In this series of blog posts, members of the Supernatural Cities project at the University of Portsmouth outline their own research, introducing their different disciplinary and methodological perspectives on the urban supernatural.
Alex Pavey is an early-career academic researching urban experience in North American literature and cinema. He is a Part-time Lecturer in the School of Social, Historical and Literary Studies at the University of Portsmouth, and is Research Assistant on the Supernatural Cities project. He can occasionally be found on Twitter, and also blogs in a personal capacity.
Disorientation and the Uncanny City
My previous research has explored how the experience of the twentieth-century American city is represented in literature and film. I’m particularly interested in the distress that failures of orientation seem to entail; the high stakes involved in getting lost in the modern city. This grew out of the initial plans for my doctoral research, which began as a project examining the specific spatiality of Los Angeles in fictional crime narratives. Finding that moments of disorientation seemed to hold a particular significance in, for example, the novels of Raymond Chandler, encouraged me to delve deeper into the concept.
Investigating how disorientation was historically conceptualised in clinical psychology and urban theory made clear that disorientation is more than merely a synonym for ‘lost’. In the late-nineteenth century, the term was pathologised in the psychiatric literature, and its meaning came to implicate not just failures in spatial orientation, but also complications to our experience of time and sense of personal identity. A clinically disorientated person might not recognise familiar streets, or feel as if their sense of direction had somehow been disrupted. But they might also become confused as to the time of day, or be unable to account for periods of time; they might lose a sense of their own individuality, or mis-identify others.
Applying this conceptualisation of disorientation to crime narratives in my doctoral research, I related it to the history of policing in the United States. In the early twentieth century US, law-enforcement authorities were increasingly concerned about the mobility and anonymity that the metropolis afforded individuals. This influenced the development of new policing practices that sought to fix individual identity and arrest movement – from fingerprint records to geographical analysis of crime statistics. These criminalistic techniques, ostensibly more ‘scientific’ than early methods, were in practice prone to abuse and error.
In this new context, individuals were required to be able account for their movements through the city – to be in possession at all times of alibis to protect themselves from false incrimination. This, I suggest, is why moments of disorientation often occur, and have particular significance, in crime narratives. In such a context, disorientation is not only psychologically troubling – it undermines our ability to provide an alibi, and reveals our vulnerability to false or malevolent incrimination.
Having explored this relationship between disorientation and incrimination, I am now beginning to investigate other aspects of disorientation, including how it is represented in geographical and generic contexts. If the threat of false incrimination can be disorientating within the broadly realist confines of the hard-boiled detective novel, for example, then how much more significance might disorientation hold in narratives where a rationalised sense of time, space and identity is complicated by apparently supernatural forces?
One way into this may be to begin with a 1906 essay by Ernst Jentsch, a German psychiatrist. Jentsch’s text is one of many written by psychiatrists in the first decade of the twentieth century in which disorientation is framed as a pathological symptom. It was only translated into English for the first time in 1997, but what is notable is that the main focus of Jentsch’s essay is ‘the psychology of the uncanny’. When Sigmund Freud wrote his own influential essay on the uncanny, he acknowledged Jentsch as the only scholar to have previously explored the subject, and Freud engaged with the latter’s argument at length. ‘The uncanniness of a thing or incident’, Jenstch suggested, is bound up with ‘a lack of orientation’ (Jentsch’s emphasis).
The uncanny has, of course, been the subject much scholarship in the century since Freud’s paper was first published – particularly in relation to fictional narratives concerned with supernatural events and psychical disturbance. Further exploring this association between disorientation and the uncanny may have the potential to open up interesting new perspectives on how urban experience was understood and represented in the first half of the twentieth century.
Alex Pavey, ‘”I’m there right now. Call me”: Unstable identities and irregular distances from Raymond Chandler to David Lynch’, Tropos: The Journal of Comparative Cultural Inquiry, 2 (1) (2014), 50-60
 Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny (1919)’, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. & trans. by James Strachey, 24 vols (London: The Hogarth Press, 1953-1974), XVII: An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works (1955), 219–53.