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Palimpsest as a Layered Progression of Change Through Use

The Search for Definition

In order to discuss occurrences of palimpsest, it is first necessary to define what the term "palimpsest" has come to mean. The original usage of palimpsest referred to a parchment that had been scrubbed (as best as possible) and re-written upon. This usage still applies, but the definition has been expanded and the term "palimpsest" can now be applied to a great number of things. A piece of parchment that has been scrubbed and reused, a painting that has been painted over numerous times, a wall of graffiti, a concept passed on and manipulated by each person who contributes to it, a land or architecture that has been changed by an inhabiting culture, the culture itself as it progresses through time and necessarily alters itself in order to survive—these are all examples of palimpsest. Yet, with such broad usage, a discontinuity of definition begins to develop and the varying occurrences of palimpsest need to be compared in order to find a discreet common ground and thereby a definition.

A specimen that can be described as a palimpsest is, primarily, that which has come about because of changes that have occurred. Thus, a palimpsest is a result of change. More definition is required, however, for change is universal. The world we live in is not immortal—everything has an eventual end—and it is because of this that change defines our world. It is obvious that without something that is originally new, nothing can become old—but it is also true that without the destruction of the old, the new could not possibly come into being. In the process of creating something new, something old is always destroyed. Something new cannot come into being of its own accord, but rather must have something old to build from—something from which the materials are taken. Albert Einstein's Law of Conservation of Mass/Energy mandates this observation. In this law, it is stated that while small amounts of matter may be converted into energy and vice versa, "in this change both mass and energy are separately conserved" (Rogers). In other words, neither mass nor energy can be created or destroyed and thus when something new is created, it must be that a change from one thing to another is occurring.

Yet, with a change that results in a palimpsest, there is a distinction. In the case of a palimpsest, it is in the creation of the new through the destruction of the old that the old is carried on past its end. The new, in being created from the old, has more than just a simple cause-and-effect link to the old that composed its creation—it is the old, simply in a new, recombined form. A sculpture that is created from a collection of materials is a sculpture as a whole but also is all of the individual physical components that were changed and recombined to produce it. A scrubbed parchment is both the new writing and the old. A concept passed along and developed by multiple individuals is itself in each altered re-occurrence, but is also a layering of all past occurrences. Thus, a palimpsest is not only a result of change, but also that which displays change. Clearly, a palimpsest is the layered evidence of change. This definition is, however, still to broad; there must still be something else which further distinguishes a palimpsest. Upon further consideration of specimens of palimpsest, it becomes clear that the final unifying element is human manipulation. There seems to be a racial desire inborn in us to leave a mark behind—a record of our existence. We continually alter our surroundings in a constant attempt to achieve such a mark. It is through use that a palimpsest is developed. With use, deterioration, destruction, and eventually recreation occur. With continuous use, these alterations begin to pile up and become evident as a progression of changes—becoming a palimpsest. Thus, the final definition has now been reached. A palimpsest is the layered evidence of progression through a series of changes that occur as a result of use.

Roman Forum vs. Online Forum

The Roman Forum, and the way it was used, is an extraordinary example of a palimpsest. Before the gradual transformation of Rome into a tourist attraction, the buildings were not viewed as overly precious—new buildings were constantly built in front of, inside, or using old buildings. There was little attempt to preserve the buildings and other component parts of the Forum in the state that they contemporarily existed. When a building was rebuilt, it was always modified or remade in a way that fit the desires of the current builders. Rather than trying to preserve the old as it was, it was deconstructed and used (both in material and in concept) in order to construct the new. In present day, it is the Internet that most successfully captures the spirit of use that existed in the Roman Forum. The Internet exists as the market place of the world, where anything can be obtained, and where all ideas are valid and open for discussion. It is a gray area where the boundaries of copy writes are (at least for now) blurred, and free information exchange is at a premium. The way that the Internet is used, helps to breakdown the concepts of preciosity and individual ownership, and it is in this breakdown that the Roman Forum and the online forum of the Internet become linked.

When something is not considered precious, the desire to preserve it "as is" is greatly diminished, if not removed all together. Thus, that which is not precious is allowed to deteriorate and is even candidate for destruction in the creation of something new. The Roman Forum experienced this state of non-preciosity on the grand-scale when it encountered the only thing that it could not adapt to: disuse. If use was the organic life of the Forum, then its disuse was its death. As Christianity took hold over Rome, the shift of the populace moved away from the area of the old pagan religions. The Forum, along with all of the old temples, was abandoned. Through disuse, these sites became the old and because of this they were destroyed and used as material. Churches needed to be built and they needed to be decorated. Thus, the same process that had been occurring in the Roman Forum now began to occur in new locations. Churches were built inside, on top, and using pieces of old temples. Marble, cement, and brick alike were all torn down and rebuilt according to the new needs and desires of the people. The process of use was continued and new layers were added to the palimpsest of Rome.

Similarly, the Internet seems to be in a constant state of non-preciosity. In fact, the concept of preciousness seems to vanish completely underneath the vast number of web sites that are constantly being created. The estimated count for the year 2003 is 16 billion web pages. The fact that once a web page is created it requires no maintenance and will last, unchanging, for an indefinite amount of time also seems to contribute to the attitude of non-preciosity. The multitude of out-of-date information and broken links that exist are testaments to just such an attitude. And just as pieces of abandoned architecture were constantly stolen from the Roman Forum and reused, the Internet experiences a similar occurrence, yet on a grander scale. Sections of web page code, images, mp3s, pirate software, and of course information, are constantly being stolen, reused, and openly traded on the Internet. The Internet, being a place of constant destruction, creation, recreation, thievery, and general non-preciosity, has also become the perfect environment for the break down of the concept of individual ownership. Free assistance is given to all who seek it in the nearly infinite varieties of discussion boards. Ideas, concepts, and even software are passed around with no individual claim to ownership. Each person adds their own change to the whole and development occurs as palimpsest of individual contributions. This type of "Open Source" development of a concept or product occurs at much faster rate, and in a more diverse manner than the development that occurs in a closed environment based on preciosity and ownership. The non-precious development is also unending whereas the development of preciosity is stagnated and occurs haltingly.

It is on this very issue that the Roman palimpsest and the Internet palimpsest diverge. After the destruction of the Roman Forum and appropriation of materials in the construction of the churches of Rome, the attitude of non-preciosity was reversed and the church assumed individual ownership of the materials. As the needs of the city changed and new sources of income were sought for, it was realized that people enjoyed reveling over the past glory of the Roman Empire. As pilgrims began to travel great distances—expecting to see certain things and willing to contribute offerings in order to see them—it suddenly became important to maintain things as they were. The "use" of the old materials of Rome ended. The only time objects of "antiquity" were moved was when it was determined that doing so would better preserve them for the viewing public. The process of restoration progressively replaced the slowing process of destruction and recreation. Nothing old was allowed to be destroyed, and thus, nothing could be re-used to create something new. Rome began to stagnate—obsessing over its past glory rather than looking ahead towards future accomplishments—allowing little forward progress to occur.

The Drive of Palimpsest Creation

The ambitions of mankind are, however, difficult to stifle. Gradually, additions were made, structures were modified, and occasionally (when called for by a dire need) entire churches were rebuilt. Also, even though the architecture was being stagnated in development, it was still being used, and it is through this use that a palimpsest was still able to develop. As the churches were used, the record of their use manifested itself in graffiti—an occurrence which is probably as old as the existence of walls. Wherever there has been a surface for mankind to leave its mark on, graffiti has occurred. Cave walls document some of the oldest graffiti—that of the simple hand print left as a record of an individual's existence. Graffiti around Rome took many forms. Bored students in Rome would leave words and drawings on the walls of buildings, shops would be layered with advertisements, campaign slogans, and personal messages, a graffiti carving in the stone of the Coliseum even pointed the way to the nearest brothel. Nevertheless, graffiti comes down to a desire to leave something behind—to preserve one's self by creating something that will outlast the destruction of the self. And like a herd instinct, more people are compelled to do the same upon viewing other people's markings—congregating their own marks in the general vicinity of others'—layering over top of and even responding to past marks through their own. It is this specific type of graffiti—palimpsest that has developed at the churches and holy places of Rome—a layering of records of use and records of existence. Upon regarding the congregated marks, awareness develops of a conversation between the past and the present, and upon leaving your own mark, a conversation initiates with the future as well.

In this development, the link between Roman palimpsest and Internet palimpsest has come full-circle. Just as most conversation on the Internet occurs anonymously, most of the observed graffiti was also anonymous. Very few names were left on the walls and ceilings for the same reason that relatively few names are give online. A person's name is a very poor link to the self—it is simply a title used for organization and reveals nothing about the individual other than perhaps gender. The desire of the self to leave behind a mark results in the creation of personal records of existence. The marks in the churches of Rome were mostly composed of dates, prayers, figural and non-figural drawings, and responses to past marks. The desire to respond also points out that sometimes the main goal in leaving a mark is not an attempt at immortality, but rather a desire simply to contribute. Both on walls of graffiti in the churches of Rome and on the discussion boards and web forums of the Internet, the desire leave a mark and add to the conversation is a desire to aid in the development of something larger than the individual—to let go of the preciousness of self and become part of the layered whole.