“The strongest guard is placed at the gateway to nothing. . . . Maybe because the condition of emptiness is too shameful to be divulged.”♦︎ F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night
Isn’t electricity a mysterious thing? Wasn’t it Benjamin Franklin who tied a key to a kite? We live in such a mysterious universe, don’t we? Some people say that science clears up all the mysteries for us. In my opinion it only creates more!
♦ Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie
Amanda’s frivolous banter not only insinuates but also declaims a persistent reality, one that springs tenaciously from a devision of knowledges that springs from a modern bias. The conviction that comprehension and control of nature is a kind of revelation which remains unrelated to the understanding of human life, especially as it unfolds in day-to-day routines, obscures our imbrication with the very forces which have threatened us, and forced us to adapt, whinge, and pray to be delivered from for most of our frenetic history. To be sure electromagnetism is mysterious, as all action at a distance is mysterious; as light is mysterious, and the energy which drives all the motors of action. More, the mysteries of our universe do not collapse in the face of modelling and control, but multiply, and present new questions to replace the ones predictably answered. As a flippant toss of phrase isn’t what she’s saying eerily apropos? To point out that there is an outside and an inside to human experience—that the world continues to threaten and bamboozle us despite our research and inventions—is an indisputable truism; but is it not also something that genuinely needs to be contended with, not just when the lights burn out, but when we feel complacent and at ease with the idea of a “safely” manufactured environment, even though there is nothing to mediate between any bit of matter or energy, anywhere, that is not natural. Mystery remains nature’s default.
poets are useless,
. . .
are not only ‘non-utilitarian’,
we are ‘pathetic’:
this is the new heresy;
but if you do not even understand what words say,
how can you expect to pass judgement
on what words conceal?
♦ H.D., The Walls Do Not Fall
When anyone was witty about a contemporary event, she would look perplexed and a little dismayed, as if someone had done something that really should not have been done; therefore her attention had been narrowed down to listening for faux pas. She frequently talked about something being the ‘death of her,’ and certainly anything could have been had she been the first to suffer it. The words that fell from her mouth seemed to have been lent to her; had she been forced to invent a vocabulary for herself, it would have been a vocabulary of two words, ‘ah’ and ‘oh.’ Hovering, trembling, tip-toeing, she would unwind anecdote after anecdote in a light rapid lisping voice which one always expected to change, to drop and to become the ‘every day’ voice; but it never did. The stories were humorous, well told. She would smile, toss her hands up, widen her eyes; immediately everyone in the room had a certain feeling of something lost, sensing that there was one person who was missing the importance of the moment, who had not heard the story; the teller herself.
♦ Djuna Barnes, Nightwood
I do not present this view of history as one that is stable and must prevail. Whatever validity it may claim, it is certain, on its own premises, to be supplanted . . . However accurately we may determine the ‘facts’ of history, the facts themselves and our interpretations of them, and our interpretation of our own interpretations, will be seen in a different perspective . . . as mankind moves into the unknown future. Regarded historically, as a process of becoming, man and his world can obviously only be understood tentatively, since it is by definition something still in the making, something as yet unfinished.
♦ Carl Becker, “Everyman His Own Historian”
We must be aware of the dangers that lie in our most generous wishes. Some paradox of our nature leads us, when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them the objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion.
♦ Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination
And the triumph of empiricism is jeopardized by the surprising truth that our sense data are primarily symbols.
♦ Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key
And so in the late twentieth century the imperial cycle of the last century in some way replicates itself, although today there are really no big empty spaces, no expanding frontiers, no exciting new settlements to establish. We live in one global environment with a huge number of ecological, economic, social, and political pressures tearing at its only dimly perceived, basically uninterpreted and uncomprehended fabric. Anyone with even a vague consciousness of this whole is alarmed at how such remorselessly selfish and narrow interests—patriotism, chauvinism, ethnic, religious, and racial hatreds—can in fact lead to mass destructiveness. The world simply cannot afford this many more times.
♦ Edward Said, “Two Visions in Heart of Darkness“
The populist dramatics presently unfolding, spreading out, and blanketing large swaths of the earth’s restless surface are part of the fabric that Said qualified as not just “basically uninterpreted” but also “uncomprehended.” I would add that the interwoven thread counts of ecology, economy, society, and politics also exist as a fabric uninterrupted: for the accumulated fibres of our invention have seamlessly stitched up every square millimetre of real estate, solid or psychic, spatial or virtual, from point to point to point. There is nothing raw, open, uncatalogued, or uncovered in the sense that would have existed for that plucky imperialist surveyor out at the vanguard of “civilization.” The map doesn’t drop off at some point. The tapestry of record covers all continents and states of matter, but it doesn’t exist with any satisfactory kind of explanatory notes. When almost anyone can know that everywhere in the world exists in unquestionable reification, and that you can’t fire a cannon anywhere without wiping out a village, you begin to realize that we are all part of the weave, and that its constantly evolving design is simply beyond any of us to contend with definitively. And yet, just as the illusion of the frontier of human conquest has dwindled from overtly national consciousnesses of patriotic narratives (for now), capitalist minds attuned to handicap everywhere remain constantly on the look-out to press their advantage on any number of fronts. Colonization remains a presaged and imperative force, and constantly on the move into spaces not empty, not unknown, but only provisionally unexploited. It is the lack of comprehension that allows for the reemergence and reassertion of mythologies reductive enough to claim that the human fabric is patchy, in need of radical repair, and not just inequivalent but also of unequal quality, stitch to stitch.
What is new is not that the world lacks meaning, or has little meaning, or less than it used to have; it is that we seem to feel an explicit and intense daily need to give it meaning: to give meaning to the world, not just some village or lineage. This need to give meaning to the present, if not the past, is the price we pay for the overabundance of events corresponding to a situation we could call “supermodern” to express its essential quality: excess.
♦ Marc Augé, Non-Places
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.