The now/past

The now/past, Part II 

The past is gone. Its traces, however, are in manifold ways embedded in the present, or we could not know it at all. Certainly we cannot ‘know’ the past in any direct sense. But, we can know it indirectly and by modest inference. The ‘trace’ and the ‘now/past’ provide the keys to this. The following discussion is not intended as methodology, as ‘what to do’ pointers in the usual sense, but as the second part of a consideration of what underlies this (the first part will be found at What do we do, about the past?). That is, it concerns the working assumptions made in doing what we do when we set out to ‘know the past’ or some minute aspect of it. It begins with the trace – no trace, no past.

The idea of the trace in the sense of the remains or residue of the past (a source of some kind, concerning an event, a process, some persons…) has a long history (pun intended) and cannot be attributed to any particular source. However, the term appears in the philosopher-historian RG Collingwood’s work in the 1930s, in historian Marc Bloch’s in the early 1940s, and in the philosopher Jacques Derrida’s in the late 1960s. This is the survival of the faint traces of what was once, which Bloch helpfully also writes of as providing tracks to be followed. Nonetheless, these are precisely remains and traces, not the past itself, and they have whatever resonance they do in the present and its attempts to make sense of them. But as the past has gone and resurrectionalism remains impossible no matter how realist our aspirations, what precisely is the status of the trace and whatever activity it is that we do with it now?

The ‘now/past’ is a frame of mind (or perhaps is better seen as the product of this), as a way of thinking about the past that focuses on the traces remaining, mindfully doing so in connection with the questions and intellectual concerns of ‘now’, but in a way that situates them in relation to what is known about the context and concerns of ‘then’, and then infers meaning and interpretation from this. It involves those tracks that Bloch mentions, and following them. Tracks of (human, animal) foot, finger or other kinds of prints were made in the past, but their imprint remains and can be traced and followed in the present. Doing this brings the past and its traces, and now and its questions and concerns, together – this is the ‘now/past’ and, the irony here, it is of course a resolutely present-time phenomenon.

The ‘now/past’ pans out in different ways in relation to different sources, different traces of the past. The next blog will contemplate these ideas in relation to letters, to letterness as a distinctive kind of trace.

Marc Bloch (1991 [1954]) The Historian’s Craft (trans. Peter Putnam). Manchester: Manchester University Press.

RG Collingwood (1938) An Autobiography Oxford: Clarendon Press.

RG Collingwood (1994 [1946]) The Idea of History [revised edition] Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jacques Derrida (1974 [1968]) Of Grammatology (trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak). Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Last updated: 17 July 2015


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