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The Making of Measure and the Promise of Sameness

The Making of Measure and the Promise of Sameness

by Emanuele Lugli

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An interdisciplinary history of standardized measurements.

Measurement is all around us—from the circumference of a pizza to the square footage of an apartment, from the length of a newborn baby to the number of miles between neighboring towns. Whether inches or miles, centimeters or kilometers, measures of distance stand at the very foundation of everything we do, so much so that we take them for granted. Yet, this has not always been the case.

This book reaches back to medieval Italy to speak of a time when measurements were displayed in the open, showing how such a deceptively simple innovation triggered a chain of cultural transformations whose consequences are visible today on a global scale. Drawing from literary works and frescoes, architectural surveys and legal compilations, Emanuele Lugli offers a history of material practices widely overlooked by historians. He argues that the public display of measurements in Italy’s newly formed city republics not only laid the foundation for now centuries-old practices of making, but also helped to legitimize local governments and shore up church power, buttressing fantasies of exactitude and certainty that linger to this day.

This ambitious, truly interdisciplinary book explains how measurements, rather than being mere descriptors of the real, themselves work as powerful molds of ideas, affecting our notions of what we consider similar, accurate, and truthful.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226612522
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/12/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 19 MB
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About the Author

Emanuele Lugli is assistant professor of art history at Stanford University.

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Thinking through History

This book may seem to start at the end. But then, the story of Italy's medieval measurements does not begin in the twelfth century. Rather, it kicks off in the rabble-rousing speeches that inflamed the last days of the eighteenth century, when many of the modern states that made up the Italian peninsula ousted the standards employed locally for centuries and substituted them for gleaming new ones. The promoter of those reforms supported Maria Theresa of Austria, who in 1756 had the measurements of her empire rectified. Her son, Peter Leopold, Grand Duke of Tuscany, imposed a new system based on Florence's main linear standard, the braccio, on all the cities of his domains. And in 1783 the state of Milan, then also under Austrian control, forced the Milanese yardstick, redefined for the occasion, on the rest of the territory. Other countries followed.

Those reforms required the synching of numerous institutions and took decades to complete. Their complexity was such that sometimes they never came to an end. (This is, for instance, the case of Milan, which after fifteen years spent collecting and replacing all linear standards, never undertook the reform of its weights.) Yet the administrative challenges were relatively straightforward in comparison to the cultural rewiring precipitated by new measurements. It was not just a matter of producing hundreds of iron rods and dispatching them to provincial councils. It was not even solely about training functionaries with new manuals and convincing recalcitrant landowners to have their estates surveyed from scratch. Rather, it was about making people accept new ways to approach space, yearn for such a change, and delight in its possibilities. It was about making people thrive on renewal and long for changing themselves in return. Far from representing a mere technical change, the new measurements rejigged thinking at such a fundamental level that concepts such as accuracy, identity, and even truth were radically transformed in the process.

Before introducing new standards, administrators had to search for the tools they wanted to replace. Such a goal was far from undemanding. Reformers went through areas that had multiple "official" yardsticks as well as metrological deserts, where it was hard to find even one well preserved standard. They undertook painstaking searches through city archives for long-forgotten tools, only for their findings to raise more questions than they expected. As the standards never quite matched — some rods longer than others, some so weathered as to frustrate any attempt even to guess their original dimensions — the researchers were forced to take some decisions. In the following chapters of this first section, I will explore what motivated their choices. Nevertheless, I say straight away that their reports, which recount the mishaps in retrieving standards while propagandistically proclaiming the necessity for reform, are the accounts on which today's historical narratives still depend.

The history of premodern measurements was thus written at the moment of their substitution. Old standards came to be identified with the dictatorial gestures the modern ones rejected. Their material degradation was decried as proof of the barbarisms that an enlightened government set to uproot on its quest for truth. Premodern standards were denigrated according to a spectrum ranging from nightmare to nuisance, labels that have been repeated ever since. The detailed studies undertaken by Marxist economists between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did little to restore the extraordinary charge with which premodern measurements were invested. After examining even the best of these studies, readers rarely see little more than a revival of the rationalist ideology of the eighteenth century, according to which standards either match or do not. And this is why this book starts from the modern period, as a way to offer a critique of its black-and-white mentality and move past the positivistic impasse it generated.

Amidst the metrological reforms taking place in eighteenth-century Italy, the most successful was the metric system. We still call it a "system" because of the interdependence of all its standards: one cubic decimeter contains one liter of water, which weighs a kilogram. Moreover, it is rational: it defines its components in relation to principles of geophysics and mathematics. Indeed, the meter was established as one hundred-thousandth of a quarter of the earth meridian. And it was divided decimally, rather than by the twelfths as was customary in premetric times, so to facilitate the application of calculus to matter. As both a geodetic standard and a tool to mathematize the real, the meter turned the world into a playground for engineers.

It took the whole of the 1790s for the meter to become a reality. Its proposal was discussed at the outset of the decade by the members of the Académie des sciences in Paris, one of the most important research centers in the world. The academicians had many ties to the government, and pressed for the meter's introduction in 1795 (a hastily organized attempt in 1793 ended up in a fiasco). Yet it is not that year that has taken on an inaugural character. Rather, scholarship sees the launch of the metric system in a string of meetings that spanned several months between 1799 and 1800. Usually labeled as "the first international conference" ever organized, those scientific presentations served to validate the data that backed the construction of the standards, after which they were introduced again through the population with a heightened sense of confidence.

Because the meter was set to become a universal, everlasting standard, it was of paramount importance to both calculate it with the utmost precision and win the approval of the international scientific community. So the French invited several foreign scientists to the last phases of the debate, those who would review and approve the conclusive results. Once the correspondents arrived in Paris, however, they found nothing to see. The French scientists were late in submitting the data, and, pressed by time, they tweaked them so as to confirm the dimensions of the meter as launched in 1795. Even if the adjustment was slight, an inconspicuous thousandth of a millimeter, it was enough to turn the meter into a corrected ideal. Rather than searching for truth, scientists submitted to political demands.

After all, even before the international conference started, the meter had already been made available not only in France but also in some of the territories conquered by Napoleon. By the time scientists approved the results of the conference, many administrations of northern Italy were already referring to the metric system. And in less than fifteen years, the whole peninsula was familiarized with it, abandoning not only the local measurements of medieval times but also the modern standards that had replaced them only a few years before.

As one of the triggers of modernity, the institutional story of the meter has been described in detail. Yet its impact on practice, even if felt far and wide, has been more difficult to track. In a way, the meter was as revolutionary as plastic. As plastic later became the go-to material for anything from acrylic boats to shellac records, desensitizing people to material properties, so the meter quantified rolls of silk in the same way as it measured land and the distance between stars. The technical precision of metric machinery, moreover, made all previous standards appear rudimentary, classifying old data as approximate, and unleashing a new sense of scientific complacency about the past.

For all its exhilarating novelties, the meter was initially short-lived. As an innovation and a symbol of the Napoleonic empire, it was banned at the Congress of Vienna in 1814–15. It was, however, reintroduced in 1840s France, fueling the ambitions of economic liberalism. And it is from this second energetic relaunch that it has became the global phenomenon we observe today. The history books on the meter present the ensuing century as a time in which it was embraced by an ever-growing list of countries, from Mexico to Japan. Italy was a early adopter, as it introduced the meter with the nation's unification in 1861, soon after which the metric system became a compulsory subject in primary schools. Massaged into the brains of children from an early age, the meter has since shaped every action on Italian soil, as well as in the vast majority of the world. Today only Americans, Liberians, air pilots, and cricket players perceive it as a foreign construct. British drivers still compute distances in miles. For most people in the world, however, it has become almost invisible.

The global triumph of the metric system is often invoked to explain the general lack of interest in measurements, both historically and theoretically. In contrast, the next few chapters argue that such an oversight was not an effect of success, but its prerequisite. It is indeed possible to track down a set of coordinated historical actions that tried to make measurements transparent. Since the seventeenth century, scientists extracted new standards out of physical laws and calibrated their discourses so as to induce people — an indistinct, faceless mass whose definition changed according to whoever invoked it — to accept them either as products of nature or as innate articulations of their bodies. While being extracted from the earth, the meter was buried into the ground as its rhetoric played on its geodetic qualities, fertilizing culture from an invisible underneath. This first section, "Safes," recounts this laborious process of interment as a way to reveal the pathology underlying the disappearance of measurements from cultural consciousness.

So, in a way, we could say that this book opens with a twofold critique of the meter.

On the one hand, it does not accept metrological knowledge at face value, but studies it as a truth process that relies on authorities' capacity to persuade communities to accept its results and the cultural processes they endorse. The meter thus emerges not as a neutral tool, but rather as an epistemological filter that adapts seeing and thinking to the political paradigms on which it depends. By offering a study of an element that constantly works its way across the discussion of bodies and space, orchestrating much of those discourses while rarely becoming evident within them, this section questions the seemingly impregnable convictions that underlie many descriptions of the real. This is why this section is titled after the safes in which measuring rods were kept in the eighteenth century, and which also provide a metaphor for that hidden place in our psyche in which we store our metric knowledge.

On the other hand, I also consider the meter in relation to the other measurement reforms of the eighteenth century. It is an unusual move, since the revolutionary content of the meter is so hyped that it is often taken as a one-of-a-kind break. Yet the commonalities between the meter and its predecessors are greater than their divergences. In a way, the meter spread so rapidly because people had already accepted many of the changes it supposedly introduced and the politics it supported.

When we hear that measurements do not matter, that they are easy or technical, what we hear is the echo of a deliberate political voice, which grew in volume by some kind of accord between disparate communities and fields. As measurements are, now as then, employed to quantify every aspect of the real, they cut through boundaries. Like this book as a whole, this section deliberately keeps a wide angle. Only towards the end does it narrow its focus on questions about architecture, sensorial experiences, and history. The reason for this reduction is that no field more than architecture has been invested in questions of limits, proportions, and matter, and yet in no other field was the disappearance of measurements as precipitous. After a century in which even occasional tourists were encouraged to measure monuments as a way to appreciate them, size was excised from nineteenth-century discourses on buildings. This section finds the reasons behind such suppression in Napoleon's contested politics of measurements, which, far from being a confined episode, had a bearing on the ways in which architecture was approached for more than two centuries.


Measurements, Epistemological Filters

Imagine that the world shrank to the size of a tennis ball and that all humans — except you, the ball holder — also shrank, so that the world appeared unchanged to them. Those humans would keep living as they did: looking out for wild beasts and contemplating the sea as an infinite expanse. But for you, their fears and dreams would appear insignificant: their monsters would seem microbes, and the sea as if made of just a few dewdrops. Or think of the opposite: that the earth and the sky and everything in between grew enormously, so that each star would have the diameter of the sun as you had once known it, and the gigantic animals would not even notice the pebble on which you sat, and which you would believe to be a mountain.

These examples are not mine, but those of the French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche (1638–1715), who argues that seeing is deceiving. As giants and Lilliputians perceive things differently, so they value them differently. Malebranche quickly disposes of the idea that we should assess our perceptions in relation to our bodies (there is no "our body," since bodies are all different) to deduce that the assessment of magnitude plays an essential role in the construction of knowledge. In other words, scale works as an epistemological filter, making people separate what they ought to know from what they can ignore. Objects that loom large make their presence feel pressing and urgent. Malebranche, who defines humans in relation to their survival instinct (hence his preoccupation with wild beasts), considers scale in relation to danger. As scale shifts, however, it tricks. When beasts appear smaller and less terrifying, people cannot be sure that it is because they are far away. Perception can lead to erroneous judgments and should not be trusted. The only way to achieve truth, Malebranche concludes, is to measure. But to measure precisely is difficult, as it requires "an exact standard: a simple and perfectly intelligible idea, a universal measure that can be employed for all sort of subjects." The question is metaphysical: Malebranche asks whether permanence and moral justice can ever be achieved through human tools and skills. In 1675, when the last installment of his De la recherche de la vérité came out, the question also had a practical ring, as time-defying standards then were but a scientist's dream.

In Malebranche's time, every scientist worked according to national standards. Such variety frustrated international collaborations, threatened reproducibility, and hindered empirical authority. How to demonstrate experiments, if they could never be reproduced accurately? The damage had been contained as, over time, some standards had become more common than others. For instance, the toise, a long cane employed for land surveying, and to which Malebranche also refers, became popular outside of France. The Brescian engineer Girolamo Francesco Cristiani confirmed it when he wrote that in Italy "no mathematician uses any standard more than the toise." Scientists also became skilled at conversion. When in doubt, they asked correspondents to send over their standards so that they could verify them directly. The mobility of scientists across European capitals provided occasions for facilitating such checks. Yet at every passage — for every parcel sent, for every scientist that embarked on a journey, for every conversion from a familiar to an unfamiliar set of standards — errors crept in. And such inaccuracies constituted only one of the problems caused by the variety of yardsticks. Standards were not the "perfectly intelligible idea" that Malebranche yearned for, as they were immanent to specific physical objects. This meant that each deformation of the standards could compromise the recoverability of past experiments. The accuracy of the sciences was threatened by a scratch, a blow, or even an imperceptible drop in temperature.

To overcome such a menace, many scholars of the seventeenth century — from the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens and his correspondents at London's Royal Society to the Warsaw-based Italian Jesuit Tito Livio Burattini — put forward proposals for a universal standard. This new tool would derive not from an object, but from an incorruptible law of physics. A popular idea was to take the length of the pendulum that swung in a second. Yet, as Jean Richer and Edmond Halley pointed out at that time, a pendulum oscillated more slowly at the equator than at the poles, making it unfit as a universal standard. The abbot Gabriel Mouton then suggested taking a portion of the earth meridian and dividing it decimally (figure 2.1) — an idea that gained consensus, especially in France.


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Table of Contents

Preface: Written in Stone 1. Safes 2. Squares 3. Cities 4. Fields Conclusion: The Metamorphoses of Measurements

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