The trace

The trace

The trace, what remains, an afterlife of a kind. This is not the residue of the past, for using this word makes it sound like it is an actual part of the past, a rendered down part of ‘then’. And nor is it a ‘clue’, the term Jobs and Ludtke (2010) use, for this is to situate it in terms of ‘now’ and its investigations. ‘Trace’ is in fact exactly right, for this signifies, not the thing itself, then and the past in a residue form; and nor does it signify now and its pursuits in following clues. It has aspects of both and of something not quite either; it is in itself the ‘now/past’; there is a trace of what once was back then, although this is but faintly seen now.

The term influentially appears in the work of Collingwood, Bloch and Derrida, albeit used somewhat differently by each. The latter comments that ‘The trace is not a presence but is rather the simulacrum of a presence that dislocates, displaces, and refers beyond itself. The trace has, properly speaking, no place, for effacement belongs to the very structure of the trace…’ (Speech and Phenomena, p.156). However, the core aspect is that the trace marks the absence of a presence and thus can relate to the future as well as the past, indeed to the present too. All well and good, with the possibilities for tracing the trace more upfront in Collingwood’s and Bloch’s discussions, but also strongly present elsewhere in the Derridarian corpus too.

The trace therein is a general category – it is ‘the trace’. But there is considerable irony here. Trace and general are contradictory terms, almost antonyms, for a trace is always utterly particular. Thinking in visual terms about this confirms the particularities involved: Cromwell’s death-mask, the gatepost socket of a Romano-British Vindolanda bathhouse, Emily Wilding Davison’s return railway ticket to Epsom, the Memphis balcony where Martin Luther King was shot, Sarah Bartmaan’s grave in the Eastern Cape, the mountain of papers left by Winston Churchill and even more by a succession of US Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Carter, the Bushes… Mask, gatepost, ticket, balcony, grave, political papers, can of course be traces in and of themselves, but it is the associations that give meaning and resonance. By themselves they are bereft of the what and who and where and when that gave them such resonance. This is not, despite my examples, the powerful, famous or notorious, but just people and circumstance and time, and it includes of course the butcher, the baker and the woman who made candle-sticks.

Often mysterious – why did Mary Queen of Scot’s last letter castigate her son, is Kaiser Wilhelm’s abdication letter as ambiguous in German as in English, why are Nella Last’s diaries so different from other things she wrote for Mass Observation, did Cecil Rhodes really mastermind the Jameson Raid and did Graham Bower know about this – this is usually because bereft of the context that gave them meaning; that is, their specificity, their particularity. There is no ‘the’ trace, then, but rather many very particular traces postshadowing all the long-gone circumstances of their origination and circulation.

And what about letters as traces? Goodness knows I’ve written much and often about letterness as a general set of characteristics and thus by implication it would seem that I have had recourse to ‘the letter’. At the same time, a major part of their draw is their particularity, the specifics of their writers, their different addressees, places and times of writing, varied contents, their particular times and places of reading. And beyond this, are there ways in which epistolary traces have different qualtities from other kinds of traces? Food for thought here, for they probably do and this needs thinking out.

This discussion is resumed in a WWW Working Paper, so please visit the Publications pages.

Jacques Derrida (1973) Speech and Phenomena Northwestern University Press.

Sebastian Jobs and Alf Ludtke (2010) ‘Introduction’ in their Unsettling History University of Chicago Press.

Last updated:14 August 2015


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