On Disorientation (I) – The History and Pathology of a Concept

My PhD thesis analyses the experience of the city of Los Angeles as represented in literature and film across the 20th century, focusing particularly on states of disorientationI will address the question ‘Why Los Angeles?’ in a subsequent post, and will also expand on how disorientation is actually utilised in my analysis; for now, I want to unpack the term a little by sketching a brief conceptual history. What I’m particularly concerned with doing is demonstrating that disorientation is more than merely a synonym for ‘lost’, and how its meaning came to implicate not just the spatial/geographical, but also disruptions to time and identity.

Orientation and Orthodoxy

Orientation does of course have a strong spatial/geographical aspect, and its etymology can be traced back to one of the most fundamental, primitive ideas — the rising and setting of the sun — and through this, connotations of religion, orthodoxy and mortality. The ‘orient’, as a noun and adjective meaning ‘That part of the world situated to the east of a particular point; eastern countries, or the eastern part of a country; the East,’ (OED) is present in English from the early 12th century, coming from Anglo-Norman and Middle French, with its etymon in Classical Latin ‘oriēns’ — the eastern part of the world, the part of the world in which the sun rises.

The verb form of orient, meaning arranging something to face east, seems to have developed in the 17th and 18th centuries with particular reference to constructing churches on an east-west axis, with the altar at the eastern point, and of burying a body with feet towards the east. From this, by extension, comes the sense of aligning a building or person with reference to the points of the compass, and later, the figurative sense of putting oneself in the correct position relative to (perhaps unfamiliar) surroundings. By the 19th century, orientation as a noun, encompassing these various senses, is established, along with the notion of orientation as a faculty that enables the individual to ‘find their bearings’.

The idea that orientation is a faculty or process that bridges the gap between the subjective and the objective — that it is what allows the subject to situate themselves relative to the external world — is crucial, and it is at the heart of Kant’s 1786 essay ‘What is Orientation in Thinking?’ (‘Was heißt: sich im Denken orientieren?’). Kant extends this concept of orientation analogically, to justify speculation about the existence of God despite the absence of any ‘objective criteria of knowledge’ that we could rely upon to make judgements (since ‘the concept of an original archetypal being’ is by definition outside the realm of possible experience).

In his conclusion, Kant also introduces, quite revealingly I think, questions of power and punishment into what has up to that point been an purely epistemological discussion. He warns that the assumption of God’s existence based on subjective distinctions and without any knowledge of the object is justified (a ‘rational belief’), but that any other such speculation on subjective grounds constitutes a lawless exercise of reason; free-thinking that inevitably leads to repressive intervention by authority, because it leads to the denial of moral laws, libertinism. (It’s easy to imagine Foucault making much of this essay, though I don’t whether he ever wrote on it as things stand.)

Disorientation and Pathology

The OED has disorient present in English from the mid-17th century, and disorientate from the early 1700s. Along with the literal sense of ‘turning from an eastward position’, a figurative sense was also in use — as, for example, in the entry in Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopædia (1728):

The Word is most frequently us’d in a figurative Sense, for the Disconcerting, or putting a Man out of his Way, or Element. Speak of Law to a Physician, or of Physic to a Lawyer, and they will all be disorientated. (p. 225)

On these terms, disorientation is a social concern, and slightly banal. To be disoriented is to find the terms of the discussion unfamiliar, leaving one disconcerted and embarrassed; in modern terms, to be ‘out of your comfort zone’.

It is at the end of the 19th century that the stakes of disorientation become that much higher. David Trotter, discussing agoraphobia in fiction, describes the last three decades of the 19th century as ‘phobia’s belle époque‘, a period in which the formalisation of psychiatry as a discipline led to the identification of innumerable ‘new’ syndromes. As orientation came to be considered a mental faculty, to too did disorientation become in turn a failure of that faculty, a mental pathology. This is the conclusion reached in G.E. Berrios’s 1982 article ‘Disorientation States and Psychiatry’, in which Berrios provides a comprehensive review of historic psychiatric literature in an attempt to synthesise existing conceptions of disorientation in clinical practice. In J.M. Baldwin’s Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology (1902), for example, ‘Orientation (mental)’ has its own entry, separate from ‘Orientation (bodily)’, in which Baldwin notes:

In mental disorders this power is frequently lost; the patient no longer recognizes or realizes his condition, his whereabouts, or his departure from his usual life. This condition is marked in insanities accompanied by hallucinations and systematic delusions. It is also characteristic of delirium, and of various forms of intoxication. (ii, p. 242)

Berrios’s synthesis of the historic literature on disorientation also identifies a crucial shift: as disorientation is pathologized, its meaning expands to encompass not only spatial confusion, but also disruptions in temporality and identity. In a 1910 paper on alcoholic insanity, or ‘Korsakov’s Disease’, for example, one cardinal mental symptom is determined to be ‘disorientation to place, time and persons’. A disorientated individual might fail to recognise a familiar location, get lost and become distressed. But they might also become confused as to the day, month or year, or how much time has passed; fail to recognise loved ones, or even lose a sense of their own identity.

The triad identified here — ‘failures in orientation with respect to time, space, and person’ (Berrios) — establishes a concept of disorientation that continues to be used in current scientific research (for example Peer, Lyon & Arzy 2014). My research is an attempt to build on this conceptualisation, by accepting in principle that disorientation names the moments when space, time and/or identity, as experienced by a given subject, become disjointed, and therefore particularly visible. What is at stake in the depictions of disorientation that occur so frequently in Los Angeles fiction and cinema? How is disorientation shown to arise, and what are its consequences? How does it relate to the history and materiality of the city itself, and to developments in technology and communications, and why does the trauma of disorientation appear to be so acute, and so prevalent, in narratives of crime and detection?

(It is for this reason that, although my subject is Los Angeles fiction and cinema, my thesis is not solely concerned with ‘place’ – with identifying specific locations, mapping, urban history, etc. If (dis)orientation implicates involves not just space but time and identity, this demands a critical approach that takes seriously all three aspects — necessitating an approach that is at least partially ‘geographical’, whilst recognising that such an approach alone is not sufficient.)


Author: Alex Pavey

I'm a UCL English Literature PhD, researching Los Angeles literature and cinema across the twentieth century - particularly, although not exclusively, narratives of crime and detection.

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