Analysis of Derrida’s Archive Fever

A key reference point for recent analyses of archival technologies is the work of Jacques Derrida, in particular his Archive Fever. This difficult essay – originally a lecture delivered by Derrida in 1994 under the title ‘The Concept of the Archive: A Freudian Impression’ – is significant because it calls for a rethinking of the archive in the light of changes brought about by digital communications and storage media. The jacket cover of this book claims that it offers ‘a major statement on the pervasive impact of electronic media, particularly e-mail, which threaten to transform the entire public and private space of humanity’. This promise, however, is not borne out by the actual text, which in practice is far more modest, and for the most part says very little about either e-mail or the connection between archives and new media technologies more generally. Instead, Derrida returns at length to the writings of Sigmund Freud in order to analyse, in quite abstract terms, the connection between archives and the structures of human memory (see for example Derrida 1996: 35). This might seem far removed from the concerns of a book on new media, but Archive Fever remains a useful theoretical resource not least because it opens with an etymological study of the concept of the archive. Derrida traces this concept to the Greek word arkhē, which, he explains, means both commencement and commandment. He sees this etymology as important is it binds the archive historically to government, power and law. This reading is, at surface level, close to that forwarded famously by Michel Foucault in his Archaeology of Knowledge: ‘The archive is first the law of what can be said, the system which governs the appearance of statements as unique events’ (1972: 129). But, in practice, Derrida’s and Foucault’s analyses follow quite different paths. For whereas Foucault’s primary concern is to trace out the discursive rules that govern the different epistemes of Renaissance, classical and modern knowledge (see Foucault 1970), Derrida returns to Greek antiquity to study the arkheion: that home of the archive that was ‘initially a house, a domicile, an address, the superior magistrates, the archons, those who commanded’ (Derrida 1996: 2). His interest in the arkheion lies in the close connection it helped forge between the archive and the political power of those that governed it:

The citizens who . . . held and signified political power were considered to possess the right to make or represent the law. On account of their publicly recognized authority, it is at their home, in that place which is their house . . . that official documents are filed . . . It is thus, in this domiciliation, in this house arrest, that archives take place. (Derrida 1996)

The key point of interest in this description is that the archive was originally situated in a privileged space (in this case, the household) over which the archons or magistrates traditionally governed. For Derrida, the consequence of this is that the archive became both a place of commencement and of commandment: it was both sequential and jussive. Or, in other words, an archive took place (as an event) because it could be kept in place, both physically and politically.

downloadThis ‘place’, however, is more complex than might at first be thought. This is because the archive worked by storing data by placing it under the control of the archons, and by situating it in a private space that at the same time had a degree of public access. Michael Lynch explains: ‘The classical archive is in certain respects like the Cartesian mind, in that it is domiciled in a private space and controlled by a person who dwells in that space. There is one big difference, however. An archive, though guarded, is a public space’ (1999: 79). This interplay of public and private space remains of contemporary interest. For whereas in Derrida’s description of Greek times public (state) records were sited in privileged private locations that were governed by a select few, today the reverse is increasingly true. This is because private lives are now routinely displayed and archived in public spaces that often have free and unrestricted access and which are governed in the loosest sense by their users. This development is tied to the emergence of Internet technologies that not only enable lay-users to have unprecedented access to public data, but also to archive their own lives almost in real-time. Examples of this new situation include (auto)biographical videos posted on YouTube, or personal thoughts and photos posted on users’ MySpace profiles and other social networking sites such as Facebook. These examples suggest that the archive is changing in basis, as is the relation it forges between public and private space. The private, for example a film taken in a family home of a daughter wearing her formal ball gown or ‘prom dress’, becomes public when posted on a site such as YouTube. While this might seem trivial, it is one instance of a broader change in the underlying social or cultural structure of the archive, which is becoming increasingly individualized. For instead of existing as public, state-governed technologies that are located in guarded private spaces, archives increasingly are public forms that are open to individual construction, maintenance and control – something we will discuss in further detail in a moment.

This takes us a long way from the work of Derrida, which focuses more on changes to human memory and the human mind that are brought about by different sets of technologies rather than on archives per se. This is clearly stated in the opening chapter (Exergue) of Archive Fever, where he poses the following question:

Is the psychic apparatus better represented or is it affected differently by all the technical mechanisms for archivization and for reproduction, for prostheses of so-called live memory, for simulacrums of living things which already are, and will increasingly be, more refined, complicated, powerful than the ‘mystic pad’ (microcomputing, electronization, computerization, etc.)? (Derrida 1996: 15, emphasis in original) It is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on what exactly is at stake in this passage. Perhaps the best place to start is with Derrida’s reference to the ‘mystic pad’ (der Wunderblock) or the ‘printator’ – a technology seemingly far removed from today’s mobile computational devices. The reference is a veiled response to Freud, who in his 1925 ‘Note upon the “Mystic Writing Pad”’ wrote about this device – ‘a slab of dark brown resin or wax with a paper edging’ over which ‘is laid a thin transparent sheet’ – as a means for externalizing memory in technology. The mystic pad caught Freud’s attention because it combined the permanence of ink on paper with the transience of chalk on slate, and so enabled both the recording and rewriting of data. This led him, in turn, to draw a parallel between this primitive technology of (re)inscription and the deeper structures of the human psyche. Freud says, for example, that ‘If we imagine one hand writing upon the surface of the Mystic Writing-Pad while another periodically raises its covering sheet from the wax slab, we shall have a concrete representation of the way in which I tried to picture the functioning of the perceptual apparatus of our mind’ (Freud 1991 [1925]: 212).

Derrida turns to this text by Freud because he is interested in the technical objects and structures of psychoanalysis, in particular ‘the psychic apparatus as an apparatus of perception’, and ‘the archivization of psychoanalysis itself ’ (Derrida 1996: 15). This connection might well be intriguing, especially if it were to shed light on the ways in which new media technologies structure our capacity for thought and communication. Derrida’s analysis, however, while opening important questions about the comparable structures of the psychic apparatus and various forms of media, says next to nothing about either the ways in which contemporary technological forms structure the human mind, or the psychoanalytic techniques and apparatuses to which such technologies have given rise. This is something that has been addressed by Jacques Lacan, particularly in his writings on the ego and cybernetics, and more recently by Friedrich Kittler, who maps Lacan’s registers of symbolic, real and imaginary onto a range of different communications and storage media. Instead, Derrida returns to Freud in order to explore a different line of argument. He asks in the first instance what is meant by the exteriorization of memory, and following this whether contemporary ‘archival machines’ change or ‘affect the essentials of Freud’s discourse’ (Derrida 1996: 15). His answer to these questions is brief and is drawn from one of his earlier texts, Writing and Difference (2001; in French 1967), in which he chides Freud for not looking at the possibility of machines simulating or ‘resembling’ memory, and for focusing on the Mystic Pad rather than more advanced storage media of his day. Derrida extends this critique in Archive Fever, where he remarks of the Mystic Pad that ‘compared to other machines for storing archives, it is a child’s toy’ (1996: 14). He also objects to Freud’s failure to question the changes that advancements in media technology brought to the psychic apparatus, as well as culture more generally. In a key passage he protests that

the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its relationship to the future. The archivization produces as much as it records the event. This is also our political experience of the so-called news media. This means that, in the past, psychoanalysis would not have been what it was . . . if Email, for example, had existed. And in the future it will no longer be what Freud and so many psychoanalysts have anticipated, from the moment E-mail, for example, became possible. (Derrida 1996: 17)

The main thrust of this passage is that media technologies are not passive conveyors of content or representations, but actively structure archives and perhaps even their users. Derrida here appears to fall into line with McLuhan (1964), who famously proclaims that the medium is the message, by which is meant that media structure the content of the messages they communicate, along with the basis of human culture more generally.

The problem for Derrida is that he falls foul of his own argument. For to understand the current connection between media technologies and the content they circulate, or the connection between archives and the data they store or memories they produce, knowledge of contemporary archiving technologies is needed, along with some technical understanding of the ways in which such technologies produce their effects (which are not always intended). Derrida, however, appears to lack any such understanding or interest. Curiously, he focuses on one technology, e-mail, which, he says, is ‘privileged in my opinion . . . because electronic mail even more than the fax, is on the way to transforming the entire public and private space of humanity, and first of all the limit between private, the secret (private and public), and the public or the phenomenal’ (1996: 17). But in privileging e-mail as the contemporary archival medium, Derrida repeats Freud’s error in focusing on the primitive technology of the Mystic Pad in an age marked by the birth of the film, phonograph and gramophone. For in 1995, when Derrida delivered the lecture which was to become Archive Fever, e-mail was only one technology of many that made up the multi-media world of the Internet. Indeed, the Internet at this point in time existed, albeit in a more primitive incarnation, as a hypertextual archive of words, images and sounds (often rolled together in the same environment) as well as data, code or information, which are never simply discursive in form (see Kittler 1986: 157). Given this, why does Derrida privilege e-mail in Archive Fever? Why does he limit the archive to the communication and storage of discursive forms? The answer is perhaps that there is a textual bias to Derrida’s position that privileges writing (in this case in the form of an e-mail) over all other forms of archival data. Derrida thus ends up taking a comparable position to that of Foucault, whose analysis of archival technologies stretches only to around 1850, the very point at which, ironically, the sovereignty of writing over data storage and transmission started to fade (a point observed by Friedrich Kittler 1990: 369–74 in his ‘Afterword’ to Discourse Networks, but missed by Manuel DeLanda 2003:8–13 in his brief analysis of the archive before and after Foucault). This means that both Derrida and Foucault share a very restricted view of what archives are, the data they store and the technologies through which they operate. By way of response, what is needed is a vision of the archive that does not start or finish with the written word, but which sees it instead as a much broader medium for the storage of data that can take many different forms. As stated above, this means considering the multimedia possibilities (sound, text and image) of new media technologies, along with the unofficial archival forms that are emerging through their use.


New Media, The Key Concepts by Nicholas Gane and David Beer Berg Oxford, New York, 2008.


Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Media Theory

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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