On Disorientation (II) – Completely Lost in the Modern City

Aerial view of I-110 and I-101 freeway interchange, Dodger stadium, ”Dick

Aerial view of I-110 and I-101 freeway interchange, Dodger stadium (detail), ”Dick” Whittington Photography Collection, 1924-1987, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

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

In a sense my entire thesis is an explication of a single passage, one of the most striking, in Kevin Lynch’s classic 1960 work of urban planning theory, The Image of the City:

To become completely lost is perhaps a rather rare experience for most people in the modern city. […] But let the mishap of disorientation once occur, and the sense of anxiety and even terror that accompanies it reveals to us how closely it is linked to our sense of balance and well-being. The very word “lost” in our language means much more than simple geographical uncertainty; it carries overtones of utter disaster. (p. 4)

The primary concern of Lynch’s work was city design – with how we might build or remodel cities to be highly legible, thereby minimising their tendency to disorientate residents and making them more pleasant, satisfying places in which to live. His evocative descriptions of the trauma of urban disorientation are the point of departure for my own analysis of Los Angeles fiction and cinema.

I am interested in the representation of experiences of disorientation – that is, moments in which a certain subjective stability is undermined (perhaps even revealed to be a fiction). That stability – orientation – is what I term the rationalisation of time, space and identity. It is absolute confidence in the knowledge that ‘we are here now’; a certainty such that this statement is taken as a given, unarticulated and unexamined. In disorientation, one or more aspects of this triad become disjointed – where, when and who we are is no longer a straightforward proposition, and the consequences of this ambiguity are deeply distressing.

Disorientation in space describes the experience of being in unfamiliar surroundings, and unable to confidently navigate through them. But it can also describe the sensation of familiar surroundings becoming suddenly transfigured and alien; perhaps just by the passage from day to night, or perhaps by a riot that has left a neighbourhood unrecognisable, or by municipal redevelopment that has razed whole blocks and constructed new buildings in their place. It can also spring from an apparent disruption in spatial relations – fluctuations and ambiguities in distance and proximity. I am told that the object that I believe to be in my pocket is actually in the hands of someone several miles away, or hear the voice of over the telephone of someone threatening me from an uncertain location.

Disorientation in time suggests uncertainty over the time of day, or the amount of time that has passed (calling to mind the simplified description of relativity usually attributed to Einstein involving pretty women and hot stoves). But it can also be the consequences of the past somehow forcing their way into the present – returning to a place and involuntarily recalling a confrontation, or a kiss, that once occurred there. An enraged detective frenziedly pursues a murder suspect through the opium dens of Chinatown, time going ‘haywire’ as he inhales the intoxicating smoke. It might even involve being somehow transported to another time entirely, and unexpectedly waking in the antebellum south or the year 2000.

Disorientation in person denotes temporary amnesia, in which the individual in unable to recall who they are and where they have come from. There are other disruptions, though, that ones sense of stable identity can undergo. An detective, working undercover to infiltrate a communist cell whilst also attempting to conceal his homosexuality from his colleagues, begins to struggle under the strain of keeping multiple stories straight. The aliases that others have assumed undermine our conception of the way things are; a woman is driven to murder when she discovers that a lover presumed to have died in the war actually survived, lived on under a new name, and remarried. Or perhaps the identities of an entire cast of characters dramatically shifts in the final reel of film, forcing us to reappraise everything that has come before.

The three forms of disorientation frequently arise in combination, and such experiences can be particularly disruptive. As, for example, in the common trope in which traumatic memories of another time and place insistently intrude into the consciousness of a war veteran.

Frank Enley (Van Heflin) experiencing a guilt-ridden flashback to his wartime conduct in Act of Violence (dir. Fred Zinnemann, 1948)

Frank Enley (Van Heflin) experiences a guilt-ridden flashback to his wartime conduct in Act of Violence (dir. Fred Zinnemann, 1948)

In Memento (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2000), an insurance investigator, suffering from anterograde amnesia and unable to form new memories, is forced to develop coping strategies that include relying on Polaroid photographs and having significant facts about himself tattooed onto his body. The constant disruption to his experience of time and place makes all of his relationships with others suspect, and forces him to cling to what proves to be an artificially conceived identity — that of righteous avenger of his wife’s murder.


David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) centres on unstable identities, with a lead character that inexplicably transforms into or is replaced with an entirely different person. Its most haunting scene of disorientation, however, occurs prior to that narrative turning point — when the ‘Mystery Man’ confronts Fred (Bill Pullman) at a party, and tells him: ‘We’ve met before, haven’t we? […] At your house, don’t you remember? […] As a matter of fact, I’m there right now.’ Handed a mobile phone, Fred calls his home phone number, and hears the voice of the man standing in front of him laconically responding ‘I told you I was here’.

One of the most significant combinations is that of space and time in motion, since movement entails both the passing of time and the passing through of space. Disorientation involving movement can in turn take multiple forms, from instances of unnaturally fast or irregular movement, to enforced stasis and the psychological consequences that can result.

As I’ve said previously, one of the central questions my thesis attempts to answer is why the trauma of disorientation appears to be so acute, and so prevalent, in narratives of crime and detection. My contention is that disorientation is traumatic because the stakes are not just epistemological, but also juridical. For all that it might be existentially troubling to find oneself exposed to the unstable foundations of everyday experience, such disruptions at the same time expose the individual to a more immediate threat — that of incrimination…


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