Hermann von Helmholtz-Zentrum für Kulturtechnik

Zentralinstitut der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

From Script to Trace Reading. Traces as a Cultural Technique in the Disputed Territory of Media Theory, Genetic Research and Computer Technology

Sybille Krämer, Gernot Grube, Werner Kogge

For centuries, cultural theoretical debate was characterised by a movement that identified culture with text or language ability. The »Image–Script–Number« research group developed an alternative to this text-based concept of culture by reconstructing historically differing techniques of handling non-linguistic symbolic systems (image, script, number) as cultural techniques and simultaneously reconstructing knowledge-generating and knowledge-transforming achievements. The objective of this new project is to conceptually refine and provide a theoretical underpinning for the prototype of the cultural technique: the trace and reading traces. The transition from the ‘Script Project’ (2001–2003) to the ‘Trace Project’ (2004–2006) entails three shifts in focus with respect to the previous research funding period:

1. Reading, like the trace, is preceded by writing; hence reading is a central element of the concept of the trace. But unlike script, the idea of the trace emphasises the pragmatic dimension of reading because it is only when read as a trace that a trace can be identified as such.

2. Simultaneously, reading traces go beyond the domain of human culture – here, too, in contrast to script – and is also relevant to biological processes, especially genetic processes. Can a bridge be found here between cultural techniques and biological processes, a bridge that not only undermines the distinction between literal and metaphorical meaning but also opens up productive analogies between cultural and biological/cellular scenarios?

3. The computer is not just a machine for transforming scripts and symbols: it is also a visualisation machine, and this is becoming increasingly important epistemologically. What the computer »puts in the picture« also includes traces of that which fundamentally escapes our perception (e.g. nanotechnology). When computers read traces, »epistemic objects« – in other words, knowledge objects – are not merely visualised; they are simultaneously also generated.

By conceptually explicating the diverse processes of reading traces, the project aims to define the cultural technique of reading in such a way as to disentangle the equation of reading with »reading text« and to allow the non-hermeneutic dimensions of reading (etymology: »reading« as »gathering«, »catching«) to come to the fore.