The First Part: The Liminality of Orientation

May 15th, 2007 | Category: Essays

At the beginning of every story, there is a phase during which one feels a bit disoriented: the first pages of a novel, the first scenes of a movie or play, the first song of a record, the part of the performance where the audience members are still finding their seats.

For months now, I’ve been semi-obsessed with this liminal space just at the threshold of orientation.

Lines from a recent dream:

We’re not there
And we’re not on our way
We’re somewhere in between
Perpetually arriving
Over and over
On the scene.

I Just moved to a new city (Portland, Oregon), and I’m experiencing the above described sensation over and over as the city slowly takes shape in my mind. Every new place I try to locate (e.g., the closest grocery store, the post office, rendezvous points with friends, etc.) is a new dis/orientation. These are experiences you can never get back. Once you are familiar, they are gone.

For example, I’ve lived in Seattle four different times over the past thirteen years, and while I do have my memory tested with each recurring visit, that initial orienting experience is gone forever. Upon returning, things are familiar in an unfamiliar way, and that’s a digression that might be worth exploring here.

Last year, I returned to my high school for the first time in seventeen years. As I sat in the auditorium, watching the percussion band play — the same auditorium I’d sat in so many times before — I had a distinct dream-like feeling of unfamiliar familiarity. It was like nothing I’d experienced before, aside from the most acute sensations of déjà vu [By the way, my high school — Enterprise High School in Enterprise, Alabama — was mowed down by an 800-yard-wide tornado on March 1st, so I’ll never be having that un/familiar feeling again].

Speaking of attempting to re-experience a feeling, do you ever see a record you’ve already heard a million times in a store and want to buy it again because you crave the feeling it gave you the first time you heard it? How about re-reading a book, or watching a movie again? You might get a similar feeling, but you’ll never get the full effect again. There’s an area in the brain called the amygdala that is said to be the main controller of emotional memory, a brain function largely attended to by the limbic system. This is where these experiences are stored in your head, where things change upon that initial orientation.

“If it’s not different, it’s not information.” — Jay Ogilvy

“To hear is to hear difference.”Aden Evens

The liminality of orientation over which I’ve been obsessing is actually just the perception of difference. In psychophysics, the smallest noticeable unit of this perception is called the “just noticeable difference” or the “jnd.” Hearing is a product of this difference. Sound is just vibrations among other vibrations. Hearing is being able to tell the difference between these vibrations. Any new experience is the same phenomenon: noticing a difference, noticing differences.

“The New does not emerge. It erupts, then fades away.” — Geert Lovink

Think about the first kiss of a new pair of lips…

Further Posting: