Measuring the Anthropocene into Existence

This is the first part of a piece written by my archeologist friend, Scott Schwartz, for the Penn Environmental Humanities lab. You can find the full text here.


Prior to the 17th century temperature didn’t exist. Only the privileged counted the number of years they’d endured or numerically valued their wealth. The quantification of reality has a political and economic history that is encoded in the technologies that observe and produce this reality. How did the notion of reality as quantifiable become naturalized? Why did metrical concepts like temperature emerge when they did? These questions can be interrogated through the archaeology of knowledge production. Archaeology here is not a stratigraphic metaphor implying layers of knowledge. Rather, it denotes an investigation of material (as opposed to discursive) culture. (Lucas 2004) Products of knowledge like temperature or gravity have material strata that become obscured through normalization. Excavating the buried materiality of concepts, specifically studying the material culture of measurement, challenges this practice of extracting meaning from matter.

Different populations employ different epistemologies, varying in what information they deem worthy of observing, measuring, and codifying into knowledge. The focus here is on the socio-material negotiations that gave rise to today’s dominant epistemology of insidious growth, which emphasizes extraction and accumulation to such an extent that human geologic impact merits classification as its own epoch. A perhaps irreconcilable irony I wish to unveil is that the very advancements in quantitative measurement that allow us to detect and codify the Anthropocene are directly responsible for causing the planetary tumult that the epoch forebodes.


Object-oriented ontology posits that every object has a bottomless reserve of withdrawn attributes. (Harman 2010) Of a tree’s endless properties (height, color, smell, velocity, angularity, etc.) how do certain attributes become privileged over others as ‘worth knowing’? Measurement is the socio-political act of valuing and eliciting attributes from an object through the design of an observational apparatus – a social, not scientific, process.

Fig. 1. Endless attributes. 

Fig. 1. Endless attributes.

Karen Barad (2007) asserts that isolated phenomena cannot be measured without simultaneously being co-constituted by the measuring apparatus. Instead of simply the observation and recording of properties, Barad casts measurement as generative – observational devices actually create the properties they’re designed to detect. An object’s attributes are not inalienable, they emerge from the interaction of observer and observed.

Measurement isn’t about truth. Any apparatus can be devised that outputs true information. The system temperature says I’m 37°C, but the relevance of this truth is socially dependent. A device could observe that I speak 4,000 words a day. The truth of this observation doesn’t give it meaning. Motivations for deciding what to observe are of greater consequence in producing knowledge than results of measurements. Measurement doesn’t observe attributes that exist ontologically outside of the measuring apparatus, it generates attributes through the process of discernment.

Examining the material design, construction, and mechanics of an apparatus like the thermometer offers a useful vantage for exploring how, why, to what ends, and in whose interest quantified thermal knowledge is valuable. The mercury thermometer creates a space where four materials (glass, mercury, heat, and numbers) interact to manifest temperature. Fluctuations in the intensity of [1] heat induce the [2] mercury to expand or contract within a [3] glass tube inscribed with [4] numbers. From this material confluence the discursive concept temperature emerges. The shape of the glass, force of heat, pliability of mercury, and cardinality of numeracy combine to create something called temperature.

A key design imperative of temperature is the ability to quantify the observation. Early thermometry devices such as the thermoscope lacked numbers – its measurements were relative not quantitative. Temperature is not intensive heat, but rather a quantified representation of intensive heat. The thermometer actually generates an extensive proxy property – the length mercury expands is the observation. Thermometers don’t just measure temperature; they create it by translating a relative intensity into a quantifiable extension.

Fig. 2. Thermoscope design. 

Fig. 2. Thermoscope design.

Extensive properties (length, weight) are additive and extractable – within ten meters there are nine discrete meters. Intensive properties (heat, density) describe non-extractable internal compositions – there are not nine discrete units of Celsius within 10°C. A stone isn’t heated by adding five Celsius. Changing the log’s temperature demands changing its surrounding conditions (placing it near a fire). Heat doesn’t vacillate through extraction or addition of cardinal units.

The principles of thermometry (that some materials expand when heated) had been known since antiquity. It was social valuation that necessitated the design of an instrument to translate this phenomenon into an extensive quantity. Further investigation into the material culture of knowledge sheds light on this valuation process.


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