When I stand close to the front door of my apartment, I can often hear the footsteps of people walking in the hallway of the building I live in. These footsteps are always meaningful, in the sense that they stimulate my imagination. The mere fact that they are produced by human beings who are heading somewhere makes them very expressive to me. They are literally the sounds of things to come, the sounds of expectation. It may be the announcement of a visitor, of a salesperson trying to sell me something, the postman with a delivery, or it may be someone who is just walking past my front door. Yet in each and every case the sounds of footsteps mean something to me; they trigger my own imaginary of their owner and motivate me to prepare for another sound that might or might not happen: a knock on my door.
Each footstep is unique. Not only is it possible to distinguish between the sound of male and female footsteps, footsteps of children or pets, these sounds may also give an indication of the mental condition of their producer. By focusing on the pace and intensity of the footsteps, for instance, it is very tempting to interpret these sounds as produced by someone who is in a hurry, to imagine whether he or she is angry, sad, scared, etc. Of course, these interpretations do not necessarily always conform to the actual situation. Nevertheless, the sound of footsteps invites such interpretations. These sounds can be very telling, regardless of whether the tales they tell are truthful or not.
More specifically, these sounds can be regarded as traces, in the Derridean sense of the word. Footsteps indicate a presence that is at the same time absent. Footsteps signify that someone must be physically present, yet this presence does not have to result in a physical encounter between the listener and the walker. Footsteps are sonic traces of a physical presence, just as they are traces, or perhaps more accurately, expressions of the mental condition and of the possible intentions of the one who walks. Yet these interpretations are always fallible, and I can only be certain of the presence and intentions of the producer of these footsteps when I engage in a physical encounter with him or her, an encounter that can be initiated by a knock on my door.