships to the world around us. De Seife’s discussion of John Smith’s minute-long film gargantuan explores the discrepancies between two systems of scale, screen size and actual life size, and emphasizes the ability of techniques and technologies such as the close up, long shot, and the zoom lens to support, challenge, or confuse our assumptions about scale, thus affecting our understanding of what we see onscreen. Bressan interrogates the relationships between perception and action, outlining the simultaneous strategic and visual perspectives that inform players of chess and players of soccer videogames. Lukinbeal considers how conventions of cinematic language rely on the notion of scale as an objective, measurable standard to simulate realism while simultaneously revealing scale’s instability as a relational system.

Robin Balliger’s essay on the production of local identity in Trinidadian radio and Kate Fortmueller’s consideration of extras working for scale in early Hollywood address scale as a political construct. Each of these essays explores the stakes of social, economic, and political relationships configured according to scalar relationships, as well as the corollary: the way scalar relationships are asserted in order to justify discursive recategorizations. Balliger investigates the contested and shifting meaning of the “local” in radio broadcasting. Fortmeuller shows how the aesthetic tension between individual invisibility and collective visibility that characterizes the onscreen presence of film extras parallels the functioning of extras and their work in the context of union activity and standardization of pay scales. In his analysis of electronic money and the Internet, David Bobbitt utilizes Marshall McLuhan’s theories of visual and acoustic spaces, demonstrating how “scaling up” technology fundamentally alters our relationship to media—and to money.

Essays by Anthony Metivier, J.D. Connor, and Lindsay Thomas investigate shifts in scale produced by the working of similar content and themes through multiple depictive forms. Metivier traces scalar issues in the adaptation of The Agony and the Ecstasy from novel to epic film. He argues that the filmmakers’ decision to foreground the spectacle of massive spaces and large-scale events rather than the drama of Michelangelo’s personal artistic development is motivated by a desire to mold the film’s content to the conventions of the Biblical epic, action, disaster, and gladiator genres. Connor discusses the implications of digital technology for the valuation of production scale. Super 8 (2011), directed by J.J. Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg, represents for Connor a point of industrial self-reflection, an opportunity to think about the implications of the “digital turn” for cinematic production at any scale. Where Connor contrasts the characters’ construction of a model train with the high production value of an actual train crash depicted in Abrams’s film, Lindsay Thomas’s essay on two modes of disease surveillance similarly considers the implications of shifting between macro and micro perspectives in the analysis of the influenza virus’s movement. In the essay, Thomas exposes the fundamentally speculative nature of these tools that stage and track viral movement and investigates the implications of mapping the dynamics of viral infection onto the scale of geopolitics.

Essays by Mary Nucci and Christofer Meissner investigate scale from the perspective of theatrical film audiences by considering changes in screen and auditorium size, taking the IMAX format and the multiplex as their primary objects of study. Nucci focuses on the formal characteristics of giant-screen nature documentaries, which rework natural spaces into commodified visual spectacles while simultaneously resisting adaptation to smaller-scale exhibition platforms. Meissner provides an account of the historical interplay between the sizes of screening spaces and the number of screening spaces per exhibition venue in the American cinema, showing how this dynamic has been emblematic of wider-scale cultural and industrial developments.

This issue also includes a collection of poems on the theme of scale. In their academic careers, the poets represent a range of disciplinary specializations from across the sciences and the humanities. Their poems reflect these perspectives while also meditating on a host of common concerns. In particular, consideration of the place of human-scale experience between its micro-scale constitutive makeup and its macro-scale physical and temporal context leads to reflection on the relationship between the events in (and the finitude of) human lives and the complex processes and probabilities that are their often invisible backdrop. Many of these poems highlight the existential dimensions of the scalar relationships developed by the essays in this issue: in these eight poems, scale repeatedly appears as a rhetorical device, as a perceptual phenomenon, and as a context for action, often framed in terms of the vexing but far-from-paradoxical ontological, epistemological, and metaphysical challenges presented by the scales of our lives, which are at once infinitesimally small and all-encompassing.

We hope that this issue of Media Fields Journal will stimulate your own thinking about where we—and where our media—fit in the scheme of things, writ large and writ small. We invite your responses to these essays and hope that the discussion engendered by these authors will become a continuing dialogue.

We would like to thank the essay authors and the poets for their contributions. Our thanks also go to our peers in the Media Fields research collective for their feedback on the articles, and especially to this issue’s proofreading and formatting staff. Rahul Mukherjee, the coordinating editor of the journal, was tireless in his direction of the editorial process and was thoughtfully involved in an evaluative capacity with every aspect of the issue. Thanks to Douglas Hofstadter for his helpful suggestions during the early development of the issue.


[1] Blaise Pascal, Thoughts, trans. W.F. Trotter. (New York: P.F. Collier, 1910), 49.

[2] Or so the press materials indicate. We won’t be reading the book.

[3] Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy (London: Fontana Books, 1958), 9.

[4] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1965), 251 n. 21.

[5] Mark Andrejevic, iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era (Topeka: University of Kansas Press, 2007).

[6] Colin Milburn, "Atoms and Avatars." Spontaneous Generations 2:1 (2008), 63-89.

[7] Laura U. Marks, Touch (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 161.

[8] Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees (London: Verso Press, 2007), 91-92. Italics in original.

[9] You can find the program and a database of about 10,000 films at <>.


Meredith A. Bak is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research interests include nineteenth-century optical devices and visual culture, media archaeology, material culture studies, and the history of childhood. She is completing her dissertation on optical toys and nineteenth-century children’s material culture.

Daniel Reynolds is a PhD candidate in the Department of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His dissertation discusses how contemporary media technologies can facilitate thinking about embodied perception, cognition, and consciousness.