Where The Echo Is Louder Than The Sound Itself / by Bryce Hidysmith

Photo by A. Gourley, Feb. 2018 

Photo by A. Gourley, Feb. 2018 

< Soundtrack: Sun City Girls - The Shining Path, Kim Jung Mi - 햇님/The Sun  >

On Halloween of 2017, a friend and I posted thirty-nine theses on a message board in Sproul Plaza on the grounds of UC Berkeley. We would have aimed for ninety-five, but we got close to done in thirty-nine. We left an email to contact us if anyone were so inclined, and we figured that maybe we would find someone interesting who we could communicate with. Amusingly, it turned out that all of the theses were taken down the next day with the routine cleaning that happens at the end of every month. Nobody emailed us. We rationalized the frustration of leaving a clue and not having anyone follow it by assuming that the primary value of the deed was being able to say that we posted the theses in the first place. It was the right sort of thing to do to commemorate the five-hundredth Anniversary. There is much to be said for costly signals directed to oneself. Sometimes you have to remind yourself who you are, in the likely case that you forget. 

Rome is a city of costly signals. Very few (perhaps none) that remain are signals directed at individuals for themselves, and instead the vast majority of them are telling you to know your place. There stand monuments. There's the Alter of the Fatherland, which is basically a meta-monument made out of smaller monuments. There stand basilicas. There are partially reconstructed pieces of civic infrastructure that have taken on a divine quality simply by being dug up out of the ground. All of them are ways of asserting an order on the world by forcing an individual to aspire to an ideal that is claimed to have existed, but is now unattainable. The divine is painted on the ceilings of the chapels and basilicas to humble us, to make us crane our necks so that as we study the content of the murals we also must remember that the content lords over us, surrounded by overwhelming and frankly psychedelic adornment. I can't spend more than a few minutes among the baroque without feeling a bit seasick. I didn't go inside of St. Peter's, as I was feeling more than a bit exhausted just from touring the Vatican Museums. I feel like if one had been raised within this system either at mater or magister, then one might have a different experience, but the refinement of the confusing capacity of art was so adept that I must admit that I felt comfortable only in the Sistine Chapel and the room of Raphael's School of Athens. Both of those rooms were cases where the structure of the artwork was so impeccable that it demanded attention and understanding. All symbols are related so impeccably that the will of the artists were not obfuscated, and the messages were clear as day, with further levels of interpretation available with conceivably infinite pattern recognition. I didn't go inside St. Peter's for the same reasons I was happy I'd entered the Sistine. There is something oddly telling about the fact that Molgbug and the Neoreactionaries often use "the Cathedral" as a metaphor for those that install Maya, while also being pro-Catholic, but at the same time it's probably worth noting that the Old Masters who helped manufacture the informational content of cathedrals are perhaps the greatest example of individuals using the Kolmagorov Option in the history of the West. On that note, its probably worth noting Raphael's prominent placement of Sappho on The Parnassus. 

There is a sense in so many parts of Rome that interpretation is against the will of the territory. The city demands that I know my place before I know myself. I cannot attempt learn the character of the city and remember the character of myself independently. I am a foreigner. I have a history of my own. And while my history is haunted by the ghosts of Rome even on the other side of the world, it is not Roman history.  Yet, Rome speaks a command language. It has a place for you, but you have no choice in the matter. I can't help but think of the gang of minor scam artists that congregate around Trajan's Column, trying to flag down tourists to talk to them, giving them identical cheap bracelets and claiming that those bracelets are gifts from Africa before asking for money. They're clearly indentured, caught up in a debt scheme where they can't ever make their quota of sales for the day. They operate in small packs, and have developed a strategy of preying on the hope of Americans who don't want to seem racist by ignoring a migrant in the ruins of the imperial city. Probably the only places that I've found in this city that are actually comfortable are the Nuovo Mercato Esquilino, which might be my favorite proper market that I've been to outside of Bangkok, and an extremely friendly goth club in San Lorenzo where some of our crew played chess one night. Neither of those places are haunted by obfuscated preferences. The play of haggling or dark-path aesthetics is interpretable by all, and there isn't a need to attempt to join any theatrics that wouldn't happen by default.  

There are older, more comfortable versions of the city beneath the earth, back at the levels of topology from before the seven hills were de facto flattened as debris piled up. There's the old villa stories underground of San Clemente, where I drank from a spring of water flows that quenched the thirst of the citizens of the city during the days of the war. I was comfortable there, and then a tour group of French teenagers came in sulking, and I overheard a British woman gasp with horror that there were coins offered to the heathen Mithraeum. I stumbled back above ground, and into a cafe, the Colosseum looming outside. I couldn't help but wonder if I was just filling in detail with ample apophenia. Maybe it's the white of the marble that throws me off, and if the whole system was rendered in polychrome I would be much less pleased. Color would distract from structure, and without its distraction one can almost believe in a rational world. My mind does not attempt to fill them with ornament, rather it hopes that the symbols may have meaning, or that things that are pure aesthetic pleasure may be symbols. The mosaic floors rarely have data beyond decoration. The symbol—the cross, the fasces, the keys, the SPQR, the wolf and her children—even in the days of Trajan it is almost secondary to the wonder of sheer adornment. This is a country where the echo is louder than the sound itself. 

One gets a sense that the overall aesthetic that the Romans had when designing buildings and art was derived from a sense of strategic insecurity. They must build an obelisk or an arch because they must demonstrate that they could build such a thing. This is the fundamental nature of monuments that are not optimized for durability or the inclusion of great quantities of information. The overall order of their state depended largely on the ability of the highly-ranked to demonstrate imperium without fail, leading to an increasingly performative society as Julius and Augustus faded into memory. Both Julius and Augustus knew about the performative nature of power, as of course did Cato, and were both able to harness it without losing control of the show. This is, perhaps, one of the best explanations for what could be meant by finding Rome a city of brick, and leaving it a city of marble. One must remember that the marble was typically only a facade. One of the most central moral questions that one has to contend with is whether or not one sides with Cato or Caesar—must you use a strategic advantage simply because you can, even if that strategic advantage is built on the normalization of a level of corruption? 2016 to the present seems to have begun a dialectic on this subject in earnest, with almost everyone taking mixed and largely situational positions driven by fear or opportunism, but I will have to let my own opinions solidify more fully before I address these questions.

I read through Graeber's Debt on the train back from Florence yesterday, and the Roman conception of property and its free-use is so alien to the way that I think, which is deeply influenced by the Christian (and especially Protestant) tendency to need to give everything a justification outside of itself. It seems almost as though the Christian revolution in Rome was an attempt to check the ego of the pater familias, especially when one notes that a major reason for the rise of Christ and not of Mithra was that Mithraeums did not accept female members, whereas property owning widows were a major factor in funding the initial church. Christ is a far superior figure than Zeus or bastard fanfics like composite Osirapis. Such gods only served to create a fractal patriarchy that is able to incorporate and slowly process foreign bodies, either by way of vassalization or slavery. Graeber's comments on the Axial age strategy of military-currency-slavery are highly enlightening on this matter, and should not be underestimated. To briefly summarize, a conquering army melts the metal accoutrements of a conquered people into bullion, stamps it in coinage, distributes the coinage to the military, and demands that the official coinage is used to pay taxes. As slavery is normalized in this time period, a large slave economy of former captives emerges, mining further metals from conquered mines or working in agriculture. Chartalism, with an expansionist element. An element of this that Graeber does not necessarily overlook, but rather does not directly comment on, is the fact that to launch this system its necessary to have clear common knowledge about who the primary authority is, something that a fractal patriarchy religious system would be remarkably effective at producing. Though the circumstantial details of exactly how the Roman church began to require celibacy of its priests are a bit fuzzy—there is not a clear justification as to why the decisions of the Council of Elvira were made that I could find—I might imagine that it is an attempt to produce both a precedent of divinely ordained power over the body and its functions, as well as an attempt to avoid the clerical hierarchy being used to amass dynastic continuities of power and wealth. Both of those would be highly advantageous, but there are of course a great number of practical problems with this specific implementation that need no further discussion here. Centrally, a thing to remember is that design was a rarity in Rome. Reaction to circumstance was the order of the day. Locations imbued with such power as this rarely have space for non-reactive mental processes. As reactive processes are faster, frequently the contemplative processes of design are simply selected against strongly enough by the stressful pace of the environment that they no longer take place at all. One must assume that Rome, after the fall of the Republic, was a place where Marcus Aurelius was entirely remarkable for writing his Meditations, themselves representative of a stoic tendency to attempt to interface with and profit from the world without attempting to produce anything like justice within it—a tendency matched by the political wings of Taoism on the other side of Eurasia. There is more to be said. While this city is not infinite, it seems as though it might be eternal, and as such I would find myself dwelling on intractabilities for far longer than I might otherwise like. It is far easier to simply take one of the ample roads that leave this place and find somewhere easier to think. 

As far as I'm concerned, I think that to try and understand the writings of Acquinas as well as Chesteron's Orthodoxy before I solidify much more belief on any matters of spirit. I have an exceptional curiosity regarding the ways in which the Scholastics were able to preserve a wide range of thought in an environment that is at least stereotyped as massively dogmatic, and I have been keeping a copy of Augustine in my bag that I am sure I will get to shortly. Yet, my prejudices when it comes to religion are for a kind of self-sacrificial protestantism that is not taken very seriously by a pluralist and largely atheistic and esoteric ex-frontier city like the one of my birth. My familial traditions tell me that religion should an understated thing, an attempt to interpret the world knowing that you cannot be the one who is able to understand the whole of it, but nonetheless it is your responsibility to try like any good Christian to interpret the signs given, and make a rightly justified decision. If a hierarchy of divine authority demonstrated its ability to interpret signs better than myself, I would certainly follow its lead. Yet, such authority must come from the clear demonstration of the ability to interpret symbols and signs. The authority of a given perspective must be equal to its ability to transmit useful information to other perspectives, for if it holds secrets it must be assumed to be paid in the profit it gains from such asymmetric information. I cannot see any other arrangement that would permit me to see what was right by my own eyes.