Do we make sense of trace as a sign of something no longer and therefore a mark of absence around which memory for what has been lost gathers itself? Is it, in other words something residual: a reminder that, like a fragment or ruin, survives? Or is the trace something less, insofar as its appearance is not a matter of survival or absence, but more like the hollowed out imprint of an impression: a past that has never been present? (Merewether, 1999, p. 164).
Trace is a problematic concept, because it is paradoxical. It tells itself in binaries, it is at once something and nothing. It implies a past without adequately representing it. Just as the process of memory is made up both remembering and forgetting, trace is similarly a manifestation of something that exists (or existed) but is no longer present. But further than just being a question of absence, or loss, or lack, trace is somehow something all of its own.
One way of thinking about a trace would be to see it as a shadow, and if it is a shadow there is the implication of something more solid that is casting the shadow. So the ‘real’ thing, the solid thing, the thing standing before the light, is the thing that causes a shadow to be cast. But a shadow is not an illusion, just because it was caused by the thing and the light: it becomes something new, with a name: shadow. It becomes other than the object that created it, and we can turn our back to that original object, and look only at the shadow, which is different and distorted.
Of course if I’ve learned anything from Plato’s cave it is that you never really know what is ‘real’ anyway, and it is likely that everything is just a trace of a trace. The ‘real’ thing casting the shadow is just as much an deception as the shadow itself.
So, another way to look at trace would be in terms of erasure (see the parallels to forgetting?) where a mark made can never be removed to the point where it never was, the very existence of the mark is left as a trace, and that trace is held (perhaps tenuously) through action, memory and a vestige of the original that is now new and different.
Forgetting similarly has an element of trace to it. It is wrapped up in the concept of remembering, because there is some remnant to point to the forgetting, otherwise we would not know we had forgotten, would not be aware that something was missing.
The trace becomes a past that has never been present, that is always under the sign – if it can be called a sign – of erasure. (Merewether, 1999, p. 165).