The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018
Trace: A term used by twentieth-century French theorist of deconstruction Jacques Derrida in works such as De la grammatologie (Of Grammatology) (1967) to refer to any and all possible meanings that differ from the one a spoken or written utterance is deemed to have, that is, the “definitive” meaning established and constituted by its very difference from innumerable, nonpresent meanings. Such meanings (the trace), which Derrida viewed as features of any utterance, are neither fully present nor wholly absent. They are not exactly present, for they differ from what the utterance is deemed to signify, yet they are not entirely absent, for they remind us of and lend import to the meaning we assign to that utterance by virtue of their difference. The significance of any utterance thus depends just as surely on those potential meanings that are rejected as on the single meaning that is ultimately accepted. Derrida further argued that the whole concept of determinate meaning — the general sense that a given word in a given context has a single meaning — is illusory. Trace itself makes the definitive determination of meaning for any utterance impossible, for it points up the maddening, capricious, and ultimately uncertain jeu (play) of language.