But the Passagenwerk provides us also with a powerful metaphor for the work of a speculative realist historian: the “theory of the trace.” Benjamin suggests that, as the reified world of the commodity encroached further and further upon the privacies of art and daily life, the reaction of the bourgeoisie was to construct a specific kind of dwelling. The design of the bourgeois interior preserved and registered the traces of the inhabitant's presence when the outer world, with its immense spaces and crowds, could no longer do so; hence the proliferation of materials like plush and velour, which retained the imprint of a touch. The world of the bourgeois, in other words, took the form of a corona of traces surrounding an obscured figure—interiority envisioned as exteriority. The counterpart to this is, of course, the flâneur. As he wanders through the streets, the flâneur accumulates impressions. His ideal is not to impose his towering subjectivity upon the world, but rather to seal it off so as to admit more of the outside; Benjamin writes that the “dialectic of flânerie” is “on one side, the man who feels himself viewed by all and sundry as a true suspect and, on the other side, the man who is utterly undiscoverable, the hidden man.” The flâneur, in short, is a dark persona upon which the world leaves its traces.
The trace, then, is for the speculative realist historian both datum and subject. He is not writing the story of the undiscoverable figure, but rather its halo of traces. Such a move might be taken as quintessentially “postmodern,” and hence anti-realist: aren't we postmoderns supposed to embrace the uncompletable fragment and the parts without a whole?
To see it this way would be a mistake. It is in fact traditional historiography which has become “postmodern,” even retroactively, without realizing it. To write the psychohistory of Luther or the history of the essential inner dynamics of the French Revolution is a profoundly arrogant act: it requires the belief that we can embrace the figure in its totality, transpose to the page the very scent and color of the rose. Nobody has believed this for a hundred years; we live in a cynical age. What we do instead is write narratives about Luther, in which Luther is a character who behaves approximately how the historian imagines the flesh-and-blood Luther to have done. No one is fooled even by this: once we've read about Lincoln the racist opportunist and Lincoln the heroic thinker of democracy, we stop thinking any narrative to be sufficient unto itself. Every work of history today, no matter how filled with anti-postmodern catchphrases, is written with the knowledge that its claims to completeness and privileged insight are nothing but Potemkin villages concealing inevitable distortions and partialities.
The history of traces is more realist than this. By refusing to people its works with sham Luthers and Lincolns, it treats the real Luther and Lincoln with a more fitting reverence. If history must always have the real in its sights, at least let it not be a mere word that crumbles when touched. We must maintain the reality of the trace and the existence of the obscure object, whether or not we're speculative realists; the rest is bunk, and may as well be discarded.
There are, at the very least, two obvious objections to this proposal. The first is this: how can history be written with such a stipulation and not become simply a haphazard arrangement of random traces?
Notice how history is typically written. At the center of the book there is a figure (human, social, or abstract) about which the historian writes that it felt such-and-such a way, or developed in such-and-such a way, or operated in such-and-such a way. The periphery is then filled out with other figures whose significance is a function of their interactions with the center. They are given cursory descriptions, but the bulk of what the historian writes concerns their relationship to the central figure. The history of traces simply reverses this. Here the central place is occupied by some assortment of related interactions, and the periphery is occupied by figures. If a figure is described in an essentializing way, this is only because we are only concerned with some of the properties it presents for interaction. (I have in mind something similar to Laurence Brockliss's excellent Calvet's Web.) As long as pride of place is occupied by interactions and not objects, the speculative realist criterion should be satisfied; obviously purity is impossible and probably undesirable.
The second objection is more difficult: how does one avoid reifying the trace (or the interaction) and slipping into a claim to knowledge of its own interiority?
An answer would have to look something like this. Take Guy Debord's well-known claim that “the spectacle is a relationship between people that is mediated by images.” There are two ways to look at a claim like this. The first is that the spectacle is a thing that is exhaustively defined by its essence as a relationship between people, etc. The second is that there is a certain kind of relationship between people that might be called “the spectacle.” In both cases, the spectacle exists as an object. In the first, however, it is mere shorthand for a determinate set of properties; in the second, it presents certain properties but is not exhausted by them. The speculative realist must naturally adopt the latter position: every trace (every interaction viewed as an object) itself possesses its own penumbra of properties. The trick, then, is to keep one's focus on the trace as a record, not as an object in its own right.
In these four posts, I've tried to present as complete and coherent a defense of speculative realist history-writing as I could. I don't know whether it's entirely convincing, even to me. But the value of raising the question does not lie in the impact this particular theory might eventually have. Rather, it lies in the possibilities it opens for an interesting debate about the ontological status of the historical object. There are more alternatives, it seems, than simply the traditional positivism and discursivism. And what historian doesn't like to complicate things?