Measurement

Panto season is upon us, and theatres all around the country will fill with the thrills of Cinderella mashed-up with Dubstep or Peter Pan on Ice or something of that ilk. It’s an interesting word, ‘pantomime’, springing as it does from the Greek ‘pantomimos’ or ‘imitator of all’. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, it’s perhaps no surprise that children particularly love this form of entertainment and the way they see their modes of speech and behaviour acted out by adults. And they get to join in with lusty cheers and boos and regular opportunities to shout he’s behind you!

Like many Greek prefixes, panto- can be added to many different concepts, thereby supporting a multitude of, if not sins, then certainly strangeness. My favourite at the moment is pantometry, generally understood to mean ‘universal measurement’. Thus, a pantometrist could be said to be a ‘measurer of all’. Pieter Breughel the Elder depicted such a character in the form of lady Temperantia (‘temperance’), in his 1560 engraving of the same name. The central figure, Temperantia stands holding measuring implements in each hand while balancing a clock on her head. Around her, groups of people perform measurements of all kinds, from accountancy to music and from the manufacture of armaments to architecture, while above her, “a daredevil astronomer teetering on the North Pole measures the angular distance between the moon and some neighbouring star”. It is a veritable panoply of pantometry.

The description of the astronomer is by A. W. Crosby, historian and author of (among many other books) The Measure of Reality: Quantification in Western Society, 1250-1600. Crosby’s thesis is that it was Europe’s dramatic advances in measurement during the early modern period that led to the success of its various empires; British, German, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Portugese. It must also, therefore, share the blame for some of today’s most intractable, demonstrably post-colonial problems. True, rapid leaps in measurement led to astounding leaps in science and technology generally, but if only Europe had been a little more balanced in its zeal for measurement, might we not have a little less unbalanced world now?

As Robert Tavernor demonstrates in his 2007 study Smoot’s Ear, measures are culturally located and deeply rooted in human experience. Early measures were derived directly from human physical attributes – feet, hands, eyes, and so on – and that link between our measurement and our biology remains extant and powerful. (The ear in question did actually belong to someone called Smoot, and the story of his place in the history of measurement is worth the price of the book alone.) As a professional communicator, albeit one with a variety of roles these days, I am constantly confronted with the centrality of data, of measurement, of digitalism generally. I don’t deny their importance; I object to their dominance. Tavernor quotes the poet Hölderlin’s lines:

As long as Kindness,

The Pure, still stays with his heart, man

Not unhappily measures himself

Against the godhead.

Though we might chide Hölderlin for his eighteenth-century gender specificity, we might nevertheless appreciate his call to retain Kindness in our hearts. Even if we must mark everything, including our feelings and our ideas, with the equivalent of feet and inches.

Engraving by Brueghel the Elder

Temperantia surveying her measured domain. Is that a pantomime in the top left corner? 

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