ABSTRACT

Scale is a slippery term that blends horizontal aspects of size and extent with the vertical concept of hierarchy (“scale” is etymologically related to the Latin scandere, “to climb”). From homes and regions to the nation and the globe, scales organize our place-based identifications, economic activities, and access to mobility across space. If privileged scales and representations of scale – such as the autonomous individual, the hetero-normative household, the securely bounded nation, and the endangered planetary environment – play important roles in supporting liberal ideology, bourgeois social reproduction, anti-immigrant policies, or a mainstream environmentalism far removed from local environmental justice struggles, these common-sense scales are also spatial fictions produced through imaginary narratives. At once an epistemological framework, an imaginative construct, and an idea materialized in real spaces and activities, scale can only be understood through interdisciplinary analysis that attends to its fictive, geographical, and political economic properties. This essay will put cultural geographers’ theorizations of spatial scale in dialogue with works of literature and cultural criticism in order to underscore how literary and cultural texts have contributed to both hegemonic understandings of scale and a range of projects that powerfully reimagine how scales can be produced and traversed. I begin by providing brief overviews of how cultural geographers and literary critics theorize interactions between different scales. Next, I turn to two contexts in which scalar thinking has played an important role for artists, critics, and activists alike: the history of racial capitalism, which has manipulated scale to produce racialized geographies across the Atlantic and Pacific worlds; and environmental discourses that address tensions between local and global conceptions of environmental harm and redress.