On Knowing Where You Are

How do you answer the question, Where am I?  This post concerns this question in a broad sense, yet in a sense grounded in the concrete perceptual encounter with the world.  Our sense of where we are in space is a primary form of how our world is disclosed to us.  As Thomas Mann writes (and as I have cited him previously): 
Space, like time, engenders forgetfulness; but it does so by setting us bodily free from our surroundings and giving us back our primitive, unattached, state. Yes, it can even, in the twinkling of an eye, make something like a vagabound of the pedant and Philistine. Time, we say, is Lethe; but change of air is a similar draught, and, if it works less thoroughly, does so more quickly.
Mann is admirable on this front in that he maintains important distinctions between space and time while showing their ultimate connection in a more general form, which we can call space-time for lack of a better term; lifeworld would probably do as well, but that term is typically invoked with historical and cultural meanings in mind.

Not surprisingly, my musings on this topic were set off by recent travels.  While visiting New York city, I found myself wondering where I was on several occasions.  And I don't mean I was pondering my place in the universe or some existential inquiry; no, I literally needed to know where I was, specifically whenever I got off the subway and emerged back on the surface streets.

One can figure out where he is in a few different ways.  Some of these ways are more "direct" in that one can instantly grasp his spatial orientation by perceiving landmarks, or, say, the position of the sun in the sky.  Simply by regarding one's visual horizon, one can immediately know which way is North, and thus which way all of the other cardinal directions point, and thus, most importantly, which way one must walk if the bar one his headed to is uptown. This was my consistent mode of spatial orientation while living in New Mexico.  When living in a town with uniformly low buildings and distinct mountain ranges in all directions, figuring out where you are and which direction to go is as easy as looking up.

Alternatively, one can figure out where he is in a more "indirect" fashion.  This requires reading signs and making inferences.  If I come out of the subway and need to walk East two avenues and then south for three blocks, then my typical strategy (amateur city-dweller that I am) is to read off the coordinates from the nearest corner, then pick a direction and walk until I see the next set of street signs, thus enabling me to infer what direction I just walked in, and determine how to further determine my course.  I felt alienated doing this.  I quickly learned that I could orient myself in the "direct" manner by identifying specific buildings on the horizon (e.g., the Freedom tower is downtown, so if I can see it, I know which way downtown is, and thus I know where I am).  But this doesn't always work in NYC, where you often can't see further than whatever random set of unremarkable buildings swallow up your horizon.

So, I like to know where I am by being able to simply look around.  But perhaps New Yorkers don't need my crude guess-and-check system to orient themselves when they emerge from the subway.  Perhaps after years of practice they have a little internalized map, like the GPS on your phone, with a red dot indicating where they are and the map adjusting accordingly.  I wouldn't be surprised if this ability were innate in all humans, and just a matter of whether it is cultivated by specific cultures.  It is now well known that Australian aboriginal speakers of Guugu Yimithirr do not rely on "ego centric" direction words at all (left, right, forward, backward, etc.), but rather always refer to the cardinal directions.  To quote a recent NYTimes article:  
Whenever we would use the egocentric system, the Guugu Yimithirr rely on cardinal directions. If they want you to move over on the car seat to make room, they’ll say “move a bit to the east.” To tell you where exactly they left something in your house, they’ll say, “I left it on the southern edge of the western table.” Or they would warn you to “look out for that big ant just north of your foot.” Even when shown a film on television, they gave descriptions of it based on the orientation of the screen. If the television was facing north, and a man on the screen was approaching, they said that he was “coming northward.” 
The article proceeds to explain how the tribe's linguistic practices ingrain a sense of direction, to the point where speakers of this language simply "feel" directions, in the way someone with perfect pitch senses each note without having to calculate intervals.  This goes beyond the "direct" mode of spatial orientation I described above, however I would argue that it begins in the manner I describe above and becomes habituated to the point where the process is unconscious.

And this brings me back to Thomas Mann.  A change of setting is indeed one of the fastest ways to forget.  A new setting challenges you to orient yourself, to figure out where you are; whereas our home-spaces "feel like home" precisely because one knows where he is at all times.  In a new place we are set back to our "primitive, unattached state," which can be exhilarating, yet equally alienating. 

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