- Archive Trauma
The occasion for Archive Fever (Mal d’archive) was a conference held at the Freud archives in England and the society that it serves. Throughout his lecture, Derrida returns to a number of problematics that he had considered earlier in his career with respect to writing, in particular, issues raised in The Post Card that concern the destiny of the letter as legacy. No doubt the post cards, such as Derrida had considered them, were already a fascicle or archive of some sort, a sheaf of papers burning with some kind of fever or madness. So, for example, on September 7, 1977, one of the envois, as if cut to ribbons, reads in part as follows.
And yet— No literature, yes, but still. Our delinquency, my
love, we are the worst criminals and the first victims. I would like not to kill anyone, and everything that I send you goes through meurtrières [murderesses; fortification openings for weapons]. As for the children, the last ones I might touch, the holocaust has already begun.
We have never yet seen each other. Only written.[67–68]
What exactly has Derrida archived here? Toward the back of the fascicle of cards Derrida will admit “that I will die without having understood anything” . One wonders. Is this inevitable failure to understand constitutive of archive fever?
Let’s start again. There is misunderstanding in the archive. It’s inevitable. And moreover, we have archives—we preserve archives—because there is something in them that defies understanding but that we want to grasp. In the archive that is Derrida’s fascicle of missives, the matter that defies understanding is as conspicuous as it is feverish. There is, for example, a rampant death wish that cannot decide whether to act or be acted upon, hence the wish not to kill and yet the wish to shoot something through the meurtrière. This, by way of verbal association, links up with the sending of something by way of a murderess. And then, the fragment of yet another fantasy, the holocaust of children and their being touched—by way of the murderesses? the malicious missives or orders that the subject has passed on to them? the kindness of the one who fantasizes and nostalgically holds on to them before the end? Obviously, one could speculate at length; indeed, we are supposed to speculate at length. Then the final scrap, “We have never yet seen each other. Only written.” Does this refer to the desk murderer and his accomplice? Or something more benign?
Consider The Post Card to be the displaced main act of Archive Fever. As such The Post Card may well be Archive Fever’s phantom limb, something essential that has been cut off and that haunts the text. What sets Archive Fever apart, however, is that whereas the envois of The Post Card were, in essence, staged as a private correspondence inhospitable to onlookers, the Freud archives are being thought through from the [End Page 68] perspective of a public institution or apparatus that houses and is hospitable to that which it capitalizes upon, namely, the memory of something that would otherwise be lost. Still, as Derrida reminds us, perhaps with Archive Fever’s phantom limb in mind, archives occur at that moment when there is a structural breakdown in memory. This contrasts rather sharply with Michel Foucault’s view in The Archaeology of Knowledge that archives are, in essence, the textual systematization of their own enunciability and that, as such, they are predicated upon mnemonic reliability. Derrida’s archive, in contrast, is mnemonically unreliable insofar as it is somewhat feverish, hallucinatory, fragmentary, and, as in the case of The Post Card, somewhat sick (“as for the children . . . the holocaust has already begun”). In short, where there is regularity and efficiency in Foucault’s archive, there is trauma in Derrida’s.
This trauma in the archive is what, I think, Derrida is referring to when he speaks of there being a mal d’archive. After all...