The Other Reality

Archive Fever

Posted in Annotation, MFA by aryckman on May 2, 2009

Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Trans. Eric Prenowitz. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London, 1995.

Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression was originally a lecture given by Jacques Derrida on June 5, 1994 at a colloquium in London. This lecture-turned-book is divided into six sections, the Note, Exergue, Preamble, Foreword, Theses and Postscript. While each section covers a different aspect of the concept of archive the book as a whole defines the history, role and definition of the archive especially as it relates to Freud’s “archive.”

Derrida starts with the Note, a breakdown of “archive” starting with the word “Arkhé.” This term recalls the ideas of commencement and commandment.  Commencement suggests that, as in nature and history, there is a there where things take place. And commandment, as in law, that there is a there where things are ordered with authority. He continues in this way talking about the history of archives. The meaning of “archive” comes from the Greek word “Arkheion,” the house of the archons, magistrates. This was the place where documents were filed and the archons were their guardians. This allowed documents to be gathered together, ordered, protected but also available. This brings Derrida to another point about how documents were gathered together. These files came from private to public spheres but it doesn’t necessarily mean from secret to nonsecret because an archive is a place of shelter. It “shelters itself from [its] memory which it also shelters: which comes down to saying also that it forgets” (2).

Derrida discusses the idea of citation in the Exergue. He first suggests that the archive “is at once institutive and conservative. Revolutionary and traditional,” because it preserves but in an unnatural way which Derrida perceives as an archival violence (7). He goes onto describe how the process of archiving is observed in printing and circumcision. In his discussion of printing the need of an external place for an archive becomes a central point. This need relates to Freud’s concept of the death drive, the self-destructive drive to return nature to the state before one’s birth. “There is no archive without consignation in an external place which assures the possibility of memorization, of repetition, of reproduction, or of remission” and this compulsion to repetition “remains…indissociable from the death drive” (11-12). The death drive inciting us to destroy and provides the impetus to archive.

He also discusses how technology changes the archive. The archives of Freud, for example, would be much different if he and is contemporaries used email. How the archive exists is determined by the archivable materials, regardless of how technology allows archives to exist each archive exists in the anticipation of a future. He ends this section by speaking of circumcision, it is a private inscription but also a document that can be compared to printing in that it leaves traces of itself on the skin.

In the Preamble Derrida seeks to define his use of the word “impression” in his title, which has three meanings for him. The first meaning is that of a literal, physical impression onto something, “that of an inscription which leaves a mark at the surface of in the thickness of a substrate” (26). In other words, writing, making symbols or printing. The second definition of the word “impression” is the one that probably first comes to mind as the notion or feeling that is associated with a specific word.  And thirdly he defines “impression” as it relates to the larger title of “Freudian Impression” he gave his lecture as the impression left by Freud. The  “undeniable impression…that Sigmund Freud will have made on anyone, after him, who speaks of him or speaks to him, and who must then, accepting it or not, knowing it or not, be thus marked” (30).

The Foreword is dedicated to a discussion of Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s book, Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable. Derrida states that it is Yerushalmi’s undoubted belief, and a major concept in his book, that psychoanalysis is a Jewish science. But Yerushalmi also says that it is something that wont be known until the future. This leads Derrida to question what will become of the archive of psychoanalysis if in the future it is titled as a Jewish science, it would change the relationship of the science to its own archive. The brings into question the relation of the archive to the future, the question of the archive “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” (36). This relationship is very important because you cannot know the effect or importance of the archive until the future becomes the present. With the possibility of the archive of psychoanalysis retrospectively becoming a Jewish science this conveys the incompleteness of all archives, something to be remembered when dealing with any archive.

Not surprisingly Derrida presents his theses in the Theses section. He starts the section by giving a clearer definition of archive fever, describing it as “to burn with passion. It is to never rest…from searching for the archive right where it slips away… It is to have a compulsion, 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” (91). He then goes to state in his first thesis that Freud created the concept of archive as material and virtual as something that is in the psychic space but that “cannot be reduced to memory” (92). His second thesis returns to the early mentioned death drive without which the archive would not exist. By taking the documents to be archived out of the owner’s authority it ensures that they will be kept safe from the individuals self-destructive tendencies. And the third thesis states that no one has shown the archontic principle of the archive better than Freud, which deals with the “law, of institution, of domiciliation, of filiation… The archontic is at best the takeover of the archive by the brothers” (95).

In his Postscript Derrida recalls his definition by talking about the desire to get closer to the origin of the archive. The archive creates a desire to find traces of the actual event or artifact but it is an impossible desire. Also, it is impossible to know what has been left out of the archive, what secrets of the past are still unknown. “One can always dream or speculate are this secret account…But of the secret itself, there can be no archive, by definition. The secret is the very ash of the archive” (100). It is impossible know what has been burned or destroyed and will never be recovered for the archive.