From My Archives: Derrida’s Archive Fever

by wsampson

Green Fire

Below is a review of Derrida’s Archive Fever. The idea was to relate the lecture to practicing archivists and record managers. This was a really engaging read, and I think Derrida successfully articulates the archive impulse, with all its attendant richness and strangeness.

Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Jacques Derrida. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. Translated by Eric Prenowitz. 113 pages. ISBN 0-226-14367-8 paper. $14.98.

French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) is most commonly known as the founder of deconstruction, an investigative thinking that identifies contradictions in a subject and demonstrates the essentialness of this contradiction to the meaning of the subject. For a thinker so adept at analyzing the valences of meaning in language, Derrida was unsurprisingly hesitant about the broad appeal and use of the deconstruction term, and no doubt would find fault with an overly mechanistic summation as perhaps written here. In Archive Fever, Derrida applies his intensely critical thought and evaluation to the notion of the archive as it is manifested in Sigmund Freud’s oeuvre.

Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression is a translation from the French of a published lecture Derrida delivered in 1994, and is divided into six parts: an opening note, an exergue, a preamble, foreword, theses and postscript. Derrida delivered this lecture to an international colloquium entitled “Memory: The Question of the Archives.” This leads to two caveats for the interested reader. Although blurbs on the paperback reference Derrida’s discussion of electronic media and more broadly the role of inscription technology in the psyche and in the archives, this is not the focus of his discussion, but is only part of a larger examination of the archive notion in Freud’s works. The reader should also know that this a later work of Derrida, and as such references ideas and investigations discussed in earlier works, particularly the essay Freud and the Scene of Writing (1972). This means some of Derrida’s passages can be disorienting if the reader is not familiar with the works of Derrida and Freud. Thankfully Derrida takes pains to convey his meaning through multiple expressions, so the reader has many opportunities to understand the ideas at play.

The opening note examines “archive,” from arkhē, wherein Derrida identifies dual principles in the primitiveness, or primariness, of the archive and in its centrality to the actualization of the law. From here Derrida deconstructs an act central to the archive, that of inscription, as it is treated by Freud. He first elaborates on printing. Relying on an exterior substrate, Derrida implicates the printing act in Freud’s conception of the “psychic archive distinct from spontaneous memory” (19). As described by Freud, this is an internal inscription in the mind, virtually housed and remote, but from which psychoanalysis may be able to gather “documents,” the products of a successful psychoanalytic session.

The private inscription is also examined. In Freud’s case, this is both a particular dedication given to him by his father Jakob, and his circumcision, which Derrida believes could constitute the original archive, a mark both exterior to the person but inscribed on the body and therefore always with the person.

After these short beginning sections, the reader reaches the foreword, which contains an extended discussion of Freud’s relationship both to the notion of the archive and to his Jewish identity. This is examined through Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable (1993). Yerushalmi (1932-2009) was an American scholar of Jewish culture and history, and in this particular text he attempts an analysis of Freud’s psychoanalysis with especial attention to the founder’s relationship to his Jewish heritage. Derrida’s interest is in this investigation as well as Yerushalmi’s own attempt to “archive” psychoanalysis through the recovery of a particular document, one he asserts as canonical to the history of psychoanalysis: Jakob Freud’s aforementioned dedication note to his son, given to Freud along with his childhood Bible on his thirty-fifth birthday which reminds Freud of his cultural or religious heritage and familial past.

Following this foreword, Derrida states his three theses, each pointing to a conflicted relationship Freud maintains with the archive notion. The first of these is that Freud successfully established a virtual archive of the mind, but favors original experience over the internal, technical prosthesis of this archive. The moment Freud savors is when archeology trumps the archive by recovering the original artifact, when “the arkhē appears in the nude, without the archive” (92). The second is that while the archive is only possible through the death drive and aggression, e.g. through the finite appropriation of certain points constituting original data or information, Freud does not acknowledge such a drive in the virtual archive found in his works. The third is that while Freud brilliantly deconstructed the archive principle by identifying its ties to law and authority (from the ancient archons of Greece), he nevertheless repeats this patriarchal logic through his theoretical compulsions as they concern the soundness of his work on psychoanalysis.

These are dense points, and any reader of Archive Fever will come to them with a clearer understanding than provided here. It cannot be stressed enough the richness and inclusiveness of Derrida’s archive considerations. Of particular interest to archivists and records managers is Derrida’s examination of inscription technology, from tablets to email. Here he is concerned with inscription technology’s relationship to both the psychic apparatus (as it is conceived and as it may function) and archives. Concerning the former relationship, Derrida questions if Freud’s conception of the psychic apparatus is still informed, if indeed archiving and reproduction technology affect the structures of the mind. Concerning the latter, Derrida asserts that “the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future. The archivization produces as much as it records the event” (17). Thus archiving technology determines “the very institution of the archivable event,” (18) informing as well the conception of the future and possibly the future itself. Record managers and archivists may well accept this notion as it certainly lends the profession expansive power and responsibility.

Included in this notion however is the fluid relationship between the archive and what it archives. The archive, its structure, formulation and operation is informed by its contents along with any number of external bodies of knowledge. Derrida asserts then that the archive cannot remain outside what it memorializes. This removes some of the objectivity with which records and archival documents are typically treated. In the same way, Derrida believes Yerushalmi’s attempt to provide a definitive archive of Freud’s psychoanalysis is itself compromised by Yerushalmi’s exposure to psychoanalysis (deferred obedience in Freud’s terms). This is one aspect of the titular Freudian impression.

Noble attempts at archive building are not unfamiliar to the records and archive community either. Writers such as Luciani Duranti in The Odyssey of Records Managers (1993) or her “Archival Science” entry in the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science (1996), and Frank Boles in Selecting and Appraising Archives and Manuscripts (2005) have similarly delivered histories of certain components of archives and records practice. Invariably such archive projects identify original documents of some sort, the first example, the first practitioner, canonical events marking divisions of eras and methodologies, etc. Just as the French First Republic attempted to establish a modern history of France through the National Archives, one can see the archive and records field establishing itself through the construction of these archives which always indicate canonical texts or occurrences.

For those in the field, these important efforts touch on the archive fever Derrida illuminates at various points in his lecture. “It is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement” (91). Entwined in this desire is a repetitive force, the retention of a specific origin through repetition. As Derrida states, the One (in this case the archive) cannot distinguish itself from the Other without a constant reiteration of itself. In the ceaseless work to maintain one memory at the expense of another the archive not only maintains and curates memory, but buries it as well. Derrida argues that the archive as a public, prosthetic extension of memory cannot avoid this contradiction, which he emphasizes is not a negative contradiction, but a necessarily modulating one. Freud suffered from this archive fever, as did Yerushalmi. It is a compelling, fascinating argument and one with which this reader is inclined to agree.

What can this mean for a practicing records manager or archivist? Derrida is concerned with the conditions for truth, and archives (as well as Freud’s psychoanalysis) position themselves uniquely to truth and to evidence. Records managers are likely keenly aware of the socio-juridical systems that lend “truth” to the records they manage, as archivists are aware of the conditions under which their holdings may be considered authentic and properly evidential. It is worth then any practitioner’s consideration of the theoretical or epistemological presumptions behind these systems.

Practitioners may regard Derrida’s extended discussion of Freud’s treatment in Yerushalmi’s book besides the point, but these sections contain some of Derrida’s most poignant reflections on archives. Yerushalmi was a historian attempting to reform the memory of Freud through archival evidence, and Derrida’s analysis of this dynamic should pique the interest of anyone in the field.

In his postscript, Derrida analyzes the protagonist of Wilhem Jensen’s novella Gradiva: A Pompeiian Fancy (1918), itself analyzed by Freud. In it, archeologist Norbert Hanold seeks to find the original footfalls of a Pompeiian girl whose bas-relief portrayal he is fixated upon. Hanold attempts to discover the trace which at least psychologically if not literally would deliver him to the living girl. Derrida conceives the quest as a sort of archive fever that illuminates the constraints of inscription to deliver the truth or the original moment, of “the unique instant where they [the pressure and the trace] are not yet distinguished the one from the other” (99). Those in the field of managing inscription artifacts may ruminate on where, between the trace and the acts preceding it, the truth lies.