History and Philosophy of Traceability

History and Philosophy of Traceability (18th – 21th Century)

Grégoire Chamayou


Rfid tag on a cow.

The term “traceability” appeared in the agribusiness sector in the midst of the 1990s. According to ISO standard 8402, it is “the ability to find the history, the use, or the location of an entity by means of registered identifications.”

Traceability is an apparatus of control—a term that etymologically comes from the French “contre-rolle” (literally, ‘counter-roll’), designating the double of a document—a list, an account-book, a civil-state registry—which is archived and used in order to verify the conformity of other copies. Control is defined primarily as an operation of verification by means of a system of written notation. It is distinguished as such from surveillance proper, which is originally a process that is optical rather than scriptural. For there to be surveillance, it suffices to have eyes, whereas control involves a set of documents and archives.

The traces that traceability mobilizes are not some footprints to pick up or some signs to analyze at the heart of an inquiry, rather, they are the traces of a control that has already taken place, the archives of an operation of anterior identification. The trace of the savage animal is no longer a footprint in the soil that one must cast in plaster in order to study, it is the signal of its electronic collar, which is detected, identified, and registered by a control terminal. In traceability, there is a systematic combination of flows of information and physically determined flows, and a systematic recording of this data. Traceability implies a permanent activity of automated recording and archiving, constituting a consultable history.

Traceability historically mobilizes an ensemble of notation and archiving techniques, in other words, an ensemble of “mnemotechnics,” elaborated on the one hand in the management of livestock, herds, and libraries (inventory, classification, indexing, bookkeeping, and monitoring), and, on the other hand, in the administrative sphere of the government of populations (census reporting, postal addressing, card-filing systems, identification).

My thesis is that traceability forms an apparatus in the Foucaultian sense, that is to say, a heterogeneous ensemble consisting of concepts, institutions, procedures, regulatory decisions, and scientific knowledge. It encompasses non-discursive elements (for example, the diverse techniques of identification: passwords, bar codes, RFID labels, electronic bracelets, DNA tests, retinal scanners, face recognition software, etcetera), as well as discursive elements (for example, the imperative of security, along with the problematics met by the prevention of risk and the redefining of sanitary responsibility).

My project is to write a genealogy of the contemporary techniques of traceability that draw on a heterogeneous corpus, in studying for example the installation of the first centralized judiciary records in the context of the birth of criminal anthropology as wells as the introduction of the techniques of identification and of monitoring cattle in the process of husbandry. I will try to reveal the link between the emergence of highly effective techniques of archiving and identification and the formation of a way of managing men, animals, and things as founded on a principle of individualization.

The issue will be, starting with historical study, to grasp the extent of current technological changes and their consequences: the transition from the paper archiving to computer databases, to the automization of the operations of registration, and the fail-safing of the processes of identification.

My hypothesis is that the application of this apparatus in the management of people was accompanied with the emergence of a novel aspect of individuality. One can grasp this novelty starting with the concept of “personal data” that has appeared in public discourse and law since the end of the 1970s, which is to say, starting with the generalized use of computer databanks and the forceful entry of legislation on freedom and information technology. This novelty is seen in an immense accumulation of data, of computerized traces that we leave behind us with each one of our transactions. Certain researchers today use the expressions “digital persona” or “data-body” in order to designate this numerical avatar, this schematic and centralized double of ourselves.

Several different problems present themselves with the appearance of this kind of object. First, from a theoretical point of view, what is the nature of the link that unifies us with our personal data? Is it a matter of a relation of representation, of expression, or of belonging? There would be a whole semiotics of the trace and of identity to elaborate here. These questions are immediately linked to problems of juridical, economic, and political order. Can one, for example, consider themselves as owners of their personal data, which implies that they can yield them to a third? Today, the law seizes our “data” just as our images were seized during the decades that followed the invention of photography. The task of a “historical ontology” of the data-body would be to describe the conceptual crises, the debates, and the discursive strategies that accompany the formation of this novel appendage of personality.

Funding Institutions

Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin