An Old Derridian Exercise

Let me trace an origin. “Trace” is a privileged word. As a verb it is how I am opening this piece and using it to set an intention and a process. The word denotes a nuanced spectrum of definitions, and these definitions superimpose upon one another to produce what then becomes complex. Possible readings proliferate. Exploring some of the more provocative connections that are inhered within trace, and by tracing that trace as an action of writing—as it unfolds and complicates itself through elaboration—will render something complete but unfinished.

Intimately and inextricably linked to movement, both figurative and literal, the first entry under “trace” in the OED defines it as “[t]o take one’s course, make one’s way; to proceed, pass, go, travel, tread.” As I trace, I “go.” The word is thus implicated in the progression of a journey, one without reference to genesis or telos, but instead simply a functional activity of “proceeding,” or “making one’s way.” This sense of the word dates to the formative years of the modern English language itself, 1400 CE, and it forms a core, a kernel of denotation. The word is inscribed with the connotations of taking action and progressing towards an uncertain outcome; but other permutations are quickly overlaid like a semitransparent tissue and further refine its meaning.

When we encounter trace’s second OED definition, it is more lighthearted: “[t]o pace or step in dancing; to tread a measure; to dance.” This is a different set of implications altogether, though not incompatible with the first. There is suddenly an element of grace included in the word: a co-ordination; choreography. To trace is not simply to travel, but can also be a kind of movement with its mind on form, on the intricacies of “treading” some way that is recognized as premeditated—a “dance” implies repetition; gestures that might be predicted and anticipated. Here we are introduced to the idea that to trace is not to perform an act that is entirely original, but that to do so might actually be to imitate or to copy.


So when we are told that to trace is also “to follow, pursue (instructions, example, etc.)” this elaboration can be read in such a way as to amplify the word again. Tracing may not be original in the sense that some source precedes the activity, some kind of a plan or a demonstration, but there is nothing to say that this “following” has ever been done before. To trace could conceivably be to be first, a kind of originary emulation or performance of something that has previously only existed as an outlined boundary, a stricture which has been delineated but never honoured; or a path never followed once blazed. To trace might very well to be to take the first step towards the production of a tradition or a rule, just as easily as it could be enacting a repetition that is tried and true; an action that contains no surprise or uncertainty, a rote presentation of the established.

But by tracing you might yet reverse the direction of your action. Rather than being derived from you might be driven or drawn towards. Yet, another meaning of the word is “[t]o discover, find out, or ascertain by investigation; to find out step by step; to search out.” Tracing becomes the activity of the sleuth, of the inspector, of the scholar; it is a peering into things, a discernment based on evidence. It remains a kind of following, a dogging of hints or what might be derived as instructions, but there is novelty there, for nearby is an implication in this understanding of the word that denotes that the knowledge gleaned, though always there to be “discovered,” was either forgotten or unarticulated before. To trace, in this sense, is to enact a revelation by increments. As I trace this trace the whole of the project becomes more fully described.

The OED recognises that there has been an element of ambiguity within the word’s origin from the outset. The dictionary’s entry on the etymology of “trace” says that “[t]he primary meaning of the verb was apparently ‘to proceed in a line, course, or track,’” but this was by no means absolutely clear as “[t]he early sense-development in Old French and Middle English,” the identified linguistic sources for the modern English word itself, “is not very clear, and some of the senses attach themselves immediately to trace [the noun] in its sense of ‘mark left by anything moving, footprint’, itself a derivative of the [verb] in its earlier senses.” This close interchange between “trace” as a verb and “trace” as a noun remains, which makes it so much more evocative in writing when that duality can be exploited. “We must begin wherever we are and the thought of the trace,” writes Derrida, “has already taught us that it was impossible to justify a point of departure absolutely.” He, quite rightly, questions the implications of what he means by employing this bifurcated word, apparently naming a thing; but does he entirely exclude the action? Or are he and I counting on an inherent polyvalence to evoke a plurality of action and intent, or objective and process? The answers lie in the outline of the word.


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