“Scale rant” partly excerpted from dissertation

A lack of “scale” is a common critical response to elaborations of a local economic politics such as those employing Gibson-Graham’s diverse economies framework (See Table 1) for cultivating and representing economic difference. Indeed, Gibson-Graham’s (2002) response to similar critiques suggests that this kind local economic politics strikes a visceral chord among some scholars and activists on the left who see the local as weak and penetrated while the global is thought to be powerful and penetrating.

The question of scale and the worker co-operative movement and other “alternatives” to the “mainstream” or “larger structures” is part of a wider debate in economic geography described by Healy (2009) between realist and performative epistemological perspectives. Central to this debate, as Healy suggests, are divergent views about whether or not the economy can be categorized under the rubric of “mainstream” and “alternative” in the first place, and the understanding and placement of power and dominance in these categories. From a realist perspective, worker co-operatives appear as a vulnerable alternative up against the competitive pressures of the mainstream capitalist economy—their “scale” in size and locality (relative to the mainstream) are both cause and symptom of their vulnerability. In contrast to this vision of an economy made up of the mainstream (capitalist) versus alternative (non capitalist) organizations is Gibson-Graham’s diverse economies framework that sets forth a radically heterogeneous economic ontology in which worker co-operatives are just one form of enterprise in a wider economic landscape that is populated by a diversity of capitalist, alternative capitalist and noncapitalist forms of production, labor and exchange. While power in this vision is not absent, its location is not predetermined. The operative spatial imaginary of the diverse economies framework is concerned with ubiquity rather than scale or hierarchy and power is seen as multiple, co-existent and (also) potentially ubiquitous. From this perspective, the discourse of capitalist economic dominance helps to (re)produce the conditions it purports to describe in part by disallowing or silencing the production of other knowledges (Healy 2009).

Scale is one among quintessential topics in geographic literature on space making.  For more than thirty years human geographers have developed, refined and critiqued the concept of scale. From critical realist perspectives (Brenner 2001, 2005; Chapura 2009; 98; Harvey 1968, 88, 98; Herod 2011; Howitt 1998, 2002, 2003; Swyngedouw 1997, 2000, 2004; Smith 1993, 96, 2000, 04—to name just a few) to post structuralist perspectives (Gibson-Graham 2002; Marston 2000, 04; Marston Woodward and Jones 2005; Moore 2008), the conceptual problems with scale have captured geographers’ imaginations. Proponents at one end of the debate suggest that human geography would be little without scale (Hoefle 2006) while critics at the other call for the elimination of its use as a disciplinary concept (Marston et al. 2005; Jones, Woodward and Marston 2007). Geographers have raised important questions about the use of the scale frame for understanding (and shaping) geographic phenomena and the consequences of producing knowledge within the confines of a hierarchical spatial imagination. A performative perspective (Gibson-Graham 2002; Law 2004) raises questions about how we might use the scale frame to come up with new understandings and possibilities in the world.

Scale seems like a benign, useful framework as an ordering device we use to talk about the world in categorical terms. However, the reach of the concept “into our heads” (Tuhwia Smith 2005, 23) is deep. Collinge (2006) suggests the deconstruction of the scale frame has metaphysical implications beyond “mere error and point” (246). Chapura (2009) connects a scalar ontology with the metaphysical problem of accounting for (the being of/in) space. For some, deconstructing this category feels a bit like slipping through Lewis Carol’s rabbit hole where reality is not only less familiar but downright illogical and maybe even chaotic.

A world without scale is no longer the world in which there is one right answer, one right strategy for transformation—and (for some) that’s scary! Take, for example Hoefle’s (2006) response to Marston et al in which he calls the questioning of scale’s ontological status “simply bogus” in philosophical terms, suggesting that geographers must be “suicidal” since eliminating scale is akin to eliminating geography’s very reason for existence. Hoefle asserts his disciplinary authority based upon the size of the of its territory in the bookstore: “Anthropology” he says, “occupies a full wall and is situated next to Cultural Studies, while a minuscule Geography section is located way back in the specialized stalls…” (2006, 242). He drives his point home by reminding us that there was no geography department “important” enough to accommodate an academic of Harvey’s “stature” (2006, 242).

The thread of anger that I perceived in responses to my research on worker cooperatives, despite their relative theoretical simplicity (scale = size), like Hoefle’s worms it way into more nuanced (peer reviewed) debates to varying degrees. The emotions (anger and anxieties) stirred up in the scale debates suggests that what Chapura (2009) calls “rhetorical baggage” associated with the term “hierarchy” such as its historical association with patriarchy…” is more than rhetorical.

My concern with subjectivity and space-making situates co-operative strategies in a provocative relationship with debates in human geography about scale. I embrace this relationship by injecting the scale of the subject into conversations about space making. I take up the scale debates and their concern with structuring spatial imaginaries of containment, size, power and hierarchy; the global and the local. Subject positions offered by these frameworks are challenged in light of empirical research with worker co-operators. Inspired by Law’s (2004) “small and incoherent” global; Tsing’s (2003) ethnography of global friction; Sedgwick’s (2003) concept of texture and motivation; Frueh’s  (1996) “erotics of the intellect” that “gives ideas to the body” (118), I follow Moore’s (2008) call to consider scale as a category of practice both my own and that of the co-operators. Consider my practice as a researcher:

The author loves stories that romance away the loveless narratives of popular culture and academic discourse. She believes in the alteration of narrative on behalf of love, in people’s invention of loving stories, which requires leaping into a narrative and making it yours, locating yourself in the world by authoring yourself into it, purging the soul-inseperable-from-the-body of horror as obsession. (Frueh 1996, 19)

The only way I could have my scale and eat it too was to internalize and invert it. This somewhat playful and reflexive internalization of the scale frame enables me to demonstrate specific and important practices in the space-making of co-operative worlds. –And it offers a methodological tool for exploring geographic expressions (read the changing of broad-scale patterns) of motivation and desire in other research contexts, other worlds.


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