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  • The Archive
  • Peter Fritzsche (bio)

"No one," wrote Pascal, "dies so poor that he does not leave something behind." Setting the scene at the moment of a single individual's death and drawing attention to personal possessions, Pascal conjures up the material traces of a single lifetime. A lived life creates physical effects: a sheaf of letters, a lucky coin, or a small fortune, things that construct correspondences between experience and materiality. Putting the stress on the larger world reflected in small objects, Pascal ennobles even the most modest lives and places all individuals in the same passage from life to death. Nearly three hundred later, Walter Benjamin reflected on Pascal's assertion. To Pascal's things he added "memories too." He then went on to subtract from what he had just augmented: "although these do not always find an heir."1 What Benjamin accents is not the material endurance of things but the variable operations of memory. There is no longer the unproblematic correspondence between a life lived and a life remembered, but the difficult endeavor of remembering and the more general prospect of forgetting. And for Benjamin it is not so much what the dead leave behind as it is what the living end up retrieving. He thereby poses the question of attentiveness, the historically situated presence or absence of the habit of cultivating memories. Moreover, these habits of cultivation operate across time: heirs are daughters and grandsons. At the remove of a generation or two, they are the ones who undertake the work of memory. Finally, in place of the sonorous universal by which Pascal affirmed the material existence of all men and women, Benjamin implies particular heirs who need to feel a connection to the past in order for memories to remain alive. In contrast to Pascal's materialism, Benjamin proposes a [End Page 15] cultural interpretation of remembering in which traces are not simply left behind and recollection is not assumed, in which mental habits across time rather than physical things in the present bring the past into view, and in which specific heirs undertake the work of memorialization. Although Pascal refers to things and thereby builds an implicit archive of past lives, it is Benjamin who imagines the space in which the historical archive was constructed in order to ward off oblivion, to make the particular case for a historical subject, to identify the responsibility of the heirs to cultivate specific stories in the past.

The three hundred years that separate Benjamin from Pascal dramatize the historicity of the uses of history. They suggest the specific historical circumstances under which the past does and does not find heirs, is and is not energetically recollected. Benjamin writes in reference to a "crisis of memory,"2 a historical moment in the modern age when there is both a surfeit of unusable pasts and a deficit of usable history, when individuals die in the face of general indifference while self-appointed heirs energetically look for particular memories. It is in the distinction between Pascal and Benjamin that a history of the archive can be conceived. Archives are not comprehensive collections of things, the effects left behind by the dead, nor are they arbitrary accumulations of remnants and leftovers. The archive is the production of the heirs, who must work to find connections from one generation to the next and thereby acknowledge the ongoing disintegration of the past. The heirs also distinguish themselves as such: a cultural group that knows itself by cultivating a particular historical trajectory. In the West, the nation has been the dominant form of this particularity, reinforcing a common past within its borders and emphasizing the difference of cultural origins across its borders. It is a specific, historically contingent configuration of time and space that produced what Jacques Derrida referred to in another context as "archive fever."3 If most conceptions of the archive emphasize how the archive has shaped history, I want to examine how German history has shaped the archive.

At the most general level, archival production rests on the premise that the past is no longer the business of the present and must be handled carefully in order to recognize the...


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pp. 15-44
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