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)