Scale: An Unstable Representational Analogy

by Christopher Lukinbeal

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In human geography, the debate of the politics of scale has centered on whether scale is an ontological or epistemological issue, as well as on how scale is used to reify cultural constructs, logic, and social processes. While most critical human geographers now subscribe to the idea that scale is not an ontological given, its use in theorizing and analyzing spatial relations remains a central component of geographic logic. Underlying the debates over the politics of scale is its use to reference a recursive set of reified hierarchal systems, whether vertical (level) or horizontal (size). Also at stake is the discussion of scale as relational, or the embodiment of social relations. Geographical conceptualizations of scale “range across a spectrum of almost intimidating diversity”[1] and it “is remarkably unclear exactly what scale means and how to use it.”[2] Some now follow Nigel Thrift’s claim that “there is no such thing as scale,”[3] and that it should therefore be eliminated from human geography.[4] However, the use of scale remains central to quantitative spatial analysis, cartography, and physical geography. Furthermore, the oldest and most widely used form of scale in geography is a representational one: cartographic scale.[5]

While these debates continue, in their discussion of film geography Marcus Doel and David Clarke argued that there is a need to move beyond a focus on the geography of film (production, distribution, consumption) and a geography in film (textual analysis, representation, simulation) to engage “the geography of film qua film.”[6] Rather than engage whether geographic scale is determined or dissolved by level, size, or relations, there is a need to return to the “very concept of scale itself”[7] through a focus on the geography of film form via film theory, perspective theory, and literature on the history of measurement. I argue here that scale is a (non)representational practice that is schizophrenic in nature. Scale is a representative and expressive analogy that compares things based on similarity while hiding their difference. As an analogy, scale seeks to provide spatial structure for the purpose of clarification and explanation; however, it only works by concealing its alterity, its schizophrenia. Scale is (non)representational because while we may see and assess the outcome of a scalar practice, it both precedes and structures the architecture of the image. Whether scale is used for a map, a film, or to understand spatial relations, the conventions of use must be agreed upon in advance or the representation’s spatial meaning is incoherent.

Etymologically, scale can be traced to an apparatus and system for weighing, a means to estimate quantity, to reference a hierarchy, a surface or skin that covers an object, a covering that blinds one physically or morally, or a means to assess distance and proportion. With cinema, scale most frequently references distance and proportion but is often used in combination with other etymological meanings such as weighing, estimation, hierarchy, and surface. The schizophrenia of scale manifests itself through the coexistence of incongruent and antagonistic elements: unity/fragmentation, coherence/the infinite, difference as separation/difference as multiplicity, binding representation to coherence/blinding representation of coherence. Scale’s schizophrenia is essential to understanding how it is used in practice and how its meanings oscillate in given contexts.

Scale’s analogous relationship relies on an agreed-upon level of measurement. Where anthropometric measures include qualitative analogies to the body/humanity/subject/subjectivity, metric and mathematical measures are quantified abstractions that deanthropomorphize scale, allowing it to appear natural rather than as a social convention. Anthropometric measures are a synthesis of qualitative properties that require multiple measures, as the quality of different objects is not reducible by others. Furthermore, anthropometric measures are attributes of power and class struggle; they are symbolic and built on the “process of social conditions in which the idea of ‘just measures’ becomes a symbol of ‘just man’ of justice as such, and of just human relations.”[8] The drive to create one measure, the meter, “for all people, for all time”[9] was wrought with human error, which makes “our modern impersonal measures . . . the product of human ingenuity, human passion, and the choice of particular people. So, in the end, there is no escaping Protagoris’ 2,500-year old motto: ‘Man is the measure of all things.’”[10]

One aspect of scale’s schizophrenia is that modern measures are abstractions with “no meaning other than that of sheer convention.”[11] As a quantified abstraction, scale seeks to dispense with subject/object relations. Objects replace the subject as objects reference objects, leaving only a hollow ground. No humanity, no reality remain, just conceptual edifices and a non-representational, effacing skin. Without the body there is no quality to scale, only a representational skin binding spatial organization but blinding us of the (f)act that this ontogenetic practice is reified as an ontological given. This is the mimetic dream: scalar re-presentation of reality with no subjectivity. Scale permits the transmogrification of objects from substance to abstraction, which allows for the illusion of an indexical relationship that blinds one physically and morally to the relations between the analogous objects as it signifies equivalence as well as anything naturalized onto the represented object. Cinematic scale is caught in-between the anthropometric and metric; shot scale is referenced in relation to the body but the technology of the camera produces quantifiable scaled abstractions of re-presentational space.

Mary Ann Doane argues that cinematic scale is twofold: it consists of the shot scale within the diegesis and the relation of screen/image size to the spectator.[12] In narrative cinema scale allows for spatial organization within a single image (long, medium, close) and across image-events. The organization of space within an image produces an inclusive, unified space within the perspectival frame. While shot scale references the body, the logic of “true” perspective is frequently shattered as scale’s etymological signifiers get mixed up in the analogous relationship. Doane argues that cinematic scale is evaluated qualitatively to the proportion of the spectator’s body, and in early cinema the size or fragmentation of the body was a cause for anxiety. The importance of Doane’s argument lies in how cinematic scale is unstable and relies on linear perspective.

Figure 1. Extreme Close-Up of an Eye, Metropolis (dir. Fritz Lang, 1927)

Stephen Heath describes the camera as the “culminating realization” of linear perspective, or the form of representation we tend to call reality.[13] Linear perspective is often thought of as a means to portray true perceptive or absolute realism, where the image is evaluated as real or unreal, recalling realist theories of cinema and the work of André Bazin. However, Sergi Eisenstein notes that representing objects in true proportion is only a “tribute to orthodox formal logic” and “absolute realism is by no means the correct form of perception. It is simply the function of a certain form of social structure.”[14] Lorens Holm, drawing from Lacan, offers an alternative understanding of linear perspective where the image is a subjective construct projected outward to stabilize viewer/object relations.[15] Here, the question is not whether perspectival images are (un)real but rather that images should be evaluated as (un)stable. Stability is unreal as the image accesses the unconscious and defines subjectivity, representation, and the absent/unobtainable object of desire (or the objet petit a). Perspectival images map space using visual scalar relations where the transparency of the mapping process relies on the paradox of vision: that objects are small/far and immediately present in vision. As such, Filippo Brunelleschi’s demonstration of linear perspective does not present a scaled relation of the image versus the real as small to large, but rather presents an unstable relation of image versus the real where they are the same size (the image produces a scaled view of an object at the same size as the view of the object). Rather than the traditional understanding of linear perspective as a separation of subject and object, Holm argues that the subjective and objective world emerges relationally, and the perspectival image preserves a universal subjective point of view through reproducing the paradox of vision. Scale is schizophrenic as it is sensed through the body but it is used to convince us of absolute realism.

Figure 2. Ames Room. Source: Magnus Manske, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

In cinema, the schizophrenia of scale emerges most prominently through the use of the close-up, as it is the most resistant to spatial organization. Doane argues that it does so through an “excessive display of disproportion in scale,” and by fragmenting the human body.[16] According to Gilles Deleuze, the close-up abstracts the object from “all spatial-temporal co-ordinates,” allowing it to become an entity.[17] In Figure 1, the eye is no longer part of the narrative or the body but is an entity filling the screen. The close-up plays on scale’s schizophrenia where the anthropometric and quantitative compete to give meaning to the image. As Sergi Eisenstein explains, “the laws of cinematographic perspective are such that a cockroach filmed in close-up appears on the screen one hundred times more formidable than a hundred elephants in medium-long shot.”[18]

Figure 3. Calliphoridae Head. Source: Richard Bartz, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic

With long shots and widescreen the image presents the possibility of continuity, of a spatial unity where everything appears present in its limitless horizontality.[19] This is a simultaneous denial of fragmentation, of the cut, and the reiteration of the vanishing point that emphasizes the relation of the subject and infinity. The Western genre relies heavily on long shots to reiterate the limitless possibilities and interplay between the openness of the landscape and the openness of character identity formation. A classic trope of Westerns is to have the characters ride in from the long shot, as if appearing out of the vanishing point, the infinity point where vision/civilization/wilderness begins. The vanishing point acts to organize the image, to civilize the image, as it orders and structures the shot. Scale reinforces this ordering as it establishes the visual relations of near/far, front/back, immediate/absent. The character riding in from the wilderness positions humanity and the Western landscape into binary relations: man/women, wilderness/civilization, unstable/stable, unscalable/scalable. But just as scale acts as a definable instrument of logic, a civilizing practice bringing order to the image, it is also incalculable, as scale represents a line from the point of view of the subject to the infinite vanishing point.

Figure 4. Vengeance Valley (dir. Richard Thorpe, 1951)

Figure 5. McLintock! (dir. Andrew V. McLaglen, 1963)

Scale is used along with editing and montage to provide spatial organization in narrative cinema. Scale aides in unifying the fragmentation caused by montage and movement by providing a spatial logic to the flow of scenes within a narrative. This logic begins with the establishing shot which both establishes the spatial extent of the narrative and grounds it to a “real historical place.”[20] Through the establishing shot and subsequent shots, narrative realism is built through geographic realism that requires viewers to “read the story as taking place.”[21] Shot scale is then reduced to characters or actions. Returning to long shots allows viewers to reestablish the cognitive map of the narrative. Movement back to the large scale does not simply put a place on display (although it can disrupt the narrative if the scene is spectacular), but also positions and authenticates the narrative.[22]

Editing, montage, and movement: all work to fragment the spatial organization established by the miss en scène, but scalar transition between images binds the fragmentation to a superior unity.[23] However, the superior unity rests on the practice of realism, of scaling transition to a logical flow: an arranged sequence and speed of image movement. When the flow follows a scaled logic of long to medium to close-up and back again, spatial unity is upheld and realism is maintained. But positioning an image against a logical scalar flow (i.e., cutting abruptly from long to close or vice versa) or against the logical speed of transitions (moving from slow to fast cuts then pausing for a long time on one image) disrupts spatial unity and indexical realism.

Representation as a system of coherence relies on the logic of difference as separation,[24] of holding that which lies beyond the image at bay. Movement disrupts the hold of the miss en scène, and editing and montage further fragment unity, allowing difference to become multiplicity. Narration requires fragmentation to create “correct” spatial continuity between scenes.[25] Scale works to maintain correct continuity by first establishing space through the master shot and then allowing for the conversion of space to place within the narrative. Scale works amongst narrative scenes to clarify the organization of space, allowing the process of place-making to occur. This organization works to elide difference as multiplicity by presenting a unified coherent image of place. Here, place is merely a backdrop or stage for narrative action rather than a more dynamic understanding of place as a process of encounters, events, and entanglements.[26] The process of place-making provides spatial stability to the narrative as it relies on the mimetic belief that absolute realism is attainable through spatial representation.


Scale is not a stable epistemological device but is used to provide representation and cinema with a system of coherence. Scale is structured by infinite regression, a fractal articulation[27] infinitely repeating a unified tautology. In a single image, scale may appear to be quantifiable and stable; yet it is truly schizophrenic as “it defines its existence by referencing itself in an endless system of deferral, a mise en abyme.”[28] Rather than simply referencing bodily proportions through analogy, scale is a fractal articulation which cannot be split, divided, or reduced to expose hidden meanings. It is an articulation with no beginning or end as it recedes endlessly into infinity, the vanishing point, the hole in the logic of scale; there is no size, level or (dialectic) relation to measure infinity, only an ontogenetic practice that binds the logic of absolutism of representational space and blinds the infinite deferral of meaning—no more signifiers, signs, or signification, just social convention that produces specific representational forms. We must be wary of deploying scale as a device to “read” spatial relation in representations, cinema, and the everyday. While scale can help us to better understand how film is spatially structured, it does so through a limited lens, one that allows us to think through stable spatial relations but blinds us to its unstable practice. Only through agreed upon conventions do we give scale its power to organize and explain.

Figure 6. Mise en Abyme: Abyss of Regular Octagons. Source, Yves Baelde, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

In the film Limitless (dir. Neil Burger, 2011) a mise en abyme is used as a device to represent the limitlessness that Eddie (Bradley Cooper) feels when he takes an experimental drug which allows him to use his entire mind (the effect can be seen on YouTube, about 30 seconds in). The mise en abyme begins as a zoom-in effect on a mirror. Rather than simply zooming, the image is repeated, then blended into another image with the same mirror. The mise en abyme becomes a montage that progresses the narrative forward as it shows the character developing his limitless potential. The mise en abyme visually reinforces the idea of limitlessness by making the viewer feel as though he or she is transcending the vanishing point, moving through it, opening it up, exposing the infinite and allowing it to be grasped. The mise en abyme zoom effect works because the scaled structure of the image-event is reinforced through geometric spatial relations in which linear perspective is preserved. Rather than presenting the limitlessness of what could be obtained, the mise en abyme reinforces a stable view of space thereby deferring meaning to the narrative: infinite greed. Eddie states after he took the drug: “Once I was blind but now I can see.” In this case, drugs offer Eddie a means to view reality as stable and in perspective. When we view space through the induced translucent lens of scale, our perspective is of a stable reality where everything has a place— except, perhaps, the unstable reality in which we live.


[1] Eric Sheppard and Robert E. McMaster, “Scale and Geographic Inquiry: Contrasts, Intersections, and Boundaries,” in Scale and Geographic Inquiry: Nature, Society, and Method, eds. Eric Sheppard and Robert E. McMaster (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 256.

[2] Nathan F. Sayre. “Scale,” in A Companion to Environmental Geography, eds. Noel Castree, et al. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004), 95.

[3] Nigel Thrift. “A hyperactive world” in Geographies of Global Change: Remapping the World in the Late Twentieth Century, eds. RJ Johnston et al. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), 33.

[4] Sallie A Marston, John Paul Jones III, Keith Woodward, “A Human Geography without Scale,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 30(2005): 416-432.

[5] Nathan F. Sayre, “Scale,” in A Companion to Environmental Geography, eds. Noel Castree et al. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004), 95.

[6] Marcus Doel, and David Clarke, “Afterimages,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 25(2007): 894.

[7] Katherine Jones, “Scale as Epistemology,” Political Geography 17(1998): 27.

[8] Witold Kulu, Measures of Men, trans. R. Szreter (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 100.

[9] Marquis de Condorcet quoted by Ken Adler. Ken Adler, The Measure of all Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error that Transformed the World (New York: Free Press, 2002), 1.

[10] Adler, The Measure of all Things, 350.

[11] Kulu, Measures of Men, 120.

[12] Mary Ann Doane, “Scale and the negotiation of ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ space in cinema,” in Realism and the Audiovisual Media, eds. Lứcia Nagib and Cecília Mello (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 63-81.

[13] Stephen Heath, Questions of Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981), 30.

[14] Sergi Eisenstein, Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, ed. and trans. Jay Leyda (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1949), 34-5.

[15] Lorens Holm, Brunelleschi, Lacan, Le Corbusier: Architecture, Space and the Construction of Subjectivity (London: Routledge, 2010).

[16] Doane, “Scale and the negotiation of ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ space in cinema,” 64.

[17] Giles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 96.

[18] Sergi Eisenstein quoted by Mary Ann Doane. Mary Ann Doane, “The Close-Up: Scale and Detail in the Cinema,” Difference 14(2003): 96. Sergi Eisenstein, Au-deli des étoiles, trans. Jacques Aumont et al. (Paris: Union Général d'Éditions, 1974), 112.

[19] Doane, “Scale and the negotiation of ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ space in cinema,” 63-81.

[20] Andrew Higson, “Space, Place, Spectacle: Landscape and Townscape in the ‘Kitchen Sink’ Film,” Incorporating Screen Education 25(1984): 2-21.

[21] Christopher Lukinbeal, “Cinematic Landscapes,” Journal of Cultural Geography 23(2005): 6-7.

[22] Higson, “Space, Place, Spectacle,” 2-21.

[23] Heath, Questions of Cinema.

[24] Marcus Doel, “Proverbs for paranoids: Writing geography on hollowed grounds,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 18(1993): 377-394.

[25] Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson, Classical Hollywood Cinema, 146.

[26] Ann Fletchall, Christopher Lukinbeal and Kevin McHugh, Place, Television, and the Real Orange County (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, forthcoming).

[27] Doel, “Proverbs for paranoids,” 377-394.

[28] Christopher Lukinbeal, “Mobilizing the cartographic paradox: Tracing the aspect of cartography and prospect of Cinema,” Digital Thematic Education 11(2010): 13.

Christopher Lukinbeal is Assistant Professor in the School of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona. He is co-editor of The Geography of Cinema – a Cinematic World (2008) and Aether: The Journal of Media Geography, and co-author of the forthcoming book, Place, Television, and the Real Orange County (Franz Steiner Verlag).