“The reader of the trace”: Colonial materials and mediality

In the framework of the research project on Rumphius at the University of Cologne, I handled botanical and conchological materials that had been transferred or translated from the late 17th century Moluccas to the archives, libraries, and museums of the 21st century Netherlands. These include Rumphius’ manuscripts and printed books as objects in their own right, as well as illustrations and specimens. Also, I analysed historical material represented in Rumphius’ Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet and Ambonese Herbal. In the Herbal, there are many passages on individual plants at a specific place and time, for example “Here in Amboina grows a Jambus Tree in front of Victoria Castle that often bears fruit twice a year […].“ (Ambonese Herbal, 2011, I:32) These little biographies are a result of direct interaction between organism/object, different from the passages across both books where information and  knowledge from third parties is incorporated and passed on to the reader – often from non-European locals forced into the colonial media infrastructure of natural history. I still grapple with the question how I can analyse the material origin, underlying interactions between plants and gardeners, for example, and practices in a non-essentialist and non-binary manner. 

I found a concept to think with in Sybille Krämer’s Medium, Messenger, Transmission. An Approach to Media Philosophy (English translation 2015), in the chapter on “Reading Traces”: 

“The formation of traces is always due to a disruption of order, which is then integrated into a new narrative order by reconstructing the trace-forming event as a story. And the story that corresponds to this reading – and thus the ‘semantic’ of the trace – is dependent on the interests of the reader, who is searching for a way to resolve something uncertain or unknown with the help of this practical and theoretical activity. Reading traces thus means ‘making things talk’, yet things are mute. They only become eloquent – and thus become traces – through the stories told by readers. And there are always many possible stories; traces are thus polysemic.” (p. 177)

“The reader of the trace acts as an addressee of something whose unintentional sender must first be reconstructed.” (p. 177)

In Rumphius’ case, I can see two different approaches to the reconstruction. One within the bounds of natural history, where the unintentional sender might be an object such as a stone or a shell, or an organism such as a cone snail or a shrub. The other one, committed to a decolonial history of knowledge, where the unintentional sender might be an enslaved person working for or a local woman married to the natural historian in question. Both might intersect when oral/acoustic forms of communication are changed into the visual forms of text and image.