I’ve been thinking about exposure – what you know and when you know it – and how it is influenced by location. For example, what do you think of when you hear the word “avatar”? Avatar: The Last Airbender? James Cameron’s Avatar? Hindu mythology? Virtual reality? Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash? Madonna and her many re-inventions?
My own geography of exposure – by which I mean where in the world I was when certain pop-culture phenomena made their way into the public consciousness – kept me unaware of any meaning of the word “avatar” beside “manifestation of god on earth” until late 2009. Suddenly, pointy-eared aliens were taking over every conversation anyone was having about the movies. Perhaps because I kept trying to tell people they were pronouncing it wrong, I learnt, nearly simultaneously, about other usages of the word – a TV show about benders, a book set in a post-apocalyptic future, the virtual characters in role-player games. I had, it seemed, been living in a cave.
Admittedly, some of this lack of knowledge was due more to my cultural milieu than my physical one – I only really started playing video games in college, and even then, no one refers to your choice of character in Super Smash Bros. as your avatar. And certainly, Hindus born and raised in the United States don’t need to set foot on Indian soil in order to learn about Vishnu and his ten major avatars. Nevertheless, the exposure that comes from physically being in a particular place at a particular time is its own unique gift. It’s why “travel” – that purview of a lucky few – is so exalted. It’s why academics in the social sciences do fieldwork. It’s why, even though we’d been studying the moon long before we got there, we really wanted to get there.