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Gaming the Trace: Systems Theory for Comparative Literature

From: The Comparatist
Volume 37, May 2013
pp. 186-199 | 10.1353/com.2013.0014

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Gaming the Trace:
Systems Theory for Comparative Literature

Situated in the external zone of the Milky Way, the Sun takes about two hundred million years to make a complete revolution of the Galaxy.

Right, that's how long it takes, not a day less,—Qfwfq said,—once, as I went past, I drew a sign at a point in space, just so I could find it again two hundred million years later, when we went by the next time around. . . . I conceived the idea of making a sign, that's true enough, or rather, I conceived the idea of considering a sign a something that I felt like making, so when, at that point in space and not in another, I made something, meaning to make a sign, it turned out that I really had made a sign, after all.

Italo Calvino

The Reception of the Trace

Let's imagine a beginning similar to the one Calvino's Qfwfq tells, but more down to Earth. We will begin not with a sign, exactly, but with the trace that precedes the sign. Our origin myth has two versions. In the first myth, a long time ago, chipped flint in hominid hand, some being confronts a roughly uniform piece of solid matter, say, an outcropping of granite, and, for whatever reason, scratches a mark into the stone. In the second myth, equally long if not longer ago, a meteor falls to Earth sending up a splash of pulverized rock, one shard of which hits the same granite outcropping and leaves an identical if unintentional scratch. For our purposes, the two versions tell the same story: traces arise whether they are intended or not. However it came to be, this trace or mark subsists as a difference etched into its stony medium. It endures for a while, for a thousand or ten million years. Insofar as it endures, it memorializes its making. Persisting as a difference figured onto a ground previously undifferentiated, at least with regard to the presence of marks, the trace marks its own origin. In the first instance, for its observer, the trace refers to itself.1 The trace refers to its own coming to be as a trace.

But what next? What does it mean for a trace to endure, to cross over distances and durations intervening between its coming to be in one place and moment and [End Page 186] its itinerary of future destinations? With regard to the temporality of the trace: as long as the trace persists, it never ceases referring to itself. But too, the trace also marks in an indeterminate manner the datum that time passes and has passed from the moment of its taking place to all the later moments of its being observed, remarked, received by an observer capable of discerning it as a mark, as a sign of the event that produced it. Qfwfq's account could be taken to indicate that a sign comes to be not when its trace is made, but when it is read as a sign. There will be an interval, however infinitesimal or lengthy, between the production of a trace and its observation as a sign. The time and place to be concerned with intentions is occupied by the observer of the trace.

Placed now in the time of that observer or reader, the trace presents itself to a present reception as a sign. Re-marking the trace, that observer can now intend to understand it, can allow the trace to carry its understanding away, perhaps to reconstruct a notion of the mark's moment of production, or to cross over to whatever other significances that observer can construct or entertain in regard to it. Having imported an observer and all of the systemic baggage that phenomenon brings onto the scene with it, our composite origin scenario is now compounded of these elements: a prior event that makes a trace; a material or technical object capable of tracing; a medium to accept and preserve the trace; the trace itself; intervening space; intervening time; and a later agent to observe and construe the trace as a sign. These contingencies and implications of the trace...