Many years ago, a female colleague and I were driving around a San Francisco Bay Area city that we both knew very, very well. We were looking for a particular restaurant that she remembered being good. I asked her what street it was on. She didn't remember that, but she remembered: "You turn left at the flagpole."
As we drove, she also had small vague urges to turn left here and right there. But when we found the flagpole, in the middle of a roundabout with several streets going out of it, she was suddenly uncertain. We turned left, but no luck. So I finally had to ask: "Before you turned left at the flagpole, which way were you going?"
But as soon as I asked it I knew she wouldn't be able to answer. I was looking for something like "north" or "west," but she, despite being a transport management professional, just didn't use such words to organize her sense of a city. She used words like "green building" and "flagpole." She could speak of left and right, but these narrative markers don't help you unless you're already on the right course.
Through no skill of our own, we stumbled on the restaurant. I had been on the verge of asking; "When you turned left at the flagpole, was it casting a shadow to the left or to the right?" The position of the sun was my only hope for translating her rich language of landmarks and narratives, all organized by left and right, into my language of maps organized by the directions of the compass.
Today, of course, people who spend much of their time driving, such as taxi drivers, have GPS navigation units in their car. These devices can be programmed to show you how to get to any address, and they're conceptually bilingual: You can program them to show your location and route on a map, or, if you prefer, their soothing female voice will talk you through a narrative of lefts and rights. I spend a lot of time in taxis, and find that drivers seem to use these devices about half in the first way and half in the second.
Clearly, two people can know the same place extremely well and yet have completely irreconcilable images of it -- irreconcilable not in the sense of contradicting, but in the sense of being untranslatable into a form that will make sense to the other person. I'm interested in what that means for the way different people imagine the world they live in -- their home city, say, or for that matter their house.
My concept of my environment has always been spatial. I know where north is, or feel anxious until I figure it out. My mind is good at remembering maps and diagrams and using them to understand my world. I can retain a lot of information about a city if it comes to me as layers of a map, much less if it comes as narratives. When I get a piece of furniture that has both diagrams and narrative instructions for assembly, I rely mostly the diagram. When I was a theatre director, I tended to be praised for creating beautiful and engaging compositions with bodies in space, while others were more hailed for telling riveting stories.
But many smart and competent people seem to construct their idea of the space around them out of narratives. I'm especially interested in narrative directions, and suspect that there's interesting analysis to be done of what the world looks like to people who see stories -- such as directions of how to get somewhere -- as the main way of understanding space. (Aboriginals, who believe that the creation was an act of storytelling, might have an interesting perspective on this.)
So I'm curious about YOU. In comments, please tell me:
- Do you navigate mostly using maps or narrative directions? Most of us have some ability to use both, but which is your preference? (This is clearly a spectrum, like the Kinsey Scale.)
- If you were visiting someone who didn't know your community, and they asked to describe the city or town or rural area where you live, would you start with its geography, or would you start with cultural information ("Sydney is first and foremost a party town ...")? Would you ever get around to the other kind of information?
- If you navigate primarily in terms of narratives, do you have an "image" of your city? Or is the idea of an image already so spatial as to exclude you?
For me, this is connecting with some very old preoccupations of mine, such as the nature of arrival and welcoming, which seem to be to be moments where geography and narrative intersect. My 1992 essay about the experience of arrival is here. It's part of this old collection, Sitings, and it seems to be coming back around.