The trace

The trace

The trace, what remains, has an afterlife of a kind. This is not as 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 as 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 does not signify the thing itself ‘back then’ and the past in a residue form; and nor does it signify ‘just 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 just now.

New Traces are posted regularly. Visit the ‘Traces analysed’ pages for new examples of letters and other kinds of documents worked through in detail.

The term ‘trace’ influentially appears in the work of Collingwood, Bloch and Derrida, albeit used somewhat differently by each. Derrida 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. This is interesting, 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 of work too.

The trace in Whites Writing Whiteness research is a general category – it is ‘the trace’. But there is considerable irony about this. 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 and specifics that give them 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 these examples, concerning only the powerful, famous or notorious, but includes 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? – 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 instead many very particular traces postshadowing all the long-gone circumstances of their origination and circulation.

And what about letters as traces? Much has been written about letterness as a general set of characteristics and thus by implication concerns ‘the letter’as a general category. At the same time, most of the draw and interest of letters lies in 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, there are ways in which epistolary traces have different kinds of specific qualities from other forms of trace.

This discussion about the ontological aspects of the trace is continued in a WWW Working Paper which can be accessed via the Publications pages. Also, discussions of many individual traces and ways of analysing them will be found in the list of Traces.


  • 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: 6 May 2021