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.

Interfaces of the Word

Designer James Macanufo once said that if paper didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. Paper, inscribed with writing and then with printing, enabled recorded history (Ong, 1977). Media theorist Friedrich Kittler (1990) wrote that print held a “monopoly on the storage of serial data” (p.245). Even as writing represents a locking down of knowledge, one of “sequestration, interposition, diaeresis or division, alienation, and closed fields or systems” (Ong, 1977, p. 305), Walter Ong points out that it also represents liberation, a system of access where none existed before. After all, we only write things down in order to enable the possibility of referring to them later.

@mathpunk People would make fun of you if you were working on software for communicating with the dead even though that’s half the purpose of writing. [Tweeted, November 1, 2014]

Paper Knowledge“Written genres,” Lisa Gitelman writes in her latest book, Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents (Duke University Press, 2014), “depend on a possibly infinite number of things that large groups of people recognize, will recognize, or have recognized that writings can be for. To wit, documents are for knowing-showing” (p. 2). This “knowing-showing” is the liberation aspect of writing and printing, the enabling of access. She continues, “[J]ob printers facilitate or ensure the pure exchange function. That is, they ensure value that exists in and only because of exchange, exchangeability, and circulation” (p. 48).

“Digital documents… have no edges” (Gitelman, 2014, p. 17). A “document” in digital space is only metaphorically so. Every form of media is the same at the digital level. Just as genres of writing emerge from discursive fields according to the shared knowledge of readers, “the ways they have been internalized by members of a shared culture” (Gitelman, 2014, p. 17), digital documents are arranged in recognizable forms on the screen. The underlying mechanisms doing the arranging remain largely hidden from us as users, what Alex Galloway (2013) calls “the interface effect” (passim). It’s kind of like using genre as a way to parse massive amounts of text, as a different way to organize and understand writing.

Comparative Textual MediaGitelman also rightfully makes an appearance in Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), edited by N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman, further arguing the importance of job printing and helping define and redefine the fraught term “print culture.” Other pieces include ones by Matthew Kirschenbaum, Johanna Drucker, Jessica Brantley, and an excellent, contextualizing introduction by the editors. In her chapter, Rita Raley outlines what she calls “TXTual Practice,” describing screen-based, “born-digital” works as unstable, “not texts but text effects” (p. 20). Her essay moves away from viewing the digital document and other such contrivances as metaphors and toward employing Galloway’s interface effect. Galloway’s view casts the old argument of interfaces becoming transparent and “getting out of the way” in a bright and harsh new light, writing that their “operability engenders inoperability” (p. 25).

Reading Writing InterfacesLori Emerson’s Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound (University of Minnesota Press, 2014) takes on the “invisible, imperceptible, inoperable” interface, starting with ubiquitous computing. Once our devices obsolesce into general use, “those transparent devices that achieve more the less they do” (Galloway, 2013, p. 25), they escape everyday criticism. The interface stuff hides in those edges that aren’t really there. The words I write now float and flicker on a screen in a conceptual space I barely understand. Emerson cites the mass seduction of the Macintosh computer interface and the activist digital media poetics that critique that seduction. Her media archeological approach unearths the hidden mechanisms of reading and writing and the ways we negotiate screen- and print-based texts. It’s no surprise that Reading Writing Interfaces is one of the better recent books on these issues.

Type on ScreenLike Judith Donath’s The Social Machine (MIT Press, 2014), Type on Screen: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Developers, and Students (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014), edited by Ellen Lupton, takes a designer’s tack on these issues. Though it’s a guide rather than a scholarly study, the book covers contrivances and conventions like type sizes, fonts, grids, scrolls, spines, wireframes, wayfinding, laundry lines, and designing the written word for different screens, as well as case studies of each. It’s an excellent way to frame one’s thinking on all of the above for critique or the classroom. Or both.

If paper didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. Would anyone say the same for the screen?


Emerson, Lori. (2014). Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Galloway, Alexander R. (2013). The Interface Effect. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Gitelman, Lisa. (2014). Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Raley, Rita. (2013). TXTual Practice. In, N. Katerine Hayles & Jessica Pressman (Eds.), Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era (pp. 183-197). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Kittler, Friedrich A. (1990). Discourse Networks: 1800/1900. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Lupton, Ellen (Ed.) (2014). Type on Screen: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Developers, and Students. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Ong, Walter J. (1977). Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Contested Boundaries and Saturated Selves

In her book The Social Machine (MIT Press, 2014), Judith Donath outlines designs for living online. Echoing George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980), she writes, “We are embodied beings, who have evolved in the physical world; our thoughts and imagination are rooted in the sensory experience of our physical surroundings. Online, there is no body; there is only information. We comprehend abstract ideas by reframing them in metaphoric terms that ultimately derive from physical experience” (p. 9). One needn’t look any further that a computer’s desktop to see this in action. “Immersion” was once a strong notion in computer-mediated communication studies, online communities, and virtual reality. Now we are not so much immersed in media as we are saturated by it.

The Social MachineDonath points out that these are boundary issues. Walls, fences, locked doors, online moderators—“the doormen of discussions” (p. 159), spam filters, and other gate-keeping contrivances protect the private from the public and vice versa. Even with such boundaries in place, our embodiedness is still at risk. We are as sieves, filtering news from noise, or as sponges, soaking up information and influence of all kinds. The latter evokes Psychologist Kenneth Gergen’s “saturated self”:

Emerging technologies saturate us with the voices of humankind—both harmonious and alien. As we absorb their varied rhymes and reasons, they become a part of us and we of them. Social saturation furnishes us with a multiplicity of incoherent and unrelated languages of the self (1991, p. 6).

Nearly twenty years ago, Nicholas Negroponte (1995) pontificated on the fading boundaries of the “post-information age,” writing,

In the same ways that hypertext removes the limitations of the printed page, the post-information age will remove the limitations of geography. Digital living will include less and less dependence upon being in specific place at specific time, and the transmission of place itself will start to become possible. In the post-information age, since you may live and work at one or many locations, the concept of an “address” now takes on new meaning (p. 163).

The history of the internet is largely a story of broken-down boundaries (see Grodin & Lindolof, 1996; Jenkins, 2006; van Dijck, 2013). Its architecture “rests upon principles of convergence, which enable multiple and overlapping connections between varieties of distinct social spheres” (Papacharissi, 2011, p. 305). The inherent irony of Negroponte’s observation is that since physical location no longer matters in the digital, post-geographic workday, it makes it matter even more. If you can work from anywhere, where you live means more than ever. You can live wherever you want regardless of where your work is. The old boundaries are gone.

The End of AbsenceThe overwhelming irony now is that where we are matters less than the digital wares with which we saturate our selves. On the commute, at school, at work, at home, on a trip, visiting friends—the smartphone usurps all of these with a persistent and precise hold on our attention. In William Gibson‘s term, the online world has “everted” itself into physical space. The fact that it is now inescapable is what writer Michael Harris calls “the end of absence.” His is an example of what I have called the Advent Horizon. We feel a sense of loss when we cross one of these lines. From the Socratic shift from speaking to writing, to the transition from writing to typing, we’re comfortable—differently on an individual and collective level—in one of these phases. As we adopt and assimilate new devices, our horizon of comfort drifts further out while our media vocabulary increases. It takes 30 years for a full, generational change and with that a full shift in advent horizons. Harris notes, “If you were born before 1985, then you know what life is like both with the internet and without. You are making the pilgrimage from Before to After” (p. 15).

Reaching across one of these divides, Thomas de Zengotita (2005) writes of digitally zombified youth,

… It was if they were somnambulating, hypnotized, into some newborn zone of being where hallowed custom and bizarre context were so surreally fused that the whole tableau seemed poised to shimmer off into the ether at any moment (p. 155).

Ours is a chronic presence in a chronic present. Donath (2014), writes of our online personal presences, “The stranger, as we think of him now, may cease to exist” (p. 336). But Harris (2014) adds, “Before all memory of those absences is shuttered, though, there is this brief time when we might record what came before. We might do something with those small, barely noticeable instances when we’re reminded of our love for absence. They flash at us amid the rush of our experience and seem to signal: Wait, wasn’t there something…?” (p. 8).

Well, was there?


de Zengotita, Thomas. (2005). Mediated: How the Media Shapes Our World and the Way We Live in It. New York: Bloomsbury.

Donath, Judith. (2014). The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gergen, Kenneth. (1991). The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life. New York: Basic Books.

Grodin, Debra & Lindlof, Thomas R. (1996). Constructing the Self in a Mediated World. Thosand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Harros, Michael. (2014). The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. New York: Current.

Jenkins, Henry. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

Lakoff, George, & Johnson, Mark (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Negroponte, Nicholas. (1995). Being Digital.  New York: Knopf.

Papacharissi, Zizi. (2011). A Networked Self. In Zizi Papacharissi (Ed.), A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (pp. 304-317). New York: Routledge.

van Dijck, José. (2013). The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media. New York: Oxford University Press.

These Books Were Made for Walking

For what might seem a most mundane human activity, walking has quite a body of literature. Even being such a normal, everyday act, it’s a theme that never wears out. As Karen O’Rourke (2013) puts it, “…contemporary artists have returned time and again to the walking motif, discovering that, no matter how many times it has been done, it is never done” (p. xvii). Are they making too much of putting one foot in front of the other, or is walking always already much more than that?

You’re walking
and you don’t always realize it
but you’re always
With each step,
you fall
and then
catch yourself
from falling.
you’re falling
and then you catch yourself from
And this is how you can be walking
and falling
at the same time.
— Laurie Anderson, “Walking and Falling”

The Art of WalkingIn The Art of Walking: A Field Guide (Black Dog, 2013) edited by David Evans, artists are shown contextualizing and recontextualizing the act of walking, sometimes by taking it outside its everyday context, sometimes by drastically changing that context. Evans’ colorful book covers Jan Estep’s Searching for Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ingrid Pollard’s Wordsworth Heritage (homage to the inventor of the modern walk), Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking, beautiful marches, weird shoes, paint drippings, mobile shelters, high wires, GPS units, various maps, and even walking dogs. It’s part art book, part documentation, and part field guide to the possibilities of both.

What makes a collection like this work is great photographs, and The Art of Walking is full of them. Nearly 200 photos of walks and works illustrate the wide-ranging art of the bipedal and peripatetic. It’s a worthy addition to the growing literature on walking as an artistic and political practice.

In her own history of walking, Rebecca Solnit (2000) writes,  “Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them… Walking is a mode of making the world as well as being in it” (p. 27; p. 5). She continues,

Walking still covers the ground between cars and buildings and the short distances within the latter, but walking as a cultural activity, as a pleasure, as travel, as a way of getting around, is fading, and with it goes an ancient and profound relationship between body, world, and imagination (p. 250).

Walking and MappingIn Walking and Mapping: Artists as Cartographers (MIT Press, 2013), Karen O’Rourke explores not only the relationship between walking, body, world, and art but also walking and design. Using protocol as a trope through which to illuminate the differences between top-down planning and bottom-up development, O’Rourke breaks new ground between them. For example, paved sidewalks are predictions, attempts at restricting the walks of the future (top-down). Trails are of the past, worn by many previous walks (bottom-up). Maps are metaphors and often represent a bit of both, as well as the relationship(s) between body and world.

Making the workaday weird is one of the central challenges of art. Walking can be artistic, political, practical, or just a last resort for getting from one point to another. No matter our intentions, we walk this way to make our world and to make our way in it.


Anderson, Laurie. (1982). Walking and Falling. On Big Science [LP]. New York: Warner Bros.

Evans, David. (2013). The Art of Walking: A Field Guide. London: Black Dog Publishing.

O’Rourke, Karen. (2013). Walking and Mapping: Artists as Cartographers. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Solnit, Rebecca. (2000). Wanderlust: A History of Walking. New York: Penguin.