This book reflects part of the reason why I wanted to go to graduate school. Archive Fever is a long meditation on archives using Freud, Freud’s “archive” and a book about Freud as the source for its meanderings. It was originally given as a lecture in London on June 5, 1994. One of my mentors suggested that I read this in conjunction with my project of putting together an Electronic Lesbian Poetry Archive. I’m glad I did.
Archive Fever isn’t the sort of book that you pick up at Borders and say, “Gee this sounds like an interesting afternoon read.” (For that I have Toni Morrison’s new book Mercy and Marilynne Robinson’s new book Home, both of which are waiting for me for the end of the semester.) Rather Archive Fever is the sort of book that you read because you are thinking about archives, what they mean, what they contain, how they are constructed.
Derrida organizes this lecture into six parts: Note, Exergue, Preamble, Foreword, Theses, and Postscript.
In the Note, Derrida begins not “even at the archive,” but with the word. he traces it’s meaning from the Greek Arkhe which names “at once the commencement and the commandment.” Through this Note, he explores the authority of archives from the Greek superior magistrates, the archons, and the domiciliation of the archives as physical locations and most importantly outlines the way that archives appear to have authority, physical location and consignation but ultimately “shelter itself and, sheltered, to conceal itself.” This is what he wants us to realize before we even begin to contemplate the archive: the nature of an archive is to be both authoritarianly transparent and authoritatively concealed.
Exergue means literally the place on a coin beneath the design where the date and location of it’s making occurred. For Derrida, this section of the letter “plays with citation.” He begins by explaining how archives are both “traditional and revolutionary; at once institutive and conservative.” The crux of this for him is “archival violence.” He then explains how the inscription of the archives occur, through printing and circumcision. Derrida argues that in order for an archive to exist it must be constructed to live in an external space, “there is no archive without consignation in an external place which assures the possibility of memorization, of repetition, of reproduction, or of reimpression,” and then he associates this with the Freudian death drive. For as Derrida writes, “There would indeed be no archive desire without the radical finitude, without the possibility of a forgetfulness which does not limit itself to repression.” Derrida connects the printing of documents or inscription with circumcision, “it leaves a trace of an incision right on the skin: more than one skin, at more than one age.”
In the Preamble, Derrida writes about the three meanings of the impression. First, as scriptural or typographic, literally the inscription of signs. Second, impression as “a notion. . .associated with a word and for which, together with Freud, we do not have a concept.” Finally, the third impression is that left “by Sigmund Freud, beginning with the impression left in him, inscribed in him, from his birth and his covenant, from his circumcision, through all the manifest or secret history of psychoanalysis,” etc.
The Foreword is actually Derrida’s analysis of a book by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi called Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable. I’m not going to trace Derrida’s discussion about this book, though it’s fascinating, but rather simply note that it is here that Derrida explains that while the archive seems to point to the past, it “should call into question the coming of the future.” I found this very provocative and even inspiring. He writes, “It is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow. The archive: if we want to know what that will have meant, we will only know in times to come” (p. 36.)
The Theses is the heart of the book. It is what all of the previous discussions have been preparing us to understand. Here Derrida explains that both the future is spectral and the structure of the archive is spectral. Here Derrida explain how the concept of the archive is troubled from archive fever. “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 the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement” (p. 91.) The three theses Derrida posits are, “Freud made possible the idea of an archive properly speaking, of a hypomnesic or technical archive, of the substrate or the subjectile (material or virtual) which, in what is already a psychic spacing, cannot be reduced to memory.” Second, “the archive is made possible by the death, aggression, and destruction drive,” and third, the archive is shaped by the “archontc, that is paternal and patriarchic, principle only posited itself to repeat itself and returned to re-posit itself only in parricide” (p. 95.)
Finally, the Postscript notes that while archives only contain trace of what happened there, not the thing itself, we will always yearn to know what was lost, what burned and disappeared with the ashes.