Translating Scale: Space and Time between Science and History

AHA Session 174
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Centennial Ballroom A (Hyatt Regency Denver, Third Floor)
Nasser Zakariya, University of California, Berkeley
Nasser Zakariya, University of California, Berkeley

Session Abstract

As the theme of this year’s Annual Meeting attests, historians have recently taken up the question of scale in new ways and with renewed urgency.  Disagreements about the appropriate scale of historical analysis have reinvigorated decades-old debates about causality, time, narrative, and the politics of history writing.  Some call for “bigger” or “deeper” history, privileging the vivid empiricist sense of those terms and arguing that such scalar expansions are necessary if history is to remain relevant beyond the narrowing landscape of academic humanities.  Others worry that such calls amount to an unreflective return to disciplinary agendas and methods that have long since been rejected.  Advocates of Big and Deep history see the enlargement of historical scale as part of a laudatory process of unifying science and history, and this panel explores the history of this desire for disciplinary unity.  In doing so, we show that “scale” itself has a history, that as a concept it is neither transparent nor transhistorical, and that as practice scaling is embedded in the historical nexuses it works to constitute.  As our papers demonstrate, translating between scientific and historical regimes of scale has long been fertile ground for theories of history, and the results of such translations are shaped not only by the inclinations of historians, but by the development of the natural sciences, which have their own contingent histories.  Looking to Victorian Britain, the Habsburg Monarchy, and 20th-century France, our panel therefore aims to offer a richer perspective on current debates.  In the first paper, Deborah R. Coen shows how Habsburg climatologists worked to render the earth’s climate, ‘life-like,’ or commensurate with individual perception.  Coen argues furthermore that this “thinking across scales” was inseparable from the Habsburg Monarchy’s historiographical project, a matter of linking the monarchy with pluralism.  Ian Hesketh explores how Victorian writers of evolutionary epics attempted to integrate different temporal scales into single narratives.  As Hesketh shows, the teleological commitments of these authors were complicated after 1850 by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and the disintegration it implied.  Isabel Gabel examines two cases in 20th-century France in which theorists of history used biology to think about scale:  Raymond Aron’s use of neo-Lamarkcian evolutionary theory to explore the temporal limits of history, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s embryological model of historical perspective.  Together, these papers suggest that we write scale back into history, whether the history of nation building, the history of science, or the history of narrative history itself.
See more of: AHA Sessions