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.

Fragmentary, No. 4

[I]t must be remembered, that while our language is yet living, and variable by the caprice of every tongue that speaks it, these words are hourly shifting their relations, and can no more be ascertained in a dictionary, than a grove, in the agitation of a storm, can be accurately delineated from its picture in the water . . .

♦ Samuel Johnson, from the Preface to A Dictionary of the English Language (1755)

Notational, No. 6

But self or person is not any one impression, but that to which our several impressions and ideas are supposed to have a reference. If any impression gives rise to the idea of self, that impression must continue invariably the same, through the whole course of our lives; since self is supposed to exist after that manner. But there is no impression constant and invariable. Pain and pleasure, grief and joy, passions and sensations succeed each other, and never all exist at the same time. It cannot therefore be from any of these impressions, or from any other, that the idea of self is derived; and consequently there is no such idea.

♦ David Hume, “Section VI: Of Personal Identity,” A Treatise of Human Nature (1739)

It is quite alarming, setting oneself to task, and then delving within—intent on discovering the boundaries of the self; but there is no discernable source, no border between what is and what is not that which perceives. What there is to discover are the echoes of impressions, insistent but also imperfectly rendered, clustered nebulously about the now, as you cast the net of consciousness blindly out into a murky sea. What you retrieve is not verifiable by some organizing standard, some principle of meta-consciousness; what pieces you have are rather the constituents of what itself becomes aware. Is there a voice that travels between points of reference, generated independently of the lingering instances of a heterogeneous sensorium that organize to produce something called personal history? As far as I can tell, my boundary is the space where my thoughts turn back to reinscribe themselves over their own premise. Perhaps I am a spontaneous generation, a misinterpretation of available phenomena. Perhaps it is all simulation.

Shore Leave

There is a charm to Gaiman’s writing that waxes and wanes as you move about his body of work through the years. His Ocean At the End of the Lane is particularly rapt by instances of imagination that seem to have occurred to him before, and that he has shared with his public, but they have seldom played out so well, or so well crafted. It is a book that neatly walks the seam between what strikes one as young adult and what might be termed a more mature fiction, but it is really a story about revisiting your childhood from a distant—yet not unmanageable—vantage point. He neatly weaves together motifs that lurk in the psyche of our current age in amongst each other—pop culture references, the trappings of modern life in the seventies, mythology, juvenile pulp-ficiton, popular science—and the result is a little bit of spellbinding. His conceptualizations of eternity, and his spin on the underlying nature of reality, are formulations that crop up from the pens of other fantasists working in the English language, but they are no weaker for the similarities. There is something comforting in this coalescing mythology that attempts to unify the mysteries that lurk beyond understanding in the world of an increasingly atheist and agnostic educated class, where there are a mass of facts but very little interpretive meaning. It is nice to know that there is room for dreams in the spaces between instances of our scientific and technological growth. It is nice to read something that finds permutations of comfort and solace in amongst the frightening scale of the universe.

Bellow’s Howl

More Die of Heartbreak is an extended meditation on the longings which suffuse the core of modern existence, at the heart of the “posthistorical” world. For the most part it takes place in an undisclosed, Midwest American city that rises vertically out of a declining Rustbelt. Kenneth and Ben are the foci of the narrative, what is primarily Ben’s story pulled together from meticulous notes Kenneth keeps of conversations and excursions he participates in with his Uncle. We are painstakingly introduced to the content and foibles of these two intellectual men, our narrator a scholar of Russian literature surrounding the Revolution; his uncle, a world famous botanist who has a “magical” rapport with his objects of study. These men are both romantically challenged, and love each other more than they are seemingly capable of loving others, or perhaps even desirous of accomplishing. Their homosocial bond in more intimate than any of the heterosexual ones that they develop throughout the book. Which is part of its charm. The argument, if there is one, is that longing, and heartbreak, are at the centre of more misery than other, more sensational natural and man-initiated phenomena, and that love between two heterosexual men cannot assuage the misery or the damage that can grow out of it despite one’s best efforts to nurture or even avoid it.

Kenneth is incapable of switching off his academic analysis for more than a couple of moments. Everything that transpires elicits a host of tangential, associative pondering, directed at either his unspecified reader, or his reader and his uncle, who participates in the endless unwinding of the permutations of living a life that yearns for a higher plane, but is unequivocally mired in the dirt with those who live a “throw-away existence,” including, most especially, Ben’s new wife, who is a fully realized avatar of the commerce-driven, consumer identified, day-by-measured-day concatenation of mundane events—even if they are held to a certain aesthetic and monetary standard. Kenneth is chasing a dream, a vision of education—the kind of education that comes from being close to a luminary who has cracked some element of the world’s code. The usual suspects that he lumps into this category are identifiable, but where the poet Blake and his realer-than-real compatriots are sealed away from him by space and time, his Uncle Ben is accessible to him, and holds him in high regard. They are attempting to gain enough perspective to render a coherent image of what it is that they encounter in this world. They are critical and dismayed, angered and impoverished in their encounters. They are two souls gifted with reflection but little ability to muddy themselves in the trenches of life. As they do get dirty, they make a mess of everything they come in contact with except their relationship to each other.

There is something in all this that speaks to the heart and the soul’s yearning for communion with something higher and more refined than what we toil with in the quotidian world. I spent much of the book sympathizing with Kenneth and his Uncle. Their journey is the journey of the rarified intellect contending with contemporaries and peers who do not share the patience, the insight, or the inadvertent innocence that marks their experience of the world. They both secretly yearn to be paragons of the human project in a sense that only those who can leave something to antiquity can be, and this may ultimately be incommensurable with a more regular modern life. Although who’s to say that these kinds of powerful ambitions were ever commensurable with any age of life; but the speed at which the sedate are dodged and made to accommodate the contemporary, the up-to-the-minuet transmissions of information, beggars contemplation. That which stands to contend with it on the plane of human consciousness, and looms over us in invisible transmissions like a vast, geodesic dome, is anchored by the twin horns of an Electronic Tower and stands at the centre of the modern concern.

Notational, No. 3

For my talent is to give an Impression upon words by punching, that when the reader casts his eye upon ’em, he takes up the image from the mould which I have made.

♦ Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno

Undeniable that talent has a weight, both as an aptitude and as a currency. What you might trade it for, how it might exchange, is heavily dependent on a market value that is largely outside the possessor’s control—also, on where and who is deprived of its heft and influence. The value in this case is clear: Smart’s ability to produce an impression in a textual medium, punch an outline in “words,” and manifest the affective register of his language, the evocations of startling turns, nouns translated into verbs, actions and things superimposing to occur as unified objects. He knows what he’s doing is effective. He has a strong enough sense of what he is worth to pay the audience almost impudently, as if the suggestion of madness has never veiled the lines of his verse. Are all iconoclasts inherently confident?

Notational, No. 2

So many turns you sigh, the linguistic turn, the political, the ethical and so on et cetera, enough to make you turn in your grave, prematurely, you think, no need for another, especially not a literary turn, you have to be joking. You always considered the phrase ‘linguistic turn’ to be a sort of joke, a somewhat comical but also delusory gesture apparently intended to refer to a new attentiveness to the importance of language in thinking, in philosophy and culture more generally, as if there were something before the turn, as if it thus confirmed that there were writings (Shakespeare’s, for example) that weren’t turned and already turning from the beginning, and as if the words ‘linguistic turn’ could be written, read, spoken or thought about without any need to register or try to reckon with the metalinguistic logic thereby inscribed.

♦ Nicholas Royle, Veering: A Theory of Literature

The post-structuralists animated this provocative kind of movement in language so vividly; but you can’t avoid the joke, not really, especially now that it has been articulated so eloquently, so persuasively, so repeatedly. The idea that there was a kind of writing before the straightness of language was called into question, before any evident kink was discerned in the central structure of what we consider legible—that there was somewhere, sometime, a literature free of inherent instability—comes off as more and more absurd the more the premise is examined. The need to address the “turn” becomes evident. We move from our trajectories mid-stoke. We do veer. If universal translation was possible from print to mind, from text to template, it would be an anodyne accomplishment fit for endless application—if we could clean up the mystery of transmission, so much suffering and confusion could be erased, but we would live with so much less in the outcome. I commit to exploiting the turn because I feel like there is some resolution to my restlessness in proliferating the field. These very real complications that deny a direct conduit from the undisclosed to the enunciated keep me from losing faith in the entire human project.

Unconscious Reading

It is worth noting that the books do not close after dark: not when the sun goes down, nor when the lights go out. My Kindle gives off a sallow, uneven glow that only serves to cut out its unnerving “stable text,” even after the rest of the apartment is shut down. I can read wrapped in the approximate gloom of the urban night. And even after I’ve deactivated my 21st century reader and put it aside, sometimes, I still go at it. There are periods of sleep where words will scribe themselves through the pages of my dreams. There are times when I read my unconscious.

I suppose this is the result of being so absorbed by the act. Reading is the constituent, cerebral material that composes the greater share of my commitments, my ambitions, and my pleasures. Yet I always feel behind. It doesn’t happen fast enough. The list is too long. My eyes, my brain, are too slow. These past four years I have been trying to catch up, to inscribe a state of knowing on a space of acute ignorance, but there abound more and more possible texts to assess and consume. Beyond reading lists, beyond recommended articles and current distractions, there is a paralytic superabundance of things written down that it would be useful to encounter; and there is only so much time.

This is a situation that I must make peace with. Reading and dreaming share a coterminous relationship for the academic in training: sleeping or waking they are activities that superimpose upon one another and share the same boundaries of experience. They expand as a fused, organic unit. I need both to continue forward; I am bound up by both as I plan and galvanize the trajectory of my future; and the spectre of improbability haunts both their enactments.

“Have you heard the speech?” asked a professor last fall after I had asked him for a letter of reference.

“Which speech?” I responded warily.

“The one where I tell you that there are no jobs, that the whole institution is in flux, that tenure may be a thing of the past—”

“Oh, that speech!” I said. “Yes, yes—I heard it when I first decided to come back to school.”

“Alright then. I just feel I have a moral obligation to warn you off.”

“And I respect that.”

Which is true. What I told him then, and what I’m affirming now, is that there is little else that I can envision myself doing besides this. It is not apathy that has driven me to this point—it is genuine ambition. I have tried other avenues, other prospects, and the result was not only underwhelming, but also depressing, and somewhat claustrophobic. The dream has always involved many books, and disseminating the texture and tenor of thought. Contributing to the sum total of human knowledge. There is no other professional arena for a humanities major. My only option is to think and write my way forward, and heed my unconscious as it discloses itself in phrases: words scribbling their way out in the dark.

Fragmentary, No. 2

“One of the mysteries in the history of chemistry is how seldom chemists blew themselves up while investigating novel substances and reactions. Hydrogen and oxygen . . . can burn smoothly together, but they can also react explosively. Priestley used to carry small bottles of these two airs, and he entertained visitors by exploding the gases.”

♦ Trevor H. Levere, Transforming Matter: A History of Chemistry from Alchemy to the Buckyball

Notational, No. 1

” ‘Sublimation’ occurs when an object, part of everyday reality, finds itself at the place of the impossible Thing. Herein resides the function of those artificial obstacles that suddenly hinder our access to some ordinary object: they elevate the object into a stand-in for the Thing. This is how the impossible changes into the prohibited: by way of the short circuit between the Thing and some positive object rendered inaccessible through artificial obstacles.”

♦ Slavoj Žižek, “Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing”

Not necessarily even a visible obstacle, but perhaps sometimes an irresolvable and continuously reversed telescoping away of the object; a gradual but unmistakable receding of the possibility. Interposition can be this kind of relative positioning: additional space that we have provided, or invoked, between ourself and the goal, the illusive desire that is out of our reach before we even attempt to achieve it. Inasmuch as this is a reiteration of the same dilemma differently visualized, it can still afford to be said that “artificial obstacles” at times resist articulate signification: the distance between here to there can simply become impossible to traverse; and what time and effort can be expended trying, or trying to avoid trying, in spite of that. Historically the prohibited can be innately unexplainable, and the sensible obstacle conjured as a retroactive justification.