Backdrop

Philip K. Dick’s novel Ubik turns on a vicious version of time travel; the world around the protagonists is continuously degrading into the past, the current landscape replaced in patches with older versions of itself. The title product is a spraycan that can restore elements to the novel’s present. There’s only so much ground you can cover with a spraycan, though.

The past in Rome is immersive and also broken. To your two eyes, to your third eye, it stands there in structures enveloping and incomplete–the Basilica of Maxentius, arching overhead to end mid-statement, one end rooted and the other grinding in the air. The masses of the past are wearing into filaments, chips, or flakes; they raise the level of the ground as they desert their parent structures, falling from the shoulders to encase the ankles.

You can reason more than you would think off of the toe bone of a dinosaur; but there are limits to reconstruction, for a finite culture with finite resources. As the fragmentary past proliferates, it becomes harder to digest it through the archaeological tract. A dish for one multiplies into an interminable dinner party. Masterpieces, or tellable stories, get obscured in the crush; they go disenchanted; they start to appear together as a dustheap, a hoarding, that you can only thread through with great trouble. Each detail to catch your eye quickly falls back into the blur of the whole.

A live recording from Auckland, New Zealand, from 1982, the English band The Fall playing the 10-minute song “Backdrop.” The band spends that time repeating the same ragged phrase; the singer, Mark E. Smith, taunts a teacher: “it’s about time you started thinking/about the rerun which is your life/moveable backdrop/the backdrop shifted and changed, shifted and changed.”

In Rome, at any one time, half of the churches and palaces are being reconstructed, and the facades are covered by fluttering pictures of themselves at 1:1, mounted on the scaffolding; on top of those pictures, huge advertisements for communications (television, cellular phones).

To get ready for a month in Rome, I worked from the architectural and literary authorities. And afterward, I seem to digest it through my old household gods Dick and Smith, late 20th century Anglophone pop artists. Both, autodidacts with a troubled relationship to official culture and canons; centered in being cis white men, secure enough in being part of a lineage, they are still unable – from class origins, eccentricity, irascibility – to fit smoothly in the prestige structures of official culture. They give themselves airs of psychic powers, or we may as well say, use the story of telepathy in their own lives as a paranoiac means of reconstructing a world that seems broken. Despite being personally impossible or worse, both make an adequate living for themselves through creative work, appealing mostly to a whole class of autodidacts they represent, who, if we believe Bourdieu, misconstrue the intended function of culture – who transpose the structures and values of the very rich to the half-official, the bastard, who make elaborate catalogs of comic books and jazz records.

For these two men, preoccupied with an idea of themselves as having privileged access to another plane of reality, access to the past is a haunting in progress, a mark of distinction almost not worth the trouble. Smith’s visions often center around Nazi Germany, standing at the same remove, against the same divide of un-reckoning, that preoccupied W.G. Sebald; and Dick found himself with an unshakeable sense of the world’s time having stopped in the early days of Christianity, immersed in a Roman Empire which we must be extricated from. Seeing as Dick and Smith do is a way to see the exalted city as impure, as haunted and haunting. It ceases to appear as a clean network of artistic cross-reference behind a page, sorted neatly into eras and authors; but instead as an unwieldy and cruel reality, a past lodged roughly in the present.

Dick and Smith’s tense past maps, oddly enough, onto the tourism of the middle-class – seeking legitimation in the experience of the real, of being in the presence of the majesty of the past. Without pedigree, with shallow roots, you feel yourself uneasy in these surroundings, having been told at once that this is culture, your culture, and again that you are far distant from it.

Such visitors will skate quickly and dutifully over the entire mass of Catholic iconography; instead, they will incline to the tavern at Ostia, the portraits of charioteers in the Palazzo Massimo, the Arco degli Argentari like a rib being pulled from the side of San Giorgio; these will speak materially, unimpededly, to the traveling bourgeois, as though they had leaked from somewhere else and possessed, dessicating in the process, a deli, a poster of a soccer player, a sign on a flyover bridge. “It’s about time to start thinking about the black dog on your back,” Smith spits, which is none other than the ubiquitous logo on the little gas stations of the oil company ENI, a six-legged fire-breathing dog; itself a degraded copy of the ensemble of she-wolf, Romulus, and Remus.

Why do we think of preservation a matter of heritage? Why is it sealed within propriety, within the official account? Why does it exist in defined temple districts? Roman remnants insist on staying, on homage; they obtrude into the consciousness. They can only be cut through with difficulty; they thoughtlessly obstruct the excavation of the third line of the Metro.

Why not see preservation as a haunting, a compulsion, a propitiation?

Be sure that preservation is also repetition, is making the same thing in the same way. What is preserving the Colosseum? Taking enough photographs of it that it would be simple, given the corpus and processing power, to model continuously the last ten years of its life. Repetition was the Roman empire reiterating itself, cobbling together a canon of imagery and technique and then running it off, past the point where anyone could hope to destroy it all. The bricks, the coins, the statuettes, the chips of mosaic. It is new books of Dick ephemera, the toxoplasmic suggestion to edit and release his Exegesis; it is the nth CD of the Fall live in Belgrade, August 1997. It is feeling that any information attached is information worth saving to someone; all the more so if it is not liable to die on its own.

(August 2017)