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Discourse 25.1&2 (2003) 166-188
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On the Future of Testimony and the Archive to Come
Remember: no memory or testimony is possible without the archive! Remember: memory and testimony are possible only without the archive! Any reflection on testimony, memory, the archive and archivization has to disarm itself before such an impossible injunction. And this command orders all our thinking, ethics, writing, tradition, religion and culture.
Archive of the Past, Archive of the Future
Jacques Derrida's Archive Fever starts precisely by drawing attention to this aporia of the archive. The word arkhe, he recalls at the beginning of his book, names at the same time the command to remember, to archive and keep, and the commencement of an institution of archivization. From the outset, therefore, this aporia splits the commemorative gesture into two irreconcilable tasks, the symptoms in fact, to which Derrida gives the name of Archive Fever (Mal d'archive). Like the task of the translator envisioned by Walter Benjamin (and, as we shall see, translation and archivization go hand in hand as two members of the re-membering, archiving agency), the task here marks both the demand to archive, and the need to give up the task (Aufgabe, Aufgeben), to face up to an impossible pressure to forget the archive in order to remember. [End Page 166]
This impossible pressure consists of the fact that any archiving practice has to announce its own desire for the unique, singular, indivisible space and memory, the archivization of, as we would say in English, "the one and only." That "one" is the archival jealousy of its own memory, its command and injunction to remember its name, its place and its law. There is no archive without this jealous and self-preserving order. It is its first (but the order of things is here uncertain), primordial impulse. We could say, in the language of psychoanalysis, that it is its primal drive, not without violence, and not without its death-drive. It may be the death drive itself: an injunction to remember, to file and archive, only the one, the one and only. Only one. Derrida gives three qualifications for this archival drive: it is an-archic, anarchivic and archiviolitic. In a very economic condensation which is a trademark of his writing, Derrida draws attention to the possibility that this primordial jealousy of the archive has, from the very start, all capacities to erase any archival trace, even the trace of its own archivization.
The memory, in that sense, is made impossible by the very imperative of archivization.
Derrida will bring the consequences of this aspect of the archive to its aporetic and terrible limit, by saying that "the archive fever," in its most violent consequences and possibilities, "verges on radical evil" (20).
One may be justified in wondering why should such an impossible aporia be the first impulse of any archivization and why would it be tied to what Freud famously called the death drive? Because without this injunction of the one, the first inscription of the singular event and its passing, no archive, no memory traces, no traces would have been possible. But what makes the tracing and archivization possible also threatens the archive at the very origin. This drive, in Derrida's words, "works to destroy the archive: on the condition of effacing but also with a view of effacing its own 'proper' traces—which consequently cannot be called proper" (10). To speak in Freud's terms ("A Freudian Impression" is the subtitle of Derrida's book), the archive would not be possible without this originary re-pression, the Verdraengung, at the site of its own induction or production. The archival principle serves the death drive.
And yet, on the other hand, one can justly argue in a very empirical fashion: we do have existing archives, archives are made, bequeathed, opened and inaugurated every day, and archives do succeed in surviving. We even have the Jacques Derrida Archive at the University of California at Irvine, which is the university where I work, and I, who am...