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  • The Archive, The Native American, and Jefferson’s Convulsions
  • Jonathan Elmer (bio)

1 Saxa loquuntur

Trauma theory proposes that there are inscriptions that befuddle any clean divide between present and past, records that have been neither selected nor destroyed by evolutionary veto but remain in some kind of limbo, “in abeyance,” as Jacques Lacan phrases it, “awaiting attention.” In a typical maneuver, Lacan emphasizes a double meaning in the French—the “reality” awaiting attention is “en souffrance” [Lacan 56]. Lacan’s wordplay injects a note of pathos into what might otherwise seem a merely cognitive or epistemological question about how, or whether, we can adequately access the historical archive, whether of individuals or of cultures. At its most basic, the psychoanalytic concept of trauma insists on this ambiguous coupling between affect and event, feeling and knowing: trauma names a happening about which one never fully knows how to feel, or feels how to know. In trauma theory—as in its various avatars in current debates about canons, about historical memory and forgetting, about cultural identity as imperiled or reclaimed or repressed—this ambiguity about the relation between affect and event becomes codified as an entanglement between the ethical and the cognitive. In “Archive Fever,” Jacques Derrida notes that the term “archive” itself harbors this ambiguity: the archive is at once the beginning and the authority, it puts into play two “orders of order,” the “sequential” and the “jussive,” “the commencement and the commandment” [9]. The divine fiat of creation is an image of the perfect coincidence of these two orders of order, while historical consciousness, in the West at least, might be understood as the progressive elaboration of the dissociation of commencement and commandment. Such a dissociation is never, perhaps, complete, which is why the question of knowing the commencement, the order of sequence of past events, always seems shadowed by an encounter with commandment, authority, ethical obligation.

Derrida emphasizes a drive toward unification in the archive, what he calls the act of “consignation,” or “gathering together signs”: “Consignation aims to coordinate a single corpus, in a system or a synchrony in which all the elements articulate the unity of an ideal configuration. In an archive, there should not be any absolute dissociation, any heterogeneity or secret which could separate . . . or partition, in an absolute manner” [10]. Because his primary topic in this essay is Freud, Derrida goes on to demonstrate how this practice and ideal of consignation deconstruct themselves in the psychoanalytic archive. On the one hand, Freud’s innovations “made possible,” or so Derrida contends, the notion of an archive that “cannot be reduced to memory: neither to memory as conscious reserve, nor to memory as rememoration, as act of recalling” [58]. On the other hand, and despite his development of this concept of an immemorial archive, however, Freud “was incessantly [End Page 5] tempted to redirect the original interest he had for the psychic archive toward archeology.” Derrida quotes an astonishing passage from the 1896 paper “The Aetiology of Hysteria,” in which Freud indulges in the fantasy that never leaves psychoanalysis, and that evinces the profound implication of this theory with other archival projects, here the imperialist dramas of ethnography. The fantasy is one in which “stones talk”:

Imagine that an explorer arrives in a little-known region where his interest is aroused by an expanse of ruins, with remains of walls, fragments of columns, and tablets with half-effaced and unreadable inscriptions. He may content himself with inspecting what lies exposed to view, with questioning the inhabitants—perhaps semi-barbaric people—who live in the vicinity, about what tradition tells them of the history and meaning of these archaeological remains, and with noting down what they tell him—and he may then proceed on his journey. But he may act differently. He may have brought picks, shovels and spades with him, and he may set the inhabitants to work with these implements. Together with them he may start upon the ruins, clear away the rubbish, and, beginning from the visible remains, uncover what is buried. If his work is crowned with success, the discoveries are self-explanatory: the ruined walls are part of the ramparts of...

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