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  • Derrida’s Preoccupation with the Archive in The Beast and the Sovereign
  • Michael Naas (bio)

L’archive pré-occupe l’avenir,” says Derrida in an interview published in Cahiers du Cinéma in 2001—“the archive pre-occupies the future.”1 In this one brief phrase, buried in a relatively obscure corner of the Derridean corpus, we find the already divided essence of Derrida’s thinking in The Beast and the Sovereign and elsewhere about the archive, about what might be called the two sources or two archai of the archive—that is, the archive as both threat and promise, turned toward both the past and the future, at once commencement and commandment.

The archive preoccupies the future and so preoccupies—cannot but preoccupy—us: that is to say, the archive concerns us, matters to us, the archive is our concern, but also, the archive occupies us in advance, determines all our preoccupations through a process of identification, selection, and repression that invests or occupies the terrain ahead of time so as to anticipate and predetermine what is worthy to be preserved and what not. When it comes to the archive, then, we cannot but be preoccupied, preoccupied by what at once opens up the future and forecloses it.2 Whether we like it or not, Derrida seems to suggest, the archive preoccupies the future and so preoccupies us.

While it might seem that the archive was a relatively late and local or localizable—even marginal—theme in Derrida’s work, a closer look suggests that it was in fact a constant preoccupation.3 One thinks immediately of the title Archive Fever, of course, but there is also Geneses, Genealogies, Genres, & Genius, which bears the subtitle, The Secrets of the Archive, as well as the posthumously published Copy, Archive, Signature, and then Typewriter Ribbon, the first section of which is titled “The Next to Last Word: Archives of the Confession.” But then, quite apart from titles, there are texts such as A Taste for the Secret, Above All, No Journalists, Echographies, and “No Apocalypse, Not Now,” where the concept of the archive or of archivization is absolutely central. And then there are texts—too numerous to list—where the notion of the archive or of archivization is at work under other, related names. For example, Derrida’s entire thinking of the trace in Of Grammatology or “Freud and the Scene of Writing” was in essence a rethinking of the archive, or at least of the possibility of the [End Page 20] archive, a rethinking of the temporality and spatiality, the iterability and futurity of what remains. His entire thinking of spectrality or hauntology in Specters of Marx or Ulysses Gramophone was nothing other than a rethinking of the archive or at least of what makes the archive possible—a rethinking, precisely, of the way in which voices from the past always come to anticipate or occupy our own, calling into question, for example, the distinction between so-called live, present speech and its inscription, recording, repetition, and preservation in the archive.

From the very beginning of his work right up to the very end, Derrida was thus preoccupied in a particularly acute way by the archive, sensitive from the very beginning to the way in which past discourses, past archives, come to occupy the terrain in advance, sensitive, therefore, to the impossibility of ever escaping the archive, though also to the undesirability of ever wishing to do so. For if the archive preoccupies and invests us in advance, it also contains, according to Derrida, places or moments where it opens onto what exceeds it, places where an archive oriented by the past is turned toward the future and what remains to come.

Unable to trace here Derrida’s long itinerary in his thinking of the archive and, thus, of the trace, writing, spectrality, and so on, I would like to look in this essay at the role played by this theme or question in this final year of The Beast and the Sovereign seminar, since the archive is clearly not just one question among others for Derrida in the seminar but, in some sense, the central question, even, as I...


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