The Indexical Trace: Records and Retrieval

The selection of particular information to be saved or archived is an act that predisposes that information for attention in the future (Weick & Roberts, 1993). What we record receives future attention just by dint of being recorded. Jacques Derrida (1995) called our obsession with recording “archive fever,” writing, “The archivization produces as much as it records the event” (p. 16-17; my emphasis). We think of archives as collections of pieces of the past, but we use them to save those things for future use. The past matters here not because of historical events as they were recorded, but because of the possibilities of those that were not. As Patrick Greaney writes in Quotational Practices: Repeating the Future in Contemporary Art (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), “Quotation evokes those possibilities. By repeating the past, artists and writers may be attempting to repeat that past’s unrealized futures” (p. x). Quoting, cutting-and-pasting, sampling, citing—we use the past to build futures not yet forgotten.

"Poetic absence of pay telephones" by William Gibson
The Poetic Absence of Pay Telephones. [photo by William Gibson]
About this “archival impulse” (Foster, 2004, passim), Andreas Huyseen (2003) asks,

Is it the fear of forgetting that triggers the desire to remember, or is it perhaps the other way around? Could it be that the surfeit of memory in this media-saturated culture creates such an overload that the memory system itself is in constant danger of imploding, thus triggering fear of forgetting? (p. 17).

Quotational PracticesHal Foster (2004) ups this fear of forgetting to paranoiac proportions, writing,

Perhaps the paranoid dimension of archival art is the other side of its utopian ambition—its desire to turn belatedness into becomingness, to recoup failed visions in art, literature, philosophy, and everyday life into possible scenarios of alternative kinds of social relations, to transform the no-place of the archive into the no-place of a utopia (p. 22).
Foster’s no-place of utopia is a place without forgetting, a place without the death that forgetting represents. As Paul Ricoeur (2004) wrote, “forgetting is lamented in the same way as aging and death: it is one of the figures of the inevitable, the irremediable” (p. 426). William Gibson (2012) quips, “We are that strange species that constructs artifacts intended to counter the natural flow of forgetting” (p. 51). Artifacts like diaries, journals, books, and recordings are our archives, reminders of events passing by ever-faster. Huyssen (2003) adds, “Some have turned to the archive as counterweight to the ever-increasing pace of change, as a site of temporal and spatial preservation. From the point of view of the archive, forgetting is the ultimate transgression” (p. 26). Not only are we afraid to forget, but we want histories at hand because we fear the future as well.

@remixthebook: Outright appropriation of things is inherently creative. To be uncreative would be to pretend this is not so. [tweeted November 6, 2014]

Unlike the oral testimony, the archive has no addressee (Ricoeur, 2004). “To quote is by definition to use out of context,” writes Hillel Schwartz (1996, p. 246), which Walter Benjamin (1968) contended led to a loss of meaning. “Ripped from its original context,” writes Stuart Ewen (1984), “its original meanings are lost” (p. 93). When the archives move from written and printed documents to digital databases, meanings and contexts hang together more loosely and drift more easily (Ernst, 2013; Smith, 1998). Meaning is transient in quotational practice. Greaney writes,

There can be no radical separation of quotational and nonquotational aesthetic practices, because quotational works just foreground the forms of distance—from the self, from expression, from communication—that are already more or less present in every artwork. Authorship changes when those kinds of distance are highlighted, but it doesn’t disappear (p. xiv).

The Heretical ArchiveIn The Heretical Archive (Univeristy of Minnesota Press, 2013), Domietta Torlasco (2013) writes, “Cinematographic and phonographic recordings can repeat themselves accurately and indefinitely, bringing about the recurrence of the past of which they are the indexical trace” (p. 92). The “indexical trace” is a semiotic concept in which an object has no resemblance to the object signified yet points to the the signified using a sensory element. Introduced by Paul Kane in 2007, an indexical trace might be the smell of the signified, the sound of the footsteps of a person, or a flag showing the waves of the wind. A sample appropriated and manipulated, a lyric interpolated, a paraphrase or parody—these are all indexical traces owing their originals but not quite resembling them. As they say in forensic science, “Every contact leaves a trace.” (Kirschenbaum, 2008, p. 49). As Norman Klein (1997) puts it, “a memory ‘trace’ may satisfy the urge to remember, but not the urge to remember the ‘facts'” (p. 306; for more on traces, memory, and forgetting, see Ricoeur, 2004). These veiled acts of quotation point as much to the past as they do to possible futures: retrievals without resemblance.

You need to do more deleting and less saving. — Common, “Hungry”

In spite of our hoarding of history, Huyssen (2003) contends that “the past cannot give us what the future has failed to deliver” (p. 27). We have to forget most of what we know in order to move on. We don’t want to shift on the shoulders of giants forever. Against our feverish archival impulse, we want to become those giants.


Benjamin, Walter. (1968). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Illuminations. London: Fontana, pp. 217–252.

Common. (1997). Hungry. On One Day It’ll All Make Sense [LP]. New York: Relativity Records.

Derrida, Jacques. (1995). Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ernst, Wolfgang. (2013). Digital Memory and the Archive. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Ewen, Stuart. (1984). All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture. New York: Basic Books.

Foster, Hal. (2004, Fall). An Archival Impulse. October, 110, pp. 3–22.

Greaney, Patrick. (2014). Quotational Practices: Repeating the Future in Contemporary Art Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Huyseen, Andreas. (2003). Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Klein, Norman M. (1997). The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory. New York: Verso.

Ricoeur, Paul. (2004). Memory, History, Forgetting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schwartz, Hillel. (1996). The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles. New York: Zone Books.

Smith, Abby. (1998, May/June). Preservation in the Future Tense. CLIR Issues, (3), 1, 6.

Torlasco, Domietta. (2013). The Heretical Archive: Digital Memory at the End of Film. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Weick, Karl E., & Roberts, Karlene H. (1993). Collective mind in organizations: Heedful interrelating on flight decks. Administrative Science Quarterly, 38, 357–381.